Lost and Fpund
Philip Banta, 26, an aspiring pianist and Serena Sullivan, also 26, an artist, meet at an antiquarian bookstore in London and fall deeply in love. He knows he is adopted, half Indian, was born on August 15th and is 26. Serena discovers soon after they meet that she also is adopted, is half Indian, and has a birthday on August fifteenth. Philip, having found out he has a twin sister, concludes that Serena, whom he loves and has slept with, is his sibling. In his horror and despair, he leaves her and decides to go to Germany to try and forget. She quickly discovers that they are not related, but it is too late. She has no idea how to find him. He achieves fame as a pianist, comes back to England, she wins a contest and achieves fame as a painter in her own right. She goes to his concert, they meet again, and find a new chance for love.
(Serial continued) Chapter Two
A village near Calcutta, India, April 1973
Sunili Persuad adjusted her ragged, orange and white sari, pulling the limp fabric forward until it half-covered her face. She drew her hand up to her mouth in her habitual gesture of modesty, so that no one would see that she had only one front tooth. A life of constant childbearing and hard physical labor under the baking Indian sun had made her look much older than her thirty-six years. The leathery skin of her face was flushed with rage. Her eyes, sunken from years of squinting into the harsh sunlight, flashed with pent-up anger. She grabbed Laxmi’s arm and pulled her close, whispering in a tight threatening tone. The raspy sound of her voice quickly turned into angry speech, as she spat out the words in a fury. Sunili didn’t care who heard her. So what if she disciplined her daughter in front of Moheen, the shopkeeper. The fat old man, sweeping the floor in time to her jabbing threats, pretended he didn’t hear the shouting. When Sunili paused to draw a noisy breath, he put down his broom and moved closer to the pair, so he could better hear every word. He began busily rearranging the sacks of rice and daal, stacking them ever closer to the feuding women, a bemused smile on his face. Like every gossip, he’d soon be telling the whole village about their fight. He was memorizing every word. Soon everyone would know the details. Sunili knew Moheen was already planning who he would tell first. She knew he was anticipating his elevation to a state of importance as the witness to Sunili’s disgrace. Everyone already knew that Laxmi was going to England. Now they would know that Laxmi was going against her mother’s wishes. Now they would also know that Sunili had no control over her headstrong daughter.
“You silly goose with your big ideas. Go to England then! Leave your village and your family! But don’t think you can just come back here if the going gets tough. And how are you going to manage to get a husband? With one miserable, half-dead cow? We are not having any money for a dowry anyway. Your silly head has been turned by your pretty face. You will see exactly what happens when you try to rise above your station. And what are you going to do in England, sweep English floors? The dust here in the village is not good enough for you, eh? Just because you went to school in Calcutta and can read and write and speak English, you think you are so special! You spend so much time in front of that new mirror you’ll make a crack in it. And wipe that charcoal off your eyes! You are sixteen, old enough now to help your family!”
Sunili Persuad was so furious that she made dust clouds rise like tiny tornados with her stamping feet. Her voice became hoarse and her shoulders tensed as her face darkened with rage. She pulled her hand back to slap her daughter. But as Laxmi winced in preparation for the pain, Sunili thought better of it. She would not give Moheen that satisfaction. She jerked her sari around her face, obscuring her angry, gap-toothed mouth and stomped away. Even in her anger she could feel a shred of sympathy for Laxmi. Once pretty herself, she knew what it was like to feel that you deserved a better life. She had had these thoughts herself as a young girl, but she had pushed them away, enduring the misery. A husband with a comfortable paunch and two sons and a daughter were proof that she’d done her job. She had obeyed her parents and become a dutiful wife. This was the destiny of all young Indian girls of her class. A tear welled up, as much for her own unfulfilled dreams as for Laxmi. But then Sunili had never learned to read and write. She was not smart, not like Laxmi.
