Tweak Storyteller winners — 3 talented writers whose stories we loved
Heart-wrenching, joyous and out of this world
Tweak Storyteller is a five-week writing workshop that brought together India’s top authors from Twinkle Khanna to Amish Tripathi with a special guest appearance from the much-loved Ruskin Bond. We asked our talented audience to send in their short stories, and the best three would be published on the website.
These are the winners.
Tweak Storyteller presents Scarlet Sketches by Ameeta Anand
Until I was 12, whether you said Santa Claus or Mr. D’sa, the same hazy image would form in my mind. A man with a silvered beard, twinkling blue eyes, and a kindly smile. An equally benevolent looking elderly woman by his side. Both the D’sas and Christmas belonged to an earlier era of our village’s history. The images I had drawn up of them were formed from hear-say, faded photographs and old Christmas cards. I had painstakingly scavenged these out to re-create the patchwork quilt that was my early childhood.
I use the word ‘scavenged’ because the D’sas left soon after the blood of a young man had darkened the red soil of our village, and I made my entry into the annals of our village history a few months later. I wish I ‘d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can do is tell you why he was murdered.
The D’sas had settled in our village to set up their school for the underprivileged once Mr. D’sa retired from his university job. The old timers said we were lucky that the D’sas had chosen our remote village over nearby Goa where they could have enjoyed far more of the comforts of home. But they felt their efforts were needed here more. Perhaps it was for the same reason that they had such a soft corner for Tulsi too.
She had been left at the D’sas school one rainy morning by her parents. It was more than her family’s limited resources could handle to bring up their 3 other ‘normal’ children. And It was clear by then that Tulsi would never be able to repay any dividends of their investment in her. It would be hard for her to find employment as a maid, let alone a sales girl or a teacher. Had the D’sas not taken her in, no normal school would have accepted her.
I’m certain even her pragmatic parents’ hearts must have lurched when they left her and began their long walk back to the ST bus stand. You see, Tulsi was lovely, with a luminescence that often left the beholder wondering if the ‘defects’ in her mental make up were not deliberate on the part of her maker. She had such an other-worldly calm about her.
If she prattled on like other girls her age, wouldn’t it have ruined the effect? Her silence, as she smilingly stared into space, made one feel that she saw something beyond what others did. At times, it was painfully evident that she did not see the world as we do.
The old caretaker Asha tai still shakes her head with a crackly ‘tut tut tu‘ as she recounts anecdotes of the unaware child woman she had to mother. The most telling of which, was the time when at the not so sprightly age of 60, she had to hurriedly track Tulsi down. The girl had come of age, and had unmindfully left a trail of blood droplets all over the compound.
“Every month I used to dread her menses. She would smile sweetly while I would scold her, telling her not to fidget with her chaddi, and then, in a few minutes, she would forget all about it messing up her clothes. I used to feel shame for her but she felt nothing. The memsaab used to feel bad too. She even brought imported pads from London for Tulsi which none of the other girls got.
They were very fond of her, both D’sa saab and memsaab. There were a few other girls who received free boarding at the school. Some were orphans, while others were from villages too distant to travel back and forth daily. Besides them, there were about fifteen girls from nearby areas who attended the school. Amongst all of them, Tulsi was allowed the most leniencies.
Whatever little she learnt was because of the special efforts they took with her. They would even call her for extra classes in the evening thrice a week. Slowly she was able to point out the letters of the English alphabet. They hoped that even if she didn’t learn to speak, she might learn to read a bit which would help her later in life.
Memsaab also taught her crochet, but she could only manage a simple chain. She was so proud though, that she made chains for every single person in the school.”
The school was only for girls. However the D’sas did try to impart the basics of the English language to the male staff who worked for them too. Some of them like the crusty old gardener Ramu kaka grumbled. He never did go beyond a few words like “Yas sir!”, which he would bellow out to make up in loudness for what he lacked in correctness. But the trio of youngsters, Raghav, Hassan and Pratham lapped it up.
Raghav and Pratham worked as a driver and security guard respectively. They were street smart enough to grab an opportunity when they sensed one. They knew that the free training they received here would help them procure a better salary in Goa or maybe even faraway Bombay.
