“Uncle Jim, tell her the story you told me—about the woman.” Jim’s gregarious niece said as she dragged her friend. The little girl stared blankly at Jim with somewhat of a forced smile on her face.
“Come on, Grace. It’s not that interesting. I wouldn’t want to bore your friend.”
“No, she likes stories of all kinds. She’s a bookworm like you. You’ll listen, right?”
The girl looked at Grace and nodded.
“Alright, take a seat,” Jim said.
Grace giggled with excitement as she held her friend’s hand, and they sat down on the grass right in front of Jim. Jim closed his eyes for a few seconds, brought his hands together, and began.
“Twenty years ago, when I was in my twenties, I used to work as an assistant veterinarian. As soon as my shift would get over, I would rush back home and spend the rest of the day reading books of all sorts: psychology, history, politics, astrology, you name it. One such day, as I was sitting in my chair reading a book on Sociology, I heard a knock at the window. Before I proceed, I must tell you something about my house; it had a rather strange configuration. The first thing people would notice, as they would approach the house, was the living-room window. The door was a little to the right and hidden from view, so almost every visitor would knock at the window first, and if needed, I would direct them to the door. Hence, it was not the knock at the window that took me by surprise, but the hour at which it occurred. It was half-past midnight.
“I opened the window, and the bright, white moonlight poured into my house. I saw a woman holding a small purse with both hands in front of her, like a child. She looked up at me with a serene expression on her face and smiled, the moonlight bouncing off her cheeks. She cleared her throat and said,
‘Sorry for the trouble. Could you please tell me what time it is?’
“For some inexplicable reason, I felt as if that was not what the woman had intended to say. The incoherence between her demeanor and her speech was apparent, but I kept my observation to myself. I merely nodded, looked at the wall-clock, and told her the time.
‘Thank you very much. And sorry for the trouble,’ she replied, putting as much earnestness into the word ‘very’ as one can.
“Before I could say anything, she had turned on her heel and was walking away. I watched her disappear around the corner before I shut the window. Having spent a few minutes thinking about her, I decided to retire for the day. I must say I slept well that night.
“The next day, at about the same time, I heard a knock at the window. It had been a tiring day for me, and I had forgotten about the woman’s appearance the previous night. I pushed the window open with one hand, and there she was again. The same woman, standing in the same manner as she had been the previous night.
‘I’m sorry, what time is it?’ she asked.
“And once again, I nodded, looked at the clock, and told her the time.”
‘Thank you very much,’ she said as if I had done her a great favor.
“And again, she left before I could utter a word.
“To my surprise, she came back the third day, at the same time, and repeated what had by now began to sound like a jingle in my head.
‘Sorry for the trouble, what time is it?’
“Now, I had obliged to her request twice before out of the sheer courtesy a human is expected to extend towards another, of which a man has a great deal more for the feminine lot than he does for the masculine. This time, however, the skeptic in me took charge, and I decided to dial down on the courtesy.
‘Pardon me, ma’am, but may I know why you’ve been knocking at my window and asking for the time. I only ask for it has been thrice in a row you—’
“The woman’s smile vanished, and the glow in her face dimmed a great deal. I felt the guilt a parent must feel when they are compelled to decline a child’s demands.
‘Er—I mean, I am happy to help you. I was curious, you see, to know—er—why is it
that you’ve been knocking at my window and asking for time.’
The woman pursed her lips and began her soliloquy.
‘I know it must look strange; for me to knock at your window at this hour every day and ask for the time. The thing is, it has only been a couple of months since I came to this town. I have neither any relatives nor acquaintances here. I work at the Malcolm Baker library as a bookkeeper, the one down the street? It often gets very late as I leave the library. To get to the taxi stand, I must walk this dark street, which is something I have not yet gotten accustomed to. When the bushes on the side of the road rustle, fear grips me, and, although my legs carry me forward, my mind stays back with the bushes, concocting the worst possible scenarios. Never before in my life have I ever had to walk alone at this hour. I remind myself every day that my fears are unfounded and that I am completely safe, but the moment I step out of the library at night, the conviction I have at the beginning of the day that everything will turn out right leaves my mind. It has made me walk faster and faster each day, to the point it seems I am running. But, two days ago, as I was on my way to the taxi stand, I noticed the light in your room turn on.
'Every house, but for yours, on the street was engulfed in darkness; so much so that I could not tell where the windows ended and the walls began. But I felt calm as I looked at your window, the nebulous light the only source of positivity amidst the gloom.
'I strode towards this window and knocked, not knowing what I was going to say. When you opened the window, I said the first thing that came to my mind at that moment. I could not think of much else to say, and fearing you might frown at the intrusion, I decided to leave. The brief interaction I had with you was enough for me to continue walking the rest of the distance. I had not intended to visit your house the next day, but when I saw your window light up, I could not help but walk towards it. And so I did today, too. I am truly sorry if my actions have inconvenienced you.’
“I had not been afraid of the dark, but the woman’s narration, in conjunction with the earnestness in her voice, made me feel a fear I had never experienced. I wished to comfort her with a thousand words, but at that moment, it seemed difficult to come up with even a handful. I had to say something, for the woman looked to be on the verge of crying."
‘Er—it is fine, ma’am. I was not inconvenienced the least bit. Had I known what your trouble was, I would have certainly attempted to assist you.’
“She smiled as I said that.”
