This short story is selected as Story of the Month October’2016 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
13th November, 1997
Jamie woke with a start and looked around wildly. He was relieved that there was no one there to harm him. He glanced at his wristwatch. It was almost 4. He had been sleeping only two hours and there will still two to go. He pulled his covers more tightly over his body and willed his mind to shut down and take him to oblivion. But as usual, it didn’t do any good.
He grasped one of the pillows and hugged to whilst imagining that it was a person, a person who was there for him and understood what he felt like. Gradually, the lines on his forehead relaxed and the movements of his throat ceased as he drifted off to sleep.
Jamie walked on the familiar path to school. It was a cloudy day with a very light drizzle. It was just the kind of weather he preferred. He felt the soothing gush of the breeze on his face, and the wind breaking through his hair helped him calm himself.
He was trudging along alone but it was nothing to how alone he actually felt. It was as if there was another person inside him frugally trying to break open the shell outside and come into persistence. He also felt that some force was acting on him at the same time and compress him till he stopped existing. Something was eating portions out of him and trying to finish him off. In others’ eyes, he kept on his mask of pretentious joy, but in reality he was suffering excruciating pain.
A practical part of his brain told him to forget about all that and relax. But, it all came gushing back to him without warning. Jamie tried to suppress his thoughts as much as possible but he was unable to do it. Thus, fighting against himself, he walked on.
Jamie sat at his usual place which was at the very back of the room. He sat with his head hung low because he was afraid that the teacher might call on him to answer something. It wasn’t that he was ignorant, but going to the podium in front of the entire class was mortal peril to him.
Jamie was sitting alone on the two seater bench. Part of him wanted to be alone and some other part wanted someone nebulous to come and sit beside him, joke with him and distract his mind from the overwhelming grief. It didn’t feel very good to be set apart from everyone but deep inside, it gave him intense pleasure. He tapped his desk with the nervous energy he almost always possessed, which never ceased but did cause fatigue.
Jamie crouched with his face shrouded by his hands on the hostel steps. The rest of the hostel was a pandemonium caused by the other boys playing around and chatting gaily with each other. But, Jamie didn’t find any purpose in doing all that. He was too sad to celebrate, and was immersed in deep thought about why he did exist at all and what was going to change if that night was the one of his demise. He knew he was unhappy, but never could he find the reason for his prevailing grief.
One of the genial guys, Jesse came running up the stairs. Jesse was the most extrovert guy at school. He paused and asked in his usual perfectly friendly tone, “What’s up, Jamie?”.Jamie just held up his right thumb without even looking up to indicate that everything is perfectly alright. He winced when Jesse gently patted his shoulder and listened to the sound of his retreading footsteps as he scuttled away.
He looked up at the sky. There was no moon. He liked the darkness and serenity of the night sky. The stars were engaged in a desperate attempt to crusade the darkness, but foundered as they were submerged in the eternal darkness. He pictured his mind to be shrouded by the same sphere of darkness. Tiny rays of hope sparkled faintly from time to time, but he knew that they were fighting a losing battle against his thoughts. He finally grew tired to sitting there and went back to his room evading glances of all people on the way.
17th November, 1997
Jamie tried to focus his mind on the chapter he had been trying to read for nearly half an hour but hadn’t got past a few words. Now his stomach felt empty and so did his heart. But, the latter didn’t rumble like the former. His brain was like it was dipped in a tub of ice-cold water which had frozen his thoughts at one place. His head was full of voices which reflected at all parts of his miserable brain. It was like his mind was clashing against itself producing scenes of great violence and obliterating his thoughts and inhibitions. The posterior of his head was filled with scattered emotions leaving no room for happiness and tranquillity.
His eyes moistened and the tears struggled to stream down but to no avail. It had been years since he had had the luxury of breaking into tears. Half of him compelled him to stay strong, while the other part wanted to weep out all his grief. He glanced at the timepiece on his table. It was high time to sleep. So thinking, he walked towards his bed without any hopes and expectations pertaining to the next day.
Jamie was jerked awake by a loud shout and noises of quick footsteps. He scrambled out of bed into his slippers and opened the door just in time to see people thundering up the stairs. He called out to a boy who he thought was
called Patrick, “Hey, What’s all the fuss about?”
Patrick looked extremely grave as he whispered, “Jeffrey upstairs just got a call from home about his mother. She’s passed on.”
