By Saeed Ibrahim
Roy paced up and down on the balcony of his house looking out onto South Mumbai’s leafy, tree-lined Laburnum Road. There were only a few of the iconic yellow flower-bearing trees left that had once flourished on either side of the road and lent their name to this peaceful and picturesque locality. Other trees had outgrown and replaced the laburnums, but together they still provided the street with its shady overhanging canopy; although with the construction of newer and taller buildings, the area had lost some of its quiet charm.
Roy was getting increasingly restless. Normally one could set one’s watch by the punctuality of the postman as he turned the corner into Roy’s street on his mid morning delivery rounds. For some reason, he was unusually late this morning and this added to Roy’s nervous anticipation. It was the day that the results of his final exams were meant to arrive by post. The results would get delivered to his house in the normal course anyway, but it was somehow more exciting to track the postman on his rounds, meet him at the gate and get his report card from the postman’s hands directly, avoiding delays of any sort. Besides it was vacation time and Roy was at home all day.
At last he spotted the postman as he entered the lane opposite his house. He followed his every move from his vantage point on his balcony as the postman entered each house, delivered the mail and exited again before going up to the next house. Roy waited impatiently for the postman to finish his circuit of homes in the lane opposite, before he made his way to his house. But to his utter disappointment, the postman skipped Roy’s house and continued on his way to the next street.
A thousand doubts plagued Roy’s mind. How come his report had not arrived? Had he fared badly in his exams? Had there been a delay in despatching the reports at his school and would the results arrive the following day? A deflated Roy abandoned his post at the balcony.
But the following day he was at his balcony vigil again at the appointed hour. This time, however, he was not disappointed. With mounting excitement he rushed down and met the postman at the gate. The postman knew from experience what Roy’s agitation was all about and he decided to play along with him. Holding the much anticipated envelope aloft he teased,“Not so fast young man! Before I hand you this envelope you must first tell me what you are going to give me if you get good results.”
Roy could barely control his impatience and blurted out, “Whatever you want, sir. What about a box of sweetmeats?”
“I was only joking, son,” the postman replied handing Roy the report card. “But do tell your mother to save some sweets for me at Diwali or Christmas.”
Roy ran up the steps two at a time, and getting into his flat, let out a whoop of joy as he tore open the envelope and scanned his report card. He had stood first in class and bettered his rank by two places from the last exam. He could hardly wait to share the good news with his mother but he would have to wait until the evening before she returned home from work.
At twelve, Roy was a sensitive, well-mannered and studious young boy who excelled at his studies. Tall and lanky, he was not much into sports and outdoor games but had a fascination for books and spent almost all his spare time reading. At a young age he had devoured almost all the classics and was extremely well read. Thoughtful and considerate, he had a protective attitude towards his mother who had been widowed at a young age and left with bringing up a small child entirely on her own. She was devoted to Roy and the two had developed a strong bond built on mutual understanding and caring.
Still bubbling with the excitement of the morning’s news, Roy placed his report card on the dining room table and went into the kitchen to warm up the food his mother had prepared and left for him before leaving for work. After lunching, Roy went up to his room and picked up the unfinished book he had been reading that morning. So absorbed was he in the world of Dickens and the “Tale of Two Cities” that he had lost track of time. With a start he put down his book as he remembered that it was already six in the evening, and he had to go pick up the loaf of bread and sachet of milk that he bought each evening and delivered to Miss Rita.
Miss Rita was an elderly lady who lived by herself in the next door flat to Roy and his mother. She had contracted polio as a child but despite her handicap (she could only move about supported with leg braces and crutches), she had shown great courage and determination in getting herself a Master’s Degree and a teacher’s qualification. She had been a highly successful and popular senior school teacher of English and History over a career spanning thirty years. Nearing retirement, she had been struck by the post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects about 30% of polio survivors years after recovery from an initial attack of the poliomyelitis virus. For Miss Rita, it had meant renewed and progressive muscle weakness and fatigue, making even movement around the house limited and extremely painful.
Life had forcibly slowed down for her and she now spent all her time indoors. But she was not one to wallow in self pity. Being a deeply devout woman and also an extremely practical one, she found strength in prayer but also in fruitful activity. She was good at knitting and crochet and made little baby items that she donated to the Church mission near her house to be sold for local charities. She was also fond of baking and turned out delicious cakes and biscuits which she made and supplied on order to the households in the neighbourhood. Her Christmas hampers too were well known with their assortment of home-made goodies – Christmas cake, chocolate fudge, marshmallows and marzipan.
Roy and his mother had been very supportive. Roy’s mother would often send up food items, especially on weekends when she had the possibility of spending more time in the kitchen. Roy often ran errands for Miss Rita and got her a loaf of bread and a sachet of milk every evening when he had finished with his homework. Often he would stay back and spend some time with Miss Rita telling her about his day at school and discussing with her the latest book that he had read. She in turn would run a critical eye over his work assignments, suggest books for him to read and having discovered that he had shown a curiosity about Shakespeare, would sometimes read to him extracts from some of the more famous plays. Over time, a close rapport had been developed between the two. Roy found in Miss Rita a valuable mentor and guide, and he provided her with the much needed comfort and solace in her lonely old age. Being kind and respectful to elders came naturally to him, and Roy probably did not realise how much his daily evening visits meant to Miss Rita.
The activity that brought the most pleasure to them both was a game of Scrabble. Miss Rita made it a point to never “let” Roy win, and she was elated when on occasion Roy, unaided and entirely on his own, achieved a higher score and won the game. There were two ground rules that Miss Rita insisted on. She always encouraged Roy to make use of a dictionary to look up the meaning of a new word. (It was largely due to her that Roy had, for his age, developed a vast and varied vocabulary.) And each time before winding up the game Miss Rita would remind Roy, “Don’t forget to count the tiles and make sure they are a 100 before you put them back in the bag. It’s so easy to lose even one tile and spoil your game.”
