Read all the five stories below or separately by clicking on each link.
1- Where is Chandernagore by Janet H. Swinney
Umbrellas of cow parsley stood tall in the hedgerows as Enid jolted down the rutted track towards the river. The tools in the basket on her handlebars rattled and jumped as she tried to steer a steady course. She had told her father she was staying late in town for a rehearsal of maestro Verdi’s Requiem – for which she had specifically joined the choral union – but in fact, she was on an entirely different mission. At the thought of which, her palms grew damp.
Of all the students who’d graduated from Skerry’s college the previous year, George Allardyce had not been one of the more accomplished. Yet, here he was flinging his hat onto the coat-stand in the corner of the Examiner office, and unburdening himself of his overcoat in the manner of a seasoned reporter with too many places to go to and not enough time to get between them.
He rubbed out a cigarette between his fingers and dropped his pad onto Enid’s desk. ‘There you go, En.’ Enid examined the pad with distaste. There were signs that a beer glass had been parked on several of the pages.
‘What do you call this?’
‘Flick through, and you’ll see my report of this morning’s court proceedings. Mr. Peabody said…Tonight’s edition.’
‘I know what Mr. Peabody said,’ Enid snapped.
George shot off to the gents, and Enid rolled her eyes at Hattie. She adjusted the ribbon in her machine, and started typing, her wrists held high like the fetlocks of a thorough-bred horse. George’s shorthand was atrocious, and his powers of analysis dim. ‘Fill out the blanks,’ Enid sighed. Hattie cackled.
The case concerned a miner who was charged with persistent cruelty to his wife. Through the scrimmage of dots and dashes that constituted George’s shorthand, Enid managed to discern that things had come to a head on the night he had ‘started’ on her with the poker, threatening to kill her. The miner’s defence was that his wife never had his tea ready when he came home from work. She disputed this wholeheartedly and pointed out that he had recently smashed a pot over her head, and that his language was never less than foul.
George reappeared from the WC.
‘So what was the verdict?’
‘This case you’ve reported on in such eloquent detail: you haven’t provided the outcome.’
‘Oh, case dismissed.’
‘On what grounds?’
‘The magistrate took the view that the chap had been subjected to an awful lot of provocation. He said that if he separated everyone who squabbled, or where the man was inclined to cuss, there would be very few couples left together.’ George grabbed his hat and coat from the stand. ‘He had a point, I suppose,’ he chortled, and slammed the door behind him.
Enid finished typing and looked thoughtfully at the completed report. ‘You know, Hattie,’ she observed, ‘the few pleasurable moments in women’s lives blind us to the fact that, on the whole, the situation is grim. Our freedom is entirely circumscribed by the whims and diktats of other people.’
‘Meaning?’ said Hattie.
The older woman laughed. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Now there’s something new.’
They were a shoestring enterprise. In fact, Mr. Peabody frequently referred to his bootstraps and their auspicious role in his advancement. There were other publications with far larger circulations in the city. They had reporters to send hither and yon. ‘Let them focus on the big news,’ Mr. Peabody said. ‘At the Examiner, we deal with the significant detail, the family, the community.’ The last court case Enid had covered had been against a lad accused of maiming a pit pony with an axe. ‘If his employer had provided him with a proper whip,’ the defence lawyer argued, the injury would not have occurred. What a significant detail that had been, Enid thought. Meanwhile Hattie appended her byline to wholesome recipes for kidney pies and onion dumplings as well as novel designs for antimacassars. The paper did, however, provide some foreign news which they culled from the London papers and customised for belated consumption by their local readership.
The following morning, Mr. Peabody allocated Enid the task of drafting something about an impending spat between the French and the British somewhere west of Calcutta. ‘Come on strong about the Empire quashing any interference from Johnny Foreigner,’ he said. ‘We can’t have these Frenchies getting above themselves.’ To Hattie, he allocated a feature about the history of milk puddings. ‘You can link it nicely to Enid’s piece about the Empire,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing like a good rice pudding with the skin on, topped with a sprinkle of nutmeg.’ George, on the other hand, was given the job of covering the two-day visit of the President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Winston Churchill, who would be speaking at the Assembly Rooms that very evening.
Enid was wearing her newest work blouse with starched cuffs and a clever, scalloped collar. It made her feel determined and clear-sighted. She sat upright in her chair:
‘Wouldn’t it be wise to send someone to cover Mr. Churchill’s visit who has really rapid shorthand?’ she said. ‘If he’s giving a speech about government policy, there’ll be a lot of detail to get to grips with.’ Somehow, after a year of employment, the fact that Enid had graduated top of her Pitman’s class seemed to have been entirely forgotten. Mr. Peabody looked at her blankly.
‘A fat lot of good you’ll do at the Assembly Rooms,’ said George. ‘You won’t get in.’
‘Why won’t she?’ said Hattie. ‘It’s a public meeting.’
‘Well, Mrs. Barrett, I suggest you look at the small print on the posters. It’s organised by the Liberal Club and it’s a public meeting for men only.’
‘Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ Enid started, and then changed tack. ‘Well, why not send two of us? Maybe those people campaigning for votes for women will be there. I’ll look out for them and George can cover the speech. Then we’d have taken account of both male and female perspectives. In fact, we could do a whole spread. Hattie could postpone the puddings and do an in-depth interview with one of the suffrage leaders instead. Her life, her upbringing, her aspirations and so on. It would be a good read.’
Hattie looked startled at this proposal, but no sooner had the idea begun to gain some traction with her than Mr. Peabody found his voice:
‘I’m not having lasses traipsing around the streets at night. It’s not right.’
Enid wrinkled her nose so that her spectacles approached her eyebrows. ‘Surely, it’s a reporter’s job to go where the news is?’
‘Mind your lip, Enid. I’ve told you who’s doing what.’
Enid spun the tobacco-tinted globe in the corner of the office and when it stopped pressed her finger on Calcutta. Who the hell knew where Chandernagore was? What’s more: who cared? She started on her piece: ‘Just as Hexham is about 20 miles up the River Tyne from Newcastle, so is Chandernagore about 20 miles up the Hooghly from Calcutta.’ She stopped. Even she thought it was pathetic. She had no information about the Hooghly river, but she was pretty sure it would be nothing like the Tyne.
‘I’m going to try him again tomorrow,’ she said. ‘I can’t sit here endlessly writing this drivel.’
‘What makes you think he’ll give in?’ Hattie asked.
‘Don’t you want to do an interview with a leading suffragette? Someone who’s been in prison, maybe? Wouldn’t it be exciting to get the “inside” story, as it were?’
‘I’d like to, yes.’
‘Then why don’t we both have a go at him?’
‘Because he’ll get mad, and who knows where that’ll lead?’
‘I thought you wanted a career as a journalist. Journalists don’t just sit indoors twiddling their typewriters.’
‘I have a family to keep. I can’t be gadding about all the time, the way you single women can. I need cash in hand more than I need a punt on some high-flying career.’
‘What I don’t understand,’ fumed Enid, ‘is why he employs us at all if he’s not going to use our talents. It doesn’t make any business sense.’
‘Because he’s a bone-headed bigot,’ said Hattie. ‘You’re expecting logic from a man who isn’t capable of it. You can rame on at him as long as you like: it’s not going to do you any good.’
Enid was struck by her own naïveté. An aeon of Bible study had led her to believe that merit would always prevail over favour. But now that she’d entered the adult world, it seemed this was a fallacy. Hattie, applying native common sense, had a shrewder grasp of the situation than she had arrived at herself for all her studies.
She struggled on a little longer with her task: ‘Chandernagore is a French town where the currency is British coinage. Not more than a handful of the residents actually speak the Gallic tongue.’ And then she downed tools.
‘I’m off,’ she said. ‘See you tomorrow.’
The sun was already low in the winter sky as she turned into Neville Street, the nexus of the tramlines at the Westgate intersection glinting in the distance. She pulled up her coat collar, and kept one gloved hand at her throat to ward off the nip in the air. Her feet ached in her stiff, leather shoes.
Already, there was considerable bustle around the station. The place was thronged with women, many of them wearing sashes of purple, white and green and some wielding placards with the legend, ‘Votes for Women’. But the constabulary were in evidence too, a great wall of meaty men with truncheons, patrolling the exit from platform eight where Mr. Churchill’s arrival was expected.