“Why? What was wrong with her?”, Jamie blurted out and immediately regretted it.
“She’s been battling cervical cancer for many years.”, Patrick replied looking a little annoyed and hurried up the stairs.
Jamie felt frozen in time for a moment and felt weak at his knees. He had always thought of Jeffrey as a cocky guy who was always surrounded by his gang and strutted around college as if he owned the place. He had never imagined that he was concealing so enormous a sorrow within himself. He suddenly had an urge to go upstairs.
Jeffrey was sitting pillion on his bed and he looked almost unrecognisable from the confident, handsome boy who was there to deliver his opinion everywhere. He was pale and seemed to be looking at something beyond the horizon. He wasn’t crying, but one could see the sorrow in his eyes that were to week to form tears. The room was full of boys standing uncomfortably and mumbling comforting words.
Jamie was driven by some impulse to sit beside Jeffrey and take his hand in his own. He said nothing, but just allowed the him to lean on him and sat there for unknown units of time.
18th November, 1997
Jamie walked with his hands deep inside his jeans pockets. He could see Jeffrey in front of him looking more confident and bolder than he did last night. He was walking with his friends in a huddle. Jamie couldn’t exactly hear what he was saying but from his gestures, he could infer that he was trying extremely hard to stay strong and keep both feet on the ground.
Jamie had almost forgotten his own misery in the light of Jeffrey’s grief. He still felt wretched and unenthusiastic as he walked alone as usual. The college campus was situated near the country and it was natural to see some village
folks in the grasslands. As he watched, something caught his eye. It was two little boys wearing tattered clothes leaping in the air like a pair of apes.
Jamie paused to watch them as another similar looking boy approached them. He couldn’t resist the urge to eavesdrop into their conversation. “Yeah! Today I am the luckiest guy on the planet. I found a dollar along with the garbage. Today, all of us can have our fills.”
Jamie was moved on hearing this and he almost went and talked to them, but suddenly changed his mind and retreated because he didn’ t want to intrude into their rhapsody.
Jamie sat with his face resting in his hands. It was the Math lesson. He liked it okay and was even decently good at it. He was taking in most of what was being taught, but a major part of his brain was engaged in pondering about the
events of last night and the morning. He was still alone and sad but the sadness didn’t inflict him like it usually did but just felt like a nagging presence inside him.
“Who can solve this on the board?”, asked the Professor with his usual smile signalling that the problem definitely was not a piece of cake. Jamie took one look at the board and knew he could solve it without breaking into a sweat, but he didn’t raise his hand.
He liked solving problems but he didn’t dare go up to the board to do so. He became extremely self-conscious when he had to walk in front of seated audience. He felt a tug at the back of his neck and thought that people would find his stride weird.
Then from the opposite corner of the class, a girl stood up and took hold of her crutches. Stacey had mild celebral palsy and didn’t have proper control over her feet. She trudged forward supported by the crutches, hobbled onto the podium and finally reached the blackboard whimpering. She leaned her body on the board and wrote out the solution to the problem.
She did everything perfectly, but swayed in the end to make a little error. Jamie noticed the mistake at once but didn’t answer again when the teacher asked for improvement in Stacey’s solution. Jamie felt an inexplicable lump in his throat and didn’t know why he kept glancing over at Stacey during the rest of the lesson.
Jamie was lying in supine position on the terrace of the hostel beholding the sky. He admired the inexplicable massiveness he saw when he looked upwards. You could look wherever you wanted but couldn’t see where it began and where it ended. Jamie was deep in thought about the events of the day and felt miserable. But, he even felt something other than grief. It was shame. He didn’t know why but he felt ashamed when he thought of Stacey, Jeffrey and the little boys.
But, he still had the sadness to keep him company. There was a little scurrying noise behind him. Turning around impulsively, he discovered Jesse standing there with his usual gentleman smile. To Jamie’s displeasure, he came over and sat beside him. Jesse tried to initiate conversation about the weather, class and other day to day topics. Jamie only shrewdly replied to the questions expecting Jesse to get exasperated and then leave.
Instead, he came close to him and asked, “Why are you sad? What is it that is disturbing you?”
This was a question nobody had ever asked Jamie. People had always labelled him introvert and withdrawn, but no one had ever observed that he was sad besides himself. Even his own parents had never done that. But, this bloke was the first person to do so and his straightforward question unhinged Jamie.
