Jennifer Sadler handed a ball of pink, fleecy wool over the counter. Maude Austin looked at it.
“It`s not what I have in mind. I’m knitting a sweater for my grandchild, Irene. I want it to match the colour of her cheeks.”
Jennifer picked up a skein in the same shade. “This is wild rose pink. A perfect match.” Maude pounced on it.
“That’s it. You’ve seen Irene. I brought her in her pram, the other day. She’s David’s latest. Looks just like him, too.”
Jennifer had not noticed the slightest resemblance. She did not say so. Maude launched into a description of Irene, detailing every eyelash and finger with poetic exaggeration. Jennifer waited for the recital to end. She had news of her own to impart. At last Maude stopped for breath.
“A new family is coming to settle in Claunceton.”
“Really!” Maude put the purchase in her raffia bag.
Maude nearly dropped her bag.
“They wear turbans. They have long beards, rolled up in nets.”
“Where are they?”
“They’ve bought the Johnson place.”
“That’s next door to Bettina Walters.”
“Right! They’re her neighbours.”
Just then Bettina walked in. Straw coloured hair, with pale blue eyes set wide apart over puckered lips, gave her an appearance of helplessness. Maude strode up to her..
“I hear you have new neighbours.”
“I think so.”
“Either you have, or you haven’t.”
“I saw a van with crates, coming in through the gate.
“There were people.”
Jennifer had returned from serving a customer.
“They are Sikhs, a warlike clan. They always carry a dagger, sharpened for the kill.”
Bettina and Maude gasped. Gratified by their response Jennifer went off to serve an elderly man, looking for a particular brand of tobacco.
“Bettina,” Maude burst out. “It’s not safe for you to live alone in your house.” Bettina could think of no other alternative. She bought a supply of guest soaps, and went home. She put her parcel down, as she struggled to open the gate. The clasp was stuck, and made ghostly noises when disturbed. As she did so she looked over the wall and saw a middle aged man, ringed by a group of youngsters. He was tall and burly.His complexion was the colour of a ripe fig. He was taking down the board Mayflower. In its place he put up an ornate sign. It read Ludhiana. Bettina looked at her own nameplate, Bells. She dreaded to think it would be knocked down one day. She shuddered as she locked herself inside the house, using all her strength to turn the key which was jammed.
Maude phoned late that night.“Is everything allright?” It was a casual question. The tone implied danger.
The next morning Bettina saw an array of trunks on the neighbour’s lawn. All around there were people, pulling out the contents. The men wore jeans and T shirts. The women were clad in loose trousers and long tops with gauzy upper cloths. Later, Bettina identified the dresses as Salwar Chamises worn with dupattas.
The group chattered and called out to one another as they sorted out massive cauldrons, cooking vessels, stirring spoons, clothes, rugs and furniture. The job was soon done. The women cleared away the debris. The men trundled the crates away.
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It was not long before there was a sound of hammering from the backyard. Betty looked out from her bedroom window. The middle aged man, helped by the youngsters, was building a shed. Bettina’s mind went to reports of women imprisoned in warehouses, beaten and starved to death.
As she contemplated these horrors, the doorbell rang. She looked out to see a fat elderly woman, in a loose white salwar chamise, standing on the door step. Was this a ploy? She went downstairs and opened the door. The woman held a stainless steel container. She pressed it into Bettina’s hands.
“This for you.I, Prita, next door.” She entered, and sat on the nearest sofa. “I, knee pain. No stand.”
Bettina held out a hand.“Thank you, I’m Bettina.”
“My brother, Balwant, tell me, “go see lady. She all alone. I come. Now I go.” She levered herself off the sofa in a manner which showed she suffered from arthritis. “My brother come tomorrow. He repair your gate. He say it make too much noise.He fifty.He work like twenty”.
“I’m sorry if the sound is a bother.”
“He say it not safe for you.” Prita made a slow exit.That night Bettina relayed the news to Maude.
“What a nerve: Walking in uninvited. Be careful of the brother. Don’t be alone in the house with him. Don’t eat the mess the woman gave you. It is sure to make you ill.”
Bettina did not say she had already eaten Prita’s offering of rice pudding, cooked in milk with rose water. It lay warm and comfortable in her stomach. She did not feel in the least bit ill.
The next day the bell rang around mid morning .Before her stood the middle aged man. He had a large tool box in his hand. He took out a hammer. Was he going to hit her on the head with it.?
“I’m Balwant. I’ve come to fix your gate.” Before she could protest he had marched off. He returned in half an hour.“Now I will do the repairs in the house.” Prita must have had an observant eye, for he went straight to the ailing fixtures, ending with the door.
