The wooden box was not exactly hidden, just tucked out of sight at the back of the drawer. Julia felt for its corners, pulling it out carefully. Its domed lid with brass hinges scraped along the wood it as she took it out, but its clasp flew up at a light press on the lock.
Inside was a bundle of folded paper, curling at the edges. She breathed in camphor, dust, and the passing of time.
The string holding it all together fell off at a tug and revealed letters, some written on thin air mail paper, in pale blue envelopes with striped edges, some on aerogrammes addressed to Mrs Arthur Kirkwood. The handwriting was bold, the ink dark blue, hardly faded.
Julia smoothed one out carefully on the flat surface of the desk.
At the top she read a printed copperplate address:
The signature told her these letters were from her grandmother’s sister, Helen. Someone Julia had never met. She’d heard her parents mention Helen only rarely, and with something approaching – what? Slight embarrassment? Guilt, even? She’d had a few letters from her, sent when she was only just able to read. She’d replied in carefully shaped copperplate, encouraged by her mother, who told her that her great-aunt was living alone, with her dog Deena, very far away, on the other side of India. One day a package had arrived: a small trinket box with a silver lid. She still had it.
She took the letter slowly from its envelope, addressed to Mrs Arthur Kirkwood.
My dear sister Kate, she read, and stopped, letting the past whisper through the decades…
My dear sister Kate,
Thank you for your letter, which I read with some concern.
I’m so sorry to hear that your relationship with Arthur is strained since he has come back from the war. At least it was only two years. I feel sure that your suspicions aren’t true. From what I remember of Arthur, he’s an honourable man – someone who would keep to a promise - in your case, the marriage vow.
He has been away for a few years, and it couldn’t have been any fun at all in the jungles of Burma. It will, I’m sure, take him a little time to re-accustom himself to peacetime, and to you. And if something intimate happened there – can you not give him the benefit of the doubt? It was a long way away; he must have missed you very much and I don’t see that taking comfort – if it was offered – is so reprehensible. Not as reprehensible as it would be in a little place like Ranpore. Forgive me if that sounds as if I’m raking up the past. I’m not. But I’d advise you, if you feel like taking my advice, to keep your fears to yourself. Apple carts can so easily be upset. I know I’ve no first hand experience of marriage but I’ve noticed that most survive the greatest difficulties, and even grow stronger – as long as any problems are kept private. It is so beastly and humiliating to be the main subject of discussion at the Club.
Men can sometimes be a little disloyal – although they don’t see it like that, of course. Exploitative even – I hear from nearly every woman at some point that they feel that they do all the work, and their husbands get the benefit, without taking the trouble to show their appreciation. I sympathise, although the other argument also holds – the men work and earn the money, and so it is a sort of business arrangement. Rather like the British in India, I realise, as I write this. India gives a great deal, and we take it, and I’m not sure we are very gracious about it. I’m not going to be boring and revolutionary –I’m not brave enough for that, and can’t face all the arguments,
but it's just an observation.
I can’t help noticing that British men – the ones fresh from the boat, anyhow – have a way of treating their wives rather like they treat Indians. They can’t help it – many are neither cultured nor educated, and need to feel they deserve all the bowing and scraping they get from the people they control, so they puff themselves up, and put their own needs very high up the list! The bowing and scraping is often new to them, and, although pleasant, it must be a bit disconcerting at first. They do get used to it pretty quickly of course, and then they start ordering most people about (except their superiors, who order everyone about!).
It seems to me that it is best to allow a little slack and try not to mind if people are a little self-absorbed. We are all guilty of it sometimes, and it is not particularly attractive. Nor is resentment, an emotion I’ve worked hard to quell. Sometimes I feel rather cheerful at the success of my efforts, but shadows lie in wait,
and catch me out when I least expect it.
Enough of this philosophising – if that’s what it is.
How is the heat where you are? Still cool in lower Assam, I should think. Not here in Ranpore, alas. It is getting very hot and the humidity is rising – quite the worst time of the year. Mother, as she ages, gets tired and cross more quickly in the heat, and I’m afraid I’m less patient than I could be. Still, Cassandra is a delightful friend and we are enjoying the dry season together on our bicycles. Mother is enjoying the Bridge tournaments at the Club, trouncing all-comers and proving her remarkable recall. She only forgets what she finds convenient,
a skill I very much admire.
