Ritankar entered, his tattered lopsided backpack hung on one shoulder, and found Kaushik and Ashish already there, sitting at the table right next to the parapet - the best table in Café Harbour View. Two beer bottles, emptied, and three mugs, two of them with foam at the edges, stood on it. The Sun wouldn’t be up for another eight hours.
“Should we order more beer?” Ashish asked Ritankar and signaled to the waiter without waiting for an answer. Ritankar hung his backpack on his chair’s backrest and lit a cigarette.
“I am feeling hungry,” he said, “order some starters too.”
Like most Saturday evenings, the place was full. They were not playing music today.
“How did you manage this table?” Ritankar asked.
“We arrived early” Ashish said. Kaushik chuckled.
“Around 4, I think.” Ashish glanced at Kaushik to check if he’d approximated correctly. Kaushik shrugged. “Yeah, thereabouts, I think.”
“Since 4! And in all this time, only two bottles?”
“No, this is the third pair actually. That reminds me, I’ve to take a leak.” Ashish got up, stabilized himself vertically for a few moments, during which he pretended to check his pockets, and then made his way, quickly, to the restroom.
Kaushik watched him thoughtfully. “We’re a little drunk.” He announced, before adding, “Suresh will join us later.”
The beers arrived.
“Should we wait for Ashish to return?” Ritankar said.
“No need. We’ve raised half a dozen toasts already.”
The starters, French fries and Fish fingers, arrived ten minutes later, Ashish, a few minutes after that.
“Long time.” Kaushik said.
Ashish picked a French Fry, thought about it and then put it back. He rubbed both hands on his jeans a few times and then picked it up again.
“One thing leads to another…” He said.
A group, two couples, sitting on the next table, opposite Ashish and behind Ritankar and Kaushik, called for their bill. Immediately, another set, two couples again, surrounded the table, breathing down the departing party’s necks. They had been standing at the entrance to the café for nearly an hour. Kaushik and Ashish had noticed them mainly because of the dark skinny girl with long curly hair.
“She’s attractive, isn’t she?” Ashish had said, “In an unusual sort of way.”
“In a Arundhati Roy sort of way.” Kaushik had commented. They had pondered over this between sips of beer.
“Yes, I can see why you say that. Puts me off a little bit, though. With all that nonsense she spews these days…”
“Yeah, but if this girl were to ask, I wouldn’t turn her down.”
“Fat chance! Well, neither would I.”
Kaushik turned and looked over his shoulder to check how the members of the group had placed themselves. “Your Ms. Roy’s sitting with her back to us.” He said to Ashish, “Not very keen on either of us, evidently.”
Ritankar’s cell phone started to ring. He prepared to say Hello even as he pressed the requisite button to accept the call, allowing the word time to burst through the accentuated stammer that ‘H’ and ‘R’ bring. The call was from home. He spoke in monosyllables till his parents realized it was not a good time and ended the conversation. He sighed and lit another cigarette. Kaushik gestured to him to pass the pack and lit one too.
“The other day,” Kaushik began, “I had some work and had to wait in office for a little longer than usual. Was past eight by the time I could leave and when I reached the train station, none of the usual suspects were there, obviously. Different bunch of people altogether, usual suspects of the 8:30 train probably” Kaushik drew in from the cigarette and exhaled it in the direction of the ocean. “Anyway,” he continued, “when the train arrived, we waited for everyone to get down since it was the last stop and train would return back from there. When I got in - I think I was the first to – I saw these two men, old-ish, still sitting patiently. One of them had a maroon briefcase on his lap and I started to wonder, you know. These things make me a little fidgety these days. And then a third man, older than the other two, dressed completely in white, grand white sideburns, he came in and joined them.”
Kaushik paused again for another puff in-blow out routine, stealing a couple of sips from his mug.
“Does this story have an end?” Ashish asked, continuing to look past Kaushik at the curly haired girl’s back. Kaushik ignored the dig.
“Now this new old man, must be nearly sixty five-seventy, took out two packs of cards from his pockets. And the three began to play rummy. They played for ten odd minutes – the train waits at the station for that long – and just as the train started to move slowly, the original two quickly gathered up their stuff and leapt off it. I don’t think they could finish the last hand. The old man patiently gathered the cards and put it back in his pocket. He then brought out a writing pad from his bag – he was carrying one – and started to jot down some stuff on it. I leaned closer to see. One entire side was covered with Rummy scores. He was scribbling, at the bottom of the other side, what I presume were that day’s scores.”
Kaushik dropped the cigarette, now a stub, onto the floor and crushed it with his left boot. He then looked away towards the ocean to indicate that the story was done and that he would not let explanations and interpretations come in the way of subtlety.
“They must’ve been doing this for years! Ten minutes each day.” Ritankar said.
“Would make a nice little short film.” Ashish said.
“Yeah, it would. You know, it reminded me of this lovely film I saw some time back – Babi Leto. Czech, I think. Or maybe Hungarian, I am not sure. I think it’s the best film about old age, I’ve seen.” Kaushik said.
“Better than Wild Strawberries?” Ritankar said; there was a slight edge, remnant of a forcibly repressed incredulity, in his voice.
“Dude, that is a Bergman film.”
“Are you guys feeling hungry?” Ritankar asked.
“I am OK; won’t mind another round of starters though.” Kaushik said.
More starters were ordered. They stared at the darkness of the ocean for a while
“There is one other film I thought was really wonderful in this portrayal of old age thing,” began Kaushik again, “I can’t recall the name. From the seventies, I think. It was by some female director…she made this other movie about a lesbian relationship – it had the woman from Short film about love in it…”
“Yes, yes! I know what you are talking about…Karoly Makk, the director’s name. And he is not female.” Said Ritankar.
“What did you think Kaushik?” Ashish grinned, “You were hoping to trump Ritankar?”
Kaushik laughed, “Oh no, never!” He turned to Ritankar, “You remember the name of the film I was talking about? The one with the old woman?”
“I think it is Szerelem.”
“Ah yes, that is the one.”
It was now past midnight and the crowd had thinned somewhat. The waiter appeared with the next set of starters. “Sir, last order.” He informed. They looked at each other, shrugged, shook their heads and decided they were done for the day.
They stood up and walked around the terrace while the waiter cleared their table. It was that time of the night when they realized, all at once, that half the weekend was gone and by the time they would wake up next day, half of the rest would be gone too. Then they would simply dawdle around for a few hours till it was time for Ashish and Ritankar to return to their respective apartments. And that would be that. The weekend was actually ending there, right then.
“Oh, we forgot to tell you,” Ashish said to Ritankar after the waiter finished and they returned to the table, “Kaushik and I will now be working alternate Saturdays. New company policy.”
“What the fuck?”
“Damn man! The day I quit that place, I hope it is raining so I can take my shirt off and do the Shawshank thing.” chuckled Ashish.
"Hey, I just remembered, Suresh never turned up, did he!" said Ritankar.
Kaushik nodded and picked up a cigarette, “Lets have one more smoke and then we can leave.”