The next day, with these hostile words from her mother still ringing in her ears, Laxmi Persuad, a pretty and mature sixteen, stood before Moheen’s store where her mother had shouted at her. She saw the dust cloud, which heralded the arrival of the crowded, rusty old bus, rumbling toward her down the unpaved road, like it did every Wednesday. When it stopped, she saw how crammed it was with jabbering people, caged monkeys and chickens in crates. There were even three men and their suitcases riding on the roof. She boarded without hesitation and paid her fare, not glancing back at the dusty village, sleepily baking in the hot sun. There was no place to sit down inside the bus so she grabbed the overhead rail and stood, her one simple bag pressed tightly to her side. Leaving her home behind, probably forever, caused her a moment of pain. Her mother was no ally of hers, but she would miss her brothers. She had tears in her eyes for them but hope in her heart for the future. With the resilience of youth she raised her head on its slender young neck and looked forward. The village was already receding, shimmering in the heat haze. She would look ahead not back, look forward to an exciting new life in a foreign land, look forward to an adventure!
Laxmi had lived for most of her life at the Rainbow Home for Destitutes in Calcutta. She had been taken there after the Sisters of Hope had found her, a half starved child of five, picking through trash in a Calcutta slum. Her father’s grain delivery business had failed and Laxmi had been all but abandoned to fend for herself. Laxmi’s parents, when approached by the good Sisters, had been only too glad to be rid of the burden of feeding and clothing her, a mere girl. The family was preparing to trudge back to their village to try to scratch out a living there. Her brothers’ potential physical strength would be of value to them but the Sisters could do what they would with the daughter. So Laxmi had received a good Irish Catholic education at the Rainbow School… too good to spend the rest of her life in grinding poverty. The thought of living in a mud hut without enough to eat, with arms aching from endlessly milling corn, subservient to her father and brothers, was more than she could endure. How could she live her life where the all-important animals would be treated better that she was herself. She was determined that she would not end up like her mother, bitter, exhausted, used up … old at the age of thirty-six.
Laxmi’s bus bumped over enormous potholes, causing shrieks of laughter. A cage of chickens fell on the floor, sending white feathers flying all over the bus. The windows, thrown wide open, allowed in the hot air, mixed with the smell of animal dung and gasoline fumes. It was only a short ride to Calcutta. There was a feeling of celebration on the bus, people talking and laughing as if they were at a party, but Laxmi had only one thing on her mind, England.
She knew she would never, could never, come back. Anything would be better than returning to a village that didn’t even have electricity or running water, a village trapped in medieval times. She understood very well that if she came back home, she’d have absolutely nothing to look forward to. If she was lucky enough to find a husband - very unlikely since her parents had no money for a dowry - she’d spend the rest of her life sweeping a dirt floor and waiting on a much older man. The idea of getting away, away from the grinding poverty, the intolerable heat and a life no different from her counterparts centuries ago, had come to her slowly, fostered by the guidance of Sister Mary, who’d taken Laxmi under her wing after her rescue from the trash heaps of Calcutta.
The Irish Sisters were very strict. School life had not been easy for a girl of the slums, but it was worth it. She had something to offer now and she was going to England to be somebody. Her great aunt Dehuti, famed in her family for living a fine life of luxury in England, had sponsored her and sent the money for the plane ticket and passport. This act alone was proof to Laxmi of how great were the opportunities in England. Aunt Dehuti had offered Laxmi a place to live with her, at least until she found work.
The bus stopped at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Calcutta. Laxmi got off, the only passenger to do so at this point. The bus rumbled away with its raucous crowd, taking with it, in a cloud of gasoline fumes, Laxmi’s last link with home. She stood for a moment on the pavement, clutching her small bag to her, bewildered by the crowds. People rushed in all directions, dragging huge piles of luggage. Children and sari-clad women clustered around their menfolk, chattering like hens. Laxmi knew she needed the British Airways ticket counter and, seeing a sign indicating its location way off in the distance, took a deep breath and entered the jostling crowd. Her adventure had begun.
When at last Laxmi came to the ticket desk, dusty, hot and disheveled, she reached into her bag and proudly produced her ticket and her brand new passport. She had nothing to check in so, still clutching her bag, and with two hours to wait for departure, she stood back and looked around. Of course nobody from her family had come to see her off. She wouldn’t have expected it. The bus fare alone from the village to Calcutta would buy grain for a month. It didn’t bother Laxmi that her mother didn’t want her to leave, but the least she could have done was to show her forgiveness and give her daughter a sign of affection at the last minute. But Sunili had continued to sweep the dirt floor as Laxmi left the hut, resolutely turning her back as her daughter faded into a cloud of dust. Even though she knew nobody would be at the airport Laxmi searched for a familiar face among the hordes of people, but found no one.