I’m sure you and Arthur will find a happy equilibrium – as time passes relationships evolve, and I read somewhere that we can’t change other people, only ourselves. More philosophy, so I had better draw this note to a close before you screw it up and aim it at the waste-paper basket. At least Arthur isn’t a “temporary gent”, embarrassing you by trying to show how superior he is to even the educated locals! That remains, at present, one of my bugbears. As if a pompous, ill-educated little sahib with less breeding or kindness than Sudham, the bearer, deserves his high estate simply because he attended some dreary little public school in Sussex. Forgive me. I rant.
I look forward to your next letter, and in the meantime I send you my love. The men are returning to their families from their regiments. Some are not. Things have changed – for good – although Ranpore still feels pretty much like the backwater it has always been.
We all grow older, some grow wiser, some just grow. Like the garden, which at the moment is a little dry but still flourishing as the mali wields his hosepipe, and the water is pumped up from the well. The rainy season is coming to a close, so we continue to fill the house with flowers. It makes me happy, although Mother thinks it extravagant unless we have guests. So we have guests – tonight, Cassandra and the Cunninghams.
The dramatis personae don’t change.
“Have you seen the Daily Mail today, Julia?”
The voice on the telephone had been an odd mixture – sympathetic, but interested.
“Probably better to sit down. It’s Freddie, who seems to have… well, there’s a big photograph of him draped over a girl who could – Botox permitting – pass for his daughter. She’s … er, not wearing a lot.”
Julia looked at the photograph on the bookshelf of her younger self with a wide smile and beautifully-cut hair. She took a deep breath.
“Thanks, Tasha. Thanks for telling me. I’d better get off to the newsagent!”
She grabbed her handbag and her coat. Checked she had her keys.
Mr Ahmed’s shop on the corner of the street was open as always. He looked at her sympathetically, but took her money without a word. She dropped the tabloid into her bag and left with a smile. He was a nice man, Mr Ahmed, considerably nicer than many of his customers. Glossy well-kept women, like she’d become. Manes of hair that moved as one swishy block, faces smooth and clear, painted by a master to look as if they were strangers to foundation, primer, blush, highlighter, fixing powder...
She, like them, worked hard to keep her bingo wings at bay, going to Bikram Yoga classes wearing Juicy Couture; she had her regular eco-natural facial; she went to Adam Paul in Trevor Square for a weekly blow-dry, more often if there was something special happening. She didn’t work, unless you counted an occasional philanthropic shift in the Oxfam shop, and she didn’t have children. Not for want of trying, but there you were. Neither she nor Freddie had worried about it – there was always plenty of time.
Perhaps not now, she thought. Freddie had aroused her suspicions before, but had competently explained away a silent telephone call, or an early morning arrival to change and shave before leaving for the office. And she’d chosen to let sleeping dogs lie – in every sense.
“You never need worry, Julia, darling,” he would say. “You’re stuck with me.”
And so far, this seemed to be true. Freddie always turned up, smiling, with a hug, a bunch of flowers, a piece of jewellery if he had been away longer than usual. He had taken her to the Danieli in Venice, to the Four Seasons in New York, for a week in the Caribbean at Montpelier Plantation on Nevis. He loved getting away with things.
Freddie was no longer a Man-to-be-Watched, he was a Man-who-had-Made-It. And a babe magnet, as his friend, Charlie (there was always a Charlie, wasn’t there?) would say jovially, reddening when Freddie frowned at him.
A rich property developer. Intelligent, good company, handsome. What not to like? Not at first, second, or third meeting anyway. It took a little longer than that to come up against the flinty self-absorption.
Julia sighed. On the front page of the newspaper, in the bottom left-hand corner, was a photograph of a very beautiful dark-haired girl in a red dress, smiling at the photographer and leaning into her companion. Freddie, looking confident and younger than his forty-five years. His wide smile showed rows of white and even teeth (thanks, discreet and expensive dentist in Beauchamp Place), his hair dark and romantically floppy over his Botox-smooth brow, his bow tie untied, his dinner jacket nonchalantly carried over his shoulder. He knew how to strike a pose, did Freddie, exuding success and charm.
Hot Property! cried the headline.
Oh, surely they could do better than that?
“Freddie Hunstanton and Antonella Morandi. Full story P9.”
Could she bear it? She needed a cup of coffee. She opened the glass door of the little Italian coffee shop, asked for an Americano, and pointed at a couple of biscotti. What the hell.
