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“You are far too young to be nostalgic for anything!” exclaims Arati , and everyone laughs except Siri, who she’s addressing. Siri’s the youngest of us, fifty-eight, a juvenile in this damn place. In good health, she wouldn’t be here. The rest of us, of course, our families need a few hours a week respite from. If only we could have a few hours respite from ourselves, heh! “Tricycles,” murmurs Siri, “bottled milk”, but no-one but me’s listening, our own answers already said.
The afternoon is still and warm, turmeric sunshine staining our faces, stretching our shadows across the (barely) living area. Arati sighs, content to have stirred the group’s amusement, her own the loudest. Scrabble tiles click against their board. “No, no, Sonny” says Mr Agarwal, playing, “’Discombobulated’ is spelled with a C, not a K.” Plastic tiles click away. Beyond his giant head, someone I can’t quite see raises a scrawny arm, waves for tea.
I sit side-on to the windows, watching Siri from the corner of my eye, lost, I hope, against the light behind me. I knew her as a young woman. Knew the scent of the back of her neck, where her hair fell damply. Knew the incline of her firm round thigh, long before her family found her a husband. I don’t think she remembers this, or me. She worked in my factory. She was a good machinist. Lifetimes ago.
She’s been coming here for the last five Wednesdays. Her daughter drops her off, points to her watch, taps the glass under her mother’s nose, Siri’s face as blank as the surface of my Assam. As warm. Right now, she’s playing with a pastry, pulling it apart, puts a little to her mouth. “It is called a croissant”, I mutter. A daring reaching out. “It comes from France.” “It comes from Tesco!” calls Agarwal. Siri looks between the two of us, then at neither of us. But I think she seems more eager as her fingers return to the plate.
I watch her eat, and drop buttery flakes down her front. Don’t rush back, daughters, I pray to whoever. Leave us both here a little longer today, please.
The shadows drag across the walls.
If someone handed you a matchbox with their phalanx bones inside, and referred to it with a shy smile on handing it over as ‘Toe of Toe Hall’, you’d be charmed, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t yell out to a cafeteria full of teenagers “He’s giving me his boner!” You wouldn’t join in the laughter pouring down like pig’s blood.
I had my first body parts removed at the age of six. Airborne Foot versus Metal Bed Railing. Several bones in the second toe on my right foot didn’t make it. The doctor at the hospital took one look and said “amputation”, right in front of me. I got to take the removed sections home, as a bribe to stop me screaming.
For years, I kept them in an empty matchbox, which I dubbed Toe Hall. Push open the drawer: Toe of Toe Hall. My parents laughed at that every time.
And they bought me a new bed.
Sixteen-year-old girls apparently don’t like receiving body parts. Personally, I thought it a sweet idea, that I was offering something of myself. I wasn’t good at small talk.
Daphne was in my tutor group. We were in the same room for roll call every morning, five days a week. It wasn’t as though I were a total stranger. It’s not as though I necessarily expected her to display my toe bones against her own skin, in the warm, scented hollow of her suprasternal notch, say. She could have kept the box on her bedside table. I didn’t include instructions.
I tossed the box in the trash as I ran out of the building.
Doubled over. Stepping gingerly through the nettles and the low-lying gunsmoke. A chill on the morning, dew darkening the shin-high leaves, the bark. Straightening up, arching back, pressing knuckles into flannelled kidneys.
– A sharp crack.
Scarlet jellied sneeze splashes the nettles.
Don’t lose a contact lens in the forest during hunting season.
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