The Gift..

An overcast afternoon, a sleepy road. A house rousing itself from its afternoon siesta. The girl plays hopscotch on the chalk marked tiles, with the mango trees keeping a watch on her. One. Two. Three. The double jump. She has nearly made it to the end. She hears the front gate creak to life. Four. Five. Six and Turn. And Jump. The creaking of the gate stops ominously. The decibels die away in the middle of her jump. She stares at the visitor with frightened eyes even as he leans against the gate, breathing heavily, smiling at her. She stands frozen in time as he walks in through the gate. He stands unsure for a moment wondering if he should walk towards her or attempt the steps that lead up to the portico. She will have to walk past him if she is to run inside and she doesn’t feel brave enough. “You have grown taller”, he says as he walks towards her and pats her head. She catches her breath then because his breath reeks, his hand is unsteady and his eyes are bloodshot.

His trembling hand settles on her shoulder and she stifles the urge to run, to scream, to push his hand away. “I got you a gift”, he says even as his hands fumble inside his pockets. A soiled handkerchief and a rolled up note are the only things he find. “I did get you a gift”, his voice is plaintive now, pleading even. “Would you like my bus ticket? Do you still play with such things?”. The ticket is torn and in a sorry state – it also reeks – just like him, she thinks.

There is a quickening of steps and the portico door opens. Her mother sounds calm and measured “What are you doing here?”, she asks in a tone that is strangely clipped and unfriendly. He smiles at her and staggers down the path towards the steps. “I came to see you, it has been a long time”, his eagerness and joy shine through the gloomy afternoon.

She opens the door to let him inside and wonders if anyone saw him. Her face softens when she sees the scared face of her girl,  “Do you want to come in for some tea now?”, she asks. The girl shakes her head, she is petrified and the thought of seeing him across the table fills her with dread. “Send Dad out to play with me”, she pleads. “Your father needs to have a talk with your uncle”, her mother explains. And then almost to herself “I do too, it has been long coming”. “Use the back door if you need anything” she says and then the steps hasten down the hallway.

She hears the voices then, a slurred apology, a firm tone, a soft voice asking how long he intends to hurt the people he loves in this inhuman way. She hears words like drinking and addiction and shame thrown around. She hears a muffled sob and she knows it is her Uncle because her mother is too strong to cry. She hears her father’s tones asking questions and a half-frenzied outburst in a heavy voice. She hears the door opening and her fears give her wings. She races down the garden path to where the old storage tank drips water in concentric circles on to the moss beneath. She has been told to stay away from the terrace but today she needs to escape. She grips the rickety old ladder with both hands and makes her way to the terrace. There is a stock of chopped wood there and she hides behind it. She can hear indistinct sounds from the rooms below but she feels safe here. She knows in some corner of her heart that her Uncle wouldn’t hurt her but a small, nagging voice tells her that he is not himself and that perhaps he could hurt himself someway.

Her father finds her an hour later – she has fallen asleep, leaning against the logs and her clothes smell of sawdust and the humidity of the impending rains. He picks her up and guides her down the ladder even as she leans against his shoulder and tries to invoke feelings of safety. “He has gone”, her father says. “And he wouldn’t have hurt you – but I saw him off on the bus a while ago”.

“He is not coming back”, her mother tells her. “He is not coming back till he gets better or till he wants to get better. He is not coming back because he knows he scared you”. She feels sorry for him then and wonders if he will know when to get down from the bus and she wonders if someone awaits him at the end of his journey. She feels better when she sees three teacups on the side table.

“Why did you hide on the terrace?”, her mother asks her, without once reminding her of the rules that usually forbid her to access the terrace.

“Because if he could barely walk, he wouldn’t be able to climb up the ladder”, she whispers.

She doesn’t see him for 10 years after that. He doesn’t want to get better, she assumes. Or maybe he doesn’t want to scare her again. So when her mother takes her along to a wedding and he greets her, she wants to disappear up the ladder again. His breath still reeks and his eyes are still bloodshot. He is still unsteady on his feet and his hand trembles – only one hand works now, the other one stays limp by his side. He has aged tremendously and he smiles at her in delight. “You have grown taller”, he says as she shirks away from his pat. She wanders around her mother’s old house, a house she has only seen a couple of times and stops when she sees a photo of her mother with him. She is too late though, he has walked up to her and he sees her taking in the photo. “You look like her, you look so much like her”, he smiles through his failing eyesight. She doesn’t know what to say to this old, frail, man. He is as much a stranger to her as the smiling elder brother, her mother is looking adoringly at, in the sepia photo.

Her mother takes her to the top of the house and shows her a hide-out. “I spent ages here, hiding from the world. I could tell when your Uncle was home – he always came zooming down the hill there on his shiny, new bike”. She looks at her mother with new eyes, “Did you hide here from him?” she asks and her mother laughs, “He was the best elder brother anyone could have asked for”, she says with a faraway voice. “Maybe we all stopped waiting for him to return – maybe no one was around when he did decide to get home”, she whispers.

She receives the news of the death of her uncle an year later. He died in his sleep, she hears and she wonders if he looked at the sepia photograph of his sister before he died. She wonders if he knew how his younger sister waited for him everyday, even after she turned him away.

Years later, her mother hands her a stack of old LP records that belonged to him, in another place and another time, when things like music and song coloured his world. As she goes through the records, her mother gives her a heavy, gold chain wrapped in fine muslin . “It was my mother’s and then mine and now it is yours”, she says in a whisper. “I gave it to him many years ago, when he needed some help to battle his addiction – he never used it because he wanted it to be returned to its new, rightful owner – you”.

She knows suddenly that after all those years, that the gift he was supposed to have given her then, has come back to her. And then she wonders what it would have been like to have the gift accompanied by a trembling pat…

She has been wearing the gold chain ever since – as a reminder that even at our worst, there is some goodness that sustains us enough to create a memory for the ones we leave behind, long after we have packed up and left. And that even after you have lost the tryst, someone will remember the way you played the game and hope you made it home….safe.

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