The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

Featured

The suicide bomber stood next to me on the tube. My day got worse from there.

Maybe my tuxedo represented the worst excesses of Western civilisation and I was therefore a symbolic person to die first. Perhaps he thought I was a rich banker creaming in millions in commissions from the derivatives market. In truth, the tuxedo was hired because I couldn’t afford to buy one and rather than being a coke-snorting London banker, I am (was) an underperforming bed salesman from Crewe.

I would have told him this, had he asked. I would have explained that I was on the way to the Bedlam! annual sales awards, where I planned to down as much free booze as possible whilst ogling Melissa’s (from Accounts Payable) cleavage, before watching Dave, from the Swindon branch, take Salesman of the Year for the fourth year running.

I didn´t tell him because he detonated his bomb fifteen inches from my nuts. I was atomised instantly, along with any chance of getting my gums around Melissa’s boobs. My DNA was smeared across two carriages, several tube maps and, ironically, a poster advertising male wellbeing vitamins.

It doesn’t hurt when you die, at least not in the ´stubbing your toe´ sense. In comparison, being blown up is like a paper cut, at worst.

The best way I can describe it is this: imagine you are a helium balloon, being held by a child. That child is life, always anchoring you but you are always trying to fly away, curious and ever pulling upward. Now, imagine the child lets go and you are no longer tethered. That feeling of acceleration is immense as a new sense of freedom courses through your body. You can see more than you’ve ever seen before, the sheer scale of the universe.

Then you realise that you quite liked the security of being tethered and the wave of exhilaration is replaced by fear as you watch the child getting smaller. You realise you have no control over your direction.  Then, you just pop.

The afterlife is, I’ll admit, a little fucking underwhelming. Whilst I never really went for cherubic angels and pearly gates, I did harbour a faint hope of something better than where I now find myself.

I’m sat in some sort of hospital waiting room but without the coughing and the tired, murderous looking junior doctors.  The walls are covered with wood chip wallpaper and posters of a bearded man with blinding white veneers, complete with photo-shopped sparkles, grinning and pointing toward the camera.

The text underneath reads, “Jesus wants You!” Horrific lift music is being piped in through a speaker that I can’t see.

The room is busy, but no one seems to be in any pain, including myself. I’m still wearing my tuxedo and seem to be in one piece with no obvious bits of metal sticking out of me or blobs of other people stuck to me. A quick fondler in the trouser pocket of the tuxedo tells me my nuts are still in place.

There are a couple of familiar faces from the tube. I recall a young Chinese couple who were watching something on his phone and giggling at each other when the bomb went off. I only see him now, and he looks lost without his phone.

I consider for a moment that I might not be dead and miraculously survived the blast. Then I see a man walk toward me wearing jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt. Actually, walk is the wrong word. He glides and as I look at his feet I see why.

He doesn’t have any.

Instead he has a couple of stumps – but these are not like Viet-fuckin’-nam stumps as if there were once feet there suddenly removed by a landmine. No, these stumps look like the feet were never there. He has feet like an upside-down skittle. 

That’s not even the strangest thing about him; he has a four-inch hole in his forehead and as he glides over to me I see right through his head to a smiling Jesus poster on the other side. He sees me looking at his hole.

“Gunshot. Self-inflicted. I was having a bad day.”

“I know what you mean,” I say, unable to take my eyes from where his frontal lobe should be.

“Where am I?” I ask.

He makes a note on his clipboard and smiles. “Well, the good news is, not in Hell.”

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

The muzak pipes over the tannoy and I´m actually relived. “So…where am I?”

“You’re in purgatory,” he says, before picking at the fringes of a loose flap of skin on the hole in his head.  “God, it’s so itchy.

Suddenly, a majestic and celestial voice booms over the tannoy, filling not just the room but my head. “It’s your own fault for pulling the trigger. And don’t blaspheme me.”

Iron Maiden boy looks up to the polystyrene tiled and strip-lighted ceiling and mouths Sorry before turning back to me and offers his hand. “I’m Alan. I’ll be your case worker.”

Now, I’ve never been dead before but I remember well as a twelve year old, stood at my Grandmother’s open casket and not being able to resist the temptation to prod her face gently. I think I wanted to check she was dead, or whether she would simply turn her head toward me, give me a toothless smile and say, “Hello love, gis your Nanna a nithe kith.” Instead she just lays there whilst I gently prodded at her cheek. Her clammy and doughy skin felt very much like Alan’s hand.

A naked, middle-aged man with damp hair stands at the reception desk and is directed to one of the plastic chairs. He shuffles over, dripping water on to the faded lino and sits down. I watch him as he starts scratching at his saggy balls, which appear to be sticking to the plastic. He looks confused.

Alan sees me looking at him and checks his clipboard. “Shower. Heart attack. Always confuses them. They take a long time to adjust. It’s the sudden change, you see? Five minutes ago he was cracking one off in the shower. He’s a straightforward case though.”

“Straightforward?”

“He’ll be going down.” Alan flips through his clipboard. “Let’s see. Oh yeah, he worked for a charity that helped child victims of war and removed land mines from Angola. I mean, he was guaranteed a place in Heaven, until he started stealing the donations to fund his prostitution habit. Such a shame. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.”

