THERE STOOD Sweetlove, in his usual spot just by the rank of shopping trolleys, holding his armful of The Big Issue, there stood Sweetlove, his own homeless pet, barricading his entrance to Marks & Spencers — and instead of the usual smile and greeting that would rise to his lips upon such an occasion, Selkirk felt a deep disgust such as he had never known before for a completely harmless person.
It was usually a sandwich that he would give him as he left the store, reaching into the recyclable plastic bag where the ingredients for his own supper sat in a state of barely contained excitement at the possibilities of being transformed during the course of the evening into something edible, perhaps even exquisite. Yesterday, however, his credit card had malfunctioned and he had been forced to pay with the meagre cash he had on his person — which meant he had had to set aside the sandwich (picked with some consideration from among the half-price residues available at the end of the day) for want of a mere thirty-one pence. Sweetlove — not that he had the faintest idea at the time of his name — had looked expectantly towards him as he exited the supermarket and Selkirk had felt obliged to explain the circumstances, and worse still invite him for a quick drink at a nearby pub. That was how he had learnt that his name was Terence Sweetlove, over a packet of crisps and a couple of pints of Scrumpy, and so his homeless pet had acquired a name though not much of a past — it was obvious that Sweetlove was not much interested in his own history, and Selkirk had experienced a certain relief that he was not to be called upon immediately to analyse the sequence of events that had deposited the man in his present circumstances. There were cats strewn across the place who regarded them with their usual insouciance, and dogs who sometimes came pantingly close, received pats and departed. Clearly, he and Sweetlove had both frequented this particular tavern, although never in the company of each other, and this gave another dimension of satisfaction to their brief intercourse. They had each left the place without any sense of their lives having been altered by this half hour that they had spent together, and Selkirk had thought no more of it during the rest of the evening while he happily rustled himself up a plate of scrambled eggs with chili and a splash of fish sauce and sat down with it to watch A Streetcar Named Desire for the third time that week.
They had parted without any specific feelings, and yet here he was now, Sweetlove, spewing familiarity just by that easy look in his eyes, as if some long and permanent bond had been established between them by virtue of a few anecdotes exchanged across a table in a public house yesterday — Selkirk found his head crowding with long words like effrontery and presumption, more nouns than verbs to string them up with, a surfeit of nouns, springing in fountainous contempt from the base of his being.
Selkirk stood paralysed, all desire to gather the ingredients for a perfect pea risotto dissolved by the sight of Sweetlove, gently waiting for him to arrive, expecting no doubt that they would revert to their usual routine — that Selkirk would, as he left the supermarket, tuck into his hands a soon-to-be-out-of-date sandwich or a smartly packaged wilting salad — but that now there would be sense of some other connection, like a distant common ancestor, irrelevant but unequivocally there.
Perhaps he was even expecting an extended greeting, something beyond the usual smile and nod, the thought of it made Selkirk cringe, jesus christ, now his palms were sweating, he turned sharply away and headed back in the direction of his flat, he would do with what there was in his refrigerator and his store-cupboard for this evening’s meal, anything was preferable to attempting to pass this new barricade to Marks & Spencers, a tin of Spam, some baked beans, anything.
