She was halving apricots when the phone began. Private Caller. The handset vibrated urgently in her palm. Probably some company trying to scam her into believing her laptop was sending distress signals to India, again; no one who knew or needed her would call the landline. She returned to the apricots.
Three minutes later, it started up again. Private Caller, somehow even shriller than last time.
She kept her voice brisk, as unfriendly as she could make herself be. This time, if it was another scam, she really would hang up without apologising.
“Asha? Beta, is that you?”
Indian, but not a call centre voice. This was thick and slow, gently quavery with age. It could easily have been her grandmother, except that it wasn’t.
“Oh hi aunty,” she said, making a safe guess. Anyone who sounded like this and called her beta would undoubtedly answer to aunty. “How are you?”
“Thank God.” The voice picked up speed and volume. “I was worried I wouldn’t reach you. I am actually in Heathrow, beta. You remember I was going to America? Now my flight is delayed until tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Oh no. No, no. “Are you in the airport hotel?”
“No.” The voice became plaintive. “I can’t go there. My heart is not good, you know, I can’t sleep alone. Uncle was meant to meet me but his flight also is delayed. He comes only tomorrow.”
During the pause, Ash concentrated on keeping her teeth closed and her gaze on her bright spill of halved apricots. It was impossible. She didn’t even know who this was.
“Asha beta?” said the familiar voice. “Can I come to your house? Can you give me address? I can take taxi from here.”
Of course, she gave up her address. There was no way to avoid it. Then she boxed the apricots away and tucked the marinated lamb shank back in the fridge. She’d have to do something else for dinner now that there would be an aunty who certainly would not touch lamb or wine or possibly even apricots.
Who could it be? America? Her mother’s cousin, Neelam aunty, had a niece getting married in New York next week, but she wouldn’t be transiting through London. Pankhuri’s mother? Pankhuri had sent an email saying something about her mother in London—but that, surely, was Paris, not America?
The woman, when she made her appearance an hour later, was unrecognisable yet intensely familiar—bulky, grey cardigan and red sari, squared glasses, the usual hair (thin strands of white, henna at the top of the head fading to a skinny iron-grey braid down the back). She could have been any one of a dozen aunties, except that Ash couldn’t work out which.
“Such a nice place,” she breathed as Ash took the suitcase from her hand and led her into the living room. “So nice. Your grandmother would have been so happy.”
Who are you? Could she ask that question? Dare she? The words felt impossible. She offered tea instead and the aunty accepted, thanked her vigorously, asked for more sugar, complained about the delayed flight and the slow taxi, the traffic, the rain, how hard it was to get to America now, how long the flight, how if Karishma hadn’t needed her help with the baby she would never—
Ash smiled and nodded, offered biscuits and nuts and ever more densely sugared tea, and wondered frantically how it was that she couldn’t remember this face. She had an exceptional memory for faces, usually. She could picture every aunt, every cousin, every cousin of her grandmother, and every grandmother of her cousins. This was none of them. Yet here she was and obviously she was someone. How could she ask? How could she not ask?
“Aunty,” she interrupted at last. The woman paused and looked at her with a wide encouraging smile. She had long straight teeth, stained faintly red, and a whiskery chin soft with age. Ash was abruptly certain she had never seen this woman anywhere before; this was a complete stranger. But here she was, settled on the sofa, cup of tea in hand, and feet well apart under the spreading sari pleats. There was no way to ask who she was or how she had found her way to Ash’s door. Was there a sidelong way to hint at the problem? You either said, I don’t know who you are or you—didn’t. What else was there?
“You don’t remember me,” the woman said and grinned even wider. “Don’t worry—you were so small last time, of course you don’t remember. Sapna aunty, beta. I’m Sapna aunty. You remember? I came to see your mother once, in Delhi. You would have been four, five, something like that.”
“I don’t really remember Delhi,” Ash admitted, and the woman—Sapna aunty—put a thick-veined hand on her shoulder and shook it, still beaming.
“But I remember you.” Her hand moved to touch Ash’s chin, a pinch. “You are just the same. Just the same.”
