Ayah

By K.A. Richards

Perkins’ forays rarely netted anything, but this time he found something.

“What is it now, miss?”

“The usual: acting up.”

“You’ll settle down, miss, sooner rather than later. Just don’t do anything rash in the meantime.”

“Thank you, Perkins.”

The porter ambled off but stopped two classrooms away to peer at a framed photograph of a visit by the Duke of York. Watching Perkins scrutinize the photograph, Elsie thought of a clown balloon with long, cardboard feet, and that led to a recollection of another man with a large pot-belly; someone in Hindustan? Yes.

That old man at the fancy dress party in Shimla: he was up on his toes to raise his voice. “All children to the rose garden,” he was calling. “All children to the rose garden please.”

Elsie and Sybil were at the front of the crowd on the upper terrace. The toes of Elsie’s shoes had been catching on the hem of her milkmaid skirt, and Sybil was fussing: “Hold it up. You might fall.”

When Elsie started on the stairs, there was no one in front of her but there was that boy—no trouble remembering him in the treetop alongside the garden. He was holding onto the branches as if on a swing, rocking back and forth, impossible to miss, but no one else saw him; at least, Elsie didn’t recall any shouts. They couldn’t have seen him because he stuck out his tongue before disappearing into the tree, and he wouldn’t have done that if they were after him.

She remembered that but not other things. Why? Was it being so far away from it all? She could picture the rose garden on the lower terrace easily enough, could see herself making her way round a very tall ladder while a photographer on its top barked, “In the middle, please, milkmaid.” She could remember all of that, but did Nurse Baxter actually rush out of the watching crowd? She didn’t know anymore. However it happened, Philip appeared at her feet.

“Pooh! What a smell. Does he belong to you?” The question came from a girl in the next form at Miss Barton’s. She was a popular girl, and Elsie felt ashamed for having a brother who’d filled his pants.

And when Nurse made a show of dragging him away, Elsie felt even more ashamed. She followed them head down until her mother Sybil walked up and asked what was happening. Nurse turned Philip to show the back of his white, Pierrot pants: “This is what you get when a native raises children,” Nurse said.

“Take him back in the tonga,” was Sybil’s answer, and Nurse and Philip disappeared, leaving Sybil to return to the upper terrace with Elsie. She pinched Elsie’s arm hard while saying with a nod toward the Punch and Judy show at one end of the lawn, “You stay with me.” She then herded her towards marquees at the other end.

Inside one of the tents, a woman next in line pointed her gloved finger at the food and said, “This damned war. Miserable offerings for a party.”

Sybil shrugged: “We have someone on the Burma Front so we’re willing to make small sacrifices.”

The woman twitched her shoulder to grant the point. Then she asked, “What’s this?” She’d been poking a spoon into a condiment dish and had wrinkled her nose like that popular girl from the sixth form.

“Mango pickle,” Sybil said.

“Nigger food,” the woman muttered.

She said it like a man, the sort who hated Hindustanis. The kitmutgar waiting to pour their tea was looking into the middle distance so Elsie couldn’t show him that she hated the woman as much as he surely did.

So many people in Shimla were like that woman, Elsie thought, and in England too, although the woman was right about one thing: the food wasn’t very appealing. But Sybil had said Elsie had to eat something if she was going to watch the show so she choked down some sardine toast and bought fifteen minutes of happiness. The next dictum ended that: they had to thank the Viceroy’s wife before leaving.

The queue took forever, but eventually they stood before the wife who looked down at Elsie with kind, droopy eyes. Sybil gripped Elsie’s arm again.

“Such a pretty child,” the wife said. Lady Wavell, the only aristocrat Elsie had ever met.

Sybil pulled Elsie in close. “I’m afraid she’s a bit of a handful.”

Lady Wavell’s droopy eyes moved from Elsie’s face to her arm. “A handful. Difficult to believe.”

“She’s the bane of my existence, but thank you for thinking otherwise.”

separator

Elsie looked down the passage: Perkins had moved on, and no one else had been banished like her. In the room opposite, the pupils were laughing; the first burst sounded like monsoon thunder.

It didn’t storm much in Shimla, one of the reasons Sybil loved the place so much: moderate weather and a wealth of occasions like the children’s fancy dress party, the one with the cruel consequence.

Since Nurse had taken the tonga, Sybil had to hire a rickshaw, and for the negotiations with the coolies at the gates of the Vice Regal Lodge, Elsie acted as translator. Six years in Hindustan and Sybil could only say hello and no. And thank you. “Shukriya,” she said as she climbed into the rickshaw. Elsie hoped the coolies understood her.

As the rickshaw bumped along the Mall’s dirt track, a family of monkeys raced the over the rooftops below, banging on the metal as they jumped from one roof to the next, and whenever they came close, Sybil looked the other way; disease carriers she called them: “It’s the one thing I don’t like about Shimla. Compared to Doon, there are so many more of them here. Filthy things.”

“Ayah says monkeys are good.”

“Ayah believes in rubbish, but what else can you expect?”

A goose walked over Elsie’s grave then, and Elsie’s shiver made Sybil tsk-tsk: “We wouldn’t be out in this chill if it weren’t for Philip. I’ll have to keep an eye on him, even with Nurse in charge.” She appeared to speak to the bent backs of the coolies. “Imagine him doing that at his age. What will come next?”

separator

He was huddled under a blanket in their room at the guesthouse; Nurse Baxter was in a chair. When Sybil and Elsie came in, Nurse stood and said: “I’d like to talk outside for a moment.”