Hassan was a different sort though. Dreamy and introverted, he did all the chores assigned to him as a handyman around the place gladly enough. Whether it was fixing a leaky faucet or fetching vegetables from the local market. Hassan was the one whose name was hollered out a dozen times a day, in different accents.
Besides that, what he did with his time was a mystery though. The other two boys shared a room in the shacks that served as staff quarters, and did the things that young boys do with their time and money. Though they were always careful not to create a ruckus and draw the D’sas’ attention to themselves.
Hassan preferred to stay holed up in his little room despite their needling.
From time to time he would request the D’sas for odd items from the school stationery stock like paper, pencil, paints etc. He offered to pay for these from his salary. But the D’sas were glad that his hobbies kept him away from the vices of youth and so they never took money from him. They would also pass on to him the newspapers and magazines they got delivered from the nearest city for themselves.
It didn’t matter to Hassan if the news was stale by the time it got to him. Once he confessed that he was fascinated with the images more than the words, they began giving him even more art supplies and books in place of baksheesh for Diwali and Christmas. He would be delighted with these while Pratham and Raghav would snicker and call him a fool second only to Tulsi.
When Hassan responded by saying Tulsi’s beauty wasn’t something that their coarse minds would understand this only led them to goad him further. “We understand the beauty only you can see under her uniform skirt.” Hassan turned a deep red and walked away angrily.
From that day, the two boys would heckle him whenever they noticed him looking at Tulsi. Tulsi on her part seemed as oblivious as ever, lost in her own private world. She seemed to like Hassan’s gentleness and didn’t avoid him like she did the other boys who could be cruel at times.
Maybe that was why one day she suddenly picked up a rock and threw it at Raghav when he was being especially harsh with Hassan. Raghav was too stunned to even react. Fortunately her aim wasn’t coordinated enough to hit him.
Things might have continued in the same vein if Tulsi’s behavior had not begun to get progressively erratic after that incident. One moment she would be irritable, and the next moment all teary eyed. No one could figure out her sudden mood swings. She would scream if someone touched her when she wasn’t expecting it and lash out at them. Her appetite had become erratic too. At times she seemed ravenous. At others, she shunned her favourite dishes, pushing the plate away from her.
Asha tai was so concerned about her uncharacteristic behavior that she took a while to realise that Tulsi’s menses hadn’t come that week like they should have. At first, she was relieved to have a few days respite. In Tulsi ‘s current mood it would have been impossible to handle her hygiene.
But as the month came to an end and then the next she realized she should tell memsaab about it. Memsaab immediately took Tulsi to the lady doctor in the nearest town. The next day when the phone call came she turned an even paler white. After a hushed conference with D’sa saab, she called Asha tai to her room . She told her that in two days they were taking Tulsi to the hospital with them.
Asha tai had to pack a small bag with a pair of clothes and her toiletries. They would be back in a couple of days. In the meantime Asha tai was not to tell anyone about what the matter was with Tulsi. If anyone asked they were just going to say that she was suffering from weakness and they were taking her for a proper check up.
If only Asha tai had kept mum, as instructed. She probably would have, had it not been Kamla who had picked up the call and handed it to Memsaab. Kamla, the house maid was Asha tai‘s closest friend who had two talents. One was cooking delectably spicy food and the other was serving out spicy gossip.
Since the first talent was stifled by blandness after several warnings by the ulcer prone D’sas, she lived to fulfil the second. It took an hour of coaxing and cajoling while Kamla pressed the older woman’s feet at bedtime, before Asha tai told her the truth. Of course only after Kamla promised not to let out the secret.
And according to her she had kept her promise. Such juicy gossip was worth spreading to at least thirty people and she had told just three.
After that all hell broke out. The milkman’s cycle tires sped towards the village spurred on by outrage. He didn’t lose time in informing the entire community about the scandal at the firang school. By afternoon a whole lot of ‘custodians of Indian culture’ were gathered in the compound.
A couple of Tulsi’s relatives were among the loudest in the crowd. Interestingly, none of them had shown any interest in the girl when Tulsi’s parents had appealed to them for help, except for referring them to the D’sas. Now it seemed as though the future of every girl of the community had been blighted along with Tulsi’s virginity.
They kept shouting questions at Tulsi and shaking up the poor petrified girl as if this could suddenly solve all her speaking issues and she would blurt out the name of the culprit. The D’sas tried in vain to calm down the mob.