HE HAD thought he would go straight home, secure himself there, pour himself an extra large glass of whisky to wash away the experience before concentrating on how to spend the rest of the evening, he had thought he’d return to his flat without ado, but he did not. It was dark and it was starting to get extremely cold but the gates to what used to be the Craiglockhart Sanatorium were still open and it was there that Selkirk conducted himself and sat himself down on his favourite bench, one that in daylight gave spectacular views towards all seven hills of Edinburgh, or so he ritually said when called upon to justify what drew him so often to the spot. He had expected to have to reach into his pockets for a beta blocker but felt strangely calm, as if in the eye of a storm. He closed his eyes and leaned back, inhaling the misty air, some memory was stirring uncomfortably within him, prised out of its resin by this recent chain of events, and then, all at once, there it was — the memory, quite intact, of their cook’s grandson, a year or two older than himself, with whom Selkirk had happily played as a child in Calcutta, how vivid he suddenly was, his thin brown arms poking out of the khaki uniform he wore to the government school that Selkirk’s father had insisted he attend, the cook’s grandson, racing cars with him down the long verandah, even his name came clearly to him now in this new state of grace — Subimal, yes that was what he was called, Subimal… he remembered how eagerly he would wait for him to emerge from the kitchen where his grandfather always had a few afterschool chores for him to complete, and how every now and then he would be sent speeding to a local store to procure some essential ingredient, or just the wretched toffee eclairs that his mother liked to chew on after lunch, stretched out on the long settee in the drawing room reading Mills & Boon paperbacks, while he played in the shade of the terrace outside or one of the verandahs that led off from it. Subimal would eventually join him, his duties done, and they would amuse each other for the rest of the afternoon in ways that Selkirk could not specifically remember anymore but definitely involved his large collection of Matchbox cars and the moulded plastic guns and other instruments of war that his Scottish grandmother was in the habit of sending him for Christmas. At the hour of four, they would part, he would be called in to wash himself and prepare for tea with his mother and Subimal would disappear into the servants’ quarters at a speed that seemed to imply that he had overstayed, and this always caused Selkirk some brief dismay. He would follow the maid sullenly to his bathroom, suffer to be splashed with lukewarm water, towelled down and put in different clothes and finally descend to the same terrace where he had just spent a few happy hours with Subimal, he would take his place at the wrought iron table where the sandwiches and pastries had been laid out for their tea, and where his mother sat in her sunshades, already into her second gin and tonic, a third one might be brought out for her by Subimal himself on a silly silver tray, and Selkirk would glance at him hoping for some glimmer of complicity, but Subimal would never engage with him at all in this, he would simply set down the full crystal glass and remove the former with a level of discreet disdain that, to Selkirk’s mind, matched exactly the desperate speed with which it had just been drained by his mother.
Selkirk sucked in the normally unguent air of this autumnal Edinburgh night with scant pleasure, someone clearly cared enough about his predicament to right now be vigorously tampering with thoughts, some hideous omniscient narrator who had sent him to a bench on the grounds of what used to be the Craiglockhart Sanatorium — which, in this darkness, afforded no views of anything at all — when really he would have preferred to be at home, picking up where he had dozed off last night while watching A Streetcar Named Desire for the third time this week, and somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred and fortieth time in his life. Someone was clearly far too interested in his memories and desires, he wished that this someone would break off and cook themselves a very nice steak and salad, come back and hold a warm and clean tea towel to his face, let him inhale of its unnecessary fragrance, and be done with him, once and for all.
AND THEN there had come the time when Subimal had been sent back to the village whence he had come to take residence in their servants’ quarters and be of some help to his grandfather. He had been sent back to attend to his dying father, what his ailment was Selkirk would never know, his death was not swift, not for Selkirk anyway, and Subimal did not come back for a whole nine months, and when he had returned it was with his head shaven on account of being the eldest son and so charged with the responsibility of placing the crematorial flame in his father’s mouth and subsequently being shorn of his own hair, for eleven days he had not been allowed to attend his hair, nails, and other such keratinous materials as insisted on growing upon a dead person in defiance of their state — and then had been clipped and cleansed of these as part of the final funeral rites. And so he had returned, Subimal, shaven and subdued, but that was not all, in these nine months Subimal had also transited into adolescence, he smelled different, he walked differently, he surveyed their own games with a bemused detachment that angered and frightened young Selkirk. Besides, in these nine long months, Selkirk had gradually become very much used to his own company, his own solitary ways which would buttress him indefinitely thereafter. He had no need any longer for Subimal whose new awkwardness and peculiar odours, in any case, repelled him. It was straightforward for Selkirk to indicate his unease, and Subimal accepted this gracefully, swiftly removed himself from the scene. Every now and then Selkirk would spot him — when their car passed that way — hanging out in his appliquéd bell-bottoms with older boys at a tea stall near the Zoological Gardens, but he would never let his gaze linger upon him; on the increasingly rare occasions when he served them at home, Selkirk would ignore him or simply say hello in a way that indicated he did not require Subimal to respond. And then Selkirk’s father had suddenly died and he had returned with his mother to the British Isles, and Subimal had ceased completely and utterly to occupy any part of his life. Which was to say that almost forty years had passed since he had had any thoughts of Subimal, and yet here he was now, that new sour smell of him that had so taken him aback those many years ago rising up again from the Edinburgh mists, reminding him how perfectly possible it was to one minute be at ease with someone and then, the very next, to loathe their presence to an extreme.
