Shalini moved to call out to the family to join her but stopped short. They had just bought a pastry to silence the girl who was whining with tears in her eyes. The mother broke it into two equal pieces and gave them to the kids. She furtively licked off the cream that stuck to her fingers. Pulling out a bottle from her bag, she drank a few swigs of water and passed it to her husband. No words were spoken. It was implicitly understood that they would not spend anything on themselves.
The moment had passed. There was no way Shalini could now have called them to join her.
The family eyed the other customers who laughed, drank, ate and joked as if they had no cares in the world. At a nearby table, a couple whispered feverishly then wiped their hands and got up to leave. They must have over ordered or fought and left in a huff. Mounds of food remained untouched. Shalini thought the kids could have feasted on this food. While she was watching the couple, the family walked towards the exit of the food court. The mother walked ahead pulling the boy while she carried the girl on her hip.
The Public Address system interrupted Shalini’s thoughts with a series of announcements regarding discounts, missing people and “Only For The Next Hour Special Offers”. She went downstairs and chanced upon the family half an hour later on the ground floor. They looked all set to go back to where they came from. As expected, Shalini noticed they hadn’t bought anything. The mother was looking strained. She cajoled the little girl who had begun to cry, her small, thin shoulders jerking with each sob. Shalini caught a glimpse of moist eyes.
The man had managed his son rather well. He may have been promised better goodies elsewhere because he looked pretty cheerful. The bright red balloon he found on the top floor had certainly contributed. He held it on a string as if was piloting a plane through the skies. This kept him occupied and reasonably happy, From time to time, he revved the engines and made appropriate sounds as the plane darted amidst the imaginary clouds. Twice he bumped into others being so engrossed in his flying. His father glared at him the first time and said some sharp words when he did it again.
Shalini felt sorry that they were leaving empty-handed. What could she do to make their visit memorable? Could she buy something for the kids? It was a nice thought but the parents may feel offended. People don’t always like this kind of charity. The father could well say, “We may not have that much money but we do have our pride. We will buy what we can afford or nothing at all.”
An idea struck her. But was it too late? The family was heading towards the exit. Shalini felt quite disappointed. Her heart leapt when they stopped once again. The man looked at his wife with embarrassment. He made the universal sign of wanting to take a leak. She told him to go ahead. She would wait with the children. There were rest rooms on several of the floors but he had taken his son to the one on the fourth floor. He didn’t want to waste time searching elsewhere. He rushed off.
The woman sighed and stood in one corner. There was no place for her to sit in any case. Her daughter was half asleep on her shoulder, her hair falling all over her eyes. The boy ran around still clutching the balloon on a string. His mother allowed him to wander around but if he went too far a sharp, “Pintu!”was enough to bring him to heel.
Shalini sprung into action. There was no time to be choosy. Besides, anything that she gave would be beyond their affordability.
The toys were displayed in the ground floor to grab the attention of the visiting kids and their hapless parents. She chose a doll for the little girl, an Indian version of the Barbie Doll dressed in a sari, no less. What would the boy like? She found the answer in the red balloon he still chased around. He would probably love to have an aeroplane more than anything else. She quickly bought a large sized Grumman F 86 Cat Fighter painted an ominous black. She also picked some creamy and rich chocolates looking delicious in their small compartments within the box. Paying with her credit card, she had the whole thing gift wrapped in minutes. You had to hand it to the girls in this store. They were efficient. The gift wrap paper was a bright blue with all sizes of white stars on it. She imagined the mother would carefully preserve the gift wrap paper after flattening the creases as much as she could. A gaily tied red ribbon completed the gift.
Now for the next part of her plan. Keeping an eye on the hovering red balloon, Shalini hurried off to find someone who could help her.
She was in luck. “Can I be of help, ma’am?”asked a quiet voice close by. Turning she saw a pretty young woman. Shalini gathered she was “Bhagyashree, Asst. Store Manager” from the lapel on her crisp white shirt.
“Perhaps you can ….. actually I want a favour from you.”
“Yes ma’am, what can I do for you?”
“I have bought a gift for some children but I don’t want to give it them myself.”
“Why is that?” asked Bhagyashree, her neat eyebrows going up in support of her question.
“The truth is that I don’t know them and they don’t know me. There they are, the little boy with the red balloon and his sister. It would embarrass their parents to receive this from me but I do so much want to give this to the kids. It would be such a nice Christmas gift for them! Do you have any ideas?”
“I think I do. For our record, I would need your name and contact details. Also, please give me your bill, ma’am.”
She glanced at what Shalini quickly gave her and tucked it into her trouser pocket.
Now, Bhagyashree had not been promoted to Asst. Manager a few months back for nothing. She was smart and immediately understood the delicacy of the situation.
“Leave it to me, Ma’am. I’ll make sure this reaches them,” she said. Before Shalini could ask her what she had in mind, she took the gift wrapped parcel and walked off.