The balmy October evening was exactly the type of evening that Neil loved. The sky was filled with different hues of pink and orange, appearing like a huge canvas on which the painter had spilled all the colours at once. The setting sun was a round, warm orange disc. Neil always called it the ‘Toffee Sun’ because it looked extremely edible and he craved taking a bite out of it. The birds returned to their nests, chirruping together like an orchestra performing a last symphony before the curtain fell. The woosh woosh of the waves crashing on the shore provided much-earned applause.
On an evening like this, Neil would race down to the beach, sometimes with his friends. They would chase each other on their bikes, enjoying the sea breeze in their hair and faces. He sometimes went alone, to enjoy an evening of solitude. Looking out at the never-ending expanse of water before him, he would experience a shroud of calmness descending over him.
But this evening, Neil did not notice anything. Not the paint spattered sky, not the toffee sun, not the symphony birds, not the applauding waves: nothing. This evening, his mind was focused on something else. Something for which he had been waiting a long time.
“I can’t believe this day is finally here!” Neil muttered to himself while tying the laces on his sneakers.
He had been excited since that morning--counting the hours, barely containing his eagerness, feeling the adrenaline rush increase with each passing hour. He had taken out his favourite backpack and packed it with just one object, then checked it every hour or so. Now, as he was about to step out of the house and towards his destination, he looked into his backpack a final time and felt his heartbeat quicken when his fingers clasped around the object. There it was, lying safely at the bottom of the bag. The gun.
“The wait is over. I am coming,” Neil said with a glint in his eyes. Enthusiastically, and with a not-so-subtle bounce in his gait, he ran down the stairs, mounted his bike and pedaled away. It was 4:30 in the evening.
Neil had been doing a recce of his destination for more than a week now. It took him 45-50 minutes to reach there, and the man he planned to have a tete-a-tete with came out at 5:30 every evening for his evening stroll. Neil would reach there by 5:20, which would give him enough time to park his bike and hide.
As calculated, he reached there right on time. All he had to do now was wait.
At 5, the man came out and didn’t realise that Neil was standing there. The moment had finally arrived. Neil could actually hear the lub-dub of his beating heart. He took out the gun from his backpack and started following the man with quick steps. He came directly behind him. As the man reached the end of the street and turned around to return, he halted as he came face to face with Neil.
Slowly, Neil raised the gun, pointed it at the man and said, “Happy Birthday, Uncle S.”
For a few seconds, confusion was writ large on the man’s face. Then, he looked at the gun in Neil’s hand and the realisation dawned on him.
He broke into a huge grin and exclaimed, “Neil, my boy! You remembered!”
Neil lowered the gun and said, “Of course I remembered Uncle S! After all, hadn’t I promised?”
“But that was ten years ago,” Uncle S replied.
“So what Uncle S? A promise is a promise and, more importantly, it was a child’s promise,” Neil said. With that, he hugged Uncle S.
Uncle S and Neil’s parents were neighbours, and Neil had been friendly with Uncle S since he was a toddler. He would happily hop onto Uncle S’ lap whenever he saw him and would play with him. Sometimes, he would force his parents to take him over to Uncle S’ house in the morning and would demand to stay with him. Uncle S would happily oblige and would keep Neil throughout the day.
He was a retired man who lived alone, so playing with Neil and taking care of him gave him immense pleasure. Uncle S had a daughter who lived in another city and she had repeatedly asked him to come and live with her, but Uncle S always declined because his life was in this city and he didn’t want to spend his retired life in a new place. Over the years, despite their age difference, they became best friends. In fact, Uncle S was not even his name!
It just so happened that when Neil was four, out of the blue one day he said, “Your eyebrows are like S. I will call you Uncle S.” Since then, Neil had called him Uncle S even after getting to know his real name.
Neil was five years old when Uncle S’ daughter moved back to the city, got a bigger house and finally took him with her, against all his protests; he was 85 years old and she didn’t want to leave him alone anymore. When Neil found out about this, he bawled his eyes out and demanded that he be taken along. Only when he was promised by his parents that they would take him to meet Uncle S every Sunday did he stop crying.
He was still sulking when Uncle S met him in the park in front of their homes, the evening before the day he left. Neil was sitting on the bench near the monkey bars. There were two other children on the seesaw at the opposite end of the park but Neil wasn’t interested in playing with them. Uncle S saw him sitting on the bench from his porch and strolled over to the park.
“A little birdy told me that I would find you here,” he said while sitting down on the bench next to Neil.
Neil looked at him with a look which he considered to be angry, with his brows knit together and his lips puckered, but, in reality, it made him look extremely cute. Uncle S wanted to ruffle his hair but instead, he decided to play along.
“Oh God! I am so scared boy! You are so angry!” he exclaimed.
Neil loosened his face and, in a sing-song voice, said, “Don’t go Uncle S. You are my best friend.”
“I know that we are best friends, and we will always be. My going away will not change that. Plus, I am not going very far and your parents have promised that they will get you to see me every Sunday and I will also come over sometimes. See there, no problem at all! Give me a hi-five,” Uncle S said and raised his hand. When he saw that Neil didn’t raise his hand, he became silent for a couple of minutes, contemplating how to maneuver this path. Then, he saw the toy that Neil was holding in his hand and said, “I have a proposition--” but, before he could continue, he saw Neil looking at him with an expression of confusion.
He chirped, “What is a pur-pur-zi-shun?”
Uncle S gave a hearty chuckle and said, “Idea. I have an idea. Why don’t you give me the toy you are holding? This way, I would never forget you,” and pointed at the toy.
Neil looked at his toy and, in a shocked voice, exclaimed, “My bubble gun? But its my favourite and you don’t play with toys!” Neil hugged the bubble gun closer to his chest, fearing that Uncle S might snatch it.
