by Suhayl Saadi
Madonna di Monserrato,
You are black, like the new moon
I kiss you in silver
Please grant me this grace I have requested!
Dario of Sannicandro
It was almost the end, and she needed a drink.
She slowed her pace, and then stopped. Glanced down at her watch: two o'clock, post meridiem.
Maybe she would have an ice-cream. There was still time.
At the age of thirty-five, Nargis had reached the end of England, the place where the sea washed into the land. She shivered, and then adjusted the bag so that its strap sat more tightly around her right shoulder. It was a multi-purpose bag, and inside, it was insulated, but the outer skin was of soft, black leather. It had both a plastic seal and a zip fastener, so that within the bag, everything remained dark and fridge-cold. The asphalt of the esplanade burned through her sand shoes, so that she had difficulty keeping both feet flat on the ground and at first she rocked on the edges of her soles like some nervous schoolgirl. But after a while, she began to relish the feel of her feet on the hard surface. It was like her shoes weren't really there. It was like she was walking on skin.
Four hundred miles through the clean darkness, with the car windows rolled all the way down. The night air siphoned through metal. Pure, black, cool. Like Barni.
The bag, she'd placed beneath her seat. Just in case. Now, she would be able to choose.
She'd run out of fuel and had walked the last ten miles through rolling fields and suburbs, and now, in the early afternoon, she had reached the esplanade and it was growing hotter by the minute. Everything was white and blue.
Her tongue pushed up dry against her gums. The heat was making her sleepy like the people strewn over the benches and the beach. She'd bought a pair of large, oval sunglasses and a floppy white hat from one of the promenade stalls. The hat was too big, and she kept having to push back the brim from her face. She felt the sun turn the skin of her legs, salt brown. She had the urge to pull down the hem of her dress, but of course, the dress wasn't long enough and would've torn ignominiously, stupidly. Plimsols and a flowery dress . . . a gauche combination, her mother would've said, but then, Nargis had never possessed any matching sense, either for clothes or for men. She'd always seen it as one of her strengths. And she'd pulled her man, hadn't she, whereas her mother had lost her's, a long time back. Anyway, it was too late to cover up; her skin was already getting browner. Perhaps, by the time she reached the end of the promenade, she would be black as death. Her body seethed beneath the cotton. She longed for a cool shower. She breathed, deeply, but the air was burning and grainy, and she began to cough. A long, white metal shark sleeked past. A cop-car. She coughed so hard, she doubled over and her hat nearly fell off.
Nargis pulled herself together and adjusted the hat, felt its cotton burn, white beneath her fingers. She went towards an ice-cream stall. She wished she could let her hair loose about her shoulders. She marveled at how hot it could get, here, on the southern frontier of England. She stopped, and closed her eyes. Tried to imagine she was somewhere else, somewhere she had never been, somewhere almost exotic . . .
But it was still England. The snatches of constipated conversation, the weary stink of urinals and deep fries and the incipience of despair. She opened her eyes, but her sunglasses had slipped down so that the light almost blinded her. She'd always thought her nose was too narrow at the bridge, and too flared at the ends. Too Indian. Sepia, through cheap plastic. The promenade, with its iron railings and its flower baskets brimming over with purple and yellow pansies, was perfect, a film-set walkway where everything had been scripted by a creator. She almost laughed. No-one had created the real world. Barni didn't believe in God. He'd told her that, the first time they'd met. He'd been a Parsee and once had followed fire and gods but long ago, had abandoned all that and now, Barni believed only in himself. And in money. It had made such sense. She saw him, standing there in black, the firm clasp of his mouth and his earnest, dark-brown eyes. His wavy hair which rested just above the curves of his ears. He had the gravitas of an older man, but the body of a twenty-five year old. He was fire, could outrun a galloping horse. When she was with Barni, she burned.
He'd sounded like one of those Indian psychologists who'd been all the rage, a few years back. It's just a state of mind, he'd said. You can do anything . . .
But anything was difficult if you were an admin assistant in the back office of a small-town jeweller's. Her mother'd had great dreams for her, wonderful balloons of dreams which over the years Nargis had had immense pleasure in puncturing, one by one. She was a spoiler. So many years, yet nothing changes.
She gazed upwards but avoided staring straight at the sun.
He had swelled and stretched in her mind and had come to fill the sky from one horizon to the next, from Northumbria to the Channel, and now she let the sunlight play on her skin and she felt Barni dance across the blue. She longed to sink into his burned, Indian face and she longed for the soft touch of his lips which were quite unlike those of the English men whom she had kissed. Different lips, different songs.
