There is a place which is almost always hidden, except on some gloomy rainy mornings, and some sunny late-afternoons, when the doors open and people stumble in.
This particular afternoon, 13-year-old Alisha was probably not expecting to be one of them. She just wanted to get home, dragging her tired legs and carrying her school backpack and basketball, the two most important possessions of her life. This was her daily routine, a long climb up to her secluded neighbourhood after her school day drew to a close.
It was a stray cat that startled her, jumping off a wall on the side of the street. The ball slipped out of her hands, bounced a couple of times and then rolled towards the opposite side of the road before it disappeared over the edge.
Alisha went over, peered down and found herself staring at some steps. They led to the front yard of an old house perched on the hillside, surrounded by some trees, most of them leafless and stunted, suffocated by the dust from the road above. The faded roof looked rusty and the walls had large cracks, some showing the reeds and inner plaster that held them together. The front door was locked. The ball now rolled slowly into a dry gutter which snaked alongside the building further down the slope, probably reaching the basement level. Alisha sighed and gingerly walked down the steps, half expecting a rabid dog to jump out and take a chunk off her thigh.
It was a momentary fear, one that came and left after a split second, once she realised there was no frothing canine looking to eat her up. Of course, it was nothing like the fear she felt that one cold January night when she was just eight. That was when her aunt walked into the living room of her grandmother’s old house.
Her parents were not coming home, Alisha had learnt that day. A car had lost control. Her mother and father were on its path and had no time to react. It ended quickly for them. The heavy rumble of her father’s motorbike that she was used to hearing every morning became a memory that slowly faded as the years passed. What did not fade, however, was the memory of the night. She thought about it every day. The pain felt dull and permanent now, a part of her, rather than an intrusion in her life.
Alisha shook herself out of this depressing train of thought and decided to look for her basketball. She continued down the steps. After a second’s pause, she walked down the path that went below the house, trying to trace the ball’s unexpected detour. An unkempt garden greeted her, its weeds and overgrown shrubs crowning the base of this rather peculiar residence. The foliage also did a great job hiding the house from the view of the neighbouring properties. Alisha walked up this road every day but had never noticed the old cottage before. On her right, there was a raised stone veranda that led to a door. The wooden door may have been a vibrant blue at one time but now old sun-rotten grey paint peeled from the sides. It was ajar. She walked inside.
There were two dust-lined bunk beds in this room, the wooden planks neatly stacked with umbrellas of different colours and shapes. So this is where the forgotten umbrellas land up – Alisha thought with a smile. She had misplaced her share too, and her aunt was never too pleased when that happened. The woman could be cruel at times and Alisha shuddered, thinking of some of the reprimands she had received. There are some things you never get used to.
The quaint hillside house was larger than it had looked from the outside and the first room led to a wide hallway. She coughed mildly as she entered the aisle, her footsteps disturbing the dust that had settled undisturbed for a long time. The dust was now dancing in spirals in thin sunbeams that seemed to magically cut across her. Her backpack felt heavy, so she slid it off and left it on the ground. There were two broken windows on the west of this long hallway, or maybe it was large enough to be a room. As the last bit of good light crept in through the windows, it seemed to be jesting with her perception. The house seemed to have taken a liquid form. Maybe it was a shape-shifting house, just like some of the characters in the comic books she read.
She let out a little gasp when she saw a bunch of toys on an old rocking chair. There were old stuffed animals with missing eyes and stuffing squeezing out. There were some dolls and a few old action figures even. A broken toy car sat near her foot and she picked it up with a curiosity she never knew she had. A red replica of a Jeep, something like the one that lay rusted in her uncle’s yard. The wheels were still there but the top was gone. It looked like it was someone’s favourite. They all looked like they played an important part in many young lives. Sometimes the toys were all you had as a child, a secure totem in a misshapen razor-like world.
There were shelves on the opposite side of the windows, layered with more dust and lined with old picture frames. She walked over and picked one up from the top-most plank. Enclosed in the black, wooden shell was an old black and white picture of a rather grave and lonely looking couple. The gentleman lay seated on a thick chair while his wife, she assumed, stood on his left, a hand on his shoulder. His hair looked neatly greased and she thought that it was combed in a very old-timey fashion. She had seen an album full of similar black and white photos at her grandmother’s living room, a familiar and warm place, which sadly was also the venue for the coldest moment in her life.
The other frames depicted more ‘old young couples’ and small children, some in groups, some alone. They all seemed a million years old, dull or silvered, a few in faded colours. She noticed a stack of papers between two frames and took out one crumbling leaf. It was a letter. She took out the rest of the stack and leafed through them without really trying to read. She saw some words that seemed to string all of them together.