Ash tried to laugh and jerk her head away at the same time.
“I’m not five now,” she said. Her face hurt with the effort of smiling, and the lingering impression of the pinch. Sapna aunty had big square hands, and her nails were unpolished, unmanicured, but elongated. “I’ll be forty soon. Thirty-eight this December.”
Ash got up hastily, to forestall the words that came with that head-shaking tone. The evening was trying enough without that.
“I’ll get you a towel. You’ll want a shower.”
When Sapna aunty was in the shower, Ash measured rice for the cooker and tried to work through all the questions and irritations of the last hour, large and small. Which one was Sapna’s aunty? Ma’s side, obviously, but who? Sheets for the spare room, she’d have to do that before dinner. Was there time to make dal? Chapatis in the freezer anyhow. Could she pass the remnant of curry from last night’s takeaway off as authentic home cooking, if she moved it to a bowl? And breakfast? What time was this rescheduled flight?
“Early,” Sapna aunty said cheerfully, and licked some rice off her fingers. “Early morning. You have some yoghurt?”
Ash fetched some yoghurt.
“Shall I book you a taxi? Heathrow’s a bit complicated from here, on the tube—you’d need—”
“Oh yes! No tube! Taxi. I hate this tube. Once I was trying to get to my friend’s house—many years ago—and I went on tube. It took hours. Totally crazy. So many people. And not friendly. No one here is friendly.”
“Some people are friendly.” She began to stack plates. “When was that? I didn’t know you’d been to London before.”
“Many times. Many years ago. Before you were born.”
“Oh.” Ash was fascinated—London in the 70s and Sapna aunty as a young woman. She couldn’t imagine it. Bell bottoms? She turned away with the plates to hide her smile. “How did you find it, back then? Was it—”
“People were not friendly,” Sapna aunty repeated. “No one here is friendly.” She came up to the sink to wash her hands and took the plates out of Ash’s hands. “Let me wash.”
“Oh no—I have a dishwasher—”
Sapna aunty dismissed the dishwasher with a jerk of her shoulders. “No, no, it’s the least I can do. You’ve been so good. After the flight was cancelled and the airport people were so unfriendly and I didn’t know where I would go—” she stopped, and Ash saw, with horrified embarrassment, that the corners of her mouth were quivering and the magnified eyes behind the thickly concave glasses were growing damp. “So good of you. Such a welcome.”
“Of course,” Ash said. “You’re very welcome.” Her voice was stiffly insincere to her own ears, but Sapna aunty turned from the sink, wiping her palms on her sari, and then put one hand flat on her head.
“Bless you,” she said. The flat weight of her hand was awful—it was only the ordinary gesture of blessing, familiar from every visit to India, but it felt particularly oppressive just now and from this stranger. She couldn’t duck out from under it. She had to just stand there. This kind of thing was why she evaded visits to India whenever she could.
“So good,” Sapna aunty said again and withdrew the hand at last.
“Where shall I sleep?”
Ash slept badly that night, too aware of the slow, deep, rattling breaths of her guest in the spare room. That was a very old woman’s breathing, hard and effortful, every breath dragged in and choked out. But she could hardly be much beyond sixty-five. Cognition perfectly normal—daughter having a first child—a solid, forceful, middle-aged gait. There was still black in the hair, interspersed with the grey and white and orange. And yet that breathing belonged to a much older patient, a person straining to eke out their last day or hour on the ward.
That was nonsense, of course. You couldn’t diagnose that way. In the uneven dark of the flat, every noise seemed louder that it was. Even her own breath felt heavy in her chest, obtrusive. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. The rasp of breathing in the room next door went on. The room was too hot, the air damp and still and thickening, gathering humidity. Throwing off the duvet made no difference; opening a window made no difference. The air was a weight.
