Shelling, and then hoping

The oysters weren’t quite done yet. Noon breeze caressed him gently, bringing with it the aromas of something yummy. “Something yummy” in Jeremy’s dictionary was oysters. He especially loved the ones they made at The Drunken Crab. Jeremy lazily drew whorls on the outside of his beer mug. He was enjoying the breeze more than the beer. And since it was only very seldom that he allowed himself to enjoy, he was taking his time. Or rather, he’d put it on hold.

Jeremy Y was a strange man. He grew up in a suburban mansion with two parents, two dogs and many goldfish. The latter gave way to many of their kind over the years, but there were always many of them. His parents, Emily and Wilfred, were rich heirs of very rich people who liked to live big. But these things were not that made him strange. It was his incongruous existence at the mansion viz a viz everything and everybody; in fact his incongruity every where. He did not fit in. No, he wasn’t a square peg in a round hole. He was a football trying to snug it in inside a highway tunnel.

Jeremy was home-tutored. And that made things worse. He didn’t have to meet anyone except the tutor who was — to Jeremy — a non-entity anyway. You see, Jeremy did not like people. He did not like places or things or people. He did not like being. He did not like.

But he was sitting here, smelling oysters, the only exception.

And he was wondering whether it was really true. Had he really got married last week? He found himself startled each time this question sneaked in. Kathy was a sweet girl, and was everything his parents would want in a daughter-in-law. Well-groomed, and rich. It didn’t take them long to decide that the two should get married. Jeremy wasn’t asked. He was told. He was always told the next thing to do, so he listened this time as well, and obeyed. Somehow, he was certain Kathy wouldn’t have had it any different than them either. The rich people they lived with and around were clever in ensuring their richness got replenished with every occasion — weddings, funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, divorces. This knowledge relieved him of any trace of guilt that might have visited him about having married a girl without intending to ever be a husband.

Unsuspecting, Kathy walked in.

“Hi! Did you see the rainbow?”

He could never have seen one if it pounded drums in his ears.

“Umm, not really. Well, yes. On TV.”

Kathy’s laughter reminded him of the tinkling bells in this mother’s charm bracelet. There were times when he really listened for something that might take this endless cold out of his chest and every time it was the bracelet that rang in his years, but only to be dumbed by Emily’s sticky-like-toffee laughter.

“Where’ve you been living? Come out here,” chimed Kathy with a sunshine-y tinkle.

He reluctantly got up and even more reluctantly put his hand in hers. Together, they stepped out of the trendy coconut-leaf shack. The drizzle had just given way to a downpour. The rainbow to their right was fading rapidly, and would vanish before he could think of coming up with an excuse to get inside. It, the rainbow, was not going to permit him a view just yet.

Jeremy was in any case interested in other things Goa had to offer. He hadn’t picked it for his honeymoon for rainbows. He had other plans.

“Yeah. There it was. I saw it,” he obliged. And then mumbled a wry “Pity, it got washed away.” Kathy’s enthusiasm was made of stronger stuff. She cried with childish pleasure at the sight of fishermen coming out of the ocean, hopefully with prized catches. She ran towards them and called for him. Jeremy shuffled along the formless sand, glad that the Goan rain had gone as soon as it’d come.

The fishermen were prepared for enthusiastic tourists from the western world.

“Hello, Miss,” said a youngish sea-farer, his skin the color of sun-baked earth.

“Hello to you! Did you get some good catch?”

“Not today, Miss. Just some pomfret and a lot of oysters.”

“Lot of oysters, hmm? Isn’t that good?”

“Not much demand in this season.”

“Can I pick one?” Jeremy’s curiosity got the better of him.

“Yes, yes. Try one, no.”

“Try one?”

“Yes, yes. Open and put in mouth.” He washed one in the sea and handed it to Kathy. She pretended to pry it open to put the smelly meat in her mouth. She didn’t have the stomach for this.

Jeremy, on the other hand, worked it like he’d been doing it all his life. He’d eaten oysters, of course. But this was different.

When the meat dropped in his mouth, he felt an animal surge of triumph. The sticky flesh nudged the insides of his mouth, the weighty smell clung to his throat as he slowly, deliberately chewed the flesh.

“Mm. Very nice.”

Kathy looked at him, surprised. “You know, this is the closest you’ve come to appreciating something? What is it about this oyster?”

