Extract taken from the debut novel, ‘Finding Arun’. © Marisha Pink 2013.
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The warmth of the sun’s rays gently caressed Aaron’s eyelids through the window and even with his eyes closed he could see the hazy yellow and orange hue of the morning. For a split second the new day glowed with promise, but as he lay in his bed and blinked his eyes open, the now familiar stinging sensation brought with it the pain of realisation: she was gone.
He closed his eyes once more while a sinking feeling swept over him and the crushing heaviness in his chest became almost unbearable. He swallowed hard, willing himself not to cry, but silent tears pooled in the corners of his eyes and began to roll stealthily down his cheeks. He breathed a deep sigh, desperate to steel himself against the oppressive pain. It hurt like nothing had ever hurt before and no matter how many times he replayed the events in his mind nothing would change. She was gone and he hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.
Brushing the tears from his face Aaron propped himself up on his elbows to survey the room. He hadn’t been there for months, yet in the short time since he’d returned home it had become difficult to coax him from the only room in which he felt truly at ease. The bedroom provided his only escape from the scores of visitors who had descended upon the house to pay their respects to his late mother. Unable to recall ever meeting most of them before, he neither wanted nor welcomed their intrusion, and with his mother gone even the faces that he did recognise seemed alien to him now.
Aaron had always felt uncomfortable in social situations and those involving his mother’s affluent and ever-expanding circle of friends were amongst the worst. He was well-mannered, impeccably groomed and boasted an intellect far beyond his nineteen years, yet these things were never enough to disguise one simple truth: he would always be the brown kid in the white room. Over the years her various acquaintances had each been careful to feign indifference to, and even unawareness of, the discord between the colour of his skin and that of his adoptive mother’s. For her part, she had loved and raised him as her own, fiercely challenging anyone who so much as threatened to look at him the wrong way, but inside he knew the truth. He would always be different and nothing he could say, or do, would ever gain him genuine acceptance into her world.
With his only ally gone Aaron felt awkward and alone, and despite his best efforts he found the conversations with mourners an increasingly tedious inconvenience. It wasn’t that their condolences were insincere, but without his mother’s mediating presence the exchanges quickly turned to idle chatter, uncomfortable silence, or a curious mixture of both. There was no longer a need for either of them to tolerate one another, yet each visitor persisted in their half-hearted attempts at conversation, trying and failing to forge a meaningful connection with him. Eventually he would tire of the charade and, finding any excuse to extract himself from the strained interactions, swiftly retreat to the safety of his room, certain that nobody was actually missing him.
In the confines of his room it was almost possible to pretend that nothing had happened. To pretend that his mother hadn’t fallen sick and that he hadn’t really left London to volunteer in Namibia all those months ago. He hadn’t wanted to leave her, but she had been insistent that he continue with his plans, assuring him that she would make a full recovery. As a doctor herself he’d had no reason to doubt her, but the other doctors had reassured him too; expensive doctors who were adamant that they had ‘caught it early’ and that it was ‘amenable to surgery’. Except that they hadn’t, and it wasn’t, and seemingly overnight her condition had transformed from fixable to fatal. Everything had happened so fast that it was almost a blur in his mind. For days he had tried desperately to get home, hitching rides with strangers and sleeping on airport floors, all the while praying that a flight would become available. But by the time he had arrived home it was already too late.
He sat up fully in bed pulling the duvet towards his chin to keep in the warmth. Over a week had passed since his mother’s burial and with visitor numbers showing a steady decline in recent days, he was hopeful that today he would finally be able to move about the house without being accosted. Aunt Ruby, his father’s sister, was the only one who remained, having flown in from Australia to assist when his mother’s condition had initially deteriorated, but she could hardly be described as a guest. She had made herself at home, instantly taking charge of running their large Georgian house, and without her intervention Aaron was certain that his father would have fallen apart completely.
Of the little extended family that they had, Aunt Ruby was the only relative that Aaron both liked and trusted. As a child, each time his mother had been called overseas to present her research at a conference, Aaron had been packed off to Australia to stay with Aunt Ruby for a few weeks. Over the years they had grown very close and though Aaron’s visits had become less frequent with age, their relationship was still much stronger than the one that he shared with her brother.
Aaron couldn’t recall ever being close to his adoptive father and it had quickly dawned on him that the expensive trips to Aunt Ruby were simply a way to relieve his father from having to engage with him whilst his mother was away. His father’s role had always seemed perfunctory; there was minimal interaction, none of the love or warmth that one might expect to receive from a parent, and in a telling act of detachment the old man insisted that Aaron call him by his first name. It baffled Aaron how his father and Aunt Ruby could have developed such contrasting characters, but never more than in the last week had he been grateful for their differences, and for the buffer that Aunt Ruby provided between them.
