“All is fair in love and war”, especially from atop a billing tree

On Saturday afternoons a few of us junior boarders would wander around the grounds of St. Agnes’ Convent, Matale. A favourite spot was the area between the building which housed the shower-baths and the high convent wall. It was out of bounds, but what drew us was a tall “Billing” tree.

Now, the trunks of “Billing” trees are gnarled and crusty and just meant to be climbed. My little friend Millie and I would climb up the tree with an agility that would turn spider monkeys green with envy. We would pluck the ripe, juicy fruit and drop them down to two other ten-year-olds standing below. Hidden among the leafy branches, we also had a grand stand view of the road outside the wall.

One Saturday we were on top of the tree when we heard a ‘psst!’ of warning from our friends. ‘Mother!’ We thought, hoping it would be Mother Perpetual Succour, who lived up to her unusual name so well that we called her our fairy-godmother.

But when we looked down we saw two senior boarders staring up at us. “You know,” said one girl, “We can report you to Mother.”

“But,” continued the other thoughtfully, “We won’t, if you’d do something for us.” “Well, what do you want us to do?” we asked. “Next Saturday,” they said, “We’ll give you two letters. You can climb up the tree and drop them down to two boys who will come along the road at about this time.”

It was sheer blackmail, but we had no choice but to agree.
“Oh, alright,” we muttered.

The road outside the wall was a quiet one. There was no problem dropping the letters to the two guys who sauntered along nonchalantly, the following Saturday and the weeks that followed.

After this aerial postal service had gone on for some time, we began to grumble. We got sweet nothing in return for such a hazardous service. We also knew that seniors hardly ever reported the juniors. In this case, we realized, the seniors too would be in trouble if they reported us to Mother.

So the next Saturday we told the seniors we’d want something in return.

“Well, what?”
“Er…. Something like chocolates, at least.”

For the next few weeks we enjoyed both the ‘billing’ fruit and the chocolates, sometimes experimenting with the sweet and the sour at the same time.

Then it suddenly dawned on us that the boys were getting off scot free in this deal. They would stroll up to the spot like lords, pick up the letters, give a thumbs up sign and vanish. We decided it won’t do. So the following Saturday we were ready for them.

We looked down from our leafy perch and smiled sweetly at their upturned faces.
“Come on, hurry up and drop the letters,” they said crossly, “We haven’t got all day.”

“What do you mean, ‘No’?
We explained that we were doing a daring and dangerous mission for them.

So, we explained, we wanted something for our trouble.
“Like what?”
“Like chocolates…. Big slabs”.
“Alright,” they said ungraciously, “Next time.”
“No,” I said, “Now.”
“You little wretch”

I grinned. This kind of abuse was water on a duck’s back.
“Wait till we catch the two of you.”
“Try,” said Millie putting out her tongue at them.
They conferred for a moment and went off, returning a short time later with two slabs of chocolates which they threw up to us and were caught expertly.

For the next few weeks we gorged ourselves on chocolates, but as all good things come to an end, so did our carnival of chocolates.

Holding on to the tree with one hand, I was groping for a bunch of fruit with the other, when I slipped and hit the ground with a thud. I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder and was dusted down and taken to Mother by my frightened little friends.

“What happened?” asked Mother Agnes in concern. “I slipped and fell in the bathroom,” I lied, looking her straight in the eye.

My parents were sent for and it was the hospital, doctor, x-rays, the works. “A green-stick fracture of the right collar-bone,” said the radiologist, studying the x-ray. “Two weeks rest should put her right,” said the doctor patting me on the head.

When I returned to the boarding two weeks later the “Billing” tree had somehow lost its glamour. All that blackmail and bribery, not to mention intimidation was not worth the trouble, I felt, and so at the ripe old age of ten, I decided that crime doesn’t pay.

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