I decided to seek counselling because I wanted to sleep with a man from my office, an engineer with hazel eyes and auburn hair cut close to his scalp, a slightly receding chin and a quite large nose, and one dimple, in his left cheek, when he smiled. He came to us from Glasgow to manage the electrical component of the Heathrow Terminal Five project. Every time he stopped by the finance department he would hover by my desk and engage me in suggestive banter. Once I said, “I’ll have the report run by the end of the day. Be sure to grab me before you leave,” and he said, “I will, I’ll grab you,” and we both laughed.

I wondered if he was married, and discovered, by procuring his personnel file from a temporary admin assistant in HR, that Ned was not married. He was only horrendously busy with the electrical infrastructure of the Heathrow project. We’d been flirting harmlessly all those months until the day he began talking about Palms of Goa, an Indian restaurant on Charlotte Street close to our office. He was asking me to lunch.

“I don’t like Indian restaurants,” I blurted. I shook my head and tried to recover. “You’re thinking this must be some kind of racial self-hatred. The truth is my mother is English, and my father died when I was 16.”

“It doesn’t have to be Indian,” he said.

I wanted to clarify that I disliked Indian restaurants, not Indian food, and certainly not Indian people. “We went to an Indian restaurant for my tenth birthday. It didn’t go well. My mother said the food was too spicy and she fussed at the waiter.”

“We mustn’t recreate bad childhood memories,” he said.

“One of my best mates is Kashmiri. I’ve had lovely meals with her family.”

He nodded wearily. “Italian then?”

“I can’t,” I said. I had meant to say today. I can’t today. I needed a little time, a day or two, to prepare for a lunch with him. He backed away from my desk, undoing his strident approach. I almost cried watching him retreat. After that, his avoidance of me was brutal.

I chose my counsellor, Nicole, because she looked energetic and kept a tidy office, and because, like myself, she was of mixed parentage – a Jamaican father and Welsh mother. She listened to my story about Ned and asked, “Why didn’t you go to lunch with him?”

That’s when I told her I had never been with a man. I was 28 years old and a virgin. Nicole looked at me with a kind of greedy sympathy before asking me about my relationship with my father. I was not so naive to think that sexual problems in adult women would not be connected back to the father. I was prepared and eager to talk about him. “He died. Cancer. When I was 16. I have happy memories of him.” I waited for her to ask another question. She waited for me to continue.

“He was from India, as you know.” From my detailed recounting of Ned’s failure to take me to Indian for lunch. “He was a nice man. Hardworking. There was nothing very complicated about him. He loved sightseeing.” Nicole smiled. She asked me to tell a story about him, something I remembered.

“Well, this is funny. I didn’t know he was from India until I was nine years old!” I knew she wasn’t looking for entertainment, but I didn’t want to be boring.

It was 1987, and Dad and I had just walked from the British Museum to Piccadilly Circus on one of our frequent father-daughter excursions to London. It was a warm, gray day in summer, no rain. We were sitting on the steps by the statue of Eros, watching the traffic circling and the tourists aiming their cameras at the curved neon adverts for Fujifilm and Sanyo. My feet were tired from walking. I linked my arm through my father’s and leaned heavily against him, perfectly tranquil.

In Piccadilly, the tourists conversed in different languages – German, French, Japanese, Swedish. Suddenly I heard a sharp nasal voice close by, speaking an unfamiliar language. I sat up and saw my father looking to his left at an elderly man standing there.

The man wore a maroon turban, as well as a pair of ridiculously thick glasses that magnified his round eyes. A large boxy Nikon camera hung from a strap around his neck. He was so top-heavy I was afraid he would teeter over and fall into my father’s lap.

My father and the man were talking to each other, but in their conversation, the man seemed to have cast a spell over my father, unspooling from his throat a language I could not name. The words came out fast, as if he did not have to think about them first. I watched my father turn younger, sitting with his hands on his knees, and I realised this was my father before I existed.

For the length of their conversation, I was alone, orphaned in Piccadilly. I tugged on Dad’s sleeve three or four times before he noticed me. “I have to go to the loo,” I lied. He looked around, past me, as if he were hoping to find my real guardian.

I squeezed my legs together and squirmed as if I were about to wet myself. My father, embarrassed, stood up and made some kind of apology, and we walked hand in hand into Lillywhites, where I pretended to find the toilet and take a wee while he looked at cricket bats. He was sullen during most of the tube ride home. I looked around at all the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, their bodies swaying with the pitch of the train. My father did not resemble any of the English men, nor did he resemble the darker-skinned Asians, and I imagined him to be entirely unique, a race unto himself.

I put my hand in his. “Did you know that man?” I asked him.

He seemed to warm to my company again. “No. We come from the same region in India.”

It was the first time he told me he came from India. I suppose he’d never had a reason to tell me before, or else he thought I knew, as I should have by that age.

“How did know that? You don’t wear a turban.”

“We can tell, sometimes. And I looked at him. I nodded my head.”

I didn’t understand.

“Will we go to India?” I asked.

“No,” he said, looking away. He didn’t explain, and I knew never to ask him again.

Before he died my father forgot his English altogether. From his deathbed, he spoke to us as if we ought to have understood, and when we didn’t, when our English frightened and angered him, we couldn’t guess what ugly things he said to us in his mother tongue. The hardest thing about watching my father die was his sudden ill temper, his foreign rage. He didn’t seem to recognise me at all, not until the last time we were alone. Still speaking Punjabi, he grasped a lock of my hair and said something that sounded like a nursery rhyme. I sometimes wish I had recorded him, tried harder to understand what he was saying.

Nicole was frowning. “It doesn’t seem like you could properly say goodbye. You were speaking two different languages, weren’t you?”

I began to cry. I adored my father. I could still feel the prickliness of his mustache on my fingers and his stubble on my lips and once I wanted nothing more than to grow up and marry him. He had black eyes and a steady gaze that was warm and fervid, obliterating, but who would say that to their counsellor, a perfect stranger?

A New Race of Men from Heaven

Excerpted with permission from the eponymous story from A New Race of Men from Heaven, Chaitali Sen, Sarabande Books.