At last rain began, soft against the window. The patter of water merged with the harsh creaking breaths from the room next door. Halfway to sleep, blurred, her mind threw up the memory of a rocking chair—the bamboo one on her grandmother’s veranda in Bangalore. The chair grated backwards and forwards, empty, in the monotony of monsoon rain. She saw, again, the pale, peeling bones of the bamboo arms, and her grandmother’s thin hands with their broken veins, kneading a cushion. That had been a bad summer, that summer in Bangalore after A-levels and before Imperial. The rain murmured on. Once, in the night, she woke and realised that the breathing next door had stopped; only silence emerged from the dark beyond her own door. What if she’s dead? Don’t be stupid. She fell back into sleep.
In the morning, the breathing was still going. Slow, raspy, but alive. Ash peered in the door on her way to shower. The curtains were drawn and the room was dark, but a slant of early light lay across the bed and showed the sleeping bulk humped in the middle. What time was the flight? Early, Sapna aunty had said, but how early? Under the shower, Ash came awake enough to envisage the terrible possibility of her missing this flight too and staying another night. No. Absolutely not.
“Not going to happen,” she reassured herself, out loud. In the mirror, her own long bony uncertain face stared back at her. No trace of assurance there. There were patches of purplish pigment under her eyes and her hair was thin and straggly in its wet ponytail. Oh well. Patients didn’t care. The main thing was to get out, and to be sure that her visitor would be gone by the time she got back.
She rapped on the spare room door.
“Aunty?” she called. No reply. She tried again, louder. “Aunty. I have to go to work now. Can I call you a taxi, for the airport?”
The bulk shifted, turned. Sapna aunty’s voice came from under the covers, guttural and thick with sleep.
“No. No, don’t worry. You go.”
She went, worrying. If the flight was missed—but Sapna aunty was an adult woman, well-travelled, no fool. She would know when her own flight was and how to call a taxi. When Ash opened her door tonight, she would be greeted by the usual silence and emptiness, her plants and books. She might even roast the lamb.
Very little happened at work. One of the nurses—Emma? Emily?—had had a birthday and baked an unsuccessful cake, dense and ugly with its swirl of homemade frosting. Ash’s slice sat in her stomach like a lump, and the one-note sweetness of frosting lingered nauseatingly in her mouth most of the morning. One of the patients had a crying daughter, who wouldn’t leave. Another had rather unusual progression, post-stroke. Old men, old women, strokes, hearts, swollen legs, failing vision, slack mouths, pains here and there, and the endless series of daughters, sons, nieces, friends, case workers. A woman with dementia was brought in by her son, who swore she had managed to somehow get bleach in her eye; she hadn’t.
For lunch, Ash ate a wilted salad from Marks, and thought again of the lamb and the apricots. Baked, the apricots would ooze soft gold, merging and melting into the spiced flesh of the lamb; slow, satisfying, complex, taking hours, but well worth the wait. She ran into Emma/Emily as they were both going off shift and they walked to the tube station together, Ash half-listening to the pleasant Welsh lilt of the nurse’s voice as she thought of the waiting stillness of her own flat. Emma/Emily’s fiancé had done something or other hilarious for the birthday—Ash had missed the details—and now she was talking about the stress of wedding planning.
“Mum’s driving me mad,” she said. “You’d think it was her getting married. It’s always the way, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Ash said absently. This was the wrong answer. She produced the smile that was wanted but it was late, as usual, and the conversation died. Emma/Emily gave her a constrained smile as they arrived at the station, and Ash smiled apologetically back and managed a compliment about the cake before they parted for their different lines. The train was crammed but thankfully silent. Everyone else had headphones. Ash looked out of the window. Black trees, grey sky, streetlights, cars, the occasional lit block of flats. Sapna aunty would be on a flight now, volubly telling some unfortunate neighbour all about Karishma and the baby. Uncle is only coming tomorrow, she remembered. So her husband would be there too.
She knew she was wrong as soon she reached the top of the stairs, a few feet from her flat. The air was warm with the smell of frying cumin and onions; when she slid her key into the door, it opened from the inside before she could turn it. There was Sapna aunty, now in a dust-coloured cardigan and green sari, her hands yellow with turmeric.
