Archive for the ‘ Fiction ’ Category

The Things People Weren’t Allowed to Take on Aeroplanes – by Thomas Bunstead

Thomas Bunstead works as a video editor, subtitler and Spanish-to-English translator. After attending the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School in July, where he worked with author Eduardo Halfon and translator Anne McClean, he was picked to do a mentorship under Margaret Jull Costa, which is currently underway. He has translations of essay-stories by Enrique Vila-Matas forthcoming on the Words Without Borders website and in the introduction to documentA‘s collection of letters between Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno, and of a play by Puerto Rican playwright Luis Rafael Sánchez on the Out of the Wings website.

He has had short stories published at >kill author, Text’s Bones and The Lick and has recently completed his first novel, a work of historical fiction. He also contributes reviews and interviews to The Independent, the TLS3ammagazine.com and the Paris Review.

The Things People Weren’t Allowed to Take on Aeroplanes

Jonny got a job. Good thing, since he’d lost the last one when his mate’s roofing business had gone bust just a month before the baby was due. The baby was three weeks old when Jonny came back from the jobcentre with the news: Airport Security at Gatwick. That made it two months all told he’d been out of work, because the baby had arrived a week later than the due-date, having to be induced – ‘swept’ they called it. You don’t want to know, Katy had said; Don’t tell me, he’d agreed. She said to herself that this was him being protective, this distance was his way of showing her how he really felt. He didn’t care – four weeks of training, funny hours – but then straight to it. Nothing to it. After six months, a pay review. Jonny had worked enough jobcentre-provided jobs that he knew not to get too excited. Katy didn’t know if she should be pleased he wasn’t getting too excited.

After his second day on the job, he came back with a six-set of fig-flavoured yoghurts and a pot of expensive moisturiser. Be good for, you know, down there, won’t it? he said. The yoghurt or the Clarins? Katy joked.

The next couple of weeks he came back with Marks & Spencer’s orange juice, plus other drinks, many of them unopened, a boules set (‘Potential weapons’), some marvellously sharp barber’s scissors, a hash-encrusted peace pipe (‘Seriously, that’s what the guy called it’) with faux Native American or maybe Polynesian designs along the sides, and various moisturisers and sun creams (‘Anything over 250ml. and we just can’t let it slide’). Be good for the baby, his cracked feet, maybe? I s’pose, said Katy, not totally convinced.

Do the people you work with take stuff? she asked, when he came back the next week with a spiky rolling pin-like implement: a foot massager, according to the passenger, potentially something to bludgeon people with according to the regs. Some of them, most don’t bother, he said. Seems like something to kind of welcome new staff, ease them into it – you go ahead, we helped ourselves when we started. And things only get chucked otherwise. Anyway, really nice stuff, things the passengers genuinely want to keep, if they’ve got time to queue all over again, they’ll go back and check them into the hold. This one kid had like a quarter-length samurai sword the other day, you wouldn’t believe. He was going nuts, his dad who looked like a Prime Minister or something, dripping in it they all were, he wasn’t exactly over the moon about the whole thing. Our line manager seemed like he might let it slide, but then the second the dad started giving it the whole ‘Do you know who I am?’ then there was no way they were taking that mini-katana on! I think the kid and his mum did go and check it in – just booked a later flight. Dripping in it. Katy nodded, picking the baby Geoff up out of the cot. He had started chewing his fist, which meant he was hungry.

One day, though, when Jonny came home he was really upset. He looked more than just tired, and not shrunken, not diminished the way people can do after a shock, but actually up-set – his shoulders were up, his eyebrows slightly, just-perceptibly up, like one of those celebrities from Katy’s magazines after not entirely successful Botox, lifted, alarmed, like an arch-backed cat and the wind had changed but, with it, terribly tired as well. Katy could have been imagining it but when he walked in the door, it looked almost as though his hairline had receded that one day.

It was horrible, he said. A Muslim woman, they had to arrest her in the end. She had all the robes on, the hijab is it, the burqa? I mean, it isn’t such a problem their faces being covered, but if you’ve got fifty layers it’s difficult for the guys with the hand-held metal detectors, and the people frisking you, right? You’ve got to let them do their job, right? We’ve even got a guy called Riad and this girl, Jamila, and they deal with Asians. Anyway, didn’t stop her from losing it. Ended up scratching this guy – Carlos, the seagull guy, you know? – right down the side of his face. It wasn’t even as if she didn’t have a command of English, she had some choice words for us, I can tell you! Right from the off you could tell she was ready for a ruck, even not being able to see her face you could tell she was uppity. I s’pose in a way at least it was only her; when the police came and took her off to one of the booths, at least there wasn’t some whole jihad of them, you know? The weird thing I found was, though, not long after, the passengers who were in the Customs Hall when it all happened, it wasn’t long before they’d all gone through; you know there’s probably like a hundred and fifty capacity in there, well, just like that, it felt like, they’d all gone. Then all the people coming in had no knowledge of what happened. Except us. The majority of the people who had witnessed it weren’t there any more, but the incident still was, in the air. There wasn’t a shift change for like another three hours, so all the staff carried on feeling the after effects – I mean, we’ve got an ex-sergeant major on our rotation, and you could tell even he was feeling it. We all got uppity! There were a couple of arguments, nothing too big, but everyone was just so on edge the whole time. Long bloody three hours.

Katy said soothing things. She knew it wasn’t the right time to agree that he looked bad, to make a joke of it. She gave him baby Geoff to hold. Then, a lightbulb lit up – he didn’t have to go in the next day, did he? He’d been there almost four months, not taken any time, never even been late. Prawn curry, she said, rubbing his arm, I can ring if you want. He had a bath, using the soothing eucalyptus bubbles he’d bought Katy when she was pregnant, and then seeing a break in the wet and windy autumn weather allowed himself a beer and a cigarette on the front step, and just rested in the fact he wouldn’t be going to work tomorrow, a whole wide day. God. He slept deeply, before waking at his now customary 5:45 am. Having slept so well, though, he decided he would go in, he felt more than up to it. He thought, other people might have had the same idea, of taking a day, and him going in would look good as he approached that pay review. He left a note and went and got in the car with his Thermos.

Driving to work the sky was full of dark clouds, so that the blue-white of the dawn only showed here and there. It was still stormy, and around Haywards Heath the Toyota was lashed for a full five minutes by a downpour. The unreality of the final stretch of the journey clinched it for him – the always-alight undulations of the M23 and those final few junctions on the M25, with the dawn over south-east England, the forests and the towns, now threatening more fully to break apart the storm – he couldn’t say what it was exactly, but Jonny felt changed, unmistakeably.

Soon, Jonny stopped bringing home the things people weren’t allowed to take on aeroplanes.

