|A day's guest|
He set his suitcase down in front of the door. Pressed the doorbell and waited. The house was silent. No activity at all — for a moment he had the illusion that there was no one in the house and he was standing before an empty building. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow, then set his air-bag on top of the suitcase. Pressed the button again and put his ear to the door. An open window inside was being buffeted by the breeze.
He stepped back and looked up. It was a two-storey building, like the other buildings in the lane. A black roof, sloping on both sides in the shape of an upturned English ‘V’ and a wall of white stones in the middle, on whose forehead the house number shone like a black bindi. The windows upstairs were shut, the curtains drawn. Where could they have gone at this time?
He went around to the backyard. There were the lawn, fence, and bushes he had seen two years earlier, and in the middle the willow with bowed branches dozed like an old black bear. But the garage stood open and empty; they had gone somewhere in the car. They might have waited all morning for him before going out. But surely they could have left a note for him on the door?
He returned to the front door again. The stinging sunshine of August fell upon his eyes. His whole body dripped sweat. He sat down on his suitcase, right there on the front porch. Suddenly, he noticed some faces glancing out from the windows of the buildings across the street, looking at him. He had heard that the English people did not interfere in others’ personal affairs, but he was sitting outside the house, on the porch, where there could be no notion of privacy; and so they stared at him frankly, without embarrassment. But perhaps there was another reason for their curiosity: in a small English village community, more or less everyone knew everyone else, and he must have seemed a strange creature, not only in his appearance but also in his loosely dangling Indian suit. From his crumpled clothes and his dust and sweat-streaked face, no one could have guessed that just three days earlier he had read a paper at a conference in Frankfurt. "I look like a robbed and beaten Asian immigrant," he thought, and suddenly stood up — as though it was easier to wait standing up. This time, without thinking, he knocked loudly on the door, and immediately stepped back flustered — as soon as he touched it the door clicked open. He heard footsteps on the stairs — and the next moment she was standing before him on the threshold.
She had come running down the stairs and pressed herself against him. Before he could ask, ‘Were you inside?’ and she could ask, ‘Were you waiting outside?’ he caught her thin shoulders in his dusty, sweat-streaked hands, and the girl’s head bent down, and he laid his face in her hair.
One by one the neighbours shut their windows.
The girl gently disengaged him from herself. "How long have you been standing outside?"
"For the last two years."
"Ah!" The girl laughed. She found these things her father said completely crazy.
"I rang the bell twice — where were you people?"
"The bell isn’t working, so I left the door unlocked."
"You should have told me that on the phone — I’ve been running from front to back for the last hour."
"I was going to tell you, but the line was cut off in the middle... why didn’t you put in more money?"
"I had only ten pence with me... that woman was very unpleasant."
"What woman?" The girl picked up his bag.
"That woman who cut us off in the middle."
The man dragged his suitcase into the middle of the drawing room. The girl peered eagerly into the bag — packets of cigarettes, a long bottle of Scotch, bundles of chocolate — all the things he’d bought so hastily at the duty-free shop at the Frankfurt airport and which now peeked out of the top of the bag.
"You got your hair cut?" The man looked at the girl’s face at leisure for the first time.
"Yes... only for the holidays. How does it look?"
"If you weren’t my daughter, I’d think some vagabond had got into the house."
"Oh, Papa!" Laughing, the girl took out some chocolate from the bag, opened the wrapper, then held it out before him.
"Swiss chocolate," she said, waving it in the air.
"Can you bring me a glass of water?"
"Wait, I’ll make some tea."
"Tea later..." He was groping for something in an inside pocket of his coat — notebook, wallet, passport — all these came out, and in the end he found the tin of tablets that he’d been after.
When the girl came back with the glass of water, she asked him, "What’s the medicine like?"
"German," he said. "It’s very effective." He swallowed the tablet with some water, then sat down on the sofa. Everything was exactly as he’d remembered. The same room, the glass door, the same square lawn between the open curtains, like a green handkerchief, the reflections of flying birds on the TV screen, birds that flew outside and gave the illusion of being inside...
He went up to the threshold of the kitchen. He could see the girl’s back behind the gas range. Black corduroy jeans and a white shirt whose rolled-up sleeves dangled at her elbows. She looked very light and delicate.
"Where is Mama?" he asked. Maybe his voice was so low that the girl did not hear him, but it seemed to him that her head had lifted just a little. "Is Mama upstairs?" he asked again, and the girl stood there just the same way, not responding, and then it seemed to him that she had heard his question the first time too. "Has she gone out?" he asked. Very slowly, very vaguely the girl moved her head. It could have meant anything.