“Come in! Come in!” she cried. “Poor child, you must be so tired. Such terrible hours you work. I made dinner.”
“You made dinner,” Ash repeated. “But your—aunty, your flight? What happened?”
Sapna aunty’s mouth puckered.
“Uncle,” she said. “He’s not well. He couldn’t come. And I can’t fly without him.”
“But—” Sapna aunty was taking her coat, fussing solicitously around her as if she were a child home late from school. “But then—so—” She couldn’t formulate a sentence. The kitchen felt crowded, pots and pans everywhere, a bright smear of turmeric on the dark island and something sizzling on the stove. A pressure cooker whistled. She didn’t even have a pressure cooker.
“Sit, sit, sit,” Sapna aunty said. “Doctor said he can travel next week. I booked new flights for next week. I can stay with you one week, no?”
No. The room felt all wrong, as if all the angles of it had changed—everything seemed to converge on Sapna aunty, bending over her in her chair, her smile anxious.
“Of course,” she said. “Of course. If you wouldn’t prefer a hotel? I could easily book you one—and the flat’s so small—”
“Don’t be silly,” Sapna aunty said. “Now we can catch up properly. It’ll be so nice. Go wash your face now, and we can eat.”
The food was rice and yoghurt and dal and some fried vegetables in a fried tomato sauce, leaking yellow oil. The rotis were fresh, not frozen—Sapna aunty must have found atta flour as well as a pressure cooker in some hidden corner of the flat. (There were things in the flat in the unopened boxes that had come from Bangalore, it was true, but had there been a pressure cooker? A sack of flour?) Still. Hot rice, cold yoghurt, and the soft delicately-puffed rotis—it was a decent meal and she was too tired to do anything but eat it and go to bed. At midnight, she woke and suddenly remembered the lamb in the fridge. Probably best to throw that out.
That week was strangely less terrible than she might have expected. In the morning, when she left, Sapna aunty was always asleep. At night, when she came home, Sapna aunty had made dinner—the same dinner as the first night, except that the fried vegetables in the fried tomato sauce varied. After dinner, Sapna aunty would talk in an endless meander about Karishma’s marriage and Uncle’s heart and what Karishma’s grandmother had said about Ash’s mother’s death. The voice was never-ceasing but demanded very little response—only nodding and smiling and the occasional agreement—and the food was hot and greasy and somehow always left her sleepy. Every night, she was asleep almost before she had finished brushing her teeth; she woke only once or twice in the night, to hear the breathing from the room next door, and then slept again until her phone alarm woke her. She hadn’t slept so easily since childhood, if then—it was hard to remember. Indian food cured insomnia, apparently. Who would have guessed?
The routine changed on Friday though. On Friday, when her phone alarm began its chime and she came awake enough to slide it to silent and get out of bed, she found that there was no rasp of breathing from the guest room. When she peered in, she saw that the bed was made, pillows straightened and duvet smoothed. The room was empty and dense with the smell of incense, sandalwood, and talcum powder. Sapna aunty was nowhere to be seen. Not in the shower. Not in the kitchen. Not in the downstairs toilet. Not in the living room.
“Aunty?” Ash called out in the empty hallway. There was a tightness at the pit of her stomach. In the tall mirror at the far end of the hall, she showed up small and lanky in blue pyjamas, like the image of a lost or haunted child in a movie trailer. “Where are you?”
The door of the flat opened, then, as if in reply. Sapna aunty had picked up her own key to the flat, it seemed. She wore an orange cardigan over a glistening blue sari and a neon-green plastic bag draped over her wrist, erupting with fresh coriander and okra and some purple-leaved herb that Ash didn’t recognise. She beamed at Ash.
“Looking for me? I went shopping. There is a very good Indian shop here. Very nice man.”
It was six in the morning. Did the Indian shops open this early? Ash didn’t know. It was odd, though, the relief of it, as Sapna aunty bustled past her and reoccupied the kitchen, taking the thick bundle of coriander over to the sink and setting the water running. The room filled up with the fresh peppery smell of the leaves and Sapna aunty’s own smell of sandalwood and soap and talcum power.
