Sunday Shorts By Debangana Chatterjee

The Man with the Black Hat

Mr. Bose heaved a long sigh, for what felt like the millionth one in two months. He always knew that being a Publishing House agent would not be the most glamorous or divine job however, he had not anticipated this melancholy either. Don’t get him wrong, he loves reading, he loves books. What he dislikes is the amount of travelling that he needs to do in just about a single year. Meeting agents, publishers, organizing book fairs across the country… all of these have become so tedious that he feels like taking a year-long break from it all. This time, his job brought him to a small countryside town that otherwise was quaint and peaceful. At first, Mr.. Bose, upon hearing the proposal, was rather excited to travel to a peaceful place- away from the busy and bustling roads of the cities. Two days into this town and he already feels home sick and lonely.
Upon returning from work, he keeps his overcoat on the table next to the main door and tosses his keys onto it callously. He loosens his tie and goes into the kitchen and switches on the electrical kettle to heat some water. He is in the mood for some lemon tea tonight before he heads out for his dinner at the local Dhaba. One thing Mr. Bose has taken to his liking here is the house he got from the Publishing Agency. Even though it is an old, Victorian-style house, Mr. Bose has never lived in something that looked and felt so rich and vintage. Not to mention the giant balcony upstairs that overlooked the hills in the distance. Taking a shower and preparing his tea, Mr. Bose sits on his old bamboo chair and sips on. “Just a month more”, he quietly reminds himself. The tap in the upstairs bathroom has started dripping again. The drops fall onto the bathroom floor making a pit-pat sound. It irritates Mr. Bose to the core. He has called in plumbers, tried to fix it by himself, nothing works out permanently. He keeps the bathroom door upstairs locked and does not use it. He has one downstairs anyway. A gush of strong wind blows making the balcony door above bang with an ear-splitting sound. Mr. Bose jolts up from his drowsy stupor and sits straight. “This is strange”, he thinks to himself. He always makes sure he shuts the door upstairs before leaving for work. Going upstairs, he finds the door ajar. The wind must have been strong if it could manage to swing the giant, old door with that kind of force. Locking it promptly, he goes downstairs once more, checks his watch and leaves for dinner.
This small, run-down Dhaba has become the second most favourite thing to him after the house. Mr. Bose has never been ergonomic in the kitchen or cooking aspect of life, so needless to say, he is a regular at this Dhaba. Or at the other eateries of other places that he has been to. Sitting at one of the high tools inside the Dhaba as it was quite chilly tonight, he orders his favourite menu: Mutton Kasha, some buttered rice, a couple of green chilies, some diced up onions and a tall glass of ice-cold cola. As he sips on his cola, waiting for his food to be done, he notices a very tall man, dressed in all black, enter through the main door of the Dhaba. Mr. Bose finds the man a little odd. He is familiar with almost every face here at the Dhaba as he is a regular and he is positive this guy is a newbie. The man approaches Mr. Bose and sits a tool away beside him. He quietly asks the server to bring him one glass of Sharbat and some random paneer dish that Mr. Bose could not exactly hear. The man looked rather disturbed… as if something has been bothering him for a while now and he is trying to escape it. He was dressed in black from top to bottom and his face was not quite visible due to the poor lighting of the dhaba and the shadows from his hat.
“Excuse me? Do you have a lighter?” Mr. Bose realized the man in the black hat was talking to him. He quickly nodded and passed him his lighter. The man thanked him in a murmur and lit up his cigar. “He is so odd”, Mr. Bose thought to himself. Taking a puff and blowing it, the man goes, “I see you are new here. Nice to meet you.” The man extended his hand for Mr. Bose to shake it. He was hesitant a bit but greeted him regardless and introduced him. The mysterious man had rather a calm, peaceful air about him and had a low, deep voice.
“Where are you staying for now?” the man asks Mr. Bose.
“Oh, a couple of houses down left.” He did not want to give out his address to some stranger man he just met. The man gave a low chuckle and smiled at Mr. Bose. “I see you do not want to share details with me. Smart. But I know you live at the two-storied house near the turning point of this highway”. Mr. Bose’s eyes widened. “How did this guy know that!” he thought to himself. “Oh come on, I am not some crazy, serial killer stalker or something. It is a small town, everyone knows everyone here, and that house is the only vacant lodging. Isn’t it obvious that someone new to this town is going to live there?” Mr. Bose felt a little relieved but the mannerisms were still bothering him. His food too was taking too long.
“I used to live there”. The man’s statement brought Mr. Bose out of his reverie. He looked at the man and raised his eyebrows. “The Victorian house that you are living in now, I lived there too when I came to this town for the first time. I… had to leave before my tenure was even up”. His voice sounded ragged and it was almost as if he is hiding something but at the same time wanted Mr. Bose to pry him more. Being the curious one, Mr. Bose asked him what he meant by that. The man took one last, long drag of his cigar, stubbed it on the ashtray and turned to face Mr. Bose. His face had several age lines, and his eyes looked hollow and tired.
“I lived here a couple of years ago. Came to the town to work on a developmental project and I stayed at the same very house. You have to believe me; it is for your own best”. The man’s previous calm demeanour was now completely gone and he sounded extremely urgent and scared. Mr. Bose was now the most uncomfortable he had ever been in his life before but did not have a way out of the situation either. He quietly nodded and the man continued his story.
