“Ever since Michael Patterson shifted to his new apartment in San Francisco, he’d been bugged incessantly by his neighbor, a black, wrinkly old woman who came knocking on his door at the oddest of hours for a spoonful of sugar! Michael, who was a reputed children’s author, had initially obliged the old lady with a big bowl and a warm smile, but as the frequency of visits increased, he got irked at the very sight of her.
“Yes Ms. Robinson? Sugar isn’t it?” He asked the old woman bluntly that day, as his half-Korean half-Brit elfin girlfriend, Samantha Kim, poked him in the spine from behind.
“Sorry to disturb you son… I haven’t been keeping well. I baked some cake with the sugar you gave me the other day…here, I got some for you… and so…umm…sugar’s over again!” The hunchbacked woman handed him a foil-wrapped chunk of cake and smiled toothlessly, her face brightening for a moment before shifting back to being forlorn.
“Well, you were very rude to her, Mike…why don’t you just tell her if you are not interested in helping her?” a gentle-hearted Sam asked.
“I wish I could. She spooks me out when I am alone here, knocking at the oddest hours. And then she goes on about how her cockatoo has developed a skin rash. That bird of hers keeps babbling eerily all day! It’s just plain creepy! ”
“Aah, don’t blame the poor cockatoo for being able to talk! Have you forgotten that the animals in your books can talk as well?” Sam laughed and planted a kiss on her boyfriend’s stubbled cheek.
Mike wondered for a few seconds if the old woman had a family before deciding that it was none of his business. He starts writing the next chapter, shutting his unusually long-lashed, bespectacled eyes for a moment to bring his scattered thoughts together.
“So what book are you currently working on Mr. Patterson?” Sam asked, playfully pretending to be a journalist.
“It’s a Christmas edition Sam…it’ll end with a ‘happily ever after’! Anything else you want to know?” Mike snapped back. He was getting tired of fairytales, and he had a feeling, so were his publishers.
Sam left early that night, minus her customary good-night kiss. Mike knew he’d hurt his girlfriend but he was too depressed to attempt a reconciliation that night.
Mike had topped the best-sellers’ list for four consecutive years after his second book “The Boy Who Lived On a Rainbow” became an international hit with children. Now, it appeared as if magic didn’t appeal to kids anymore, nor did a boy who was silly enough to live on a rainbow!
It was Christmas Eve and the city couldn’t be more picturesque, with fairy lights and snow-covered conifers dotting the streets. Every household was buzzing with happy anticipation, except two particularly silent homes on 22nd Street. Mike was perched on his window sill with a cup of coffee, trying his best to appreciate the festivities outside. His girlfriend had unceremoniously broken up with him the day before and the publishers wanted his manuscript within a week.
There was one more itching worry on Mike’s mind, much as it was uncalled for. It was the old lady’s sudden disappearance and her cockatoo’s silence.
‘That wretched old hag has cast a spell on me. How can I possibly be thinking of her instead of my girlfriend?’ Mike wondered, trying to concentrate on his story. It was 1:30 AM. He could hardly keep his eyes open, but his fingers went on typing till the wee hours of dawn. Finally when he was done for the day, Mike realized he had sat through the night and it was Christmas!
“So much for good cheer!” he mumbled as he stretched himself and took in the fresh morning breeze.
Mike decided to take a walk.
While returning, he noticed that there was an enormous wreath hanging on his annoying neighbor’s front door. Much to his dismay, Mike realized that he had developed a soft corner for the old lady. He wanted to know if she was fine. Walking over, he rang the bell.
“Yes? What is it?” The door opened and Mike almost jumped at the sight.
Instead of the ugly old lady, there stood a brown-skinned, gorgeous woman, fist-rubbing her eyes, evidently just out of bed.
