Saritha is an independent writer based in Madras (now Chennai), India. She is a self-professed over-thinker and loves exploring layers, symbols and meaning.
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Carrot Cake Day
Things don’t really go beyond basic on the streets. Her purpose each day was to stay safe and get from one mealtime to another, ideally with some food inside her, and some saved for later.
One afternoon, she had found a bakery box that seemed to have magically appeared on a park bench. She had waited awhile to see if someone would return for it. When nobody did, she pried open the lid to find a wedge of carrot cake with a thick white icing atop. She nibbled the slice, saving the best—the slightly lemony icing—for last. She savoured every stray crumb, every sugary flake, prolonging the experience for as long as she could, longer than it would take, perhaps, for someone else to get through an entire cake. That was the one time she had not saved food for later.
That had been “carrot cake day,” a name she had coined since then for occasions that gave her a glimpse of a different life, when a different destiny beckoned her from just beyond the barbed wire of basic needs.
A month later, it happened again. A magazine this time. It lay on the red slats of a bench at the bus-stop, willing her to pick it up. Again, there was no one around, no one who might claim it as theirs. She pressed her face to the smooth glossy cover of the magazine, and inhaled the perfume that emanated from its pages. It smelled of something new, the same scented haze that hung over customers who emerged with large shopping bags from the glass doors of big stores on Main Street.
She returned to the alley she lived in, and settled on the flattened cardboard carton that was her bed. She flipped the magazine open, enthralled by the splendour spilling out of the pages. Watches, jewellery, clothes, and the beautiful women who wore those watches, jewellery and clothes. Women, who were thin, like her, but who exuded some secret glow that made them look much more whole than her ragged self.
Like the model in the blue dress. She was dark, like her. But that was where the similarity ended. The blue dress covered her contours like a second skin. Her braid snaked over one shoulder and rested over one breast. But it was the intensity in the model’s eyes that kept her riveted to the page. Her eyes radiated power. Pure, unbridled power.
Every night, she returned to the park, and sat under the lamppost, gazing at the pages of the magazine, as though by doing so, she could absorb some of its gloss. She ritually ran her hands over the cover, turned the pages and always stopped on the page with the model in the blue dress.
One day, while she was out foraging for discarded fruit in the alley behind the market, there was a crackdown on temporary settlements. When she returned, her home was gone. A few of her belongings lay scattered along with the debris of other barely-there lives like hers. The wind lifted and carried with it all that was light and could escape from being weighed down by the heavy hearts of the erstwhile residents.
Her magazine was gone.
She had cried then, for the loss of the cardboard cocoon she called home. For the temporary stability it had provided. She cried for the loss of the magazine and for all the dreams that she had tucked between its pages smelling of “new”.
Once her sobs subsided, she picked herself up and left without a backward glance.
It was the kind of day that she savoured, like a child who had been given a surprise treat. And as though in response, the city had turned on its jewellery for the night.
While the car wound its way through familiar streets, Sheila Pearce mused about the vagaries of fame. The media had gone to town with speculations about her early life. But she had covered her tracks well, not because she was ashamed of her past, but to ensure she wasn’t defined by it.
She knew that those who wrote about her clung to clichés and stereotypes in the hope that they could make sense of her. In an article called The Glass Ceiling, the writer had gone a little overboard. “Sheila Pearce epitomises a rare combination–a thirty two year old single woman with the canniness of a Jewish moneylender and the looks of a supermodel. Her net worth is presumed to be equivalent to the accumulated wealth of three generations. Few women could aspire to be in her place; fewer still, can make it.” She wondered if the magazine realised that it had inadvertently created a new ceiling with her name on it.
At the entrance of The Park Lane Mayfair, a doorman helped her with her purchases and a bellboy carried them through the foyer to the elevators and up to the room. She gave the bellboy a generous tip and locked the door. She greeted the chauffeur, the doorman and the bellboy in the same warm but aloof manner that conveyed her respect for their jobs, yet cautioned them against any attempts at getting too friendly.
She surveyed the well-appointed room and moved to the curved balcony overlooking the park. Her eyes probed the blackness that was punctuated here and there, by lamps casting golden orbs of light along sections of a pathway. A few benches were inhabited by the usual oddballs and the homeless.
This mask of detachment she wore for the world was to protect a private self with an inherent vulnerability. Granted she could not have come this far without some measure of ruthlessness. But she tried to keep the division watertight, feared constantly that her two selves would one day merge, and one would seep into the other, staining all that she had worked so hard to build and protect.
She now possessed more wealth than she could possibly squander. Yet, she did not own property, choosing instead to rent a space wherever she travelled. Even the apartment in London, where she spent a large part of the year, had been wangled on a long term lease. Home, to her, was wherever she chose to be on any given day. Tonight it happened to be Room No. 806 at the Mayfair.
She took off her sling-back and stepped on to the area rug, revelling in the sensation of angora wool on bare sole. As she unpacked her purchases and put them away in the armoire, her eyes fell on the blue dress. She gathered a handful of the silk, and caressed the fluid fabric. She closed her eyes, and inhaled the fragrance.
Emerging from her bath, flushed and glowing, she dabbed her favourite perfume on her pulse points, and thought of the evening ahead. She had looked forward to this, this coming full circle. As she dressed, memories of another time came to mind unbidden. She held onto them, gave them their due and sent them off to that part of her mind, where she stored her secrets.
Sheila sat on the pouf facing the antique full-length mirror, and looked at herself. Wealth and fame paled in comparison to the experience of seeing her reflection, and feeling the soft blue folds caressing her skin. Nobody would see her in this dress. Yet, that was the allure of it. This was a moment that she wished to share only with herself.
Her eyes were drawn to the magazine that lay on the bedside table. Seeing her face on the cover felt surreal, as though she was looking into a mirror. This was, after all, what she had wanted, what she was celebrating.
Sheila placed a room-service order, a modest meal of soup, and almost hung up, when the voice at the other end asked her, “Will that be all, Ms. Pearce? Perhaps we could interest you in some dessert?”
She scanned the menu and her eyes softened, “Perhaps a wedge of carrot cake?”
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