Enid edged her way towards the ticket gate. ‘Excuse me! Excuse me! Examiner coming through!’ she proclaimed, finally securing herself a place just leeward of a hefty police sergeant. As the sense of anticipation increased, she pulled her pad from her bag and started jotting: ‘Tensions rising this evening, as women of all ages, from all classes and from all walks of life assemble to greet the important Liberal politician…’ She felt her heart lift in her chest. At last, she was doing the job she’d expected to do.
Finally, the locomotive trundled into the station, exhaled into the roof space and slid to a halt. Doors were flung open and passengers tumbled out on to the platform. The women craned their necks to catch sight of their quarry. And here, among the last of them, came a top-hatted gentleman. It was clear from the curve of his mouth and the keen look of self-regard in his eye, that this was Churchill. He was met by two po-faced local dignitaries who escorted him, in close formation, along the platform. The women began their choral chant: ‘Votes for Women!’ ‘Votes for Women!’ It surged round the great gallery of the vaulted roof in waves. Churchill stalked on regardless, while the women’s jostling increased.
As the triumvirate passed the ticket gate, a woman thrust herself forward, waving a leaflet under Churchill’s nose. ‘Deeds not words!’ she yelled. ‘Votes for women!’ A scrum began as the police manhandled the woman away. ‘Who’s she?’ gasped Enid. ‘That’s Miss Phillips, the new leader of the WSPU,’ her neighbour replied. ‘As a reporter, I should’ve known that,’ Enid chided herself, just before the elbow of the sergeant caught her a massive blow on the side of her head and sent her to her knees.
It was a bitter evening, and the gaslights flared like daggers along the street. Outside the Assembly Rooms, the crowd from the station had reformed and augmented itself, and was fidgeting and manoeuvring impatiently. A dogged determination prevailed but, in some quarters, a note of anger had been minted in the cold. ‘Let the dog see the rabbit, Billy!’ yelled a woman in a squashed black hat. ‘We’ll tell the bastard what’s what.’
‘You’ll clap eyes on him soon enough,’ a constable on duty replied, shoving her well back into the crowd.
The guests began to arrive, some in horse-drawn vehicles and others in motor cars. The horses, unsettled by the ruckus, snorted and blew out mighty cones of steam that almost touched the pavement. The motor cars coughed fumes from their exhausts. As each man ascended the steps into the hall, he adopted what he considered to be a suitable expression for the occasion, some opting for a dismissive and stony-faced demeanour, others assuming the casual air of a socialite attending a high-class ball. Still no sign of Churchill.
After a long wait in which feet went numb, and tonsils stiffened, a motor car finally slid up to the curb. Churchill! The women immediately began their agitation, their single, shouted demand filling the night air. Churchill, aloof as ever, was hustled with as much dignity as could be mustered up the steps and into the hall, but something in the imperviousness of that gaze triggered outrage. The desire to wrest justice from him, to bend an unfair system into one that accommodated present needs, gave rise to pandemonium. The crowd surged forward, the police cordon broke, and that was when Enid’s luck changed.
Along with a few others, she was swept up the steps, from where it seemed only logical that she should worm her way into the vestibule. After that, she had no problem squeezing between the elbows of gentlemen, up the grand staircase and into the gallery.
The crowd in the auditorium was eventually settled. A hush fell, broken only by one or two bouts of coughing. Mr. Churchill was welcomed to the podium by the president of the Liberal club. He gathered himself, stuck a forefinger in his waistcoat pocket and began his speech. From outside the roar of the women could still be heard, occasionally amplified by a megaphone. He started on trade tariffs. ‘Will women get the vote this session?’ came a cry from the floor of the house. There was a kerfuffle while a woman in green gabardine was hustled out. He began on unemployment. ‘Will votes for women be in the King’s speech, Mr. Churchill?’ This time a voice from further back. More commotion, and another woman dispensed with, her hat rolling away among the feet of her neighbours as she was hauled off. He moved on to reform of the House of Lords. ‘No taxation without representation!’ shouted a woman standing near Enid. She too, made to disappear. Enid scribbled frantically.
It was too late to get home, so she sat at a tram stop, the cold nibbling at her fingers, and drafted her report.
‘My goodness!’ said Hattie, settling herself at her desk first thing the following morning, and casting an eye over Enid’s appearance. ‘What did you get up to last night?’
Mr. Peabody summoned them into his office. ‘Right, George, let’s be havin’ it.’
‘All there, Mr. Peabody.’ George slapped down an untidy sheaf of typing on to the desk.
‘How did it go, then?’
‘Champion. Nae bother. He said what he came to say. All about free trade an’ that.’
Enid looked at him in surprise. ‘You mean there were no disruptions?’
‘None that I saw.’
‘You were there and you saw nothing?’ Enid was scandalised. She put her own careful work down on the desk. ‘That’s a full report, Mr. Peabody, right from the moment Mr. Churchill set foot on the platform till the moment the meeting disbanded. Either George wasn’t there, or he’s got a very partial view.’
Mr. Peabody stared at her for some time, the pin from the county cricket club winking dully in his tweedy lapel. The air hung heavy in the office.
‘It’s George’s report, and that’s what we’ll be using,’ he pronounced eventually. Where’s your piece on Chandernagore?’
‘I haven’t finished it.’
She didn’t know where the words came from. No-one had ever taught her to swear.
‘Calcutta is the arsehole of Empire, Mr. Peabody, and Chandernagore is twenty miles up it.’
She crossed the bridge over the river, and parked her bike against the wall of the cricket ground. Six months without work now, and her father’s anger with her unabated. Still. If a job was worth doing… She hitched up her skirts and climbed up and over the stone wall. There, in front of her, the pitch and, even more invitingly, the wicket used by the club’s first eleven. She took the trowel from her pocket and struck it deep into the sweet, fleshy turf. After twenty minutes, she sat back on her hunkers to admire her handiwork: ‘Work before play, boys. Votes for women!’
* * *
2- Nothing by Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind
Your husband wants to know what’s wrong. “Nothing,” you say.
“Tell me when you want to talk about nothing,” he says.
He gives you a kind smile. He is a kind man, your husband. You watch as he walks to your bedroom and shuts the door. You will join him after you wash, wipe and put away dinner plates and utensils in the various racks and shelves of your kitchen. You will join him after you wipe the kitchen platform clean of grime, after you turn off the lights in all the rooms, after you check if the doors have been locked, after you take the children to bed, after you read them a bedtime story. You’re reading Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to them. The book has been recommended by your daughter’s English teacher. “For the vocabulary,” she had said. Charlie Bucket has just won the fifth golden ticket. Yesterday, the children laughed when they heard the name Bucket.
“You mean like the bucket we have in our bathroom?” the younger one had asked.
Yes, you had nodded with a smile and ruffled his hair. The older one, your daughter, is impatient like you once were. She doesn’t like any interruptions when the story is being read. Today, she won’t let her brother ask any questions. You read for twenty minutes. You’ve yawned twice. You look at the clock. It’s late. You tell them that you will read the rest of the story tomorrow. When they protest you tell them that once the story is over you’ll buy them the DVD. They seem happy. You decide you’ll see the movie too and the possibility of experiencing what was once only imagined excites you. You wonder how Willy Wonka will look onscreen.
After you kiss them goodnight you go to your bedroom. The house is dark but the dim light from the streets cuts an angle across the narrow passageway to your room rendering it in pale light. Your husband is asleep. You change out of your saree into a pale blue nightgown with white lacework around the collar. Just before you join him in bed, you walk to your window and part the curtains. Your eyes dart to the third floor of the building opposite yours. In other houses of that building a few lights flicker here and there, little lights of low wattage in someone’s living room, a string of fairy lights on someone’s window grill, the light of a small night lamp beside someone’s night table. The house you’re looking at however is plunged in darkness. The balcony door is still closed. It has been that way for over three days. Nobody has adequately taught any of us the art of self-consolation, you think. You go to the bathroom and cry.
Nine months ago, a man named Sorabh moved into the house that you’re now looking at through the parted curtains of your bedroom window. He’s not very tall. If you must compare, he is much shorter than your husband. Some people might say that his face is rather unremarkable, the kind of face that one wouldn’t be able to recall immediately when somebody says the name. Something like, Sorabh? Which one is Sorabh?
The day he moved in you watched from your window. You saw Sorabh and another man, no doubt a hired help for the day, go up and down three flights of stairs carrying what seemed to be carelessly packed boxes that were all tearing at the seams. He must have packed those boxes himself, you thought. Even from a distance the missing feminine touch was easy to spot. But the relief you felt was new to you, indecipherable at that time. You tried to make out how those boxes were labelled but you were too far away.
A day later you were still thinking about him, his strong hands lifting boxes, hauling them over his shoulder, glistening drops of sweat on his forehead, a sweat patch on the back of his shirt. You were thinking of his shoulders, those strong, strong shoulders. You thought of him as you peeled onions, as you packed lunches for your children, as you oiled and plaited your daughter’s hair just the way the school wanted it, as you washed and ironed your husband’s shirts. You were still thinking about him when you ground cardamom and ginger, cloves and a stick of cinnamon, masala for the evening chai, just the way your husband liked it. You’ve been watching him all these days and now he’s gone somewhere. You don’t know if the separation is permanent or temporary. But, you do know that but both his presence and his absence unsettles you.
Three days after he moved in you met him accidently. . The children were at school and your husband was at work. You had gone to the street corner to buy vegetables from a vendor who showed up every noon with a hand cart. Sorabh was there casually tossing sweet potatoes and peas into the vendor’s plastic basket. He handed the basket over to vendor who placed them on the scales all the while making small talk about the neighbourhood.
“Your wife is in a different town babu? Is that why you come alone to buy my vegetables?”
“I am a free man brother, no wife,” Sorabh laughed. In a faux, shrill voice, he imitated the wife he never had, “Did you eat? Did you eat? Where are you? Where are you? When are you coming home? When are you coming home?”
The vendor laughed, “Yes babu, who needs cages?”
You smiled. The man thought marriage was a cage. You asked yourself. Are you in a cage?
In a moment of recognition the vendor took notice of you. When Sorabh looked at you, you wished you’d dressed better. You were wearing a tired saree, your hair all piled up in an awkward top knot, there were sweat patches under your arms. You should have, at the very least, worn your hair loose. Sorabh wore a blue checked shirt over dark blue jeans. You could smell the scent of his cologne, a smell that reminded you of both citrus and spice.
“Bhabhi! All fresh, my vegetables,” said the vendor.
You smiled at the vendor and briefly looked at Sorabh who smiled politely at you. The vendor ignored him and began serving you. Sorabh pulled out two soiled notes to pay the vendor. He stood barely two inches away from you. You seemed to have lost your voice. You feigned many coughs, blurted out the names of a few vegetables, mixed up the quantities, forgot the tapioca that your son liked, forgot the spinach that you wanted to make for dinner that day. Both of you paid the vendor and left together.
“Where are you from?” you asked him surprised that you’d initiate a conversation like that, with a stranger, so easily. It was quite unlike you.
He told you that he was from another part of town. He told you the new flat was closer to work. You told him it’s a nice neighbourhood, the schools were near, the sea was a short rickshaw ride away and that there was a good gymnasium just down the street. Oh, he said and smiled.. You felt colour rushing to your cheeks. He told you he got a good deal on the house. And with a hint of a wink and a sly smile he told you that the landlord seemed modern. He laughed and just as he departed, he told you his name. When you told him your name he repeated it to you, twice.
“Unusual name,” he said.
The wordless feeling that came a minute later made you happy. You went home that day and made curried potatoes instead of tapioca, lentil gravy instead of spinach. You parted your bedroom curtains and saw him standing in the balcony, shirtless and charming.
An hour later your husband came home. He saw your many smiles and wanted to know what the secret was. What was making you so happy? He wanted to know.
“Nothing,” you said.
Your husband is a kind man, a nice man who does what good family men are expected to do- works, earns and pays the bills. He takes the children out every Saturday afternoon so that you can get some sleep. Sometimes, he surprises you on the odd Friday evening with tickets for the new Hindi movie. He’s even made arrangements with the family of one of his colleagues to watch the children. There’s dinner and a scooter ride by the sea side. On some days, if there’s time, he takes your hand and the two of you walk down the promenade, past balloon sellers and cotton-candy vendors, past families walking their dogs. From a meal truck parked by the seafront, he buys you dim sums and fried rice, crispy vegetables in soy sauce, corn fritters and something else, something unpronounceable. You have a quiet meal by the beachfront. You watch your husband chewing the corn fritters. You observe his face. The strong jaws, the large nose, the receding hairline, the small wart beside his right ear. You married him to please your father.
Sorabh reminds you of something, a wordless feeling, a faint memory of a touch but that’s not all. He reminds you of what you once felt for a man you had kissed in an empty street of rain and darkness, just a quick brush of the lips, and then you had fled. He reminds you of an ache, the kind of ache that is both quiet and restless, a longing. You’ve memorised his image. It’s your secret talisman. It makes you smile.
You come back home from the seaside and begin fussing around the kitchen making arrangements for the next day’s meals, chopping vegetables and fermenting rice and lentils. When your husband goes to bring back the children from his colleague’s house, you rush to your room and part the curtains. The lights are on in Sorabh’s house. Through the open balcony door you can see a TV mounted on the wall of his living room. It’s on and from where you’re standing you can see that he’s watching an English movie. The last time you saw an English film was years ago with your friends from college. You rush to your living room and turn on the TV. You fumble with the remote, changing channels furiously until you think you’ve landed on the same channel he’s watching. It’s a police drama. One of the characters is holding a gun. The others have their hands up. You go back to your room, look out of your window, squint and look carefully at Sorabh’s TV again. It is the same movie! It excites you that you’re watching what he’s watching. It feels like you’re sharing an experience with him. You wonder what he’s thinking when he sees the guns and the speeding cars, the women in tight police uniform, their hair pulled back in a sleek chignon. In that moment you feel like you’re a part of his world and all that he has to do is turn around and see you there. You return to your living room. The scene has changed. Two characters are kissing, their tongues are entwined and they’re locked in a passionate embrace. You think of Sorabh, less than a hundred feet away. The possibility of experiencing what was once only imagined excites you.
You hear the key turn in the lock. The children come rushing into the house. You scramble for the remote and turn off the TV before they can see what’s on. Your husband comes behind them.
“What were you watching?” he asks.
“Nothing,” you say
Soon after your marriage you lived with your in-laws in a two-room apartment. Your mother-in-law was an affable lady, a rare creature who actually asked you if you needed more privacy with her son. You blushed. You shook your head and then when she touched you lightly on the shoulder you said, “No Ma, how can I stay away from you all? What is this privacy business?” You had to say that to show her that your mother had raised you well. Your husband and father-in-law exchanged looks and smiled at each other. Your mother-in-law beamed. You smiled too, happy that saying what is expected of you made them happy. Secretly you wanted the privacy.
For five years you lived with your in-laws, working quietly in the kitchen beside your mother-in-law. For all her affability, she would never let you cook, for that would be relinquishing too much power.
“Help me, that’s how you will learn,” she’d tell you with a smile. Kitchen Queen, you’d call her in your mind. You were her helper. You had your chores assigned to you. Chop vegetables. Pound and keep the masalas ready for her to use. Make the kitchen top and gas stove shine after she had finished. Wash, dry and return the kitchen utensils to their places assigned by her. Serve the family. Put on a smile and beam when your husband and father-in-law praised her cooking. Later at nights, when everyone slept, you’d tiptoe to the kitchen with a piece of paper in your hands. For hours you’d look longingly at the recipe of puranpoli, the one your mother gave you. Once, your husband found you asleep on the kitchen floor.
“What are you doing here?”
You’ve been watching Sorabh for a long time now. You know what time he leaves for work and when he returns. On weekends you know that he sleeps late. There was an office party once. One of your neighbours alerted the local police station because the music was too loud. You stood by the window long after your husband had slept. You watched as Sorabh spoke to the cops, gesticulating wildly. Two women and three men stood by his side. The women wore jeans and sleeveless blouses; their hair was open, long and silky, almost like models from some foreign shampoo advertisement. Your hair is limp and dry. One of the women had multiple piercings on her eyebrows, her lips and her nose. The police left after much debate. You sat by the window and waited until his guests left. The lights in his house were on for the longest time. You slept only after you felt sure that he had gone to bed. You’re often confused. You often chide yourself for your behaviour. We feel the loneliest when we don’t understand ourselves, you think. Nobody told you that the right time to receive love is when we’re least worthy of it.
You moved to the seaside city when your husband’s company transferred him there. Your in-laws won’t leave their home of forty years. You’ve cajoled them to move with you. You didn’t mean that. Your husband promised he’d visit them once every month. We’re only six hours away, he told them. You must visit us, you told them. They shook their heads. They spoke of old age and frail limbs, god’s ways and destiny and something about privacy. What privacy? You asked. Everyone smiled. Your parents have raised you well.
