The doorway to the guest house stayed dark and empty. A crow hopped awkwardly along the sloping roof, its feet scratching on the red corrugated iron. It gave a slow, drawn out caw like the creaking wheel of a bullock cart, which made me laugh. Then someone came and my heart jumped, but it was a bearer in his white uniform, tossing a grubby cloth over his shoulder. He stretched as he stepped into the early morning sun.
‘Salaam ji,’ I said, going up to him. Being on holiday made me brave, made me different. He wasn’t even a bearer I knew, he must serve the tables at the far end of the dining room. He was young, with pock-marked plump cheeks and a thin moustache, and he smiled at me cheerfully.
‘Salaam missahib,’ he replied.
‘What are you doing today?’ I asked in Hindi.
‘Oh, work,’ he said, still smiling, but with an air of conspiracy as if drawing me into his world. I was thrilled. People either treated me as if I was still a little girl, or solemnly, as if I was the same as Mum or Dad.
Mum sometimes told people that I was twelve. I was so much taller than Indian girls my age, she said she felt embarrassed. But I was proud of being tall, like Dad. My best friend in school, Neela, was the shortest in the class and I was the tallest. We walked around holding hands and people laughed, but in a good way, they liked the picture we made.
I was ten, really. I always felt naked and foolish when Mum said I was twelve, as if the person would be able to tell how old I was by looking at my face. My square face, according to Mum. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not because when she said that to me, her eyes seemed unsure. I had brown eyes, like hers, and a small mouth and thick brown hair that people commented on, but I didn’t like the way people always noticed it. I parted it on the side, like Dad’s. Men parted theirs on the left. ‘Why?’ I asked Dad. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe because when we look in the mirror what we see as the right is actually the left.’ I parted mine on the left too but maybe that was because I was left-handed.
The bearer wandered off down the narrow gap by the side of the boarding house, taking a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket as he disappeared into the black shade of the mountainside. I turned around and went back to the chicken-wire fence and fiddled with broken wires. The air, fresh like water, smelled of wood smoke. Out there, hidden by the mountains, was the lake where Dad and I were supposed to be going riding. What was he doing? We’d had breakfast, there was nothing else left to do.
I looked behind me at the guest house. Above it, the mountainside made a green line against the blue sky. I’d go and get him. I would, I’d go. I didn’t care if he got angry.
I went inside. The dark dining room was in the centre of the building. All the rooms led off it, even the upstairs ones; it had a balcony all the way around it and when people came out of their rooms upstairs, they often looked down at you and for a second you had a sense of the secrets behind the doors. The tables and chairs were empty and yet whenever I walked through the dining room it never felt empty, as if we left a part of ourselves behind in the chairs waiting for the next meal.
Opening the door to our room, I was dazzled by the sudden brightness of it. The beds were unmade, and there was an after-breakfast feel of things not ready yet. Dad sat on the chair by the front window, the sun streaming in from behind him. His stern face was tense as he looked at Mum, his upper lip lifted in irritation over his slightly bucked teeth. His white, clean, long-fingered hands were poised on his thighs. Mum was standing by the row of unmade beds, Harriet’s T-shirt in her hand. Her chin was lifted towards him and her face was flushed.
‘Don’t speak to me like that,’ she said. But there was weakness in the way she lifted her chin. I held on to the round handle of the door, willing her not to say anything else.
‘Hmm?’ Dad said. It was what he did when he didn’t like what she’d just said, making her repeat it. His eyebrows were dark and heavy like a storm.
Mum was wearing a little turquoise top and a flowered skirt that flowed lightly around her. She’d done her make-up and put her rose in her dark brown hair and her ear below it was the same pink lightness of the cloth rose as it caught the sunlight. When President Kennedy had died last year, she showed me photos of it in a magazine. As we had stood on the green carpet in our whitewashed sitting room in Nagpur and looked at a picture of Mrs Kennedy, Mum said, ‘Do you think I look like her?’ And then the air became tight and uncomfortable, as if she’d given too much away. She’d closed the magazine quickly, before I could reply.
She tugged the T-shirt over Harriet’s head, frowning as if the T-shirt was the problem. Harriet’s head popped out, her hair thin and lank, her expression pretend-confused and smiling, thinking she was cute and everyone should notice her.
