Forward Be Our Watchword.
With Faith And Truth Combined
Seeking Things Before Us,
Never Look Behind.
The school song ran circles in David Zubair’s mind.
Years ago, the wrought-iron gates of Cathedral High used to inspire awe. Tonight, they looked spidery and frail. Much like how David felt on the inside.
As he entered the stone walls of his alma mater for the first time since graduation, he wondered what his life would have been like if he had spent it with Irawati Anand.
She had been the brave one, the rebellious one. She was the smartest girl in school, competing neck and neck with him in all subjects, even the hard ones like maths and history.
One night, drunk and in love, they had snuck into the school after dark. Giggling and whispering, they had entered the principal’s room through the window and rung the school bell. Three times, on a dare. They had rushed out screaming with laughter, jolting their watching friends out of their hiding places, and barely escaping the pursuing watchman’s cane. They got two weeks in detention and enjoyed every minute of it together.
David smiled fondly at the childish memory. It felt like a lifetime ago. He wondered if she felt the same way.
He hoped she would turn up tonight. For his sake, if for nobody else.
She was dressed in a red saree, looking just like she had on graduation day. She was gazing up at the names emblazoned on a plaque above the house cup: Won by David Zubair and Irawati Anand, Heads of Richmond House, 1995.
“Davie! You’re here.” Her face lit up with pleasure. “You look— different. Dignified.” Ira frowned with concentration, taking in his whole being. She broke into a grin. “I like it!”
“You look just like I remember,” he said, awkwardly.
“I didn’t know if you would come. You’ve never come to any of the other reunions,” she said.
He shrugged. “I didn’t want to think about school after I left. I didn’t want those memories. But I’ve had time to think about it.”
“So what changed? Why did you come this time?”
“I wanted to see you.”
Ira reached for David’s hand, and he let her take it, hesitantly. “Come let’s get out of here and go for a walk in the grounds.”
“Are we allowed to do that?” said David. He wasn’t sure if there were rules to these things.
“Sweety, we’re allowed to do whatever we want,” Ira flashed her famously dazzling smile and David was smitten all over again.
“It is so good to see you, Ira.” They were holding hands and strolling through the lawns. “I missed you. I never forgot about you.”
“I know,” said Ira, smiling. “I don’t get out that much, but I hear things.”
“What did you hear?”
“That you started your own company. Wrote and published many books. You have a son called Ravi. You named him after me, didn’t you?”
“News does travel in the school network, doesn’t it? In fact, that’s how I heard that you might be here. I had to come to meet you.”
“I’m glad you did— I wasn’t sure if I would see you again.” Ira lowered her voice, “I heard about your cancer.”
David waved the sentiment away, “It was more painful for my family than it was for me.”
They stood by the statue of the school’s founder, Ira with her face fully in the sun. They were quiet for a while, watching cars pull into the driveway, caterers bringing in food, and children of erstwhile classmates chasing helium balloons.
“I think this is what I’ve missed the most,” she said.
“Standing next to Father Francis?” David looked up quizzically at the sombre faced statue.
“No silly!” Ira laughed, “Spending time with you. Not talking. Just being.”
“Have you seen any of the others?”
“No, I lost touch with them. They moved on.” She paused and smiled mischievously. “I guess you could say we drifted apart.”
David rolled his eyes. “Well, I’m glad you’re still here.”
“I have enjoyed being here, watching new classes of kids graduate. They seem to get smarter every year. With bigger attitudes to go with it! I love being a part of their lives. Giving them a leg up when they need it,” she winked, meaningfully.
David’s heart lightened a bit, imagining Ira helping late-comers avoid the principal’s persecuting gaze, or nudging the right study books to take home from the library, or making school bullies pay.
“You know— ‘forward be my watchword, never look behind.’” Ira quoted the school song.
David grimaced. “That song has been going around in my head all day. The last time I heard it—“ He stopped. Their eyes met, and they both turned to look at the school building.
David’s brow furrowed as they moved towards the auditorium. It was different from what he remembered— shiny and modern. But then the historic old one had been completely destroyed by the fire.
A huge banner hung at the entrance. It read “25th Reunion of the Class of 1995” with the words “You Will Not Be Forgotten” across the bottom.
David stopped at the threshold. He could not enter. The memories were too painful.
The school auditorium was full— almost their entire graduating class had turned up. Except, of course, those who had died in the fire.
It had happened on their graduation day. Ira was giving the valedictorian speech when someone from the back had yelled “Fire!”
The flames had grown alarmingly fast and blocked the main entrance. The only other exit had been through the stage. Into the greenroom and out of the building.
Most people had made it out but some were stuck inside. Ira ran in and out, dragging unconscious people, one by one. She had saved five when the roof collapsed. By the time the fire department had arrived, the whole building was engulfed in flames. Twenty people— students, parents, and teachers —died that day.
Perhaps a lamp had been set too close to a curtain, or some teenagers had dropped a careless cigarette— the fire’s origin was never conclusively established. Later reports stated that the historic building had been a firetrap.
David stood there, frozen, reliving the worst memory of his life. Ira coaxed him into the auditorium.
Lined up on a memorial wall were photographs of the twenty people lost that day, many of them their friends.
“I have made my peace with it Davie. You should too. You will never be able to move on if you don’t.”
David was surprised. “But if you’re ready to move on, then why are you still here?”
“I was waiting for you. I knew you would need some help.”
Ira and David sat in the back row. The speeches were peppered with memories, anecdotes, music, and passages from the school song.
Forward All Our Lifetime,
Climb From Height To Height,
Steadfast And Undaunted,
Sure In Faith And Right.
They came up in groups, shedding tears, and talking about those who perished in the fire.
They remembered Ira’s brave sacrifice.
A group of friends shared their fondest memories of David— who had died recently of cancer. Gone too soon.
The reunion program ended with a rousing rendition of the school song.
Forward Ever Forward,
In The Spirit's Might.
Pilgrims Of Our Country,
Forward Into Light.
Pilgrims Of Our Country.
Forward Into Light.
David turned to Ira. “I’m ready.” Ira smiled and took his hand.
Irawati Anand and David Zubair stood up and disappeared through the auditorium walls. Right under the engraved letters that read IRAWATI ANAND MEMORIAL HALL.