The Journey

I touch your hand and feel the papery thinness of it. I give it a slight squeeze. Enough to let you know that I am still here.

It hasn’t been easy. The journey has been long and arduous. We have had to change trains twice. The wheelchair has not been easy to manipulate. Strangers have assisted me. They have looked at me with pity in their eyes. I have smiled back, and thanked them politely. You always told me to be polite, no matter what.

I keep vigil, even as dawn is breaking outside. I haven’t slept much. You have. Your mouth is slack in sleep. I lean over and wipe the thin dribble of saliva. I feel like touching every bit of you. From that broad forehead, to the thick brows that frame your beautiful grey eyes, to the slight stubble on your cheeks, to the scar just under your lip….I feel like imprinting every feature of yours onto my hands.

“Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”

“I do”

It is a beautiful day in April, and we emerge to a shower of confetti. There are only a few friends to help us celebrate. No families…none that wanted to be here anyway. But we don’t need them.We have each other. Today and forever.

We go to the pub. Peter, your best man, makes his speech. It is funny and dry, and makes us laugh and weep. He ends with a toast to us.

“To Paul and Susan. A couple made for one another. Theirs is a true love story. Join me in raising a glass to many many happy years together.”

We smile at each other, and kiss lightly to cheers from our friends.

Our lovemaking is gentle. You are patient with me. It is my first time, and I am scared. You kiss me and tell me I am beautiful. Slowly, I shed my inhibitions, and start to enjoy your body, as well as mine. We sleep, curled together, our hands and legs entwined, our breath rising and falling in tandem.

I must have dropped off. For when I open my eyes, you are awake, and watching the beautiful scenery pass us by. There is a hint of sadness in your eyes, and my heart spasms involuntarily.

“Paul?”, your name comes out as a plea.

You turn to me and smile. It takes every ounce of my willpower to smile back at you.

“Did you sleep, my darling?”

You nod slowly.

“Good. We do have a long day ahead of us. I wonder how far the clinic is from the station? They said someone will be there to receive us. I hope they find us easily. I don’t want to be standing around in the cold. Are you cold, darling?” I stop my nervous babbling and get up to adjust the shawl on your knees. Your head bobs a thank you.  I smell a whiff of urine, and know that you need changing. I wonder how I’ll manage that, here, on a moving train. Then I tell myself to get a grip, and get on with it.

You want to be in the delivery room with me. The midwife is quite shocked.

“But Mr Sampson, men don’t go in there!”

“Why ever not? It’s my baby as well. Besides, we have no one else. I cannot leave Susan on her own to do this.”

You reach out and grasp my hand, and immediately I feel calmer, although my body feels as though it is splitting in half. 

Hour after agonising hour, you are there with me. When the baby finally arrives, you are the one to cut the umbilical cord. There is blood everywhere, and I cringe at the thought that you will never want me after this. I look up and see only wonder in your eyes. Cradling our daughter, you lean forward and kiss me softly on the lips.

“I love you, my brave brave girl”

The car that whisks us from the station to the clinic is well equipped. For the first time in a long time, I am able to relax. You look comfortable but slightly amused by the serious young man who has come to receive us.  I catch your eye, and suppress a giggle. Naughty Paul! I know just what you’re thinking.

“Ummm, Alain? How long is the drive?”

“Madame, it will take us an hour. However, there are several amenities for you to enjoy. Newspapers, cold water, television.”

“Thank you. I think we are alright.”

We sit together in companionable silence. I stroke your hand from time to time. I feel the slight pressure of your fingers in mine. My vision suddenly blurs, and I blink rapidly to disperse the pooling tears.

I sit there in a mess. My hair is undone, the dishes are piled high in the sink, and the baby keeps crying and crying and crying. I cry alongside, helpless, frustrated and angry.

You come home from work, and start to tidy up. You change the baby, and give her supper. You put her to bed, and then hold me tight, rocking me, ” Sweetheart , it’s alright. You’re alright. It’s just the blues. You’ll get better.”

And I do. Slowly, with your help, I get better. I smile, I brush my hair, I play with the baby.  We call her Amelia. She has your eyes and my smile and we love her. 

