“Billions of blistering barnacles!” he had said. “No,” she had laughed and corrected him, “it’s billions of blue blistering barnacles,” stressing on the word blue. And they had both laughed. They had spoken for the first time in the corner bookstore even though they knew each other from much earlier: they both went to the same school.

There was just about nothing in common between the two of them. He was all of 14, and she was two years older at 16. Though they had both seen each other earlier, they had never spoken until then. He was still in school, and she wouldn’t be caught dead being friendly with a school kid, a “junior,” as older, teenage students are often wont to refer to their younger peers so nonchalantly.

There were only two things common between them. The first was that by a quirk of fate they were both in the same school; and the other common ground was their love for Tintin and his adventures. And, of course, Captain Haddock.

But the differences were far sharper than the similarities. He was from the “wrong” side of the city, a middle-middle-class neighborhood. His father was a clerk in a government ministry. On the other hand, she came from the most elite of elite backgrounds, and her family – her father being in the diplomatic services – kept moving between countries every couple of years. Not that his humble background mattered one way or the other to her, simply because his existence had never really been of any significance to her before that day in the bookstore.

The next day they saw each other in school and each acknowledged the other with a slight nod. During recess he went to the boys’ washroom and, dampening his mane, pushed up a tuft of his hair. And then he passed by her, making sure she did not miss the sight. And see him she did. She first smiled, and then broke out into peals of laughter. Much to the bewilderment of her friends who could not figure out for the life of them the reason for her sudden bout of uncontrollable hysterics. They both knew why she was laughing, of course. But the others never found out.

She never told her friends about him, and he didn’t tell his friends about her either. (There was nothing substantial to say about the other, anyway, considering the very brief length of their meeting.) And it just wasn’t done back then. For the boys, girls may as well have been strange creatures from a distant planet. And she couldn’t get around to telling her friends that she had actually spoken to a “junior,” a kiddo. No way.

During the next few months they saw each other often, and when their eyes met, they would only allow themselves a nod and nothing more. But time breeds familiarity and often a strange and distant fondness. She did grow fond of him, though she never made it apparent. He would recall how once when he had participated in the 100-meter race on the school’s sports day, she had quietly rooted for him though she was careful not to be seen by the others. Her own classmate had won but he had seen the disappointment writ large on her face. She had looked at him sadly and had given him a thumbs up. Better luck next time, it had meant. And then she had smiled at him. And that smile had made losing the race worth everything. He could lose the race a million times more just to see that one encouraging smile on her face. That single smile of hers had meant the whole world to him that day.

After the sports day, their “relationship,” as it were, took a different turn. Now she would not just nod but also smile at him. Not the polite kind of smile, but the kind of smile that says, I’m glad you’re here. She still, however, made sure that nobody knew about her secret fondness for him.

And then came the vacations, something he had been dreading since it would mean being away from her, even if only for some time. School was still an unbearable couple of weeks away and he would miss her often, and terribly so. And he would visit the corner bookstore each time he passed by that place, perchance he may run into her. And coincidentally, with unerring frequency and with a heretofore undiscovered earnestness for household chores, he found some work that would cause him to pass by that corner bookstore. But he never did see her nor did he run into her. But then each time he entered the bookstore and picked up a Tintin, he would remember her. And laugh he would, mumbling to himself, billions of blistering barnacles. “Wait a minute,” he would immediately correct himself, “it’s billions of blue blistering barnacles.” And he would laugh again.

And he consoled himself that even if he could not lay his eyes on her during that vacation, he would get to see her as much as he wanted when school resumed, anyway. And so he waited the entire vacation which simply refused to yield and end. “Look at me,” he thought, “I have never been as eager for school as I am now.”

He knew how he felt about her. What he needed to know was if she felt the same way about him. Unrequited love can be agonizing, he thought, I need to have the answer. He had decided to approach her and speak to her directly so that he had the answer from the proverbial horse’s mouth.