Had the villagers not been in awe of their white skin, they might have turned on the D’sas too for allowing something like this to happen under their noses. Haplessly, they allowed Ramu kaka to shepherd them back to their Villa.
All the male staff were lined up. At the moment everyone was guilty till proven innocent. Maybe that is why when the wheel of suspicion slowed down its spinning to point to one of them, no one protested his innocence, but rather rushed to steady it there. It was Raghav in fact, who first suggested searching through Hassan’s belongings.
“He is the one who keeps staring at Tulsi all the time. You know how these Muslims are, with their three wives. Horny bastards.”
Till that moment the crowd was just an angry mob. With that comment they became an angry Hindu mob. They weren’t sure themselves what evidence of guilt they were looking for, but when they found the paintings it was certain they had hit the jackpot.
“Ram Ram, look how this dirty boy has defiled our mother Saraswati!” For the image was unmistakeable as she sat on a white lotus with a sitar and a serene smile on her face. The only jarring element was that she was stark naked, though the sitar had been strategically placed to give her an element of modesty. The next sketch was of goddess Laxmi in a similar state of undress. The crowd was livid by now even before they found the final sketch in the series. It was of Tulsi, sketched in the same style.
She had been depicted as the goddess Tulsi. Her lower torso was merged with an earthen pot. The kind that the Tulsi plant is generally found in the front yards of Hindu homes. Her waist length hair was made up of leaves but her upper torso was completely bare.
One of Tulsi ‘s uncles grabbed Hassan by his long hair and dragged him out of his room, punching and kicking him. “These Muslims, it’s not enough that they break our temples and erect their mosques. Now they are defiling our women and even goddesses!”
“All this time he has been looking at this poor child in such a dirty way,” said Ramu kaka. “I thought he was a good, decent boy. Poor girl can’t handle herself, how will she manage a bastard child?”
“Please, I never meant any disrespect. I’m sorry.” Hassan was sobbing by now. “I read about a very famous painter MF Hussain in the papers who had made some paintings like these, so I was just trying to make something similar. I never thought of Tulsi in a wrong way or saw her nude. I just used my imagination because she looks so much like a goddes…” A punch to his mouth left him spitting out blood instead of completing his explanation.
If anyone had actually examined the paintings with an unbiased eye they would have conceded that there was nothing sexual about the paintings despite their nudity. Tulsi had never looked as ethereal as she did in Hassan’s sketch.
Unfortunately, the villagers had no idea who MF Hussain was except that he was another Muslim. It’s a different matter that had they seen the infamous Hussain paintings, they probably wouldn’t have even realized what the abstract forms represented.
But Hassan’s death sentence had been written in strokes as clear as his painting. The crowd was in a frenzy by then. No one knew for sure whose hand it was among the dozens that were pummelling Hassan, that held the koyata or sickle that finally hacked him to death. It didn’t matter much because Hassan wouldn’t have escaped alive anyway.
In the months that followed, the villagers went back to their normal lives leaving behind the girl in whose name this holy crusade had been fought. Life in the school compound though never went back to normal. The D’sas were too shaken by the incident to stay there any more.
“No matter how much we try to civilize them, these people will stay barbarians,” they later told friends over calming glasses of Scotch. To their credit though, they did tie up the loose ends in their fastidious way before they left.
Mr D’sa appointed a teacher from Panjim to take over the school. The local police did a cursory investigation which the D’sas got hushed up. Now that the culprit was dead what was the point of creating a fuss? Somehow in all the mess a decision was taken to let Tulsi give birth to her child instead of going through the abortion that had been planned. No one knows exactly why.
The D’sas were in no mood to confide in any local any more. Some say that Tulsi became so petrified after witnessing the lynching that it was impossible to control her for the next few weeks. Maybe by the time everyone found their wits, it was too late to carry out the abortion. Or maybe now that the whole gory truth was out, it didn’t seem to make sense to carry out the abortion.
Whatever the reasons were, I wasn’t sucked out of my mother’s womb but was born instead. Not that I could ever really call her mother. In her own way, she was fond of me, but the incident had left her too deeply scarred. Any meagre chances of living a somewhat normal life had been totally wiped out.
It was the D’sas largess that paid for my ayah and ultimately my schooling in a decent school in Panjim. I filled up the void of parental love with my quest for knowledge and obsession with the past. I was the hapless by product of a furtive act of lust and its very public, bloody consequence.
