Our summer phantom

That summer, our troubles began when our cousin came to visit. Full of teenage angst, she needed a break, she said. The three of us steered clear of her while my mother tried to cheer her up … an arduous task.

One night, our parents went out. After dinner, we snuggled into bed with our books. Tonight, there was no set time for lights out and we could read for as long as we could. The cousin, however, was not pleased. She sighed and sniffed, hemmed and hawed, went to bed but refused to quieten down.

Then, out of the blue, shattering the quiet of the night, we heard rocks being hurled on to our tiled roof. My brother sat up in bed and said, “Rocks! The tiles will all be broken now.”

We rushed out into the dark and hollered for the watchman. The watchman came, swinging his stick and smiling. But one look at our faces and he knew something was wrong.

“What happened, baba?” he asked.

“Rocks are falling on the roof!” said my sister.

“No baba, no stones on the roof. I am here only … nothing, nothing. Go to sleep.”

Not knowing what to do, we went back to bed. Half an hour later, the rocks began to fall again. This time, my sister was more authoritative. She forced him up onto the roof. Grumbling, the poor man went up, shone the torch around, and then gleefully announced, “See baba, just like I am telling. Nothing.”

We went inside in a funk. We knew rocks had fallen but there was no sign of it on the roof. We huddled together and waited for our parents.

Madness multifold

The next morning, we examined the roof and, just as the watchman had said, there were no rocks on the roof and no tiles were broken.

That morning we found the milk bottles in the study, the butter in the oven, the vegetables in the drawing-room, and our school books in the kitchen.

As the day wore on, things got crazier. More things went missing only to be found in odd places. We heard vessels being thrown around in the kitchen. But when we went to inspect the damage, everything was in place.

The bright harvest moon came up, lighting up everything in its pale yellow glow. A distinct smell of cigar smoke filled the air. Just as we sat down to dinner there was a fizz, a hum, and a snap and we were plunged into total darkness. “Aaaah!” we said.

Now someone was knocking on the front door.

“Who can it be at this hour?” asked my dad.

There was a gentle tapping on the window and then a more hurried tapping on all the windows. Our faces white with fear and our hearts thumping in our chests, we refused to let go of each other.

Just then, the grandfather’s clock which had long since ceased to tell the time chimed — ding! ding! ding! — shattering the eerie quiet. We screamed. We heard a sharp smack and, in the darkness, the sobs of the cousin.

“What happened now?” asked my mother wearily.

“I was slapped,” she wailed.

My mother immediately turned to us and asked, “Did you do it?”

“No,” screamed the three of us.

My mother held the cousin’s hand and tried to lead her to the sofa. She had barely taken a step when a loud scream tore through the air. The cousin lay sprawled on the carpet. She claimed she was pushed.

We sat through the night and were glad when we saw the sun rising over the mountains. My cousin called home and told her parents she was returning. We were jubilant.

By 10.00 a.m. she was packed into our car to be driven back. We waved, trying hard to hide our glee. Barely had the car left the porch when it began hiccupping and bucking like a horse and stopped.

“What’s wrong with Muthu?” said my dad, as he strode off towards the car. Muthu jumped out, shivering and quaking.

“Sir, car stopped. Not going front.”

My father tried but the car would not budge.

My uncle and aunt had to come and fetch their daughter. They arrived at noon. The cousin couldn’t get away fast enough. She shoved her parents into the car and jumped in, banging the door shut. Once again, we waved them off cheerfully. As they turned the bend we saw the car’s hazard lights blinking furiously and then we heard the horn blaring incessantly as it wound its way down the hill.

We smiled. Whatever it was that had spooked us had hitched a ride.

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