We go for long walks on Sundays. We feed the ducks. I push the buggy, and you take our photos on your new camera. I arrange them in the album.  Amelia’s first tooth, her first step,her first word. They are all recorded in there for posterity.

We try for more babies. But it never happens again. 

“Just as well”, you say comfortingly, “My world is complete with my two lovely ladies.”

We have arrived at what seems like an enormous Chateau. Alain opens the door, and helps me out. There are two other staff settling you into your wheelchair. The reception desk is rather intimidating, and I look at you for reassurance. I am surprised at the slight smile on your face. You look as though…..as though you’re home.

We are shown to our room. It is spacious, and has a breathtaking view. There are brochures on the bedside table. All that we have perused before. But I pick one up nonetheless.

“Look Paul, they’ve given us one of the larger rooms. That’s good, isn’t it? Look at that view darling. Makes one believe there is a God.”

Oh God!

I sink to my knees. The enormity of what we are about to do hits me like a sledgehammer.

“Paul! Oh Darling! Is this the only way?”

I sob, crumpled on the floor, grief slicing through me in short, sharp strokes.

Finally, spent, I look up at the sorrow in your eyes. I collect myself. I kneel in front of you and whisper,

“I am sorry. So very very sorry. It will not happen again.”

I place my head on your lap, and weep softly.

Amelia is a strong willed girl, and we clash often. You are always playing the peacemaker. She is a rebel, and I fear for her as she dabbles in drink and drugs, and anonymous sex with strangers. I cannot understand where I have failed her. You worry too. I see it in the furrow between your brows.

But it is you she turns to every time. She hates me. She calls me weak and spineless. A woman who has always relied on a man. She is right. I have always relied on you. You are my anchor. I see nothing wrong in it, and she despises me for it.

“Oh for Goodness’ sake, Mother! Grow some balls!!”

We torment each other till she moves out. She goes to University, and we hear from her sporadically. 

The house feels empty, and we miss the noise and chaos that inevitably follows in her wake. Slowly, we settle back into being just us. 

You go back to flirting with me like you did when we were courting. We start to make love more often. I feel like we are once more surrounded by a golden glow.

Our last night together is spent in separate beds. I yearn to have your arms around me once more. To feel your heart beat as I snuggle in your embrace. That warm solid sound that has always spelt love and safety. It is not to be. You are too weak, and I cannot be that selfish.

I sense that you are not sleeping. I can sense you trying to absorb every sound, every sensation for the very last time. And not for the last time, I wish it was me instead of you.

I see the same film reel of our life, that is playing through your mind.

Us holding hands,  us going to see our first movie together, the wedding band you saved up for, Amelia’s first teddy bear, a day spent at the beach, the gramophone record with our favourite song….. A lifetime that flashes by in the blink of an eye.

I turn restlessly. I can’t take it anymore.  I get into bed with you. Your heartbeat quickens. I hold you, and warmth floods into my body. We fall asleep together.

You first collapse at Amelia’s wedding. The big, traditional wedding that neither of us had envisaged. We think it is the stress and you recover well. 

Amelia comes to visit more often now. Arthur comes with her. You find him a dreadful, pompous bore, but are unfailingly polite. You can see that we compare unfavourably to the fashionable set they move in. But, all her hard edges have softened, and she is kinder to me than she has been in years. In some ways, we are closer than before, and you encourage it, never once encroaching upon this fragile bond we are attempting to forge.

There are signs that all is not well with you. A certain slowing down, a loss of appetite, memory lapses that you cover up with good humour. 

When does the thought first enter your mind? I am too busy building bridges to notice.

‘The good death’. Is there such a thing? I stumble upon the papers accidentally. You brush it off. But it lingers, like an unpleasant smell.

“Susan”, you say to me, after a particularly bad attack, ” I never want to be a vegetable. I want to die with dignity. Promise me…..promise me…..”

I rail against you for wanting an escape clause. I promise that I will take care of you, like you have taken care of me. I promise to be there for you, no matter what. But it is not enough.

