He was clearing out the desk in the study one Sunday afternoon when he found it. A small, silver key with an oval base and the letters JF8421 etched on it. It was lying in the middle drawer, hidden under the brown paper he'd used to line the bottom. He held it in the palm of his hand and stared at it. He couldn't think what it was a key to.
Was it the key to the drawer itself? No, it didn't fit. He tried the other drawers, then the bookshelf, then the closet in the study. No. He went around the house trying it in all the other cupboards that he never locked. It didn't belong to any of them. He took out all the keys in the house and compared it to them, thinking it might be a duplicate of something. It wasn't. He remembered that the refrigerator had a lock too and tried that. No. He pulled out his old bicycle lock from the back of his supply cupboard. No luck there.
What could it be the key to? Could someone else have left it there? Some visitor? He remembered how his friend Rajeev had come over and spent the night in his study once because his wife had thrown him out of the house. Had it really been six months ago? Could it be his? But surely he would have said something by now. They hadn't spoken in a while though. No harm checking.
Rajeev and his wife, it seemed, had settled their differences. Their son had been really ill. No, he was fine now. Quite recovered. Was spending the summer vacations with his grandparents. Rajeev and his wife were organising a picnic next weekend. Would he like to come? Great, they looked forward to seeing him. It had been a long time. What's that - a key? No, no, he hadn't left any keys behind. The whole point of that night was that his wife had taken even the keys to his own house away from him. Ha ha.
So it wasn't Rajeev's. Where did it come from then? He stared at the key again. It wasn't big enough to be the key to something important. It looked more like the key to a locker. Yes, that's what it was, a locker key. But the lockers in his gym didn't have keys. And he didn't have a locker at work. But wait, what about his old office? He used to have a locker there. Could this be the key to that locker? Had he simply forgotten to hand it in when he quit? He never used that locker anyway. He tried to remember what the key looked like.
Next day he took off early for lunch and went down to his old office (it was just a block away, after all). The receptionist was new and didn't know him. He was just trying to explain to her who he was and what he wanted there when his old boss showed up. He was even balder than he remembered, and still had that irritating accent. But he seemed less intimidating somehow. Pretty soon all his old colleagues had gathered around, telling him how he hadn't changed a bit, how he looked completely different, how he'd lost weight. It felt good. His friend Gautam, the one who'd been swearing he was going to quit for as long as he could remember, was still there. They decided to go out for lunch. Gautam updated him on all the office gossip. It seemed strange, like peering through a window into another world.
The key didn't fit though. Once he actually got there he remembered that the keys to the lockers looked completely different. He didn't know how he could have forgotten. Now what? He spent an hour in his cubicle thinking over where else that key could have come from. It was beginning to annoy him now, not knowing what the key was for. Could it be from his earlier apartment? No, he'd given all the keys to that back to the landlord, even the spares. But maybe a duplicate to the mailbox? Yes, yes, it could be.
That night he stopped by his old apartment. Or rather, where his old apartment used to be. They had torn the building down. They were building some new high rise. The entire site was surrounded by a high asbestos fence. He was shocked to see it. All his fondness for the old house came flooding back. His first apartment. All the good times he'd had there, all the memories.
He stopped by the paan walla at the corner to get a cigarette. The old man recognised him, welcomed him back with the kind of eagerness one reserves for a favourite customer. Wanted to know how he was, what he was doing these days, why he never came by the shop anymore. He told him that he'd moved out, that he lived far away now, that he'd only stopped by to see his old place - he didn't know it had been torn down. Yes, the old man nodded sagely, three months ago they started. Such a nuisance, sir, all these trucks with their dust and cement going up and down all the time. Constant traffic jams. Ruining the place, really. All the best people (like yourself, sir) moving out. Which reminds me sir, what happened to that friend of yours, the one who was always coming here with you, woh chashme walleh? Nikhil. He's in the States now, he told him. He's working there. In the i-shtates? Wah, wah, must be making lots of money no? Yes, he nodded, he was. How long since he had had contact with Nikhil? He must e-mail him once he got home.
But what to do about the key though? Could it have been the key to tha mailbox that had now been destroyed? A key without a lock, then, of no use to anyone. Somehow, the more he thought about it that night, the more he doubted it. No, this was the key to something else. He just knew it.
Finally, reluctantly, he decided to call her. They hadn't spoken since the break-up. A part of him said it was a stupid reason to call - some unidentified key - she would think he was making an excuse, that he was checking up on her, or maybe even that he wanted to get back together with her.There was bound to be misunderstanding. Better not to call. But the riddle of the key just wouldn't go away. He'd tried putting it back in the drawer where it came from and forgetting about it, he'd tried watching TV, reading the new Roth, listening to music. But he couldn't get it out of his mind.
He called her. She recognised his voice instantly. Some things hadn't changed. There were the awkward 'how are you's' to begin with. The innocuous little 'so, what's new?' like a bridge thrown over a seething river of questions, all desperate to be asked. She was fine. She was seeing someone new. He was a banker too, it seemed - some habits die hard. He told her how he'd been travelling. Slowly, the conversation thawed. Yes, she'd been to see the new play too. Alyque Padamsee HAD seriously lost it. Had he heard about the poetry reading at the British Council? She was thinking about going for it. Did she remember the last reading they'd been for, the one where the poet described the countryside as being the place where cows moo? She laughed. Of course she did. And how about that interminable poem of hers, the one about making mango pickle as a metaphor for memory. Like that hadn't been done before. What was she reading? Yes, Carver was amazing, wasn't he?....
It felt like old times, talking to her this way. He had that warm, singing sensation inside him again. Not that he was still in love with her or anything. No, no, that was all over. Still, that didn't mean they couldn't be friends. He wondered why he'd been hesitating to call her.
Towards the end of the conversation he brought up the key. Explained how he'd found it, how he couldn't figure out where it belonged, how he thought maybe it was hers, something she'd left behind when she moved out. She said she didn't think so. It wasn't likely was it - she'd never kept any of her stuff in that drawer. Still, maybe a duplicate. She'd check. Would call him back later in the week to let him know.
So that was that. Somehow he didn't think the key would turn out to be hers after all. He suspected she'd just said she'd check to give her an excuse to call back. Where did that leave him? He couldn't think of anyone elsethe key could belong to. Could it have been the previous occupant's? Maybe they'd just left it in the drawer and he'd put the brown paper over it without noticing? No, he remembered going through the house opening every drawer to make sure there was nothing in them. He would have found it then. This key was definitely his.
Staring at it long after midnight, it began to seem to him that this was no ordinary key, but something supernatural - an apparition, a metaphor. Perhaps the secret of the key was that there was no lock to it, perhaps in every universe there was a key that was just a key, in and for itself, that would open nothing. The opposite of a skeleton key - a key that would fit no lock. But why should it magically appear to him? And why now?
He was being silly. This was just an everyday key with a lock of its own. He was actually fairly sure he knew what it was a key to, he just couldn't seem to remember. Was there a reason he couldn't remember? Was he repressing the memory of what that key opened? Was he afraid of what lay behind what the key kept locked? Somewhere out there was a lock that this key fit into and he had to find it. What had he forgotten? What was he missing?