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|by Swapna Dutta|
It was while hunting for our teacher’s place that my friend Rima and I noticed the house for the first time. It stood by the road - lonely, dark and forsaken; the wicket-gate ajar; and the garden — what there was of it — overgrown with weeds.
“Funny to see a house like this in the middle of a posh locality like the Defence Colony!” I remarked, suppressing an involuntary shudder as I looked at the dark curtains pulled across the glass-panelled door.
“Why, whatever’s wrong with it?” asked Rima who was not imaginative.
“Isn’t there something sort of sinister about the place?” I asked.
“Don’t be silly, Tina” said Rima in a stern voice, “it’s just an ordinary, empty house.”
I paused and looked at the nameplate on the big iron gate – Bide-a-wee.
“How romantic . . . and poetic!” I said, “but why is it empty? Houses are scarce enough in Delhi and in a place like the Defence Colony . . .”
“Probably the rent is too high or the owner doesn’t want to rent it” answered Rima.
“I wonder what it’s like inside” I remarked.
“Well, you’re not likely to find out” said Rima, “snap out of it, for goodness’ sake and let’s find Miss Sinha’s house. We have to give her the leave-note before tomorrow, remember.”
He was already picking up the scattered parcels and asked me if I wanted to be helped up. “Oh no, thanks,” I said, getting up with a groan. “I’ll be obliged if you ring for a taxi.”
“Of course, I will,” he said, “couldn’t you walk a step and wait at my house?”
“I wouldn’t dream of bothering you,” I said, “I can easily wait here.”
“Please don’t take me amiss” said the man apologetically, “I didn’t mean to offend you.
“It’s just here,” he said again, “I thought you could wait there more comfortably than the footpath.”
“O.K” I said, surprised at myself, as I had very strong views about talking to strangers and going to strange places. I was still more surprised to find myself right in front of Bide-a-wee. I had no idea that this road led to it.
“Surely, you don’t live in this spooky place?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
“Quite sure,” I said firmly. I didn’t want to be rude to the nice, helpful boy, but I didn’t want to stay in this house a moment longer than was necessary! As he said himself, it did give one the creeps.
“Don’t tell me you live here all alone” I said surprised, “and why did you pick this barrack of a place if you do?”
He laughed again. “There was no ‘picking’, I assure you,” he said, “this happens to be my dad’s house.”
“Sorry,” I said, blushing furiously, “I’m always putting my foot in! But why do you leave the place like this if it’s yours?”
“I need time to settle down, don’t I?” he said, “I landed here barely three days ago and I don’t know a soul except for my next door neighbour.”
“But,” I began and stopped short. It seemed rude to ask him how the place got into its present state of abandon.
He noticed my look and said, “ dad built this house twenty years ago and no one has lived in it ever since.”
“How come?” I was really curious now.
“Well, my parents decided to take a holiday in Scotland and look up Mum’s people there soon after the house was built. I was a baby then. Dad caught pneumonia and died out there. Mum and I have lived abroad ever since.”
“I see,” I said. “That explains the name, I suppose.”
“Bide-a-wee? Yes. It was named after Mum’s own home in Aberdeen.”
“Mum’s coming down here next week. You should see the place after she has had time to spruce it up! Mum’s a great one for putting things shipshape” he added proudly.
“That reminds me, what about my taxi?” I asked, “did you ring for one?”
“There weren’t any at the stand,” he said, “but the fellow there told me that one will be along presently. Boy! Didn’t I have a time making myself understood!” and he laughed again.
“What’s your name?” he asked me casually, “I’m Robin, by the way. Robin Singh. Should have introduced ourselves sooner, I guess”
“It doesn’t matter” I replied, “I am Tina Malhotra.”
“I’m sure the taxi will turn up soon” said Robin, “I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
“Please don’t bother,” I said trying to forget my aching foot, “So, you’re an artist?”
“I paint a little,” he said modestly, “it’s the only thing I care about.”
“I say, the tea isn’t cold, is it?” asked Robin anxiously, “I’m so sorry. I must have forgotten to put the tea-cosy on.”
Just then I heard the horn of a taxi outside. “There you are,” he said cheerfully. “It’s been nice meeting you,” he added extending his hand.
“Thanks for being so helpful,” I said, shaking the offered hand. And, then, I screamed! The hand in my grasp was a skeleton’s. I looked up. The dark glasses had fallen on the floor and I found myself staring at the vacant sockets of a skull. I screamed again and the world grew dizzy around me.
“And these . . . hallucinations?” asked mum, “all this talk about a haunted house and ….?”
“A common enough symptom,” said the doctor, “she’ll get over it, don’t worry.”
“You were nowhere near any house” said mum, “you were lying in the middle of Varuna Marg where Mr. Juneja, our landlord, found you. He brought you home.”
“My . . . my ankle?” I asked.
“What about it?” she asked.
“Haven’t I a fracture?”
“Certainly not. There’s nothing the matter with your ankle.”
I felt my ankle. Both ankles. There was nothing wrong with either! Had I imagined it all? Somehow I couldn’t convince myself that it was so. I did not have another chance to go near Bide-a-wee or perhaps I avoided it consciously. A month later my dad was transferred to another city and we left Delhi soon after.
“I had a sister living in Delhi,” she added.
“Oh?” I said politely, not feeling particularly interested.
“She married a Sikh doctor. Very sad affair.”
“Why?” I asked curiously.
“She and her baby lived with my parents in Aberdeen. The boy came to India later but he too died.”
“How?” I asked breathlessly.
“No one knows,” said Mrs. McBean shaking her head. “He was found dead in the house three days after his arrival. Really sad and mysterious!”
I nodded, unable to speak.
“My poor sister was off her head with grief,” she continued. “Sold the place and went back home.”
“Where was this house?” I asked, though I knew the answer now.
“I’ve forgotten the name of the place,” said Mrs. McBean, “it was all so long ago. I only remember that she called the house Bide-a-wee after our own home. Why, how white you look! Do you feel sick?”
I did indeed feel sick as I tried to push the vivid memory of that afternoon off my mind.
“Gurmeet,” said Mrs. McBean.
I heaved a sigh of relief. It must be a mistake, a sheer coincidence, I told myself firmly. Mrs. McBean would be getting down at the next station and we were almost there.
“It’s been a nice journey,” she said, getting up as the train slowed down.
“Yes.” I agreed – and couldn’t stop myself from asking the next question. “Did your nephew have any other name?”
“Sweet of you to be interested” she said ith a charming smile, “everyone called him Robin. After Robin Adair, you know, that famous ballad.”
The train had stopped. Mrs. McBean waved me a cheerful adieu and ran towards the door.
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