The bus jerked to a halt at the bus stand. It was not daybreak, but the night was slowly gathering up its liquid darkness. Raman stepped down in a daze…waking up from a shaky sleep with blurred dreams of wheels, silhouetted trees and sudden flashes of white light.
He still had a few hours before him…the client was to see him at 10. He started towards the lights of the town…hoping to find someplace to put up for the day. A cheap lodge maybe.
The streets around the bus stand were deserted. A bunch of mongrels slept on the sidewalk…eyes closed in an uneasy sleep….waiting for daybreak..to another day of sniffing, running, barking and fucking. He smiled at the thought. Peaceful creatures.
The bus stand was in the ‘old town’, a rundown and neglected part…a home for derelicts.
"I doubt I would find anything close to a lodge here…"
He stared at the lights in the distance…chaotic looking, but a comforting sight to anyone new in a town. He looked around, hoping to find an auto or even a cycle rickshaw…but there was nobody at that ungodly hour.
Buttoning up his jacket, he started walking down the road that seemed to lead in the general direction of the lights.
Soon, he was through the old town and was surrounded by fields, the fog over them glowing eerily in a light coming from nowhere. The road narrowed suddenly…a bridge. He stared down into the dark abyss. Tiny shape-shifting discs of light floated over the water…reflections from the lights on the other side. He tightened his jacket around him, shivering involuntarily…there was a sudden chill in the air around him.
"Its just all the water around…"
The bridge was short, but the chill seemed to get stronger. He found it difficult to breath…each breath a ghoulish mist. He broke into a trot, hoping that the exercise would warm him up. But the chill grew stronger…mocking him…laughing at his futile attempts. His head started to drift…the lights seemed too far away.
Closer, to his left, a small fire burned.
Covering his ears with his palms, he broke into a run. The chill seemed to follow him. A sharp pain jabbed at his knees…he feared they would crack at any step. The fire was just ahead now. He stopped. A jolly-looking old man sat on a low stool, humming a merry jingle. A kettle warmed on the fire. The steam billowing from its neck promised of gratifying hot tea.
Raman stepped closer. The old man looked up and smiled. He reminded Raman of santa claus. Round belly, bright eyes, pink spots under the eyes. Only his clothes betrayed the image.
"Rather a cold morning today eh?"
"Its freezing! And is it just me or has the temperature really dropped by a few degrees in two minutes?"
"Oh, it happens here all the time. The river loves to play tricks!"
Raman was thankful, the old man was quite friendly. He stared longingly at the kettle.
"Nothing as good as steaming tea on a cold morning!" the old man smiled again, and poured two cupfuls of the boiling black nectar.
Raman grabbed the cup, holding it between his palms, melting in the warmth. Sipping slowly, he relaxed. An incredible warmth seemed to fill him from the inside.
The old man rose heavily.
"I will be right back. Make yourself comfortable."
Raman downed another two cups. A mattress with a blanket lay by the fire. Unable to resist the warm temptation, he slipped beneath the blanket. He slept the most peaceful sleep of his life.
Bright sunlight woke him up. He looked around, gathering his things in a hurry. Wanting to thank him, he looked for the old man. He seemed to have disappeared. So had the shack he had gone into. There was no blanket, nor was there any mattress. There were no signs of the fire.
Puzzled, Raman checked his watch. 8:30. Not wanting to waste any more time, he quickly moved into town. Finding a lodge close by, he managed to ready himself for the meeting, unable to forget the events of the night.
He locked the room door and was getting out of the lodge, when he overheard the manager talking to someone in a red cap.
"Are you sure it was that?" the manager looked incredulous.
"Yes! It was the old man’s fire, by the bridge. I am sure of it!" the red cap said.
"Poor man, whoever it was in the old man’s tea party. If the legend is true, he just has a week to live. No one would ever know the cause of his death."