The Steamer

Tapti Bose

Tapti Bose lives in Kolkata, India. She completed her Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and has practiced in the fields of Intellectual Property Rights and indirect taxation. She has taken to writing fiction very recently. Her short fiction has appeared in Women’s Web, Gulmohur Quarterly, Phenomenal Literature and Kitaab International. She loves reading the works of Franz Kafka and Shirley Jackson.

The road by which he drove meandered close to the coast, and the sea was a dull black, while the air smelled vaguely chemical. He could not guess how long he had been driving at the hour. His mind was blank since a gunshot had killed the woman he loved. Above him, the dark sky appeared endless. The mask on his face and the haze by the falling pellets of ice made it difficult to see clearly, until his eyes caught a flicker of light from afar that looked like a steamer. He turned the car towards a narrow, rough track and caught a glimpse of a motel close to the beach that looked afloat on the water. From a distance, he could see a signboard in bright electric light, ‘The Steamer’, and he thought about how reasonable it had been to conceive of the likeness himself. It was strange to him because he wondered where the people were coming from to this distant motel where the sea met the sky. Perhaps in the crowd were the last of the decommissioned soldiers of some warship marooned on the clammy waters nearby.

He drove closer as he heard music, dancing, and revelry, and then his car broke. The weather was ice cold. He had to walk a bit of distance through the wet mud and the slush and he felt the sticky black snow under his feet. A sharp smell of the carcasses in the sea caught his nostrils till he came to the heavy gates of The Steamer that automatically opened at the touch of his fingers.

He walked ahead. The death odor was still not gone as he pushed through the heavy metallic doorway of the motel. His eyes led to the reception lounge and a brightly lit hallway, and all of a sudden, he felt warm, almost in sweat. He realized the environment was perfectly controlled, so he removed his protection suit and mask. The man at the door gave him a slight bow, relieving him of his heavy apparel. The receptionist, a young lady at the desk, welcomed him with a smile. ‘Mr. Indra Basu!’ she said as if instantly recognizing him as he went through the booking register.

‘I would like to…’ he began hesitantly.

‘Yes, we have arrangements for your night stay in suite number seven on the second floor,’ said the receptionist. When she handed over the keys, she emphasized number seven as his favorite suite. And then he thought that whoever he was, he must have been stinking rich to be able to be welcomed to a place like this. He tried hard to remember what these places were called, but it only added to his confusion. He saw flashes of him and his wife in some such place, but the artificial oxygen and the regulated room temperature made him feel sick. There weren’t many people there at the reception lounge, except the staff dressed in identical suits with badges and aprons. It appeared like a quiet place to retreat to, or even die at, for people often spend their last moments in isolated places. It seemed ironic to him now that places that were built to survive should look like places to die.

‘And your pass, Sir. Today there is a special dance at the club on the rooftop open to all,’ she continued. But he could not remember ever having come to this place. He merely smiled and nodded. He took the keys to the room as another man dressed in a suit, a staff member of the motel, got up to show him to his room.

‘I will go to the club,’ he said hurriedly.

‘I’ll show you the way, Sir,’ the man said, beckoning him to the elevator. The man pressed the switch, opening the door wider as he stepped into the boxed space with mirrors on all sides. He glimpsed himself in the mirror, but it only added to a sense that his life bordered on confusion.

His wife was dead, he thought, but he had not killed her. He could not do that, not even hurt a fly; he could not, he was sure. But how long had she been dead? Not yesterday? And then a thought occurred, and he felt terrible—surely not a year ago? Had he, in his grief and madness, been out of his senses for a year or more? That was not possible, for he saw himself in the mirror, perfectly dressed in an expensive blazer on top of a buttoned-up shirt, paired with matching trousers and loafers, for an evening at the club.

‘Ok, thank you, sir. Have a nice day,’ the motel staff said almost mechanically, taking leave.

