'I longed to be famous, but now that I am I can’t tell anyone. Let me explain.
I accidentally crashed on to the world stage and an adoring public one balmy Mediterranean night on the first day of my holiday with Debs. We’d spent all day on the beach toasting our pale British skin, trying to make our legs look less like corned beef left too long in the tin. Come evening we slapped on the after sun, used concealer on the red bits, poured ourselves into something slinky and hit the town.
The resort largely comprised tourist tat shops and theme bars. The sports versions were predictably full of blokes glued to the footie and some catered for the more sedate over-30s diluting their alcohol consumption with greasy food. Menus largely comprised burgers, curries and pizzas, all served with chips.
The place had all the sophistication of Blackpool with two big advantages: guaranteed sunshine and plentiful cheap booze. Optics were certainly a foreign country judging by the generous measures.
‘This place is gross,’ said Debs pulling a face at the group of lads on the next table wearing baseball caps back to front and wife-beaters emblazoned with Union Jacks.
‘We knew it would be,’ I replied, trying to sip my cocktail without getting the umbrella up my nose. ‘Look what we paid for it.’
‘We just wanted some cheap sun. Right?’
A bloke in an orange T-shirt and long green and pink check shorts approached us. ‘Buy you ladies a drink?’ he asked.
‘Very kind,’ I said. ‘But we’re fine.’
He didn’t move. ‘We’re going to a club called Bonkers, just round the corner later,’ he said eventually. ‘If you feel like joining us.’ He cocked his head in the direction of a corner table where a gaggle of grinning young men raised their glasses.’
Debs and I dutifully smiled.
‘See how we feel,’ said Debs.
‘Right then. See you later.’ He shuffled back to his mates.
I’d suppressed laughter so successfully that the cocktail was coming out of my nostrils and my eyes had teared up. ‘Bonkers,’ I managed at last. ‘Did he say bonkers?’
‘Fraid so,’ said Debs. ‘And you’d have to be bonkers to bonk those Neanderthals.’
We moved on to a Hawaiian Bar – and another drink. Then a Mexican bar with dancing in the back – and another drink. We danced on the street, we danced on the beach and fended off approaches from testosterone-fuelled males. Then we decided to have a nightcap outside a small beach-front bar at the quieter end of town. It was well away from the bright lights and music so loud I thought my ears would bleed. An elderly man inside was playing ballads on a Spanish guitar and we began to feel mellow.
I gazed out into the inky blackness of the dimpled sea with just a few yellow lights lazily winking on the horizon. ‘Water looks gorgeous,’ I said.
‘Just what I was thinking.’
‘Shall we ..?’
I looked round. To the right of us the buildings petered out, there were no more street lights on the coast road and the undulating curves of the dunes glowed pale gold in the moonlight.
‘Why not. Haven’t done it for ages. Looks deserted enough.’
We paid, crossed the road, took off our shoes and walked along the beach until we were swallowed by the night. After putting our clothes in a pile among the dunes we ran to the water’s edge where frothy, silver-tipped waves made a sound like coins dropped from a pocket as they ebbed over the shingles. I gave a sigh of contentment as my shoulders entered the warm, navy-blue silk of the sea and I floated on my back under a canopy of stars. Soundlessly we were suspended in the silence and peace, soaking up the freedom of being naked in water, never wanting it to end.
But like all good things, it does end, because the body becomes cold. We ran up the beach towards our clothes, the shock of the air currents making us shiver and raising goose-bumps on our skin.
Our clothes were not where we had left them.
We searched, panicking at first, then adopting a grid system like the police do when they’re looking for a body in a wood. Then I heard a snigger. Whirling round I saw the boy in the orange T-shirt holding up a pair of knickers.
‘Looking for these?’
Enraged and caring nothing for my nudity, I marched towards him letting out such a stream of invective that he took a step back. Then I saw a small light go on and another voice behind him said: ‘Lights, camera, action.’
Shit. It was a mobile phone. I turned my back on the light. ‘Run,’ I told Debs. ‘Those bastards are video-ing us.’
They didn’t engage in much of a pursuit. Why would they? They’d got a zoom lens. Fortunately our hotel wasn’t far away and we found four large pizza boxes in a litter bin which covered us pretty well if we adopted a crouched position.
Due to my quick reaction my face did not appear on the video that received 5,000 ‘likes’. My bottom has gone viral and I could probably get a job as a bum double judging by the flattering comments. However, I don’t want anyone, ever, to be able to put a face to my behind.
So although I am famous, I can’t tell anyone.
