“Impressive, isn’t it?” I smile.
“Oh gosh, have I got to eat everything?” says my wife, Laura.
In front of each of us lies a circular metal tray, in the centre of which stands a bowl of steaming rice. The grains are tiny, some coloured red, yellow or green. Surrounding it are small metal pots containing vegetables – some plain, some battered and fried, in a variety of sauces. One pot contains chopped tomato, cucumber and raw onion, sprinkled with finely diced coriander leaves, and another, plain yoghurt. The restaurant is full of the aroma of curry and I’m salivating like crazy.
“Would you like anything to drink sir?” smiles a young Indian girl with deep brown eyes, darker than her dusky skin.
“Can I have Cobra please?” I say. Laura asks for mineral water.
I laugh, indicating a pot, half full of a thick yellow paste, inconspicuous amongst the others. “I remember the first time I came here I ate the shrikhand with my curry. I didn’t realise it was a sweet!”
I serve myself a portion of rice, some curried cauliflower, and some small pieces of potato in a thin greasy-looking sauce. “Wow, this is hot!” I exclaim. They’d not spared the chilli! I spoon a generous portion of yoghurt on top. It’s delicious, my taste buds overwhelmed by the fiery, aromatic experience.
It’s September 1987, the seventh year of my marriage to Laura, and I’m definitely feeling like scratching the seven year itch. The first years had been wonderful, although marred by frequent fights, but isn’t that usually the way? Her long dark hair still looks glamorous, but the pretty face has grown rounder and the pounds have piled on. Health problems abound with increasing frequency. Still, ‘Till death do us part …’ as they say.
Laura stands, long black hair cascading over her black coat. She’s stood against the polished blue tiles of Regent’s Park tube station. She hasn’t noticed me approaching through the thin crowd yet. I linger and watch her. She’s looking straight ahead, blinking and touching her hair, glancing at her watch. She looks in a red leather handbag, pulls out a tissue and dabs her forehead, cheeks and nose. I approach and her face breaks into a wide, pink-lipsticked smile. She hurriedly stuffs the tissue back into her handbag. “Hello.” Her eyes are wide and dark. She’s wearing mascara and some face powder.
I put an arm on her sleeve and kiss her mouth. There’s a faint odour of floral perfume. Her lips are cool, but tingling with electricity. “Hello, sorry I’m a bit late.” We walk up the steps, out into the bright autumn air, and the bustling pavement.
There’s the usual newspaper kiosk. Three rows of colourful magazines below a shelf with more magazines and newspapers on it. There’s a rack of chewing gum, one of the worst inventions ever, how I hate the stuff! At the back there are more racks of magazines. The top row shows enticing glimpses of pink, brown and grey female flesh. To the left of the kiosk is a stand of international newspapers. EL PAIS, Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Tribune …. They’re dated October 1980.
Presumably there’s a human being lurking within this newsprint and glossy cave? I try to imagine someone actually designing the kiosk. And factories making them. Then I try to envisage all the people writing and designing this seemingly endless number of newspapers and magazines. There must be thousands, tens of thousands even? Massive machines printing millions of copies. I fail miserably.
“Should we go for coffee,” says Laura.
Can this gorgeous creature really be with me? “Yeah, that’d be good.”
She looks at the stand. “I just want to buy some gum.”
I start to say something, then change my mind. “Good idea.”
“Impressive, isn’t it?” I smile.
“We have bigger thalis in Gangtok!” says my partner, Lhamo.
“You always have to go one better don’t you?”
She laughs, shaking her red-brown bob, her hooded cat-like eyes twinkling. It’s September 1997 and once again I’m in Diwanas. I haven’t been here for ten years, but it’s like a time warp, everything seems exactly the same, even the waitress.
Lhamo isn’t eating a thali. Instead, she has a dosa, a long, rolled pancake, fried and filled with spiced potato, lentils and onion.
The restaurant’s packed, as always. A small queue stands by the door, resignedly waiting for a vacant table.
Lhamo looks apprehensive. “I need to tell you something.”
I know what’s coming. I’ve heard it often enough. “What?”
“I’m leaving, going back to Rasheb.”
I could save my breath. “Why?”
“I miss Ahmed. He needs me.” Her eyes mist over.
I take a mouthful of Cobra, close my eyes, and swill it round my tongue with my mouth slightly open. The light hoppy flavour mingles with those of butterscotch and dandelion. It’s amazing what you can find when you really focus on something! Back to reality. “Please don’t go.” And I mean it. Despite all the problems with her estranged husband and her collusion with him, I really love her.
We’d met at a theatre group in our small town. There were a handful of good actors, the rest of us weren’t any great shakes. To my astonishment she’d taken a shine to me, saying I reminded her of Robert Redford, and it was only weeks before she’d moved in, leaving her fifteen year old son and husband gnashing their teeth. Soon that slim brown body and her willingness to please had made every bedtime an exquisite experience.
“Thank you for the lift,” I say. Lhamo has just dropped me off after theatre rehearsal – a pretentious ‘farce,’ written by our director, Maurice, entitled You Don’t Know My Mother! – saving me a bus fare. She’d seemed very friendly, smiling whenever I’d looked at her, until I’d felt a bit embarrassed. At the break she’d come and sat with me at the small theatre bar, drinking tea together.