‘Thank you so much, mister. I will be on my way now, it’s getting late.’
‘Would it be alright if I were to accompany you?’
‘That would be very kind of you.’
“And so I did. I walked with her to the taxi stand. I did not say much, for I believed she was not looking for comforting words but merely an acquaintance to walk alongside her. She told me her name was Lynette. As I came back home, I slept peacefully for the third night in a row.
“I spent a good part of the next day reliving the walk I had taken with her, for I wanted to etch it permanently upon my memory. Upon returning from work, as I was about to take a nap, someone knocked at the window. I indignantly walked to the window, hoping to return to my bed as soon as I can, and pushed it open half-heartedly. My eyes fell on a face that was guaranteed to make any ailment, let alone a sour mood, vanish in seconds."
‘Hello! What a pleasant surprise!’ I said to Lynette.
‘Hi! I left early today and thought I’d say hello before going home. I hope I did not trouble you.’
“It befuddles me to this day why every person who makes your day with their action feels the need to ask if they have caused you any trouble.
‘Not at all. I was—er—having tea. Would you like to have a cup, too?’
“Lynette’s face lit up with genuine happiness as she nodded. But, there was a problem."
‘The thing is, a tree has fallen over the main door. It has wedged in so perfectly between the door and a wall that it is impossible for me to push the door open. I enter and leave through the window. Will you be able to…?’
‘To climb through the window and enter your house? Why, yes!’
“I jumped out the window. She took her sandals off, I threw them inside and asked her to step on my thigh and get in. Before I could realize it, she had effortlessly glided into my house, without causing so much as a crease on my trousers.
“The two of us were sipping tea silently, unsure what the appropriate thing to say would be. Suddenly, Lynette began laughing uncontrollably like a child. She put down the cup and put a hand over her mouth. I could but smile nervously as I was busy thinking what silly thing of mine she was laughing at. She stopped laughing and said,
‘I’m sorry. It’s just the absurdity of the situation that made me laugh. Until three days ago, I was walking nervously on the street, not knowing a soul here. And here I am, jumping through windows and sipping tea in your house.’
‘Yes, it’s strange. But, so long as it makes one happy, I suppose a little bit of absurdity is fine.’
“She nodded in mock agreement. We talked, smiled, and laughed for quite some time. And then, she left, through the window, of course.
“When I got up the next day, I made sure the house was tidy, and everything was perfect, lest she were to come by in the afternoon today as well. I had even prepared an extra cup of tea. However, it was I who had to drink both the cups. I waited for her at night, but she didn’t come then, too. For two more days, I waited for her to manifest inexplicably in front of the window, but she did not show up. I decided to visit the library and surprise her this time."
‘Excuse me,’ I said to the woman at the desk. ‘Is Ms. Lynette here?’
The woman, without looking at me, asked, ‘Who?’
‘Ms. Lynette. She works here.’
An older woman behind her said, ‘He’s asking about the dim-wit.’
The woman at the desk laughed and covered her mouth. She looked me in the eye and said,
‘She was fired three days ago, sir.’
“I had spent but a few hours in Lynette’s company and yet I felt as if a great tragedy had befallen a dear friend of mine.”
‘But, why?’ I demanded.
‘Had you been in our place sir, you would have done the same,’ said the older woman. ‘Nancy here, and I had to rectify all of her mistakes. She was a piece of work, that one. You so much as tap her shoulder from behind and she would jump as if you had electrocuted her. She would do an hour’s work in a day. It was not for nothing we called her dunce around here.’
“The women laughed again and got busy chatting. I walked away. I realized that the day she had tea at my house must have been her last day at the library. Yet, not once did she say anything about the trouble she was going through.
“I kept thinking how something like this could have happened. I was feeling sorry for her but as I realized she would no longer pass in front of my house, I felt terrible. I determined to find her.
“I would wait on the street, staring into the direction from where she used to come. I looked for her in a few libraries in the area, thinking perhaps she might have secured employment there. I kept looking for her for weeks, but—", Jim sighed. "I never found her. It felt as if a gift I was given, had been snatched from me, perhaps for I never was worthy of receiving it."
Jim kept looking at the grass silently. Grace gave a smile through pursed lips. Her friend, having been touched by the story, decided to walk up to Jim and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you for telling the story, Mr. Jim,” she said with a smile. “I hope you find her one day. I will tell this story to my aunt, I’m sure she will like it as much as I have.”
Jim smiled. “Is she a bookworm, too?”
“Not just that, she—here she is.”
Jim turned around and saw a woman walking towards them. He got up and extended his hand.
“Jim Barnett, ma’am.”
The woman, instead of taking Jim’s hand, kept staring at him. A frown appeared on her face. She looked like she had seen an apparition. Gradually, however, a smile appeared on her face. She put her hand on her chest, shook her head, and took a couple of steps back.
“Er, has Grace told you something funny about me?” Jim asked nervously.
The woman shook her head and kept smiling. Finally, she said, “Just a moment.”
She looked around her, searching for something. Then, she called the two girls near her, whispered something in their ears, and walked a few steps away from Jim. The girls giggled and on cue from the woman, held their hands at right angles, forming a perfect square. The woman positioned herself so Jim could see her through the square. She tilted her head to the side, held her purse in front of her, and, with a smile that would have cleansed a soul said,
“Now, do you remember me?”