Besieged – a short story by Miryam Sivan

Miryam is from New York City, and now lives in the Galilee. She teaches writing and literature at the University of Haifa. Several of Miryam’s short stories have appeared in Lilith, Arts and Letters, and Wasafiri. She has completed a novel, Concrete.

This piece was originally published in Lovers: Stories by Women in 1992 and in 2010, it was dramatized by the playwright and director Barbara Khan in the Lower East Sides Arts Festival in New York. It’s good to have it here – 2011 marks 20 years since the end of the Gulf War, when this story is set. Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait and was threatening to go into Saudi Arabia as well. The US and around 30 other countries landed troops in the Gulf; when they went into Kuwait to push the Iraqis out, Saddam Hussein made good on his threat and starting pounding the troops there and in Israel with Scud missiles. People were afraid that chemical weapons might be contained in some of the Scud missile heads coming from Iraq. So that’s the background – here’s the story – enjoy!

Besieged

The sirens are sounding. Everyone is running. The longer she waits for him, the more she endangers herself. She is standing by the old movie house on Allenby Street and the sirens are screaming death is coming. The night before a Scud fell and destroyed homes less than a mile away. What about Molly and Shira, her daughters, and Ezra, her husband? Everyone around her is running. She should run to a sealed room. She should belt the ugly porcine mask around her face and prepare for the gas. But she doesn’t. She stays on that corner, as if there is no danger, no crisis, ready to absorb violence, even death, she thinks, just to be with him one more time.

The sirens keep sounding. Two streets away the sea is licking the shore like a fat cat in a butcher shop. Cars are nearly flying. Will she able to describe to her daughters the thrill of touching death’s approach without fear? They would not understand. How could they? They will be frightened: she (willingly) jeopardized her life and theirs. Were she to die, killed by a collapsed building or by debris from the sky following an American Patriot’s impact on an Iraqi Scud, were she to become newsprint, they would forever ask themselves, why didn’t she protect herself and what was she really doing on that corner? But she and he have always met in Tel Aviv and neither mentioned meeting somewhere else when America’s war with Iraq began. In this congested metropolis, they experience equity. Here they can get lost together. Guilt for her children’s loss grows as the seconds pass.

Nadav is divorced and his children live with their mother on a kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley. Were he not meeting her, he would be studying for his classes at the Technion. Were she not married, she could be with him in his small apartment while he studied, or in the courtyard surrounded by a wall with blue tile and olive trees.

But the fact is they are meeting one another, and even though the highway is practically empty, he is half an hour late. Even on ordinary days, when the traffic from Nadav’s village north of Haifa moves freely, he is sometimes late. Like when they met. He had come to interview her for his school newspaper. He was expected at noon but showed up at six in the evening. She asked him why he had not called – his delay had interrupted her work schedule. He did not have a good answer, and hung his head like a scolded schoolboy. She laughed at that and then he asked her to tell him about the differences in light.

They walked outside her studio, a converted chicken coop, and around to where they could see the Judean hills and the remaining daylight. She said light fades by the coast and disappears in the mountains. She said space and light are married. Light is the source of everything and space the vessel which molds it. They returned to the studio and he stayed for some wine. When asked, she showed him some of her recent canvases. Nadav wanted to know why she used so many bruise colors. His question was like a dare. A probe. And while she quickly searched for an answer, she felt the stirrings of a sensual curiosity. It startled her, because of its clarity and its surprise. In twelve years of marriage she had never felt the stirring of the sensual outside of her daughters, her painting and Ezra. It excited her. It frightened her. When she drove him to the bus station, he told her he had just come back from reserve duty in Lebanon. She calculated he was ten years her junior. A week later he called and asked if she would like to see a copy of the article. She said yes and then he sent her a number of funny notes to the studio and when she went to visit a friend in Haifa two months later she called him and they had dinner. A day later he called and asked her to meet him in Tel Aviv at the Hotel Barcelona. That was six months ago.

As the sirens press on, she begins to inventory those others beloved to her. Shira and Molly, seven and ten years old, are in school. Right now they are being shepherded into the classroom at the end of the hall whose windows are covered with plastic and where books have made room on the shelves for cans of food and boxes of powdered milk. They are with many responsible adults. As this moment, Ezra is in his spartan office in a municipal building, looking over an American company’s joint venture proposal to manufacture light bulbs in a desert development town. Like her, he is reluctant to shroud himself in a sealed room, but not because he is unafraid of death. He is not sharing her almost transcendent moment of freedom. Ezra is terrified. She can easily picture him sitting at his desk holding papers firmly in a hand trying to steady itself. He stares at the hand and is defiant. Not of death, but of the gas. Two weeks earlier he put his concentration camp surviving parents on a plane to Eilat and the threat of gas out of his mind.

Her parents are in the sealed room of their Jerusalem apartment. Twenty years in Israel, they have learned to remain calm in crises and are probably watching the news and eating her mother’s freshly baked chocolate cake. They have each gained three kilos since the start of the war.

And when in turn each family member does her and his own accounting and asks where she is, it will be noted that she is in her studio in the hills south of Jerusalem, working long hours to complete a series of canvases she intends to take with her to New York. Her annual pilgrimage to the money mecca is only two weeks away. And since she has prepared a ‘sealed room’ in the low dark shed where extra supplies are kept, she is most likely to be in that dark shed now, reading the morning’s paper with a candle or flashlight.

She has been so busy preparing for this year’s trip to New York and now on top of everything, the war, that what little time she had to spare, precious time to see him, has been eclipsed. Twice she cancelled and once she simply didn’t show up. This afternoon is to be the first time in a month they will be together. Everything in her bursting life is organized. She is determined to exercise some control, at least for one afternoon. To hell with the missiles.

A policeman runs past her and tells her to seek shelter. She hesitates. She cannot give up just yet. The sirens whip around her and she pushes back against them. They taunt her with her recklessness, her compromising desire. The wail pulls harder at her, like a troubled prayer, and she thinks of her daughters’ slender limbs and her husband’s strong voice and decides she has waited long enough.

“Ilana,” Nadav calls her by her name, grabs her by the shoulders, and they run together as if by instinct. The sirens flail through the empty streets like Lilith seeking retribution. The streets have become wind tunnels of horror.

Nadav and Ilana spin and fall into the doorway of an old house. She wants to put the gas mask on. She wants his face buttoned to hers. He presses his mouth down on her, hard, his teeth grind against her lips. She and he fill a doorway with too much light, and it is still not enough.

He pushes her up against the stone wall. He stares into her eyes, daring her to speak, daring her to protest, while his hand moves through her skirt and cups her between the legs. His thumb jabs into her clitoris. It is okay that it hurts a little. They lean into one another, swaying like the piercing siren, buckling into a reprieve. He reaches under her skirt and thrusts his index finger into her. She can feel she is burning inside through his finger and catches herself before she falls. She opens his pants and takes out his erect penis, and she doesn’t rub it, she doesn’t move her hand, she just holds him firmly, and closes her eyes. He sucks on her lip and she says Nadav over and over and cries when the missile strikes, not far away, loud and compact.

