Fountain Of Youth

I never believed in magic until I met a man named Khatri last November.

It happened while I was in London visiting my grandson, Max, who is at boarding school in Kent. One evening I was in the club lounge of the Kensington Crest Hotel where I usually put up. I was by myself on a corner sofa, sipping complimentary champagne, nibbling on complimentary hors-d’oeuvres and thoroughly relishing a borrowed copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

“Madam, may I join you?” a polite, thickly accented male voice asked.

I looked up to find a well-dressed stranger in a charcoal-colored woolen suit, black lace-up leather shoes, and a smart Fedora hat. His greying mustache was dense and thick and his skin was rich like my own – the color of my morning chai back home.

The lounge was full with hotel guests and no seats were vacant except the two chairs in front of me. I gestured to the empty chairs and granted him permission to sit. He slipped off his jacket and took off his hat, put them down and disappeared toward the buffet station. He returned moments later with a glass of red wine in one hand and a plate of cheese and crackers in the other. Although I had planned to finish the novel that evening, I found myself interested in talking to this stranger. I suspect it was because I was certain that, like me, he was an immigrant from India settled in some corner of the world.

He must come from money, I decided. After all, he had access to the club lounge which meant he could afford four hundred pounds a night for his room. As these curious thoughts floated through my mind, I feigned indifference and flipped the pages of my book, trying to concentrate on Mr. Ripley and his maze of deceit.

“Nice to meet you. My name is Khatri. Aren’t we lucky to be warm and toasty in here?” He had an affable smile, the kind that ensured a high probability of friendship. He rolled his r’s – in his name, in aren’t, in November– like most Indians do. But his speech was gentler than the Indian men I knew, who often spoke as though they were issuing a command or as though they deserved to be heard.

“Seema Malik,” I offered. “Yes, it is chilly isn’t it? I suspect it will rain.”

“Oh, I am almost certain it will. I have a dinner engagement so I will need to face Mother Nature in an hour or so. You stay at this hotel often? I am here twice a year and have never seen you before.”

“Only in the last two years. I live in the Middle East. Bahrain. My grandson goes to boarding school here.”

“Ah, yes. Max, a convenient, anglicized abbreviation for his Indian name – Mahesh. He’s in Kent, isn’t he?”

I choked on the champagne.

“Please, Mrs. Malik. Don’t be alarmed. I am a clairvoyant and I can read people. I try not to unless they ask, but sometimes it just happens as I speak to them. I hope I didn’t scare you.”

He did scare me. As a matter of fact, I was terrified. Had this man been following me for the last few days? Had he overheard my conversation with my friend Bella in the lobby of the hotel? Had he tapped my phone?

“When you said the word grandson, you had a lot of emotion attached to it. Max must be your only grandchild.”

“He is,” I muttered.

“Your affection for him is strong. I couldn’t help picking it up, I felt the boy through you. I don’t know much else about you, I assure you. Well not right now, anyway.”

I consider myself a logical, educated, scientific woman, unlike my mother who believed in any and everything. Blind faith, superstition, and irrational beliefs were typical in her generation of Indian women. She sought out long-bearded fortune tellers on the temple steps, she summoned up invisible heavenly sages that roamed the skies showering blessings on mortals, she expounded at length the power of destiny and bad luck and karma. I believed in none of those things. Strangely, I now found myself teetering between belief and skepticism.

“I can read palms and foreheads. I would not mind reading yours. I can tell you about your past, present and future.”

I agreed. Khatri took my hand in his and began telling me events and facts about my life that he couldn’t possibly have known. He told me the name of my first love and the names of my children. He knew I had a mole on my left thigh and that I had had an abortion before marriage. He knew I had lost my mother to cancer.

He told me he could see that my husband had a penchant for young women. I felt my breath catch in my throat. I had known for a long time of Amit’s infidelities. I even knew who the women were at various stages of our marriage. But when he started taking the names of Amit’s lovers, tears trickled down my cheeks. One of them was younger than my daughter.

Khatri began to console me.“I did not mean to upset you. I have something that will help you.”

He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small wooden box. It was the size of a matchbox and gold in color. He placed it on the table. “Open it,” he said.

Hands shaking, I picked up the box and tried in vain to open it.

“Slide it open, exactly like a matchbox.”

I did. Inside was a small, round, glowing object. It was bright blue and it seemed to be floating in the tiny space.

