Today morning the picture of Merlin came to mind, of her standing at the doorway to my room with a determined look on her face. That is how I found her when I came to my room after my morning bath more than four decades ago. I was already late for school, and quickly started dumping things into my school ‘box’ when Merlin broke the news to me. My parents had found the report card I had stuffed in between the pages of my science textbook. Of course Merlin had nothing to do with it. She just happened to reach there just then.

Merlin was a slim girl with thick glasses and two plaits that fell to her shoulders. She stayed in a different part of town and did not have to go by my house on her way to school. But every now and then she convinced her Dad to drop her at my place on his way to work (or was it after her tuitions? I am not too sure), so that she could go with me to school in our car. She must have been really fond of me to do that. Was I as fond of her? I don’t remember. I had too many other things bothering me to understand or accept the hand of friendship she so sincerely extended. The report card fiasco was only one of them.

By stashing away my report card I thought that my secret was good for a couple of days more when I would anyway have had to get it signed by parents. Why would I want to bring the inevitable upon me sooner than later? Unfortunately, I had not counted on (or been aware that) my school ‘box’ being searched. Snooping is an acceptable way of controlling children in our part of the world. Parents don’t consider it in the least bit wrong to secretly check the belongings of even grown up college kids. And I was only in school.

All this talk of report card might lead anyone to think I had flunked some subject or other. Not at all. In a class of about 50+ students I had slipped to the 10th or 11th place. In my home that was an unforgivable crime. If you got even half a mark less than the girl who stood first in class my mother would ask me, “Did the other girl have horns or a tail that she scored half mark more than you?” If the difference was greater than that, the tongue lashing also was more, as also unfavorable comparisons with my always-first-in-class siblings. So you can imagine why I tried to buy time. But my plan had backfired. Now I also had to face trial for the crime of ‘hiding’ things from parents. Oh the horror of it, when did she learn subterfuge?!! And that on top of falling to 10th (or 11th) position in class! Oh the shame! There could be no daughter worse than me in the whole world, or that’s what they would have me believe.

Though I had never told Merlin about any of these things, with the intuition of a twelve-year old, she had grasped the situation. She told me with a serious look, “I stood at the door blocking the way because I knew then your parents wouldn’t push past me to come inside and scold you, not in front of me!” I don’t remember thanking her for thinking of me. I know I should have as those who have done so without expecting anything in return are really few in number.

Merlin could only delay what was in store for me, and I got my share with interest when I returned from school in the evening (and also in subsequent days, months, years). Come to think of it, more than Merlin’s presence, it was the fact that it was time for school that saved me that morning. But I will always giver Merlin her due for doing what she did with all the good intentions of a friend.