2. Newer Kind
AIS campus, 23:45
‘The school never stops impressing me’, said Priya as the car finally turned into the school’s long driveway. ‘, It’s done so artistically’
I sighed. ‘Finally, we get here’
Amy poked her head out of the window, the wind blowing her hair all about her face. I did the same on my side of the car, wanting to get a proper look at the place after two long months of vacation.
‘The only trouble I have with this place is leaving you two here for most of the year’ muttered Dad, with a small grin. ‘, I’ll miss you guys’
I groaned loudly at him. ‘Dad, come on…’
‘What, it’s true…’
I smiled to myself. They always went slightly cheesy and all lovey-dovey after summer vacation. Poor things. They had no idea what we were up to most of the time at school.
Priya turned to smile at us. ‘Have a good term. Amy, take care’, she said, then added with a wink ‘, Take care of him’
I spluttered indignantly. ‘Say what? If she started taking care of me, I’d end up drowned in the lake’
Priya rolled her eyes. ‘Yeah, funny, big mouth’
Amy elbowed me hard in the ribs. ‘Shut up and look- we can see the lake’
I never got tired of watching the black expanse of cold water behind the school building and about fifty meters from the accommodation buildings, a separate block of buildings connected to the main school building by a paved footpath. Those buildings were where we slept, spent free time and ate breakfast and dinner (And caused a lot of unnecessary trouble). On the side of the main school building (an enormous semi-circular red brick affair) was the lab building. Looking up at the four-storied lab building, I could see the various test-tubes and glass apparatus shining from the Chemistry lab on the top floor.
Behind the accommodation buildings was the boundary of the school, a low, very-climbable fence, beyond which was the dilapidated boathouse, which had been built by Joseph Sander, the same guy who had built Sander House in the middle of the lake.
Looking back at the lake, I could see Sander House rising haphazardly out of the island in the middle of all that black glassy water. The broken glass windows of Sander House shone in the sunlight. I could see its dark silhouette from inside the car. I felt a thrill, looking at the windows.
Everyone who was a self-respecting AIS student had their own secret place (most usually banned or out of bounds to them) to hold parties or meetings or just have fun with friends after hours. There was the top floor of the boathouse which the seniors reserved for themselves, the terrace of the accommodation building, the space behind the lab building, the tiny clearing in the woods…but the best was ours.
It was last year, and by accident, that we found the narrow strip of concrete submerged beneath the lake water in front of Sander House. The lake was shallow in the region, allowing us to walk easily all the way across. The water only came up to my ankles. And the Sander House was the perfect place to sneak out to after night- quiet, slightly spooky and completely out of bounds.
I wondered occasionally what Dad and Mom would say if they knew that we were sneaking out of bed every Friday, Saturday and Tuesday and making our way, at midnight, across a lake, to an out-of- bounds dilapidated house. But the fun about it was the guilty delight. I could imagine Priya’s reaction. ‘Oh, Kiran! What were you thinking, going at midnight, across a lake! You could have gotten yourself killed!!!’
I had to hide a grin as I got out of the car.
‘There you two are!’
The burly caretaker, AV, was almost running to us.
‘I was just going to go to sleep when the watchman buzzed me saying you two were here’ he said, grinning widely and grabbing the suitcases from Dad ‘,I thought you’d stay at Kazah, what with this fog and all…’
Dad smiled as he closed the boot of the car. ‘Gotta get back, AV, our flight is early. We’ll have to hurry actually, Priya. We aren’t stopping for dinner…’
AV nodded at him. ‘You two drive safe. I’ll look after these two’
Priya made a relieved expression. ‘Thanks. Two teenagers are too much for me to bear. Where’s Chris?’
I turned around. He was on his phone, talking very quietly in very rapid Hindi. He smiled and motioned us to excuse him for a minute.
‘New student, found him abandoned in Kazah’ I explained to AV.
His eyes widened in comprehension. ‘Oh, yeah. Chris Johnson, hmmm? Your grade. His Dad called to say he couldn’t pick up the boy. I was just going to send someone to look for him’
I winced. ‘Pretty cold of his Dad to just leave him there’
Priya nudged me. ‘Don’t say that’
I shrugged. I did think it was pretty cold. I mean, the kid had gotten really scared.
‘We’d better get going’ said Dad, sighing. ‘, You guys have fun. Bye, AV’
Even after that it took ages for them to just leave. I mean, I love them and all, but they could get rid of the sensitivity stuff.
When they finally left after all their mollycoddling, Amy and I were grinning mortified grins at a slightly amused looking Chris.
‘They’re cheesy, I know’ I said, embarrassedly.