They remain folded into the doorway until people begin to emerge, having listened for the all clear message on the radio. Ambulances take up the wail just as the air sirens die down. Again, everyone is running. Blue lights whip around wildly in police cars. The red lights of medical teams follow. And passenger vehicles of the Civil Defense take up the rear. Ilana holds Nadav to her. When a young man wearing a day glow orange civil defense vest stops and asks them if they are okay, Ilana hides her face in Nadav’s chest, and listens to his heart beating loudly when he says they are catching their breath.

More than ever, as the area is flooded with residents and then journalists, Ilana wishes to disappear. She wants to ask someone if Jerusalem’s been hit. For a moment, she is afraid. Ilana and Nadav run four blocks to the Hotel Barcelona. In the lobby, all the employees and guests are huddled around the television set. A foreign news correspondent broadcasts from his sealed room in a Jerusalem hotel. With the gas mask on it is difficult to understand what he is saying. He is interrupted by an Israeli anchor who says houses in the Ramat Gan area have been hit and one Scud overshot Tel Aviv.

Ilana feels unburdened. She and her family are safe. Nadav takes her hand and they walk up two flights to their room. It is painted light blue and has a small balcony looking out over the Mediterranean.

*

“Ilana.” Nadav stretches out on the bed beside her.
“I have a surprise, Ilana.” He holds a bottle of Russian vodka over her head. “A very special, perfect surprise.” He rolls the bottle down her back and props it between her thighs. It is still cold from the freezer.
“Is it open?” she asks.
“It’s been opened.”
Nadav lifts the bottle high enough for Ilana to roll on to her back and she grabs and drinks from it.
“I want to call.” She shoves the bottle away from her.
“Who?” he asks.
“Ezra.” She falls back on the soft bed and stares at the plaster patches on the ceiling.
“No, it’s not necessary. You heard already. Jerusalem’s safe.”

Ilana rolls off the bed and walks outside to the balcony. By now her children have returned to their classrooms where they will spend the rest of the afternoon decorating their gas mask boxes. Last night Shira cut out images and shapes from old art magazines. And Molly asked if she should use the watercolor or gouache to paint her cardboard box. Ilana said the watercolor would be easier and asked her what she wanted to draw. Molly said many of the kids were drawing missiles and ugly portraits of Saddam Hussein. But she wanted something beautiful, even glorious, on her box. She wanted to show a little girl sitting in a field of flowers, waving to her mother and father and younger sister who were walking towards her. She wanted a lot of colors and butterflies and a hot sun. Later in bed Ezra asked Ilana how someone draws a hot sun and Ilana drew a circle around his penis with her tongue.

Ilana watches the soft waves console the land, as they have through millennia of invasions. She sees herself dive into them and emerge, dive into them and emerge, like a thread basting two pieces of material together. She imagines Ezra in his office. His hand has not stopped shaking, his rage at the man who boasted he would turn Tel Aviv into a crematorium, has not died out. It has not yet fully surfaced.

“Ilana,” Nadav calls her. “Come here, sweetheart.”
His voice corrals her. She steps back from the balcony and resists him, just for a moment more. She sees herself dive and emerge one more time and the garment being created is made up of one half her and the other half Ezra.
“Ilana,” Nadav croons to her.

She used to share everything with Ezra. But over time, less and less. Now they mostly speak about the practical details of their lives: their growing daughters, their aging parents, the outstanding bills, politics, where to go in the summer, what to have for dinner.

“Ilana.” Nadav knows that at least for the time being nothing is more attractive to her than his insistence, his urgency to touch her. What she once had with Ezra. A primitive, almost carnivorous sensuality. When they were naked together she would feel most alive, all fractures of her self integrated, like colors into white. And then out of this implosion, Molly, and then Shira.

“Ilana,” Nadav sings to her like Solomon to Shulamith, and as Ilana backs away from the sea, she closes the curtain on one world and dramatically pulls it open to reveal another.
“Sweetheart.” Ilana falls on top of Nadav’s naked body and sucks his nipples. She licks his inner thighs and the soft skin behind his knees.

He undresses her quickly, with little grace, and twists around to mount her from behind. And then he waits. And she waits, impatiently. He wants her to want him more than she already does. He wants to obliterate her daughters, her husband, her studio and canvases, her trip to New York. He wants her to think of nothing but him. She is restless. He waits some more. His hand is pinching her nipple, it is stroking her breasts, soft and thin from nursing her daughters.

She thinks she’s never wanted any man as much as she wants him. On good days, she thanks the stars that when Nadav came to interview her, she was feeling unusually lonely. Ezra kept himself busy shaping the dream of Israel: meeting with foreign businessmen, going out with political dignitaries, conjuring up profitable schemes. She suggested a trip to Italy. Ezra responded diplomatically. He agreed enthusiastically and then could not find time to make the plans. She suggested he surprise her in the studio one afternoon. He said he would love to and never came. She had been replaced in his passion by his entrepreneurial ambitions, and not being able to compete, she withdrew. By the time Ilana met Nadav for the first time in this Tel Aviv hotel room, she have given up any hope of resurrecting the aura of sexual anarchy in her marriage. There were too many lists, too many details, too much safety between her and Ezra.

On bad days, she feels intrinsically flawed to be able to so easily love more than one man. She sits on the cold stone floor in her studio pounding her fists against her thighs. She wants to protect her marriage and still spends hours in front of a canvas, on the bus, while cooking, picturing Nadav: the way he hunches over his clipboard when he scribbles notes to himself; the way he gently lays his large callused hand on the small of her back; his spicy smell; the peace he brings to the frenetic space inside her when she is with him. And in the end she is left with the unfinished canvases for the New York show, the horrors of duplicity, and an aggravated ache for the safety and the rapture.

A man is screaming on the street to his wife to bring the children into the house. The air is suddenly heavy. Suddenly quiet. Ilana lifts her head to listen. Air raid sirens crash into the silence beating out their war cries. Scud missiles are on their way to Israel from western Iraq. Nadav is still. He does not let go of her. Ilana lowers her head to the bed. Again, chaos breaks loose on the streets. People are running. Cars are almost flying along the beach. She closes her eyes and sees Shira and Molly being shepherded back into a sealed room, taking with them their half decorated gas mask boxes. She sees her parents watching the world watch them on live broadcast, a bowl of sunflower seeds between them. She sees Ezra running to the window, his fists clenched, crying out in frustration. He is helpless to protect what he knows as his. A dog is barking down by the waters. Sirens rock the country. Danger reeks. Everyone is waiting.

