There was no one outside the fairy house. The walls had now been painted an ugly lavender, and the concrete gnomes and toadstools littered the wonderful garden. Afroze picked her way through the turtles with silly grins, the elves with fishing poles, their fishing lines embedded into a fake pond in which fake fish poked their pouty mouths out of fake water. She stopped only for a second to pay homage to the rosebushes.

Oh, won’t you all just die already.

Despite the arid heat of this lost town, those showy roses had never failed to bloom. She hated them. Their garish redness was the last thing she saw before she was sent away. When she used to sit on the steps watching sick humanity come to the doctor for their balms and needles, she always marvelled at how every single patient, no matter how unsteady on his feet, would somehow avoid the rosebushes, the fresh lawn, and the long arms of the gladioli. They weaved and careened but always remained on the cobblestone path, the one shaped like two S’s saying softly, sweetly, snaky, “Simon-says walk this way to me.”

That path was still there. The only addition was a large, gongy wind chime hung from the veranda rafters. It did not move at all. There was, and had never been, much wind in Brighton. Except for the day Afroze had been sent away. That night had been blustery and angry. She felt glad the wind chimes were a new addition. She would not have been able to bear the memory of deep gongs haunting her for years.

The door, still painted forest green, looking ridiculous, swung open with her approach. A tiny waif stood there, holding an armful of sheets. She peeped with large, beautiful eyes at the woman frozen in the collage of the storybook garden.

“Hello, who are you, then?” Afroze said, realizing too late that she had launched into the typical singsong voice adults reserved for children. She remembered this parody voice well. It had followed her for most of her childhood, when she had wondered why adults believed that if you increase the octave and amplitude of your voice, you were somehow less scary.

The little sprite bolted. In a language that Afroze neither understood nor recognized, she heard the girl calling someone.

A tall woman appeared at the doorway; the girl had dropped her dirty sheets and stood behind the woman. Clearly a mother and daughter.


“Can I help you?” the woman said, guarding the door with her large, strong frame.

Afroze climbed the stone steps and faltered for a fraction of a moment. She extended her hand; the woman did not take it.

“I am here to see Doctor Sylvie,” Afroze said.

“The doctor is ill. She will not see patients,” the woman said and Afroze tried unsuccessfully to place the African accent. Was it Nigerian, Malawian? She had no ear for accents.

“No, I mean...I’m sorry, I should have been clearer. I am not here as a patient.”

The woman’s eyebrows raised and she looked almost ready to shut the door. It seemed as if she had spent a great deal of time sending people away from the fairy house.

“No, wait. It’s just that...I received the call. From the Seedat family who live nearby. It’s me. I mean...I am her daughter, Afroze.” The woman’s face traveled through a range of expressions, at least one of which appeared to be wariness, to see this long-lost piece of the doctor’s history. Obviously this woman knew much. About the secrets the doctor kept hidden. With discomfort, Afroze noted that it is very unnerving to meet someone about whom you know nothing, but who by the words on their face tell you that they know everything about who you are.

“Rosie ...” The woman breathed.

And although Afroze had not been called that name in over twenty-five years, she answered to it. “Afroze...Yes, Rosie. Who are you?”

“I am Halaima ... I live here with Doctor. I look after her. I have been with her for ten years.”

Afroze saw the proud jut of the woman’s chin. She reveled in her care-giving. She felt that the old doctor was hers. Immediately Afroze knew: she was resented.

“May I see my mother?” she asked, stepping forward. Asking a stranger for the right to open the gates to her own heritage.

Halaima hesitated, looking backward into the dark house, as if she was asking the house for permission. Or perhaps she was asking a ghost in the house for permission.

Finally she moved aside and held her palm upward toward the passageway with a swaying motion. In her movement, she smacked the little girl standing behind her skirts in the face. A loud wail for such a tiny body.

“Oh, now look what you have made me do. Bibi won’t stop wailing now, silly child. Oh, Doctor will be so upset. So upset.”

And on cue, a hoarse voice followed by a racking cough echoed down the dark halls.

“Halaima! Halaima...why is my Bibi crying? What is it? Halaima...”

“Oh pssssh!” Halaima said, flustered. “Look now, what you have done. Just look how you have upset the doctor,” she spat out at Afroze, who was trying to work out how she was the one to blame.

Halaima pushed the little Bibi outside and, in her thick language, instructed her to go and complete her wailing at the far fence.

She turned to Afroze, who was rooted to the ground. It had taken her fewer than five minutes in that horrid garden to return to being the five-year-old naughty child, the one made to go and cry in far fences. Some things remain as they were. And they still smell of showy roses.

Halaima had scuttled back into the house, and Afroze heard a muffled exchange. A gruff voice refusing repeatedly. A softer one getting louder. Her mother did not want her there.

Finally, Halaima reappeared with a swish of her beautiful African skirt.

“Go in,” she mumbled, and indicated with her almond eyes toward the room on the left down the hall. The darkest room. The one where saris floated romantically to the floor.

Afroze walked with purpose. She was an adult now. A full-grown woman with her seals and medals of heartbreak, mad-crazy-forbidden love, sex, salaries, properties, dinner parties, cars, and nothing much else. There was no need to fear anything. She was a somebody now. But why did she almost trip as she entered the dark room?

The drawn curtains were pink floral. That was the first incongruous thing she noticed. Her whisky-drinking, cigar-voiced mother hated pink floral. But as she looked to the little head poking out from underneath mounds of covers on the bed, she noticed the pink floral pattern everywhere. It was dizzying. She felt the room spin.

“Mother...” she whispered.

The woman in a pile of pink and satin seemed frail and ethereal, staring with milky eyes at the wall.

“Mother, it is Afroze...” Again she whispered softly, in a voice reserved for rooms of the very ill and of the already dead.

Her mother did not move. Afroze crept closer and was about to speak again when her mother’s voice, in a loud, hoarse boom, spewed lava from her sickly colored bed.

“Rosie! What the hell are you whispering for? I am not dead yet.”

“Oh, Mother...I’m sorry. I thought you might prefer quiet...I...” That harsh croak had melted away all the years of steel, and she was a little girl again, watching her mother light a cigar and throw herself onto the lap of a man who had come to visit from the big city. One of many. She saw the clinking ice in the glass and the gleam of admiration in the eyes of a suave gentleman.

“Fuck you, Rosie. You ruined my body, the day you slid out of me. Now, go and see to Bibi because Halaima said you made her cry. Give her some of your money. I hate to see my little girl cry.”

Excerpted with permission from The Architecture of Loss, Zainab Priya Dala, Speaking Tiger.