Mark saw the old woman wave at them and ignored her. She must be waving at someone else he told himself as he struggled with little Anna in his arms and the big rucksack on his back. When the old woman waved for the second time, John spotted her and said, 'Look Mummy, she's waving at us.'
Karen turned around to look in the direction John was pointing and was rewarded with a few more waves. There was no doubt about it. The old woman standing behind the wicket gate was indeed waving at them or rather beckoning them to her.
'Mark, she's waving at us,' Karen needlessly told Mark who was by then looking in the old lady's direction.
Mark hesitated and said, 'she looks harmless. Shall we go take a look?'
'Why not?' Karen said rather crossly because she knew that John would be upset if they didn't. She was quite tired after trekking through the tea covered hills that loomed all around them. If she had a choice, she would have rather they continued their trek back to their hotel at Peermade, which was at least 30 minutes away.
As John led the way, Karen said doubtfully, 'may be she wants to ask us for money!' There had been no scarcity of beggars ever since they had landed in India two weeks ago.
'Doesn't look like it,' Mark muttered, more to himself than to Karen, as he continued to lead the way to the small cottage, which had peeling cream paint and a red roof.
'Hi!' Mark told the old woman much before he was within her hearing range. But he nodded as well and so she smiled in reply and opened the wicket gate a little bit.
She had a squeaky high pitched voice. 'I saw you people walking with the big bags and the baby and I thought you must be very, very, tired. Why don't you come in and have some tea?'
Mark was perplexed. Where he came from, people didn't invite you for tea just like that. He gaped at the old woman who was wearing a faded red pullover that came up to her knees and a skirt with some funky pleats. Karen must have been really tired because from behind she said, 'That's so nice of you. I'd like some tea. Thank you so much.'
The old woman opened the gate fully wide and walked back to the cottage, halting after every few steps so that she could turn around to see if they were following her. Mark realised that what she wore underneath her red-pullover was a saree and not a skirt.
The cottage's veranda had an assortment of potted plants, some of which definitely needed trimming. The veranda led to a small drawing room furnished with a set of three plush settees covered in red. The walls were lined with cupboards crammed with books and toys. 'Do please sit down,' the woman said. Without losing the permanent wide grin plastered on her face, the woman rang a bell. Mark and Karen sat on the edges of the largest settee wondering what was coming next. John sat in between them. Karen had Anna on her lap. The bell was rung once more. A young woman in a dirty saree materialised with a smile and a pair of enquiring eyes. A five year old child had been clinging to her saree till a moment ago, but now the child was waiting for her mother just beyond eyeshot of the guests.
'Kavitha, some tea for these fine people,' the old woman told the maid and was rewarded with a perplexed look. The order was repeated in Malayalam.
'Actually I would like a Four X,' Mark declared, only to get a sharp dig in his side from Karen.
'I beg your pardon. I don't understand,' the old woman told them. 'What would you like?'
'Oh never mind him,' Karen waved gaily at the old woman.
'I was just joking. Four X is the amber fluid we drink in Queensland,' Mark clarified.
'Never mind him,' Karen repeated yet again.
'Bring us three cups of tea,' the maid was ordered. She left the room for the kitchen, picking up her waiting daughter on the way.
'It's so good to see someone from England,' the old woman told them. 'My husband was the first Indian hired by the Beckley's Estate.'
'Actually we are Aussies, not Pommies,' Mark said. The old woman gave him a blank look.
'I have never been to England, but my husband went there once, just after the war.'
'My name is _______.' The old woman said a name which neither Mark, nor Karen caught.
'I'm sorry....I didn't get your name,' Karen said politely, her voice trailing off towards the end and waited for the old woman to repeat her name. She did not. Instead she waited for them to introduce themselves.
'I'm Mark. This is my partner Karen, my son John and my daughter Anna.'
'I'm so glad you decided to stop by for tea.'
They were all silent for a while. 'Things have changed so much, not necessarily for the better, you know..'
A sudden thought occurred to the old woman. 'Let me make sure Kavitha does not add milk and sugar to the tea,' she told them and disappeared through a door which led to the kitchen.
'Ma, can I have a lolly?' John asked as soon as the old woman left.
Instead of answering, Karen pointed at a cupboard filled with toys. 'John, oh look at that elephant! Isn't it beaut?'
'Ma, I want a lolly!' John insisted.