He smiled, his eyes doing that curious trick of reflecting light and turning silver. ‘It’s kinda sweet’
I shrugged. ‘Guess so’
‘Is anyone in the gang here yet, AV?’ asked Amy as AV threw open the large double doors to the accommodation buildings (fondly called Asylum) and led us into the common hall.
‘Almost everyone. They got here before the weather turned foul. I texted you about the fog…didn’t you get it?’
‘The world was being against us, I guess’ I said, checking my text messages. There was nothing from AV or the school.
‘Or with me’ said Chris, quietly.
I laughed. ‘Yeah, true’
‘What took you so long anyway? You started early…’ asked AV, as we signed our names in the arrival register.
‘We started at two in the afternoon, and would have got here by seven at night, only the storm stopped us for one-and-a-half hours. Then there was a log on the road. But there was a bus behind us, so they all got down and helped remove it. Half-an-hour went there. Then both Amy and Ma got car-sick, so we had to stop for a breather, and by then Dad was hungry, so we had dinner. Then he spent twenty minutes fighting with the guy at the pub for asking too much money. That wasted one hour, thirty minutes. And then the car broke down and we had to hike to Kazah…so here we are, at half-an-hour to midnight’ I said in one breath, making AV give me an amused glance.
‘Fifteen minutes, actually’ put in Amy.
We gazed around the common room. My friends had all actually stayed up for us. They were all flat on their backs over armchairs and divans though- Hima and Maria were asleep, Asma and Deepika were listening to songs on Deepika’s i- Pod, Sameer and Atul were just chatting randomly and Jared was reading a book. As always.
‘Ah, finally’ drawled Sameer in his monotonous rich-boy voice ‘, Where have you two been?’
I shrugged, as AV shouted ‘All right, y’all!’ waking Maria and Hima; and making both Asma and Deepika jump a meter and drop the I-pod. As they scrambled to pick it up, AV ushered Sameer and Jared towards the stairs on the left. ‘, Kiran and Amy are here now, they haven’t been eaten by tigers, nor has their car gone over the hill, so I suppose you can now go sleep.’
‘Sick fantasies’ I muttered, smiling at them ‘, Well, does anyone know my room number? And Amy’s for that matter? ’
Asma ran a hand through her newly straight hair. ‘It’s on that notice board. Amy’s with Trisha. Trish is pretty nice. I don’t know about you, Kiran’
‘I’ll find out…you guys turning in?’
They all nodded, yawning.
I went over to the list. The expensive nature of the school meant that we only had one room-mate per room. I let my eyes roam over the list.
Kiran V. Nair Class Eleven Corridor 4 Room 12
‘I’m corridor 4, Room twelve’ I told them ‘And Amy is…corridor 6 and room fifteen’
‘Who’s your room- mate?’ asked Sameer, from the base of the staircase.
‘Don’t know…’ he looked down the list until he got to another name with the same corridor and room.
Christopher Johnson# Class Eleven Corridor 4 Room 12
‘Oh, cool. You’re with me, Chris’
Sameer and Jared turned to gaze at him. Chris nodded and smiled, but seemed slightly uncomfortable with all the stares he was getting.
‘New student?’ asked Hima, with a slightly lopsided smile.
Chris nodded. ‘I think I’ll go find my room’
‘I’ll come now’ I told him, smiling. Chris looked a little relieved to leave the group. I was definitely getting the feel that he was a loner kind of guy.
‘New students galore this year’ muttered Jared, pausing mid way up the stairs and stretching his long arms. ‘,Girls especially…we’ve got a new Physics teacher too, name’s Siddharth, and the guy- ’
‘-is pretty hot’ finished Asma, with a grin. Everyone turned to stare at her. ‘, Okay. Staring is uncool people, I just said the plain, crude truth’
Hima rolled her eyes. ‘Okay, he has a daughter a year senior to us, fine Asma?’
The others groaned. I slung my duffel bag over my shoulder and started to the stairs.
‘Night then, people…I’ll see you tomorrow’
Sameer had wandered to the notice board again. ‘Siddharth Sinha’s daughter must be Shari Sinha, huh? She’s on the list…twelfth standard, you’re right Hima’
‘Who cares?’ groaned Jared, grabbing his arm and pulling him back towards the stairs. ‘, I don’t want to sleep in class tomorrow morning. Bet it’s Physics first period…oh my God…Ah, then again, maybe there won’t be classes tomorrow, seeing as it is the first day and all’
‘Wouldn’t bet on it’ muttered Maria, sleepily. ‘, Can we please move?’
We started upstairs. Jared and Sameer turned corridors and disappeared, and AV followed me with the bags.
‘Your room mate seems pretty much the quiet type’
I nodded. ‘Yeah, I guess. You know anything about him?’
AV shrugged and grinned. He usually knew everything about everybody.