The flower-baskets on poles reminded her of those stick pictures she had used to draw, of hanging men. Gibbets. You got a word wrong, and it was another notch of the noose.
The stall had pictures of various ice concoctions plastered like Anglo-Catholic saints across the cream metal of its front. The woman behind the counter was politely aggressive. An Empire junkie. The town was all Dad's Army. On the way in, she'd seen adverts for musicals which were more like World War Two bulletin board announcements.
She decided that the flat taste of vanilla would be heavy with the wrong kinds of dreams. Even if she hadn't eaten anything since Northumberland, the night before, she needed to keep a clear head. A mind, sharp as a sword. No, water was best. It washed in and out, it held no secrets. It allowed you to function. And she needed, above all, to act and not merely to think of acting. She'd done enough thinking. Thirty-five years, up there in the place they called the borders. The hills, the forests, the killing wind. Pebble-dashing and pot-pourri shops. Tourist trails, through tamed woods. It was in the forest, they had talked about this whole thing. Her idea. A lovers' conspiracy. Later, he had claimed it had been his, but they both knew that wasn't true. She smiled, and felt a sudden, stinging pain and then the taste of blood. Her lips had cracked. She licked off the blood, reached into the chest freezer and pulled out a two-litre bottle of mineral water. Drinking French water made her feel almost as though she was in France. Just a swim away. She laughed. The dreams of the English. Her chest was wet. She glanced down and realised that her dress had pressed up against the rubber and metal of the freezer rim. It was thin and flowery and when it got wet, it stuck to her like another skin. He'd bought it for her around Easter and she'd hung it in her cupboard on a special, wooden coat-hanger which had the words, NETHYBRIDGE HOTEL indented across the gloss. One of the places they'd been to, over the months.
The saleswoman's face was long and red and worn and now she seemed irritable, impatient. She stuck out her hand, and spoke quickly.
Two pounds, forty-nine.
Her fingers were stumpy and coarse, and the nails were cracked. Old wars, or the washing-up.
Nargis fumbled, silently cursing the bag for being too full, but then, she'd had to take what she could find, it wasn't as though she'd had all the time in the world. And after all, the cold innards of the bag would save her.
She found some coins and paid the woman in silver, though not with exact change.
After the woman had been paid, she became friendly and commented to Nargis on the nature of the weather. It took an effort to refuse to react, not to nod her head, not to smile. She did not want to be remembered, but wanted to sink like burnt umber into the canvas of the day. There was a small mirror framed in red plastic, hanging from a thread like in a Dali painting and every time the wind got up, the mirror twirled so that one moment, Nargis caught herself in the glass; her walnut-brown eyes glinting over the upper rim of the trendy, oval sunglasses she wore perched on the bridge of her nose, the floppy white hat, the cheekbones a little too high, a little too Middle Indian; and the next, it was all fluorescent blue logo:
She grabbed the mirror and adjusted her hair, gathered the wisps beneath the hat. Then she let go and the mirror spun round and round, her face and the logo alternating maniacally. She shivered. Her mother had married an Englishman, her father, and before that, her mother's mother had carried her entire family from the burning ground of Bhaarat to the glass cabinets of England. All her life, Nargis had bought British and now at last, she was selling it. She felt a sudden, exhausted elation. Her body swelled and her head grew light. Today, she would dance on air. It was more than just running away. Barni would be proud of her. His reference points were all American. A transplanted, third generation Indian Parsee living in England, Barni had dreamed himself further west, still, out across the open ocean. Barni's aim in life was to get ahead, to move on. Sometimes, she had wondered just what it was, he wanted to get ahead of. And what would happen, once they'd got ahead. Then what. They'd have to keep going, to remain one step beyond. To move, from border to border. She shuddered, and pulled the bag closer to her body, felt the leather of its strap on her back. England was too small. It was like one of those nightmares. Eventually, no matter which direction you ran in, you would hit the same coast. The dark, northern sea which today, was a deep, British blue.
