This story is for my dearest friend Adwait, who suggested that I write up a story as my next post. Adwait loves berries, and hence the title, and the story...
The Heart of a Raspberry
It is not yet dawn as he enters the parking lot. He glances at the watch on the dashboard of his Model S - 5:45 AM. Sunrise is a couple of hours away. He better be on his way soon. Don’t want a repeat of last yea-eh, a voice in his mind admonishes him. He smiles to himself, his eyes search for the next bit of information on the screen flashing through - 12th December. His annual pilgrimage…
He pulls into the parking spot farthest from the highway. It is a private inn and he is trespassing, but he has been doing it for the past 15 years, and does not plan to stop anytime soon. They know him by now — the hotel staff, the locals, even the rangers. Only a fool would venture into such cold conditions, and climb all the way to the top on a bike!
Last minute checks done (air, brakes, goggles, cleats, helmet, electrolytes and some honey waffles), he opens the glove box for the last time. Inside, in a small jewelry box, is an earring. Old, broken and repaired, he brings it out for one day every year. Today.
He hooks the earring into his jersey zipper lock and pulls the zipper close. The earring rests just above his heart rate strap. He prefers it this way. Always has.
“Mt. Rainier National Park,” the wooden sign over the arch marks the entrance to the park. He quickly jots down his name and address on a post-it note. It is too early for a ranger to be on the entrance station, so he puts a ten dollar bill and the note in a plastic pouch and places it at the entrance station. He will collect his receipt on the way back. He always does.
He has an annual pass for the car, but he always pays on this day.
With one last look towards the eastern sky, he begins his long, lonely climb up the mountain.
“Are you Math 101?”
He looks up to the door of his cubicle as he removes his headphones. His reverie broken, he silences the ghazal singer on his CD player and tries to gauge the speaker.
“Are you Math 101? Professor Andrews said you would be available in this room,” she says, referring a neatly organized corner on the back of her notebook.
She is a freshman, he sees that right away. She is definitely not American, not with that heavy accent. European, British, maybe. But not a Londoner. Too many years of watching Yes Minister and other BBC exports on DD have perfected his ears to the formal Anglo-Saxon.
He is slightly annoyed - nobody shows up in the first three weeks of classes, he was assured. The kids are too busy partying and enjoying their newfound freedom to bother studying. But here she is, no doubt a product of the UK public schools, ready to show off. Every class he had been in since kindergarten had a couple of girls like her. Every class.
“Yes, come in. How may I help you?” he puts on his best face.
She comes in and places her backpack on the only other chair in the room. Looks at him once over but does not answer his question. Instead, she picks up the partially open CD cover and reads the album title - “‘Kashish', what does it mean?”
“It is Urdu. Ghazal. Type of song, Asian song.” he stammers out an answer to a question he never expected.
“Of course I know what a gazal is. My best mate in school was a Paki. Her dad listened to all kinds of gazals all day long. Anyways, are you Math 101?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Ok then, just wanted to pop in to say ‘Hello’. I am from the theater program. Might stop by regularly for help. Math isn’t my strongest suite.”
She pulls out a small plastic box from her backpack and flips open the lid with her thumb.
He takes one hesitantly.
“I love them,” she says. “Bye!”
She is in and out before he can realize what happened.
She comes back as promised. Math is really not her strength, but she is quick in picking up things. Comes from all those memory exercises they make us do for acting, she concedes. She is from Cardiff, Wales and wants to be an actress. She also talks a lot. A lot.
“What do you do?” she asks him once.
“I am pursuing my PhD in Aeronautical Engineering.”
“Oh - spaceships and that kind of stuff?”
“No,” he laughs. “Everybody just assumes that. I design bikes.”
“Wow - great big 500 horses?”
“No - simple little, human driven, two wheeled vehicles.”
“And they give you a Doctorate for that?” He has no answer, as usual.
So he pretends to do something important while occasionally glancing in her direction.
He likes to look into her eyes. Her hazel eyes. Probably the only thing about her that does not scream “raspberries”. He soon learns that not only does she like to eat them, she also likes to wear them. She is probably the one woman market for all things made in the color of raspberries.
She passes the class, with a B-. She cannot believe it, but she is finally comfortable with Math. He is no longer her TA. She still stops by every week.
They no longer talk about Math.
She gets a job at the local Coffee Plantation. He makes it a point to pick up his morning coffee from that location, although it is an extra ten minutes of walking. They exchange pleasantries over the counter. Once in a while, she joins him on the other side, if there are not many customers around that need serving.
She tells him about a stagehand position in the local theater, and he encourages her to apply. He tells her about an Italian bike manufacturer who is interested in working with his advisor to develop new designs. She finally asks him to show her where he works.
He shows her his lab. She tiptoes around the scattered equipment as an assorted all-male audience of Indian, Asian and European graduate students look up in awe. She woos them with her easygoing demeanor. Even his normally reserved advisor strikes up a conversation with her. Seems like the old buzzard went backpacking through the UK when he was a graduate student. They even speak a few sentences in halting Welsh.
