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Victor is thinking of other parties, of his childhood: quiet, dignified, the productions of an excitable wife of a dour clergyman. Homemade marshmallows, he remembers, lightly coloured with cochineal, dusted with icing sugar. He stands in the hallway of his own home in southeast London, looking at the late afternoon sun colouring everything with a honey glaze. My, he thinks, he can even see his own pudgy hand, reaching up to the table to steal a sweet, and a servant clucking away behind him, shoo-shooing him, as if he were an escaped hen. If his father had seen him, there would have been the nasty, damning words about thieves, about hell. He hears Preethi and Nandini in the kitchen, the pan lids banging, the murmured voices, one of them chopping at the table, a small laughter. I am rich, he thinks.
He walks into the sitting room, adjusts cushions on the plush cream sofas, a recent investment. The plastic covers have been removed for this evening but will go back tomorrow: Nandini said that, once bought, this three-piece suite would be their last. It must survive thirty years, then, he thinks, for we are so young still, barely fifty. The sun is setting. He stands by the window, looking out to the opposite houses. Already there is music from the end of the street: West Indians, their party will be raucous. Never mind, never mind. He takes his C. T. Fernando record out of its sleeve, holds it carefully by the edges, blowing the dust away gently into the last pink rays of the sunshine. When he places the needle onto the crack-crack of the grooves, he can smell poppadoms frying, he can feel the warmth of other air, he can hear the voices of people long left behind. And Victor’s eyes fill with tears, for there is no going back in his life, only the moving forward to better things. There is only the climb up steep green hills that signify this Britain. He sits gingerly on the sofa as if he were the guest and the sofa the host. “Ma Bala Kale,” C. T. sings, and Victor hums along, remembering that the poppadoms will not be fried until the evening.
Preethi is angry. Nandini is again talking of money, of wasted opportunities. She is talking about resolutions, and Preethi is tired of saying—yes, Ammi, I will work harder, I will forget that under this skin there is me. She wants to say—you know I’m slow, I’m not like Rohan and Gehan, I just can’t do what you want me to do. But she changes the subject. Talks about Clare, her friend from school, coming to the party.
“She’s got the whole of Brideshead on video. Sometimes we watch two episodes—”
“Watch? But I thought you studied together?”
“Yes. We do. But sometimes we take a break and watch—and it is by Evelyn Waugh. And you used to watch it with me.” Which wasn’t true, she thought—Ammi was always asleep on the sofa.
They are silent.
“So, who is coming tonight, Ammi?”
“Wesley and Siro. This one, Gertie—she is bringing that foster child of hers. And her brother. He’s done very well. He is here attending Sandhurst.”
“What? For the army? Which army?”
“The Sri Lankan army, fool.”
Preethi pauses for effect. “The Sri Lankan army who like to repress and murder Tamil people. You know, Tamil people like me and Dad?”
“Don’t be clever-clever. We left that behind, all that talk. You’re in England. Talk of English politics. How can you understand Sri Lanka? It is not ours to understand anymore.”
“That’s rubbish,” she starts, but her mother slaps her hand. It stings.
“Don’t say ‘rubbish’ to me. Do you think I would have said ‘rubbish’ to my mother?”
Preethi washes her hands and, wiping them on her backside, edges around her mother’s chair in order to leave.
“Where are you going? Come and chop the rest of these onions, then peel the carrots and grate them.”
She wants to call Clare. Tell her to bring a bottle of wine, which they can sneak to her room and enjoy by themselves. She sits back down at the table and starts to peel the carrots.
“Onions first!” her mother says. It is going to be a long New Year’s Eve night, Preethi thinks. But tomorrow will be 1983, and something good should come of it.
