2021 4thWrite Prize: Sulaxana Hippisley, Cadaver

• Sep 1, 2021 •

Sulaxana is an English teacher, writer and single mother. Runner up in the 2019 Bridport Short Story prize, she has been long listed for the 2020 BBC Short Story Award, the Bristol Short Story prize, the 2019 ‘Spread the Word’ Life Writing prize and  the Asian Writer short story competition. She was mentored by Courttia Newland for the 2017 Almasi League and is currently working on her first novel.   

Cadaver
On the eve of a dinner party, a young woman encounters the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil  war.


Rohini said she would buy the flowers herself.

Sanjay stood before the mirror with the collar of his shirt upturned and a question in his eyes.

‘Lilies? It’s a dinner party Ro, not a funeral.’

She didn’t reply. The pointed corners of the collar formed a defiant arc over his Adam’s apple. A cartoon Count, minus the teeth. All the while his fingers twisted the length of silk at his neck into a hangman’s noose. Habits hard earned at St Xavier’s. Funny how little boys learned the art of self-immolation so early, she thought. She saw her own face above his head, tufts of bed mussed hair standing erect, an executioner stunned to waking.

‘Anyway’, he added as an afterthought, ‘there’s nowhere near me that sells lilies.’ Now he was balancing a foot against the edge of her dressing table. Can’t punish me, so punish the furniture instead? She wanted to say it, to see his eyes darkening if only for a second. With the other hand, he reached for the polishing brush and ran it over his left toe. Once. Twice. It wasn’t even scuffed.

Ever since the news had broken about the end of the war, she had felt his rebukes around the house. A soup bowl left precariously on the arm of a white sofa; the reek of fish guts over the kitchen counter and mud from his running trainers spattering the kitchen floor. Small acts but enough to make it known. The knife entered her flesh, but didn’t quite turn. She had hoped that by the time Giles and Mona were supposed to come round for dinner there would be a truce between them; that the unsavoury business of the war would quiet itself so they could christen the new basement kitchen in peace with nice wine and the terracotta bowls she had bought. Turns out that civil wars didn’t quite work like that.

‘Bye then!’ a cold peck on the cheek.

Cedarwood and the metallic smell of his lips. She thought of the old days. A faint tang of Ammonia, surgical spirit, scalpels on blue cloth and scrubs. Then his patients were drunks with gashes across their foreheads or lacerations from a glassing in the street; now they were ladies in twin sets, metal plates in hips, gently demanding Valium for transatlantic flights.

‘I haven’t seen a wound in years,’ he said to her one night as they lay in bed. ‘Don’t they bleed in Marylebone?’ she’d laughed.

‘It’s not real medicine,’ he replied, turning away to face the other side.

Click of the latch and a blast of rush hour traffic. ‘Sanj!! Don’t be late, will you?,’ she shouted down the corridor after him. ‘Giles and Mona will be here at seven!’ He grunted something in reply as the door shut behind him. Four days now and still no sign. The body. Missing in action, escaped abroad, the elusive leader of the rebel militia gone AWOL.

‘It can’t end without the body,’ Sanjay said.

‘Why?’ Rohini had asked. ‘Why does it matter to you? They say he’s dead, why do you have to see it? Isn’t that enough?’ It wasn’t. She wanted to believe it was the surgeon in him, the steely mortician for whom no thought nor reason remained once the heart stopped, that wanted to see it. But now she was afraid that there was another reason; some unnameable thing bigger and more virulent than a corpse that had the power to take him back and leave her behind. ‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore,’ she said at last. But his words followed her. ‘The war isn’t over until there is a body.’

***

Rohini sat at the kitchen table, half listening to Melvyn Bragg interviewing someone about Beethoven’s fifth. It was best to avoid the other radio stations and the tv. For now. Instead, she thought of a postcard she would write when it was all over. Or on another planet where her parents and his family waited with open arms. The same postcard she had been writing for years and never sent.

Amma and Appachi,

Going to see trooping the colour tomorrow, wish you were here. Might see the Queen in a carriage. The bread here is soft as pillows.

