The Swings

AirNexus’20 

English Story Writing

Winner

Topic: Behind Closed Doors

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
 -Robert Louis Stevenson

My four-year-old nephew (Salar) has an uncanny ability of treating his 21-year-old aunt (me), like his younger sibling. On our annual trip to the North, he dragged me unceremoniously by my shirt’s end to some rust-ridden, rickety swings in a shadowy corner of our hotel’s lawn, chattering noncommittally about the balloon-vendor (selling what I now deem to be bulbous, corona-virus like monstrosities, with a transparent orb attached to a stick to light them up) in the process. Owing to his barely coherent speech, and, more so, the fear of tearing my new shirt, I happily complied.

My fleeting happiness dried up faster than my mouth during Ramadan when I saw the beginnings of a Lilliputian-sized World War 3 taking place at the swings. Channelling my inner kindergarten teacher and gathering all five-foot-hopefully-something of me to my fullest extent, I ventured forth into the battlefield.

“He won’t get his turn,” retorted a Veruca Salt lookalike with a haughty flick of her high-pony tail, accompanied by a (I kid you not) vexing pop of her gum-bubble.

Spoiled brat.

Summoning up all the patience the great God above had bestowed upon me in abundance, in recompense for my height, I gave her a tight-lipped smile.

“Everyone shall have turns, turn-wise, won’t we? The swings are for everyone,” I replied thinly, stemming the urge to pull her pony-tail askew, God-forbid my inner heathen.

Just then, I felt something rustle from behind me.

“Ello!” pipped a high-pitched voice from below, too accented for its own good, “My nem’s Salar Usmani!” Accompanied with this was an outstretched hand and the sunniest smile ever known to humankind.

This was it. The moment when my heart literally broke in seconds. I waited, with bated breath.

The sundry group of children spared the light of my life one cursory glance, deemed his anglicized speech too alien for their vernacularly-customized ears, and went right on ignoring his very existence. I’d seen this whole charade too many times before. Salar’s smile waned, and the slightest shadow crossed over his cherub-like face. He slowly lowered his ignored, outstretched arm, and shuffled his tiny feet awkwardly.

How impossibly ironic it is that the deepest imprints on our being are stamped irrevocably during childhood. How the memory of feeling lost on the bustling Mall Road in Murree for the briefest of moments when we were three, is more vivid and real than being stranded in Shakarparian’s wilderness as an adult, with no cars or Careems available. How every harsh word, every slap, every phrase uttered even jokingly, stays with us like the physical moles on our body till our boon years, amplified to sometimes give fodder to our most irrational fears. Memory plays a winsomely deceitful game of inverse proportion with age, I’ve realised that with time.

And, right here, at this moment, I could see a dark memory taking form in the child beside me. And beshrew me if I didn’t do everything in my power to stamp it down.

“Oh, didn’t you guys hear? Come on, say Salam and greet each other, tell him your names too!” I faked a chirp into my voice, to make a menial task exciting to these naïve dunderheads. Children, huh. Can’t help loving them, can’t help but slightly despise them.

My mommy-esque dialogues finally jarred these younglings to the realization that they stood in the presence of an adult—contrary to what they might have surmised at first glance—and a couple of them trotted forward sheepishly (thank God for good parenting) and shook hands with my nephew.

“Vareesha, you’ve been on it for ten hours! It’s Arham’s turn now!” wailed a curly-haired girl of about 9, pulling at the ends of her curly locks in frustration.

“Arham went to the washroom with his mama, it’s myy turn,” announced another boy wearing obnoxiously bright, light-up Skechers-like copies of what were actually the local Bubblegummers.

“I WANTTT toooooo,” pined another feeble little voice, out of a teary-eyed toddler who then promptly sat his diapered behind on the ground to initiate what I recognized as the beginning of a terrible-two tantrum.

I stifled the involuntary bubble of mirth arising within me since I’d already adopted the part of the dutiful adult, and begrudgingly proceeded to bring order to this anarchy.

“Okay, Vareesha, you’ve just one more minute left, all right? We’ll all start counting down when you only have only ten seconds to go,” I ventured.

