There she is, she walks. Little girl. Bones. That blue nylon dress. What did they use to call it? Crimplene. The bodice is fitted. Although there are no curves on her, the skirt flares carelessly, the material can’t fall properly because she’s not a woman yet. Her hair is black and brushed out. My mother didn’t like me doing that. Wanton. Thought I was trying to be like a film star.
Now my hair is streaked with grey and I use a dye on it. I wear it loose around my shoulders. I’ve done that ever since I haven’t lived in my mother’s house. A marriage makes you old. Tired. When I think about the work I used to do, I wonder why I was never tired then. My husband says I’m obsessed with keeping a clean house, that I use the housework to evade his conversations. He never asked me to do all this, he didn’t believe that women should stay in the kitchen. He says I hide behind the drudgery when we should be having fun, we’re so young still. We should be playing squash on Friday nights and go for a pizza later and have friends over, his colleagues from the council accounts department. He wants promotion, he doesn’t want a wife who stays in the kitchen, he wants me to make interesting conversation.
Most of all he wants to make babies.
She’s walking, nearly skipping, there’s almost a skip in her step. It’s a dull afternoon full of grey clouds and weak sunshine but she’s going to the Brook. It’s a little clearing, about ten minutes walk from her mother’s house. A secret, right in the heart of London. Of course, they don’t live in the real heart of London, they live in the outskirts, the 0181 area, where it is cheaper, where you have to wait for ages at Camden Town to catch the connection which only comes three times an hour. Nothing happens there. But the Brook is a place she has found for herself. She came upon it one day when there was a bus strike. She had to walk the distance from the supermarket, there was no question of getting a taxi, it would have defeated the purpose of saving money. She heard it before she saw it. Beneath the road, by the disused viaduct, a clearing. Clear water running in rivulets, a private world, moist and dark, a little wooden bridge, a smell of moss, clear and fresh. A forgotten place. And there, by the edge, she saw him. Stanley. Quietly eating sandwiches from a white paper bag.
He was an old man. Even now I see him in my memory and even though I’m grown up now, he’s still old. He must have been about seventy. He had white hair and rosy cheeks and fine threaded veins underneath. He looked like all English people, his nose a little snub, his skin pale and pudgy. He gave me the rest of his sandwiches to throw to the ducks. We sat side by side in silence.
I was a strange girl. I wasn’t envious of White girls who skipped unself-consciously down the road. I didn’t want to go to girl-guides or the youth centre to meet boys and dance to disco. I didn’t mind not being like them, the other girls at school. To me, they were like the men on the moon. Anyway, I didn’t have the time.
My mother went to the factory at five thirty in the morning, so I had to get my dad’s breakfast and then prepare the vegetables for the evening meal. Then 1 made sandwiches for myself and put them into the tupperware box. I told everyone that I didn’t like school dinners but they all knew the truth was that we couldn’t afford it. My mother taught me to do savings wherever possible. It was necessary. My dad couldn’t work, he had to go to physiotherapy to learn how to use his arms and legs again.
He’d been very active before the fall. In Kenya, he had been in the local cricket team. He used to like playing cricket with my brother, diving across the park to field the ball. No one at the post office knew he’d fallen down on the slippery floor. He had lain there for hours before the supervisor found him, moaning to himself in agony. The hospital didn’t like talking to us and couldn’t understand my mum’s English. The doctor got irritated when she didn’t understand what a stroke was. He explained that my dad couldn’t use his limbs anymore and his speech would be slurred. She was suspicious. She thought they’d done something to him in the hospital, how could a fall, a simple fall from a step ladder do all this damage? But it had. My dad came home a vegetable.
He used to cry all the time. After making up my tupperware box, I would prepare lunch for him to heat up: two rotis and a dry bean curry. It wasn’t a hardship, he couldn’t eat much, it took so long to get the food in his mouth. I had to go to school. After school, I would make us both a cup of tea and start cooking the evening meal. Sometimes, my dad would sit at the formica kitchen table and watch me fry up cumin seeds, careful not to burn myself. My mother had warned me. No one else would be able to run the house if I was careless and burnt myself and got myself into hospital. Other times, he would walk himself slowly into the other room and sit in front of the television watching the repeats from the morning. There was a limit to what he could talk to a twelve year old about, even if he could talk. He went to physiotherapy twice a week, the bus came to collect him, but those days he seemed more depressed. He couldn’t do it. He was ashamed at having to go. He didn’t like the therapy, it made him realise how helpless he was. White people were different, being independent was in their blood, they were brought up like that. Us Indians, he’d say, we were fatalistic. God had meant it to happen, there was no point in trying to change your destiny.