Your loving daughter, Rohini

She saw her mother in that faded cotton reddha, holding the card up to the light. Her teeth would be gone now and maybe there would be cataracts in her eyes too. Twelve years was a long time after all. Not even Sanjay for all his bravado knew what they would find amidst the carnage. Sometimes she met up with a distant cousin passing through on the way to New York or Switzerland to squeeze out a morsel of news. Yes, they were well, some said. Others were more reticent, smiling shyly and shaking their heads. ‘Haven’t seen aunty and uncle in a long time,’ they’d say. Then she understood. Of course. It wasn’t easy to have a daughter who had run away with a Tamil boy to London.

The traffic on Kilburn high road dulled to a hum. Once in a while the thick flap of a pigeon’s wing struck the guttering above the kitchen window. She wandered into the living room and stood before the screen with the remote control in hand, waiting, feeling the soft pile of the carpet between her toes. Rohini flicked through the main news channels for the third time.

There were no more live reports on the mainstream channels; nothing in comparison to the dizzying feeds of the last few days with screens alternating between the words of aid workers, humanitarian organisations and the crackly reports of foreign correspondents whose faces would burst into a thousand pixels half-way through. In the end, it had all dissolved with the serene smile of a president refusing questions from the international press.

She didn’t know what she was waiting for. It wasn’t like the BBC would show graphic shots of mutilated bodies on the lunchtime news, not like the channels back home. Her earliest memories of the war in the North were those crude technicolour pictures in newspapers, garish shots of corpses laid across railway lines with groups of staring bystanders. And shoes. Always a shoe left in the aftermath of a flight. But the end to it was silent here; it was a blip, forgotten in an instant without having to try very hard. Once the news stories made it to the back of the queue, they ceased to exist. All you had to do was look away at a marble worktop or the new Butler sink with the bronze taps you’d bought.

Two bleeps punctured the air. A message. Probably Sanjay.

She searched about herself for the phone, patting her hands frantically over front and back pockets like an unruly security guard until she spotted it on the sofa. It was an unknown number, a voice mail. ‘You have one new message, sent at ten am today,’ announced the automated voice. At first there was a fuzz and then a distant sound, crackles like fireworks being set off. Someone was breathing on the other side. An error, a creepy wrong number, she thought. Then, a voice.

‘Akka? Kohomada Akka? I got your number from a friend in Colombo. It’s like Avurudu here. No curfews. Shops all open. Even Appachi can’t stop smiling Akka. It’s all right now. You and Sanjay can come home. No one will say anything. Come home soon. Blessings of the triple gem be with you Akka!’

Blessings of the triple gem. No one will say anything.

She listened again, this time to make sure. Akka. Big sister. No one called her that anymore. Her first cousin, Saman. It was all right for him to say it, to tell them to come back. No news really. And he had no sense of the images that the rest of the world saw. She wanted to ask about the ashen-eyed faces behind barbed wire and the jutting of a camera as it ducked for cover under missile fire. And aid lorries standing idle at checkpoints, weighed down with sacks of rice and water tanks. She listened once more. The sound in the distance, firecrackers popping in the street. What else could they be? She pressed a palm against her ear. The phone dropped to her lap. At first, a propeller with long drawn blades sliced the air. Then came a deafening static fuzz followed by Os. Thousands of Os danced before her eyes in neat succession. Open mouths. Toothless. Gumless.

***

Rohini walked up to Hampstead, taking the shortcut through Fortune Green and Finchley Road to arrive at the top of Highgate village. There was a florist with a classical name tucked away nearby. Arcadia? Elysium? One of those places with a gilt Mercury by the till, arms laden with Narcissi and a coy smile on his lips.

There, it was easy to forget.

She paused before blue plaques with their ghostly whispers of residents past. An artist, a ballerina, a politician, a Victorian philanthropist whose noble efforts were now only evident in the red bricked walls of a private school. There was an eternity to Highgate. It was impermeable. No tragedy could touch you there really. Every now and then, a glimpse of an Art Nouveau vase on a windowsill pulled her with the promise of genteel drawing rooms and afternoon tea. It was here that he had said it to her, on one of these streets, before a house with a wrought iron gate or a Rennie Macintosh blind in the window.

‘I want to go home. I think we should go home.’ ‘What? Home?’

They were months away from paying off the work on the kitchen. Rohini didn’t tell him that she had been looking at Japanese tiles for the bathroom.