With the sour smell of humanity was all around her, Laxmi was alone indeed. All her earthly possessions were in a simple cloth bag, a gift from Sister Mary. Her pretty Indian face and the ideal of a bright future were all she had to sustain her today. Laxmi was positive that her looks would stand her in good stead. In school, when she misspelled a word in her lesson book, her teacher, Sister Ursula, would say, “Laxmi, you are such a pretty girl. You should know better than that.” She wasn’t sure what the connection between being pretty and not misspelling words was, but if it saved her from the sting of the ruler on her calves, then that was all right.
Today, as she stood in the crowded waiting room, she smoothed down her hair. Her bright green sari looked a little worn but was still presentable. Her other one was in the bag but it wasn’t as nice as the one she was wearing. Her sandals, also well worn, were, at least, serviceable. There wasn’t much else in her satchel, her passport and ticket, a few trinkets and a well-worn snapshot of her mother, father and two younger brothers, all barefoot, standing beside the village pump. Aunt Dehuti lived in a place called Leytonstone, not far from London, so she’d been told. She’d written to Laxmi - the letter was in her bag, folded carefully, next to her passport- that she would help her find a job – perhaps in a nursery school, looking after children.
Laxmi, with the optimism of youth, felt positive about her future. If she ever returned to the village for a visit, she could hear her mother’s voice, soft and tender as she embraced her. “I was wrong about you, Laxmi, you clever girl. You did know what you were doing when you said you wanted to go to England. Now look at you, you are a somebody.”
Somebody, that’s what she wanted to be. All her life she had dreamed of being somebody, living in a real house with real walls, a real floor, glass windows, electricity and running water. She could see two happy children running about. They would be wearing shoes, shoes made of real leather.
Laxmi heard her flight announced over the loudspeaker and made her way to the boarding gate. The plane, when she first caught sight of it, was horrifyingly huge, far, far bigger than she could have imagined. This giant apparatus was far too big to take off, surely? She looked at everyone closely, copying what she saw, allowing herself to be swept along in the tide of people. She followed a fat, sandy-haired man wearing checked shorts, down the middle aisle of the plane. Everyone else was comparing their tickets to numbers written above the seats, so she did the same. In this way she found her seat, in the middle aisle, next to an Iranian couple with a fretful baby. She saw people stowing bags in the overhead bins but she hesitated to give up her few possessions out of her immediate grasp. She ended up wedging her bag firmly between her feet, comforted by the rub of the fabric against her ankles. She hugged the pillow and blanket she’d found on her seat, beginning to shake as she thought of this metal machine trying to take them all up into the sky. It would never work. She knew it. The mother of the baby, who was now screaming lustily, leaned over to her, having seen the terrified look on Laxmi’s face. She whispered reassuringly, patting Laxmi’s arm, “It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”
Laxmi smiled weakly and began to feel a little better. But not for long. The big metal machine did finally get off the ground with a roar of engines and a shuddering that terrified her. The Iranian mother, seeing the fear in Laxmi’s clenched fists and tightly closed eyes, passed the crying baby to her husband and reached over, gently stroking Laxmi’s hand until the plane was aloft.
“There, you see, it is not so bad. Next time you will know what to expect.”
The journey was long and Laxmi slept fitfully. The baby finally stopped crying and Laxmi held her on her lap while the Iranian mother got up to stretch her legs. Laxmi smiled down at the plump baby who reached up to grab her long black hair. Yes, she could see herself working with young children. It would be perfect.
After many long hours Laxmi’s plane finally touched down in England at Heathrow Airport. She rose from her seat, stiff and tired, gathering her small bundle to her. The other passengers collected their belongings and crowded into the aisles, so that’s what she did too. Eventually the lines of people began to move forward and Laxmi was swept along with the press of people into the passport control hall. She was used to crowds and just followed the lines of travelers into the non-UK passport line. Being pushed and jostled through the passport control didn’t bother her. She found the bustle of the crowds reassuring and felt quite confident as she carefully spoke her few rehearsed words for the control officer. “I’m going to live with my auntie in Leytonstone.” Now they shuffled on to another great hall where suitcases of all sizes were rotating on huge turntables. Laxmi looked around in confusion, not sure what to do. Was she expected to pick up one of these bags? She saw the Iranian mother with her baby and quickly positioned herself close to them.
