It was about 1818 that a man from Winchester started a locksmith business in the English Midlands’ town of Wolverhampton. For Charles Chubb and his family the business grew rapidly and over time they became the biggest supplier of locks and keys in the British Empire.
Woolie had often wondered at the two words Chaabi and Chabi both related and meaning ‘key’ in Urdu and Hindi respectively. He was curious to know how many other languages used a form of the word Chubb in reference to keys.
The afternoon was cold, wet and windy and few dared to venture out. It was warm inside and as it was a day of rest Woolie had no choice but to take it easy. He poured himself another drink and sat down by the fire with a book of short stories. The first of these was simply called The Keys. He read two pages and put the book down. It was supposed to be a relaxing afternoon. This silly book was sending him to a different country, to the past. The rain continued to beat against the widow but he barely heard it now.
* * * * * * * *
There was a shy little boy sitting alone on the patch of grass across the road. He watched as the girl walked towards her house. She was nine, maybe ten years old…he didn’t know. Perhaps she was really old, say eleven. It was four-o’clock in the afternoon and she was just coming back from school. The boy knew it was only little kids like him seven years and younger that went home at lunch time. The girl looked very old and clever with her neat uniform and nice school bag.
The girl came back outside. She had changed into her ‘home clothes’ now and was carrying a toy tea set in a pink box. She stopped to pick some little daisies from the flower border near the Kei-apple hedge. The boy pretended not to notice her as she crossed the road and came near to where he was sitting. She took out her tea set, laid it all out and got busy making the tea, singing quietly to herself.
When ‘tea’ was ready she called to him, ‘Hey! You boy, would you like to have some tea?’
The boy was delighted but he was terribly shy too and so he pretended not to understand. He asked, ‘Me?’, pointing at himself.
The girl laughed and said, ‘Yes you, who else is here, silly boy. But first you must was your hands.’
He came up and washed his hands all in make believe. She poured the make believe tea, sliced the cake and shared the jam sandwiches. The two of them had a wonderful make believe tea-party right there on the nicely mowed grass by the side of the quiet road that ran through their estate. To passers-by they were just two ordinary kids playing like all kids did after school.
‘Boy, what’s your name and where do you live?’, asked the girl. She was busy putting away the tea things in the box having washed and dried them.
He was scared to tell her his name, in case she laughed at him. He told her that he lived far away in a village called Ngeca. He had come to visit his Aunt here at about mid day but had found that she was at work. There was nobody in the house so he was sitting out here, waiting for her to return.
‘You must be very hungry, you poor little boy. No wonder you looked so miserable when I first saw you. You will come with me at once, to our house, ‘ said the girl. ‘Mummy will make us some real tea.’ The boy did not argue. He was hungry and thirsty and was tired of being outdoors. He was totally impressed by this bigger, older girl who used long grown up words. He wondered what it meant, to be miserable.
She led him through the kitchen door into the lovely domestic aroma of dinner being prepared.
The lady of the house looked at her daughter and then at the sniffling, shy boy. She asked her daughter kindly, ‘Kabura, who is this little boy? Where did you find him and where have I seen him before?’
Kabura explained who the kid was and her mother said that she knew his Aunt well and had met his parents. She thought perhaps she had seen the kid on a previous visit when he was much younger. She had placed before him a glass of Ribena and small plate of biscuits.
Just then Kabura noticed an ugly cut on the boy’s face just above his left eye-brow. ‘What happened to your eye?’ she asked, ‘Did someone hit you?’
Kabura’s mother gasped and quickly sent for some Dettol and cotton-wool. She cleaned up the wound and placed a fresh gauze dressing on it and this was held fast with sticky plaster.
The children watched some TV for an hour or so and then dinner was served. Kabura’s mother said she had seen that the lights were now on in Aunty’s house so she was back from work.
She told the kid to eat up so that she could take him over to his aunt who would drive him home to Ngeca.
‘We’ll give your aunt a chance to settle down and then we’ll take you to her.’ She said, smiling sweetly.
The boy noted with some relief that it was getting dark quite quickly. He wanted it to get even darker. He did not want to tell these good people that his aunt could not drive in the dark. Something to do with her eyes, he had heard. So the darker it got the better. One thing the boy knew was he did not want to go back to Ngeca, ever.
These people would never understand. How do they think he had got the cut on his eye? He could not tell them of the way his father had asked him to sneak into their bedroom that morning and fetch the keys to mum’s car. How his father had taken them, because he wanted her to stay home, and driven off in his own car. When the mum had asked, he had told her what happened.
‘You stupid boy!’ She had screamed at him and in a blind fury, she had grabbed another useless bunch of keys nearby and flung them at him, catching him just above the eye. He had yelled in pain and terror, but he could not tell them this.
He had ran away from home, travelling on a country bus to the city. He walked and walked before he got to his aunt’s place. This would be his new home. He was never going back. He would ask his aunt if he could live with her forever.
Like most runaways the kid was back home with his family a few days later. There would be further escape attempts in the course of his childhood. He was like an escaping prisoner, who always got himself recaptured. If there was one thing that kept him going, one thing that he held on to. It was the tea party on the grass by the side of the road.