(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
She walked down the steps from the
hospital, feeling faintly embarrassed by the uniformed doorman holding the huge
umbrella over her head, even though she was entitled to it. The others, who got
no such service, who either provided their own waterproofing or got wet, looked
at her with a mix of scorn and envy. She had never quite learned to stare them
in the eye with the stare that came naturally with privilege.
But then, she told herself, she had earned
this privilege. She had earned it many times over, and continued earning it
every moment of every day.
She bent to enter the chauffeur-driven
stretch limousine waiting at the foot of the stairs. This, too, was earned, not
a gift or a donation or a freebie. She had to keep reminding herself that she
was earning all of this each time the chauffeur opened the door for her and
saluted, his white uniform getting soaked in the rain.
She drove – or, to be more accurate, had
herself driven – straight home. She no longer had a job to go to – every moment
of her life was her job, in a sense all too real. She was free to do whatever
she wanted, go wherever she wanted – but accompanied, supervised and escorted,
to ensure that not the slightest bit of harm came to her. It was as though she
were a queen or president, which was not true. She was far more important in
many ways than any mere queen or president.
She went back into the building, to her own
private elevator, and was shown up to her discreetly opulent flat. She never
had got used to the flat, with its wall-to-wall carpet and the rubber plants in
the corner and the air-conditioning. Sometimes she wished she were still
working as a secretary and living in a three-room flat she shared with two
other girls, but of course those days were past. One of those girls worked now
for the hospital she had to visit twice a week as part of the conditions of her
current...employment. The girl and she looked away from each other in mutual
embarrassment when their paths crossed.
Often, as now, she stood behind her sealed
windows and looked out at the night. Far below, the traffic crawled, beads of
light on a string. From this high up, she was higher than all the buildings
around, and could see beyond the great flat dark strip of the river to where
the buildings across on the other side spread their multi-coloured glow. Once
upon a time, not really very long ago, she would have been out now, on this
Friday evening, unwinding after a hard week of work. But now there was nothing
to unwind from and no way to unwind, nowhere she could go.
She kicked off her shoes and sat down with
a glass of fruit juice, looking down on the city. Sometimes she wished she had
never volunteered, never chosen the honour, never taken on herself the burden
of protection. But now it was too late and she no longer had a choice.
She had justified it to her family, her
friends, and to herself often enough, so often that she was beginning to sound
trite even to her own ears, so she had stopped justifying herself. In any case,
it didn’t need justification. History was its own witness here – a history of
death, destruction and extermination, a history which had brought creatures
numbering in the billions to extinction, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the
great auk, moa, Stellar’s Sea Cow, the Yangtze dolphin; no end to the parade of
names, all gone forever; victims of greed and stupidity and apathy, until an
appalled world had rightly cried, never again.
She remembered the ads asking for
volunteers, the substantial rewards on offer. She had thought about it all night,
lain awake in that tiny little bed in that tiny little room, with the wind whistling
through the cracks around the window that didn’t quite fit in its frame. The
next day she’d gone and signed up and gone through the necessary checks,
physical and psychological, that they’d put her through. Why not? It was Sunday
and she in any case had had nothing better to do.
Yes, she had those rewards now, just
looking around her showed her that they had kept their promise, just as she had
kept hers. Oh yes, she had kept hers, and would keep it for as long as it took;
and then, when at last time ensured she could keep it no more, she would go on
her way with a substantial pension, and someone else would take over the task. She
knew that and did not resent it.
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