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Authors: Niven Govinden

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BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
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He is probably a couple of years older than the Pole but should know better. He thinks about telling him that the old ways do not work, that the preserve of women is self-denying crap, but does not wish to destroy the mythology of something he no longer has belief in. He does not have the balls.

His last call to the hospital yesterday was around 11 p.m. After that, he gave himself permission to get stinking drunk. The ward sister lacked her earlier seriousness, lightening his worry. He felt her smiling down the phone on hearing his name, as if she was dying to crack some jokes. He had felt their attention on him, the nurses,
checking him out when they wheeled up her to the ward. He was weighed down with empathy.

‘Get some sleep, sir. She'll need all the support you've got, tomorrow.' The ‘sir', tinged with West Country, and burnished with the weariness of the night shift.

He fell into a brief daydream, wondering at the sheer amount of work to ensure Claud's bed-rest. The silent monitoring that takes place while she sleeps. He was reminded not to call until after eight the next morning because they would be busy with the medicine-giving and breakfast. But now he is anxious at not hearing from them during the night, and figures that half an hour earlier will not hurt.

The ward phone rings out for a good few minutes before the bureaucratic dance begins. A breathless nursing assistant picks up, who then has to summon someone senior because she does not have the recognized accreditations to divulge a patient's condition. The woman does not put him on hold, instead leaving the receiver on the desk while she searches. All the background noises he hears are purely mechanical, rubber wheels on trolleys squelching on rubber-tiled floors, the clang of dropped cutlery, the repeated slamming of lift doors, the wheezy exhalations of a knackered Hoover. There are no human voices at all, as if they are all holding their breath, bound to silence until the receiver is replaced in the cradle.

The staff nurse he eventually speaks to is estuary
accented, and irritated, though she remains factually precise. Claud was given a light sedative just after eleven to help her sleep through the night, she is having breakfast now, managing a sausage and a portion of beans, she will be discharged around ten o'clock once the doctor has made her rounds.

He is aware that he should be camping outside, as all good husbands are expected to do, and maybe he would, if the sheer scale of the building, its aura of benefaction and stoicism, did not cow him. Besides, there are practical domestic affairs he must attend to.

He stinks. Fags, booze, and fried food. No one will understand that he has not been celebrating, that this is his way of coming to terms. He brushes and scrubs like it is his first date. After his shower he passes the broom over the wood floors, and empties the dishwasher. She is unlikely to call the house a tip, will probably not even notice, but if he can do these little things, wipe down the fridge, sweep the path, some good may come.

For all the modernity of their house, a shrine to an architect's vision of what can be done to Edwardian glass and brick, they often cannot wait to be away from it. Whenever they have free time they rush into the arms of the outdoors, they, the unadventurous, as if unwilling to acknowledge it was the wrong house in the first place, that no amount of renovation could make it otherwise.

Past the opening round of house-warming parties, they
have seldom used the place for celebration. Every birthday, weekend, festival, is spent abroad or down at her parents' house in Sussex, a nineteenth-century farmhouse, with its half-acre of mature gardens and a kitchen hearth as wide as a football pitch. It decimates the competition, mocking the faux-authentic picture-book efforts of more suburban homes.

Claud has tried to make their home a warped twin of Liz and Sam's house in the village outside Lewes, turning the reclaimed carriage door into a table, juxtaposing the dominant metallic and stone of the kitchen; the argyle knitted rugs thrown over wooden floors; and deco mirror sets in the bedroom, above each nightstand, and across her dressing table, as if, like her mother, she is unconsciously playing the part of a silent movie star, the aspiring city girl trapped by marriage in the country, with only her glamorous trinkets to remind of more sophisticated times.

That is not to say the house has no warmth. All the homes that line the street have a similar square-fronted handsomeness, and theirs is no different. It is cluttered and lived-in. Radio, television, and the iPod docks do their part in filling space. There is nothing forbidding about the 50's-style welcome mat on the front step, all sunrise and exclamation point, nor the silver-framed Om hanging above the door in the hall, exuding Eastern peace and radiance. Indeed, he has hurried home most nights,
yearning for the sofa and the feeling of Claud cuddling into the nook of his arm and shoulder. But something is missing; they both know it. The arrival of an intangible object or presence that will make sense of their choices and hard work.

The pile of magazines cries out for the recycling box. He takes them out, having a final smoke as he does so, lifting one from the packet stashed amongst the upturned ceramic pots that litter the patio's far reaches. It is the unwritten rule of twenty-first-century gift-giving, that a guest should never arrive without a token for the garden. They have more pots than they know what to do with, filled with plants that need little maintenance, woody herbs and tall reedy bamboos, and neatly patterned around the plot, like a super-sized, organic solitaire. The unwanted remainder should be dumped in the garage by rights, a job that continues to escape his mind, until the point when he's hiding and retrieving fags. Claud often jokes that they should recycle them as gifts, if only they knew which person had given which pot.

Ordinarily, when hopes are not being lost he smokes one, two cigarettes a day. It helps. He likes to think that he's unashamed of needing a crutch, but still goes to pains to conceal it, not wanting her to think that he hasn't agreed whole-heartedly with her plans: organic food, chemical-free detergents, regular, moderate exercise. Conception is something to be taken seriously, needing as much preparation as a marathon.

