2012:: THE YEAR OF THE SHORT STORY In the last few years, there’s been a perceptible growth in enthusiasm for short stories, as opinion and debate are distilled into 140 characters, the internet stealthily erodes our attention spans, and advertisers train our minds to receive and buy into new ideas in 30 seconds. As life speeds up, so does our appreciation of “short” and the appeal of a story that is perfectly crafted to the length of a commute, a lunch break, the last minutes of the day before switching off the light. The re-emergence of the genre has been embraced and enhanced by the digital revolution, from giants like Amazon, with their Kindle Singles programme to snappy start ups like Shortﬁre Press selling individual short stories along the iTunes model. As publishers we are thrilled to see this genre which has launched the careers of some of our ﬁnest writers gain the attention and enthusiasm it deserves and in 2012 are proud to be publishing an exceptional series of ﬁve short story writers. From well established and well loved authors like Jon McGregor to searing debuts from ﬁerce new talent including the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, D.W. Wilson. There is something for everyone in these unique collections that range from the magic and mystery of the Cornish coastline, the wilderness of British Columbia, to the ﬂat, unceasing skies of the Fens but most importantly stories that lay at their reader’s feet humanity, in its many different guises. Bloomsbury hopes you enjoy this sneak preview.
BLOOMSBURY SHORT STORIES 2012
from the collection
by Lucy Wood
Publication 19 January 2012
We Wave And Call
This Isnâ€™t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
by Jon McGregor
Publication 02 February 2012
by Roshi Fernando
Publication 01 March 2012
The Dead Roads
Once You Break A Knuckle
by D.W. Wilson
Publication 12 April 2012
I Am An Executioner
by Rajesh Parameswaran
Publication 10 May 2012
Diving Belles by LU C Y
WO O D
from the collection
DIVING BELLES By Lucy Wood
Iris crossed her brittle ankles and folded her hands in her lap as the diving bell creaked and juddered towards the sea. At first, she could hear Demelza shouting and cursing as she cranked the winch, but as the bell was cantilevered away from the deck her voice was lost in the wind. Cold air rushed through the open bottom of the bell, bringing with it the rusty smell of the Matriarch’s liver-spotted flanks and the brackish damp of seaweed. The bench Iris was sitting on was narrow and every time the diving bell rocked she pressed against the footrest to steady herself. She kept imagining that she was inside a church bell and that she was the clapper about to ring out loudly into the water, announcing something. She fixed her eyes on the small window and didn’t look down. There was no floor beneath her feet, just a wide open gap, and the sea peaked and spat. She lurched downwards slowly, metres away from the side of the trawler, where a layer of barnacles and mussels clung on like the survivors of a shipwreck. She fretted with her new dress and her borrowed shoes. She tried to smooth her white hair, which turned wiry when it was close to water. The wooden bench was digging into her and the wind was rushing up her legs, snagging at the dress and exposing the map of her veins. She’d forgotten tights; she always wore trousers and knew it was a mistake to a wear a dress. She’d let herself get talked into it, but had chosen brown, a small victory. She gathered the skirt up and sat on it. If this was going to be the first time she saw her husband in forty-eight years she didn’t want to draw attention to the state of her legs. ‘You’ve got to be
heartbreaking as hell,’ Demelza advised her customers, pointing at them with her cigarette. ‘Because you’ve got a lot of competition down there.’ Salt and spray leapt up to meet the bell as it slapped into the sea. Cold, dark water surged upwards. Iris lifted her feet, waiting for the air pressure in the bell to level off the water underneath the footrest. She didn’t want anything oily or foamy to stain Annie’s shoes. She went through a checklist – Vanish, cream cleaner, a bit of bicarb – something would get it out but it would be a fuss. She pulled her cardigan sleeves down and straightened the life-jacket. Thousands of bubbles forced themselves up the sides of the diving bell, rolling over the window like marbles. She peered out but couldn’t see anything beyond the disturbed water. As she was lowered further the sea calmed and stilled. Everything was silent. She put her feet back down and looked into the disk of water below them, which was fl at and thick and barely rippled. She could be looking at a lino or slate floor rather than a gap that opened into all those airless fathoms. A smudged grey shape floated past. The diving-bell jolted and tipped, then righted itself and sunk lower through the water. Iris held her handbag against her chest and tried not to breathe too quickly. She had about two hours’ worth of oxygen but if she panicked or became over-excited she would use it up more quickly. Her fingers laced and unlaced. ‘I don’t want to have to haul you back up here like a limp fish,’ Demelza had told her each time she’d gone down in the bell. ‘Don’t go thinking you’re an expert or anything. One pull on the cord to stop, another to start again. Two tugs for the net and three to come back up. Got it?’ Iris had written the instructions down the first time in her thin, messy writing and put them in her bag along with tissues and mints, just in case. The pull-cord was threaded
through a tube that ran alongside the chain attaching the bell to the trawler. Demelza tied her end of it to a cymbal that she’d rigged on to a tripod, so that it crashed loudly whenever someone pulled on it. The other end of the cord drooped down and brushed roughly against the top of Iris’s head. She couldn’t see much out of the window; it all looked grey and endless, as if she were moving through fog rather than water. The diving bell dropped down slowly, slower, and then stopped moving altogether. The chain slackened and for a second it seemed as though the bell had been cut off and was about to fl oat away. Then the chain straightened out and Iris rocked sideways, caught between the tension above and the bell’s heavy lead rim below. She hung suspended in the mid-depths of the sea. This had happened on her second dive as well. Demelza had suddenly stopped winching, locked the handle and gone to check over her coordinates one last time. She wouldn’t allow the diving bell to land even a foot off the target she’d set herself. The bell swayed. Iris sat very still and tried not to imagine the weight of the water pressing in. She took a couple of rattling breaths. It was like those moments when she woke up in the middle of the night, breathless and alone, reaching across the bed and finding nothing but a heap of nightchilled pillows. She just needed to relax and wait, relax and wait. She took out a mint and crunched down hard, the grainy sugar digging into her back teeth. After a few moments Demelza started winching again and Iris loosened her shoulders, glad to be on the move. Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved
between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches. Demelza thought that this would be a good place to trawl. She’d sent Iris down to the same spot already. ‘Sooner or later,’ she said, ‘they all come back. They stay local, you see. They might go gallivanting off for a while, but they always come back to the same spot. They’re nostalgic bastards, sentimental as hell. That makes them stupid. Not like us though, eh?’ she added, yanking Iris’s life-jacket straps tighter. A cuckoo wrasse weaved in and out of the ship’s bones. Cuttlefish mooned about like lost old men. Iris spat on her glasses, wiped them on her cardigan, hooked them over her ears, and waited. * Over the years, she had tried to banish as many lonely moments as possible. She kept busy. She took as many shifts as she could at the hotel, and then when that stopped she became addicted to car boot sales – travelling round to different ones at the weekends, sifting through chipped plates and dolls and candelabra, never buying anything, just sifting through. She joined a pen pal company and started writing to a man in Orkney; she liked hearing about the sudden weather and the seals hauled out on the beach, his bus and his paintings. ‘I am fine as always,’ she would write,
but stopped when he began to send dark, tormented paintings, faces almost hidden under black and red. She knew how to keep busy most of the day and, over time, her body learned to shut down and nap during the blank gap straight after lunch. It worked almost every time, although once, unable to sleep and sick of the quiet humming of the freezer – worse than silence she often thought – she turned it off and let the food melt and drip on the floor. Later, regretting the waste, she’d spent hours cooking, turning it into pies and casseroles and refreezing it for another day. She ate in front of films she borrowed from the library. She watched anything she could get her hands on. It was when the final credits rolled, though, when the music had stopped and the tape rewound, that her mind became treacherous and leapt towards the things she tried not to think about during the day. That was when she lay back in the chair – kicking and jolting between wakefulness and sleep as if she were thrashing about in shallow water – and let her husband swim back into the house. Then, she relived the morning when she had woken to the smell of salt and damp and found a tiny fish in its death throes on the pillow next to her. There was only a lukewarm indent in the mattress where her husband should have been. She swung her legs out of bed and followed a trail of sand down the stairs, through the kitchen and towards the door. Her heart thumped in the soles of her bare feet. The door was open. Two green crabs highstepped across the slates. Bladderwrack festooned the kitchen, and here and there, on the fridge, on the kettle, anemones bloomed, fat and dark as hearts. It took her all day to scrub and bleach and mop the house back into shape. By the time she’d finished he could have been anywhere.
She didn’t phone the police; no one ever phoned the police. No one was reported missing. Despite the bleach, the smell lingered in cupboards and corners. Every so often, an anemone would appear overnight; she would find a translucent shrimp darting around inside an empty milk bottle. Sometimes, all the water in the house turned into brine and she lugged huge bottles of water home from the supermarket. The silence waxed and waned. Life bedded itself down again like a hermit crab in a bigger, emptier shell. * Once in a while, Annie and her husband Westy came round to see Iris. They lived on the same street and came over when Annie had something she wanted to say or if she was bored. She could smell out bad news and liked to talk about it, her own included. Westy went wherever she went. He was a vague man. He’d got his whole Scout group lost when he was twelve because he’d read the compass wrong, so he was nicknamed Westy and it stuck – everyone used it, even his wife; sometimes Iris wondered if he could even remember his real name. When Annie dies, she sometimes thought, his mind will go, just like that, and mentally she would snap her fingers, instantly regretting thinking it. When she heard them coming up the path she would rush round the house, checking water filters, tearing thrift off the shelves. If she ever missed something, a limpet shell, a watery cluster of sea moss, Annie and Westy would look away, pretending not to notice. Last month, they came over on a Sunday afternoon. ‘I don’t like Sundays,’ Annie said, drinking her tea at scalding point. ‘They make me feel like I’m in limbo.’ She was short and spread herself out over the chair. She made Iris want to stoop over.
It was damp outside and the kitchen windows had steamed up. Annie had brought over saffron cake and Iris bit at the edges, feeling she had to but hating the chlorine taste of it. She’d told Annie that before but she kept bringing it over anyway. ‘Don’t forget the envelope,’ Westy said. Annie shot him a quick look. ‘I’ll come to that.’ She glanced down at her bag. ‘Have you heard about the burglaries around King’s Road?’ ‘I read something about it,’ Iris said. She crossed her arms, knowing that Annie was trying to ease into something. ‘Five over two weeks. All in the middle of the day. The owners came back to stripped houses – everything gone, even library books.’ ‘Library books?’ Iris said. She saw that Annie and Westy were wearing the same fleece in different colours – one purple, one checked red and green. ‘Exactly. One of the owners said they saw a van driving away. They saw the men in there looking at them.’ Annie paused, looked at Westy. ‘Imagine going in there, seeing the bare walls, knowing that someone had gone through everything, valuing it.’ ‘Their shoes,’ Westy said. ‘Everything,’ said Annie. ‘And no chance of ever getting it back.’ She stopped, waiting for Iris to speak, but Iris didn’t say anything. Annie reached down into her bag and got out a blue and gold envelope and put it on the table, cleared her throat. ‘Ever heard of Diving Belles?’ she asked bluntly.
Iris didn’t look at the envelope. ‘I suppose so,’ she said. She saw Annie take a deep breath – she was bad at this, had never liked giving out gifts. Iris’s mind raced through ways she could steer the conversation away; she snatched at topics but couldn’t fasten on to any. ‘When Kayleigh Andrews did it,’ Annie told her, ‘it only took one go. They found her husband as quick as anything.’ Iris didn’t reply. She tightened her lips and poured out more tea. ‘It seems like a very lucrative business,’ Annie said, pressing on. ‘A good opportunity.’ ‘Down on the harbour,’ said Westy. ‘By the old lifeboat hut.’ Iris knocked crumbs into her cupped palm from the table edge and tipped them into her saucer. The clock on the fridge ticked loudly into the silence. The old anger swept back. She could break all these plates. ‘A good opportunity,’ Annie said again. ‘For some people,’ Iris replied. A fly buzzed over and she banged a plate down hard on to it. ‘What you need is one of those electric swatters,’ Westy told her. ‘You shouldn’t have gone to the trouble,’ Iris said. She gripped the sides of her chair. Annie pushed the envelope so it was right in front of her. ‘The voucher’s redeemable for three goes,’ she said.
‘It’s kind of you.’ They looked around the room as if they had never seen it before, the cream walls and brown speckled tiles. A sea snail crawled over the window-sill. ‘I can’t swim. I won’t be able to do it if I can’t swim,’ Iris said suddenly. ‘You don’t need to swim. You just sit in this bell thing and get lowered down,’ Annie said. ‘The voucher gives you three goes, Iris. You don’t have to swim anywhere.’ Iris stood up, stacked the cups and plates, and took them to the sink. Soon Annie would say something like, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ Her hands trembled slightly, the crockery clattering together like pebbles flipping over. After they’d left, she watched the envelope out of the corner of her eye. She did small jobs that took her closer towards it: she swept the floor, straightened the chairs, the tablecloth. Later, lying in bed, she pictured it sitting there. It was very exposed in the middle of the table like that – what if somebody broke in? It would be a waste of Annie’s money if the voucher was stolen. She went downstairs, picked up the envelope, brought it back upstairs and tucked it under her pillow. * The reception at Diving Belles was in an old corrugatediron Portakabin on the edge of the harbour. Iris knocked tentatively on the door. The wind hauled itself around the town, crashing into bins and slumping into washing, jangling the rigging on the fishing boats. There were piles of nets and lobster pots and orange buoys that smelled of fish
and stagnant water. No one answered the door. She stepped back to check she had the right place, then knocked again. There was a clanging above her head as a woman walked across the roof. She was wearing khaki trousers, a tight black vest and jelly shoes. Her hair was short and dyed red. She climbed down a ladder and stood in front of Iris, staring. Her hands were criss-crossed with scars and her broad shoulders and arms were covered in tattoos. Iris couldn’t take her eyes off them. She watched an eel swim through a hollow black heart on the woman’s bicep. ‘Is it, I mean, are you Demelza?’ Iris asked. ‘Demelza, Demelza . . . Yes, I suppose I am.’ Demelza looked up at the roof and stepped back as if to admire something. There was a strange contraption up there – it looked like a metal cage with lots of thick springs. ‘That ought to do it,’ Demelza muttered to herself. Iris looked up. Was that a seagull sprawled inside or a plastic bag? Demelza strode off towards the office without saying anything else. Iris hesitated, then followed her. The office smelled like old maps and burnt coffee. Demelza sat behind a desk which had a hunting knife skewered into one corner. Iris perched on the edge of a musty deckchair. Paperwork and files mixed with rusty boat parts. There was a board on the wall with hundreds of glinting turquoise and silver scales pinned to it. Demelza leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. ‘These are herbal,’ she said. ‘Every drag is like death.’ She inhaled deeply then rubbed at her knuckles, rocking back and forth on the chair’s back legs.
Iris tensed her back, trying to keep straight so that her deckchair wouldn’t collapse. The slats creaked. She felt too warm even though the room was cold. ‘So,’ Demelza barked suddenly. ‘What are we dealing with here? Husband taken?’ Iris nodded. Demelza rummaged around in the desk drawer and pulled out a form. ‘How many nights ago?’ ‘I’m not exactly sure.’ ‘Spit it out. Three? Seven? If you haven’t counted the nights I don’t know why you’re pestering me about it.’ ‘Seventeen thousand, six hundred and thirty-two,’ Iris said. ‘What the hell? There’s not room for that on this form.’ Demelza looked at her. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and she didn’t seem to blink. ‘If it doesn’t fit on the form then don’t trouble yourself,’ Iris said. She started to get up, relief and disappointment merging. ‘Hang on, hang on.’ Demelza gestured for her to sit back down. ‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. It makes more sense anyway now I come to think about it. I’ve never known them to be bothered by an old codger before.’ She sniggered to herself. ‘He was twenty-four.’ ‘Exactly, exactly.’ Demelza scribbled something down on the form. ‘But this is going to be damn tricky, you know.