“Or the head!” The majestic voice laughs over the tannoy.

Alan ignores the quip.

“If it’s so straightforward, why is he here?” I ask, not unreasonably, and now starting to wonder what Alan might have on me.

Alan smiles. “It’s just my opinion, having read the file. Sorry, I should have explained. The people here are what we call The Undecided.”

“The Undecided?”

“Yeah. See most people, when they die, there’s a fairly obvious destination.” Alan signals to the ceiling and then the floor with his pencil.

“So I’m Undecided?” I ask, naively as it turns out.

“No,” Alan laughs, before pointing at one of the Jesus posters, but He is. Everyone gets a case worker here. I’m yours.”

Suddenly, Melissa from accounts’ cleavage feels a long way away. “I’m dead though, right?”

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

“I’m not a time machine. You should have gotten a different tube. By the way, I thought you might like to know that Dave did win Salesman of the Year and shagged Melissa in the cloakroom to celebrate.”

“You aren’t making me feel any better.”

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

“Yep. Died yesterday. You’re my first case.”

It’s then that I notice the small badge pinned to his Iron Maiden 1990 No Prayer on the Road Tour t-shirt. It resembles the badge a McDonald’s worker wears but instead of stars it has space for five Dove badges. Alan has none. Great, I´ve got the new boy. I slump into the chair behind me.

Saggy Balls man is approached by a smiling nubile brunette dressed in a short cocktail dress. She’s stunning, other than the rope-mark around her neck.

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

“Yeah. She’s been here a while now. Killed herself over a boyfriend in the nineties. She’s pretty isn’t she?”

I nod and decide that God doesn’t like me very much.

“Alan,” I say. “This is all a bit overwhelming. Why do I need a caseworker?”

He sits next to me. “All of the Undecided are appointed one. It is what it says on the tin really. God hasn’t decided if you’ve been good enough to share eternity with Him.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “I’m a bed salesman from Crewe. I’ve got a mortgage and I drive a Fiat. I’ve never murdered anyone.”

“Yes, we know that.”

“Bloody hell,” I continue, “the last fight I had was at thirteen!”

Alan checks his clipboard. “Neil Sanders. Yep, we made a note of that one at the time. You punched him first.”

“He stole my Gary Lineker sticker for his Panini album.”

“He did, and he got marked down for it, but he’ll be okay, he donates blood platelets every month.”

“How is that fair for Christ’s sake? I only needed Lineker and Terry Butcher for the entire album!”

The celestial voice booms out from the tannoy directly into my head. “Do not blaspheme me. It won’t help your case. Besides, our records show you were also missing Bryan Robson and Steve Hodge.”

I suddenly wish I’d kicked Neil Sanders hard in the bollocks, screaming Donate this, you Lineker-stealing shit head.

“I pray though,” I shout out at the invisible tannoy.

The tannoy responds. “Praying for a Millenium Falcon or a blow job from Samantha Lewis are not what I want filling my inbox.”

Saggy Ball man and his nubile case worker look over with disapproval. I ignore them. “Yeah, well, me and every other kid in that school would have sent the same prayer but whatever. What about my donations? I give to Cancer Research. Check it, it should be there.”

Alan doesn’t look at his clipboard but instead takes a plastic seat next to me. “Look mate. Don’t waste your energy trying to argue the point.”

“But I have a standing order.”

“Yes,” Alan says. “You donate two quid a month.” He scrolls down his clipboard. “And in the last six months of your life you told thirty nine different charity street collectors that you already had a standing order set up for their specific charity.”

I slump a little lower. “It’s been a slow year in bed sale-“

Alan holds a finger up to silence me. “In the last year alone you also walked past three hundred and eleven homeless people, contributing a grand total of fourteen pence to one beggar’s cup because you were drunk and it was snowing. However, you faked being on the phone an impressive two hundred and thirty eight times.”

My mouth moves but no words come out and Alan continues.

“In 1989, you told Alison Ramage that your Nan had died so that she would sleep with you.”

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

“There’s a statute of limitations on these things,” Alan says, offering me a glimpse of a Jesus poster through the portal of his gunshot wound.

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

“We know,” booms the tannoy. “We were watching.”

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

“Yes. And I’m listening sunshine,” booms the tannoy

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

He puts a friendly arm around my shoulder. “You’ve been undone by the little things,” he says. “But don’t feel bad. Look around you. This is how busy it is every day. Most people think it’s the big ticket items that make the most difference but it’s the small stuff He sweats about. He likes consistency rather than grand gestures and the thing is, you’ve been consistently underperforming.”

“A bit like your sales figures,” The celestial voice laughs over the tannoy.

I try to ignore it but end up shouting at the speaker, “It’d be nice if someone was on my side!”

“I’m on your side, Alan says. What you’ve got to realise is that for every billionaire philanthropist that suddenly decides to give a shit ton of money to Africa when they get diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer there’s a beggar sharing his Pret soup with another. Who would you rather spend eternity with?”

“So I’m stuck here?”

