This story is:
a) not mine.
c) rated R.
f) following directly from this.
g) proving to be longer than I'd thought.
They’ve just about left Mumbai when the owners of the bags dumped on the seats opposite return to their places, and bring their wives and stare covetously at Sweety and Guddu, sharing a single packet of chips in a framed-photo of wedded bliss. The older man catches his eyes and sweeps a contemptuous gaze over him, and he smirks, shrugs, turns all his attention to Led Zeppelin shrieking in his ears. None of his concern, even when a khaki-d arse lands beside his boots and piggy little eyes stare at him as though he should take his feet off, not lounge, sit up straight and behave, son. He turns his face to the window, rests his forehead against the grimy metal of the bars, and watches the blur of the country-side and villages—his heart aches and these band-aids do nothing; Charlie hasn’t spoken a word.
When he next looks up, the tracks have changed to Kashmir and Sweety’s up, spine straight, hands flailing, trying and failing to look anything but militant, even with a five-month belly flaring the curve of her kurta, and Guddu’s jaw is set and his hands on her shoulders, protective and conciliatory. The men are still there, and he pulls his ear-plugs out in time to hear an insidious, “…isn’t your seat, now, is it, you’re just camped out, we have every right, you young people these days think.”
“Those seats are ours,” Guddu says, and this is almost fun to watch.
“But the rest of your party hasn’t come,” the younger of the women wheedles, “and all we’re saying is you move to our space and let us have these seats, be reasonable, makes no difference to you, young people, but at our age.”
“Oh, fuck off,” he groans, because the key word there is almost, “it’s a day’s journey, you can see each other tomorrow sometime, fuck off to your own seats.”
The younger man turns on him, glare hot enough to sear skin. “Mind your tongue,” he hisses, how polite, how well-mannered, how chivalrous, like he isn’t tormenting a pregnant woman, “nobody’s talking to you, any rate.”
“Same party,” he says, watches out of the corner of his eyes Guddu pulling Sweety down beside him, Charlie’s shoes pointing down in mid-air, retreating up, like he’s changing his mind about helping, smiles like butter wouldn’t melt—he’d tried the experiment, once, and that’d ended in a mess and Aniket laughing his face off and a different sort of mess. “And some of us like stretching out.”
The men stand glaring—the older woman looks torn between moral indignation and bursting out laughing—and he lounges back, bares his teeth in a smile, turns his head to wink at Sweety, who grins back. The shoes descend, and Charlie elects to settle in in front of him, making him fold his legs up so Charlie can rest against them, smile blandly.
“Finally decided to join us,” Sweety asks, shoves a Pepsi at him, “huh, Dada?”
“Yef, Madam-ji, Bhabhi-ji, bugger off now, ji.” Charlie takes a drink while he watches, then swivels to put his back to the bunk and his profile to him, staring at Guddu. “Problem?”
“A li… li… little, matlab, not much.” The men grumble and step back to their seats—tchtch, such debauchery, hai, hai, what is to be?—while he’s still watching the two of them, reflections in broken mirrors, fuck, but that could’ve been his Charlie, there but for the grace of God, good boy-coward-romantic-idiot.
“Why,” he asks, because someone has to, “are we going by train?” He puts up a hand to forestall Sweety. “And, if we must, why are we not in an AC compartment, like sane people?”
“What’s the fun in that?” Sweety smiles, all sweet innocence, and you’d never know the girl has a knife stowed in her luggage, and a warped sense of fun.
“You’re not,” Charlie says, and passes him the Pepsi. He takes the bottle and the hint, and shuts up.
He opens his eyes into an expanse of cloth and rippling muscle, Charlie’s shifted under him to take both cups of tea—he doesn’t know when he fell asleep, can’t be less than a fair while, sky’s darkened, and they’re moving steadily east. He sits up and Charlie shifts the encircling arm down his back, offers him a chai and a suspicious look that melts into a smile when he grimaces at the taste.
“Tui nish,” he mutters, debates whether to move his head off Charlie’s shoulder.
“Pretty good,” Charlie retorts, sips at his tea with every appearance of pleasure. The lights haven’t been switched on, and he’s in the shadows of his own hair. Sweety’s watching them, smug and a little wide-eyed, like they’re the picture-perfect couple and not she and her Sharma. Like Charlie’s shoulder hasn’t gone stiff under him, like this isn’t just Charlie growling ‘yes,dear’.
“Bhabini tui ashbi,” he admits, eyes to the side, watching Charlie’s fingers delicate around the plastic rim of the cup. Guddu pays the vendor, who moves away, shrieking his wares.
“Dada taka dichchhe,” Charlie says, drops his voice till they’re both whispering. Sweety moves slightly back, to the left, to Guddu. Dada’s why Charlie learnt Bangla, not him. Shumon-da got bored of translating, after a point.
“Tui toh aar kaaj korchhish na, amader hoye.” Out with it, Charlie. “And when’ve you been my body-guard, anyhow?”
