by Rebecca Lewis
There was a rapping against the glass in the front door and Yalnee opened it. Two aunties and an uncle hurried in, pressing their cheek to hers on both sides and sniffing in greeting, before removing their jackets and shoes.
“My girl,” one of her aunties said, brushing back some of the loose strands of hair from Yalnee’s ponytail. “How are you keeping?”
“Fine, Aunty,” she said, shaking off the cold and callused hand that gripped her face.
She pressed a cardboard box into her hands, the bottom warm and sagging. “I brought some vegetable rolls, give them to your mother. They should keep for a few days.”
She disappeared into the living room where a low hum of noise wafted out accompanied by incense. Inside her father was surrounded by cousins and siblings, all short, thick-haired and pot bellied like him. Her grandmother used to make them all laugh when she’d poke Dad’s belly and call him Pavarotti.
She felt a fist squeezing her lungs, and she carried the warm box into the kitchen.
Pots of fragrant aubergine curry, creamy dahl and potato curry were bubbling on the hobs. A stack of hot vadais fresh from the oven were on two of Mum’s china plates. Mountains of yellow and white rice and string hoppers loomed from the table and were flanked by bottles of coke, water and orange juice.
One of her aunties was washing dirty plates and stacking them on the dryer, while another was chopping apples for the fruit salad. They were all focused on their tasks and Yalnee had the impression she had just walked into a conversation she wasn’t allowed to overhear.
“Yalnee, come stir this,” Mum said, pointing to the pot of aubergine curry.
“Here, I bought cutlets.” Mum’s older sister Aunty Dushy walked in wearing her coat and scarf. She placed three plastic bags on the table and unwrapped the food.
“Good, they’ll be like vultures when the prayers are done,” Mum laughed.
Aunty Dushy tutted and smiled at Yalnee, her lips stretching over yellow teeth. “And how are you darling? Studying?”
Yalnee nodded. “She’s doing Biology and Maths for A Level,” Mum said.
“Good girl.” Aunty Dushy arranged cutlets into a tower on a tray. “Kamal is in her second year at Cambridge now. The work is hard. I call her every week and all she seems to do is study.”
Yalnee smirked down at the pot. She knew her cousin, who had been a straight A student at school, was spending more time sleeping with white girls than she was studying.
“Kamal’s always been a hard-working girl,” her mum said, nodding in approval and glancing at Yalnee.
“Have you decided where you’re applying for university?” Aunty Dushy asked.
Yalnee bit into a cutlet and chewed. “I’m thinking Bristol, to read history.”
Her aunts smiled, their heads nodding in unison like a chorus. “History? How nice,” Aunty Dushy’s tone mimicked Mum’s when she was talking to the white family across the road who played music until 11pm and owned two grown pit-bulls.
Her mum started talking in Tamil and Yalnee, spotting her exit, slipped from the kitchen. She hung on the fringes of the living room, smiling at her aunts and uncles who nodded in greeting. Her dad was deep in conversation with his older brother. At the end of the room under the window was a table with a picture of her grandmother taken recently at Christmas, her blue saree shining with gold threads. Next to it was another photo of her grandmother and grandfather, who Yalnee had never known, on their wedding day. A garland of wilting white flowers framed the table. Five white tea lights flickered, casting shadows on the photo.
Yalnee’s grandmother Arreni had been dead just six days, after a stroke had bedridden her five months before and a second one had finally given her peace. Since then streams of family from all over the world – Toronto, Colombo, Jaffna, Newcastle, Houston – had processed through their home, where Arreni had lived with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter for eighteen years. There were prayers every evening and then dinner, but relatives processed through the door all day. Yalnee hadn’t been to college since last Friday and she had a missed a test and now it was Saturday and her best friend’s birthday was starting in forty minutes.
The phone in her pocket buzzed. “Can’t you escape???” The text read. Amy had been texting every hour, convincing her to join them at a pub.
Yalnee inspected the room – there wasn’t a single person under forty. The cousins her age had been keeping her company every night so far but they had been given tonight off.
“Running out of her grandmother’s prayers was a bigger act of rebellion than she had ever pulled before.”
She folded her arms and watched Dad’s younger sister rearrange the candles into a circle on the table. Mum had lined it up neatly earlier that morning. When her aunt went to sleep in the bedroom that used to be her grandmother’s, Mum would arrange it in a neat line again. They had been playing this peculiar dance all week, both of them smiling at each other as her aunt made comments about how the potato curry could use less coconut milk and Mum asked whether it was lonely in Houston, with no one but a dog to keep her sister-in-law company.
In the living room someone was handing Dad a box of tissues. He dabbed one at his eye and made a trumpeting sound as he blew his nose. Yalnee looked down at the red toenail peeking out of her purple socks. She’d never seen Dad cry before this week.
She went upstairs to her bedroom and closed the door. She applied her make-up, a well-worn ritual of foundation, concealer, mascara and contour. She selected a red lipstick and put it in her handbag – her parents didn’t approve of dark colours. She picked out black jeans and a peach satin top from her wardrobe.
She spun round and saw Mum closing the bedroom door behind her.
“Yalnee, I asked you a question.”
