‘There’s nothing to it, Sajid,’ insists Manu. ‘All you have to do is push, shout -‘.
But Manu, you have two arms, I want to say; two hands and two legs, skinny, yes, but tough, propelling a bony ten-year-old body; Manu thinks that’s how old he is. He has a cast in one eye.
I don’t know my own age but I’m sure it isn’t ten.
‘Anyway,’ adds Manu, ‘as soon as they spot you, they’ll feel sorry for you.’ And Manu is off, along the platform.
The train is due. I hobble to keep up, right arm flopping as if is has been stuck on but doesn’t really belong; right foot more interested in the bit of dusty concrete it’s on than dragging to a new one. Since the ox crushed me against the cart, I often puzzle over what the bones in that foot look like under the skin; when I poke them they feel different from the ones in the other foot, as if they’ve been moved and haven’t found a new place to settle.
There were six brothers and five sisters to work in the cotton fields and I would dream of owning a pencil and going to school. I don’t miss being shouted at because I’m slow or in the way. I do miss Mama’s potato curry, and white curd with dahl; miss watching water buffalo basking in the muddy river, sun searing the sky white. Here, I hardly see the sun, just the iron frame supporting the station roof, and dust dancing in the light through the windows, which I suppose is from the sun outside. Yet, soon, I will be able to go to school.
‘Stay with me, Sajid, copy me,’ instructs Manu when I catch up.
The train is approaching, a heaving, sighing, like that of a great beast, heralding its arrival. I peer at the track and it seems as if the rails quiver in anticipation. I feel a yank on my withered arm and gasp in protest. ‘Don’t look down,’ scolds Manu. ‘Look at people.’
Hundreds are waiting for the train; ladies in saris the oranges and deep pinks of sunset over the river at home; men in suits which make them look important, talking into their mobile phones, others in the loose-fitting clothes of the village, and I imagine one of them with a pencil to spare, then I can leave Manu and go to school.
The great beast, an iron monster, crawls to a halt with a thud and blast of warm air. In front of me, bags and small cases are posted through windows into the train, while boxes and baskets are dropped down to the platform, a two-way traffic.
With his foot, Manu marshals a couple of baskets. In one, chickens squawk their outrage. The other is tied with blue ribbon. ‘Stay with them, Sajid, till their owners come,’ Manu yells.
How will I know who the owners are? I watch Manu attack the press of people like a warrior; ‘Madam, I carry your bags?’ Sir, I fetch chai? Taxi? Good price.’
I stand with the baskets in a swirl of honking horns, sweat, sandalwood, wobbling bellies, majestic moustaches, and sweet smells I have no word for. A cow is wandering among the gaudy chaos. She looks very young. Has she lost her mother? A lady in a green sari claims the basket tied with ribbon. I raise my eyes to her face so I can ask if she has a pencil. She has a red mark on her forehead but no smile in her eyes or on her lips. I lower my gaze, feel a coin pressed into my good hand, and she and the basket are gone.
An old man in village clothes picks up the other basket, clucks and croons to the exhausted chickens; he has grey stubble across his chin and cheeks, and smiles to reveal three teeth. The old man pats me on the head. No pencil there.
That night – it must be night, because Manu says there won’t be another train till morning – we huddle under a girder at the end of the platform. I hand Manu the coins I have been given. He clicks his tongue, disappointed.
I decide that tomorrow I will keep one for myself.
From the pocket of his large shorts, Manu extracts a piece of chapatti, breaks some off, gives it to me. We have collected several half-full plastic cups of sweet chai and one of curry.
I dip my scrap of chapatti in the curry. It isn’t as good as Mama’s but I still savour the spiciness on my tongue, lick the corners of my mouth, then all round, in case some has escaped.
From his other pocket, Manu pulls some rough, dirty cloth, folded small. He opens it out, lies by the girder. I wriggle next to him. The cloth is not enough for a blanket but a spark of friendship towards Manu kindles in me in spite of his sharp elbows and knees.
When the workers come to sweep the platform in the morning, Manu nudges me, sits up, head down, arms round his knees. ‘Don’t look at them,’ Manu warns.
‘It means you’re interested.’
From the fourth, or maybe the fifth, train that morning a baby with a shocked expression on its face is shoved out of the window at me. Some of the curls on the baby’s hair are secured with tiny yellow ribbons. Gold studs wink from each ear lobe. I hold her with my good arm, bending it like a cradle, as if that is what the arm was made for. The baby’s expression of surprise falls away and she looks at me as if to say: ‘We belong together. I’m depending on you.’ I love the warmth of another person, someone tiny, who needs me for these moments. There wasn’t anybody younger in my family, nobody to hold or take care of.
I wonder what I will do if no-one comes for the baby, hope for a second that nobody will, but the second is gone and a lady’s hands are on the baby. The lady isn’t wearing a sari but a long thing, nonetheless. Her arms are bare, glass bangles tinkling. Her lips are painted red and round her hair is tied cloth the same material as the rest. ‘Thank you,’ the lady says.
I still have the baby. ‘Pencil?’ I ask.
The lady reaches into a square pocket on the right side of her dress, then another on the left, and finds a pencil about the size of my middle finger, gives it to me. I hold it, key to the door of a new life. I release the baby to the lady, nursing the memory of its warmth and the companionship of its gaze.
The lady is walking away. The baby is crying. I start after them.