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The Man Who Dropped Clocks

A man like Pora Vellum could reassemble almost anything, given time and a refreshing cup of tea.

Gracia Lam

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Fiction by Anne Newton Holmes

The cheap plastic clock flew from Pora Vellum's fingers and crashed to the tile floor. "Not again!" he muttered as the battery compartment popped open and the batteries rolled under the sofa. "Have the gods cursed me?" He got down on all fours to retrieve them and pick up the duct-taped clock. Shoving the batteries back inside, he watched for movement of the hands. Nothing. He shook the much-repaired lump of plastic. Still nothing.

Pora sighed and set the clock on the table beside the sofa. Why did he drop clocks? He didn't shatter dishes, tear his clothes or pitch over on his motorbike. It was fortunate that he was clever with his hands, that after hours spent organizing his small post office, he had entertained himself with tinkering. He would salvage parts from this clock and other battered remnants he had kept. Soon he would again have a working clock.

He started to call out to his wife to make a soothing cup of masala tea. But she had been dead for nearly a year. Why wasn't his son, Suresh, here with Pora's 5-year-old granddaughter, Lovely, to raise his spirits, to console him? True, Daughter-in-Law's masala tea was not as good as his wife's had been. But if she were here in the ancestral village where she belonged, she could learn to make it right.

What was Suresh doing in Bombay over a hundred miles from home? Computers, he said. Better job. Higher salary. Potential for advancement. But what did that add up to? A sixth-floor flat in a noisy, polluted, mob-controlled city. And Daughter-in-Law taking employment outside the home to help pay the rent.

Why couldn't Suresh have found a job with his computers in the town four miles inland? He could have ridden a motorbike to work, and Pora's comfortable house would have been warmed by the bright chatter of darling Lovely. And, surely, once settled in the village, Daughter-in-Law would give up her career nonsense and take over care of Lovely and her father-in-law.

Pora sat at the small table to investigate the clock. As he worked, the shrill voice of his neighbor, Mrs. Athan, came through the open window, overriding the pulse of the surf. She had had a softer voice for her husband, but he had died over three years ago, and it had hardened since then.

Pora knew what Mrs. Athan would say if she knew he was fixing his clock again. "Your mind is not on the present. You think too much about the past, Mr. Vellum."

Of course he thought too much about the past. He had been happy then—with his wife alive and Suresh at home. What did he have to be happy about in the present? Pora considered Mrs. Athan's advice meant that he should think about remarriage—to Mrs. Athan. He had never found her attractive, not even when she came to the village 42 years ago as a bride of 16. No, her graceful walk, her slim body, her long, shiny black hair had not appealed to him then. And she appealed even less now that she was plump with graying hair pulled back into a tight bun. But he had to admit she kept an orderly house and a lush garden. In the evening he could hear her pounding spices, and then the savory tingle of a succulent curry would waft in with the salt on the breeze.

When the postman arrived, Pora was hunched over the table. His eyes were strained, but something resembling a clock was beginning to take shape before him.

"A letter for you, Pora," the postman announced. "From Bombay."

Pora snatched the letter, ripped it open, and read it. The postman lingered just inside the door, awaiting a tidbit of gossip to share on his rounds.

"He's coming. My Suresh is coming for a whole week—with Lovely and Daughter-in-Law. He says he has good news."

Pora swept the floors, washed the kitchen, scrubbed the outhouse. He even planted a blooming hibiscus in a pot beside the front door and bought a new clock. In the 10 days before his son's arrival, Pora didn't take time to rest in his hammock. He wanted everything perfect for his son's arrival. If Suresh looked favorably on his father's house, he might decide to remain in the village. Maybe that was what the good news was all about.

Pora's house was old. It had been built by Pora's grandfather, a small manufacturer of the local liquor, fermented from the cashew apple, the fruit that remained when the little crescent of the cashew nut had been harvested. Making feni had been smelly, but profitable. The house had been and still was the largest in the village. Three rooms at the front, a small courtyard and three rooms at the rear. Shady competition had forced Grandfather out of business into near penury, but he had been able to hang onto the house.