“Where do you live John?” she asked. I noticed how white and straight her teeth were. Her skin is brown with a few light wrinkles. She’s not so young but still attractive.
“Oh, opposite the town centre. In one of those white flat-roofed houses. King’s Crescent. Do you know it?”
She smiled and her dark slanted eyes shone. “No, but I can give you a lift. I go that way.” She looked at me expectantly.
To my surprise, after dropping me off, she gets out of the car and walks along the path to my house with me. We don’t speak. We reach the front door. “Er, do you want to come in?” I ask, hoping she’ll say no. She seems a bit ‘odd.’
“No, I have to get back. I have to help Ahmed with his homework before bed.”
“Ahmed, he’s my youngest son.” She pulls a photograph from her handbag and shows me a young Asian face, handsome even in the orange street light.
I make suitable noises. Then, “Thank you very much for the lift, I really appreciate it. I’ll see you next week then?”
She doesn’t speak, taking my arm and reaching up to kiss me quickly on the lips. Then she turns and walks back down the pathway without looking back, leaving me confused and wondering.
Six weeks later and I’m standing outside a staff entrance door at the back of a huge hospital complex. The year is 1996 and it’s late in the evening and dark, although there’s a street light nearby, casting an even white light. I feel nervous, wondering if I’m on camera. Then the door opens and Lhamo appears in a white coat, smiling and tossing her bob of chestnut-coloured hair. I relax and smile. It’s good to see her. She guides me through the door and down empty, echoing corridors. There are signs to departments I’ve never heard of – Nephrology, Oncology, Urology. Finally, we arrive at a tea room. A lady, dressed in a similar white coat looks up. Her name badge says Ann. She looks knowingly at Lhamo, then turns to me. “Hello, you must be John.”
I feel embarrassed but smile. “How did you guess?”
She laughs. “Lhamo said she was having someone to keep her company tonight. She said a few things about you ….”
Ann and Lhamo discuss work for a few minutes. They’re ‘on call,’ running any blood tests required overnight. They can sleep when there aren’t any. Tonight a baby is very ill and needs blood analysis. The nurses had a problem extracting any blood, then the machine doing the analysis went wrong. Operator error I surmise. They both look tired. They’re debating who’s going to phone the nurses to apologise and ask for fresh blood.
Finally Lhamo leads me through a sizeable laboratory, leaving Ann to smooth the ruffled feathers of the nursing staff. Surfaces are covered with test tubes and glass vessels of all shapes and sizes. Here and there stand large, strange machines. I’d like to ask her about them but she hurries ahead. Finally we come to an area with a sign, ‘On Call Suite,’ a grand name for a number of small rooms with an external kitchenette, shower and toilet.
Lhamo unlocks a door and leads me into her room. It’s small, cosy, like a room in a cheap hotel. There’s a single bed with a light on a bedside table. She turns it on and the room is illuminated with a warm yellow-white light. She faces me and takes off her white coat. I’m surprised. Underneath is nothing but soft, brown, yearning flesh.
“Impressive, isn’t it, sir?” The Indian holds out the huge aubergine I’d been eying up outside his shop. “Only seventy five pence sir!”
I laugh, not wanting to lug vegetables around London, and tell him so.
“We’re open till 10 p.m. sir. You pick it up later!”
“Maybe.” I smile.
It’s September 2017, and I’m back in Drummond Street, just around the corner from Euston Station, inhaling the wonderful smell of curry that always envelopes the area. I pass other greengrocers, admiring the colourful displays of unrecognisable vegetables outside. Curious, I look at something resembling a bent white courgette, about 18 inches long. I wonder what it’s called and what strange land it comes from?
Passing two Indian restaurants I reach the Ambala Sweet Centre. I remember how Laura and I would buy boxes of delicious sweets there – made from condensed milk, coconut and suchlike, flavoured with spices. My mouth waters at the thought of gulab jamun, small cardamom syrup-soaked doughnuts. I ask myself why Indians aren’t enormously fat?
I walk a little further to Diwana Bhel Poori House. As usual, it’s packed, even though it’s only 7 p.m. I’d like to go in. But not on my own. I gaze through the window at the crowded tables where I’d sat with Laura and Lhamo. A waitress is serving plates of steaming dosas. A car drives past playing Michael Jackson on the radio – Bad.
Suddenly it seems like yesterday. I wonder where they are and what they are doing right now. I feel an ache in my guts, of nostalgia and loneliness.
I think of what might have been. Laura hadn’t wanted children, in fact had gone to quite extraordinary lengths not to have them. My mind refuses to go there. They’d be in their thirties now, doctors, architects perhaps? Incredible! Lhamo on the other hand longed for a daughter. I’d been more than happy to do my bit, but she hadn’t become pregnant. So no beautiful little coffee coloured girls running around our house in bright dresses, giggling and laughing. They’d be teenagers now, glued to their iPhones. More than likely rowing with us over ‘unsuitable’ boyfriends.
Maybe it’s better this way? I walk back down the road again. Thankfully my mood lifts. Never mind Laura, Lhamo and the rest of those damned women, I’m going to buy that aubergine!
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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