Me With the 'Shambelurkers'

The Missing Key

We found our compartment and after a brief, ritual fight over the window seats, settled down. There was a group photo (“Don’t leave me out!” “Stop pushing me-you’re still within the frame”) and then the whistle blew. The train chugged slowly out of the platform and moms and dads with waving hands jogged backward from our windows.

“Cheers!” said the Pink Princess. “Three days of freedom- no parents, no homework, no…”
“We are supposed to study botanical specimens on this trip.” The Bookworm frowned at Princess.
“Hey, don’t spoil the fun before it’s begun.” I said. “It’ll be over soon enough anyway.”
The Kitten brought out a cake she had baked for the journey, and I started tuning my radio to find the FM. We were all gearing up for the party when trouble struck.

The Aspiring Loafer announced she could not find her key. Her suitcase was now securely chained to the berth with a lock that couldn’t be opened. Well, Loafer was legendary for missing things right under her nose. We knew she had used the key to lock her things on the train, so it had to be somewhere around. We searched the corners of our seats. We made futile forays into the labyrinthine pockets of the oversized jacket she had borrowed from her brother; and then into our own, with the same results. We were looking below the berths but when the distressed victim announced that she couldn’t spoil a parents-and-brother-free night and went off to dance with the girls in the adjacent coupe, we somehow lost the motivation. She returned panting after a while.
“Have you found it?”
“No.” Said Kitten. The rest of us were too annoyed to reply.
“I’ll just have to leave my case in the train, then.” She declared with the air of an ascetic about to renounce all worldly belongings.

The Bookworm, looking simply outraged, got out her own key – their locks were of the same brand, from the same platform stall – and turned it in the keyhole.
Click. It worked.
“Wow! What amazingly secure locks!” said Loafer. “Kitten, pass the cake please. I’m hungry. And thanks, Bookworm.”
Bookworm muttered something indistinct.

“Lights off.” Said our teacher, “And no, you can’t dance in the dark. Lights off means you go to sleep. Now.”
Five minutes later, I felt someone scrambling into my berth.
“Loafer! What the…”
“Make space, Looney, I’m so excited, I can’t sleep.”
Then there was a sudden thud, followed by another, as Loafer took off her shoes and threw them down. That woke up Bookworm, as her berth was right below mine.
“Will you stop raining shoes from up there?” She shouted, craning her neck to glare at us in the dark.
“It didn’t hit you, did it?” Loafer retorted, “Stop complaining and go to sleep. Good night. Guess what, Looney? I got myself a new camera, well actually, it’s my brother who bought it but…”

“Looney, wake up. I need your torch.”
I woke up with a start.
“What! Are we there already? It’s still dark, Loafer.”
“Exactly. That’s why I need your torch, I can’t find my hairbrush in the dark.” Loafer explained, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I found my torch and passed it to her. “Honestly, Loafer, I had only just dozed off.”
“Go back to sleep. We still have three hours before we reach.” Said Loafer cheerfully. “Now where is my hairbrush? Princess, will you lend me your hairbrush please? I can’t find mine.”
“Do you have to carry out your beauty-care routine at four in the morning?” The Bookworm asked.
“Beauty-care? What beauty-care? I only want to look a presentable human specimen when I meet your botanical friends, Bookworm.”

The guesthouse was nestled among lush tea gardens, fronting a thicket of pine trees that opened into the Chalsa forest.
“I wish we could lose our way there and find ourselves in magic-land.” Said Pink Princess, gazing dreamily at the woods.
“Oh good! We’ll find loads of specimens over there.” Said Bookworm.
“And here’s my hideout for my future mafia don days.” Loafer yawned
“I thought you were becoming an established loafer?” I asked.
“Oh, I just promoted myself!” she replied airily.

The road coiled round the mountain python-like all the way to Loleygaon where the clouds descended along the pine-dotted slopes like waterfalls in slow motion. The snowline remained elusive, so we contented ourselves with collecting fern specimens. On the way back, we visited a monastery where boy-lamas studied at low desks in mysterious, enchanting classrooms.
“If my term results are too bad,” said Princess, “This is where I’m gonna run away to.”
It was a viable option, I thought, as I remembered the highly unpleasant math question paper that took me five Dairy Milks to recover from. And although the place had absolutely no trace of any botanical specimens, even Bookworm said she would love to come back there.

Sometime later, Loafer lost her handkerchief while studying orchids.
“She’ll probably lose her guns in about a minute if she ever becomes a mafia don.” Bookworm commented wryly, but only I heard her.

On the last morning, we visited Bindu, a border-area village. We were in separate Jeeps and when we arrived, Loafer and Bookworm were coming arm-in-arm down the bridge with chants of “We went to Bhutan! We went to Bhutan!” as the Border Security personnel indulgently looked on.
After lunch we hurriedly packed our bags. The holiday was over. It was time to bid goodbye to the dense green woodlands under the canopy of white clouds, and to the carefree campfires at night. It was time to return to the city, to school, to the tedious everydayness of life.
While we were arranging our luggage, Loafer discovered her lost key in one of her pockets.
Had she really lost the key on the train? I wondered. Was it just her idea of fun? My thoughts were disrupted by Loafer wailing again.
“But where’s the lock gone, now?”
“We aren’t searching the forests for you.” Said Bookworm. “We’ll miss the train.”
“It wouldn’t be such a bad idea.” The Loafer muttered, following Bookworm into the bus.
The Land of Dreams: a fairy-rhyme

Do dreams come true? Fairies would know.
They rule the lands where dreams do grow.
And tend them with their charmed care,
Their secret spells of sea and air,
Of April leaves and winter snow-
With such magic, they dream seeds sow.

Where are their lands? The seas can tell-
The endless waves that set hopes sail,
And dancing boughs in forests deep,
The gates of fairy-dreamland keep,
Where fairies chanting mystic runes
Give our dreams their rainbow tunes.
So, these were my two contributions in the collection Shambelurkers & Other Stories- posted on my blog at the request of my friend Sanjana.
The collection has a lot more wonderful stories- & some awesome poems about creaking grandmothers & portable pets & buttered toes & many such insanities, and also, all profits from the book go to the National Autistic Society of UK- so if you're interested in buying the book, here's the link:
P.S: I'll put up my story in the 50 Stories for Pakistan collection next Monday.


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