Too late

‘Aniljaphur is so beautiful’ mused Rani, as she gazed across the bay towards the headland. The morning light seasoned the beach like saffron, and sparked and glinted from the ripples of the sea. The sand was virgin, unmarked, refreshed by the gentle scouring of the tide. The awnings under which a few tourists enjoyed an early breakfast were festive, their colours glowing in the sun.
“Like a wedding feast,” thought Rani, smiling to herself. It wouldn’t be long now, just eight days. She scanned the buildings along the sea-front, trying to catch sight of her husband-to-be, Faroukh. He was usually there first thing in the morning, making sure that everything was smart, that the staff were ready, that nothing would interfere with the comfort of his customers. Rani hoped that he would pause on the terrace, glance at her house and wave; he had often done so since they were betrothed. She would recognise his build, his stance, and imagine the smile on his face – although he was too far away for her to make out his features.
“Not that he’s perfect,” she added hastily to herself. Modern businessman though he was, Faroukh held some rather traditional ideas about the role of women. ‘Well, he’ll learn,’ she thought, and giggled quietly to herself over the shock he was going to have when he saw her on the beach later with his five year old cousin. “You can’t expect me to take care of Sanjay on the beach in anything other than a bathing costume. I need to be ready to fish him out of the water if anything goes wrong.” Thus she rehearsed her excuses.
Panjit Engineer was less enraptured by the day – and a great deal less by Faroukh Patel. He had spent a sleepless and angry night. For months he had worked long hours, completing his routine tasks as the local government engineer, clearing time in his schedule for the project closest to his heart, the culmination of years of scheming. He had planned carefully, cajoled suppliers for components, sweet-talked local businessmen into sponsoring the work and finally persuaded his bosses to support the extension of the tsunami early warning system as far as Aniljaphur. Today he had intended to start work on it. And now Faroukh….
Panjit had many legitimate calls made upon his time. He did not view tarting up the town for Faroukh’s nuptials as one of them. “This has nothing to do with jealousy of Faroukh,” he told himself – and, indeed, others. “It’s a matter of the public good. Life or death,” he muttered furiously, as he marched to the engineering depot to issue paint, brushes and overalls to his staff so that they might brighten the civic buildings.
Faroukh had come to him bright-eyed, smiling with camaraderie, seeking to persuade him that it would enhance the reputation of the town with the tourists if the town hall and police station were smartened up. Panjit had demurred; such jobs were best done out of season. He would have to cordon off areas of the town square, hindering the visitors.  “Then you should have done it last year,” Faroukh had said, nastily. “Our public buildings are a disgrace. I shall complain to the State Chief Engineer.”
“Do as you wish,” Panjit had shrugged. “I have my priorities given to me by the Chief himself.” Two hours later he had received a phone call, not from the Chief Engineer but from the Third Assistant, brusquely ordering him to attend to the painting of the buildings without delay – and informing him that the Chief Engineer was displeased that civic amenities had been allowed to deteriorate to the point at which they brought complaints.
The day wore away. Late in the afternoon Panjit went to check what progress had been made. The window frames of the Town Hall, now stripped of paint, showed areas where the wood had rotted and flaked. “We can’t paint over that.” He whistled through his teeth, then clucked with irritation. “You’ll have to fill the gaps and sand down before you can paint,” he told his crew.
“Quite right, too. I don’t want a shoddy job. But I know you’re a professional, Panjit.”
Faroukh. Patronising, bloody Faroukh. Panjit toyed with the idea of taking a swing at him. It would almost be worth losing his job to see Faroukh flat on his back. But then, Faroukh would probably duck and hit back. Panjit remembered from childhood just how hard Faroukh could punch. Sometimes life could be a real bitch.
Panjit grunted and turned his back. He imagined a sneer on Faroukh’s face, and his fists balled. “One day,” he thought furiously. “One day.”
The beach was still packed with tourists. Rani yawned. Looking after little Sanjay was fun, but there were things she would rather be doing. Still, he was enjoying himself splashing in the warm, shallow water. She waved and smiled at him from her seat under a brolly halfway up the beach.
She blinked. Her eyes seemed to be playing tricks. The horizon looked dark and fuzzy. “How strange,” she thought, trying to focus. She shook her head, as though to clear it. The fuzziness remained, indeed it intensified. Was that a roaring in the air, or was her hearing playing tricks on her?
No, she was alright. Everything else seemed clear and sharp to her vision, and the music from the nearby café tinkled with its normal tone.
People in the sea were waving their arms and shouting. Some of them were running back onto the beach.
Suddenly Rani realised. Her face and fingers felt icy, and her heart pounded. She leapt to her feet and ran towards the water, calling out to Sanjay as she went. Sanjay was staring out to sea. The wall of water was clear enough now, and racing towards them like an express train. Rani ran as fast as she could, banging and barging past terrified tourists as they fled from the wave. She snatched Sanjay into her arms and gasped as the tumult engulfed her.
It was black, and her ears were deafened by the silent cacophony of rushing water. She held Sanjay desperately tightly. She would not lose him, she wouldn’t let go no matter what. Holding him was the only action she could control as the force of the cataract spun her, accelerated her, tossed her from side to side.