Then she turned to page nine, where the article went into detail about Freddie and the glorious Antonella “star of The Song of Sicily, De Luzzi’s new film, shot on that beautiful island, and opening in London in a couple of weeks.” They had been attending some sort of Industrial Awards evening at the Dorchester, and yes, there was a trophy dangling from Freddie’s right hand.
Julia took in Antonella’s high cheekbones, the lean brown arms, set off with a diamond bracelet on a slim wrist. Her own arms had been like that once, she thought, annoyed with herself for minding. This young woman sparkled, carefree, her eyes on the future. She looked like the other young women who had attached themselves to Freddie. Sukie or Susie or Tiggy. They had been nothing like Julia, which at the time had been a comfort, but now she wondered. Had she become just a wife? A help-meet – awful word, but horribly accurate.
There was a photograph of Freddie on a yacht – the paper had obviously trawled through the archives. Julia had hated that holiday, going from island to island, hardly getting off the boat, eating fairly good food and anchoring off a new stretch of the Mediterranean that looked exactly like the one before. She’d been sick for a couple of days, which had annoyed him, as she’d taken to her cabin rather than share dry Martinis with guests who might have been fascinating conversationalists, or might, just might, have been there because they were very rich and thinking of buying in the UK.
Freddie, bronzed and dashing, stood elegantly on the deck in the swimming shorts he had bought from Harvey Nicks. She couldn’t remember the designer, but it would have been the most popular one at the time. Gucci, probably. Labels mattered to Freddie. Labels and pretty women and everything that hollered High Life, and Success, and Money. Julia wondered where she fitted in.
She folded the newspaper and raised her eyes to watch the well-kept women pass outside, some with pushchairs that probably cost as much as a small car. French was spoken a lot in this bit of South Kensington; the Lycée was just round the corner. At least you could get good coffee. The florist by the tube was doing a sprightly trade; Julia recognised one of the recent bouquets Freddie had brought home for her as an apology for being late.
She closed her eyes, shutting out her husband’s face in the paper, and the innuendo in the paragraph beside it. She needed to think. Did she love Freddie now, or had all these humiliations finally done their work? This time it felt worse than ever before. Her eyes pricked, and she took a tissue surreptitiously from her bag. She squeezed her lids together. She wasn’t going to let herself cry about a pair of lithe tanned arms.
Freddie had always done whatever he liked. He had never pretended otherwise. She’d let it pass, but today she felt crushed and foolish. He could have been more discreet. The Daily Mail! He must have known how awful it would be for me to see him draped over someone twenty years younger than me… than him, for Christ’s sake. The bastard.
The tears were coming. Julia stood up shakily and walked out into the street, narrowly missing the Big Issue seller to whom she usually gave a pound. He looked surprised as she clipped past, her heels tapping on the pavement. I must get home, she thought, the words taking on the rhythm of her steps. I must get home, I must get home. She dashed a hand across her eyes, leaving a streak of mascara on the back of it. Soon she was at her front door, her hand shaking as she put the key in the lock.
Slipping a capsule in the Nespresso machine, she made herself a strong black coffee. I can’t bear this again and again, she told herself. So what do I do now? I’ll go down to Linton, today, this afternoon. I can’t hang around here to hear his excuses.
Linton would help. The house had become hers when her mother died and her father had gone into a home three years earlier. She and Freddie went there for weekends occasionally – not as often as she would like.
Freddie enjoyed having “a house in the country”. He liked the hidden drive, the large drawing room, the back stairs, the Aga. Whenever Freddie was there, meals were taken in the dining room, at the oval oak table, mellow with years of beeswax, laid with silver and Spode. The green baize door swung open and shut with a resigned sigh.
But he didn’t savour the smell of wood smoke from the large fire in the drawing room, and the smaller one in the tiny nursery.
“A touch too rustic for me, darling. I love this house, I do really, but it could do with a bit of smartening up. You must see that.”
“I don’t, actually. It’s home. I like it like it is.”
“There’s space, I give you that. But it would be much better if we got some people to slosh some Farrow & Ball about. Don’t you think?”
She’d stuck to her guns. His attention would move on quickly enough and give her some breathing space. He might have converted the central heating and Aga to gas, but she’d fought to keep the wood burners in the dining and drawing rooms. One thing was certain. She was not going to be a publicly-cuckolded wife. And she would never, ever, give another party for Freddie’s ghastly billionaires.
That decision taken, she felt a lot better.
INDIA - MAY 1937
“Oh my goodness, it’s so hot today.”
The young woman fanned herself with a handkerchief.