‘Yeah. I’m sick of this. I don’t want to sit around prescribing drugs to rich people anymore. I want to go back to emergency medicine. Not here. There.’

There. He couldn’t even say it. Rohini saw the years ahead. She would end up in Colombo, alone, working as some secretary at one of those fancy hotels on the Galle Face.  He would be transferred to the North. Months of worry. Imagine him removing glass and shrapnel from tiny limbs, sleeping on gurneys. Wondering if he’d ever come home.

***

There. After school on the Galle Face. That’s where they had met for the first time. She was in her canvas tennis shoes carrying her badminton racket over a shoulder, clasping a sociology book to her chest. Her friends and his friends hovered nearby, pretending to look at the crash of the waves and the cawing of gulls heading out towards the sea. That was how it was done. You couldn’t meet alone. He held out a paper cornet of roasted peanuts towards her.

‘Ganna!’

She shook her head. Best not to take peanuts from strange boys!

He was in the year above, a few months shy of leaving school. She liked his seriousness and his skinny hands. Far too slender for a boy of his height. Gifted, they said. Destined to be a doctor. He went to one of the Catholic boy’s schools in Colombo.He didn’t say much that first time, apart from looking offended at her refusal to eat his peanuts. Her friends said that he had been watching her for weeks, silently lagging behind as they gathered for inter-college Wednesday sports’ meets. Maroon hockey skirt and knee length socks. She remembered racing across the field, downy hairs on her legs and the acidic stench of sweat and Charlie perfume, never once imagining that anyone was watching her from afar. All legs and thighs, athletic girls like her weren’t meant to be gawped at. Unless her breasts had jiggled under that t-shirt. That was it. It was the only explanation she could think of. But someone had seen him scrawl her name on a desk, a tree and finally on the back of an exercise book.

One afternoon they both cut period four to nibble short-eats behind the play area of Vihara Mahadevi park. Afterwards, she quizzed him. What did you see? In me, I mean? Can’t you tell me? Does it matter that I’m, you know, Sinhala? He shook his head. And those chaste first kisses, the kind that a mother would give to a child, a press of lips along the brow, were as neat, she thought, as the letters that sat along the lines of his books.

***

‘Would you like a presentation bow for these?’ The girl at the florist had chipped blue nail varnish. She pulled the green paper taut over the stems of the lilies. Spindly limbs. It didn’t seem right. ‘No. No bow. Thank you.’

Rohini stepped out into the street under the glare of the midday sun. It was quiet. Two women in gilets and large sunglasses sat lunching outside a café. A Chihuahua yelped at their feet and one of the women bent down to pour Pellegrino into a ceramic bowl. The younger of the two women chased a vine tomato on her plate absentmindedly. It was too early to walk home and she didn’t feel like eating. Somewhere there was a cobbled back street with glass fronted houses on either side. ‘Grand design houses’ she and Sanjay called them. Architectural oddities that only stood as testaments to their idiosyncratic owners. Didn’t they know that only red brick and sandstone would do here? She crossed the road. There was a post office nearby and somewhere before the turning, a clock tower. Yes, a vanilla yellow clock tower with a white face set in pine. There was the church with Corinthian columns, the community hall, the bistro, the pizza chain and that shop selling wellingtons and ornate hedgehogs for removing mud from the sole. Where was it?

And then from nowhere, it arrived.

At first there was nothing more than a quiver at the corner of her eye, a ripping of the fabric before the hum. It anchored itself at the base of her throat. She gathered pace, reaching inside her shirt to put a palm against her heart. The flowers began to swing at her wrist. Iron railings painted black, brass knocker, Georgian town house. Not far to go. Nearly there.

If only she could find the clock tower and that turning. That cobbled lane with algae lining the brickwork and weeping willow dripping over the walls. Ahead of her she saw a congregation on the pavement. Her mother was weaving through a crowd, pulling Rohini behind her to its epicentre. Then she paused suddenly as other bodies pushed past. She remembered her mother’s hand slipping over her eyes, the faint moisture and the scent of Eau de cologne. But her fingers were too loose. The gaps betrayed it all. A car windscreen shattered to a thousand pieces and arms slumped over the wheel with a bloodied mass of hair.

Then she knew.

