My Cousin in Wakefield

I sat perfectly still. On the screen, Ant and Dec orchestrated a prank on James Corden. It was elaborate. It involved costumes, fake names and multiple hidden cameras.

“We can’t wait to see his face!” chirped Ant, or perhaps it was Dec. There was still the faint taste of vomit in my mouth.

Next to me, Dadu rocked backwards and forwards. His white moustache had grown longer and longer over the years, dripping down his chin, so that he had come to resemble an oriental sage. His expression was solemn, his lips downturned. His eyes were rooted to the screen. What was he feeling as Ant (or maybe Dec), dressed as a security guard, told Corden he could not park in his favourite spot?

What did Zahra think as she sat there, her face like wet concrete? Since we had arrived, she hadn’t said a word, barely moving her eyes, as if all she could manage was to heave her chest against the fabric of that dirty, grey tracksuit and draw air into her lungs. I forced myself to look elsewhere. She might think that I was spying.

‘But, officer, I always park here!’ cried Corden.

This is what it was like in Wakefield. All of us watching TV for hours on end, not laughing or smiling, nor thinking neither, until Apu called us in to eat. On the walls, family photos hung awkwardly, at irregular heights, alongside strips of Arabic calligraphy. And on the mantelpiece, on the television, on the little tables that cluttered the corners of the room, there were the miniature figurines that, as a child, had made my family seem mysterious and foreign: seven wooden elephants, traditional Indian instruments, a scale-replica of an important mosque.

I got up. The third toilet trip since the show had started. Throwing up was just something to do.

As I left the sitting room, Apu called out softly from the kitchen.

‘Bia!’

Her face looked like maps you see of Syria, or maybe Afghanistan. The natural pigment, here and there, had been scrubbed away, leaving a broken frontier – zigzagging across the forehead, cleaving her button-nose in two, trailing off down the neck – a frontier between the soft, faded brown of old flesh and her new, white pallor. And elsewhere, on the saggy skin beneath the eyes, across the cheeks, as if marking the enclaves of a different, rebel faction, there were deep, red stains. But that was just the heat from cooking. I glanced at all the dirty pans and knives waiting in the sink.

‘Smells nice.’

When we hugged, the top of her head was in line with my chest.

‘Eating is the most important thing,’ she said.

‘Yes.’

‘Your Dadu says that if she does not eat, he won’t either. Then, sometimes, she eats.’

‘She looks better than last time?’

Apu stared up at me. In her left eye, a vein had popped.

‘Insha-allah. I have something.’

With that, she turned away from the pots still simmering on the hob, lifted the hem of her saffron sari, and led me slowly up the stairs. In the corner of her bedroom, we found a crumpled M&S bag. Slowly, painfully, she bent down and drew out a grey jumper.

‘Oh, Apu!’

She had shuffled to the bus stop, taken a bus, and gone shopping – for me, for my sake.

‘Apu it looks really nice.’

‘Does it fit?’

Very quickly, as if I were excited, I pulled it on.

‘Yeah! I reckon so? This is lovely. I’ll wear it a lot. I’ll wear it so much!’

We hugged for a long, long time.

‘It’s actually really really good. I keep… I keep saying I need another jumper. Thank you.’

I felt her rib cage expand and contract between my arms.

I said, ‘She’ll get better, Apu.’

‘Yes, insha-allah. Will you say that food is ready?’

I opened another door to find Dad and Phupi sitting on a double bed. Dad still hadn’t changed out of the blazer and tie he used for work. In fact, he had even kept on the well-oiled look of sympathy that he wore at the hospital, made for delivering bad news. Tears rolled down Silvi’s face. I remembered his words in the car, ‘No, of course there’s no chance. These people need to stop hoping and get real.’ Evidently, he had achieved his goal.

‘Dinner…’ I said.

‘Yes, we’ll be down shortly.’

I closed the door behind me.

Downstairs, Ant and Dec were now disguised as two middle-aged men. They were pretending to be contestants on Corden’s show.

‘Apu says that it’s dinnertime.’

There was no response, but both slowly raised themselves, the TV still going, and went to wash their hands.

In the kitchen, Apu pottered about, gently muttering to herself. Every now and again, I would hear a word I understood  – punior catcha colla – and I was thrown into a dilemma. What would be better? To do nothing, or, as it were, to “help,” by bringing the water, or the raw banana dish, over to the table? It was true – whenever I tried to do the washing up after a meal, or chop some onions beforehand, she became upset. But now she looked so tired, so emaciated, her eyes were so downcast, that surely she would appreciate… But, one must remember, I thought, that it’s a different culture. And I looked over to the food.

