Farzana is prickled by her own reflection. The way the bags creep under her eyes, resting there like grey pouches, powdery and soft as an ear lobe. Coarse white hairs coil through her loose black bun like cotton thread. The same shade of rose in bloom smeared on to her lips for the last twenty years. It used to make the men look at her mouth in a feverish hope. Now it bleeds into the tiny lines around her still full lips. Her thickly applied kohl congeals at the corners, giving her face a smudged appearance, like a painting that is too late to fix. Farzana knows this herself. Mostly, she tries not to care until Nyla, her niece, sometimes reaches out with a freshly licked thumb to erase the smudges from her Khalamoni’s face.
Her niece isn’t sure how she feels about seeing the house but knows she has very little choice. Very soon it will be demolished, reduced to a heap of rubble and stones as dry as bones. Windows with the smear of fingerprints will collapse into shattered glass. Dust will rise out of its broken walls like fine crumbs. The images flow like a sewer in the backwaters of her Khalamoni’s mind, who now looks desperate and gives her sidelong glances that simmer with urgency. They have long ceased their desires. Nyla’s Aunty, who at once had cherished life, now seems to wane in her older years, trudging around the edges of it.
Nyla stares at the television absently. The singer is trying hard to catch her attention but does not succeed. Her hands rest in her lap. Her palms are like sand-coloured moons, facing up in a crumple towards the ceiling. She is thinking about the house. Her Khalamoni scuttles around her like a beetle constantly changing direction, interrupting the edgy silences with her curvaceous movements. She plumps up the cushions and sets them in place, wipes the coffee table down with a damp cloth. The smell from the cloth fills up the room making Nyla feel like she is sitting amongst pine and mildew. But she keeps her eyes fixed on the television. She is falling deeper into thought. Her chai has turned cold. A slimy crack appears in its dark brown film as Farzana bumps into the table with her large hips.
‘You didn’t drink your chai.’
Farzana’s voice fills the walls, rich with authority and mild with hurt.
Nyla stares at her mug. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I forgot.’
Farzana looks at her. In the shade of the slanted light that pierces through the window, she is the exact duplicate of Nyla’s Mother. For a moment Farzana is so startled, she wants raise her hands in surrender. In the briefest of moments, Nyla has brought Farzana back to her own sister Nadia.
Her niece has been quiet the last few days. It is a different kind of quiet. It slows her movements down and purses her lips. She is suppressing something. The key to her is slowly turning, locking her away from her Khalamoni, who sits down next to her, cloth in hand. Farzana smells of cigarette, garam masala and the gutsy cooking of burnt aubergine.
All the cleaning has made Farzana hot and her maxi dress is resting above her knees as though she is cooling her feet at the banks of the Padma River. The creamy inside of her thighs are etched with watery blue veins. Nyla turns to her, she has been scratching the cluster of pimples on her cheek, exposing raw pink skin. The heat of June is outside, waiting like a lost lover to enter the house and kindle the chilled corners, awakening it to life beyond a grief that has strayed. Beyond the unknown.
The photo sits on Farzana’s dresser like an ornament next to her bottle of perfume. The sellotape, which holds it together, seals the dust in. Nyla has spent hours looking at the picture until it had forged itself as a memory, of which she has clawed herself into.
This is the only picture of them. Nadia and Javed. They are sitting on grass, bleached to a desert of yellow lawn in the dense heat. Nyla’s Mother’s eyes are glittering towards the camera and her Father has the appearance of one whose laughter has been slowed down to a smile. There is a shyness perfectly folded into their faces. She has imagined herself walking with them through the Park, the lemony sun glazing their cheekbones. Her Father is wearing a white shirt, freshly pressed and his walk holds a cool sharpness to it. Her Mother, laughing softly, points at all the flowers, holding Nyla’s small hand like a secret. She used to ask questions – what they liked to eat, how they combed their hair, until one day Farzana exclaimed, ‘They were your Baba and Ma, stop calling them by those damned English names.’
This is what happens when she has been told things or scolded for using the wrong names. As they chop okra and fry it in a pan, or dig earth to plant tulips where they will catch the sun; over dinner as they spoon mouthfuls of channa with fingers. Memories that do not belong to her, but she can claim. She owns them by stitching them together to create her own fabric, loose and soft, billowing in the wind, fanning a tiny flame of history. Sometimes they sit in the evenings. Farzana has a book open, laying on her chest like a small tent as she is slumped in the chair, her eyes drifting into drowsiness. Nyla takes these moments to ask Farzana questions, knowing she will murmur her answers as she sinks further into a sleep, greedy with heavy snores.
Nyla has always been good at making excuses and declining invitations. Farzana tells her that’s why she has no friends. When this happens, she shrugs her shoulders in benign defiance, the tangles in her hair screaming out at Farzana to tidy them up.