‘Well I suppose now, yes,’ Dad said, when Mum didn’t reply. The bathroom door was open and the tap was dripping onto the cement floor in little splashes.
Mum carried on dressing Harriet. ‘I can do that,’ Harriet said, as she put her sandals on her skinny feet. But Mum ignored her, strapping them on tightly. ‘Ow,’ Harriet said, but she always complained about everything.
‘What now?’ I said.
Dad glanced at me, his grey eyes almost not seeing me. He looked back at Mum, waiting for her.
She picked up Harriet’s nightie from the floor and laid it under her pillow. She folded mine in a quick, sharp way that made me wonder what I’d done wrong. She stood for a moment with it in her arms, unaware of it, frowning at the pillow. I wanted her to be aware, to move, to become lively again, full of her unexpectedness. It was frightening when she was like this, her face closed-down, shutting us out. Then, putting my nightie under my pillow, she sat on the edge of her bed. In my bare feet, I crossed the cool stone floor obediently and sat next to Harriet on the double bed. Dad didn’t like sharing a bed and so, to my disgust, I had to sleep with Harriet.
Mum leaned her arms on her knees and held her elbows and bent towards us, making the space with us in it like a tent. I felt less worried, but even so, I turned to look at Dad. He was lifting his foot, putting his sandal on. He had thin feet like Harriet’s, long and white like his hands, as if they’d never get dirty.
‘Dad has been thinking for a long time about changing his job and has decided that that’s what he wants to do. He’s not going to be a doctor any more. He’s going to teach theology in a college. But that means that we’re going to have to move, leave Nagpur and go to another part of India, West Bengal, to a place called Vishnapur.’
‘When?’ Harriet asked, interrupting Mum, as if that was the important thing.
Leave? I knew that things like that happened – after all, we’d left Pakistan to go to Nagpur, but that was so long ago that I’d forgotten about it. And I had been too young to care.
A coolie walked past our side window, talking to someone in a hoarse voice. It was a shock to hear him. I had completely forgotten about where we were, that we were in Naini Tal. We didn’t seem to be anywhere.
‘Not for a little while yet. Dad has to study to brush up on his theology, he’ll need a year to do that, so we’re going to Scotland for that time. After that, we’ll go to Vishnapur.’
Brush up – that was what Dad said, not Mum. And Vishnapur – it sounded threatening, like a stranger that had come into our lives, full of meaning, demanding attention, taking me away from everything as if it suddenly had the right to do that. I turned behind me to look at Dad again. He was watching Mum, his face self-conscious and stiff. ‘Do we have to?’ I wanted to cry, but I was too old for that. ‘Theology?’ I asked instead.
‘Yes,’ he said. His hands were between his legs and he rubbed his palms together, the way he did when he was interested in something, his face relaxing. ‘About God. Teaching people to be ministers. Like I was taught, in fact.’
‘But, Fiona,’ Mum said, turning her body towards me, still with her elbows on her knees, bent low, still trying to reach me. She looked down at the stone floor and then at her bare feet, watching her wriggling stubby toes with their painted toe nails. Her feet got dirty all the time.
She told me that I would be going to boarding school in the mountains. It was a place like Naini Tal. It was an American school. Their schooling was like the British. There was a British boarding school in Darjeeling they had thought of sending me to, but it only took you till you were sixteen. The American one went up till you were eighteen. That was good because then we could stay longer in India because after I’d finished school, we’d all have to go back to Britain.
‘Why?’ I asked. Things had an ending. This was a shock.
Mum hesitated, as if she’d been ready for another question. ‘Well, because you’ll be starting your life in Britain. And we won’t leave you on your own when you do that.’
The sheets were rumpled on our beds, a mess of white. Krishna Lal knocked on the door and opened it to come and clean our room but Dad asked him to wait. Every morning when Mum and Dad were ready to get washed and dressed, I made my way in my nightie through the boarding house and then through the jumble of rooms behind the kitchen to tell him to bring the hot water. He was always squatting in front of a dekchi of bubbling water. But his familiar face with its big black moustache didn’t belong to us any more, as if he were looking in from another world, as if we were in water and he was in air.
‘What about me?’ Harriet asked.
‘You’ll go to a local school until you’re old enough to go to Fiona’s school,’ Mum said. She was only five. It would be a long time.
Harriet looked relieved. She turned to me. ‘So Fiona will go by herself?’