You start to contact organisations without my knowledge. People come to meet you. You sign papers. I start to get suspicious, and share my feelings with Amelia.

She is incensed beyond belief.

“Daddy, how could you be so selfish? Leave aside our feelings, do you not realise that what you are doing is illegal in this country?  And Mother could end up behind bars for the rest of her life. Is that what you want for the woman you love?”

You withdraw from us. I cannot understand this coldness, this  selfish side to you that I have never seen before. I fear I am losing you. 

Our last morning, and we sit together on the lawns staring up at the majesty of the Alps that surround us. The paperwork is behind us now. They have asked you once more whether this is your decision and whether you still want to go through with it. You will be asked again before they administer the final dose. I know your answer already. You are ready. There is a calm about your person, a dignity that cloaks you like an invisible shroud.

I often wonder, if it had been me instead of you, would you have let me go quite as easily? This guilt is something I will have the rest of my life to reconcile with.

It is time. They wheel you back indoors.

I sit by your side, when they administer the lethal dose. Your eyes close, and your breathing gets shallow. It seems an eternity that I sit there, waiting for you to leave.

You are gone. Quietly, they lead me out of the room.

In France I have built a new life. The money that you had squirrelled away was enough to ensure a comfortable, if not lavish lifestyle. I speak a little French now. I have friends that I sit and share a glass of wine with, now and again. They ask me no questions and I am spared the agony of lying.

I still have no contact with Amelia. She could not forgive me. Which is fine. I cannot forgive myself either.

I laugh sometimes, but more often than not, I cry.

My days are spent waiting. Waiting to undertake that final journey. So that, if there is a God, I will see you someday, somewhere, again.

                                                                                                                                                                                      THE END

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How much is enough?

Look around you. How much have you got? I mean, in terms of possessions. Have you a house, furniture, ornaments? A wardrobe full of clothes, some that you wear, and others that just sit there? Do you have a car? Perhaps you have some valuable jewellery? How about a gazillion gadgets, without which life would be impossible? Now, take yourself out of this picture. Imagine someone sorting through all this “stuff” of yours. How much do you think they would keep? What would hold any kind of significance for them? How much do you think would be sold or disposed off or end up in a landfill somewhere?

I say this because I am in the throes of sorting out a loved ones belongings. There isn’t that much to sort. He lived a very simple life. We, on the other hand, live amongst the day to day clutter that life seems to bring in its wake. How much does a person need anyway? And why do we place such importance on material things? Why not surround ourselves with love, goodwill, peace and harmony? Surely these are far greater indicators of a life being lived well.

My lesson in all of this has been to enjoy all that I have, while I can. Not to add to my nonsensical pile of nothing with more of the same. And finally, to try and pare it all down. For someday, someone will be going through my lifetime’s accumulation of things, and will have to make painful decisions on what to keep and what to dispose.

I hope neither pile is too high.

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Maybe you get bad customer service because you’re a bad customer

Fantastic! And a great follow up to my last blog.

The Matt Walsh Blog

I could have taken a picture of you and posted it here to publicly shame you, but I didn’t. That’s because I am not trying to be vindictive, ma’am. I’d merely like to answer that question you posed. This can be what the politicians call a “teachable moment” for you and everyone like you.

See, I was in line at that particular fast food establishment yesterday. You probably didn’t notice me, I assume you didn’t notice any of us from the way you blatantly barged to the front. I was about to tap you on the shoulder and politely explain how lines are supposed to work in a civilized society, but I could tell you were in the throes of an ungodly rage. I figured this must be an emergency. My God, you were practically foaming at the mouth. I thought maybe someone at the counter had killed your dog…

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Nasty or Nice?

Yesterday I encountered an interesting situation. I, somewhat symbolically, became a punching bag for someone. His (verbal) attack was vicious, unexpected and unwarranted. Now, I do understand that his frustration was directed towards my company. I was just the unfortunate person who happened to be in the line of fire. However, it did get me wondering about the nature of nastiness, provoked or unprovoked.

