Read Black Bread White Beer Online

Authors: Niven Govinden

Tags: #Fiction

Black Bread White Beer (15 page)

BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
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‘Oi! You're the one badgering me on what I see. You can't get the hump 'cos you don't like the answer.'

‘That's only one observation. I want more.'

‘You're a financial analyst, not a forensic scientist. Who gives a stuff what I see?'

‘I do. I'm family.'

‘That can be rectified.'

‘What's that supposed to mean?'

‘I'm just teasing, son. Having a little fun with you! This is just another example of why you should lighten up. You're always so tense when you come here. I can see it in your face.'

He fought with Puppa several times in his teens. Puppa, high on rum and a bad night at the tables, sorely overestimating his strength; Amal, rippling with hormonal energy and angry as hell at the domestic upset his father's 3 a.m. arrivals brought. He wonders now whether he still has the agility and the resilience to hit an old man; to really hurt him.

He remembers the softness of Puppa's cheek, that for some reason it felt softer than when he kissed him; pillow soft; his knuckles springing back from the doughy elasticity of his skin. Sam's genes are far removed from those Indian genomes that mostly shape Joshi faces; round and veering towards chubby. His is square and defined, everything about his obtuseness hanging from razor-sharp cheekbones.

All the tension he's ever felt towards Sam has never reached down as far as his fist, his head and heart absorbing both the little nicks and the general aura of benign tolerance which floats his way. But he sees now that it could happen, and entertains the momentary pleasure it would bring. He is under no illusion that Sam would return the courtesy in such circumstances. Amal carries more weight but his father-in-law has a considerable height advantage, a factor that guarantees he will be knocked out with the return punch. Sam is lean and strong. All that guff about the washing machine was motivated by a desire to see him sweat. So even if Sam
does manage to have more sense in the heat of the moment, realizes it is not such a great thing to punch your son-in-law with your complete body strength, even a slap and a demonstrative push in the right position would send him staggering into the ugly bird bath.

How to come back from a descent into physicality? How to face his wife? Is there anything worth bloodying a knuckle for, in the first place?

What ties him to this house aside from the ring on his left hand and a signed certificate curling with damp in their attic? He thinks of the feuds that have run and continue to run across various strands in his family, most of them originating from far lesser slights. Aunts have not spoken to cousins after allegedly being ignored at weddings; brothers have fought over lost tools, or the wills of those still living; sisters-in-law turn mute over stolen recipes and unreturned saris.

As a child, their house dog at his paternal grandparents' in Kolkata, Sunny, needed to be beaten just once by Puppa before he learned never to wolf food from the table again. Perhaps such a lesson is what Sam needs: a firm gesture to end the constant wind-ups, and to ease the stinging still felt in his fingers from having the photograph snatched away.

But he knows how weak a plunge into fighting will make him: chaiwalla trying to stand his ground three years too late. The time has passed to mark his territory.
If he wanted respect he should have commanded it from the outset. Like Sunny, pissing in a corner of their living room on the day they brought him home.

Sam's body language too has changed – he has stiffened, his frame defensively hunched, eyes narrowed, lips pursed into little more than a slit. His fingers tighten and slacken into his palm as if warming up. He has been showing signs of developing arthritis in his hands. Amal know this, but only wants to read warfare into his gestures, like re-enacting historical battles they're so fond of doing in this part of the world. Crusader vs. Raj.

‘Where's this shouting come from, son? They'll hear us inside.'

‘Tell me what you see!'

‘Sun gone to your head or something? You're acting very strangely.'

‘Stop detracting and answer the question.'

‘Perhaps your blood sugar is low. I've some fruit pastilles in the greenhouse.'

‘It's not the damn sugar.'

‘Dehydrated, then. I read somewhere that too much tea has a diuretic effect.'

‘Piss off.'

‘What's going on, Amal? Is the hole upsetting you? She used to do this all the time, I told you. Nothing to worry about. Just those pregnant hormones flying around.'

Sam has political qualities, this ability to slip free from
arguments, something he has never fully appreciated. Even in the face of a knuckle sandwich lies Sam's proven belief that he can talk himself out of anything.

‘You smell funny, the pair of you.'

Doorstep interrogation; without satisfactory answers no man shall pass.

‘I took our boy on a little investigation, love. We found more holes in the garden.'

‘He'd better not have got you drinking. It's the brewery smell you've brought back with you. Or should that be, the distillery smell.'

‘I could say the same for you.'

Her laugh is incredulous; acidic in its commentary.

‘Nice try, Samuel, but my breath comes from the Herald as you well know. From the old WI speciality: tea laced with Sloe Gin. But you, mister, I know what you're like when you start fiddling inside that shed. Start confusing the homebrew with the workbench. I'm going to need a hand with dinner in the next couple of hours and you're already half cut.'

In rare alcohol-induced instances they still unknowingly strive to make him feel the outsider. It is the three of them who cluster around the backdoor frame, yet she only addresses Sam, harking back to an earlier conjugal role,
when young visitors needed to be admonished for being bad influences.

This is perhaps the third such time when Liz has dealt with him in this way – the earlier occasions being pre-marriage, when rudeness could be written-off as a parental sizing-up – but he feels it just as acutely.

