Winner of Winter 2018/19 Short Story Competition

Carol Lewis-Powell lives in Rochester, Kent which supports a vibrant creative community. Coming from a Welsh background and a family of storytellers she has a passionate love of the written word. She recently had the opportunity to do a one-year creative writing course with University of Kent and an online novel writing course with Curtis Brown Creative and she has the support and encouragement of her lovely, local writing group. A passion for the short story keeps her scribbling away alongside a novel in progress.

Coming Home

Aarushi smiles politely at the man as he waves his pale hand in a sweeping gesture around the dull, musty room. She knows he is trying to include her in some way within the jumble of words that he says to her husband. She is unsure how to convey that she doesn’t understand, she still feels very unsure, both with the man that stands by her side and this bland man stood in front of them. He wears a shiny suit and despite his slight frame it looks tight and uncomfortable, his tie, slightly off centre, is as thin and shiny as the suit. The man consults a folder he is holding and as he looks down, she can see that his hair is fair and sparse. She finds him so very pallid and fleetingly she is reminded of vegetables neglected and forgotten at the bottom of her mother’s food store.

When he looks up, he tries to catch her eye and wink, she pulls the jewel coloured dupatta, which rested lightly on her shiny dark hair, across her face. This man is a stranger. Nervously, she views him through her thick hennaed eyelashes. His fingers trace the printed list, information, which he appears to be sharing with Ravi. Although she does not know the words, the sounds that come from him are like the market traders, persuading and assuring her Mother that their mangoes are fresh and lush, the best she will find and will honour her family meal.

The man begins to speak rapidly pointing at various features around the room, Aarushi feels a small tremor of worry shiver through her. Everything is so unfamiliar. A stream of words is coming from this thin man, his lips move and Ravi nods and sucks his teeth. Standing close to her new husband she looks up at him enquiringly, he simply raises his eyebrows but there is a hint of a smile in his eyes and then he continues to regard the man. The look warms and comforts her, holding at bay the loneliness that has wrapped itself around her since she arrived.

Looking around at the colourless and nondescript décor she shudders slightly, she feels so cold, always so cold, since she came here. It is April and she thinks of the climbing heat at home, sweltering and humid, the Monsoon season soon to be longed and hoped for. She had been told that it would be like this but hadn’t understood how fingers of cold and damp could creep under her clothes and raise little bumps on her arms. For her, these dull colours provide no hint of warmth.

The talking continues. Back and forth. Back and forth. Their voices are now muted and civilised as befits two men in negotiation. She walks towards the window and peers out, damp grey and tiresome browns, cloud the small walled garden, beyond its boundaries she can see the road, not so very busy, a few cars, a large, rather shiny bus sails by, bright red, bringing a dash colour to the view that seems almost obscene. Aarushi sighs softly, for her the monstrous vehicle lacks the reassurance of the dust coated, old and peeling buses that rattled through her district. Outside, the slow-moving traffic, drifts through the monochrome day like ghostly relatives risen from the dead, visiting kin. Grey and black, black and grey. In mourning. No vibrant chaos and energy. No life.
Tilting her head, she listens, other than the monotonous sounds of the men, she realises there is no other noise in this room, the traffic rolls past silently, tentatively she presses the palm of her hand to the window, the glass is thick and smooth. She wants to lay her forehead against it and remember. She misses the sounds of children squealing in the street, the honking horns of taxis, the shouts of street sellers and the putter, putter of rickshaws. She misses cow-bells and the multi-coloured temples calling to prayer. She misses the laughter. She misses her father, she knows he is a good man and for her he chose a good man and she knows they will have a good life. All this she knows.

They had already climbed the staircase and looked into the bare bedrooms upstairs. Shabby wallpaper and scratched paintwork. It seemed strange to peer into rooms that didn’t bustle with a collection of cousins and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. No babies nursing, no children playing tag around adults who would swat casually at them when they came too close to harm. The rooms were empty and the walls only breathed silence.

The two men seemed to have finished here, Ravi calls her name softly and gestures for her to follow him into the last room. Sucking in her cheeks and blowing out cool air she follows their retreating figures. Harsh strip lighting makes the room feel unfriendly, no comforting welcome here. Again, the incomprehensible drone of the man. Again, the folder. She feels frustrated not knowing what is being said. It is her future too. She can manage hello and goodbye and she thinks if she looks closely at the person who is speaking at her, that she has worked out when to say ‘yes please’ and ‘no thank you’. Not always successful but better than when she first came here.

Remembering, she closes her eyes against the glare of the fluorescent light. If she thinks deeply, if she breathes in, she can smell the gently simmering spices of her mother kitchen. She turns her head and listens to the whispers of her Aunties’ laughter and the chattering of their bracelets as they knead the chapatti dough ready to be rolled out into thin circles. Stretching out her own arm, she lightly shakes forward her array of bracelets and in memory, they shimmer and tinkle slightly in reply. The spindly man stops speaking for a moment and looks at her, Ravi frowns at the distraction of the light, musical sounds. She looks down at the floor and again pulls the headdress close around her.

Standing close to a small open window, she hears the cooing of birds and thinks of the pigeons which warbled and pecked around the dirt yard of her family home. She turns and rests her cheek against the cool glass. Perching on the sill are two collar doves who nestle into each other, arching and rubbing their necks in a seductive, rhythmic dance. Occasionally they move away from each other with a small flurry of wings and feathers before returning to their mating ritual. Aarushi blushes. In the reflection of the glass she sees the watery outlines of the man and her husband move back into the sitting room. Alone. She views the kitchen.

Running her fingertips along the Formica counters, she traces the shape of the room. There are cupboards which she peers into. Empty now. She imagines them filled with her own cookware, a rainbow of wedding gifts. The cooker is small and clean. There is a refrigerator. In the centre of the room there is space for a large family table. A brief image, almost like a photograph, flashes through her mind of her beloved father. She sees her Mother laughing at something or other, her hands never idle, grinding spice, cutting vegetables, dusty with flour. Her Aunties arriving and taking tea, covering their mouths with their veils when they laugh as they share sticky, sweet, guilty snippets of gossip. Small children running in and out through the tangle of saris, tiny hands trying to steal pieces of fruit.

In her memories there is the scent of perfume and spices. Of cardamom, coriander, chilli, ginger and saffron. The aroma of bougainvillea draping across the archway in the yard, fat, heavy blooms fall to the ground and are crushed by playing feet, scampering dogs and Monsoon rains. The perfume of night-blooming jasmine offering a sweet, dreamy softness to the ending of the day.

Aarushi considers the space around her. She remembers she is now a grown woman. A married woman. She smooths her hand over her flat belly. She imagines the ripe swelling of new life. Soon she hopes. Here she will have children of her own. She will stroke their hair while they puzzle over homework. God willing. Here her children will bring their own children and their wives. Here she will create the smells and aromas and perfumes that they will carry in their hearts. There will be chatter and gossip and the music of bracelets singing on their arms as she and her daughter-in-laws prepare evening meals while grandchildren are shushed and comforted. There will be laughter and happiness and tears. There will be comfort and love.

Ravi had said this is a good area, a good house, a good price. That they will have a good life and here their children will grow strong and tall and have good lives too. Aarushi looks around and lets out a slow breath. She knows now that she has come home. As Ravi appears again in the kitchen, he gently places his hand on her cheek and smiles into her eyes. ‘Yes’, he says? She shyly smiles back before lowering her eyes. ‘Yes’, she says.

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Written/Reviewed by: Amanda Gillam

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