There’s a chance he will have migrated; he could have been abandoned; he could be anywhere. You understand that?’ Iris nodded again. ‘Good. I need you to sign here – just a simple legal clause about safety and the like, and to confirm you know that I’m not legally obliged to produce the husband. If I can’t find him it’s tough titties, OK?’ Iris signed it. ‘And how I track them is business secrets,’ Demelza said. ‘Don’t bother asking me about it. I don’t want competition.’ A plastic singing fish leered down at Iris from the wall. She could feel tendrils of her hair slipping from behind their pins. She always wore her hair up, but once she’d left it down and nobody in her local shop had recognised her. When she’d ventured back she’d had to pretend that she’d been away for a while. She dug a pin in deeper. Was Demelza smirking at her? She hunched down in the chair, almost wishing it would fold up around her. She shouldn’t have come. She waited for Demelza to say something but she was just rocking back and forth, one leg draped over the desk. ‘The weather’s warming up,’ Iris said eventually, although it was colder than ever. Demelza said something through her teeth about seagulls and tourists then sighed and stood up. ‘Come on,’ she said. They walked to the end of the harbour. Small waves lifted up handfuls of seaweed at the bottom of the harbour wall. Demelza pointed to an old beam trawler. ‘There she is.’ ‘There she is,’ Iris said. The Matriarch was yellow and haggard as an old fingernail. Rust curled off the bottom. It looked like it was struggling to stay afloat. Its figurehead
was a decapitated mermaid and the deck smelled of tar and sewage. None of the other boats had anchored near it. Demelza took a deep sniff. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ Without waiting for an answer she walked up the ramp and on to the boat. The diving bell was sitting on a platform next to the wheel. It looked ancient and heavy, like a piece of armour. For the first time, Iris realised she’d be going right under the sea. Picturing herself inside, she remembered a pale bird she had once seen hanging in a cage in a shop window. Demelza ran her hand across the metal. She explained how the diving bell worked. ‘See, when it’s submerged the air and the water pressure balance so the water won’t come in past the bench. The oxygen gets trapped in the top. Of course, modern ones do it differently; there are pipes and things that pump oxygen down from the boat. Apparently that’s “safer.” They have all this crap like phones in there but they’re not as beautiful as this one. This one is a real beauty. Why would you need a goddamn phone under the sea?’ She looked at Iris as if she expected an answer. Iris thought about comfort and calling for help. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘No one likes change, do they?’ Demelza clapped her hard on the back. ‘My sentiment exactly.’ They walked back along the harbour. ‘Give me a few days to track any signs then I’ll give you a buzz,’ she said. * Fifteen minutes passed inside the diving bell. It could have been seconds or hours. The bulk of the Queen Mary was dark and still. Iris noticed every small movement. A spider crab poked its head out of a hole. A sea slug pulsed across
the keel. The seaweed swayed and rocked in small currents and, following them with her eyes, Iris rocked into a thin sleep, then jolted awake with a gasp, thinking she had fallen into the water, feeling herself hit the cold and start to sink. She hadn’t slept well the night before but it was ridiculous and dangerous to fall asleep here, to come all this way and sleep. She pinched her wrist and shifted on the bench, wishing Demelza had put some sort of cushion on it. Time passed. A ray swam up and pasted itself to the glass like a wet leaf. It had a small, angry face. Its mouth gaped. The diving bell became even darker inside and Iris couldn’t see anything out of the window. ‘Get away,’ she said. Nothing happened. She leaned forwards and banged hard on the glass until the ray unpeeled itself and disappeared. Her heart beat fast and heavy. Every time she glimpsed a fish darting, or saw a small shadow, she thought that it was him swimming towards her. She worked herself up and then nothing happened. Her heart slowed down again. Demelza was sure there would be a sighting. She said that she’d recorded a lot more movement around the wreck in the past few days, but to Iris it seemed as empty and lonely as ever. Something caught her eye and she half stood on the footrest to look out. Nothing – probably seaweed. Her knees shook, not up to the task of hefting her about in such a narrow gap. She sat back down. Even if he did appear, even if she made him follow the diving bell until Demelza could reach him with the net, what would she say to him on deck? What was that phrase Annie had picked up? “Long time no see”? She practised saying it. ‘Long time no see.’ It sounded odd and caught in her throat. She cleared it and tried again. ‘Actually, long time lots of sea,’ she joked into the hollow metal. It fell flat. She thought of all the things she wanted to tell him. There were so many things but none of them were
right. They stacked up in front of her like bricks, dense and dry. She had a sudden thought and colour seeped up her neck and into her cheeks. Of course, he was going to be naked. She had forgotten about that. She’d be standing there, thinking of something to say, and Demelza would be there, and he’d be naked. It had been so long since . . . She didn’t know whether she would . . . Was she a wife or a stranger? She picked at the fragile skin around her nails, tearing it to pieces. * On the first dive, Iris had got a sense of how big it all was, how vast; emptier and more echoing than she had thought possible. It made her feel giddy and sick. She had presumed that there would be something here – she didn’t know what – but she hadn’t imagined this nothingness stretching on and on. She shuddered, hating the cold and the murk, regretting ever picking up the envelope from the table. The silence bothered her. She didn’t like to think of him somewhere so silent. As she went deeper, small memories rose up to meet her. A fine net of flour over his dark hair; a song on his lips that went, ‘My old man was a sailor, I saw him once a year’; a bee, but she didn’t know what the bee was connected to. She saw something up ahead: a small, dark shape swimming towards her. Her stomach lurched. It had to be him – he had sensed her and was coming to meet her! She pulled on the cord, once, hard, to stop. The bell drifted down for a few moments then lurched to a halt. Iris craned her neck forwards, trying to make him out properly. She should have done this years ago. He came closer, swimming with his arms behind him. What colour was that? His skin looked very dark; a kind of red-
brown. He swam closer and her heart dropped down into her feet. It was an octopus. Its curled legs drifted out behind as it swam around the bell, its body like a bag snagged on a tree. She had thought this octopus was her husband! Shame and a sudden tiredness coursed through her. She tried to laugh but only the smallest corner of her mouth twitched, then wouldn’t stop. ‘You silly fool,’ she told herself. ‘You silly fool.’ She watched its greedy eyes inspecting the bell, then pulled three times on the cord. A spasm of weariness gripped her. She told Demelza she hadn’t seen anything. ‘I thought you had, when you wanted to stop suddenly,’ Demelza said. She took a swig from a hip fl ask and offered it to Iris, who sipped until her dry lips burned. ‘Wouldn’t have thought they’d have been mid-water like that, but still, they can be wily bastards at times.’ She turned round and squinted at Iris, who was sitting very quietly with her eyes closed. ‘No sea legs,’ Demelza said to herself. ‘You know what the best advice I heard was?’ she asked loudly. ‘You can’t chuck them back in once they’re out.’ She shook her head and bit her knuckles. ‘I had a woman yesterday, a regular. She comes every couple of weeks. Her husband is susceptible to them, she says. So she goes down, we net him up and lug him back on to the deck, all pale and fat, dripping salt and seaweed like a goddamn seal. And all the time I’m thinking, what the hell’s the point? Leave him down there. But she’s got it in her head that she can’t live without him so that’s that.’ ‘Maybe she loves him,’ Iris said. ‘Bah. There are plenty more fish in the sea,’ Demelza said. She laughed and laughed, barking and cawing like a seagull. ‘There are plenty more fish in the sea,’ she said again, baring her teeth to the wind. ‘Plenty, fish, sea,’ she muttered over and over as she steered back to the harbour.
* On her second dive Iris heard the beginning of a song threading through the water towards her. It was slow and deep, more of an ache in her bones than something she heard in her ears. There was a storm building up but Demelza thought it would hold off long enough to do the dive. At first Iris thought the sound was the wind, stoked right up and reaching down into the water – it was the same noise as the wind whistling through gaps in boats, or over the mouth of a milk bottle, but she knew that the wind wouldn’t come down this far. It thrummed through the metal and into her bones, maybe just her old body complaining again, playing tricks, but she felt so light and warm. The song grew louder, slowing Iris’s heart, pressing her eyes closed like kind thumbs. It felt good to have her eyes closed. The weight of the water pressed in but it was calm, inviting; it beckoned to her. She wanted to get out of the bell, just get up and slip through the gap at the bottom. She almost did it. She was lifting herself stiffly from the bench when the song stopped and slipped away like a cloud diffusing into the sky, leaving her cold and lonely inside the bell. Then the storm began, quietly thumping far away like someone moving boxes around in a dusty attic. * Iris waited, shuffl ing and sighing. She felt tired and uncomfortable. Her last dive. She wanted tea and a hotwater bottle. It was chilly and there were too many shapes, too many movements – she couldn’t keep hold of it all at once, things moved then vanished, things shifted out of sight. She was sick and tired of half glimpsing things. It had all been a waste of time. She cursed Annie for making her think there was a chance, that it wasn’t all over and done with. She would give the dress away and after a while she
would see somebody else walking round in it. Her glasses dug into her nose. She felt for the cord, ready to pull it and get Demelza to haul her back up. She had never felt so old. She stretched the skin on the backs of her hands and watched it go white, and then wrinkle up into soft pouches. Her eyes were dry and itchy. She saw a flicker of something bright over to one side of the wreck. It was red, or maybe gold; she had just seen a fl ash. Then a large shape moved into the collapsed hollow of the ship, followed by two more shapes. There were a group of them, all hair and muscled tails and movement. They were covered in shells and kelp and their long hair was tangled and matted into dark, wet ropes. They eddied and swirled like pieces of bright, solidified water. Then he was there. He broke away from the group and drifted through the wreck like a pale shaft of light. Iris blinked and adjusted her glasses. The twists and turns of his body â€“ she knew it was him straight away, although there was something different, something more muscular, more streamlined and at home in the water about his body than she had ever seen. She leaned forwards and grabbed for the cord but then her throat tightened. No one had told her he would be young. At no point had she thought he would be like this, unchanged since theyâ€™d gone to sleep that night all those years before. His skin! It was so thin, almost translucent, fragile and lovely with veins branching through him like blown ink. She had expected to see herself mirrored in him. She touched her own skin. His body moved effortlessly through the water. He was lithe, just as skinny, but more moulded, polished like a piece of sea glass.
He swam closer and she leaned back on the bench and held her breath, suddenly not wanting him to see her. She kept as still as possible, willing his eyes to slide past; they were huge and bright and more heavily lidded than she remembered. She leaned back further. He didn’t look at the bell. Bubbles streamed out of his colourless mouth. He was so beautiful, so strange. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. There were spots on her glasses and she couldn’t see him as well as she wanted to. She breathed on the lenses and wiped them quickly. Her hands shook and she fumbled with them, dropping them into the open water under the bench. They fl oated on the surface and she bent down to scoop them out but couldn’t reach. Her hips creaked and locked; she couldn’t reach down that far. One lens dipped into the water and then they sank completely. Iris blinked. Everything mixed together into a soft, light blur. She peered out, desperately trying to see him. He was still there. He was keeping close to the seabed, winging his way around the wreck, but everything about him had seeped into a smudgy paleness, like a running watercolour or an old photograph exposed to light. He was weaving in and out of the train carriages, in through a door and out through a window, threading his body through the silence and the rust. Iris tried to keep him in focus, tried to concentrate on him so that she wouldn’t lose him. But she couldn’t tell if he had reappeared from one of the carriages. Where was he, exactly? It was as if he were melting slowly into the sea, the water infusing his skin; his skin becoming that bit of light, that bit of movement. Iris watched and waited until she didn’t know if he was there or not there, near or far away, staying or leaving.
From the collection
by Lucy Wood
19th January 2012 | Hardback | 978 1 4088 1685 1 19th January 2012 | eBook | 978 1 4088 1686 8
Along Cornwall’s ancient coast, the flotsam and jetsam of the past becomes caught in the cross-currents of the present and, from time to time, a certain kind of magic can float to the surface… Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Magpies whisper to lonely drivers late at night. Trees can make wishes come true – provided you know how to wish properly first. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, Cornish folklore slips into everyday life. Hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wrecker’s lamps, standing stones and baying hounds. This luminous, startling and utterly spellbinding debut collection introduces in Lucy Wood a spectacular new voice in contemporary British fiction.
* ‘Lucy Wood has an intensity and clarity of expression, deeply rooted in a sense of place. Her stories have a purity and strength, and an underlying human warmth; they resonate in the mind’ Philip Hensher ‘Each year, book blurbs tell you that a thousand new writers have fresh, distinctive voices. But fresh, distinctive voices are actually very rare. Lucy Wood has one’ Michel Faber ‘It is as if the Cornish moors and coasts have whispered secrets into Lucy Wood’s ears and, in response, she has fashioned exquisite tales of mystery and humanity’ Ali Shaw, author of The Girl with Glass Feet
LUCY WOOD has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Exeter University. She grew up in Cornwall. Diving Belles is her first work.
We Wave and Call by JON
from the collection
WE WAVE AND CALL By Jon McGregor
And sometimes it happens like this: a young man lying face down in the ocean, his limbs hanging loosely beneath him, a motorboat droning slowly across the bay, his body moving in long, slow ripples with each passing shallow wave, the water moving softly across his skin, muffled shouts carrying out across the water, and the electric crackle of waves sliding up against the rocks and birds in the trees and the body of a young man lying in the ocean, face down and breathlessly still. * You open your eyes, blinking against the light which pulses through the water. You look down at the sea floor, hearing only the hollow suck and sigh of your own breath through the snorkel, seeing the broken shells, the rusting beer cans, the polished pieces of broken glass. Black-spiked seaurchins clinging to the rocks. Tiny black fish moving through the sea-grass. A carrier-bag tumbling in tight circles at the foot of the shoreline rocks. You hold out your hands, seeing how pale they look in the water, the skin of your fingers beginning to pucker a little. The sea feels as warm as bath-water, and youâ€™re almost drifting off to sleep when
you hear the sudden smack and plunge of something hitting the water nearby. You turn your head, and see a young boy sinking through the water, his knees to his chest and his eyes squeezed shut. Above, way up in the air, another three boys are falling from a high rocky outcrop, their shorts ballooning out around their hips, their hair rising, their mouths held open in anticipatory cries. One of them flaps his hands, trying to slow his fall. The other two reach out and touch the tips of their fingers together. All three of them look down at the water with something like fear and joy. Your friends are watching as well, sprawled across a wide concrete ledge jutt ing out over the sea. Claire turns and looks for you, waving, brushing the knots from her wet tangled hair. Her pale skin is shiny with sun-cream and seawater. * ‘We’re making a move now,’ she calls; ‘you coming?’ The others are already standing up, brushing bits of dirt from their skin and shaking out their towels. You lift the mask from your face and take the snorkel from your mouth and tell her you’re staying in a bit longer. You’ll catch them up in a minute, you say. They pick up the sun-cream and water bottles, the paperback books, the leaflets from the tourist information office in town. The girls lift up their damp hair, squeezing
out the water and letting it run down their backs. Andy buttons his shirt and steps into his unlaced trainers. ‘We’re not waiting for you,’ Claire says. You wave her off and say that’s fine. You’ll be out in a minute or two. * The night before, sitting at a table outside one of the cafés in the old town, the girls had got up to go to the toilet together, leaving their tall glasses of beer on the table and tugging at their skirts. Andy had caught your eye, and lifted his drink in salute, and you’d both smiled broadly at your good fortune. Nothing had needed to be said. You’d left behind long months of exams and anxieties in the flat grey east of England and landed suddenly in this new world of cheap beer and sunshine, of clear blue seas and girls who wore bikinis and short skirts and slept in the room next door. It felt like something you’d both been waiting years for; something you’ve long been promised. It felt like adulthood. The girls have already made it clear, by their pointing out of waiters and boys on scooters, that they’re more interested in the locals than in the two of you. But there’s still a chance. A feeling that something could happen; that anything could happen. It seems worth thinking about, at least. You put the mask over your eyes and lie back in the water for a while, looking up at the steep sides of the bay, kicking your legs to send yourself drifting away from the rocks. You’re not sure you ever want to get out. At home, the beach is a few minutes away, and you’ve grown up running
in and out of the sea. But you’ve never really swum; there, you run in, shouting against the shock of the cold, and run out again as soon as you can. Here, you could sleep in the clear warm water. You watch the others making their way up the path between the pine trees and oleander bushes. A bus drives along the road at the top of the hillside, stops near the gap in the railings, and moves off. A young couple on a scooter overtake it, the boy riding without a shirt or a helmet, the girl wearing a knee-length wraparound skirt and a bikini top, her hair flowing out behind her. Birds hang still in the warm currents of air drifting up the side of the hill. The grasshoppers sound out their steady scraping shriek. The air is thick with the scent of crushed pine needles and scorched rosemary, heavy with heat. Along the bay, at the bottom of a steep flight of steps cut straight from the rock, there’s another small bathing jetty. A girl in a black swimming costume sits on the edge, her feet in the water, a white towel hanging over her head, reading a book. Further along, where the bay curves round to form a long headland jutting out into the sea, there’s an ugly concrete hotel with its name spelt out in white skyline letters. Half the letters are missing, and when you look again you see that the whole building is a ruin: the windows shot to pieces, gaping holes blown in the walls, coils of barbed wire rolling across the golden sands. Shreds of curtain material hang limply from windows and patio doors, lifting and dropping in the occasional breeze.