“Have you had breakfast?” She took the dripping coriander leaves and dumped them on the kitchen counter. “I can make hot rotis, five minutes.”
This is a stranger, Ash heard herself think. The words seem to come into her head as a whisper from somewhere else, slow and cautious and edged with terror. I don’t know who this is. She has a key to my house. Where had the key come from? There was only one key to the flat, which lived at the bottom of Ash’s handbag.
“Ash beta? Rotis?”
She ate the rotis when they came, and went off to work in a daze. Fishing in her bag on the way to the tube, she found her keys—tangled up in her headphones and enmeshed in the shredded remains of a tissue, as they had been for weeks. The only explanation was that Sapna aunty, who would be with her for only another two days, had gone off and had a copy of the keys made for reasons of her own. It’s only two more days. Two more days, and she gets on a plane and I can change the locks if I want to.
At work, the paramedics brought in a man of ninety-one, Polish, who had been found on his bathroom floor by his carer. Ischemic stroke, and paralysed down the left side. He wore a dull gold ring that looked like a wedding band, although the carer said there was no family. She prescribed what she could and moved on, but his stare hung about the back of her mind for the rest of the day. His eyes were blue-grey, milky with age, and still bright—he had kept them fixed on her face, while she spoke to the carer, and then he had looked at the walls, the four corners of the ceiling, the other patients on the ward, and back to her again. She had tried a reassuring smile—reassurance was usually her specialty, patients liked her calm and her low voice—but it failed to stick this time. His gaze was too sane, too aware of what was likely coming. For a moment, she was caught in the grim silence that enwrapped him and could only look back. The carer kept patting his hand, like a relative, but Ash could tell there was nothing there, only a competent professionalism like her own.
“No family at all?” she found herself asking, again, and the carer gave her a look of disapproval at her insensitivity. The old man’s half-mobile mouth seemed to twitch in a smile or a spasm. He closed his eyes. Ash moved on. A seventy-six-year-old woman had had a faint—normal ECG, normal everything, and an irritable balding besuited son who kept looking at his phone. Would the old man have been better or worse off with family? This son had none of the regulated gentleness of the carer, he was brusque and sarcastic and eager to escape, but his mother’s hand kept seeking his and he sometimes smiled at her and sighed; recognition. That was the difference. The old man could barely recognise his morning carer and distinguish her from his afternoon. The woman had a son—one, unrepeatable, unique. She knew him and here he was with her in case the normal ECG and normal everything hid something abnormal after all. Ash ordered another round of bloods and moved on.
After work, she didn’t go home. She went to a Chinese restaurant, table for one, and asked for Jasmine tea and three kinds of soup. They knew her there and were used to her odd orders. While she was waiting for the hot and sour to come, she thumbed open her phone and scrolled down her contact list. In passing, she noticed that Tomasz was still there, the photo one she had taken in Sorrento, the number probably long out of date. For some reason, for the first time in years, her forefinger paused over his number and then passed on. There was nothing, anyway, to say to Tomasz. She arrived at Usha. The Indian dial tone purred in her ear, once, twice, three times. Four in the morning, there, but Usha—
“Oh my Godd,” Usha groaned in her ear. “Ashu. You bitch. Do you know the time here?”
“I know. Sorry. Listen—”
“I’m listening,” Usha said impatiently, in the pause. “Are you dying or what? You know I have work in the morning.” Her voice cleared and steadied. She was awake. “Is something wrong?”
“No. I don’t know. There’s—look, do we have a Sapna aunty? Do you know if—she says she knew.” Her throat went unexpectedly thick. She swallowed. “She says she knew my mother.”
“I don’t know any Sapna aunty. Who is she? What does she want?”
“I don’t know,” Ash answered. She felt a bubble of laughter expand in her chest. Usha’s sharp, impatient, familiar voice made the whole situation ridiculous. Here she was in this hushed room with its dark lampshades and few lingering couples and goldfish pond—the waitress put the sweetcorn soup down in front of her, and took away the remains of the hot and sour—because she was scared to go home. “She’s living with me.”
“What? Wait—who is this?”
“I don’t know,” Ash repeated. “She just—showed up one day. She says she knew my mother.”
“And you just let her move in? Ashu, what is going on there? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I just—I don’t know who she is. She has a key.”
“She has a key.”
“She missed a flight,” Ash explained. “It was only supposed to be one night. But then her husband was ill, and now—I’m not sure. I’m not sure she’s going to leave.”
“So call the police,” Usha snapped, sounding fully alert now. “It’s your house. Make her leave.”
“I can’t call the police,” Ash said, half-laughing at the image. “She’s not—she’s just an old lady, not a criminal.”
“Old ladies can be criminals too,” Usha said, automatically argumentative, but Ash could hear that she had abandoned the police idea. “Tell her you’re going somewhere and need her to leave.”
“She’s supposed to leave on Sunday anyway,” Ash said.
“Okay,” Usha said. “So then? You book her a taxi on Sunday. Don’t take any excuse this time.”
“What if she is family, though?” Ash asked. “I don’t know—”
“There’s no Sapna aunty in our family,” Usha said firmly. “I would know. Seriously. This is some—con artist or something. You need to tell her to leave. I can’t believe you’ve been letting her live in your house. Tell her you’ll call the police.”
“Okay,” Ash said, pacifying, hearing the sharpening note of big-sister worry in Usha’s voice. Usha had been the only cousin around during those last summers in India, after her mother’s death, and she had never quite got over the protective role. “I’ll tell her.”
“You have to,” Usha said. “I don’t even know—I swear these things only happen to you. Tell her, okay? Or call me and I’ll tell her for you.”
“Okay. But—” Silence. Usha waited, breathing quietly. “She could be family. You know. On the other side.”
Usha said nothing. Ash let the silence lengthen. Her soup had congealed to a thick beige mass, which resisted the spoon when she stirred it. The waitress kept glancing over to see if it was time for the next soup.
“Yes. I know. I’ll tell her to go. I’ll call you.”
She heard Usha drawing breath to speak and ended the call before she could. Usha had given her the only advice there was to give. There was no Sapna aunty, on her mother’s side. And there was no father’s side, really. Some aunt of her father had as little right to track her down as he had himself. She pushed the soup away and nodded the waitress over, asked for the bill. She took the two styrofoam bowls of soup to the tube station with her and binned them there.
It was eleven when she let herself into the flat. All the lights were off. The kitchen table had been set—a plate of chilled rotis, a bowl of fried okra, a bowl of dal. She looked at the food and couldn’t bring herself to touch it, even to put it away. At the door of the guest bedroom, she could hear the deep rattle and choke of the stranger’s breathing, the same as the first night. She imagined the scene—the door flung open, the light on, her demanding an explanation, the stranger defensive or tearful or threatening or something. The police.
“Asha beta? Is that you?” The voice quavered out of the dark and Ash, with her finger on the switch, found that she had no desire at all for light. “You were so late I left the dinner for you in the kitchen. Did you eat?”
“Yes. Thank you. Good night.”
Her head suddenly ached, dizzying. In the morning. In the morning, the scene would be less appalling, more feasible. She would be reasonable and kind. She would mention, but not insist on, the police. She would speak to a solicitor, perhaps, or to the mental health team at work. For now—she kicked off her boots and curled into bed, fully dressed, and was instantly asleep.
When morning came, she woke with the stranger by her bed. There was a hand on her forehead, damp and warm and strangely heavy. Fever, she heard the faraway voice say. I can’t leave you like this, beta. Uncle and I will take care of you. Beyond the blur that her vision had become, she could see another figure standing in her bedroom doorway, behind the immense loom of Sapna aunty. His elongated shadow fell right across the bed, although that was impossible, and she caught only the faintest wavering glimpse of a bald head and toothbrush moustache and small reddened eyes. He was nothing, nothing at all like the sepia-edged photograph in her mother’s purse.
© Aruna Nair
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb]