‘GROWNUPS are so silly,’ thought Captain Strike, interplanetary pirate, friend of pally chocolate-eating J-Unks, foe of nasty fire-fingered, green-fanged Bullylads, a.k.a. D, David and Davy to Dadzy, Mumzy and funny, generous Uncle Jerome whom David called Uncle J.
J-Unks were funny aliens who immediately handed over chocolates as a gesture of peace when confronted by an All-Purpose Alien Blaster. Bullylads were nasty, horrid aliens who towered menacingly over Captain Strike and wanted to snatch his sandwiches, and destroy the universe. The only way to thwart their evil designs was by giving them a good dose of rage-rays from an All-Purpose Alien Blaster.
What Captain Strike found silly in the grownups around him was their inability to appreciate his spaceship. It was plain to see that it was a sleek machine made out of indestructible attack-proof material. It had four forward cannons that could destroy entire planets with a few shots. The insides were dotted with an array of switches, buttons, levers, dials, toggles and knobs. Only Captain Strike knew all their functions although he allowed, Bunny, his vice captain to operate a few of them. He called his spaceship Galaxyhopper. The grownups called it a stool, which was utterly silly.
‘Come on D, get out of that stool, we have to go shopping,’ said Dadzy. ‘Don’t you want to wear new clothes on your birthday?’
‘Wait a minute,’ said Captain Strike. ‘Let me finish saving the universe.’
DAVID’S BIRTHDAY was a week away. Last year he was seven. This year he was going to turn eight. David was good at math, which meant he liked numbers a lot. He knew there were 365 days in a year. A dozen made twelve eggs. The flight of stairs leading down to the third floor had 17 steps. Dadzy, his brother Jerome and four sisters Martha, Margaret, Madeleine and Jemima came to a total of two hands, each with three upraised fingers. There could be eight candles on his birthday cake or just one candle in the shape of an eight. David recalled that on his seventh birthday he received 35 gifts. He wondered how many gifts he would get this year.
While thinking about birthday gifts, a thought struck Captain Strike’s mind.
‘Grownups are so weird,’ he said to Bunny while carefully navigating Galaxyhopper through the asteroid belt in the star system of Fanglia.
This is why he thought they were weird: He wasn’t allowed to open all his birthday gifts in one go.
As Mumzy had explained, ‘If you open everything at once then it would be like getting hundreds of different kinds of chocolate. You’ll go mad wondering which one to eat since all look so scrumptious.’
‘Better to eat one gift at a time,’ she had continued. ‘That way you can enjoy all the gifts thoroughly.’
Mumzy might mix her words in a funny way but her word was law. As far as he could remember, every year after the party got over, David would get to open a few gifts. The rest got put away on the topmost shelf of a cabinet in his room. Every week or so, or when he got stars or a V. Good at school or if he did something clever like learning to tie his own shoelaces, Dadzy would remove a present from the top of the pile and give it to him.
Just last week, the last of last year’s birthday gifts was handed to him. David had merrily ripped off the wrapping paper and announced, ‘It’s a Scrabble set. Another one.’
Dadzy muttered something under his breath, which made Mumzy give him a poke in the ribs with her elbow.
Mumzy had gather David in her arms and said, ‘Never mind, darling, we’ll give it to your cousin, Arjun.’
Which was quite alright with David since whenever he played Scrabble with Dadzy, he would get beaten hollow. Dadzy made such big words. His tiles always ended up on the coloured squares. He made hundreds of points while David’s were always in the tens.
Such were the nature of David’s thoughts as he sat strapped into the driver’s seat of his spacecraft as they flew past the fiery hot planet of Lavatron. Just as he was about to tell Bunny to activate the Freezer-Ray Ice Gun, he heard a squeaking sound behind him. Could it be a surprise attack by a horde of Bullyboys? As his right hand flew to draw his All-Purpose Alien Blaster, he noticed the source of the sound. It was a fat boy with a mop of curly black hair.
‘Hey, what are you doing sitting like a monkey inside a stool?’ asked the fat boy in a squeaky voice.
