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Towards evening, everyone leaves his home. Each visitor has lifted up his hand in turn, and pressing fingers, dropped it back again. The tea has been swallowed, the biscuits, the bahji that remind him how Gita would roll her palms together and clap to make the gram flour fly. They have eaten the shrimp pakhora that his sister in law carried on the bus, the tiny cakes in flowered paper that he bought himself. The women have stopped filling his narrow kitchen with the clatter and stacking of cups, bending over his chair to check his plate, their chatter rising and falling over his crumbs like so many sparrows in the square outside. He has stuttered his thanks after their condolences and dampened cheeks. Now, at last, he can push the door against the gritty Lambeth air, the receding clack of boot and shoe, and close it tight.
And finally, once more, they are alone.
He kissed her the first time they were ever allowed to be alone, pulling her under his coat on the bridge while buses growled across the river and cranes dipped over the new concert halls rising above the mud.
‘Ain’t that a beautiful sight?’ He folded his arms around his bride; span her around to face the setting sun. ‘Now you’re a Londoner, too. Dirty old river, mind you.’
Gita pushed unruly hair back underneath her scarf and watched the yellow current tug at the pontoons where the cruise boats moored.
‘Rivers wash away more than dirt.’ She pulled her cardigan tight against the wind. ‘Perhaps I will show you, one day.’
‘Not this one.’ He’d grabbed her sleeve in mock fear. ‘Suck you under, darlin’, soon as look at you.’
In the centre of the table is a large photograph of his wife, taken in the seventies. His sister-in-law has draped a garland across its frame: Gita smiles through its silk petals as though embarrassed to be the centre of such attention. In front of the photograph sits a box of respectable size, covered for decency by a cloth – but a box cannot hold a person; cannot, surely, contain all that she was. Her smile, for example, a rounding of mouth and cheek that echoed the curves concealed beneath her nurse’s tunic, the turquoise and gold of her holiday sari, or the floral bedspread that she’d bought because, she claimed, it reminded her of Kerala in the spring.
At night, when the last passengers had spilled from the bars and clubs of the West End and into, then out of, his cab, he would extinguish its amber light and head home across Waterloo Bridge to find her buried beneath printed flowers in their unheated flat, cramming coconut cakes or homemade chikki thick with nuts and syrup.
‘I eat to stay warm in this place,’ she’d explain. ‘I eat to live.’
Unclipped, thick coils of hair would spill like damp silk across his skin. Afterwards she would place his hand on her belly – for luck, she said – but as time went on she would catch her daily bus to work a little more quietly, her smile a little less broad.
The container beneath the cloth is sealed with an importance that surprises and comforts him, yet as he lifts the box from the table, he is caught by its cardboard insignificance, the insubstantial nature of its weight, its internal susurration; the echo of sand that is slipping rapidly through his grasp.
‘Says in the Standard that the salmon are back,’ he told her one evening. ‘Who’d have believed it?’
‘I saw the doctor today.’ Gita had her back to him, unbuttoning her heavy coat. ‘He says we have to stop trying.’
In the pink-tinged sky a miniature jet turns for Heathrow against the dying sun, its landing lights blinking on and off like failed promises. The aeroplane hangs in the apricot sky; the box hovers in the space carved by the wooden sash until the aeroplane disappears behind its cardboard edge. He places the box back down and again there is that faint sigh as its contents settle back and lie still.
‘How far out do you suppose the tide goes?’ asked Gita once, as they crossed the bridge on their Sunday walk. ‘Does it become other tides, other seas, wave running over wave, until it no longer recognises where it started? Or does it roll back to where it began, purer and clearer than…?’
The roar of traffic drowned her words. He stared over the parapet at the silt banks below, peppered with muddy stones and the prints left by yellow-footed gulls; at the slow slap of water as it rose back up the stone pillars, at the riverboats that rocked and creaked against their mooring. The Thames was cleaner than ever, he knew that; as to whether the tide got any further than Shoeburyness, he wasn’t so sure. When he was a little lad his granddad had taken him to work, down to the docks to watch the cargo ships come in, ships that would have crossed the Indian Ocean, powered through the pure waters that Gita had known. Now it was a jungle of flats and offices so tall their beacons flashed like port lights. He looked at Gita and remembered the salmon, leaping under the concrete arches, driving upriver to spawn in old breeding grounds, in the place that it had started life, clinging to its gravel bed.
