I turned up at their front door. I felt the sweat trickle down the back of my neck. A fly buzzed and settled there and I smacked it off. The sun was hot and made my eyes squint. I felt self conscious and like a sort of ungainly sack. But I couldn’t turn back now.
I heard the creak of the front door as it gently swung open.
She stood there with her long, dark-chestnut hair down over one shoulder in curling tresses and a towel around her shoulders, and in shorts. I just noticed that she had a pale brown freckle on the front of a smooth, creamy thigh. It made me swallow hard, to suddenly notice a detail like that. I could hear my heart singing and I wanted it to be quiet.
It was 1974 and the place, south Delhi, that melancholy chaos of grumbling immigrants from every part of India, tucked into miles of low rise and spilling out onto energetic streets calmed only by soft eyed cows and the occasional chuffing of parakeets in grey leaved trees.
When I look back now it seems so incredibly far away, yet I am there as I think of it, right there, as I am not with last week. The act of recall defies time and is our only defence against the transience of all things.
There was a smell in the air, something somehow sad and joyous at the same time, an incongruous smell. Of lightly fried potatoes and rosewater? And midsummer.
I heard a woman’s voice calling from inside the house, an expanse of velvety interior darkness when seen from the white sun dazzle outside in which I was drenched. Pot flowers drizzled from their hanging basket down the outside wall, peeling yellow in the sun. An old black hump-backed car stood in the lane, lightly dusted with the street, and a pie dog watched with pale brown eyes, lying on his side, head angled towards me. There was a distant revving of a motor and somebody was playing a harmonium and singing a bhajan. Even at ten in the morning God intruded upon the secular rhythm of a street scene such as this. After all, this was India.
I was eighteen and so was she and knowing this seemed to make the world stop while I held my breath. Was I a child or was I a man? How did a girl become a woman? I felt a sting in my heart, the sweetness of desire and the recoil of fear. What did it mean, to want to be part of another person, to be lost in another? How could I risk this? How had another so much power over me? I can remember the images and the scents and something of what our voices sounded like and the feeling inside. Yet there is something flat about that memory, like an old photograph, sustained by the desire to recall more than its relevance in the here and now. The memory slowly fades as the skin gradually withers on the upper surface of an ageing hand. Memory jerks awake now and then as though it must, as though repeatedly going over the balance sheet of the past is necessary to bring one’s self back into focus. At sixty some of my old friends are already dead and some have lost their minds and some have nothing left to say to me as I have nothing either. And all that is now just fine and okay and I am in a place somewhere between peace and resignation. It is a kind of victory over the inevitable losses of life, this persistence of memory.
Her smile was open and then she looked at me and giggled. I don’t know why but my awkwardness just vanished with that. I grinned and stuck my hands in my jeans pockets and said ‘ Can I come in? ‘