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TO ERR

By Arpita Bhawal

Prologue

The only time Nosedive looked back upon his life, was when he found an interesting piece of land for his own grave. Assuming he had another 50 years to live, he saw no reason to occupy what could be hot property for a cold prospect. So he decided to refrain from preparing the ground for his own sake. Naturally, that was the last time he reflected upon the course his life would eventually take. In the 15 years of his peaceful career, Nosedive never accosted anything out of the ordinary. Everything he saw, did and smelt was related to the dead. That was clearly extra-ordinary. As a grave-digger, he once chose to take up a hobby complimenting his occupation - of engraving upon various kinds of stone - but he had to give it up because it was noisy and considering his situation, he deemed it quite inappropriate. The sanctity of the graveyard must be maintained especially when his fellow mates had little to do, except sleep. The incessant chip-chip, he thought could indeed be pretty disturbing to the congregation of heaven-bound souls, who no doubt had heard ample soul-stirring noises all their lives. In fact, my first meeting with Nosedive was with regard to an epitaph for Sir Henry James IV.

The experience of meeting him was electric. No frills no fancies, just plain Nosedive. It hit me harder than any cannonball could possibly ever do. One moment I was standing and then, I was bracing myself with flamboyance in my stalk towards him. It was only to keep myself from falling. I instantly knew what our professors meant when they spoke of a subject hitting you "in the gut". I was enchanted. Of course, a normal woman may not have been.


Chapter One

The midday sun was beating down mercilessly on the shiny tombstones. The foliage looked withered and droopy. The birds hung on to the branches with fatigue. It was going to be a tough summer.

Nosedive held up the palm of his hand to shelter his eyes and squinted at the clear, blue sky. He was used to the solitude of the place and soaring of eagles' overhead, minute specks, scanning the vast expanse of dead land. However, today they seemed to have vanished too like the squirrels, with the sweltering heat. Nosedive decided to retire to the cool interior of his stonewalled shack. With a sigh of relief at the familiarity of the slumbering yard, he turned bending towards the door, a feet smaller than his 6 feet, 6 inches lean, gawky frame. His back was straight; his faded blue shirt and frayed denim shorts hung loose and away from his bony body. His light brown hair reached his shoulders. His long nose, resembling the beak of a hawk, flared ever so slightly at the nostrils before resting majestically on his pale, clean-shaven long face. A deep cleft on his firm chin broke the smoothness, surprising the construct of his blank look, making him resemble a contemplative stallion. At times he even looked handsome in his melancholic demeanour. He was calm and serene just like his fellow mates in the graves and it was impossible to imagine him otherwise, even in death.

Nosedive sniffed the indoor air as he shut the metal door behind him. The stone walls with moss growing on the outside gleamed magically inside. The old Chinese Urn with a huge bunch of two-day old white lilies and yellow daisies appeared fresh and sprightly. It was a bonus when distant relatives visited the graves on a weekday, leaving behind their regret for having missed the funeral in the form of a huge bunch of flowers. Since order and fairness was always held in high esteem in Nosedive's graveyard (all dictates established and neatly recorded in a fine calligraphic hand by him in his Book of the Earth), he promptly removed the flowers from the privileged grave and carried them indoors. If not in life, in death human beings should maintain equality, he reasoned. He felt his chest swell with pride when he thought of the service he was doing to Mankind when they had no other way to achieve equality in death. The variance of the tombstones, in colour and quality was discrimination in itself, something, which was beyond his control.