THE FAT BOY’S name was Ambrose. A year older than David, he was a podgy little creature with a thick-lipped sour mouth. An out and out spoilt brat who never took ‘No’ for an answer. He had a rude comment for everyone and everything, and the only time he shut up was when his mouth was full of some Indian sweetmeat: laddus, pedas, burfi, jalebi, which fortunately was most of the time. His father was something in the army but was scarcely seen in a uniform. His mother was a short, dumpy person with an overbearing air. They had recently moved to Bombay from Agra where, Ambrose informed David, their house was so big; his (that’s David’s) would have fitted into their bathroom. This little louse boasted to David that his parents were saps and never denied him anything. Nothing, however expensive or impossible to secure, was out of reach. Toys. Video games. DVDs. Books. Sportswear. Even a cell phone. The latest, naturally.
Ambrose revealed his secret to David. Screaming. He had a variety of levels of screams. After much experimentation with pitch, tone, decibel level combined with holding of breath and flailing of arms and legs, he had narrowed his repertoire to three Screams.
Scream No. 1 was a low keening moan accompanied with furious leg and arm rotation. The moaning hurt the ears; the rotating limbs damaged vision. Very useful for late night TV viewing, a third portion of kulfi and making sure vegetables never made an appearance in his plate. Scream No.1 was used exclusively at home.
Scream No. 2 was for getting out of scrapes. Since his rude nature always invited violent reprisals from injured parties, this involved bellowing like a hippopotamus stuck fast in a swamp. Arms and legs were thrashed about slowly as if life was ebbing away. Within seconds, his mother would swoop down on the scene of the crime. Asking no questions, she would lash out with an angry palm followed by a torrent of abuse aimed at both child and parent.
Scream No. 3 was for use in public places, mostly in the vicinity of toy stores. Designed to attract maximum public attention and sympathy, his apparent pain was quickly soothed by buying whatever he had demanded a few seconds earlier.
He confided to David that No. 4 was in the pipeline. ‘This one is going to be a work of art. Guaranteed to get me off the hook for anything. Murder, too,’ he said confidently, popping a jalebi into his mouth.
David couldn’t believe his ears. Surely Ambrose was lying. No child he knew had so much power over Parents. To confirm his assessment, he gave Ambrose a swift punch in his fat, spongy belly. Ambrose’s eyes rolled like rosgollas in a bowl. His mouth opened wide to reveal shreds of jalebi hiding in numerous cavities. Immediately No. 2 hit the airwaves. Within seconds, the air on the common terrace was displaced by a portly demon howling like a banshee. David would have caught a juicy whack on the side of his head had he not ducked adroitly. The next one had him dead to rights had Mumzy not stepped into the fray and restrained Ambrose’s mother.
The fallout of the fracas was David got grounded till his birthday. No playing on the terrace. No TV. No treats.
‘Why did you hit him, D?’ Dadzy asked David later. Even with the punishment, David kept his mouth shut. He was not a tattler.
‘And he’s new to the building,’ said Mumzy. ‘Is this any way to greet a new neighbour?’
‘Anyway, I’ve told his mother you said you’re sorry,’ she continued. ‘And you’ve invited him to your birthday to show you’ve got no hard feelings.’
David has nothing to say. Captain Strike, however, was thinking some real hard thoughts.
THE HOT AFTERNOON SUN beat down on the empty terrace. A solitary cat sheltered itself from the sweltering heat, lying below a wrought iron bench, dreaming feline dreams. Galaxyhopper lay to a side, baking on its shadow. A half-eaten laddu hit the cat squarely on the nose disturbing its reverie. Ambrose the Terrible entered the terrace and sauntered towards the bench. The cat, deciding to investigate the yellow bomb’s contents later, slunk away and took refuge below the water tank. Ambrose sat heavily on the bench. His pallid face was stained with crumbs of laddu and boredom.
There was nothing interesting on TV. His video games were old and boring; even the latest, just bought the other day, was humdrum. The trick with the new remote-control monster truck had worked. The servant did tumble head over heels when it hit his ankles. But that stupid fellow had fallen on the truck, breaking it into pieces. He tried reading a book but stopped after he had drawn curly mustaches on all the girls. Even his Gameboy wasn’t making him feel like life was worth living. He had eaten lunch twice, gorged on a dabba of burfi, and now a brace of laddus, one, which he had wasted on the cat.
‘Well wasted, though’, he thought, recalling the way the cat had leaped to its feet.
