OF FAREWELLS AND NEW BEGINNINGS
Goodbyes are toxic. They eat into your mind, crippling your spirit, leaving you an empty shell, of unfulfilled promises – of things that could have been.
Goodbyes are lethal. They tear at your soul, ripping out the last shred of sanity, sometimes driving you beyond the edge of reason.
Josephine Trent was on the brink of insanity, just a hair’s breadth away from falling over the edge. As she elbowed her way through the frenzied crowds at the station, she was spared another attack of conscience. The noise, the chatter, and the harried travellers invaded all aspects of her being, stealing the right to her own thoughts. She clutched tightly at the baby in her arms, as the crowds that pushed and shoved to get ahead, propelled her forward, against her will.
The chaos at the station was in tandem with the chaos in her head. Guilt, disgust, regret, and acceptance ricocheted in her mind, confusing her with the severity of each emotion. This was perfect in a sense, as the confusion in her mind quelled the forces that could so easily turn her around and undo all the effort that it had taken to get her here.
She was here for a purpose, here to let go, to part with a piece of herself.
The sound of the whistle and all hell broke loose. A clamour at the windows, people rushing to the train, shouts of “Mama, don’t leave me!” sobs and cries rent the air!
This was a scene that played itself out so many times, year after year. It was nothing unusual. The date was another, the people different, but the setting just the same. It was also the scene that heralded the beginning of a new academic year with the departure of the ‘New Party’ from Sealdah station – a new batch of students leaving for a boarding school far, far away!
Parents jostled with each other for one last glimpse of a loved one, whilst bewildered children rushed to the windows, uncertainty writ large on faces streaming with tears.
“Children! Please remain in your seats!”
“Come on away from the window. Move aside, although gentleman through. Will you listen?”
The agitated voice of the schoolmaster could be heard, as he desperately tried to get their attention.
Now however, was not the time to listen! How could the train leave without one last attempt! Hope against hope that someone would be moved – innocent, pleading eyes, holding a glimmer of hope.
A lone figure merged into the shadows at a safe distance from the crowd, observing all that was going on, desperate to go close, but afraid to do so. She wanted to scream out in pain, but somehow managed to clutch onto the last thread of sanity. How she wished she could just get on that train and undo what she had done!
The train’s signal almost pulled her from the shadows, but a pair of frail hands held her back. Now was not the time, she had to be strong, had to hold it together till the train was gone!
A loud whistle, a strong rush of air, and the train slowly pulled out of the station with parents and relatives running alongside, keeping pace with it.
“I’ll come and see you soon darling.”
“Don’t forget to open the balchowfirst.”
“I’ll write as soon as I go home.”
“We’ll miss you. Bye!”
Last minute instructions, and then crying, touching, and waving as the train gathered speed and was soon out of their reach.
Josephine stood watching till the lights of the train were just a speck in the distance, and then she slumped to the floor, drained by everything that had transpired. She was glad that things had gone smoothly, but was shattered by the implications of her actions. Had she done the right thing?
The pain was so unbearable, another scream rose in her throat, but she stifled it. Would it help? Change things? She pulled herself together. What was done, was done. This is how it had to be – life had to go on!
As the train gained momentum, the cries in the compartment reached a crescendo.
“I want my Mummy!”
“Please I beg you, stop the train and let me go home.”
“My daddy doesn’t know where I am.”
“Please, Uncle, why won’t you listen to us?”
John Smiley was immune to these cries and pleas – he had been escorting the New Party for a decade now, so he knew what to expect. It was always best to leave them alone for a while, till the older children took charge and comforted the younger ones.
The oldest this year was just twelve, while most of the others were below five. Last year it had been much easier with an older group of children. This trip was not going to be easy!
“Okay, okay, settle down. Now I want all the older children to take charge of a little one. Yes, yes. Samantha? This is Lucy. Keep her near you. Shh… shh… enough crying!”
Mr. Smiley was terrible at comforting little children. He succeeded in making them cry with his stern look, but was lost when it came to soothing them. His empathy could be likened to a grizzly taking charge of a little puppy, desperate to provide comfort, but more intimidating than anything else with its awkward efforts.
“What’s in a name?” wrote Shakespeare. He clearly had not been thinking of John Smiley when he penned those lines. There was nothing remotely ‘smiley’ or happy about his countenance! The grey beard, and bushy eyebrows that stood out so prominently, gave him a stern ape-like appearance. An enormous belly, now replaced the solid muscular frame he once boasted, and although he had a slight stoop, his enormity seemed to fill the whole compartment. He was a man not to be trifled with.
His wife on the other hand, was usually able to get around the little ones with songs and stories. When Sylvia Smiley began singing, Lucy peeked out from behind the doll she was clutching, her little face blackened by her tears. At two, she was the youngest of the lot, a tiny little apparition whose growth had been arrested by malnutrition. She had spent herself crying, and now sat quietly as the train rushed on into the dark night.
Melissa was still crying, the angry wailing had been reduced to quiet sobs. She could not understand the cruelty of her mother’s actions. She had not left her side in these three years and had even accompanied her to work! How could mama do this? She had always tried to be a good girl, so why was mama sending her away? Boarding schools were for naughty children, or so she had heard.