“It’s Amy’s birthday. I can’t not go.”
“I told you before.” Mum’s eyebrows were furrowed, a sign of danger.
Yalnee threw the clothes on her bed. “None of the other kids are here.”
“That’s not my business. This is your grandmother.’
“You can’t make me stay.”
“You cannot behave this way,” Mum’s voice was dangerously close to being heard downstairs.
“It’s not fair.” A thick lump formed in her throat. “I’ve been here all week. Can’t I have just one night off? Dad wouldn’t even notice.”
“Your grandmother cooked for you, bathed you and looked after you. I expected more from you.” Mum opened the door. “There will be other birthday parties.” She left quietly.
Yalnee sunk onto her bed, balling the purple duvet cover in her fists. Downstairs, she could hear the voices getting louder. Prayers would be starting soon.
The sense of injustice rose in her chest until she felt she could scream. She wanted to pull the bedsheets apart in her hands.
She got up from her bed, wiping tears with her sleeve, and went onto the landing. Across her bedroom was her grandmother’s and the door was ajar. Yalnee hadn’t been inside since she died.
Downstairs, the prayers begun and Mum and Dad’s voices rose above the chorus. She could make out her grandmother’s dresser through the crack of the door. Thoughts of her pricked at her conscience. She dug her nails into the palm of her hand and turned back into her bedroom.
She freshened her make-up and changed clothes. With her bag and coat in her hands she was out of the bedroom within seconds, past her mother and father who sat in the living room, their eyes closed and palms in prayer pressed to their lips.
On the bus her phone rang several times but she ignored it. She wouldn’t change her mind now. It was just one night. Her friends had done worse.
She arrived at the pub and Amy, dressed in a tiny satin purple dress and spiky black heels, first grasped her in a tight hug and then poured two shots into her mouth.
Everyone around her was drunk. Amy and their other best friend Jessica were taking selfies, their chins tilted downwards, cheeks sucked in, lips pushed out. Yalnee loitered by the edge, the noise loud and the lights penetrating.
Daniel, a tall blond boy who was in her history class, sat down next to her. “Sorry about your grandma.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. His face was flushed and his raw spots were bright like a siren.
“Were you close?”
“I guess,” she said, watching Amy and Jessica ask another friend to take photos of them. “She’s lived with us since I was born.”
“That sucks. Is that why you’ve not been in school?”
“Yeah, we’ve had prayers every day.”
Daniel looked curious. “I didn’t know you were so religious.”
She glanced up at him. “I’m not, it’s just tradition. We’re Hindu.”
“Really? Is that the one with the elephant?”
Yalnee accepted another drink as Amy and Jessica joined them. An hour later they were in a club and Amy dragged her onto the dance floor, twirling her around like they were ballroom dancers.
“I’m sorry about your granny,” Amy shouted in her ear. Yalnee could smell the sour alcohol on her breath. The bass was so thick it rewrote the beat of her heart.
Daniel appeared behind her, his hands on her hips, guiding her bum against his pelvis. She could feel his erection poking into her bum.
“You’re so fit,” he said into her ear.
He moved her hips against her again and Yalnee tried to relax to the beat. His hot breath was on her neck and clammy fingers were grasping at the bare skin under her top. She felt his lips against her ear and she was struck by a sudden urge to hit him, dramatically, like the actors in the Indian soap opera her grandmother watched.
Pushing him away she escaped into the smoking area. She pulled out the crushed pack of cigarettes stashed in her bag and lit one. She was crying again and she sniffed the snot back into her nose. On her phone were two missed calls and a voicemail from Mum.
She didn’t need to know what it said. Running out of her grandmother’s prayers was a bigger act of rebellion than she had ever pulled before, worse than when her parents had found out she had been in a tattoo shop.
It had been six days since her grandmother had died and despite the constant stream of family the house had never felt emptier. Her grandmother’s off-key singing could no longer be heard from the kitchen and the constant smell of simmering chai had disappeared altogether. Her grandmother had been small and frail in the later years, but she still dressed in a saree every morning, adorning her thin wrists with gold bangles, her fingers shed of its meat like jewelled spider’s legs. Yalnee used to trace the bulbous veins that rose from her papery skin while they watched television.
She blinked fast and sprayed perfume on her hair and hands. She threaded her way back into the club, past her friends and out into the street, the sound of music following her like a shadow.
At home the living room was the only room with the light on. It was almost midnight. Her parents would normally be in bed by now.
She removed her shoes by the door. The smell of incense still hung in the air and the living room door was slightly ajar.
Dad was sat cross legged on the floor, his eyes closed and head bent. She crept closer and saw he had a picture of her grandmother in his hand, one taken a few years ago at her fourteenth birthday. Her grandmother was standing behind the cake she had make for Yalnee, the sweet lemon icing held aloft under her chin.
Yalnee knelt next to him, tucking her feet under her bottom and placing her hands on her knees. Dad looked at her and placed his hand on hers. Together they closed their eyes and prayed.
Rebecca Lewis | @RebeccaSLewis
Rebecca Lewis is a former journalist turned charity worker writing short fiction in London. When she is not writing she enjoys reading and running and lives in hope of owning a cat.