Oh, there were king prawns in sauce, river-fish with fried onions. There was cauliflower cooked in turmeric, salted okra, lamb biryani, rice and – yes – steaming dhal alongside a naan bread pile, apple chutney, spicy pickle, stuffed peppers, even mango lassi. All the delicacies of home, brought together in a meal that, according to Dad, was far more rich and abundant than they ever would have had in Bangladesh. It was extravagant, almost desperate. All for us, more food than we could ever possibly eat, all of it cooked by my Apu.

Zahra sat down. She looked roughly at the tablecloth, not blinking, her eyes glazed like a hunting trophy. The thin black moustache that she had inherited from Apu was now glistening with beads of sweat. Why? What had made her anxious? The tremor had returned to the fingers of the left hand. I knew that, if she became more agitated, these involuntary spasms would slowly eat up more and more of her body, until her whole arm shot out in random directions like a lightning bolt. If that happened, she went into another room.

By now, the food was ready but still Apu didn’t sit down. She would wait for everyone to start eating before coming to the table.

Dadu sat next to Zahra; Silvi and Dad were further along.

I picked up a plate from the stack.

‘Some fish, Dadu?’

‘Yes, Dadu.’

I used a spatula to put a cooked fish onto his plate. Then I took the spoon to put some tomato and onion on top.

‘Okra?’

‘A little, please Dadu.’

Dadu liked rice, fish, and okra. Sometimes, perhaps to treat himself, he also took some cauliflower.

‘Anything else Dadu?’

‘No, thank you, Dadu.’

The word ‘dadu’ meant ‘brother.’ And, apparently, I addressed my grandfather like this, and he called me the same thing, because Dad was now the head of the family – therefore all the other men were technically his sons. That was, at the very least, what I understood from Apu’s broken explanations.

In any case, nowadays it was Dad who made the decisions. We had come down this afternoon, on one of our rare visits, for him to decide.

I turned to Zahra.

‘Would you like the same?’

After a few seconds, her eyes rolled slowly upwards from the tablecloth, coming to stop around my chest.

Slowly, cautiously, I picked up another plate from the stack. I took the big spoon and ladled rice onto it. I added a fish with the spatula. I had served Dadu first, because Zahra trusted him. The foods he would eat – so I reasoned– those were the foods she would believe were safe. That was our best chance, or so I guessed.

But did she think actually like this? Or was it by counting the colours in the room, by whether I had uttered a certain word, a certain syllable? With a mind as foreign as hers now was, there was no way of knowing. And so, after offering her food, I served myself the very same dishes, along with some dhal, a cauliflower, and a healthy amount of pickle.

In Wakefield, we ate with our fingers. Dadu, still rocking back and forth, slid his right hand into the fish, digging along the middle, and pushed the tender flesh on top of the vertebrae to the side, leaving it in a mound by his rice. Then, picking up the head between his forefinger and thumb, he pulled upwards. The spinal column along with all the hundreds of tiny bones that were attached – all these followed the head. They were lifted cleanly from the fish and deposited on the little plastic plate, that waited nearby to collect these type of things during the meal – the fish bones, the little bits of knuckle from the lamb, the spat-out fish eyes, the pink, armour-plated tails of the king prawns.

Zahra hadn’t eaten yet. Her hands rested on the table.

‘Zahra…’ Dadu said.

There was no response. Her eyes stayed on the tablecloth, her mouth open. She wasn’t eating.

Dad turned to Silvi to exchange a meaningful glance. The glance said, ‘Point proved.’ The glance said it without sympathy. He was happy to see his diagnosis confirmed.

Dadu had stopped eating. His right hand, wet, covered in rice and fish flesh, rested on his plate.

‘Zahra…’ he said.

There was no response.

I looked towards Apu. But now, still standing, she had turned away from us and stared out of the window. What was she thinking? Her feet, impossibly little, rested on the black and white kitchen tiles. The sun slanted down onto her thin, bedraggled hair, creeping out like roots from under the headscarf, and turned it amber.

Was she thinking at all – or just looking at the garden, at the roses? The clock on the kitchen wall stood perfectly still and I looked and I looked and I looked. Each thing – the kettle, the brown pot with ladles in it – each thing began to have its own sound – the saffron sari – and these sounds, together, produced a glowing, wavering harmony. The chords grew louder and softer, wheezing in and out of existence, like a merry-go-round heard from afar, always with the same notes – the dirty pans in the sink, the knives – always just out of focus. Her ape-like face, her bloodied brown eyes.

I realised what it was. The scene resembled a certain painting by Vermeer.

And, just like that, my grandmother began to cry.