Anyone who works in a customer service arena will attest that although, nine times out of ten, people are nice, it’s always the tenth- the nasty one- that sticks in the mind. Why is that? Is it because the emotions that a negative encounter stirs up are so much more complex, and likely to linger much after the event?

Moreover, how one deals with something like this also reveals a lot about oneself. Are you nice to nasty, or nasty to nasty? As for me, I stood my ground, and reiterated that the situation was beyond my control. I didn’t turn nasty, but refused to turn into a doormat either. My colleague congratulated me on standing up to the bullying behaviour of this particular person. But he also pointed out something rather thought provoking.

Why had this man not railed at my (male) colleague, yet, repeatedly, insistently, picked on me? Because, as a woman, I was more likely to give him an emotional response. As a woman, I was perhaps, in his mind, more vulnerable, As a woman, it was easier to dump his anger on me.

Living in the West, sometimes it is easy to forget the kind of prejudice that women face in other parts of the world. When something like this happens, I do wonder, whether to men, or certainly these kind of men, women are still the inferior species?

Anyway, back to the man and his outburst. Reminds me of the idiom: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Had he been nicer, I still wouldn’t have been able to change the situation, but I would certainly have tried to help him in whatever way possible.

Bottom line is, it rarely pays to be nasty in the long run.

Heaven and Hell


She pushed him hard. He snapped back, ” You are such a cry baby!”  Sure enough, the tears were pooling in her eyes. Her lip taking on a familiar quiver. Bindu stepped in quickly before the situation escalated.

“Stop it, you two! It’s always the same with you. Either make up, or go home. We’re not here to watch you fight. We are here to play.”

Sparrow twisted her face, and looked away. She knew her tantrum would have to wait. Avinash looked abashed. He was getting to the age where playing with girls would soon be uncool. He was still too young to join the older boys who played cricket on the maidan. Our group of five girls had accommodated him from the very start. For one, he wasn’t rough-and- tumble like the other boys. For another, we felt sorry for him. Poor motherless boy.

It was only when Sparrow moved into the locality that the trouble had started. None of us really liked Sparrow. There was something very sly and shifty about her. Besides, she was permanently in a bad mood.  But Mrs Kaul, Rupa’s mum, had insisted we include her in all our games. Rupa was well liked in our group. Also, Sparrow’s parents were their tenants. Consequently, Sparrow had become a little appendage to our crew. Barely tolerated, but there nevertheless.

I turned my attention to the game. Heaven and Hell. Heaven was any raised surface you could climb onto, before being caught. Hell was being caught, and put in the unfortunate position of the catcher. It was going well today. Arshi and I were the last ones left, and Rupa, between fits of giggles was trying to get a hold of one of us.

” Sonia, there there… Arshi, get on the wall quick”

The rest of them kept shouting instructions at us, till Rupa finally  managed to grip the hem of my dress, and Arshi was declared the winner.

“Hello uncle”,  said Bindu slightly startled. Sparrow’s father had emerged quite suddenly behind her. His mad scientist look always made us uncomfortable.

“How is it going?”, he boomed. Sparrow ran and clung to him. We smiled politely. “Come upstairs for a drink children. You must be worn out…all this running around in the heat…”

Since we had been playing on the street in front of their house, and intended to keep playing for a while, we had no choice. We followed him reluctantly.

Rupa whispered, ” A quick Rooh Afza, and we’ll leave. Promise. ”

We looked at her reproachfully. Baby, her sister who was ever so slightly dim witted, was the only one who grinned and nodded. Rupa could do no wrong in her eyes.

Sparrow and her parents lived in the rather cramped two rooms that had been let out to them by Rupa’s parents. They weren’t rich. Not even solidly middle class like the rest of our families. Yet, the way Sparrow’s mum had furnished her living quarters, you would be at a loss to bracket them into any particular class or caste. Fab India jostled with Khan Market purchases. The curtains were some kind of gauzy fabric that billowed in the breeze, but couldn’t possibly give them any protection from the merciless Delhi heat. There was an undone air to the entire place, something that discomfited us. Us with our Rexine sofas and striped curtains and Sarojini Market bedcovers. “Bohemians”, I had heard my mother mutter to my father sometime ago. I didn’t know what that meant, but from the disapproving tone, I gathered it was something really bad.