I was touched by the concern on her sallowlittle face as she looked up at me, her eyes blinking under her long fringe. But then I was scornful of it. Of course I’d go by myself. That was what you did when you got older. I understood that at once.
Mum didn’t answer, bending even lower, looking down where our feet made a circle on the stone floor. Harriet’s hung limply, while my toes brushed the cold stone, feeling the chips and hollows of it. My big toe found a straight line between the flagstones and followed the reassurance of it until my foot bumped into Mum’s. She lifted her head and smiled at me but something about the touch of her skin made me recoil almost in disgust.
…’ Dad said. He had his hands on his thighs again, ready to stand up.
‘They’re awfully nice people, Fiona,’ Mum said. ‘When we get back to Nagpur, we’ll show you the photos of the place. The letter they sent asking all about you was so nice – and telling us all about them.’
Dad stood up.
‘Are we going now?’ I asked him.
Mum straightened, as if the tent was being folded up.
‘Will we come back here?’ I asked.
He hesitated. ‘After riding?’
‘No, after -’ but I didn’t know what to call it.
‘No, we won’t. Mum and Harriet and I will come up to where your school is for our holidays. It’s a beautiful place.’
‘So is here,’ I said fiercely, with a frightening spurt of anger. He didn’t seem to notice, taking his keys and his handkerchief and his money from the dressing table and distributing them in his pockets. He glanced in the mirror and impatiently pushed back the one strand of dark hair that had a wave and that fell forward onto his high forehead.
‘We’ll talk again,’ Mum said to Harriet and me. She took my chin in her hand and pushed the skin down so that my lower lip came out. She pushed her own lip out like she did in front of the mirror, lifting her chin and looking at her face sideways when she wanted to look glamorous. ‘You don’t need to worry, really you don’t. There’s more than a year before you have to go. You’ll be that much older, more ready.’
‘I’m not worried,’ I said, pulling my head away, embarrassed.
‘I know,’ she said, following me as Dad and I went to the door. As Dad opened it, she said, ‘Keep away from the back of the horses now, Fiona. When you go around them, always go by the front.’
I’d been riding lots of times, why was she saying this now? ‘Why?’ I asked.
Dad began to laugh. He was cheery now, as if a weight had lifted.
‘They kick,’ Mum said, laughing a little herself, but sheepishly.
‘Is that right?’ I asked Dad.
‘Oh yes,’ he said looking at Mum, still laughing, teasing her.
I had a sense of being passed from Mum to Dad, as if over a river, not sure of who had hold of me.
‘But do you know what they do when you go round the front?’ Dad said, his face going mock-serious. He went towards Mum.
Harriet and I laughed in anticipation.
‘They do this,’ he said, and darted at Mum and squeezed her leg above the knee, his grey eyes going dark in delight.
She gave a cry, laughing too.
‘A horse bite,’ Dad said. He laughed and laughed, his thin shoulders shaking. Sometimes he teased Mum in Nagpur too, but he did it much more on holiday. Mum laughed, but it was a little forced. I was sorry for him in case he could see that.
The dining room’s emptiness was different now, the chairs deserted, no one waiting. I felt awkward being with Dad after the teasing with Mum, I couldn’t laugh like her.
‘Do other people know?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘About us leaving Nagpur and me going to boarding school.’
‘Anybody. Like Miss Elliot.’ She sat at our table. If she knew, it would make me important, interesting, this big thing happening to me.
‘Some people do, but I’m not sure about her. Mum may have mentioned it.’
We walked silently down the steep path to the bazaar and the lake where the horses were. Dad walked straight-backed, one hand in his pocket, the other swinging by his side, ready to salaam the people we passed. He solemnly touched his forehead to an old man with grey, bristled cheeks and torn clothes, who salaamed him back. Ferns grew out of the stone pushtas that rose high above us. We passed other houses and guest houses set back off the path. The lake came into sight, dark blue, almost black, with the mountains all around it.
‘Why do you have to change?’ I said.
‘From being a doctor.’
‘It’s just something I feel I should do. I’ve been wanting to do it for a while and now seems a good time.’
A coolie came up the path bent under a huge load on his back, each step carefully taken with his wide, bare feet. After we passed him, Dad said, ‘You can always go back and visit.’
It was painful to think of myself as a visitor, coming from outside. That was what adults did. ‘We’ve never visited Pakistan,’ I said.