He and Claud have never argued this way, before an audience. Their rows are staged in cars and across mobiles. She has been bred differently, to flare up as and when things happen, but he trained himself to save it; absorb her anger, irritation like a shock absorber until they could go at it hammer and tongs somewhere private. He loves her too much to see her unravel in public. That's his upbringing. They have no idea how much he protects their daughter from following her parental steps. No bloody idea.

‘You disappeared for a while at the Herald, didn't you? I thought you'd gone home at one point.'

‘That sugary tea gave me a headache. I'm not used to it.'

‘I looked everywhere.'

‘Went to walk it off. I'm sorry.'

Liz finds little in his answers that is satisfactory. Eyes him as suspiciously as she did the first time he was brought home. Veils of courtesy in progressively lighter deniers. Aware that she's nodding affirmatively even though she still thinks him same as other men: capable of straightforward lying.

‘Oh, that's fine. I'm actually preoccupied with something else now, namely why my daughter is dressed like one of the Three Degrees? The last time she wore Long was at your honeymoon breakfast, and that was like pulling teeth.'

‘I hadn't noticed.'

‘What's been going on in that house of yours this week?'

Throughout this exchange, Sam stands by her side and clears his throat in a series of nervous tics. In a reversal of their campaigning personas, domestically at least, Liz is the one to be relied upon to lead the charge. Bouddicea in tan corduroy. Daughter welfare, forward! While Sam's power lies in debate – stubborn logic descending into flummoxed, snappy nastiness – he lacks the empathy needed to cluster round the Aga. The discomfort shows in his face, not happy to have raised voices within the home; within Claud's earshot.

‘You're all my little honeybees,' he had said once, on detecting Amal's resistance at one of the earliest dinners, when a Sussex sleepover and a Sunday morning church visit were mandatory if he was to succeed in winning them over. ‘There's nothing I like more than when we're all buzzing together.'

Liz crosses her arms tightly, impatient for his answer. Her posture harks back to a quarter century prior: Mum at the school gate readying herself to sort out another playground dispute.

‘I-I-I . . .'

‘Out with it, Amal. I know there's something she's not telling me.'

From the corner of his eye he can see Sam blinking some kind of warning. Embattled husbands must stand together; a show of allegiance he hadn't anticipated.

‘She's been feeling low for the past couple of days. The doctor said to expect it. Crash after a high, and everything. I've been coming home to tears most night this week.'

‘Ah! The dreaded hormones! That explains it.'

‘Don't sound so pleased about it, Samuel. Pregnancy's hard enough to cope with as it is, without having your emotions boomeranging all over the place.'

‘The dressing-up's probably helping her, Liz. Making her feel better about herself.'

‘Yes, you're right, of course Amal. It just made me stop in my tracks for a moment when I saw her. Just not the sort of think I'd imagine her doing.'

As Liz computes this her face softens; a mother relenting on a hapless son. Making the most of what has been given to her through marriage.

‘Like you said, pregnancy makes you do the strangest things. I'm just finding this out for myself.'

‘Better fasten your seat belt, mate. You have no idea what's lying ahead. If she's anything like my good lady wife here, you're in for some fun and games.'

He offers tea; a peacekeeper, trying to dampen down hostility across all sides. Two cups each, with lots of sugar, thaws the chill in some areas and sobers up others. Now there is peace in the house, persuading them to go letter-boxing with a stack of remaining loose leaflets in order to keep up the momentum of interest from the
. That there are five further boxes in the utility room waiting for similarly eager readers is not his problem. They can be dropped at the libraries and the shops in and around Lewes early next week.

His father-in-law is a fervent believer in an Englishman's home being his castle; happy to employ all these clichés about nationality. This is half the reasoning behind the leaflets in the first place; to defend his precious beautiful castle until his last breath – either in his sleep or when a burglar slips a window catch and twists one of Liz's steak knives into his chest cavity.

The old village traditions still stand. So long as someone is home or in the immediate area all the doors stay unlocked until ten thirty. Tense teenagers aside, the most that has been taken from the house in thirty years of them living there is a golfing umbrella from the porch, and half a bag of sugar when the WI meeting next door ran short.

Similarly, he knows that the cars will also be unlocked; both the Range Rover and more importantly the boot of Liz's hatchback, the alarm off, waiting for his hands to push the catch and release the washing machine clogging
up its insides. If he can plumb the washing machine without them catching on (how, with his clumsy coordination and cluelessness with domestic appliances?), he feels he can win some vital point against Sam, delineating an area of skill where only he reigns supreme. Fathers-to-be need to know this stuff. They cannot raise children who think that they are useless on all practical fronts.

The child they might one day have, will have, must never feel at a loss, unprepared to handle the notion of strength, when only brute strength is needed. Whether boy or girl, he has to ensure that they are raised to be both physically fit and intelligent. From a young age, the first age that it is safe to do so, they will be given cardiovascular training and set loose on the small weights. By the time they start high school they will have the brains of geniuses and the bodies of athletes. They will love their parents and not be afraid of anything.

BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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