‘I like it this way,’ she says.
‘You’ll never get asked on a date or find love,’ she wants to say in response, but she stops herself. She doesn’t want to be mean. She doesn’t want Nyla to leave her.
Often, she would be asked to describe the house to Nyla. A small grey brick terrace house all the way on the other side of London. It takes three trains to reach there from their little house in the suburbs. It was back then, the prettiest house on the street. The only house with an iron gate that was not broken on its hinges and had smooth pebbles that baked in the sun on either side of the path leading up to the bright red door. A house that told everyone that the inhabitants held a token of aspiration in their clean windows and boxed geraniums. That this was a stepping stone on to where they were really meant to be. The living room with the pale yellow wallpaper and a swollen cream rug that felt like furry flesh when you walked on it. Farzana remembers the strong stench of rose water which she could not bear. Each room, defined by a scent, a feeling, a tone, colour, texture and language all on its own.
Farzana has never wanted children. They were a nuisance to her. She wanted to paint, teach fine art at the local college, argue politics with her sister, listen to Qawwali with intellectuals; go out to dinner with different men and spend her evenings smoking under the opulent magnolia tree at the back of the garden. Children would be a stain on her life. But then Nyla was left in her hands, drooling and gurgling, small worlds leaking out of her dark pupils.
‘Tell me again what happened. Before we go and see the house.’
Farzana exhales, as if to say, I have told you so many times, why don’t you listen? Repeating things does not change them. Still, she acquiesces. She knows Nyla is waiting for her to reveal something new. If only she could.
‘Your Baba just left one day. No note, no change in behaviour the days before. Just gone. He took nothing. Not even his wallet. We checked all the hospitals at first.’
She picks up a pack of gold slims, one of several lying around the house and pulls out a cigarette, placing it between her two fingers. It’s her way of saying, I need to go outside soon. I need to stop talking about this with you.
‘Then I told your Ma to call the police. But she wouldn’t. It’s like she knew something. In the end, there was a burial. After that, your Ma stopped talking. All she wanted to do was hold you. But then she fell ill and…’
Her voice trails off. She gets up and slips the cigarette between her lips, her maxi dress loosely sweeping the floor. She looks like she is gliding towards the patio door.
Whilst Farzana smokes her cigarette, Nyla slips on her sandals and sneaks out of the house. She goes for a walk around the block and then heads towards the hill for a view of the town below. She likes going at this time. When dusk is blending into the darkness. Its silvery blue sky itching with streaks of pink and small boxes of yellow reveal houses and flats lit up from within. The June evening air is warm and breathy. She longs to take her shoes off and walk on the cold grass. To see the willow tree outside the house at the end of Dukes Avenue, bending and bowing its loose-limbed branches, its leaves, like lustrous hair getting ready to flirt with the moonlight. They are both nervous about going to see the house. They have agreed to go the following day.
The next day, their shadows lurk together, not quite yet fully formed in the slow rise of the morning sun. Farzana holds her purse in her hands; her clean red nail polish looks like it is melting, oozing off her fingernails in the light sweat of an early summer’s day. Farzana who believes in prayers being abandoned begins to pray silently under her breath.
There is a panic in her face which Nyla has never seen before. She has seen anger, irritation, a fiery temper plenty of times, but never this. It is like a hard layer which begins to be peeling at the surface of her face, gnawing into her eyes and lips and cheeks.
She is struggling. She has not been to the house for over twenty years. The last time she went was to pack up her Nadia’s things and bring Nyla back with her to stay. She knew Nadia would return. She had always felt it in her heart. Even on the day when the policeman with his young, milky face and naïve eyes told her what they had discovered. Even then.
Farzana is dressed immaculately. She is wearing a cream blouse and camel coloured trousers. Her gold loafers bear no scuff, having been freshly taken out of the shoe box, the clean warm smell of new leather softly treading on the pavement. Her gold earrings sway with her as she walks. Every hair is in its place, her eyebrows have been threaded to form neat arcs above her eyes.
Nyla stares coolly at the road ahead of her. She is not dressed for the occasion. She wears her baggy jeans, her black t-shirt, her long wavy hair is loose and pimples adorn her bare face like tiny bubbles of tender pink baby flesh, inflamed by anxiety. It is just a house she has been saying to herself. A building, a structure, an empty form. Walls made out of neatly arranged bricks welded together by cement. But she is not able to convince herself. She walks steadily alongside her aunt, carrying the seeds of hesitation within her.
Farzana’s long brown fingers reach for her leather purse. She takes out the brown envelope, just to make sure the letter is still there. She didn’t expect to hear anything about it being demolished but she is glad they informed her. It makes her feel like she is important.