He got to his feet and walked up to Galaxyhopper. Petulantly he gave it a kick. That’s when a gleam came into his eyes. Suddenly the slouch from his shoulders disappeared. His arms twitched as his eyes quickly darted to and fro. He waddled out of the terrace, reappearing minutes later with a saw in his hand.
An ugly smile twisted his lips. This was how he was going to wreak vengeance on David for punching him. Involuntarily, he rubbed his belly. Even the memory of the punch hurt. His plan was to saw the legs close to the flat wooden top. Not completely but as close to the end as possible. When David would sit inside the stool to play his stupid outer space game, all that twisting and turning he did would break the stupid spaceship.
‘Now wouldn’t that be funny?’ thought Ambrose.
And it would work since he remembered Jerry doing something similar to Tom.
He was about to start on his vengeful act, when he remembered the look on David’s face as he played in Galaxyhopper. He looked happy. Very, very happy, in fact. Out of curiosity, Ambrose put down the saw, and stepped into the cockpit of Galaxyhopper. He bent his knees and rested his bottom on the edge. It looked like it was going to be a tight fit. He slowly slid down but got only so far as his hips. With an effort, he crammed his body into the space below. The flesh on his corpulent hips and waist oozed over the stool’s legs before firmly resettling below.
Plop! Ambrose was inside Galaxyhopper.
He tried to imagine how it would feel to blast off into outer space in this spaceship. Nothing. He tried imagining landing on the moon. Nothing. He thought of zapping an alien with death rays. Nothing. He thought of flying at warp speed through the solar system. Nothing. Yet, in a tiny part of his tiny brain he did feel something. He closed his eyes and concentrated on isolating the feeling. To help the thought process, he began to get up. 10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Blast off. Nothing. That’s when he realised what he was feeling. Stuck. He felt stuck.
He twisted this way, and then, that. It was no use. He took a deep breath and forced himself upwards. When he let out his breath, he felt he had sunk even further. He pushed his knees against the frame at the bottom. It did not give. To make matters worse, the cat sauntered out from below the water tank and sat in front of him with an amused grin on its face.
Ambrose gave up the struggle. All he had left in him was No. 3. He unleashed it.
Pandemonium! Ambrose’s mother hopped from left foot to right, ranting and raving. Mumzy stood over Ambrose, gently trying to extricate him. Madhav uncle from the flat below, a retired structural engineer, drew diagrams on the palm of his hand. Ramu, Ambrose’s servant stood helplessly waiting for a command from Madam. The liftman’s young sons discreetly smiled in a corner. Aunty Reena came up to complain about the noise. Chinky, her annoying Pomeranian added to the racket. And what about David who had quietly joined the throng? He walked up to Mumzy and whispered something into her ear.
‘Are you sure?’ asked Mumzy.
With a solemn nod, David indicated he was. Then he kneeled close to Ambrose and whispered something into his ear. Ambrose stopped bawling, listened and bobbed his head in agreement.
By now, all commotion on the terrace had ceased. Even Chinky quietly sat on her haunches, red tongue lolling out between her teeth.
Ambrose’s mother licked flecks of foam off her lips. ‘Hey you, small fellow, what gus-pus are you doing, eh?’ she asked in an irritated tone.
‘He’s saying, cut the stool,’ Mumzy explained. She caught Captain Strike’s eye and corrected her statement.
‘I mean, he’s saying cut Galaxyhopper,’ she said with a smile.
‘Eh?’ This from Ambrose’s mother.
Mumzy did not bother to explain.
Finally Ramu got the order he was waiting for. No one enquired about how did a saw happen to be lying around. Ramu carefully did the needful and in a few minutes Ambrose was freed. Madhav Uncle gave a cheer and shook David’s hand. Aunty Reena picked Chinky in her arms and swept away. Ambrose’s mother roughly took hold of his arm. Mumzy ruffled David’s head as Ambrose passed them. He nodded in David’s direction as they stepped out of the terrace.
Mumzy followed them, looking behind once to see David sit on the bench. Galaxyhopper’s pathetic remains lay in front of him. The cat curled itself around David’s legs. He picked up the cat, stroked its head, and smiled.
THE ERSTWHILE GALAXYHOPPER HAD TWO purposes.
