They played for hours under the burning sun that day. Nobody kept score. The game would keep going until the sun called it a night. Until they couldn’t possibly play another game. They would start again at sunrise.
Govinda chased every ball that came close to him and threw them back to where they came from. His arms were numb. His soles burned. His lips cracked. His cheeks ached from smiling so much. But he didn’t feel a thing. An excitement he never knew existed pushed that pain down. But Govinda couldn’t stop the little worries creeping up into his mind and growing every second. At 3.35, he would have to stop playing. Stop having fun. Stop having friends. Stop being Anit. Stop being who he wanted to be, and start being who he was told to be.
Govinda had been watched the gaps between the trees all afternoon. He watched the traffic stream past. He watched for a bus. A big yellow bus making its way towards its school. He worried that he wouldn’t see it pass. That it would leave him there. Leave him there after the cricket finished and the night caved in. He wanted to stay. But he couldn’t. Govinda thought that it was about three o’clock. But he wasn’t sure.
The older boy stepped up to bat. He still had that swagger, but it was weary. Worn by the heat and runs back and forth, back and forth. Stuck between two points. But he still wore that smile as he pointed the bat at Govinda.
“Another one for you Anit my friend!” he shouted. Govinda smiled and looked over his shoulder. Thick, thirsty shrubs lay behind him. He felt his watch ticking in his pocket. Louder than his heart, but slower. The drawling ticks tried to pull at his smile.
The boy struck the ball high into the sky. The ball was harder to see against the deepening blue of the sky. But Govinda stood, eyes fixed as it flew overhead and landed deep into the sharp shrubs. He turned and ran towards them. Wading in, he glanced over his shoulder. The boys were celebrating. This time, no one followed him. He stuffed his hand into his pocket. He pulled out his gold watch and checked the time. 3.26. His heart sank. He hadn’t time for anymore. He knew that he had to leave. Govinda felt a tear run from his eye and mix with the dirt he had rubbed on his face that morning. He saw the ball through the shrubs about two feet in front of him. He bent down and pushed his hand through. His fingers wrapped around the worn old ball. As he pulled it back out he felt the thorns tear at the skin on the back of his hand. As he looked at his hand he knew that he would have to explain those cuts at the dinner table that night.
“I have to go” shouted Govinda, looking round at them all, memorizing their smiles to hold back his tears.
“Why?” replied the bowler. He tossed the ball Govinda threw into the air, catching it again.
“I have to meet my father at the market.” Govinda looked back at his feet. They had stopped hurting now. The dirt was embedded beneath his well cut nails. He curled his toes and gripped the hot, harsh sand.
“Okay. Well, same time tomorrow” said the batter with a smile, “You’re a pretty good player.”
Govinda let a single tear fall and land on his feet. It mixed with the dirt he had ran onto them all day. He looked back up at group of slum children, and wiped his face gently. None of them noticed.
“Yeah. Tomorrow,” he replied softly. The lump in his throat grew with every tick and tock he felt in his pocket. He turned and walked away, back towards his tree. No footsteps followed him. He reached his weak hiding place and lifted up the old, torn plastic bags. He found his clean bag sitting where he left it. Through the thin white plastic he could see his school uniform, his bag and the bottle of water he had packed to clean himself off with. He heard the game start again. The laughs and cheers swept in from behind him. Govinda walked across the road and started to sob.
Illustrations courtesy of Paul Aitchison – www.paulaitchison.wordpress.com