Aresh’s fresh young face was filled with concentration. Taking his time, he squatted on his haunches next to the carefully arranged pile of juicy mangoes as he drew a perfect circle in the dusty ground.
“I win,” he cried out, throwing his head back in joy as he flashed a perfect set of white teeth at Ahmed before punching his school friend affectionately in the arm.
Two days earlier the boys had met a white couple who had stumbled, dazed and confused, off one of hundreds of trains that thundered past daily.
It was a rare treat for them; one they had waited patiently for 257 days for and on Tuesday, their patience had finally paid off.
Every day after school, the boys would hold hands, laughter echoing in the warm air as they ran along the winding dust track that led from the village school to the shade of the train station’s corrugated iron roof.
On the desolate platform they would spend hours draped in fantasy, acting out their desires, getting lost in their dreams of escaping village life; tiny moths drawn to the bright lights of Mumbai where they would meet Baadshah of Bollywood, King Khan.
King Khan, their saviour, would invite them to join him on the shimmering set of his next big blockbuster and they would be blinded by the beauty of the scantily-clad Bollywood babes that surrounded them.
They would be the envy of Aadi and Nadir and Amit as they paraded around in their fancy silk sherwanis, and they would have their own white-walled room to sleep in without their brothers and sisters scrambling for space.
The piercing sound of metal grating on metal roused them back to reality and they rushed to the edge of the platform, eagerly awaiting what delights would be delivered from the rumbling belly of the beast that was screeching to a halt inches from their tiny feet.
As the metal doors swung open, their wide brown eyes opened, greedy saucers hungrily storing the strange sight they witnessed, safely locking away every bulging belly, twirl of a moustache and waggle of the head to weave into their make-believe games later.
And then, just as the conductor’s whistle was about to shriek and Aresh and Ahmed were returning to conjure up more tales, there was a thud on the platform. Then another and another.
Aresh turned around and saw a cloud of orange dust hiding a heap of rucksacks. He opened his mouth wide and closed his eyes for a few seconds before opening them again to make sure it wasn’t an illusion.
“Ahmed, wait,” he screamed at his friend who had already run ahead, his rumbling stomach signalling tea time.
Tripping over the worn flip-flops that were fast becoming a family heirloom having been passed down from his oldest brother Anshu and second oldest, Ashok, before finding themselves on his feet, Aresh caught up with his oldest friend.
“Look, look,” he panted as he stabbed his finger at the never-ending snake of blue that pulled away from the platform. Shielding the sun from his eyes with his hands, Ahmed noticed two shadows heaving bags on their shoulders.
But these weren’t the silhouettes they were used to. These were tall and thin, just like the ones they had come across 257 days ago, only this time one was a woman. A woman with long, flowing blonde hair and they both had skin as white as the walls in the bedroom they longed to one day sleep inside.
Curiosity pulled them in and they both shuffled closer until they were near enough to be stunned by the colour of her eyes; as green as the algae that grew on the edges of the lagoon they passed every day on their way home.
Standing tall and puffing out his chest, Aresh flashed another of his broad grins and took a deep breath. “He-lo,” he said proudly, taking care to get his tongue around one of just seven English words he knew.
“Who have we got here?” the white man said as he ruffled Aresh’s matted black hair before wiping away the bead of sweat that was slowly making its way down his forehead . “He-lo,” Aresh repeated as the white man and woman sat down on the ground.
Ahmed ignored the growls that erupted from his empty stomach and sat down next to them using all of his concentration to stop his hand from reaching out to touch the silky skin of the white man.
Oh how he longed to run his fingertips along the milky, freckled forearms that stretched out before him, the long fingers drawing a pattern of squares in the dust, or to feel the sweet-smelling, soft bouncing blonde curls belonging to the white man’s female friend.
“Noughts and crosses,” the man said slowly pointing at nine small squares. Confused, Aresh and Ahmed huddled closer as they watched a series of noughts and crosses being etched into the ground.
By the time the galloping thunder of the train rattled in the distance two hours later, the boys had mastered the game having gorged on a feast of chocolate that was awarded to the winner of each round.
Aresh stifled a giggle as he remembered slowly chomping down on the soft, gooey goodness of each delicious brown square, savouring each bite as it melted in his mouth.
The white man and woman stood up and wiped the dirt off their trousers before arranging the mountain of luggage they had been leaning against.
“You boys take care now,” the white man said, knowing full well that neither of the tiny bodies before him knew what he was saying.
“Good. Bye. Mister.” Aresh called out as their white friends threw their luggage through the open doors. The boys stood there, waving statues, until the train was nothing but a distant memory swallowed by the slipping sun.
Neither Aresh nor Ahmed spoke a word to each other on the walk home. The inevitable scalding each would receive for being late, for causing so much concern, for pushing naani one step closer to death for fear they had been eaten by tigers, didn’t register. Didn’t matter.
Today, something special had happened and they didn’t dare let anything burst the bubble of excitement that precariously hung around them.
As they reached their village, Aresh turned to his friend and looked him in the eye. “We must come back every day and wait for the white man and woman to return from their trip,” he said.
“We will practice the game every day and the winner can taste a mouthful of our mangos. They’re the best in the whole of India.”
So every day the boys raced to the safety of the sheltered corrugated iron roof of the train station, juggling a stash of mangoes in their hands.
There they would fuel their fantasies, dance out their dreams and brush up on their noughts and crosses skills as they waited for the white man and woman who never came.