‘Happy anniversary,’ he says.
We clink glasses like people in movies. The dress I bought pinches me under the arms. My right heel is scraped raw inside the new shoe. I should have worn something I already had. Anand had insisted though. He is excited about tonight. I force my attention back to him.
His brow creases in that alarming way when he talks. When we first met, I thought he was perpetually irritated. He looks from side to side like a deranged horse when he is nervous. His best look appears when he’s relaxed. Then, he is handsome. Like the first photograph I saw. I’ve learnt a lot about him in our first year of marriage.
His sleeping habits, how he gets ready for work, how he eats, his grunts, his smell, his touch. All the things I didn’t know I had to learn. We’d only met three times before the wedding. Our mains arrive, grilled barramundi for me, chorizo and seafood tagliatelle for him. I have a sudden desire to leave this place, but I squash it.
Back home, after dinner, Anand advances with desire in his eyes. Another look I’ve learnt. I open my arms and we fall back onto the bed. Perhaps, in time, he might learn how to please me.
Winter. I wait for the train blowing on my hands, cursing myself for leaving my gloves at home. The sky is still shrouded in night. We stand on the platform, stamping feet and blowing out mists of expectation. The tracks grumble and we move forward, a dense mass. I score a seat, get out my book and fall back into the world nestled among the pages.
‘You know I love bacon, but I can’t sit next to someone who’s eating it this early in the day.’
I look up, still submerged in my book. An older man wearing a tartan hat and thick scarf sits next to me. He indicates the young boy eating a bacon roll one row away. I nod and dive back into the book.
‘Ooh,’ he interrupts again. ‘This novel is certainly very exciting. Lots of mystery and intrigue eh?’ He peers at the pages and in annoyance I slam the book shut.
‘Is it good?’ he asks.
‘Yes, very. I can’t put it down.’
He smiles in understanding. ‘I love those. So, off to work?’
I place the book in my bag with a sigh, my morning read ruined. ‘Yes, to work.’
‘Where are you from?’ he asks, the familiar question rubbing against the heart wound that never quite heals.
‘He he he,’ he laughs. ‘Where are you really from?’
They never let me get away with the truth. ‘My parents are Indian.’
‘Oh,’ his eyes brighten, as he pats down his pockets. He pulls out a piece of paper. ‘Here’s a list of ingredients for a curry. You’re so lucky knowing how to cook all those complicated things. So lucky.’
I wonder if Anand hears these things. I’ll ask him tonight. Perhaps we have more in common than I realise.
We drive through listless streets, sunlight bouncing off the bonnet. A contraction grips. I wait, eyes closed, hands clutched across my lower belly.
‘Oh God, oh God,’ moans Anand, as if he too is mid-contraction. ‘Are you going to make it?’ He accelerates and slams on the brakes at a red light.
‘Just drive carefully, please. I’ll be okay. Let’s just get there,’ I say, already tired.
She comes fourteen hours later in a screaming bundle. My tears mingle with hers as they fall on her face.
‘Amal. I want to name her Amal.’ I say.
Anand nods, a smile stretched across his face. His brow is free of grooves and valleys. Amal grows quiet in my arms. A fitting name for my daughter. Hope. Our hope. For different possibilities.
At home, I watch her sleep. I’m sick with thirst for my mother. She never told me what it was like when she brought me home. I’ve never known such desperate longing to touch her once more, to hear her voice. Just. Once. More. I stifle sobs and watch Amal; her small chest, fingers and toes, her little body filling the chasm casually opened since Ma’s death.
An obsession overtakes me in the months after Amal’s birth. I write and write and write. Notebooks covered in exhausted scrawls, the loops on the h sometimes obscuring the line above.
‘What are you writing?’ Anand asks, tucking his daughter’s head into the space under his chin.
I shrug, not knowing what I’m doing. He leaves it, perhaps fearing looming hysteria. Or worse, grief.
Anand is a good father. He rushes through the door every evening after work, encouraging me to rest. He bathes Amal, puts her down, heats the bottles I’ve pumped into. Somehow cooks meals for the week. I use evenings to scribble, while his weedy voice floats along the corridor as he sings to Amal. I write questions to my mother.
Ma, why didn’t I ask about your life while I was growing up? Did you suffer? Did you want something different for us? Ma, what did you really think of me growing up in Australia? Howling silence is the only response.
When Amal is six months old, Anand takes two months off work. He does everything at home. I am filling the fourth notebook, but my thoughts have turned from Ma to the future. Wishes and desires for Amal fill the pages. My handwriting is neater, smaller loops that fit between ruled lines. Intricate tales about Amal voted primary school captain run out of the pen like spools of thread spinning in sewing machines. Then it stops.
Memories crowd, jostling and poking with sharp elbows.
‘We had a vote and you came first. Ugliest girl in the school.’
Boys and girls closed in; mouths cavernous with laughter. Hahaha, they sang like a choir, faces open in delighted malice. I retreated till my back pressed into the fence, sharp spokes nudging me between shoulder blades.
‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ suggested a short boy with thin brown hair.
Even the small ones had more power than me. We all heard the shout. A teacher half-ran towards us. The group scattered like spent bullets. When the teacher saw I was alone once more, he slowed down like he was strolling through a park. Before he turned away, I saw the hate in his eyes. I was eleven years old.
For the rest of the afternoon, they whispered taunts of curry in a hurry, how now brown cow, burnt bitch. Blood galloped through my heart as I pretended not to hear. Why couldn’t they be my friends?
I waited for my little sister at the school gates. Kids in my year walked past, some administering a casual kick to my shins or shoving me and then holding their noses so they wouldn’t breathe me in. They did it with careless freedom, like I was rubbish on the street. An empty chip packet; a thing to be trodden.
We walked home, my heart shedding its load with every step away from school. We rounded the corner and there was Ma, waiting for us as she always did so we wouldn’t have to cross the street alone. Rays of afternoon sun shimmied on her thick gold bangle and when she bent down and put her arm around me, the bangle pressed into my shoulder blade exactly where the fence had. I wanted to hide in the cool swirl of her sari, but we were still on the street and I couldn’t afford anyone from school seeing us, especially when she was dressed like that.
Anand and I drive to his parents’ house, an hour away from us. Amal sleeps the whole way.
‘I’m worried about children being racist at school.’
Anand’s brow does its thing. ‘What school?’
‘When she starts primary school.’ I can’t keep the impatience out of my voice.
Anand keeps his eyes on the road. ‘She’s six and a half months old. Why are you worrying about something so many years away? We’ll teach her to be the best and kindest.’
His head waggles and I see his mother reflected in the gesture.
I’m at a café finishing tea and avocado on toast. My bestie, Sarah, has ten-month-old Amal on her lap, delighting in her wide mouthed laugh and clutching chubby fingers.
‘Oh, I miss babies,’ she says, inhaling Amal’s forehead.
As if knowing she is being talked about, Amal chuckles understandingly. Later, I walk to the bus stop, my baby crowing and jabbering at passers-by. Every person who sees her breaks into a smile and mouths nonsense words. The bus comes and two women help me lift seats, making space for the stroller. A white-haired lady watches me and the world stills. I am sixteen again.
I waited, clutching my school bag in front of my stomach like armour. Two girls bent into each other, like commas, whispering, whispering. Were they talking about me? The pad between my legs was swollen. I worried about stains on the back of my uniform. Did my blood look different to other girls? They thought so.
The bus appeared and I clambered on. It was packed. I squeezed in next to an old lady, thinking myself safest there. A pungent, fishy smell wafted out from under my skirt. The old lady wrinkled her nose and poked one gnarled finger into my arm.
‘You need to wash. In Australia, hygiene is very important. Not like wherever you come from.’
The entire bus fell silent as I drowned in their venom. Two boys by the back door shoved me in the back when I got off. The doors shut with a snap of relief behind me.
In our building, I faced one more dragon. The self-appointed caretaker in unit one. I turned the handle and pushed slowly, so slowly. Once inside, I coaxed the glass door back into frame, the locks barely clicking. My shoes slid soundlessly over the carpeted floor. They didn’t even leave a mark. Sometimes I wondered if I existed. I reached the stairs, placed one hand on the railing and the caretaker’s door flew open.
She advanced into the hallway, wiry hair springing into her face. Regrowth gave her the look of a skunk. The ever-present cigarette scissored between yellowed fingers.
‘Stop banging the door,’ she screeched, waving her hand, leaving a trail of ash on the carpet.
‘Sorry Mrs Holloway,’ I muttered.
‘You lot just come banging in and out with no respect for others. Shame on you.’
She pursed her lips around the end of her cigarette, pulling and pulling the smoke into her lungs, watching as I climbed the stairs. I heard her front door lock and I breathed again. My key was still turning in our front door, when I heard the clang and crash of the brothers from the second-floor bursting into the building. From inside our hallway, I heard them thud upstairs, voices raised in throaty croaks. All was quiet downstairs and once the boys were in their own place, silence crept up and enfolded me.
In the lead-up to Amal’s first birthday, many things need to be organised. Cake, decorations, booze. We’ve stupidly decided to have the party at our house. Ten babies and toddlers including Amal. My father will be there. He doesn’t know who anyone is anymore, except for the paid nurse who hovers by his side. My sister lives in another country and won’t meet Amal for several more months.
Lindsay arrives first with her son who will turn one in a few weeks. Anand is in charge, so I allow her to pour me one, then two, sparkling wines.
‘Oh my God,’ she squeals. ‘You’ll never guess who added me on Facebook.’
I look at her, my mind unable to conjure up anyone we might have in common.
‘Evan!’ she screams, before falling back against the cushions, laughter wheezing out of her.