Bettina saw that many items, including the lock and key on the door, had been replaced. She eyed her purse. Should she offer him something? Balwant caught the direction of her glance, and watched her with an amused look. She turned away. He took his leave.
“Do look up Prita. She feels lonely.”
Bettina smiled her assent, though she could not understand how any one living in a large family could feel alone.
Maude was furious.
“Can’t you see they’re casing the joint. You’re a fool to let people into your house, particularly when they are……” Bettina waited to hear the word ‘Indians’ After a pause Maude ended with ‘strangers’.
Bettina steeled herself to make the foray next door. She baked a batch of brownies and put it in the box. The bell was answered by a young woman dressed in jeans and a tank top, with hair flowing down to her knees.
“I’m Sonu, Prita’s daughter-in-law.” She led Bettina to the drawing room, and seated her on a red velvet sofa. Prita came limping in. She was delighted with the brownies.
“I so glad you come.” She gestured to Sonu to bring tea, and turned to Bettina. “How you like our house?”
Bettina looked around at carved furniture: blue, red and yellow cushions; plastic flowers in crystal vases; an antique chandelier hanging from the ceiling; a maroon carpet and tables crowded with brass vases and family photos.
‘What atrocious taste,’ was her reaction. “It’s very colourful,” she replied. Prita seemed pleased. She went into a narrative of the lives of the people in the pictures. There were parents, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, children, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law.There was a photo of a slim and bright eyed Prita, with her handsome and serious faced husband, Tejinder. He had been an accountant with a London firm, but was now no more.
Sonu brought in a tray of refreshments. There were yellow sugary swirls, wheat cases stuffed with potatos and assortment of salted fries. Prita pointed them out. Jalebis, Samosas, Chivda. Sounds of frying from the kitchen told Bettina they had been freshly made. Prita heaped food on a plate. “Eat.”
Bettina felt faint. “I can’t.”
“It not polite, refuse. I feel hurt.” Prita dropped a jalebi into her mouth. Bettina followed suit. Soon she had cleared her plate. She washed the snacks down with milky, sugared tea, served in glasses. She felt replete and full. As if from a distance she heard Prita say, “you must stay for lunch.”
“Oh no!” Bettina got up. “I have eaten too much already.” Prita did not insist.
“ You again come. I make lamb pilau.”
“Thank you for a lovely feast.” Bettina beat a hasty retreat.That evening at the village store Jennifer cornered her.
“How are you getting on with the Singhs?”
“Your neighbours. All the men are known as Singh, the women as Kaur.”
“I don’t see a great deal of them.”
“That’s all to the good. They are a bit much.”
“In what way?”
“They make themselves prominent.” Maude had entered.
“You saw them at the village concert. They did a dance, stamping their feet and uttering wild cries. It was shocking.”
Bettina was puzzled.
“Didn’t our rock band do the same?” Maude gave her a pitying look.
“That’s different. They belong to Claunceton.”
Claunceton had been featured as one of the ten most picturesque villages in England. It had a church from the time of Saint Bede,a castle complete with drawbridge, a manor house, cottages with gabled roofs, cobblestone streets and a town hall with slits for windows. Except for tourists nobody came to Claunceton. The inhabitants had known one another from the time they were pushed around in strollers. They did not know how to regard the new entrants to their cloister.Maude made this feeling clear.
“Stick to your own kind, if you don’t want to be in trouble.”
Bettina decided to follow her friend’s advice. She kept to her side of the wall, though she could not resist looking over the wall to see the lines of Singhs visiting and leaving. One day Balwant saw her. He waved.
“Why don’t you come over? Prita is missing you.” Bettina gave a distant nod. She did not reply. After that she walked on the other side of the pathway.
One day her foot caught a loose flagstone. She tripped and fell flat on her back. She could not get up. She called out, hoping some passerby would stop. No one did. She let out a bellow of pain. A startled boy peered over the wall. A few minutes later a contingent of men led by Balwant, carrying a rough blanket, turned up. They rolled Bettina on to it as if she were cottonwool, and carried her to Ludhiana.
Prita came in, wringing her hands.
“Call doctor,” she said at large.
Bettina pictured herself being examined by a dark skinned man, his turban unravelling over her hair, his beard grating her cheeks. She was relieved when Dr. Fitch, the village G.P. entered. He bent over her. “No bones broken. I’m afraid you won’t be able to walk on that foot for two weeks.”
Prita cut in. “Bettina stay here. I bandage foot. I learn first-aid in Ludhiana hospital.”