“Hello again. Do you have a suitcase to pick up? No? Lucky you, then you’re ready to go.”
Laxmi walked unsurely towards a sign which said “Exit. Nothing To Declare”. No one detained her so she walked through and out into a sea of people standing behind barriers all waving cards with names on them. The noise reminded her of the bazaar in Calcutta. She saw many Indian faces and was surprised to see how well dressed they all looked. Several were wearing European clothes but many women were wearing fine saris. Laxmi glanced down at her own shabby clothes and shook out the folds of the worn cloth. She smoothed back her hair and raised her chin. Soon she would have fine clothes too.
Aunt Dehuti had said she would meet her at the airport, but looking around anxiously Laxmi could see no one holding up a sign with Dehuti’s name on it, no sign with her own name on it, no friendly face looking out for her. She found a bench and sat down to wait. An hour went by and still no Dehuti. What to do now?… she must telephone to her aunt. Laxmi delved in her bag for the precious letter with her aunt’s phone number. A phone? How do I phone? Where is a phone? Laxmi looked to right and left. People were rushing back and forth, dragging suitcases, greeting friends, busily going on their way. She saw an Indian family, mother, father and two young girls. The parents were dressed Indian style. The woman’s sari was not too fine and the man’s dhoti was dusty and wrinkled. Laxmi approached them shyly.
“Excuse, please? I am wanting to make phone call. Can you help?” she whispered.
“Come, phones are over here,” said the woman, “Do you have English money?”
“N-No, where do I get it?”
“Come here, I show you.”
Laxmi followed the woman through the crowd to a money exchange. The amount of English pounds her rupees bought was pitifully small. The Indian woman shook her head and made a “tsk” sound, selecting a silver coin from the small stash. Laxmi tucked the rest of the money into a small leather bag, which she’d hung it around her neck with a string of leather.
English phones didn’t look like Indian ones. She would never have found one on her own. The Indian woman showed her how to use it and where to put the money in. Then she hurried off to join her family. Laxmi watched her go, sadly. Yet another link with India, gone. Turning to the phone she squared her small shoulders. She could do this alone, of course she could. Finally she got through to what she thought was the right number. But there was no reply. The phone rang and rang. She tried again, thinking maybe she had mis-dialed. Nothing. Clutching the letter with Great Aunt Dehuti’s telephone number and address on it, she saw that she hadn’t made a mistake. Maybe Auntie had mistaken the day, maybe she’s out shopping. Laxmi decided right then and there that the only thing to do was to go to Leytonstone and surprise her aunt.
She’d brave the Underground. A taxi would be much too expensive and, anyway, Laxmi had never been in a taxi. Looking around in vain for the famous London Tube she was dazzled by the neon lights and people rushing around. Feeling overwhelmed and a little faint, she sat down on a bench and rested. When she looked up, several minutes later, there was the Tube entrance right in front of her. She must have been too confused to notice it. Standing in front of the Tube map she finally found Leytonstone on the right and high up. She followed the colors of the different lines until she could see which way to go. The blue line (Piccadilly Line) would take her to King’s Cross and the red line (Central Line) to Grange Hill and on to Leytonstone. That seemed to be the obvious choice. Thank heavens for Sister Mary, who had shown her that old Tube map when they were planning this trip. Those hours spent on imaginary journeys had not been wasted. What she didn’t count on was the vast expense of getting there and the time it would take … almost two hours. The fare dug seriously into her meager savings but at least tonight she’d have a place to sleep. The underground ride was bewildering, but for some of it she was able to sit - a man actually offered her his place. That would never happen in India.
She stepped wearily from the train at the Leytonstone stop, tired and yawning from the long journey, but expectant and excited at the thought of meeting her auntie for the first time. The walk uphill from the Tube station was long and tiresome, especially in her worn sandals. She passed by a grand church, St. John the Baptist, finer than anything she’d seen in Calcutta. Auntie must live in a mansion in this fine neighborhood. She entered the Leytonstone High Road, shops lining both sides of the street. She saw people of all colors, all manner of dress, busy with their errands. Laxmi checked the address several times and was even brave enough to ask a couple of passersby the way toauntie’s house, 12B Rosemere Road.
