by Manoj Nair
You were the odd one out in class. Quieter than the blackboard in a class of boisterous children. The teacher said the blackboard at least squeaked when one wrote on it. Fidgety, pulling at the ends of your braided hair or the ends of your skirt when having to speak. You had burst out crying when the teacher asked you to identify adjectives in a sentence and that was the last time she asked you questions in class. She wasn’t sure she could handle your sobs.
Bespectacled, slight in frame, with freckles hiding your cheeks; you were always found with a book; be it during recess or the sports period. Your slight limp excused you from the strain of jogging around the tracks or hitting balls aimlessly over the tennis court. The fall during your early childhood days, multiple visits to multiple hospitals, your father blaming your mother for her carelessness, their frequent fights and father walking out of the house – the limp was a grim reminder. But you liked sitting near the tennis courts and watching. You liked the thwack when the ball hit the strings of the racquet, the waves created on the net when it trapped a ball.
For all their innocence, kids can be cruel and many names stuck to you as you progressed from one class to another, from one school to another as mother tried her best to move on with your lives. You had trouble making friends with the frequent moves. Books took up the vacant space.
So when Stefan came and plonked down next to you, you were a bit perturbed. You couldn’t remember the last time anyone had sat so close to you in class. He was the new student in 4A. He looked geeky, his spectacles thick like the bottom of a soda bottle, but he had an earnest look on his face and he smiled with his eyes.
“What are you reading?” he asked you sidling in close, bending his neck to read the cover of your book. You didn’t have the courage to look up from your book. You closed the book immediately and put it back in your satchel. A sweat broke out on your brow, “Kim “you replied hastening to add “by Rudyard Kipling”. Kim was your alter ego. He was the same age as you and maybe Stefan. Yet he wandered around like a free animal, like the dog that you saw on the street without a care in the world. He rode horses, gallivanting across the market and played the role of a spy along with his Tibetan monk friend. You had read the book and reread it again. This was the third time you were reading “Kim”. How you longed to run without fear in your heart like him.
Stefan looked up with his goofy smile and adjusting his glasses said, “it’s my favourite book”
Stefan had joined school only about a week ago. Quiet and shy, he sat by himself in a far corner of the class room, staring out on to the grounds below. You hadn’t paid much attention to him then. You had thought of him many years later when you saw your first Harry Potter poster. Stefan smelling of talcum powder, his hair neatly combed and parted at the side. He travelled in the same bus as you, he would get down two stops before you did. His mother who had joined as a nurse in the government hospital in town, would wait for the bus in her brightly patterned dresses. Stefan with his blue socks reaching just below his knees; a light jute color schoolbag with a Spiderman sticker became your first friend in this school.
You liked this school, you liked the dark red brick building, the huge stone sculpture of Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms that was at the center square. You could look over it from your second floor class room. The cherubic infant looked wide eyed at you if you got your angle of sight correct. You felt a smile coming over the infant’s lips as if it was going to start gurgling now. The look on Mary’s face captured all the emotions that a mother felt for her child. You would look often at your mother to catch a glimmer of the same look; to be saddened most times. The white statue was slowly turning green at its base with the moss that collected during the rains. You liked the small pink colored chapel that stood behind the main school building and the pig farm and the mango orchard that lay behind it. This was your place. You were the only one in your class who knew of the eight new piglets, pink like the soft toy at your bedside, and pink like the cotton candy mother bought for you when you went to the Sunday market. The caretaker allowed you to pick them up and give them a bath in the old aluminum tub kept under the old brass tap by the far wall. They would squeak and slip out of your hands; scampering away as far as they could.
Stefan was new to school and he didn’t know of the piglets or the mango orchard. Stefan with his round glasses with blue rim. He would walk quietly up the steps of the bus, his face lighting up when he saw you. His white shirt neatly tucked inside his navy blue shorts. He would slip into the seat next to you, the seat that was always empty. He would tell you about the new story book he was reading. He liked the Five FindOuters. He pretended he was one of them when he retold the mystery.