With Nurse and Sybil gone, Elsie lifted the blanket. Philip’s breath was shuddering as if he’d been crying. She thought about waking him, but that didn’t strike her as a good idea; it would anger Nurse and Sybil. Best wait until morning.

She woke to his snuffling and to a steady tread behind the guesthouse: the servants of Shimla were walking to work. Philip poked his head out from under the blanket.

“Why are you crying?”

“Nurse hit me.”

“Because of the job in your pants.”

“Yes.” He sniffled again and turned his face into his pillow.

“Did she hurt you?”

He nodded without lifting his head.

“A great deal?”

He nodded again.

“Where? Where did she hit you? On your bum?”

He raised an arm and pointed to his bottom and his back.

She got out of bed and lifted his blanket and nightshirt: he had strange red scrapes from shoulders to bottom. “Did she hit you with her hand?”

He gave his head a slow shake. “Hairbrush.”

“Oh Pippy.”

Lying next to him for hugs, she kept touching the spots where he’d been hit. He’d cry, “Ow, ow, don’t, Elsie, don’t,” and all she could think of was his little face the day he came home from Doon hospital.

separator

To lean out and see the cantonment road, Ayah was holding a verandah support with one hand and Elsie with the other; they’d timed the journey and knew the tonga could appear at any second. Ayah saw it first.

It emerged from the trees, and as it turned onto the track to the bungalow, a peacock began to chase the mali across the dry, thatched lawn abutting the verandah. The peacock jumped at the mali who lashed out with his broom, which made the peacock lunge again and the mali hit even more ferociously. On and on they went, making Ayah and Elsie laugh, and all this while, the tonga was coming closer, dust spraying from its wheels and the hooves of its horse.

Elsie was still laughing when the tonga pulled up with its bells tinkling, and since she was laughing, she inhaled its dust and started coughing. Seeing this, Sybil’s proud smile petrified: Elspeth should have been waiting quietly, hair smoothed, clothes tidy but, as usual, she was sloppy and boisterous: that ayah had never reined her in.

Jumping off the tonga’s front seat, Elsie’s father Robert went round to take a bundled blanket from Sybil before she was helped down. With the bundle returned, she walked up the two broad stairs to the verandah, crouched and delicately lifted a corner of the blanket: “This is your brother Philip, Elspeth.”

Like a pod around a seed, the blanket encased a little face with squinting eyes and red, wrinkled skin. Was this the playmate she’d longed for, this funny looking thing no bigger than a baby monkey?

Sybil said, “I suppose it will take a while,” and Robert put his hand on Elsie’s shoulder: “Philip will grow. It won’t be long before you’re able to play with him.”

Sybil had spotted a carafe on a nearby table, and she walked towards it, handing the baby to Ayah. “Speaking of growing, he needs a bottle. Tell Ayah, will you?” Sybil sighed with great contentment. “I’d love a nimbu. I’m parched.”

Ayah left for the nursery, trailed by an unhappy looking Elsie. They unwrapped the blanket, and the baby began to flex his arms and legs. As he flexed, Ayah pulled a short braid from the purse at her waist. She told Elsie to tie the braid on the baby’s wrist.

“Why?”

“There’s a bond between you. You are his protector as he will be yours when he’s bigger. The rakhi shows this.”

Elsie tied it on the baby’s tiny wrist, and he looked around with half blind eyes. Finding her, he gave a loving smile but then pulled a face as if he’d been jabbed.

“What did I do?”

Ayah smiled down at Elsie: “You did nothing. Some babies are angry. You don’t have to apologize.”

“Colic,” the district medical officer said: “The crying will stop in three months.” And true to his prediction, the constant crying did stop at three months. When that happened, Sybil began to visit the nursery more often.

Ayah was bathing the baby one day with the rakhi out in the open, not tucked inside the sleeve of his gown, and when Sybil saw it, she shouted, “Off! Take it off!”

This happened in the hot season—even the bungalow’s cement floors were warm—and when Ayah pretended she hadn’t understood the order, Sybil marched to the sitting room, her heels clicking on the floor. Voices carried in that house, and she could be heard telling Robert that she wanted it off.

“You want what off?” He sounded amused.

“Whatever it is that Ayah has put on the baby.”

“Whatever are you talking about?”

“Come and see.”

Two pairs of feet tapped towards the nursery before Sybil and Robert clattered through the bead curtain. Sybil crouched beside the tub and lifted Philip’s arm: “Look.”

“What is this?” Robert spoke rusty Hindustani; unlike Elsie, he didn’t speak it all day, every day.

Ayah said it showed the bond between a brother and a sister. Robert translated, and Sybil said it was a ridiculous notion: people would say they’d gone native. “Cut it off.”

After Sybil left, Ayah pressed the rakhi into Elsie’s hand. She should put it in the biscuit tin where she kept her treasures Ayah said: “The bond is not broken.”

Elsie looked over at the baby in his crib, and he looked back and smiled. There was a bond. How did that happen?

separator

Author’s Note: Simla, as it’s now called, inspired this piece. My first day there, I thought: I know this place, and I know the sort who lived here during the Raj. I didn’t know Elsie’s name yet, but I knew where she’d lived.

separator

K. A. Richards was shortlisted for the Ken Klonsky Novella Competition in 2011 and has a story forthcoming in the Masala issue of Descant.

Advertisements