Finally she came upon a curving street full of huddled houses. They all looked the same, house after house in an endless vista of prim bay windows, dingy net curtains and newspaper-littered front walks. Laxmi carefully checked the numbers as she trudged up Rosemere Road. Eventually she came to number 12, a shabby little house with a mean narrow front path, lined with dusty laurel bushes. Here the paint was peeling, the green front door showing scuffs from hundreds of feet kicking it open over the years. A row of doorbells with hastily pasted-on name labels told of residents who were not intending to make 12 Rosemere Road their permanent home. Laxmi walked wearily up the front path, drooping with fatigue. Soon she would be safe in Aunt Dehuti’s welcoming embrace.
A fat middle-aged black man wearing a stained undershirt and loose, greasy, orange trousers answered her ring. He opened the door and smiled.
“What you want, Darlin’?”
“I’m looking for Mrs. Dehuti Desai.”
“Old Dehuti, she go to hospital yesterday. She have bad pain in her tummy. She say she expecting niece from India. Is that you? I have message from ole’ Dehuti. She can’t put you up ‘cos she sick.”
After giving her the once over, he leaned in towards her with a sweaty leer and said,
“But I can. I have a bed.”
“No … no, thank you.”
Laxmi was devastated. All this way, the journey so far and so difficult. What should she do? She gazed around her in dismay, seeing only a long row of firmly shut front doors, a curve of tightly curtained windows. There was no hope and nothing for it but to return to the Tube station. It was the only place she knew. Stumbling with fatigue she retraced her steps and finding a bench outside the station, she sank down gratefully. Soon she was fast asleep.
At five AM a gentle shake awoke Laxmi. Through the mist of receding sleep she heard a kindly voice saying,
“You can’t stay here, Miss. Just move on now. You’ll have to leave.”
Laxmi knew, from the picture book about England that Sister Mary had shown her, that it was a policeman who looked down on her. The book had said that all the English “bobbies” were kind and could be depended upon to help. Laxmi was about to explain her dire situation to him, Auntie ill in hospital and nowhere for her, Laxmi to stay, when the bobby turned and walked away. Laxmi stretched, yawned and reached for her bag, preparing to go. But where was the bag? It wasn’t there! She hunted frantically in the folds of her sari and under the bench, but no …it was gone. Someone had stolen it. My bag! It had everything in it. My ticket, my passport, my picture, the letter from Great Aunt Dehuti, even my clean clothes. She fumbled desperately around her neck. Thank heavens! The money bag was still there.
Laxmi had eaten nothing since being on the plane. Frantic about her lost possessions but starving hungry, she hesitated outside a café opposite the station, scanning the list of items. At last she chose a cup of tea and a bun, the cheapest things on the list. While she worried about her dwindling stash of money, she ate the bun and drank the tea with relish, greedily savoring the icing on the bun. Food had never tasted so good.
Feeling more positive with a full stomach, Laxmi trudged the streets of Leytonstone. What could she do? She must try to make the best of her situation. Desperate to find somewhere where she could earn some money, she was well aware that a young Indian girl with no papers, no passport, not even a change of clothes, was not an attractive prospect to an employer. Finally, late in the afternoon, she saw a sign in a restaurant window, that said, Help Wanted, Apply Within. It was a temporary job, washing dishes. It would pay in cash every day. The regular dishwasher had been in a car accident and would be out for a few days.
Laxmi thought about poor Aunt Dehuti, alone in an English hospital. She wanted to find out where her aunt was but that would entail another visit to 12 Rosemere Road. Berating herself for not getting any information on her first visit to Rosemere Road, she dreaded having to endure the unpleasant leers of the fat black man again. No, she could not do it. She would have to worry about Auntie later. Now she must work and earn money. She would have liked to approach one of the friendly English policemen about her stolen bag, but she was afraid they would send her back to India, a girl with no papers.
The dishwashing job lasted only one day. She wasn’t fast enough and cried when the kitchen manager shouted at her. She then found a cleaning job, which lasted a couple of days, then hot and smelly work in a fish and chip shop. At least they allowed her to eat a meal when her work was done. But she only earned a few pounds, not enough to provide a roof over her head. She was sleeping in doorways or on park benches, ever mindful that the police might move her on again. She finally plucked up her courage and went back to Aunt Dehuti’s again. The fat black man told her the old lady had become seriously ill. He smirked as he told her that Aunt Dehuti had taken a turn for the worse. He said ominously that she would not be coming home.
