“Quick…..quick.….there…..the other side….roll it over….yeah, fast….oh….oh….OH!”
‘A roar of playful laughter’
Jason and Moni were competing on who finishes their melting popsicles first without letting a drop fall on the grass. And whoever wins the competition gets to ride the swing. The warm summer evening filled with humid air didn’t mar their happy spirits. They slurped their popsicles, laughed their hearts out and licked their hands that were covered in melting cream.
I took a seat on the bench under the jacaranda tree and sipped on the chilled water from my bottle whilst cheering them up in glee. The park was not very busy owing to the heat. But what made me really happy was the fact that Jason was almost a “normal” child now. Let me tell you from the beginning…….
I was watering the plants in my second-floor flat balcony when the truck arrived one evening. That was followed by a local cab. A bearded man who seemed to be in his 40s got down with a small duffle bag. Behind him appeared a little boy with ruffled hair about 5-6 years old.
So they are the ones moving into the flat above mine.
The apartment building was a single tower, three-floor plus parking on the ground.
Mr. Singh, a widower, lived on the first floor. But he hardly ever ‘lived’ there as he kept traveling to different cities to be with his sons. Mr. Singh had requested me to take care of his araucaria that I happily obliged and brought it home to let it accompany my plants.
I was on the second floor. It didn’t bother me that the building was almost vacant because it was a safe neighborhood with many family-occupied houses around, plus we had a good security system.
Now this father-son (perhaps?) duo would take over the third-floor.
The next morning, as I was about to get into my car to go to work, I saw my new neighbor entering the building premises. Being polite, I said hello and was mentally prepared to spare a few minutes in introductions. He gave me a, what felt like an uninterested hello and walked past me. I shrugged thinking he must be either tired or getting late for work like me.
The next few days turned into weeks which became a month; a month had gone by and I hadn’t seen much of my new neighbors. All I had gathered about them was that Mr. Samuel D’mello was ex-army personnel who will live here briefly with his 5-year old Jason. Why ex-army – the security guard didn’t know. Why briefly – Mr. D’mello didn’t say. I had gotten busier with work and so didn’t bother either.
One night while working on a client presentation, I stepped into the kitchen for a cup of coffee to keep me up and working. That’s when I first heard it. A knock.
It was more of an uneven sound with a peculiar rhythm that alternated between loud and soft sounds. As if someone was trying to walk across the room wearing high heels. Or like practicing walking in high heels.
Perhaps Mr. D’mello has a guest.
The next night I heard it again.
And then again the following night.
Is she learning how to walk? Or is he practicing his tap dance lessons? Whatever…..Who does it at this hour?
It was difficult to ignore the sound now. And especially because of its timing which was mostly around midnight.
The next night as the knocking sound started again in my study room, I yelled asking to stop. The sound continued. I went to the kitchen and picked up a cane I once bought from a fair. Holding it up, I stood on my chair and extended it to the ceiling. And then I hit the ceiling hard a couple of times and yelled,
“Will you stop doing this? I will report to the security otherwise.”
It stopped. No TICK-TOCK. The night was silent again.
But I was ready in case it would be repeated the following night. And it did! So I repeated what I had done the previous night. As soon as I hit the ceiling with the cane and yelled to stop, the knocker went silent. The TICK-TOCK stopped midway. And then I didn’t hear it again.
You may think why I didn’t speak to Mr. D’mello. Well, I wanted to speak to him and I even traced up the stairs to his house a couple of times after returning from work. But I was greeted with a lock on the door. He too probably went out for work or maybe he had some friends or family who he visited regularly. And I definitely wouldn’t have walked up in the middle of the night to confront him. And involving the security guards at this stage wasn’t a plausible idea.
Anyway, I was happy that I had made Mr. D’mello, or his guest realize societal courtesy. Life continued as usual for me. I did see Jason and his father going out from or returning to the apartment building now and then. But there weren’t any greetings exchanged. Not because I didn’t want to. Just that he never initiated any ‘hellos’ and we never seemed to look at each other. In fact, Mr. D’mello seemed to avoid eye contact, which probably sprouted from the embarrassment of causing a disturbance at unearthly hours. I too kept to myself like I usually did.
