The clothesline on the balcony is empty, like a broken and abandoned spiderweb in an abandoned place, swaying on its own in the breeze, the few pegs still clinging on unable to do anything about the motion. This place has been abandoned too. My flatmates have all left, disappeared like magicians in the three days since news broke of the first confirmed case in the city. The City of Joy. So joyless now. The hallway is empty and lonely with only echoes responding to my stalking movement.

Sitting now on the plastic stool on the balcony, I can hear coughs coming from the next building. I see nobody. Far enough away, I think. No need to hold my breath or shrink away or cover my face with my handkerchief, but I remember to wash my hands. The smoke from my cigarette rises upward with no wind to interrupt its ascent. There is not a cloud in the dusky sky. No stars in sight either. Night is peeking out of the eastern horizon.

I have three more days before I leave the city to go back home—the first time in two years. Four more nights of pining for home; time, slowing with anticipation. My bags are packed and ready to go, to leave behind fear and loneliness. But I am not certain either can be really left behind at all.

I take a drag and blow the smoke eastward, where I hope to be in four days’ time. I try to think nothing will happen, but the more I try, the harder I fail. Instead, I think of yesterday. Friday. The Friday that was.

It was drizzling in the morning. The cold woke me up before my alarm. I closed my window and went back to sleep. What else would I do anyway except brood and smoke and brood and smoke? All incentives were gone. Classes were cancelled on Monday. We all met one last time on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were thunderclaps that sent most of them skittering back to the safety of their homes in different states, different countries. The days since were long, stretching out to eternity. Monotony upon monotony. And the flood of news . . . couldn’t escape it, not when there was nothing better to do, nothing else to do. Maybe there were better things to do, but in light of it all, I couldn’t recognize what those might be. Maybe I did recognize them, but for the life of me I couldn’t summon the will to do any of them.

I wouldn’t step outside if I didn’t have to, but I had to. The streets didn’t seem to care all that much. They coughed, sneezed and spat like they did six months ago, six years ago. What virus? Although, some and their children had their masks on. I kept my distance from them all the same as I entered a grocery store. Customers queued; the shelves were emptying. I roamed the aisles. They didn’t have what I needed. I exited, pushing the door open with my knuckles. I briefly considered going to another store, but decided I’d rather ration what little was left in the kitchen cupboard.

I look at the time. Half past five. The Friday that could’ve been drifts into my mind. I can almost hear the squeaking of my rubber sole against the waxed floor of the museum as I would wander along, moving from paintings to photographs to sculptures; dressed up, hopeful. There wouldn’t be many people, but I wouldn’t have found her yet. She wouldn’t have found me yet. I would’ve waited till the end of the night. Closing time, I would’ve seen her, one of the few stragglers, spending twice as long as anyone on one frame. She would’ve seen me, smiled, waved. I would’ve smiled and waved back. We would have talked, walked out of the museum together. Dinner. The Friday that could’ve been. All that could have been . . .

Monday—they’d all stood in front in front of us, solemn, bearing grave tiding. The course was to be cancelled effective immediately. Nobody wanted to leave that day. We hung about, pushing back lunch—not important. We took pictures, we shared stories, we shared fear, hopes, wishes. Wishes—there were a lot of them. A week ago, and they could easily have been plans. I felt sorry for them all, and for myself too.

Tuesday was the last time all saw each other. I wonder if I will see any of them again. It’s hard to imagine that no more than a week ago, I was sitting in a room full of friends, surrounded by exactly the people and things I wanted surrounding me, doing exactly what I wanted to do. All that surrounds me now, apart from the twilit breeze and cigarette smoke, is an inescapable gloom.

I stub my cigarette out and drop it into the ashtray. The person in the next building is coughing again. I feel the urge to cough too, but I resist it. It’s a phantom urge. I take another cigarette out of the pack and light it up. I think of the Friday a week ago that new feels like years ago. I think of the museum, of the music. I think of her.

We were late to arrive. The walkthrough was supposed to start at five, and we got there closer to six, so we wandered on our own. I hadn’t been to as many museums as I would’ve liked, but you always more or less knew what to expect when you visit one. The place was more than I expected, and my annoyance at being late was soon forgotten as I lost myself in the absorbing world within the walls, documenting the life and history of the city, of the people that lived in it, and those that made the city.

I lingered on every canvas and every print as my companions moved one from one to the next, wanting to cover the place inside and out before the live musical by a famous local band begins. The band was the reason we were there, but it was hard to tear myself away from those broad strokes, those cityscapes, those colonial structures, those candid closeups of Tagore, of Ray.

Soon, the band in the courtyard began their soundcheck as I was making my way up the stairs to the first floor. The walls along the stairwell were lined with black and white photographs of the city and the people in it through history. I thought I’d spend time more with them on my way down.

