- 10 Apr - 16 Apr, 2021
The Summer of Dust
- 03 Apr - 09 Apr, 2021
I could feel my frustration building up; I knew that sooner or later my almost unbearable lust was going to become an issue.
But on the day that she got her job, Balgeet surprised me. Maybe I mean that she shocked me. Yes, that’s closer to the truth.
Rent might be free but food wasn’t.
Sleeping on the double mattress, more or less fully clothed, became part of our routine. When Balgeet washed or dressed she did it very modestly, wrapping enormous lengths of colourful sari material around herself, always closing and bolting the door of the smaller bedroom where she dressed and kept her personal things.
Our priorities were not the same as King’s. For one thing we were almost out of money. One or other of us needed to get a job anyhow.
I was attempting to plaster over one of the big sections of exposed laths on the corridor wall, and the wretched stuff just kept falling off again on to the dirt-coloured remains of the carpet. I had obviously made the mixture too wet. Balgeet came running up the stairs, through the open door at the top, and flung her arms around me as she had never done before.
“I’ve got a job,” she announced proudly. “I’m a receptionist in a travel agency run by one of my uncles. Tell me I’m a clever girl.”
“You’re a clever girl,” I laughed. “Just how many uncles have you got?”
“All Martians are officially my uncles. And I have even better news.” She produced something small and silvery from her shoulder bag. “Do you know what these are?”
I looked at them and could hardly believe what I was seeing. “Those are…well, I think they’re some deficiency vitamins because she was very weak and couldn’t do much of the work every day.”
“That’s right. And you may notice that I’ve already taken the first five. As from now, I am on these medications. I just want to be with you. Spend my time with you. I’ll wait for our long undisturbed chats and dinners.”
It was one of those moments when you need to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. I wasn’t. She’s a Martian, I thought to myself. Got to be a Martian.
For the remainder of that summer I had very little to complain about. I could put it more strongly and say that those were probably the happiest few weeks of my life. Balgeet exceeded all my fantasies as a lover. There was no limit to the love and warmth she could give to both of us, or to the depth of the tenderness that she left me with when I was utterly dreaming just about her. Just the memory of sitting together, chatting and feeling her heartbeat so close to me, can still bring tears to my eyes when I think about it. In the daytime I wanted to hold her hand all the time, to maintain physical contact, touch her glossy hair. I really couldn’t leave her alone. I don’t think I’ve ever been like that with anybody else.
I got through the work very quickly. After a bit of experimentation I became a minimally competent plasterer. My greatest triumph was getting the beastly stuff to stick to the ceiling, against all the laws of Newton and Einstein. The trick was to do it in very thin layers, allowing each to almost dry before applying the next. I got a book out from the library that explained how to get a proper flat surface. My work wasn’t perfect but it was acceptable and I was immensely proud of it.
We did all the making-good and decorating before lifting the carpets, so that plaster and paint could be free to drip to their heart’s content. King supplied industrial-size buckets of a paint called “magnolia”, which he wanted on every plastered surface, be it wall or ceiling. He said that it looked clean and tidy and prospective tenants found it inoffensive. It reminded me that our time in the flat would one day run out.
Beneath the carpets the rubber underlay had metamorphosed into a dry black dust that got everywhere. I shovelled it into bin-bags while Surinder’s vacuum cleaner ran continuously to keep the airborne particles to a minimum. Balgeet’s job kept her busy for the whole working day, including Saturdays, so I did most of the work alone and tried to have the place habitable in time for her return each evening.
Surinder visited often, and she and Balgeet chatted in their own language. I found this a little bit excluding but I didn’t comment. I could tell that they were very close – I think I even felt a slight pang of jealousy. King visited occasionally too, to see how the work was going. He was loud and domineering and laughed a lot, but I sensed that he liked Balgeet and wouldn’t let her come to any harm. Balgeet treated him respectfully – he seemed to be an important man in the Sikh community.
As we entered the last week of our summer recess, with most of the work complete and the place looking very respectable, I noticed that Balgeet was opening up to me less and less. We were still talking, but our conversation had somehow become superficial. The sadness seemed to have surfaced once again, and the balance in our love life shifted towards the tender holding rather than anything more active.
I told myself it was the stress of having to go back to College, books to be read, summer assignments to be written-up and handed in, new routines to be established – a return to the pressures of academic work. But in my heart I think I knew that wasn’t it. Something else was wrong. Something that Balgeet couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about.
Anxiously, my hand shaking slightly, I lower my finger and click the mouse. The e-mail opens and I begin to read:
Sorry, I suppose I should call you Professor Conroy. I got your e-mail address off the College website. Your picture was there too so I knew it was you. I have to tell you though, you have changed a bit. So have I. I’m glad my picture isn’t on any website. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?