To look at Sparrow’s mother though, you couldn’t imagine her being anything bad. She was just too beautiful. Even us, as children, were dumb struck in her presence. She was rather dark and played up her complexion in vivid vegetable colour textiles. Her large eyes were kohl lined and heavy lidded. She wore backless cholis and sarees slung so low on her waist to be positively indecent.( Rupa’s mother’s words, not mine). Her hair was long, thick and worn loose to her waist. She could have been an actress. She certainly had friends from the acting world who came to visit. What she was doing in our little suburban locality was a mystery, and the subject of much gossip amongst the plump, nondescript housewives that peopled our block.

Those doe like eyes were focussed on me in puzzlement right now. Oh! Right. I had forgotten to answer her question. I nodded quickly, not sure what I was agreeing to, and was handed a ham sandwich with a glass of the crimson sweet concoction that I could tell had only been bought to appease Sparrow and her friends. Somehow, Sparrow’s mum, or Mitali aunty as mother had asked me to address her as, didn’t seem like a Rooh Afza sort of person.

When she turned her back, I quickly took the ham out of the sandwich and hid it in the potted plant. I was  a Brahmin and couldn’t eat meat, least of all pig meat. Rupa caught my eye and giggled.

“So, girls, have you played nicely today?”, Mitali aunty probed gently. Her eyes fell on Avinash, and she said apologetically,  “and you, Avinash. I could hear you out there, laughing and running about. It must have been fun,na?”

“Yes aunty”, chirped Baby. “We played pitthu, oonch neech ka papda, kho kho and Heaven and Hell. So much fun. No school for another three weeks. So mummy allows us to play for longer. We have mostly done our holiday homework too. ”

She seemed to be laughing at us as she asked, “And what holiday homework did you get?”

An hour passed with us discussing our homework. Then Bindu decided to display the latest Kathak moves she had learnt at school. We all danced to an Amitabh Bachchan song, and finally Sparrow’s dad brought out his guitar, and Mitali aunty sang a sad sweet English song  about love that none of us much understood.

” It was nice, haina?”, Arshi asked me as we walked back together.

“Yes, it was. I like Mitali aunty. She is so pretty and kind. Sparrow is so horrible. Do you think she’s adopted?”

” No yaar. Sparrow looks like uncle. She must be jealous because everyone likes her mummy and not her.”

I digested this fact silently.

“Is that why she doesn’t like Avinash either? We like him. He’s a good boy and plays so well. He even has good ideas for new games. I’ll miss him when he goes to the hostel.”

Arshi blushed. She had been nursing an unrequited crush on Avinash for a while now.

“Oh sorry Arshu! I forgot. You’ll miss him more, na? Maybe he’ll write to you? Or maybe he won’t. Boys are not very good at writing letters. Anyway, let’s make the most of these weeks before school starts. Then we’ll only get to see him next year in the summer holidays. ”

A little deflated we returned home to our dinners and families.

***

How or why we chose the street in front of my house the next day I’ll never remember.  But it  all started out good-naturedly enough. Our usual games had been exhausted. We had broken up a fight between Sparrow and Baby. Mother had given us samosas with tomato ketchup, and we’d sat on the steps munching silently.

” My mother thinks you’re stupid”, Sparrow suddenly hissed to Avinash.

Avinash coloured slightly but decided to ignore her. He carried on licking the crumbs off his fingers.

“She thinks you have no manners and look like a girl”, she persisted venomously.

“Sparrow…”, Bindu warned narrowing her eyes.

Sparrow ignored her. She had found her pace, and nothing would distract her.

“Well, how could you have manners? You have no mother to teach you any. She ran away didn’t she? Didn’t even take her with you. Na  naa na nana”, she stuck her tongue out.

Avinash’s attack was so sudden and ferocious, that even nimble footed Bindu couldn’t react quick enough. He had managed to sock her one in the eye and tear a clump of hair off her head before we pulled them apart. They continued to struggle and scream, and Mother had to come downstairs to calm everyone down and dispatch all the children home.