Mark got up and walked around, stretching himself.
'Ma, a lolly!'
'Mark, can you please take out that elephant for John?'
'I don't think we should. It looks dirty enough. The whole place is full of dust.' He walked over to a cupboard filled with books, peered inside and said, 'these books. They are so dusty and falling apart. I don't think anyone has read them in ages.'
'I want a lolly!' John said even louder. Mark quickly opened the toys cupboard and took out the elephant. For good measure, he took out a duck as well. The elephant was given to John and the duck to Anna.
John sat down on the carpeted floor and started to bounce the elephant up and down. Anna dropped the duck to the floor from where she sat on Karen's lap. Karen picked up the duck and gave it back to Anna who held on to it.
The old woman appeared with Kavitha behind her carrying a tea tray. Kavitha's daughter had tagged alongside her mother, but once again stopped just behind the curtains. 'I'm so glad I checked on Kavitha. I've told her so many times that English people like to be served tea without milk and sugar mixed in it, but she had forgotten!'
Kavitha put the tray on the table in front of Mark and Karen and went back to the kitchen.
The old woman poured out the tea.
'Yes please.' 'Yes please.'
'Yes please.' 'Yes please.'
'What would your children like? Shall I get them some biscuits?'
Before Mark or Karen could reply, the old woman said, 'Kavitha can go to the shop and buy some biscuits, but it will take some time.'
'Oh! No drama. Please don't bother.'
'I was planning to buy some biscuits, but ...'
'How is you tea?'
'Ace,' Mark said.
'It's very good.
'Do you have a lot of English visitors?'
'No, not really. Not many people come this way!'
'Don't you like the elephant?' the old woman asked John who had abandoned the elephant and was planning to renew his demand for a sweet.
John did not reply, but looked around wildly, his eyes darting from the toys cupboard to his mother.
'Would you like another toy little boy?'
The old woman walked over to the cupboard and picked out a soldier and handed it over to John.
'John, say thank you,' Karen reminded John who mumbled his thanks.
'He is such a sweet little boy. How long are you in India for?'
'Three weeks. We've done two already. Up north. Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and now we have a week in Kerala.'
'What do you do in England? Do you work for a bank or a company?'
'I manage a station. In Australia. We're Aussies you know.'
'A station? Is that a station for trains? A railway station?'
'No, for sheep. A large sheep farm.'
'You must be joking. You are not a shepherd. You must be a station manager at King's Cross or Charing Cross or Paddington.'
'It doesn't matter, does it? How long have you lived in this cottage?'
'For the last sixty years. After my husband retired, Beckley's gave him this cottage. When my husband was alive, we used to have a lot of visitors. We...
'We ought to be going,' Mark said as he put down his cup.
'John, let's put the toys back.' Mark tried to take the elephant and the soldier from John who held on to both of them.'
'Oh, let the little boy keep the toys.' The old woman turned to Anna and said, 'you can keep the duck.'
'But we can't do that,' Karen objected. 'I'm sure they are exy!'
'Please take them. There's nobody to play with them. I rarely get any visitors these days.'
'You could always give them to someone else.'
'There is no one else.'
The old woman rang the bell once again and Kavitha came in, picked up the tea tray and left, collecting her daughter from behind the curtains on the way back.
Mark and Karen continued to look hesitant.
'Would you like a plastic bag for the toys?'
'A bag would be good.'
The old woman shouted something at Kavitha's retreating back. Within a minute, Kavitha came back with a polythene bag and gave it to Mark.
'Can't do without plastic, though we call ourselves greenies.'
'I beg your pardon?' The old woman had the most politely puzzled look on her face.
'Never mind. Never mind. We got to be going. Thanks so much for the lovely tea.'
As they walked out, Karen said, 'she was such a delightful old lady, wasn't she?'
'Yup, but she was starting to yabber and she thought we were Pommies!'
'I didn't understand half of what she said.'
'Nether did I. And I doubt if she understood more than one-fourth of what we said.'
Karen giggled. 'Still, she was such a sweet, delightful old thing.'
'I guess John and Anna are the only children she has seen in a very long time!'
As they walked away, Kavitha and her daughter watched them for a while through a window. Then Kavitha went the sink and started to wash the tea cups and saucers. After she washed the cups and saucers, she kept them on the floor and told her daughter, 'here, you take this towel and wipe these cups and saucers dry.'