Rajappa got ready and put on his helmet. He sat on his bicycle, started riding it, and soon reached the apartment complex. He must have been the only person who wore a helmet while riding a bicycle. He never forgot it. He was called Helmet Uncle by the kids wherever he went for the past thirty years.
“Rajappa open the gate,” he heard his security supervisor shouting while his mind meandered.
A car honked as it waited outside the gate. Rajappa, shaken out of his reverie while staring at his parked bicycle, adjusted his helmet and rushed to pull the gate open.
“Sorry Sir,” he apologised to the owner of the car, who drove with a smirk on his face. He couldn’t see Rajappa under his helmet.
As the car passed, in the rear seat, Rajappa saw a young boy of six or seven smile and wave at him. He had high cheeks, a small nose, and hair flowing due to the breeze. But what struck Rajappa most was his effervescent smile. He smiled and waved at Rajappa. Rajappa did the same instantly.
“Wait, wait a second,” the wife ordered her husband, who pulled over the car to the side. “Tell the supervisor to send someone. We need help to get all the stuff upstairs,” she said.
“Security,” the driver of the car howled.
“Yes, Sir?” the security supervisor went running towards the car.
“Please send someone to the basement to help in the luggage,” he instructed.
“Yes, Sir,” he said and, on returning to his cabin, he signalled to Rajappa to go to the basement.
The wife was clearly not impressed as she saw Rajappa meander slowly towards the basement, still with his helmet on his head.
“Why do we have so many old security guards? Of what use will this old security guard be in lifting the luggage?” she murmured as her husband drove the car into the basement. “He can’t even remember to take off his helmet,” she remarked as she saw Rajappa in the rear-view mirror.
When Rajappa reached their parking slot, the couple had parked the car and the boy was jumping around in excitement. Rajappa stole a glance at the boy. He still had his smile intact. When his father opened the trunk, the boy’s joy knew no bounds. Rajappa had a big grin on his face.
“Vihaan, please stand steadily, let me get all the bags out,” the father instructed. “You go stand near the lift.” But Vihaan stood right there eagerly, peeping into the trunk.
“Helmet Uncle,” Vihaan yelled, pointing his finger when he saw Rajappa walk towards the car.
The trunk was full of bags. One bag had plates, plastic cutlery, cups, and table covers. Another bag contained party hats, candles, games, crafts, and ribbons. In the third were balloons, banners, door signs, some stickers, crayons and return gifts. In a few other bags were food packs, drinks, packs of ice cream and a big birthday cake. There was one with some more sundry items.
Vihaan jumped around as his parents sorted everything and got it ready to be lifted.
“Security,” his father called out when he saw Rajappa.
“6th Floor, Flat 604.”
The father started handing over the bags to Rajappa.
“Helmet Uncle,” Vihaan giggled, pointing to Rajappa.
“Will you not remove your helmet?” his father asked, intrigued.
“Sir, I will manage,” Rajappa replied. He lifted the bags in his hands first, then loaded a couple of them on to his shoulders. When that overflowed, one of the bags found its way under his armpit.
“How long are you going to take? The lift is here,” Vihaan’s mother shouted from a distance.
With Rajappa carrying the load, Vihaan danced and walked beside him. Rajappa smiled at him. He tried to tap his foot and dance a bit with Vihaan when his parents weren’t looking.
“Security be careful. Don’t break anything,” Vihaan’s mother warned.
She frowned when she saw Rajappa with the food bag under his armpit. She pulled it without warning. It shook some of the other bags and, in turn, swayed Rajappa’s balancing act a wee bit. His head wobbled under the helmet. He managed to hang on and tottered into the lift.
When they reached the flat, Rajappa stood in front of the door waiting to be called inside.
“Security, what are you waiting for? Come in,” Vihaan’s father yelled.
“Yes, Sir,” Rajappa said and walked inside. He kept all the bags near the shoe rack at the entrance. Vihaan smiled at him, amused to see him still working with his helmet on. He started picking up some of the ribbons and candles from Rajappa’s hand.
“Not there, get it here,” Vihaan’s mother snapped. “Put it here on the table,” she ordered.
Rajappa picked up the bags he had kept down and took them to the table. He removed the items one by one and placed them carefully. He had never seen a grand birthday party like this. Vihaan jumped in delight and waved at Rajappa. With the job done, Rajappa turned around to leave.
“Security,” Vihaan’s mother called out.
“Our guests will start coming in some time. Please don’t call on the intercom every time to check.”
“And let them park their cars in the visitor car park.”
“Yes, Sir.” Rajappa started walking.
“One thing more,” Vihaan’s mother called out and Rajappa stopped in his steps. “The pizza delivery boy will also come in an hour or so. Don’t stop him.”
“Yes, Madam.” Rajappa started walking back again.
“Yeah, and when you go down please send the electrician urgently,” his father reminded Rajappa.
“Yes, Sir,” he said and started walking for the last time.
“He is leaving,” Vihaan’s mother told her husband. He pulled out his wallet in a hurry.
“Thank you, Sir,” Rajappa said. “Happy Birthday Vihaan,” he smiled and left.
“These old security guards are quite useless. I don’t know if he heard everything, especially with his helmet on,” Vihaan’s mother complained to her husband when Rajappa had gone out of sight.
After he left, Rajappa cleared the visitor parking area for their guests. He also made some space for the pizza delivery boy’s vehicle. He then called the electrician, who he knew must be smoking at the tea stall outside. Thereafter, he returned to his duty and waited at the main gate for Vihaan’s guests.
He removed his helmet and kept it on the seat of his bicycle for a moment. He got his mirror out of the pocket and started combing his grey hair. The face in the mirror did not seem like his own. It was much younger. He looked at it and then touched his own face. The skin had crumpled. There were wrinkles all around. The dark circles under the eyes had taken over most of the face. Rajappa remembered that he used to be so much more handsome thirty years back.
The effects of the night shifts that he had done in his youth were now evident. He needed to do it when he had a family. He regretted doing them now. He used to be sleepy all through the day due to that. It was a heavy cost to pay.
He looked back in the mirror, only to see the three of them again, a picture so perfect that it hadn’t left him for the past thirty years, the one he searched for everywhere he went. How could he forget his six-year-old’s smile in that picture? Srini would have turned thirty-six today.
And next to his child was his young wife, who looked so fresh and happy in there, while he himself looked sleepy after his night shift that morning. How could he forget that morning when he was taking them to Srini’s birthday lunch treat on his new bicycle? He did not wear a helmet that day. Neither did they.
Rajappa wore the helmet again in a hurry. Vihaan’s guests were going to be here soon.
This story was first published in the June 2021 issue of Anti Heroin Chic, a collective journal of poetry, artwork, essays, stories and more. You can read it here.
PS: For more stories like this, check out People We Know here.
Originally published at https://ranjitkulkarni.com.