“It is a whole world in a shell,” he said as he glanced at her astonished face. Turning away, he was surprised to sense that animal in his chest again. It howled. Just for a bit.

“Thank you,” he said to the fisherman and began walking away. Kathy threw her still unopened mollusk and caught up with him.

“You say strange things.”

Jeremy shrugged and led the way to the Drunken Crab.

Josef, the restaurant’s very young chef, was looking around with two plates in his hands, “Ah, there you are Mr. Y. Thought you’d chickened out. Oysters aren’t for every one. Here, oysters in white wine and celery sauce.”

Kathy, sitting down, looked at the sea and said, “I’ve change my mind. I’ll have your pomfret masala after all.”

Josef didn’t seem much bothered. Probably there’d be more takers of wine-and-celery oysters, “Sure, right away,” he boomed and weaved gracefully through the tables. Kathy couldn’t help following him with her eyes. Jeremy was looking at the sea, his sandy hair protesting against the breeze, his mouth thoughtfully churning the sea-juices.

Picking up the beer pitcher, Kathy poured herself a generous pint, sipped at it, and, licking the froth mustache, pointed out a motorcyclist, “They seem to have a lot of those here. They’re available on rent. The bikes.”

“Hmm,” said Jeremy, doing nothing to hide his disinterest.

Kathy’s enthusiasm had finally caught up with the rainbow. “Did you marry me for any reason other than my father’s money?”

“Hm? Yes, of course,” he made some effort to focus his eyes on hers. “My parents wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Kathy looked away, unable to believe what she’d just heard. And what it implied.

<> <> <>

As a child, Jeremy was quite remarkable. He was inert. So inert, he could be the rug underneath his mother’s Chippendale, and no one would notice. But even more remarkable was his persistent, insistent need to keep away. Jeremy Y was painfully suspicious of everything and everybody. He was quite adept at shrugging off people because he’d practiced over the years to build an impenetrable barbed shell around him. Well, almost.

During a holiday at Aunt Josephine’s ocean home, where his parents had sent him with a hope to soothe his frightfully morbid nerves, 10-year old Jeremy was looking at the deep ocean, stretching out to eternity.

The sea did soothe him. He looked endlessly at the endless troughs and swells, allowing the whispering breeze to lull him out of his apathy. He was so engrossed in this therapeutic daze that he didn’t notice a boy about his age approach him. By the time he did notice him, the visitor had almost sat down next to him. Jeremy’s armor was back up.
“Haven’t seen you around before.”

The sea must’ve made the armor rusty. The normal Jeremy would have kept mulishly quiet, but this day was different “I am visiting my aunt here,” he nodded towards the house below.

“Ms. J’s your aunt? She’s one swell lady.”

Jeremy’s grunt was non-committal.

Marty didn’t seem to notice Jeremy’s disinterest, “You ever fished for oysters?”

“No. I’ve never fished,” said Jeremy and continued to look at the sea. Much to his own surprise, he added, “Seeing an ocean for the first time. It is… very different.”

Strange things happen. It was strange for Jeremy to volunteer more conversation than necessary. He hardly ever got beyond monosyllables and callously truncated sentences. It was probably the stress of this new interaction that became so overwhelming that he got up to leave.

“Hey! Wanna join me help my Dad unload oysters?”

“Where?” Jeremy found himself saying.

“Right down there. Race you,” the boy ran down the gentle slope, Jeremy jogging behind him with no intention of racing, his eyes on the deep blue below. He could feel something changing in him; something filling the empty depths inside.

The friendly new acquaintance won. His dad’s boat was about to moor at the pier. Jeremy saw a pile of brownish green shells on the boat. Oysters were served often at home, but given his general disinterest, he’d never tried them.

The boat was a bright traffic-light green. Her name, Sally Flier, was painted in white along the hull. The boy waved to his father, “Hey, watcha got?”

“Guess you were right about the mood, son. Didn’t get much.” He was now tying Sally Flier to the pier. They chuckled at some secret joke, father and son. Jeremy tried not to look at them. It was embarrassing to see such warmth.

“Who’s your friend?”

“He wants to help me help you. He’s visiting Ms. J, aren’t you umm..?”

Jeremy gave his name and heard himself saying, “Yes sir, I’d like to help.”

