Soon as you exit the YMCA through the huge plate-glass doors, you’re on Stanley, the heart of downtown Montreal. There used to be a shady nightclub called Blue Moon or something. It doesn’t exist there anymore. Eateries and nightclubs have very short life-spans in the west. Folk get sick of things real fast and joints go belly up just as fast, over here. Quite unlike in my native India. Flury’s has been a fixture on Park Strreet in Kolkata for the past sixty years.
The YMCA gym is massive, spread over two floors. You would have to spend a whole morning, maybe 4/5 hours, if you wanted to use all the machines in there and if you were planning a swim after or maybe fifteen minutes in the sauna, it would be even longer. Heck, you don’t mind lingering there. The place is filled with beautiful people. There’s a 65-year old blonde you met the other day on the treadmill, looks not a day more than 40.
It’s 9pm now. You finished up at work and took the metro over for a workout. Work on the geared turbofan is at a fever pitch and everybody is staying up late. Usually, gym is rejuvenating after a hard day. You are a creature of routine. You get home, make yourself a sandwich and carry it down to the den with a glass of port. You read a while and you write a while. Later, sleep comes easy.
But today, you are tired and you look it. You have never made any effort to look younger and so you look your age, maybe even a few years more than what you really are – 46. You don’t party. Even after so many years, there is no one you know really close over here. You did, at one time though. Two, to be exact – a woman and a girl.
A 2002 tube-ride out on the slopes by the Beaver Lake was the last you saw them alive……
That weekend had been unusually mild for February, causing the ice over the frozen lake to soften. The park authorities had put up wooden barriers to show how far a tube rider could go before it became unsafe. They also had volunteers with walkie-talkies stationed out there, but what they hadn’t counted on was the reduced friction.
You had given the tube a harder than usual shove and down they went, mother and daughter, laughing and shrieking. Almost immediately, you had begun carefully stepping down the pathway on the side used by tubers to climb back up for another run. But for those two, it was their fifteenth and last ride. You were going to that all-you-can-eat buffet in Angrinon. You were ravenous.
Thawing snow makes for a very slippery surface and the tube had just kept on going. It had careened down, hitting and caroming between the ice walls of the slide, steadily gaining speed even as it leveled out at the bottom. As it crashed through the barriers, you, the others, the rangers, the volunteers, the geese, the pines….. the world, stood frozen in place and watched uncomprehending. The tube, with the two souls that were all that you had and all that you loved in the world, slid over the ice and finally came to a stop far out in the middle of the vast frozen lake.
That was when Sarah did what anyone without experience would do. She attempted to get off unaware that she was about to step onto a broken, floating plate of ice. The moment she set her foot on the ice, it heaved up and she was gone, followed a second later by little Naina and the tube. In a moment, the ice sheet had righted itself and it was as if nothing had happened over there. Even the tube, filled with air, had vanished under the ice.
You had attempted to step on to the ice which had by now cracked at several places and was bobbing around, but a ranger had hurriedly pulled you back,” Don’t, please. You can’t save them, they’re under the ice, they’re gone….”
Right across from the YMCA is the entrance to the Peel Metro Station. You sling your backpack on and cautiously move down the stairs, taking care not to slip. All that melted snow brought in by thousands of pairs of boots, makes the first flight slippery. One cardinal rule in any metro or bus stop in winter is always leave your hands free and be close to the hand rail so you can lunge for it in case you slip or you’re accidentally pushed. Everyone is in a rush on the stairways.
Sometimes, it is not accidental. They’ll come at you in a group, of say five or six and push you and then as you tumble down and sprawl onto the landing below, they’ll be very solicitous, apologize profusely and help you up. If you’re lucky you won’t have any broken bones or concussion. When you reach the turnstiles, your wallet won’t be there. So, cardinal rule:3 -You make sure all your senses are on full alert when you go through the swing doors of any Metro. Always check who is directly behind, when going down the stairs.