“No. It’s not all bad. In fact, if it was all bad, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be down there with the nail bomber that took you out, having your nuts roasted like marshmallows on a stick. I’m not even joking man, they do that. You’re teetering on the edge though.”

“And what about you?” I ask, “I mean, why are you here?”

Alan looks genuinely surprised by this. “Me? I…I’m on a trial.”

“What sort of trial?”

“Suicides are a special case,” he says. “We automatically come here, regardless of what we’ve done on Earth. I could have been the Pope but as soon as I pulled the trigger on myself, the score was reset to zero. Basically, I have to earn my way back into His good books by processing the Undecided. He really has a thing for people who waste of a life.”

“I thought you said the bomber was in Hell. Surely he should be here?”

“Murder trumps suicide. Says it on page six fifty-three of the handbook”

My shoulders sag a little. “How long are you here for?” I ask.

He taps his badge on his chest. “Until I get my Doves.”

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

A deep sob pierces the room and I realise it’s coming from Saggy Balls man who has his face buried in Cocktail Dress girls shoulder. She looks across at Alan with a sad face and draws an imaginary knife across her throat.

“Oh dear,” Alan says. “She’s just told him the bad news.”

I watch Cocktail dress girl take hold of Saggy Ball man’s hand and lead him to a door on the far side of the room. He drips shower water on to the floor behind him and leaves footprints on the floor that fade quickly.

It’s a dark green wooden door with a silver knob, shaped like a crow’s head. She knocks twice on it and it swings in-wards, revealing a burning pool of lava and a cacophony of screams, male and female. Cocktail Dress pats him on the shoulder just as a large veiny hand, bubbling under the skin with fire, reaches through the door and skewers his balls with sharp talons before yanking him through to the underworld. There is a bone-snapping scream, cut off as the door slams.

I turn to Alan and say, “We should work on my case.”

At that moment, there is a pling-plong on the tannoy and a soft, mesmerising female voice calls Alan to the blue door.

I can’t see a blue door but then realise the green door has now changed colour.

“Come on,” says Alan. “It’s your turn.”

“Fuck off,” I say, my balls retracting. “Heaven or not, there’s no way I’m going in there.”

“Don’t worry.” Alan glides over to the door. I find myself gliding right behind him, pulled by an invisible force, and it occurs to me that if I could have moved this smoothly on a dance floor in my teens, I might not have had to tell Alison Ramage my Nan had died just to get laid.

We reach the, now blue, door and Alan gives a gentle knock. Again it swings inward but rather than eternal fire and ball-grabbing talons, the door opens to a public park. We glide through.

It’s a hot summer’s day and joggers pound the pavement. Kids are stripped to their waist and splash in the stream. In the distance I can hear the retreating siren of an ice cream van and the air is filled with the smell of hot dogs.

Alan points to a wooden bench underneath the burnt orange of a Japanese maple tree. A woman is sat there. Even from thirty feet away I can see that she’s achingly beautiful.  She’s looking at me and I find her gaze the most excruciatingly painful yet exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to me. She smiles and beckons me over.

“Come on,” says Alan. “I’ll introduce you.”

We glide over the grass. Either the rest of the world can’t see me, or they think it’s perfectly normal for a man in a tuxedo to glide two feet in the air with skittles for feet.

As we approach the woman, I become utterly transfixed. She has short blond hair and high cheek bones that just encourage you to look at her eyes which change colour, flitting between pools of deep green and grey. She is wearing a halter-neck top that plunges to the valley of her breasts, which glisten in the sun with damp. My mouth is dry.

She smiles at me, and for the briefest of moments I think I am in Heaven. I think that God recognises the anguish and torment of a thirteen year old boy having his Gary Lineker sticker stolen, has let me in to Heaven and that this beautiful woman is my reward for a career dedicated to helping people sleep in top of the range orthopaedic mattresses with in-built memory gel.

Then Alan speaks with a shaky voice. “Miss Fer. You look…different.”

“Hello Alan,” she says. “You’re still on my list, in case you were wondering.”

She turns to me and says, “You can call me Lucy.”

When she speaks to me, it’s like a nest of ants have burrowed inside my head and are eating away at my brain. I keel over in agony but my gaze is drawn to her as her eyes turn to fire and visions of most unimaginable suffering and torment. Her lips part and her tongue is forked like a snake and covered in pustules which ooze yellow fluid onto the grass.

She kneels next to me. I can feel her snake tongue lapping at my ear, as she hisses “I’ve got a special place just for you.”

“Lucy. He’s not yours yet,” Alan says.

She snaps her attention to him but he stands firm, hole in his head and all. “Boss’s orders. It says so right here.” He taps his clipboard.

Lucy smiles and her tongue retracts and the deep fire in her eyes returns to a more placid green. She shrugs and retakes her seat on the bench, and she becomes again a beautiful young woman.

I vomit on the grass.

“Who are you?” I croak, wiping away sick with my tuxedo, relieved that although I might face an eternity in hell, I won’t face a dry-cleaning bill.

“Not someone you want to spend an eternity with,” says Alan.

