Rinek had spent his childhood in the town as a student of the school that many from around the country — and even the world — flocked to. Now, years later, he returned to buy a house in the same town so that he could still call the place his own. The house he bought was at the far edge of the town, an edge that lay far outside the edge when he was there as a young boy. The town had expanded and people who had come after he had left were often seen ruing the fact that place was no longer what it had been years back.
The house that Rinek bought had belonged to an old man who had lost his wife recently and had moved to the city to live with his daughter. He had planned to stay here, keep the house and the memories, but better sense prevailed, largely forced past his own emotions by the voices of his own daughter and the people around him. The town with its cold winters was not for the old, especially those who lived alone. So the man had agreed to put it up for sale around the same time that Rinek came looking for one. They were introduced by people who knew both of them, and it was decided that the new owner would only take possession of the house in the spring of next year as the old man and his wife had gathered a lot of things that were now even more valuable to him. The old man was himself surprised at the things they had allowed to remain with them, all starkly visible but hiding behind the recurring and habitual living of decades. Rinek had no need to move in any time soon, and he allowed the man and the daughter to shift the belongings over a year.
He now had an address in the town he had always considered home, and he felt he had returned. Though he was now back in the city with his family and his work.
The year passed, and Rinek found no time to visit the town that year. Earlier, he had made it a point to go there at least once, and keep his old friends updated with his greying hair and added wrinkles and growing children and changing cars. But now that he had a house there to call his own, he felt he could always go later. And next year, when he had started his own business, the trip got pushed again. But he continued to get the electricity bills, and the house tax bills, and he felt good every time he paid for them. These were proof that he now had a home where his home was.
Then one day, he got a call from the old man’s daughter. The old man had passed away a few months back, and she herself had been busy with one thing or the other and they had never quite found the time to shift the things they had left in the house. And now that she was moving abroad with her own family, she doubted that she could find time anytime soon, or even the space to move her parents’ belongings. So if he could just dispose of the things, sell what was worth selling, give away what was usable, and get a scrap dealer to take away the rest, she would be grateful.
Rinek agreed. He understood, he said. He was sorry for her loss, he said. And he also realised that he had not spent a single night in the house he had bought. So the next day, he set out alone in his car. His wife and his children and the friends he asked to accompany him refused the offer made at such a short notice. And Rinek felt good about taking this trip alone, and entering his own house alone, and spending a night there alone.
It was late in the evening when he drove past the house and shops of his friends, deciding to meet them all the next day. He still had some distance to cover to reach the house. He already had supplies enough for a night, and one of his friends would often send his domestic helper to clean up and tidy up a little. He would manage.
The sun was setting behind him as he drove to the house, a small wooden structure supported on beams to one side of the road, and across the road, the hills rolled down in a gradual gradient to the main town below, that was lit up like fireflies in a bowl. Parking under the beams to the side of the road, he picked his keys and his bag of supplies among which a bottle of rum, an electric kettle, a bottle of water, and dried snacks were the most important, and walked up the steps. The fading paint on the walls were washed by the flare from the setting sun and he couldn’t imagine anything that would make it look better.
Opening the door, the lock of which had slid open effortlessly, used to being opened ever so often by the helper, he walked in, and then he froze on the doorsteps, feeling like an intruder.
The room was bare of souls, but there were signs of them everywhere. The sofa stood facing a centre-table on which an empty vase stood awaiting flowers, as though someone had just stepped out to pluck a few. To the left of it, stood a side table with an ashtray and a photograph frame. The ashtray empty, but not the frame. In it there was a black and white picture of a young couple with a toddler cradled in their arms, a pram jutting into the frame only enough to establish its identity and purpose. Behind them, the hills that he too remembered from his own childhood rolled away till they faded into oblivion. The sun outside was setting now, and its last flares were lighting up the carpet in the room that only covered the centre of the setting, the clock at the far wall that was stuck at two seventeen — if it last struggled to get past that hour and minute in the afternoon or after midnight he would never know. But this must have been the time when for the first time there would have been no one to put a battery in it, or given its inner working a push with a key hidden somewhere behind it. Would they have known that this was the last time they were doing it, or did they think there would be more batteries, more winding of the key as had been for countless times till that one time? Maybe the person would have feared, or suspected that this time was the last time. But it did bear the mark of this being another person’s house by the sheer negligence of them leaving behind things that needed them to look after. He walked in, and dropped his bag on the carpet, next to the side table. To his left, he saw a door that was slightly ajar, maybe left swinging by the help who had cleaned the place up. And through it, he saw a bed, made and ready, with a white bed-sheet marked with tiny yellow flowers all over, though from where he stood, only a part of it was visible. But there was a pillow, a side table with a lamp and a rack holding a towel on the partially visible wall on one side of it. He stood and took in a deep breath, and a strange, unfamiliar smell flooded his lungs. It was what you take in when you step into a house for the first time. Of people who have lived there forever, of people who have become one with the timber and the walls and the peeling paint and the smell of the last meal long cooked and eaten and forgotten. It was the smell of death and of birth, of ceremonies happy and of sadness, of incense sticks and experiments with rituals. Of wet socks hung up to dry and of tea and milk spilled. Smells of winters and of summers, the dampness of the rains and the earthy smells of the spring flowers and the nests that some brave birds would build on the awning of the windows. He had often played a game where he would sit in a completely new place and peel off the layers of the smells and try and identify each, and leave the bare singular whiff of the present. But that was just a game, he never cared if he got it right or not, but now that he was in a house he was desperate to call his own, he was afraid that he would find out things and tales and events and stories and he would never be able to make his own and replace them with his. It no longer mattered if the layers were right or wrong. It no longer mattered if he stuffed the place with his own. He had walked into a house that still held the photographs and bed sheets and closed almirahs and towels and sofas with the depression in the fabric where people had sat and looked out of the window and spoken of days beyond the one he was standing in now. And suddenly he felt tired. Too tired to even lift the photograph frame and put it out of his sight. Too tired to sit down on the sofa and mark the spots as his own. Too tired to lie down, too tired to adjust the pillow to his own liking. The only thing he had strength left for, was to pick up the bag, walk back to his car, and drive away to a hotel. From where he would text his friend to put up the house on sale. The next day he would drive back home, to smells and things and sights and memories that were his own. And add enough to those in the years left him so that anyone who walked in after he was gone would have to live with him, or leave him alone.