Ilana reaches between her legs and guides Nadav into her. They surge one against the other, until there is no other, and first she and then he survive their own little deaths.

Julie’s Boys by Preti Taneja

Here’s a short story read live at Days of Roses a while ago, now edited for your pleasure. It’s all set around a retail park a bit like the one in Stevenage, where the author spent many a childhood weekend.

Julie’s Boys

“Chicken burger, large fries, coke to take away. Chicken burger, large fries, coke to take away. Chicken burger – ” Three hours ago Julie drove Jake home from work. Then she had a shower, got glammed up, and now she’s gone out with Ash. It’s Friday night and they’ve gone back to the retail park to watch a film and have a drink in the cinema bar like they always do.

Jake’s lying on his back on his bed, and he’s got ‘Chicken burger, large fries, coke to take away,’ going round his brain, over and over again. He’s trying to rub them words from his head with the music he’s got on, louder than loud should be allowed to go. He dreams that “Chicken burger” phrase some nights, he hears it so often, so often that he’s not sure he’s dreaming any more; and he knows that working at the retail park’s drive-thru Mister Chicken means he has fewer dreams, long term.

He turns it up some more and Shy Child start punching ring tones, bleeps, dial sounds and drums into him as if his brain is the phone, and he closes his eyes, trying to get in the moment like the singer is begging him to, but all he can see behind his lids is work.

Wipe clean yellow chairs, bolted to the floor, grimy tables that have served better days. Plastic food wrapped in plastic paper, the fat-bummed customers or spotty girls; there’s nothing to drool over in his day. Except Ash. Julie’s boyfriend. When Ash pulls up to the order point and Jake can see him – like a film star, a God in the tiny TV screen that’s balanced on the edge of Jake’s collect-and-pay window, Jake drools; fuck, does he drool when Ash pulls up. He drools over Ash’s car, his clothes, his gravely voice, the way he asks for a Mister Chicken special with a choc shake and medium fries, extra bacon on the burger, hold the sauce – Jake says “Coming right up!” as if he’s in a film too. It’s all he can do to smooth his hair and straighten his Mister Chicken badge and brighten his smile in the time it takes for Ash to roll up to the collect-and-pay window and hold out the money for his order. By that time, Jake has lost the power of speech.

It happened, just like that, this afternoon. All as usual. But something else happened that’s got him freaking out. Now he’s stuck on his bed, replaying it, trying to make sense of it all. Fuck, man, what the fuck am I going to do? Jake thinks. It’s OK, it will be OK he tells himself, but he knows he’s got a choice to make, and it’s no joke.

He remembers how he smiled when he saw Ash in his TV screen today, pulling up to the order point. Ash was on his phone, he wasn’t looking into the camera. In his mind he hears Ash’s voice again, and sees himself, like a patsy, in his stupid Chicken hat, immediately standing up taller.

“Mister Chicken special with a choc shake and medium fries, extra bacon on the burger, hold the sauce,” says Ash to the box.

“Coming right up!” says Jake, and watches Ash in the mirror to see if he reacts. He just rolls the car out of the camera’s range and about five seconds later, arrives in front of Jake’s window.

“Hey babe,” Ash says into his phone. Jake’s mouth goes dry. He reaches out his hand and takes Ash’s money without touching fingers and turns to his till, pressing the keys with his thumb.

“I miss your body,” says Ash to whoever’s  on the other end of the line. Jake’s thumb gets slower, he can hear every word in his ear and in his ear-piece. Right inside. Eh?

“You have a hot body, baby and I love lickin’ it slow,” Ash is grinning, Jake can hear it in his voice. He’s almost unable to move.

Is he talking to Julie? thinks Jake. Does he talk like that to Julie?

Jake pictures his sister in her pink and white New York Nails uniform, standing outside the salon across the car park, probably on her break, probably smoking with her best friend Jo instead of eating any lunch. He doesn’t want her to go hungry; he will take her a Mister Chicken no-Chicken salad later. The serving is too small to fill him up, but the plastic box is big enough; at least it looks as if he is bringing her a proper lunch.

“Yo where’s my change, Jakey?” says Ash. “This boy’s asleep on the job!”

Jake’s snaps back to Ash, laughing down his phone as he holds out his hand for his change. Ash doesn’t look up as Jake places the coins, carefully into his open palm. Both of them focus on the money. For some reason, Jake wants to say, “Sorry, I’m sorry Ash.” But he doesn’t. Speechless.

Ash finishes his call. “I am so ready for you – I’ll see you in five. Make sure you’re ready!” He laughs again, claps his phone shut and finally looks at Jake. “See you brother!” He punches the air with his right fist in that way he has, and then he drives off. Jake stands there while the old Mister Chicken feeling: boredom, with a side of frustration, settles down on him like a comfort blanket. But something isn’t right. It’s as if he’s nine again, and Julie is thumping him gently through the blanket over and over, trying to tell him something, trying to make him listen to her. Thump – “Jake!” Thump – “Jake!” Thump – “come on Jake!”

I’m not your brother, Jake stupidly thinks. I’m Julie’s. Is Ash going to marry Julie? That would make us brothers. If they get married will Julie still let me go out with her? Will Ash talk to me more? Hey, he’ll have to. He’ll have to because we’ll be brothers. And the three of us will go out together. On Julie’s lunch break, they’ll both come over…Hold up, if Julie is on her break, why is Ash talking to her on the phone as if she’s miles away, not just across the car park? And why is he ordering chicken? She’s a vegetarian. Why isn’t he with her?

For a moment Jake wants to cry because he thinks his sister is skiving off work and is waiting somewhere, maybe to have sex with Ash, and Ash is on his way there now. Jake raises himself slowly to his tiptoes and cranes his neck like Mister Chicken, waiting for the chop. “I’m not taking her a fucking salad,” he mutters to himself, then stops. In the back of his mind, Julie is still trying to tell him something. He cranes his neck a bit further – Julie’s car is still in the car park; he can see it where she always parks it, a bit crooked, half way between Mister Chicken and New York Nails, she’d rather park like that than spoil her fresh done fakes. The car hasn’t moved.

Finally he gets it. Ash was talking to someone else. He was arranging a hook up with someone else. Not Julie.

“Fuck,” says Jake.

“Twelve chicken nuggets, coke and fries.” In the TV screen, a woman with a big forehead looks pissed off. Did she hear him swear? He doesn’t care.

“Medium or large?” he says. Well-trained, that’s him.
“Regular.”
“That’s £5.99, please drive round to collect your order.”

Ash and Julie got together when Jake was 13. They were both in their last year of school, but Ash already had a job doing up cars at his dad’s Garage. Julie had it made, all her mates said so. Jake thought Ash was the business. Just being around him gave him like, the silliest smiley feeling he’d ever felt.

