Extracts taken from the recently released novel, ‘Last Piece of Me’. © Marisha Pink 2015.
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May 1986, London
‘Are you sure?’
Catherine dropped down on to the bed beside Arthur and handed him the stick.
‘Oh … I’m sorry,’ he mumbled.
She stared at her husband through the chestnut strands of hair that had fallen across her face. He seemed unaffected by the result, but there was empathy in his steely grey eyes and a pitying look on his face.
‘We can keep trying,’ he ventured, tucking the errant strands behind her ears.
Catherine smiled meekly; she was beginning to think that it would never happen for them, no matter how much they kept trying.
Breaking Arthur’s gaze, she stared glumly out of the open window. It was late spring and though the morning sun streamed into the master bedroom of their Georgian home, this latest failure was casting a cold shadow over her day. Somehow, the hope, the thought and the feeling that she might be pregnant never seemed to correspond to the real thing. Each false alarm proved more disheartening than the last, and Catherine was growing tired of having her hopes quashed after every agonising three-minute wait.
Feeling Arthur’s arm snake around her shoulders, she allowed herself to be moulded into the familiar nook in his neck. Though he was a man of few words, Arthur possessed an incredible power to speak to her through touch alone, and the embrace was enough to help soothe her feelings of frustration. Stretching her pale legs out across the bed, Catherine stared into her lap, her deep blue eyes tracing the intricate lace edging of her negligee. It didn’t seem fair; for years they had worked hard to establish themselves so that they would be able to provide a comfortable life for their children in the future. Yet now that the time had arrived, no amount of hard work seemed to be enough to yield a child.
‘Do you think it’s me?’ she asked, after a time.
‘Of course not.’
‘But what if it is?’
Arthur rested his cheek against the top of her head and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
She clung to his bare chest, the curly grey hairs tickling her forearm, and willed his ignorant confidence to diffuse into her body. It was easy for Arthur to keep believing, day after day, week after week; he didn’t know any better. Catherine, on the other hand, couldn’t ignore the medical training that she had received as a doctor, and she was certain that her age was contributing to their struggles. At thirty-one she might be ten years Arthur’s junior, but he didn’t have to worry about his fertility declining until one day it ceased to exist at all. He didn’t have a ticking biological clock that could expire at any moment of its choosing and he didn’t have to worry about his body’s ability to cope with pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. And then there was the other thing. The thing that she had been forced to do but had always regretted, the thing that Arthur knew nothing about. Catherine felt guilty just thinking about it.
‘I’d better jump in the bath,’ she declared, untangling herself from the embrace and struggling to her feet.
‘We have plenty of time, Cathy. Just relax.’
‘Actually, Olivia and Ian are expecting us at eleven. I promised that we’d help them set up for the party.’
Arthur rolled his eyes.
‘They’re our friends, Arty.’
‘You mean your friends,’ he moaned, folding his arms across his chest. ‘Are you absolutely sure that I’m needed?’
Catherine smiled sarcastically.
Arthur had never been interested in cultivating friendships of his own, and Catherine was probably his only friend in the true sense of the word. If it were up to Arthur, they would spend all of their time alone, but Catherine had always been a popular and outgoing personality, and with a veritable entourage of friends there was little chance of that ever happening. No-one understood why she was attracted to such an introverted character, but Arthur had immediately stood out amongst the plethora of immature Lotharios vying for her attention. He was older and wiser, more cultured and more secure, and he boasted the kind of quiet confidence that could only come from someone who was comfortable in their own skin. His old soul and traditional values were endearing, but most of all, Arthur loved Catherine in a way that she was certain no-one else ever would. Arthur had dedicated his life to making her happy, and despite loathing the incessant socialising that she forced him to partake in, after ten years of marriage, they both knew that he would go wherever she asked him to.
She stood at the foot of the bed, surveying her husband’s finely wrinkled face and greying mop of hair, before raising a single eyebrow.
‘Oh alright, I’ll help set up,’ cried Arthur, flinging his arms into the air and throwing his full weight back against the headboard. ‘Do I have to stay for the party though?’
It was Catherine’s turn to roll her eyes.
‘Of course you have to stay for the party; everyone will be there.’
‘Precisely. They’re not going to notice if I slip away once it starts.’
Catherine clambered back onto the bed and, cupping Arthur’s face in her hands, gently shook her head at him. He smiled, unable to resist the charm of his wife’s seductive blue eyes.
‘Fine, but promise me that you’ll stay by my side. I hate it when you leave me by myself.’
‘I can’t stay by your side all afternoon, Arty. I’ll be running around helping Olivia, and I want to catch up with my friends too.’
‘The same friends who upset you so much at the last party that you feigned a headache and asked me to take you home?’ retorted Arthur, cocking his head to one side.