“Alan, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” Lucy says

Alan smiles nervously at me. “This is…well…you know who this is don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

Alan checks his clipboard. “When I said you were teetering on the edge I meant it. You really were a selfish arse as an adult and it’s only your time in the Boy Scouts and the few charity runs that you did in your twenties that’s saved you. The fact is that JC and Lucy here can’t decide which way you should go. So you get a choice.”

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

Lucy throws back her head in laughter and the veins on her neck bulge and pulse. I realise they aren’t veins, they are worms and they are moving around inside her throat. Then the sky darkens, the children playing in the water disappear and the music from the ice cream van stops. She roars, but her voice is male and full of menace “That’s not the choice boy.”

“She’s right,” says Alan as the sky lightens and the children return to splashing in the water. Fear comes at me from all sides, like a pack of wild dogs circling a limping gazelle.

“The choice is this,” Alan says. “Either, we can flip a coin. Heads you go up. Tails you go with Lucy here. Fifty-fifty.”

“What do you say,” Lucy whispers into my ear. “Wanna take a chance on me?”

I read somewhere that a mathematician from some university had proved that a coin toss is not actually a fifty-fifty chance. That due to the embossed head there is a greater probability of landing on heads, per one thousand throws. I’m mildly encouraged by this, until I recall the image of the hand appearing from behind the green door and grabbing Saggy Balls by his saggy balls and my faith in science and probability retracts along with my testicles.

“Or you can go back for another chance,” Alan interrupts my thoughts.

“I thought you said I couldn’t go back?”

“You can’t. Not as yourself. There’s CCTV footage of you on the tube just before you blow up. Would be a bit of a tricky one to explain away.” Alan says.

I wonder if I could go back as Gary Lineker in his eighties prime.

The celestial voice booms, this time from the trunk of the maple tree. “No. You can’t.”

Alan says, “We originally had you slated for a brain tumour at fifty-three so technically, you’re twelve years early.”

“Great” I say, “I’m really glad I saved extra for my pension.”

Alan just shrugs. “It’s an aggressive brain tumour though. It’ll get you within a few weeks. If you go back, you’ll have twelve years before we see you again but you’ll have to tread carefully. Now you know what’s in store, the bar has been raised for you, so you’ll have to be extraordinarily good.”

“I can do that,” I say. “Make me a priest or something and I’ll pray every day, or maybe I could be a missionary in Africa. I’ve always wanted to travel a bit.”

“Over to you Lucy,” booms the maple tree.

Lucy smiles at me. “I choose. Call it a perk of the job. I’ll see you soon.” Suddenly I am floating upward, like a helium balloon that has been detached from its child owner. I watch Alan and Lucy get smaller before a searing pain stabs my abdomen and darkness takes me.

When I come to, my bones ache with cold and my skin itches with sores. I put my hands to my face and feel a full beard. The fire of hunger burns from within me, but I smile because I’m alive. I feel something running down my cheek and I realise it’s a tear. The only tear ever produced with equal parts happiness and fear.

I pull back the cardboard blanket that covers me and look at my feet. To my relief, they are both there again, and I wiggle the toes that stick out through my battered trainers.

Across the road is the entrance to the park and through the gates I can see Lucy and Alan sat on the park bench, watching me. Lucy waves and blows me a kiss. I give her the finger and Alan laughs. Then they are gone.

The city comes alive with commuters and for a while, I sit in awe at humanity and ignore the hunger and cold that consumes me. A few passers-by throw a few coins into my coffee cup and I mutter a few thank you’s but mostly I just people watch.

I see a face I recognise walking down the street. It’s Dave, Salesman of the Year, from the Swindon branch. He’s dressed in a good suit and looks like he’s had his greying hair dyed but it’s definitely him. He walks with the smugness of someone who nailed Melissa from Accounts in the cloakroom.

As he approaches I see him look at his phone to avoid eye contact, the same move I’d pulled hundreds of times.

He’s a few feet away when I look up and say, “Spare any loose change, Sir?”

He sneers at me and then gobs at my feet. “Get a fucking life, loser.”

He walks off and I smile but say, “Have a great day anyway. And remember, it’s the little things.”

He glances back at me with a look of confusion before smirking and walking away.

He can’t see her, but walking next to him is Lucy.

She looks back at me and winks. I smile back, shaking my head and then go back to watching strangers.

Darren Whitehouse writes short stories as a coping mechanism for the guilt he feels about the novel he is still yet to finish.  He is interested in stories that tap into the darker and less understood areas of human life but tries to do so with a pinch of humour. Most of his ideas come from browsing the news although sometimes they appear in bowls of cereal or jars of peanut butter – usually when he doesn’t have a pen handy.  He lives in Buxton, Derbyshire.

Risking Delight by Chitra Gopalakrishnan

Featured

I listen idly to the deep, resonant whoop of a solitary coucal and then to the throaty chorus of coucal calls that follow─each bird call starting when one ends. I sit on warmish grass dampened by freak autumn rains in September and try to discern their feathered presences among trees in the pale ribbon of the evening light. I look for their glossy bluish-black plumages, their chestnut wings and their black, loose, long, tails but they are so perfectly blended within the dense tree recesses that they remain hidden.