“It is a drop from the fountain of youth,” he said, with a glint in his eye. “Place it on your tongue and it will reverse your appearance by thirty years. It is like cosmetic surgery, only better, because it is real. It changes everything on the inside too; your lungs, liver, kidneys and everything else. Any diseases you may have as a result of age or wear and tear are reversed. You will be young and healthy again.”

The guests in the lounge had mostly left, the complimentary cocktail bar had closed for the evening and the buffet had been cleared. Khatri looked at his watch. “I need to leave for my dinner appointment. I hope my little gift will bring back your husband’s heart. I am truly sorry to have made you cry.”

When I returned to my room, I placed the box in the hotel safe. I lay awake most of the night thinking about Amit and his infidelities, about Khatri and why he would give me such a gift. I spent a lot of time deciding whether or not this “drop” was magical. How could something like this be possible in the world of logic and science?

It was almost morning when sleep came and I woke up with a throbbing headache. I enjoyed the weekend because Max came to stay with me at the hotel and we went shopping. I bought him a pair of limited edition football shoes and a thick coat for the rest of the winter. Max took the afternoon train back to his school on Sunday and I went to the club lounge in search of Khatri. I waited there for three hours, alone. There was no sign of him.

The next morning I was due to fly home and I spent hours deciding how to pack the box. I did not want to check it in, in case my suitcase went missing en route. I decided to carry it on my person and worried obsessively all the way to the airport about customs and any issues that may arise. How would I explain a floating, luminous object? My heart raced as my handbag traveled through the security belt at Heathrow. Luckily, no alarms went off and I boarded without incident.

I arrived in Manama, Bahrain late at night and switched on my phone. There were messages from all three of my children and one from Max saying he missed me.

Farid, my chauffeur was waiting for me at the airport. I got home around midnight. My cook Halima had set the table and laid out dinner. I was too tired to eat, so I put the dishes away in the refrigerator. Amit was asleep but stirred as I came out of the shower.

“How is Max?” he mumbled.

“He is well. He has his exams in three weeks.”

Amit drifted back to sleep while I lay awake and thought about the box. I had hidden it away behind the shoe rack in my closet and sooner or later I would have to decide what to do with it. I contemplated getting out of bed and consuming its contents. Would I awake youthful? Wouldn’t that shock Amit? And what would happen when the children visited? How would I explain to them what had happened to me?

A part of me was acutely aware of how ludicrous my thoughts were. Surely there was no such thing as a fountain of youth.

I fell asleep and dreamed of Khatri. He was dressed in scrubs, hovering above me as I lay semi-conscious on an operating table. He held a scalpel in one hand and he rolled the glowing drop between the fingers of his other hand. He cut through my flesh and performed surgery on my insides.

Amit was up early the next morning, drawing open the curtains and letting the sun in a lot sooner than I would have appreciated. I rung the kitchen for my chai, but Halima didn’t pick up the phone.

“Did she say she wasn’t coming in today?” I called out to Amit as he went into the bathroom.

“She’s coming, but a little late. Said she had a doctor’s appointment.”

I went into the kitchen and made a cup of chai for myself as well as one for Amit. When I returned to the bedroom, he was in a pair of beige slacks. A long-sleeved polo shirt lay on the bed. Clearly, he wasn’t going to the office.

He thanked me as he took the cup from my hand.

I went out into the patio, sipped my tea and enjoyed the spring-like December weather of the Middle East. Amit came outside and sat beside me. We made small talk. He asked me about London, how my flight was if I’d shopped, if I’d picked up the single malt he’d asked for from the duty-free shops.

“I am off to Doha,” he said, casually. “Golf. Just for three days. Back before the weekend.”

I nodded as he left. From my patio, I had a view of the circular driveway. Farid opened the booth and placed Amit’s suitcase in it.  I went into my closet and reached for the box. I opened it and the drop was still there in all its beaming glory. It was worth a shot.

I held it between my fingers. It was cold as ice. I lifted it toward my mouth, but before I could place it on my tongue, there was a knock at my door. I hid the box and opened the door. It was my cook, Halima. The moment she saw me she started to cry. I sat her down on my bed and tried to get her to tell me what the matter was, but she was so distraught she could barely speak.

Finally, after half an hour she said, “Madam, I have cancer.”

I got up, went into my closet, retrieved the box and gave it to her.

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