The word day hardly made sense, for the thick smog that had covered the sky since the catastrophe had made sunlight disappear for months. Temperatures had fallen to drastic levels. Without the sunlight, most of the flora and fauna in these parts had perished, while the animals were dying of starvation. It was only the pall of the dirty snow and the poisonous dust, even though to him it seemed death, that enigmatic abyss of darkness or silence, seemed a long way away; now was just the slow burn of ambivalence between the poisonous dust and smog.

As Indra entered the club from the rooftop, he heard the strains of old-time Bollywood film music. Amidst the murmur, the clinking of glasses and the dancing lights, he saw well-dressed people like him with deadpan faces. The crowd was full—men and women with half-filled glasses in their hands, couples engrossed in their rehearsed steps, while drinks and food were being served.

‘Ah, Indra, how long?’ asked a rather stout man, making an appearance all of a sudden. The man was much older than him, actually old enough to be his father, with a thick mustache and spectacles, wearing an expensive formal suit. He had a bulky body and a large face, which made his personality all the more imposing. ‘Staying over today?’ he asked. ‘Surely…’. He had not finished the sentence, but Indra nodded.

The man patted him on the back, and they were in the lounge at a corner table. As they sat, the man called a server, who seemed to know both of them, and ordered drinks for both.

‘Surely these are extraordinary times! First the swarm, the catastrophe, the starvation,’ and then he gave a flourish with his hands like the conductor of a classical concerto and said, ‘All’s well that ends well, the happy ending that you can have, the election. Finally, the government is in place, just like we are in the club, doing nothing actually. Must we say then that now is the Great Hibernation?’ and he winked at him like they were old pals who cracked jokes.

But the music was getting too loud, and their conversation drowned out, so he could not hear a thing except that the man said, ‘The war’s over, I say.’

He vacantly looked towards the crowd dancing, not able to find any meaning in the exercised moves. He saw a lady waving at him in the distance. She looked elegant in a blue gown wrapped around her waist like a lehenga, with her hair tied back. She was young and had a quiet prettiness about her rather than the stunning beauty he remembered of his wife, and now she was moving towards them.

‘How did you manage this far? I thought you would not make it, Indra,’ she exclaimed. Then under her breath, he heard her mutter about his companion warily, ‘Oh, this man’s all over the place.’ He understood then that this lady and the man also knew each another, but disliked each other intensely. The man’s smile was gone as he glanced at her. ‘Excuse me for a moment, Indra,’ the man said and immediately left. The lady took the man’s seat, and he garnered her name was Ira.

‘What was Stoker talking about?’ she asked, and he guessed she meant that man who had accompanied him previously.

‘Well, nothing, just about the war being over, and then he left, and you came,’ he said as though she was already familiar to him.

‘I know it would not make much sense now, but he has made a fortune in the war, and well, his money stinks. Of course, I need not lie. At the time of the war, I survived because of him, and even now, our contract has not ended. But it stinks, you know and I hate myself.’

She moved closer to him and then went on, ‘When you came back from the war, you could not remember anything, nor recognize anyone. If it had not been for her… I mean your wife, and for this, I should be grateful to her.’

So, it was that he had lost his mind after the war. Perhaps he had not fully gotten better after all, he thought resignedly.

Ira advanced her delicate hands towards him. ‘Let us move to Seven like old times. It’s quieter there,’ she almost whispered, and he felt he knew her. He didn’t know why he felt compelled to follow her. Her body, her fragrance—had he at one time…? No, he had never loved her; he knew that for sure. The heart can never lie, even if the memory is gone.

He left the club and followed Ira through what he thought were staff bunkers, with the oxygen generators, water purifiers, and stacks of wine and food. Men like shadows, with scalded hair, skin diseased, the kind who couldn’t, in their lifetime, afford one protective suit, even if they worked day and night all their lives. They kept this place going, and he saw their sad eyes, sensed their eyes on him, but it was strange that he had never noticed these people. To him, they all looked alike. And then even if men were cheap, he wondered where the power for running this place was coming from, how they had somehow managed that.

