BAME Prize 2017: Greed by Avani Shah

Puja didn’t know there was anything wrong with the television, but every morning since he arrived, Akaash has fiddled with the display settings on the screen, changing the brightness, sharpness, colour, and other things she doesn’t know the names of. Today, he spends twice as long as usual, switching to widescreen and back over and over, rotating the screen so that everything is upside down. His movements become agitated: a tapping foot, a thumb hammering buttons, scrunching cheeks as he chews on his tongue. The air is heavy. Puja wonders if the hunger is getting to him too. If there’s that same stretching hollowness deep inside him. Her legs are shaky and it’s not even lunchtime yet.

She has known Akaash since she was a baby. Their parents have been friends since Akaash’s mother wandered into Puja’s father’s vegetable shop one day. Last week, when Mum told Puja that Akaash was coming to stay, Puja collected his favourite activities from around the house: the decade-out-of-date Guinness Book of World Records bookmarked to the food section, Mario Kart Wii with all the characters unlocked, Bop It! She arranged them neatly on the dining table but Akaash didn’t notice. He went straight to his room – Puja’s bedroom which Mum insisted she give up for him – and didn’t emerge again until dinner.

Everything about him is different now. No ideas for pranks to play on the grownups or weird facts about South London’s plague pits and how the Gujarati word for ‘uncle’ is also the French word for ‘poo’. This new Akaash doesn’t talk to her. When she hears him on the phone to his parents, who are in Kenya for a funeral, his voice is booming and hoarse and shrill and shaky all in the same sentence, like there are lots of different people buried inside him, all of them fighting to escape.

From the kitchen comes the slam of a cupboard door and then the sound of Mum hissing and sputtering like a pressure cooker. Puja watches Akaash bite down on his lip. It’s a gesture she knows well, so well that for a moment it displaces her and she thinks Mum is angry with them. Puja is three and Akaash is five and they’ve spilt finger paint on the carpet. She is six and Akaash is eight and their ball has smashed through next door’s kitchen window. She is nine and Akaash is eleven and they have recorded too many shows on the Sky Box and Mum’s Mahabharat has been deleted. Akaash begins scrolling on his iPhone. Puja coughs, but if he notices her, he doesn’t say anything.

Steam hangs over the kitchen. Puja finds her mother pacing in front of four steel pans of boiling water, the phone wedged between her cheek and shoulder.

‘Puja is fasting today, did I tell you?’ she says into the receiver. ‘Boiled water only. No food.’

Mum is talking to Tina-auntie – Puja’s father’s oldest sister who lives in Bombay. Puja knows this without having to ask. She also knows that this isn’t the first time Mum has told Tina-auntie about the fast. It’s because of a phone call like this one that Puja and Akaash are doing this in the first place.

‘Of course I know you’re all fasting,’ Mum told Tina-auntie the day after Akaash first arrived. She had the phone in one hand and was wringing out a rag over the sink with the other. Puja and Akaash were eating and though Mum wasn’t talking to them, her voice grew so insistent it was impossible not to listen. Her grip got tighter as she spoke, her knuckles whitening with every word. This was a regular occurrence. Mum was convinced Tina-auntie didn’t think she was good enough for Puja’s father. Every time they talked she flew into a rage and yet they spoke almost daily.

Puja watched Akaash push the rice around his plate. She thought about bringing up the time they’d tried to break the Guinness World Record for holding the most grapes in your mouth in one go. She wondered if he still remembered, if the record had changed, how many grapes they’d have to squeeze in if they wanted to beat it today. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, Mum said into the receiver, ‘Puja’s fasting as well.’

‘Mum!’

Mum batted her away.  ‘It was her idea, actually. She’s a very spiritual little girl, you know.’

Puja didn’t dare look at Akaash. Her cheeks burned. She imagined him texting his friends under the table: You won’t believe this loser kid I’m stuck staying with.

When Mum hung up she rounded straight on Akaash. ‘If your mama wanted you to fast, of course you would say yes – right? You wouldn’t let her down, would you?’

Akaash bit his lip.

Mum ruffled his hair. ‘See, Puja? Why can’t you be more like him?’

When she returns to the living room, Puja takes a deep breath and plants herself on the sofa beside Akaash.

‘So,’ she says. Her voice comes out too bright but she forces herself to continue. ‘Hungry yet?’

Akaash shrugs.

This is how it has become between them. Everything Puja says sounds wrong. The more she talks the quieter Akaash seems to get.

‘What are you watching?’ she asks after a while.

Akaash shrugs again and continues flicking through channels. Finally he stops on Man v. Food. A couple of years ago, Puja would have thought he was baiting her. She’d have settled down into her seat and insisted they watched MasterChef next.

‘I’m so full from last night’s dinner,’ she’d have told him, rubbing her stomach. ‘I couldn’t eat if I tried.’

But now she’s not so sure. Maybe he’s annoyed with her. Maybe he’s resentful that his parents made him come and stay.

‘I’m nearly fourteen,’ she imagines him shouting at them. ‘I don’t need a babysitter.’