Although my mum had a little shrine in her bedroom where she prayed every morning after her bath and lit incense, she wasn’t the kind of woman to let God have his way. She asked for the hardest shifts at work, did the longest hours, saved every penny, shrunk her face into a skeleton. It was a few months before she realised she could have claimed compensation, but the English forms told her it was too late now. She slapped me across the face when I put too much salt in the dahl and we had to throw it away. We had to manage, she knew we had to manage. She told him to swallow his pride and queue up at the social security office to claim his disability benefit. At night, I could hear her fighting with him when he could hardly speak, she told him this was no time for pride, we were entitled to the money, he could not provide for anymore. No one was going to help us. At the post office, all those friends he’d had there, none of them had told us about the compensation. The supervisor sent a little basket of flowers with a get well soon card stuck in it.
They used to call my dad Jay there, they wouldn’t pronounce Jaideep. It was a common name in India, especially in Gujarat where he came from. He had gone to Kenya to work as a clerk in the railways as a young man and got married there. My mother’s family couldn’t afford to support them when I came along and I was brought over to India as a baby, to live in my grandparents’ house. I explained to Stanley how it wasn’t a terrible thing to do, it happened to a lot of kids. Grandparents in Indian society weren’t considered outsiders. In anycase, I knew nothing of genealogy. My ancestral home was like a heaven. I spent my childhood playing on the swings in the backyard, being pampered by everybody who all thought I was someone special with my big eyes. The women of the house would sit in the verandah, one after the other as if we were in a canoe Each checking the other’s head for lice and rubbing jasmine oil into the scalp. I was at the end of the row and would wriggle away, running about gleefully, but although they scolded me, no one could contain my exuberance. The man I assumed to be my father would offer me his hand, make me promise to hold on tight as we weaved around the open air vegetable market full of yellow red and brown spice hills on flattened Hessian sacks. The hollering vendors gave respectful salaams to my guardian. All of them seemed to know where we lived. It was a big house with trees and goats and chickens and as far as I knew we were as rich as kings. The day my mother arrived to take me back was the worst day of my life.
I can’t complain about my husband. He is a good man. He knows all about me, about why I have never put on any weight after the age of sixteen. He knows about every broom handle, every saucepan, every hairbrush she has hit me with. He knows about how she pulled my hair out once, a thick clump in her fist. He’s educated, he’s got five CSEs, he could have gone to college if he’d wanted. He says that medically that couldn’t be the reason why I never put on any weight, but he believed me, he was the first person that I ever told and he believed me and I was grateful to him. He said we would get married and he would wash away all the past.
We live in a different area now and although it is far from my mother’s house, it is the same type of dull tree lined street where neighbours do not become friends. At the beginning, I thought I would make a clean break and never have to see my mum again, I would show her that I had survived, that I had made a life for myself. But my husband is a good man. He said I was safe now and turning away from my mother would mean turning my back on my brother and father. It wasn’t my dad’s fault, he couldn’t have done anything about it, he couldn’t have defended me, he was so helpless. It had all happened so very long ago.
When my mum offered us two thousand pounds to help towards the deposit for the house, my husband said we should take it. I made him promise it was a loan and that we would pay it back within three years because we hadn’t to be beholden to her. He didn’t mind eating rotis and dry lentil curry and not going out on holiday, he didn’t mind me taking his salary and putting half in the building society account with the highest interest. We were happy, he said, and his family was large and loving and they came to our house every weekend with food and news and we were alright. Over the five years we’ve been married, after paying my mum back, after that, he even helped my parents. He would read over complicated forms for them, advise them on the kind of insurance to take, dig the garden for weeds. He said to forgive was a virtue.
He drives us over there every other weekend and gets them two Hindi films from the grocery store, because it’s important that we all sit as a family and do what other families do. He sits and talks to my dad about this and that, mainly about his family and his expected promotion that the Council’s been promising him for the last three years. Sometimes they talk about how stupid English people are because they don’t understand about family values. My dad’s almost normal now. His speech is still a bit slurred but he’s almost back to his old self, it’s been fifteen years, they’ve passed by us and we’ve lived through them. Now he mows the lawn and initiates conversations and he’s even got a part time job back at the Post Office. The therapy did work, he’s right as rain, everyone says so. Everyone knows it’s all due to my mum. Everyone says: Taraben you are a heeeeroooeeeene; Taraben you are a marvel, look how you’ve managed your family; hats off to you Taraben.