The lights were dim in a last room that I entered after exploring whatever else the floor had to offer. The artworks on the walls were lit up from small spotlights hanging from the ceiling. There weren’t many people in there, and as I stepped in, I saw, at the other end of the room, her. She had her eyes fixed on an etching, bending forward a little, a small notebook and a pen in her hand and a small bag hanging off her shoulder. The few people in the room moved around and about her, conversing, only casually interested in what the walls offered, and she seemed not to notice them at all.

I moved, slowly, starting from one corner, inward, distracted, mind torn between two interests.

I ignore the texts from my companions asking me where I was, telling me the band was getting ready to begin. I was on the cusp of something much more interesting than a band I’d never heard of, playing songs I’d never listened to. I put my phone away and moved onward.

Faint music and voices on the microphone invaded the quiet of the room. The rest of the people filed out steadily and headed down to the courtyard. She was alone, facing now a charcoal drawing of a village woman carrying a child on her back in the foreground of a dreary village road. Giving only brief glances to the canvases in front of me, I closed the distance between us. But just as I was about to take the last few steps, two women entered the room and called to her, telling her the performance would begin shortly. She did not seem go to them. Instead, she called them in.

They entered after a weak protest and they stood with her, conversing in hushed tones.

I moved past them. My phone rang. I decided not to take it.

They seemed to have hardly moved when I was nearing the exit. Time seemed to both pass slowly and quickly in that moment, but I felt I couldn’t linger on much longer by the door without seeming strange, not that I thought they were paying me any attention, even though I hoped, or wished, she might have, at least to a degree.

Just as I finally exited the room, I heard one of her friends tell her to head down when she was ready.

In the stairwell I waited, determined now. The two women passed me, their heels clacking on the marble steps and echoing, merging with the amplified voice of the emcee in the courtyard thanking everyone for coming out tonight and being a part of the beautiful event.

Eventually, she emerged from the landing above me, and then made her way down the stairs one step at a time, each photograph pausing her descent.

Her dark curls flowed down past her shoulders and they hung in the air as she bent forward, her riveted gaze fixed upon one of the photographs. She scribbled something into her notepad. I took two steps upward and, praying that I wouldn’t startle her or present myself as anything untoward, told her I liked that photograph.

‘It’s intense,’ she commented. The photograph was of the faces of a group of men, young and old, with dry, dark and calloused skin, looking at the lens through rusted bars metal. ‘I wonder what was on their minds. Knowing you’re living numbered days couldn’t be as calming as this photograph kind of makes it seem.’

I had no answer to that. I simply agreed with her, and then added, almost as an afterthought, that photographs convey different emotions than that of reality. I hoped I didn’t sound as pretentious as I did in my head.

She nodded, hardly straying her eyes from the sombre faces in front of her, and replied, ‘I agree. And taken out of context, some of them have their own stories. Independent from everything.’

We moved on to the next, and a few seconds later, she wrote something down on her notepad again. I asked her what she was writing, and she told me she with a laugh, as if embarrassed, that was making notes of her favourites.

We descended, step by step, spending as much time on one photograph as the next, as the band began with a melodious acoustic song, their female lead’s soulful voice carrying through the empty hallways and up the stairwell, accentuating the warmth that was blooming in my heart and spreading to every part of me as our conversation flowed.

There were no more stairs, no more photographs, and I learnt that she wanted to be a mathematician, that she’d only just handed her thesis in, that she was back about a week ago after four years studying in London and that she missed home, that she loved sculpting and welding, that this museum was one of the best she’d been to; and she learnt as much about me. She then told me she would be back there next Friday, less for whatever event that was going to happen but more for the unexplored parts of the building, and she asked if I was going to visit again. I told her I would, to explored the unexplored parts of the building, and maybe we could together.

She told me her name and offered me her hand.

I shook it and I told her my name.

We went out into the courtyard together. Music filled the air.

Her friends found her and waved at her to come to the front. She told me her friend planned the night—it was their reunion, and that she’d better go to them. As she left my side, she said, ‘Next Friday?’

I replied, ‘Next Friday.’

I found my friends. Their complaints fell on blissfully deaf ears. I hardly heard the music the rest of the night, but at the same time, the music moved me like no other music had done before.

* * *

Yesterday was Next Friday.

I stub my cigarette out halfway burnt because I feel a bad cough coming. I hold it back.

A whisper of breeze blows and I feel a chill ride up my body.

Lights are now on in the grey buildings surrounding me, and the western horizon has become a faint purple. Not long now before dusk becomes night. Not very long at all.

Four more nights, three more days, I think. On the fourth day I will be home. I think of her. I wonder where she is, how she is; I wonder how many days until I see her again, if I will ever see her again. I wonder if she’s counting days as well. What is she counting to?

(First published in Out of Print Magazine)

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