‘That’s true.’ He was silent for a few steps and I thought he wasn’t going to say any more. ‘But Pakistan is another country. That makes it more difficult.’
‘Would you like to go back?’
He gave a laugh. ‘Yes, I suppose so. Although, things change, people change, move on, that kind of thing.’ We walked on a bit more, stones rolling under our feet. ‘And so you never know what you’ll find when you go back,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied.
The line of horses by the side of the lake came into sight, the men holding their bridles and talking to one another over the saddles. They looked small in the distance.
‘What about Thomas and Mary?’ I asked, suddenly struck by fear. ‘What’ll happen to them?’ Thomas was our cook and Mary, his wife, was our ayah. They were a part of us, I knew everything about them, they were Catholics from South India, with dark skin and different food. They drank coffee, not tea, which Mary sometimes gave me as a treat, a taste of her home, and which I pretended to like. What would happen to them? And what about Flomeena, their daughter? What would happen to her?
I had a vision of their one-roomed house at the top of the compound, tucked in against the high brick wall of the Bohra ward, and the road that I took up to it every day as I went to play with Flomeena. When I woke early in the mornings on our verandah, or in the garden where we slept in the summer, the sky a pale, dull, hot grey, I’d hear Thomas walk down past our tall garden fence and smell his cigarette. It was the smell of the day beginning. That short road was so much a part of me that it seemed a permanent connection to our house, as if the two were naturally joined. Going up to see Flomeena was like breathing.
‘They’ll have to find other work,’ Dad said.
‘But will they?’ I asked. ‘What work is there? Will it be in the compound? Will you make sure they do before we leave?’
‘I can’t do that, I’m afraid. All I can do is write them a reference.’
‘A good one,’ I said anxiously, helplessly. Mum didn’t like Thomas, he was rude and bad-tempered, they often had disagreements and he’d stand at the dining room table, his hands behind his back, in silent protest, angry because he had to do what Mum said, his jaws clenching, making the dark, shiny skin at his temples throb.
What would happen to Flomeena? She was more than my friend, there wasn’t a word for what she was. We were cutting them off, sending them away helpless and unprotected. But Dad didn’t seem to see that. I couldn’t say to him, You can’t do that to them. I couldn’t tell Dad what to do, I couldn’t expect him to change his plans for them. But it wasn’t right, we couldn’t leave them. We couldn’t just abandon them. What would they do? Who would look after them? Where would they work? Was there work for them? Would they have to leave the compound? There were so many things I didn’t know, it went on and on, like a jersey unravelling when you pulled the wool. I nearly began crying.
But the men at the horses realised that we were making for them and they surrounded us in a shouting crowd, leading their horses by the reins. I hated this part, jostled and pushed by the horses, separated from Dad while he bargained with the men. Then, two of them pulled their horses away from the rest and I mounted the small one while Dad got onto the big one. We set off around the lake, while the men walked at the horses’ heads.
‘Remember to grip with your knees,’ Dad said.
He’d taught me to ride two years ago, going around this lake. But I couldn’t think of the riding, I couldn’t enjoy it today. All I wanted to do was think about Flomeena. But she kept shifting, I couldn’t make her stay in one place, I couldn’t even see her face any more, only her back and her long plait swinging as she ran. Was she running? Or was she squatting down by the cooking fire in the tiny, smoke-blackened kitchen, her plait trailing on the ground as she bent to blow on the sticks?
Families were walking along and the children stared at me. A horse came in the opposite direction with a woman in a sari sitting on it, hanging on to the saddle, looking unhappy. A man walked behind the horse carrying a little boy who was shrieking for his mother. Young men wearing black sunglasses, their hair puffed in the front like Cliff Richard’s, leaned on the thick iron railings watching us go by. ‘Good morning,’ they called after Dad, cheekily, laughing, and I felt indignant for his sake, but he paid them no attention. He turned round to see where I was and made his horse slow down and I saw by the self-conscious, uncomfortable look on his face, that he was aware of the young men.
‘I’ll just go ahead a bit,’ he said. He was high above me.
He kicked his horse with his heels and trotted off, and then kicked again, making the horse canter. When you were with somebody and then they went, you were really on your own. The path around the lake was dark on the far side, covered by trees. Dad disappeared into it. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been round here on my own before. Sometimes Mum took me, waiting for me with Harriet while I went round. I gripped with my knees so hard my legs hurt. I didn’t know how hard I had to do it to make sure I didn’t fall off.