She sat on the edge of the balustrade. The benches were full of ex-soldiers. Sticks, lenses and desperate chat. She bit off the ring of plastic beneath the top of the bottle, unscrewed the cap, and drank. The water was cold, and it sank beneath her breasts and into her belly and suddenly, her face felt hotter than ever. She let the bottle down and found herself focussing on the brown sandals of one of the benched pensioners. Her feet were horribly deformed, the toes twisted impossibly across one another. Nargis felt her stomach turn. The woman stared at her through untinted glass. Perhaps the woman had come, in her WACC uniform, to this town when everything had been black and tan, and had been made love to by her long-deceased lover amongst barbed wire on the lower levels of the pier. They would've walked, barefoot, across dark sands. And the sky would've swung with searchlights, and sirens would've howled into the night and in the midst of great deformity, there would have been no deformity. Perhaps the bench bore her lover's name. Perhaps they had never married and had dwelled only in the lost time. Like the grandiose hotels, their walls painted in thick creams or whites with overblown names emblazoned in gold across their fronts: The Charleston, The Grand Lawrence, The Rochester. The food would be crap, the patrons all-white and the only music, 'Forties Swing. Grey coffee, served with cold milk from pewter jugs. Gun-metal. But then, Nargis's own mother still wallowed in the lost opportunities of her cracked marriage. We all live with one foot in the past, she thought. She wondered what her mother would think of her.
Nargis felt closed-in, as though there was no air in the sky. She turned away from the town and tried to twist around towards the sea which was the only safe place. She felt the gas slosh around inside her as she twisted. Since the age of about thirteen, she'd felt clumsy and had seemed always to put on weight in the wrong places. She had good legs, though. Strong legs, to have run four hundred miles. In another time, Nargis would've been seen to have possessed some kind of beauty. She felt the hem of her dress, flap against her knee-caps, and she was glad, then, that she had worn it. The horizon seemed to buckle at its ends, and Nargis found it strange that anyone could ever have imagined the world to have been flat. The sea air smelled pungent and was not altogether unpleasant. The sky was almost white.
It seemed as though everything moved and yet stood still, and she felt her mind begin to sink into a low, buzzing sound.
She glanced down at her palms, at the lines filling with sweat and with condensation from the plastic bottle. A mixture of hot and cold. Like fever, or madness. Perhaps this whole night and day was just some feverish nightmare. But dreams were never painful, and her feet hurt. She scanned the rocky beach where bathers reclined, apparently oblivious of the stones. It was the same old scene, the lonely, married men vertiginously following the secretaries' legs while their wives read romances and dreamed, on the stony beaches of England, of some smiling Latin lover who would leap off the paper-back'd pages and sun-bed them into a beatific future.
Perhaps Barni would rev up on a motorbike, incline his head towards her, and they would power away, going south, always south.
Nargis laughed out loud and then felt embarrassed. As far as she knew, he didn't own a motorbike. Just a blue four-door. The woman with the feet was still staring at her. Her fingers tightened around the thin end of the bottle.
God, she hated this place. This England.
She got up, and shaded her eyes. In the distance, right at the end of the promenade, was a long, wooden pier, topped with buildings, which protruded far into the sea. The walls of the buildings gleamed white, while their roofs had been painted a light blue. The cupolas, domes and summer gothic spires rose into the heat so that the whole structure seemed to hover above the pier.
The closer she got, the stronger the smell of worms and fish became, and the more she felt like retracing her steps. She felt the people were secretly laughing at her gaucheness, at her blackness. It was the old feeling she'd had as a child living in the north. The dead snake inside. She'd thought she had cast all that away when she'd met Barni. Six months earlier, a mid-winter business trip. She'd felt so free. The things he told her, the stories he wove. After all, he was a traveling salesman. She'd never got a handle on just what it was he sold; it seemed to change every so often, so that one day, he would be touting glass and the next, insurance policies, or mortgages. Death Pledges. That was what she liked about him. He was a winter stream, never stayed in one place long enough to freeze over. And now, in the middle of summer, the stream had brought her to the sea. But she was the same person, today, as she had been, the day before, even the night before. Six months can't change a life. One second, maybe.
They'd met down by the foot of the pier, one night when she'd been at a loose end. An evening off. Too many brandies. Too much yellow fire. Yeah, well, it'd been an outing away from barred windows and pig-iron safes. For years, she'd watched as gold had been turned into paper, and after she'd handled the paper, she had washed her hands beneath scalding, belching taps. Metal and stone. She'd not been permitted to touch the sapphires, emeralds, rubies, diamonds—even blue zircon and amethyst had been out of reach for Nargis. She'd heard of a woman who'd taken up with some rich Spanish guy and gone to live with him in the sun. Whenever Nargis thought of this woman, a question would begin to form in her brain and after a while, the question would become massive, so that she felt she would explode. God, the South Coast in January had seemed exotic.
It was a windless, frozen night and the sea had grown sluggish like an old beast. She found herself at the end of the pier. It must've been two, maybe three, in the morning. Even the gulls were asleep. She heard the waves lap menacingly against the beams, far below, and she almost felt the breath of the beast on her neck as she leaned against one of the cold wooden pillars and tried to light a cigarette. It took her five attempts—either her hand was shaking, or else the phosphorus was damp—and she inhaled the fag smoke, let it seep through her chest, and then she expelled it into the black salt air. Seven or eight draws . . . and her ciggie went out. She fumbled, attempting to light another.