It’s been three days now but the door of Sorabh’s balcony is still closed. You haven’t seen him in all this while. You’ve been staring at the closed door. You’ve submitted its form to memory, the scratches on its surface, the unevenness of its edges, the rust on its hinges, the roundness of the door knob. You’ve given the door a name. Kholo. You want it to open. Objects don’t turn into their names. People don’t turn into their names. Naming objects won’t change their form.
The lights are still out. You’ve thought of all the things that could be wrong with him. He was probably arrested or away on an office trip. Maybe he went to see his parents. Maybe he’s moved out. The thought disturbs you. Another thought enters your mind. Maybe he’s really unwell. Maybe he needs help.
You tell yourself that he’s in another room, on the other side of the house, the side that does not face your window and that’s why you can’t see him. You tell yourself that he needs your help. You tell yourself that you need to do something. You decide to go to his building the next day and inquire about him. You feel better and you let yourself smile. Your husband who has just returned from work wants to know why you’re smiling.
“Nothing,” you say.
“Alright. I’d like some chai, please,” he says, “make it strong.”
You consider the rented house in the sea city as your home. You had children there. For the first time you cooked, you cooked to your heart’s content. You made your mother’s puranpoli and tried out recipes the TV chefs taught you while your husband worked. You found that the sea was a rickshaw ride away. You found the courage to go there alone every now and then, early mornings before your children and husband were up. It was here in this house that you found the courage to ask your husband a question, a question that you had never asked before, an answer that had been important to you. On moving day, after you’d put away boxes and he’d paid burly coolies their wages, after you’d set up the kitchen and had made him a strong chai, after a quiet dinner of rice and curd and pickles, after you’d both gone to bed and he’d turned to face you in the darkness, in one brief moment you’d asked him if he loved you. It seemed necessary, urgent, it was important to you. He said, ‘You watch too many movies’ and laughed, turning away from you. You never asked again.
You’ve dressed carefully, a simple but elegant voile saree, kohl smeared eyelids, loose hair, a thin silver chain around your neck. You take quick, brisk strides and enter the opposite building. The guard at the gate stops you. He wants to know where you’re going.
“3rd floor,” you say nervously, “Mrs. Mehta”
“Mrs. Mehta?” he asks and you nod. She’s the lady who sells sarees from home.
You know what to do. If he answers the door you’ll say you rang his doorbell by mistake and that you were actually there to see Mrs. Mehta. You’ll point out his appearance and ask him if he’s feeling alright. You’ll offer to help. If he does not answer… you push that thought out of your mind. You’ll think of that possibility later. You’re convinced that he’s there, that he’s ill and that he needs somebody to help him.
You walk up the stairs excitedly. You’ve never done anything like this before. You reach his door and you’re about to ring the bell when you hear voices from below. You pause. You hear the clatter of footsteps, and giggles.
A male voice is saying, “This is where I live. It’s not a big house but it’s got a nice balcony. Our landlord is modern.” You know that it is him and that there’s someone with him. You know that they’re coming up the stairs towards where you’re standing, outside Sorabh’s door. It’s inevitable. He’ll see you.
“Oh hello,” says Sorabh in surprise when he sees you. Your eyes turn to the woman by his side, a lithe, petite girl in bridal finery, henna in her hands and flowers in her long, shiny hair. He introduces you to his wife. He pronounces your name incorrectly, twice. You smile and correct him. His wife tells you that you have an unusual name. You smile and welcome his wife to the neighbourhood. You tell her that the sea is a short rickshaw ride away and that there’s a good gymnasium just down the street.
“She doesn’t need a gymnasium,” Sorabh says fondly. The girl blushes and for a moment the newlyweds have eyes only for each other. You fake a light cough. You have their attention. You invite them home. They thank you profusely. You’re about to leave when Sorabh asks you why you came.
“To see your neighbour,” you say, “Mrs. Mehta. She sells sarees. They are beautiful.”
You proceed to the stairs and almost trip on your saree. Sorabh reaches out to steady you. The strap of one of your sandals gives way. His wife clucks her tongue and offers to lend you one of hers.
”Don’t worry,” you say, “it’s nothing.”
* * *
3- It Had To Be That by Prashila Naik
Bland, slippery, and easily giving away its assembly line manufacturing, it’s the flooring that stood out the most. Sheena longed to get back to the fluffy beige coloured carpet she had left for good a few months ago. It had never occurred to her that she would miss walking on that surface, or she would miss the soft glow of the heart-shaped lamp in the living room, or the steady American voices drawing themselves out of the TV screen in the same room. Here the TV never settled down on a single channel, its runtime dictated by the remote that played under her restless fingers. The room was bright with life with two high voltage tubelights fixed at its either end. The kitchen long, spacious and ‘modular’ seemed just what she would have envied a few years ago. Even the gas stove with its four burners was dug inside the kitchen’s platform, as if shy to reveal its complete form. She left the two bedrooms out of the scheme of her day, barely allowing herself to notice the queen sized bed in the master bedroom, and the slightly smaller one in the other bedroom; or barely allowing herself to touch the mauve coloured wardrobes in both the rooms. Her suitcases were still lying in the puja room, and every day she picked out a little of her past from inside them, only to stuff back another part of the same past inside.
‘The Professional Suite’ apartment her husband Nitesh had shared for 4 years with a Nepali batchmate from his masters program, had seemed very adequate. She quite liked the calm it generated when her husband was out working for an Insurance provider 20 miles away. As she guiltily envisioned him biting into the slices of margherita pizzas or the sandwiches the cafeteria served, she prepared elaborate meals for herself. A few more months or possibly a year and her H1B visa would be ready too, Nitesh had told her. They hadn’t given a thought to what she would do with the visa, for she had been a feature writer for a small but influential regional newspaper for most part of her ‘career’. But she had her degrees in place, a Masters in Science preceded with a Bachelors where she had been a university topper. Her husband’s friend who ran the visa consultancy had procured visas for “cases that were nowhere as highly qualified as she was”. Highly Qualified! Those were the exact words, and they had made her extremely happy as if the validation was all she had waited for her entire life. It was also a form of validation when Nitesh had confessed that it was her fiery article criticizing the current government’s stand on propagating progress over peaceful co-existence that made him look out for her name and photograph on the newspaper’s website.
Their evenings were spent in co-existence too. Nitesh preferred to sit in the other bedroom with his two beer cans and salted peanuts, stooping over the screen of his personal laptop, occasionally raising his voice to ask her how her day had been and if she had to face any trouble from pesky telemarketers. Mostly she answered in short sentences from wherever she was. But on some days she entered the room and stood next to him. He would turn to look at her, then shut the laptop down and pull her close. Later in the night lying down on the mattress in the same room, they would tell each other stories of their childhood, his tone breathless and oblivious to everything else, her tone calculated and eager to impress. The lights were off, the heater set to a temperature that would eventually have them pull their legs free from inside the comforter. Her hands roved along his torso, but eventually settled down on his hairy paunch. As if on cue, he’d sigh about wanting to get rid of that extra fat, and yet not finding the inclination to frequent a gym where his dark brown stood out in a sea of white bodies. She would promise to cook him a light meal for lunch, but the next morning neither of them would remember the promise, as he would rush to the bathroom, and she’d continue to sleep till she’d hear the sound of the shower stop. At least she’d make him a cup of tea, the way he’d grown up drinking, with enough milk and tea powder and two spoons of sugar just the way he liked it.
On their first wedding anniversary, he drove her to a new Indian restaurant. She hated the place the minute she stepped inside it. Everything from the décor to the instrumental background music depressed her, reminded her of her identity in this strange place which probably was not even aware of her existence. And yet she nodded every time he exclaimed how much he enjoyed the ambience and the food. After their meal, he asked her if she’d be interested in some coffee and donuts they could pick up from a nearby Dunkin Donuts outlet, she complained of a headache. He’d been surprised, but just as soon seemed to have accepted the surprise. All along their way back he hummed a song she did not identify, even as he stopped the humming intermittently to check if she felt better. Something in the manner in which he leaned towards her when he did that, made her heart fill up with a kind of joy she had never known. Oh, she had been silly and stupid to deny someone like him that damned donut.confessing. She had hated the food and the restaurant and she had lied about having a headache too because she did not want to stop by to get the donuts and the coffee.