When somebody went, you didn’t know if they’d come back, you never really could be sure.
Yes, you could. I knew I’d see him again, he’d stop and wait for me. Or I’d see him back at the horses, paying his man, while mine, panting and sweating, went up to him for his rupee notes to be carefully counted out and handed to him.
I wanted to catch Dad up. I kicked my horse and made him trot. The man had been at the horse’s head but now he had to run alongside me. But Dad was nowhere to be seen on the stony road. Little brown waves slapped against the side of the lake. Now I was in the dark underhanging road too. It wasn’t so dark once you were in it. Dad would be surprised if I caught him up. I imagined his face. My word! he’d say, impressed. I’d never gone faster than a trot before, but I was older now, I should be able to do things.
I kicked the horse with my heels. Next thing, I found myself hanging on to the side of the horse, clutching the slippery leather of the saddle with both hands, one foot still in the stirrup, the other stuck up pointing at the trees over the saddle. The horse was galloping, shaking me about. If I let go, my head would bounce off the ground. My skull felt as thin as an egg shell. If I let go, I would die. Even as I hung on, I felt a fool. From the corner of my eye, I saw the man running after me, his mouth open. his thin trousers flapping. I saw shapes of people as they strolled along, staring after me. I hung on, even as I felt my hands slipping on the saddle. I hung on and hung on, my fingers almost giving up. The horse began to slow down. I hung on, even when I felt I couldn’t any more.
The man caught up with the horse and grabbed the reins and stopped it. He helped me down. My legs felt unsteady. I’d lost one of my sandals. A boy in grey shorts ran up to me.
‘I think this is yours,’ he said in English, handing me the sandal. He was a little older than me, with thin legs and glasses.
‘Thank you,’ I replied, putting it on, not looking at him. I don’t need them, I usually go around in bare feet, I wanted to tell him, so that he’d know that sandals weren’t important to me, I could do without them.
‘Are you OK?’
I caught a glimpse of his concerned face as I turned to the horse. ‘I’m fine.’
I got back on the horse quickly, just to show everyone that what had happened was nothing at all and they were to forget all about it. The man held the horse’s head firmly and we walked the rest of the way. I was relieved, really, even though he was treating me as if I was young.
Dad was waiting for me, standing with one leg on the bottom rung of the iron railing, looking down the length of the lake.
‘All right?’ he said, after he’d paid the man. The man, to my relief, said nothing.
‘Fine,’ I said, and we set off back to the boarding house.
I fell behind, watching the path, the different shapes of the stones, the uneven steps, the flat grey stones that had been laid in a slanting line across the path, the stone gutters on either side that were dry and dusty and filled with pebbles and dried leaves. The sun was hot on my neck. I thought of Mum when we went out on picnics, how she walked slowly up the hill, her head down, panting, sweat trickling down her neck, her hair sticking to it. It was painful thinking of her like this, as if she wasn’t strong any more. I felt a bit panicky.
How would I leave Mum? What actually happened?
‘Will I get a train to school?’
He stopped and waited for me, one hand still in his pocket. ‘That’s right.’
‘Will Mum come with me?’
‘One of us will.’
I desperately wanted it to be Mum.
‘Maybe you’ll be busy,’ I said.
‘We’ll see.’ He took his white folded handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it against his forehead, mopping up the sweat.
We carried on walking. I became absorbed in the stones again, and in thinking about Mum, not able to imagine leaving her. But it was a year away and I’d be that much older. When you were older, you didn’t need your mum. When you grew up, you left her and made your own life. That’s what Mum had done, she’d got married to Dad. She’d lived with her mum and then got married to Dad and then they’d sailed to Pakistan. And they’d had a baby in Pakistan and that had been me. It was comforting to think of Pakistan.
When you left your mum, you were old. You were able to leave.
I lifted my head. Dad was further on, his long, thin body sloping towards the hill. There was something sad about watching his back, as if he was alone and he didn’t know it. I watched his blue shirt and the sharp angle of his elbow, and his head, and the way he walked, not knowing that his back looked like this. His free hand hung by his side, empty like an invitation, and it struck me that I hadn’t held it for a long time. I skipped up to him to make myself seem younger. When I slipped my hand into his, he let his hang, not responding, and I knew I was too old for this now. It was embarrassing. I held on, pretending I hadn’t noticed, then after a moment let it go as if I had become interested in something else.