“Here’s your meal.”
“Thanks. Can I have a straw please?”
“Do you want one or two?”
“Just one, and some paper napkins. Thanks.”

Jake still remembers the first time Ash really spoke to him. Two years ago, when Jake was 14, Ash came up the stairs and into his bedroom. Julie was downstairs with Mum, getting the tea ready; Ash was invited to stay and offered to fetch Jake down. Ash knocked on the door, something no one else had ever done. When Jake looked up from the bed, Ash nodded instead of speaking, as if they were best mates, the same age. Jake took off his headphones and just stared back. Ash came into the room, sat down at the end of Jake’s bed and said: “I need to speak to you.”

“Chicken bucket special and four large fries, two large cokes.” A mum and a fat kid.
“Don’t forget the ketchup.” The kid leans over his mum.
“And four extra packets of ketchup.”
“That’s £16.98, please drive round to the collection point to pick up your food and pay.”

Need. What could Jake have that Ash, amazing 17 year-old Ash, with his fresh trainers, his gold chain, his proper wheels, possibly need? Jake still remembers the way he stared at Ash, mouth open, and sat totally still in case Ash suddenly realised where he was, punched him in the face the way Jake had seen him punch the air, and left.

“Three pounds and two pence change.” He offers the money, and the woman takes it, dropping one of the coins in the car, slapping her son’s greedy hands before driving away, coke straw in mouth.

Jake remembers how Ash got really close to him. “Jake. What if I told you that you’re the only one who can help me?” Ash gave him a smile as if it was a gift, wrapped up especially for Jake and with Jake’s name on it. Jake felt the sweat prickle on his palms and under his arms and he wanted to giggle. He concentrated on the bright red and white of Ash’s football shirt. Arse-n-all, he thought, and it made him want to laugh out loud, and cry.

“I am?” He said, hoping like mad that this wasn’t a joke. His mind raced ahead. Did Ash want him to give Julie something? Did he want to ask him something about Julie?

“Jake, you have a secret, don’t you?”
“Yes!” Jake wanted to shout. “I do!”
“Maybe,” he said. His heart was pounding and he slid his hands underneath his thighs to keep them still. Then he had to remove them and put them in his lap, and press stealthily down. He kept his eyes on Ash, but Ash saw everything.

“It’s OK, you don’t have to tell me,” Ash said smiling. He leant forward on the bed towards Jake. His breath was minty over Marlboros in Jake’s face. He said, “I know your secret. I won’t tell. I have a secret too. I’ll tell you mine, because you’re the only one who can help me. And help me keep it.”

And that was the first time. Half an hour later, they were downstairs. It was chips for tea, and Jake put too much vinegar on his.

“Four apple pies and a medium Coke,” A group of girls, Julie’s old mates from school. The one driving is picking her nose – the others can’t see her as she leans towards the order point.
“Please drive round to the collection point to pick up your food and pay,” Jake says.

And that wasn’t the last time. It happens all the time. Love is a secret special thing for Jake and Ash, and Jake knows he can’t tell anyone, because Ash is like the only one who trusts him. He doesn’t say ‘love’, even to Ash. He doesn’t say anything to anyone. And even without saying anything, he still gets called a fag, a gay boy at school. It’s as if everyone knows anyway. But no one knows about Ash.

Between them they look after Julie. Jake made Ash promise not to sleep with her, so she won’t get pregnant and ruin her life like Mum always says she will, going out wearing what she does. What would Julie say if she knew Ash was getting his lunchtime special from some other girl? Fuck.

I DROP THE PHONE screams the tune, and Jake rolls off his bed like a frozen chip in the hot fat fryer, and spins round the room till he comes face to face with himself in the mirror. He sees a face that looks younger than he feels himself to be. Around the mirror is the stencil he painted on the wall when him and Julie shared a room when they were kids. And when their mother started shouting at him, Julie told her she made him do it. So he got off, and she got grounded. She said, “Don’t worry, that’s what big sisters are for.”

Jake wonders who Ash spent the afternoon with. He wonders what little brothers are for. Suddenly he can see Ash so clearly behind him that he can’t even cry. He gets his bag, rummages, and finally finds his phone.

“U got 2 tell JuLE” he txts. Ash is first in his contacts list. He presses ‘send’ and counts three heartbeats. A message beeps back on the fourth. Ash.

“W8 brother, whassup?”
“Am not ur bro. Am hrs.”
“Will C U l8r for U&me time.”
“No.” After he sends that one, Jake feels his face might be ageing in time with his body. His heartbeat speeds up and on the fifth one, his phone rings. Ash.
“What you playing at, Jakey baby? I’ve left your sister in the bar, she thinks I’ve gone to have a piss.”
Jake keeps his eyes on himself in the mirror, staring at it as if his gaze could break it.
“You’re seeing someone else. You spent the afternoon fucking well sleeping with someone else.” He says. He sounds strong, grown up.
“Oh don’t start Jake, I’m not sleeping with Julie, you know that, you moron. Not even after two years. She’s fresh as, you know it’s all about you, man, come on.”
“Don’t Ash, just… Someone else.”
“What’s wrong, are you all alone? Friday night no outing? I’m dropping Julie off later, I’ll take you for a drive.”
“Fine.” Jake waits a beat and then punches his fist through the air, slow and controlled, so it gently meets itself in the cold mirror. “You’ve got three days.”
“To what?”
“To tell her. Or I will. Maybe I’ll do it tonight!”
“Come on, Jake, Jake my man, where’s that talent for keeping schtum that I love? Jake it’s all up to you. And no one means more to me than you. You’re why I’m with Julie. Come on. Later, I’ll take you for a drive.”

“Three days. And if you don’t, I’ll – I’ll tell her I heard you on the phone to someone else. At the drive-thru. Right in front of me, Ash.” Jake gags, and tastes chicken.

“Oh Jake, little lovely Jake. That was just to get to you, man, just a little tease. I was talking to you! Can’t say that stuff out loud without some kind of frontage, can I? You’re so sexy in that Mister Chicken hat. There was no one on the other end of the phone. You fell for it man! You are really my man. My man, Jake, my man! And you deserve something special.”

Is it true? Jake turns away from himself in the mirror. He is young, again.

“Do I?”
“Sure. Just you wait.”
“And will you?”
“Take you for a drive? Of course. Just be ready, Jake, I’ll make all your dreams come true. I’ve got to get back in, just, you know, be ready and I’ll be there, I’ll see you soon. All your dreams.”
“OK.”
And then Ash is gone.
“OK,” Jake says to the room. ‘OK.’

He goes back to the bed and puts his headphones on. His body is buzzing with the tiny soundwaves that speed through his blood, the echo of Ash’s promise. All his dreams. He’s had enough of them; it’s time to make something happen for himself. What’s he going to do? Still, he hasn’t decided. He lies back on the bed, and turns the music up and then down again. He wants to be ready when he hears Ash’s car outside; be ready for Julie, when she comes up the stairs.