‘Mom’s dead. Dad’s in the army. Big fish…lieutenant or something, posted somewhere cold’
I laughed at the irony. ‘Yeah, he pretty much left his son in the cold’
‘The boy has strange eyes. You know, the local cult here sort of believes that eyes like his are symbols of the devil’
I gaped at AV for a minute, sighing in relief when a smile appeared above his beard. ‘I don’t believe it of course…did you see me running away screaming the moment I saw the boy? I reckon he’s Anglo Indian or something’
I nodded. ‘Yeah, me too’
AV knocked on the door of the room, and Chris opened a moment later, moving aside so AV could drop my bags on the floor.
‘You brought your luggage up?’
Chris nodded, smiling thinly. ‘Yes, I’ve got light weight. Maybe my Dad will get someone to drop the rest of my stuff tomorrow.’
AV patted my shoulder. ‘Have a good sleep, get up late. Classes only in the afternoon tomorrow, okay?’
He smiled once more at Chris and then disappeared down the corridor, humming some new song in a south Indian language I didn’t know.
‘He’s a good guy, AV’ I told Chris, dragging my heavy suitcase to the open cupboard and dumping it there. Chris had already almost finished unpacking. I gazed skeptically at the neatly arranged other cupboard. Everything about the arrangement of the clothes and books and other stuff in it screamed army brat.
I turned, and stared at the room critically. It was better than last years’, giving us a view of Sander House and the lake. The two beds were on both sides of the window, with two tables put together against the window. The walls were bare and an ivory color: they had been given a new paint job during the holidays.
‘We’ll need curtains.’ I muttered, searching the cupboard with my eyes. The laundered and dried hideous yellow curtains were on the top shelf.
I rolled my eyes at Chris. ‘Yellow. What were they thinking?’
He squinted at it. ‘Yellow’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Specs?’
He shook his head. ‘Color blind’
‘Mono or di?’
He gaped at me incredulously. ‘What?’
I smiled sheepishly, shaking my head. Stupid dad with his doc stuff he drilled into my brain.
‘Don’t mind me.’
I went over to what he had decided would be my bed: the nicer one, actually, and sat down on it, testing the pillows. Not bad. Better than last year, again.
Last year I’d got something that felt like clumps of cloth tied into really hurtful little knots. I’d slept without a pillow because they had run out of them and I had the lumpy one they couldn’t replace.
Good break, finally.
I took a long look at Chris as he busied himself with arranging his school books alphabetically or something utterly time-wasting like that.
He had very thick, long black hair that nearly obscured those grey eyes when he tilted his head, like how he was doing then. It was more like his hair was on the long side of short. He was lean, not thin, but a little shorter than me, and I was on the tall side of short.
He had such pale skin though.
The boy looked fragile, like those long-fingered musicians they showed on TV. Hmmm…he did look like a musician.
‘What happened? With your dad?’
Chris’s shoulders stiffened. ‘Uh…he got busy’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘And he didn’t bother to think about you?’
His posture went rigid. Uh-oh, wrong question, Kiran. His tone was a little cool when he answered, bordering on slightly aloof ‘Dad does a pretty hard job, sometimes he has a lot on his mind’
‘It’s all right’
‘Army, right? Your dad?’
He nodded, standing there with his hand on the door. He closed it with a definite bang and then walked slowly to the bed and lay down, staring up at the ceiling.
I stood up and walked to my bag, pulling off my T-shirt. After a bit of rummaging about, I found an older one and pulled it on.
Stop being nosy, Kiran.
As if I ever listened to my own advice.
‘So is mine’ I said, quietly, trying to alleviate the tension in the room.
‘Yeah. Priya is my stepmother. Amy’s her daughter’
‘My mom died when I was four. Dad didn’t remarry’
‘Was she ill?’
Chris turned around in bed so that he was staring at the wall. He pulled the covers around him as I turned back and sat down on my bed.
‘No.’, he replied in an oddly muffled voice, his back to me. ‘, It was an accident.’
‘Hey. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry’
Chris turned around and smiled at me. ‘It’s all right. People are generally curious. I wake at six usually…when’s the wake-up time here?’
I gawked at him horrified. ‘Six?! Oh, God. Just don’t even try to wake me up until the bell goes off at seven okay?’
I turned off the lights and then peered out of the window. Moonlight lit the lake and shone off the broken windows of Sander House. Night always suited Sander House better than day somehow, and I didn’t know why that was.
Maybe because of the element of mystery that always surrounded it. I smiled to myself. Element of mystery. Someone was being poetic.
I watched Chris…he was already asleep, only his hair visible beneath the bedcovers.
I felt an almost odd sense of belonging. As if we were supposed to meet.
Then I smiled to myself and closed my eyes.