Suzy, the new girl, and I became best friends fairly quickly. It took us around five days to be inseparable but I swear that I could have been her best pal the day she walked into the classroom.
I even remember the time—It was ten minutes to the first recess gong. Chubby Chandini had already stuffed half of the contents of her tiffin box into her mouth. I knew she had bought potato pancake—bits of yellow potato laced the little fuzz above her thin lips. I had buried my head in my textbook to swallow the loud chortle that had threatened to sneak out.
That was when Suzy had walked in.
It was hard to believe that she was wearing our dull blue and white checked uniform because she wore it so well, with the flair and grace of a diva. I gaped at her as she strutted to the bench assigned to her. It was just in front of mine. And when she sat down gently like a lady, she had enveloped me in what seemed like a cloud of a very expensive perfume—the sort my mother opened and sprinkled on herself only during special occasions, which for my folks were birthdays and anniversaries. The perfume bottles also came with an unwritten disclaimer—don’t blame anyone if you get skinned alive for opening this bottle.
I leaned back and tried to distract myself. The smell of the perfume had unknowingly unscrewed unpleasant memories. I tried to focus on Suzy instead—she was nodding at something that Professor Kumar was saying, her perfect French braid swaying a little.
That evening, I noticed my mother’s perfume. She smelled like pods of garlic left out to dry in the sun. I could barely eat my snack of lentil dumplings. I tried to think of Suzy, her expensive perfume, her perfect French braid and her uniquely tailored uniform and gobbled up my meal.
“May I have your eraser?” She asked during the Arithmetic lecture, her right palm stretched out. I heard her voice for the first time. It reminded me of freshly dried laundry. Without thinking that I normally never shared my stuff with others, I placed it on her palm which was quite warm to touch. She wore flaming red nail paint. And I wondered how she got away with it. Sister Annie, the school principal frowned upon “outward embellishments” as she called it. “A young lady’s only ornament is her humility and decency.” Her voice, staccato and sharp, had cut through the school auditorium at our first orientation meeting. We had all grimaced at the statement.
As for Suzy, well, she never returned my eraser that day or ever. But I didn’t care.
That evening, I told my mother that I would eat my snack in my room.
The next day, during recess, I saw Suzy and her long legs leaning over the counter. She was busy looking at the snacks—there was a bag of over-fried banana chips that were an unhealthy yellow, soggy tomato sandwiches and rock-like lentil dumplings. I walked to her side and I still don’t know why I did that. Perhaps it was the Eraser Sisterhood that made me.
“Hmm…Suzy, isn’t it?” I began timidly.
“Yes. Hi, I am Suzy.”
“I know you are new here so I think must tell you. Don’t know if you must eat those,” I said nodding at the snacks.
“But why?” Suzy had crossed her arms and a faint line appeared between her brows.
“Well, there is a tale to each and every item that you don’t want to know,” I whispered into her ear.
“Try me,” she said, her arms still crossed.
“Well, well. There are those banana chips. Once upon a time, they were born and then they proceeded to live for a century in Bhaskar Chettan’s shop down the road before being ushered into their new home, the school canteen, where they will live for another century unless and until they are eaten up by a bunch of hapless school girls…”
“As for the tomato sandwich, the tomatoes, well, they were born right here, nurtured and tended to by the school and nourished by our very own septic tank. As for the dumplings…”
“Enough…Ewww…gross!” Suzy said before covering her mouth and rushing out of the canteen. Poor Suzy, I don’t think she ever ate tomato sandwiches ever again.
I was standing behind her at the water cooler station. She opened her water bottle, clearly some imported thing, and was about to plug it to the opening of the tap when she looked up at me and asked in a sarcastic tone “Is this water safe? Or should I wait for another of your stories?” My cheeks felt red hot and I nodded hastily.
As I was filling up my water bottle I felt some one tap me on my shoulder. It was Suzy. A large smile was plastered across her oval face.
“By the way—thanks for the stories…on everything. No one here is really friendly, except you.”
I gave her an awkward smile. I had noticed too that no one in my class had really taken to her—not even the hoity toity Priscilla who made friends only with rich, smart or good-looking girls. And Suzy was a catch. At least I thought so—she had style and she looked rich. But I wasn’t ready to bet on her brains yet. Only the first term results could reveal that. And there were still several months to go. I sighed and bit into my sandwich—the cucumber slices and cheese had clumped together to form a pasty mess. Uggh. I hated my mother’s sandwiches.
