You’re tiny when you’re born, with your grandfather’s large eyes. The starburst, deep-set, knowing eyes, that only looked on your mother with sorrow. Your face is wrinkled, your brow furrowed with every painful laboured breath. As if you’ve inherited the shame of your existence, and it’s pressing, iron-like, on your chest. Your shameless mother didn’t care for the burdens given to her, of curiosity, of longing, of a mind that enjoyed the tiny details. You’re a tiny detail that has smashed her world, a pebble thrown at a sheet of glass.
They’ve given you a thin plastic filament that brings you bursts of relief. Your eyes widen rhythmically as your struggles are lifted in minute shifts. You’re unaware that you’re reliant on this plastic tube, it’s slenderness is a tether. You’re hooked on a machine, in a system that saved you automatically and has no interest in the ripples caused by every stilted gasp you finish.
Your blanched brown skin, an almond plunged into hot water, periodically flushes with effort and oxygenated blood. It’s so translucent that these internal pumpings can be followed, capillary by capillary. They strain the exhausted nerve-endings of your hollowed-out mother as she hovers in a shadowed corner. Hovers between relief that you’ve escaped her and fear that she’ll never escape you. Who bore you in the lonely stubbornness of self-flagellating penance, refusing imagined offers of help. For whom you are the swaddled testimony to her attempts to break free of invisible bindings, and whose first dark look at you is her last look as she leaves it all behind.
The Mishra chin
It’s her worst nightmare. After nine years of marriage, she’d opened the front door to a taller, green-eyed version of herself, holding the hand of a brown-haired boy. He had the adorable dimpled chin she’d always coveted in Jinesh and the end of a lollipop stick waggled in his mouth. The woman’s palm-frond eyelashes were damp.
“Is this the Mishra residence?”
Her voice was delicate and brittle, like sugar roses. The aroma of that disappearing lollipop made Tanima light-headed. She shook her head firmly; the little boy’s chin did the furrowing thing Jinesh did when he caught her eating lime pickle straight out of the jar. With anyone else I’d think they were pregnant, he’d say. She wasn’t sure how it had become accepted it was her fault not his. The reason for his confidence was probably on her doorstep. The next-door neighbours curtain twitched.
“You better come in,” Tanima said.
They sat upright and non-fidgeting on her faded green velvet sofa, refusing tea, biscuits, even water. She tried to track her husband down at the school, watching the invaders as she was repeatedly put on hold. The boy held one of those pointless toys she stepped on at her sister’s, the ones that were either an undrivable car or an unsteady robot.
“How old is your son?”
The woman blinked slowly, as if through honey. “My son? Um, he’s just turned ten.”
Ten years ago, Tanima had just started smiling at her brother’s best friend, who had suddenly grown into his ears. As if she’d conjured him, Jinesh chose that moment to burst through the door, brandishing the initialled leather briefcase she’d brought him on their fifth wedding anniversary.
“And where’s the emergency? Did you get your hand stuck in a pickle. Karima! Hello!”
It was almost worth it to see her youngest-head-of department husband look like she’d salted his coffee, again.
“Yes, Karima. And her very well-behaved son, who has the Mishra chin?”
“Well of course, as he’s Abhay’s boy? My younger brother who ran off with the waitress. I mean, with his first love.” He turned a toothy grin on the interlopers. “Isn’t genetics wonderful!”
They simpered at each other, while the Mishra-chinned boy bounced his wobbly robot on one of her embroidered pillows, as if he was used to playing alone. Jinesh didn’t put away his teeth, and the tips of his grown-into ears were red under his £40 haircut. Tanima licked her lips at his socially-veneered discomfort, an unusual experience she’d like to repeat. Jinesh did always say knowledge was power. The boy put down the chewed lolly stick, and she managed to snatch it up by the least-dribbly end.
Karima made noises about needing to feed her Jay, and Tanima considered which jar she’d throw first. Jinesh ushered them out of the door, exchanging email addresses and promises of coffee. He’d perfected his negotiating skills on bored fifteen-year olds, and the intruders were whisked out of sight without a whimper. Tanima placed her prize with the ends of her fingernails into an empty pickle jar and hid it in the salad drawer of the American-sized fridge where Jinesh never looked. She’d seen those DNA testing places on the internet.
“Isn’t genetics wonderful?” she said to her reward, a half-eaten bottle of mango chutney.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Literary Orphans, Noble/Gas Qrtly, Flashback Fiction and Mojave Heart review. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer