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Authors: Niven Govinden

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Black Bread White Beer (3 page)

BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
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Privacy is needed. Ignorance. Hari's compassion is simply the first wave, the ripple along the surf. They will be drowned many times over before others have finished expressing their sympathy.

‘Does anyone else know?'

‘I haven't had time to think. Not even our parents know yet.'

‘I can ring around if it'll make things easier.'

‘No. This is Claud's shout. Something we need to keep to ourselves for the time being.'

He has a feeling when the signal fails, fortuitously, the phone masts banished from the hospital's immediate radius, that he will be avoiding Hari for a very long time, now seeing the point of distance between friends.

This is not the plan. She has already been discharged. He sees her, unexpectedly, as he walks up the ramp towards the entrance and works hard to keep his face from crumbling. She is sitting on a bench, reading a leaflet, her overnight bag wedged between her feet. Even from this distance he sees what change the night has brought, how she seems to have shrunk by degrees, her wraparound coat, a recent prized buy, now appearing several sizes too big for her. No longer following the contours of her body, its bagginess gives her a wizened quality, the double knot tied at the waist making her appear swaddled. Bleached out by sunlight, she is so pale as if to emphasize her blood loss, though the bed curls and the detailed embroidery across the coat breast give her a gothic quality; a vampire in urgent need of food. Her eyelids are red with lack of sleep, in spite of the staff nurse's earlier report. Sockets are marginally sunken and bags more pronounced. As she lifts her hand to turn the pamphlet, he notices a series of angry blotches floating across her hand, suggesting that every part of her body is suffering the loss. Only the glow of her hair remains defiant, refusing to mourn.

‘I thought the doctor wasn't seeing you until later. They told me not to get here until ten.'

‘They've a busy day in theatre. Wanted to get me out of the way.'

‘What did she say?'

‘Same as yesterday. Please can you take me home, now?'

She will not be kissed; rises and walks down the ramp before he has a chance to tell her where the car is. The leaflet, ditched on the bench, is for counselling. He too chooses to leave it.

The drive is difficult. She does not want to talk. Does not want the radio. They had talked on the drive up yesterday. Reassuring talk that willingly ignored the sudden blood loss in the bathroom. Useless, ignorant talk that pooh-poohed the writings of medical practitioners, and played for her trust. Now there is no right to speak unless spoken to. He feels her tightening up against him, watches the tautness of her mouth as she keeps it all in. It is as if the easiness they once shared, the ability to be comfortable with one another has been lost with the baby.

The bunch of sunflowers he believed to be casual and not loaded with meaning are registered briefly, then ignored. Nor does the grey angora blanket thrown over the passenger seat please her.

‘Worried about messing the car? Why doesn't that surprise me?'

Her laugh is grim and pained.

‘I thought you might be cold.'

‘I've got this coat. Don't need wrapping up in cotton wool.'

Why are you holding it then, he wants to ask, stung. He is expecting her to bite but is still unprepared for it when the sharp words come, so busy was he in his head to make
everything right. He must not let her behaviour cloud his judgement or feeling. What has happened has been harder on her than he could ever imagine. The doctor said as much last night. Anger, guilt, and blame must be compassionately received. Only then will she open up.

He can do it if he tries. See past the scorn manifest on her face, and the strangulation in her voice each time she addresses him; even if its tension is like a single wire held firm at the base of his neck, ready to slit his throat at the first thoughtless remark. For the first time in their marriage he is frightened and aware that he does not know her. But he can forget that, fear crushed under Pirelli tyres, when her breath loses its shallowness and becomes deeper, bringing some warmth into the frozen cabin; when she touches his shoulder lightly and says, ‘Can we take a drive though Richmond Park? I'm not ready to go home yet.'

‘Sure. What do you want, hills or deer?'

‘Deer, I think.'

‘Why not? We can take the route we took the other week. That way we get some hills too. Best of both worlds.'

They drive though Richmond Gate, whose imposing presence, tall and unencumbered by trees or outbuildings, always seems to dwarf and belittle all who enter, then left, towards sparser areas of the park, Ham, Sheen, and Pen Ponds, away from walkers and anywhere where there may be groups of mothers and small children. He has driven in
a roundabout way from the hospital, taking a series of back roads to avoid two primary schools for this very reason.

He sees her looking for where the deer converge. Her eyes intently study thick growths of bracken and fern, craning her neck across both sides of the road as she peers through dark, mature copses for any sign of movement. He wonders whether it is the creatures themselves she wants to see, or just a confirmation of their camouflage, that maybe she too wishes to hide.

But there are no deer to be seen on their tour, only a panorama of discarded water bottles and a trail of tanned cyclists, Australian or South African, streaming through the foliage. He watches as her eyes lock onto the cyclists' wheels weaving along the dust track, taking in the lightness of those machines, and the speed and the agility of those powering them. The BMW is an unwieldy beast by comparison, a useless lump of metal, leather and angora, pitifully unable to fly her away.

‘Pretty, isn't it?' he says, uselessly, unable to bring himself to mention the cyclists, spectacularly male and thundering with sun-nurtured virility.

‘Not without the wildlife. It looks like a giant garden otherwise.'

‘I thought rabbits were meant to be lucky, not deer,' he says, and immediately realizes it is the wrong thing to say, that luck should not be brought into anything, should never be mentioned again.