“Last favour,” Charlie shrugs, and he nods, stands abruptly up and shoulders his way out of the cubicle, through the aisle and to the open door of the compartment, and jostles his way to the front, stepping over the people stacked on the floor, hanging half-out and waiting for sweet Mary Jane to fill his lungs. Fuck these guilt-trips. So he was stupid, so he nearly died, big fucking deal, man. Better dead than always remembering it, tied closer in love to his brothers and this resentful man who bends his body into a shelter.
When he returns, cushioned against reality—reality is overrated, best thing Aniket ever did was teach him to roll—Charlie’s alone, limned against the light—jaw lit, eyes shadows, the hollows under his cheekbones deep and gaunt—speaking urgently into his cell. He stands leaning over him a moment, swoops in when Charlie doesn’t look up, and stares at the display a second. Nothing he recognises. “Sophonisba, beautiful, I’m very very, very, terribly, horribly, utterly and entirely sorry, but you’re going to have to continue the phone-sex at a time more convenient for me, good-bye, love you, ta.”
“Mishka, don’t, Mi…” she says, and then there’s the dial-tone, and Charlie’s eyes shining up at him, brighter than the lights overhead.
“What fuckery waf that?” Charlie grouches, and the lights around his head are a horned halo. Charlie, Charlie, Sudarshan Sharma, beautiful weapon, honed to my hand.
“Puro jibon pore ache Sophia’r sathe prem korar jonyo,” he says, decides sitting would be nice, and Charlie softer than the bunk. He is. “Ei trip, you’re all mine.” He knocks the back of his skull against what must be Charlie’s nose. “Right?”
Charlie grumbles against his shoulder and tugs him off his lap by the waist, and folds him up, and he subsides, held tight against Charlie’s ribs, and sweeps his lashes up and down against the sliver of collar-bone above Charlie’s t-shirt, watching the flecks of dust rise and fall.
Sweety comes back smiling like she’s won a lottery, like her horse has won (or lost) a race, and lets Guddu cradle her, almost soft. “Chhotu kicked,” she says, while Guddu smiles as though it’s any of his doing.
Charlie leans forward, smiling like his face will break, like someone sliced a razor up his lips—Why so serious?—covers the high curve of her belly with his hand, holding himself tautly breathless, smiles impossibly wider after a second, at Sweety, at Guddu, at the purple-green-white cotton of her kameez. Unbidden Sophia comes to him, and a bundle of quarter-Russki kids with Charlie’s speed and lack of charm. Sweety, somewhat predictably, intensely dislikes Sophia-Sophonisba, and he revels shamefully in unearned love, and cannot tell him he could have married Sophia himself, could’ve-should’ve-would’ve but then there was Charlie and they both loved him more, and now this is what it is, and again and again and again the questions waiting for him at the end of this journey, as soon as the train stops and he can climb out of this hell-hole of bad food and too-close company into the arms of women who have loved him and held his hand on the way to school and dried his tears. Fuck, Mashimoni, give up on children, love, they’d only be bastards, darling, and none of them yours to scold and love. The sons of great men are never as good as their fathers, and even Baba was nothing, even before he got killed.
“Mikhail?” Sweety says, and, “don’t you want to?” And no, darling, I don’t, I don’t, but it’s Sweety, and he hates that that has become reason and justification—ten weeks ago he hadn’t known she existed, nine weeks ago she was the baby sister of his would-be murderer, he doesn’t want a baby sister of his own, being youngest and best-beloved shapes him—but he dutifully puts his hand, cringing, on her stomach, flinches and grins when something connects with his hand through the curtain of flesh. “Well?”
“Chhotu’s going to be an athlete,” he says, hopes his smile passes muster. Couldn’t care less, darling, what the fuck do you think you’re doing, having a kid, at twenty-one, with that boy who still looks like he’s waiting for the school-yard bully to beat him up?
“Chhoti,” Guddu says, and he draws away, watches them smile at each other and fight it out—Chhotu-Chhoti, Tu-Ti, Tu-Ti tra-la-la-la-la—debates shouldering back out to smoke, smoke up, turn on, tune in, drop out, drop himself out of the train, pull the chain and walk out into outer darkness—where are they? Still in
Charlie looks at him, eyes hard, nothing of pity in them—Charlie’s capable of boundless pity, and never seems to know why it makes him so easy to desire to kill—and wraps a brown hand ’round his wrist and pins him against the seat and window and holds him quietly there, like all his illogical plans of escape are worth no more than when he’d wanted, at five, to run away, or at seven, to get to Dada and Shumon-da. “Chup chap boshe thak.”
*** *** ***
Tui nish: You take (it).
Bhabini tui ashbi: Hadn’t thought you’d come.
Dada taka dichchhe: Dada’s paying (me).
Tui toh aar kaaj korchhish na, amader hoye: You don’t work for us anymore.
Puro jibon pore ache Sophia’r sathe prem korar jonyo: Whole life left to romance Sophia.
Chup chap boshe thak.: Sit still.