You hear some girls screaming, and look round to see a group of boys soaking them with water bottles, laughing when the girls scramble to their feet and retaliate with flat stinging hands. The sounds carry softly across the water. You’d seen a map, this morning, at the entrance to the city walls, marked with clusters of red dots. The red dots were to show where mortar shells had landed during the war, where fires had started, where roofs had come crashing in. It was the only sign you could see, at first, that anything had happened here. Everything in the town seemed neat and clean and smooth: the streets polished to a shine, the ancient stonework unaffected by the destruction which had so recently poured down upon it. But when you’d looked closer you’d seen that the famous handmade roof tiles had been outnumbered by replacements in a uniform orange-red, and that the stonework of the historic city walls alternated between a weathered grey and the hard white gleam of something new. There were whole streets boarded off from the public, piled with rubble. There were buildings whose frontages had been cleaned and repaired but which were still gutted behind the shutters. And in a tiny courtyard workshop, under the shade of a tall lemon tree, you’d seen a fat-shouldered stonemason carving replica cornices and crests, the shattered originals laid out in fragments in front of him, glancing over his shoulder as if to be sure that no one could see. You’d wondered how long it would take for this rebuilding to be complete. How much longer it would take for the new stones to look anything like the old. *
The others are halfway up the hill now, walking slowly along the pine-needled path, letting their hands trail through the sweet-smelling bushes, stopping for a drink of water and looking down at the calm shining sea. You watch them for a moment. You wave, but none of them sees. You call. If you were to get out now you might be able to catch up with them before they get on the bus. But if you wait for the next bus, they’ll have cleared up by the time you get back, and got some food ready, and be waiting for you. Jo went out to the market before lunch, so the apartment’s small kitchen is well stocked. You can imagine arriving back to find the others sitting on the terrace around a table loaded with food: bread and cheese and oranges, olives and pickles and jam, big packets of paprika-flavoured crisps. You can imagine cracking open a beer and joining them, making plans for the night. You turn your face into the water for one more look before you get out, sucking in warm air through the snorkel. You catch sight of a larger fish than the ones you’ve seen so far. Something silver-blue, twice the length of your hand, drifting slowly between the rocks. It flicks its tail and glides away, and you push back with your legs to glide after it, trying not to splash. It slows again, leaning down to nibble at the wavering tips of seaweed, and as it flicks into another glide you follow, watching from above, quietly kicking your legs to keep pace. And you think about last night. About what might have happened with Jo. Walking between the café and the bus stop, the alleys crowded, the buildings still giving out the heat of the day, the dark sky overhead squeezed between
window-boxes and washing lines and women leaning out to smoke and look down at the crowds below. You lost sight of the others for a while, and then Jo was there, saying something, touching two fingers against your chest, letting one finger catch in the opening of your shirt. What did she say? It could have been nothing. The whole thing might have been nothing. But there were her fingers against your chest. That smile and turn. Walking behind her, and all the side-alleys and courtyards that might have been ducked into. And then catching up with the others at the bus stop, and nothing more being said. You watch the fish flick its tail beneath you, stopping and starting through the sea-grass, and you curl your body across the surface to keep pace, the sun hot and sore across your back. It happened once, last year, at a party after the exams. In the back garden, kissing against the wall of the house, and for what must have been only a few minutes there was nothing but the taste of her mouth, the movements of her hands, the press of her body. And then sheâ€™d stopped, and kissed you on the cheek, and walked unsteadily into the house, and nothing had been said about it since. It might have been nothing. The soft wet bite of her lips, the trace of her fingers, the thin material of her skirt in your hand, the weight of her warmth against you. It was probably nothing at all. You look up out of the water, turning to see if sheâ€™s reached the top of the path. Maybe sheâ€™ll hang back and wait.
You’re further out than you realised. It would be good to head back now, to pull yourself up on to the concrete ledge, let the sun dry the water from your back while you gather your things together and hurry along the path to join the others. You pull your arms through the water, feeling the pleasant stretch of the muscles across your shoulders and back. You kick with your legs, hard, and your feet and shins slap against the surface, and you realise how long it’s been since you last swam properly like this, actually covering a distance. You should do it more often, you think, stopping for a moment to tuck the snorkel into the headband of your mask, spitting out a mouthful of seawater. You launch off again, enjoying the way your body cuts through the water, the air on your back, the sea sliding across your skin. The snorkel slips out of place, spilling water into your mouth, and you have to stop again, coughing, to clear it from your throat. You see the others on the path, and you see a bus passing along the road, and you see the birds hanging in the warm air rising up against the side of the hill. You take off the snorkel and mask. They’re getting in the way, and you’ll get back to the steps quicker without them strapped to your face. You try swimming with them held in one hand, but they slap and splash against the surface and drag you down, and you’re not getting anywhere like that so you stop and tread water for a moment. You’re further out than you thought. The afternoon’s quieter now. No one’s jumped from the outcrop for a while. The teenagers on the ledge have started
to gather their things together and drift back up the long twisting path to the road. The girl reading a book on the other bathing jett y has gone. The back of your neck feels as though it might be starting to burn. It probably would be good, after all, to catch the bus with the others. You think about just dumping the snorkel and mask, but it seems a bit over the top. There’s nothing like that happening here. There’s no problem. You can’t be more than a hundred, maybe a hundred and fift y yards from the shore. You tie them to the drawstring of your swimming shorts instead, and swim on. * This morning, in the old town, ducking into an art gallery to escape the glaring heat, you’d found the city’s war memorial, unmarked on the tourist maps. It had looked like another room of the gallery at first, and you’d drifted into the circular space expecting more vividly coloured paintings of wheat-fields and birch-woods and simple peasant-folk labouring over ploughs. But there were no paintings, only photographs. Black and white photographs from ceiling to floor. Row after row of young faces with dated haircuts, thin moustaches, leather jackets and striped tracksuit tops. The photos were blown up to more than life-size, and one or two had the inky smudge of a passport stamp circled across them. There were names, and dates, and ages: twenty-two, fifty-seven, fifteen, nineteen, thirty-one. There were candles burning on a table in the middle of the room, a bouquet of flowers, a ragged flag. Some of the boys in the photographs had looked the same age, and had the same features, as these teenagers jumping from rocks and
squirting water at girls, boys who would have been half the age they are now when the war happened. You wonder if any of them lost older brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers. You wonder whether any of them remember much about it; if they duck into that cool, whitewashed room every now and again to remind themselves, or if they prefer instead to leap from high rocks into the warm ocean, to ride motorscooters with the sun browning their bare chests, to lie with long-limbed girls in the scented shade of aged and twisting trees. * Perhaps when you get back no one will want to go to the trouble of laying the food out on the terrace and clearing it all away again. Perhaps you’ll all go to the pizzeria down by the dockside and sit at a table on the street, picking the labels off cold bottles of beer while you watch the old women offering accommodation to the tourists coming off the boats. Perhaps Jo will catch your eye and keep you talking until the others have moved on, and shift her chair so that her leg touches yours. Swimming with the mask and snorkel tied to your shorts is worse than holding them. They’re dragging out between your legs like an anchor, pulling you back. You stop and tread water again, breathing heavily. You only paid a few pounds for them. They can go. You can always tell the others you left them behind by mistake. You unpick the knots and let them fall away. They hang in the water for a moment, lifting and turning in the current. You watch them sink out of view, and realise you can’t see the bottom.
The others are at the top of the path now, and one of them leans out to look down at the ledge where your things are still gathered in a heap. You wave, but whoever it is turns away and steps through the gap in the railings, crossing the road to join the others at the bus stop, out of sight. You take a breath and swim, fiercely, lunging through the water, blinking against the salt sting, heaving for air, and there’s a feeling running up and down the backs of your legs like the muscles being stretched tight but you keep swimming because you’ll be there soon, climbing out, pulling yourself back on to solid ground, and you keep swimming because there’s a chance that the current has been pushing you away from the shore, and you keep swimming because this isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, you’re a good swimmer, you’re young, and healthy, and the rocks aren’t really all that far away and it shouldn’t take long to get there and there isn’t anything else you can do but now there’s a pounding sensation in your head and a reddish blur in your eyes and a heavy pain in your chest as though the weight of all that water is pressing against your lungs and you can’t take in enough air and so you stop again, for a moment, just to catch your breath. * One of the boys, in the memorial photographs, had had a look in his eyes. Startled. As though the flash of the camera had taken him by surprise. As though he had known what was coming. The plaque said he was seventeen. You
wondered what had happened. If he really had seen it coming. You’ve seen pictures of an old fort on a nearby island, the walls spotted with bullet marks, the entrances surrounded by shallow craters, and you imagined that boy crouching on the roof, or in the shaded interior, holding an old rifle in his shaking hands, listening to the encircling approach of men and equipment through the trees and bushes outside. You imagined him listening to their taunts. Wiping the sweat from his eyes. Avoiding the glances of the men left with him. Wondering how they had all ended up in that place, what they could have done to avoid it, what they were going to do now. Knowing there was nothing they could do. * A bus stops on the road at the top of the hill. The others must be getting on it by now, rummaging in their pockets for change and wondering how much longer you’re going to be. When you get back they’ll all be sitting out on the terrace, watching the yachts gathering in the harbour for the evening, listening to children playing up and down the back streets behind the apartment. You’ll take a beer from the fridge, hold the cold wet glass against the back of your sunburnt neck, and ask where the bottle-opener is. No one will be able to find it at first, and then it will turn up, under a book or a leaflet, or in the sink with some dirty plates, and you’ll flip the top off the bottle and take your seat with the others. You swim some more, and there’s a feeling in your arms and legs as though the muscles have been peeled out of
them, as though the bones have softened from being in the water too long, and you can’t find the energy to pull yourself forward at all. You turn on to your back for a few moments. A rest is all you need. It’s been a while since you swam in open water like this, that’s all. A few moments’ rest and you’ll be able to swim to the rocks, to the steps, and climb out. You’ll be able to hang a towel over your pounding head until you get your breath back, dripping water and sweat on to the sunbleached concrete, feeling the warm solid ground beneath you. You’ll be able to gather your things and make your way along the path, pulling on your shirt as you go. And the grasshoppers will still be calling out, and the air will be thick with rosemary and pine. The sandy soil of the path will still kick up into dusty clouds around your ankles. Your swimming trunks will be dry by the time you get to the top of the hill, and you won’t have to wait long for a bus. And while you stand there the sea will be as calm and blue as ever when you look down over it, drift ing out to the horizon, reaching around to other bays, other beaches, other villages and towns, other swimmers launching out into its warm and gentle embrace. And this will be a story to tell when you get back home, sitting under the patio-heaters at the Golf Club bar, looking out over the cold North Sea and saying it was a nice holiday but I nearly never made it home. Or later this evening, sitting at some pavement café in a noisy bustling square with tall glasses of cold beer, telling the story of how you’d almost swum out too far. How you’d had to dump the snorkel and mask. It was a close one, you’ll tell them. I
called out but you didn’t hear. No one heard. Best be more careful next time, someone will probably say; even when the water looks calm there are still currents. Just because it’s warmer than back home doesn’t mean you can treat it like a swimming pool, they’ll say, and you’ll laugh and say, well, I know that now. And everyone will go quiet for a moment, thinking about it, until the waiter comes past and you order another round of drinks. And raise a silent toast to all the good things. The cold wet glass against the back of your sunburnt neck. The trace of her fingers, the soft wet bite of her lips. The juice of an orange spilling down your chin. Music, and dancing, and voices colliding in the warm night air. * You swim, and you rest. It won’t take long now. It’s not too far. You look up, past the headland and into the next bay along, and you swim and you rest a little more. Sometimes it happens like this.
From the collection
by Jon McGregor
2nd February 2012 | Hardback | 978 1 4088 0926 6 2nd February 2012 | eBook | 978 1 4088 1129 0
Tender, sad, funny, and riveting, this is an astonishing collection of work by one of Britain’s finest contemporary writers A man builds a tree house by a river, in anticipation of the coming flood. A young woman is almost killed when a sugar-beet crashes through her windscreen. A boy sets fire to a barn. A father is arrested when he tries to watch his daughter’s school nativity play. A pair of itinerant labourers sit by a lake, talking about shovels and sex, while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war. These aren’t the sort of things you imagine happening to someone like you. Butsometimes they do. These delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell of things buried and unearthed, of familiar places made strange, and of lives where much is hidden, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won.
* ‘McGregor is a breathtakingly good writer’ The Times ‘McGregor’s prose is unflinching yet luminous’ Guardian ‘Longlisted for the Man Booker for both of his first two novels, McGregor has the ability to give voice to unexplored aspects of our everyday lives’ Sunday Times ‘No British writer now writes more finely carved prose – and none more firmly allies artistry and empathy’ Boyd Tonkin, Independent
Jon McGregor is the author of the critically acclaimed If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin and Even the Dogs. He is the winner of the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, and has been twice longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Homesick by ROSHI
from the collection
HOMESICK By Roshi Fernando
Victor is thinking of other parties, of his childhood: quiet, dignified, the productions of an excitable wife of a dour clergyman. Homemade marshmallows, he remembers, lightly coloured with cochineal, dusted with icing sugar. He stands in the hallway of his own home in south-east London, looking at the late afternoon sun colouring everything with a honey glaze. My, he thinks, he can even see his own pudgy hand, reaching up to the table to steal a sweet, and a servant clucking away behind him, shoo shooing him, as if he were an escaped hen. If his father had seen him, there would have been the nasty, damning words about thieves, about hell. He hears Preethi and Nandini in the kitchen, the pan lids banging, the murmured voices, one of them chopping at the table, a small laughter. I am rich, he thinks. He walks into the sitting room, adjusts cushions on the plush cream sofas, a recent investment. The plastic covers have been removed for this evening, but will go back tomorrow: Nandini said that, once bought, this three-piece suite would be their last. It must survive thirty years, then, he thinks, for we are so young still, barely fifty. The sun is setting. He stands by the window, looking out to the opposite houses. Already there is music from the end of the street: West Indians, their party will be raucous. Never mind, never mind. He takes his C. T. Fernando record out of its sleeve, holds it carefully by the edges, blowing the dust away gently into the last pink rays of the sunshine. When he places the needle on to the crack-crack of the outside lines, he can smell poppadoms frying, he can feel
the warmth of other air, he can hear the voices of people long left behind. And Victor’s eyes fill with tears, for there is no going back in his life. Only the moving forward to better things, there is only the climb up steep, green hills that signify this Britain. He sits gingerly on the sofa as if he were the guest and the sofa the host. ‘Ma Bala Kale’, C.T. sings, and Victor hums along, remembering that the poppadoms will not be fried until the evening. * Preethi is angry. Nandini is again talking of money, of wasted opportunities. She is talking about resolutions, and Preethi is tired of saying – yes, Ammi, I will work harder, I will forget that under this skin, there is me. She wants to say – you know I’m slow, I’m not like Rohan and Gehan, I just can’t do what you want me to do. But she changes the subject. Talks about Clare, her friend from school, coming to the party. ‘She’s got the whole of Brideshead on video. Sometimes we watch two episodes . . .’ ‘Watch? But I thought you studied together?’ ‘Yes. We do. But sometimes, we take a break and watch – and it is by Evelyn Waugh. And you used to watch it with me.’ Which wasn’t true, she thought – Ammi was always asleep on the sofa. They are silent. ‘So, who is coming tonight, Ammi?’ ‘Wesley and Siro. This one, Gertie – she is bringing that foster child of hers. And her brother. He’s done very well. He is here attending Sandhurst.’
‘What’s that?’ ‘Officer training.’ ‘What? For the army? Which army?’ ‘The Sri Lankan army, fool.’ Preethi pauses for effect. ‘The Sri Lankan army who like to repress and murder Tamil people. You know, Tamil people like me and Dad?’ ‘Don’t be clever, clever. We left that behind, all that talk. You’re in England. Talk of English politics. How can you understand Sri Lanka? It is not ours to understand any more.’ ‘That’s rubbish,’ she starts, but her mother slaps her hand. It stings. ‘Don’t say “rubbish” to me. Do you think I would have said “rubbish” to my mother?’ Preethi washes her hands, and wiping them on her backside, edges around her mother’s chair in order to leave. ‘Where are you going? Come and chop the rest of these onions, then peel the carrots and grate them.’ She wants to call Clare. Tell her to bring a bottle of wine, which they can sneak to her room and enjoy by themselves. She sits back down at the table and starts to peel the carrots. ‘Onions first!’ her mother says. It is going to be a long New Year’s Eve night, Preethi thinks. But tomorrow will be 1983, and something good should come of it.
