Roger.

The words on the screen demand friends.  I’m not finished.  The only—only . . . ha!—problem is I can’t forget her as every part of our lives were intertwined.  Were, so recently.  Who’m I kidding?  Still are.  In art, how we’d met; in flowers, how I’d courted her; at dinner, when we’d gazed at each other until our food went cold.  Not in the wine, though.  I’ve emptied every bottle of alcohol in the house into the sink, thrown the empty bottles into the recycling and swore I’ll never drink again, even moderately.  But the shrivelled skin.  The shrivelled skin on my ring-finger.  The ring has been gone for over a month now but the white, still strangely shrivelled even after all this time skin reflects white-hot guilt into my eyes under fluorescent lights.  I try to focus on the screen but success is fleeting, and my focus, my attention, keeps on drifting back to that missing ring, that missing part of me.  I give up, save, and slam the lid of the laptop down.

 

‘You’ll just have to forgive her.’

‘How can I forgive her?’ I ask, shoving the Caesar salad around in the bowl, knowing my friend’s eyes are firmly fixed on the top of my head.  ‘It was bad enough she let her alcoholic brother stay with us, alone with our child, without even warning me about what might, and did, happen.’

‘Yeah that was pretty damn awful.’

‘Yeah, and then she went off the rails herself.  I tried to tolerate it but I failed.  It was wildly out of character for her and I tried to help, but she refused to open up and give me an insight into what was going on with her.  So I had no choice.’

‘Do you miss her?’

‘I miss the Sudha I married, yes.’

‘Y’know,’ he starts, and I lift my head expectantly, ‘I know the girl she’s living with.  Apparently Sudha hasn’t touched a drop since she’s moved in.  Not noticeably, at least, and not at the house.’

 

A letter to India.  How appropriate.  Like reaching for the one tether still binding us to each other.  I look at Neel’s mother’s black locks atop his smiling face as he bangs a spoon into his high-chair.  And the word below her parents’ address comes easily: Sudha.

Vital memories.

She’d see him only in newspapers from that moment forward. Thankfully, salvaging from the abyss her last dregs of sisterly pride, it was only his name she saw, at the bottom of stories on page four, page two and sometimes the front page. Special occasion journeys to visit her parents in Kolkata were the closest she would ever again come to seeing her black-sheep-brother. However sad, this was the way she wanted it. This was what fate demanded in exchange for her sins.

 

‘We’re very proud,’ said her father in the kitchen of her parents’ home, where Rahul’s latest stories adorned their stainless-steel refrigerator. His eyes met his daughter’s as he spoke, but from there bounced to the floor then the fridge’s black-and-white words before he’d finished his short declaration. Sudha had never developed the strength to mention the reason their ties as siblings were forever severed. Instead trusting in coincidence, inconvenience; lies.

‘He’s already the weekend chief-of-staff,’ said her mother, sidling up to her husband. Sudha noticed her mother didn’t place an arm around her father, didn’t poke him playfully in the ribs – never touched him. She wondered if her parents ever touched, if the shame from the imperfect details of their childrens’ lives had forever prevented their union from being anything other than a pragmatic charade.

‘That’s wonderful,’ said Sudha, the sight of the masthead Kolkata Daily News making her feel more relaxed than any scotch on-the-rocks ever could, and hoped Rahul felt the same way. She eyed the most recent, page four story’s headline which read: FIVE DOCTOR FAMILY AN INSPIRATION; and allowed a single tear to drift past her nose.

 

She stood in the door-way to her bedroom, the sun’s rays setting past the Simlipal National Park throwing a thick beam of light against her mirrored wardrobe, filling the room with radiance. Opposing her mood. Two things glistened in the sunset on her bedside table: a photograph of Roger and Neel, now two-years-old, grinning at the camera in front of her face from the kitchen table in her former, London home; and a wedding band, attached to a chain dangling towards the floor over the side of the table. They were only separated, not divorced, and she stayed in London with a friend from work, not two blocks from her son and estranged-husband, yet Roger’s insistence she take his wedding band held a significance she couldn’t bear to analyse. She shut the door, and a thin light underneath it followed her as she descended the stairs for dinner.

 

‘It’s time for you to tell me what happened,’ said her father after the meal, as her mother brought in the washing while singing, in Bengali, a song she’d sung so many years before to her children, about a fishbone piercing a young boy’s foot. Sudha felt suddenly tired. He’d connected the wedding band in her bedroom with the one she still wore. She glared at her lipstick-stained wine glass and sighed. ‘Bapu,’ she began, lifting her eyes to his, relieved to see tenderness rather than anger, ‘I don’t know what happened. I’d not been drunk since college.’ He raised himself slowly and began clearing the table, but she continued. She told him about Roger screaming at her to leave the house while holding a bawling Neel in his arms; about drinking a bottle-and-a-half of Shiraz then aggressively coming on to her husband, who left their bedroom, slammed the door and spent the night on the couch; about falling out of a taxi in front of her home at midnight and throwing up in the street; about. . . . But she restrained herself as Rahul’s name reached her tongue. Her father stopped in front of the fridge for several seconds then turned, narrowed his eyes at his daughter, and said he was going to bed. Her mother’s singing began to venture into the house along with the remaining twilight.