Catherine felt her face flush red and she released Arthur’s cheeks, turning away from his accusatory gaze.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Yes, you do. Don’t think that I didn’t hear the comments that they were making,’ Arthur challenged.
Catherine winced at the memory. They hadn’t meant to offend her, but the judgements and assumptions made by her friends were deeply upsetting. It was hard being the only one without children, not being invited along to play dates or being available for coffee mornings, not being able to contribute to conversations about sleeping through the night and the rising cost of nursery fees. Their once analogous lives were now wildly divergent, and the fact that her friends had collectively determined that she wasn’t the maternal type had only added to Catherine’s feelings of alienation. Dismissing claims that she was actively trying to conceive, they had gone to great lengths to reassure her that her lack of desire for children was acceptable and her dedication to medicine commendable. The comments had left her feeling grossly misunderstood; focusing on her career was intended as a choice, not a sacrifice.
She felt Arthur’s palm stroke her exposed thigh and reluctantly turned to face him, but his eyes were softer now, seeming to sense her anguish.
‘They don’t know anything,’ he insisted. ‘They don’t know how hard you’ve had to work to get to where you are. They don’t see the smile on your face when you get home from work and describe to me the children that you’ve cared for that day, or the way that your eyes light up when we see children playing in the park. They don’t understand how hard we’ve been trying and that children have always been a part of the plan.’
Catherine nodded in acknowledgement.
‘We did the right thing by waiting,’ Arthur continued, still stroking her thigh. ‘It would have been selfish of us to try for children before we were ready to completely devote our lives to them.’
‘And so what if we’ve left it a little late? That’s nobody’s business but ours.’
‘You’re right,’ Catherine said, smiling.
‘And if we don’t have children, well then—’
‘I just mean that—’
‘Please, Arty. Don’t say it.’
Her eyes implored him not to utter the ultimate words of defeat. Catherine may have had her doubts, but she wasn’t ready to give up yet, and verbally exploring the idea of a life without children would only make the possibility more real.
Arthur held her gaze, seeming troubled by the strength of her reaction to his comment, but she could tell that he understood. Reaching forward, she hugged him to her chest and kissed the top of his head; if for nothing else, she was grateful that they were in this together.
‘I’d better get in the bath,’ she said, releasing Arthur and swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
‘It’s going to be okay, you know?’
Sliding off the bed, Catherine turned her head so that her long hair shielded her face from Arthur’s view. She could feel his eyes following her as she crossed the room to the large oak dresser, but she couldn’t find the strength to look up at him. Lifting a soft blue towel from the uppermost drawer, she trudged back across the room to the en-suite bathroom and pressed the door shut.
Alone at last, she turned to hang the towel on the radiator and caught sight of herself in the bathroom mirror. Her face was visibly worn and nothing like the vibrant image that usually greeted her; it seemed that trying to conceive was taking its toll on Catherine in more ways than one, and her face told a story that she didn’t want the world to know. Tearing her eyes away from the pitiful sight, she placed the plug in the bath and twisted the taps until water came gushing out so forcefully that its thunderous sound drowned out her thoughts. The room quickly filled with steam, and Catherine felt soothed as her haggard reflection was steadily erased by the vapours clouding the mirror.
Leaning back against the wall, she sank to the floor, the flimsy silk of her nightdress hitching up as her knees bent towards the ceiling. It was hard not to feel as though life were mocking her. Catherine had never failed at anything before, and now it was proving impossible to accomplish the one thing that mattered to her the most. In her mind, the spectre of her unborn child overshadowed all the other achievements, making the successes that she had once been so proud of instantly seem insignificant. For the first time in her life, Catherine couldn’t control everything and she felt incredibly vulnerable as a result. This was a problem that could not be solved by studying harder, by paying more money, or by using her charms, and it left her powerless to effect any kind of progress in the situation.
Tears began to fill Catherine’s eyes, and she no longer possessed the strength to fight them. In the privacy of the bathroom, away from Arthur and the prying eyes of her so-called friends, Catherine finally allowed herself to cry. She cried for everything that she didn’t have, for everything that she felt, and for everything that she couldn’t find the words to say. Her whole life had been leading up to the moment when she would be ready for motherhood, but her dream of having a child seemed to be slowly slipping away.
May 1986, Bhubaneswar
THE scratching at the door grew more and more insistent until Kalpana realised that the noise was not a part of the dream that she was having.
‘I’m awake,’ she whispered, blinking into the darkness.
