Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and is fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, and most recently in former cactus, Litro, New Flash Fiction Review, Porridge, and Longleaf Review. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer
Image: James Pond on Unsplash
Adhira watched the dog chase itself again. Round and round, a black and white Catherine wheel. One you weren’t sure had been tacked up properly, one that could go off tangentially at any time. King Charles spaniels are so loyal, Ojal had said during her last visit, seven months ago. Papa deserves some unconditional love. Look at his face, he loves Kumar already, she’d said. Adhira had been stuck with the messy bits.
Ojal was always punctual. That was the one thing she’d manage to teach her. On cue, the digitised strains of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ crackled out of her phone and invaded the park. She wrapped the lead around her wrist, ignored the startled yapping, grasped her bag of chips. Her ear was flooded by the tinny voice.
“Hello, yes, I’ll turn down the TV. Oh, that noise must be the neighbours.”
A dark-skinned nuclear family played badminton in the watery spring sunshine. Mum in skinny jeans, Dad in jogging bottoms, broad-shouldered girl and close-cropped boy. Perhaps she should have had a boy, a needy, stupid, devoted creature. The opposite of what she’d produced.
The voice in her ear vibrated insistently; she’d been silent too long. Ojal didn’t like to repeat herself.
“Yes, yes, I bought your father the new trousers you suggested. Pin-striped – something smart to encourage his self-esteem.”
In the nursing home, Lokesh wore one of two fraying green jumpers, a tartan scarf and his lungi every day. Adhira brushed a crumb off her new purple silk jacket, feeling like her teenage self caught out in wearing a mini-skirt. Not even her capable daughter could detect suspicious behaviour through electrical energy.
“Of course I checked if he was eating.” She used to come home from the bank and make his dinner: freshly fried fish, fluffy rice. Adhira sat down on an ironwork bench and chose the fattest, greasiest chip. She pulled out a distressingly orange mango drink from her pocket. It was almost as synthetic as this weekly interrogation, where they played the parts of caring relatives to a man who couldn’t reliably recognise them.
The dog was staring at her and wagging its thick tail, the signal that it had been ignored for too long. Someone would stop soon and pet it, sucked in by the big dark eyes that spoke irresistibly of tenderness and vulnerability, if that was their weakness.
“Yes, he’s eating well.” The dog barked unexpectedly. She must have yanked the lead. She needed to do up her plaited leather sandal, and there was a choice between chips and dog. She dropped the lead and reached down. Kumar was too dependent to go far.
“Yes, he’s making friends.” It was true: the nurses fell for his big dark eyes and bustled off to fetch puzzles he didn’t complete and cups of tea that were left to go cold. The pattern of being catered to was ingrained in his long-term memory.
The dog nipped at her pleated skirt. The buckle stabbed into her finger, and she jerked up, alerted by its deviation from their usual interactions. Flames danced in the bin next to her, sparks floating close to her flammable elbows. Adhira propelled herself to safety, scooping up the lead as she went. Someone had left a half-extinguished cigarette to smoulder, and she hadn’t noticed.
Kumar chased his tail in joy at communicating successfully, round and round. She recognised the recursive movements of love for someone who didn’t love you back. The voice in her ear was becoming an intolerable pressure, forcing her to choose.
“Ojal, I have to go now. I have to buy Kumar a treat. If you really need to know all this, come and see for yourself.”