A few minutes later, they were sharing a large coffee and three glazed donuts in the Dunkin donuts parking lot, their car windows locked, their voices low and cautious to avoid any unwanted attention. He was telling her about how his mother had always been a terrible cook and that had built his tolerance towards practically any kind of food and yet he had secretly hoped that his wife would be different. Only, she wasn’t. But even if he resented her for not packing him boxes with proper home cooked meals that filled up the pantry with the smell of garam masala and roasted ginger garlic paste, like the wives of two of his Indian colleagues did, he looked forward to trying a different menu in the cafeteria. If there was anything he resented more, it would be the terror of being predictable, of not being able to try something different. She was unsure how she would react to everything he told her, apart from the confused smile on her face. He waited too, as if he wanted to extract a response other than that smile he clearly did not fathom. But a few seconds later, he pulled the car in reverse and backed out of the parking lot, saying it was getting late and they should get back home.
Now, as Sheena lies down on the sofa in her living room, her eyes stuck on the slow moving blades of the fan on her ceiling, and her hands neatly folded against her forehead, she wonders how things would have been if she had indeed responded to that confession. She could have ‘apologised’ for failing in her duties of a wife or just held onto his hand in a silent promise of better days to come or probably just chided him for not telling her this earlier but also that she could not do much about this. Maybe with any of these straightforward responses, he would have not been tempted to share anything anymore. Maybe he had attributed her lack of reaction to her implicit acceptance or maybe possibly her implicit love for him. Had she said something, maybe their lives would continue in the same tone till she would have her own H1B and her own job, and then they would have newer topics to talk about and newer issues to deal with, till she’d find herself on the brink of 30 and panic about her biological clock ticking away. And so they’d have a child, their respective parents would come over. His parents being the more savvy ones would probably be the first to get their passports and dependent visas ready. His mother would boss around the kitchen for a while and then give up considering how homesick this Midwestern suburb would make her. And so on a particular Saturday morning all of them would pack themselves into their new minivan and head to the Hindu temple some 50 miles away. She’d go out of her way to introduce her in-laws to the people she knew, and many of these introductions would materialize into invitations for lunch, and they’d attend those too, till her husband and she would build a wall so deep around themselves that no sordid secrets from their pasts would ever be able to penetrate through it.
Or was his next confession a calculated one, no matter what her reaction was. Did he think she would have easily forgiven him as he had cleverly mentioned her flaw and how he didn’t mind it at all. But he couldn’t have equated the two. Or could he? He was only 18 when he first went to a college party, he began to tell her just after they entered the apartment and she had offered the last piece of the last donut to him. She was tempted to interrupt him in exchange of throwing herself down to sleep but after everything that had passed between them the whole day, she decided to let him talk, sitting down on the couch where he soon accompanied her.
He was only 18, he repeated and then added, almost two inches short of his current height . His otherwise pleasant face was packed with uncomfortable acne. He was accompanied by his three friends. It was a ‘private’ New year party and only one of the three friends knew the organizer personally. But the rest of them had been assured that any number of ‘friends’ were allowed as long as they were escorted by someone on the guest list. He had closed his eyes at the sudden onslaught of the disco lights blinking all round him. They were inside a shapeless hall. He noticed small groups huddled together over bottles of beer and cigarettes dangling from intangible mouths. He was filled with dread and anticipation, both at once. Afraid to be left on his own, he feverishly made sure he was with his friends at all points of time. And yet he was proud enough to not display his naiveté. Even though he had not quite developed his taste for beer then, he made sure he sipped everything inside the bottle and successfully concealed the rising discomfort inside the pit of his stomach. He laughed at the dirty jokes being tossed around, hooted when one of the boys around them compared his frail maid’s breasts to grapes, convincing himself that this was the most liberated he had ever felt.
And in a way liberated might have been the word as he slowly separated himself from his friends and made his way through the rest of the crowd. He was pleasantly surprised when he found that the girls in the hall were actually accepting of his smile even if not necessarily receptive. He was aware he was still not in a position to ‘pick’ a girl of his choice, so he took time in making his way across the room. And yet it was her that had ended up picking him. She was almost as tall as he was, her hair tied in a neat plait that hung against her shoulder. Her glasses were tucked inside her T-shirt and he noticed a bunch of cigarette butts strewn around her. Noticing his eyes on them, she was quick enough to clarify not all were smoked by her. He laughed, liking her already for she would always be the prettiest woman who had expressed any kind of interest in him. Soon they had begun to talk on topics and matters that he still could not recollect. But he remembered how she sang to herself and then threw herself on him, only to pull herself away with a loud, embarrassed laugh that was easily drowned in the hum of the classic rock numbers being played in the hall. He would have been extremely happy passing out in that same haze till one of his friends would find and carry him back to the hostel room. But she had begun to look at him in a funny manner. She was half lifting herself up and extending her hand towards him. He instantly felt himself go hard inside his pants as he caught her hand and led her away.
The reasons for why he had done that continued to remain a blur in his head, no matter how hard he tried to unearth them. But he could clearly remember how he had pinned her down on the floor, hastily pulled at her clothes and then buried his face on every part of her bare body his hands could find, even as she continued to cry and beg of him to let her go.
When he finally realized what he was doing, his first reaction was of intense shame, not for himself, but for her tired, writhing body, struggling to get away from him. His hold on her loosened, as she managed to push him away and then comically jumped to collect her scattered clothes. He did something like jump too, unsure if he should apologize or just run away from there. His heart skipped a beat at the latter thought. Running away was what criminals did.
“I am sorry,” he said at last, cautiously walking towards her.
“No, now I will kill you. Now I will. Just get away from me. Just get away. Or else I will kill you,” the girl cried, hands folded against her chest, knees beginning to bend and yet defiant.
None of this made sense to him, and yet he dared not continue the conversation. He did just what she asked him to, got away from her, got away from the party. He ran and ran and ran, till he was safely in his house, locked inside his bathroom with the taps opened in full swing to drown out the world around him, his eyes wide open, and his mind a bloody mess.
Sheena’s mind is a mess too, and so is her body drenched in sweat. The fan speed needs to be increased from 1 to at least 4. The afternoon has suddenly heated up. Plus, she is hungry; the little milk and cereal she had in the morning all lost inside the rumble of her stomach. But she feels no inclination to step out of her sweat or her hunger. She lifts her T-shirt, and begins to blow air on her mid-riff in long held breaths, just the way he used to.
They’d have still survived, she thinks in between two long breaths. Even through his words, it seemed to be a place and time so very far away from her existence. If she’d think hard, she’d probably find many reasons to despise herself too. But that only meant she was a flawed human being, like everybody else. And flaws could be… forgotten, if not fixed. And so for a few days, they pretended to forget the confession, desperately trying to hang on to the fact that the girl had not pressed any charges against him. Of course, Sheena dangerously tread close to imagining the reasons for the girl’s not doing this, but her belief in him made it easy to veer herself back on the path of familial. He wanted her, he understood her, he would never leave her. She’d simply to try to give him at least one of those three things back.
But the confession persisted like a shadow in their lives. It loomed over their dinnertime conversations, their embraces, their stolen glances that now began to seem perverse in their secrecy. She knew he noticed all of this too and clearly felt anguished. She could read it on his face, the endless sequence of guilt and desperation. Some nights she woke up to see him lying down on his back, his eyes wide open, as if they had forgotten the art of shutting down. She longed to hold him close and tell him it would all be alright, even if she wasn’t certain if anything would ever be alright any more.
And yet it was on one such night that she switched the side lamp on, and asked him something she’d been meaning to ask for a long time. She wanted to know who that girl was. He was surprised by that demand, and yet like every other time, seemed to have accepted the surprise just the same. Of course he knew who she was, or rather he found out. Mona, who was now married, and from her life chronicled on the new social media sensation Facebook, seemed happy with her husband and young son. He offered to show her the pictures on Facebook, but she declined, saying they should both go to sleep now, and never talk about this again. So what if he was scared to reach out to her. So what if he was afraid that his attempts at displaying his guilt to her would only ruffle all the feathers that were painfully settled on the carpet of time. He pulled her close, as if in gratitude, and she let him.
But when she did check the profile all on her own, she was surprised to see a face that seemed so much older than she had expected. Her husband had left out this important detail. He had overpowered someone older than he was. But every other information he had parted with seemed authentic. She did seem to be happy, or at least content with her husband, and her son. There were pictures of vacations in Indian hill stations she had never heard of. There was a Christmas tree decked up with tiny knick-knacks. There were pictures of new haircuts and new dresses. Soon, she was obsessed with this profile. She downloaded full size photos of the family and kept staring at them as if she’d discover the answers to questions that were not clearly formed in her head yet.