“Oh, Mamma Ellie’s my maternal aunt ya’know. This is ‘er house, n’ in spite of our attempts to hire a nanny, she was adamant ‘bout stayin’ alone. She’d never married, didn’t have nobody to call family per say, but she did have ‘er crazy cockatoo to keep ‘er company! We think it was the Alzheimer’s that turned ‘er screws. And then there was that horrible diabetes …”
“Last week we came over to decorate the place for Christmas n’ what do we find? She’d peed on the bed n’ the sugar level’s shot through the roof…cakes n’ muffins on ‘er bedside table ya’know!! God forbid if we’d been a day late…we’ve decided to keep her at the elderly care now since she refuses to stay with us. She’ll have her own room ‘n all of that, costs a bomb but Mamma Ellie made quite an empire for ‘erself with those books she wrote during ‘er youth. Sad that she quit the pen early, what with the Alzheimer’s ‘n all…!”
Mike stood there staring at the woman incredulously. The fact that he’d supplied a diabetic patient with heaps of sugar, even if unknowingly, somehow made him feel outlawed. There was one more thing that struck him. Ms. Robinson was an erstwhile author herself, driven to near madness by the loneliness of her profession. His heart went out to her more than ever.
“Umm, you said she was a writer? I’m a writer myself but I haven’t heard of any Ellie Robinson in our field…. ”
“Uhuh… You wouldn’t have, would you? ‘Cuz that ain’t Mamma Ellie’s real name, mister…she was known to many as Stacy Cooper, ‘er…whaddyacallit… pseudonym, which she adopted at a time when apartheid was at an all-time high, and blacks like us weren’t allowed to live equally amongst ya’all. Getting a book well-received was easier with a white name, ya’see…” The girl said, shaking her head, as if dumping a bit of the blame on his white shoulders!
Mike was flabbergasted by then. This was THE Stacy Cooper, the one who had penned many a spine-chilling mysteries and had been amongst his favorite authors of all time! And all this while, he’d been living next door to his childhood idol and cursing her for nothing! He felt like one of his own protagonists, foolishly unaware of the surreal stuff going on around him.
“She wrote mysteries, didn’t she?” Mike asked.
“Uhuh, that’s right. D’ya r’member ‘er books? I loved them as a child too! Hey why don’t ya come in? ” The woman smiled, warming up to Mike finally.
“No, thank you, I need to go. Where’s this elderly care centre?’
The girl handed him a visiting card and Mike sprinted off to his apartment. When he checked for voice-mails after breakfast, there was one from his girlfriend. “Hi Mike, It’s me Sam. Can we meet up?”
‘Yes, we can honey, but I have another important meeting right now!’ Mike thought happily as he ran around getting ready.
Mamma Ellie was lying there on the bed at the Elderly Care, with a resigned expression on her weathered face. Her cockatoo was marching around in his cage, trying to adjust to his new surroundings, occasionally shrieking “Oh for the love of God!”
Mike smiled at the pseudo-Stacy Cooper, admiring his long-lost icon in awe.
“’Allo there, do I know you?” Ellie asked him, her memory failing her.
“I guess so Mamma Ellie, I’m your…err… sugar buddy. I helped you with a lot of illegal sugar remember?’ Mike had tears in his eyes, much to his own surprise.
“Sugar buddy!! Oh yes, my dear boy, you live across the hallway. So how’ve you been?”
To this, Mike held up a book that he had got along. Faded silver lettering read ‘The Serial Killings of Brookesville’ with ‘Stacy Cooper’ printed in bold at the bottom.
“I’ve been reading up on some of my old favorites, Mamma. Do you recognize this book?”
Mamma Ellie stared at the book for a long time. Looking away, she shook her head, muttering almost to herself, “Never knew any Stacy Cooper!”
“Is it a good book though?” There was a hint of anticipation in Mamma Ellie’s voice, Mike observed with great pleasure.
“Yes, it’s one of the best novels ever but I want you to write something for me on it so I can remember our friendship forever. Can you do that for me, Mamma?” He held out the book to her.
Later that day, as Mike ran a finger over Ellie’s slightly tilted, cursive handwriting that read ‘To my sugar buddy, With love’, he knew he could believe in his own fairytales again.