The things we lost in the fire

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I landed at Paddington Station, in the heart of the hustle-bustle of London. I removed the list from my coat pocket and looked at it. Not that I hadn’t looked at it before, rather, now it had become a habit. I was merely reminding my self – not to lose focus. I have to find love. I have to find it! That was the only unchecked box on this list. I had to complete the list in order to find love. So I threw two bags over a shoulder each, carried two more in one hand each and strategize how to pick the fifth one. Some where midway between my struggle, a hand appears, hairy one – hence had to be a males’ and he lifts the fifth bag with two fingers and smiles at me as he hands it over to me. “need help?” he asked. I smiled and  said, “yes, with the remaining four, please”.  Surprisingly, he  took the two bags from my hand and replied, “only till the Bear Booth”. The Bear Booth?! Did he mean the Beer Booth? Or the Bare Booth?! What is a Bare Booth?!

Even before I could register the thought of accompanying an unaccompanied male to the Bare Booth, he dropped my bags and informed, “there you are Miss. Have a nice day” and went behind the Bear Booth to continue his duties for the Paddington Bear Booth. “Oh! The Bear Booth!” I blurted out loud. And again, astonished at my train of thought he looked at me and said, “ the Paddington Bear Booth. I work here. Would you like to buy one and look after him?” He was a good salesman! After all the trouble he took for me, I figured this is the least I could do. So I unwillingly parted with a couple (more!) pounds and got the classic bear with cute red boots, navy blue coat and a bag of his own. Yes! The sixth bag I would have to carry till the hotel! Nevertheless, the bear was adorable and he had a tag around his neck which read ‘Please look after this Bear. Thank you.’ How could any one resist him? Okay, the real story, why I brought the bear (after all I’m a Desi, in London, and shelling pounds where a thank you would suffice goes against the basic values of being a Gujarati! And not to mention, my Mom wont be particularly pleased!).

Ever since I can remember, my sister, Rajul, used to and is still obsessed about the Paddington Bear. She loved him as much as I loved my Care Bear – Pinto. He would even accompany her to her daily trip to the school! However, on that unfaithful day, she let him rest at home as he had a lot of marmalade for his midnight snack and was not feeling too well. It was the unlucky year of 1993, the unlucky month of May. At 1:13pm exact, we got off our school bus and ran to the grocery store located in the building adjacent to ours. I religiously purchased my orange ice lolly and my sister, a choco bar. Through the exit door, I noticed my paranoid neighbor running towards us. No matter how naughty we were, we ensured that we never crossed the line, where our neighbor would have to run to catch us. She was an old lady, after all. Well, not really, but I like to think she was old, because she loved cats and I always wanted an old, mad lady who loved cats, as my neighbor. We exited the grocery and she hugged my sister who looked at me questioning, ‘I didn’t do anything. Did u?’. By this time, we could feel a lot of commotion around us and as I cranked my neck to count the number of floors to figure out on which floor were men trying to enter through the balcony instead of the door. I realized, it was our floor!

I ran towards my building entrance to see the entire building population was in the lobby. Were they there waiting for me and my sister? So, I turned around to warn my sister about what I saw.  I bumped into her knocking both our ice sticks down and I said, “they are waiting for US”. “don’t worry, Im here. They wont do anything and if they do, we will run up the stairs”, she replied. So we walked hand in hand, pushed the door open and another neighbor came to us and said, “its not safe to go in now. Wait here. You mother has asked me to look after you” “But I didn’t do anything! I promise!”, I retaliated and tried to wriggle my way out of her grip. My sister, who was more friendlier with the neighbors than I could ever be, gather enough information to put my paranoid mind to rest. “Amrita, our house has caught fire”, she informed. Now those weird men on my balcony floor made sense! They were fire fighters! However, a good detective needs evidence and I once again darted towards the grocery shop to take a better look at my balcony. Thankfully, there was the big, bright red fire tuck and oh! They had a ladder too! Satisfied that what I heard was correct, I skipped back to my building entrance and gorged on the juice, chips and sandwiches my neighbors offered me.

My sister and I were then shipped off to my Aunt’s house across the creek and spend the remainder of the day watching Tom and Jerry with our cousin, Sagar. Apart from the falling-off-the-couch and uncontrollable laughter whilst watching the cartoon, he was a quiet kid. And that’s exactly why we liked him so much. He would never interfere in our cat fights, never stay over at our house, coz we used to scare him with our fights and hence no one had to give up their warm beds, never complained to our mom about the mischief I did and during the rare occasions when I would get caught, never opened his mouth in his defense, when I blamed my mischiefs on him. He was the perfect cousin! Next day, as we prepared to go to school, my sister insisted on picking up Paddington Bear so she could consol him and take care of him after the disasters of the day before. As we crossed the waters that separated Bur Dubai and Deira, I made a mental note of the things I needed for Arts and crafts class that day. I was one of those kids who always forgot at least one requirement off the list and made her parents run from the stationary shop to school so that I could ‘create’ my master piece for the week. This week, it was multicolored crafts paper. As we got off at the Bank Of Baroda Abra Station, I ran to my mom and told her about my early morning worry.

Unfortunately, more worries were coming my way. I never missed school! So how could today be any different? I was not ill or hadn’t burnt any part of my body, so I couldn’t comprehend why I couldn’t go to school. And if school wasn’t possible, then why couldn’t I just sit at home? Why did I have to go back to Sagar’s house? My tummy was already paining from all the laughter from the evening before. All I wanted was to go to school, eat the famous mini pizza from the school canteen and hog on my desk partner’s lunch box. All these thoughts made me do one thing. Wail! I wailed louder than a whale and when my mom couldn’t control me at the abra station any more, she decided to take me behind the nearest closed doors – our house. I was aghast when I saw it from the inside. Never in my childlife had I imagined the damage fire could do. All I expected was a fire somewhere in the kitchen or the temple and small green men dancing with the smaller flames that were thrown out from the main fire. But when I entered the main door, I couldn’t see any color. All I saw was black – all over the walls, ceiling and on the remains of furniture. I ran to my room, to see everything was burned to cinders. It looked like the insides of a horror movie – dark. I ran to were my bed used to be and looked around if I could find any of my books, toys or anything vaguely familiar. But nothing was to be found. Even the metal piggy bank was disfigured. The fire and its little green men took it all.

I turned around to see my sister holding her Paddington Bear which was half burned and blotched with dark grey stains. She was devastated and I was devastated that she was devastated. I had forgotten about school, the arts and crafts class and everything else that I had on my mind before I entered through the main door. It was like the fire had taken my memories with it. And in reality, it truly did. I never really had any affinity  towards the things I owned. If I had them, it was great. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be too concerned. But my sister loved Paddy. It was a gift on her first birthday from our Grandfather. As she hugged and cried for her lost Bear, I couldn’t help but shed a tear too. I was the braver one between us two, even though she was elder to me, but I always ended up taking care of her. I gently pulled the bear out of her grip and said to her, “When I grow up and have a job, I will go to London, just like Dada did and get you a Paddington Bear”. We hugged and cried a lot. Not for the things we lost in that fire, but because we knew we only had each other now and well, we will have to learn to be more tolerate of each other till we could get new toys! So that’s how and why I ended up purchasing the Paddington Bear and even though I had long forgotten my promise to my sister, a stranger had unknowingly helped me remember it.

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