The Auntie from India knew nothing about telephone etiquette. Whoever picked up, she kick-started a fast spiel like a child who’d had a full day at the fun fair.
‘Hellooo. All okay? So hot here. . .’ Information on her various religious excursions to temples followed by social and local news moved quickly to problematic. ‘…and the thief solicitor, he’s demanding more money. I paid him that ten lukh Rupees we talked about. I reminded him we agreed the figures before he took on the case but now he is asking for more – ’
‘Auntie.’ I finally got a word in. ‘I’ll get Mum for you.’ Taking the instrument I tried handing it to Mum who was chopping the onions, mouthing Auntie.
‘Put it on loudspeaker.’ I noticed Mum grimace and knew it was because her sister regurgitates the same verbal diarrhoea. Fortunately, Mum was not timid at interjecting. ‘I told you not to pay up front.’
‘But…he came recommended,’ Auntie said defensively.
‘Probably bribed people to say it. Don’t pay the chura anymore. Solicitor indeed!’
‘But…he can’t carry on working the court case if I don’t pay another five hundred Rupees. At least that’s what he says.’
Mum cleared her throat, and leaned forward confrontationally. ‘They are like blood suckers taking everything from the poor people.’ She sighed. ‘Tell him a bit now and more when the case is finished.
‘Sister, can you transfer more money?’
‘Why do you want more when there’s still plenty in the account?’ Mum snapped.
‘Juswant…took all…he’s emptied the bank account.’
‘You gave him our pass codes? Why?’ A long cringe-making pause. ‘Why’s your son done that?’
Another slice of silence, then Mum let forth a stream of words that slapped whip-like against the air. All of a sudden it was difficult for me to breathe. A few more moments and my ears would start buzzing. Hearing Dad at the front door it was as though he’d brought fresh air with him, and I breathed again. And then wished I hadn’t. He was waving a wafer-thin airmail letter.
My sister and I are both Daddies’ girls. He is the cool moon to Mum’s hot sun, and, to tap into a cliché, our closeness is envied by all because we eat, sleep, drink and watch everything together. His startling explosive swearing shocked Mum into ending her conversation. Looking from him to Mum who’d paled, I decided it was best to remain quiet.
‘This is blackmail.’ The letter sounded like a rustling leaf in late Autumn as he scrunched it. ‘I’d rather pay someone else than be related to their kind. Marriage? What, because I have two daughters? Never!’ He continued expostulating as Mum successfully prised his hand open, retrieving the paper with its neat, densely packed lines formed by the Hindi lettering. ‘I don’t want her, or-or her worthless son, or his loutish, any-any of his associates anywhere near my family. How dare…they’re snakes. You can’t trust any of them there…and they want to come here!’
I helped with dinner. Multi-tasking, Mum alternated between giving me instructions and telling Dad the latest news from family and friends.
‘It’s a good family. Sorting out a marriage could help take the pressure off all of us. The engagement can be soon,’ Mum said.
‘Someone getting married?’ Shyna had descended to take a mini break from revising for her History exam.
‘Yes,’ Mum said evasively. ‘Add half a teaspoon of garam masala. And butter the roti. Hurry, they’re getting cold.’
‘If we’re going, can I wear a mustard-coloured lehenga? And get my hair straightened?’ I asked.
‘No more questions!’ Deftly flipping and browning the final roti over the gas flames, she added it to the pile.
‘Betair we’ll tell you when you need to know.’ Dad’s lips twisted familiarly in a wry smile, softening Mum’s impatient glare at me. Had she then stormed out he’d have given the usual unnecessary explanation: ‘Your mum is bravely keeping sane for all her family.’ Or: ‘You know she only raises her voice when she’s right and we’re wrong.’ Shyna and I can’t wait for the time when she’s wrong. The one good thing to come out of recent events was bearable captive family time after our evening meals; engrossed in their issues, Mum and Dad nagged us less.
‘Why do you believe everything she tells you? Drug dealers? That’s what happens when you spoil your children. What does she want us to do? We can’t stop him. They are not my responsibility!’ Dad gulped down half his lager and, taking the remote control off me, started flicking through the television channels.
‘They could kill him…’ Mum pointed out.
Dad scratched his bristly chin thoughtfully. ‘That’s easy over there. I hear it’s less than five hundred pounds nowadays. Stabbings used to be popular but now tablets are more popular.’