The scratching ceased and Kalpana heard the faint sound of footsteps moving away from the door. She rolled across the mattress, careful not to wake her sleeping companion, and eased herself to her feet in the centre of the room. After a few minutes her eyes had adjusted to the dark, and in one fluid movement she pulled her tattered nightdress up and over her head. Freed from its sweaty confines, she compressed the nightdress into a tight ball and began to smooth out the creases of the simple salwar kameez that she wore beneath it. When her hands passed over the front pocket, she felt the smooth outline of the Ganesh murti that she had stowed there before going to sleep. She had forgotten all about it, but feeling the small statue beneath her clothes gave her a sense of strength, and closing her eyes, she offered up a prayer for safe passage.
A loud moan sounded within the room, and filled with panic, Kalpana’s eyes flew to a mattress by the door, where one of the other servants had rolled onto his back. The man continued to writhe around, seeming unable to find a comfortable position to sleep in, and Kalpana’s pulse began to quicken, fearing that his incessant wriggling would cause the others to stir. Paralysed at the centre of the room, she didn’t know what she would do if they discovered her fully clothed in the middle of the night, but eventually the man settled into a foetal-like position and the room was silent once more.
Her heart still racing, Kalpana tiptoed across the floor, her dainty feet easily able to pick out a path between the haphazardly laid mattresses and sleeping bodies. When she reached the door, she felt along the wall for the tasselled ends of her shawl and tugged sharply at the material until it slid off the hook into her hands. She draped the shawl twice around her shoulders and looped the remaining length loosely over her head, tucking the ends neatly into the folds that surrounded her neck. She had nothing more to take with her, and after a cursory glance around the room, she eased the door open and slipped quietly out into the courtyard.
The night air was hot and humid, making it difficult to breathe, but the kitchen was only a few metres away and the door had been left ajar, just as he had promised that it would be. Relieved by the sight of it, Kalpana closed her eyes again and offered up a quick prayer of gratitude; so far, everything was going to plan.
She crouched down low and blindly felt about in the dirt for her sandals. She knew hers from the others because the front strap had come away so many times that it was now held in place by layers of thick brown tape. Feeling the smoothness of the tape beneath her fingers, she plucked her shoes from the darkness and, hugging them to her chest, stole quickly across the courtyard to the kitchen.
Once inside, Kalpana carefully pressed the door shut, praying that the bolt wouldn’t make too much noise when it clicked into place. She had never been inside the main house at night before, and devoid of the usual cacophony that the staff produced there during the day, the kitchen seemed eerily quiet. Placing her sandals on the floor, she spread the nightdress evenly atop the nearest counter and crossed the room to where the refrigerator stood humming quietly in the darkness. She pulled back the door and reached inside, foraging between the jars and containers until her fingers found the two parcels of food that she had hidden there earlier.
Crossing back to the other side of the kitchen, she laid the parcels in the centre of the nightdress and wrapped them protectively in the tattered material, knotting the sleeves together to fashion a small carrying handle. Her heart was racing again and her conscience was so replete with guilt that Kalpana almost wished she would be caught and punished. Feeling ashamed, she returned to the refrigerator and rearranged the contents until they were exactly as she had found them, erasing all evidence of her petty theft before closing the door. Grabbing the makeshift bag from the counter, she stooped to collect her sandals from the floor and passed through a narrow arch into the hallway of the house.
With the faint hum of the refrigerator left behind, the hallway seemed even quieter than the kitchen had. Not wishing to make a sound, Kalpana held her breath while she navigated the winding corridor towards the front of the house. Though it was pitch black, she knew the layout well, and Kalpana swerved expertly from left to right, avoiding the lavish marble tables that jutted out from beneath the darkness and leaping over creaky floorboards that she knew would give away her position.
Completing the final turn, she was about to emerge at the foot of the sweeping central staircase, when a loud crash up ahead stopped her in her tracks. Glued to the spot with fear, Kalpana felt the little hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as she instinctively hugged her possessions to her chest.
‘Bhagwan!’ she heard a familiar male voice exclaim in a loud whisper.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Kalpana relaxed her arms and crept along the underside of the staircase, emerging from the shadows at the centre of the foyer.
‘Vivek,’ she whispered, trying to alert the young man to her presence.
He was tall and handsome, his sepia hair slicked back against his head and parted neatly at the side.
‘Kalpana,’ he said, smiling as he peered over his shoulder at her.
He finished securing the large duffle bag that he had been wrestling with and stood to greet her, enveloping her so tightly in his arms that she could feel the breath being squeezed from her body. The tension in her shoulders melted away and Kalpana buried her face in Vivek’s chest. She felt safe when he was around, as though nothing and no-one could trouble her, and now that they were together she felt more confident about what lay ahead.
They remained locked in their embrace for several minutes, drinking in the scent of one another with little regard for the heat that they were generating until their clothes began to stick to their skin.
‘Careful,’ warned Kalpana, pulling away, ‘you’ll squash the food, isn’t it?’