“Is this seat taken?” a familiar voice asked.
I looked up from my tiffin box. It was Suzy with her perfect French braid and perfect smile.
“Hello.” I said, smiling weakly at her.
“Mind if I join?” she asked, tapping the chair in front of me.
“No…yes, I mean, please join,” I mumbled awkwardly. There were sniggers from the other table. Of course, the other girls were laughing at me. They were wondering why someone as sophisticated as Suzy wanted to eat with me. Not that that thought didn’t cross my mind. I always ate alone. I always had.
“So, what have you got here?” Suzy asked, looking enquiringly at my sandwich.
“Sandwich. Actually, a mess called sandwich,” I said with a stupid smile.
“Can I try your mess?”
“Go ahead—” I said and handed Suzy my sandwich. She finished the sandwich in two gulps.
“Wow…you must be hungry.”
“No. I love the combination of cucumber and cheese. Plus, it is so homely.” She said with a smile. “Go ahead and try mine—it is a roast chicken salad sandwich.”
I gulped. I had heard of roast chicken sandwiches only in movies or books. In a Hamlet-like Peringavur, where we lived, roast chicken sandwiches were very hard to come by. Our only decadent pleasure here was ice cream sundaes and club sandwiches from Johnny’s.
I picked the sandwich up gingerly and bit into it—it was fresh with a lot of flavor just the way sandwiches should be.
“This is yummy! This could put Johnny’s out of business,” I mumbled as I continued to attack the sandwich.
“I know. My mother makes the most awesome unhomely sandwiches. They are too perfect. She makes them from scratch,” Suzy said rolling her eyes.
“How about we go for a picnic tomorrow—I will get you more of my mother’s sandwiches. Tomorrow is Saturday, right?” Suzy asked wiping her mouth daintily with her napkin.
“Yes, tomorrow is Saturday,” I said breathlessly.
I gulped. “You want me to come for the picnic?”
“Yes, do you have other plans?”
I nodded with a rather violent shake of my head.
I had only one plan every Saturday—to stay cooped up in my room and be out of my mother’s way while she went about all her errands and shopping. As for my father, he was a house ghost, more invisible than visible. The only way I knew he existed was the overflowing laundry basket filled with his soiled clothes that appeared at the end of his business tour.
Once, of course, in a fit to socialize me, my mother had dropped me off to her friend’s place who had a daughter as old as me but that didn’t go well—apparently the girl found me too “dull and uncool.” After that I shied away from forced socializing, preferring to stay up in my room and having a blast telling stories to myself.
The recess gong went off and Suzy jumped to her feet. “So, see you tomorrow then at the Nehru park?”
I nodded brightly. “Do you want me to get anything?” I asked.
“Just your stories!” Suzy’s eyes glowed like liquid gold.
Two weeks later
It was easy being friends with Suzy. She was a great listener and I no longer felt conscious of myself or my imagination and my tongue loosened and out tumbled my stories that spun around in my head—Suzy had freed them. So, every Saturday we would meet—Suzy with her mother’s delectable sandwiches and me with my fabulous stories. And she would listen patiently, with her chin propped up by her lean arms. Her eyes would radiate with admiration and excitement while I narrated the stories. Later, we would nibble on the sandwiches and watch the sun leave an orange dribble on the sky.
By the time I reached home in time for my supper, the stars would be up, twinkling along the patch of sky that I could see from the window of the dining room. While eating the cold soup that my mother would often forget to reheat, I would think of Suzy and our Saturdays together and a warm glow would spread across my body. I would smile thinking that she brought out the best stories in me.
“The Haunted Bathroom” was one such story. I had saved it for the last Saturday of the first month. It marked our one month of friendship. And this story seemed like a fitting tribute to that occasion. It was part fiction and part real—I believed. This story took seed in my mind when I was in the Third Grade—they had found the body of the school nurse in the bathroom. She lay in a pool of blood with her arms slit open like a ripe pomegranate and her mouth foaming like an over worked race horse. They found couple of syringes in the waste bin. Rumours were that she was mixed up in something bad, something unsavory. No one ever talked about it and the matter was hushed up.
Around five days later, sometime late in the afternoon, some of the girls reported seeing a shadowy figure on the walls of the bathroom. Now this bathroom was located at a short distance from the classrooms. It was located in a building that stood on a patch of land that was overrun with shrubs and trees and weeds. A stone pathway connected the classrooms and the bathroom. During the monsoons, the grass and shrubs around the building that housed the bathroom would grow unruly and thick, almost dwarfing the building. And on cloudy days marked by heavy rains, the place looked like a deserted forest. With more and more similar unpleasant reports trickling in, the school management decided, for the safety of its students, to shut that bathroom and relocate it to the building that housed the classrooms.