She stooped to kiss me and fairly danced from the room on long brown legs. Off to see that boy again, I supposed, the one with the floppy blond hair and cheeky grin. I thought of the dimple in her cheek that always accompanied her smile. How beautiful she had become. How self-assured. Proud of her? You bet. Off to university in the autumn - there was nothing my brilliant Priti couldn’t achieve if she put her mind to it. But she and I both deserved her success. She had demonstrated extraordinary resilience and determination and I had risked everything I once cherished in pursuit of it.
I thought back to the first time I saw her from the balcony of the house I rented every winter in Kerala. It overlooked a lush courtyard next door planted with trumpet-like hibiscus, oleander, roses and variegated shrubs, where two plump children played - a boy and a girl. I guessed they were about eleven or twelve, not much of an age gap between them, but with the mirrored features of siblings.
I saw the boy aim a kick at what I took to be a bundle of rags beneath the broad, ragged leaves of a banana trees.
‘Get up, Dumby,’ he said. ‘Fetch me a drink.’
The rags moved and formed themselves into a girl child of about eight. Unlike the other two, her clothes were shabby and her thick, black hair hung in clumps over bony shoulders.
Dominating a small, heart-shaped face were the saddest brown eyes I had ever seen.
Whenever I sat to write on the balcony I would see the same casual cruelty played out between the two older children and the one they called Dumby. I became more and more indignant and more and more involved.
‘Just move house,’ a friend advised. ‘It’s obviously upsetting you. Not your problem.’
True enough, but I couldn’t, and spying on the trio became something of an obsession. I discovered through listening to gossip at the club that the little girl was the natural child of the man next door and his Indian mistress. When the mistress died, he had insisted she move in with his family.
Perhaps he had initially cared for her, but he was often away on consulate business, so the child was mostly left at the mercy of his family’s resentment. I saw her ordered around like a servant and watched her physically abused on a daily basis. My anger grew.
Once I saw the wife of the house take a stick to her. The child cowered with each blow but did nothing to defend herself. I went into the house and paced the room in the grip of an overwhelming fury.
I met the wife one day in the street, introduced myself and said we were neighbours. She invited me round for tea and proudly introduced her two plump children.
‘I had the impression there was a third child,’ I said, ‘though I admit the view over your courtyard isn’t good from my balcony.’
She pursed her lips. ‘You are not mistaken,’ she said. There followed a weighty silence which I refused to fill. Then she gave a deep, resigned sigh and straightened some imaginary creases on her saree before continuing.
‘She brings shame on us. A product of my husband’s indiscretion. The girl’s a simpleton, a dumby. Can’t talk. Who knows what we’re going to do with her. We do our best, isn’t it.’ She sighed again and bent to pour more tea.
Sitting on my balcony one day - and now I always took binoculars so I could observe what went on in the courtyard more closely - I saw the two plump kids playing chess. They were called in for lunch and had to leave their game. The little girl quickly got up, went to the chess board and stared at it rubbing her top lip. Then a long, slim arm shot out as she moved one of the pieces. Through my binoculars I saw she had check-mated the black king with the white bishop in a brilliant move way above the level of my own expertise. She looked towards my balcony and I stuck my thumb up, mimed applause and mouthed ‘well done’. Her eyes widened, and then I saw her smile for the first time. I felt prickles behind my eyes and I think that was the moment I began to love her. The eye contact was fleeting. Her head canted towards the house as if she had heard voices and her arm shot out again. She moved the bishop back so the board would be exactly how the other two had left it. Before she collapsed under the banana tree again, she timidly lifted her hand to me and gave another shy smile.
And so it began. We developed a secret sign language and our communication became the highlight of both our days. A month later, when I told her of my plan, she wiggled her head in the Indian way to show her enthusiastic assent. In the weeks that followed, I plotted and schemed and called in favours from trusted, influential friends. They warned me I was breaking the law, told me I was crazy and tried to dissuade me. They called me pig-headed and stubborn and said I could go to jail. But I have a reputation for getting my own way and was hellishly determined to see this through. Money - which has a far louder voice than morality - changed hands, lips were sealed, friends compromised and now there was no turning back.
As soon as I received Priti’s passport I booked our passage to England and we met the day before sailing at a pre-arranged spot. She had no luggage, so I bought her clothes and a suitcase and she was able to wash and dress in my hotel room ready to begin her new life.
As the steamer pulled free from the busy dock thronged by its forest of waving hands next day, I held hers tightly and we watched the place of her birth slowly slip away into the mist.