‘Oh, that’s all right then,’ Mum said sarcastically.
Mum got her way and another money order was sent to Auntie. That was months prior to sorting visas, legal papers and booking tickets to India.
Thankfully the great day of departure arrived. While we stuffed ourselves inside it, the usual amount of labelled luggage was loaded into the taxi’s boot by the driver. For once, the train was packed. Standing close, Shyna and I sent coded texts to one another and had nothing to complain about at the journey’s end.
After Mum’s luggage covered the short distance between being tagged and put on the conveyor to disappearing through the plastic flaps, we accompanied her to be frisked by security. As a female uniformed officer was patting down Mum’s salwar-clad outside leg and up the inside, she beamed back at us and said very loudly, ‘My plan will get rid of them for good.’
Thankfully it was in Punjabi otherwise there could have been a number of deductions that the airport authorities would have made – some good, some bad. And of course she may never have got to board her flight.
Startled, we looked at Dad. ‘What plan? Dad, what’s Mum talking about?’ I asked.
‘You’ll find out when your mum gets back,’ he replied and added, ‘What are my lovely girls going to cook for their old dad tonight? Only joking. How do you say, you know, when the cat is away…?’
Either side of him, we hooked an arm through his and urged him along. ‘While the cat’s away the mice will play,’ Shyna said.
‘A-ha. Tonight is special time off so we get a takeaway,’ he said. ‘And we don’t tell your mum.’
Our welcoming her back in Britain again was double-edged. We’d enjoyed Dad’s no rules but we’d missed Mum’s strictness. Her cases by the wall looking like open-mouthed gargoyles, we sat together listening to Mum, and it was like the three weeks without her had never been.
‘Juswant’s really in trouble. He’s got in with the drugs cartel people from the next town. I had many long talks with the family. Everybody had ideas. Bring Juswant here. Or to another of our family in America or Canada. Or marry him off so he becomes a man. Anyway, it’s going to be difficult but we can sort it all. Shyna, pass me my bag.’ A quick rummage and Mum handed an envelope to Dad. His can of lager mid-way to his lips, never made it as she took it off him.
‘What’s this?’ Perusing it, he burst out laughing. ‘Hari Hound?’
‘Are we getting a dog?’ I asked excitedly. I had been expecting one every Christmas just like in the adverts on television.
Dad pursed his lips as he scrutinised the paper without his glasses. ‘Hm. For all your life’s complicated needs, there’s Hari the Hound here to help. Need help to find your other half? Missing information? No job too small or big. Just like bloodhounds, we sniff out the problem and get any job you need doing, done. Lots of needs in that. What, because they need it?’
‘Oh, does that mean we’re not getting a dog then?’ I asked but was completely ignored.
Dad asked, ‘And what’s he going to do? You trust all this…this Hari stuff?’
‘My gut said so. Dad went to Ludhiana with me specially to check them out, and met Hari. He thought the trip worth doing.’ Mum sounded self-satisfied.
It was Shyna that dropped the bombshell the next evening. Obeying parental orders I went to fetch her. Taking the stairs two at a time my rushed entry to her room was foiled. The door was locked.
‘Shyna, what you doing?’ I pressed down on the handle and pushed but nothing budged. She never missed her favourite television soap. Hunkering down to peer through the keyhole, I just about made out her form on the bed. Not a good sign for someone as exuberant as her. Standing up and tapping lightly, I called, ‘It’s me.’ All the locks in the house were well oiled so I barely heard it turn. She let me in but returned to her previous position. ‘You okay?’
‘I’m being married off.’
‘You got to be kidding. And you’re not old enough. You’re not, are you? And they can’t really make you…can they?’ Her immediate thump on the pillow with balled fists spoke for her.
She snorted. ‘Legal age is sixteen, and I’m nearly that, and in two years you’ll be too and we’ll find out then, won’t we!’
What a horrible thought. ‘But…how do you know…I mean, when did they tell you, ’cause I’ve been around the whole time and…’ I didn’t want to believe it.
Undoing her plait, she scraped back her hair and started re-doing it tighter than necessary. ‘They don’t need to tell us, do they…anyway, I heard Mum onto one of her friends and then she and Dad were arguing about it. That’s her big plan, remember? You know what Mum’s like, she’ll make Dad do what she wants.’