So obviously I day dreamed about how things could have been different had I arrived into this world earlier. Would the crowd have still blindly followed its killer instinct? Somehow I think not.
Not out of compassion. I had no doubt that the thought of leaving a mixed blood bastard, practically an orphan wouldn’t have made their grip on the sickle loosen at all.
But rather, because by an irony of fate, I was the splitting image of my father. Right down to the milky white skin and the bright blue eyes.
(A Write India entry)
Tweak Storyteller presents The Chocolate In the Jar by Sangeeta Das
The dew drop ran down the length of the young leaf, skid faster towards the conical end and made a perfect dive into those tiny hands that caught it. He carefully put it in his mouth, the sweet taste of nature.
“Tashi broosh kiya ki nahi. If you take any longer your milk will get cold”
Young Tashi chuckled, he had no intention to brush his teeth, the water is too cold and the November morning he woke up to was colder. He was more interested in the hot milk and buttered chappati liberally sprinkled with sugar. He could see the smoke rising from the chimney in the thatched roof from his favourite potato and peas gravy his mother was cooking.
The roof had three layers of dried grass mattress which his father had made. Every morning during summer his father collected the grass while grazing the sheep, later in the evening his mother would spread it on the roof and the front yard for it to dry.
Snow will cover the grass mattress in another one month, by end of December they will be cut off from the rest of the world and Kaza will be hidden deep within the snow-clad mountains of Himachal in their own little world.
“Tashi, the sun will be up on your head now”, he looked up and wondered, where does his mother see the sun.
He hopped whistling a tune towards the kitchen, halted near the water jar his mother had kept at the doorstep with his tiny brush beside it, she had already applied the paste on it. “Why does she put the paste on it, now she will know if I do not brush”, he was annoyed.
He picked up the brush tried to rub it on a piece of cloth he found hanging on the arm of an old wooden chair outside. “You will have to show me your teeth and blow your breath, only then you will get your milk”, his mother shouted from inside.
“Dorje was right, mummy is only God, she knows everything,” Tashi quickly brushed his teeth.
The hot glass of milk felt good on his mitten covered hands, his little finger popped out from the hole at the last one. “Tashi, you will make that hole bigger now, and then don’t expect me to buy you a new one”. He removed one of the gloves, scooped the creamy layer from the top of his milk and enjoyed the morning dessert.
“Today take the sheep to the other side of the mountain by the stream, it seems it snowed yesterday on our side of the mountain, the other side is still drier.”
“You need to leave now, it’s a longer route, come back by lunch, don’t delay”, his mother spoke while busy kneading a dough and patting it hard throwing across small dusts of the white flour.
Tashi stirred the sugar into his glass of milk, he could see the ripples come and go, he sipped and put in one more spoon of sugar. His mother picked up the sugar dabba and put it aside “Suna what I said ” she hit him on his head. “I need to go to the other mountain, yes, huh.”
He picked up his glass and ran towards his kid brother who was blowing at his glass of milk to cool it. At four years old, Tenzin was four years younger to Tashi. He was his stepbrother after his mother married second time losing her husband six months after Tashi’s third birthday.
He remembered his father and how much they loved each other, how he would always carry him on his arms. He is not fond of his stepfather and stepbrother, Dorje had told him how these new family members are always bad and you should never get friendly to them.
Tashi picked up the puffed rice from his plate and put all of it in his brother’s glass of milk. Tenzin looked at Tashi and ran to his mother, she punched him and he, in turn, hit his younger brother. They fought till both the milk glasses were on the floor all spilled on the mopped kitchen. Next they were standing outside with the sheep.
The morning sun rays poured in through the pine trees and made the meadows ahead look greener.
Tashi stretched his arms as he walked with his herd of sheep. The sun felt good on his body. He picked up a stray cone and started playing with it. At school his teacher had taught to color the cones in their craft class to make them look beautiful. He looked at the cone in his hand “I think I like this color more.”
The sheep moved ahead pushing each other ‘mehing’ in unison. “How non-melodious they are, I wish they knew. Huh!”
Tashi liked being a shepherd, he loved to walk through the meandering lanes of the hills, he played along with the mountain dogs while the sheep grazed. He would sit and stare at the monastery pillars from the top of the mountains. The Sakyas at times have beautiful humming music vibrating through the mountain air, when the Buddhist monks sung in unison.