“You are in good hands,” said Dr. Fitch. He drank hot tea from a glass, with relish. “I’ll look you up in a couple of days.”
Sonu was despatched to Bells with Bettina’s keys. She returned with a suitcase packed with whatever Bettina could possibly need. Bettina was given a glass of warm milk, with the tablets the doctor had prescribed. She dozed off.
She awoke to find the house strangely quiet. The various Singhs tip-toed around, supervised by Prita, who glared at the slightest noise. She took Bettina in hand, moving her to her own room. She got her a walking stick, and fed her at every opportunity. Often she would sit by her side, and talk about her native Punjab.She spoke of dusty summers, skin drying winters and the stinging monsoon, which brought life back to the cracked earth. Her husband, Tejinder, had come to England, after the war.” He long to go to England. England need him. I come. I cry for my people.”
Bettina thought of a young Prita crossing the seas to live in a cold, unfriendly island. She told Prita of her own past;of long years spent nursing her sick mother; of the young man who said he loved her, then disappeared when she spoke of marriage: of the misery of being fortyfive, plain, and alone.
“You no plain. You pretty. That young man, fool.”
Once in a while Balwant would come to the room, to talk to her. He had left behind a prosperous business in Ludhiana to be with Prita, when her husband died. He stayed on to help her raise her children. At present there were two sons, working in London, their wives and five grand children living in the house. Two daughters were married, and lived in Birmingham and Manchester. Prita had decided to move from London to Claunceton, so that the children could grow up in the country. Balwant had a furniture show-room, for which he made samples in the back yard. His designs were finding a good market in Europe.
One day Bettina saw the whole family excited.“Today Baisakhi, our spring festival,” announced Prita. The women got busy in the kitchen with Prita as the overseer. From her room Bettina could smell cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and green chillies. There was an aroma of roast meat, wheat rolls dropped in hot oil, of sugar syrup and fruit.
By evening the women looked as if they had never seen a kitchen. They wore silk and satin. The house exuded a scent of flower petals and sandalwood paste. Prita shone in emerald green, with gold earrings dangling from her ears. She had persuaded Bettina to wear an electric blue outfit with silver jewellery. It set off her yellow hair, and blue eyes.
The living room had been cleared and decorated with paper streamers. The men were grouped around wearing lungis. They looked as if they had wrapped table cloths around their waists. Two women began banging cylindrical drums. The men danced. They stamped their feet and waved multicolored handkerchiefs as they shouted ‘balle`,` balle`. The women joined in. Bettina clapped her hands. The floor boards vibrated to sounds, the Johnsons could never have imagined. Food and drink were consumed, with active finger licking, as the revellers took time out to replenish themselves.
Balwant approached Bettina. He took her hand and led her in slow steps, holding her to him. She could feel his heart beating against hers. The warmth of his skin went through her dress. Her floral fragrance mingled with his after shave lotion. It was a pleasant sensation. She leaned on his shoulder and gave herself up to it.
As she did so Balwant disengaged himself. “You must not strain your foot.” He set her down on the nearest chair and left the room. He was soon back with a plateful of food, which they shared in silence. It was almost morning before the festivities ended
The next day Bettina made up her mind to return to Bells. She could walk without a stick, and planned to get domestic help for the harder chores.Meanwhile, her friends had not been remiss in talking to her over the cell phone.Maude expressed the general opinion.
“Bettina, go home at once. All this lavish hospitality is most suspicious. They must be planning something sinister. What’s worse, you’ve given them the keys to your house. By now they might have cleaned you out of all your valuables.” Bettina did not say she had no valuables. Maude was not a person one contradicted. “Mark my words,” Maude went on, “you’ll be expected to pay. There’s no free lunches. All of us think you’re mad to stay there.”
Bettina’s circumstances seemed to be the talk of the village. Yet, no one had come to see her, though Prita had said she would welcome callers.
She spoke to Prita about leaving. Prita tried to make her stay; “till you kick football.” She alluded to the children calling Bettina to play football with them.
Bettina insisted. Prita had to agree. Maude’s words rang in her ears. “They’ll expect you to pay.” She faced her hostess.
“Prita, you have been good to me. I am truly grateful. However, it is not right to expect you to take care of me for nothing.” She opened her purse. “How much do I owe you?”
Prita put her hand up to her cheek, as if she had been slapped.
“Bettina, you like my sisters. They in Punjab. You here. I think you are them. I care for you because I love you. You give money. Shame to me. Go, Bettina. Go.” She felt her way out of the room as if she had been s blinded.
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