After the bustle of mourning the galley kitchen rests quiet and empty, its worktop cleaned, his supper unprepared. Her scales rest on the shelf above the worktop, her empty bowls and spoons arranged beneath, while under the sink the battered tin lies hidden behind the rags and bleach, the washed-out jars and the rubber plunger; her tin, that he pulls forward onto the worktop and opens with a sudden shame, as though he is about to rob his own wife of her dreams. A few hundred pounds, no more, neatly bundled; he lifts her savings out and places the empty tin and scales beside him.
He unseals the cardboard box with care. There is a fine tremor in his fingers as the security tape uncoils, its identification number still intact. It was his touch that found the first lump, dense and alien, unyielding under hands that could map her form blindfolded, knew every hollow and crease as he knew his own body, still hardening with desire for her after more than forty years. So it was his heart that skipped first, missed so abruptly that it prolonged the moment before he spoke the words, before time, unchecked, ticked on.
Beneath the lid the grey ashes are not powder, but particles, tiny shells crushed by the ocean, sprinkled with small fragments, bone-white; minerals melded into minute flecks that catch the light and remind him of the way she remembered the ivory sands of Papanasam.
‘The Destroyer of Sins,’ she once told him. ‘That’s what the name means. That’s what it means, to bathe in waters so clean.’
Under the hospital gown her outline changed, subtly at first and then as though an avalanche had torn away the landscape. You must eat, he told her. He made soup, and dahl, corn bread and coconut cream, while she smiled at his efforts and turned her head away from the spoon.
‘There are kingfishers breeding on the Thames now,’ he told her. ‘Imagine that. Tiny turquoise flashes, swooping down on the minnows like this’ – and a piece of toast swept the air between them. He held it to her lips. ‘Each one needs to eat its bodyweight, every day.’
Gita shook her head.
‘It’s amazing.’ he said. ‘The river is healing itself. A little purer, all the time.’
A small container of pounded mineral and bone, all that remains of her years in the world. Twenty-four thousand, four hundred and ninety-five days. All that remains of that soft lifting of mouth and cheek, that smile, her voice. He worked it out on the back of a blank taxi receipt, sitting by her bed when there was no one to collect, no fare, when there was nothing for him to do but calculate in days, then hours, then stop with nothing left to count.
He places the box onto the scales and watches the numbers settle at two point three kilos, hardly more than the weight of the crock she kept her corn flour in; the scoop is still in there, half buried by the soft grains that fall back as he lifts it from the jar.
Sixteen thousand four hundred and sixty-five days with him. Such a small number, after all, less than the grains of flour dropped from the spoon.
He tips the box slightly and watches the particles that run onto the scoop, sliding sideways like fine sand disturbed by footfall, seeing that as they slip from scoop to bowl the faintest specks of dust escape and rise up, winking in the light.
The numbers on the scale register once more, and start to climb. Four hundred grams, five hundred, seven. He shakes a little more into the bowl, and pauses. Seven hundred and fifty-four grams for Kerala’s child. No more. Nothing of the girl that had trailed behind her parents to a strange and cold city on the other side of the world, or the young nurse he’d begged and begged again until at last she’d smiled that broad, slow smile and promised, who’d taught her own quiet folk to call him ‘bay-ta’, son; the soft and receptive darkness of his nights. She would remain behind, for these times, and this place, and for him.
Slowly, watching each fragment as it tumbles from the bowl, he tips seven hundred and fifty-four grams of his wife into the tin and presses the lid down to form a seal. The cold air in the tiny flat no longer matters, nor the neighbour that still welcomes only white, nor the leafless shrubs in the square outside; there is only the slow accretion of understanding.
A few streets away, a sharp wind slices across the painted railings of Waterloo Bridge. The river has turned again, is already washing her dust away from the city, past the plate glass balconies of the condominiums, slipping towards the cold waters of the North Sea, each tiny rivulet spreading outwards towards the north Atlantic, then the southern, sweeping eastwards at last into the great depths of the Indian Ocean.
‘Take me home,’ she had whispered, that last time in the hospital. ‘Let me go home.’ And staring at the finality of tubes and drains he had, just for a moment, wondered what she meant.