“She very sick. I hear they think she die. Where you live, darlin’? You find a place yet? You kin come an’ live with me?”
Laxmi gathered her sari around her with as much dignity as she could summon and fled down the front path. His lewd laughter followed her as he watched her go.
Laxmi was really worried now. Her hope of rescue from her plight in the form of Aunt Dehuti had vanished. She continued to sleep wherever she could find a spot and used the washbasin in public toilets to keep herself clean. She still had a little money from her precious hoard of cash but it was disappearing fast.
People in England did not seem to be as friendly as she had thought they’d be. She would smile at strangers and they wouldn’t smile back the way people did in India. They’d look away, sometimes with surprise, sometimes with anger. Even other Indians treated her badly. She seemed to be the lowest of the low in everyone’s eyes.
Laxmi drew her sari around her face. She was cold, as always, bone cold. A light rain pattered on her head, slowly soaking the fabric of her sari. Her bare feet in their worn sandals slapped on the wet pavement. She fingered the leather pouch, which contained her last few coins. Should she give one of them for a cup of hot tea? She passed the inviting lights of the café and smelled the welcoming odor of fried food. Looking to the left she saw that someone had left the church gate open. For once she would be able to sleep uninterrupted, sheltered in the generous doorway of the church. With a glance back at the brightly lit café, Laxmi slipped in through the gate, closing it silently behind her. She crept up the path, the church looming dark and silent before her. Entering the gloom of the church porch, she moved quickly to the bench on the right side. Pushing herself back into the darkness, she sat hugging her knees close to her. Her head drooped down onto her knees and within minutes she was asleep.
Laxmi trudged wearily up Leytonstone High Road for the third time that day. What was she to do? Her sandals were wearing thin and her sari, her only clothing, was greasy and stained from working in the fish and chip shop. But Mr. Lee, the Chinese shop owner had told her yesterday that he no longer needed her help. She had not been able to learn the names of all the different types of fish – what did she know of cod, halibut and sole? – and she had been giving the customers over-generous portions of chips with their fish. No, said Mr. Lee, she must go, why she was not even capable of making correct change when a customer presented her with a five pound note. She must go right away, not even staying for a last meal of left-over fish and cold chips, which was all that had been sustaining her over the last few days.
Laxmi knew she was now in dire straits, her only chance to feed herself gone and nowhere to rest her head at night. Should she go back to Rosemere Road? Would the fat, black man by now have some news of Auntie? No, she could not do it. He would leer at her again and reach out his sweaty hands to stroke her arm. Laxmi shuddered, thinking what Sister Mary would have had to say about her even speaking to such a man. With a sigh Laxmi drew her sari closer round her and walked slowly in the direction of the street market.
She was cold, as always bone cold. A light rain pattered on her head, slowly soaking the fabric of her sari. She could not feel her frozen feet, bare in their worn sandals. Her hand went to the leather pouch, which contained her last few coins.
Laxmi walked past the vegetable market, hungry as always, eyeing the displays of fruits, her mouth watering. She was struck by the sight of a young, red-haired boy with an open, cheery expression, quite unlike the dour disapproving looks she was used to seeing on the streets in Leytonstone. He was selling cauliflowers to a woman and he met her shy glance with a wide, innocent smile. When he had taken the woman’s money and stuffed the cauliflower into her bag he grinned at Laxmi and said, “You’re pretty. What’s your name? Mine’s Tom, Tom Burgess.”
He seemed sweet and kind. In no time at all, they were chatting like old friends.
“I work here on the vegetable stall but I’m not working this afternoon. Want to share my lunch with me? We can go down to the park and watch the squirrels. It’s nice down there.”
Laxmi was charmed and immediately said yes. Tom wasn’t at all like Indian men, expecting to be waited on and admired. No, he wasn’t like that at all. In the park he offered her half his sandwich and let her have bites of his apple.
“Say, you seem pretty hungry. Have you had your breakfast?”
“So, where d’you live?”
