Short Story: Miss Babcock’s Big Toe by Ruskin Bond

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Encourage your child’s love of books and reading with this hilarious story of school life from the master storyteller!

By Ruskin Bond

If two people are thrown together for a long time, they can become either close friends or sworn enemies. Thus, it was with Tata and me when we both went down with mumps and had to spend a fortnight together in the school hospital. It wasn’t really a hospital—just a five-bed ward in a small cottage on the approach road to our prep-school in Chhota Shimla. It was supervised by a retired nurse, an elderly matron called Miss Babcock, who was all but stone deaf.

Miss Babcock was an able nurse, but she was a fidgety, fussy person, always dashing about from ward to dispensary and to her own room, as a result the boys called her Miss Shuttlecock. As she couldn’t hear us, she didn’t mind. But her hearing difficulty did create something of a problem, both for her and for her patients. If someone in the ward felt ill late at night, he had to shout or ring a bell, and she heard neither. So, someone had to get up and fetch her.

Miss Babcock devised an ingenious method of waking her in an emergency. She tied a long piece of string to the foot of the sick person’s bed; then took the other end of the string to her own room, where, upon retiring for the night, she tied it to her big toe.A vigorous pull on the string from the sick person, and Miss Babcock would be wide awake!

Now, what could be more tempting to a small boy than—such a device? The string was tied to the foot of Tata’s bed, and he was a restless fellow, always wanting water, always complaining of aches and pains. And sometimes, out of plain mischief, he would give several tugs on that string until Miss Babcock arrived with a pill or a glass of water.

‘You’ll have my toe off by morning,’ she complained. ‘You don’t have to pull quite so hard.’ And what was worse, when Tata did fall asleep, he snored to high heaven and nothing could wake him! I had to lie awake most of the night, listening to his rhythmic snoring. It was like a trumpet tuning up or a bullfrog calling to its mates.

Fortunately, a couple of nights later, we were joined in the ward by Bimal, a friend and fellow ‘feather’, who had also contracted mumps. One night of Tata’s snoring, and Bimal resolved to do something about it.

‘Wait until he’s fast asleep,’ said Bimal, ‘and then we’ll carry his bed outside and leave him in the veranda.’ We did more than that. As Tata commenced his nightly imitation of all the wind instruments in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, we lifted up his bed as gently as possible and carried it out into the garden, putting it down beneath the nearest pine tree.

‘It’s healthier outside,’ said Bimal, justifying our action. All this fresh air should cure him.’

Leaving Tata to serenade the stars, we returned to the ward expecting to enjoy a good night’s sleep. So did Miss Babcock.

However, we couldn’t sleep long. We were woken by Miss Babcock running around the ward screaming, ‘Where’s Tata? Where’s Tata?’ She ran outside, and we followed dutifully, barefoot, in our pyjamas.

The bed stood where we had put it down, but of Tata, there was no sign. Instead, there was a large black-faced langur at the foot of the bed, baring its teeth in a grin of disfavour.

‘Tata’s gone,’ gasped Miss Babcock.

‘He must be a sleepwalker,’ said Bimal. ‘Maybe the leopard took him,’ I said. Just then there was a commotion in the shrubbery at the end of the garden and shouting, ‘Help, help!’ Tata emerged from the bushes, followed by several lithe, long-tailed langurs, merrily giving chase. Apparently, he’d woken up at the crack of dawn to find his bed surrounded by a gang of inquisitive simians. They had meant no harm, but Tata had panicked, and made a dash for life and liberty, running into the forest instead of into the cottage. We got Tata and his bed back into the ward, and Miss Babcock took his temperature and gave him a dose of salts. Oddly enough, in all the excitement no one asked how Tata and his bed had travelled in the night.

And strangely, he did not snore the following night; so perhaps the pine-scented night air really
helped.

Needless to say, we all soon recovered from the mumps, and Miss Babcock’s big toe received a well-deserved rest.

(Excerpted with permission from The Whistling Schoolboy and Other Stories of School Life, published by Rupa Publications.)