“But I am your best friend,” Uncle S said in a mock hurt voice, crossing his arms to signal that he was hurt. In his five years of existence, this was the biggest dilemma Neil had to face: favourite toy, best friend, what to do?
After thinking for a few minutes, an idea struck him and he said excitedly, “Uncle S, I will give you my bubble gun but on your birthday in ten years! I promise!”
Uncle S was amazed at the boy’s logical and intelligent thinking. Then, he picked Neil from the bench and deposited him on his lap, “You know boy, I am an old man and I might not be around for ten years,” he said.
In an angelic voice with a cherubic innocence which Uncle S would never forget, Neil said, “But I have made a promise! It is a child’s promise and when a child makes a promise, God sees that it is fulfilled. Mum says that God always listens to little children. He will listen to me Uncle S, won’t he? I am a good boy.”
Uncle S felt his heart explode in his chest when he heard Neil uttering those words. Not wanting to burden this little soul with the facts of life and death, with a sudden burst of emotions, a lump in his throat and tears streaming down his cheeks, he embraced Neil and said, “Of course my boy, of course.”
For the next year, as promised, Neil’s parents took him to meet Uncle S every Sunday and Neil would spend the day with him. But those visits slowly dwindled down, due to his parents’ busy schedules and Neil’s increasing school activities. After some time, the visits completely stopped.
Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise for Neil when, a few days before his seventh birthday, he received a letter from Uncle S mentioning that he would like to be pen-pals with Neil. They would write a letter to each other every month and he wanted Neil to tell him everything he did during the month. Neil was super excited that day and felt important because he had received a letter in his name.
From the next month, he started writing his letter from day one and kept on adding everything that he wanted to tell Uncle S. In return, every letter received from Uncle S was a world unto itself. Every letter carried a fascinating story. Sometimes the letters talked about fairy tales and their origins, whereas other times they talked about voyagers and different continents. They traversed from the Serengeti to the Amazon rainforests, from koalas to panda bears, from explaining the difference between chartreuse and yellow to introducing idioms and their origins. Many times, a stamp, a coin or a bird’s feather would accompany the letter and the letter would talk about the object’s details.
Neil waited excitedly for these monthly arrivals and enjoyed getting lost in their magical world. This exchange of letters continued for 4-5 years and then, like many other things in life, it came to an end when Neil became busy with his school, friends and being a young boy in general.
But he always considered those letters his most cherished possession and, every once in a while, he would open those yellowing pages, frayed at the folds, and once again immerse himself in the still-magical realms. Most importantly, he didn’t forget about his promise even for a day, the countdown for which started that evening in the park and ended with him standing face to face with Uncle S.
After they hugged, Uncle S looked at the bubble gun with a childlike fascination. The last time they met was a few years back and, since then, there had been no communication. He remembered the conversation they had in the park all those years back, but he didn’t believe that Neil would actually remember it and fulfil the promise. He was overcome with emotion.
Standing in front of him, Neil was looking at Uncle S, who was smiling a toothless smile. Neil wanted to pinch his cheeks. Uncle S was looking just like Neil remembered, a bald head with a bushy grey moustache, the S-shaped eyebrows, round spectacles and, today, he was dressed in blue jeans, a red and white chequered shirt and suspenders, paired with denim canvas slip-ons. He looked extremely fashionable and super fit. He reminded Neil of a baby, albeit with wrinkled skin.
Neil was lost in his thoughts when he heard Uncle S say, “Oh Neil, you have made this old man the happiest! I am at a loss for words. This is the best gift ever. You have turned into a fine young man. Thank you, my boy.”
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way, Uncle S. You are my oldest and best friend after all. Now, I should vamoose or my parents will not let me enter the home. I have a test tomorrow and I am not fully prepared yet,” Neil replied while looking at his watch.
Uncle S took a step forward and said, “Oh you must come inside. My granddaughter is here with her husband and her wee baby. They have come to celebrate my birthday and would be happy to meet you. My daughter keeps asking about you”
“I will come some other time, I promise. You know I keep my promises,” Neil replied and winked. Then he turned around and scampered away with Uncle S looking after him till he disappeared from his site.
With a childlike happiness, Uncle S went straight to his daughter who was doing the final preparations for dinner and told her what happened. Then he went to his room, kept the bubble gun on the bed and came out to play with his great-grandchild, who was three. Uncle S was a jovial man and had his sense of humour intact but this evening he was extra jolly throughout the dinner. His granddaughter and her husband attributed his happiness to the fact that he was celebrating his 95th birthday, which is a big milestone. After finishing dinner and chatting with everyone for some time, he retired to his room for the night.
Uncle S had a fixed routine every night. After coming back to his room at around 9:30, he would change his clothes. Then he would sit at his study desk and read a book for an hour before going off to sleep. But tonight, he wanted to sit on his bed, holding his precious gift, and take a walk down memory lane.
He changed for the night, got in his bed, held the bubble gun in his hand and was lost in the meandering lanes of his and Neil’s world when, somewhere outside, he heard his granddaughter saying to her little one, “You have to drink your milk. Don’t you want to have a long and healthy life like grampa? Do you want to know his secret? It was milk! Come here-”
Her voice trailed off and Uncle S looked at the door for a couple of seconds. Then, he looked at the bubble gun and, with a tear drop sitting daintily in his left eye, ready to plunge off from its enclosed safety, he murmured, “No my dear. It was a child’s promise.”
Gargie Sharma is a content specialist with considerable experience ranging from working in varied industries, from media to the learning industry. At present, she works as an independent consultant. Being a book lover, she loves to read, tries to write and when not doing either, thinks about dogs and the next beach vacation.
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