Authors: Anita Desai
About the Author
Anita Desai was born and educated in India. Her published works include adult novels, children’s books and short stories.
Clear Light of Day
(1999) were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize and
The Village by the Sea
Award for Children’s Fiction in 1982. Anita Desai is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and of Girton College at the University of Cambridge. She teaches in the Writing Program at M.I.T. and divides her time between India, Boston, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England.
was recently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions.
ALSO BY ANITA DESAI
Cry, the Peacock
Voices in the City
Where Shall We Go This Summer?
Games at Twilight
Fire on the Mountain
Clear Light of Day
Village by the Sea
Journey to Ithaca
I wish to express my gratitude to Girton College, Cambridge, for having provided me with a year of perfect conditions for work.
In my beginning is my end. In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, Are removed, destroyed, restored . . .
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’
ALTHOUGH SHE HAD
fled the blood-spattered scene and fled the collected crowd of identical individuals – one-legged, nose-picking, vigilant-eyed – and hurried down the street at a speed uncommon for her, a speed no one would have thought possible on those high red heels that were no longer firm but wobbled drunkenly under the weight of her thick, purple-veined legs, Lotte slowed as she neared her door. Her body seemed to thicken and clot, her actions slowed till she was nearly at a standstill. She opened the door with fumbling, ineffective movements as though she had forgotten its grammar, her fingers numb, tongue-tied as it were. Entering the room, she shut the door behind her heavily, taking great care with the locks and bolts and chains, afraid the crowd might follow her, may even now be approaching her room, preparing to shoulder its way into it. When every lock was in place, she leant against the door in the theatrical manner that came naturally to her – pressing a packet of letters to her breast as years ago she had pressed a flower against a bosom still plump and warm, flounced with white lace and spotted with red spots, singing all the while to the stage-lights, her mouth open, a tunnel of red from which might issue either a trill or a howl. Pressing the bits of paper to her now shrunken and flabby bosom, she breathed long harsh breaths that rasped her throat.
They slowed themselves till her breath caught and snarled
in a sob. Then she moved, putting down the packet on the table and feeling her way to the stove. There she lit the gas flame and put on the small, dented kettle. While she did so she had something on which to concentrate, her lip held by one front tooth, and she did not need to think of anything. Not Hugo. Not God. Nothing. Her face drew towards its centre, all the lines around the eyes, the nose, the mouth, concentrating in a frown, as she found the coffee, measured it into a cup, laid it out on the table beside the packet of paper. Touching that with her small finger which she could not quite control, which gave a jerk outwards, wilfully, she let out the sob she had been holding inside her: Hugo, Hugo,
, Hugo, what’s happened,
was ist dann, wie kannst du
. . . then bit her lip, brought all her fingers together, on to the kettle handle, lifted that and filled her cup. She warmed milk in a pan. She found the sugar bowl. Then put them all together – cup, coffee, milk, sugar – concentrating on her movements, not allowing another jerk, another sob.
Finally she lowered herself on to her chair at the table, to drink. But did not drink. The cup waited, the coffee steamed, together they invited. But Lotte had pushed the cup aside, swung violently round in her chair to the shelf by the table, let her hands hunt through the objects there, greasy and used and familiar, dropping and pushing them away till her fingers found the bottle she wanted. Wrenching off the top, she brought it close to her with one hand, found a stained, smeared glass into which she poured some gin, and drank, holding the bottle and the glass close to her breast to keep them from shaking or falling. Lotte’s mouth, now crumpled and wet and quavering, and the glass and bottle, all held close to each other, for company, as if hunted, as if in hiding.
But finally she put them away from her, very carefully, on the table. Then picked up the packet and clumsily slipped off the narrow pink ribbon that held together the cards. For those were not letters, they were postcards except for one or two that had been folded for so long that the several sheets formed a single thickness, like a card. The writing was so faint, so
it formed a kind of skein or web, on the yellowed paper, and seemed closer to the drawing of an intricate plan than the lines of a language. She had to turn to the shelf again and from amongst the fallen and cluttered objects find the spectacles she hardly ever used because they pinched the top of her nose and left sore marks behind.