She had never written a letter before. It felt odd to go through these emotions that came in mostly neat but desperate handwriting. Some were a little messy with ink blots and some were short and crisp. Promises that had dried up like the ink they were written in.
Something sparkled from the end of the shelves in that now-fleeting sunlight. She walked over and picked up an earring. A green stone set in yellow metal glistened at her. There was a locket pendant too placed on the dusty surface. She opened it to see just one of the spaces filled with a picture. A pretty young woman smiled back at her in sepia and curls, wearing what could be the same earrings that she had just picked up. The other half of the locket was an empty, heart-shaped rusted plate of metal.
Alisha walked back to the windows and looked out of the broken glass. She saw the hillsides around her, resembling tables being slowly overturned, and all the clutter on them was sliding off. Those neat houses and their neat gardens, those bored women with tedious happy lives and the polite men with broken dreams, the Bible-thumpers and the cruel simpletons, all of them, sliding down. This was the town that she grew up in and it was the only place she knew. It was a town where she walked invisibly through the crowds every day. She had always wondered what lay beyond the smothered horizons.
The sun was melting across a straight line of clouds, its light diffusing into a glowing but dying orange ember. She paused and looked at the hands on her watch, a prize from a school debate competition. She was late and should be prepared for an earful from the lady of the house.
Her dear aunt was an island of a person, a woman who never spoke too much, a wife who performed her duties, a keeper of the home, turning a blind eye when it was needed. Maybe her dear aunt did not know, maybe all she saw were shadows that meant nothing. Those dark shadows were the aunt’s husband walking in as Alisha lay paralysed with a nauseating feeling, the sound of his falsely reassuring voice deep and unforgiving, as he drew closer. Maybe her dear aunt knew, but such things were to be hidden, as they did no good to anyone when spoken of.
Now a silhouette framed by a broken window, Alisha decided she would stay some more time. There was still one last place to enter.
She walked through the last door of the house and it was a place she recognized. Alisha found her old room like how she vaguely remembered it, a blend of fine details and blurry recollections. Her old bed was there with the pale green bed-sheet adorned with chubby zebras and smiling elephants – on it were so many memories of her mother reading stories of foxes and princesses as she drifted off into a world of happy dreams. Her mother spun many a yarn and Alisha remembered how the sound of her father’s bike would mean a pause in the story-telling. Her mother would go and open the door and papa would walk in tired, but always armed with a smile when he greeted his daughter. Now, after all these years, she was back in her old room, long forgotten by everyone else. She noticed the basketball rolling slowly and finally resting in the corner, its balding brown rubber with the S of the Spalding still showing in bits. She remembered how her mother had laughed at her father, a man who thought a half-kilogram ball would be a right birthday present for a feeble eight-year-old. ‘I’m not so feeble now Papa,’ Alisha wished she could tell her parents how she was captain of the team.
Instead, she was alone, with her little achievements bouncing off hard walls, and her rewards were rough tugs and dark bruises. Alisha walked to the mirror in the corner wall of her old room, the mirror with all those stickers she put on them. They were still there. She saw the tears well up on her freckled face, a face with traces of a cherubic past but filled with a sad preoccupation. She had found her memories in this forgotten house, a house filled with forgotten things which belonged to forgotten people. As she stood there, she realised that she was now the latest addition to this grand and dusty collection.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at the blank walls and the mouldy ceilings of this box that held her most cherished memories. This was her favourite place in the world, one that never stopped existing in her head. And now she could feel it because it was real, from the coarse fabric of the sheets to the smell of the old furniture. But she knew that it would no longer be there, it will no longer be real, if she left now. She closed her eyes and felt her mother smoothen her hair, adjusting her bangs, a touch so beautiful and soothing. She rested her back on the chubby zebras and smiling elephants and with eyes still closed she smiled at the softness of her mother’s voice. And in the background, she could also hear the deep rumble of her father’s motorbike, fast approaching.
For the first time in a very long time, Alisha would get what she wanted.
The light had died outside and a mysterious mist appeared on the hillside, swallowing the houses in cold grey dampness. Some of the residents felt a tremor; some thought it was their imagination. As quickly as it had appeared, the mist dispersed and gave way to a clear sky. The hillside house was no longer there, in its place a barren square surrounded by twisted pine.
No one saw her again.
In less than a year, she was forgotten, just like umbrellas and old pictures of lonely people.