Vivek chuckled and hugged her close again, pressing her deeper into his chest. At only five feet tall, she was hardly a match for him, but she tried with all her strength to push him away.
‘Always being silly, isn’t it?’ she chastised, finally breaking free.
‘I don’t care about the food, Kalpana. I can always buy more food. I only care about you,’ he whispered, tenderly stroking her long raven hair.
Kalpana blushed, but she knew that Vivek could not see the rosiness spreading across her cheeks in the dark. She ought to be accustomed to his romantic ramblings by now, but a part of Kalpana still couldn’t believe that Vivek had chosen her, a simple housemaid, to be his bride.
Educated in Britain and the sole heir to his father’s fortune, Vivek was good-looking and sophisticated, intellectual and witty, and he could have had any woman that he desired. Kalpana had seen women come and go from the house, women more beautiful than her, more graceful, and certainly more intelligent, but Vivek’s eyes had never wandered and his enthusiasm had never waned.
She had watched him charm visiting suitors and their eager parents, while she served chai and sweets and then faded into the background as she had been taught. She had listened afterwards while clearing their cups as Vivek systematically rejected each woman, reeling off a list of their imperfections and shortcomings, much to his parents’ dismay. And she had pretended to sympathise with his mother when she complained to Kalpana that she might never see her only son married.
Yet these complaints had paled in comparison to the uproar that ensued when Vivek announced his intention to marry Kalpana. Voices were raised, items were thrown in frustration, and Vivek’s grandmother had wept inconsolably for days. The scruffy young girl from no family of note, who served their food and cleaned their clothes, would never be permitted to marry into their family, much less to bear their grandchildren.
Believing herself to be a loyal and well-liked worker, Kalpana had been surprised by the strength of the family’s reaction to the news, but she had been even more surprised by their proposed remedy. If it hadn’t been for Vivek threatening to leave the family home, then she would have been dismissed from her duties and thrown out onto the street alone. At the time, Kalpana hadn’t believed that he would go through with it, for it was one thing to dabble in romantic notions of eloping into the night, but quite another to leave behind the comforts and spoils of a pampered and promising life. Yet Vivek had been unwavering in his resolve, and his parents had deemed it too risky to call his bluff.
Kalpana had been allowed to stay on the condition that she did not interact with Vivek at all, a condition which they had both accepted, believing that they would be able to continue sneaking around as before. But Vivek’s grandmother had taken it upon herself to follow their every move, and the situation had soon become untenable. Their distance, coupled with the mounting tension in the house, had brought them full circle, and this time Kalpana and Vivek had decided to leave together of their own accord.
‘You are sure about this, Vivek?’ she asked.
‘You are not having to go. You can staying here with your parents, isn’t it?’
‘How can I stay here without you? I promise you, once I’m gone they’ll realise that we are serious about each other. Then you’ll see. They’ll be calling us both back,’ he answered confidently. ‘Now, where are your things?’
‘I … I don’t have any things,’ Kalpana mumbled, shrugging her shoulders and staring down with embarrassment at her dirt-covered feet.
‘Nothing? Nothing at all that you would like to bring with you?’ Vivek continued, seeming surprised.
Kalpana felt a small jolt in her stomach, reminded once more of their differences. Vivek would never understand what it was like to have nothing. He couldn’t. His father provided adequately for all of the servants, but the things that they used were not their own, much less to remove from the house.
‘I am arriving in this house with nothing. Now I am leaving it with the same,’ she croaked, tears filling her eyes.
Vivek was at once by her side, wrapping her in his arms and whispering soothing words of comfort into her ear. She didn’t know why she was so overcome with emotion, because she had no particular affinity to the house. In Kalpana’s eyes, the only thing of value was Vivek, and he was leaving with her. There was little to be melancholy about, but it struck Kalpana that she had felt overwhelmed by emotion many times in recent weeks, often weeping at the simplest of things.
‘Vivek?’ she whispered, her hazel eyes peeking up at him from beneath the tears.
‘Where we are going?’
‘I don’t know exactly. We’ll walk to the city, and then, when it is light, we’ll take a bus to Puri. We’ll be far enough away from here and I should be able to find work there quite easily. We might have to settle just outside of the city to begin with; it will be cheaper while we are getting to our feet. But you don’t have to worry about any of it. I will take care of everything. I love you, Kalpana, and I promise, as long as we are together, everything will be okay.’
Kalpana hugged Vivek tightly, her tiny arms barely stretching around his waist. She loved him dearly, and she was grateful for the sacrifices that he was making on her behalf. He was a good man, a strong and decent man, who had fought for her even though she had not once asked him to, and she believed in every word that he said. As long as they were together, everything would be okay.
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