by Piyali Roy Bhowmick
In the idyllic French quarters of Pondicherry, where time ticks away at a sluggish pace, Henry Duval, the 60-year-old expatriate, was pacing up and down his grand living room today. He came to this sleepy town after losing his wife to cancer over a decade ago. Since then he was living with his furry feline friend, Catherine, in an old colonial villa painted bright yellow and white from outside.
Everyone in the neighborhood was fond of his quiet peaceful nature. An expert pâtissier without any formal training, he was known for his exceptional baking skills. From petite madeleine to macaron, he could whip up any classic French dessert to perfection. Women would flock to his house for his flaky mille-feuille and melt-in-your-mouth crepe recipes.
Children would look forward to the leisurely story-telling sessions at his beautiful garden during school holidays. Sitting amid the blooming hibiscuses, Arabian jasmines, and pink and white roses, Uncle Henry would tell them stories of beasts, castles, and fairies from faraway lands. These events would usually end with sumptuous feasts of delectable treats made by him.
His obsession with French pastry making began about a year ago when he fell for a beautiful retired ballerina, several years his junior. The lady had come to participate in an art and culture exchange programme in Auroville, an experimental township Henry used to visit often to meet his expatriate friends. Meeting the lissom nimble-footed danseuse changed the lonely widower’s life.
He charmed the Parisian with his eloquence and penchant for everything French- right from mouth-watering cuisine and great literature to thoughtful art or rich culture. Things went on smooth and sweet for some time. And the man started to believe that he finally had stumbled upon someone to fill the void his wife’s demise had left in his life all those years ago.
Barring the obvious age difference, the couple wasn’t exactly a complete mismatch though. Duval was well-acquainted with various topics given the years he had spent reading books and accumulating knowledge. He was a great admirer of art and music too and as a former foreign affairs executive, was well-traveled as well. His lean physique combined with a thick mop of salt-and-pepper hair had rendered him a worldly-wise look which woman of all ages found themselves drawn to.
Tongues started wagging when the lady didn’t join her dance troupe back on their return voyage to Paris and moved in with Henry for good. They became inseparable like newlyweds. They could be seen laughing together while tending the white bougainvillea hedges in his garden. They would walk hand-in-hand and check out the new inventories displayed at the boutiques on Rue Suffren. Sometimes they would be seen gaily chatting up by the seaside, watching the azure blue sky bathed in gold during sundown, listening to the rhythm of waves crashing against the shore. People were relieved to see the lonely soft-spoken man had finally found love again.
However, this sweet May-December romance lasted until the alabaster skin beauty’s fickle heart started swaying to the rhythm of a new love interest- a young artist and disciple of Mirra Alfassa from Australia who had joined the Auroville community as a new member.
The relationship with the dance teacher soured in no time. Ugly fights ensued. And one day, the rumors of her storming out of the yellow and white mansion after a terrible fight between the couple the night before spread in the neighborhood.
Henry was heartbroken and solitary again. For weeks, he would sit on the porch with his cat, lamenting for his lost love in between his drunken stupors till midnight. But, he was a strong man. After nursing the shattered pieces of his wounded heart for some time, he was back to his calm and composed self again.
This all happened months ago and much water has flown under the bridge ever since the lady’s quiet departure.
Fast forward to today, the man was restless which was quite unlikely of him given the mild gentle nature he was known for. He was constantly trudging from one side of the room to another. He had been calling up the utility guys since morning. There was a power outage in his area and he was worried about the mint-chocolate frosting on the cupcakes he baked yesterday. He was afraid the icing may turn weepy due to the scorching summer heat.
After enquiring about the electricity for the nth time, he gave up and quietly settled down on his rocking chair with his cat Catherine on his lap. Sweat beads dotted his pink forehead. Gaze fixed in the distance at some invisible object. His breathing was irregular. The chair rocked back and forth, creaking under his weight.
“Don’t worry Cathy darling, we’ll be alright,” he murmured while petting the cat’s soft furry coat.
The feline purred, moved her whiskers and clambered down from his lap to the pristin