When we reached the door of the guest house, he said, ‘What are you going to do now?’
‘I’ll look for Mum.’
‘It’ll be lunch time soon.’
…’ he said, nodding. His eyes met mine by accident and he went, ‘Hmph,’ and his mouth moved into a stiff shape which was meant to be a smile. His eyes shifted away and he went inside, disappearing through the dark doorway.
When he’d gone, everything felt loose and empty and I didn’t know what to do. I went to the edge of the mountainside where I’d stood waiting for him after breakfast. The sky had changed, there were thin clouds spread across it like saris drying. Crows circled slowly, their wings ragged against the sky.
The fence shook under my hands and it was Miss Elliot leaning on it a little distance from me, her bony shoulders sticking up almost to her ears underneath her brown dress. She reminded me of Dad, she was thin like him, and serious, and not able to chat around the dining-room table when it was meal times, holding herself as if she wasn’t really part of the company. Dad did that too, his stern face stiff and self-conscious, but Mum talked easily. Dad teased Mum afterwards, saying she had verbal diahorrea and she laughed, but her face was always flushed as if she was embarrassed. I laughed along with Dad, safe on his side.
‘Have you ever been to boarding school?’ I asked her. I’d never spoken to an adult on my own before It was like going into another world where you were all by yourself.
‘No,’ she said, in her slow, odd, English voice, half turning her head towards me. ‘Have you?’
‘No, I haven’t either, not yet, anyway.’
She kept her head half turned, as if thinking about this. She had a sharp chin and the sun came out for a moment and caught the fair hairs that stuck out on it. I looked away, embarrassed for her. A vegetable wallah walked down the path below us, all we could see of him was the flat basket of vegetables he carried on his head. We watched him go. So long as we were looking, we didn’t have to talk. Then she pushed herself away from the fence, making it bounce under my hands again.
‘Good-bye,’ she said, and went back inside the boarding house. I liked that she said good-bye to me, it made me fond of her.
I still felt strange. I followed the fence past people sitting in the sun to the side of the guest house and found Harriet. She was squatting under a tree, collecting little stones, completely absorbed in them. She seemed to be looking for shiny ones. I squatted beside her and she looked up at me in a friendly way and then continued with what she was doing. I found some tiny, pale stones outside the shade of the tree that glittered in the sun and put them on her pile. We hardly ever did things like this, she was so different from me, she was too young to be anything in my life but a nuisance. It struck me for the first time that here was someone who had the same life as me, the same things happened to her as to me, we understood things the same way. It made me almost tender towards her as she squatted on her skinny legs, her chin resting on her dirty knees, searching for these stones.
‘What do you think about leaving?’ I asked her.
All the tenderness disappeared and I was filled with rage. I was embarrassed by the foolishness of my feelings towards this useless person. ‘Leaving Nagpur, of course.’
‘Oh, I forgot.’ She laughed. She always laughed when she did something silly, as if it was funny.
I was furious. ‘How could you forget?’
‘I don’t know. I just did.’
I pushed her, I was so angry, and she fell backwards, banging her head on the ground. She began to cry. She cried at the least little thing, making a fuss over nothing. Her stupid helplessness enraged me, I wanted to stamp on her like a beetle helpless on its back. I kicked her instead and she cried even harder. I left her in disgust, but also fear that I’d get into trouble. And I really didn’t like making her cry. It was only after I’d done it that I remembered. I forgot things too.
I hid behind the guest house, squatting down in a damp corner amongst the jumble of small buildings by the kitchen where people were always coming and going. But after a while, I needed to know what was happening, if I was in trouble or not.
I went inside. I went to the little library where I read books when it rained. No one else was in it. There were magazines on the table called The Illustrated London News, full of black and white pictures of men and buildings and long streets. This was the place, the country where I came from. It made me proud, being so grand. I looked for a long time at the photographs but they stayed flat and silent.
Then someone came in and it was fat Mr Johnson. He went to the shelves and tilted his head to the side as he inspected them. He had three small children who sat quietly eating their meals at the other end of the dining room. They were strange creatures, English, unfamiliar, and I watched them furtively from our table with a horrible fascination, as if they could show me something about myself.