” Sonia “, Mother asked me later, “what is going on with all of you? You kids used to play so peacefully before.”

I was too shaken to answer,  refused all offers of jalebi and milk, and went to bed instead.

***

Neither Sparrow nor Avinash came to our next few meetings. But Mother told me that the parents had met and brokered some kind of peace between the two. When we met next, they ignored one another but played nicely with the rest of us. An uneasy truce had been declared.

Mornings were spent at home, gathering up various flora and fauna for our Science project. Then after lunch and a nap, we were allowed out at 4pm, when the worst of the heat had dissipated. We then had a free run of all the streets in our block of the locality. Most people knew us, and they put up with our noisy play with a sort of neighbourly tolerance. All except Mr Kalsi.

“Bloody children! Can’t you b*gger off and play somewhere else?”

He was an elderly widower of about 75 with a grouchy temperament, and a reputation for getting a little too familiar with his maids. He lived in one part of a rather decrepit bungalow. The other side had been left to rack and ruin. At some pre historic time, someone had very optimistically nailed a TO LET sign on it. Over the years, one of the nails had come loose, and the sign hung askew.  An ‘i’ had been inserted between the ‘o’ and the ‘l’, and just incase it wasn’t clear enough, there was a rough sketch of a man squatting, with a large turd hanging off his bottom.

We were alternately attracted and repelled by the place.  Attracted by all the possibilities of new games it offered us. Hide and Seek. Exploration of the Unknown, and Scaring of the younger ones. Repelled by the aura of gloom that hung about it. The chance of it being infested by cockroaches and rats, or even a ghost or two. Mr Kalsi was purported to have been married to a very sickly woman who had died in the house. The more imaginative in our lot claimed to have seen a grey figure floating about at night, wailing and complaining of a tummy ache.

“Shall we go inside today?”, asked Bindu.

Rupa  hung back, holding on to Baby. I was game and so was Avinash. I could tell Arshi wasn’t keen, but was willing to go along for his sake.

“No, you can’t!  My mother has said we can’t enter other people’s properties. It’s called tres..tress….I don’t know what it’s called. But it is wrong!”,  Sparrow ended with a flourish. She delighted in pointing out the obvious.

Bindu sighed. Her attempts at livening up our games had failed again.

We dispersed soon after, promising to meet at the same time next day, this time at Avinash’s house.

***

Avinash was rich. This much was certain. We knew it from the size of his house, from the décor and from the foreign car that stood on his drive. His father came from a very wealthy family, but had been disowned on account of having married outside their social strata. He had gone on to make his own millions, effectively thumbing his nose at his family. The fact that the marriage subsequently collapsed had not detracted from his aura. Mehra uncle was working from home today, and  dismissed us to the garden, after politely enquiring after our families, and getting all the names muddled up.

Sparrow was unusually quiet. Out on the street, it was an equal platform. Here, in Avinash’s house, she was at a disadvantage. She trailed behind us as we climbed trees, and swung on the hammock. We ended up in Avinash’s room, admiring the posters he had on his wall. Pop stars we had never heard of.

“Isn’t this one from Wham?”, Arshi asked shyly.

“Yes, and this one is Eurythmics….and this is Boy George”, Avinash was enjoying himself. He rarely had an opportunity to show off. We were all rather impressed. Most of us had to share our rooms with our brothers or sisters, and  like most Indian households, privacy was unheard of. Having one’s own room, with a door with which you could shut out the outside world, was an enormous luxury.

“And who is this?”, Sparrow asked softly.

We turned to her in surprise. Most of us had forgotten she was there. She was holding a sepia toned photograph of a woman with her face sightly turned away from the camera. The woman had a cigarette in her hand and she seemed to be laughing at something just outside the periphery.   Avinash snatched the photo out of her hand.

“Where did you…how…how dare you….?”, he spluttered, and suddenly, unaccountably, burst into tears.

We stood there, stunned.