From this side of the mountain today he could see the ancient Tungyad Monastry. It was one of his favourite places, the colourful festivals it hosted were events he loved. He touched his furry jacket, one of his prized possession which his mother bought him in one such festival.
They reached a meadow ahead with patches of green grass that could survive the onset of the harsh Kaza winters.
Tashi settled himself on a flat stony surface enjoying the sun on his face. After a while he took out a small dabba his mother had packed for him to nibble on a mixture of puffed rice. As he kept munching, humming a new tune he had picked up from a television show, he saw a colorful packet lying a little ahead of him. He got up to check out.
It was a big chocolate bar with a colorful wrapper completely sealed. Tashi looked at it trying to read all that was written on it. “phoren chocolate, it says made in USA”.
His friends at school had told him ‘phoren chocolates’ are very yummy, someone had once received from a tourist in return to being shown around the place.
“It must have been forgotten by some tourist from abroad,” Tashi thought and was elated at his newfound treasure.
He could not believe his luck to have got hold of something so exquisite on a day when he was not keen on venturing out. He started opening the chocolate and then halted, he looked at the chocolate again, “I will have it at home, and show off to that stupid Tenzin how I got something so valuable” “And if that idiot wails and screams I will give him a small piece of this.”
Tashi took out a jar from his bag which his mother had given him to collect pickle from his aunt on the way. He did not want the chocolate to melt in his pocket like always. Sealed in the jar he looked at the bar and smiled. He was so happy thinking about his treat, he did not realize it was already past noon. He whistled at his sheep who looked at him and came over
Tashi hummed throughout his way home, when he suddenly felt there was a chaos among the sheep. First he could not make anything of it till he realized one of the lamb was missing and its mother was frantically trying to locate it in the herd.
He looked behind to check if the lamb was stuck somewhere but saw nothing. It was Jharoo, his favourite lamb.
“Jharoo” but Jharoo was nowhere.
Tashi searched through the lanes of the mountain, he looked in the bushes, behind the pine trees, across the slopes of the mountain, he knew he had to find the lamb.
“New father will be angry when he counts the sheep and more importantly, I like Jharoo. I cannot leave him alone here”. He could feel a tear prick his eye.
“Jharoo” he called again but found nobody in return.
He suddenly saw two boys playing with a lamb.
“Jharoo, you rogue you are here, all the way here!”
The two boys looked at him, one was a big boy like the bhaiyas he had in senior school who always bullied him. He looked similar. The other was a tiny boy who looked a year or two younger to him.
“That’s my lamb” he called again “Jharoo”, but Jharoo didn’t move, and sat comfortably in the lap of the younger boy.
“He doesn’t seem to respond to you,” spoke the big bully boy.
“But he is mine, he’s from my father’s flock of sheep,” Tashi tried to convince.
The big bully boy was in no mood to listen to Tashi. “My brother is very happy with him, it’s his.”
“Please understand bhaiya, that is my lamb, I need to take him home” Tashi pleaded.
The big bully boy did not even flicker an eyelid to his plea.
Tashi tried all that he could, pleading and begging but nothing worked, the big bully boy was already walking away with Jharoo, the younger one cuddling the lamb .Tashi felt helpless, he could see Jharoo vanish out of his sight as the boys took a turn ahead.
“Bhaiya, bhaiya” he ran behind them.
“Bhaiya, you can have this, I am sure your brother will love it more than that lamb”
He picked up the jar from Tashi’s hand “Phoren chocolate bhaiya, expensive and yummy”
The younger boy snatched the jar, his eyes twinkling, “I want this.”
The big bully boy stared at the jar for a long moment, he looked at Tashi who stood holding his breath.
“Ok you can take the lamb,” Tashi let out a sigh of relief.
Tashi looked at them disappear as he cuddled Jharoo. His bag lighter, heart a little heavier
He walked back home trying not to think about his loss. It was early evening and already getting dark. The chill in the air was getting dense. He held Jharoo tighter which always made him feel warmer, he loved that feeling.
But today he held him to protect himself from the engulfing darkness. He kept walking faster, however he was nowhere nearer to the familiar lanes, the roads that take him home.