“And?” Suzy’s eyes were shining.
I felt anxious too for I had never talked about the haunted bathroom to anyone before.
“One girl from the eighth grade on a dare from her classmates had visited the bathroom once. They heard screams and never saw the girl ever again. It was as if she vanished into thin air.” I wiped the perspiration that lined my chin with the back of my head.
“No one knows and I guess no one ever will.” I said, a little shiver passing through my body like an electric current.
“I want to see it.” Suzy stood up suddenly.
“Eh? See what?”
“The old haunted bathroom.”
“No way…” I mumbled. The sun had already begun its descent and dusk was fast approaching. The air was rapidly filling with the twitters of birds as they got ready to roost. All of a sudden, I felt queasy—I wished that I had not eaten so many sandwiches. My stomach felt bloated and heavy. But Suzy wouldn’t hear any of it; she simply hoisted me to my feet and prodded me to take her to the building that housed the haunted bathroom. My legs felt like lead as we took the short cut—it was a short walk that felt very long.
We reached the building –the gate and the walls were overrun with creepers and shrubs.
“Are you sure? It is very dangerous.” I tried to dissuade her.
In reply, she tore away some of the creepers that had wound around the latch and unlatched it. The gate creaked open. No one had used it in a while. I could feel my heart beating so fast that I was afraid it would pop out of my body. We made our way through the dense foliage. The sun had finally set. Darkness had descended. The ululations of the cricket pierced through the air. We walked past the shrubs and weeds and reached the clearing where the building stood. Now it was nothing but a dilapidated ruin. From a short distance we saw a little wall and beyond it saw the red tiled roof of our school. The wall was recently constructed and it had put an end to further explorations of the bathroom by any student from the school.
“Shall we turn around? It is in shambles,” I said.
“Look there is some kind of a light,” said Suzy.
I squinted. There was a dim beam of light at a distance.
“Come, let’s see—” Suzy said dragging me—we walked up the broken steps and entered what must have been the main bathroom lobby. The beam of light was moving.
“Come, Suzy, let’s go,” I said. Something brushed against my cheek. My hair was on its end; suddenly two pairs of hands wound around my neck and were squeezing every breath out of my body. I tried to shout for Suzy but couldn’t. A dark wave swept over me and I fainted.
When I woke up I was in the hospital bed, and I shrieked. I didn’t remember what had happened. And my first thought was about Suzy.
My mother and the hospital nurse came running.
“Calm down, calm down –you are safe now.” My mother said as she held my hand. Her eyes were swollen and her hair was scruffy.
“W-what exactly happened?”
“You were lucky that Mathai, the school gardener, saw you walking towards that building with the bathroom.”
“Yes. Help arrived at the nick of time—otherwise we would have never found you.” the nurse said checking my chart.
“Eh?” I couldn’t understand what had happened. My temples throbbed and I still felt a little woozy.
“But why were you roaming around there at that hour?” My mother asked. She sounded more tired than cross.
“Suzy badly wanted to see the place and she forced me.”
“Suzy who?” my mother asked.
“My friend Suzy—the new girl,” I said.
“Well, there were no new admissions to your grade this year. What’s wrong with you? Stories, stories, I am sick and tired of them. Please don’t cook up any more stories. Enough! Now, go to sleep,” my mother muttered and adjusted my blanket when I heard someone call out to me.
There, on the corner chair was Suzy smiling radiantly. She was wearing the same old school uniform and her perfect French braid like she always did. She was sitting on the chair and swinging her legs. Then she held her one finger to her lips, rolled her golden eyes and whispered “Sshhhh,” softly.
My mother was cutting some apples and bananas.
I looked at Suzy and smiled. She really did bring out the best stories in me. And I was glad that Suzy was safe, as were my stories.
Roopa Raveendran-Menon is a writer from Mumbai, India. Currently, she lives in Dubai, UAE. Some of her short stories have been published in Haunted Waters Press, Corium, Page & Spine, Down in the dirt, and included in some Indian anthologies. She has also written an MG fiction titled ‘The Adventures of Chandu and the Super Set of Parents‘ (forthcoming 2020, Regal House Publishing/Fitzroy Books.) This is her first feature in the Fictional Café.