Nandini finally in the shower, Victor takes another journey around the theatre of his house, imagining the characters who will be there shortly, seeing them stand with drinks in their hands, their colognes mixing with smoke, the perfumed silk-saried ladies perched on the chairs he has placed around the sitting room and dining room. The table is laid: Rohan and Gehan helped Preethi by lifting it and pushing it into the centre, so that people can travel around it, serving from the various dishes Nandini has prepared. They argued this morning, about the expense of a party. Nandini said he should have asked fewer people. But he knows that not everyone will come. Nandini is tired all the time, he reminds himself: he had been on Preethi’s side. He would have let her go to college. She was happy at the local school. But Nandini took a second job, begged the private school to take Preethi on. Every penny is saved—no, he won’t think about it now. He wears a Nehru shirt, khaki, and cream slacks. He looks into the hall mirror, combs his floppy straight hair back into the quiff he has worn since he was eighteen. All his friends wear their hair this way.
The clock in the hall strikes seven. Gertie said she may come early, but the rest of the crowd are always late. Victor can hear the television upstairs in his bedroom. He helped Rohan carry it up there, in case the younger crowd got bored. He walks upstairs to see what they are watching. He looks around the door. His three children are lying on his double bed. Gehan holds the video buttons and leans on his elbows, flat out on his tummy. He is still a baby behind his glasses. Rohan and Preethi lie leisurely side by side, propped up by pillows. The tape finishes rewinding, and Gehan presses PLAY.
The familiar trumpet solo, the white words, and then the fade into a single face, a stilted Italian accent: “I believe in America.”
“The Godfather, The Godfather—it is all you watch,” he says from the doorway. They shush him. “Hmm, hmm—that can wait. Your mother will need to get ready. Enough, enough. Go and change, Gehan. Rohan.”
“I’m changed, Papa,” Preethi says.
“I know you are, darling. You look lovely,” he says as she walks past. He touches her face, pinches the burgundy satin of her dress. “Come and choose some music with me,” he says gently. “They will all be here soon.”
Preethi watches from her window for Clare. She managed to call, and Clare said to look out for her dad’s Mercedes. Clare is staying the night, as her parents are going to a party in a hotel in town. Down the road, there is laughter, reggae music, shouting. Preethi wishes she was there: all her friends at her old school were black. She misses Sonia and Marcia and Shanelle. She wonders if they are partying somewhere, maybe in that club in Peckham they used to go to.
She can see cars stopping on the street and people getting out. Saris, men in suits. She turns to her door: “Someone’s here! They’re here!”
Chitra and Richard don’t arrive until nine thirty. They have battled with public transport, pushed against the crowd on their way to Trafalgar Square, and now walk leisurely up to the door.
“Listen,” Chitra says. Richard pulls her to him and kisses her. “Listen,” she says again.
“Music. Baila music. And can you smell it? Can you smell the curry?”
She stands on the doorstep but doesn’t ring the bell. What will they say? The people who knew her before she left her husband for Richard will all be there, sitting as they always do, in vicious eyeing circles around the room. But she cannot resist, and Victor said he wanted her to come. He insisted that she come. And she is proud of Richard, this famous writer, this gorgeous god with his shoulder-length, greying, Byronesque hair. Suddenly the door opens, and she peers in as Preethi throws her arms wide.
“Aunty! Come, come!” and they are pulled into the warm embrace of the party.
Victor knows they are expecting him to say something. Nandini has indicated with a nod that the food is ready to serve. He looks around him, from face to face. There are thirty or forty people there, talking, laughing, some kissing on either cheek. Mr. Basit is sitting in the centre of the sofa, his wife, Rita, perched on the arm next to him; Jenny, their daughter, is upstairs. Nandini is not happy, because Mr. Basit brought a bottle of whisky and insisted that Victor try some. Victor gave up drinking in the summer of ’77, the same week Elvis died. But Victor respects Mr. Basit, and it is an honour that he brought such a special bottle of whisky—old whisky, Basit says. Victor had opened the bottle, taken cut-glass tumblers from the kitchen (Nandini had specifically told him earlier that only plastic cups must be used), and poured a glass for Mr. Basit, a glass for Wesley, a glass for Hugo, a glass for Mr. Chatterjee, and a glass for himself. He had not offered any to Kumar, Shamini’s cousin, even though he had slinked about the back door, purring obsequiously at Victor. Nasty-looking fellow, drunk when he got here, Wesley said. They had stood together outside in the garden, five friends, toasting the New Year. It had been a quiet moment of clarity, filled with the resonance of the cold, bell-like clinking of their glasses. They had all knocked the drink back, in one, as they would have done with arrack in Sri Lanka. And the salt harshness of the spirit on his lips dances there still. He looks around at the party, and he sees them all in the swimmer’s gaze of a whiskied moment. Nandini’s eyes shine black and hard as he raises his glass and shouts, “Friends! A toast! Here is—I mean—to US!” and he stumbles a little, and laughs. “Time to eat, time to eat . . .”