He is in love.
They kit her up and put her on a bike in the wind tunnel. She knows how to ride, of course, but now she is learning to enjoy it. She signs up as their first long-term female test rider.
Occasionally, he will try to explain the science behind the design. He talks about drag coefficients and aero-foil shapes, and it all sounds science fiction to her. So he decides to show her.
He picks up a page of paper, bends it over to form an aerofoil, and sticks a slick, takeout chopstick through and through.
“Now blow on top of the paper,” he says.
“But won’t it push the paper down?”
She blows on the paper, and watches with astonishment as the entire assembly rises! It’s magic! She tunes out the rest of his explanation. It is all greek to her anyways! But she is mesmerized by his enthusiasm, his passion for the science, the art and the engineering involved in building something as simple (or so she thought) as a “bike.” She realizes that no woman could ever compete with this passion to be his first. She also realizes that she does not mind being the second.
His roommates and lab colleagues tease him - “Mary” - as in “Mary had a little lamb.”
She follows him to school every day, runs into him for lunch, and in general hovers around him when he is not working. He makes sure he does not enroll in classes over the lunch hour, even going to the extent of convincing a professor to let him take a class “independently” because the scheduled timing does not work for him. They run into each other with a regularity that is surely not a coincidence.
They both fly home for Christmas. Neither wants to.
He gets her a set of earrings from back home. It’s a simple, inexpensive thing, a trinket of bent metal that is coated with silver and has a few metal beads suspended on the end. Its makes a gentle tinkling sound as she moves her head. She thinks it is cute, he thinks it is perfect.
She gets him a necktie - she knows he does not have one. It is of course, dark raspberry colored. He disagrees - It is Burgundy. She rolls her eyes. Men.
“Wear it when you defend,” she says. He tries to knot it unsuccessfully, repeatedly. She spends a good part of the hour on the floor, holding her sides, laughing uncontrollably.
“Ever wonder why they bleed so deep?” These are the first words out of her mouth for the day. It is their usual lunch tête-à-tête, and he is busy working out some kinks in his homework. It is due in an hour. They have not spoken since morning. Sometimes, he thinks, she likes it this way. Sometimes, she thinks, he likes it this way.
“You ever wonder why they bleed, so deep, so rich?” She is holding up a raspberry in her hand, at eye level, twirling it around, examining it - as if for the first time. The light hits the berry and her eyes in just the right way. He cannot look away.
“Here,” she turns the berry so that he can see its hollow inside. “It has no heart,” she declares, with all the seriousness of stating a world-shattering discovery. “The sweetest thing in the world, and it has no heart. Lost it someplace? Or had it stolen? We may never know, what? Probably why it bleeds so true.” She pops it into her mouth.
“Hmmmm, raspberries …”
They are camping along the coast with their friends. Someone has set up a small campfire and they are going around the group with camp-songs and ghosts stories. The air is chilly, but not too cold to be outside. There is a crispness that comes with the advent of the Spring, a promise of a bountiful Summer - the scent of the meadows and earth mingling with soft lullaby of ocean waves. He loves the mountains, she is at home near the seas.
It is her turn to sing. She is very shy. He has never heard her hum, let alone sing a song. They coax her into singing something from her homeland. It’s not as if we can correct you on that, right? someone remarks.
She starts softly, hesitantly -
Pan sudd ai'r heulwen Dros y bryn yn min y nos
Ar ael y wybren, gwelwn sereu dlos.
Her voice soars and dips like a bird riding the wind. All chatter ceases almost instantly. Nobody understands a word that she is singing, but they all understand that this is something special. She closes her eyes as her voice finally breaks free …
Elen fwyn, eln, wyt ti'n cofio'r seren dlos
Elen fwyn, Elen, wyt ti'n cofio'r nos
Elen fwyn, Elen wyt ti'n cofior' seren dlos,
Elen fwyn, elen wyt ti'n cofio'r nos.
A few people from adjoining campsites make their way to the campfire. The audience is growing, everyone astonished by the depth of emotions they are experiencing. She continues on, oblivious to the storm around her…
They are alone on the beach, shoulder to shoulder. She has not spoken a word since the song. He does not want to break the silence by saying something trivial. They sit side by side, listening to the waves crash upon the shores, eroding the sand, a grain at a time.
She finally speaks, and they are not the words he expects.
“Are all Indian men thick dimwitted numbskulls like you?” she asks with a fervor belying the tranquility of the situation.
It takes him more than a few moments to realize what she means. He leans in gently to kiss her. She does not resist.
She decides to leave after graduation. The US is not for her, she says. She wants to work in the real theater, not what they make here “across the pond.” It is not the truth. He knows it. But whatever she is hiding, he does not have the courage to ask. The possibility of her answer frightens him more than her answer itself.
I will call you when I make it there, she promises. They spend the entire day (and night) in his room. She clutches him close, dreading the arrival of the dawn. He refuses to let go.