The day my mother arrived to take me back, I was in the backyard playing on my tricycle. The woman who I thought was my sister came and scooped me up in her arms, told me my mother had come for me. I giggled at the joke, I knew who my mother was, the lady with the salt and pepper hair who admonished me for eating too many chillies. I didn’t understand, but it was quite simple. The stranger in the doorway, with the long oiled plaits in the blue sari holding a baby at her side was my real mother. The woman I had known to be my sister was my aunt; the couple I had regarded to be my parents were in fact my grandparents. I began screaming the place down. My aunt cuddled me and explained that my parents had got the opportunity of going to England, a place across the seas, a wonderful place. We were entitled to go there because my mother had been given a British passport in Kenya by the British government and now I had a little brother, our life would be full and beyond my dreams. They were adults, they knew about what was right. I would be part of my rightful family and have access to education and who knew what the West could provide. My baby brother clamped to her sari, my mother’s eyes watched the proceedings from the arched doorway, big almond eyes, no dark circles, no skeleton face yet, a handsome woman with her life ahead of her, twisted gold earrings, impatience on her brow. My grandparents’ faces loomed above me, hands touching my hair, clicking tongues chiding my tears. I was surrendered, given up. My mother towered above me, blue against the blue, She raised her arm and slapped me across the face.
“What a cry baby my daughter has turned out to be. Don’t you know how lucky you are?”
When we go for the weekend, my mum purses her lips as I make tea in her house, in that kitchen that used to be mine. She tells me I’ve been married for five years now, what’s the big idea? If I’m not careful my good husband will leave me. I tell her we’re trying. She tells me there’s something wrong and I should get some more tests. My husband says the same thing. He’s been to the specialist, there’s nothing wrong with him. I can’t complain. I chose him. He was my choice. I didn’t have an arranged marriage. Stanley used to say, you choose, it’s your life.
All kinds of people go to the Brook. Entwined lovers strolling through autumn leaves, schoolkids throwing crisp packets and playing with spiders, joggers bypassing the main road. It’s dark there, even when the sun is floating overhead, it’s like an underworld. Stanley’s face lights up as she scrabbles down the side, twigs crackling, she’s too impatient to use the muddy steps. She slips in beside him, crouches next to the little fold up stool he sits on. They don’t need to talk, touch, they look into the water. Stanley’s fishing line cuts into the stillness. Stanley likes oranges. He tells her things he remembers. The end of the Second World War, his aunties humming out of tune with clothes pegs in their mouth, evaporated milk for the first time on tinned peaches. Stanley’s old, she likes to listen to him, sometimes his nose runs and he doesn’t realise it, then pulls out a large hanky. He consults his watch, the little steel links make indentations around his pink wrist, the mottled glass face sparkles its numbers in the sunshine. Time to reel ‘em in, he says.
Stanley never catches any real fish, because there aren’t any real fish in the Brook, not ones you can hold up and weigh. Sometimes he hooks a few tiddlers and he shows them to her. They wriggle about in the palm of his big puffy hand, they jump and twitch. She gingerly touches their scales, so soft, so unexpected. He winks and throws them back into the water and they watch the rippling circles till the water’s still again. My mum has done alright for herself. She’s got a car now, she passed her test after failing six times, even though she still can’t park. She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t give up. She looks down her nose at the English people she works with who haven’t got a pot to piss in. Managing her family has never stopped my mum from having fun. At the weekends when I was still there, even when my dad couldn’t use his arms and legs, she would invite her friends to the house on Saturday afternoons. Other women from Kenya, their kids and husbands, some who worked in the factory alongside, others from surrounding streets. All the women would spend the day cooking together just like I do with the women from my husband’s family, and the house would be noisy with gossip. They talked about the new season of saris and who was getting married or having an extension built. My mum would put on her good sari and lipstick. Everyone would watch Amitabh and Rekha on the video, speculating about their offscreen romance. The husbands would sit and talk in low voices with my dad who couldn’t speak. It didn’t bother them, they just carried on the conversation: the petrol was two pence cheaper at Hendon quadrant, I Okg bags of Tilda basmati were available in Cost Cutters now, electrical goods were discounted in Patelbhai’s shop in Edgware, my brother’s wedding must be arranged soon – he had been seen loafing with bad company outside Finchley Gaumont, someone’s daughter-in-law hadn’t got through customs at Heathrow after waiting one full year – the shameless officials gave her a virginity test, the Shah’s newsagent got broken into, blacks of course.