The message was sent out just after she noticed a new picture on her timeline. “Back when I was slimmer and younger”, the tag-line read. She noticed a much younger version of the woman she had silently fallen in love with. She noticed the hair, thicker and longer. She noticed the limbs, the arms, and the hips. She imagined that body writhing. She imagined her husband’s hands roving all over it. She closed her eyes. This madness had to stop.
As she gets off the sofa and walks up to increase the fan speed, she imagines how the meeting in the next two days will turn out. What could she possibly talk about to a woman whose whole life she has imagined in her head? Would she mourn the death of her marriage even before it had a chance to assert itself to this stranger directly responsible for it? Or would the stranger gradually dig out and put on a display for her, the grief and angst hidden in her happy Facebook posts? For it had to be that, had it not.
* * *
4- The Escape by Pravin Vemuri
When the thirty-something couple returned from the station, they were so tired, they didn’t unpack or undress or even switch the Wi-Fi back on. They simply dropped their bags next to the door, dragged their bone-weary-selves to the bedroom and slumped into a coma.
It was only in the rapidly darkening evening, then, right when Mummy was about to put the tea on, did the light shine upon her. And she took off screaming, running from room to room to check every nook and corner the Baby had been previously recovered from, soundlessly playing one of its ‘games’ (like the time she found the Baby hiding in her closet, ripping out her silk sarees with a pair of scissors). And then just to be sure, Mummy opened up all the luggage lest Daddy’d inadvertently packed the Baby into one of them because of that time last month when he had driven to his office with the Baby in his backpack (the Baby had snuck into it while he was having breakfast, so it wasn’t Daddy’s fault, really). And had the security not alerted him, the Baby, having crawled out of his bag and waited long enough for Daddy to leave the car, would have, by its own admission, driven off to the zoo or somewhere else more ‘fun’. And it was only when she woke Daddy up, did they realize that their phones had been turned to silent all this time. Daddy jump-crawled across the bed to grab them but there weren’t any calls or messages on either.
Mummy began to jump about the way she did when panicked. “Dear God! Oh my God! Oh, dear God” she kept saying, “What do we do? What do we do now?” Daddy sat up on the bed and held his head by the temples the way he did when he felt frantic. Mummy stopped jumping when she ran out of breath and sat down next to him.
Daddy said he was tired. Very, very tired. He felt twice his age. He had been working ninety hours a week, every week until this desperate-desperate-weekend-getaway. Not that he had gotten any sleep during that time what with the Baby crying, screaming, crapping and biting his face all the time.
Daddy groaned and cradled his face in his hands. “I should just take the car and go looking. What am I even doing sitting here?” he said. Mummy closed her eyes and rested her head on Daddy’s shoulder. She had been sleeping so little that her face has become irreparably sunken, her skin had turned sallow and the circles under her eyes resembled blackened half-moons.
“Where do I start looking though?” Daddy said, “Where would I even start?”
Mummy pursed her lips and nodded. The Baby could be anywhere, literally. Twice they’d recovered the Baby from travelling circuses where it had been cast as a mini-clown named ‘Bobo’ (at both the places) and once they had found the Baby crawling through the aisles at a seminar on financial suffrage.
Mummy looked out the window. It was now dark outside. Daddy was a terrible driver, worse at night and almost a danger to himself when he was so under-slept.
“No, don’t go yet,” she said, “We need to clear our heads first. Then we figure out what to do next.” She stood up. “Let me get you something,” she said and went into the kitchen to fix a scotch for Daddy and then relented and fixed one for herself too. And in that oppressive silence of the evening they took their glasses and sat in the balcony to take in the night air and let the drink worm its way into their souls.
“There! Do you hear that?” Daddy said as they were finishing their drinks.
“No! I don’t hear anything at all.”
“Exactly!” he said and sighed.
Afterwards, Mummy went back to the kitchen to cook them a meal in God knew how long and Daddy opened a bottle of wine and put on an early Miles blues record for them to dine to. Over dinner Mummy asked if they should, maybe, alert the police and they looked at each other for a moment and began to laugh so hard that they began to cramp all over. “Next you will ask for the military!” Daddy said and this time they had to hold on to the table such that they didn’t slip into a cardiac shock.
When they went to bed, there was an inevitability to their love making. It was, surprisingly, as familiar as if they had never stopped and much like the jazz they loved, without a single false note. Daddy dreamt that it was sunny and bright, and he was riding the waves like some gilded God from the Greek legends. The wind was in his hair and the sun was guiding his path through the shimmering waves as he bisected the ocean to a tropical beach where there were endless nubile women swaying to the mellowed stylings of Bob Marley.
Mummy dreamt of a perfectly tuned harp and wide, open fields of lush golden dandelions. Daddy awoke because Mummy was splashing water at his head. The station master had called, she was yelling so he shut up and sat up in bed.
“What Station Master?”
“The one who has our Baby!”
The Station Master had called to ask if they were going to recompense him for all the milk and biscuits he had been feeding the Baby and, of course, for his unsolicited hospitality. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed the Baby’s company. For the most part anyway. In the beginning, the Station Master had been telling everyone who had cared to ask, that the Baby was his grandchild and as a result, they had been receiving chocolates and sweets and toys from practically every family passing through. But now it was getting to the end of his shift and he really needed to go back home and there were no biscuits or chocolates left at the station, the Baby had eaten every single one of them and it was getting, like, seriously cranky and was defecating all over his office! So, please, please, please, could they come and get it as soon as they can?
Also, Mummy said, their parents had been calling. And those wretched old women from the third floor had come along as well to see how the Baby was doing!
“I can’t keep lying! I just can’t! We need to go and bring our Baby home!” Mummy was jumping about again.
Daddy bent over and groaned. He held his temples and begged for something that could help get him out of bed. Mummy shook her head, fuming but she went into the kitchen anyway and made them a large pot of coffee and over the several cups of coffee they downed, they calmed down somewhat and they moved to the living room and sat down at the table and confessed to one another that they had slept better last night than they had in what felt like decades and that they had had dreams they could remember and that they really needed that drink and food that was, for a change, home-cooked and that, for once, they hadn’t fantasized about running away to become celibate monks.
But, but, but, there was really no debate anymore, they had to go get their Baby back. At the same time, however, they could, maybe, have one last decent meal before they left? A little food never killed anyone, right?
So, Mummy made them some scrambled eggs with toast on the side while Daddy chopped up some fruits and added a bit of milk and vanilla concentrate and threw them all into the blender to whip up frothy milkshakes just the way Mummy loved them. And when they ate, they ate wordlessly, sitting next to one other, holding each other’s hands and reading the morning papers for every word they had printed.
Later, on their way back from the station, the Baby got so mad that it kept pulling and ripping Mummy’s hair until some of it came off and punched Daddy again and again and again in his groin and when they got home, the Baby cried and it cried and it cried and smashed Daddy’s phone to pieces and in general, didn’t let them sleep or live or do anything else in peace ever again.
* * *
5- White Out by Rebecca Lloyd
Quite often, in the early days, Lester used to say to me, ‘I’m so in love with you, Clara, all I want is to make you happy.’ That phrase hung about like a hard to reach, shrivelled, ceiling cobweb in the back of my mind for a long time, and when recently I realised what was wrong with it, I snarled out aloud. You see, the declaration assumes that if you are a woman alone, you can’t be happy—and the duty of the man is to supply the missing happiness whether you want it or not and whether you love him back or not. I was watching Lester settle into the garden lounge chair with his newspaper and drink. I surprised myself when the snarl escaped me. Only minutes before, I’d been kneeling in the grass amongst thousands of tiny daisies that were making a swathe of whiteness on the lawn as they opened up in the sun. As I reached out for the first daisy and grasped its slender stalk to pluck it from the ground, another badly-kicked about phrase came to me which was that if you love someone you would do anything for them, and that was what I was engaged in there, on the lawn, on a July morning twelve months after I married Lester Baxter.
And when I thought about my revelation further that night at dinner with Lester sitting opposite me wearing his dark glasses, and my own fingers stained with green, I realised that all girls and women were expected to feel gratitude for the love offered by men, and in the beginning when I was still a zombie, I did love Lester in the required and creepily sacrificial manner demanded of my gender. Yet, I think I was subconsciously taking note of the numbers and severity of sacrificial actions I needed to undertake in order to look after my relationship with him.