He looked at the road ahead, a fear slowly gripping him because he did not know where it led.
It was pitch dark and the chill in the air was getting uncomfortable. Tashi had lost his way. He was right in the middle of the mountains with only a little light from the moon.
Tashi was scared, tears kept rolling down. He looked around him surrounded by the vast expanse of the mountains. He sat down resting against one of the pine trees tired and hungry. Jharoo looked at him time and again, as if sensing that things are not right.
All the horror stories he had heard kept flooding his mind. He lied down cradling his head on the protruding root of the tree and closed his eyes, hoping it will close his mind too. With Jharoo in his arms, both slept off overwhelmed with fear and exhaustion.
He woke up to screams coming from a distance. His clothes were slightly wet from the mist in the air. He shuddered at the sudden cold and struggled to get up. The sound seemed to be coming from somewhere around. Relief ran through him to hear a human voice and with all his strength, he tried to walk in the direction of the sound.
On walking a little distance, he saw a little boy crying frantically and trying to chase away a mountain dog. He looked at the dog who was basically eyeing the bread loafs that were in a woollen bag next to the boy. He tried to shoo away the dog but the animal only flashed his angry canines. A hungry animal is dangerous, so Tashi walked to the kid, took the loaf and threw at the dog who quickly leapt at the food and disappeared into the woods.
The boy ran and hugged him Tashi realized he was the same kid he had met earlier. The big bully boy also came over. “Thanks buddy, I turned to pick up few stones to throw at that wild thing and before I could, I saw how heroically you tackled him” the big bully boy smiled.
“It’s ok,” Tashi smiled back.
“But what are you up to, at this time of the night.”
“I have lost my way bhaiya, this is not my usual route”
“Aha, ok where are you from?”
Tashi told him his address and the big bully boy led him through the unknown lanes. A little distance away, they heard faint voices which grew louder.
“Tashiii , Tashii”
A group of men led by his father met them a little ahead. Tashi looked at his stepfather who ran towards him with all the happiness he had ever seen in his eyes, he almost fell to the ground as he hugged him and picked him up.
Tashi felt too faint to react to anything and slumped on his shoulders. He saw the little boy give something to his father under the cover of the dim moonlight.
Tashi was down with fever for next two weeks. It took almost a month for him to be healthy and active again.
It was a December morning when Tashi sat with a story book, soaking up the morning sun. His mother sat at one end of the house, cutting cabbages fresh from her backyard kitchen.
“I will make you this cabbage and potato gravy you so love, Tashi.”
“Tashi,” his brother came running, he had something hidden behind his back and a smile that lit up his entire face. Tenzin showed his brother the chocolate in the jar.
“Let’s have this.”
Tashi looked at the jar and then at his brother who had waited all this while to share the chocolate with him. He took the chocolate out and tried opening it, but a small white worm wriggled out of it. He looked at his brother, who was staring starry-eyed.
“Arre bhai, let me divide it for you,” his father took the jar from him.
After a while he broke a few pieces and handed over chunks of the brown chocolate to both the brothers. Tenzin snatched a piece, popped it inside his mouth and happily jumped all around.
Tashi bit a piece of it. “It’s really tasty, papa,” he said, calling that name after a long time, savouring the ever-so-familiar jaggery.
He closed his eyes as he rested his head on his father’s arm, the winter sun shining on his smiling face.
Tweak Storyteller presents Madame Coco’s Unlearn Academy by Harsita Hiya
John O’Brien stood gaping at the signboard, trying to read the squiggly letters on it.
There were no arrows. Large mirrors had been pasted against each location.
John O’Brien found this peculiar, being used to signboards that told him where to go. Thankfully, he didn’t mind the mirrors. The wind had done a number on his hair.
He fished out a comb from his shoulder bag and went to work. For good measure, he added another spray of cologne behind both ears, inhaling the familiar smell of seawater with a smile. The bottle Laura had gifted him two birthdays ago sat waiting, unopened in his bag.
“Right!” The toddler at the gate had screamed when he had requested him for directions.
“Yours or mine?” John had asked, baffled, but with a flourish of his cape, the boy had returned to his tower.
John had chosen the latter. An hour had passed since then, with no end in sight for his tired legs. The signboard hadn’t helped matters at all. He was still walking right, but was it even the same right?
