The candles flickered as the whole house wore a festive look. Rose made sure that every one of them was lit as it was considered bad luck to let a candle go out. She bustled around, taking care to see that all the ornaments on the Christmas tree were secure, along with the brightly coloured gifts wrapped with the shiniest paper she could find. After all, didn’t the children love gifts... even if her son Deepak was grown up now! The guests would be arriving shortly. “Ramu, have you kept the snacks out?” “Yes, madam, and I have wiped all the glasses as well!” came the smiling reply. Ramu knew how annoyed she could get at the sight of a cloudy glass.
Joseph came in jauntily, as smart as ever in his pin stripes. “Everything in order, dear?” he asked, as his eyes softened at the graceful figure of his wife. She looked lovely as always, except for the finger that twisted the pallu of her sari, betraying her nervousness.
“There is no need to be tense. They are all old friends, after all!” he smiled.
And so they were! Every Christmas the same set of friends were invited, people they had grown closer to over the years. The bond had strengthened and the warmth within their hearts shone brighter than the light emanating from the candles around.
“Deepak will be late as usual!” Rose remarked. “He had rung up to say that he would be going out with his friends!” Joseph’s expression altered inexplicably, but he tactfully refrained from making a comment. He did not want to upset Rose by referring to their son. “I have made his favourite plum cake”, she went on. “Even after a hectic evening out with his friends, he will come home and eat it. He always does!”
The sound of the first guests arriving caught their attention. Rose pushed back a strand of hair from her brow as Joseph strode to the door.
“Merry Christmas! Welcome!” his voice boomed out as he held his hand out to Ashish Saxena. “Sudha, you are looking wonderful!” and so she was in a sea green sari, a smile on her pretty face. She stepped forward and hugged Rose warmly, holding out a gift wrapped box. “Sudha, you shouldn’t have!” Rose exclaimed. “Just a batch of my home made chocolates...!” smiled Sudha.
By then the next couple had walked in and the evening soon grew livelier, as they sat on the perfectly manicured lawn, savouring Rose’s crunchy snacks and admiring the sight of the beautiful Christmas tree that eclipsed everything else, casting a warm glow on the relaxed faces. Rose too had slipped into the ease that comes over a hostess who senses that her party is going well.
The conversation revolved around light frothy topics. “Have you seen Mr. Dutt’s new secretary? “ remarked Tarun Sharma, who had an eye for detail. “Quite a knock out!” The other men nodded sheepishly, casting surreptitious glances at their wives. “Go ahead, we don’t mind you admiring other women”, smiled Sonika. “As long as it ends there!” chipped in Rose. “Gosh, we wouldn’t dare...” Tarun made a mock grimace at his wife.
The candles flickered, casting long shadows on the walls of the verandah. Ramu had just given the signal that dinner had been laid out. Rose had already been inside to check out whether everything was in its place, and of course it was! Ramu was a rare treasure indeed!
Rose turned to Joseph. “When do you think Deepak will be home? I hope he does not make it too late!” There was a moment of silence as they all looked at Joseph. “He’ll come when he does!” he said shortly, and then he bellowed, “Another refill, gentlemen?”
As they made their way to the bar, Rose glanced anxiously at the ladies. She had no secrets from them as they were such long standing friends. “Joseph gets so irritable when I mention Deepak... maybe because Deepak is at that age when he is openly defiant of his father. Joseph cannot stand anyone opposing him. Maybe we should have had another child...” Her voice trailed off as she saw the gentlemen returning. Sudha smiled at her comfortingly as Sonika remarked, ‘Try not to worry too much. Fathers are prone to be heavy handed!”
“Shh... let’s change the topic!” whispered Rose as she looked around and saw Joseph behind her. “That sari of yours is really exquisite, Sonika”, she said loudly. “A Christmas gift from my husband!” The conversation wafted into a lighter mode.
Dinner was a great success. Rose had outdone herself as the guests were left all but licking their fingers. They had discarded the cutlery for the sheer pleasure of biting into succulent chunks of chicken and golden brown fillets of fish. The dessert melted in the mouth, as they lolled in the cool lawn, satiated and indolent. The candles burned with intensity, as they do when they are about to go out.
“It is almost midnight... why isn’t Deepak here as yet?” The query escaped her even before she realized it. “He’ll be here soon enough”, assured Sudha as she stole a glance at her husband. “But he is never so late. The plum cake is almost over!”
“Rose, how about some coffee liqueur for our guests?” suggested Joseph. The suggestion was turned down as they all protested that they had eaten so much that there was no place for anything more. One by one, the goodbyes were made, hugs exchanged, and they drove away into the darkness. As the last taillight trailed away, the lawn suddenly looked bereft. Rose stood, lines of worry creasing her delicate forehead, as she looked towards the gate, willing it to click open.
“Deepak...?” There was a question in her eyes as she looked at Joseph. The remnants of the plum cake were on the table still. She placed a cover over them, and then turned to Joseph who led her upstairs. There he tucked her into bed and waited while her eyes closed of their own volition.
It was only after she had slept that he went to the window and glanced out at the dark lawn, an expression of deep sorrow on his face. He had had to put up a facade the whole evening for the sake of his wife. For he knew that Deepak wasn’t coming that night, or any other night! It was on one such Christmas night that Deepak had gone out with his friends, and on his way back home, he had met with a fatal accident. His mother was waiting at home with his favourite plum cake.
Their whole world had come crashing down. Rose had had a nervous breakdown, and when she emerged from it, she had no recollection of the tragedy. The doctors had warned Joseph not to remind her of it, as she was mentally not strong enough yet to take it in. So perforce every Christmas night, the whole farce was played out with the help of his close friends, all of whom were in the conspiracy. For they all loved Rose and did not want to see her suffer.
It was time to go to bed and try to sleep. Joseph pulled the curtains across as he glanced at the lawn one last time. The candles had finally gone out.