A week went by hurriedly when I completed all my presentations. My boss was happy with the deals I helped crack and granted me a day off. This made for an extended weekend. I was excited because that weekend, my sister and brother-in-law decided to take a break from the routine which included dropping their 6-year old daughter Moni to my place before heading off to a countryside resort. I appreciated these little vacations they planned every once in a while. It kept them rejuvenated to live the regular. And Moni was a sweetheart, no-trouble girl who I loved to hang out with. So after spending Friday at the salon getting a good long massage, I prepped and planned for the fun little girly things that Moni and I would indulge in.
That Saturday morning after breakfast, Moni sat down to finish her homework. I was in the kitchen cleaning up. We had decided to go to the shopping mall later for some greasy fast food and then get our nails painted.
Ah! Not again.
Exasperated, I turned around to pick the cane and stormed out of the kitchen to go to the study and knock the ceiling back. As I stepped out of the kitchen into the dining area, what I saw made me skip my beat. Moni was sitting on the dining table and tapping her knuckles.
“What is that sound, Moni? And why aren’t you studying?”, flabbergasted, I snapped at her.
“This…. TICK-TOCK-TICK-TOCK…..? This is Morse Code auntie, it indicates danger.”
“Danger? What danger? Where did you learn that?”
“Yes. It’s a new subject that every class is supposed to learn. That’s
the homework I am working on. This one is the most important code. Miss Linda says to use it when someone scares us or beats us or does the bad touch.”
My jaw dropped. My throat went dry. I felt lost for a minute.
So……that sound…..was…..not….. Mr. D’mello…..tap dancing…..or……his guest learning to walk in high heels…….?
I quickly gulped some water and picked up my phone to dial Children Helpline and narrated the incident. They arrived shortly along with the cops. Considering Jason was so young, no proof was required to take Mr. D’mello into custody and question him.
Jason was first referred to a child psychologist and then to a foster home. Mr. D’mello wasn’t allowed to meet his son. He was sentenced police custody for a long time. The psychologist worked meticulously on him. Jason would initially just stare and nod his head or respond very softly in a few words on being asked anything. He seemed hesitant to even ask for water.
He looked happy to see me when I visited the foster home after my office hours. I apologized to him for not understanding what he was trying to communicate all those nights. His blank eyes and cold face tore my heart. He wasn’t numb. He wasn’t devoid of emotions either. He was hesitant. And fearful. His bruised body and the cut on the upper lip testified the horror he must’ve gone through.
“Doctor, why didn’t he tell anybody anything? At least to his teacher at school?”, I asked the psychologist in an attempt to understand him better.
“You see Parul, he was tormented by his own father every day. There are scratches on his thighs and buttocks apart from the bruises elsewhere; God knows what that poor little boy must have gone through. For a child that young, it becomes exceedingly difficult to trust anyone after their own family ill-treats them. In fact, while being interrogated, Mr. D’mello casually positioned his abusive nature as good parenting! He said that his intentions were always good, i.e., disciplining a naughty child. Imagine! What a monster! How do you have the heart to beat your own child? He thinks there is nothing wrong in beating up a 5-year old black and blue because he woke up 5 minutes late, or slap him hard when he didn’t wish him good morning. Jason had no friends. The pain and humiliation he was subjected to by his father made him a complete recluse. I am glad you called us otherwise such kids grow up with either having suicidal tendencies or with monstrous, sadistic personalities.”
“Well, I really wish I’d have called earlier. I just didn’t know what that knocking sound meant.”
“Can I have one more popsicle, please auntie?”, Jason’s eyes carried a hint of fear as he hesitantly asked me.
“Of course you can! But promise me you will have your veggies also for dinner as Moni does?”, I asked in the sweetest tone possible.
It has been 4 months since Jason was rescued. I now have the legal permission from his psychologist and the cops to bring him home over the weekends. His hesitance has faded but certain strong glimpses do appear at times. Though he has warmed up to me, there are times when he goes silent and won't respond. It needs me to be immensely patient with him. But his eyes aren’t blank anymore and that is my driving force.
Jason and Moni are a weekend regular in my apartment now. He loves playing with Moni who is every bit of the elder, protective sister to him. They both study, talk, and play together like kids their age do. The doctor has advised me to ascertain a free environment where he could ask, question, and even say no. And I ensure he gets as much the childhood that he should.
Jason’s little round face lightened up and his eyes gleamed as I bought him and Moni another popsicle.
“Come, Jason, let’s finish it off before it melts.”