An affair of numbers // short story

The room is dark and slightly musty, the pipes in the toilet are leaking, the bed sheet stained at the corners and shriveled to a state beyond saving, the view of the beach is obscured by some villainous vines, the balustrade threatens to let its user fall into the mouth of thorns below, the wallpaper strays from the wall and droops as it pleases, the floorboard creaks at lightest touch, the door-lock deals dubiously with thieves, the curtains unroll clouds of dust, and all about the room shifts and shivers an eerie air.

“Could it be Casper?” You ask.

“I don’t think so. He’s imaginary.”

Perhaps it really is a spirit of some sort, eager for escape or, worse still, for our attention. The latter seems more right. It is often the recreation of spirits to disturb and frighten us unknowing humans. I have never considered that thought. Well, it’s ludicrous at the least. I shouldn’t bother.

“But last night, I heard taps on the table. Are you sure those things are imaginary?”

“Yes, my dear. I’m quite certain.”

And that sets you all at ease. I watch as you slump back against the cushioned headboard of the bed and return to alongside the wild characters of your book. Don Quixote. You tell me all the time how funny you find him; his outrageous chivalry. And in your recitals of the lines, you would always feign a deep voice and try as hard as you can to suppress a hysterical laughter. But no more than five sentences in and that laughter would creep out from the sides of your mouth and there pry open a great yawning cavity. I smile. Who could resist smiling?

Outside, a little nightingale perches itself on the balustrade. Its neck is cuffed in blue rings. I count four. Before I can point it out to you, you exclaim: “Look there! Isn’t that the bird we saw yesterday by the beach house? Oh, what an adorable thing!”

You said the same of it last night. The beach house had been a much needed respite from the room. It rests about a mile from the resort. And we would never have discovered it had not we tailed a chubby porcupine to its owner, spoke to him about how he manages such a pet, and then have him recommend a place to recuperate from the chase.

“It looks amazing! I think we should live here.” You exclaimed gleefully upon seeing the place.

It was a house on its own: single-storied and small, but not stiflingly small, and complete with a tropical thatched roof and strings of Balinese lights entwining every naked pole and railing. The sun had already begun its descent into the far end of the sea by the time we got there and the restaurant was crowded with people. We feared that we wouldn’t be able to find a table. But a man standing at the entrance waved to us. He raised his fingers, smiled amiably, and beckoned for us to enter.

The menu unfortunately was in a foreign language. At first we tried to decipher the headings. There were six sections. The first section must be the appetizers, you said, and the last the drinks – or could it be the desserts? In the end, having succumbed to the puzzle, we ordered our food by pointing to those on the other tables. You loved the grilled Barramundi; told me that maybe it was their salsa sauce that gave it its flavor. “We should’ve ordered more,” you lamented. “One is quite enough,” I laughed. You have always had a habit of ordering more than either of us could finish. And I would always have to rope you in.

“The fairy lights!” You spring full of startling urgency from the bed. “I think we should get them!”

Of course, the fairy lights. It was the name you gave that standing light whose slim steel column branched outwards like a tree and bore at the end of every branch a glistening star. The whole time, you stood there admiring it, contemplating whether to buy it or not. Occasionally, you lifted your finger to your lip then frowned slightly and turned to me: “how about we get two?” I left it up to you and stood purposely still as you deliberated in your usual dainty, shifty demeanor. Could I not help myself from chuckling?

Eventually, we left without any fairy lights. We figured that they were too pricey. It was to be a cheap holiday- the cheapest we could plan. We left and you pouted. And again, I laughed. You are always so endearing.

“Never mind, it’ll be such a hassle bringing them home,” you speak heartily, staunchly, resolutely, as if to yourself. “Yep, zero chance!”

I acquiesce silently, delightedly.

You draw the curtains and slide open the door to the balcony. The room is lit and the muskiness is flushed out. The leaking pipe in the toilet has ceased its childish dripping of droplets. The bed sheet is still crumpled but at least it is soft and comfortable. We climb onto the mattress in a fit of playfulness and watch the waves march towards the shore in uniform lines. The balustrade threatens only a feathery thing that flies. The torn wallpaper makes for good art. The floorboard cannot permit a creak since no one is standing on it. The door is open and its lock can perform no mischief. The curtains – well, we’ve already dealt with the curtains. And the air: has there ever been merrier one?

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