Laxmi was suddenly shy. She fiddled with the fringe of her sari and wouldn’t meet Tom’s eyes.
“I was supposed to stay with a relative, my auntie, but she’s ill in hospital. I’m looking for a job so I can rent a room. I’m sleeping on a bench right now.”
“I don’t have no steady job nor a proper place to live, neither. I’m staying at this squat. You want to stay there with me?”
“What’s a squat?”
“You know, it’s a place where people live, like, and you don’t have to pay no rent.”
The easy, guileless way he said this made Laxmi feel safe for the first time since she was in England. Tom was handsome, too, with nice green eyes and reddish hair. Even Sister Mary would have liked him, she thought.
“I don’t have no steady job because I, you know, I can’t read or write or nothing. Me mum, she always said I was a bit dim.”
“I can read, and write too. I learned how in school in India. I could teach you,” she said, excitedly.
“Hey, all right Miss Lashmi, or whatever your name is, let’s go. I’ll show you where I live and you can give me me first lesson.”
So Laxmi moved in with Tom and took it upon herself to teach him to read and write. He was willing enough but, no matter how she tried, he could not grasp the simplest concept, and only learned to write his name laboriously after three months of effort and repetition on her part.
The squat had no electricity or running water but at least there was a mattress on the floor. It was heaven to Laxmi. The first night Laxmi slept for twelve hours straight. When she woke after her delicious sleep, Tom had his arms around her and was trying to kiss her.
“What are you doing? Stop it, Tom. Don’t, please.”
“Aw, come on, Laxi. I won’t hurt you.”
Tom was gentle with her, a simple, uncomplicated lover and he taught her to love him back. If people had only left them alone they’d have been all right by as time went on, the other squatters let them know that a white boy sleeping with an Indian girl was not what their small insular society would tolerate, even a white boy as slow as Tom. At first, they let their feelings be known in subtle ways, tossing Tom and Laxmi’s few possessions, upturning their pots and rumpling the old mattress with the ragged blanket, the blanket which Laxmi always neatened in the morning before they left the squat. But soon the sabotage became more pronounced. Tom would find the way into the old house barred with planks of wood when they returned home. He repeatedly pried them loose so they could enter the squat. One day they came home to find their pitiful bundle of possessions tossed aside, a roughly scrawled notice pinned to the blanket …Indian Bitch Go Home. Another couple was in their little spot, asleep on their mattress.
They lived for a while on an empty building lot, where Tom rigged up a rough shelter from a tarpaulin they “borrowed” from a stall at the market, but then a big, fierce dog chased them away. Then they hooked up with a small settlement of homeless people who lived under a bridge. It was right next to a busy overpass, with cars and trucks thundering overhead at all times, but at least they would be protected from the cold English rains, which seemed to come every day now.
None of these living arrangements, depressing to even the most resilient spirit, had much of an effect on Laxmi. After all, people in India sleep in the open all the time. Things could be worse. And she had Tom to protect her.
Laxmi’s sari was becoming too tight. She felt too tired to look for work and was sick all the time. It was some months before she was aware of her swelling stomach and realized she must be pregnant. By the time she and Tom moved under the bridge, her pregnancy was already well advanced. She had lost a lot of weight but her stomach was very large. It was as if her poor, thin body was being drained of all strength by her condition. She was hungry all the time and never seemed to get enough to eat.
“C’mon, Laxi, lie down. Cor, you don’t look so hot,” Tom said tenderly, leading her under the bridge to the thin pallet he had prepared.
She always liked the way he pampered her.
“Here, there’s room over here by the bridge support. You can lie on my blankets. See, Laxi, see how I got them ready, all comfy-like. Here’s a blanket to cover yourself with,” he said, smoothing the ragged old baby blanket he’d found in a pile of trash gently over her.
“Thank you Tommy. You’re so good to me. Ooh! I have such a pain.”
“Blimey, Laxi, you look all pale, white-like.”
“Oh no! Tommy, I think I’ve wet myself! What’s happening? Help me, Tom.”
“Laxi, What should I do?”