Stefan, he gave you your first flower. It was a white lily from his small garden. You still see the grin he had when he bounded up the bus with his hands behind his back. You knew he was hiding something. You felt an excitement run through your spine .You tried to imagine what it was as he walked up. He offered the white lily with is left hand; oh yes, Stefan was left handed. He had a small band aid on his forefinger. He told you later that the rose bush had pricked him as he reached out for the lily. He had his goofy smile. On his birthday, he wore a little red bow on his blue shirt. He went around the classroom offering a chocolate to everyone. When he reached your seat, he dug his hand inside the big packet and offered you all that he could grab in his fist.
One day during recess you took him to meet your piglets. You picked little Tubby and handed it to him. Stefan held him gingerly and Tubby took an instant liking to Stefan, rubbing his nose on Stefan’s tiny wrist. It tickled Stefan and he laughed. You showed him the big rabbit hole under the mango tree close to the gardener’s shed. You talked about the adventures of Alice in her wonderland. Stefan listened attentively, he had never heard the story before.
It was a Friday. You remember it because of the school choir practice session. Stefan had been excited the past few days. He was going away to his father’s place for the weekend. He rarely met his father. He was away most of the time. Once he had gone to meet him, in a white building he remembered, surrounded by a green lawn, behind a large iron gate. White building with white tiles and white bed sheet on a lone bed in the room, pushed towards the window from where he could see the lawn below. Later mother told you that it was a sanatorium.
“Why doesn’t he stay with you, Stefan?” you had asked. You were walking along the school athletic track. He kicked a few pebbles along the way looking through his thick glasses at your classmates running on the field.
“Mother says he is sick. He is ill most of the time. The doctors in the building take care of him. But ..” his voice turned excited again “he is better now. His medicines have been reduced. He doesn’t sleep all the time now. You know, he has a small house by the lakeside. Mother says it’s made of logs and it’s got a swing on a large oak tree. She will drop me off today evening.”
Monday morning. Stefan didn’t turn up in the bus. You thought he must have overstayed his visit by the log cabin. Maybe his father took him camping or maybe they were fishing together. The lake was a favorite fishing spot, mother had said when you told her that Stefan was going to stay by the lake.
The school felt very quiet. . Your class teacher had a sad somber look on her face. Mother came during the first period. You found it surprising. She never came to school unless it was to pay the fees and even then she came quietly and went unnoticed. She would never drop by class. The teacher exchanged a knowing look with her. She quietly signaled you to leave the class with mother. You did not even pick up your bag. Mother held your hand tightly; it felt cold and moist. She smiled frigidly but you felt as if she would cry. She led you down the stairs past the Virgin Mary and up the steps of the pink chapel.
Father was waiting outside the door of the open chapel. You hadn’t seen him in a long time. You ran to him and hugged him. He felt warm. You remembered he always felt warm. He planted a wet kiss on your forehead. Tear drops in his eyes moved onto your cheeks. He took you along to the front row. You sat between him and mother.
You looked around the chapel. The large statue of Jesus on the cross. He looked so different from the little boy in Mary’s arms below. The stained glass with painting of birds and flowers, the flowers running along the length of the wall. Stefan’s mother sitting across the aisle on the first row. Her hands tightly closed around a prayer bead. She was mumbling to herself slowly, looking straight ahead, ahead at Jesus and through him into the vacant space at the wall. Tears rolled off her thick eyelashes and fell onto her closed fist, one drop splattered off her hands and fell onto her dress; her plain black dress. You had never seen her wearing black, You glanced to your left at mother. You noticed she was wearing black too. There were a few other people in the chapel, all wearing black. You hadn’t noticed them or the lack of color when you walked in.
A church bell sounded. You turned towards the dais. It was then that you noticed the casket .White in color, surrounded by white lilies. A large wreath of red roses lay at one end of the box. You looked at father. He held your hand and led you to white box. Standing on your toes, you glanced inside.
Stefan .His thick glasses covered most of his face. He suddenly reminded you of the cherubic Jesus in his mother’s arms. You wondered how he got inside the box.
Father led you away, outside the chapel, into a cold wind that had started to blow. Mother said they had done a good job of covering up the eight stab wounds. That was the day you learnt what embalmers meant.