My mum made sure that my dad wasn’t left out, everyone overlooked his disability, and talked to him like normal. They weren’t embarrassed when he had to slurp his tea. If he spilt something, someone would wipe it off ; when he tried to join in the conversation, they’d wait, help. They were good people. Indian families knew about community. Not like White people. HStanley has a house like my mum’s, but there’s no shimmering picture of Ganesh on the wall, there’s no plastic covers on the three piece suite. His house is quiet. He’s invited her back there for a cup of tea. She watches him put the kettle on, telling her to sit, he can do everything. His kitchen’s different. There are no jars full of lentils and rice and flour. flow does he cook, she wonders, there’s nothing there. In the fridge, she sees bacon and a bottle of milk, a dozen eggs. She only gets to eat an omelette on Sundays, her mother says eggs are an expensive luxury. There are no bowls covered with clingfilm with yesterday’s leftovers. He doesn’t boil the tea in a saucepan like she’s been taught to do.
“Haven’t you got any friends?,” he asks her earnestly, as he unclips his watch and lays it flat on the check tablecloth. They sit opposite each other at the kitchen table, their hands around the steaming mugs. His white eyebrows are shaggy over his eyes, but his eyes are bright blue as they stare at her. He offers her a ginger nut but she refuses, suddenly aware that she is in a strange White man’s house drinking tea. She can hear the slow deliberate ticking of the watch.
“Haven’t got time for friends,” she says cheerily.
He looks at her curiously and sips his tea.
“Tea alright?” he says.
“Yes, thanks”, she says.
“You’ve got a right London accent on you”, he says.
I was twelve when I met Stanley at the Brook and I knew him till I got married, twelve years later. My mum and dad thought they knew all about me but they never knew about Stanley. He was my friend. He was White. It was to him I talked about choosing my subjects at school. He said I had to talk to the career advisor, even though I tried to tell him I wasn’t the type of person to have what they called a career, the school was too busy with the top streamers. I didn’t understand about making plans for the future, I thought life was only a question of living. My mum and dad came to the school meeting, but my mum didn’t ask any questions, she thought it was upto the teachers to decide. She didn’t know what to say. Stanley reckoned I should try with English and Art. He said he’d always liked the idea of writing stories, but they put him in the bottom stream because he couldn’t read. They found out later he was dyslexic, but by then it was too late, he couldn’t catch up. My mum looked at me slyly when I said I wanted to do Art, as though I had something up my sleeve.
My grandmother was artistic. For the auspicious time before a festival, when the courtyards of the houses were decorated with rangoli, my grandmother didn’t make the usual geometric and simple floral patterns. She had fine skills. Squatting for hours, she worked her fingertips through the bags of red and yellow powders, pouring them from her fist to create a fantastic Ganesh on the verandah. She let me add little circles of flour alongside the trunk. My grandfather invited the neighbours who came and gasped at her expertise. I always knew they would not survive each other.
After my sixteenth birthday, my mother admitted that the telegram had arrived weeks earlier telling of the funerals. I knew then, that I was on my own. She said she hadn’t wanted to upset me. My dad looked sad. It was all a pack of lies. They had stopped me from writing letters years ago. When I was twelve, I had written to my grandmother about how unhappy I was, how much I hated my mum and wanted to go back and live in India, because I had forgiven her for not being my mother. A blue aerogram addressed to my parents had arrived on the doormat some months later. They never read it out to me. My dad put his hand on my shoulder one day as I was preparing the vegetables, his eyes glazed, his speech slow and painful. He said it was better not to upset them back home, they had their own troubles and silly childish letters could be misinterpreted. We had real troubles to contend with such as his accident and now my mum had become the sole breadwinner, I had to take my responsibilities seriously. I knew he was afraid. My mum had a fit. She closed the kitchen door and twisted my arm behind my back and yanked a chunk of hair out of my scalp.