The addressed child seemed to sense the gravity of the situation and decided to swing with greater alacrity than before. The rest of the party warily took some sensible steps back, in unison. I glanced back at Salar. The little cherub was busy consoling the aforementioned toddler and convincing him that his ‘Ona khala’ would definitely get him his turn next.

“The groun’s dir-y anyways, comon, ge’ up!” He quipped, dusting the child’s adorably enlarged tushy in the process.

I smiled inwardly at Salar’s utter faith in me, a person who could hardly say two words in her defense when the situation called for it. But for this little one of mine, a thousand times over.

My drill proved quite successful for the next few turns, and even Veruca Salt seemed wholly satisfied since the ratio of her bubble-popping increased directly with each pendulum-like sway of the swing. The clamorous count-downs warranted a few disapproving frowns from the families sitting nearest the play-area, but the heathens at the swings were too far gone to care, myself included.

A few of the doting little tykes then timidly asked me to exert my influence upon the swings parallel to these, and I, with my newly assembled entourage, decided to go there—ignoring my rumbling stomach and the tantalizing wafts of sizzling barbeque on live coals emanating from the open grills right next to the swings.

Walking to the other side of the lawn, my eye caught sight of the moonlit peak, whose grandiose outline was clearly visible due to its top being clad in a sheet of pure, dazzling white snow. The orb in the sky had lit the scenery below like a disco-ball, with billions of stars twinkling and dancing to its hypnotic beams, traversing as far as the human eye could see. In moments like these, I really did wish I were a fly, just to see everything that there was to see, all at once. Never would I ever get enough of our North. The ranges liltingly beckon to me like Hosseini’s Mountains that Echoed, luring me to their summits with an almost hypnotic gravitational pull, until I find myself surrounded amidst shrouds of deep, verdant hills and jagged, historic mountains, whose mere sight propels one into a state of supreme timelessness; a limbo of being one with each leaf, each raindrop and each oddly-shaped pebble one chances upon by the river bank.

Yet here I was, bidding farewell to these lofty queens as we were now on our way back home. I ignored the poignant twinge that has started to bud within me and willed myself to wrench my eyes away from the moonlit spectacle before me.

“I will take a huge bat and hit you so hard on the head that you’d forget your own name!”

Momentarily taken aback by this scandalous choice of diction being uttered on my otherwise quite scrupulous watch, I quite forgot my own name for the briefest of moments. What I saw in front of me seemed to be a scene straight out of a Roald Dahl book.

An obese, Augustus-Gloop looking child presided over the red-coloured swings with a look of child-like insolence etched across his pouted lips and flabby cheeks. He wore a plain white T-shirt, stretched taut across his chest, and greyish-black trousers that ended on graciously folded bottom hems. What irked me the most, however, were the ridiculous looking black sunglasses he supported, at this time of the night, and Lord did I hate children dressing or acting older than they were meant to. A skinny, dark-skinned child stood next to him, acting very much like his bodyguard, comical as it was considering their contrasting body masses. A group of scorned children stood huddled on the side, presumably in fear of the sheer atrocity of the threats being hurled at them, by this one imperiously talking beach-ball.

“Hey you!” exclaimed Salar. “Tha’s a bad thing to say!” This was accompanied by an angry furrowing of his soft brown brows and a chubby finger-point.

Hushing up my overly-zealous nephew and lowering his accusatory arm before he could worsen the situation, I gathered up my resolve to deal with another playground bully.

“It’s going to be hard to aim through the sunglasses you know. Why don’t you get off the swing and try it then?” I said in a clipped tone.

“He won’t take them off,” muttered the skinny-boy next to him.

I sighed, “Okay then, let’s still give him two more minutes—”

“I won’t get off,” interrupted the beachball, quite matter-of-factly.

This overbearing rascal really was getting on my nerves.

“How old are you anyway?”

Oh no he didn’t.

“Old enough to tell you that the swings aren’t yours alone. And that the only bat you’d be seeing today is the one that flaps about scratching the eyes of children who refuse to share.”

The silence that prevailed made me wonder whether I was really mentally fit to govern this assorted group of unchaperoned vagabonds or not.

My Veruca Salt lookalike deemed this the perfect opportunity to stride forward and wrench Beachball’s grip out of the chain’s grasp. He howled like he had been burned alive and clenched it all the tighter while I prayed to the angels above to have mercy on my weary (and very famished) soul.