‘We’re going to be leaving Nagpur soon,’ I said to him. And in my confusion, I lifted one of the magazines as if to offer it to him.
‘So I hear.’ He put his hands behind his back as he bent to peer at a low shelf.
‘I’ve lived there half my life.’ My voice shook. I hadn’t meant it to come out like that.
‘Oh you’ll be moving around a lot in your life, I should think.’ He took out a book and stuck his big nose in it. ‘You’ll be all right,’ he said, shutting the book with a snap.
I felt a fool for showing him that I was afraid. ‘After that, I’m going to boarding school,’ I said, to show that I had this thing in front of me and that I didn’t care.
‘Oh, you’ll get on fine, you’ll see, a big girl like you.’
It was as if I was drowning and he was swimming about calmly, watching me. He took the book with him to the door, smiling vaguely at the furniture because he didn’t know how to leave. All he had to do was say good-bye.
When he’d closed the door, I put the magazine back on the table. I went outside again, looking for Mum. I hadn’t wanted to find her, I realised, because we hadn’t spoken since she’d told us about what was happening, and I felt shy about seeing her in this new state of ours. How would she be?
I followed a coolie round the other side of the house, the sun filling the gap between the house and the mountainside, and there was Mum sitting on the step of the sitting-room door. My heart lifted in gladness and then, for some reason, I had to hide this, and I ducked my head down and sat beside her, pretending to be cross. Mum carried on talking to a woman in a faded green sari, was one of the sweepers. She looked up at her, her eyes squinting in the sun. I got very cross, I didn’t know why, I didn’t have to pretend. They were talking about the woman’s children, her daughter was getting married.
‘This is my elder daughter,’ Mum said to the woman in the end, touching my back. I frowned at the ground, gathering little stones.
After the woman had gone, Mum said, ‘Why don’t you smile? I was introducing you. She’ll think you’re very rude. She’ll think I’ve got a very rude daughter.’
‘I don’t care.’ The gladness had gone completely.
A milkman passed us, his aluminium can of milk strapped to his back. He smelled of hay and cows, the same rich, lovely smell that horses had. He salaamed us cheerfully.
‘People are friendly here,’ Mum said, watching him walk away. ‘They’re different from down in the plains.’ She leaned back on her arms, her white legs stretched out in the sun. Behind us, the bearers clattered cutlery and plates as they laid the tables in the dining room. There was the smell of tomato soup coming from the kitchen.
‘They’re friendly there too,’ I said, angry towards her as if she was trying to take them away from me by talking against them.
‘But they’re different here. More independent. Just as poor, but different.’
‘I don’t think they’re different.’
‘They’re both nice,’ Mum said. ‘I’m not saying anything against anyone.’
But I didn’t believe her. I didn’t want to believe her. I wanted her to be saying things against the people in Nagpur so that I could show her how wrong she was, how nasty and unreasonable she was being. I hated the way her back arched as she leaned on her arms, trying to look relaxed and on holiday, as if it wasn’t really her but something she thought she should be doing. I hated the way she was different here from down on the plains. On the plains, she cycled, she took rickshaws, she walked quickly, always moving, her chin up, her back straight, ready for anything.
‘Did you have a nice time riding?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said, stabbing the earth with a stick.
Mum looked up at the mountainside and closed her eyes, either against the sun or in irritation, and I was afraid because she could leave me as easily as closing her eyes.
After a minute, she said, ‘We all have to do things we don’t want to, you know. I don’t want you to go to boarding school, but there’s nothing I can do about it.’
‘Yes, there is.’
‘What? You tell me, and I’ll do it.’
But I couldn’t. I didn’t know what she could do. I stabbed the ground again, digging a hole in the dry, yellow earth. My hands were dusty and yellow. I poked the hard ground with my finger, trying to pull out a stone from the hole.
‘I don’t want to go,’ I said.
‘I know. I know that.’ Her voice was sympathetic, it stirred my heart with longing. When she told me about her dad and the things she had done as a wee girl, showing me her life, this was how her voice was, drawing me into safety.
The bread man walked past on his way to the kitchen, followed by a boy bent over with the weight of the black tin trunk full of bread and cakes on his back.