I am sitting in my rectangular garden. It that takes over the front of my cottage on the outskirts of New Delhi, with a line of heavenward-shooting trees running along each side and a copse of varied smaller shrubs on the inside. I get the feeling that it is the greenery around that is summoning me with its full tones.

As the leaves of the trees and the shrubs shimmer with the moisture of rain, I wonder what their heightened calls give notice of, what secrets they divulge. A part of the double-dealing cuckoo family, I believe ornithologists when they say, “these coucal calls are more about what they hide than what they say.”

I understand their theatrical masquerades as I understand myself. Dissembling has been among my early survival skills. The first marker of my oddness. The other being my lonely pursuit of choices that lie outside the norm.

Let me start with the smoke screen and the peculiarities of my current profession in the here-and-now of my life. In my early thirties, I work in an intimate market, in the business of buying and selling secrets. I was and still am hired by shocked, betrayed wives who find their husband straying. As a ‘mistress dispeller’, which is my official designation, I befriend the mistress, woman to woman, invade her life, uncover her weakness or her many damaging weaknesses to the wife so as to break up the liaison.

As I see it, I excel in my outlandish job, in the ‘private intel space.’ No one knows better than me of the unbridled excitement of forbidden attachments. If I know how to nurture such connections then I know as much about how to undo them with nonchalance. But more of my own earlier life of sensuality when I unwind the tale of my past from my tale of my today, the life of my yesterday from the life of my today: To a charming gossip columnist, Vidya Jain, who I gave an ’in’ to my world.

 I confessed, “I, unwittingly and to my bemusement, also break up a medley of martial peculiar orders and family arrangements that have come to be in our city’s contemporaneity.”

Vidya, in her column, spoke of my innate sensibilities of a spy that aids me in my job. She said, “She has a keen sense of observation, a knack of idly engaging and finding common ground with anybody, the plusses of a natural liar (you really can’t learn to lie as you will trip up sooner than later), a clandestine, street-wise ability to press the limits of rules and regulations to test how much she can get away with, an artist’s (some would murmur a con artist) ability to talk her way out of trouble and a preparedness to be adaptive toward changing situations.”

To this, she added, “She even uses technology with élan, her spy pen being her most useful aide memoir and infected phones her best spyware, a giveaway of all secrets on her cloned screens.” She also put in what I reiterated in my talk with her. “I know with certainty that every application on the phone has a backdoor and that hacking tools are as easy to access as an Uber cab.”

I, understandably, did not give her permission to use my name. But I must admit she is as much of a deadeye as I am and as able to extract information.

Samir Kaul, a freelance entertainment journalist, was not so charitable about my work. My client foolishly gave him my details, as she was riding on the wave of petulance and peevishness about her husband’s infidelity. His piece said, “Her dishonourable undercover work is conducted using a footloose, freewheeling team─an assorted, deviant, group of hackers, fact-checkers, small-time sleuths, bush-league citizens with a kinship to the underworld, among many other such outliers─ who roam Delhi’s socio-economic borderline.”

I had the piece, which identified me by name, squashed. An editor I knew tipped me of its scheduled date of appearance. I put my rag a tag gang to work. They came up with lurid details of his life that I used to silence him and his piece. “Sweet revenge!” my team exulted.

In an odd-sort of togetherness with my team, I have managed many a coup d’état. For the past four years, I have been carrying my burden of deception lightly, and, as a few who think they know what I do, say, with animation.

Only my psychiatrist has a whiff of my uneasiness, of how, “I get divided within as I enter the troubled spaces of others and become part of the storm within their world,” and how, “the bizarre untruths and dubious acts make me unsure of the condition of my being, my inner core.”

What dragged me to her couch a month ago with this baneful job were the beginnings of small fidgets of anxiety in my mind that worked itself up into a lather of fretfulness. I now suffer from a permanent sense of inner discomfort and unease, impulses that are new to me. My old avatar being one of infinite self-assuredness. But, as I said earlier, more of that when I tell you of my past cocksureness.

Inclined, as a rule, towards guardedness, a dislike of having to share my private predicaments and given the nature of my job that calls for me not to be loose-lipped, it took me long to reveal bits of myself to her.

As I was advised full disclosure if I wanted to heal, I coerced myself to admit more than I wished. “Until now, I have had no qualms about the shape and order of my inner being,” I said, “as manipulating situations and people gets me what I want. As it is the nature of fire to burn, it is my nature to hide what I am.”

I suspect knowing who I am as opposed to who I appear to be disconcerted her. I also suspect that she, who was to render no judgement, did not have kind words for me in her copious assessment notes. As it was only her medicines, not she, who could soothe me somewhat, I discontinued my visits very soon.

Take my last assignment for Leela Sahani as a test case of what I do for a living and as a kind of explanation for my being in this lady’s lair. Leela came to my office on a cold, foggy morning, in ire, determined “to chargrill her husband’s lover into juicy smokiness”. “Stop at nothing to uncover the truth of my husband’s carousals,” she instructed me. “Spy, catfish, break security codes, procure bank records under false claims, read personal correspondences, keep tabs on gifts, install spy cameras and eavesdrop in all manner of speaking. Do what it takes,” she ordered.