Nosedive walked around the room, the roof barely a foot above his head, searching for the ancient jewel box that he bought at an auction five years ago. He usually left it under his bedstead but this morning he had misplaced it while trying it on. He was awakened by a vivid dream last night where he saw himself adorned in the finest piece, under scrutiny by the fairest eyes at Church. The number of pieces he had recovered and polished till date was countless. Usually he put them back after a while. But if something was particularly interesting, he added it to his collection. He recalled the spoils of last summer with a languid smile, showing his tiny, finely set yellow teeth. His watery grey hooded eyes, often enigmatic and charming, lit up and his long, artistic fingers twitched with delight as he continued searching for the box. The piece which sprang into life in his elephantine memory, had been Lady Edwina's most prized possession (now his), undoubtedly worth a fortune. When he first held the diamond and sapphire studded brooch in his mud-caked fingers, his eyes watered with joy at the delicate beauty of it: its floral motif, the craftsmanship, the long hours of love and labour that went into it. That was one piece he never would replace in her grave. He had returned the ring and the hairpin though. He found the box peeping from under a heap of unwashed clothes in a tattered laundry basket, near the door of the bath. Then he started contemplating what would be the most appropriate clothing to go with it. Evening mass did not begin until 6 o'clock. He had plenty of time to dress. He closed his eyes as he lay sprawled on the floor, and as a ritual, looked up at the whirring electric fan overhead, a decidedly awkward mate banished off-centre on the ceiling, stretched out his arms beside him as Crucified Jesus Christ and succumbed to the recurring dream.

The shack was all of the huge, single, knick-knack filled room with a tiny bathroom and toilet on the rear. It was open to the sky and inhabited with a 17th century washbasin and bathtub, a couple of plastic buckets, a tin mug, a broken mirror and a rack holding crude soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, a bowl of dried groundnut paste, an ornate silver comb, perfumed toilet water and a string of beads. A small kitchen, on the right side of the room, boasted an equally fascinating medley. A kerosene stove, various sized biscuit tins, plastic plates, chipped Chinaware, steel pots and cooking urns, silver spoons, a supper table covered with a red checked cloth, a fashionable 18th century dining chair with wine-colour cushions and a basket of vegetables caught the eye. The window, large enough to be used as an emergency exit door, overlooked a well-kept vegetable garden with a mock scarecrow, comical and uncomfortable, made of wooden sticks and plastic sheets. A polished, silver candelabra stood on the one feet high windowsill, resplendent with five new, ribbed red candles, each 15 centimetres long.

Besides his books on theology, mining and classical literature, the wall beside his bed was covered with newspaper cuttings, dog-eared, frayed, and turning brown with age. Nosedive read old newspapers with a passion and anything that he thought would need to be remembered for the sake of the world, he cut and pasted on the wall. The Gulf War, Lorena Bobbit, Fathwa, the death of Mother Teresa, all featured on his stone wall. An old wooden desk, disproportionately large in comparison to the size of the room, lay in a state of derelict in the left hand corner of the room, staggering under the weight of books, carving knives, inks, an old atlas, a compass, a red, hard-bound diary that had seen better days, strips of cloth tied together with string and some scratched records. It was impossible to find anything on that desk but Nosedive preferred to keep it that way. It gave the room dignity of labour and made him feel industrious and knowledgeable. The black floor was polished with wax and covered delicately by an old, intricately designed jute carpet, whose hues were muted with use. On the walls hung tapestries depicting The Last Supper, The Crucification of Christ and The Windsor Castle, all of which were give-aways by Sir Henry James IV.

The four poster bedstead sat solemnly opposite the closets on the left wall of the shack. The worn out velvet drapes clung on to the four posters and the heart shaped cushions stained with orange juice and Army Rum lay carelessly on an elaborate bedspread. A matching foot mat completed the list of Nosedive's prized possessions. Nosedive loved the cool, scented air of the room, fresh with flowers every Sunday from the graveyard; he loved the cheerful shafts of sunlight peering through the cracks on the roof tiles, strategically placed to direct rainwater on to the indoor pot of rubber plant and an old sailor's lantern that could house a goldfish. He loved the dilapidated rose pink chandelier that hung from the centre of the room, almost touching his head, with two dim bulbs instead of twelve. He loved the ancient picture frames on the bedside table with his family's photographs: as a boy of five with his mother carrying a basket of apples in his grand-uncle's country home in Leicester; his sister Judith who eloped at the age of fifteen with her sailor husband, only to return with another man whom she would marry at eighteen (not the one in the photograph); Nosedive with his first girlfriend Marie-Jane under a chestnut tree at his maternal uncle's home in Ireland, when he was ten. If there was a shack that was ever lived in, it was this.

A light knock on the door wakened Nosedive. His eyes popped open and he lay still. A second knock confirmed his expectation. Someone must be dead.

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