All of Stanley’s kids lived far away, they’d never been any good at school. His son lived in Milton Keynes and his daughter in New Zealand. Stanley didn’t seem to mind that only once have they ever sent him Christmas cards. He showed me pictures of his wife, he kept them all in an album underneath the dresser in the hall. They’d had a fine life together until she died suddenly in a road accident, just when they were ready to enjoy their retirement. There were photos of the couples on Whitley Bay eating fish and chips on their honeymoon. He didn’t know anything about Indian people and asked me what we ate. I said we weren’t really Indians, I’d never been to India, neither had my mum and dad. I’d been born in Kenya but all I knew was North London. I don’t know why I lied to Stanley other than I felt that any connections I had with India had now gone, been severed. Stanley asked if I’d like to go to India one day and I said yes, it sounded lovely. There was the Taj Mahal, and the mangoes and the sunshine, and people had verandahs in their homes and everyone was happy. I’d seen it in the Indian films, the dancing girls with swirling skirts, the jokes, the fights, the tears, the hero. These lists I reeled off to Stanley, but I knew I would never return to India. There was nothing left for me there.
Stanley asked me questions no one asked. He seemed to think I had an opinion of things. I would go over to his house after school, whenever I could manage it, just for half an hour, before running home to make the evening meal. Sometimes weeks went by. He didn’t mind, he was always happy to see rue. Beaming, he’d consult his watch at the door, as though he was marking the auspicious time of my visits. There was no one else I wanted to tell if I got a good mark in class, other than Stanley. I’d save it up. He looked so pleased, as if he’d got the mark himself. The woman who lived next door used to look at me suspiciously. She stopped me one day, demanding to know why I came to see the old man.
“Are you bob-a-job?” she said, “I’ve got some ironing to do. Why should he get all the benefit, he already gets Meals on Wheels.”
“Mind your own business,” shouted Stanley, “She’s come to visit me. She’s my friend.”
The woman was pegging out her clothes. “Alright grandad, keep your hair on.”
It would be a different story today. No one carries on like that today. If I had met Stanley today, she would have called the social services because there would be something funny, something indecent about an old man entertaining a young girl. It’s a different world today. Stanley’s been dead for years. I can’t ask him things anymore. I can’t seek his counsel. I can only remember. He’s dead and I have to go on living. No one can help me now as he helped me. I have no one to ask what to do.
I didn’t get many qualifications when I left school, but Stanley asked me what I was going to do with my life now, and I had no idea. I supposed I would get a job in the factory making soft toys like my mother, but she had bigger ideas for me. She told me there would be more money in the Council. It was miles away and I didn’t want to work in an office surrounded by files and forms but I was lucky to get a job there. At the end of the week, I gave my pay packet to my mother, so she could run the house. I explained it to Stanley. We don’t believe in the individual I said, we believe in units, money was pooled, everyone was taken care of, that’s how it worked with us. It was a different way of living.
I used to go to the library in my lunch hour. Stanley gave me the idea. He told me how he’d worked on the docks, it was hard labour and his wife used to take washing in and they lived in rented accommodation in Wapping. She’d taught him how to read. He’d thought he was illiterate, but she didn’t believe it. She’d go to the mobile library every Thursday and get out novels with big print. She’d read to him at night, as they sat in the front room of their two up two down. He said he got the hang of it gradually, started reading for himself. It was a whole new world. He told me that proper libraries, not little mobile trailers, but proper solid buildings stood all over the place, wonderfully situated within easy access. Full of silence and millions of books all catalogued and free. You could go and read and no one would stop you. You could read what you liked. I went and took hard back books off the shelf randomly, turned the pages. My heart skipped beats. Sometimes I’d sit there all through the lunch hour, just looking out of the window, gazing at all the books around me, so warm and cosy. It felt like something was happening in my life.
My mother says Western medicine doesn’t know everything. She doesn’t trust hospitals, they keep secrets. She says she knows better cures. She’s told a pundit about my problem and he’s given her a poultice to give me. I’ve got to pray and fast and drink it twice a week, and soon I’ll be blessed. He’s got a 100% success rate, he’s made many couples happy. I’m angry, but I don’t say anything. My husband’s telling my dad something that happened at work. I can hear their muted laughter slipping out of the front room, leaking into the kitchen.
I bet he knows. I bet she’s discussed it with him. She’s discussed my infertility with my husband, the pundit and her friends. She’s supposed to ‘ask how I feel about it first. But what’s the point, you can’t say things like that to Indian people. They don’t know what you’re on about. They think you’ve become Westernised. My mother would laugh if I said I wanted to talk about my feelings. Talk about what. You have a life and you have a duty to go on living till it’s over. You get married, you have babies, you look after your husband, your family, his family and you get by. Everyone has to. And what’s the shame, she asks, guessing at my anger. Babies are natural, why shouldn’t she help? Babies are important to a marriage.