“All right then, heave ‘em out and help me load ‘em on the truck. Marty, show how.”

Marty got on the boat and told Jeremy to lift out the load. Jeremy heard the sound of oysters rubbing against each other, he felt the salt-laden air cover him with a crisp blanket of life. As he stood beside Marty’s father, mostly useless, because his partner’s sure hands and muscular body didn’t require much from him, he felt surer and more secure than he’d ever been.

They got the load on the truck; and while he was removing sand from inside his shoes, Jeremy saw his reflection on the rear-view mirror. He was smiling.

Marty came around and picked a couple of oysters, throwing one at Jeremy.

“Open it.”

Jeremy turned it over. He wasn’t quite sure how to, but was reluctant to ask.

“Here, lemme show you,” he pried one open and held it out for Jeremy to see. The pink flesh looked too raw. He’d never seen anything like it. Pink, and gooey. Inviting, somehow.

“Dad says they have an entire world in them.” Marty had begun eating them in a sort of meditative tempo. Jeremy was still, meditatively, on the first one. The raw meat was leathery and soft – a marshmallow with more masculinity than you could ask for.

The rest of the day was a fog in Jeremy’s head. That one oyster opened up a whole new world for him. The sea was bluer than it was in the morning, Aunt Josephine less meddlesome. His parents seemed like specters from a world that didn’t matter.

Jeremy was one with the sea and the oyster’s world was no longer a clammed-up non-entity. It nourished him.

<> <> <>

Evening had set in. The waves had found a deeper urge to embrace the skies. They poured in, one after the other, as Kathy, a solitary figure, walked the beach. This was something she had planned for her honeymoon. But she had not thought that the do-nothing days would be alone.

Marriage wasn’t something she was trained to expect anything from. She knew it had to be with someone her parents would eventually find. Sweet Kathy was never the kind to argue or question, she just accommodated. When she saw Jeremy for the first time, she was impressed with his haughty, disinterested air. She smiled with her girlish fantasy, wondering how his expression would change when he knew her more. His expression hadn’t changed. He hadn’t bothered to know her. What she thought was aristocratic pomp for the benefit of the masses was in fact what Jeremy Y was — a cold fish. Would her marriage be what everyone had promised her it would be, after all — strange lives, hand-in-hand, roboting their way to fuller coffers? That is not what she’d secretly dreamed of. Where was her knight? Even a rusty armor would do.

Jeremy leaned against the wooden pillar, arms tied in an unrelenting cross. Those who had been around him would have thought he was looking as usual at the sea. But those who had been around him did not know him. He wasn’t looking at the sea. He was looking at his wife’s lonely figure drawing whorls (he assumed) on the sand with her toes. Her pretty skirt with periwinkle flowers flagged gayly in the breeze. Her auburn hair flipped. She had movement around her. Quite different from his mother’s well-coiffed hair and crisp dresses. He was watching movement. Something he wasn’t accustomed to doing.

And it scared him.

Even though she was far away from the cottage pillar where he was, he thought he could smell her mild gardenia scent. His mother always used a spicy musk. Musk. Why was he thinking about musk when gardenia was something he’d found himself getting drawn to for as long as he could remember? Why must he always look at what he did not like? Always the same things. Pretension, sacrifice, force, manipulation.  Musk. And here she was, this almost-free figure in white encased in a soft, gentle perfume, so far from all those things that made him crawl into a mother-of-pearl case he hated so much, but stayed on in because it saved him from all those things. She was so far, and she wasn’t a cage.

He shuddered and it wasn’t the Goa breeze. It must’ve been the sudden invasion of emotions he knew had no use in his world. But hadn’t they? Should he go out there and help her tame her unruly hair? He made to go, but thought otherwise and looked at his watch instead. Time for dinner. Oysters. The word brought new energy in him. But what was this new feeling? Did the word just bring some impatience within him? A sort of boredom that the rest of the world made him feel? Surely not the oysters!

This was turning out to be very different from what he’s planned for his honeymoon — spend a day or two in Panaji with Kathy just to keep up the charade, and then catch a bus to south Goa to the bungalow he’d taken special pains to purchase. And then vanish from the world that had Chippendale furniture and indecent cacophony. He’d arranged for everything. And yet, here he was, with Kathy, still in Panaji after four days. Why?