The clock tower wasn’t there or anywhere nearby. It stood brightly in the midday heat. Kandy city square. 1987.

***

Another bleep. Another message. This time it was Sanjay.

Any news?

Nope. Don’t be late.

She snapped the phone shut.

It wasn’t the right day for a dinner party. Not anymore. All day she had felt the undertow, pulling at her, taking her back to places and leaving her without a raft. Only for a few hours, she told herself. Pull it together. The date had been in the diary for months. Giles was one of his old friends from Imperial. Once he had been an engineer out in Dubai, but now he was lodged in one of those high-rise offices near the Shard, conducting obscene business deals at obscene hours. Rohini headed into the dining room and stood before the perspex shelves.

They were the newest additions to the room. Perhaps they were extravagant, those oblong slabs of glass that tricked the viewer with the illusion of floating. In a box at the foot of the shelves sat ornaments waiting to be rehomed. Kandyan devil masks, dancing Apsaras of Angkor Wat, Maasai baskets, Javanese shadow puppets and a fertility goddess from Crete with a snake coiling through her hands and breasts. These were the things that they now had to show for their lives, things that she chose in flea markets and backstreet emporiums on holidays whilst staying at luxury resorts. She picked up a Kandyan devil mask and ran a finger over its protruding tongue and eyes. That had come from an exhibition at the Commonwealth centre. One day she would go to the Kandy Perahera again and watch a devil dancer swirl his hair to the dizzying beat of a temple drum. One day. For so long, that had been her refrain. One day. But what if the day tried to arrive before you wanted it to?

One day she would find the roadside café that had served them plain tea and egg hoppers on the morning of their wedding. Eight hours later, he was on a flight to London on a hastily arranged student visa paid for by a priest at St Xavier’s. Everyone knew he was too delicate, too clever and that his hands weren’t meant to hold a gun. That would have been the end of him. Then there was the backstreet studio where they had taken the wedding photo. She was in a cheap maroon dress with a scalloped neckline holding polyester calla lilies. He was in a borrowed suit with an orange tie, anxious that they only had a few hours to get the papers sorted. ‘Smile bung, it’s your wedding day!’ one of his friends had jeered from the sidelines. But neither of them had. Months later, when he sent for her, she would post a copy of the photo to her parents from the airport. Then they would know that she had not run away for anyone, but for the love of this man wearing an ill-fitting suit with the fate of a country sealed in his hands.

Rohini looked at the shelves again. Sanjay had stared at them blankly and said, ‘It’s nice Ro. How much did all this cost me then?’ His surliness had annoyed her. Anyway, what did he know about the ethnographic trend she had spotted in her interior design magazine? ‘Well, Mona will like it at least,’ she had said. She often thought that the best thing about Giles was his wife, Mona. Mona would understand that it was her ‘piece de resistance.’ Yes, that was a phrase Mona would approve of. She looked down at the box. For some reason, a voice told her to leave the shelves empty. There was nothing worth putting on them. Not now.

****

‘Darling it all looks exquisite’, Mona swilled the brandy at the bottom of her glass whilst examining the ornaments from the box. ‘I mean, the Apsaras are just remarkable. Not 12th century but just a great reproduction. Were they hard to find?’ She was wearing her work clothes, an oriental silk blouse and linen trousers. Her hair was pulled into a loose plait. She could see Mona leaning back in a swiveling leather chair in her office whilst a client unravelled some tearful story about their sordid childhood next to a cheese plant.

‘Hardly!’ Rohini laughed.

‘Oh. But I can see you’ve got some wonderful stories to tell with these,’ Mona added with an emphatic smile. Sometimes she could feel Mona pressing her for the story, to hear her pain, to lay it out and show her where the jagged edges were in the tapestry. But then it would belong to Mona, she thought, one more thing given away to read, to dissect and examine under her psychotherapist’s spy glass.

From within came Giles’ bellowing laughter, his words lost as Sanjay’s low murmurs followed. Mona shook her head in exasperation. ‘Those two! Honestly, like frat bros or something the way they carry on. Not like they don’t spend enough time together!’ Mona rolled her eyes. Rohini smiled and scraped the last of the teriyaki salmon from the plates into the compost bin. ‘But all this, I mean, the renovation is just fab and the food tonight was just incredible Ro. As always. It’s all just so you. I don’t know how you do it, the way you put things together,’ Mona carried on. ‘You must think about a design course at St. Martins! Promise me?’