"Will you help me, Papa?"
He sprang forward and entered the kitchen.
"Tell me, what needs to be done?"
"Please take the teapot inside, I’ll be right along."
"Is that all!" he said, in a disappointed tone.
"All right, take the cups and plates as well."
He carried the things into the room. He wanted to go back to the kitchen again, but stayed seated on the sofa out of fear of the girl. The aroma of something being fried came from the kitchen. The girl was making something for him — and he was not able to help her in any way. Once he had the desire to go into the kitchen and stop her, to tell her that he wouldn’t eat anything — but the next moment hunger had overtaken him. He had eaten nothing since the morning. There had been such a long queue in the Euston Station cafeteria that he’d bought his ticket and boarded the train right away. He’d thought he’d get something in the dining car, but it didn’t open until the afternoon. In fact, the last meal he’d had was at the Frankfurt airport the previous evening, and after he reached London at night, he was drinking at the bar in his hotel. After the third glass he’d taken the notebook out of his pocket, looked up the number, and gone into the phone booth near the bar and dialled. At first he could not tell whether it was his wife’s voice or his daughter’s. His wife must have picked up the phone, because for a while the silence of the phone resounded in his ears, and then he heard her calling the girl from upstairs. And then he looked at his watch and suddenly realised that she must be asleep at this time, and he wanted to put the phone down, but right then he heard his daughter’s voice; she was half asleep. For a while, she couldn’t figure out whether he was speaking from India or Frankfurt or London... he was trying to explain his situation to her when the three minutes ended and he didn’t even have enough change with him to keep the connection; the only consolation was that among the sleep, the nervousness and the inebriation he had managed to tell her that he was going to reach their town tomorrow... tomorrow, meaning today.
Those were good moments. Outside, the pale and soft sunlight of England lay spread. He was inside the home. Waves of warmth had begun to rise up in him. The hurry and scurry of airports, the deceits and disputes of hotels, the fluster of trains and taxis —he was beyond it all. He was inside the home; not his own home, true, but a home nevertheless: chairs, curtains, sofa, TV. He had lived for ages among these things and knew the history of each. Every two or three years, when he came, he would think: How big his daughter must be now; and his wife? How she must have changed! But these things had stayed in the same place since the day he’d left home; they would leave with him, they would come back with him...
"Papa, you haven’t poured the tea?" She came from the kitchen carrying two plates, one with toast and butter, the other with fried sausages.
"I was waiting for you."
"Pour the tea, or it’ll be quite cold." She sat down next to him on the sofa. "Shall I turn the TV on? do you want to watch it?"
"Not now... listen, did you get my stamps?"
"Yes, Papa, thanks!" She was spreading the butter on the toast.
"But you didn’t write a single letter!"
"I’d written one, but when your telegram arrived, then I thought, now you were coming, so there was no need to send a letter."
"You’re really gaga."
The girl looked at him and began to laugh. This was her teasing name, which her father had given her many years ago, when he lived with her at home, when she was very young, when she had not even heard the name of India.
Taking advantage of the girl’s laughter, he bent close to her, as though she were some restless bird which could only be caught in a moment of deception: "When will Mummy be back?"
The question was so sudden that the girl could not lie. "She’s upstairs in her room."
"Upstairs? But you said..."
Kirratch, kirratch, kirratch — she was scraping the burnt toast with a knife as though she wanted to cut out his questions as well. The laughter still remained, but like some insect frozen in ice, it was glued to her lips.
"Does she know I’m here?"
The girl spread butter on the toast, then jam, then set the plate in front of him. "Yes, she knows," she said.
"Won’t she come down and have tea with us?"
The girl began to arrange the sausages on the other plate — then she remembered something. She went to the kitchen and brought back bottles of mustard and ketchup.
"I’ll go up and ask her." He looked at the girl, as though he wanted her support for his action. When she said nothing, he began to walk towards the stairs.
His feet stopped.
"Do you want to fight with her again?" The girl looked at him in some anger.
"Fight!" His laughter was soaked in shame. "Did I come two thousand miles to fight with her?"
"Then you sit with me." The girl’s voice was choked. She was with her mother, but not cruel towards her father. She was looking at him, coaxing — "I’m here with you, isn’t that enough?"
Nirmal Verma is a pioneer of the New Story movement in Hindi.
A winner of the Jnanpith, India's highest literary honour, he lives in Delhi