Shamsher was excited. He had been like that ever since his Ma received the letter four days ago. He could hardly wait for next week…

When he woke up, Shamsher saw the brown dust dancing where the sun streamed in through the curtains. Then his mother's voice floated in too. ‘Shamsher get up, help me dust the blankets.'

The seriousness was still there in Ma's voice, just as it had been the day the letter came four days ago. She had turned to him long after she had finished reading it, and her voice was expressionless as she said, He's coming home, your father. Next week.

The happiness had then exploded inside Shamsher like a cracker, tossing up brilliant colours that lit his world up. His father had been away for more than a year, at the border in Kashmir. Shamsher ran outside and saw all the things he had missed before. There would be so much to show his father. New green mangoes had appeared on the trees by the wall.

The tamarind leaves had turned the roof of the now unused cattle shed a lovely yellow brown colour. And his father's bicycle lying unused for so long had to be taken to the mechanic.

“Ma, I am taking Abbu's cycle to Ali Mechanic.”

He would ask Ali for a good, musical bell, Shamsher now thought, as he helped his mother arrange the blankets on the stringed charpoy outside. One that would ring loud and clear as he rode with his father, through the mustard fields, flocks of pigeons fleeing in alarm. They would cycle so fast that they would overtake the government bus on the highway.

His mother was already at the well and her reply muffled by the sari fold in her mouth was clear. “No.”

“Why not?” It was just like his mother to say no, she wanted to do everything on her own, though she was worn down with all that she had to do already.

“Do your studies, Shamsher, your abbu will want that...,” her voice tired as the rest of her.

But his lips set in a mutinous line. He would not ask his mother again. He would tell Abbu about it when he came. Hadn't they always said that the cycle was his, when he was bigger? There were the rough knife marks against the door to show how much he had grown the past year. As his mother had her bath, he left for school, quietly wheeling the bicycle away. He would pick Abbu up at the bus stop and together they would go to Ali mechanic's.

But the bus was late. When he went up to the teashop man to ask the time for the third time, he was brushed away rudely. “Oh go off, we are very busy here.” Shamsher's eyes misted over. When Abbu came home, a brave soldier, no one would talk this way to him.

Then at last he saw the bus, trundling up the road a long way off. Shamsher rushed forward, and was soon part of the small crowd that gathered as the doors opened. Familiar faces disembarked, smiled at him in recognition but his father was not among them.

He looked anxiously through every window. Had his mother been wrong? Had Abbu changed his mind? Then he spotted the man in the middle who rose from his seat, very slowly. Someone who moved up the aisle, taking his time, and the bag on his shoulder that soon came into Shamsher's view looked even heavier as his father painfully dragged a leg behind him. Shamsher knew everything at once, the reason behind his mother's tired eyes, and expressionless voice.

The cycle fell with a crash, the chain lay unspooled like a torn garland on the red gravel. Shamsher did not wait to pick it up as he rushed forward to hug his returning father.

Keywords: Children story