I was just about to tap her shoulder when I heard a voice screeching at us. It was Ammah. “Come inside now!” She was mad, I could tell, but I didn’t understand why.
“But we’re playing Lock and Key,” Kaneth whined, still leaning against the banyan tree.
“Now! All three of you!”
I let my hand drop to my side. I turned around and faced the house. “Okay, okay. We’re coming,” I said. She usually calmed down once she knew we were going to listen.
Ravi was at her side, crying and whispering into her skirt. I already knew what he was saying. He was telling her that it was our idea to come out to play, that he just came out because we told him to. The little bugger. He’s the one who asked me to come out, and now I was going to pay for listening.
I was still in my room, in bed, when he came to call me - awake, and praying that it would rain all day, like yesterday. That way, I wouldn’t have to sweep the compound.
“Anna!” I heard someone call before the door swung open. I decided to stay still and see if he would go away. Of course not. Again, “Anna.” And then, a hand jostling me back and forth.
I turned around and squinted, pretending to be half asleep. “What, what?” It was Ravi, already dressed in his play clothes - a pair of my old shorts and a banyan - with his hair slicked and neatly parted.
“Get up. Get up. Get up.” He sing-songed and pulled the sheet off me. “We’re going outside to play. We’re going outsi-”
I grabbed the sheet and pulled it back up to my chin. “No, we’re not. It’s cold. Leave me alone.”
He looked unsure for a moment and then replied, “But you promised yesterday.” I had, that’s true. “And now it’s today!” He cried, as if to settle it.
“Fine, fine, I’m coming.” I conceded. He turned around at that and ran out, singing his “We’re going outside” song as he left.
By the time I finished brushing my teeth and getting dressed, Alice was waiting in the kitchen with a cup of Horlicks in her hand. “I don’t want it,” I said, hoping she might let me get by. “You know I don’t like it.”
Unfortunately for me, Alice, even though she was the newest, wasn’t afraid of us like the other servant girls. “No choice,” she retorted quickly, placing the cup on the table. She went back to the stove. I sighed as loudly as I could, to make sure she heard, picked up the cup and swallowed the brown stuff inside it as quickly as I could.
The two of them were already outside. Ravi was hopelessly chasing Kaneth around the banyan tree. He stopped when he saw me come onto the veranda. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees, pa`nting. “Anna, come and play with us,” he said between gasps. “I can’t be the lock anymore.”
“The lock?” I asked, “What’s the lock?”
“We’re playing lock and key,” he said, straightening up and spreading his arms, as if to ask, “Isn’t it obvious?”
I wasn’t impressed. “And when did you learn to play that?” I wondered, out loud, but more to myself.
“Just now,” he rasped, “we learnt it just now.”
“Did you make it up?” I was wary after being drawn into a countless number of his “games”.
“No, no,” he insisted as he pulled me by the right hand towards the banyan, where Kaneth was leaning, as usual, trying to act like he was not breathing just as hard, if not harder than Ravi, after the run. “She taught us.” I looked in the direction he was pointing… “She?” That’s when I saw her standing there, still, near the gate.
“She” looked familiar for some reason, but she wasn’t someone I knew from school. She was dark - darker than me and even darker than Alice. Long black hair fell to her shoulders. And she was wearing a batik dress - red, with little white elephants around the hem. She looked like a typical servant girl, but didn’t carry herself like one. I still couldn’t place her.
Still, there was never a reason to be rude. That’s what Dada always said. I smiled and waved. She started to smile, then stopped and looked down. Her left hand clenched into a fist, as if she was gathering her resolve. She turned her face up again, looked at me shyly for a few seconds and finally, smiled. I think she waved at me also, but I didn’t notice. I was transfixed by her smile. So lovely. And as she started walking towards us, I suddenly realised that “Lock and Key”, whatever it was, seemed like a very good idea.
Lock and Key, as it turned out, consists of one person - the “Lock”- chasing everyone else around and trying to catch them. If they’re caught, they become “locked” and can’t move. Luckily for them, though, another person is the “Key”. If he touches them, they’re “unlocked” and free to go again. But anyone who gets locked three times automatically becomes the next Lock.
Of course, I can explain all this easily now. At the time, I was too busy staring at the girl to really pay any close attention to what she was saying. And suddenly, she blurted “Okay, you be the Lock,” and everyone scattered. It was only then I realised that she had been pointing at me.
It was during times like this that I was grateful for being the oldest. It automatically meant that I was also the fastest. I looked around at the three of them. Kaneth and the girl were already running; Ravi was standing nearby. That meant he was the Key this time around. I wanted to chase the girl, but she was quick, impressively so, and too far away. I turned on Kaneth instead, who had stopped, again, at the banyan to catch his breath.
“No, no, please, not me,” he started to scream as soon as he saw me look in his direction.
“I’m sorry,” I commiserated, as I walked up to the tree, leisurely, “that’s just how the game works.” He looked around for a way to escape. But he was still winded and I was too close.
“You just don’t want to catch her because you like her,” he insisted.
“Don’t be a fool, Kaneth,” I hissed in warning, “I don’t like her and I’m going to catch her now. Just wait and see.” I tapped him and he slumped over against the tree.
“Yes you do.” I heard him whisper as I turned away.
Ravi was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t care; this just meant that I could catch her without him getting in the way. “Where was she?” I whispered to myself. “She was running back to the gate, and now she was…” There. I saw the top of her head, and her eyes peering at me from around the corner of the veranda. Smiling, I started stepping in her direction. She squealed and bolted away, towards the back of the compound, her slippers clapping against the soles of her feet. Again, I was surprised at how fast she ran. I was about to give chase when I stopped myself. If I go around the other way, I could cut her off.
She was just turning the corner when I reached the back. Laughing, so beautifully, she swirled around and was gone. “You’ll never catch me,” I heard her call back. Naturally, this only made me want to catch her even more. Not even bothering to try and think of strategy this time, I took off after her. Yes, she was fast. But I was faster. And, I could tell that she was getting tired.
I ran back toward the front, glancing around for a sight of her. I could still hear foot slapping against rubber slipper. And then, the sound stopped. No one can run forever, I thought to myself and smiled. I reached the front of the compound, stopped, and looked for her. She was standing near the gate again, grasping the iron railing for support. She looked frightened for some reason. Was she scared of me? Why? I smiled, reassuringly I hoped, as I walked to her and reached out.
“I said now!” Ammah screamed again. I was jarred back into the present. “I don’t want you playing with those fisher folk,” she hissed to Ravi, her whisper heard by everyone.
I looked at the girl. Her face was bent towards the ground again, black hair listing like a veil between us. I touched her shoulder. She looked up - tears welling in her eyes, lips quivering.
“I’m sorry, but we have to go.” I said, my vision suddenly blurring. “What’s your name?”
“Saa… Saathiya,” she whispered, before turning around and running away.