Kirthika is in the shop. I can see her from where I’m sitting, picking up a scarf and looking at herself in the mirror. By the way she holds the thing up I know she isn’t interested in it. She puts the scarf down and picks up another. This one is a dirty sludgy brown, like the melting snow outside. I stare. Kirthika likes bright colours. She is a lone magpie in that respect. The brown scarf is a clear indication of her mood. The shop assistant must have sensed her lack of seriousness too because I see her walk towards Kirthika. I see Kirthika shake her head and imagine she would be smiling slightly. I look down at the newspaper I’m pretending to read and the words blur. I need an eye test, I think. When I look up again Kirthika has gone. I see her figure hurrying off in the direction of the coffee shop.
We are in the airport. We arrived at six. It isn’t an easy journey from where we live. First you take a bus to the town of Yur. Then you walk to the train station. Then you take the express train to the airport. This bit is the most comfortable part of the trip. It is warm, swift and allows you a little time to dream. The train today was empty. Kirthika and I sat staring out of the window at the frozen, flat landscape backlit by a dull bluish light. This is all the light we are permitted at this time of year although the snow sometimes gives a boost to it. There wasn’t much snow this morning, just a little rain melting and distorting the view from the train. Once or twice Kirkitha had run her hand across the window in order to see the name of the station we were passing. Otherwise she didn’t move. We did not talk. The plane we were due to meet was currently flying somewhere over the Pole.
Kirthika is wearing a sari I don’t remember having seen before. I first noticed it on the train and wondered if it was new. Where did she get the money from to buy it? My wife is a very careful woman where money is concerned. I can’t imagine her going out and buying clothes at this juncture. Perhaps my memory was failing and I had seen it but just can’t remember. In any case, I thought, staring out at the hard white landscape, where would she get a sari from, in this part of the world!
‘Why are you smiling?’ she asked.
I shook my head not knowing how to explain the irony of my thoughts.
‘Lillian will bring saris for you,’ I had said instead.
Lillian is our daughter-in-law. At this moment, if my calculations are right she will be staring down at a place unmarked on any map, sitting next to our son, holding onto the baby who would, hopefully, be asleep. The baby, our only grandson, is one year old. We have not met him yet. Sitting on the train I saw that Kirthika had the same thought. I saw it flit across her mind like a flash of blue light. Like lightening, gone as swiftly as it surfaced. Suppressed. Earthed. Kirthika has an expressive face. She can’t fool me. But all she said was,
‘I hope not. They have much more important things to bring in their luggage.’
Than a sari for the mother-in-law that Lillian has never met, she means.
It is four years since we last saw our son. A lot has happened in that time. For a start he met his future wife one month after we left. Perhaps it was grief that left him open to the possibilities of love. Our departure was brutal enough to make this happen. Until then no girl had really interested him. It was all work, until then.
Out train had passed the town of Aavig as I was thinking this, with its the small empty railway station. I caught a glimpse of a man walking a dog, a postman riding his bicycle, a truck. Behind the shorn trees there was a glint of a frozen river. And then we left the town and the church spires and the houses all huddled together. In summer this is a place of scenic beauty. Now it goes in a moment, swallowed up by the speed of the train.
When we left our home on the island it had been dawn with a light not dissimilar to this. Only it was hot, and there was a tropical breeze lifting thankfully off the sea. The moon, like a fingernail paring had been faintly in the sky watching us move softly, backwards and forwards from the house to the car. We had kept only one light on at the time for fear of alerting the neighbours. Or anyone in the pay of the army thugs. My throat had been dry, my mind alternating with thought of what I should not forget and other, irrelevant things. Even today, four years later I can reproduce that dry, uncrying feeling.
‘Where are the passports,’ Kirthika had murmured. ‘Have you got them?’
‘Yes, in my bag. In the folder.’ I murmured back.
Our son walked outside with one of the suitcases. The soft crunch of his feet on the gravel made me wince. Walking was dangerous. Talking was dangerous. A cigarette glowing could be the death of you. Four forty-five, I remember thinking. And that was when I had looked up at the sky and seen the fingernail of a moon. The catamarans would be coming in from the sea, the sarongs of the fishermen slapping against their legs, wet from the water; the air smelling sweetly of wind, the sand soft and unmarked, and empty. There were three boats that came in regularly to this little inlet. I knew all of them. I knew the names of the fishermen, I knew their wives. Kirthika, the local doctor, had been present when the babies were born. Two of them had been named after her. And now we were leaving.
‘Give me the other bag,’ Kirthika said. ‘I want to check something.’
‘Mama, you can’t take the goraka,’ our son told her. ‘They won’t let you and you don’t want to create a fuss at the airport.’
‘No,’ Kirthika agreed.
And she put the jar on the dining table. I stared at it. Normally she would not have given in so easily. Normally she would not have put anything on the table either, without so much as a mat under it. The dining table was made of soft satin wood and was her pride and joy. We had bought it many years before on an impulse. Everyone had advised us not to.
‘Satinwood marks easily,’ they said.
‘It’s too expensive,’ they said.
‘It is a sacred tree. Used for coffins. It brings its own bad luck with it,’ they had said.
‘The servants will ruin it,’ they said.
‘Don’t do it!’ Kirthika’s mother said.
But we did. Before I could stop myself I wondered, was this the reason we were having to leave, now. Nonsense walked the night, grinning at me, ghoulishly. I am a rational man, but still, I am capable of ridiculous moments.
Instead of packing my last bag I went into the kitchen and filled a clay jug with cold water. Then I watered the plants in my study. I was aware that my son was watching me, helplessly.
‘Papa,’ he said at last. ‘Don’t worry about the plants.’
But I was worried about them. They were my plants, still. They belonged here. And because of this, they were sacred. Like the fishermen, like the white bleached sand on the beach, soft as the hair of a newborn. Like the horizon line between sea and sky and the jasmine flowers that bloomed no matter what violent thing was going on across the veranda. It all belonged to this land. I put my hand out and touched the small statue of Lord Buddha that Kirthika had placed beside that of Lord Krishna. I could hear my heart beating. I thought it might be breaking.
Have we time for a walk?’ Kirthika asked.
She had come up silently behind me and has seen me touch the statue. She refrained from comment. In the past she told me not to be an unbeliever. In the past I told her that Buddhism was not a religion but a philosophy. And anyway religion was a toy played with by people who were full of fear. These days neither of us have such conversations. That sort of discussion was an indulgence. Now both of us compress and fold our speech. Leaving many things unsaid. Now less is irrevocably more.
‘No,’ I said, finally.
‘Please,’ Kirthika asked. “I want one last walk.’
In all the years of our marriage I have never refused her anything.
‘All right,’ I said.
‘Are you crazy?’ our son asked, his eyes wide.
I had heard my heart beating again and again had wondered if it would break. But the human heart is stronger than that, I think now, remembering.
‘Someone will see you,’ our son said. ‘Then all this will have been for nothing.’
His face was on the edge of grief.
‘All right then,’ his mother agreed but I had made up my mind.
It was our last chance. Our only moment. We would have to live off it forever.
‘Let’s go,’ I said, adding, for our son’s benefit, ‘ we’ll go out through the back. No one will see us.’
I didn’t wait for his reply but took Kirthika’s hand and we left through the back door.
Part 2. tomorrow....