In my world that is lived a lot off screens and technology, I did most of what she asked for and some more on the ground with the help of my unholy team. My most invasive technique was to intimately befriend the young, radiantly voluptuous, Ria Mathur, the ‘other’ woman, feigning similar passions and reciprocal altruism.

I went about it with the thoroughness of a method actor, by ‘accidentally’ bumping into her and starting an animated conversation that continued as banter for months on our cell phones where we glittered on thus. I, in my contrarian puckishly charismatic way, and, she, in her typical, abrasive, unrestrained, lippy, narcissistic Delhi way, coating her tongue with an unbearably coarse accent each time she spoke to me.

She believed I found her immoderately charming.

She bargained her way into my affections and onto what she called my “classy way of life” buying sweaters for our iPhone (her iPhone was gifted by Leela’s husband), Guci bags (as she could not afford the missing c in the name) and oily edibles, all of which found its way into my bin. I threw some baubles in her direction.

Our relationship almost took on the contours of an all-absorbing romance. She was hyper-verbal about everything in her life. “I love gol gappas (round, hollow, deep-fried crisp crepes filled with a mixture of flavoured water) and could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” (Yikes!) “My Pomeranian Pinky is my soul mate.” (A breed that is an apology for a dog, if you ask me) “My boss loves my button nose and to peek at my cleavage.” “My family is very strict and I am terrified of my brothers and father but otherwise, I never dodge fights, hold my tongue or mind the rules with anyone.”

She mistook my attentive listening for empathy.

Her candour about her boozy, seductive liaisons with Neel─Leela’s husband─was equally cloying in its details. “I was so open and mast (flamboyant) while his responses were dara hua (scared and tentative). I love the way I melt in my insides like a maum (candle) in the heat of his mohhabat (passion)and the nasha (intoxication)of his tone when he callsme his jaan (life).”

I began to dread her phone calls, their clichéd dreariness and the sheer triteness of her conversations.

It took me no time with my dark art to know her vulnerability. It was as banal as money. I turned in her details and the jigsaw of my team’s findings to Leela who instantly bartered money in lieu of her soiled husband.

Of course, my tidbits on Ria’s family life helped. Leela told me, “I fisted Ria and my husband’s romance in the stomach, once for all, by threatening to tell of the affair to her family of three giant looking brothers and I-can-give-complex-to-a-rhino kind offather. I said to her this is my one-time payment to you and I want you to never contact my husband.”

The outing of infidelity is rarely simple or dignified. The exposed are utterly unshelled which is what happened to Ria and Neel. While I, in my perfect disguise, got to keep my camouflage as armour. They never knew the leak came from me, a fact that holds for all the cases I have handled so far.

I was, however, not completely exempt from downsides. I had to continue to hear Ria’s inane chatter and despairing wails of being discovered for some more time to keep my work’s tell-tale features hidden. For ‘plausible deniability of involvement’, as we call it in our professional parlance. And, two, I had face up to the fact that my head was no longer as steady, no longer as inured to the risks and the insanity of my profession, its masterful puppetry of plying and pulling of others’ life strings. Just to be clear, I was not bothered with my subterfuges being uncovered.

My insecurity arose from my hair-trigger paranoia of my psychological stability. I was assailed by a sense of losing myself, of having gone too far down the void of a rabbit hole, of not being in control of my life and my person, something very unfamiliar and frightening for me. I would never have believed such a thing probable in my life when in my twenties and would have laughed in anyone’s face if they said I would be seeing a shrink in my life.

I have always found camouflage to be a wonderful thing as I am sure you have inferred by now. My seeming to be someone else while concealing who I really am has been a captivating game for me from childhood. I have lived in my shadows of subterfuge for so long that my disguises are now a part of me. They have never felt wrong or dysfunctional but fun like play-acting.

In my early years, my father often worried about me growing up without a mother, the lack of her influences and anchoring. He would point me to a picture of the wheel in our drawing room, say that it should remind me of living my life from the centre. “When we live our life from the rim of the wheel, we focus on externals, what you can see with your eye or hear with your ear. Externals will never make you strong in your inner core,” was something he repeated to me often.

Did he sense my secrecy and cover-ups even then? My little manipulations and the small contradictions in my stories? Was he worried that what he permitted could turn into what he promoted? A number of times, I felt in my bones that he seriously disapproved my lack of a blood bond to him and my tenuous attachments to friends. His constant urging me to “grow more affection and altruism” confirmed his dim view of my lack of filial and fraternal fidelity.

Conflicts of my amoral outlook did register in my furrowed brows at a young age. At fourteen, to the confession priest in my school’s church, I said, “Father, I worry about why moral perfection is not burrowed into my sense of the world. I do try time and again to lean towards goodness, but I fail.”

All he said was, “Mend your ways, child. Find your path towards God.”

The holy water he gave me was supposed to help. It didn’t.