As I stared at him, I recalled with some amazement the contentment I used to feel as an unencumbered woman choosing how I thought and what I did— alone. So therefore, I cannot explain exactly why I ever did marry Lester. I can only say, as feeble as it sounds, that it was expected of me. I didn’t know about the ‘thing’ at that stage either, but had I done, it wouldn’t have made any difference to my decision to become Lester’s wife, because that zombie-fied part of my girl-brain told me to do it, and the world I had grown up in guided me towards it relentlessly.
Before we were married, I was living in a tiny flat overlooking the horse chestnut trees in the park and I’d been there for seven years, but Lester had moved from rented flat to rented flat many times over. One evening in the Flaming Steak Restaurant, the place on the corner that has red carpets covered in dizzying swirls of even deeper red, Lester was telling me the details of each move he’d made, and I became aware that my boredom had reached such an extreme pitch that I felt as if I was being slowly strangled.
I reached for my wine quickly. ‘You moved eleven times in one year, Lester? Gosh!’
He noddedand pushed his dark glasses back onto his face with his little finger. ‘It takes a lot of energy, you know. Not something to contemplate lightly, but needs must, as they say.’
At this stage in our relationship, while I didn’t yet know anything, I did sense something dark and hidden about him, but then men who are mysterious are supposed to be desirable… or is that just women?
‘Don’t tell me you’re a murderer, Lester,’ I said, ‘and you’ve cut the bodies up and stuffed them into drains and sinks and toilet bowls and things, and then moved on.’
I saw the imperious flaring of his left nostril and the little flickering look of contempt he gave me, but it simply made me laugh because in those days I felt invincible.
‘Please don’t be disgusting, Clara,’ he whispered, ‘I hate it when you talk like that.’
‘Like what… talk like what?’
He shrugged, unable to express himself, and it was only recently, on thinking back, that I realised what must have been going through his mind.
Perhaps I should’ve taken as a sign the fact that he fell out with my mother about the wedding dress I was to be swaddled in. He didn’t have a mother of his own which merely saved him from falling out with two mothers at the same time, I suppose. He got his way about it and my mother never forgave him; I married him in a child-like apricot coloured suit with orange piping around the collar. I didn’t personally care too much one way or the other, and anyway, as a wife, you’re supposed to do things to please your husband. But I did think about white wedding dresses and wondered if most men secretly hate them because they’re pretty stupid … the dresses… but pretend not to because men are supposed to flatter their wives to keep them sweet.
We moved onto the Wilkinson Road Estate where all the houses are made of red brick and each is separated from the place next door by a hedge. And each hedge has something creepy to say about the occupants; some are bulging savagely onto the pavement, others have ragged waving tops too high to reach with shears, and between houses there are quite a few hedges one side of which is neatly clipped and the other triumphantly overgrown and hanging with those sniggering little white flowers that the ordinary hedge is not supposed to have.
When we first came to look at the area, one of Lester’s fears was that we would end up living in a house next to a flowering hedge. There were plenty of houses for sale on the estate because it is a forlorn place full of limping dogs and staring children and the bus stops are a long way away from each other. Lester examined every hedge in the streets we drove through looking for those that had been pruned so savagely they resembled green Lego bricks. He finally found the house that we bought.
I wasn’t particularly eager that we should own a place, and although I didn’t voice it to myself, it was because I was afraid of the binding nature of the commitment. I worked in the old library where everything is brown wood and discreet coughs, and Lester worked from home running Ponds for Life where all the materials were green, black— or khaki, a colour he liked to wear himself, and while we both still had those jobs, we could afford the mortgage. But home ownership tied us down extremely tightly and I’d begun to sense that I hadn’t seen anything of the world— its people, its jokes and its weirdness.
The grave fact of my commitment to Lester dawned on me in idle moments, triggered equally by tantalising flashes of freedom in the form of mountains, oceans and forests glimpsed on TV, and by a growing awareness of the slowly increasing mundanity of my own life. Yet, perversely, those thoughts were always followed and dampened down by things my mother and her friends used to mutter. For instance, marriage is something you have to ‘work at,’ you have to ‘make compromises,’ you have to overlook the weaknesses of the other person—a marriage is a partnership ‘for better or for worse,’ and most sinister of all, ‘you’ve made your bed and now you’ve got to lie in it.’ I didn’t think much about those familiar sour little sayings before I was married, but then in those days, as a girl-zombie, I was sleepwalking into my future and did not notice the chilling undertone of the words.
I made a lot of compromises for Lester Baxter, and willingly so before he finally told me about the ‘thing’ but at the same time I was becoming irritated with some of his more cringing habits. The one I most disliked was something he did with his body through which he expressed his own exasperation with me in a manner that I fully sensed would not have occurred at all if we’d both been men. It would come about in this way: ‘What time is it, Clara?’
‘I’ve told you repeatedly that I don’t wear a watch, Lester. Can you not discover the answer to the question by yourself?’ In those days, I was able to speak to him like that, slightly surly, slightly hollow with tiredness. ‘Where’s that nice black and very expensive watch that you wanted so badly, and that I got for you—the one for deep sea divers with all the extra little dials on it?’
‘I don’t know, Clara. You hide my things all the time, don’t you?’
Apart from his black glasses, or perhaps because of them, he lost stuff regularly, house keys, car keys, visa cards, combs, the book he was reading, cuff links, nail clippers, train tickets, and I know now that it wasn’t surprising because he had to be alert all the time to the ugly possibilities connected with the ‘thing’, and it made him careless of other simpler matters.
‘Don’t be silly, Lester, of course I don’t hide your stuff,’ I replied as I always did dutifully and without emotion, because his statement wasn’t so much an accusation as a ritual performance a bit like casting a spell.
‘But I thought I had two reams of that yellow paper, and I can’t find the second one because you’ve moved it, and that means I can’t do my billing today.’
‘Lester, I’m on my way to Addles right now, so I’ll pick one up for you,’ I replied. But I did resent it slightly because reams of paper are heavy, and I had lots of food shopping to do, and it was always me who had to do it; it was pointless expecting Lester to help with anything that would take him outside the house and potentially put him in difficult situations. For a long time, I did those domestic tasks willingly, as one should in a marriage I had heard, and the resentment was something that crept into me like subtle dampness on a wall, something you might not notice until the black mould begins to form in pimples, rings, and blotches of ugliness.
‘But can you do something for me, Lester, in exchange?’
‘What is it now?’ he asked, swinging his chair back and around in one movement. ‘I’ve got work to do here.’ He stood up, stretched and looked down at me.
‘That metal shelving unit, you said you’d put it together so there is somewhere for the books to go.’
‘What of it?’
‘Will you assemble it for me while I’m out? I’ve copied the instructions there on that paper. It looks dead easy.’
He didn’t want to do it. And this is what he did in reply — this is the something he did with his body that was both fascinating and repellent: his chest seemed to flop downwards suddenly as if God had cut the string that was holding him upright. His arms hung and dangled slightly, his hands limp as if injured. It was his best half-defensive, half-aggressive posture, although he had quite a range of them, and it was as if he was saying, ‘Oh, what now? Surely it’s something you can deal with yourself?’
Of course what he did say was, ‘I don’t think I have the time, Clara. What is the time, anyway?’
I became aware of the ‘thing’ in dribs and drabs at first, but it was a long time before I made the connection between it and Lester’s frequent bouts of hysteria, and as I knelt plucking the heads off those millions of daisies, apart from remembering the story of the girl who weaves shirts of nettles to free her brothers trapped in the bodies of swans, I was also thinking that I wanted to be free too, even if it meant living in the world with one damaged wing along with all the other widows, singletons, divorced women, hags and witches, queens, bitches, whores and princesses… the lot of them.
Lester Baxter, you see, had a phobia about the colour white, it’s a condition called leukophobia. Our sheets were dark brown, blue, or at their palest, deep yellow. The walls of the house we bought had to be painted in grey, red or green. I could not marry in white as my mother had wished me to. The paper he used could not be white. He wore dark and especially tinted glasses so that any accidental meetings of the colour white in unexpected places would be murkily transformed to something tolerable, and the glasses spared him from the immediate sight of the whites of my eyes.