I think the most upsetting aspect was that Balgeet didn’t tell me herself, she left it to Surinder, who made a special afternoon visit so as to get me on my own – although of course, I would have been devastated, however, the news had been delivered. I can’t remember much of what she said because my mind went numb and stopped processing information after her first couple of sentences. I just remember that she asked me to sit down and her opening words were: “There’s been a change of plan.”
A change of plan? Whose plan? Who makes these plans? The whole family I suppose. The whole damn Sikh community in secret conclave. The Martian Council.
Surinder and Balgeet had the entire event choreographed. Balgeet walked through the door just as Surinder finished her speech. They sat down side by side on the second-hand sofa that King had given us, and for a long time nobody said a word.
“I’m sorry,” Balgeet said at last.
Sorry? Was that all she was going to say? I couldn’t take it in. My head was reeling. “You’re going back to India to marry somebody that you haven’t even met?” She didn’t answer. “Which of us is crazy?
Is it me or you?”
“Our families are different,” Surinder said very quietly. “Things aren’t like they are in England. It’s all…. different.”
I looked Balgeet straight in the eye. She didn’t flinch.
“Okay, maybe I’m not very important to you. A pleasant little summer diversion. But you’ve completed one year of a three year degree course. You have far better grades than me; you can have a great future here. You can do anything you want to. The world is at your bloody feet. Who is this man who’s worth throwing it all away for? Tell me about him.”
Surinder hesitantly answered for her. “He’s just a man. His family is good, but poor.”
“What does he do for a living?” I couldn’t believe that I was being so cool and rational. I don’t think I was feeling anything much at that moment. My emotions had temporarily shut down. They would open for business again later.
“He’s just a worker.” Balgeet answered this time. “A worker in the building trade.
An honest man.”
“You’ve got four ‘A’ levels,” I whispered. “You’re probably in the top three or four students in your whole year group. You’re headed for a first. And he works in the building trade?”
This time I saw tears beginning to form in the corners of Balgeet’s eyes. There was nothing there but the sadness now, everything else was gone.
Balgeet didn’t say any more. She stood up and left the room. She didn’t even say goodbye. Surinder took over the conversation.
“It isn’t like England,” she repeated, as though that made everything clear.
“How can a builder be good enough for an honours student like Balgeet? Tell me. How?”
It took Surinder a long time to reply. When she did her voice was so faint I could barely make out the words.
“Balgeet…is in love.”
That was something I could certainly confirm. “And that matters, does it? That makes a difference?”
“Yes. In our culture it makes a big difference.”
Although, I can’t have been thinking very straight I could see right away that there was something skewed about all this. Something that didn’t make sense.
“Are you blaming me? Did Balgeet tell you that she was all fine before she met me? Is that what she said?”
“No. Balgeet hasn’t told me anything like that. I don’t think I should be talking about this.”
“Don’t you? Well, I think I have a right to some kind of explanation.”
“I’m sorry but that’s all I can tell you. May I go now?”
“No, you damn well may not! I think I’m beginning to see what’s going on here. I’m actually part of this plan, aren’t I? King wouldn’t have put the two of us together in this place if he thought…That’s it, isn’t it? I’m the evil white man who blackmailed the poor little innocent Indian girl and stole her heart. There was nothing she could do about it, was there?”
Surinder did not answer but I could see that she understood what I was saying.
“What really happened? Who was it? Was it somebody in the family? How long ago? Tell me the real story, Surinder. I can take it. I’m doing the goddamned family a favour. I think I have a right to know, don’t you?”
“You’ve got it completely wrong,” she said quietly. For a long time we just looked at one another. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to tell me anything more.
“And what about you?” I asked, as calmly and gently as I could. “Are you going to marry a builder’s labourer in some godforsaken Punjabi village when they tell you to? Is that all you have to look forward to?”
“I am not like Balgeet,” she whispered.
“What does that mean? Undamaged goods? Hoping for a doctor or a lawyer…or maybe an estate agent. They could auction you off at the cattle market. Never know what you might fetch.”
She stood up to go. I didn’t try to stop her. “Why don’t you put up a fight?” She turned away from me and walked towards the door. “Why don’t you do something? Why do you let them treat you this way?”
I realised that I was shouting and lowered my voice a little.
“Even your name sounds like ‘surrender’.”
My anger was spent. I turned back to the empty couch. “Martians,” I blurted out in a voice that was now choking up. “Bloody Martians, the whole damned lot of them.”
I remained in the chair after she had gone, watching the dust motes slowly descending through the shaft of sunlight from the kitchen window. Then, I realised I was not alone. King had presumably been waiting on the landing. I stood up and turned to face him in total disbelief. He closed and locked the door and motioned me to sit down. I opened my mouth to speak but no words came.
to be continued...