It was Stanley who first talked to me about sex.
We used to go to the park sometimes during my lunch hour. He was a pensioner, so he used his free pass on the bus to Hendon and we’d walk about. I was in a routine. My dad was getting better, my brother had got married to a girl from India and she helped in the house, my mum didn’t have to do double shifts anymore. We had a colour TV and a new carpet. My sister-in-law was a blessing, to the house, she was very smart. I’d thought my brother had chosen some village bumpkin who I would have to show the ropes to, but when she arrived at Heathrow, confident with her six suitcases, I was horror struck. She could cook and clean, she could chat easily with my mother’s friends. While waiting for her visa, she had enrolled for a computer course so that she could work in England and contribute towards the household expenses. Everyone thought she was a gem. She could tell you funny stories while putting intricate hernia patterns on your palm. She was finally the daughter that my mother really wanted. Stanley asked why they hadn’t arranged a marriage for me and I said I thought they had forgotten about me. My brother had been good at school, they were banking on him. But surely you’ve got a boyfriend, said Stanley. I was embarrassed. “But you’re a lovely girl, there must be men queuing up for you,” he smiled.
“You’re eighteen now, it’s such a lovely age.”
She’s still a girl. She looks at him and suddenly tears well up in her eyes. It’s the park and the open and everyone can see but she can’t stop. Stanley looks taken aback, gives her his hanky, the soft cotton soaking against her cheek.
“Why tears?” he says, “Don’t spoil your looks. What on earth’s the matter?”
“I don’t know about anything Stanley,” she says. “I don’t know what’s to become of me.” “You should have a boyfriend,” he says full of concern.
“Won’t they like it, your mum and dad, if he’s not coloured I mean?”
She wants to laugh through her tears because he understands so little and yet he cares for her. She matters to him.
“It’s no good,” she says, “None of it. I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“You have a lovely conversation my dear,” he says. “Of course you know what to say. You just haven’t the confidence. Don’t worry. It’ll happen, Sex is a good thing. It’s healthy.”
She looks at him, horror in her eyes.
He smiles and pats her hand. “You choose,” he says, “It’s your life. You choose a boy for yourself. Don’t worry about what they all say.”
We sat in silence watching the park. I never had to say anything to Stanley, his gentleness was always around us. Suddenly he asked me why I didn’t have a watch, everyone had watches nowadays. He’d seen digital watches in the market for knockdown prices. I looked at my bare wrist. I didn’t need a watch because my life itself was clockwork. I left the house in the morning at the same time and left the office by the clock on the wan. I always got the ten o’clock bus and arrived home thirty five minutes later. I got changed, had a cup of tea, started helping my sister-in-law with the dinner. The TV was always on in the front room and the music let me know it was an hour before we sat down together to eat, a half hour before my mum came home from work. We all went to bed early, after dark in the summer, when the heating went off in the winter.
Stanley suggested we take a different route back from the park. He was smiling to himself. He stopped at a jewellers on the High Street. He took off his heavy watch and told the jeweller to size it to my wrist. My mouth fell open. He told the man to keep the extra links in an envelope.
“I don’t want any discussion. You put them back when you get married dear,” he said to me. “You can give the watch to your young man to wear.” No one had ever given me a present before. I could hardly speak.
“I’m never giving that watch to anyone, Stanley,” I said.
At Christmas, Stanley had no visitors. He said he didn’t mind because his children had their own lives. I couldn’t understand it. I told him to sit while I made the tea. He would smile and describe the Meals on Wheels Christmas dinner, the paper hat out of the cracker and the glass of sherry he had with the Queen at 3 pm. “You mustn’t worry about me,” he said, “I’m alright. You worry about yourself. You make something of yourself, dear. You’ve got it in you. You just need the confidence.” I had to hide the watch in my room but I wore it everyday at work, the heaviness weighing down my wrist. During the day I’d compare the time with the big clock on the wall, checking to see the minutes ticking by.
