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Because someone else dances

Because someone else dances

by Anita Goveas

A scorpion is an opportunist, my grandmother said, as she scrubbed clothes in the bath or peeled potatoes with a knife. Her knuckles were granite-like bulbs. I didn’t know what an opportunist was, but I knew it was a threat, something that came with a sting. Like the wasp’s nest Nana doused with vinegar and boiling water. It foamed up in vengeance, I drew it with hard loops of scavenged charcoal.

Mother would return from the bank, remove plastic knives from my chubby hands, and say ‘Mumma, can’t you learn to use the washing-machine?”

I’d be sent off to bed, supposed to be quiet. The voices clashed like the impact of iron against rock, two hard surfaces that shuddered together. I sketched them as massive boulders marooned in an icy sea, looming over a tiny, rudderless boat.

“If I’m good enough to watch her, I’m good enough to teach her. When the well dries up, we realise the value of water.”

The reasons were different but the words always stayed the same.

My first friend from school, Darren, had very clean white socks that stretched up his calves and very clean white teeth. I made models of his long-fingered hands in plasticine, like tarantula legs. I asked to bring him to tea, Nana made tiny samosas and chutney sandwiches. She held on to a bottle of vinegar, as if it were a talisman. I watched him eat, two or three foodstuffs in his oar-shaped mouth at one time, as if they might disappear. When his lightly-stubbled father came to get him, Nana stared at his out-stretched hand until he scratched at his neck and walked away.

“Beta,“ she said, “your husband will open you like a ripening fruit, he won’t even need to squeeze. Because someone else dances, we do not follow suit.”

She taught me how to chop vegetables in even pieces that day, and how to time the rice from the sound of the steam escaping. We hid the rice-cooker under the stairs, a joke I thought. Mother didn’t even notice. And no-one laughed.

I was called in to the headmistress by mistake. Neela had finally sworn at the boy who pulled her pigtails, and we looked enough alike that our Year 5 teacher sent me instead. She didn’t even look up, explained to me boys would be boys, and good girls needed to remember that. Her sideburns were sculpted, like tiny leaves. After that, it was a game. Forgetting my name at the register, looping black graffiti on the netball goal. Why keep the rules of people who thought you were a brown-eyed body with long black hair? My portrait of her became mistletoe winding around a barely-grown sapling.

The reasons were different but the words always stayed the same.

Mother took me to the bank with her, showed me her desk buried under files in a tiny cubicle while she rubbed at the furrow between her brows. She talked about responsibility and promotion opportunities, while pushing paperclips into a tidy pile. Nana took me to the market, showed me how to choose the best aubergine, talked about the joys of being a good wife. As she was, to a man who breakfasted on whiskey and sulked if she moved his newspaper.

“Beta”, she said, handing me a bag of finger chillies shedding their intensity even through the paper, “don’t fall at night into the well you saw clearly in the day”.

Dinner was almost silent, I scraped greasy baigan around, Mother’s jaw clicked, Nana’s bangles rattled. It made me want to fall, or at least jump. I pulled out a slivered chili and chewed it slowly as it set my tongue ablaze.

I failed A level art. I’d spent two years filling a portfolio with leafy landscapes, pencilled portraits of film stars, sculptures of women in saris. Unfocused, I was told, no connecting beat. I didn’t mention it at home, talked about colleges and universities, buried confusion with cubing paneer as if each piece were art. That afternoon, I sorted through discarded scraps of wasp’s nests and mistletoe, tiny boats and oar-shaped mouths. Fear and Longing, the label written large on the folder as I sent it all off to art school, finally listening to the music I’d always danced to. That evening, I noticed how Nana gave me the biggest pieces of chicken tikka, and Mother open the daaba of rotis for me, and worked out how I could say goodbye to them both.


Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Flashback Fiction, Mojave Heart review, The Brown Orient, formercactus and Spelk. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer

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