As she hooked them over her ears, cursing them out of custom, she told herself: Look at the dates, first look at the dates. Yes, as was to be expected from the appearance of the stiff, brittle bits of paper, the dates were of long ago, the long ago that Lotte hardly remembered – thirty-nine, forty, forty-one – just as she thought, suspected. They made her bunch her fingers, clutch her neck, as if she were choking. Then she had to settle the spectacles on her nose, so she could read.
Meine kleine Maus,’ ‘Mein Häschen,’ ‘Liebchen
. . .’ she murmured the unfamiliar, unaccustomed German, those forgotten endearments, the antiquated baby-language, feeling them on her tongue like crystals of sugar. Her teeth shrank from impact with them. She read on and each line seemed like the other, each card alike: ‘Are you well, my rabbit? Do not worry yourself. I am well. I have enough. But have you enough, my mouse, my darling? Do not worry . . .’
Do not worry, do not worry, Lotte mocked, spitting out those pieces of sugar as if they were glass and cut her. With the spit came laughter, and sobs. Little Mouse,
, do not worry, I am well, I am well. She began to rub the back of her hand against her mouth, rub harder and harder till it hurt, and through the pain and the cries the words continued to come:
Meine kleine Maus, mein Hugo, Geliebter
, I am well and do not worry . . .
When she pulled herself together and saw what she was doing, what she had done, she found everything in a mess, reflecting her face, reflecting herself. The coffee spilt, the cards scattered, the bottle emptied, the glass lying on its side. A scene, in miniature, copying the scene at Hugo’s that she had fled.
Getting up from the chair, she stood over it and stared, furious and frightened. She could not allow that here – Hugo had,
, Hugo – but she could not, she must learn, be careful, not allow . . . Forcing back her sobs and cries, she made herself pick up the cup, the glass, the bottle, put them away, wipe the table, pick up the cards, collect them in a packet, and sit down with them on her lap, as calmly, as soberly as she could.
She no longer looked at them. She stared out of the window, at the six panes of glass in three rows, two to each one. She stared at the view she faced every day over her coffee, her gin – the building across the court, its grey concrete walls ribbed with black drain-pipes, the doors opening on to balconies hung with washing, stacked with tins and boxes. Right at the top, a layer of sky. A blank sky, as always, with neither colour nor form. Empty. Afternoon light. Daylight. Perpetual light. And blankness. Even the sounds were perpetual, constant – the radio that blared, the woman that screamed, the children that played, the pots and pans that clanged. They made a wall themselves – of metal, always in commotion.
Lotte’s mouth drooped. At the corners, moisture gathered, formed drops, slowly began to slide down her chin, adhesively. The chin shook, dissolved. Lotte began to shake. Her fingers tightened on the cards. Looking down, in order to avoid that sky, that window, that blankness, she tried to pick out the words from the spider’s nest of ancient writing. She ought at least to find out who had written them, to Hugo. Sucking at her lips, she stared at the bottom of the first card, the second card, the third. Some were signed ‘Mama’. Others ‘Mutti’. Some ‘Mü’.
Lotte pressed her fingers to her lips, to her eyes, to her ears, trying to prevent those words, that language, from entering her, invading her. Its sweetness, the assault of sweetness, cramming her mouth, her eyes, her ears, drowning her in its sugar. The language she wanted not to hear or speak. It was pummelling her, pushing against her and into her, and with
mouth stuffed she moaned, ‘
Nein, nein, nein
, Hugo, no.’ Her teeth bit on the crystals and her nerves screamed at their sweetness. All the marzipan, all the barley sugar, the chocolates and toffees of childhood descended on her with their soft, sticking, suffocating sweetness. Enough to embrace her, enough to stifle her, enough to obliterate her. Sugary, treacly, warm, oozing love, childhood love, little mice and bunny rabbits of love – sweet, warm, choking, childish love. Lotte wept and drowned.