A dull look crept in Ali's eyes as he recognized the ball. It belonged to his cousin, Fawad. Ali made no attempt to pick it up but continued straddling the tire with both his arms wrapped around the thick cord.
A memory, unbidden and unwelcome, intruded upon his solitude. "If I ever catch you playing with him, I'll throw you out of my house. Do you understand, boy?" Ali could hear his uncle shout as he shook Fawad's arm in a fit of uncontrollable temper. "You are never to talk to him again. Do you understand me?"
Little Ali, bewildered and afraid, could only stare at his uncle as the adults around him continued to rant and shout at each other. Sniffling and gulping back tears, he sought the eyes of his childhood friend and companion, Fawad, who was three years his senior. But Fawad stood there equally mute and sad as he watched his father quarrel with his uncle.
When their grandfather had been alive, the two brothers had lived in adjacent duplex houses. They shared a huge lawn where birthdays were celebrated with balloons and buntings and the kids played tag. Their grandfather would sit on the white wrought iron chair and watch his two grandsons fondly. Sometimes he would make the two boys recite the verses from the Holy Quran and correct their errors. Sometimes he would tell them stories as the golden sun bathed their house with warmth and contentment.
But not any more. With each court hearing, the bitterness had grown and Ali's father would come home tired and grim and filled with anger. Three years had passed but there seemed no end to this dispute. Now an ugly brick wall, grey and cemented, marred the beauty of the lawn, cutting off any communication between the two houses. The air that was once filled with joy and harmony was now cold and silent.
Ali sometimes saw Fawad as they both left for school. His uncle would firmly propel his son towards the car and scowl with extreme dislike at the sight of his young nephew. Even his Aunt Farah who used to love Ali like a second son seemed helpless in face of her husband's stubborn attitude. Ali wished his mother had been alive. Maybe she would have understood his loneliness!
"Psst. Ali. Come here for a second." Ali's head jerked up. Fawad was peeping above the boundary wall. "Are you alone?"
Ali instinctively looked towards the house. Everything was quiet as his father was having an afternoon siesta. Even their old servant was not in sight. He hurriedly got down from the tire swing and approached the wall.
"What are you doing here, Fawad?" he whispered. "Did you come for your ball?"
"No. I had kicked it over, hoping for an excuse to see you. Here, mother has sent this. Happy Birthday." Fawad handed Ali a package in a brightly colored gift wrap.
Ali felt a lump in his throat. He made no attempt to take the gift.
"I don't want it."
"Take it, Ali. This might be the last time I can give anything to you. Father is selling the house. His business is not doing too well and we are unable to pay the loans that he took from the bank. We might have to look for a smaller house and move soon. "
Ali was aghast at his cousin's words. He had always hoped that his father and uncle would patch up one day and he and Fawad could be like brothers once more but now he felt all his dreams turning to ashes. He took the gift, whispered an anguished "thank you" and went back to his house.
Later in the evening, while father and son were having their tea, Ali decided to mention his uncle's financial woes to his father.
Screwing up his courage, he softly said," Uncle Bilal is selling his house and moving away. They need money."
Mr. Jamal's hand stilled for a fraction of a second. Then he resumed spreading butter on his toast.
"Finish your meal, Ali," came his brusque reply.
"Father, you know how much grandfather loved and trusted you. Do you think he would have liked you to be angry with Uncle Bilal for so long? Can't you forgive him? Can't you help him? He is your brother, "Ali pleaded.
Tears glistened in Mr. Jamal's eyes. He held his son close to his heart.
"How did you get so wise, my little boy?" he asked with pride in his wet eyes. "Let's go and see your uncle."
Hand in hand, the two went to the house next door. Fawad's father opened the door and Mr. Jamal was shocked at how careworn and beaten his younger brother looked. Without a word, he enveloped his brother in a fierce hug. Bilal broke down and wept. He wanted to ask for his older brother's forgiveness but could utter no coherent word.
Aunt Farah and Fawad came out too and were amazed to see the two brothers hugging and crying. The two brothers spent the entire night reminiscing about the past and making plans for the future. The two cousins too were overjoyed while Fawad's mother thanked Allah for His mercy in making her husband see the errors of his ways.
Next morning, a crew of workers was seen tearing down the ugly, grey wall in the garden as the sun once again bathed the green lawn with its golden light. Even the birds seemed to chirp more gaily than usual as the air was filled with sounds of laughter once again.