The fogs of London are clearing and upon me arrive the streets, faster and faster, until I can see its sea of people swelling and unswelling, and white gulls moving in a floating file across a cleft of horizon carved into cloud. I am alone on a sloop of familiar strangers. In the pale pond of autumnal light, I see the ghost of an abandoned woman skimming the scalloped skirts of wedding dresses in a shop-window. The ghost stares back at me.
She is a tall, plumpish ghost of twenty-six: her arms, her breasts, her buttocks, are all plumpish; her face is plumpish, with curious eyes and framed with shoulder-length hair. Men find her attractive. You’re a healthy size, they say, with a healthy appetite. You’re what women should look like, they tell her. Only, the ghost has never believed herself to be attractive.
I watch Sujata emerge from the ebbing crowd at the bus stop. She crosses the road to avoid a boy on roller-skates. She crosses it back again to avoid the berry-fruiting brambles.
In the brambles are bees which might sting, and Sujata is afraid of bees. She meets me at the worn-looking bridal shop which is offering discounts for the fashionable “2016 Autumn Bride”. A dog on a lead pads too close to her, sniffing at her shoes. She stiffens, looking helplessly at me.
“Get your dog out of the way, Mister,” I say to the dog-walker, who looks at us, glassy-eyed with age, and annoyed by this unexpected glare of hate.
“Your friend’s afraid of dogs? Fear is learnt. Teach her to overcome it.”
“You don’t know a fucking thing about my friend. Get your ugly mutt away from her or I’ll kick its face in.” The dog-walker recoils as if from a fire. I’m convinced the dog’s replaced everything missing in his life – love, companionship, respect. I feel sorry for him, sorry for how limiting his life has turned out to be, but my principal loyalty will always be to Sujata. I owe her that much, for all that I’ve taken from her.
“Come on, Locky. Let’s leave the crazy ladies alone.”
He pulls the lead tightly, and guides the dog past us. Sujata is relieved. We fall into easy step; she, a good head taller than me. I put my hand in my jeans pocket and fish out the telephone number Sanjay had slipped me at the Six Bells pub. She looks at me, hopelessly disappointed.
“Do you know anything about this man? Is Sanjay even his real name?” she asks, linking her arm in mine and stubbing out her cigarette. I wave the smoke away, refusing to be a passive participant in her self-harm.
“What’s to know? Indian man born to Punjabi parents. They came here in the Seventies, bought a corner-shop and sent their first-spawned to college.”
“So that makes him what? Fifty? Charming.”
“Don’t be silly. He’s just forty.”
“Isn’t that too old for you?’ You’re not looking for a daddy-figure, are you?”
“What if I am?” Sujata rolls her eyes.
“I bet his mother told him to work twice as hard to be half as successful as a white man, beta,” she says, mimicking an Indian accent.
“And he dyed his hair blond and wore track pants, just to fit in. Until he discovered he could be his own man. See, I know all there is to know.”
“He sounds like a wanker.”
“He probably is. A wanker plus plus.”
But I have no idea who Sanjay really is, and I’m peddling stereotype here. Every face bears a story: crack open the surface, rend the skin, expose the kernel.
“So you think I shouldn’t see him?”
“You’re going to do exactly as you please. You always do.”
“I value your advice.”
“And then you do the exact opposite.”
“I’m very impulsive.”
Sujata laughs. “That you are.”
We turn the corner on Old Glebe Road; on the High Street is the Horton fish and chip shop which hardly has any customers. Mr Burrage spends his day at the door cursing all the Indian curry houses and chasing away the school kids who hang around there smoking weed, not buying anything.
“If the devil had a net for the lot of you...Get out of here.” He shoos them away with a baseball bat. They disperse for a few minutes, then form again like a whirring murmuration of starlings.
Last night, Sanjay had bought me blond beer with big head and licked the foam off my lips. His body was flat, hard, used to common labour, but he was not inelegant.
He spoke politely, the way those who take their state schooling seriously, often do.
He said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Have you been to the back alley?”
“I’m guessing you have.”
“Is it worth visiting?”
“Yes. With me as your guide.”
He put his hands on my buttocks and led me behind the Six Bells. The air smelt of roast pork and baked potatoes, and a bright street light shone in my face. I rubbed the light out of my eyes and saw other couples there, women in fishnet stockings and big blonde hair, pinned onto men with long, thick overcoats.
The cold night air had turned us all into smoking dragons clustering in corners. I closed my eyes and let his hand slip up my skirt, his fingers finding the fleshy mound. His face soft, his breathing nasally, his eyes watery, he took my breath away. He was the liminal light, the blur, the riff, the cliff, the everything that hangs in the balance. I thought of Daddy. I haven’t seen Daddy in ten years but I think of him every time I’m with someone new.
Sujata and I reach Doctor Yates’ office. We climb the spiral stairs together, careful not to be noticed.
“Wait here,” she whispers, squeezing my hand. “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry. I’ll be right outside.”
I wait anxiously for her on the landing. Across the street, Jassie from Bollywood Style Salon paces the pavement, mobile stuck to ear, a stream of Punjabi flowing from her reddened lips, erratically punctuated with “Bluddy bastard.”
A nose-ringed, blonde girl from Mattie’s Floral Bouquets comes out, and gently tapping Jassie on the shoulder, kisses her on the lips. She borrows a cigarette and takes a long drag. Jassie whispers in the blonde girl’s ear and they wave out to me from the smoke cloud which envelops them, billowing upwards into the ramshackle shop signs. Then stamping out her cigarette, the blonde girl makes rude hand gestures, and shouts out, “Oi, what you looking at, dipshit, we ain’t gay or nuttin’, like you and your pal.” They laugh, and retreat into their shops.
I stand awkwardly, rooted to the spot. It’s not uncommon in London to be confronted, unexpectedly, by ugliness. But surely not to be abetted in this sorry act by someone I know, however peripherally. Why did Jassie laugh at me? The sun comes up just then and the street brightens.
Excerpted with permission from Sisterhood of Swans: A Novel, Selma Carvalho, Speaking Tiger.