The Large Girl, a short story by Mridula Koshy

One of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time, The Large Girl, by Delhi-based writer Mridula Koshy captures so much about love and the social realities for  middle-class women in this complex city. It’s taken from Mridula’s 2009 collection If It Is Sweet, published by Tranquebar Press / Westland ltd., New Delhi. The book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for 2009 and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Prize.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Delhi, you can get it in any bookshop, or in the UK at http://www.amazon.co.uk/If-Sweet-Mridula-Koshy/dp/9380032129

For latest news on Mridula’s writing, see: http://mridulakoshy.blogspot.com/

The Large Girl

She watches Devdas, remote in hand, so the magic of instant access to any moment in its 184 minutes of sequined shimmer is hers. She is a large girl. I knew her in school. She was there in school as early as Standard II, she tells me. But I didn’t see her till maybe VII or VIII. Overnight, she came to our attention because she grew boobs and kept popping her buttons. Then she did the long jump on Sports Day and her skirt did that thing cheap umbrellas do, spine buckling and bowl upturning to heaven. There she landed, and she was so pink, I thought: tulip.

Everyone else was laughing. But there were some things I knew even then, maybe about the world, maybe about me. In any case, the last thing I wanted to do was laugh. What I wanted was to slip my hands down those trunk-like legs. My own were so inadequate. What must it be like, I thought, to have so much?

In VIII she brought in a biography of Marilyn Monroe. Held between desk and knee it circulated down the row, across the aisle, down row two, and so on through the class: girls in one half, boys in the other. We flipped to the marked ‘hot’ pages, to the forty or so pictures in black and white, there to give some meat to the printed word, which in any case we ignored. Unlike the black- market quality paper with their bleed-through words elsewhere in the book, these thicker glossy pages in the middle were adequate to the task of delineating each angled thigh’s unsubtle and tight press to hide — what? Nipples pulled oblong by raised arms floated free in what was already let loose — levitating fruit — front and centre of head thrown back and wide arched smile inviting — what?

Pushpa, the idiot-mouse of our class, burst into tears. She was needed comic relief; the sacrificial victim of our collective misgivings. What had we seen and how would this act now mark us? There was a sense of class VIII’s free period having been turned, in Sridevi Nair teacher’s absence and with the aid of Janet’s wicked pinkness, into a communal orgy. ‘Quick, let’s forget.’

She was there till XII, and I knew her as the nun’s charity-case, the unclothed girl to steer clear of. The nuns would punish girls whose hems rode above their knees. How they allowed hers to creep up and up and stay there so that we were, I was, forced to obviate her — well, that’s a question between the nuns and their gods. Obviate her, I did. There are no other incidents to recount till we reached XII — just the buttons, the jump that tuliped her, and Marilyn Monroe.

*

Our last day in school, the girls wore saris, the boys wore suits, and we prepared to dance — girls with girls and boys with boys. The school’s Annual Day that year had revolved around a historical play, set in the colonial period, written by a team of nuns and credited to the Head Boy and Girl. For the play we had rehearsed a waltz fifty times in a day: boys in suits were paired with girls whose mothers cut saris into some understanding of ball gowns. On the strength of this earlier experience, the nuns urged us, the evening we danced our goodbyes, to pair up: boys with girls. The Head Boy and Girl to their, and everyone else’s, discomfort led the line-up and the rest of us, in one of those stray acts of shame-faced rebellion, refused to follow suit. And so it was I found myself in Janet’s embrace, and for the five minutes our feet described a dip- rise-dip square on the floor, I examined anew the corkscrew self, the twisting slumbering worm of me that had longed for this. Her hands on my shoulders and mine at her waist, and before or during that last dip, hers travelled as did mine from there to here, and then very quickly there were samosas and autographs and true and false expressions of sorrow across the throng of a 120-odd crying- smiling-unfeeling-anxious-about-to-die youngsters.

In school she was presented, whether by herself or by the nuns or somehow—as an orphan. But here’s the story she tells me now: her father arranged her mother’s death — murdered her. He was an electrician — stripped the insulation off the wire and lined it up so her mother would be the one to turn on the washing machine. He basically, as Janet puts, ‘fried her’. I read a short story, Hitchcock’s, once — same plot. Maybe her father read it too. But in his case the ending was different. Where Hitchcock’s man kept his mouth shut and got away with it, Janet’s father told his brother who turned him in. I have a brother and cannot imagine doing that — turning him in — no matter what the crime. Her father has been out of jail for some time. He’s written her, and she wants me to go with her to meet him. What kind of man would write his daughter thirty years after murdering her mother and expect that she would want to meet him?

Her favourite story — she reads it out loud to me, in her favourite reading position, lying full length on top of me, her belly smashed into mine, book propped on pillow above my head — is ‘Kabuliwallah’. She is addicted to my stomach. She likes that I am the one who has given birth and worked my way back to flat, whereas she . . . Well, I like her large and soft. She weeps in the reading. Every time. But how am I to weep when this is the fifteenth reading, and with every turn of the page, she must shift her weight and belly must renew acquaintance with belly with that sweaty, burp-cheer sound I find so funny. She weeps some more. Then she gets angry and says: ‘You don’t understand me.’

And even on those occasions when I accept this as truth, and there are more of these occasions than not — she still pushes to the inevitable: ‘How can you understand me? You are the little Miss Richie Rich who ignored me all through school.’
Here’s what I tell her. Here’s what I say that mollifies her: ‘God, give me another life so that I can do it right next time. Another life, so I can appreciate you and love you as you deserve to be.’ I deliver this without rolling my eyes. I don’t shrug my shoulders or in any other way temper the fact that I mean this with all my heart. This life has not been enough and will continue to not be enough to love Janet. And it’s not because her hunger is so beyond the pale. It just is the case that the love she wants is not in my means to give.

*

Here’s another story from the past that Janet’s father’s recent resurrection has laid to rest. For the longest time there was a rumour in school that she was not a complete orphan; that her father was alive, even if her mother was dead; that he was alive and — get this — sailing the seas, an Australian Sea Captain.

Why Australian? Don’t ask me. She likes her stories sequinned. She likes them to shimmer. So she embroiders. Some of us embroider, and others of us will briefly hold in our hands a particularly fine piece of embroidery, so we can admire the journey the needle has taken.

We did not believe this story in school, although it would have accounted for Janet’s name, her fairness, the breadth of her shoulders, her large bones. But she was not the first Anglo-Indian the rest of us had encountered, and her Australian-Captain-father only made the class titter. I know now where she got the story from. My daughter is eight and addicted to a character in a book series — Pippi Longstocking — an enormously self-sufficient orphan girl whose missing Sea captain father she claims is still alive — a Cannibal King marooned on an island.