It is Saturday and except for a few drunk college kids heading home after a night out, the platform is almost empty. The Peel metro is at a bend in the tracks – you hear the train long before you actually see it. Then, it takes a practiced ear to figure out which direction the train is coming from, the sound sort of reverberating all over. There’s another thing, a hybrid version of Murphy’s Law – the train that is coming in is always the one going the other way.
And so it is today too. You pace up and down and watch as a train comes hurtling in on the Honoré Beaugrand direction. You stare at the blue carriages as they barrel into the opposite platform and ease to a halt. It always amazes you how quickly it manages to decelerate and stop completely.
It appears that those drunk college kids you saw coming in had been waiting in the wrong direction. The moment the train appears round the bend, one of them shrieks, “F—k, man, we got ta go the other way. Come on, move it!” They sprint up two flights of stairs to another level and disappear from view momentarily. After a while you see them again, racing across the bridge to get to the other side. They disappear for a few seconds once more and then they are back in your field of vision, hurtling down the stairs to the opposite platform, taking four steps at a time.
But the train has begun rolling and there is no way they can make it. The train accelerates with a muted whine that increases in frequency, as it reaches near full speed even before the last car has cleared the platform. The noise of it’s passing reverberates through the tunnel for a minute before everything falls silent once more.
On the opposite platform, an old woman had gotten off one of the first few cars. She is laboring along, leaning against a walking stick. She has a long trudge ahead. The ‘sortie’ is at the other end. She is midway through her crossing, when the drunk teens come skipping, prancing, running helter skelter toward the other end, oblivious of anything in their path, sometimes even turning completely around and running backward.
The kid who is a bit ahead of the rest and running backward, slams into the old woman and sends the walking stick flying across the platform and onto the tracks. The woman, astonished, unable to form any words, manages to totter up to a bench and sit down. Then, unable to sit erect, she slowly crumples and lies down flat on the bench. By the now the kids have run on to the far end where one of them lights something up, maybe a cigarette or a joint and they pass it around, taking deep drags and bending over with laughter, unmindful of the woman who is trying to hold on to the sides of the bench, struggling to find her feet. Besides them, there isn’t a soul on that platform.
You have nothing better to do anyway, so you break into a run, climb the stairs three at a time, run over to the other side and race down the stairs and keep running till you come upon the woman, who has by then managed to sit up. She is Asian, you note, possibly Indian or Pakistani and she looks vaguely familiar. It is difficult to make her out since she has a woolen cap jammed down right up to her nose almost. Must be a recent immigrant, you say to yourself.
“Are you okay? Here, let me help you up…there. You’ll be fine. Do you need anything? Would you like me to get you some water?”
She takes out a hand towel from inside her handbag and wipes her face and eyes, while removing her cap at the same time. “I can’t seem to find my stick,” she is still heaving from the exertion and her voice falters.
“It went over the edge. I’ll wait till you catch your breath and then I’ll walk you to a cab,” you tell her.
“I don’t think I have enough for cab fare. I’ll be fine, you can leave now. I’ll get the 213. That bus is very frequent.”
“No, I insist. Where do you have to go? I’ll drop you. I haven’t sat in a cab for a while and I would love a ride myself.” I smile at her.
“You’re so kind,” she says. You help the old woman into a cab and set off on Sherbrooke West toward Westmount where she lives. You don’t live very far, so it isn’t a bother at all.
You get introduced. She is Neelima Dastidar, 82, retired McGill professor, volunteers at a food bank on Guy, lives alone with her journalist daughter, who freelances for the NYT. She is just back from her last assignment abroad, a one month stint, embedded with Nato forces in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, covering Nato’s muscle-flexing exercises there.
“She is going to finish writing this one up and settle down to her memoir”, says Mrs. Dastidar. You can feel that she is thrilled to see her daughter finally say bye-bye to an extremely hazardous profession and come to live with her full time.
“Will Rohini be home? And whatever happened to Jean-Jacques Petit?”
“Of course Rohini will be home. And Jean-Jacques?” she laughs,” Why, I have no idea. It’s been such a long while.”
And then she turns and looks at you in astonishment. “But…how…?”
You just smile back. Looks like it is going to be a long night.