“Going outside is terrible. I need to be near a fan at all times.”
Her sister laughed. “Not very practical, Kate!”
“Oh come on, Helen. It’s ghastly. We’re supposed to be used to it, but this year it’s so much worse than usual. Isn’t it?”
“I’m not entirely sure. You say that every year, I think,” Helen said, smiling.
Kate flung herself on a rattan chair, sinking into its chintz cushion and stretching her legs out.
There was no sound on the wide verandah except for the beat of the fan overhead, which moved the thick hot air just a little. The orange and red and dark pink bougainvillea that framed the pillars on either side of the red stone steps stirred slightly, and a bee buzzed between the flowers. A dog barked in the distance and a small bird darted from bush to bush, its tail flicking up and down. On the lawn below them, the mali shuffled past, pushing a wooden wheelbarrow. Its wheel squeaked.
“ He’s probably much less sweaty than we are,” Kate grumbled.
“We’d look a bit odd in his loincloth, though. Come on. Cheer up. I’m waiting for the vegetable man and then I’m taking Bodhi’s tonga into town. Come too?”
“You must be joking. I’m sticking to the cushion just being here. I’m going to stay in my bedroom and read. I can’t summon up any energy at all.”
As she stood up to leave, Sudham, the bearer, answered the sharp ring of the bell at the gate and let in a small wizened man in a grubby lunghi, carrying a rod across his shoulders. From each end hung a basket of breadfruit, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, radish, beetroot.
He bowed and spread brightly-coloured vegetables and fruit on the steps of the bungalow. Papaya, guavas, custard apples and wrinkled passion fruit looked tempting.
“Ramdas. How are you today?” asked Helen.
He bent his head and gestured at the spread he had laid at her feet.
“Mmm, this looks good. Wonky…”
Wonky the sweeper and dogsbody who had one leg shorter than the other paused in his work. He leant heavily on his broom and looked at Helen.
“Please tell the cook that Ramdas is here,” she told him.
Soon a small round man in a stained white jacket came and chose what he needed. With him came the scent of wood smoke and garlic; Helen and Kate were amazed he never seemed to smell of sweat, despite working in a small room over a kerosene stove and a charcoal fire. When the transaction was finished Ramdas walked away, his baskets swinging lightly on the pole across his shoulders. He closed the gate behind him, its hinges screeching.
“Memsa’ab Helen, the tonga will be here in ten minutes to take you to the bazaar.”
Sudham spoke softly, with a slight inclination of his turbanned head. Evangeline was very particular about the servants’ uniforms, and his tall slim figure looked suitably smart in his crisp white dhoti and jacket.
Helen sat back in the chair, folding her skirt about her knees. She looked forward to her visits to the shadowy depths of the tailor’s workshop, which smelt of talcum powder, starch and newspaper, overlaid with a hint of incense. She liked keeping up with styles that suited her, taking inspiration from the magazines that came out from Europe and sat on the low peg tables at the Club, placed beside chairs for planters to rest their drinks.
In Bond Street she would not be fashionable, but here in Ranpore she enjoyed her reputation for elegance. Today, her skirt came to just below her knee and her light cream top skimmed her slim hips, in the straight silhouette of the 1920s. Her shining dark hair was plaited and pinned into a coil on each ear, and her lobes were studded with small pearls. Her style was her own, and it suited her.
“My daughters are a credit to me,” she often heard her mother tell friends. “They’ve their own style – very different from each other.”
If they knew what was good for them, a listener would fill the pause with a light compliment. “Like their mother,” worked well. Or “They’ve been very well taught.” Or, if they were feeling enthusiastic: “You always look so fresh and smart. I don’t know how you do it – the material here is usually so dull and the durzi needs such close supervision.”
It was true – Helen was good at the pleat and fold and slip of fabric, and could probably have made the clothes she ordered herself. But why would she? A tailor cost little and saved her the trouble, and – more importantly – it Wasn’t Done.
Kate turned back to her sister, after she’d tweaked the flare of her pretty cotton skirt.
“Could you possibly check if my dress is ready?” she asked. “Ahmed said it would be, yesterday, but you know what he’s like.”
Helen nodded. Indian time did not always tally with European expectations; the tailor sometimes accepted too many commissions and tried to please everyone.
The clip-clop of hooves announced the arrival of Bodhi’s tonga. He waited, smiling. He was always smiling, and the seats in his wooden cart were clean, covered in white cotton, regularly washed by his patient wife, Roshana.