“Stop! Stop forcing him out, what’s wrong with you? You’re barely half his size. Salar, stop that incessant giggling, this isn’t the least bit funny. And YOU.” I swivelled towards the bully and looked him straight in his black frames, “You’re getting out of that swing in the next two minutes whether you like it or not.”

The red-swing battalion seemed to realize I meant business, especially after my entourage’s immediate respectful obedience that followed suit. I huffed out loud and peered through the engulfing barbeque smoke to look for my family. My sister waved at me through the haze, signalling that our food had arrived. I spotted my brother sneaking sips from my Fanta, despite having his very full Mountain Dew right in front of him. I shook my head disappointingly with my hands on my hips until he caught my eye, grinned sheepishly and placed it back down.

“Will you help me get down?” mumbled an unfamiliarly familiar voice.

I turned my head in surprise. Beachball’s skinny companion was busy listing the order of turns with Veruca on the side, while the said child was trying awkwardly to slide out of the swing. It was a menially easy task, and the swing was barely two feet up from the ground, meant for children a lot younger than this 9-ish looking bully. As his torso slid precariously to the edge, I instinctively grabbed his flailing hand in mine and helped him out, the beginning of an inkling of realization slowly seeping into my consciousness.

The overly folded trousers.

The skinny, guard-like, dark-skinned kid.

The intense defensiveness.

It’s going to be hard to aim through the sunglasses you know.

He won’t take them off.

An avalanche of shame hurled over me, until my eyelids buckled under its weight. I squeezed them once, tightly. I still had his pudgy hand clasped in mine.

I cleared my throat. “Okay…,” I managed to utter, “Who’s next?”

Salar came forward, brandishing the toddler he’d befriended like a trophy and proceeded to help him onto the swing.

“Where do you live?” asked the boy whose hand I still held, in a tone completely different than the one he’d employed just moments ago, to threaten the children.

I smiled a smile he would never see. Behind the closed, dark door he lived in, a smile was probably in a person’s motherly touch, a warmly spoken phrase and in the comforting scent of home.

“Islamabad,” I answered quietly. “Where do you live?”

“We came from Faisalabad.”

“It’s really hot there, isn’t it? Do you like the weather here?”

“Yes!” He exclaimed, and then paused momentarily, “Have you seen the mountains?”

An indecipherable clump lodged in my throat. I swallowed audibly.

“Yes.”

“Baji,” he began, innocently, “Is there snow on the mountains of Hunza?”

There come moments, uncountable little happenings in a person’s life, that take one aback. Yet, there are others. The ones that hit the very core of your being, your very essence, until you’re left reeling from their aftermath. You’re left bereft of words, since no words could ever suffice in such a moment. Despite all my claims of prowess in words, what did I have to say, really, in situations where my words would have to woefully make up for the indescribable wonders of God?

I was once asked during Liberal Arts how I would describe an apple to a blind person. And there, sitting in the confines of my classroom, with 32 very normal, blessed humans, it was easy to give an answer. To explain its smooth rotundness through touch, the vibrancy of its bright red colour through a feeling, and the taste of its succulent juices by a mere bite. Yet practically, that wouldn’t be the actual apple that we see, and are accustomed to seeing since the day we identified the rotten fruit. If the description of an apple wouldn’t suffice, how could I even dare to describe the marvels that were resplendent before my very eyes, that to me were just a blink away?

The playground bully was still awaiting my answer. In the background, the kids had started chanting the last ten seconds of the now over-joyed toddler’s turn.

“Ten, nine, eight…”

I stared down at his expectant face, his flushed, plump cheeks and his inclined head, tilted slightly off-centre to where my actual face was.

“Six, five, four…”

“There’s so much snow,” I reassured, “That if you take a handful of it back to Faisalabad, it might just stay cold year-round there, as well.”

“Three, two, ONE!!!”

His portly face broke into the first real smile I’d seen since I first saw him, and in that one euphoric moment, he seemed no different to me than my own nephew shrieking his lungs out behind us.

 

***

 

(For the blind kid who asked me if there was snow on the mountains of Hunza)

Momina Arif

Air University

Department of English

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