 Such urges simply died when I reached my twenties. The subterranean hum of my true nature became voluble by then and I began to accept the freefall of my basic tendency. One that was to maximise my utility at the expense of others, sometimes even at the risk of bringing about negative outcomes in other’s lives. At this point in my life, I came to a clear understanding that I have been involuntarily following my innate instincts all through my life and that I will continue to do so as this is the only way I know how to be.

My elite life in New Delhi, ten years past the turn of the millennium, was, hence, an indulgence, unbound by any ideological mooring, one persuasion or another. I overheard one girl say of me, “She is simply interested in getting as much as she can for herself, her personal interest acting as her sharpest spur to action. She sees inventive dissembling in the guise of simple naiveté as a good way of getting by as being strategic in choosing when to cooperate.”

She was not wrong.

While at the campus in the northern part of the city, doing a post-graduate course in economics, I never bought into the argument that my economics professor would tout, “that it is in understanding the interests of others that we are able to fulfil our own.”

My counter was, “attempting idealised perfectibility and equality in personal, political, economic and social spheres will always fail. The dark mirror of utopias, dystopias, will show up in fallen social experiments, stringent political regimes and controlling economic systems.”

These beliefs may sound Machiavellian to some but I had yet to read him at length at that point. My beliefs sprung from my own interpretations of the world around me. It surprised me then as it does now that my old professor held on to human goodness while I ingested the meaning of utopia to be ‘no place’ both literally and metaphorically. And that I have always believed that disinterest in gathering personal resources is ideologically unhealthy.

So as I was saying, life in my twenties was a time of riotous springtime joy. My diary noting for this period says, “My life now is a seemingly eternal season of silk cotton fluff fluttering in a breath of wind. A time when ‘adventure’ is the ticket. A time when it feels beautiful to be in my body when a golden heat flows skin-deep, vital and shining. A time to allow passion to take up space within my body’s clear effusive warmth, changing the balance, making ripples in the air that it passes through. A time to throw away the cultural scripts written for women.”

It was easy for me with my erotic loveliness and with my umbrella shadow of luck and privilege to flit fast from liaison to liaison within New Delhi’s gilt-edged, closed-in community. I went on thus compulsively and in secret for eight long years. As I sought transitory physical attachments and never emotional closeness that tended to feelings, my many past lovers were put one by one where they belonged, out of my life and in the past. As I saw that the simplicity and security of one partner was not for me, I cleared each of my lover’s residual impact quickly to reclaim my sexual sovereignty. For me, the idea of taking on inner pain in the name of love was needless torture.

It never happened.

I don’t think it was my attractiveness that particularly drew men to me. There were women with far more beauty and feminine mystique. I think what one of the men in my life said to me explains why men were drawn to me. “You send out subconscious scent signals that urge a sexual response.” So I will go with my all-scented wanton, womanly body as the reason for my appeal and as the reason for why I unwound men.

It was one connection in particular that held me for very long. I note in my diary that it was “pulse-pounding, ardent, dangerous and disruptive.” Dangerous and disruptive as, in our case, we were both married. It was no impediment though, despite the watched and guarded nature of personal and social lives.

My diary entries for this period are uninhibited. “Our lust is on the loose. We taste the excitement of each other’s lives and yearn for another thousand faraway possibilities. It is so exciting to carry on our furtive trysts with note messages tucked into bicycles, furtive calls through the day, midnight meetings and through the courting each other through poetry in well-modulated cadences.”

“The folds of our sheets could tell stories of just how truly bad we are,” we would often joke. Our affair was freighted with lies, secrets and ongoing deceptions that uncontained relationships like this need. We risked our delight as there was no license in my marriage or his to open up our experiences and connections to others. Or to reshape it in any way to our needs.

Thinking back, I realize I must have had holes in my conscience through all my many relationships post-marriage as it remained oddly innocent through all the illicit dangerousness. And my middle-class Indian background, that should have tethered me with moral chastity belts, not even allowing my fantasies to roam freely, failed in its reign-in.

The backlash to our lustful dare devilries arrived swiftly, once we got found out. His wife called me up. “You rubbishy creature, how could you do this to me and my child? I can’t think of another person in the whole world that I despise more than you. You have the morals of an alley cat and I will pray that you rot in hell in a sludge of substances.”

Her succession of emails were far more vitriolic and delivered a tirade of expletives. She threatened to inform my husband and ruin my life.

She did. My marriage and my double life folded.

My life’s deceptions were witnessed by all and my personal stories made public. I was made to map the extent of my misdemeanours. People, especially women, saw me as a “labyrinth of many unknown paths” and I let them live with their belief. I guess because it was true in many ways.

I had to use indifference as a defence mechanism to counter my powerlessness. It is not as if I did not hurt from the inside but the recognition of who I really am insulated me, made me understand that my adventuresome actions and decisions were in many ways ineludible.

In defence of my husband, I think he would have been able to handle “minor palterings” but he could not cope with my “many flat out deceptions’, as he termed them. Once my lover’s wife outed our deception, many other women were emboldened to whisper to him about how I “turned my affections towards him to others.”

And it is also not as if my husband did not try to understand me or my indiscretions. He did. But we were toppled over by another awkward trio that came to be─him, the counsellor and me.