Laxmi fell into a fitful sleep, waking up periodically to whimper with pain. Tom stayed by her side, patting her hand and biting his lip. He wanted Laxi to wake up so they could go down to the market and steal some fruit from old Mother Lewis. That was always good for a laugh and he’d really like some plums. Suddenly her whimpers changed to screams. She was calm for a while and then the screams would start up again. The shrieks of pain took Tom by surprise and he was terrified. She had never screamed before and he felt helpless and scared. He began dithering about, rearranging her blankets as though tucking her in tightly would bring back the fun-loving Laxi he knew. She screamed again, this time louder and more insistently.
“Here, mate,” cried a man from the group of people sitting around a fire near the bridge support on the opposite side. “Tell your bit of fluff to stuff it! Can’t you keep your woman under control, sonny.”
“Laxi, do you want a drink of water? I’ve got some here.” Tom was feeling the panic rise in him. “Laxi, Laxi! What’s wrong? Gert, hey Gert, come here and help. Laxi must be sick or somefinthing.”
Gert Moore - who always told the story of what a fine nurse she had been, in a big hospital, saving lives every day, with doctors thanking her for her good work and bringing her presents - trudged over in her run-down shoes and filthy ragged clothes. Dirt was ingrained into the deep wrinkles on her face and her stringy hair was pulled back with a ragged piece of an old tie.
“What’s up, Tom?” she asked, tonelessly.
“I don’t know. She was OK earlier, tired-like, but now she’s making them funny sounds, like she’s hurt or something. I think she’s passed out. Look at that sweat on her forehead.”
Gert leaned over Laxmi’s sweat-drenched body, restlessly writhing even though she was barely conscious. Gert turned to Tom and breathed her foul, alcohol-laden breath over him.
“’Course she’s making funny sounds like she’s hurt! Don’t you know nothing, Tom, you big lump? She’s having a baby, and soon, by the looks of it.”
Laxmi let out a prolonged scream, a banshee-like wail. Gert lifted the thin, dirty blanket covering her and peered down cautiously in the dim light.
“Oh my God! It’s coming! I’ll catch it,” she said, getting down on her knees.
Laxmi moaned and screamed again. She was only half conscious and not aware of her miserable surroundings, the glare of passing headlights, the dust and dirt, the car horns. Her baby was about to be born under an ugly, inhospitable Victorian bridge, undistinguished for its architecture, open to the elements and incapable of offering any but the minimum of shelter. Laxmi didn’t know any of that; she didn’t have to. She was too far gone, drifting in and out of consciousness, lost in a well of pain, aware of nothing except how much she hurt. The overwhelming fatigue she had felt for months coupled with the baby’s relentless kicking had already drained her of the last vestiges of energy and now she was in deep crisis. Her young body had no resources to deal with the demands of labor after months of privation.
But nature would take its course whether the mother was willing or not and the baby slipped out into Gert’s dirty hands, cupped as though waiting to catch a ball. “It’s a boy! Tom, hey, Tom, you’re a father! Tom? Now, where did he go?”
“Don’t you even want to see your son?” Gert mumbled, as she bent to the squalling infant. “Does anyone have some scissors or something sharp? I need to cut this cord. George, give me your shoelace, quick now!”
Gert tied and cut the cord with a filthy knife passed to her by George along with the shoelace. She dried the baby, who was now making whimpering, snuffling sounds, and wrapped him in Laxmi’s blanket. Laxmi gave a soft moan and stirred her sweat-drenched body. Gert, reaching to cover Laxmi’s knees with her coat, looked down and to her horror saw another head appearing.
“Blimey, George, there’s another one coming!” Gert shouted. “Someone get an ambulance – and the police! ‘Hurry now! She’s starting to bleed.”
Gert placed the boy baby in the blanket on the ground next to her and prepared to help with the next birth. Laxmi gave a blood-curdling shriek. A baby girl slid out, healthy, and crying as loudly as her tiny lungs would allow.
“George, your other shoelace! ‘Hurry up, you no-good git!”
Gert took off her dirty cardigan and wrapped the little girl in it. Both babies had generous masses of black hair and tiny, screwed-up faces.
But Laxmi was sinking fast. The babies had sucked the life out of her. Thin pools of red liquid began to stain the grubby blankets. Laxmi continued to moan, although softer than before. Now a stronger flow of blood was soaking the blanket and rivulets were running down the hill of grass and earth into the gully under the bridge. Laxmi’s face was growing paler and her skin took on a waxen tone. Her moans became softer … softer and softer