Then her head was clear of the surface. She gasped a lungful of air and tugged Sanjay as high out of the water as she could. She heard him cough and felt him heaving, trying to rid himself of the water he’d inhaled. She caught sight of some buildings. Why, that was the supermarket! But that was two hundred metres inland! And still the wave drove on, still she was powerless to resist. She twisted over onto her back, with Sanjay above her so that his head would stay in the air. She could hear him shouting “Rani! Rani! I’m frightened!” Thank God. He was still alive. She would never have forgiven herself if he had drowned.
The blow to her head as the tsunami smashed her into a tree was shocking and final.
Panjit, senses dimmed by fury, only realised something was amiss when people came pounding up the hill towards the Town Hall. Then, amid the shrieks he heard the word “Tsunami”. Faroukh grabbed his shoulder. “You incompetent bastard, this is your fault. You should have installed that warning system. Rani’s down there with Sanjay!“ He gestured theatrically.
Panjit started to run downhill and then, as he rounded the corner, stopped. A great tide of mud raced past him. Tables and chairs from the beach cafes tumbled in the maelstrom. Bright awnings, like coloured sails, gave a macabre gaiety to the scene. “Mother of God,” he gasped as an entire shop floated stately before him.
He saw a struggling form, close to the edge. Holding tightly to a tree, he leaned out to try and grab it. The torrent tugged at him, wrenching his arm, but he caught the man’s hand. Every muscle strained with exertion, he fought to drag the man to safety. He could see the man’s face, desperate. A white face, a tourist.
The man sank from view. Panjit pulled harder, and then, like a cork from the bottle, the man came free of the flood as he found his footing.
“Get up the hill, up the hill,” gasped Panjit. “Don’t wait here; the water will rise higher.” The stranger stumbled off, climbing to safety.
Panjit looked back down the hill and crossed himself. The entire lower part of the town had been swept away. The last buildings had been demolished even as he had pulled the survivor clear. And still the water was pouring inland, as though it would never stop.
Panting, ears singing, Panjit followed the course of the wave, keeping as close to the edge as possible. Where was Rani; where was she?
The great tide seemed to be slackening a little as he made his way inland. There! There was another figure, a woman in a bathing costume, so fouled with mud that it was impossible to tell whether she was local or a tourist. She wasn’t moving. The current held her fast against a tree, caught in its branches.
Panjit couldn’t reach her. If she was alive, only God could help her; she was beyond the reach of man until the torrent subsided. Sobbing, Panjit struggled onwards.
About fifty yards ahead a small figure spun in an eddy. Maybe he could be saved; the current looked less fierce there. A tourist came pounding down the hill with a rope. Panjit pointed. The man with the rope nodded and together they ran towards the child. Panjit grabbed the end of the rope and knotted it around his body. His helper wrapped the rope around a tree trunk twice, then braced himself. Panjit gestured approval and plunged into the race.
God, it was strong! Even here where the full force was broken it had immediately swept him off his feet. Pointless to fight it; he must work with it and edge his way towards the youngster. But he must be quick; the lad was face down and not moving. Inch by inch, Panjit manoeuvred closer until at last he could grab the form.
In a sudden rage of strength Panjit plucked the youth bodily from the water. His stomach heaved. It was Sanjay, his sister’s child and Faroukh’s cousin. He prayed aloud as he fought his way towards the water’s edge.
As he struggled ashore, his helper grabbed the inert form and expertly began trying to resuscitate him. Panjit watched helplessly. He shuddered continuously. The other man looked up at him and shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid we were too late.”
“Keep trying. Oh, please – keep trying.” The words were a whisper, but the man heard them. He couldn’t meet Panjit’s eyes.
“It’s no use. I’m so sorry, but he’s beyond our help. I know – I’m a doctor” Then, shamed by Panjit’s grief he bent to the task once more. For several minutes he laboured. The body didn’t stir. The doctor stood up. He reached out to Panjit, took him in his arms and held him as he wailed.
Behind Panjit the sea had started to retreat, gurgling as it swirled and eddied. Panjit bent down, picked up Sanjay and cradled him.
“I must take him home,” he said.
The doctor nodded. “I suppose there’s a local hospital? They could probably use my help.”
“Yes. Yes, over there.” Panjit nodded to indicate the direction. “About half a mile.“
He trudged up the hill with his burden. As he reached the square he saw Faroukh at the centre of a bustling crowd. He had commandeered ropes, ladders, even lifebelts, and was organising groups of men to rescue those who could be saved. Ignoring the sight, he continued his desolate progress to his sister’s house, to lay his burden to rest and to grieve.
But even the bitter consolation of shared grief was to be denied him. As he wept with his sister that evening, there was a knock at the door. Two police officers stood there.
“Mr Engineer?”
Panjit stared stupidly at the men. “Yes?”
“Mr Engineer, I have a warrant for your arrest for obtaining money by deception.”
Panjit stared blankly at the senior officer who had spoken.
“Deception?”
“Yes, sir.” The officer’s face hardened. “We have had complaints that you solicited money from local businesses for a tsunami early warning system that was never installed.” For a moment the man’s professionalism wavered. “My wife was down there, you bastard,” he gasped. Then he straightened up, and stood very tall.
“You must come with us to the police station.”
The smell of fresh paint taunted Panjit through the whole, long night.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s