As a spaceship, it took Captain Strike to out-of-reach planets like Finitos, which lay on the very edge of the universe.
As a stool, it took David to out-of-reach places like the top shelf of the cabinet in his room. On afternoons when everybody at home was asleep, David would conduct a raid on his birthday booty. He would bring down a few gifts, open them and note their contents. If it was new or interesting, he placed it on top of the pile. If it was boring or a repeat, it went to the back of the stack.
The tricky part was in the repacking. Good thing along with math, craft was another one of David’s favourite subjects.
Tomorrow was David’s eighth birthday. He couldn’t wait to get and see all of his gifts. Of course, that would be possible only if Ambrose kept his promise.
DAVID’S EIGHTH BIRTHDAY PARTY WAS A grand success.
The entire terrace had been transformed into a planet called Birthica. Mumzy had got some party people who arranged it. They had rigged backdrops around the terrace with weird landscapes painted on them. Two lit globes hung from a pole representing the two suns of Birthica. The moon was a shiny disco-ball. Even the lift was made to look it was going into outer space. The walls were covered with black cloth and had silver stars pasted on it. Mumzy had convinced Hari the liftman to wear an alien mask and welcome the guests with, ‘Ready to blast off?
There was a telescope for kids who wanted too see objects in outer space. A magician in a spacesuit did all kinds of amazing tricks. The waiters dressed as aliens in green suits. But nothing could beat Uncle J who made the kids play Passing The Parcel in a whole new way. The parcel was actually was an All-Purpose Alien Blaster. When someone got caught with the parcel, he had to leave the game, threaten Uncle J with the All-Purpose Alien Blaster and receive a gift. The last kid left was David’s cousin Arjun. He got a real big gift and a hug.
The DJ played a song called Final Countdown as David cut a rocket-shaped cake. Dadzy did something called the moonwalk that made all the adults laugh. Aunt Jemima taught the kids to whistle like a man, with fingers in the mouth.
Bhaskar, one of David’s school friends drank so much orange juice he got sick all over the person sitting next to him who happened to be Ambrose’s mother. Even Ambrose behaved himself and had a good time. Best of all, it looked like Ambrose had stuck to his promise. He had come with Ramu who was carrying a huge package that looked like it contained exactly what David has whispered into Ambrose’s ear the evening before.
As the last guest left, Mumzy and Dadzy flopped into the sofa. They shook hands with each other and turned to David.
‘Ready to open your gifts?’ asked Mumzy.
David eagerly nodded his head.
‘Okay, choose three gifts,’ said Dadzy, pointing at the huge pile of gifts. There must have been over 50 in it. David nonchalantly approached the lot. He picked a small gift covered with blue wrapping paper, another that was wrapped with gold-coloured tape that clearly looked like a scooter, and he dragged Ambrose’s huge gift into the centre of the hall.
The small gift was a neat pair of Hot Wheels.
The scooter, of course, was a scooter, which was really cool.
Ambrose’s gift was last. David quickly tore off the pink and orange wrapping paper to expose a carton. Its edges were sealed with sticking tape. David ripped it off and slowly pushed aside the flaps. He looked inside and his face fell. Ambrose had let him down after all.
Mumzy noticed the expression on his face and got off the sofa. She reached into the box and pulled out a spacesuit complete with helmet and boots, a utility belt and a gun that made noises and emitted a red laser light.
‘Hey David, this is a nice gift,’ said Mumzy. ‘Isn’t this what you asked him to get for you?’
‘I asked him to get me a stool,’ replied David glumly.
Mumzy began to laugh and Dadzy joined in. David was close to tears.
‘I suppose this stuff Ambrose gave you might go well with what Dadzy got for you,’ said Mumzy.
David turned to look at Dadzy. But Dadzy was not on the sofa. Dadzy was in a corner near the wall that was covered with photographs. Dadzy was sitting there with arms held out. Correction: Dadzy was sitting there on a stool with arms held out. David sped like the wind into his arms. Dadzy lifted David, held him tight with one hand, and with the other he laid the stool on its side.
The stool was no ordinary stool. It had a shiny silver finish and on the top was a brass plaque with two words embossed on it.
‘Captain Strike, ready to board Galaxyhopper II?’ asked Daddy.