Sparrow laughed, ” You are such a ninny. Why don’t you boast about this photo,huh? That’s your mother,isn’t it? The one who ran away. Maybe she didn’t want to stay with a boy who behaves like a girl. You are such a girl. Why are you always hanging around us? Why can’t you go and play with the other boys? Scared that they’ll beat you up? Fraidy cat! Loser!!”

“That’s enough!”, Bindu snapped. “Avinash has more guts than you. And he’ll prove it too! Tomorrow, we’ll meet outside Mr Kalsi’s and we’ll see who the fraidy cat is. Yes, that’s right Sparrow, we are going inside the haunted house. You can wipe that smirk off your face because if you don’t show up, you will be the loser. And you can forget about playing with us again!”

Arshi and I walked home, subdued and a little worried about the next day’s challenge.

“I really don’t like cockroaches, Sonia.”

“I know. I’m not too fond of them myself. But it’s Mr Kalsi that scares me the most. If he finds out, I am in BIG trouble. He’s related to us.”

“What? I didn’t know this. How?”

For a while we discussed the complicated permutations of extended families. Then, worryingly, we came back to what was uppermost on our minds.

” That house has been empty for a long time. It must be really dusty inside.”  Arshi paused, “Do you think Sparrow will show up?”

“Well, if she wants to save face, she had better. But I kind of hope she doesn’t. Then we’ll be rid of her, na?”

” But Rupa’s mum? She’s always insisting we play with her. What if Rupa spills the beans?”

“Listen,  Rupa won’t say anything.  And Sparrow daren’t get on Bindu’s wrong side.”

” Yes, that’s true….but….”, she gnawed at her nail and came back to what bothered her most, ” the house….what if there are rats?”

***

The next day was a Friday, and our weekly visit to the temple. I prayed long and hard for a miracle, and was rewarded with a pat on my head and a ladoo. I agonised over not going, knowing fully well I would.

“All but one”, smiled Bindu. “Well, well, I wonder where Miss Sparrow could be?”

I caught Rupa’s eye, and a nervous giggle escaped her. Bindu looked at her enquiringly.

“Only”, she hastily supplied, “this morning we heard Sparrow’s mother shouting at her father. Then she walked out. I don’t know if she came back?”

We pondered this fact. Our mothers never shouted at our fathers. It just wasn’t done. What a peculiar family. So, maybe Sparrow wouldn’t show. That would let us off the hook. We sat on the wall and chatted for a bit.

“Of course, we could still go in”, declared Bindu.

“Or not”, muttered Avinash quietly. I looked at him , amused at his sudden reluctance.

“Well, it sort of defeats the purpose”, he flared up. “I don’t have anything to prove to you. It’s that little flea bag that needs to be taught a lesson.”

“Speaking of who….”, Arshi interjected.

Sparrow was running towards us, all flushed.

Triumphantly, she came to a stop at the wall.

“I bet you thought I wasn’t coming?”, she said, her eyes gleaming. Since we couldn’t deny this, we pretended to examine the bricks.

“What happened to your face?”, asked Baby innocently.

“Nothing”, said Sparrow, rather cross.” Well, are we or aren’t we? Or are you just as chicken as him?”

At this Bindu reasserted herself.

“Avinash, you get that rock from there to break the lock. It’s so old, it’ll probably just need a good thwack. Sonia, Arshi, you come in behind me, and be quiet. Sparrow, you go in first, since you seem so eager. Rupa,” she turned to her kindly, “why don’t you stay here with Baby and give us fair warning if anyone comes by?”

Rupa agreed readily but Sparrow was having none of it.

“Why can’t Baby stay outside, and Rupa come in? This is a quiet street, and hardly anyone passes by at this hour. Why do we need two guards?”

No one could refute this logic, and Rupa reluctantly had to join our breaking-and-entering mob.

We had never been quieter in our lives. Partly due to apprehension, partly because we knew there was no turning back.