Selkirk stood up and buttoned his overcoat, he was starting to get hungry, he needed to get out of here, these vast grounds where shellshocked poets like Sassoon and Owen had once roamed, now home to Napier University, and for some reason utterly unpopulated at this time of the evening. And although he did not feel insecure, Selkirk took the precaution of making his way back through open spaces rather than the many wooded paths that otherwise commended themselves to him at this time of the year on account of the unexpected flower, the single bright mushroom, nature at its most mellow and brave, perhaps the poets had found something in these images to steer them back into a life with meaning, or maybe they had only constituted yet another failure of beauty, its ultimate inability to redeem.
No, it was not true that he had never thought of Subimal since that fateful day in 1975 when his father had turned around in his bed and died, and he and his mother had been put on a plane to England with the body, their belongings to follow later. It was not strictly true that he had entirely obliterated Subimal from his consciousness for there was a moment when he had briefly recalled his physical details and that was while he was watching Aparajito at the Phoenix House in Oxford — a Bengali art film to which he had been dragged by his friend Solange who had an evangelical taste for such things. Besides, you might even understand some of the words — she had said to consolidate the temptation. Fat chance, he had replied, I never acquired a scrap of Bengali in the whole ten years that I lived there. You lie, said Solange in her idiotic hybrid accent, you lie, or otherwise you have forgotten. He went with her anyway, just to be with her really, nothing sexual in it, he just liked to be with her, silly little her, so young and so earnest, like a perfectly ironed frilly collar that gives comfort to the fingers just by virtue of its irrelevance.
SUDDENLY SELKIRK was aware of a shadow, but it was a shadow with a dog he quickly realised and thus devoid of threat, he let them overtake him, a gangly youth and his mutt, they looked like vegetarians, the dog had probably to do with lentils and rice for supper, oh well, it was alive anyway, and happy — judging from its jaunty gait — other people, other lives, when had he ceased to consider them of consequence? Had he not cared, deeply cared once, had tears not pricked his eyes when inAparajito the ten-year-old boy had begged to go to school and when his mother had asked where the money would come from, had said — do you not have any money, mother? Or was that because it raked within him memories of his own fears when he returned to England at a very similar age and was incarcerated for a while with his mother and her parents in a suburb of Birmingham where nothing was familiar, and where even the kindest children at school found him a complete stranger — how he longed to escape, and how keenly he realised that they had no means to do so. And then his father’s mother had written with this proposition: that she should take responsibility for him, that she should foot the bills for the place waiting for him at the boarding school that his father had attended, and have him to stay on the odd exeat, but that his mother and her kin should see to it that he had somewhere to go in the holidays for she was too old to attend to that. The old lady had died shortly after he was appointed to his Chair at the University of Edinburgh and he had been pleased to lay this achievement at her shrivelled feet, this and the chocolates that he regularly brought to her in the nursing home where she spent the last years of her life, which he imagined might have been a little more salubrious if she had not given half her savings to his own education.
Selkirk considered how he might spend the evening now, there was the rest of A Streetcar Named Desire to watch (again), but he desperately needed something to eat first, something that required no effort on his part, no clever consulting of his myriad cookbooks and jotted down recipes, nor the printouts of the frequent e-mails from Solange on this, that and the other, all to do with food — for Solange, though still stick-thin and sheathed always in black, had become something of a foodie, having now a secure job in some Cultural Politics department somewhere in the United States, and food having since become their only — but very delightful — connection. Food, food, food, and skinny Solange still pandering to his peculiar needs, but no longer dragging him to arthouse Bengali films where one minute a beautiful-ten-year old would ask his mother if he may go to school, and the next minute become a gangly young man, headed to Calcutta on the kind of scholarship that requires you to stay up all night working at a printing press to meet your basic needs, it was he who had reminded him briefly of Subimal — a flitting thought, yet one that had caused him to get up and leave the movie theatre without a word to Solange — but she had become used to his erratic behaviour by then and had not reacted in any way to his departure but to pull her heels onto the seat and bury her wet cheeks between her legwarmers, dear Solange, sometimes he fancied that she would be the only one at his funeral, solitarily elegant in her usual weeds, no one else there but those paid to deposit clods of earth upon his coffin, it had been his wish once to be cremated but like many other things in life, he had let it go on account of the degree of hassle it would require to arrange.
