I was on a nine-month fellowship from University of Toronto to complete my Ph.D. I worked hard from 9 am to 5 pm at Robarts Library, felt burnt out in the evening and headed for my haven of rest and pleasure – Read Plus at Bluer Street which I had discovered recently. I would pick a book off the shelves and retire to the reading enclosure where soft restful chairs and sofas had been tastefully arranged in a semi-circle, with a glass-topped table in the centre, adorned by a fresh-flower vase. Pedestal lamps placed thoughtfully emitted a caressing, soft light. I could browse the book or read it from cover to cover. To add to the joy of leisurely reading, a charming girl wished me “Good Evening Sir. Happy Reading” and served a steaming coffee with a smile.
It was my tenth day at Read Plus. She always came a few minutes later than me and occupied the same chair by my side. I initiated conversation. “Are you a research scholar?”
She looked at me with wide, sparkling eyes. “What makes you think so”?
“Well … a hunch.”
“In a way you can say that. I’m with an NGO for the rehabilitation of drug-addicts. My work does involve some research and data analysis.”
“Oh really? Your work intersects mine.”
I told her my topic, “The Incidence of Drug Addiction among the Youth: Canada and India.”
And then we got to talking about the reasons why the youth of Canada were more prone to drugs than their Indian counterparts. I told her I had seen many youngsters fully stoned.
“You from India?”
“Well, in India you have a strong familial support for the children. They remain under the watchful eyes of the parents.”
“But over here, the day a boy or a girl turns eighteen, they walk out on the parents to be on their own. They want space, freedom.”
“How do they support themselves?”
“Many of them live on the unemployment dole. Some of them do odd jobs.”
Our low-tone conversations became a regular feature. We discussed topics relating to Canada or India. I was getting amorously drawn to her. Her transparent, fair skin and well formed ruddy lips made me fantasize about her in my room at St, Theresa’s, the hostel where I had been put up.
One day she asked me, “Are you married?”
“No.” I wiped my six-year-old lovely daughter and a caring wife off the slate.
“What prize if I’m right?”
“What would you want?”
This was my chance. I wanted a fulsome, wet kiss.
But I said, “Whatever you would like to give.”
“Don’t leave it to me.”
“Cause I’d like to give you …umm … nothing,” she said with a tinkling laugh.
She nodded mischievously.
That night I cursed myself for not being pushy enough. Expecting kissing! I had not even touched her. I’d do it tomorrow, I resolved. There was an easy way. I’ll shake hands while parting and hold on to her hand for long and feel the white softness of her flesh.
But while getting out of the bookstore she had moved a couple of metres away from me. Then she stopped and folded her hands, “Good night. I like the Indian style. It’s so hygienic.”
The next day the topic veered round to ghosts.
“What extra reading are you interested in apart from your NGO work?”
She looked at me searchingly and said, “I read lots on ghosts. What about you?”
“There’s no end to similarities between us..
She raised her eyebrows.
“I, too, am interested in ghost-literature.” Actually, I had read only one novel by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black.
I launched on its story. She inclined her head, I thought, coquettishly and seemed attentive.
Then she reeled out the titles of many spooky novels: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes, and others.
One evening she said, “I don’t know why. But some people believe in ghosts. It sucks! Reading ghost stories is one thing. But believing in them is so retarded.”
“Do you … I mean do you think there are ghosts?”
“Noways,” I said emphatically. “It’s idiotic to believe in them. I find ghost stories entertaining. But fiction is not life.”
“I mean it’s so unscientific.”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Actually, I have met people right here at this bookstore who said they didn’t believe in ghosts. But I could tell from their faces they did. Such people suck even more. Imagine believing in something and lying about it!”
“Anyways, it takes all kinds to make the world.”
The next evening she surprised me. “Would you like to visit us at home tomorrow?”
“Sure. It’d be a huge pleasure.”
“But we live too far.”
“There must be train connections”
“Oh yes. You can catch the last train at 10:30 pm.”
“No issues then.”
“And if by chance you miss that you can spend the night with us.”
The prospect of a delectable night with her was thrilling! I nodded vigorously.
“Who all are at your place?”
“Mom and me.”
A flat-footed old woman brought two coffees and Blueberry muffins in a tray. She lingered for a while and gave me a look-over.
“Blueberry muffin is my favourite,” I said conversationally.
But she gave me a searching look and went back to the kitchen.
Susie was subdued. Perhaps, it was because of her mother who seemed imperious. We finished our coffee and the muffins in silence.
Suddenly, Susie got up. “I’ll be a minute,” she said and went to the adjoining room.
I felt an eerie silence throbbing in the house. The mother had gone into the kitchen, but no sounds emanated from there and Susie was taking ages to come back.
After about half an hour, I grew fidgety. Then my curiosity got the better of my manners. I peeped into the room. She was not there. Then I looked into the kitchen. No old woman there. Nor were there any signs that the kitchen had been worked in for preparing coffee. I checked all the three bedrooms, but there was no trace of Susie or her mother.
The tray with two empty cups was there. I touched a cup and it was real. Felt the muffin crumbs and they were real too. I left quickly..
I told Miss Grace, the Receptionist at the hostel, about the episode.
She gawked. “Four men have lost their lives, because they got trapped and spent the night with the girl.”
“You would have been the fifth,” she said and crossed herself.