The house just stood there, like an entity in its own right. Grim and forbidding. The toilet sign swung slightly in the breeze. Cobwebs had wrapped themselves many times over it, giving it a silvery sheen. The sky had darkened in the past hour, and there seemed to be a dust storm brewing in the distance. Little flurries of dust danced like whirling dervishes on the open porch.  Arshi grasped my hand tightly. I gave it a reassuring squeeze, although I could not swallow the lump of fear in my throat. I looked over at Sparrow who seemed to have a look of desperate determination plastered on her face. Avinash was concentrating on not dropping the rock he held. Bindu led the way, fearless as always.

The lock didn’t need any thwacking after all. It had lost its battle against the elements a long time ago, and lay on the floor rather forlorn and useless. Bindu pushed the door, and it swung open noiselessly. We entered single file, bemused at how easy it had been. The interiors were gloomy, but not especially scary. Furniture had been covered with sheets that were further covered with dust. A black and white picture of a young Mr Kalsi and his pretty wife sat on the mantelpiece. We looked around at the unremarkable room, and conveyed our disappointment to each other with our eyes. Bindu motioned for us to explore further. Something scurried over Arshi’s foot, and she jumped clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. Rupa turned white and clutched Sparrow, who shook her off with annoyance.

We shuffled in behind Bindu. It was all the same. Dull, dreary furniture, a few pictures on the walls, and a general air of neglect that hung in the air. Reality compared very unfavourably to the visions we had conjured up in our minds.

Outside,the dust storm had arrived, and where previously, we would’ve been ensconced in our respective houses, we were now stuck here, waiting for it to pass. Rupa was starting to worry about Baby.

When we heard the sob, we thought it was Rupa. But Rupa looked back wide eyed, and shook her head. Arshi whispered, “It came from over there”, indicating a door further down the hallway. A chill went down my spine and I wondered if Mrs Kalsi’s ghost was about to declare herself. Sparrow looked at Bindu and then at Avinash. With her finger, she pointed to the door, as if to say, “Come on!”  Avinash looked terrified. Bindu was slowly turning the colour of puce. Sparrow, with a vicious tenacity, grabbed Avinash’s hand and started to drag him towards the door. Bindu stood powerless and rooted to the floor.

There was a clap of thunder, and with a torrential downpour the skies opened. We huddled close to one another. They were nearly there, and Sparrow, in her moment of vengeance had completely forgotten her fear. She grabbed the handle of the door and was yanked in as it swung open dramatically at exactly the same moment.

“Aiieeeeeee”, Rupa screamed and passed out.  Bindu and Arshi ran outside in a panic. I stood there trembling, watching Avinash at first turn white and then a deep, blotchy red. Abruptly, he turned on his foot and stomped out, a look of fury on his face.

Slowly, I made my way to the open door.

Sparrow stood there open mouthed looking from her mother to Avinash’s dad, and back again. Mitali aunty’s saree was abandoned on the floor, and Mehra uncle sat bare chested on the bed, smoking a cigarette. They all turned to look at me. Mitali aunty smiled absently, and picked her saree off the floor. I backed away as quietly as I had come in.

***

“Arshu, do you remember that Summer we discovered Mitali aunty’s affair?”, I asked Arshi over our monthly cappuccino catch-up.

“Hmmm….vaguely….It was all quite scandalous, na? So many years ago now.”

“Funny, how Sparrow and Avinash never really fought after that….”

“Well, she wasn’t really around for much longer. Didn’t they move away?”

” Yes….and then a few years later Bindu eloped with that rather unsavoury character. Gosh, we did have some exciting times there.”

“I wonder what happened to Sparrow and the rest of them? Rupa  emails me occasionally. She’s just had a baby boy.”

” Baby’s still living at home. But here’s the surprise! Guess whose article I came across in the newspaper today? Kruttika Ghosh aka Sparrow! She’s made quite a name for herself.”

Arshi skimmed the article with a smile on her face.

“Bitchy, as always, I see?”

We laughed. “She’s putting her bile to good use”

“And Avinash?”, she asked me rather wistfully.

I shrugged and  turned to the sink to rinse out our cups. I’d heard he’d moved to New York with his male partner. But I didn’t tell Arshi that.

Some illusions are best not shattered.

THE END