‘He doesn’t always give in.’ It sounded weak even to me. ‘At least not every time.’ With anything parent-related, Shyna and I were usually thinking on the same rung of the ladder. Mum could be evasive and talk with double-tongue, keeping everything open to conjecture. Dispiritedly slipping out of my pink rabbit-headed slippers, I joined her and sat lotus style.
‘She was saying, Mum that is, that she had heard good things about “the boy”. Makes sense now why Dad didn’t go with her to India. He stayed behind to spy on us.’ There was a catch in her voice. She rubbed at the point on her throat where it hurts if you stop yourself from crying. I always did the same.
‘We’ll have to get Dad on our side. Then they can’t make us do anything we don’t want to do.’
Shyna’s look was disparaging. ‘It’s nothing to do with “they”. You’ve been wanting a dog and have you got one? No, because Mum doesn’t want all that mess and cleaning. She’s the boss. I told you I thought they were up to something, didn’t I? And now the big day’s here. That’s probably why Auntie’s visiting.’ She twisted her lips exactly like Dad did, her voice bitter. ‘For my wedding.’ Pulling at my ponytail, she thrust it away forcefully stinging my skin. ‘Get it?’
I nodded and rubbed my cheek. ‘And she’s bringing – ’
‘Her son and a couple of his friends here,’ she completed for me. ‘I haven’t got much time. Wouldn’t mind but Dad doesn’t even like any of them. It’s all Mum’s fault.’
I didn’t understand what she was saying but I felt the dread move along my legs. My feet had already gone numb. ‘I don’t think Dad will let it happen. Besides, don’t they come here and you’ve got to be married there? Not the other way around.’
‘Doesn’t matter. They’ll make me. How can I embarrass them and say no? I think the best thing is to pretend to be sick tonight. And in the morning they can’t make me go to the airport with them. Then I’ll pack and stuff.’ All of sudden energised, she sat up with alacrity. ‘We know Mum puts her cash in the old toffee tin. You go get that while she’s watching television and I’ll check online.’ She took a noisy breath. ‘There’s bound to be places for vulnerable girls. Plus, we’re Asian. Look, go back downstairs. Tell them I’m not feeling great. Tell them I…I’ve just been sick in the toilet. Just copy me in the morning, okay?’
‘I can’t take her…it’s Mum’s money and it’s stealing.’
‘If you don’t we’re going to starve. You want to die? We aren’t going to find jobs straight away, are we? Take just a bit then so she won’t notice, eh? Look, I’m thinking on my feet here.’
I was about to tiptoe into Mum and Dad’s room, when Mum summoned us. Shyna motioned for me to go down while she hurried into the bathroom, locked the door and started coughing.
‘Where’s Shyna?’ Mum asked.
‘In the bathroom. I think she’s not well. Feeling sick she said to say.’ Whenever Mum looked at me I couldn’t do untruths. Mum passed me on the stairs to check for herself.
I don’t know how Shyna passed the lying-to-Mum test but she was believed. It’s a pity because as well as Eastenders she ended up missing out on her favourite dinner too. With the visitors from India coming, Mum had prepped loads. In addition to the saag, she’d made spicy lamb meatballs, and instead of roti to go with them, she did something unhealthy – puris. Dad and I made sure they didn’t go to waste. I even beat him by eating three fresh green chillies to his one with my dhal. It was worth it because he gave me five pounds.
As the evening wore on, my stomach started churning and I just couldn’t get myself to look at Mum and Dad. All I could think of was how much I’d miss them. When everything was cleared away and I told Shyna about Mum making a feast, she just laughed and said I wouldn’t understand even if she told me and then said, ‘It’s like the ritual of the last supper. I’m the sacrificial lamb.’
I had numerous suggestions ready to leap off my tongue, the prime-most one being telling Mum and Dad everything. In the morning, a very happy-looking Mum forced a terrible-looking Shyna to eat some dry toast. Acting like a martyr, Shyna nibbled and swallowed slowly but did whisper, ‘I’m starving,’ as well as opportunistically grabbing quick bites of mine whenever Mum had her back to us.
‘Girls, hurry up. We’re walking to the station and what with them working on our line, we can’t afford to miss our train.’ Dad was already wearing his coat.
‘But, Dad, I don’t feel – ’
‘Coat, Shyna!’ Mum interrupted with the voice, and Shyna was frozen. I followed suit hurriedly.
