The church bell tolled thrice on a lazy afternoon at Sarzora, surprising the lone crow perched upon the ornate Iron Gate. Ambrose sat outside the cemetery, leaning against the moss covered compound wall unaffected by the crowd in black pouring out of the entrance. He freed the cloth tied around his balding head and wiped off the sweat trickling down his neck, now staring at the woman wearing a large black veiled hat. He was amused by her act of lifting the veil to dab away the tears escaping her droopy eyes, making sure that her fake eyelashes do not come off in the process. Must be the wife of the man whose grave I dug, he thought.
“Have you no shame, staring at women like that? Ambrose, are you deaf?”
Startled by this unexpected interruption, Ambrose looked up at the man wearing a white clergy robe bending down upon him. Why, of course, it was the fat priest of the Church. “A man like me can only afford such entertainments. Why father? You don’t like looking at women? Oh I forgot, you are a proud celibate.” Ambrose replied, squinting to escape the violent sun rays toying with his eyes. The priest wasn’t new to his verbal diarrhea. Calming his rising anger by squeezing the rosary in his palm, he replied “Here is your two hundred rupees. Even a baboon has more decency than you. Now leave!”. Ambrose stood up, intimidated by the composed stance of the priest but hid it soon with a sneer. “I heard that Mr. Dias from the house near the village hospital is on ventilator. He will die, no father? I will be right here waiting.” Ambrose said pointing at the ground “Call no one else but me to dig his hole. Two hundred rupees yeah? ”. The priest could do nothing but shake his head as Ambrose snatched the money from between his fingers and walked away humming an old Goan tune.
Daisy Villa was a hut. A dwarf of a house with just one room and a veranda, the right side of which was transformed into a makeshift kitchen. But for Ambrose, this small dwelling was a villa and he made sure everyone called it so by hanging an old Aluminium plate reading ‘DAISY VILLA’ on the barbed fence. Daisy, his mother, sat near the kerosene stove and was clearly agitated by its uselessness. She jolted as Ambrose dropped a black smelly plastic bag beside her.
“Old woman, I bought some fine prawns. There is a coconut left, yeah? Make my favourite prawns cooked in coconut milk tonight, yeah?”.
Daisy cocked her head as she said “Prawns? You wasted all that money on prawns? What about some kerosene to light this bloody stove! Ambrose, you need a woman to set you straight. You are 41 without a wife.”
Oh, how Ambrose loved to see her eyes blazing. She was all he had and all he would ever need. He cupped her pale face between his palms and blew her a kiss.
“Mr.Dias is dying tonight. I will visit the village hospital tonight to know for sure. This means I will be digging his grave tomorrow. The priest would give me two hundred rupees and I will get your bloody kerosene, yeah? And no! I don’t want a wife. I like this life of you and me.” Ambrose smiles on seeing Daisy soften. “Now I will go and chop some wood so that you can cook these prawns for me. Ok, old woman?”.
Daisy let out a sigh and lowered her head as she said “Ambrose, only you can be so happy on hearing another man’s death. Tomorrow when I die, I want to see this very excitement while you dig up my grave.”
“God doesn’t love you mother. You are here to stay forever” screamed Ambrose as he struck the log with an axe, splitting it into two.
That night after finishing a portion of the coconut prawn curry, Ambrose locked up his old Daisy within the safe confines of his Daisy Villa and made his way towards the Village hospital. The hospital was never a first choice of the rich landlords of Sarzora, who always went to town for treating as much as a common cold. It was either imminent death or an emergency that brought the affluent to the village hospital. Mr.Dias was one such case. At 85 years of age, with 3 wives and 8 children, Mr.Dias was a piping hot subject among the villagers. For a twig of a man that he was, Ambrose wondered as to how he survived so long. Tonight, the hospital gallery was bustling with people wearing rich clothes and leather shoes. Ambrose caught hold of a yawning security guard and enquired “Is he dead yet?”
“Ambrose will you ever show some compassion?” the young guard replied.
“Oh please Louis. You and I know how this works. I come here and you tell me if someone will die or not. I go home and sleep, only to wake up for digging up another grave. These deaths are important to me.” Ambrose wasn’t new to such a reception from Louis.
Louis looked around and whispered “ Ok. I heard that they will remove him from the machine in half an hour. I think the man will die before midnight.”
“Thank God for another grave!” Ambrose exclaimed, “That daft bugger was anyway past his expiry date.” Poor Louis was left gaping at the retreating silhouette of his grave digger friend.
Morning came and Ambrose slept outside the cemetery compound while Mr Dias was being lowered into a freshly dug hole. The bell tolled thrice, yet again surprising the crow perched on the iron gate. “Hey Ambru! Here, take your two hundred rupees.” Ambrose grinned and raised his right arm, his eyes remaining shut. He opened his eyes on feeling the notes being pressed onto his palm and saw the priest walking away.
“Any more deaths that need my digging, eh father?”.
The priest stopped, looked up for a few seconds as if waiting for some divine intervention and continued walking.
‘I must buy some kerosene for the stove. No, I will get a shawl for my old Daisy. That would finish off my money. I wonder if anyone would die today. Matilda’s husband had pneumonia, no?’ with a mind chock-full of thoughts, Ambrose made his way towards the nearest cloth shop. It was only by late evening that Ambrose entered his villa, with a cream shawl hidden under his dirty shirt. The lamp wasn’t burning this evening, leaving Ambrose annoyed because this only meant that Daisy had gone to their neighbour Xavier’s house, to watch Television. Ambrose took a deep breath and decided to lie on the veranda waiting for his old woman to come back. God! He was hungry.
Ambrose woke up on hearing Louis call his name. How long did he sleep? “I searched for you everywhere! I came home by 5, but you weren’t here. Daisy is in the village hospital. Xavier found her unconscious near the stove and rushed her to the hospital. Come now!”
The hospital wasn’t packed tonight and there were no rich clothes or leather shoes filling up the gallery. “Is my Daisy ok, Louis?” Ambrose asked, scared to look him in the eye. Silence was his only reply. Louis signalled the village doctor who walked up to them and asked, “Is he the son?”. On receiving a nod, the doctor looked at Ambrose and without a tinge of sentiment declared “Your mother Daisy? Yeah so she died. Heart attack. Sorry for your loss”. He tapped his shoulders gently and walked away.
Everyone watched as Ambrose dug out a hole. The grave digger, digging his mother’s grave. It was a vision, of course. Sure to be a sensational topic for discussion. But Ambrose was oblivious to it all. He kept digging, unaware of the sweat mixing with his tears. “Ambrose, only you can be so happy on hearing another man’s death. Tomorrow when I die, I want to see this very excitement while you dig up my grave.” Her words kept ringing in his ears. He tried to mute down the voices in his head by digging faster. Frustrated, Ambrose wailed as he fell on his knees and lay curled up inside the newly dug grave.
The bell tolled thrice and Daisy slept peacefully. No one stopped Ambrose as he walked out of the cemetery. “Want Two hundred rupees?” the village lunatic mocked, holding out two dried Eucalyptus leafs as Ambrose walked past him. Louis never saw Ambrose again and neither did anyone else. The village wondered till his story decayed. The church found a new grave digger.
Like the wax left behind on the desk, reminding us of a candle that once burnt, all that was left behind was a hut. The dirty aluminium plate hanging on the fence screaming ‘DAISY VILLA’.
P.S- Some stories are simple. Yet you write them because they are stories nonetheless.
P.P.S- That beautiful house I saw in Varkala, was the inspiration. Also, for those who don't know, Sarzora is a village in South Goa. :)