‘Bread, Memsahib?’ the man asked. ‘Cake?’ He had fat, unshaven cheeks and looked as though he wouldn’t be kind to the boy. The boy stopped and peered at us, not able to move his head because of the strap across his forehead that was tied to the black trunk.
‘No, thank you,’ Mum said, apologetically, shaking her head.
We watched them go down the path towards the sounds of the kitchen. The sun shone through leaves and dappled the black trunk.
‘When we first arrived at Karachi on the boat,’ Mum said, running her hands down her legs to her ankles, ‘we were met by Dr and Mrs Baird. You won’t remember them. They’d come to meet us and take us back to Jalalpur. But they’d also come to put their five-year-old son on the ship. They wouldn’t see him for five years. That’s what people did then, they sent their children back to Britain to go to school.’ She frowned at her legs. ‘At least I don’t have to do that.’
What would she have had to worry about? She wouldn’t have been the one getting on the ship. But I didn’t risk saying that.
‘Once you’re there, everything will be fine,’ she said. ‘You’ll see. You’ll be with girls your own age -’
‘So? I’m with girls my own age now.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she said, turning her head away.
‘But why can’t I go to school in the new place?’
‘There aren’t any.’
‘Did you ask?’
‘Yes, of course.’
I didn’t believe her. ‘There are schools. What about Harriet?’
‘There are schools for her age but not for yours.’
I still didn’t believe her. ‘I know there are,’ I said.
‘There aren’t,’ she said angrily. ‘Believe me, there aren’t.’
I was afraid now, I’d pushed her too far.
‘This is something you’ve just got to accept. I’m very sorry, Fiona, but you have to accept it.’
‘I’m not going to,’ I said.
She got up and walked into the guest house, her back stiff, her shoulders straight and offended, her chin at an angle. Her bottom lip would be out, I knew, sharper than words. I followed her, too afraid to leave her alone. I could push her and push her, and then when I went too far and she withdrew from me, I was always afraid, as if I wouldn’t get her back again. Anger was like a huge wall that cut you off from people.
She went past the bearers laying the tables, who looked at us with interest, and went into our room, where the beds were still unmade. She began to make Dad’s bed, throwing back the top sheet and blankets and straightening the bottom sheet, sweeping her hand across it and tucking it in vigorously. I went across from her and tried to help her, but she was too quick, the top sheet snatched out of my grip as she flung it across the bed, and I stood uselessly while she did the same to the blankets. The bed was transformed into neatness.
‘I don’t like it any more than you do,’ she said, going to her own bed.
I accepted this silently, angrily.
‘There are some things you just have to do, Fiona. And I’m afraid this is one of them.’
I picked up a corner of her top sheet and got a whiff of her morning smell. It was of her body under her nightie, and once you got used to it, it was fine. It was how she was when she got up, her face rumpled like her nightie, smiling at us. But it was always strange that Mum could smell like this and be unaware of it.
She took the sheet from me more gently as she pulled it over her pillow.
‘We come up to you in the summer, we take you out of boarding and you stay with us, like here, for a month. And then in the winter you have a three month holiday and you come down and stay with us again.’
‘Three months!’ That cheered me up a little.
‘Your hands are filthy!’ Mum said, looking at a mark I’d left on the sheet. She reached across to take my hand and turned it over to look at my palm. It was yellow and dusty from the earth and the criss-crossing lines were outlined in black where my hands had got sweaty clutching the saddle.
‘Go and wash them,’ she said.
‘Oh go on.’
‘Oh please,’ she said, laughing. It was a game we sometimes played. She still held my hand, gripping my fingers as I tried to pull it away.
She suddenly stroked my palm. ‘Wee hand,’ she said, her voice going soft and wavering. ‘Wee, wee hand.’
This was unfair, it wasn’t part of the game, she was taking advantage. I stood there helplessly.
‘Not so wee any more,’ she said, her eyes watery. The tips of my fingers were almost purple with her holding so tightly as I tugged at them. They looked as though they’d burst.
‘Ow,’ I said, although I didn’t really mean it.
She released my hand. I didn’t know what to do with it. It hung awkwardly. She smiled at me, her red, watery eyes holding on to me and yet letting me go at the same time.
The bell began to clang for lunch. Dad opened the door, Harriet beside him.
‘There you are!’ he said. ‘I’ve found Harriet. Ready?’
© Margaret Burnett 2008