I looked down at her newly washed black hair, so typically Indian, and tamed by me into thick braids. ‘I do hope I’ve done the right thing,’ I murmured to myself, ‘and that you won’t come to hate me for uprooting you like this.’ I thought of what I had risked - my reputation, possibly my liberty - if I was ever found out. I had no illusions about how hard it would be for us both.
I enjoyed living alone, cherished my own space and jealously guarded my privacy. I had scant contact with children - actually went out of my way to avoid them - and had never possessed an iota of maternal instinct. Now it seemed that my need to mother Priti rendered all my other desires and ambitions shallow and misguided.
It would be even harder for her in England, a child who had no voice and a skin colour which proclaimed her as other. She would be thrust into an alien, if not hostile, environment amid people speaking a language she probably did not understand well. What had I done?
She looked up at me then and the dimple dented her cheek. ‘How could I possibly hate you for showing me the meaning of love?’ she replied in perfectly articulated English.
I ring the bell, pull back my shoulders, adopt a harmless old lady smile - benign but slightly dotty - and cradle the money tree at chest height.
The door eases open and a pale face appears. The new tenant is suspicious, a bit tentative, probably thinks I’m trying to sell her something. ‘Edna, the caretaker,’ I say. ‘And here’s a money plant to welcome you to your new flat. Let’s hope it brings us all some money, eh?’
She takes it and laughs. Defences successfully breached. ‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘Come in.’ I follow her through the narrow hall to the sitting room envying her pert backside. She wears baggy grey jogging pants, and a white vest which shows off toned upper arms. Bits of streaked blonde hair have fallen out of the scrunchy high on her head. There’s not an ounce of fat on this one and she glows with the sort of health bestowed by privilege.
Tiny creases appear on her smooth forehead as she looks round the room for somewhere to dump the plant she does not want. ‘Bit of a mess. Not sorted out yet,’ she says pulling a face at the boxes littering the room. She can’t even make a decision about where to put the bloody plant. I ask you! No future captain of industry, this one.
‘How about that shelf. Near your computer,’ I say. ‘Aren’t houseplants meant to neutralise the radiation from them or something?’
‘Yeah. Think I’ve read that somewhere, too. Why not?’
‘Only if you’re sure,’ I say. ‘It’s unlucky to move a money plant.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ she says. ‘Perfect.’ She plonks the plant down hard on the shelf and I wince when its leaves shudder. She offers me tea. Do I mind decaf? Is soya milk OK? I fake enthusiasm, turn my back and take a swig from the hip flask in my overall pocket while she fills the kettle. What’s wrong with these young women today? Why don’t they do drugs and get pissed like we did instead of obsessing about imagined food sensitivities? When did allergies become the new black? While she makes the vile-sounding and no doubt vile- tasting brew, I reposition the plant slightly and rearrange the fronds.
It’s her first job after university, she tells me. Human resources. I need all of mine to listen to her drivel. Now she’s started, she talks non-stop. Slim manicured fingers twirl a hank of loose hair, a habit I find particularly irritating. Daddy’s put down the deposit on the flat and she’s soooo excited to be in the big city. My smile has set hard as concrete but there’s a twitch developing at the corner of my mouth. I fight it. It’s telling me I need to yawn. I could write the script for these Home Counties types. So depressingly unoriginal. She’ll use her brain for a couple of years, then put it in cold storage after being efficiently rogered by a City banker. He will dangle before her a future filled with beauty treatments and gym classes – seductive buffers against the slack skin and wrinkles of ageing. He’ll throw in a nanny from a third-world country to look after the 2.4 brats who will inherit his receding chin and she will gratefully engage in the dodgy sexual practices his wife now finds distasteful. I finish the tea, leave her my phone number and tell her where my ground floor flat is in case she has problems.
Back in the chaos of my cluttered home, I take another slug of scotch to get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth, then settle back to look at the bank of TV screens, one for each of the 12 flats in the building. I tense. There’s activity in Flat 6. I’ve been waiting for this. I flip open my notebook, pen poised, and focus. I’ve already identified the password but I’m not one hundred per cent sure of the penultimate letter in her memorable word. I need to be certain. Yes, this time I’ve got it. I take another big swig. Bingo.
I switch my focus to Flat 3. This tenant’s actually done some housework. Unfortunately she’s moved her money plant fractionally so the camera isn’t picking up such a clear picture of the VDU. Too much of an angle. Still, she has the boyfriend over on Fridays and after a bit of fumbling on the sofa, they go to his mother’s for dinner. There’ll be plenty of time to do a bit of corrective housekeeping then.