* Nandini fi nally in the shower, Victor takes another journey around the theatre of his house, imagining the characters who will be there shortly, seeing them stand with drinks in their hands, their colognes mixing with smoke, the perfumed silk-saried ladies perched on the chairs he has placed around the sitting room and dining room. The table is laid: Rohan and Gehan helped Preethi by lifting it and push ing it into the centre, so that people can travel around it, serving themselves from the various dishes Nandini has prepared. They had argued this morning, about the expense of a party. Nandini said he should have asked fewer people. But he knows that not everyone would come. Nandini is tired all the time, he reminds himself: he had been on Preethiâ€™s side. He would have let her go to college. She was happy at the local school. But Nandini took a second job, begged the private school to take Preethi on. Every penny is saved: no, he wonâ€™t think about it now. He wears a Nehru shirt, khaki, and cream slacks. He looks into the hall mirror, combs his floppy straight hair back into the quiff he has worn since he was eighteen. All of his friends wear their hair this way. The clock in the hall strikes seven. Gertie said she might come early, but the rest of the crowd are always late. Victor can hear the television upstairs in his bedroom. He helped Rohan carry it up there, in case the younger crowd got bored. He walks upstairs to see what they are watching. He looks around the door. His three children are lying on his double bed. Gehan holds the video buttons, and leans on his elbows, flat out on his tummy. He is still a baby, behind his glasses. Rohan and Preethi lie leisurely side by side, propped up by pillows. The tape finishes rewinding, and Gehan presses play.
The familiar trumpet solo, the white words, and then the fade into a single face, a stilted Italian accent: ‘I believe in America.’ ‘The Godfather, The Godfather – it is all you watch,’ he says from the doorway. They shush him. ‘Hmm, hmm – that can wait. Your mother will need to get ready. Enough, enough. Go and put a change, Gehan. Rohan.’ ‘I’m changed, Papa,’ Preethi says. ‘I know you are, darling. You look lovely,’ he says, as she walks past. He touches her face, pinches the burgundy satin of her dress. ‘Come and choose some music with me,’ he says gently, ‘they will all be here soon.’ * Preethi watches from her window for Clare. She managed to call, and Clare said to look out for her Dad’s Mercedes. Clare is staying the night, as her parents are going to a party in a hotel in town. Down the road, there is laughter, reggae music, shouting. Preethi wishes she was there: all her friends at her old school were black. She misses Sonia and Marcia and Shanelle. She wonders if they are par tying somewhere, maybe in that club in Peckham they used to go to. She can see cars stopping on the street, and people getting out. Saris, men in suits. She turns to her door: ‘Someone’s here! They’re here!’ * Chitra and Richard don’t arrive until nine-thirty. They have battled with public transport, pushed against the crowd on
their way to Trafalgar Square, and now walk leisurely up to the door. ‘Listen,’ Chitra says. Richard pulls her to him and kisses her. ‘Listen,’ she says again. ‘What?’ ‘Music. Baila music. And can you smell it? Can you smell the curry?’ She stands on the doorstep, but doesn’t ring the bell. What will they say? The people who knew her before she left her husband for Richard will all be there, sitting as they always do, in vicious eyeing circles around the room. But she cannot resist, and Victor said he wanted her to come. He insisted that she come. And she is proud of Richard, this famous writer, this gorgeous god with his shoulder-length, greying, Byronesque hair. Suddenly, the door opens, and she peers in, as Preethi throws her arms wide. ‘Aunty! Come, come!’ and they are pulled in to the warm embrace of the party. * Victor knows they are expecting him to say something. Nandini has indicated with a nod that the food is ready to serve. He looks around him, from face to face. There are thirty or forty people there, talking, laughing, some kissing on either cheek. Mr Basit is sitting in the centre of the sofa, his wife Rita perched on the arm next to him; Jenny, their daughter, is upstairs. Nandini is not happy because Mr Basit brought a bottle of whisky, and insisted that Victor try some. Victor gave up drinking in the summer of ’77, the same week Elvis died. But Victor respects Mr Basit, and it is an honour that he brought such a special bottle of whisky –
old whisky, Basit says. Victor had opened the bottle, taken cut glass tumblers from the kitchen (Nandini specifi cally told him earlier that only plastic cups must be used), and poured a glass for Mr Basit, a glass for Wesley, a glass for Hugo, a glass for Mr Chatterjee and a glass for himself. He did not offer any to Kumar, Shamini’s cousin, even though he slinked about the back door purring obsequiously at Victor. Nasty-looking fellow, drunk when he got here, Wesley said. They had stood together outside in the garden, five friends, toasting the New Year. It had been a quiet moment of clarity, filled with the resonance of the cold, bell-like clinking of their glasses. They had all knocked the drink back, in one, as they would have done with arrack in Sri Lanka. And the salt harshness of the spirit on his lips dances there still. He looks around at the party, and he sees them all in the swimmer’s gaze of a whiskied moment. Nandini’s eyes shine black and hard, as he raises his glass and shouts: ‘Friends! A toast! Here is – I mean – to US!’ and he stumbles a little, and laughs. ‘Time to eat, time to eat . . .’ Nandini turns, calls to Preethi, and Preethi and Nil, Siro and Chitra follow her to the kitchen to start bringing through the tureens of mutton, lentils, silver platters of yellow rice, glass bowls of salads and baskets of poppadoms. Victor sits down next to Gertie. Her foster child May is with her. ‘Hello, little girl,’ he says, pinching her cheek lightly. ‘There are a lot of other little girls upstairs. Why don’t you go and play?’ She shakes her head. ‘Shy, shy,’ Gertie says. ‘Talk to my brother, will you? He’s another shy one, nayther?’ she says, poking the young man
sitting beside May. Victor nods to the man, an officer in the army. ‘Come and eat,’ he says to the fellow. The brother had been introduced but Victor cannot remember his name. The whisky has clouded his mind, and all he sees are colours now, around each per son, greens, purples, golds, crimsons. Around this man, there is a yellow fire, an easy lion aggression: if the fellow were to open his mouth, a roar of the fire would belch out, and Victor realises he hates him, without reason. On impulse, he takes the man’s hand, pulls him from his chair, and pushing his shoulder lightly, leads him to the dining room, where people are already loading their plates. Nandini stands watching the dishes empty, waiting to swoop down to refill them. He catches her eye: she smiles from the side of her mouth. Victor looks at her across the party, and a tenderness for her erupts from him, and to his embarrassment and surprise, he imagines their warmth in the dark, the smell of her neck, the soft flabby skin of her stomach, crushed and stretched and worn. And he sees around her a glow of pink and mauve, which takes his breath away. * Upstairs, The Godfather has got to the wedding night, and Rohan has stopped the video. There are too many little children wandering in and out of the room, and he is embarrassed by the actress’s high pale breasts: so ugly to him, so unnat ural, the way she turns to Michael and removes her slip. The older kids are annoyed, and he is ushering children down the stairs to go and eat. But there is a crush in the hallway, so children run up and down the stairs, trying to go further upstairs to see what Preethi is doing in her bedroom. Gehan has taken the boys his age into his own room, and they are playing Monopoly for real
money they have rummaged from coats hanging on the banister. Preethi calls down to Rohan: ‘Get the ghettoblaster out! Clare brought some tapes.’ He thinks this is not such a bad idea. Nil comes to help him. ‘Where’s Mo, tonight?’ he asks her. Her brother is one of his good friends, and he is disappointed he didn’t come. ‘He’s gone up to Trafalgar Square with some mates.’ She seems shy; it is strange, for they have known each other since they were toddlers. Nil is beautiful now, with her long hair and her deep red dish skin, the high cheekbones like her father Wesley. Her eyes dance at him. ‘You’ve got a secret,’ he says. He knows her, he can read her. ‘I’ve got engaged,’ she says. He didn’t expect it. It is a punch in the head. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Who to?’ ‘Who do you think? Ian, for goodness’ sake.’ ‘And Uncle’s going to let you marry a white guy? Like hell!’ ‘Yes, he is.’ ‘You haven’t told them, have you?’ ‘Yes. They won’t stop us. They like him.’ ‘They’ve met him? Liar. You’re making it up.’ ‘I brought him home.’
‘What, for a curry feed and a quick sing-song?’ She slaps his back. ‘Shut up,’ she laughs. ‘I’m hungry. Let’s go and eat.’ But before they go down, he pulls her back to his parents’ bed room, and closes the door, and quite unexpectedly, they find they are kissing in the dark, the way they have often kissed before. He feels nothing sexual towards her. His dick nestles limp in its place, but there is comfort in their kiss. When they walk out, he knows there will be no more kissing Nil, and so he prolongs it, keeps her there, against the door, brushing her hair away from her face, and smiling at her closed eyes. * In the kitchen, Nandini and her friends are talking about relatives in Sri Lanka. Shamini’s husband’s family are cousins to Victor’s father. Nandini pretends to be interested, but what she and Shamini have in common is something internal and unsaid. They had both defied their families and married Tamils. Shamini’s husband had left her. Victor, her husband, her husband – there were no other words for the upstanding, beautiful man who lay next to her, who stood tall, who took her hand and held it, sometimes as if clinging on – he was here, and although Shamini felt their equality, they are not equal. Shamini is a sniping woman, silly with her children, the two little girls Deirdre and Lolly. If she talked of them, it was always about Deirdre, the clothes she has bought for Deirdre, the expense, Deirdre’s shoes, Deirdre’s beauty. And in fact, the child is a fat-faced thing, who uses both hands when she eats, smearing food down her lovely dresses, picking her nose too. Nandini hates the child: there is something like an animal about her open mouth. Lolly, they all like. She had been a charming baby,
with big eyes and willing to go to anyone with her arms raised out for a hug. But even Lolly has seemed to become a wretch recently: like a beaten dog. ‘And why did Gertie foster a black child, chchiii . . .’ Shamini says, under her breath to Nandini. ‘What do you mean?’ Nandini says sharply. Chitra and Dorothy turn. ‘The blacks,’ Shamini says even more quietly, ‘nasty . . .’ but before she can continue, Nandini comes quickly to her and holds her arm. ‘We are all the same, in this house. Who are you to say you are better? All are welcome. Sinhala, Tamil, Burger, Black.’ ‘I am just saying,’ Shamini begins, but the other women stand behind Nandini. Dorothy draws a breath. ‘You know, Shamini – I have been here longer than most of you. Do you know, Hugo and I came in ’62? And when we got here, it was the black people who made us feel welcome. Look at me – I am almost white. And Hugo, he is white, after all. But our accents, our clothes – people turned away. Even at church. And who became our friends? The black people we met in our building. That child is a lost child . . .’ but she cannot go on. She does not understand Shamini’s objections. Gertie and May come into the kitchen to wash their hands, followed by Kumar, Shamini’s cousin. He is holding Lolly by the hand. ‘Lolly, come here, darling,’ Nandini says. Chitra strokes her head as she walks past. Her hair is short, like a boy’s, parted at the side with a diamante clip pushing it back
behind her ear. A short yellow dress and tights, and strangely, as she approaches, she has to tug her hand away from the drunk cousin, and his hand trails down the dress, behind her. All the women but Shamini look at him, and Dorothy clucks him away. Renee Chatterjee calls down the corridor, ‘They’re trying to get Rita to play the piano! The singing! I love the singing!’ ‘Lolly,’ Nandini says, ‘this is May. Take her now and go and play upstairs with the others, darling.’ Lolly approaches May, and shrugs at her. May follows, and the party of women laugh, following Renee’s voice into the corridor and to the sitting room, where already the chords are being played of the song about Surangini, and the fish man. Nandini can hear Victor’s raised voice in the dining room, and the laughter that follows, and she smiles. * Preethi and Clare are drunk by eleven. But not too drunk, because Vita, Nil’s sister, has joined them and so has Jenny, and they have shared the bottle of wine, giggled about boys and talked about sex, and Clare has told them what a blow job is, and they have all agreed that it is something that they will never do, not for all the money in the world. ‘Imagine even holding one,’ Preethi says, and they break into hysteria, but it is false. It is a party, and they are drunk. Clare has cigarettes, and offers them around. Preethi and Jenny refuse, but Vita takes one, and they all stick their heads out of Preethi’s window to look up at the moon and continue talking. The party has slipped leisurely into the front garden, and men stand with drinks and cigarettes, and their smoke reaches Preethi and Jenny, Clare and Vita. They stay quiet to listen, because there is an urgency to the
voices, and Preethi sees it is her father and a beautiful young man talking. ‘There are other ways,’ her father says. ‘What do you suggest?’ ‘Killing, beating, all of this – it is not the answer. Forgiveness – that is the answer,’ Victor says. The young man throws his head back and laughs, then drinks down his drink. ‘Forgiveness? What has your forgiveness done for you? You think the way things are in Sri Lanka is down to the Sinhalese? The Tamils didn’t do so badly under the British, did they? Should we have forgiven after they left? Where would we be now? Still under Tamil rule, that is where, and no more Sri Lanka,’ he says, clicking his fingers. ‘And you here – what will your forgiveness do for you here? The whites hate you!’ Clare shouts down, ‘I don’t hate you, Victor! I love you!’ and Preethi elbows her, and Vita chokes as she tries to smother her cigarette puffs so her uncles don’t see her. ‘You see,’ Victor laughs, pointing up at the window. ‘It is nearly midnight. We don’t want to argue now, do we?’ He puts his hand out to the young man, and rests it on his shoulder. ‘Come, come. I will get you another drink. Come and sing,’ he says. Preethi hates her father for this. She hates his appeasement and his gentility. ‘Oi,’ she shouts down, after they walk away, ‘leave my dad alone!’ and the four of them laugh again. Chitra calls up. ‘Silly girls! Wherefore art thou, silly girls?’
They giggle, and choke, and watch other people in the dark – Hugo kissing Dorothy’s hand as he leads her back into the house; Richard and Chitra easing their way down the hill, arm in arm. ‘Bye, Aunty!’ Preethi shouts after them. ‘D’you think she does?’ Clare says, and they all squeal at the thought of Chitra and Richard going home to bed. ‘Course she does.’ ‘What, blow jobs?’ ‘Err, don’t,’ Vita says. Preethi hangs out of the window still. ‘It’s a beautiful night,’ she says. ‘On such a night as this, did fair Troilus . . . what is it?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know, Preethi,’ Clare says. Vita finishes her cigarette and throws the stub down on to the road. ‘D’you know what I want to do? I want to dance.’ * ‘Singing, singing,’ Gertie says. ‘I love it,’ Renee Chatterjee replies. They have never met before, and although they would have a million things in common, neither of them has bothered to find out more about the other. It is too loud, and Gertie is out of sorts. She wants to tell someone: tell them how much May means to her, how wonderful a child she is, how they sat next to each other on the settee and sometimes the child’s hand would stroke her own, and the companionship of it means more than anything. The singing stops. Men gather around
the piano, their hips thrust forward, elbows gathered to their sides, their hands awaiting the next clap. Nil brings Rita a drink, leaves it on the top of the piano. Kumar leans on to Rita’s shoulder, and Mr Basit pulls him back, pushes him out of the inner circle. ‘I have to take the child back,’ Gertie says to Renee. Renee follows her line of sight. Through the French windows beyond the piano, children can be seen running in and out of the bushes, playing hide and seek. Lolly and May hold hands, and Deirdre chases them. Although it is dark, she can see May’s face, wide with joy, suddenly just a normal child. ‘Why?’ Renee asks. ‘Her mother wants her back. She hates her because she is black. But she wants her back.’ ‘The mother is white?’ ‘Yes, and the father was black. She expected the child to be like her.’ Gertie wants to tell of the scars on the child’s back, where the mother bleached her. ‘Does the child know?’ ‘No. I don’t know how to tell her . . .’ and her voice breaks. Renee takes her hand. ‘Then don’t tell her. Just take her.’ Gertie stares, wide-eyed. ‘That would be a sin.’ Mrs Chatterjee pats her hand. ‘You enjoy each other for the last few days. She will remember you, you know that.’