Uni battle of the bands’ night with Sarah and Lindsay. I swallowed Bacardi Breezers and felt pretty. Lights flashed, illuminating writhing, jolting bodies. Sweat gathered at the nape of my neck and snaked down my spine. I longed to bump hips with Sam. We’d looked at each other during the first half of the semester and he finally spoke to me at the café before class one morning. I burned the roof of my mouth with bitter coffee by the suddenness of his presence by my side.
I tried to make him out in the dimly lit room. The band was awful. A girl with pink dyed spikes on her head screamed how ironic life was. Another Morissette wannabe.
‘I’m going to the bar,’ I shouted into Lindsay’s ear.
‘We’ll come,’ she shouted back.
We lurched through gyrating, pumping bodies and leant elbows on the bar’s sticky surface. I didn’t have to ask what they wanted. It was always the same, one West Coast Cooler, two Breezers. Sarah gestured to the door. We weaved through the dancers and out onto the grass.
Students sat in groups smoking, sipping from cans and bottles, under thickly spread night. We claimed a patch of grass, sitting close but distracted. Sarah was searching for Andy who told her he’d meet her at the entrance to the student hall. There were four entrances and we’d checked them all. Lindsay was looking for Evan who’d run his hand over her leg during rehearsal in Drama. He looked her full in the face, before dropping his gaze to her breasts.
I felt bold, certain, after the third Breezer. Sam told me he would find me. I wanted to fuck him. Fuck. I sloshed the word around my mouth along with the syrupy drink. What would it be like to have sex? To be naked with another person?
A group of guys came towards us under the bowl of stars. Sam was one of them. He saw me, raised a hand and nudged the guy next to him. They strewed themselves around us, bringing a gruff disorder.
Sam held a beer and shuffled closer to me. His breath was sour, but his eyes were sweet. Hungry. As they slid over my face and neck. Sam’s friend, whose name I didn’t get, sat on the other side of me. He wore a grey Billabong t-shirt.
‘There’s a guy in my Physics class. I think his name’s Ravi or Raj or something. Do you know him?’ asked Billabong.
I looked at Sam, wanting him to rescue me, who nodded hopefully.
‘No. I don’t know him,’ I replied.
Billabong tipped beer into the black hole of his mouth.
‘I’ve got a stomach-ache. Is your dad a doctor?’ Laughter squeezed out, like a hyena.
Sam smiled, shook his head. ‘It’s not that funny.’
Billabong rolled his eyes. “She finds it funny. Anyway, it’s a compliment. Aren’t Indian people really smart?”
I didn’t find it funny at all, but I flashed my teeth at them.
‘Wanna go for a walk?’ Sam sprang up and took hold of my outstretched hands.
He led me towards empty campus buildings. Leaning against a wall, outside the teaching centre, he pressed his erection into my hip and kissed me. I felt his hardness, unyielding, against me. His tongue lay heavy in my mouth, like a slimy fish. I didn’t want to be here anymore.
By the time we blow out the candles on Amal’s birthday cake, she’s in a foul temper. The heady mix of children, music and sugar wipes out her good humour. She screams and cries, throwing us looks of betrayal. She’s asleep before the guests leave and I take her, wrapped in my arms, to her room. I lower her into the cot and watch her sleep. Amal’s chest rises and falls rapidly, a small frown like her dad’s, marring her brow. I start. She looks like a woman with that expression. No, I want to shout. Don’t grow up.
A vision appears, grows steadily, till I am face-to-face with my thirty-two-year-old daughter who is proudly single and childless. The same age I am now. My Amal. A fierce warrior who has more than lived up to her name. Her social enterprise, for vulnerable children gains momentum and funding. Her hair crackles with urgency.
We meet for our monthly mother-daughter dinner at an Indian restaurant. I’m embarrassed to eat here. My clothes will stink of spices. People will look at me and know I can only eat this stuff. This curry.
‘Mum, I’ve been asked to run as the local independent candidate. I’m thinking about it.’ She’s excited.
I’m awed and aghast. ‘There’ll be lots of attention. Speeches, meetings. Are you up for all that?’
‘Sure. I do that already, fundraising.’
‘People will make assumptions. Say things about your skin colour, cultural background.’
She tuts and frowns into her water glass. ‘Mum, you must stop looking over your shoulder. Things are not how they used to be. People don’t think like that. They don’t care.’
I stare at her. Is she right? Have things really changed so much? Am I living within shadows of my own making?
A knock on the door startles me out of the future.
Anand pokes his head in. ‘Everything alright?’
I nod, shaken by what I’ve just experienced. ‘I’ll out in a minute.’
I look down at my sleeping daughter. What did I see? Will it come true? Am I going crazy? Tears blur my sight. I can keep her safe as long as she’s with me. Once she’s out there, I’ll be powerless. A pain starts in my stomach and spreads like oil across my body. It grips my heart and squeezes, gently and then harder till I’m going to tip forward, dead from heartbreak.
I close my eyes and lean down, bringing my face next to hers. I breathe in her baby smell and make a wish for her future.