He clenched his fists and kicked a pebble. That eased his rage, so he kicked it again and again and again. By the fifth time, the whole thing had turned amusing. John kept running forward with the pebble, forgetting to raise his eyes from the ground until it collided with something and came to a stop.
He looked up to find himself before a tent. It stood no higher than his chest but was wide and airy, built of frilly sheets of every colour to exist.
Composing himself, John lifted the flap and stepped inside, only to fall upon a sea of pillows. His hair was, again, a sorry mess.
“It’s polite to knock,” The little girl leaning over him giggled. “But such things can slip, I know. Pleases and thank yous are easier to remember.”
John O’Brien crawled to his knees. Her frock matched the tent, and the tent matched the ribbons on her pigtails.
“My friend Neil Tendler, he suggested your…erm…services. I am assuming this is the Head Office?”
“You assume right. Call me Madam Coco, by the way. I remember dear Neil, so bright he was! Took him under a month to master colouring outside the lines. The same Neil who had once insisted a tiger can never be purple!”
“I’d love to help. We’re against payment, for knowledge has no price, but generosity is always welcome. Especially at the end of every month. If you’d sign here, Mr…?
John O’Brien took the paper and the orange crayon she was holding out to him, remembering the bubble wrap cartons Neil had shipped over the past twelve years.
“Jjjohn. That’s my name. There’s something I need to unlearn.”
“Fortunate indeed,” laughed Madam Coco, snatching the paper after he had signed.
“I…I…” He stammered, “Iwanttounlearnnotenjoyingmovies.”
John O’Brien had, for years, struggled with speaking his mind aloud. That had changed on a morning in his teens when he had started blogging about movies to kill time. He had discovered then, that no fear could trouble him as long as he was behind a computer.
The downside of it was that he had never found anything good to say.
Jack could have fit on that door, he had insisted in his review of Titanic.
How dare he leave out Tom Bombadil? He had demanded to know in his letter to Peter Jackson.
The folks on the internet had lapped up the hate and his blog had gone from strength to strength.
It had been a hit with everyone except Laura.
She had shrinked from that side of John, and how could she not? He had only cribbed through their dates at the multiplex. He had turned his nose up at every movie she had picked to watch during Christmas season. Her discontent hadn’t been a secret either.
A month ago when she had decided to move out, it had taken John little time to figure out why. His attempt to discuss it, however, had left Laura further disappointed.
“It isn’t about the movies,” she had sighed before hanging up.
That hadn’t changed John’s mind, for he knew what he had to do to win her back. The conversation with Neil had shown him how.
“That’s specific.” Madam Coco noted it down, “But it’s better than demanding to unlearn evil or selfishness. We can only teach what we don’t know, you know? Are we talking every movie?”
“Excluding the bad ones. Please put driving on the list as a second. My neighbour keeps asking for rides all week. Plus, it would be nice to go to a bar with my friends without having to drop them home.”
“Just say no. It’s easy, Mr. John. Stomp your foot on the ground and scream the word. If it’s urgent, lie down on the floor and—”
“—Doesn’t work, I’m afraid.”
“No? It ought to, but I’ll add the driving for your sake.”
“Alright then,” she skipped forward, “You can decide how long you want to stay here. Boarding and food are on us. Sir Achilles Proudfoot will be your instructor and his classes will happen in Playground 20. They will happen whenever you want them to, except from five to seven in the evening. That’s his nap time. He’ll get you started with the driving.”
“The driving? Aren’t we supposed to begin with the movies?”
“We’re supposed to.”
Without missing a beat, Madam Coco continued,
“As for the Common Classes, one of them is going on in playground 14 as we speak. Talk to Emmie if you feel lost. The Academy has never had a better student than her.”
With that she held up the flap of her Office, and John stepped out into a field resembling a lollipop. At the centre of its strawberry swirls was a Pile of Things.
Clothes pegs, cellophane, balls of wool and more.
The field was brimming with people of John’s age. They had picked up stuff at random from the Pile, and had joined, twisted and melted them into things they could drag, throw, sit on or peer into.
John O’Brien asked around and was pointed in the direction of Emmie.
The woman looked a hundred years old.
“Me?” She smiled when John asked her what she was doing, “Just poking holes in this bottle. I want to fill it with black paint and marshmallows.”
“Oh. For what reason?”