Selkirk reached the safety of the roads and made his way deftly to the corner shop where he sometimes picked up the odd bottle of sparkling water or washing-up liquid. Could there be something lurking in the freezer here that actually suited his mood at this moment, or even on the cold shelves? Finally, he had picked a fish pie and placed it in the oven as soon as he had reached his flat, turned the knobs in the hope that it would reach the required temperature soon and heat up the ready-made dish without ado, so this is the shape of my life now — some sullen voice within him proclaimed — this is the shape of my life now that the doors to Marks & Spencers are barred by an errant knave, and quickly another voice within him had answered — that is ridiculous, there are other supermarkets, and a multitude of specialist food shops, what have I to worry, what have I to worry but for the loss of my soul?
BUT THE fish pie took forever to cook, and Selkirk was ravenous, he opened the door of his refrigerator to see what was there to be nibbled upon, and was suddenly confronted by an array of meats and cheeses that he had purchased over the last few days and never actually bothered to cook. Usually, at this time of the night, he was too drunk to care — but on this occasion, having spent the better part of the evening on a bench of what used to be the Craiglockhart Sanitorium ruminating his past, he was as close to sober as he had been at this hour for a very long time. He unloaded the contents of the fridge onto the 1950s island that stood in the centre of the kitchen (which had driven Solange into serious ecstasy when she had visited him last year en route to a conference in Germany). He sifted through the many packages, realising how little of what he bought of an evening actually made it onto his dinner plate; much of what was there needed to be put straight into the garbage but there was a significant quantity that was not yet past its use-by date. Selkirk stood for a while gazing at this excess of packaged food and then he knew what he must do. He fished out a plastic bag and put it all in, all that was still edible, and walked out of the door of his flat, stopping only to grab his overcoat, he put it on while walking down the stairs holding the heavy bag in his mouth — as an intelligent hound might when called upon by a particularly lazy master to ferry a few goods to a nearby location — he struggled into his coat and transferred the bag to one of his hands and used the other to let himself out into the cold night air, and then walked back in the direction of Marks & Spencers, his intention was to deliver them to Sweetlove, post them as a final gesture against all those debts that Selkirk had unwittingly accumulated over a couple of pints of Scrumpy the previous evening. He had just turned the corner when he heard voices calling, and the next minute a taxicab drew up next to him with three of his younger colleagues in it, jump in, they cried — clearly they were certain that he too was headed in their direction, wherever that was — and Selkirk, with very little hesitation, obliged.
What have you got in there? demanded Georgina Ashton, as he squashed down beside her and placed the bag upon his knees. Just what was in my fridge, he truthfully replied. We’re taking beer, the others told him, Woodhouse never has enough beer. So, that’s where they were headed, himself included, to Nathan Woodhouse’s impromptu barbecue on account of Barack Obama’s win — he had clean forgotten that it was tonight — for he had actually meant to make a brief appearance at least. And here was fate delivering him there with a motley bag of goodies to boot — tender aged beefsteaks and oven-ready quails, all on the verge of rotting, but still perfectly barbecueable, thank god for deus ex machina, thought Selkirk.
And later, on the terrace of Woodhouse’s lovely house, drinking his third victory cocktail, coloured appropriately with Curacao or somesuch, Selkirk had felt a wild sense of wellbeing, this was good, this was good, his life was good, his life could not be better. True that there was a Young’s fish pie burning in the oven (if he was lucky it had already turned into a block of soft ash), this is good, Selkirk had thought, and then his eye had fallen upon a toy machine gun that clearly belonged to one of Woodhouse’s sons, and suddenly the memory had pierced him of Subimal falling, his hands clutched to his chest, shot dead by him in one of their mock espionage games, but it was just a fleeting memory, and nothing that another gulp of the astonishingly blue cocktail could not easily disperse.
Sunetra Gupta (born 1965) wrote her first works of fiction in Bengali. A novelist, essayist and scientist, she has just completed her fifth novel, So Good in Black, which will be published in February 2009. Gupta lives in Oxford with her husband and two daughters. She is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology. Having graduated in 1987 from Princeton University, she received her PhD from the University of London in 1992. She is an accomplished translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.