He found himself walking towards her. Before he even realized his unusual action, he was close enough to her. She looked up at him and then looked away. Was it the setting sun or a strange something that made her eyes reflect the ocean? He was mesmerized.

“I..”

“You.”

“I…um. Will you.. um.”

“Will I what?” Kathy spat with surprising ferocity.

“I came here to invite you for dinner.”

“Oysters again.”

“Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to order tonight. Anything. As long as it isn’t clammy.”

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32 thoughts on “Shelling, and then hoping”

    1. Mags, may I ask you what you had in mind for the ending? I am very curious. I hope you read this, and tell me!

      Thank you for your time and appreciation.

      1. When he seemed so interested in oysters, especially when younger, and he was so taken with the whole process, and then the mention of his real estate purchase, I really thought he would just up and leave his new wife and head out to sea.
        I was taken back when he seemed to just all of a sudden decided his wife was pretty good after all, and more or less walk off in the moonlight to go to dinner.

        So yes I was very surprised with the ending, that he decided he may love his wife after all, a very good read, you threw in the unexpected. 😀

        1. WooHoo! It feels good to hear you were thinking and anticipating as you progressed. Just what I want my stories to do, Mags. I love you.

    1. I haven’t read Murakami. Or have I? The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle! Yes. That’s the only one I’ve read and I feel a little proud that you found a character of mine akin to a character he created. His way is quite to my liking! Thank you.

  1. Great to see you continued, Priya. I’m starting to warm to that young man. There’s some hope yet! And I was glad to see some mettle from Kathy. Now what is going to happen over dinner?

  2. Glad to see you back, Priya!

    A couple of things that sprung to my mind while reading –
    How is he being inert & suspicious at the same time?
    The revelation towards the end that he hates his own inertness was a surprise. All the more so because, he is shown to have taken great care to keep that up all his life.

    Is there more? I hope there is.

    1. Have you ever wondered why you keep something you should be throwing away? A beautiful shirt that doesn’t fit anymore, perhaps? Or the last remaining plate from a dinner set that’s all broken? I think Jeremy kept to his inertia and apathy because it saved him from a world he wanted to avoid. And he hated them because they kept him from enjoying a world he could create for himself.

      I couldn’t see suspicion. Where is he suspicious, you think?

      Happy to see you’ve taken interest in him, AIT. I wonder if we’ll come to know more about him and Kathy. They are high maintenance characters… 😉

      1. Umm.. that makes some sense. His suspicion is mentioned in the story at some point. I would imagine his turnaround to have come with much outward struggle and inner conflict. The end didn’t leave me feeling hopeful. In fact, I feared it won’t last because it seemed superficial; lacking in depth. For me, the end was too easy; even though that is the general direction we would all like to see this progress.

        Having said that, being the only disagreeing voice here is making me feel like I missed out on something.

        1. The end seems too easy for me, too. And that’s where this story fails, as far as I am concerned. And yet, in my mind, his struggle is very apparent. The dam perhaps burst when he began noticing his wife — a woman in a situation similar to his own, and yet a totally different approach to it.

          Being the only disagreeing voice doesn’t ever mean not looking at everything, or being wrong. Thank you for your honest feedback. I like it mainly because I agree with it! 😉

  3. I’m as fascinated by the saga as I am that you write in long-hand. It’s such a classic old-school form of creating a story and the photo of your words, and the changes, is incredibly appealing.

    I love that you continue to write.

  4. At last, Jeremy has moved toward humanity. That’s what was missing — the movement that makes it a story. Congratulations, Priya. I knew you could do it, and I’m sure there will be many more stories to come.

  5. Priya, this is a rewrite of something you posted a month or so ago, isn’t it? I like this one a lot! And I’m looking forward to dinner.

    I, too, see parallels between Jeremy and some of Murakami’s characters. There’s this distance to them…a seemingly unfathomable disconnection.

    I find it intrigueing and rather real that Jeremy is both inert and suspicious at the same time. There is an underlying movement within his carefully crafted disengagement. He is as suspicious of himself as he is of the world at large….(I think, anyway.) A very human condition.

    And I can relate to him hating the persona he has crafted. Perhaps it no longer fits. Perhaps he is going to discover that. Perhaps he is going to be cracked open and freed from his shell….?