‘Her mother hates her. And I have to take her back.’ ‘Never mind, never mind. Life is hard for us all,’ Renee says, and as they sit watching the singing, Renee taps Gertie’s hand in time, as Gertie dabs at her eyes with her dead husband’s white handkerchief. * The ghettoblaster is best in their parents’ bedroom, Rohan and Preethi decide. Clare is flirting shamelessly with Rohan, her arm around his neck as he leans down to the deck to put Michael Jackson on. As he presses the play button down, ‘Don’t stop till you get enough’ begins, and he twirls her into the room, first with her arm, then pulling her back into a crotch thrust by the waist. Clare is thrilled, and so is Vita, who has been in love with Rohan since she was born, she thinks. Nil sits on the bed, watching, and Preethi calls to Gehan and his friends. Clare goes back to the ’blaster and turns it up. The children have run in from the garden and are now outside the bedroom, looking in curiously. They all watch as Rohan and Nil, Preethi, Vita, Jenny and Clare all start to dance wildly, their arms in the air, their feet pounding double time to the beat. On the stairs, a late arrival: Mohan has run up the hill from the station in order to be with his family for New Year. It is five to twelve. * Victor stops everything: ‘It is nearly midnight! Let’s count down! Ten! Nine! Eight!’ Before he can continue, the noise from upstairs throbs the counts for him. ‘What is that?’ he says, but he knows it is his children.
‘Another song!’ Kumar shouts, but as he shouts, he falls over. ‘Three! Two! One!’ Wesley says, and then ‘Happy New Year!’ and everyone shouts ‘Happy New Year’ to each other, and there are kisses all around Victor, but the music goes on upstairs, so that as the people kiss each other in his sitting room, and their colours mix like a kaleidoscope into smoky patterns, he becomes angry. He remembers home, the New Years when he was a teenager, the faces he kissed there, the night heat and rain, and his mother’s orchids, their silhouettes in the moonlight. He remembers the smell of the warmth, of drying coconut and rice. But he remembers also his father’s stinging switch, his mother’s face turned away. He wants to get to Nandini, because he is all out of it: of the party, of the friends, of his children. Nowhere he can find home, but if he found Nandini, it would be there, in her, and he would be safe again. He looks for pinks, for mauves. * The dancing does not stop. They show off to each other. They dance, brothers and sisters together, they dance because they can. They are exhausted, but they push on, they push each other on, because they are new, they are the ones. * ‘What to do?’ Siro says to Nandini. ‘She is determined to marry him, what to do?’ ‘Good. Let her make a good marriage,’ Nandini says.
Wesley and Victor sit with them in the dining room. Many people have gone. Gertie and her brother sit on the opposite side of the table. ‘Good, good. These children will never go back,’ Gertie says. ‘Let them make marriages here.’ ‘But with white fellows?’ her brother says. ‘Why not?’ Gertie asks sharply. ‘You think once you give them all this, you can take them back there, take it all away?’ ‘Why not?’ Wesley asks. ‘They can get used to anything. They are not English. They are ours.’ ‘What rubbish!’ Nandini says, and Siro agrees with a nodding of her quiet head. ‘What is their mother tongue, now?’ the brother says. ‘What does it matter?’ Victor says. ‘Language – it is important. What is their mother tongue?’ ‘Ask me what is mine,’ Victor says. ‘It is the same as theirs. We speak in the language we live in. It is not important.’ He sees the yellow fire, as if it were dangerous, this man, dangerous. ‘What language do you dream in?’ the brother asks. ‘Dream?’ Wesley answers for Victor. ‘We live in our dreams. We do not need to dream.’ They all laugh. The children come downstairs. Vita sits on Wesley’s knee. Preethi throws her arm around Victor.
‘What is your mother tongue?’ the brother says to them both. Clare leans against the doorway. Preethi shrugs. Vita says, ‘Oh my God, are you arguing about that stuff again?’ ‘Do you want to know? I will show you,’ Nandini says, and she elbows Siro, and the two of them together poke their tongues out, catching the tips with their fingers. Nandini crosses her eyes. Victor laughs, but he wants to cry. ‘We belong nowhere,’ he says. ‘But if we belong anywhere, it is here. I have chosen here.’ He stands. ‘We have chosen here. And that is it,’ he says, flicking his wrist up as if tossing an imaginary cricket ball into the air. ‘We are here.’ * When everyone is fi nally gone, and the children are asleep, he and Nandini go to bed. They talk of the brother, of Kumar and stupid Shamini. They gossip and laugh, but when the light is off, he turns on to his side and kisses Nandini on the forehead, on the nose, on the lips. He says, ‘I was homesick for you,’ and she laughs and says, ‘Silly, you were drunk,’ as she rolls over and tucks herself into him, pulling his arm around her, her husband, her husband.
From the collection
by Roshi Fernando
1st March 2012 | Hardback | 978 1 4088 2640 9 1st March 2012 | eBook | 978 1 4088 2643 0
A stunning, prize-winning collection of linked stories which traces the fine lines of politics, tradition and community New Year’s Eve, 1982, and the whole gang is at Victor and Nandini’s house. Baila music is blaring from the record player in the lounge. Poppadoms are frying in the kitchen. And Preethi, tipsy on youth and friendship and covert cigarettes out the window, just wants to belong. But what does that mean, to belong? Is it: Mourning for Elvis? Marrying an English boy? Learning how to speak in a voice that doesn’t remind you of your father? Feeling awkward at an office barn dance? Losing your lover, twice? Vowing to destroy the world and then changing your mind? Is it something else, just out of reach? Following the lives of 5 individuals from tightly knotted Sri Lankan families in south London, Roshi Fernando’s stunning collection of linked stories pulls us back, back, to the knowledge of home.
WINNER OF THE IMPRESS PRIZE FOR NEW WRITERS 2009 SHORTLISTED FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES SHORT STORY PRIZE 2011 LONGLISTED FOR THE FRANK O’CONNOR SHORT STORY AWARD 2011
ROSHI FERNANDO was born in London of Sri Lankan parents. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea. She won the 2009 Impress Prize for New Writers, was shortlisted for the 2011 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award, longlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, was given a special commendation by the judges of the Manchester Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the Bridport prize and the Fish prize.
The Dead Roads by D.W.
from the collection
ONCE YO U B R E A K A KN U C K L E
THE DEAD ROADS By D.W. Wilson
One time we roadtripped across the country with Animal Brooks, and he almost got run over by a pickup truck partway through Alberta. It was me and my twenty-yearold girlfriend Vic and him, him in his cadpat jumpsuit, Vic in her flannel logger coat and her neon hair that glowed like a bush-lamp. We’d known Animal since grade school: the north-born shitkicker, like Mick Dundee. A lone ranger, or something. Then in 2002 the three of us crammed into his ’67 Camaro to tear-ass down the Trans-Canada at eighty miles an hour. Vic and me had a couple hundred bucks and time to kill before she went back to university. That’d make it August, or just so. Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived. Vic stole shotgun right from the get-go and Animal preferred a girl beside him anyway, so I’d squished in the back among our gear. We had a ton of liquor but only a two-man tent because Animal didn’t care one way. He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to
death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride. The Camaro’s vinyl seats smelled like citrus cleaner. First time I ever got a girl pregnant was in Animal’s backseat, but I didn’t want to mention it since Vic would’ve ditched out then and there. Vic’ll crack you with a highball glass if you say the wrong thing, she can do that. We weren’t really dating, either. She just came home in the summers to visit her old man and score a few bucks slopping mortar, and we’d hook up. I don’t know anyone prettier than Vic. She’s got a heart-shaped face and sun freckles on her chin and a lazy eye when she drinks and these wineglass-sized breasts I get to look at sometimes. On the West Coast she bops around with a university kid who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight. Upper-middle-class, horizon-in-his-irons, that type. Not that I can really complain, I guess. Vic never mentioned him and I never mentioned him and we went about our business like we used to, like when we were sixteen and bent together in the old fur-trading fort up the beach on Caribou Road. Vic planned our journey with a 1980s road atlas she snagged from her dad’s material shed. Animal kept his hand on the stick shift so he could zag around semis hauling B.C. timber to the tar sands. Whenever he geared to fifth his palm plopped onto Vic’s thigh. Each time, she’d swat him and give him the eyebrow and he’d wink at me in the rearview. —Dun worry, Duncan, I wouldn’t do that to ya, he’d say, but I know Animal. For the first day we plowed east through the national park. Cops don’t patrol there so Animal went batshit. His
Camaro handled like a motorbike and it packed enough horse to climb a hill in fifth, and I don’t know if he let off the gun the whole way. He held a Kokanee between his legs and gulped it whenever the road straightened. Animal was a top-notch driver. As a job, he manned a cargo truck for this organic potato delivery service. One time he spun an ebrake slide at forty miles per hour, so me and him could chase down these highschoolers who’d hucked a butternut squash through his windshield. To kill time, Animal bought a Playboy and handed it to Vic. He suggested she do a dramatic read if possible. At first she gave him the eye, but he threatened to have me do it if not her. He also handed her all the receipts for gas and food and booze to keep track of, on account of her higher education, but I’m not even sure Vic did much math. At university she studied biology and swamplands, and I like to think I got her into it, since there’s a great wide marsh behind this place we used to get shitfaced at. It’s a panelboard bungalow on the outskirts of town, built, Vic figures, on floodland from the Sevenhead River. Vic and me used to stash our weed in the water, pinned under the vegetation band. One time we stole election signs and ditched them in the marsh, and the Valley Echo printed a headline that said the cops didn’t know to call it vandalism or a political statement. Neither did I really, since Vic planned the whole thing. Then last summer I asked her to muck around the marsh with me but she said we really shouldn’t, because it’s drying up. She had a bunch of science to prove it. —Something has to change, Dunc, she said, pawing at me. —Or there’ll be nothing left. Eventually Animal bored of the Trans-Canada, so he veered onto some single-lane switchback that traced the Rocky Mountains north. I thought Vic’d be distressed but turned out she expected it. She shoved the road atlas under the seat and dug a baggie of weed from her pack. Later, we played
punch buggy, but I couldn’t see much from the back and Vic walloped me on the charley horse so goddamn hard I got gooseskins straight down to my toes. * The sign said, Tent Camping – $15, and Animal said, — Fuck that shit, and then he booted the sign pole, for good measure. He plunked himself on the Camaro’s cobalt hood and rubbed his eyes. We’d been on the road for a while, and I don’t remember if he ever slept much. The air smelled like forest fire and it also reeked of cow shit, but Alberta usually reeks of cow shit. Vic leaned into the door frame, hip cocked to one side like a teenager. Her flannel sleeves hung too low and she bunched the extra fabric in each fist. She chewed a piece of her hair. When we used to date I would tug those strands out of her mouth and she’d ruck her eyebrows to a scowl and I’d scramble away before she belted me one. It was starting to turn to evening. In the low Albertan dusk her bright hair shone the colour of whiskey. She caught me staring, winked. Vic slid her hands in her jean pockets. —I got fifteen bucks. —Yeah I bet ya do, Animal said. —What the hell does that mean? —Et’s Duncan’s cash, enn’it? —Just some, Vic said. —I got more money ’en Duncan, ya know. —Shut your mouth, Animal, I told him. —Jus sayin, he said, and ducked into the driver seat.
We reached someplace called Shellyoak and Animal called all eyes on the lookout for a campsite. He drove through the town’s main haul, where the Camaro’s wide nose spanned the lane past centre. A ways out, the Rockies marked the border home. This far north their surfaces were dotted with pine husks – grey, chewed-out shells left over from the pine beetle plague. Not a living tree in sight. Shellyoak’s buildings were slate brick with round chimneys and tiny windows high as a man’s chin. A group of kids smoked dope on a street bench and Vic hollered for directions and one waved up the lane with an arm so skinny it flailed like an elastic. —Near the amusement park, he called. Big rocks broke the landscape on Shellyoak’s outskirts, and Vic figured it used to be under a glacier. Animal was dead silent the whole way. I guess the bony trees irked him, that carcass forest. The stink of woodsmoke blasted from the fan and it reminded me of the chimneys that burned when I used to scrape frost off Vic’s windshield, all those mornings after I stayed the night at her place. One time her dad was in the kitchen as I tried to sneak out, and he handed me a coffee and some ice shears and told me to keep in his good books. Then he said Vic and me made a good pair, us two, but if I got her pregnant he’d probably beat me to death with an extension cord. He grinned like a boy, I remember. Then he said, —Seriously though, ya make a good pair. A few minutes later Vic tiptoed downstairs and her old man clapped me on the shoulder like a son, and Vic smiled as if she could be happier than ever. Animal yawed us around a bend and all at once the horizon lit up with a neon clown head big as an RV. From our angle, it looked as if the clown also had rabbit ears, flopped down like two bendy fluorescent scoops. The highway’d gone gravel and the Camaro’s tires pinged pebbles on the
undercarriage. In the distance I saw a Ferris wheel rocking like a treetop, but not much else in the park to speak of. Animal geared down and this time when he laid his palm on Vic’s knee he didn’t take it off, and she didn’t smack him. He still winked at me in the rearview, though. A second later Vic shook his hand away. —Christ, it’s a gas station too, Vic said, pointing at the pumps hidden in the clown’s shadow. Animal steered toward them, tapped the fuel gauge with its needle at quarter-tank. —You’ve got enough, I said, but he didn’t so much as grunt. He parked at the first pump and unfolded from the vehicle. Vic popped her seat forward so I could climb out. Figures milled inside the gas station and their outlines peered through the glass. A painted sign that said Tickets, 5 bucks hung above the door. On it, somebody’d drawn a moose. Animal started pumping gas. He tweaked his eyebrows at me. —Well? —The hell do you want now, I said. —Go enside and ask where we ken camp, he said. He winked over my shoulder, at Vic. —Giddyup now. —They’ll tell us to go to the pay grounds. —Kid said we ken camp near the amusement park. —That kid was on dope, I said. —Yer on dope, he shot, and thrumped his fingers on the Camaro’s hood. He flashed his gums. —Go on, Skinny. —What the fuck, Animal.
—Yer in muh way, Skinny, he said, and cocked his head to indicate Vic. —I seen better windows ’en you. Then the station’s stormdoor clattered and Vic yelped and I turned and saw the biggest goddamn Native man ever. He wore Carhartts and steeltoes and no shirt beneath the straps. The buckles dimpled his collar. His hair gummied to his cheeks and his head tilted at an angle. This gruesome, spider-like scar spanned his chest and the whole left nipple was sliced off, snubbed like a button nose. He leaned an arm-length calliper on his neck. Then his face jerked into a smile, but not a friendly kind. —I never seen a Camaro can run on diesel, he said, stressing his e’s. For a second he stood there in the doorway as if he might say gotcha! Vic bunched excess sleeve in her fists and I sniffed the air to see if the place reeked like diesel engines. And there it was: the smell of carbide and tar and dirty steel. Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough. Then he killed the pump and yanked the nozzle from his tank. —Where the fuck’s et say? The guy did a shrug-a-lug. —It’s a trucker stop. —Yeah well I’m notta trucker. —Me neither, the guy said, and moved between Vic and me, toward the car, and the air that wafted after him stunk of B.O. His neck muscles strained to hold his head straight, like he was used to keeping it down. A scrapper’s stance, almost. I caught Vic’s attention and her forehead scrunched up and the skin at her eyes tightened like old leather. I’d never known her to be the worrying type.