 

‘But, I’m ok now,’ she reassured at breakfast.

‘We know,’ said her mother, turning from the dish-water to reassure Sudha with her eyes.

‘You’ve never lied to us, Sudha,’ said her father, drying a plate as delicately as a newborn after a bath. ‘But you’ve clearly kept things from us.’ Then he also turned from his task to reassure her, his eyes carrying less warmth but no malice. Her mother started laughing, wrenching her hands from the sink to her mouth and spilling suds at her feet. Her father looked at his wife with a confused smile.

‘Remember new-years-eve?’ started her mother, giggling like a baby delighting in rainbows swirling over floating bubbles. ‘Before Sudha was born? When we? . . .’ Sudha’s father suddenly roared with recollective laughter, and their daughter wore her own confused smile. They laughed for what seemed like years, as if time had indeed stretched back to a moment of their parents’ lives which both Sudha and her newsprint brother knew nothing of. When they calmed down, her father slid his hand behind his wife’s head and leaned in for a lingering kiss on her cheekbone.

 

The name on the envelope was hers, the ink arranged in Roger’s elegant handwriting. The world around her disappeared into a vacuum until the only things she was still aware of was the sweltering, Kolkata summer, and thin paper between her fingers. A drop of sweat fell from her nose and smudged part of her name. She opened it slowly, hesitantly; she could feel an object within and became filled with dread. Inside was a letter, and a small frame carrying a photograph of Roger and her, on their wedding night, kissing. Her heart quickened. The letter began:

Sudha,

Remove the photo from the frame.

She did and saw her own eyes in the tiny mirror revealed, memories of their meeting immediately flooding back with the rest of the world; its sounds, its smells, its beauty.

I wanted to show you the most beautiful thing in the world, after that which I long for again. I forgive you, Sudha. I love you. I want you to come home.

Roger.

Jim – Part 2

‘You’ll be home an hour late?’

‘I’ll be home an hour late,’ she mocks.

‘Good, I’ve got a surprise for you that’s not ready yet.’

‘Good, I’ve got a surprise for you that’s not ready yet,’ and she hangs up before I can tell her she’s silly.  The brushstrokes were awkward with the phone jammed between my ear and shoulder, so I’m both relieved and disappointed with her voice’s absence.  She gave me some cash to fill the void the departed Xbox left, so I bought canvas and brushes and paint, and one of those things I can’t remember the name of to hold the canvas.  Not a chair though—I used one from the dining table—which left money for cigarettes.  I take a deep drag and blow it at my feeble attempt to recreate her beauty.  She’ll love it, I think.

 

‘What’s the surprise?’ Jess asks.

‘This!’ I remove a sheet from the canvas with a magician’s flourish.

‘Nice,’ she appraises unconvincingly, and I deflate.

‘What’s your surprise?’ I say with the voice of a petulant child.

‘This!’ she declares, whipping the KFC bucket from its plastic entrapment, parodying me.

‘Oh,’ I brood.

‘No good?’

‘Well, yeah.’

‘But?’

‘But . . . I made dinner.’

‘So?’

‘And I made this.’

‘So?’ she stares at her canvas-self.

‘Well . . .’

‘Jim?’

‘Yes?’

‘Shuddup and kiss me.’

‘Ok.’

And we lie in each others’ arms for the duration of the winter evening.  Her food goes cold, my food goes cold; her painted face watches us, dries and hardens into my brain along with irrational pleasure, existing just like any erupting volcano I might choose to be ignorant of.

 

They kick down the doors as the fading light of the evening bathes my twisted face and four strong pairs of hands grip my arms and legs and I scream at them:

‘You bastards what are you fucking doing!?  Jess will be home any minute you bastards you can’t do this to me she’ll come home and drop her bag and the emptiness of this house will be her only greeting and I won’t be there to shield her from the cold heartless world outside these walls!  You bastards!’

My last memories are of spittle flecked faces through tear-blurred eyes then I’m standing with the aid of two unseen persons as a man in a white coat which looks like it’s never seen dirt tells me ‘Jim, you’ve got a long way to go, but I’ll tell you this for starters even though you won’t believe me: Jess never existed, and they’re dead, Jim.  They’re dead.’

And he departs with the unseen men.  I sit I stare and the clarity of the white walls confirms to me that I’m 50-years-old my wife Elenor and my kids Rusty and Julie died 10-years ago in that head-on-collision and I never met a wonderful woman named Jess in anything other than a fantasy world which has no, time, left.