Then she saw him. Standing beneath her. Between her and the sea.
She was surprised that there was a platform down there. She had thought she was as low as anyone could get, without drowning. Oddly, she wasn't startled. Perhaps, she'd reasoned later, it was just the drink. But no, it was as though she recognised him from before. He had a long, dark-brown face, almost a Brahmin face, and he was smoking and he wore a black bomber jacket, somewhat loosely. Funny, she thought, maybe he doesn't feel the cold. Perhaps, like me, he has a lizard skin.
She had gone down, fag blowing, and they had talked, two Indians from way back, seventy years British and yet somehow cast out from this town and its deformed obsessions. They had talked for hours and she had felt the long line of his spine, slide and taughten against the old wood of the pier, and she had felt his long, dark face against hers, and they had stayed that way until the morning sun had turned the sea orange and then yellow. And then they had exchanged addresses. No, that wasn't right. She had given him her address. He had none. He moved around the country. Like a black dog, he had joked, and she had laughed. It had not been her usual, nervous laughter, but a great, bellowing guffaw which probably could've been heard on the other side of la Manche in the land which, after all, was contiguous with the land of her mothers.
They had met many times after that, mostly in assorted, lowish hotels across the north of England. The sorts of places where the clientele wore grey and drank neat spirit. Red faces. Thick skins, old before their time. And she, too, had become a traveler and had dreamed in bedroom chintz. On one level, she hated herself for her submissiveness. But then, she thought, it was I who went down to him, it was I who stretched out my neck and kissed his skin.
His skin had tasted cold, of winter, of night. But she had grown to love the taste, the smell of him. When he would draw up in his blue saloon, her heart would begin to beat faster and when she lay with him, she felt something stir inside her, something deep and dark and long-denied. She had told him everything about herself. Seventy years of holding back. She felt it flow out of her like thick, accumulated blood and then she had begun to feel light, like someone in a movie. Yeah, Nargis had thought, I guess this is love.
The jewellery firm had been bought up by a fat-shedding conglomerate. At first, she had been distraught. It wasn't so much that she loved her job, but that she yearned for the unattainable proximity of wealth. Bangles, necklaces, rings. Chokers. It had been like a dance. The jewels, the gold, her flesh . . . paper. For a few days, she had felt like swallowing pills. But Barni had held her hand and had led her into the forest and they had made love and afterwards, they had lain together on a bed of dead leaves.
As she gazed into the deep black of the night, Nargis saw the brightest star she had ever seen, emerge from between two trees. The light spread over her body, and she felt herself sink into its cold, white fire. Then another star appeared, and then another, and soon, the sky was full of stars and Nargis found she could see them all, without looking. With the breeze turning cool against her skin, she could see through the branches of the trees and between the leaves. She could see everything. She turned to Barni, lying beside her, and she knew that the light was streaming from his face.
They had arranged to meet at three o'clock, beneath where she now stood, at the foot of the pier where the old wood was washed black by the sea. Down at the end, where the waves moved like the spines of big cats. She'd heard somewhere that the whole of the south of England, the entire long skin of this coast, was actually sinking into the Channel. That in a couple of hundred years, all of this—the stalls selling cheap sunglasses, the cemetery of dedicated benches, the fantasy oriental pier, the crumbling, white cliffs—would lie beneath tens of fathoms of water. Where she was now, would no longer be. Her shoes made a dull sound on the wood. The bag seemed suddenly to have grown heavier, and so, carefully, she swapped shoulders. The idea occurred to her that its contents might be melting but then, she told herself, that was absurd. There was no-one out here, except the occasional amateur fisherman surrounded by piles of lugworms. A thick rope was suspended at the top of a staircase. A sign was slung across the rope. Large, red letters painted across a dirty-white background:
DANGER! KEEP OUT
Nargis shuddered, then felt good. She liked the frisson which came from the thought of meeting him again in the very heart of the structure, down where the wood had turned a dark, foetid green and where no-one was supposed to go anymore. She checked her watch. Two-fifty-seven. Her eyes felt tired, dry. Her hair danced around the edges of her hat. The fisherman had his back to her and was busy contemplating the waves. In the shadows, she thought she saw a movement, the flick of a wrist, perhaps, or the flap of a jacket lapel, or the edge of a smile.
Maybe he was here, already. Waiting for her, as he'd promised he would.
She'd never had any doubts that he would wait. After all, she had the bag.
