BY SUSMITA BHATTACHARYA
Plymouth, U.K.-based Susmita Bhattacharya grew up in India, which inspires and informs most of her short stories and poetry. Copyright is held by the author.
RIMA LOOKED AROUND, feeling disappointed. So this was a caravan. It was quite flimsy and very cold. Certainly not worth the money, she thought.
“Look. Everything is fitted into this tiny space,” Anand said, beaming. “Cooker, sink, microwave, fridge. Ingenious.”
He pulled open the drawers and waved a fork and spoon at her.
“It’s got everything you need. Just sit back and relax.”
He sank into the couch and switched on the television. Anne Robinson’s jibes filled the room.
Rima placed Baby on her hips and went to inspect the bedroom. It was tiny. It had a bed and wardrobe. No cot. Hadn’t they asked for a cot?
“Anand,” she called out. “There’s no cot here.” Baby wriggled and tried to slide down her hips.
“I know,” Anand said. “I didn’t ask. It’s 50 quid extra. No worries, I’ll sleep out here.”
Outside the evening was quite raw. It was grey and the wind had a bite in it. The bare trees heaved and strained above the caravans.
“It’s quite cold,” Rima said, covering Baby with her shawl. “Turn on the heater, na.”
Anand jumped up and fiddled with the gas fireplace. It came to life with an orange glow and the warmth embraced them immediately.
“Aah-ha, that’s wonderful,” cried Rima and tickled Baby’s chin. She squealed back in delight. Anand tickled her some more, and soon they were all laughing together.
They had met in a suburban college in Bombay; fallen in love in the canteen over oil-sodden samosas and sweet milky tea. They had not thought of the consequences, just rushed headlong into this relationship. But now, both were trying to come to terms with the reality.
They should never have met. Anand, in his machine-washed, designer-labelled T-shirts was a misfit in a college where most students had their clothes bashed on the bathroom floor by their mothers and hung to dry in the sun. He had not got the required percentage to make it to the college of his choice. Besides, he had been holidaying in Australia during the admission week.
Rima was told to go to a college within walking distance of her home. So she set off to the end of the road, umbrella held over her head to prevent her skin from darkening.
And they fell in love. To everyone’s surprise, they also got married. Anand did not abandon her to marry someone of his own class.
When Rima went to live in Anand’s home, she felt embarrassed: about herself, her family. Anand’s family lived in a plush two-storey flat on Worli Seaface. The walls facing the sea were made of glass. There was art on the walls that was more expensive than the tiny flat her parents lived in. Anand was shocked to have to share a toilet with five people whenever he visited her family. He would have to sleep in his in-laws’ bedroom with Rima, while her parents slept out in the living room with her grandfather. Eventually he stopped going.
It was hard on Rima. All this lavishness made her feel guilty. That she didn’t belong here. All this was meant for someone else. Someone who’s father was a neurologist or a diplomat. Someone who was comfortable with Italian furniture that had to be covered in bed sheets most of the time to protect it from the Mumbai dust and damp. She no longer licked her fingers clean after a meal. Her fork and knife clattered clumsily on her fine china plate.
It dawned on them both that maybe it wasn’t so right, after all. But they both were still in love and worked hard to adjust to each other.
Then Anand landed himself a job in the UK. His parents were not so keen on their only son leaving. They begged him to reconsider. After all, whatever they had was his. They cajoled Rima to convince him. But actually, both of them thought it an excellent opportunity to escape from their differences. Make a life for them where they could be on equal terms. It made so much sense. And so here they were, on their first vacation, and Anand wanted everything to go right for them.
He was very happy to get this holiday deal so cheap. A hundred pounds for four nights. Off-season rates, no doubt, but who needed the sun? An outing to any place away from home was enough. A caravan holiday. How romantic was that!
“Let’s have some tea,” he suggested. Baby tumbled out of his arms and crawled towards the TV. Rima switched on the kettle and rummaged for the tea in the food basket. They had two types of tea. Anand only drank Darjeeling tea, and only Oxfam Fairtrade Darjeeling tea, which was nearest to the tea he drank in India. Rima preferred the strong taste of PG Tips, with lots of milk and sugar.
She dug deep into the basket, but couldn’t find the Darjeeling tea. Her PG Tips was there, but where was Anand’s tea?
Oh no, Rima bit her tongue when she realised what she had done. Just before they had left, Anand had wanted a cup of tea for the road. She’d made it, and then left the box on the kitchen counter. She turned round to look at Anand, who was playing with Baby. She didn’t want to spoil this holiday.
“Anand,” she said, meekly. “I’ve left your teabags at home.”
He stared at her incredulously. Rima looked close to tears.
“It’s okay,” he said slowly. “I’ll have coffee, no problem.”
“I didn’t bring any.”
Rima wrung her hands in despair. Baby looked at her and stuck out her lower lip.
Anand swept Baby into his arms and smiled.
“I’ll have whatever you have then. Good old English tea in an English caravan. Yes, Baby?”
“Ba-by,” Baby lisped and squealed with laughter.