The different faces in the compartment, some still crying, others lost in thought, uncertain, all apprehensive; each face had a story to tell. These were not the faces of the elite being sent away to some posh boarding school, but were the products of disturbed lives, of harsh realities, abuse, alcoholism, and despair – the faces of the selected few! The lucky few, being given a new lease, after battling the misfortunes of circumstance!
The train sped on, eating up the miles, bringing them closer to an unknown destination. They all had a vague idea of where they were headed. It had been mentioned several times during the interviews. Some place in the hills – a boarding school called The Abode. A strange name no doubt for a school, but the name had been deliberately chosen for the school, which had been fashioned on the likes of a tiny village to create a home away from home.
All Ryan knew was that it was going to be quite cold where he was going.
“You’ll have nice pink cheeks the next time I see you,” was what his mother had said.
He hoped it snowed there in the winter. He had never seen snow – that would definitely be something to look forward to!
It was over two hours since the train had left Calcutta, and a quiet calm had descended on bogey no. 2. The wails and sobs had died down, replaced by occasional sniffles. Most of the children had fallen asleep.
The Smileys felt a little relaxed now. A child might wake in the night, but the rest of the journey was usually quite uneventful.
The clickety, clack, clickety clack of the train, lulled Mr. Smiley back in time to when he had first escorted the New Party.
He was quite apprehensive about handling such a momentous task, but had accepted it on his wife’s insistence. The extra money that they would be paid to do the job was something that he could not pass up since they had needed the money at the time. His mother had been through a rather expensive surgery, which had drained his finances. Although looking after a bunch of wailing, screaming children was not his idea of an extra buck, and by no means an easy feat, he had agreed.
The lack of adequate donations that year had not made his task any easier. They had been forced to travel by third class, which was an experience in itself. The third class had been horribly dirty. He unconsciously scratched his face, thinking about the bugs that had bothered them throughout the journey. He could still feel his body ache after a night of rocking and rolling on those hard wooden bunks!
What a sight the children had been in the morning! Hair tousled, faces blackened by the soot emitting from the engine, they looked like a bunch of chimney sweeps! Looking back on that time, brought a rare smile to John Smiley’s face.
Mary Pots had been the youngest in that lot. Just three years old, but she had had a temper that was so fiery he had felt sore when her tantrums were over! He pictured her now, kicking and screaming on the floor. She had been quite something!
Since then the journeys had not been all that bad. Apart from his wife, another houseparent also accompanied them, which made the task much easier.
Sylvia Smiley had mastered the knack of getting around the children. She was a soft-spoken woman who seemed to have a way with children as well as adults. She was the perfect foil to her husband. No matter what the situation, Mr. Smiley had never seen her lose her poise. She dealt with everyone in the same manner as she would a child. Her voice was so soft, at times one had to strain to catch what she was saying.
If her quiet cajoling did not work with the children, one shout from Mr. Smiley was enough to numb them into silence! There was no mistaking his deep baritone, which could be singled out in a room full of people. It had stood him in good stead as the P.T master.
“Waaah! Waaaah!” The desperate cry of a baby cut through his thoughts. Was he imagining things? “Waaaaah!” There it was again; much louder and more demanding this time. He looked over at his wife. She looked as startled as he was. They could not possibly hear the sound of a baby in another bogey, could they? He knew there were no babies in this one. He had taken a quick recce of the other compartments once the children had settled in, to ascertain who the other passengers were.
“Put the light on Sylvia.”
Mr. Smiley and his wife looked around their compartment, but there was no sign of a baby there. The cries had become more frantic, more desperate!
He checked the next compartment thoroughly. From the increased volume of the cries, he knew the baby was definitely in this one. The berths at the bottom were occupied by sleeping children so it was highly unlikely a baby would be amongst them. He checked his berth at the top. The sound was emanating from a bundle of clothes, quite like the dhobi’s bundle at the corner of the bunk. He gingerly brought it down.
The sight of a red faced, screaming little baby in the midst of all the clothes so startled him; he almost dropped the load in his hands! Had he really seen a tiny infant? He looked again.
The baby was quite small, hardly six months old. There was a tag around her wrist, which said ‘Sarah Jane.’ A little note was attached to the tag, which simply stated:
“Due to unavoidable circumstances I cannot look after this child anymore so I am entrusting her to the care of The Abode. Please don’t abandon her! Signed, Josephine Trent.”
There was even a signed court order, granting the school the temporary custody of the child. The child’s mother had thought of everything. A bottle of milk, and a few nappies, were also rolled up beside her.
Mr. Smiley wondered when the child’s mother had managed to sneak the baby in, and how the infant had gone unnoticed for so long. The big man was at a loss for what to do. His face seemed to be frozen into a big question mark!
“It would be best to report the matter to someone in authority,” said Sylvia. “Get the right opinion.”
The question mark immediately vanished, to be replaced by palpable relief. Yes, that would be the right thing. They would know what to do.
Like a man on a mission, he all but galloped in search of the Ticket Collector.