Seven seemed like an expensive executive suite at the motel. He noticed there was a large old-fashioned bed with silken sheets, a stack of books, a closet of expensive suits, and a mini wine cellar. From the windows, one could see the black sea rolling through the dark sky, and he closed the curtains. He thought he might have once been in such a place, injured and sick as Ira had said he was, and she had nursed his wounds and healed him, his wife. Was that it? Perhaps this was a place where a man and woman could begin anew after the war even though he was now alone.

Ira sat on the sofa at the bedside as he stood by the window. Without memory, language seemed extinct to him, even though Ira seemed never to be at a loss for speech. Perhaps it was some kind of nervousness about never forgetting anything that was about her.

‘Remember when we were young and the sun shone every day? We did not bother about that, of course. And in the spring, when we read together and had phones, we called each other and left messages. Now I can tell you that in a hundred years, we will wait just like that.’ He felt a terrible pain in his head that made him dizzy. He could never have loved her, that was not possible. But she went on. ‘And we read Romeo and Juliet. Then another day, we read Chandrasekhar and then Eurydice and Orpheus. We swam together that day into the sea, and you kept your word, but I came back. I was selfish, or just young and frightened, so I called the boats.’ Perhaps he had drowned himself to keep his word, he thought. Keeping his word had meant more to him then, maybe, for he was not a coward after all. ‘Did you ever hate me for that Indra?’ she asked suddenly. He had no answer for what she said made little sense in this world.

As she continued, her voice sounded slightly disturbed and less melancholic, ‘What is the use of living like this, Indra, surviving like an animal? Sometimes it gets so bad, and my lungs, the pain… to be able to bear it. I cannot wait any longer, not with the water thick with filth, the corpses, and the stench. It is the squalls of fire that were started by the bombing, and it may finally be many more months before the light comes. I’d prefer to die soon like the birds and the animals.’ He thought she wanted him to say something, like I cannot let you die. But it appeared too dramatic in this world—almost absurd and comical.

‘When the war began, I thought I must live,’ Ira was still saying. ‘What I did, only to live: sold everything, even my soul. What do women do to live during a war? But to think that now that it is over, I do not feel like waking up with this darkness and the smoke killing my lungs.’

He walked up to the sofa, where she lay in a posture halfway between sitting and lying down. He found a faint echo of the past in what she said. A woman struggles to keep her head above water during the most difficult time of the war, and when it’s all over, all of a sudden she gives it up. ‘The weather is going to be like this for days, Indra, they say.’ She got up and pulled aside the curtains as they sat around in silence. ‘If only for old time’s sake,’ she asked but he could not remember. The Steamer might have made him understand that just opening a door could lead him to the old world, but between that world and this stood the death of someone that he had not been able to prevent, and that had changed everything. They didn’t talk about his wife. How had she become one with the dying world? He wondered if he had carelessly let her die, if he somehow wanted it or worse was relieved by it. Was there a child between them that never came into the world, who was muffled by the mere threat of a catastrophe?

As Ira came close and embraced him, he felt her trembling and could hear the pounding of her heart. It made him feel that she was almost shaking like a tree in a tropical storm, but he felt paralyzed and remained unmoved. Maybe it was insomnia, but his head was throbbing and he felt a terrible pain. She felt the coldness of his body and withdrew. ‘You have not slept for days,’ she said, pained, as she opened a medicine cabinet beside the big bed and brought out a bottle of pills. She hesitated then, as if she wasn’t sure of giving it to him, that there was some thought passing her mind that was stopping her. But then she slowly slipped the bottle into his palms and he thought if she wanted him dead, he would accept it. He was always willing to obey, as though condemned to take orders. ‘I’m sorry’, he finally managed to say. He slept like a dead man, even a child in its womb; just a couple of colored pills and he couldn’t remember when she was gone.