So they sat huddled by the fireplace, strong tea steaming in the cups and they watched Anne Robinson insult one contestant after another until there was none left.
The next morning they woke up stiff and thirsty. All three had squeezed into the pull-out in the lounge. The bedroom had been freezing and by midnight Rima had crawled under the duvet beside Anand, with Baby between them. Rima was awake most of the night, afraid of Baby suffocating under the duvet. Anand, being closest to the fireplace was hot and parched all night. Yet, he smiled and reminded Rima that this was a caravan holiday, not a five star resort, so this was how it would be and that they should enjoy it.
Rima nodded and busied herself with making breakfast. She looked into the caravan in front of theirs. There was a white family in there. The children were having breakfast. The mother was carefully applying mascara. Rima looked at her watch. 8.07 am. The woman needed to wear make up so early in the morning? She reminded her of her mother-in-law. Never a hair out of place. Nails always manicured and covered in transparent varnish. Her mother’s nails were perpetually yellowed by turmeric. She studied her own nails: chewed down to the skin. Ugly. She would have to buy nail-polish when she got back home.
She whisked two eggs and poured them into the hot frying pan. She made up baby’s fruit puree and baby rice mix.
“So, what shall we do today?” Anand rubbed his hands together and then attacked his omelette. Rima looked out, it was still blustery.
“It’s very cold outside,” she said. The family next door trudged out in t-shirts and track pants. Pink on the girls. Blue on the boy. They were giggling and talking excitedly. The mother had red lipstick. The father had a big paunch and a can of beer in his hand. Rima looked at the watch again. 9.10 am. She rolled her eyes. Baby spat her breakfast on Rima’s dressing gown.
“Let’s go to the Entertainment Area. There’s a heated indoor pool.” Anand picked up the dishes and put them in the sink. “I’ll do the dishes. You get Baby ready.”
The indoor pool was crowded. Children ran around, screaming and jumping into the water. Every inch of space in the pool was occupied. Baby was frightened and she wailed loudly. It was too cold to take her to the playground so they wandered around the pool tables and slot machines.
Soon, it was time for Baby’s nap, and they returned to the caravan. Anand watched TV with the volume down and Rima padded about, preparing lunch. The TV had been left on in the other caravan, so she watched the Eastenders’ Omnibus through the window, while stirring the noodles.
They passed the night cramped up on the pull-out bed once more. But feeling uncomfortable in this claustrophobic caravan made Rima feel very guilty. Her parents’ flat was just as cramped, and they didn’t even have the facilities no neatly fitted into every crevice of this caravan. She had been comfortable in her parents’ flat, but now she knew things would not be the same again.
The next morning, they decided to go for walk along the promenade. They trundled along the path, following the signs to the sea. Baby bumped along happily in her pushchair. Rima struggled to keep her hair out of her eyes. Anand faced the wind bravely, pushing Baby against the rebellious wind. When they reached the promenade, they were disappointed. In front of them was a great, muddy flat land, the water murky in patches here and there. It was low tide and the sea had gone right out.
Anand sighed. “Nothing compared to the Arabian Sea.”
Rima nodded. The sea outside Anand’s house in India was different. Sometimes wild and hitting the promenade with such force that the glass windows would be sprayed with the salty water. Sometimes gentle and lapping softly against the rocks. Families, lovers, hawkers, policemen would cover every inch of the promenade. Balloons straining on their strings. Corn cobs roasting on white hot coal. Roasted peanuts in paper cones. People running, walking, laughing, holding hands, a stolen kiss perhaps, a knowing whistle.
None of it was here though. This promenade was very clean and almost empty at this hour. Bins with liners were set up neatly at equal distances. Benches with a few old men sipping their beers. A dog-walker who paused to smile at Baby. A bitter wind that threatened to blow all of this away.
Rima fiddled with Baby’s blanket. Anand looked at her, his eyes questioning, what now?
She didn’t reply. She hadn’t worn tights under her jeans and she was regretting that.
“Let’s have some tea in there,” said Anand, pointing to a tea-room. “Maybe they’ll have Darjeeling tea.” Rima’s eyes stung and she bent down to adjust Baby’s straps.
They walked back to the caravan in silence. The tea-room had Twinings’ Darjeeling, and that was not the real thing. So they had coffee instead. When they reached their car, Rima wanted mineral water from the boot for Baby’s formula. She moved Baby’s pushchair out of the way in order to open the boot.
Suddenly a man came rushing out of the caravan near them.
“Watch out,” he shouted.
They froze. Immediately they thought Baby was in danger and Rima moved the pushchair close to Anand.
“Hey, stop. You’re scratching my car.”
Rima looked at the man. What was he talking about? He was towering over them now, stubbing his finger on some scratch marks below the fender.
“Look what you’ve done,” he said, his cold eyes boring into her. His thin lips were snarling, baring yellow teeth and foul breath. She leaned back.
“What have I done?” she said. Anand stepped in front of her.
“What’s the problem?” he asked.
“I seen it from my window,” the man yelled, saliva spraying into the fraught air. “She pushed the buggy too close to my car, and scratched it.”