Safely ensconced and speeding towards Shyna’s doom and gloom future, I couldn’t help noticing the distorting effect of Mum’s face reflected off the carriage window; with the slightest of movement her expression was Machiavellian, one minute angelic the next devilish. I nudged Shyna, drawing her attention to it. She nodded obliquely.
As if she knew, Mum’s lips stretched a litter farther, deepening the creases either side of her lips. Some smiles were like laughter you couldn’t help mirroring. Our mum’s were as rare as the opportunity to lick a bar of gold.
‘You okay?’ Mum asked Shyna. Caught off guard my sister nodded. ‘You tell me straight away if I need to get you anything. I’m going to need both of you well and helping me take care of our visitors.’
‘Or we’ll never hear the end of it.’ Dad grinned but Mum’s glance wiped it off.
‘Good.’ Mum nodded, and the action caused her lime-green and orange diamond-patterned head scarf to slip. We had been waiting years to see it disappear but its colours refuse to fade. Her brows knitted together in a frown. Tutting, she pulled it up, shooting a silencing glare at us as if knowing that one of us was going to comment on how the hideous thing matched nothing in her wardrobe. The remainder of the journey was made in silence, broken only occasionally by the occasional comment from Dad about Hari Hound to Mum.
‘Ten weeks is so long,’ I couldn’t stop myself from saying when we got to Heathrow Airport. ‘I mean…every day…’ The enormity of what was about to happen had finally hit me.
‘They are not going to be with us all the time. They’ll be doing sightseeing. And going to stay with other relatives. Don’t worry…it’ll pass really quickly.’ Dad’s face didn’t match his reassuring words or tone.
Shyna spoke up. ‘Even with short stays with other relatives, it’s still a lot of days spent at ours. Aren’t they going to be stuck in their ways? Won’t they turn us into their servants?’
My sister was right. Indian hospitality was hard work.
‘You girls should have worn your Indian clothes.’ Mum seemed distracted as she looked at the signs for directions. All of a sudden she grabbed Dad’s arm. ‘We don’t all need to go. It’s only a few calls. I’ll meet you back at that cafe,’ she said to him and headed for the public telephones. She was gone for a long time but when she joined us she was like the feline who’d trapped her mouse and was anticipating the play to come.
‘You managed to get through then?’ Dad asked.
‘Yes. Everything’s sorted. I spoke to you-know-who.’ She leaned forward and when we followed her cue, she laughed and touched my cheek. ‘He said be careful here and make sure we’re not overheard. Just good precautions.’
‘Okay…but are…ahem…arrangements in hand here? Are they ready?’ Dad whispered loudly.
‘I went and checked. And Hari has been good. Efficient. All the information they need he’s given them. Including what they’ll find secreted. Just wait.’ Mum looked over at the people queuing for food. ‘I think I’m a bit hungry. Hm…a full English will keep me going until my sister and her entourage lands. Anyone else hungry? Shyna?’
We kept a close eye on the notice boards and were ready and waiting at the right place and time. Mum spotted her sister and managed a royal wave. The two young men nearest her were deep in conversation. They stopped briefly to cast an interested look in our direction.
I moved closer to Mum who put her arm around me. Something about them didn’t feel right. I could feel the knot inside my stomach and the onslaught of indigestion. ‘Mum, Shyna can’t marry either of them,’ I said urgently.
‘Marry? Who said so? Of course she isn’t.’ Mum looked from me to Shyna. ‘You’re too young for a start. What on Earth makes…’ She was looking in the distance. Airport security officers were leading the three newly arrived Asian people away.
‘Right, time to go back and kill more time,’ Mum said.
‘What’s going on, Mum? Dad?’ Shyna asked.
‘The officers must suspect them of carrying something illegal and trying to sneak it into the country. Or of course something else they shouldn’t,’ Dad said. ‘Not going too easy on whichever of them is the culprit, eh?’ He winked at Mum.
‘I totally agree with you.’ Mum nodded. Hearing her mobile ring, she answered. ‘Hello. Yes, Hari. Oh yes. Exactly as you said. Into the luggage? Uh-huh. Very good. Thank you. There’s no point in waiting for my sister, is there?’ She smiled back at Dad and pulled me close. ‘Yes Hari. I’ll definitely be recommending your unique services. The second half of the payment by bank transfer okay? Good. Bye bye.’