Puja draws her knees up to her chest and retreats into her phone, pretends she hasn’t noticed what he’s watching. The sun beats in through the bay windows. Outside people are laughing, an ice cream van plays Pop Goes the Weasel on loop. She pushes her fist into her stomach, tries to knead away the ache.

Around them, Mum clatters about with the Hoover. Akaash changes the channel. Puja finds herself rubbing a penny against her lips, on her tongue. It tastes like blood. She doesn’t know where the penny came from.

When Akaash is in the toilet, Puja sneaks into the kitchen and takes a packet of Walkers Salt and Vinegar Crisps, a Rocky bar, a Cheesestring, and an orange to the upstairs bathroom. She sets them out on the tiles, first in a progression of colours like a rainbow – red to orange to yellow to green – then in height order. The orange smell clings to her fingertips. She wants to lick the rind. Instead she pushes her thumb against it, enough to feel its resistance but not hard enough to leave a mark. She chews on a hangnail until it bleeds.

Whenever she thinks of food, she takes a sip of boiled water. The ice-cream van tune is getting to her. It circles round and round her head. The boiled water tastes funny, like plastic.

‘Hungry yet?’ she wants to say to Akaash. But what if he just shrugs again?

Her teeth feel gritty. Back in the bathroom, she rinses her mouth out a few times but her spit still tastes stale. Her skin looks yellower than usual. She breathes on the glass to cover her reflection.

On her way out, she bumps into Mum.

‘There you are,’ Mum says. She has her handbag over her shoulder. ‘How are you feeling?’

Puja shrugs.

‘I’ll make you anything you want tomorrow, okay?’ Mum wraps her arms around her and pulls Puja’s face into her chest. ‘Your papa just called. The shop’s packed and Janice went home sick. I have to help him for a few hours. You’ll be all right, won’t you?’

Instead of going back downstairs, Puja hovers outside her bedroom. While preparing the room for Akaash, she found a Homer Simpson figurine under the wardrobe. The two of them won it years ago at the arcade in Brighton. When you push down on Homer’s shoe, he says ‘Mmmm – beer!’ and then burps. Puja spent the best part of an hour positioning it – on the windowsill, on the floating shelves, on her desk, on the dresser – before finally setting it on her bedside table. She turned it so it faced the wall, so it looked like it’d been there for ages, so it looked like she’d forgotten it was there at all.

She waits for the sound of Mum’s car engine before she opens the door. The smell of aftershave hits her. It’s not like her father’s Old Spice but something more metallic that makes her dizzy. There’s stuff on every surface: chargers, headphones, deodorant, half-drunk glasses of water. The bed is covered with clothes. Puja pushes them to one side and sits for a moment. It’s hot. She feels faint. The walls seem to contract around her. Pop Goes the Weasel rings over and over and she no longer knows if she can actually hear it or if the music is in her head. She rests on the pillow. Just for a second, she thinks, I’ll get up in a second.

When she wakes up the room is dark and shadowy. The house is silent. Where is everyone? What if Akaash finds her here? She tries to remember what the bed looked like before, tries to arrange the clothes how they were. On her way out she trips over something. The Homer Simpson figurine lies on the carpet, its limbs bent into awkward unnatural angles. She kicks it under the bed. ‘Mmmm – beer!’ she hears.

Akaash is sitting on the kitchen floor. He speaks so quietly she almost doesn’t hear him: ‘Your mum keeps frozen chutney in an ice cream tub.’

‘Like your mum doesn’t do the same,’ she wants to say.

She’s about to leave, to hide in her parents’ room until they get back, when Akaash says, ‘Do you remember that time?’

‘What?’

‘When we were kids. We stuffed all those grapes in our mouths.’

Puja turns to the fridge. She reshuffles bunches of coriander; shoves yoghurt pots filled with dal out of the way, throws aside garlic and ginger and other alien-looking root vegetables; until, eventually, she extracts a packet of Dairylea singles. She sits cross-legged and places the cheese on the floor between them.

Akaash looks at her. ‘I fixed the TV.’

Puja notices he’s clutching his stomach. Between his T-shirt and his jeans she glimpses the elastic on his boxers.

‘The picture won’t blur at the edges anymore.’

‘Oh.’

They reach for the cheese at the same time. They stuff whole slices into their mouths in one go, tear the squares into strips, roll them into tubes.

Wrappers collect around them like autumn leaves. First just the oil-smeared transparent pockets peeled away from the cheese singles, but then crisp packets and cupcake cases and purple Dairy Milk foil and metre-long coils of waxy white paper from the inside of Kellogg’s Fruit Winders. Stray Honey Loops dropped from handfuls eaten straight from the box skid across the floor, finding their way under the fridge and into the corners where the cabinets join.

Akaash lies down. His T-shirt rides up and Puja tries not to look at the trail of dark hair snaking up from his waistband. When she opens the bottle of Coke, she doesn’t hear the scrape of keys in the front door or the shuffle of Mum taking off her shoes in the hallway. She doesn’t hear her calling, ‘Puja, I’m back’.  Fizzy foam cascades over her hands. It will leave the lino sticky for days.

Greed by Avani Shah 

Download the FREE New Voices audiobook read by all the shortlisted writers from this year’s Guardian 4th Estate BAME Prize.

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