‘Yes,’ Rohini nodded. ‘I’ll have a think.’

The thing was, it was difficult to dislike Mona. There was a word for people like Mona; something on the slip of the tongue. Disarming. Yes, that was it. Mona. Mona with her warm hands and the heady scent of sandalwood. Giant rings on every finger fashioned from Lapis Lazuli or Labradorite. Mona who listened wide eyed to every word from her mouth before launching into some delicate enquiry about her mother’s wedding sari or the twelve servants they had once kept. Everything was just so amazing. Everything was just so fantastically interesting when Mona was around.

Then she remembered that it was Mona who rang her on those Fridays when she wished her hands to dissolve before her eyes. ‘Darling, you’ve got to come and see the new Tanjore exhibition at SOAS with me! You need cheering up!’ She envied Mona’s girlish insouciance; her ability to wander through exhibitions with her arm through Rohini’s, introducing her as ‘my amazing friend Ro.’

But ‘Ro?’

Mona had coined their new names too: SJ and Ro. SJ and Ro sounded to her like a brand of industrial strength mould killer. SJ and Ro with their pristine walls and kitchen appliances hidden behind doors with a ceramic finish. SJ and Ro. She tried to pin the names somewhere in the room.

Ro. Ro. SJ. Ro.

But no. They floated before her, empty.

*****

Empty shelves. Empty vase. She knew that Sanjay had noticed. They had barely exchanged three words during dinner. She had not bothered to tell him about the phone call or the news or what had happened. The lillies bruised and trampled underfoot. Wanting to lie on the pavement with her cheek against the ground so that the sound would stop. The kindness of strangers who had bungled her into a taxi and insisted on paying the fare home.

Long before she had known crisp pork belly or teriyaki salmon, there were lentils in a rice cooker. Sometimes she thought about that flat in Ladbroke Grove they had shared with two Taiwanese girls who worked night shifts. Who could forget the mildewed walls and stacking Grey’s Anatomy against the door to stop the blood chilling drafts of that winter? The first night he brought her home from the airport, they had made love hurriedly, jetlagged and hungry for each other’s bodies after months apart. When the darkness came in like a tide at four, she would sit by the window, waiting for him to come from home from lectures or his shifts at KFC, weary and silent, smelling of chicken fat and grease. The girls always took over the kitchen at six and she would cook her mother’s lentil curry in a rice cooker at the foot of the bed, watching the steam pour down in tiny rivulets along the wall paper. At first she thought it was the cold, that it had settled into his head and his body. Chilblains. Long johns. Four pairs of socks. But there was something else.

One night, he didn’t eat. They sat on the bed with the plastic bowls of rice and lentils between them, listening to the Central line chugging across the bridge overhead.

‘I had a body today,’ he said. ‘A real one….some person. They cover the faces so you don’t know what they look like. It’s not red…there’s no blood…just yellow.’

‘What did it smell like? Was it rotting?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘Just chemicals, some embalming fluid they use. They’re something else, not alive and not dead….something else.’

She had wanted to ask questions, to know what it was like when they made the first incision as he had talked about months earlier. Did they stand in silence for a moment out of respect? Was it easy to forget that they once had names? All she could picture were pickled chillies yellowing in a jar. Her stomach churned.

‘I couldn’t do it,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t do it.’

After that, she learned not to ask. Sometimes the fragments would appear here and there in the early hours when he couldn’t sleep, when she would lie nestled under his arm waiting for the sound of the boiler to hiss to life. In the first few months, he had slept on the floor of a flat in Wembley alongside the other boys that arrived from Jaffna. There were quiet boys, he told her, ones who had forgotten how to speak. Then there were the ones that screamed in their sleep. One had sneered at him. ‘Colombo boy? Student visa? What do you know about the front line?’He was going to be a doctor, he told them. And then he’d go back and work in the North.

****

‘Ro? Are you quite all right darling?’

Mona was staring at her. The rims of her eyes were blurring, quivering at the edges. Empty oyster shells left on a beach.