Nandini turns, calls to Preethi, and Preethi and Nil, Siro and Chitra, follow her to the kitchen to start bringing through the tureens of mutton, lentils, silver platters of yellow rice, glass bowls of salads, and baskets of poppadoms.
Victor sits down next to Gertie. Her foster child, May, is with her.
“Hello, little girl,” he says, pinching her cheek lightly. “There are a lot of other little girls upstairs. Why don’t you go and play?”
She shakes her head.
“Shy, shy,” Gertie says. “Talk to my brother, will you? He’s another shy one, nayther?” she says, poking the young man sitting beside May. Victor nods to the man, an officer in the army.
“Come and eat,” he says to the fellow. The brother was introduced but Victor cannot remember his name. The whisky has clouded his mind, and all he sees are colours now, around each person—greens, purples, golds, crimsons. Around this man there is a yellow fire, an easy lion aggression: if the fellow were to open his mouth, a roar of the fire would belch out, and Victor realises he hates him, without reason. On impulse, he takes the man’s hand, pulls him from his chair, and, pushing his shoulder lightly, leads him to the dining room, where people are already loading their plates. Nandini stands watching the dishes empty, waiting to swoop down to refill them. He catches her eye: she smiles from the side of her mouth. Victor looks at her across the party, and a tenderness for her erupts from him, and to his embarrassment and surprise, he imagines their warmth in the dark, the smell of her neck, the soft, flabby skin of her stomach, crushed and stretched and worn. And he sees around her a glow of pink and mauve, which takes his breath away.
Upstairs, The Godfather has got to the wedding night, and Rohan has stopped the video. There are too many little children wandering in and out of the room, and he is embarrassed by the actress’s high, pale breasts: so ugly to him, so unnatural, the way she turns to Michael and removes her slip. The older kids are annoyed, and he is ushering children down the stairs to go and eat. But there is a crush in the hallway, so children run up and down the stairs, trying to go farther upstairs to see what Preethi is doing in her bedroom. Gehan has taken the boys his age into his own room, and they are playing Monopoly for real money they have rummaged from coats hanging on the banister.
Preethi calls down to Rohan: “Get the ghetto blaster out! Clare brought some tapes.” He thinks this is not such a bad idea. Nil comes to help him.
“Where’s Mo tonight?” he asks her. Her brother is one of his good friends, and he is disappointed he didn’t come.
“He’s gone up to Trafalgar Square with some mates.” She seems shy; it is strange, for they have known each other since they were toddlers. Nil is beautiful now, with her long hair and her deep-reddish skin, the high cheekbones like her father, Wesley. Her eyes dance at him.
“You’ve got a secret,” he says. He knows her; he can read her.
“I’ve got engaged,” she says. He didn’t expect it. It is a punch in the head.
“No,” he says. “Who to?”
“Who do you think? Ian, for goodness’ sake.”
“And Uncle’s going to let you marry a white guy? Like hell!”
“Yes, he is.”
“You haven’t told them, have you?”
“Yes. They won’t stop us. They like him.”
“They’ve met him? Liar. You’re making it up.”
“I brought him home.”
“What, for a curry feed and a quick singsong?”
She slaps his back. “Shut up.” She laughs. “I’m hungry. Let’s go and eat.”
But before they go down, he pulls her back to his parents’ bedroom and closes the door, and quite unexpectedly they find they are kissing in the dark, the way they have often kissed before. He feels nothing sexual toward her, his dick nestles limp in its place, but there is comfort in their kiss. When they walk out, he knows there will be no more kissing Nil, and so he prolongs it, keeps her there, against the door, brushing her hair away from her face and smiling at her closed eyes.