The Red Ants

I’d thought I’d try something a little different this time and post one of my stories on the blog. This one was published last year in eFiction India. I am reprinting it here for your reading pleasure. Do read and tell me what you think.

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“Let’s play football.” Tina chases the ball around the lawn, squishing it past the muddy patches.

My arms brush the plaster off the pillar in the corner of the clubhouse. From my cocoon of shade, I watch Tina trade kicks with the big boys at a game I can barely spell, let alone play. I picture myself trotting up and tackling the ball like Messi. But they don’t even notice me standing there in my sporty dress. I rub my forearms and wait for her to join me for the walk back home.

The boys hound her out soon enough. She jogs back smelling of musk and sweat, her damp ponytail swishing behind her. “Anita, why didn’t you join us?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know how to play.”

“What’s to know? You just kick the ball into the other team’s goal.”

I want to grab her sweaty shoulders and ask how do I do it? What if I send the ball spinning way outside the field? My teammates would totally pummel me, and my opponents would point and jeer.

Tina dribbles a ball as we shuffle back to Magnolia building. Outside her door, I raise my finger to ring the bell when Shetty Uncle disrupts our day. “Hello, girls! Enjoying your play?”

I narrow my eyes at him as he stares at Tina. Sweat fastens her vest to her skin. She wears real short shorts, the kind that wedges up and jams the butt cheeks in the middle. I often warn her to ditch the hip stuff and wear decent dresses like me, but who’s listening?

“Yes, Uncle.” Tina is careful to stress on the word Uncle. A giggle escapes my lips.

He shakes himself out of his leering. “Hey, you girls can take part in the football game we’re organizing next week!”

Tina stops twirling her hair, and snaps to attention. “Football game? In our clubhouse?”

“No, silly girl. We will hold it in the grounds next to Jogger’s Park. All teams from our apartment complex – adults, kids, ladies, mixed teams, everyone is invited to participate!”

“That’s great, Shetty Uncle! Please note down our names for this.”

“No, no, my dear.” He wiggles a pudgy finger at our noses. “First, form a team of eleven, think up a name for your team, and then tell me.”

Shetty Uncle huffs into the elevator. Tina nudges my elbow and drags me to her house. For the next hour, she spews out names like a phone book.

“How about Mala? She’s into sports and her brother’s cute too.”

I shake my head. Girls like Mala exist only to count my pimples and declare the total in full view of their hunky brothers.

Tina glares at me for a second. “What about Rimi?”

I smile. “Rimi’s nice. We can ask her.”

The next day at school, Tina corners Rimi after our basketball class. Rimi’s eyes widen at the thought of founding a football team and she promises to rope in her fellow tennis-players. She’ll drag her boyfriend into this too, I’m sure.

By evening, we assemble our team. It includes both boys and girls, but mercifully no adults. Tina’s dad has formed his own team. They’re calling themselves something crazy like Fan-chester United.

Now our team is all set, we charge onto the lawn to grab a couple hours of practice. The battered soles of my sneakers kiss the ball, but it only bounces off the low brick wall that runs around the lawn. Rimi bursts into laughter and staggers off to the restrooms for a pee break.

The others head off the grass to catch their breath. I grab this chance to practice in one corner. I place the ball right in front of me, and as if in slow motion, throw a hard kick at the ball. Instead, I hit something that looks like a brick squelched into the mud. I let out a yelp and clutch my feet in despair. Tina dashes to my side. The socks and shoes reek when they come off. Neither my feet nor my toes bear any marks of damage.

“It will be fine. Just put some ointment on it,” Tina says. I glare at her – what does she know about a sports injury?

Later, when we’re soaked to our skin in sweat, we sit cross-legged on the lawn in a circle and toss around names for our team.

Someone suggests ‘Delhi Teenyboppers’, but a chorus of ‘Nah!’ knocks it off the list. ‘Kids Kick’ treads the same path of rejection. Shetty Uncle drops by and suggests ‘Junior Jocks’ but we just roll our eyes at this.

Rimi’s boyfriend Samir throws his arm around her, and addresses the crowd. “Which house are you in at school?”

Everyone yells out different names all at once, but even in the melee, the word ‘Red’ stands out. I holler out ‘Blue’, but it dissolves in the racket.

“I have an idea,” he says. Rimi glows at him. “Why don’t we wear our Red House t-shirts and white shorts as the team uniform? Those who’re not in Red house can borrow from others, right?”

“Sounds great! And how about we call ourselves The Red Ants?” Tina says.

“Awesome!”

He high-fives Tina. Rimi strokes his arm possessively.

The name is settled but my nerves are jangling. Come Saturday evening, when the referee blows the whistle to start the game, I might just puke out all the stress bottled up within me.

For the next three practice sessions, I run around but not always after the ball. I learn that one thing well. Just darting around the lawn convinces everyone that the goal lies in my crosshairs. My heart beats a little faster every time I sight the sphere. It’s like a loaded gun about to fire. It will be the death of me, that football.

On the day of the tournament, I battle match nerves and eat nothing. Ma concocts an awful gooey dish filled with vegetables. One bite suffices for me to push away the plate.

At five, I throw on my borrowed red tee and shorts. Tina rings the bell and together we stroll down to the grounds.

They announce the rules – four games, forty minutes each. A lottery system will decide the opponents of the four games.

My heart sinks to my chest as Tina draws out a piece of paper from the bag. Shetty Uncle makes her shake hands with a hulking fellow wearing a sleeveless tee. Tina smiles and says what looks to me like ‘Best of Luck.’

She trots up to us. “Number four. We’ll play last today.”

I heave a sigh of relief. Two hours of breathing time will help me come to terms with the fool I am about to make of myself.

Two teams of adults storm the field first, one of them composed of older women wearing demure track pants and sparkling white sneakers they must have bought especially for the day. I doubt they ever slip their feet into anything but ballet flats.

We fan across the edges of the ground and watch. The game must be close. Rimi, Tina and Samir cheer and hoot every few minutes. My heart keeps popping up to my mouth and I face a tough time shoving it back down.

As the seconds tick down, my pulse quickens. Between games, Samir, Rimi and I scamper about the grounds flattening the sludge.

Tina’s father and his team swarm the ground. They are up against another group of hefty men from the Marigold building in our complex. This is the first game that pits two all-male football teams against each other. They charge after the ball and yell instructions at each other and at some point, even curse their opponents, just like the games on TV.

Tina’s father tackles a yellow-teed bodybuilder, and falls to the ground. For a minute, time stops. In a blur, I see Tina darting down to the center of the grounds, where her father lies on one side. He wraps his fingers tight around his calves, his face screwed up in agony.

A crowd encircles him, until someone tells people to back off and let him breathe. He tries to move but his legs do not cooperate. Shetty Uncle and a spectacled man wearing an ugly checked shirt jog down to the grounds. The ugly-shirt man claims to be a doctor. He kneels by Tina’s father, cups his shins.

The proxy-doctor curls his lips. “It might be a fracture. We should call an ambulance.”

Shetty Uncle nods. Nobody notices the concrete slab caked in slimy mud. Rimi takes me by the hand and draws me away from the scene.

“So, you feel secretly relieved you don’t have to play? I know you were dreading it,” says Rimi.

“No way,” I say. “I would’ve played great. Football’s a piece of cake for me now.”


4 thoughts on “The Red Ants

  1. Nice story, well written too. I’m a fellow writer, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on some of my work (writing a novel atm). Thanks for your time, and keep writing 🙂

    Like

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