—Nice car though, the guy said. He dragged a wide hand over the Camaro’s cobalt finish. —Yeah et is. —I’m Walla, he said, and swung his head to Vic. —This your girlfriend? Animal banged his commie hat against his knuckles. —Ya got a pump er sompthen? —Nup, Walla said, and stressed the p. —Or sompthen else? —Buddy has a siphon. —Ken we get et? —Nup, getting too late, he said, and pointed with one sausage finger at the darkening sky. —Tomorrow, I bet. Animal’s mouth jawed in circles and I could all but hear his brain trying to find a way to make it all go right. —There a campsite nearby? I said, to buy time. Walla twitched his head behind him. —The summit. Not like she’s a real mountain, though. You owe me twelve thirty-seven for the diesel. —The hells I do, Animal said, and crossed his arms. Walla set the callipers on the Camaro’s hood and their measurement end tinked. He swung his gaze from me to Animal to Vic, then to Animal and then at the shop. He stood nearest Vic of all, a full two and a half heads taller
than her, and I swear to God he had hands big as mudflaps. —No, he said, very slowly, —you do. Vic dug cash from her wallet, fifteen bucks. She handed it over and Walla tugged the bills one at a time. —I’ll get your change, he said, and stepped toward the station. Then, over his shoulder: —You can’t leave your car there. He grinned at Vic and his teeth were white as gold. —Well, maybe you can. Push her outta the way of the pump. I got behind the Camaro. Animal hung at the gas tank like one of those old guys who hope somebody’ll come talk to them. —Put her in neutral, idiot, I snapped, and dug my toes into the ground and heaved and the Camaro rocked. Vic pressed her back to the bumper. —What’s happening? she whispered to me, but I grunted and got the car rolling and hoped I didn’t have to scrap with Walla. We pushed the Camaro outside the clown face’s shadow and I put myself between Vic and the station. Walla reappeared, horselike in his gait. He dumped the coins in my palm and ran his tongue over his teeth. He touched a notch under his jaw. —The summit’d be a helluva climb, he said. —Especially if you’re taking your booze. I got a pickup. —We can hike it, I said. —Trade you a lift. —Fer what, Animal barked. —What ya got? Walla said, and rubbed his triceps. The scar tissue on his chest looked sun-dried, pinker than it ought to, and in the sticky neon light it shone raw and oily like a beating. —Aw hell, he said, —I’ll help you out. Get yer stuff.
We grabbed our beer cooler and Vic took the sleeping bag and Animal pocketed The Once and Future King. Walla disappeared around the gas station and a few minutes later he came chewing up gravel in a green three-seater Dodge. He was sardined in driver with his shoulders hunched and his knees against his armpits. The truck had a bust-out rear window and poly duct-taped in the gap. Horse quilts blanketed the box, warm with the smell of dog. —One of you needs to sit in the bed, Walla said, then dangled his keys, —and one of you needs to drive, cause I’m shittered and the fucking pigs have it out for me. Animal lunged for the keys and me and him shared this moment between us, his mouth twisted like a grin, and I wanted to hit him so bad. But if I whaled on him I’d look bad to Vic, so I climbed into the mess of bedding while Animal drove the switchback. The truck whipped around bends and I imagined Walla’s skunky B.O. sneaking through the patched-up window, how bad it must’ve been in the cab with him. Animal was goddamn lucky he’d pocketed his book. The whole way, Vic shifted uncomfortably, and I could hear her thighs brushing Walla on one side and Animal on the other. * We got to the summit when the sun tucked under the Rockies and everything went grey and dead-looking as the forest. Walla showed us a firepit ringed by skeleton trees where he’d piled some chopped wood. Animal collapsed near the pit to work a blaze. He waved Vic off when she offered to help, so she dug a mickey of Canadian Club from the cooler. Fifty feet off, a cliff dropped to the highway below, where the Ferris wheel keeled and the goddamn clown face smirked.
—Thanks for helping us, Vic said. She sat down on an upturned log, whiskey on her knee. —My dad tells me if you’re cooking stew, and you don’t put meat in it, you can’t bitch when yer eating it, Walla said, and he grinned to show his pearly teeth, and Vic laughed and so did I, though I didn’t know what the hell he meant. Then he said: —Now I need a lift down to the station. Vic froze in the middle of sipping her whiskey and Animal looked up from his smouldering fire. —What’dya mean. —I told you, I’m shittered, and the pigs have it out for me. —I’m buildin the fire, Animal said, but Walla had his eyes on Vic, anyway. Vic glanced from Walla to me and I knew she wouldn’t ask me to step in, because she won’t do that, ever. One time she figured out how to fix a circuit fault on her Ranger all her own, because she didn’t want to ask her old man how. —I’ll do it, I said to Walla, and then I dumped my halfempty beer over Animal’s wimpy fire and he threatened to beat me to death with the kindling. Walla flicked me his keys and I palmed them from the air and got in the driver seat, and he swung into passenger like a buddy. Not thirty seconds into the drive his stench soured up the cab, but at least he smelled like a working man, like he just forgot to shower, and not like some hobo. On the way down, the poly over the rear panel smacked about and more than once he leaned sideways to inspect the tape. He spread one leg across the seat, draped his arm clear out the window, and I wondered if his knuckles bobbed along the gravel. In the distance, the horizon glowed from the park lights and the treetops resembled hundreds of heated
needles. I kept the highbeams on and scanned for marble eyes, since twilight is the worst time for hitting deer, but Walla told me that all the deer fled north with the beetles. —Nothin here but us and the flies, he said. —A thousand dead acres. —The dead roads, or something. —I don’t mind that, Walla said. Then: —They’re an odd couple, eh? —Who. —The girl and him, Animal. —They’re not a couple. —The way he looks at her? Sure they are. Or gonna be, he said, and punched me on the arm like we were friends. —He looks at all girls like that. Walla smiled like a Mason jar. He had fillings in his teeth. —Her, too. She was lookin at him too. The station and the clown face swept into view, and as I geared down my fist touched Walla’s knee. Vic had about zero reason to go for a guy like Animal, so I don’t know. But then I imagined the two of them bent together at that shitty fire, red marks scraped over Vic’s neck and collarbones from Animal’s barbed-wire stubble. —You got a thing for her, eh, Walla said. —No. —Might be you need to take him down a notch.
—We’re buds, I said, and parked the truck. Walla extracted himself from the passenger seat. —Nah man, he said across the hood. —We’re buds. Whatever the hell he meant I’ll never know, since I ditched him and started back along the road, toward the summit. The whole way I thought about Animal and Vic and I tried not think about them at the same time. I’d known them so long – my two best friends, really. The outside smelled more like driftwood than a forest. Wind kicked dirt at my face and though it breezed around the treetops they just creaked like power poles. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a goddamn wolfman came pounding out of the dark. A few times headlights tear-assed up the road and a few times I almost barrelled sideways and I just got madder even thinking of it. Then the slope evened out, which meant I neared the summit, and then the trees flickered campfire-orange. The road looped our campsite so I cut through the forest. Never been so scared in my life, those last steps. Animal atop Vic, grinding away, probably still in his stupid commie hat and his Converses – no sight in the world could be worse. I’d rather get shot. Walla was right – Animal’d been gunning for her the whole trip. Right from the start when he kicked me to the backseat, some big plan – some big, selfish plan. I got close enough to see the flames. Vic sat under her sleeping bag, off near the cliff edge, but I could only make out her outline in the orange light. Animal was MIA. They might have already finished, how could I know. I crept along the tree line, scanned for him. Not sure what I hoped to accomplish. It’s not like he kept a dark secret.
I found him outside the campsite with his back to the slope and his cock in his hand and a stream of piss splattering on a tree. It was dark enough that I didn’t get the whole picture, thank God for that. He’d crossed the road to make use of a big pine that might have been a little bit alive – for some reason Animal really didn’t like those dead trees. I had some things to say to him. Vic’s old man once told me a guy needs to know when to pick his battles, and as I watched Animal, pissing as if nothing mattered, I figured it out: a guy needs to know what he cares about most, and Animal, well, he didn’t care about stuff. But he had to know I did. Christ, everybody in the valley knew I did. It’d be like if I tried to steal his car for a joyride. I’m his friend, for fucker’s sake. Then a truck hauled ass up the road, kicking gravel in a spray. It had a good clip and its rear end fishtailed, out of control or so the passengers could get a laugh. Its headlamps swung around, but on that switchback the dead trees scattered the light – no way the driver would see Animal, not before clobbering him. Animal turned as if to check what the commotion was about. Either he couldn’t see or he was too stupid to dive for cover or he figured no truck would dare to run him down. I saw the trajectory, though, loud and clear: the pickup’s rear end would swing into him, knock him ass-over-teakettle into the woods, and that’d be that for Animal Brooks. But I didn’t yell out. I didn’t make a sound. Because all I could think of was his hand on Vic’s thigh, over and over the whole trip, his wild grin in the rearview and all the stuff he’d pulled to be alone with her. So nope, I didn’t yell out, and the truck fishtailed right toward him and he yowled like a dog and I lost track of where he went. Vic bolted from the tree line, almost right into me, and I scrambled after her. She gave me a look, as if surprised, but I just nodded like I ought to be there. Animal had already
clambered to his feet. Moss and dead twigs stuck to his face, and his commie hat had been biffed away and the forest floor was beat up where he’d rolled across it. He pulled a pinecone from his hair and stared at it in wonder. —Animal, Vic barked. —You okay? He flicked the pinecone aside, seemed to notice us. —Why the hell didn’t ya say sompthen, he said, staring at me. —What? —Yuh were across the road. Why didn’t ya yell out or sompthen. Fucken truck nearly killed me. —I just got here, I told him. —Ya just got here, eh. —Yeah, got back right now. Animal swiped his commie hat from the ground. He banged it against his thigh to dust it off. —Just en time to see my kung fu reflexes, he said, and grinned. —So you’re okay? Vic said. —Shaken up, yeah. Vic grabbed Animal’s chin and turned his head sideways. His cheek was scraped and dirty and Vic licked her thumb to rub it clean. —Mighta pulled a groin muscle, too, he said when she stepped back, and Vic lasted a full two seconds of his leer before she punched him in the chest hard enough to make him wheeze. *
Afterward, by the fire, Animal shook out his adrenalin. — Woulda sucked to run that truck over, he said, and laughed, a deep, throaty laugh like a guy does when he’s survived an event that should have killed him. Then he dug into the cooler and started skulling beers to drown his jitters. Vic and me shared the mickey of Canadian Club, away from the campfire so we could look over the cliffside at this bizarre piece of land. She took a big chug from the bottle and handed it over. Vic can drink like a tradesman when times come. The moonlight made her cheeks silver and that lazy eye of hers acted out. She spread her sleeping bag across her legs and I inched my way under it and the nylon clung to my shins. Vic smelled like a campfire. Vic smelled like citrus shampoo or something. Vic smelled like Vic. —This an alright place to sleep, she said and wiggled in the dirt and the dried bloodweed and made a little nest. —I’m not picky, I said. —You smell like a dog. —Sorry, Vic. She belted me on the shoulder and I leaned into her. Below us a couple semis zoomed north and the Ferris wheel spun and I thought I could hear Walla chopping lumber. Christ, a weirder place. By the fire, Animal sounded out words from his book, finger under each sentence. Then Vic unbuttoned her flannel coat. She always wore it or if not the coat then a flannel shirt. Sexiest thing, swear to God. I remember how she took it off, first time we ever boned, all awkward and struggling so I had to help her with the sleeves. A different kind of time back then. A different way
of going about things, even. Sometimes I wish I was smarter so I could’ve gone to university with Vic. Vic put her hand under my chin and jacked my head to eye level. I guess I was looking at her breasts. She leaned in and kissed me and she tasted like dope, and softness, and her smooth chin ground on my middle-of-the-night stubble. But I couldn’t kiss her right then. I don’t know why. She slicked her tongue over my lips and I couldn’t get my head around the whole thing, the Ferris wheel and what Walla said and how I almost got Animal killed, and Vic, you know, and the whole goddamn thing. —Don’t fuck around, she said, but the words were all breath. —Just thinkin is all. She bit down on my lip. —Well, stop it. —I like you a lot, Vic. For a second she stopped and turned her head and her neon hair grazed my nose and I’d have given anything to know what was going on in her head right then. She had her lips squished shut and her forehead a little scrunched as if figuring something out – same look as the day she left for university. That’d have been in ’99, and her and her old man and me stayed at a hotel in Calgary so she could catch her West Coast flight in the wee hours, and while she showered, her old man told me not to let her get away. — It’ll happen, Duncan, he said, his face drawn in and lined around his eyes, as if he knew what the hell he was talking about. —I swear to God you’ll lose her if you don’t take action soon. And I nodded and tried not to grin, because I understood exactly what he meant.
On the mountaintop, Vic hooked hair behind her ear. — You’re my guy, Dunc, she said as though it were true. —I know, Vic. But sometimes I don’t know. You know? Then she cuffed me, all playful, and pulled me into her. But that’s Vic for you. Afterward, when we were done and Animal’s moans were snores and the fire glowed down to embers, Vic sat up and stretched. Her ribs made bumps under her skin and the muscles along her spine tensed and eased and it felt alright right then. That’s Vic for you, that’s how she can make you feel, that easy. Never liked a girl so much. Nothing else to it. I just cared about her more than the university guy did or Animal did or maybe her old man did. I should’ve told her so, or how I wished she didn’t have to go west, or how I’d had a ring for her for years but lacked the balls to do anything with it. Even then, the mountaintop seemed like a last chance or something. She sucked the rest of the whiskey and pointed at the sky where a trail of turquoise streaked across the horizon – the northern lights, earlier than I’d ever known them. She just stood there for a second with her back to me and those lights around her. Christ, she was so pretty. Then she whipped the empty bottle off the summit, and I stared at her and thought about her and waited for the sound of the bottle breaking way, way below us.
From the collection
Once You Break a Knuckle by D.W. Wilson Winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2011 Set in the remote Kootenay Valley in western Canada, this debut collection tells stories of good people doing bad things: two bullied adolescents sabotage a rope swing; a heartbroken young man refuses to warn his best friend about an approaching car; sons challenge fathers and break taboos. Crackling with tension and propelled by jagged, cutting dialogue, the stories interconnect and reveal to us how our best intentions are doomed to fail or injure, how our loves can fall short or mislead us, how even friendship – especially friendship – can be dangerously temporary. An intoxicating alloy of adrenaline and the kind of vulnerability we would all admit to if we were honest, Once You Break a Knuckle is about the courage it takes just to make it through the day.
12th April 2012 | Hardback | 978 1 4088 3028 4 12th April 2012 | eBook | 978 1 4088 3029 1
D.W. (Dave) Wilson was born and raised in the Kootenay Valley, British Columbia. He is the youngest ever winner of the BBC National Short Story award and recipient of the University of East Anglia’s inaugural MAN Booker Prize Scholarship – the most prestigious award available to students in the MA program. His stories have appeared in literary magazines across Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, including the Malahat Review, Grain, and Southword. He lives in London.
Demons by RAJESH
from the collection
DEMONS By Rajesh Parameswaran
When the phone rang the night before Thanksgiving, Savitri Veeraghavan was doing her best to forget that her husband, Ravi, lay dead on the living room floor. A pot of tomatoes and lentils and water was boiling, a simple dinner, and Savitri had put a stainless steel wok next to it on the stove, turned the heat to medium, and poured in a yellow pool of vegetable oil. On the phone’s first ring, Savitri threw into the oil a handful of jeera, and the oil responded with its usual eager sizzle. On the second ring, she sprinkled in two teaspoons of mustard seeds, and the oil coughed and spat and spluttered so that even Savitri, prepared for just such an outburst, took a surprised step backward to avoid the burning spatter. Then the spice found its home in the oil and the heat, settling into a slow sizzle, and the smell of a meal well begun wafted out of the wok, over the kitchen, and into the living room, where Savitri’s husband’s cold nose failed to notice it. She picked up the phone. “Hello?” she asked. “What?” the voice said bluntly. Savitri recognized Poornima’s voice instantly. “Hi-yee,” Savitri said in the weary singsong she reserved for her close friends. “What? Tell me.”
