Murder in Seven Acts

By Kalpana Swaminathan

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‘The trouble with NRIs is that they expect time to stand still in India, and then they think it unreasonable when it won’t. Parents age. Unwanted aunts and forgettable uncles are discovered in dire straits. Cousins unheard of since childhood prowl the property, terrifying the grandparents. Then there are smaller, more life-threatening crises: forms to be submitted to prove one is alive, pension arrears to be claimed. Light bulbs to be changed. Ceiling fans to be cleaned. A pickle jar to be opened. Small things which demand a dexterous agility that cannot be managed across cyberspace. Somebody’s got to take charge, and that can’t always be done across 5,000 miles. Which is why Florentine has such a good job going.

Florentine doesn’t call it a job. He’s a wiry man of fifty, seldom seen detached from his bicycle, cruising the lanes between eight and lunch time, and then again after dark. If you need him, you just have to call, and he’s there in ten minutes to organize your life. Sometimes he notices things that worry him, and leaves them at our door. Lalli and he go back a long way, which is one reason why she finds it difficult to say no to Florentine. The other, more obvious, reason is that she collects curiosities.

Florentine regards me as an intruder. He greets me every time with, ‘Accha, you’re still here?’ But last month, the purpose of his visit was—me.

‘I saw your photo yesterday,’ he announced. ‘I came here to tell you that only. I saw your photo yesterday.’ He dusted a chair with a filthy kerchief and sat down gingerly. ‘And I am asking what is our Lalli’s niece doing in Auntie May’s house?’

‘But I don’t know any Auntie May,’ I protested. ‘It must be someone else in the photograph.’

‘No. It’s your photo. So, Lalli, you must tell me what to do with Auntie May.’

‘Who is Auntie May?’ I persisted.

‘Weak in the head, poor thing. Her niece is big noise in New York. She calls me last night. Nancy. Nancy Sequeira—’

‘Oh Nancy! We were friends at school. But Nancy was from Bandra, Florentine, that’s not on your beat.’

‘Nothing like that, I go where I’m called. Nancy may be from anywhere, but Auntie May is just beyond the railway line. Broken-down cottage you must have seen, big Christmas tree at the gate, bent like an old man. Lives alone. Old lady. Takes in sewing. Used to make wedding dresses one time, now it’s all readymade.’

‘What did Nancy tell you?’ Lalli asked.

‘Seems Auntie May phoned her seven times last week complaining she’s been followed. Nancy got my number from Krishnamurti’s son. You remember Krishnamurti? Fellow who was always misplacing his keys? I looked after him after his brain operation, his son is so grateful, he gives my number to everybody. So he gave it to Nancy. Can you please drop by and do the needful. Request is always the same. So today I drop by, but I’m not sure what exactly is needful. You see, Auntie May is not being followed.’

‘No other relatives around, Florentine?’ Lalli asked.

‘All flown like birds. Come in Florentine, Auntie May says, as if she’s known me all her life. Very formal lady, very polite. She makes me sit down, offers me tea. I bring up Nancy. “Yes, that’s what I told her,” she says, “but it’s not exactly true. I’m not being followed. But everywhere I go, I see this face.”

‘I didn’t say anything to that immediately, but she said, “I know it sounds mad, putting it like that. But that’s what it is. A face. The same face. Always the same face.”

‘In such cases, best keep them talking. After some time they run out of petrol, you give them some small bit of news, some gossip, they get distracted, like that. Then next day it starts all over again.’
Florentine took a sip of water and nodded thoughtfully.’

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