He swung his long limbs out of the bed and rose unsteadily to his feet, carefully stooping to avoid knocking his head on the exposed wooden beams that zigzagged across the ceiling. At nearly six feet tall he would have made an impressive figure, if it weren’t for his lanky, boyish physique, which often fooled people into thinking that he was much younger than he was. He picked his way cautiously across the room avoiding the piles of clothes, plates and luggage strewn haphazardly across the floor, and on safely reaching the other side, rounded the corner into the en-suite bathroom.
Catching sight of himself in the small vanity mirror he was somewhat startled by his appearance. His once neatly groomed, coffee-coloured hair was now an unkempt, overgrown mess that stretched in every direction imaginable about his tanned face. Two dark halos encircled his warm hazel eyes, a testament to the grief and suffering he had experienced in the past week, and an army of protruding hairs threatening to turn themselves into a full beard had laid claim to his jaw. He turned on the tap and splashed cold water rhythmically over his cheeks, the coolness at once inviting against the stinging heat of his bronzed, tear-stained face, and immediately he felt his mood begin to lift. He patted his face dry and, returning to the bedroom, scoured the rubble until he found a crumpled white T-shirt and a faded pair of grey tracksuit bottoms, which he deftly slipped into as he made his way towards the door.
Padding barefoot down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen, Aaron was conscious of the silence that echoed throughout the house. After the hustle and bustle of the past week the silence suddenly seemed eerie and unsettling, yet he wondered hopefully whether he might be alone. At the foot of the stairs he turned the corner towards the large open kitchen and much to his dismay found his father seated at the heavy oak dining table with the daily newspaper spread before him. Arthur Rutherford was a simple and pragmatic man, who liked the status quo and didn’t believe in unnecessary fuss. An antique dealer by trade, he preferred to work with things rather than people, and had shied away from most displays of human emotion until a chance meeting with Catherine, Aaron’s adoptive mother, had turned his world upside down.
Catherine had got under his skin, the way that she did with nearly everyone she encountered, and even stern and serious Arthur had been powerless to resist her charms. On the surface they had seemed an unlikely match, but as a young doctor Catherine’s obvious passion and drive to help others had touched something within him, and he had opened up to her, sharing a softer side that few others ever saw. His life had been devoted to making her happy and though the casual observer might have thought him bland and uninspiring compared to his outspoken and charismatic other half, she had always made sure that he knew just how important his love and support were to her successes.
Aaron paused uncertainly on the threshold of the kitchen, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot until at last Arthur glanced up and acknowledged his presence. It was the first time that they had been completely alone together since his return and now the awful truth of their loss seemed to stretch between them like some unfillable chasm. They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity to Aaron, Arthur’s steely grey eyes like bottomless pits of sorrow steadily pouring their sadness into his soul. They may not have been close, but they shared a mutual respect for one another and the places that they had each held in Catherine’s heart, and there in the silence of the kitchen no words were necessary for each to know and empathise with the other’s pain.
Unable to stand the tension any longer, Aaron was first to break the silence.
‘Good morning, Arthur.’
‘Good morning, Aaron. Are you hungry?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘You must eat; you need to keep your strength up. I think Aunt Ruby has left you a plate in the fridge. Take a seat and I’ll warm it up for you.’
Aaron did as instructed and slipped into Arthur’s vacant seat while the old man stood to rummage around the fridge. He flicked lazily through the pages of the open newspaper until a closer inspection of one article caused him to flip quickly back to the front page in confusion. The newspaper was dated 8th April 2012; the day of his mother’s death.
‘Arthur, you do realise that newspaper is over two weeks old?’
‘I know. I just thought that I would catch up on what’s happened since … since …’
His voice trailed off, leaving the unfinished sentence hanging in mid-air. Aaron didn’t know what to say, but a few moments later Arthur regained his composure.
‘We need to make a start on sorting through your mother’s things. Most of it can go to charity; it’s what she would have wanted. Are you able to help me out today?’
‘Of course,’ Aaron answered, swallowing hard in an attempt to suppress the tears he felt bubbling just below the surface.
He knew that his mother’s belongings would have to be cleared away eventually – as two grown men they had no use for the majority of her possessions – but knowing it and actually doing it were two wholly different things and Aaron couldn’t help feeling that this act had an unwelcome air of finality about it. Still, he didn’t want Arthur to see him cry, it would only make them both uncomfortable.
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