The bell was ringing as she entered the wide portals of the college. Today again she was late. She pulled the lapels of her hoodie tightly about herself as she quickened her pace. Her dark eyes shone with a sheen of tears as she remembered the ugly scene she had witnessed before leaving, causing the delay. Flicking her wavy, brown hair out of her face, she took her seat at the back of the class. It was a literature class and the teacher, Mrs D’Souza, started with poetry.
Ten minutes later she was still trying to concentrate as Mrs D’Souza read out the sonnet. Her mind kept inadvertently going back to the violent showdown at home as her parents fought for the umpteenth time. She had lost count of the times she had been caught in the middle of their heated exchanges as they hurled abuses at each other, her alcoholic father often striking her mother or even her at times. “Tanya! Why aren’t you paying attention to the lesson? Your grades leave much to be desired and you are daydreaming in class!” Mrs D’Souza’s booming voice rang out in the room and all eyes turned her way, She stood up self consciously, her head bowed down, while the other students stared at her, some mockingly and the others with pity. Gathering the last dregs of her self respect, Tanya looked up, facing the class. She did not want their pity. “I….I...am sorry ma’am,” she mumbled out before sinking back to her seat and pulling the book in front of her. As she gazed down at the lines, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that only one pair of eyes had not gawked at her as if she was some freak in a show. He was still deep into the book, jotting down something, his dark head bent, as if nothing else interested him. The voice of the teacher droned on, explaining about iambic pentameters, but Tanya felt her gaze wandering to him, time and again.
Mrs D’Souza turned to write some meanings on the white board, providing Tanya with an opportunity to steal another glance at him. Sensing her eyes on himself, he looked up at last, his golden gaze colliding with her dark one. She felt her heart skip a beat as he glared at her, clearly indicating that she should mind her own business. She was taken aback for a moment, embarrassed to be caught staring blatantly. Heat suffused her cheeks and she turned her head to the other side. They had been attending the same college and even some classes together for the last two years now but he had never before spared a glance her way. She had heard about him from the college grapevine of course. He was Neil, a relative newcomer to the city. He was obviously from a filthy rich family as one could make out from his expensive car and his designer clothes but he had no friends in the college except maybe Reyansh or Ray, the captain of the school football team. Few knew more than that about him for he kept to himself and she had seldom seen him engage in a conversation with any other student or teacher. Well, she had better put him out of her mind and listen to the teacher before she pointed her out in class again.
When the bell rang, ending the class which had seemed to have gone on and on, Tanya gathered her books and rushed out, making an effort to make herself as invisible as possible. She was startled when she felt a hand on her shoulder, turning to find Monica by her side. She was one of the few girls who talked to her. Pity, they only had one class in common. Monica looked at her enquiringly, shaking her dark, curly head, “You look disturbed. I guess it was another of those days at home?” Tanya nodded, not willing to discuss her domestic problems in the crowded hall. They had a social science class now, they could talk after that.
The next hour passed uneventfully as both the girls sat together, listening to the lecture and taking down notes. Later, at the cafeteria Monica again prodded her gently. “You know how it is! The arguments are getting uglier and more violent. I find it difficult to spend a moment in that house. There
is no peace at all,” she complained, her throat choking with unshed tears. “Have you tried to approach the authorities?” Monica suggested. She shook her head, “My mother won’t hear of it.” She took a sip of her lukewarm tea, then took a bite out of the sandwich. Hunger had been gnawing at her insides. Tanya couldn’t recall when she last had a decent meal. The tense atmosphere at home did not make for peaceful mealtimes.
Their classes ended almost at the same time in late afternoon and Tanya headed towards the library. She could hardly afford to buy the expensive textbooks, rather preferring to borrow them from the library. The librarian, a neighbor, knew of her predicament and hence was always ready to help. She smiled as Tanya approached her, ready to handover the book Tanya had requested for. Before she could get a hold of the book, another, larger hand descended to pick it up. She turned to find Neil standing beside her. Without looking at her, he addressed the librarian. “I had put in a demand for that book beforehand. You cannot issue it to anyone else,” his words dripped ice. The librarian looked at her regretfully, unwilling to cause an argument. It was a rare, detailed commentary on the poetry of the Victorian Era. There wasn’t a second copy in the library. Tanya smiled her understanding, turning to go away. She had barely gone a few paces, when she heard his low, husky voice. “Tanya!” She turned reluctantly, a bit surprised. “Here, you can read it first,” he held out the book, his face expressionless. Why was he doing this? Being so generous? Just a moment ago he had been ready to argue with the librarian for the book. Shaking her head, she refused, “No, I can wait for my turn. Thanks.” She turned to go, walking towards the door. He fell in step beside her. “I did not know it was you. Take it now,” he insisted. She thought it better to take it from him than to bandy words. “Thank you,” she mumbled, puzzled beyond comprehension. “You don’t mix too much, do you? I have never seen you with the trendy crowd,” he said, referring to the rich brats and their fan following which ruled the campus. “That’s rich, coming from you. I never knew you were interested in that crowd,” she remarked. “I am not. I prefer to be alone.” “Well, so do I,” Tanya retorted.