‘I’m fine,’ Rohini said. She felt the sudden urge to sleep, to crawl under the ground. Mona had found the end of a thread and was gently pulling it, wishing for it to unravel. It had to lead somewhere. Not tonight, Rohini thought. That was the thing with Mona. Nothing could be left unsaid or undone.

‘Tell you what, the two of us should do a girlie getaway. Leave the boys to it. You could so do with a break!’ Mona cried.

Rohini swallowed and reached for the dessert plates. Suddenly Mona gasped and a hand flew to her mouth. ‘Oh my god Ro, think about it.’

‘Hmm?’

She placed the brandy glass on a worktop and put her hand on Rohini’s shoulder. ‘We should go to Sri Lanka. We can, I mean, now, can’t we? It’s all safe and stuff, no bombs. And you can show me where you grew up. You can show me the house in Kandy! Please say you’ll come.’

Before Rohini could protest, Mona was dragging her into the dining room where Sanjay and Giles were finishing the last bottle of wine. ‘We have a plan and you’re not invited,’ Mona announced, pulling Rohini down into the seat next to her. The two men exchanged glances, feigning concern.

‘Go on,’ Giles said, ‘what have you been gossipping about back there?’

‘Two weeks trekking along the East coast. Sri Lanka. Me and Ro. No husbands allowed,’ Mona said.

‘Shit yeah?’ Giles nodded and a knowing smile crossed his tanned face. ‘That does sound pretty awesome girls.’ Two weeks in Biarritz, every September. Even the hairs on his forearm were a golden brown. Sanjay sat still with a mildly quizzical look on his face. His eyes were fixed absently on the space on the shelf where the Kandyan mask might have stood.

Giles made a steeple with his hands and leaned forward. ‘I mean, the East coast’s pretty fucked right now from what I hear. But you know, you give a bit of time for the infrastructure to get back up and running, build a few highways and then I tell you…boom. The tourism’s gonna be unstoppable right?’ Mona had pulled out her phone from her handbag and was scrolling through the pale blue screen furiously, her brow knitted in concentration.

‘Actually, the LTTE haven’t been there since 2007,’ Rohini said. Sanjay winced and shifted in his chair. He ran a hand through his hair and narrowed his eyes. For a moment, she caught the flicker in his eyes as he scanned the table before him. She had seen that stare a thousand times and known when to be quiet. Known when to turn off the television or cut short the telephone call.

Giles looked up.‘Oh yeah, I mean sure. That’s what I meant. I mean, Fraser and Julia had like a surf holiday out there last year. Erm, Arugam bay right?’

‘Yep,’ Sanjay nodded. ‘I recommended that resort I think.’ He was back now. Himself. Alive to Giles’s charms. ‘Yeah, yeah. I bet you did, knowing you mister fancy pants,’ Giles smirked, ‘Yeah, I remember. They had like some luxury hut on the beach, you know with the water coming up to their feet and fishermen bringing them the first catch. And then a private chef to grill the fish right there. I mean just incredible.’

‘Sure, I mean, the waves are great there so you’d dig it Giles. Really,’ Sanjay added. She could see the soft coral aftermath as they receded. Waves. A lone sandal, a shell or two, a footprint eroding fast. ‘Guys, did you get that link I sent?’ Mona quipped suddenly, eyes still fixed firmly on her phone.

‘Oh yeah, Mona’s friend Mitch’s done this thing about the journalist, the one who got kidnapped last year in Colombo. Have you guys seen it?’ Giles now reached for his phone. ‘Five thousand likes on Facebook and he’s looking for a distributor.’

‘Oh ok, I’ll have a look.’ Now Sanjay too reached into his shirt pocket. Rohini watched their dimly lit faces, narcotised by the glow from their palms. She closed her eyes and heard the words as they swam inside her head. I don’t want to go back. Not now. Not ever.

****

3.06

The neon numbers blinked at her in the darkness. There was something turning inside her. Glass. A tiny shard twisting through the sinews of her veins. The static fuzz was returning in waves. Not as before. A different frequency. Intermittent. She felt Sanjay stirring beside her and then groaning as his hand stumbled over a glass and a box of dental floss whilst reaching for his phone.

‘Hello?’