His chestnut horse was also called Bodhi. It was of indeterminate age and always wore blinkers.
Helen sank into the fat sofa seat, looking backwards, resting her legs on a support. Her empty basket was on the floor beside her, rustling and rocking slightly as they moved off. She was grateful for the breeze that started to cool her face.
Bodhi hummed a little tune as he drove them down the narrow streets leading to the stalls in the centre of Ranpore’s clattering bazaar.
The ride wasn’t especially. comfortable – the large wooden wheels with their spokes did not absorb the bumps – but it was convenient. When Helen arrived at the bazaar, she alighted wherever she wished, and always returned to find the tonga waiting. Parking, as a concept, was completely unfamiliar to her – it was Bodhi who occupied himself with such things.
She began her familiar walk between the carts and stalls. Terracotta kitchen bowls and tall water filters were laid out, bamboo baskets, fruit and vegetables, kerosene and little lamps, as well as larger hurricane lamps that needed to be pumped to light. One stall had rows and rows of glass bracelets in many colours, rimmed with gold. They were often very small, made to fit the delicate wrists of Indian women. Helen had a faded scar on her hand where one had broken as she’d tried to push it on to her arm, scoring a bloody line down her skin.
She hardly noticed the dust and the dirt. It was as it had always been. At the side of the road piles of filth rotted in the heat. The air was heavy with the stench of discarded vegetation, stagnant water, gutters full of rubbish. Stallholders shouted across the muddy street. Tongas and bicycles wove around each other, narrowly missing pedestrians, cows, dogs. Young boys selling hot sweet chai poured it steaming into terracotta clay cups. Indian ladies clutched their bright saris around them, turquoise, orange, fuchsia pink, lifting the hems as they picked their way carefully through the market, heads high. A European alighted from another tonga in front of a wooden table spread with bolts of cloth, and sent the driver to a butcher’s stall. Beef carcasses hung in the open air, buzzing with flies, but he went inside to buy the meat that was kept cool in the fridge.
Suddenly there was a clatter, shouts, and the sound of running feet. A little boy ran past her, followed by a stallholder waving a frying pan, and behind him a group of about twenty people, shaking their fists. The boy bumped into a post, staggered back, and fell against her. His face was blank, but his frightened eyes flickered up and down. The crowd drew closer and as he pushed past her she lost her balance and fell to the ground. A sharp stone cut into the flesh of her knee. Bodhi was beside her at once, tutting and clearing a space. Hands helped her stand unsteadily, holding on to Bodhi’s arm. She watched the blood drip out of the cut and stain the fabric of her skirt. Some people turned away, others stared at the unfamiliar sight of an injured white woman in the street; she felt slightly sick.
“Hmmm. It’s quite deep,” said a male voice. British, with a lilt that echoed the Anglo-Indian accent she was familiar with. “Come over here. Sit down on this chair, and I’ll go and get a plaster and some antiseptic. Make sure she’s not bothered,” he ordered Bodhi, who bowed and stood beside her.
Helen was left, feeling foolish, on a little rickety chair that had been brought from a shop nearby. She hoped the boy had not been caught and beaten. She could not see him anywhere. He was probably hiding, panting and sweating, praying not to be found, hoping to get away with the few pais he had pocketed or the mango he had slipped off a pile of fruit.
The stranger was back in a few minutes, with a paper bag of cotton wool and a pink plastic bowl of warm water. He folded himself into a squat beside her, hitching up his khaki cotton shorts, and dipped a ball of cotton wool into the water to wash away the blood that had almost congealed on her skin. The sharp antiseptic smell of TCP hit her nose and she gasped as the stinging started.
“Sorry. Shows it needs cleaning. It’ll be fine.”
He gently rubbed away the dirt from the cut, and the water turned pink as he squeezed the cotton wool. Tiny wisps of blood floated beneath the surface as he soaked another ball to wipe the skin.
“Sorry. Bad luck. But you should be okay now.”
“Thank you so much. I’m fine, really I am. I was just off balance. It’s very kind of you to clean me up. I’ll be fine now. No infection.”
He threw the water into the dirt and stretched a strip of plaster over the cut.
“These things do sting, don’t they?”
“Silly of me to flinch,” she said, trying to regain some dignity. “It’s gone now. I’ll put some iodine on it when I get home.”
“That would be best, but until then keep the plaster on to protect it.”
Banalities. But the conversation stretched – neither wanted it to end. She thought she knew all the British men in the area, but not this one.
He read her mind.
