Leena shuffled out on to the porch in her oversized slippers, her gnarled, knobbly hands tightly clutching a china cup, the last of her few heirlooms. It was a clear morning, and the snow-capped peak shone proud and pristine in the distance, looking on at the play of Nature as the clouds did a deferential dance around their mighty master.
Settling her creaking bones into a sagging armchair, Leena gazed at her unkempt garden. The house on one corner of the square patch of land had once looked like an unsightly wart on a smooth young face; but it had gradually become part of the landscape, been accepted as if it had grown out of the earth during one of Creation’s more eccentric moments. Forty-five years earlier, if anyone had predicted that she’d grow into an old maid and live in solitude with two cats for company in a Himalayan nook, she would have laughed at the prophet for his foolishness, or slapped him for his audacity. Leena had once been the prettiest, most vivacious and sought-after young woman in the vicinity. Suitors came and went like the seasons, and because Leena was born to be a buttefly, she never realised what happened until it was too late and she was past her prime. The girlish dreams of snowy veils and bouquets of red roses were discarded into a heap of unfulfilled dreams, to be cobwebbed and desecrated as time pleased.
“Firenze! Sasha! Oh, these pesky cats.” Leena set down two bowls of milk for her pets and watched the cats clean themselves in the mellow sunshine.
Steady thumps and thwacks came floating up from the road outside the gate. “The sun has hardly risen, and the boys are at it again. Cricket, indeed!” She shut her eyes and felt the warmth of the sunshine on her face. Wisps of grey hair fell unheeded on her wrinkled forehead as she slipped into a half-doze, dreaming of her days of glory.
A tinkle of glass shattered Leena’s reverie. She turned, saw the chipped windowpane and sighed.
“If only I’d known. What a typical spinster’s life I live! Mismatched clothes, large slippers, tinned food, two cats and unruly neighbourhood boys. I really should have accepted Sancho Panza when he asked me. But how could I have lived with a man who was supposed to have ridden a donkey? What ridiculous names some people have!”
“Come and get it,” replied Leena in a weary voice. This was an everyday scene, in books, on television and in her ‘typical spinster’s life’, and she had resigned herself to playing the patient, kind old woman who didn’t bite or bark at the boys who came trampling on her plants. Not that there was much to trample upon, really. She had never bothered to talk to these boys, and they never said a word either, as they tore across her garden, heads bowed.
“What a dull, depressing, wasted life mine is!”
A crisp wind blew through the valley. The trees stirred briefly to life and their leaves rustled to one another. A laugh sounded down the road. A young woman was running down the street, full of life and energy, pursued by her paramour on a bicycle- their healthy voices ringing with the carefree, undefined happiness of youth. They could well have been ghosts from the past- and Leena was young once again, running down the forested slopes of the hills, picnicking with friends and singing with the larks, sunbeams catching her shiny curls and the wind flirting with them.
“And what makes you think you don’t have friends any longer?” said a voice, deep inside her bosom.
A tall, scrawny boy came scrambling up the porch steps, picked up the ball, and started to run down.
“A minute, young man,” called Leena, in her best imitation of a headmistress’s voice.
The boy turned hesitantly, eager to join his friends, his fingers impatiently toying with the ball.
“Who do you think will replace that broken pane?”
“Do you read?”
“Well, if you read enough, you’d perhaps know that good boys always pool their money together to replace the broken window-panes of lonely old ladies,” she said firmly.
“So what are you going to do now? And no use telling me you’re not a good boy, because I can see that you are one.”
A pause. The boy chewed on this thumbnail with concentration, and seemed to make up his mind about something. He looked at her.
“Aunty, I’ve also read that lonely old ladies bake the best chocolate cakes,” said the boy softly, his large brown eyes taking in the kindly lines of her seemingly stern face. Kindred spirits know one another when they first meet- and the humorous twinkle in Leena’s eyes showed itself despite her best efforts to conceal it. They smiled as their eyes met, and soon, Leena was laughing so hard her sides were almost bursting.
“You are a clever young man, aren’t you? Yes, I do bake chocolate cakes, and biscuits as well. Care for tea sometime?”
The boy grinned and ran to tell his friends his piece of good news. New friendships laid their foundations. Leena, to the end of her days, had a house brimming with flowers, love and young hopes. The old pain throbbed deep down on some dark days, but was always smoothened over with warmth and chocolate cake.
“What a charming, fulfilling, happy life yours is, Aunt Leena!” called the girls, as they bicycled by. And the ghosts of the past were set to rest.