My own father, mother, brother, daughter and husband are alive and well. My marriage has been a good one for nearly fourteen years. It was an early marriage. I agreed to marriage because I lacked the imagination then to see how else a girl might make a life. My imagination, Janet believes, has continued to be lacklustre, and so she attempts obligingly to fill in where she senses inadequacy.

When I loan her money for the one-plus-one in the Shahpur Jat area, she immediately has us moving in, not just my bed and dresser set which she admires, the cut crystal in the dining room display which is a wedding present from Mohan’s parents, but also my daughter Rohini, and even Mohan’s newest pup, Chetan. The thing about Janet’s claim to the gift of imagination is that this imagination of hers too conveniently, it seems to me, skirts the truth.

We go through a phase where she questions me endlessly about Mohan — his likes, dislikes. Yes, the likes and dislikes of our lovemaking are uppermost in her thinking. I never feel it necessary to answer these questions. But I have told her what I thought of him when I first saw him. We met at my house with the parents around, his and mine. I don’t count that as a first meeting. I never really saw him that day. No, the first time it was just the two of us was at the club near his parents’ home in Anand Niketan. He had more or less grown up in that area, and he met me at the club entrance with this certain assurance, and we went inside this room and talked. We passed through the topic of exes quickly, and I teased him some and asked him what qualities in him had attracted these other girls. He looked so terribly pleased as he said, ‘You’ll have to ask them.’

Then there was some fumbling when the waiter came, and he ordered club sandwiches for both of us. He apologised to me for not doing better with the waiter and told me then that this was his first time in The Room. The Room, being the room we were in, a room in which children were not permitted, a room meant For Adults Only. He had celebrated Diwali in childhood at this club and spent summers swimming in the pool and I suppose had become an adult and moved away before he could take advantage of adult privileges. He was feeling grown-up that day and so was I. So in the end I married, I think, because it was the grown-up thing to do and right that I should do it with this grown-up that I was becoming fond of.

Janet refuses to understand this story. ‘Yeah, so you are fond of him. But tell me you have the hots for him and I promise I will believe you.’ She doesn’t really want my answer. ‘You can’t say it, can you? Yes to hots? No? No hots.’ She thinks she is taunting me.
Or lying next to me, when I turn inviting her to spoon me, she will peel back instead and run her hand from my shoulder to my butt and slap me there and ask, ‘What’s his favourite part?’ If I remain silent she will pinch me. ‘Is it here, your butt? Men always like a woman’s ass. They never think to like her elbows or her toes. Or maybe he has a foot fetish? Does he? Maybe he sucks your toes, heh princess?’ It’s no good keeping my back turned. She will move on from favourite body parts to favourite positions. I turn to her and busy myself nibbling her front.

She keeps a picture of Rohini, and one of Chetan with Rohini, along with the many others of me in her room. She would no doubt have a perfectly imaginative tale with which to dress up the addition of Mohan’s picture to this tableau. I can’t imagine what this would be. In any case, I tell her, ‘No, it will make me uncomfortable’, and refuse her the picture when she asks. With Janet, the truth, if inconvenient, is something to be ignored. I can’t live that way.

*

Janet and I first run into each other in the parking lot outside my gym. She is coming out of a shop in the same complex. It turns out to be a beauty parlour, and she turns out to be working there. We light up, standing between the cars, breaking my big rule about public smoking. It would take any busybody in that gym, to whom Mohan is known, seeing me smoking, for me to get into a lot of trouble. For all that Mohan is a chain smoker, I am not permitted to smoke. On the rare occasion, say if we are good and soused, on an anniversary, at Buzz, or better still at The Imperial, and if I beg and nag, then, maybe then, he’ll light me one and hand it over.

But my girlfriends and I always smoke when we get together. We do it on the roof. I keep a mat rolled up on the stairs. We take it up with us when we go. Ours is a rented place, and I have done nothing by way of plants and things to beautify the roof. The mat serves to soften the crumbling concrete on which we crouch to prevent nearby tenants from invading our privacy. The mat is where Janet and I first kiss.

The first time we kiss, she lights a cigarette and passes it to me, and then she lights another one. We are talking, but not easily. After the cigarette in the parking lot, and the exchange of phone numbers, a month passes before I realise she will not be the one to call. I call. She comes over. There is the awkwardness of her taking in the toys scattered throughout the house — most of them Mohan’s, I explain to her. I am not the gadget freak, and the endless updating is his way of flexing his muscles.

She is subdued downstairs, but loud enough on the roof, so I am relieved when finally we sit quietly, leaning back against the short wall. I wish for time to get the clothes cleared from the line before they get infected with our smoke. But it is also strangely peaceful as they stir, combing their shade-fingers of coolness over us with each breeze. My shoulder is touching hers and she slides down and rests her head on my lap and from there squints up at me. She is still as she was in school — large hands and long legs. I am still as I was — content to keep within myself; my inner curve yearning in its own circular fashion, itself. So then why am I unfurling as she reaches for my face, her one hand doing the bidding and the other still locked on to the cigarette? A second passes, her hand is on my cheek, and I follow her example, my free hand cradling her cheek, so we are both leading and following together into that first kiss.

It is not a kiss to get lost in — we are each of us balancing, one half engaged in not accidentally burning the other. She flicks her cigarette away and with both hands pulls my head to hers. But I don’t have her sophistication or just plain old ease. I am still balancing as she searches my mouth — her tongue acrid, like Mohan’s.

I take to leaving her. After the first, second, third, fourth time, she stops mourning and starts instead to throw me out. I leave and the leaving is unbearable to me. For a day or two I remain gone from her. My last memory of her is of a graceless shrug of dismissal, the slam of her eyes shutting me out.

I leave her for many reasons. The first time — when Rohini comes up the stairs to the roof one afternoon, and the metal stairs, instead of clattering as I had expected, absorb her keds’ tread silently, and suddenly she is there — looking at us. ‘Mummy’, she says. She is wearing a stricken smile. She is saying with her eyes, ‘I don’t see you with a cigarette in your hand.’ She is saying, ‘I don’t see the pack placed square between you and aunty.’ ‘Mummy,’ she says, breathless from the run up the stairs, shamefaced from the discovery she has made. ‘Nina threw the frisbee hard at Indrani, and now Indrani’s nose is cut, and, and . . .’ she says, riveted by the competing drama of the story she has come to share and the story she has just discovered, ‘Indrani’s nose has sooo much blood coming out of it. It’s everywhere.’

