Robert was perceived as a strict individual. He commanded respect in society but much of that respect emanated out of fear for him. It was not that he was aggressive or boisterous or displayed a raging temper. But it was his quiet and grim demeanour coupled with his broad chest and a six-and-a-half-foot tall frame that evoked a sense of awe among people. Robert had a booming voice but not many had heard it. He was the silent-kind who let his presence do the talking.
He had gotten married to Audrey five years ago and were the proud parents of three-year old Rick. Robert was the perfect husband and a doting father. But his interaction with his family was more business-like than anything else. He fulfilled all their needs even before they asked for it and made sure that they were happy, healthy, and well-taken-care-of. But what Audrey and Rick missed the most were emotions from the man. She missed what most other couples generally indulged in – the romantic dinners, the late-night movies, the weekend supermarket shopping. Little Rick, though too young to comprehend, could understand that the way his mother held him was distinctly different from the way his father did.
Robert was a successful investment banker in a multi-national bank in Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlet in London. A six-figure salary, a Mercedes Benz convertible, Armani suits, and a beautiful house in south London – the Smiths were more than just well-off. But Audrey could always sense that her husband was not completely happy. She had often asked him, but whenever she had brought up the topic, he had become very defensive and resorted to stark silence. It was as if the answers were locked up in a box within Robert’s heart and he had hidden the key. It was as if it was down a road that he never intended to travel.
Today was Rick’s third birthday and there was a party at Audrey’s parents’ home in Dover. Robert was not too fond of his in-laws and it had been decided that Audrey and Rick would be leaving for Dover in the morning and he would be joining them later. Audrey was preparing breakfast and Rick was sitting on the sofa surrounded with toys. Robert was engaged in his usual Sunday activity – lounging on the armchair in the den, the Business page of the newspaper flipped open before him.
While getting dressed, Audrey called out, “Bob, do remember to eat lunch. The chicken is in the oven and the mashed potatoes are in the fridge. You won’t forget, will you?”.There was just an, “Uh-huh” from the den – Audrey knew that that was all that she would get out of him. It used to bother her previously, but now she had made her peace with it. “Please leave home early – you know how exacerbating the traffic gets”, she said while double-checking if she had packed Rick’s diapers. Once again, there was a quiet little, “Uh-huh”.
It was 8:30 when they left. Robert had calculated that in order to reach his in-laws’ place in time for the party, he would have to leave by 4:30 in the afternoon – so that gave him a good eight hours. He shaved, took a bath, checked his emails, and by the time he was done with lunch, the clock on the dining table showed 1 pm. He decided to snuggle back into his armchair and on his way there he poured himself a glass of Glen Livet. Robert realized that it had been quite a while that he had had an afternoon to himself. Not that he did not like having his wife and kid around, but ruminating in peace was something that he had always loved. The rocking of the chair, the smoothness of the Scotch, and the ambience of a peaceful Sunday encouraged an uninterrupted chain of thoughts.
A secret about Robert Smith that nobody – absolutely nobody – knew was that he found solace in nostalgia. The road which he never travelled with his wife, his small circle of friends, or his relatives, appeared much more accessible and welcoming when he tread on it alone. Robert’s parents had passed away in a car accident when he was a toddler. He was brought up by his paternal aunt who always claimed with subtlety that he was the reason why she had remained a spinster. He did not remember his parents at all and their presence in his life was limited to the two ornately framed photographs in his bedroom.
What gripped Robert every time he lost himself in reminiscence were his student days. A boarding school from a very young age, followed by four years of hostel life at Oxford, had sown in him the seeds of a self-made man. What surprised Robert even today was how he ended up being a banker. He always had a penchant for the arts. He was a phenomenal violin player all through school and college. He loved to cook and had always dreamed of donning the chef’s hat with pride one day. Actually, his magic with the violin and with food was what had Audrey falling for him in college! He was a different person back then – his curly locks falling on the brow, a wide grin on the face, and a wardrobe full of Pink Floyd T-shirts.
Life was so wonderful back then! Every Saturday after classes, he, along with his two best mates – Conrad and George, used to go to this quaint bar called ‘Glasses’ where they talked about everything under the sun over fish-and-chips and cans of beer. Inebriation seemed so innocent back then! The three friends had decided among themselves that once they graduated, they would set up a restaurant together. No prizes for guessing that Robert would be taking care of the food. But then…..but then something happened and nothing of this had materialized. During their last week of college, when Conrad and George had asked Robert how they should go about their venture, he suddenly backed out. He told them that he needed to do something more meaningful; something that was a more stable source of income; something that is fit for an Oxonian. Leaving his two friends befuddled, he walked away and literally never looked back at them.
Robert never realized when he had fallen asleep and his conscious self gave way to the sub-conscious and his thoughts started flowing like a poetic dream:-
“Four decades old, walking in the beautiful Garden of Eden one sunny April morning,
Suddenly I chance upon my 20-year old self,
Who with an innocuous grin, comes forth asking, “Hey, how’s it going?”
I realize that other than the receding hairline and a bigger belt size nothing much had changed –
Probably the dark ‘Pink Floyd’ T-shirt would not suit me quite as much now,
Whereas the Saville Row suit on me would look boring even back then!
While I was caught up in my own thoughts, he repeats, “I say, you look like one of those really successful men!”
“You must have become the chef that you had always dreamed of, and mastered the violin like no other?”
I just nod your head in denial and quietly say, “Oh why even bother?”
“Then you must be still teaching English to the deprived children in the NGO?”
Head bowed down and silence on the lips is enough to convey a ‘no’.
“What about the little shack where you loved to paint and shared a beer with your mates?”
As I fish for something in your pocket, I reply, “Wait!”
Handing him my business card, I harangue, “I am a high-flying banker with a six figure emolument – I drive a Merc and vacation abroad twice a year – tell me boy, how can I go to such a lowly place today?”
The boy, with unblinking eyes, has nothing to say.
He turns away and before leaving whispers, “Should I grow up at all then?”
As I fumble for answers, I realize that I never actually followed my passion,
I was content to engage in whatever was in fashion.
I try to laugh it off, dismissing it as something inanely funny –
But in my heart, I know that I am so poor that all I have is money.”
Robert woke up with a jerk. Suddenly realization dawned upon him and everything became crystal clear. He was fighting a battle with himself because he was lacking inner peace which eluded him as he was not making his vocation and avocation one. If only he had walked the road less-travelled much earlier and had asked Audrey to accompany him, he would have found not only success but also happiness. As he shook himself up, he made up his mind – he would drive down to Dover, have a heart-to-heart chat with his wife, and do his best to turn things around. And today was not a bad day to start off – it was little Rick’s birthday after all!