I eventually found out about his leukophobia in a hideous way that has since made me hesitate about what to eat at breakfast time. We’d moved into our new house on the Wilkinson Estate and were busy painting walls and choosing furniture, and we’d set off one day in the car to go to Rekarea to buy the metal shelving units we liked. Lester was driving. We rounded a corner at a reasonable speed and went straight into a van. The van was red. It was carrying eggs. The eggs were white. The back doors of the van shot open on the impact and the trays of eggs were flung up high into the air and came back down to the ground again splattering all their yellowness around. But when all was still, the road was covered in tiny white humps and curves and Lester opened his mouth and howled like a dog and then banged his head repeatedly on the steering wheel.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘it wasn’t your fault; he was on the wrong side of the road.’
‘I want to be sick, Clara.’
‘Oh, Lester, take a deep breath. I’ll go and talk to the guy.’
‘We have to go now. Look at the road. Something like this could only happen to me. God is punishing me.’
‘What are you talking about, Lester?’
‘The white, the white, I’m talking about the white!’
Later on, that evening, he told me about the phobia and at first, I wanted to roar with laughter, but the sight of his face stopped that instinct in me immediately. A desire to protect him oozed into me next, but it was quickly dwarfed by a still stronger desire to slap him. He sat on the sofa bundled up in his brown furry dressing gown rubbing one foot against the other and sniffing every so often. I had made him some cocoa for want of anything better to do and stared at him from the chair opposite. I realised that in my attempt to please Lester Baxter as his wife, I had willingly complied with what I had thought were his many little quirks and eccentricities before I ever knew about his leukophobia— and now everything fell neatly into place and I felt horribly cheated. I tried to think of all the things in nature and in human life that come in white like clouds, snow, sheets, paper, washing powder, tissues, the hair of the very old, tennis balls, teeth, laboratory mice.
We’d been in our house for close to a year before the very beautiful white daisies on the lawn became obvious. Lester opened our bedroom curtains one summer morning and howling in terror like a wild hog suddenly cornered and speared, he threw himself, sobbing, back onto our bed. When he’d found his glasses, put them on, had some tea and recovered a little, he asked me if I’d known about the daisies all along. And that was cruel, but not unexpected because I had come to the sickening realisation that cruelty attaches itself parasitically to fear like a deformed extra appendage, a withered third leg protruding from the stomach region, or a limp and flapping hand sticking out of a neck, with proper fingernails and everything.
Lots of us live with people who are terrified of one thing or another and in some cases when sacrificial love burns very brightly, the fear can be coddled and soothed into submission. But, fear of heights or lifts is not in the same league as fear of whiteness. It hadn’t snowed over the time I’d known Lester Baxter, and as I lay beside him watching his eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses I thought of a good question.
‘Is it a matter of degree?’ I began, very softly, very kindly.
He frowned. ‘You mean the amount of it?’
‘Yes, Lester, the amount. Like if there had been only one or two daisies would it have been as bad as a lawn-full?’
He turned his head slightly in my direction. ‘Well obviously not, Clara, even a six- year-old could deduce that, surely? If you suddenly find yourself in a field full of angry bulls, isn’t that a lot worse than a field in which there is only one?’
He sighed. ‘I was looking forward to sitting outside today after all this rain. That’s probably what brought them all up though.’
‘Well, that’s why I’ve been saying we should buy a lawnmower,’ I replied.
He sat up, and swung his legs over the side of the bed, so that his back was facing me. I could see him trembling slightly in his agitation. ‘So you knew all along it had daisies on it, then?’
‘No, Lester, I did not.’
‘So when you say that’s why we should buy a lawnmower, what exactly do you mean?’
‘I just mean that buying one isn’t a luxury like you keep saying.’
‘Then why can’t you choose your words properly when you speak to me? It’s like living with an idiot child,’ he told me.
That made me angry. ‘Don’t ever call me a child again; it isn’t me for whom all the compromises have to be made in this marriage, Lester. All the supermarket packaging I have to hide, the fact we can’t ever eat rice which I happen to like, the gloomy walls and the bloody ridiculous sheets, it’s all been for you.’
There was a very long and sticky kind of heavy silence. ‘I thought you loved me,’ he murmured eventually in a tiny voice.
‘I do love you.’
‘It doesn’t sound like it and most of the time it doesn’t feel like it, either.’
‘It doesn’t feel like it? Fine! Should I stop wearing the black gloves at night, and then you’d be able to know what my hands, as white as they are, can do all by themselves.’
As it happened, my hands were brown because Lester encouraged me to go to the local tanning shop and come out orange-coloured as often as I could. He expected me to dress so that all parts of my body were covered both day and night. I wore an especially made black velveteen jumpsuit in bed like a giant baby-grow, and that way, no belly whiteness showed in those crucial moments— and he wasn’t actually looking down there anyway. Sometimes, if he was in a good mood, say if he’d sold one of his moulded ponds that day, he’d agree to be blindfolded and let me be naked. But then I kept my own eyes closed while he jiggled and flapped and slobbered, so I didn’t have to see the horror of a man in a blindfold looming above me, a man who couldn’t bring himself to look at my body.
Nevertheless, I loved Lester Baxter. ‘I’m going show you how much I love you,’ I said, as he lay blinking beside me on the morning of the daisies.
So, I took a bucket outside, knelt down, and began to pluck every single flower head off our lawn. When I’d finished, I took my husband’s hand and led him out onto the green space where I’d put up a sun bed chair device with cushions on it, along with his paper and a drink.
He gazed down into my face through his dark glasses with an expression that I could not quite understand. I think there was some love in it, but so small an amount that I may as well have missed it. As I was backing away, unwilling to leave too quickly in case love came to him suddenly on realising the enormity of my sacrifice, he said, ‘You missed one.’
I looked to where his finger was pointing and the tiniest shyest of daisy heads, a late opener, I believed, was there at the edge of the lawn. I strode over to it, ripped it out, and ate it in front of him.
As surely as I had loved Lester Baxter, I now hated him, suddenly and savagely. I stood trembling in the kitchen, watching him as he puffed up the cushions on the sun bed and lay down, arranging his black peeked cap, so that no white clouds above were visible to him.
‘It’s really pretty,’ the girl in the second-hand shop said. ‘We’ve got all the bits as well, if you want them.’
‘Unusual,’ I replied, ‘…to find such a thing, I mean. I saw it the other day as I went past your shop.’
‘Yes. Sad, really. Expensive-looking though. I’m sure no one will realise…’
‘No, it’s not for that. It’s for a fancy-dress party,’ I explained.
‘Oh, good!’ she said. ‘I’d have hated to think that you….Still, it’s sad to imagine who…. And do you want the rest of it?’
‘Absolutely,’ I said.
In the evening, I cooked for Lester, fed him and watched him. He complained, as he always did, about how people would not deal with their invoices promptly, and I nodded sympathetically.
‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ he asked.
‘Just taking you all in, Lester.’
He smiled. ‘And how was the library today?’
‘Oh, you know.’
He stiffened. ‘No, I don’t know, Clara, that’s why I’m asking you. I’ll ask you again. How was the library today?’
‘Brown,’ I said.
‘Good,’ he replied, and it was obvious he wasn’t even listening to me.
I waited until he was settled in front of his favourite TV program and went upstairs to the spare room. When I was ready, I emerged slowly and made my way through the back door and round the side of the house to the French windows.
Lester was fiddling with something on the table in there and it was a few moments before he looked up. I stood my ground. I did not flinch even when he wailed in the most un-earthly manner and threw himself in terror onto the carpet, attempting, it seemed to me, to crawl beneath the sofa into the safe darkness there.
It’s not men of course, but women who are meant to be mysterious because then they’re alluring and otherworldly like angels or the Virgin Mary. I realised as much as I caught sight of myself in the mirror as I advanced steadily on Lester Baxter. I seemed to have become taller, more wraith-like, a pale shimmering stick figure in a long white veil that hid my face and most of my body—a terrible, terrible white thing.
I went back to the second-hand shop the following day. ‘Did you have fun?’ the girl asked. For a moment I could not remember what I’d said to her as I was in a glorious daze. ‘…at your fancy dress party, I mean. That was such a lovely dress, all those white lace flowers and things on it. Expensive, I thought, anyway.’
‘It was quite wild,’ I whispered, beaming at her. ‘I had a terrific time, but now I need a black outfit suitable for a funeral.’
‘We are born, we marry and we die,’ she said cheerfully. ‘What’s that nursery rhythm again?’
I knew the one; it describes the short, pathetic life of a guy called Solomon Grundy who, having been born on a Monday, lived, married and fell ill in one week, and by the time Sunday came around was dead and in his grave. Poor thing.
* * *