The Scrabble games became almost a routine for both Roy and Miss Rita and the evening sessions sometimes extended to weekend afternoons as well.
Fresh from the excitement of his excellent exam results, along with the bread and milk that evening, Roy now carried his report card to show Miss Rita.
“Congratulations Roy. You have done so well in all your subjects and topped your class. I am so proud of you. It’s time we had a little celebration,” Miss Rita beamed as she manoeuvered her wheelchair to a nearby sideboard and reached for a bar of chocolate.
“Thank you Miss Rita,” replied Roy blushing. “Could we please have a game of Scrabble today?”
“Of course, Roy. Go fetch the board and the bag of tiles.”
Roy eagerly set up the board and the game got underway. In the last round Miss Rita was leading with thirty points and it was now Roy’s turn with the last seven letters on the rack staring him in the face. With the utmost concentration Roy arranged and re-arranged the letters trying to get a word that made sense. After several attempts he arrived at the word “RAIMENT” which looked strangely familiar but he wasn’t too sure. He went up to the bookshelf and brought down the familiar “Oxford English Dictionary.” He let out a cry of triumph as he read out aloud: “Noun, old use: Clothing, Garments.” He had scored a BINGO.
He had just finished adding up the scores when he heard a light tap at the front door. “That must be Mummy.”
Engrossed in their game, they had both not realised that it was 8.30 pm. Roy’s mother had returned from work and was now reminding Roy that it was time for dinner. Roy hurriedly put the Scrabble tiles back in the bag and stored away the board and the dictionary in their usual place. He excused himself, said goodbye to Ms. Rita and left to join his mother at dinner.
The next time they played a game of Scrabble, as Roy was re-checking the tiles he found that there were only 99 tiles. One tile was missing. He looked all around – on the table on which the board had been placed, on the two chairs that they both occupied whilst playing and all over the
floor of Miss Rita’s sitting room. The tile was nowhere to be found. There was nothing to be done. They just resigned themselves to having lost the tile and continued playing their Scrabble games with one missing tile.
And so the weeks passed into months and the months to years. Having entered the senior classes the pressure of school work meant that the Scrabble games became less frequent until in his last year of school, having to prepare for his college entrance exams, the Scrabble games were dropped altogether. Although Roy continued to visit Miss Rita regularly as before with his daily bread and milk delivery, the time spent together became perforce much shorter. At times it was for Roy a quick dash in and dash out of Miss Rita’s flat.
Roy secured top scores in his college entrance exams and won a scholarship for an undergraduate programme at a foreign university. He bid farewell to his tearful mother and called on Miss Rita to say goodbye. Although she was going to miss him, she was overjoyed at the tremendous opportunity for higher studies abroad that had come his way and she bid him goodbye with many blessings and good wishes for his success. Roy promised to keep in touch and to write her letters whilst he was away.
Undergraduate life, however, kept him busy and he was unable to keep to his promise. After the initial letter or two the correspondence to Miss Rita stopped completely. She was disappointed but she never complained and kept herself abreast of Roy’s welfare by checking regularly with Roy’s mother, her next door neighbour. She was happy that at least he had kept up a more or less regular correspondence with his mother.
Roy did well at college and the wider exposure increased his self confidence and opened up for him a whole new avenue of friendships and experiences. After a gap of three years he was preparing for his first trip back home. He knew exactly what to buy for his mother as she had sent him a list almost six months earlier. He was still wondering what gift he could get Miss Rita when he received a letter from his mother giving him the sad news of Miss Rita’s passing away the previous month. She had had a fall and broken her hip. With his mother’s help she had been moved to a hospital and the doctors had decided to perform a hip surgery as soon as she was a bit stronger. But she had not recovered from the shock of the fall. Her health had steadily deteriorated and barely two days after being admitted to the hospital, she had passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Roy was deeply shocked and devastated by the sad news as he packed his bags for his trip back home. He arrived home with a heavy heart and felt little joy at his homecoming. A week after his arrival his mother took him aside and gave him a box which she said Miss Rita had left with her asking her to give it to Roy whenever he came back home. It was almost as if she had had a premonition that she herself would not be there to give it to him personally. With tears in his eyes Roy opened the box and a flood of memories engulfed him. Inside the box was a card of beautiful handmade paper with the following words penned in flawless verse written in Miss Rita’s flowing hand:
“My dear Roy, I’ve tried to find the right phrase To mirror my mind for you Without distortion. It’s difficult. There’s depth and sincerity to reckon with, And the habit of elected silence About things that tug at heartstrings. I won’t wish you success because It will be yours, your due and best dessert For talents you are blest with And have learnt how to employ. Prosperity should not elude you -- Your industry points that way. Through childhood’s span of years You’ve gained in friends and their affection. You are loyal yourself, And you must make your friendships last, Giving as much happiness as, And more than you receive. There is nothing I could do to add to The lustre of your intellect Or the graces of your character. But I would like to ask that You walk always the way That follows the righteous path. Affectionately, Rita”
Along with the card was the Scrabble board and cloth bag containing the Scrabble tiles. By the side was the well-worn “Oxford English Dictionary.” A small bump appeared between its pages, like a bookmark inserted to earmark a page. With trembling fingers Roy opened the dictionary. There, sitting face up was the missing Scrabble tile — the letter “R” in bold black lettering on a smooth ivory background.
Saeed Ibrahim is the author of “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” a family saga set in Colonial India. Saeed was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and later, at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. His short stories and book reviews have earlier been published in the Bengaluru Review.
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