Jamie answered without thinking, “I am sad because I have nothing. I have no talent, no purpose, no dreams, no friends, nobody gives a damn about me. I have nobody. I am nobody.”
He figured that Jesse would definitely think he was mad and go away, but he said with no change in expression, “What is it that you do not have? You have everything. It is just that you are turning a blind eye towards everything you have.”
Jamie almost lost his cool. He hated Jesse for being so calm. “How can you say that? You hardly know me and you don’t know one bit about my problems. You are everybody’s golden boy. Have you ever even felt any sort of grief in your entire life?” Jamie was panting by the time he was finished. Without a look at Jesse’s face, he stormed away.
While jumping down the stairs, he bumped into the hostel warden. “Oh Jamie, please watch where you’re going. And if you see Jesse Greene, tell him that there is an urgent call from the orphanage.” With that he walked away.
Jamie couldn’t understand why Jesse was being called by an orphanage. First, he decided to tell him nothing and walk away. But, he was held back by both guilt at not informing him and the curiosity to find out about the orphanage that he decided to just tell him that for his honour and leave it to that.
So, he just walked to the roof and rambled off, “You’ve a call from some orphanage.”
Jesse was still smiling. “They do call from time to time”
Jamie couldn’t hold his curiosity any longer, “Why would an orphanage do that?”
“I grew up at Sir Churchill’s orphanage. I came here with a scholarship.”
Jamie felt a cold impulse on his spine and the hair at the back of this neck started to stand up.
“So, what about your parents?”
“Never knew ‘em. Used to hope someone would turn up, but who cares now”, sighed Jesse. “I think I should really take that call. You take care.”
With that ran down the stairs one of the strongest people Jamie had ever met. Jamie felt like a cowered kitten, too scared to come out of his shell of comfort and face the world. All the sorrow was drained out of him and was replaced by shame. He detested himself for being so selfish to think that he had nothing when the world was full of people with real problems who were still trying their best to hold on.
He plodded back to his room, shoulders sagged and reproaching his mind for being so thoughtless, rebuking his heart for being so cold and reprimanding his conscience for being so vile so as to do what he had done.That night, he slept soundly without waking up even once. But still, he had a dream about his mother whom he never called and never talked properly to. She was cooking in the kitchen at his home as he could see the familiar notes on the refrigerator, a few framed photographs of him when he was a kid on the walls and their garden through the window. He had never really appreciated how beautiful all this really was.
As he stood there gazing around, his mother turned around and walked to him, smiling. She put her arms around him and just said, “How are you, Jamie?”
18th November, 1997
As he walked to school, he was mesmerised by the beauty of the world around himself. Ahead of him walked a few boys talking and laughing occasionally. Jogging up to them, he called out, “Hi!”. They looked a little taken aback but then greeted him back and walked with him. Jeffrey, who was among them stepped towards him with a smile. His eyes told Jamie that he was grateful. He put his one arm around his shoulder and asked, “How are you, Jamie?”
He entered the classroom through the front door for the first time ever and walked up to the teacher to wish him good morning. He smiled broadly at him and asked, “How are you, Jamie?”
“I am good, Sir.”, he replied.
He was about to head towards the last bench by instinct, but pulled himself back when he noticed an empty seat in the second row. Only when he was seated did he know that he was sitting beside Stacey who looked slightly uncomfortable and maybe a little scared. Jamie could understand as he would have felt the same thing if he were sitting beside himself. So, he put on a broad smile and extending his hand said, “Hey Stacey, You look pretty nice today.”
She looked stunned but her face gradually calmed down to a smile. She took his extended arm and shaking it said, “How are you, Jamie?”
The Math lesson that followed was the best he had had in his entire life. He responded well in the class and found every word the teacher uttered to be extremely interesting. Even discussing the problems with Stacey gave him intense pleasure.
When the lesson was over, he got up from his seat and looking around saw Jesse sitting alone at the last seat. “So, I’ll see you around.”, he said to Stacey and she nodded smiling. He went to the back of the class greeting other people
on the way and finally sat beside Jesse.
He looked him straight in the eye and said, “I am sorry for everything I said. It was all my fault and I am very thankful to you for your advice.” Jesse looked him up and down, totally poker faced and finally asked, “How are you, Jamie?”