When he woke, it was still dark. He heard footsteps as though a great many people were going down the unused stairs. He rushed out into a wide corridor and found the lifeless body of Ira being taken down in a glass box by the shadowy men who worked in the bunkers. It seemed she was asleep and would wake at any moment, except that she was now dressed in a red wedding dress.

His eyes met Stoker’s, who appeared behind these men. ‘She’s dead, Indra’, and there was a slight tremor to his voice, even though his eyes were cold looking ahead.

‘It is the weather,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Even the birds and the animals are drowning themselves in the murky sea, jumping off cliffs, or rushing into the fire. And for women, it is contagious, like an epidemic. They are killing themselves like in an epidemic,’ Stoker said vigorously, shaking his head.

She probably would not have died if he had not come. And again, he was seized by a pang of terrible guilt.

‘I will leave,’ he said.

‘Where, Indra?’

Stoker stood alone, even after everyone had gone. ‘This is the last post that has the remnants of our civilization: clean water, food and a bit of electricity. The land ends here. Everything else is gone. I am a man of science, Indra! I am not dependent on that woman. What’s she called? Ah! Yes, the naughty Lady Luck, for whose favor men clamor. I am a survivor. I have mastered the art of survival, for sure. You can stay here as long as you want; I can do that much for you, young fellow.’

Stoker’s stinking money, he thought, as Ira had said, but he always obeyed orders. He was born to follow them, but the women were not and could set themselves free. When he and Stoker went back to the club, the people were still dancing and laughing. ‘We have to keep it going, Indra, with this place with the lights, and all we have to do is maintain the pretenses, the fun, the dancing, the little games.’

But he thought that he should leave, though it was not by the path that the woman had chosen. He was neither fighting death like Stoker nor was he seduced by it. He desired supreme indifference, like a cruel God, perhaps. In an earlier world, this indifference would have made him an aristocrat. In this world, there was simply one word for it: insanity.

‘There is no place else to go, Son,’ Stoker said. ‘The city is emitting nothing but deathly radiation. Have you forgotten the swarm when we fled the city? Memory is an unpleasant thing, Indra. If I did not have that, I would be the happiest, I suppose; there would be no need for this awful show.’. But he had no memory, past, or future, or so he thought, and he wanted to say what Stoker thought was wrong, but he did not.

He did not know for how many days he had slept. He had lost track of time, but to him, it was the next day when he woke up. Again, he heard the frantic movement of heavy footsteps of too many people outside his suite. Ghostly wails crying from within the Steamer. He was seized by panic. He had an impulse to hide, to become invisible. Still, something drove him out, and he followed the crowd down the stairs. The suspense almost killed him till he came into the lounge. He saw Stoker’s body resting, waiting to be carried in a hearse. All the employees of the motel, indistinguishable in identical suits with their tired heads and starved bodies waited to follow the hearse in what would be a man’s last journey. Some grim, some sobbing it seemed they still waited to bow or nod to Stoker’s orders.

For the first time, it appeared to him he would burst into loud wild sobs. Then, as if on an impulse, he wanted to rush up the stairs but felt weak, so he took the elevator, and his eyes fell on the mirror. It was not him anymore; it was someone older. His eyes were sunk, his face was hollow, and his skin wrinkled. But it did not frighten him, and he took it in with a calm acceptance, like inviting dusk at the end of day. He did not know how long he was in his suite. In fact, he could not even remember how long he had stayed on the Steamer. But when he opened the window, the sky looked familiar, and there was a bit of light and warmth, and it felt like an evening in the old world.

He had forgotten the woman he loved, whom he thought to be his wife. In the future, the scientists would explain the swarm, the catastrophe, and the hibernation that would have nothing to do with him, Ira or Stoker but that didn’t matter. Outside, the narrow track to the beach was piled with bones of long rotten carcasses that had become as hard as rocks. He stumbled on them when he came close to the water, which was clear. The filth had drifted away somewhat.

I must be back, he thought, but he could not find any place or reason to go, so he stood there under the sky with a splash of red-orange, the water touching his feet.