I ring Hasan. ‘Got some new bank account details for you,’ I tell him. ‘And eyes on the new tenant. Number 5’s having difficulties finding the rent after our recent activity so I’ll need a plant for her replacement. Probably wise if I moved to another building soon.’
They stuck me in Cafe Sausalito in The Fall, two months before The Big Day, so I’d look part of the furniture by then.
‘Bilingual, are you?’ Big Suit had asked.
‘Yeah, mum was born in Madrid.’
‘How come you’re so lily white then, girl?
‘Daddy’s Norwegian. Guess I inherited his genes.’
‘OK. Here’s the deal. Café’s a big Hispanic hangout. You’ll be our eyes and ears. Most important thing – don’t react to anything said in Spanish. They can’t know you “spika da lingo”.’ He laughed at what passed for wit in his world.
‘They’ll be more loose-lipped that way,’ he continued. ‘Reckon you can cope with that, girl?’
‘We can’t tool you up. Not fitting for a waitress. Any trouble, Lofty in the kitchen’s one of ours. He’ll have your back.’
You could smoke in bars back then and it was like the whole town came into Café Sausalito to light up. It stank, and a grey stratus cloud was a permanent fixture below the yellowed ceiling. During my first week the clientele declared open season on my boobs and butt. You could grab women then without getting into trouble. As they fantasised in Spanish about what they wanted to do to me, I’d just act dumb. Flash them a smile. Men had been talking dirty to me long as I could remember. No big deal.
A group of four were of particular interest. They always sat in the corner table at the back where the light was dim and the smoke thickest. Mostly they spoke in whispers so it was difficult to eavesdrop, but I’d picked up enough to know they were no patriots. Big Suit told me to keep listening.
The fella who did most talking had ebony, slicked-back hair, a boozer’s bulbous nose and a pouchy face pockmarked with bristles. He always seemed on edge. Couldn’t keep still. He’d slice the air with his hand. Slap the table with a big, meaty fist. Wag his fat index finger at the others ‘til they dropped their eyes. If he wanted serving, he’d grunt a command. Once he slapped my butt so hard he left a bruise. He laughed when he saw brief anger flare in my eyes, showing the inside of a mouth filled with uneven, gold-capped teeth.
On The Big Day, the four were sitting in their usual place and I was wiping down the next table’s red Formica top with my back to them. That’s when I heard something that stilled the breath in my throat. For just a second, I stopped. I clenched the cloth in my fist, then willed my arm to keep on cleaning. When I turned round, I couldn’t help flicking him a quick glance. He was staring at me with hard, dark eyes, rubbing his top lip, his other hand rolled round the arm of the chair like a big cat ready to pounce.
Our eye contact was brief. But that’s all it took. He knew I’d understood every word. Painting a smile on my face, I sauntered towards the kitchen door aware of the sibilance of whispering reaching a crescendo behind me. I heard a chair scrape across the wooden floor. When I saw Lofty wasn’t in the kitchen I fled out back into the alley. Sprinted between the trash. Snatching a look behind, I saw him running. He moved quick for a big man.
The sidewalks were jammed because of The Big Day. Some streets cordoned off. Families, kids, oldies – all there, excited and waving their flags, making a collective happy buzz like bees in a hive. I was on fast forward. They were idling, so it was hard pushing through them, spoiling their mood. I darted into an open door in a big warehouse on Elm and ran up the stairs to the first floor, then just carried on up, passing landing after landing, all of them smelling of old paper. Muscles screaming, I stopped to get my, breath, holding my knees and filling my lungs. A breeze from behind floated across my back swiftly cooling the sweat. Turning, I saw it came from a large, open window, where clouds leisurely scudded past. Hands on the sill I leaned out and saw the crowds below with their flags, kids on shoulders, police keeping them back from the street. I’d got a great view of Main. Then I heard a faint creak on the stair and spun round, back to the window, hands clutching the sill each side of me.
His face showed no emotion as he raised the gun. I stood there. Waited for the end.
I should have died. Couldn’t process what happened at the time but afterwards I realised there must have been a break in the clouds. A great slab of yellow-white light had flooded the landing and blinded him. The bullet whizzed past me through the window, adrenaline kicked in and I ran for my life.
Out in the street, pushing, shoving and getting away, the crowd sounded different. No longer the contented, happy buzz of anticipation. People were swarming aimlessly; screaming, crying, going too fast, bearing me along on a massive tide of panic and fear.
‘Why are we going already?’ cried a little boy perched on his daddy’s shoulders. ‘I don’t understand. What’s happened, Pa?’
‘Someone shot the president, son.’