“Hush!” She hissed at once, “If she hears you saying that, it will be the end of both of us!”
John O’Brien followed her eyes to the left, where a red-haired girl was marching to and fro with a clipboard. Her eyebrows looked scary, no doubt, but they could hardly account for Emmie’s horror. What an overreaction to a simple question! When he had aimed one at Laura, the most she had done was change the subject.
At night, John O’Brien spotted Sir Achilles Proudfoot in the distance. Upon seeing the boy approach, he could feel his mind turning into jelly, for the legs rushing towards him seemed to have a springboard underneath.
The boy carried a wooden sword, wore a flower crown and ran his mouth a thousand miles an hour. In a squeaky high voice, he announced their lesson plan. Every night, they would go on a car ride around Playground 20.
“The first thing to do is to press the biggest button,” announced Sir Achilles after pushing John into a red hatchback, “Or the shiniest.”
He asked him to note down every word.
“It will take you a while to go for those. Until then, we will stick to the basics.”
With that, he slid in next to John.
Playground 20 was another lollipop, a blend of butterscotch and chocolate. As the hatchback began crawling along its swirls, Sir Achilles started bouncing on the passenger seat, pointing away at the things they were passing. When he urged him to gaze out the window, John felt forced to tighten his grip on the wheel.
“You know you want to. Do it! Just once!” cried Sir Achilles, raising his sword in the air.
A defeated John soon turned his head to the right. Above in the night sky, he saw the figure of the toddler from the gate. He was waving to them, his yellow cape shining against the blackness. John pulled his eyes back in time and hit the brakes. The hatchback was inches away from the Pile of Things in Playground 14.
The next few months at Unlearn Academy flew by in a daze. In time, John O’Brien got just as good at colouring as Neil. He dragged and threw things, sat on and peered into them. When he melted a trophy and poured it into a cookie cutter, even Bushy Eyebrows of Common Class couldn’t help but flash him a smile of admiration.
His friendship with Emmie grew stronger as well. In spite of his reservations about the Bar, she was able to convince him to join her there one breezy Sunday.
“It will be hard to keep the first drink down,” she had earlier told him over the phone, “But after the third, oh my…”
That hadn’t sounded all that bad to John O’Brien, and he had met her there at night after class. By the fourth glass of chocolate milk, the two were pouring their hearts out to each other. John ended up telling Emmie about Laura, who told him she had been at the Academy for thirty years.
“I was a psychiatrist,” she burped, “But I’m glad I found my way here. This is my true home.”
When an amazed John O’Brien asked her what she had first come to unlearn, Emmie laughed out loud.
“Everything,” she answered, winking.
Sir Achilles kept on pushing his student. He had complete faith in him, and wore the proudest smile on the day John began confusing wipers with indicators. By the end of the year, he was in tears. His prodigy had now started struggling with the clutch.
Looking through the window became easier for John. Whenever he rolled it down and stuck his head out, he could hear himself giggling with Laura in grade IV, stealing glances at their classroom window to catch sight of the ducks in the nearby lake.
One night, he strolled into Playground 20 alone.
Sir Achilles had been napping at the time, and John had known better than to disturb him.
He stared long at the hatchback standing at the centre of the lollipop, and upon a whim, decided to walk.
John marched away from the car, whistling as he glided across the swirls. He waved back at the caped toddler in the sky, gazing at the flock of stars following his trail. When the wind touched his hair, he allowed the strands to play with his cheeks.
John O’Brien froze.
“This is it!” He screamed.
He ran to his room from the Playground in a flash. After a call with Neil, he found a pebble and kicked it all the way to Head Office.
Madam Coco looked up as he lowered himself into the tent.
“You didn’t fall this time! I’m mighty impressed.”
“I’m ready to leave, Madam Coco.” John announced, grinning ear to ear.
“Leave? But we’ve barely worked on you! Sir Achilles has told me you’ve been doing well at driving, but his lessons are far from over. And the movies, why, we haven’t even started with them!”
“We haven’t, yes, but we don’t have to. It was never about the movies.”
John’s voice started breaking.
“Thank you for everything Madam Coco.” He hugged her tight, “I don’t know how to repay you!”
Before she could say anything in answer, John O’Brien had run out of the tent.
“Huh!” Madam Coco exclaimed. She would have to mail him a reminder about the bubble wrap.