“What time you coming tomorrow?” asked Poornima. What’s tomorrow? Savitri thought quickly. Poornima’s luncheon, that’s right. “I can come anytime. You tell me,” Savitri said. “Come early,” said Poornima, “You can give me some help. Ravi and Radha can come later if they like.” Savitri shook her head. “Radha won’t be here. She has so much work to do at college, all her activities.” Poornima hmmed in surprise. “Will your Arun be there?” Savitri asked. “Oh, yes.” “Really,” said Savitri. “Just for the weekend? All the way from Harvard?” “It’s Thanksgiving,” Poornima explained. After Savitri hung up the phone, she thought, Thanksgiving! The way Poornima says it. As if it were our own holiday. Actually, it’s the one day our people don’t have any plans, and that’s why she’s having a party. Savitri threw into the wok six handfuls of chopped okra and stirred them around with a large metal spatula. Okra was Radha’s favorite, and Savitri tried to imagine Radha was coming home for the weekend, something reminding her to think only good things, only good things. Savitri pulled the back of her hand over her forehead, prickly with sweat, then rinsed her hands under the kitchen faucet. As the cool water ran through her fingers, Savitri felt fear creep into her lungs like smoke. She was forgetting
something. Something beyond the kitchen door, something worse to think of even than Radha’s not coming home, and Savitri’s arms trembled as she lifted the wok in both towelwrapped hands and poured the simmering okra into the pot, now boiling, of tomatoes and lentils. She covered the pot, turned off the heat, washed her hands carefully once more and dried them, and walked into the living room. It was still there. It lay on the floor, bent at the waist so it was cocked into a V. He looked so uncomfortable (but that wasn’t the right word) twisted there on his side. He had fallen just short of the brown plaid sofa where his bottom and hers had worn two threadbare, distanced indentations. He wore a plain gray blazer and green polyester-blend trousers grown shiny from wear. Ravi’s left arm was pinned under his torso, his right arm was flung backward as though he were winding up to bowl in a cricket match, his fingers curled fiercely around an absent ball. Savitri took two steps closer. She became aware of a faintly acidic smell. Ravi’s black eyes were open, focused at some indeterminate point. She noticed, trailing from the corner of the frozen grimace of his mouth, a trickle of mealy yellow liquid that was drying into a crust on his cheek. She smelled it, too, and she covered her mouth with her hand to fight down her revulsion. This was Ravi’s final meal, she thought. The pizza he must have had at lunch, two slices with olives, onions, and red chili flakes, eaten alone and in a hurry. Savitri looked up and away. Certainly it was terrible for him to have died so young, she thought, before his daughter had even finished college or started a family. But was it Savitri’s fault? She couldn’t take all of the blame. After all, he was such a simple-minded man, frustratingly so, and stubborn. But hadn’t this also been his virtue? Hadn’t his family always been the first and only thing in his heart? Savitri pictured him sitting at his desk at seven in the
evening, reconciling numbers, earning money he would never spend on himself. And now for it all to end like this, on the floor. Savitri looked down again and saw that she was anointing her husband’s body with a drizzle of tears. Savitri’s husband, Ravi, died after picking her up from work. She had been among only a few of her colleagues who volunteered to stay late before the long weekend with Phillip, her boss. Savitri had no special plans for the holiday, and besides, she enjoyed her job. “Phillip is perfectly happy to drop me at home afterward,” she had told her husband. “I don’t like you taking rides with strangers,” Ravi had replied. When she reminded him that Phillip wasn’t a stranger, Ravi revised himself. “There’s no need to ask other people for rides,” he said. He had said this before, but Savitri knew that it was not “other people” Ravi objected to. It was people like Phillip, with his big-toothed smile, his American confidence. The way he took people easily into his trust, speaking to them with jocular familiarity, presuming some common language that Ravi was not privy to. In Phillip’s presence, her husband felt very small. She saw it in the way Ravi folded his hands over his stomach and smiled mawkishly, nodding along to everything Phillip said. But Savitri didn’t push the issue. She treated the subject delicately. She agreed to let Ravi wait outside her office in his white Tercel as she sat inside at her workstation in her blue face mask and rubber gloves, applying a delicate tweezer to the circuit boards she tested and assembled, blue to white, white to yellow, yellow to red. It was not as easy as it sounded, no, not nearly, and Savitri had a steady hand. What’s more, she could hold her own among the Phillips of the world.
“Go home,” Phillip had told her, standing over her in his white lab coat. “Your husband is outside. Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. Go home.” “My husband will wait,” said Savitri, looking up, smiling behind her mask. She couldn’t ask for a nicer boss, and so handsome. Almost every day he complimented Savitri on her work. She wanted to take him home and cook for him. If only he were Indian, she would have introduced him to her Radha. When she finally came out, Ravi had been difficult. “Been waiting an hour,” he said. “My neck is hurting, my stomach is hurting.” “Who asked you to wait, then?” Savitri said, her annoyance overlapping and indistinguishable from her concern. “And with the heater off just to save gas. No wonder you’re getting sick.” She reached over to touch his forehead. “You should have gone home and taken rest. I told you I would get a ride.” Turning the car toward the freeway entrance ramp, Ravi said, “Don’t worry about me. Look at that traffic. Would have been fine if you came out when you said you would.” They stopped at Kroger to pick up milk for the next morning’s coffee. “I’ll come later by myself and get it,” Savitri told her husband. “No need,” he said. “We’re here now. It takes two minutes.”
Ravi idled the car by the curb as Savitri went inside, took a minute to survey the produce, and picked up the milk. The store was crowded with holiday shoppers, and when Savitri finally got to the checkout counter, the boy bagging groceries produced a whole turkey from underneath the counter and slid it into her bag, next to the milk. “What’s this?” Savitri asked, aghast. She and her husband were Brahmins, lifelong, neurotic vegetarians. “It’s free,” said the boy. “A gift for Kroger cardholders.” Savitri couldn’t stomach the idea of the cold, slick turkey touching her milk and was about to ask the boy to take it back. But then she thought better of it. She could give it away, maybe as a Christmas gift for some American in the office. “Please put it in a separate bag,” she asked the boy, and she carried the two bags gingerly out of the store. “What did you buy?” Ravi asked her. “Just milk,” she said. “Took you that long?” “Yes, took me that long,” Savitri replied. “I can’t jump ahead in the line, can I? If you are not feeling right, then why did you bother to pick me up? If you are in a rush, you should have let Phillip drop me.” This only made Ravi angry again. “Why should you go about taking rides from people when I am here? As long as I am here, what is the need?” And then a thought skittered across Savitri’s mind like a stone across water: What if you weren’t here? Would it be so bad? No more arguments on the ride home. No more of
your fussy demands, unrealistic expectations, strange insecurities. I could live without you to monitor everything, I could live as I alone wanted. These musings, Savitri now insisted to herself, were born of her momentary annoyance, but they were also, on some level, serious questions. Ravi was forty- nine. He didn’t eat right, didn’t exercise, was susceptible to long hours of simmering ill temper. What if he kicked the bucket? Then a voice must have spoken, lost in the wind or buried in the putterings of the car’s engine, Savitri would believe later: Asthu, asthu. Make it so. Fifteen minutes later, as they pulled into their subdivision, he had said her name in a strange way, as if just her name were an urgent question he expected her to answer, or a disbelieving accusation: “Savitri?” She didn’t turn to him but continued to stare stubbornly out of the passenger window, waiting for him to continue. He hadn’t, so she simply ignored him. They turned into their driveway. The electric garage door opened with grinding, excruciating slowness. Then, halfway inside the garage, halfway out, the car jerked to a stop. Savitri turned and saw her husband’s face stuck in an exaggerated grimace. She called his name but he didn’t answer, emitting instead a strained, spittly whistle. Savitri told her husband to stop it, to finish parking the car and to stop his stupid games. When still he didn’t respond, she herself put the gear into park. Ravi’s face was pale. With great effort, he lifted his hands off the steering wheel and stepped unsteadily out of the driver’s side door, leaning on Savitri so heavily that he left a bruise on her shoulder.
Savitri helped him into the living room, but then his wheezing and gasping stopped with an audible finality, and she could hold him no longer, and onto the floor he slumped. His body jerked in short spasms, his face turned purple, and then he was still. * Long ago, when Savitri was a child, she had, within hearing distance of her parents, told her little brother that she wished God would smash his face to a pulp. That very day, crossing the street on his way home from school, her brother had been knocked flat by a bicycle rickshaw, losing consciousness for several seconds and earning a minor laceration on his forehead. Savitri’s mother had been furious. She dragged a tearful Savitri by the ear and made her bow down a hundred and one times before the family altar. “Stupid,” her mother had screamed at her then. “Don’t you see? The asura ganas uttered Asthu to your wish.” The asura ganas, Savitri was told, are small demons in the air all around us. Bastard cousins of the gods, they mutter at odd intervals Asthu, asthu, a powerful word in their demon language. Whatever a person is thinking or saying at a given moment becomes reality if at the same moment the demons happen to utter that magical word. Savitri had been impressed with the lesson, although she would never admit to believing it. She corrected herself whenever an evil thought rose to her consciousness. She’d had many occasions to remind her own daughter of the possible consequences whenever Radha spoke ill, gossiped or conjectured, used an infelicitous euphemism, or in anger wished some bad fate on her parents.
Savitri hadn’t thought about such things for years, but as she stood over her husband’s contorted form, she understood that her evil nature had finally caught up with her. She saw it clearly for a brief, terrible moment: her husband was dead and she had killed him. All was panic and pressure, and then she found herself in the kitchen, cooking. Now, hours later, with the outline of events deepening its imprint on her mind, a feeling of overwhelming fear and guilt returned. Savitri thought through her tears, “If only Radha were here. Together we could figure out what to do. Radha doesn’t have any sense, but she has one thing, she’s brave.” Savitri wiped her eyes on the back of her hands and inhaled noisily to clear her nose. She picked up the living room phone and dialed her daughter’s dorm room. “Hello,” a girl’s voice said. “Radha, it’s Mummy,” Savitri said. “Radha, you have to come—” “Mrs. Vee …,” the girl’s voice said. “Mrs. Veeraghavan. This is Lisa.” “Oh.” Savitri hesitated. I must compose myself, she thought. I mustn’t let Radha’s roommate know what it is that has happened here, what it is I have done. “Lisa?” Savitri said in a voice barely controlled. “How are you?” “I’m fine,” said Lisa, tersely.
“Going home for the holiday?” Savitri was trying now so determinedly to act cheerful that she smiled at the receiver. “Yeah,” Lisa said. “I’d like to meet you sometime, Lisa,” Savitri offered. “I don’t know why Radha never brings her friends home. I could cook you some of our Indian specialities.” Lisa was silent. “Lisa, can I please talk to Radha?” “Radha’s at the library,” Lisa replied. “Studying? But tomorrow is holiday.” “Well, that’s where she is,” Lisa said. Savitri paused. “I want to know where she is,” she said, her voice now serious. “If she is there, give it to her the phone. If she is gone to somebody’s house for the weekend, give me the number there, please.” “With all due respect,” Lisa started, inauspiciously, “you call her, like, five times a day. It’s not normal. You have no right to control her.” “Lisa,” said Savitri, maintaining her composure, “I am her mother, isn’t it? And this situation is different. Tell me where she has gone.” “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” “Is she gone to some boyfriend’s house?” asked Savitri, her voice becoming gradually unsteady. “Has she left already?
Tell me what is the number there. Just give it to me the number, Lisa.” “I don’t know.” “Darnit!” Savitri yelled. “Lisa, this is an emergency. A bigtime thing, you know? Concerning her daddy. Will you tell her please to call me? Just ask her to call me.” Savitri fought to keep from crying. Lisa again was silent. “Lisa, you will please do that, won’t you? Do that please. Promise me.” “What happened?” Lisa asked. Savitri calmed herself. “Nothing, nothing happened. Don’t worry. Just tell her I called.” Savitri remembered that she should behave normally, and she added, with desperate sweetness, “Hey, sorry I yelled, Lisa. Don’t forget to come over some weekend, okay? I’ll cook you my sambar.” When Savitri hung up the phone, she instinctively braced herself for what her husband might have been about to tell her: “Why you always worry over Radha? She’s a good girl.” Radha was Ravi’s pet, and he refused to have even the slightest suspicion of her. He believed, honestly, that when she graduated from college she would marry someone he would approve, a Brahmin boy from a good family. Ravi couldn’t see that Radha was already very far away from this way of thinking. But Savitri heard the impatience in the girl’s voice whenever she had to speak even a few words to her parents. Radha hadn’t always been like that, distant and rude. As a child, Radha amazed her mother. She was outspoken,
sometimes out of control, but fearless. She had been a smart girl, too, and good to her parents. When Savitri applied for her first job, Radha had helped her to write the cover letter. Savitri felt that she and Radha shared a special bond, because they understood things that Ravi never would. In her mother, Radha had someone to laugh at the jokes she made at her poor father’s expense, about his embarrassing habit of going outside in his lungi to check the mail; about how he didn’t like to eat out anywhere but Pizza Hut and Indian restaurants; how he never thought of visiting anyplace in the States where there were not distant relatives or friends of friends from back home they could stay with. And Savitri hungrily sought her daughter’s opinions on many things, because the girl had knowledge that her mother lacked: what American clothes to wear to work, which books were good and which politicians worthless, how Savitri should respond to her co-workers’ confusing jokes and expressions. They never should have allowed Radha to go away to college, but the girl had been so insistent about it, and so persuasive. Maybe Savitri had grown too reliant on her, had confided in her too desperately, had pried too frequently, but these days Radha behaved as if her parents’ very presence suffocated her. After she went to college, she became a different person. Strange boys began answering her phone, she took any excuse to avoid coming home. Savitri had married Ravi in a family arrangement at the age of nineteen, and now at the same age her daughter was having experiences Savitri couldn’t even imagine. Studying anything she liked, going to parties, dating handsome boys. What must it be like? Ravi too easily believed the girl was simply busy with her studies. But Savitri saw how quickly Radha was growing away from them. She was growing away, and she was leaving Savitri behind.
The doorbell suddenly sounded its bright electric blingblong, and Savitri’s mind filled immediately with panicked apparitions. She had been found out, she knew it. She hurried to the living room window and peeked carefully past the curtain. It was her neighbor, only her neighbor, Doug Naples. She went to the front door and unlocked it, opening it just a crack, and stared at Doug, her heart pounding. “Did you know your car is outside?” Doug asked. “It’s been sitting there for an hour, the engine running. I just thought I’d come tell you, case you forgot about it. It’s sticking out the garage.” “Oh, yes,” said Savitri. “Forgot all about it. Thank you, Doug.” She was pleased to hear that her voice still sounded steady. She felt the panic and unease of moments ago dissipating again into a strange and calculating selfconfidence. Doug clearly had no idea what had happened. Here he was at the door, talking with her as on any other day. She opened the door wider. She asked Doug, “How are you these days?” “Oh, I’m all right,” said Doug. “I just thought I’d come by because, well, you never know. Types of people been moving in around here, somebody might just see that car sitting there, the keys inside, and decide—oh my Jesus.” He paused. “What’s up with Mr. V.?” “What do you mean, Doug?” Savitri asked, stubbornly holding her smile. Doug pointed to the floor behind Savitri. She turned around and saw her husband’s legs protruding from behind the love seat, skewed at awkward angles.
* It’s finished, thought Savitri. I’ll just tell him. Spell it out very calmly and sensibly. Maybe Doug will help me, tell me what to do. He’ll talk to the proper people on my behalf. He’ll confirm that I am not responsible for any of this. Or maybe Doug Naples was not the best help in this kind of fix. Six weeks ago, Savitri remembered, he had offered to help Ravi repair the latch on their fence door. At Ravi’s insistence, even Savitri had grudgingly gotten involved, shuttling to and from the house with odd tools and cold glasses of soda. She could see full well they were only going to make a mess of things. And sure enough, the men had ended up inexplicably ripping out the entire length of wooden fence posts, leaving the lawn naked, the aboveground swimming pool exposed like a dangerous temple, an open invitation to a lawsuit. Any neighbor could probably sue them for intentionally endangering their hapless children, and for emotional distress, and on top of that for bad taste and poor landscaping and strange smells wafting out of their kitchen. Every day Savitri feared walking to the pool and finding the pale, bloated body of some little American child floating face-up among the leaves and dead insects. Savitri and Ravi would have a lot of explaining to do then. Oh, but be careful what you think, Savitri. Be careful. So instead of telling Doug Naples the truth about Ravi, Savitri took a deep breath. She said, “Ravi is doing yoga. Yoga, Doug. That is, you know, one of the things we do in India. A very good thing.” Doug raised his eyebrows, and exhaled an impressed “Huh.” He nodded and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Yoga, isn’t that something. My doctor says I should do it,
too. Good for my sore back. You know, I smelled that Indian food you were cooking, and there’s old Vee doing yoga. Isn’t that something.” “Come over sometime, Doug,” said Savitri. “We’ll show you how to do yoga, too.” “Sure,” Doug said. “That would be something. It sure smells interesting. And when he’s disposed, tell Vee anytime he wants to take another crack at that fence, let me know. My nephew is here for the holiday, we would have an extra hand.” “Thanks, Doug,” said Savitri. “I’ll tell him.” She shut the door and watched Doug walk back to his house, where he sat at home all day, unemployed, and waited for his fat wife to come home. He was just the type of American her husband would attach himself to. Like her husband, Doug had the air of someone who had been dropped here from another planet, fascinated but flummoxed by the most basic practical processes, like how to fix a fence or find a new job. Savitri walked out to the garage and parked the car. She took the milk and the turkey from the trunk and brought them inside. She put the milk in the fridge, and she wrapped the turkey’s cellophane and bagged flesh in an additional plastic bag, cleared a space at the margin of the freezer, and slid it in, careful that it touched nothing else. She saw now that she had the capacity to carry on as normal, that her guilt was not plainly visible on her face. She had only to pretend that nothing had happened, put it all out of her mind. No one knew that Ravi was dead, no one suspected that she might have killed him. If she allowed herself to ponder her situation, then the thoughts would
overwhelm. Better to try not to think too much about it at all. She walked to the living room, stopped, and drew a breath, but couldn’t avoid looking down again at her husband. Oh, she couldn’t bear to see him lying there, his mouth agape, his eyes wide open in the same naïve, uncritical, awestruck gaze he’d had in life. He was staring at the living room, as if to take in all the furniture, the old and ugly things. As if to say, I bought this all for you when we were young and dumb and content with each other, and this room was enough for us. She had killed this innocent man, her husband, who loved her. She had thought of it, and it had come to pass. Savitri walked hurriedly past him and into her bedroom, shutting the door behind her. She stripped all her clothes off onto the floor, had the fleeting thought of taking a hot, hot shower, but instead crawled directly under the covers of her bed. She was so tired now, tired of thinking, of cooking. Savitri remembered the only other dead relative she had seen, her grandfather, when she was ten or eleven. He had died of a heart attack at an old age in the house back in the village, and they had stretched him out on the bedroom floor to clean him. Then they wrapped him in white cotton and covered his forehead with sandalwood paste and white ash and red kumkum. They moved him to the sitting room floor and laid him there. His sons didn’t shave, the stoves remained unlit. The neighbors brought over simple foods. A vadhyar came to the house to pray over the body and prepare the soul for its journey. All her grandfather’s friends and neighbors came to pay respects, co-workers and former students, before they took him away to be burned.