It was as though an era had passed, a sweep of time, the past had gone. My mum changed once my sister-in-law came to live with us. I felt like a ghost in the house, wondering how I had lived through the beatings, staring at myself in the mirror to make sure I was still there. Because of Stanley, somehow 1 knew I existed, was real, undamaged. The scars of the past had gone away, like a dream I had been pulled from, and yet the world was spinning away. I didn’t feel afraid, I didn’t feel lonely, I didn’t feel anything and I liked it. No one could do anything to me anymore because I had an invisible cloak that deterred whatever came toward me. When I thought of Stanley the world seemed still and it was like entering a garden full of sweet flowers and the air let you breathe. It never occurred to me to tell Stanley about the things that had happened to me. You couldn’t talk to a stranger, a white man, about the goings on inside your house, It wasn’t decent.
My sister-in-law was thick as thieves with my mum, they were always discussing how to keep my brother on the straight and narrow. My mother was very proud of herself for having chosen a bride from India, even though generally she didn’t have two good words to say about Indians from India. She declared they were cunning and clever users, unlike the East African Asians who were a gentler people, loyal, friendly. Our trouble, she would say holding court amongst her friends, was that we were too gullible. Mind you, she loved my sister-in-law; because in her own way, my mum deferred to India and all it represented in her mind. The home of her ancestors. Sometimes they would leave me to get on with the meal while they sat upstairs like schoolgirls looking at the dowry my sister-in-law had brought in six suitcases. There were suits for my brother and my dad, saris for me and my mum, shawls, jewellery, all between white tissue paper. I knew it wasn’t that they didn’t love me, Indian people just don’t show it like English people. Not that Stanley ever hugged me or anything. Yet I knew. I knew I mattered to him. 1 told him all about the man I chose to marry.
It was like fate meeting my husband. 1 knew that whatever happened, I was not going to let my mother choose a husband for me. Not that she ever mentioned it. I wanted her to say it, dress me up, take a full length colour photograph to send to boys’ families as other parents did. Yet, I was ready with my refusal, my stubbornness against any sort of care that she dared to show towards me.
I met a man who was the same colour as me, the same caste. His family even came from the same village as my ancestors, it was as though he was already my family, and there he was working in the Council Accounts Department. One day he came and sat on my desk and took me to the pub and bought me shepherd’s pie and coke. His family was different from mine, they – even the girls-could eat whatever they liked. He said his sisters were doing secretarial courses because his mum wanted them to be educated before being married.
There she is. She should look different, there should be an aura of love around her, she’s getting married to the man of her choice, the man she has met through her own volition. Stanley nods his head as she speaks, tells him the facts and arrangements and rituals of an Indian marriage, that she too has recently learnt. Her marriage is not to be the grand affair of Indian films, but everything is to be done properly. She tells him how her husband squeezes her hand and says they will be alright together, they will help each other. He knows she has suffered, he will be her future, they will bury the past. She is so thankful, so grateful, so relieved that she can leave her mother’s house within protocol, but she doesn’t know what to say when Stanley asks if she loves this perfect man.
“Yes,” she says, at a loss, “We will be good for each other.”
Of all people, it was my brother who understood about the marriage. He had been there, all those years, watching from doorways, listening behind doors. At the wedding, I caught him looking at me through the crowd. There was a strange look on his face, it was full of dread. In that moment I felt closer to him than I had ever done. I chose my moment. It was once we were living in another area in our own house and my sister-in-law organised a picnic for the four of us at Victoria Waters. She chattered while she lay out the chappatis and pickles under the willow tree, flirting affectionately with my husband as all sisters-in-law should do, chiding him for ruining his health with cigarettes. I walked with my brother to the small shop for bottles of water, pulling the tail of my sari around myself, shaking my hair free in the breeze.
“So, I’m going to be an auntie?” I smiled at him.
“Does he make you happy?” he asked suddenly, urgently.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“It’s been only six months. How can you be sure?” he said, the same look across his face that I had seen at my wedding.
“What’s the matter’?” I said.
My brother sank to the grass and began to cry, strange hollow uncontrollable sobs, kept shaking his head to throw the tears away.
“All those years. I did nothing. I knew how she treated you. I let you take it. I did nothing. You had no one. It was unforgivable of me.”
I held my brother’s head in my arms.
“Don’t you see? I survived. I married a good man. I never blamed you. There’s nothing to forgive. I’m happy now. Everything is good. And there was someone. There was someone.”
My brother was the only person I ever told about Stanley. About the Brook and the fishing and the walks in the park. He looked at me with a queer expression. “Dirty old man,” he said and I knew he hadn’t understood at all. He had just wanted me to forgive him.