There was a pause before he broke into Tamil. It was his cousin Ranga in Dubai, his only surviving relative and the one person with whom he still spoke in Tamil. In all their years together she had never felt it necessary to learn Tamil. After all, he was fluent in Sinhala and they mostly spoke in English. They had never needed Tamil. Until now.

‘Ok, thanks. Bye.’

He replaced the phone on the bedside table and reached for the remote control.

‘What did he want?’ Rohini put a hand on the warm cotton of his back. The white glare of the screen flashed into view as he flicked feverishly through the news channels, tutting as the signal lagged behind the press of his finger. ‘Come on stupid thing!’

BBC news 24. Sky news. CNN. Bloomberg. Al-Jazeera.

And then…

Shoddy camera work. Someone pushed the lens towards the sky and then the ground. Feet. Patches of muddied grass. Rohini counted four pairs of military boots at the water’s edge. At first came the barrel of a Kalashnikov, then a bayonet pointed at the ditch below. Bulbous eyes, lips parted in expectation, the face half submerged as if the puckered skin had quenched its final thirst with mud. Blue bottles and warm rain dotted the camera. The rest of the body was too waterlogged to be discernible in any way. The red ticker tape ran the same words along the bottom of the screen silently: ‘The footage received at 1.09 am GMT is believed to be authentic and has been verified by government sources. The defence minister is expected to speak within the hour.’

‘That’s him? They’re sure?’

Sanjay nodded and swung his legs over the foot of the bed for a closer look at the screen. ‘Yep. I think so.’

The footage played again. This time she closed her eyes and sank back against the pillows, waiting for the sound to begin. But nothing came. There was only the sound of the remote control landing on the bed sheet and the soft padding of Sanjay’s feet along the corridor.

‘Sanj?’

She clambered out of bed, taking a second to steady herself against the bedside table before following him. A dim light shone from the storeroom at the end of the corridor. What was he doing in there? It was filled with things that somehow did not seem to fit in the house after the renovations. Old china, bed spreads, textbooks, clothes for charity. Things she had put off attending to. Rohini stood by the doorway watching as he rummaged through a box under a shelf. Finally he pulled out a thick tome with a brown cover and slapped the dust away from its binding. She knew the book at once, remembered the years when it had sat pride of place on a Formica table in that Ladbroke grove bedroom. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine.

‘Sanj?’

The book slipped from his lap and landed on the floor with a resounding thud. A stillness settled about him. She folded her arms and kneeled on the floor at his side. There was something in his hands.

It was a photograph with rounded edges. A streak of acidic orange ran along the left hand side: a residue of age or water damage. She could not tell. In the foreground stood a young girl and a man with a bike before a dust red road. The girl’s smile had the guarded modesty of a new bride’s; her hair was pulled back with strings of white jasmine. The dot of vermillion on her forehead was stark and fresh. People would have called the man a serious youth. He had the beginnings of a reluctant moustache and one bell-bottomed leg was slung over the bicycle as if he were about to speed away from the picture itself. They stood before a store whose name had been truncated by the camera: ‘ancy stores ltd.’ Behind them on the pavement sat towers of bright silver and copper pots. They might have shone in that sunlight were it not for the dullness that had come to replace the gloss of the photo. Years ago, when he had first shown it to her, Sanjay had told her that he was in the photo too, concealed somewhere behind the folds of sari at his mother’s taut belly.

Now she tried not to think about that red dust road and the shining metal pots mingling with their limbs little less than a year later. She did not think about the flickers of white in the distance, figures hurrying into the sanctity of ordinary life, to catch a bus or buy an exercise book on their way home. She did not think about the pavement, the cool grey slabs that held the weight of their unknowing slender bodies. She thought of that bedroom in the heart of Ladbroke Grove where the photo had leaned dutifully against the pot with pencil shavings. Day after day and month after month, it had stood with them, asking a question. Why?

Rohini reached under his arm and pressed her face against Sanjay’s chest. It had been weeks, maybe months since she had listened to that dull thud. She felt his arm tightening around her shoulders. For the first time in a week, some purpose stirred within her. Rohini felt his breath along her neck. ‘I think we need to find a new home for this picture,’ she said, before rising. ‘You coming?’

As she headed towards the shelves in the dining room, she heard Sanjay’s footfall behind her in the darkness.

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