“I’ve not been here long. Arrived yesterday, and I’m just looking around and getting my bearings. Arthur Kirkwood.”
They looked at each other for a moment, and she suddenly felt embarrassed and clumsy. She hoped she’d not looked too ungainly as she fell. Had her skirt rucked up and shown her underwear?
He helped her up from the chair, holding her forearm. His touch was light and cool.
“Well, Miss Armstrong,” he said. “Will you be all right now? Are you going straight home?”
“No, I’ve various things to do. I – my sister… I promised to collect something for her.”
“As long as you’re sure you’re up to it.”
“Good heavens, yes. I was clumsy. I could so easily have moved out of the way.”
She spoke quickly. The silent moment was full of something she didn’t understand; she felt out of her depth.
He smiled. “I’m sorry you were hurt, and glad that I was here to help in a small way. I’m sure we will meet again. It’ll be a great pleasure.”
She took refuge in formality.
“I’m sure we shall. Until then, Mr Kirkwood…”
She looked around for Bodhi, who shot to her side and put his hand under her elbow to guide her past the crush of people.
“Shall we go back to Cantonments, Memsa’ab?”
“No, Bodhi. I need to go to Sew Nicely to collect Memsa’ab Kate’s parcel. Come on, let’s get it done and then I can go home and put my leg up.”
Sew Nicely was in the next street but Bodhi insisted on driving her. He stopped outside the shop front, under the name painted in bright blue on a wooden panel, beside a woman’s salmon pink face. Bodhi unfolded the steps for her to descend.
Her leg had stopped bleeding, but the dressing was rusty brown and the blood had leaked around it. She leaned down and wiped the stain away with her handkerchief.
Ahmed the tailor came out from behind his ancient treadle Singer, and bowed over her hand.
“Memsa’ab Helen! Welcome! I’ve Memsa’ab Kate’s skirt, just here. And is there anything else?”
“Good morning, Ali. I’ve come with some material I found in the market a while ago – look, it’s light cotton, and I think it very smart.”
He nodded, feeling the spotted cotton fabric between his thumb and forefinger. Letting go, he went to the back of the shop and brought out a bolt of fabric.
“For you, Memsa’ab, I will make a special jacket to go with it. In this material. Is that acceptable? No, no, my gift. You send me so many customers. They see how you dress, and they want to look the same. You’re – I’m not sure of the English – a style leader.”
They spent a happy half hour talking about clothes, and Helen started to feel normal again, the Memsa’ab who ran a house, bought supplies, knew her way about.
The durzi understood his customer. He had stitched for her many times and preferred their discussions to the more peremptory ones he had with her mother, who never changed her order for a dark skirt and a white shirt, usually cotton, sometimes silk.
“It will be ready for Friday, Memsa’ab. I hope Memsa’ab Kate will like her skirt. I will alter it if necessary, of course.”
“Thank you,” said Helen, as Bodhi helped her into his vehicle.
He clicked his tongue and the horse started to pull the tonga through the crowds, cows wandering down the dusty road, pie dogs lying asleep in patches of shade.
A flick of the whip, another click, and the carriage increased its speed, raising a low cloud of yellowish dust. The horse’s ears were forward, its eyes shaded by blinkers, and with Bodhi’s skill they avoided most of the potholes. Dust was now sticking to the bloodstain that had seeped through the dressing on her knee, which began to throb. She remembered the closeness of Arthur Kirkwood, the touch of his hand on her leg. She sighed.
“Everything okay, Memsa’ab? Too bumpy?”
Bodhi’s hearing was remarkable.
“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. Just carry on.”
He turned his attention back to the road.
She went over the events of the morning. What was it that was making her feel so – what? Different? Excited? The attention of a polite stranger? A plaster and some TCP – that was all. Hardly worth a heartbeat, but nevertheless… something had changed.
She recalled his hand under her elbow. So what? Just politeness. He would have done it for anyone. But his touch had given her an inkling of a different possibility. Perhaps life didn’t have to consist only of trips to the market in the tonga, or work at the local school, of dinner in the formality of the dining room, or drinks on the verandah with a book from the Club library.
“Memsa’ab. Excuse me, Memsa’ab. May I help you descend?”
The world came back into focus. She was home. The black gate still needed a coat of paint to cover the rust, the bougainvillea with its salmon and orangey flowers still frothed over the arch above it.
Sudham was standing there, waiting to carry her packages into the house.
Of course, nothing had changed. Why would it?