‘I tell you what, Claud. I'll get some venison in for dinner if we don't see any. Knock-up one of my specials. How does that sound?'

The hand on the shoulder again. A softening.

‘Amal, you don't have to do anything special because you think it'll cheer me up. I'm fine.'

‘Really? You're fine.'

‘Yes. I am. I will be. Stop worrying.'

On the second stage of their honeymoon, a weekend at a country house on the edge of Dartmoor, a late-Victorian decompression chamber following three weeks in Mexico, their suite had been studded with several stag heads won from various county hunts. Claud had tried to hang from one of them whilst he was eating out of her. There was no chandelier in the room so this was the next best thing. They were adventurous, then. Sun-spoilt and happy, he remembers her laughing with fear that she would fall, with a ten-weight of antlers bearing down upon her, before giving in to a deeper, more localized pleasure. Now he could not get her to eat venison. They were in trouble.

‘We can't have supper at home, anyway. I told Mum and Dad we'd go round.'

‘When was this?'

‘Few minutes ago, whilst I was waiting for you. You know how they like to call first thing on Friday before they do the weekend shop. I said we were treating ourselves to a day off, which is why she caught me on the mobile.'

‘You didn't tell them?'

‘Their washing machine's packed up and Dad needs help fitting the new one. Too tight to pay for delivery and installation. It's been sitting in the boot of his car since Tuesday, Mum said. They were waiting until the weekend to ring us.'

‘I'll pay for someone. You need to rest, Claud, not go racing down to Sussex. One day's rest, at least. Please.'

‘Sleeping isn't going to make anything come back, Amal. It's an afternoon and possibly some supper, that's all. I've been resting since we found out I was pregnant. I'm sick of lying down.'

‘What are you going to tell them?'

‘Nothing. As far as they're concerned, I'm still pregnant.'

‘Look, I . . .'

‘This isn't up for discussion. I'm not ready, all right?'

He feels the cheese-cutting wire again, sliding back and forth across his throat, making it impossible to argue. Understanding the secrets of marriage is knowing when to pick your battles. This is not the time to be charging forth, discussing the merits of getting everything out in the open. She will not tolerate any of that. Though still weak from the blood loss, she remains capable of eating him alive. He is simply there as muscle, nothing more.

‘Stop the car! There! See him?'

For the lightness it momentarily brings to her face, he is prepared to see anything. Nestled within a copse at the foot of the hill leading to Ham Gate, he sees a wall of
browning ferns and their manipulation by the wind, nothing more. If, as she says, there is indeed a pair of brown eyes hidden within, he is either too short-sighted, or too thick-headed to find them. His silence is taken for zoological studiousness, something he does little to correct. If this is what makes her happy, let her be happy. They sit there together, seeing differently, finally comfortable.

She is hungry. They share a bacon roll and a choc ice from the van trading in the car park. The salt from the bacon and the sweet from the ketchup fill every pocket of the car, imbibing a sense of homeliness and safety which shows up the poor work of the wilting sunflowers.

‘If something like this doesn't give you the excuse to eat junk food, I don't know what does,' she says, mid-mouthful. A drop of ketchup wobbles on her cheek. Ordinarily he would lick it off.

Claud has not touched pork for over two years. Not even long weekends in Grenada or Barcelona, touring time-worn Jamon bars could persuade her to accompany her glass of Olorosso with a slice of Serrano, Iberico, or Chorizo. She worried about the effect of too much red meat on their future offspring even then.

‘Mmm. This is great, love. Good thinking.'

Amal does not confess to his lapse at last night's trashy restaurant, not wishing to break the fragile equilibrium. He paid with cash so she never need know. She devours her half of the roll in a flash, and then eats the bulk of his, making him buy another so that they can further indulge
in the goodness of hot food. Pre-empting her, he comes back with doubles, piled with onions and extra condiments.

He needs to keep feeding her, he realizes. Fill her up with food. Stuff her guts until she has to sleep sitting up, too shot with cholesterol and bad sugars to think about the other cavernous spaces in her body. Claud is a fine cook, has looked after him well, but he is just as good when he gets on the stove. The range is the only gadget that really interests him, other than his iPhone. It is back to the Indian gene, the one that believes the kitchen is the heart. He will cook until food is coming out of her gullet, absorbing everything, including the need to feel.

The choc ices have been dredged from the bottom of the freezer where they have frozen solid, but after the greasy bacon they are still needed and devoured. Their taste is grainy and synthetic, recalling something conceived in laboratories rather than the cute provincial dairy pictured on the wrapper. If this is the kind of crap they feed kids, then theirs has had a lucky escape. God! If he had said that aloud, there would have been a repeat of last night, a series of choked sobs in the car after the restaurant. Him making a fool of himself in front of her; just what he has been trying to avoid. Jesus, it is hard. His foot is on the gas before he has finished his final mouthful. A bounce of the chassis as the wheels lightly skid over the gravel. It is better to drive than remember.

The house welcomes them. Mid-morning sunlight pours from windows and seeps through brick, making what was previously cold appear golden and pleasantly holiday-burnt. Maybe they are carne-drunk with the bacon and visions of feral deer, but it suddenly feels like a place worth staying in; their previous criticisms fading with every degree on the sundial. They are both pleased to be there.

BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
4.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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