    It is fascinating to watch as you work through this. It is sheer magic to me.

    1. You might be right, Linda. Perhaps he has shelled himself. Cracked open his shell. Perhaps proximity to a woman who is apparently in a similar situation as himself, and has still retained some of her hope and excitement has brought about the change enough to make him want to eat something “not clammy”. Maybe he’s discovered that that skirt with periwinkle flowers is what he needs to move on, and not a secluded bungalow somewhere…

      Your last line has made me smile with each reminder of it all of these days, Linda. Thank you.

  6. Lovely Priya. I’m also glad that you continued the story and I also love the ending.

    I was surprised to discover that I’m beginning to feel sorry for Jeremy, so that I “like” him (“he could be the rug underneath his mother’s Chippendale, and no one would notice”).

    I loved:
    “Jeremy was one with the sea and the oyster’s world was no longer a clammed-up non-entity. It nourished him.”

    “The waves had found a deeper urge to embrace the skies.”

    “Why was he thinking about musk when gardenia was something he’d found himself getting drawn to for as long as he could remember?”

    Jeremy’s answer to: “Did you marry me for any reason other than my father’s money?”

    1. I was relieved to feel sorry for him. For almost a year, I was impatient of his mulish insistence on being unreceptive. It’s such a good thing he began to finally respond! Let’s all thank Kathy, I think.

  7. The congenital optimist in me loves this new twist Priya…a bit of a googly…but a most welcome one…Jeremy is finally joining the mainstream of human feelings….and Kathy  showing spunk..what a wonderful story teller you are Priya!

    1. It might seem a bit uppity to you, Shama, but I have a suspicion that the story wrote itself. I felt so handicapped with this one, it took a lot of time to feel what a person like Jeremy would want to do. I guess he’s begun speaking coherent thoughts. Finally!

  8. I’ve just read the first – unfinished – one you posted (Unspoken Commitments) and now this. I have a few thoughts…

    First off, it’s good but I’d have ended it with Jeremy noticing Kathy’s toes making whorls in the sand. It shows very clearly the link in his mind with the oysters and his awakening to the lovely wife he has. (And I’d remove the – unneeded – ‘he assumed’). Somehow the oysters have woken up this quiet and internal man.

    I think you may have been having difficulty with this story for a few reasons: first off you were inspired by someone else’s character who was played a very strong actor. That’s probably the wrong initial motivation for a story that should come from inside yourself to start with.

    Next, you said yourself in a comment (it may have been in the other post) that you don’t much like oysters. I think to write convincingly about a character’s passion, you either have to feel yourself into that passion or know that passion in the first place.

    And finally, I think that a major sticking point may have been in your insistence that Jeremy is apathetic. Why was he apathetic? Because nothing had awakened him. Once you had the trigger to awaken him (oysters) the apathy would have to go (which it does in this version).

    Does any of this help, as it’s rather ‘after the fact’? I wonder. 🙂

    1. It does help a lot, Val, thank you.

      I suppose I could’ve done Jeremy justice had I taken a number of years (or as long as it would take without my forcing him out) to write this. For written I would’ve. There are several characters left in the lurch. Characters who feel the way I do. But they don’t niggle. Jeremy did, somehow. Maybe there is some connection somewhere!

      1. I used to write fiction, Priya, and I know the feeling exactly. Some characters just stick but don’t get properly fleshed out or won’t let one tell their story properly. Personally I think it’s a lot to do with ones own self-development.

  9. Hi Priya, What an interesting story of love, to publish on Valentine’s Day. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can see why the main character has claimed such a hold on your mind. He’s a challenge, for sure. You’ve done a wonderful job of painting him in such contrast to the beautiful, free woman with the flowing skirt.

    I would love to see even more conflict. What the woman feels (even if you stay in the man’s POV — you could show her reaction by his reaction to it). And yet, don’t kill me, but I would like to see him fail. A little more. Drop him way down, so that you can bring him up.

    Well done.

    1. “Drop him way down, so that you can bring him up.” I like the way you’ve put it, Melissa. I’ve been mulling over what AIT said, too. It’s a good thing that you’re both, in your own gentle ways, egging me on to do more for this story. The complications he has can’t just be ironed out so easily.

      I’d intended to end this story here, but perhaps I shouldn’t! Phew. Here rings Jeremy the bell again. 😉

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