Pora's last task was repainting the drab front door that was molding and peeling from the long monsoons on this coast. He selected marine blue that reminded him of the sea on the sunniest of days, sanded the old carved door and carefully painted it. When he stepped back to take a look at his finished work, he was stunned. The new color freshened the entire house.

While Pora prepared for the arrival of his family, he avoided touching the new clock. He knew his mind was not on the present now, but on the future, the arrival of his family. Mrs. Athan could be right and Pora wasn't taking any chances. But the day before Suresh arrived, in a flurry of final sprucing up, he bumped the table on which the clock sat. It leapt from the table to crash to the floor. It took him 20 minutes to repair the case with duct tape.

Pora met the train at the station in the town. Suresh stepped to the platform first, carrying two bags. He had thickened, and dark circles showed beneath his eyes. He dropped the luggage and hugged his father. Lovely, chattering as usual, dashed around her father and into Pora's arms. Daughter-in-Law, lips compressed, appeared in the doorway with a plastic carry bag in each hand. Suresh was pale; she was flushed.

After a cup of tea at the local stall, they set out by bus for the village. When the bus dropped them off, Pora led the way along the path through the village toward his house. At the newly painted door Suresh exhaled sharply. "For God's sake. What have you done to the door?"

Pora deflated like yesterday's balloon. "I wanted a change," he replied. "I thought you'd like it."

Suresh patted his father's shoulder. "You don't need to make changes in the house for us, Bapu. We love it just as it is."

While Suresh and Daughter-in-Law settled themselves in Suresh's old room, Pora and Lovely rushed out to the beach. They poked at lumps of seaweed, gathered spiral shells and chased translucent crabs. When they returned to the house, Lovely's pockets bulged with shells. "We chased crabs," she bubbled, the color high in her cheeks.

Her mother and father smiled at her and at each other. Pora wondered if the good news was that another grandchild was on the way.

They sat on the verandah and watched the sun sink lower and lower through thin strips of clouds at the horizon. Clouds and waves glowed pink, the house and the village gleamed golden. Palms, their fronds rattling in the evening breeze, formed dark silhouettes against the sky.

Daughter-in-Law rose and went inside with Lovely. Suresh and Pora remained on the darkening verandah. Suresh sighed and sank back into his chair.

Lovely's voice piped through the open window. "Where's the TV?"

"Shhh. Grandfather doesn't have a TV," Daughter-in-Law whispered. "People in the village don't have TVs."

"But I want to watch . . ."

"Hush now. You don't want to hurt Grandfather's feelings. Besides, we're on holiday. We do other things on holiday."

The food at the evening meal was dismal, Pora thought. Daughter-in-Law didn't have much of a sense of what to do with perfectly good peas and cheese. And the pre-ground, premixed spices she had brought from Bombay didn't help. Even the basmati rice he had splurged to buy turned into a spongy mass at her touch. But, after all, Pora reasoned, food wasn't everything.

After breakfast the next morning, Pora discovered that nearly half of his entire stock of wood for the week had been consumed in the preparation of only two meals. Daughter-in-Law was accustomed to a propane stove in Bombay. She hadn't learned to build a fire just sufficient to cook the food. And the amount of water she wasted! Pora and Suresh carried buckets from the well—even though that was strictly women's work. The expression in Daughter-in-Law's eyes convinced them to overlook the point.

"Perhaps running water would make your life here more comfortable, Bapu," Suresh suggested. "A pump and plastic pipe can't be all that expensive. And certainly not all that difficult for a man with your skills to install."

Pora nodded as if considering the foolish idea. Why should he expend a month's pension and a week's labor to install such a wasteful system? He used only two buckets of water a day.

Before lunch Pora took Lovely on a round of the village, proudly reintroducing her to his neighbors, even Mrs. Athan. At one house, Lovely cuddled a 3-day-old kid. At another, she squatted beside tiny baby chicks and cradled a still-warm egg in her hands. On the outskirts of the village she helped milk a water buffalo and tasted the milk fresh from the animal. Mrs. Athan showed Lovely how she pounded ginger root in a mortar and dropped it, along with other spices and sugar, into boiling milk and tea leaves to make delicious masala tea. Pora happily consumed what Lovely couldn't finish.