It is 6th April 2004. He will never forget the date. He finally realizes what it means to be a raspberry.
It is 4:37 AM and he is in a hurry. The driver from the hotel shuttle decided to take an impromptu fag and they lost 10 minutes on the way to the airport. Luckily it was his return flight and he did not have to worry about reaching late. The meetings had gone well. They were all interested in his designs. Initial wind-tunnel testing had yielded improvements close to what he had estimated. Unfortunately, he could not patent the shape or the name (Kamm-tail, it was currently known by). It was a whirlwind trip with one presentation after another. Treviso, Cambiago, Milan and Rossano Veneto - he had seen them all! He had even managed to get an autographed jersey from a three time Giro winner! Things could not be better.
He breezes through the airport security at Treviso-Sant Angelo due to traveling light (no laptop, no briefcase, just a tablet, thank you). There is a spring in his step as he realizes that this is his moment - the moment when he makes his mark on the world. It is also the moment his world comes crashing down.
Staring back at him from across the wall are two luminous orbs half a feet wide. It takes him a moment to place them in his memory - her eyes! Hazel, deep, sparkling with life. “Seize the chance,” the billboard implores. And standing next to an oversized bottle of perfume he sees her, smiling coyly into the camera. He checks the brand name and makes a mental note to get a bottle in the duty free shop.
I will call you, she had said. I will call you when I make it there.
That was three years ago. He waits for her call everyday. He knows it is a matter of time. He hopes it is just a matter of time.
She never calls.
4:00 AM PST, 12th December 2009. The call wakes him from a tired slumber. It takes him a few moments to realize that it is his cell phone and not his alarm clock that woke him up.
“Hello?!” his voice croaks as a crisp Anglo-Saxon voice asks him to verify his name.
“Yes, it is. Do you have any idea what time it is? Whatever you are selling, I don’t want it.”
The person at the other end speaks urgently, firing off instructions at a pace faster than he can process.
“What????” he tunes out the rest of the conversation as the gravity of the news sinks in.
“Wait, wait … just wait … please! Where do I have to be? and when? ——— Cardiff! But that’s in Wales! —— Can you give me a couple of days at least? ——— And what do you mean she left me? She left me what?”
“Everything, sir. Everything.”
He flies out on the next available flight the same day.
It was an accident, they said. A rather messy one too. Seems like a tanker carrying petrol “went wonkers on the A470”, and hit a few cars. The entire thing exploded and it was over in a matter of seconds. The only thing on her that they could find in a somewhat unburnt state was an earring. A silver earring that looked exotic and jingled. They found his number on her cell phone. She had left it in her agent’s office. It was the first number on speed dial. It was the only number on speed dial.
He cries all the way to the airport. He cries all the way back on the flight. He cries until he can speak no more. And then he cries all over again.
“Everything, sir. She left you everything.” they said.
But … he has just lost everything.
It is past midday as he labors into the parking lot at Paradise. The mountain looms over his field of vision as he unclips his cleats and pedals softly towards the visitor center. Resting his bike against the wooden beams that dot the building, he sits down in the shade of the porch and takes a long swig from his water bottle.
“You are late,” says a voice behind him, in her lilting voice that carries the barest hint of Anglophilic heritage. He looks over his shoulder and gives her a beaming smile. Her cleats beat a familiar clip-clop on the tarmac as she comes over to his right and sits down beside him.
“Trade up time, dad!” she reminds him. “You said I could have it if I beat you up the mountain. I did - by 20 minutes! You are getting old!”
He looks deep into her hazel eyes, a mixture of pride and love for his daughter, all grown up so quickly! Soon she will be off to college — at the top of her class, she could potentially have her pick of the engineering schools (she loves engineering generally, and aeronautics, naturally). Fit and athletic, she is an exceptional biker, an U23 road racing champion, captain of her high-school cyclocross team, and has done grueling long distance events since she was 10. To say that she likes music would be an understatement for the ages. She writes, composes and records her own songs - her favorite genre being ghazals, of course. She is his daughter, after all.
“Okay, okay. I guess it is time to pay the piper. But what are you offering to trade?”
“Guess what I found on the way here?” her eyes are sparkling with a mischief that is all too familiar to him. She is holding something in the palm of her right hand, fingers closed around tightly. She sticks out her tongue, but he already knows. With a smile tinged with resignation, he unhooks the earring from his jersey, and offers it to her. She takes it with a ferocious hunger that surprises him, gives it a little turn over — almost reverently, and gently wears it on her left ear. She then proceeds to shake her head gently, producing a soft tingling melody.
“My turn,” he says as he holds out his hand. She closes her right hand over his and opens her fingers to let the contents of her hand plop gently into his.
“I saved you one,” she smiles mischievously as he notices a single raspberry resting in his gloved hand. “And dad,” she adds, “it isn’t burgundy!” She pops in another one from her jersey pocket, her tongue already a shade of deep deep red.
She loves raspberries. It is the only thing she takes from her mother.
© 2014, Pushpak Karnick