‘We're in our thirties, Amal. I've messed-up my periods with over-dieting. Your metabolism is slowing to a stop with all that pizza. We're not single people any more. We have to get a grip of ourselves, make changes.'

He has read the many printouts she leaves on the kitchen counter, that say an abundance of fish, and Brazil nuts are good for his sperm. Many cloves of raw garlic, too. His breath is pungent enough to wither vine fruits, forcing a dependency on extra-strong mints in the office. Other than red wine, alcohol, particularly beer, is banned. So is masturbation. Bread is gluten free, dairy limited. A glass of water must be drunk every hour; supplements are taken twice a day: a multi-vitamin, iron, selenium, omega 3, and aspirin. His piss is sent off for analysis, his stools discussed most mornings whilst he cleans his teeth, something he never thought he would be doing with a white woman. They spend four weeks on this treadmill before she lets him near her, the time it takes to convince that they have eliminated the worst of their collective toxins. Penance for their self-absorbed, shag-around twenties. He leaves her printouts too, which go unread: studies which show how excessive ejaculation can lead to prostate cancer.

‘We can worry about your prostate later. We can leave it to our kids to take care of us.'

All that matters is the here and now: the diet, sticking to the plan. She wants to make a baby with the best
cellular development, with the cleanest, tox-free constituent elements. She does not want to leave anything to chance.

Now, while he waits for ten o'clock, he is intent on toxing-up, filling his boots with carcinogens. Fag in mouth as he finally shifts the pots into the garage like she has been asking for weeks, months. Do your bit, boy. Move your arse. The clean way has not worked, so maybe this will be better. Even before she returns, he feels the disappointment, self-blame, hanging in the air, but it does not seem irreparable. It is nothing that faith cannot fix.

He is parking up at the hospital when Hari calls him. It is close to ten and there has been no word from the hospital. He figures he should muscle in on the ward so he can be present when the doctor arrives. He has pulled himself together. Looks respectable. His shoulder is steady, ready to take her weight.

‘You'll have to be quick, mate. I'm about to go into a meeting.'

The work brush-off is a default setting they are attuned to, nothing that can be picked up on. His tone is curt, and vaguely irritated. They all behave like this between nine and six.

‘Oh. I thought you'd be at the hospital.'

‘Why would I be at the hospital?'

‘Because of Claud. You called me last night, remember?'

It feels as if someone has drawn a curtain, making the hint of a secondary unease – headache to a bellyache – tangible. He remembers the close noise of the steakhouse restaurant, a birthday party on the table next to him, of having to move towards the revolving doors and still shouting to be heard. He remembers gabbling about how scared he was. Crying. What he cannot recall is Hari's voice, or pulling up his number. He could have been talking to anyone.

‘I probably shouldn't even be calling, but I just wanted to see if you guys were ok. If there's anything I can do.'

Men do not have best friends the way women do. It is too co-dependent a state, one that can overwhelm the basic masculine need for secrets and freedoms. But if pushed, he would admit that Hari falls somewhere in that area, solid and omnipotent. Hari brought him and Claud together in the first place. Match-made his new work colleague with his university buddy, something that seems to have given him a vested interest in their marriage. Makes him wonder now, about the crying, whether it was actually Hari's he remembers, and not his?

He showered Hari with thanks in those early days. Thanks for working with this amazing woman he couldn't keep his hands off. You're a mate. Thanks for weaning him off those shady nightclub girls he fruitlessly chased for most of his twenties. He gave thanks for every time she laughed at him and his badly constructed jokes which
still remain all incidentals and no punch-line. When she applauded his cooking, and for not assuming he made curry every night of the week.

He thanked her for the pawing and growling that came after dinner, and often before. For the little sounds she made. The little sounds he made. For being obsessed with her red hair, especially the way it looked when it caught the lamplight in the bedroom, deep, concentrated, as if her head had already been cast in bronze, timeless and luminescent. For not wanting to be away from her, for needing to catch every word she said, whether flighty stream of consciousness or good, plain sense. He thanked him for hooking him up with a girl who was cleverer, who was on a faster career path and earned more. Who spoke with experience when she said that it was better to sit things out with his firm than look to be the big fish in smaller ponds. Who did not shy away from talking about money, but equally did not allow it to become the elephant in the room. Thanked him for the energy, the whirlwind. Days speeding past towards languid, dreamy weekends, a perfect mix of domesticity and fantasy. Thanked him for her silliness, that she was a goofball for all her careerist seriousness. That she was always up for a spontaneous water fight, and karaoke, but drew the line at descending into sickly baby voices with him. But most of all, he thanked Hari for putting her in his universe, wondering how he could have previously existed without her. He was soppy with love, then.

When he was finishing his master's during his early twenties, he was smacked around the head by a group of kids at the bus stop, suffering a broken nose and fractured eye socket. The kids hauled a mere twelve pounds and a prehistoric mobile phone, which he was about to get rid of anyway. He thinks about the phone call he made to Hari from the hospital, his voice as cracked as his face, and the discomfort this brewed in him. He does not want to be viewed with compassionate eyes for a second time, nor any further prying into the state of their marriage. They do not need help. They are fine.

BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
7.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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