Back at her grandfather's house, Lovely babbled on about the kid, the chicks, the water buffalo and the tea. Then she turned accusingly to her mother. "There is too TV in the village. I saw one."

"Hush, Lovely," Suresh said.

"Can't we go there to watch . . . ?"

"Hush, Lovely. You know we talked about this before we came to visit Grandfather."

At lunchtime Daughter-in-Law grumbled about having to cook a meal. Lovely piped up, "We can send out for Chinese."

"No, Lovely. They don't have take-out Chinese in the village," Daughter-in-Law replied.

A walk on the beach at sunset had been a tradition in the family, one that Pora still followed—when he had been able to pry himself from his hammock. Barefoot, the four of them set out to the north toward the rocky headland that marked the end of the beach. Daughter-in-Law padded along the very edge of the water. Lovely bounded after the waves and retreated before they could turn and catch her. Pora and Suresh strolled side by side, their hands clasped at their backs. On their left a brilliant golden path led across the dancing waves to the sun.

"Poonam and I are leaving Bombay," Suresh said.

Pora's heart soared. So this was the good news. Never had he thought it would be so easy to convince his son to return to the village. "When?" he asked.

"Oh, in a month or so. As soon as we train our replacements at the office."

"That soon. How wonderful!" Pora made a mental note to buy a pump and plastic pipe when he delivered them to their train in a few days. Daughter-in-Law would have running water in the kitchen when they returned. "For your health it's best to get out of that polluted city. And a sixth-floor flat isn't the best place for Lovely to grow up."

"That's true, Bapu." Suresh paused and stubbed his toes in the damp sand. "But a flat is the best we can manage in Calcutta for the time being—even with the money from our promotions."

"Calcutta?" Pora staggered with the effort of saying the name.

"Yes. Why are you so surprised?"

"I thought you'd return to the village. To live in our ancestral home. To share your lives with me."

"Bapu, we've been over this before. Poonam and I work with computers. The place to make money with computers is in the city—not the village."

"But in the town. Only four miles away. A short scooter ride."

"Menial jobs. In Calcutta, I'll have the very best equipment for graphic design. I'll make a name for myself."

"In Calcutta, Lovely will breathe foul air and grow up with hooligans." Pora didn't add, while your father languishes alone a thousand miles away, but it was on his mind.

"Give us a year or two to establish ourselves and you can come to live with us. I'll teach you how to use my home computer."

Pora gestured to the sun, now a red ball dipping into the sea. "Why would I crave a computer when I have the sun, the sea, the sand?"

"You're living in the past, Bapu. There's more to life than a hammock with an ocean view and sand between your toes."

Pora spun on his heel and marched back the way they had come. Suresh called out to him, but didn't try to catch up. At the house, Pora strode straight past the red hibiscus and the blue door. He shut himself in his room for the night.

For the remaining days of the visit, Suresh, Daughter-in-Law and Lovely were on their best behavior. No one complained about anything, and Daughter-in-Law did manage to produce a passable cup of masala tea. Pora behaved well, too. He pushed down his hurt, his pride, his betrayal. He tried his best to enjoy their visit and to make Lovely's days memorable.

After he had delivered his family to the 4 p.m. train to Bombay, Pora walked the shortcut trail home, rather than taking the bus. With each step three alternatives swarmed like angry bees inside his head. He could mope about Suresh's move to Calcutta. He could sink into the depths of his hammock never to emerge. Or he could think about himself and his future.

Pora never really came to a decision. He just found himself standing before the table in his sitting room, the repaired clock in his hands. He heaved it at the stone wall of the room, watched it explode in a hundred pieces.

He stepped carefully around the shards to the door that he had left open when he entered the house. He admired its bright blue before leaning down to pluck a red hibiscus from the pot beside it. Twirling the blossom, he turned toward Mrs. Athan's. She had not abandoned the village for Calcutta. Perhaps she would invite him for tea.

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