The clumsy sounds of brass drifted over from the esplanade pavilion. The English Society of Military Bands was cranking up for an afternoon's performance. Men with red stripes down their legs. Braids of fake gold. Wandering trombones. Musical killers.
Out on the water, the whitecaps of the sea rose and swelled like an army of sepoys and then abruptly disappeared into the ocean. She clutched her bag to her side and quickly, with a nonchalantly smooth movement, Nargis stepped over the rope and went down the metal staircase to the sea.
It got darker as she moved deeper into the structure and the iron steps were slippery. Halfway down, she stopped. She pushed the hat away from her face and clutched the rail, but shrapnels of rust stabbed painfully into her palm, and she let go again. There was no sound. Even the sea had fallen silent. She examined her palm, but she was barely able to make out the shape of the fingers.
Four flights, and she was there, on the twelve-by-twelve platform where they'd first met. She remembered measuring it out with strides, like some kid. They'd laughed about that, on the first night, and their laughter had turned to mist. The light was a dull green and the place smelled of fish scales and seaweed. The only sound was the regular slap of water on wood, a pulse which, occasionally and unpredictably, would deviate from its own rhythm. She found this in some way threatening and yet became obsessed by its dissonance.
But now, as she waited for him, she would not think a morbid thought. She looked for the fisherman's line, but couldn't make it out. It was much cooler down here, and from habit, Nargis found herself pulling her coat around her chest, only of course, she didn't have a coat and instead, it was the black bag which swung around onto her belly, and she just stood there, arms folded across her chest, waiting as he had waited, that night in the deep gut of winter. He had been leaning against the wooden pillar at the other end of the platform, and he had been smoking. That had been the first thing. The smell of cigarette smoke on the edge of the sea. But then she was no longer certain. Memory was a bummer. It played tricks on time. You could never retrace your steps. The interlacing wood of the pier obscured her view of the horizon, and all she could see was the water, almost black, beneath her and then further out, where it turned gradually silver. The glint in his eye. His long, thin, Indian form in the darkness of the pier. Fire in his face. He had said that there would be a speed-boat, waiting to take them both across the sea, to France, and then on, to South America, where they would lose themselves in the teeming cities. It was as far from pot-pourri shops and commercial hotels as you could get. The other side of the world. Os Mutantes, he'd said, with a fleck of silver in his eye which she'd thought was conspiratorial fraternity and she'd smiled with wonder that he, a Parsee from the middle of India via the middle of England, could have spoken even two words of Brazilian Portuguese. The Mutants. The New World. She'd felt surrounded by tropical beaches, pinned up on the office wall. Exotic stamps, paper dictators. Everything was turning slowly to gold. No longer would she flounder along the borders, not quite swimming.
The pillar was in darkness and anyway, Nargis had forgotten her fags. Her legs felt tired. That was why sailors drowned, she thought. Their bodies just gave up on them. Refused to live on. She turned away from the pillar, bent down and heeled off her trainers. She felt something fall from the bag.
Her hand automatically went to her side, to the belly of the bag, but it was too late. Something silver slipped from her, clattered through the planks and disappeared. She did not hear it strike the water. Panicking, Nargis undid the zip and split open the seam. She rummaged through the bag. She didn't dare remove anything. It was difficult, but she managed to check it all by feel. The reassuring coldness of stone. She sighed with relief, and sat down, stiffly cross-legged. The wood was coarse beneath her thin skirt and she shifted, awkwardly. Her back hurt. Her feet looked so old. It was funny how people's feet always seemed at least a decade older than the rest of their bodies. No wonder the Old Ones had offered up their soles, to be washed. All that walking . . .
Out where the sea turned a dappled grey, Nargis thought she saw something bobbing up and down on the waves. It glinted as it caught the sunlight and then it floated out to a place which lay beyond the furthest point she could see.
She removed her hat and placed it beside her. There was blood on the cotton. She did not wipe the stains from her palm, but watched as the globule of blood mingled slowly with the rust from the rail. She thought of undoing her hair, but instead, she cradled her bag tightly to her chest, so that she could feel her heart beat against the black hide. She drew up her knees and bent forwards. Nestled her chin along the padded rim. Felt the cold metal of the zip against her bone. She let her eyes close and she began to rock, gently backwards and forwards, and she felt a buzzing in her head, a pulse which ran with the rhythm of the sea. The smell of the leather mingled with the fish stink and with the night sweat that was still on her. Salt, in her mouth. Below the bag, beyond her feet, through a fissure in the planks, she watched the dark waves slide up against the foundations of the pier. One movement. Black on black.
And she waited for his face.
Copyright©2003 Suhayl Saadi