We made efforts to cut through the complications and permanent barriers created but failed. The counsellor felt my reasons for straying and staying were “delusive” and noted that I “felt no guilt that most others would feel when engaging in stuff like this, something hurtful to others.”

Finally, my husband gave up, saying, “I think there is nothing left to save. Now my entire idea of what the world is, and the truth of what is and isn’t, feels like it is on a chopping board and that trust between us is a thing of the past. In fact, I am not certain we had trust to begin with.”

I begged and I pleaded. It was ignominious. “Let’s start afresh. I promise to be true to you. I will make up for the times I let you down,” I beseeched. My moment of complete abasement came when I cried, “Where will I go if you leave me? I have nothing to fall back on, what will I do?”

He remained unmoved. Our marriage came to an end when I reached the age of thirty with two court hearings and a signature. It purged me of all my relationships and friendships.

Looking back, I see that I mostly observed my husband from under closed eyelids through our eight-year connection. All I can say is the mild warmth of my marriage at twenty-two years of age and his unrelenting gravity bored me and I, “could not be demure and domestic,” as my mother-in-law curtly said in her first assessment of me when my father and she met to, “marry me off,” as they call the curious social engineering of arranged marriages.

I know all of this sounds an easy summation of the situation or of why I was not as safe or knowable as other women around. My arguments do lack introspection and show up my inability to face up to the crucial actions in my life as also my casual, cruel displacement of an individual. But that is all I have as that is how I am.

Maybe I should have taken my dead aunt Renuka’s notion of singlehood as a desired way of life seriously and fought with more intensity against being ambushed into marriage. She did, in her sickness, warn me, when my father was pushing me into marriage. “Don’t allow boldness of your aspirations to be bleached into a pastel of family expectations. I know you well and this is what will happen if you marry.”

No one knows how a thing like a divorce will strike you before it comes to you. But one thing was certain; it brought on a dreadful reckoning over which I had no control.

I reeled for months under an unfamiliar sense of insecurity and the harsh realization that I had no particular skills to make a living. The sniggers of those around who said, “She will probably allure a whole organization now,” cut to the bone. But at least I had a place to stay. My father who passed on two years ago, erasing all records of my childhood, left behind a cottage on the outlying part of the city from where I could make a new beginning.

In my thwarted life, I chose to be a mistress dispeller as it fell within my catchment area. I had never known it to be a thing until my marriage was spluttering and I heard whispers that my lover’s wife had employed one to peel away my secrets.

I don’t know if she did.

I do know a woman sought to befriend me around the time of my last affair and that I did reciprocate, meeting her for an odd coffee or drink. I am not sure how much I said or whether she was why I got found out but the idea of the job description stuck in my head. Talk of life’s ironies. It was my lover’s wife in a way who set me up in this covert career.

So I live my life now with a job in the game of seduction, one that is heart-in-the mouth, immediate and fierce in its gaze of the hidden, almost delivered from my societal shame. Or maybe not.

Today, is my new life, four years of age, with its changed balance in my role as a mistress dispeller, a liberation of sorts? A validation and affirmation of self-perceived abilities and a balm for injured self-esteem, as I see it? I earn well, act as a relief worker for many distressed women, mask my own sexuality and keep my own life and its engagements denuded to a minimum, almost solitary, to erase my past waywardness. Or it is really a doppelganger of an earlier existence, a double walk as it were, on the path of stealth and strategy? One with ethically, morally and socially questionable attitudes and behaviours, as many say?

After all, I do freely admit to the buzz I feel when codebreaking and the power I feel when I play God and wreak judgement on others’ lives. This even though I myself have indulged in such a lifestyle with abandon.

If pressed to find language about my current situation, I would say it is uncomfortable. My idea that the ground beneath me is solid, dependable, that I can build on it, that I can trust it to support me, is gone. The gaping hole in my mind, in my life, seems to mock the very idea of solid ground, of trustworthy geology.

I live off-course, in a state of doubtful uneasiness in my mind, rolling over peaks and troughs, splayed by them, and struggle to enter into a stable ground of belief about myself, my life. I look for the easygoing self-assurances of my life in my twenties but they are nowhere to be found.

Is my strife within the beginning of consciousness?

I sit vertiginously atop of a Ferris Wheel, the world beneath me, wondering if the wheel wisdom of my father will work out answers for me.

Will it help me find my way back to things I can trust? Will it help me find my own floor? Should I adopt the wisdom wheel, its love and kindness, as my compass, as a way of coming to terms with myself, as my catharsis? Should I finally now accept my hubris in thinking I can control my life from its rim?

I need to find out fast before I lose myself. Before I don’t fit in my head at all.

Chitra Gopalakrishnan is a New Delhi-based journalist by training, a social development consultant by profession and a creative writer by choice. With decades of experience in writing books on social development, she willfully exploits several creative genres to bring out the exertions of living in modern-day Delhi, caught as people are in its uneven, messy and riotous surges. She understands that finding one’s balance in the city’s whirlwinds is not easy and considers herself fortunate to be living on a farm with her family, a little away from the city, keeping company with her dog, her many feathered friends and fishes.