Warped Shadows

a novel

1. misty-eyed on a misty morning

Sharp taps on my front door. Who could be out there so early in the morning? I peep through the opening in the window curtain. Nothing I can see in the murky mist. Peril lurking in the pea-soup fog? The indignant Anemoi, the wind gods, inhaling the savage smog out for revenge?

Continuous short and long taps as if someone is telegraphing my name: di-dah-dah-dah di-dah di-di-dit…, but I cannot see anyone out there. My mind goes back to an earlier time in my life. Morse code for my name I had learned earnestly as a girl guide.

Butterflies in my stomach, my eyes glued to the window. Slowly a silhouette appears and turns into a bluish blob as it walks towards the door.

‘Can I come in, Jasmina?’

Whom could that be? No one here knows my name; my first morning in my new house in a new city. My lips buttoned up in fear, my heart trembling. I draw my dressing gown together, my body armour. Look for a butter knife, my Excalibur sword.

‘I live in the block of flats down the street,’ the voice continues—a young boy’s soft, melodic voice. ‘Not as fancy as your new house but still cosy.’

After drumming up a wee bit of courage, I open the door and let him in. ‘How could you knock at my door from so far away,’ regaining my composure, I wonder loudly.

‘Don’t be spooked by this action at a distance,’ he says as he walks in dim light towards the living room. ‘It’s a simple matter of bending Newton’s gravity.’

What a boy! Trying to impress an old woman as if I was his new girlfriend. Practising, perhaps.

‘Or a matter of bending the mind?’ I mutter, thinking that fear makes the mind irrational. We humans might be the most intelligent beings on the planet, but our minds are inherently lazy; they subconsciously rely on shortcuts to make crazy conclusions, such as turning random sounds into orderly Morse code taps.

‘I help neighbours with their computers,’ he continues ignoring my comment. ‘I thought you might need some help.’

‘At this ungodly hour?’

‘Not ungodly for yoga devotees waiting for sunrise for their daily sun salutations.’

‘What do you mean?’

 He ignores my question and continues, ‘I was passing by when I saw the lights on upstairs. Some writers start working early in the morning to brighten up their creative minds with the bursts of the golden dawn, I reckon.’

 ‘You have been to this house before?’ I ask absent-mindedly, wondering: How does he know I’m writing my life story disguised as a novel? A long time ago, I was a journalist in a faraway land, but no one here knows about my past.

‘No, it’s the first time. The old couple before you feared computers as if they were ghosts. Devil’s tool, the old man shouted and pushed me out when I went to see them. His eyes always glued to his old cathode-ray TV screen; his brain roasted by radioactivity. Now in a nursing home. Cancer, I reckon.’

I turn the lights on. I’m kind of mesmerised as the boy continues talking, his face solemn as a choirboy singing in a cathedral, ‘Now you see these 5G towers everywhere; they are being put by the government to control our behaviour. You can’t even stop their ghastly rays by wearing aluminium foil-lined baseball caps. The rays also create new kinds of viruses in the air. The deadly viruses that can wipe us all out in a global pandemic. Never walk near them and never buy a 5G phone, Jasmina. I’m warning you.’

He takes off his jacket and tosses it on the floor as he might have done in his house if his mother was not watching. He touches a silvery necklace around his neck and says, ‘You have to wear one of these anti-5G necklaces to save yourself. Jesus saves but not from 5G nastiness.’ He pulls up a chair and sits at the kitchen table, his hands clasped and elbows resting on the table. ‘What’s for breakfast? I love pancakes.’

I wait to hear whether the wunderkind under the spell of bits and bytes is now going to expound on another new theory that vaccination mutates viruses into deadlier forms or authorities put microchips in vaccines to track people. He is quiet now. Not an anti-vaxxer and not a total jerk.

Feeling safe from his conspiracy punditry, I focus my eyes on my new, benevolent well-wisher. I see a boy of about eleven. His rather fat body—sorry, healthy body, I bow to the goddess of wokeness—hidden in a blue puffer jacket, a pair of yellowish track pants and, socially binding upon boys of his age, an expensive brand of runners. I look at his fair, chubby face and blond hair. To my surprise, the eyes not blue but black. Not a specimen of the so-called master race of mass murderers, I still have nightmares about. Not a younger incarnation of my nemesis. I breathe calmly.

‘I don’t have pancake mix,’ I say, searching the pantry. ‘What about muesli in hot milk?’

‘Make it sweet, sweet, sweet, Jasmina.’

‘How do you know my name?’

He laughs. ‘I know a lot about you, Jasmina. You are as old as my granny, but I like you calling Jasmina. You mind?’

‘I rather like it. What should I call you?’


My face turns mournful. ‘Shakeel, did you say?’

‘My father is English, mother a Muslim, just like your parents.’ He laughs mischievously. ‘Sundays at a church, Fridays at a mosque.’

‘Two days of the week lost to gratify gods and guardians.’

‘I’m just kidding. My parents are not religious.’

‘Are you a time traveller?’ I ask nonchalantly.

He laughs—an innocent laugh. ‘I’m as ordinary as any boy in Raynes Park, London, United Kingdom, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way.’ He reels off his address in the universe as children like to write on the cover of their school notebooks, an attempt to fathom the world’s vastness beyond their little world. He stops momentarily to collect his thoughts. ‘Sometimes, I see things, things about strangers. It happens rarely. Those moments scare me. It’s like being on Escher’s staircase or Möbius strip, which takes you nowhere. I fear that I will be stuck there forever.’ He stares at my face, only for a moment, but it seems like an eternity to me. ‘Nothing supernatural. I bit of mind-reading; I reckon.’

Shakeel, whom I knew some fifty years ago, was also his age. Thin, feeble, almost starving body, black hair, fair skin. His black and wide eyes overflowed with the darkness that inevitably follows a traumatic experience. But I could also see that they once radiated warmth and intelligence.

I put a bowl of muesli and a packet of golden raisins on the table. ‘I can’t find sugar. Still unpacking boxes. Will this do?’

He tops the bowl with raisins, pushes a spoonful in his mouth and says sweetly, ‘Yummy.’

I had never heard my black-haired Shakeel speak, and I imagined his voice was as sweet as this strange boy’s. An incident, the cruellest of all incidents that could happen to children, had turned him into a mute. Trauma does weird things to kids. Tears slip down my cheeks.

‘Why are you crying, Jasmina?’ the boy asks, his voice now syrupy. Sweetened by sugar or saccharine, I wonder.

I start sobbing uncontrollably. My heart pines to hear my name from the lips of that destitute boy from my unfortunate past. Endless echoes of his voice bouncing from the mountains surrounding my hometown in the Himalayas. Sweet melodic echoes saying ‘Jasmina’ just like this mystery boy who makes my heart flutter.

[more to come]

© Surendra Verma 2022

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