For the next two days, I try to tell Janet we shouldn’t smoke together. I even tell Mohan the truth: ‘Janet and I were on the roof, and you know she smokes. Well, she lit me one, and the next thing Rohini was up there, and I think she saw us.’ Mohan does not get angry. ‘Let’s see if Ro says something. There is no need to bring it up if she doesn’t.’ After two days he and I agree Rohini has forgotten. But I remain frantic that Janet should understand why we can’t smoke up on the roof. The more she shuts her ears, the more determined I become that I will not only stop our little smoking ritual, but also that I will never smoke anywhere, for any reason, ever again.

I am supposed to go to her place some days later. I don’t. A week passes, and she texts me: ‘Talk?’ I can’t help myself. She greets me at the door, pulls me to her and kisses me on her side of the length of fabric she has hung in the doorway. My one hand automatically searches behind me for the wood beyond this cloth, till she imprisons my hand in hers, pulls it between us and slips something into it. Our foreheads are touching and we both look down to what our hands are doing—transferring fruit—light green and translucent, from hers to mine. Then, she looks straight into my eyes and hers are smiling. ‘Amla,’ she says. ‘It will be the oral fix you need to quit cigarettes.’ My mouth is already puckering. The fruit is sour and tense in taste, but leaves the mouth sweet and wet as if washed with rain.

We kiss, and I forget about the door. She shuts it in the end, pushes me ahead of her into bed. But the amla is really only for me, and afterwards she lights up as always, ashing her sheets, pillows, my hair.

The fighting continues. It becomes about her father. She insists she needs me with her when she goes to see him for the first time. I tell her, ‘Faridabad is too far away. How will I account for a whole morning, afternoon, and evening?’ She is stiff in anger: ‘You spend the whole afternoon here. No problem.’

‘But’, I say ‘I am always there to pick Rohini up at 3:30’.

‘Tell your husband to get her this once.’

‘No, I can’t. He doesn’t like to interrupt his work like that.’

‘This is important to me,’ she says.

I don’t believe her. Her neighbour has told me that her father has already been by to see Janet. I wonder if perhaps they have met more often than this once.

I don’t say to Janet: ‘You’re a liar.’ I wonder why she wants me to see him. She has not repaid me the loan which I wheedled out of Mohan. I wonder if she is going to ask for more money; if, perhaps, her father needs money. I don’t say: ‘You’re a liar.’ Instead I say: ‘No’. Then, ‘The truth is I am a married woman. And a mother.’

She says, ‘That’s never been a problem. What’s there in that?’

We are silent. I think about her father in her room. I wonder if he wondered what we — Rohini, I, and not to forget Chetan — are doing on Janet’s walls. I wonder what story Janet concocted to explain us to him.

‘Why do I have to meet your father?’

She regards me seriously. ‘I just want him to know that I have a good life. And you are part of what makes my life good.’

But I feel stubborn. ‘No’, I say. Mostly I am thinking, ‘Why do I like her? She is so vulgar.’

I cautiously tell friends from school that I have run into Janet, and their reactions are uniformly similar. I think it is Shilpa who says, ‘She must have had a hard life,’ and I concur.

The last time we are together at her place, she meets me first at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her flat. She is four floors up, and the walls all along the climb are repulsive, stained with the spit-splat of paan. On the second floor landing someone has lined up some potted plants on either side of their front door, and taped to the wall is a sign pencilled in Hindi: ‘Spitting on Plants is Not Permitted.’ On the flight up from the third floor landing she turns to me and says, ‘You’re having your period.’ I nod, and she adds, ‘I can hear your pad rustling.’

The very last time we are together, she kisses me under my stairs. She has thrown me out the week before when once again I refuse to accompany her to her father’s. She says that he is asking to meet me. I am adamant in my refusal. At the end of a week’s silence, she shows up and gestures to me from the service lane that fronts my place. I wave back to her from the upstairs balcony, more to reassure the flower-seller who is studying the proceedings, than to indicate any sort of welcome. But then she crosses the lane, comes in the gate to the front door, and I pull her in from there. She takes her hand out of her pocket and, glistening in her cupped palm, are two amlas. I rest a fingertip on one and gently rock it in her palm where it bumps repeatedly its sister-self. And again Janet and I are facing each other. She is my height, I realise: her largeness is all in her breadth. There is a way we line up — eye to eye — that feels like pleasure.

‘Take it,’ she indicates the amla with her chin. I take one, and she folds her hand shut over the other. ‘You don’t want us to continue?’ she asks.

‘No.’ I am wooden. ‘Janet, I don’t want to be destructive in any way. In my life or yours. You have to understand that.’

‘Tomorrow?’ she asks, ‘You won’t change your mind?’ ‘No, Janet. Tomorrow, I won’t change my mind.’ She kisses me before she leaves. This, our last kiss, is quick. It is a kiss of dismissal, but also sweet. In the lean of her face, I feel her eyelashes brushing mine, and her tongue has no anger to it; nor any persuasion.

A time will come — a time that is starting now — when I will no longer know her. I will attend the Jahan-e-Khusrau festival and, sitting in the last rows, I will be surprised to see Anju seated two seats away from me. We will press hands across people’s laps, and I will be embarrassed as I tell her that I will come soon to pick up the tailoring I have left at her boutique some months before. She will laugh and say, ‘I have kept it all together for you. It is ready.’ Rohini will place her head in my lap and ease the mobile from my purse and proceed to play a game on silent mode. I will be irritated and will want to scold her to enjoy the music. Mohan will put a hand on my knee and will still me. We will whisper together and wonder who it is that owns the splendid house with lit banks of windows overlooking Humayun’s tomb and the festival. ‘They are so lucky, dining there on the roof top,’ we will think. The next day, I will meet at a party one of the diners from the night before. And I will exclaim: ‘This is such a small city. I never thought . . .’

At Café Turtle, I will overhear a man talking about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and the next day the same man will be at Confluence, with another woman this time. He will turn out to be an authority on steel sculpture. I will meet him, and he will talk shyly about his expertise. It will be on the tip of my tongue to say to him, ‘What a small world we live in. Just yesterday . . .’ But he will break in and say much the same words to me.

I will stand one evening, in line, at the PVR in Saket, and Mohan’s attentiveness will leave me feeling cherished. He will agree to watch Memoirs of a Geisha not because it is the only movie showing at 5:15, but because he will know how much I will enjoy this movie. In the next line, we will see our old neighbours quarrelling and we will happily embrace them. It will have been years since they vacated from above us.

I will begin soon to live all the days ahead of me. In the afternoons, I will think: Do you miss me? Do you miss me? A thousand and one chances will come and go in this small city, in this small world. I will never see you again.

Eley Williams

Eley Williams is a Days of Roses stalwart, and one of her short stories, called Channel Light Vessel Automatic, can be heard here

http://www.fourthirtythree.com/

Can’t vouch for the others on there, my metaphorical camcorder was entirely focused on story #25 at this virtual nativity play.