And when school re-started, he could hardly sleep the night before. And the next morning he was among the first to enter the school. He looked but she didn’t seem to be anywhere around. Not that day and not the next day either. An entire, despondent week went by and he did not see her. He was tempted to ask her friends but he could hardly pluck up the courage to approach them.

The day finally came when he found out. Her father had been unexpectedly transferred out to a foreign posting and she wouldn’t be coming back to the school anymore. And quite possibly she may not be back at all; she had gone away for good. This was the first time he understood what being heartbroken meant. He would never have the answer he had so desperately sought. Unrequited love, he thought wistfully, I will never know how she felt about me. It seemed that her answer would both elude and torment him for the rest of his life.

That day he went back to the bookstore again. And he stood where she had stood, exactly at the spot where they had both first browsed through the stack of Tintins. He looked through the stack again, and picked up the same Tintin she had been reading when he had first spoken to her. He held the Tintin close to his nose, perchance he may be able to pick up the fragrance of her fingers. He promised himself that he would never forget that day for rest of his life when she had stood there and corrected him. “It’s billions of blue blistering barnacles!'” And amid the poignant aches he felt in his heart, he also felt a mirthless laugh.

And he would visit the same corner bookstore every time he missed her over the next few years as a communion to his meeting with her. Her memory had become sacred to him. As long as I live, I shall never forget you, my beautiful Tintin, he would promise himself over and over again during the years.

And so thirty years passed by. And during those years he became a successful speaker. And so it happened that once he was traveling on a speaking tour, and his journey had a layover at a particular airport, and he had a couple of hours to himself. He walked to the airport’s bookshop, and there he saw a stack of Tintins. “Billions of blistering barnacles,” he thought to himself, and then immediately corrected himself, “billions of blue blistering barnacles!” And he laughed. He went through the pile of Tintins, and zeroed in on the same issue that she had been reading in the bookshop that day from thirty years back. He picked it up, not realizing that his eyes were already moist and had begun to well up.

It’s communion time again, he thought to himself. I never could find out what became of her. My beautiful Tintin, he smiled between the tears, where art thou?

He spontaneously decided to buy that issue, paying for it, and without thinking he wrote on it,

I love you, Tintin. I always did. Why did you leave my life so abruptly?

And he saw his warm tears staining the pages and smudging the ink from his pen.

As he moved toward the bookstore’s exit, putting the purchased Tintin in his attaché case, he heard his name getting called out: his connecting flight was about to take off. He had not realized that his communion had almost cost him his connecting flight.

And as he began sprinting up the escalator, he saw her coming down the other.

He stopped in his tracks, frozen, letting the escalator do its work of carrying him up. As they closed in from the opposite ends, they kept looking at each other and those few seconds on the escalator were simultaneously the fastest and also the slowest moments of his life as he took in her sight. Ironically, time had started to move both rapidly and in slow motion in that instant.

She still looked the same, except for a few strands of gray in her otherwise lovely head of hair. My beautiful Tintin, he thought. And he immediately pushed a tuft of his hair up as the two escalators brought them closer to each other from the opposite sides. She laughed and said, “billions of blistering barnacles!” And this time he corrected her, “It’s billions of blue blistering barnacles,” and they both laughed. With a spur-of-the-moment impulse, he grabbed the Tintin he had just purchased from his attaché case and handed it to her across the handrails, just as they passed each other. Instinctively she grabbed it and clutched the Tintin – now invaluable and beyond any price – protectively against her chest. As the escalators kept moving, this time taking them away, they both turned around, looking both plaintively and tenderly at each other. The last he saw her just before she disappeared from his sight was when she opened the issue and looked at his words, smudged with his tears. And then she looked up at him again, longingly, her eyes wet. And then she was gone.

But in those brief moments on the escalator she had given him something that he had sought all those years: he had his answer. Her eyes had told him.

He smiled, and then he laughed. It was a laugh that had taken thirty years to find expression. And he was glad that it had finally did.

Suddenly the day seemed to have become brighter than before. And life had become so much more beautiful. He did not realize it, but there was now a spring in his step.

[© 2019 Najeeb Shaikh. All Rights Reserved.]
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