On Their Way ...
Dorothy L. Sayer
Robin and Neela had a fierce argument that night. Robin insisted that he drives all the way to the airport, well past midnight to pick up his friend Sunanda from College.
Neela said Robin was high as a kite and should not drive.
Robin said all he had been three pegs and that he had to fetch Sue who was returning to India after so long.
Neela said ‘fine I AM COMING AS WELL!’
Another bout of hard words followed.
Finally Robin had to give in.
Stony silence filled the car till Neela switched on the music.
The airport was buzzing as usual even though it was past 2am, but the arrival bay in the international section was deserted. Robin threw another fit. Slapping the steering wheel he said, ‘thanks to you, fed up of waiting for me Sue must have taken a cab to her hotel.’
Neela felt embarrassed, yes she had thrown a temper tantrum but truly she had been worried about Robin being drunk and driving. Also, truthfully Neela felt threatened by Sue and didn’t want Robin alone with his friend of old. Had Sue not moved to France, and gone on to have a stormy marriage there; Robin would not have married Neela. Robin had told Neela so in one of their many fights. He had shown Sue’s pictures to Neela and said, ‘don’t even hope to compete with her.’ Yet, despite all the calls for help, Neela saw that her husband did not reach out to help Sue because, she knew her husband would not rock the boat, specially a wealthy boat that Neela had rowed into the marriage.
Now as he gave her a dirty look and opened the door to check the arrival area, Neela whispered, ‘sorry Robin I know it was I who delayed you.’
He slammed the door with a furious look at her.
Neela watched him frantically search the area. Just then she spied one of the cleaning men getting ready to begin the cleaning. She left the car and went up to him. ‘Did you see anyone waiting here? A lady? She came by the flight from New York.’
The man looked blankly at her for a while and signed no, he had not seen anyone.
Robin had reached the car by then and called out for Neela, ‘come on, now what are you doing?’ Neela ran back saying she had been asking the staff but no one had seen Sue.
Robin revved the engine but waited till she entered the car and said, ‘please spare me your help ... the man at the taxi booth said he may be wrong but he thought he saw a young woman wait here for a while and then move towards the airport approach road.’
‘Why should she do that? It’s crazy to … doesn’t she have your number?’
Robin tersely said, ‘check my mobile; see if there’s a WhatsApp message or call.’ He tossed her the mobile. Neela caught it and saw that there was nothing from Sue.
Robin was driving dangerously fast when a dog ran across the road. He slammed the brakes and swerved. The car stopped at the edge of the road with a loud squeal and Robin sunk his head on the steering wheel. Neela pulled away from where she had been thrown and looking back at the deserted road behind said, ‘strange, where did the dog go?’ Just then she caught sight of a figure sitting slumped by the side of the road. She grabbed Robin’s arm and said, ‘my God, is that Sue?’
Robin was out of the car in a flash and running in the direction that Neela had pointed. But it was nothing. Someone had dumped some garbage in a sack that looked like a woman sitting. If anything, Robin was even angrier, he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘I can do without your help! Thanks very much, Ma’am!’
Neela fell silent and stared ahead with a steely look. Robin continued expressing his rage through demoniac speed and this time Neela did not dare to reach for the music remote.
When the city lights began to glow in the not too far distance Neela said, ‘ease up, the traffic cameras will catch you speeding.’
To her surprise Robin did lessen speed so much so she thought he was going to say something sarcastic and looked warily at him from the corner of her eyes. And she saw Sue – recognizing her from the photographs Robin had shown her.
Robin’s friend was standing just under the flyover, dragging her case on its leash, looking wan and desperate. ‘Robin!’ cried Neela pointing at Sue.
Robin turned his head, looked at Sue disbelievingly for a while and then shouted ‘Sue! Sunanda Basu! So sorry my darling …’ He reversed and drew alongside Sue, across the road.
Robin jumped out of the car and made to hug Sue, but she drew back. Neela heard her say in a soft, soft voice, ‘no Robin, don’t hug me. I am sweaty and dusty and tired, O so tired.’
‘You walked all this way from the airport?’
‘Why? Why didn’t you call? You knew I would be here.’
Even in the dark Neela saw the sardonic half smile on Sue’s face, ‘yes, exactly as you were there at the most difficult times in my life, isn’t that so, Robin? So when I saw you were not there at the airport, I began to walk.’
Robin half turned to give Neela a baleful glare, ‘it was she who delayed me.’
Sue smiled at Neela and said, ‘this man will never change, he always has to blame some one.’ Bending she smiled and said, ‘Neela, I am Sue; Robin of course will not introduce us.’ Eventually Sue was settled in the car, Neela noticed Sue kept a careful distance from Robin. The two women got along at once, they spoke of the long journey, and they spoke of the long haul from the airport while Robin interjected with several ‘do you remember… ? that went ignored by Sue.
They entered the city, Robin was now careful about not being caught speeding, but then he was completely engrossed in remembering. ‘Sue, do you still paint?’ Then without waiting for an answer he told Neela what a great painter was Sue. He said, ‘she had the softest of hands, with the longest fingers I have ever seen.’ Sue quietly said from behind that it was a long time ago. But Robin continued, ‘I think of your hands so often …’
‘Yes, Robin? My hands? Were my hands like this?’ And she reached from behind and gripped Robin’s throat.
Neela had never before seen such hands. They were the most ghastly, terrifying hands. As Robin choked, a panicked Neela turned off the keys and jumped out of the slowing car. The last glimpse she had of Robin was his eyes popping as he struggled to breathe.
And behind him was no one. The car was completely empty of anyone but a dying or dead Robin.
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