“That house is really lovely, isn’t it? Antique furniture, high ceilings, gorgeous furnishings and just overall a positive, unique atmosphere, right? Nonsense! It is all a façade!” The man’s voice rose, not enough to draw attention from the other customers at the Dhaba, but enough to alert all of Mr. Bose’s senses. “After a month or so, I realized that I just made the biggest mistake of my life”, the man continued. “I would come back home, and find the tap at the upstairs bathroom running, even though I made sure to turn it off before leaving for work each day. AT first, I thought, it was just the stress from work and the anxiety of being in a new place but after a while, even when I had grown accustomed to it, the same thing happened. I brought in various plumbers, mechanics and the problem went on from a thin flow of water to the constant and nerve-wracking pit-pat sound of the water droplets. No matter what you did, the tap never turned off. After a while, I just let it be and started using the bathroom downstairs instead”. Mr. Bose felt the hair on his back stand up. This strange man’s resemblance to his experience was uncanny! Nevertheless, Mr. Bose did not interrupt the man and only gave a nod of acknowledgement. The man drank a little bit of his lime juice and turned to Mr. Bose and continued his story.
“A couple of months passed by, and my tenure was almost up as well. Only had about five weeks more, and I thought my final few days in this beautiful town would be full of leisure. Ah, I thought that”. The man gave a low chuckle to himself. “It was February fifteenth, 2018, and I had just returned home at around nine in the evening. I had settled in my divan downstairs when I suddenly heard the most ear-splitting bang upstairs. I ran upstairs thinking it was an intruder or someone, but to my shock there was nothing. Not even a mouse, absolutely no signs that showed a possible break-in. Only the giant, wooden Victorian door to the balcony was ajar. I always keep that door locked because I rarely went upstairs so you could imagine how shocked I was when I saw that door half opened with just a gust of wind. Oh, and it was a rather still evening with no signs of winds or storms. Anyway, I decided to go check out the Balcony. Ah! I should not have gone out. I really should not have checked it!” The man paused briefly to look up at Mr. Bose. He did not need to for Mr. Bose’s attention was wrapped around him.
“As I step into the balcony, I sensed the shift in the air. I cannot explain it in words, but it just felt so…sinister, so…ominous. I looked around, I did not even what or who I even was expecting to see but I was checking it regardless. I thought I saw something in the dark across the garden, beneath the mango tree. I went closer to the railings to get a better view but there was nothing there. Guessing it was the fatigue, I smiled a little and stepped back and right then a face of a…thing God knows what it was, dangled upside down right in front of me from the terrace and it had the most grotesque features with a popped out left eye and a huge menacing grin! Shrieking I stumbled backwards and fell on my rear on the cold marble floor. The face was still there, still staring at me. I leapt inside the room, my heart in my mouth and ran downstairs! I wanted to run out but I was so scared of that thing jumping on me from the low terrace. Where would I even have gone? I could only lock all my doors, and the windows and sit on the table right next to the door. I had taken a flower vase from one of the tables and clutched it tightly. I was not even sure I would be able to do something if need be. And that’s when it started… the Voices. Thousands and millions of voices… some yelling some whispering… they were everywhere and I had no source. I covered my ears and yelled out hoping they would fade away but they did not. It became a regular occurrence. Each night, I would hear the loud bang on the floor above and as if on clockwork, the voices would appear. Menacing and so evil, and I would just clutch my head and rock myself. I never was able to make a single word of it”.
The man stopped talking and looked at Mr. Bose. Mr. Bose looked ghastly and tensed but tried to keep his composure to the best of his abilities. He gulped down the remaining of his cola and saw that he had not even realized that his food had arrived and was now getting cold. “So…” Mr. Bose cleared his throat. It has been almost three years now. Have those voices…disappeared?” The man looked up at Mr. Bose with a piercing gaze and Mr. Bose was taken aback slightly. But the man was not looking at Mr. Bose, he was staring straight ahead, past Mr. Bose’s seat, into the wilderness next to the highway. “Oh no no!” The man cried out aloud, this time garnering everyone’s attention. “No please no! Please not again!” He got off his tool and clutched onto Mr. Bose’s shirt and pleaded with him with teary eyes. “Please make it go away, I cannot do this again, please make it stop, please make it go away!”, he kept repeating. Mr. Bose stared at the man haplessly, to taken aback to even fathom his reactions but the man screeched out once more before running out of the Dhaba and into the darkness of the night like a madman. Stunned beyond words, Mr. Bose got back onto the tool. He realized that he had completely lost his appetite and decided to just pay for the dinner and call it a night. As he reached into the pocket of his trousers, he let out a loud gasp! The cloth was torn, and his wallet was missing!
Once again, Mr. Bose was at a loss for words. He realized the events that unfolded this night and he was truly angry at himself. For being so gullible. For not seeing through the fraud that bastard was! Hah! Ghosts or whatever! The owner saw what happened and took pity on Mr. Bose and told him that his meal was on the house tonight. He said that he had seen that man around only a couple of times before, but he seemed like any regular customer. Mr. Bose could only laugh in dismay and he walked back home. He was partially relieved that none of that stuff he said about the house was true in the least. He could always make that lost money again.
Some weeks later, Mr. Bose was returning home from work. His lease was almost up, and he had about three weeks more in the town. He was a little upset rather, as he had grown quite fond of this town. Coming back inside and after doing his nightly routine, Mr. Bose realized that he had a book he needed that was upstairs in one of the cabinets. Making his way through the stairs, he heard a sound that made the hair on his back stand up. The familiar pit-pat sound of the water tap in the upstairs bathroom. He along with the landlord had called in a plumber four days ago who had completely unhinged the tap from its pipes. It was the only tap in the bathroom. With a swift turn of his head, he looked at the door. The balcony door was ajar. He along with the landlord had called in a plumber two days ago who had completely unhinged the tap from its pipes. It was the only tap in the bathroom. The latch opened and the heavy filing cabinet he had placed in front of the door before leaving, was at the side.

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