Savitri had not witnessed her own parents’ deaths. Those had been “phone deaths” that happened while Savitri was in the United States. And now Ravi slept with his head on the carpet, still in his dirty clothes from work. Even death has become less, she thought. Was it her fault? Where was Radha? She picked up the bedside phone and dialed her daughter again. The answering machine played some song, black music, as Savitri called rap music, and then Lisa’s and Radha’s voices, alternately. “Hi, this is Lisa . . . and this is Radha,” and then simultaneously, “do your thing at the beep and we’ll get back at you. Peace.” “Hello, this is a message for Radha,” Savitri said. “It’s her mother calling. Hi, sweetie. It’s me. Listen, I’m not mad at you. Okay? I am not anymore mad. Call me. I just want to talk to you. I love you. There is one thing I need to talk to you, an important thing. Don’t be worried, okay? Something happened, wanted to ask your advice about it. Not . . .” She got just this far when the beep of the machine cut her off. Savitri hung up the phone and closed her eyes. Ravi should have been in the bed next to her now, or in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. She thought of his face, smiling. About two months ago, she remembered, they had been invited to a dinner party. Savitri had made Ravi change his entire outfit before they could leave. She made him wear one of his few nice shirts, told him to comb his hair with oil. And when she was through with him, she had been struck by how handsome he looked. Even Ravi seemed to enjoy the attention she gave him, despite the nagging that came with it. And at the party, Savitri found herself doing small things for him— refilling his coffee cup unbidden, complimenting him in front of the other husbands. Why had she asked for his death? She still smelled his odor lingering in the sheets. When she went to the toilet, she
should have found the seat wet from his washing, evidence of his presence. She missed his five-dollar haircuts and fifteen-year-old suits. She missed walking on Sundays side by side through the department stores, sullenly vetoing each other’s choices, the quiet but certain understanding they shared. She missed his messy way of eating, food oozing from his fist, his relish understated but evident. How other times he might take one bite and say, with simple sincerity, “Nice food, dee.” Why had she ever wanted more than this? At one time in her life, Savitri cried if Ravi came home late from the office. Staring out the window, waiting to see the headlights of his car, she had longed so much to be with her family and friends back in India, where there was always someone in the house to talk to, where you could walk to people’s houses. Savitri realized then that if they were going to stay in America, things would have to change. She would have to learn to drive. She needed to start meeting people, Americans. She couldn’t sit alone in the house forever. She wanted even to take a job like some of the women she had met at temple. But then, for years, she had given up so many things to stay at home for Radha. Now, finally, Savitri had begun a career. She still hoped to have more education, more money. She wanted to see things and to travel. Ravi didn’t seem to share these ambitions. Savitri knew that her husband still harbored dreams of moving back to Madras. But she thought there was so much more to be had in America, so much they hadn’t even understood yet. Was she wrong to think this? Savitri felt she had to ask someone for advice; the situation was impossible otherwise. But who else could possibly understand such a predicament? Take Poornima. Poornima lived a life like Savitri’s but, Savitri felt, with so much more grace and ease, so much less struggle. Poornima had a way
of willing things to fall into place. It sickened Savitri to think of having to confess to such a person, such a perfect person. But maybe it was her best option. Maybe there was some easy way out of this, maybe Poornima would tell her this unwieldy problem wasn’t a problem at all. Yes, Savitri thought. She would go to Poornima’s luncheon. Then, if she could master her guilt and embarrassment, she would confess to her friend. Savitri didn’t fall asleep until early in the morning. When she woke up, the radio newsman was reading the weather report as if it were any other day. It was already past noon. She got out of bed, a dull pain in the back of her head, and showered for twenty-five full minutes. Then she wore a blue petticoat and blouse, and a silk sari embroidered with gold. A little bit much for a luncheon, perhaps, she knew. Leaving her bedroom, she caught an unwanted glimpse of Ravi’s body, and, although she expected it to be there, Savitri gave a short cry of surprise. It seemed to have softened a bit and sunken into the carpet, to have lost its tension. She hurried past it to the garage, took the Tercel, and drove to Poornima’s subdivision, a new one where a security guard in a redbrick kiosk took down her license plate number as she passed. Poornima’s house leaned high in creamy brick at the end of a cul-de-sac, edged by a neat lawn, accented by young azaleas and crape myrtle in red mulch freshly laid by the lawn men. Poornima’s lanky son, Arun, greeted Savitri at the door, his black hair gelled down to a shiny, cropped shell. He held a glass in his hand. “You’re looking awfully beautiful, Auntie,” Arun said, smoothing down his hair, making Savitri smile despite herself.
“So polite you are, Arun,” Savitri said. “When did you suddenly get old enough to drink wine?” Arun retreated into the crowd and Savitri wound her way through the party, fi nding Poornima in the kitchen, assembling a tray of hors d’oeuvres with manic accuracy, bhajis and chutney and samosas and murukkus. “Done. Take this, Tina,” Poornima said, handing her tray off to the maid, and turned to Savitri. “Sorry I’m late,” said Savitri. “Hello, dear. Don’t be sorry,” said Poornima. “Where are Ravi and Radha?” “Not coming,” Savitri said. “Didn’t I tell you?” “Of course. Very bad. They’ll hear from me.” “I didn’t tell you.” “You told me. Here, take this.” Poornima handed Savitri a glass of white wine from a collection of several on a tray. Savitri took half the wine in a gulp. “I didn’t tell you,” she said. “Ravi is dead.” There, thought Savitri. Just tell her. Easiest like this. “What?” asked Poornima. Her son wandered into the kitchen just then, with a girl Savitri had never seen before. “Did you say hello to Auntie?” Poornima asked her son. “Yes, I did,” replied Arun, and indicating the young woman, “This is Nira.” Savitri shook the girl’s hand and turned back to Poornima, but she was already gone, attending to other guests.
“How is Radha doing?” Arun asked Savitri. “She is fine,” Savitri said. “I don’t know, really. She says she wants to take off from college one year and be an airline hostess. See the world and all.” Poornima turned from her conversation on the other side of the room and called, “Nira goes to Harvard with Arun, both of them premed. Look, I’m embarrassing them. Sorry.” Savitri turned to the girl, Nira, and took her measure. Taller than Radha, somewhat slimmer. Lighter complexion. Obviously smart, probably has rich parents. I see how it is, thought Savitri. “You going to marry this girl?” Savitri asked Arun, and then immediately apologized. “Sorry, that was not a right question.” “That’s all right, Auntie,” Arun said, diplomatically. “Because I always wanted, you know… I always thought that you and my Radha together would be good. You grew up together and all. And you’re doing so well. I don’t care that you are not Brahmins. You have to make compromises. Uncle didn’t understand that, you see? He could be a stupid man sometimes, Arun. So stupid.” Savitri felt a catch in her throat. She paused to regain her composure. “But now you’ve got this girl, good for you. And Radha, well… There’s only so much I can do, right?” Arun stared for a moment, blinking. Then he smiled. “I think my mother might need some help,” he said. He took his friend by the hand and left.
Savitri replaced her empty glass of wine and grabbed another from the tray. Then she veered into the party, almost running into Poornima’s husband, Vasanth, himself holding a wobbly glass of scotch in one hand. “Hello, lovely lady,” he said, pushing his oiled locks out of his face with one hand. He had hair thick as an eighteenyear-old’s and too long, licking down over his eyebrows, curling over his ears. “Where’s the captain?” he asked. “Where’s the young lady? Younger lady I should say.” “Both of them indisposed,” answered Savitri. “Indisposed? What is this? Working even today, the slave. It’s Thanksgiving, I say, and he’s left his wife all by herself.” Vasanth smiled. “Someone should tell him.” What must it be like, Savitri wondered, to be his wife, to have his money? Did Poornima ever wish for Vasanth’s death? Is this the sort of life Savitri had wanted? Savitri heard the tinkle of ice in glasses, the gibbering voices of tiny demons all around her. Immediately she regretted her thoughts. “Would be so much better if my wife were looking as young as you,” Vasanth said, grinning wide. “She’s not nice, Savitri. Every time I open my mouth she is giving me bad looks.” Vasanth was so close that Savitri could see the thin red shaving cuts on his cheek and note the odors of sweet aftershave, hair oil, and hard liquor. Savitri felt sickened by his flesh, the smell of his potions, the slick wetness of him. She longed sharply for the plain, dusty familiarity of her husband.
“No!” Savitri said fiercely, shaking her head. “I don’t want this. You hear me?” she called out to the room. “Eh?” Vasanth asked. “You hear me?” Savitri yelled. She turned and left Vasanth behind, perplexed but with an uncertain smile on his face, eager to find the joke in the situation. Savitri moved through the crowd until she found Poornima in the kitchen. “I’m leaving,” Savitri said to Poornima.“My husband’s dead.” “What nonsense,” said Poornima. “You can’t leave before having lunch. I have to help Tina.” Poornima walked toward the young maid, who hovered over the oven. Together, Tina and Poornima pulled from the oven a glistening, honey- brown turkey, assembled all round with red potatoes and green beans. Savitri guffawed in surprise. “What is this you’ve done?” Savitri said. “You’re a vegetarian.” “But the kids aren’t,” said Poornima. “Vasanth isn’t. And the Nairs aren’t, the Bannerjees aren’t. It’s Thanksgiving, Savitri. And Tina taught me to make the turkey. Actually, you could say she did most of the making. Tina!” she called. Tina returned with a carving knife, and Poornima stepped to the side, letting the young woman take the turkey toward the dining room. Vasanth entered the kitchen, drunkenly proclaiming, “It’s Thanksgiving, but we have no Pilgrims. Only Indians, no Americans. Must have both for Thanksgiving, isn’t it so? Americans in big black hats.”
“You’re drinking too much,” Poornima said humorlessly. “And besides, we have Tina.” “But she’s black!” screamed Vasanth. “Black doesn’t count.” Tina eyed him sharply, saying nothing. “Black is different,” Vasanth continued. “Did you ever see a black Pilgrim? Tina is on the Indian side with us.” Arun stepped forward to put a protective arm around his father’s shoulders, and Vasanth seemed to go limp, instantly calmed by his son’s embrace. He looked up at Arun, who stood half a head taller. “Why don’t you be the Americans?” Vasanth asked earnestly. “Me?” asked Arun. “You kids,” said Vasanth. “Kids are Americans, parents are Indians.” “But that’s wrong, Dad,” Arun explained. “You were the immigrants, after all, so you should be the Pilgrims. We’re natives, so we should be Indians.” “Backward!” Vasanth laughed. “My son turns everything backward! Clever boy.” With one hand, Vasanth squeezed Arun’s cheeks together until the boy’s lips puckered. Arun took it amiably. “Sweethearts, everyone, come to the dining room. We’re cutting the turkey. Sorry, carving the turkey, carving it,” announced Poornima to the living room, and the crowd moved toward her. Savitri followed them, and in the mirror- paneled dining room, she stared at the reflection of all her people, beaming and glittering, husbands and wives, parents and children. Enemies gathered in truce around a
decorated table. Poornima, with Tina’s hand guiding hers, raised the carving knife aloft. Savitri turned to the woman next to her, a casual acquaintance, someone she had seen occasionally at temple. “My husband is dead,” said Savitri. “What?” gasped the woman. “My husband is dead. I think I have killed him, unintentional. Actually, unintentional, intentional—I’m not sure.” “What are you saying?” the woman asked, a look of confusion grading into one of horror. She backed away from Savitri, further into the crowd. Savitri tried to explain. “I killed him, and he’s on the floor. I killed him, you see!” The people gathered in the dining room stopped laughing and stopped talking. Poornima looked up, her knife and her smile frozen. The guests clutched their empty plates and turned toward Savitri. “I killed him,” Savitri yelled to all of them, “and that’s all there is to it.” Savitri knew they understood. They understood, but she could see from their eyes they would never acknowledge it. “Savitri, darling.” Poornima set down her knife, approached through the stunned crowd, and put her hand on Savitri’s shoulder, gripping it with gentle firmness. “What’s happened? Why are you upset?” Savitri didn’t answer. She shrugged off Poornima’s hand, turned around, and went out the front door. She got in her car and drove until she reached a house with a dry lawn, an unfinished fence.
Her husband was on the fl oor—she bent down and pressed the lids closed over his cloudy eyes; she brushed his hair into place with her fingers—and Savitri was very sorry. The phone was ringing. “What happened?” Savitri heard Radha’s voice through the receiver. “Lisa said something about Dad.” But he was dead, Radha’s father, and there was nothing to be done about it. “You having a good time over there, sweetie?” Savitri asked. “Don’t think about anything bad right now. I want you to come home, then I’ll explain. Food’s already cooked. A turkey is in the freezer. Bring your friends, it’s okay. You won’t be upset with me, right?” “What happened to Dad?” “I’m sorry. You loved him, I know it. Remember he took you to school, and you wouldn’t let go his hand? You were small then.” “Mom—” “Hey, listen. We’ll sort it out, everything. You and me, we’ll figure out what to do,” Savitri said, and listened hopefully for the arbitrary voices of demons.
From the collection
by Rajesh Parameswaran
10th May 2011 | Hardback | 978 1 4088 1776 6 10th May 2011 | eBook | 978 1 4088 2117 6
A vivid, astonishing new debut collection from a new international literary talent A Bengal tiger wakes up one morning realising he is ravenously in love. A pompous railway supervisor in a remote Indian province bites off more than he can chew when a peculiar new clerk arrives on his doorstep. In another place and in another time, a secret agent who spends her days watching the front door of an unknown quarry discovers something she isn’t meant to. An immigrant housewife in a Midwestern town geeing up for Thanksgiving makes a wish she may come to regret. And a small and famous country’s only executioner claims his conscience is as clean as his heavy, washed stones. With this glittering, savage and elegant first collection, where reality loops in Borgesian twists and dazzles with Bollywood exuberance, where frayed photographs take on a life of their own and where elephants wish only to die with dignity, Rajesh Parameswaran bursts onto the literary landscape as an astonishing new talent.
RAJESH PARAMESWARAN is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former law clerk to a federal judge. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, Fiction, Book Magazine and Granta. ‘The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan’ won a National Magazine Award and was nominated for the Kay Cattarulla Award for Best Short Story. Rajesh Parameswaran lives in New York.
Extracts from collections first published by Bloomsbury in Great Britain 2012 ‘We Wave and Call’ copyright © 2012 by Jon McGregor ‘Demons’ copyright © 2012 by Rajesh Parameswaran ‘Homesick’ copyright © 2012 by Roshi Fernando ‘Diving Belles’ copyright © 2012 by Lucy Wood ‘The Dead Roads’ copyright © 2012 by D.W. Wilson The moral right of the authors has been asserted All rights reserved. You may not copy, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (including without limitation electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, printing, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, Berlin, New York and Sydney 50 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP www.bloomsbury.com