Anand stared at him. “What? The buggy scratched your car?”
The man nodded, examining the scarred car with his fingers.
A woman came out of his caravan, pushing a wheelchair. A child was in it. His head was twisted in an abnormal angle and his tongue lolled out. He wore thick glasses, but the eyes were unfocussed. Rima flinched on seeing him.
The woman’s lips were a red slash on her thin face.
“We seen you damaging our car,” she accused in a shrill voice.
“Yeah, you need to pay us compensation,” the man growled. The boy grunted and twitched his head. He looked about ten.
“Two hundred quid. That’s the deposit on this rented car,” the woman cried, her hand absently patting the boy. “They won’t give it back once they seen the scratches.”
Anand bent down to examine the car. Yes, there were a couple of scratches, but surely the plastic handles of the pushchair couldn’t do that.
“Listen, sir,” he said. “I can see the scratches. But I can assure you it’s not our pushchair that did it.”
He aligned the pushchair against the car and pointed it out.
“See, it doesn’t even reach where the marks are. You’ve made a mistake. Those scratches were already there.”
The man’s face turned red and splotchy. He shook his head violently. “We seen you do it. We’re going to sue you. I’ve got your licence number.”
The woman swore under her breath and wheeled the boy up the ramp into the caravan. The man jotted their licence number and marched away.
Anand placed his hand on Rima’s elbow. She was shaking. He guided her and Baby back to their caravan.
“What sorts of people come here on holiday?” she asked, her voice unsteady. “Bullies.”
He patted her gently and opened the door. Rima burst into tears as soon as they were inside. “Did you see their boy?”
“It’s none of our business,” said Anand, and switched on the television.
“But Anand, he could have been ours. Then we’d have been so angry and frustrated.” She held Baby tightly to herself.
“Don’t be so melodramatic.” Anand snapped. “Forget about them. Bloody trouble-makers.”
“But they’ll sue us. What are we going to do?”
Anand laughed. “Sue us? Saying what? A bloody push-chair scratched their car? Give me a break. That bastard wanted to pass the blame on to us. Try and get the money off us. But it isn’t going to work.”
Rima continued to sob and Baby struggled in her grip. She held out her plump arms to her father.
“Ba-ba,” she said.
Anand gathered her into his arms and sprawled on the sofa. “Make some dinner, Rima. Let’s make it an early night.”
“I want to go home,” cried Rima. “I hate this caravan. I hate this holiday.”
Anand stared at her, his ears went red. “You are so selfish,” he snapped at her. “I tried my best to have a nice break. I didn’t complain that you forgot to bring my tea. I do the dishes every night. I’ve saved up for this holiday, and you don’t appreciate it.”
“Appreciate what?” Rima retorted. “Two sleepless nights on this pull-out bed? Wandering around aimlessly in this freezing weather? Is this a holiday?”
Anand stood up, his face glowering. No words came from his lips but Rima knew everything he wanted to say. Where did she think she came from? Since when did she start complaining about indecent accommodation?
He stormed out of the caravan, leaving Rima to sob loudly and Baby staring at her mother in distress.
After a while, Rima recovered. She fed Baby and played quietly with her. She regretted being so mean to Anand. He had meant only goodness. It was she who had a complex. She, who always saw the negative side to things. She played absently with Baby’s toys and watched her giggle and crawl on the carpet.
Baby got on to her feet and held on to the coffee table. She looked at Rima and smiled. Two tiny teeth cradled delicately in her pink gums. She giggled and took a tentative step towards her mother.
Rima held her breath and watched.
“Come here, Sweety,” she cried and beckoned baby to her. Baby curled up her toes and tottered a step forward. Then another step. Slowly she went down on the floor and clapped her hands.
Rima clapped and laughed out loud. “Well done, Baby. Well done. Once more, come on.”
Encouraged by her mother, Baby tried again. One step. Then another, till she was in her mother’s arms. Rima picked her up and danced around the room. She looked out of the window into the deepening twilight. She saw Anand sulking outside. She opened the door and called out to him.
“Anand, come here quick,” she yelled, and waved.
He looked up, concerned and saw her beaming at him. He ran towards them.
“Baby’s first steps,” she laughed. “Baby just took two steps, then five. Where’s the camera?”
Anand dashed to get the camera from his back pack.
“Oh Baby, show daddy what you did. Come on, come on.” Rima placed Baby on the carpet and they knelt down in front of her. Then, with a look of great concentration, Baby teetered towards her father. He clapped and laughed and took a picture of his daughter. Rima leaned on him from behind to look at the LCD screen. Baby was there, one foot in front of the other, tooth shining in the flashlight, walking towards them.
“Take another one,” Rima gushed. “Take another one.”
“You go in front,” Anand instructed her. “I’ll take one with both of you.”
Rima posed with Baby, giggling and victorious, just her daughter.
“Now you,” she cried, and grabbed the camera. “You pose with her,”
“Anand kneeled on the floor, bending to be in the frame. Baby walked confidently towards her mother.
When Rima clicked, she captured two pearly white teeth, out of focus, but evidence enough that baby had walked right into the camera.