“Not that bloke who died? The son came and took up the garden. Rented the house out to students. Not that bloke? I think I remember him. I thought he was some sort of spastic. What could you have been thinking of?”
When we came back from the honeymoon, I had taken my husband to meet Stanley. Just as I had been unable to explain to Stanley my love for my husband, so I had not known how to frame my relationship with Stanley. He was an old man who lived a few streets away. It seemed as good a definition as any. The woman next door told us Stanley had gone into a hospice. A cold terror had run down my back, because I knew people only went to those places to die. My husband offered to drive to the address but I didn’t want to go. I wanted to grab my new life and live. I didn’t want to think about Stanley anymore. He didn’t have a place in my future. He had been part of the life that was now over. I wanted to live like other human beings in a world of affection. I was determined to manage my life.
So Stanley had died while I had been busy with my new life, I had thought of going to see him in the hospice, but I didn’t want to say goodbye. Things just happen, people just slip away without you noticing. Things just change without you realising. I accepted Stanley’s death as casually as my brother had mentioned it. The sun was shining brightly overhead. We had all moved on with our lives.
After paying back the debt to my mother, three years into the marriage, my husband spoke gravely to me. He said he had done his best to be a friend and a husband to me but it was impossible to be close to a dead person. He said he felt sorry for me but he could not understand how anyone could be as cold as I was. He said it kept him awake at nights. He said holding me was like putting his arms around a tree stump, there was no humanity in me, no warmth. My husband didn’t want to live that way and he asked me if I wanted him to go away so that I could be happy. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had nowhere to go. I was dumbfounded, all I could hear inside my head was a kind of white noise. I could hear him telling me that he could not find fault with my duties as a wife, as a householder. It was something else. Something was missing. He was tired. He couldn’t do it anymore. There was something missing in me. I did not have the ability to love anyone. Perhaps I was more like my mother than I knew. His words tumbled out and out into an ocean that filled the room. Because my husband is a good man, he did not leave me. He started to sleep in the spare room and said we should continue our married life for all to see. Perhaps things would get better.
Things became worse. I felt like a stranger in my own house, a ghost again flitting through the walls, and snippets of the past kept zooming around the days. He had killed something inside the very core of me. It was not something that I could talk of I simply grew away from him.
My infertility has given my husband a subject. He is obsessed with making a baby, because he is human and he wants to love me, he thinks we will be able to love each other if we produce the proof of our love. We have continued for two years and perhaps we could have continued for longer if we hadn’t been burgled.
Last week, we came back from my mother’s house, driving in silence to our house. The back window had been forced open and the front room completely ransacked. The television, video, hi fi, even the glass ornaments from the sideboard had gone. The settee had been slashed with a knife. As my husband stalked around the front room, his hand pushing his hair back, searching for the phone, my heart began to beat. I raced upstairs, hardly able to breathe. I didn’t notice anything. Not the wardrobe thrown open, not the bathroom in disarray, not the chest of drawers thrown around the floor. I started scrabbling inside the drawer underneath the double bed where the sheets and towels were kept. It was difficult to get a breath. I reached into the far corner of the swaddled drawer, stretching my fingers into the recesses. I could feel it. The small paper bag. I scrunched it in my hand, and even before I had pulled it out, I knew it was empty. Stanley’s old watch and the remaining links were gone.
She’s crouching on the floor, holding the paper bag in her hands. She cannot move. She cannot see her husband coming into the room because she is howling so loudly she cannot breathe. She cannot stop the flood of tears, her body shakes uncontrollably. Her husband is at her side. He puts his arms about her, buries his head into her hair.
“I’ve been a fool,” he says. “Nothing matters. Only that we’re alright. I love you. They’re just things. Don’t worry, don’t cry. I’ve never seen you like this. I’m going to take care of you. Nothing will ever tear us apart again. Just you and me.”
I realise he doesn’t understand anything. He doesn’t know that it doesn’t matter to me. However deep I search inside myself, it doesn’t matter and black is the same as white, love is the same as pain. It’s a strange feeling, different to feeling invisible. It feels like not being present. I look at the paper bag and the only thing I can remember is Stanley fishing at the Brook, in that private underworld where we met. Perhaps I loved Stanley, perhaps I was loving him all the time but I didn’t know, will never know. I watch my husband on his knees, professing love for me, making plans. The house, the world outside seems so small, and both of us in this room, crouching. So much smaller.