They remain silent on each train ride, only speaking to each other when Nyla reminds her Aunt to get off so that they can change lines. They get down at Stepney Green and Nyla follows Farzana as her pace quickens. She knows the way exactly. Nyla is languishing in the breeze. The leaves clustering on the branches of the thick oaks. Soon they will be scorched to a brown, falling on to the ground in their curled crispiness, soaking themselves into rain puddles, stewing the water to blackened tea.
They walk down Alderney Road and turn into Argyle Road, past the terraced houses with their dark greying bricks and iron railings. Nyla looks straight ahead. They are looking for the house. She hears Farzana take in her breath and she looks to see the tears drip down slowly like drops of honey. For a moment Nyla feels awkward and angry. This trip to see the house isn’t for her, it is for her Khalamoni. The tears won’t come. She feels shut out of grief. She feels jealous. But then she looks at Farzana’s old feet walking slowly. Feet that have traversed three trains and walked miles all those years ago to collect her from school and a strange feeling comes over her, like a soft cloud puffed up with steamed warmth. She takes Farzana’s hand. She wants to see the house but she realises now it is out of heightened curiosity more than anything else. More than salvation. That if she really wanted to see it, she would have seen it by now. Farzana is her family.
Nyla stops her Khalamoni by squeezing her hand as she tugs it towards her. She motions to the small door in front of them. They both take several steps back to take in the view, the wholeness of it all. The air is still and the heat does not abate. Farzana glistens with the fallen tears and sweat on her face, daubing at it with a tissue folded neatly in her hand. She looks at the house. The door, the windows, the stony steps bludgeoned with cracks.
‘It is not the same house,’ she says flatly.
Nyla looks at her as Farzana stares straight ahead, detecting every detail.
‘What do you mean? It is the right number.’
‘No. I mean it has changed. It is not the house I remember. I mean look at it. Look at this filth.’ She motions to the heap of dog shit in the small front garden. She has reawakened with her usual irritation.
‘Is anyone living there?’ Nyla asks. She can see Farzana’s hurt and disappointment.
‘No!’ says Farzana and she takes out the brown envelope from her purse. Inside is a dark gold key, loosely hanging on a silver key ring. ‘I always kept it,’ she says quietly. ‘I always knew I would come back some day, perhaps with you.’
The key feels heavy in Nyla’s hand. She unlocks the door, satisfied by the catching sound it makes before the door opens and they shuffle into the house. The rooms are empty, reeking with the smell of neglect and laden with thick grey dust, parts of which escape by summersaulting in the shaft of light as it pierces through the front windows. The floorboards wobble shakily under their tentative footsteps.
Farzana stands in the middle of what once was the living room. She shakes her head, ‘It just isn’t how I remembered it. I don’t really know what I have been thinking. I don’t know why I have brought you here Nyla. It was a mistake.’
‘It’s okay.’ Nyla says. Suddenly, the memories she has created in her mind have come alive and now roam around the house alongside her. ‘Things change.’ she murmurs. ‘They don’t remain as we remember them.’ Farzana looks at her niece, blinking hard. She nods her head and coughs into her tissue. As she blinks, the kohl under her right eye smudges to a black thorn, nestling amongst the curly petals of her lower lashes.
‘I can imagine them living here. The two of them.’ Nyla peers into the kitchen, through the window that frames a small back garden with long meadow-like grass scattered by ageing cowslips, flanked by broken fences which lean in the direction of the wind.
‘For a time they were happy.’ Farzana says. ‘Until things became bad. She always used to call me and tell me about their troubles. I thought it was just a phase, that things would pass and return to normal but there never was a normal. What is normal anyway?’
As she talks, they walk up the stairs, the dust kicking at their heels, the ray of the sun trying to fight through the small window at the top of the stairs. Farzana heaves her body up each step, the price still on the heel of her shoes. They reach the first floor with its narrow space between the two bedrooms and the bathroom. The tiles in the bathroom have brown dirt in the grooves and there is a crack in the bath that makes it look like a huge broken tooth. Nyla, beguiled, walks into the smaller bedroom with the egg yolk coloured wallpaper, papery and flaking in parts like dead yellow skin.
‘This was going to be your room.’ Farzana says.
She hovers outside in the hallway giving Nyla the chance to really feel the weight of the room. Where her Ma would have lovingly rocked her as a baby, inserted a swollen nipple into her small mouth, smelt the warmth of her unblemished skin. Farzana watches Nyla closely. They both start to linger around the house like two endless shadows roaming, their dark heads sitting on top of their bodies like cannonballs. But now, something happens, as the light continues to pour into the rooms of the house. As their spirits don’t explode into despair and instead, awaken themselves and begin the ascent to a life beyond shadows.
Soon they will soar.