King Edward’s Road, Bethnal Green, London
It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in a straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.
It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. She hasn’t left a note. It’s not as though she is planning to kill herself, like last time. Then she had left a note, thinking it only polite, to exonerate her husband from any blame or self-reproach, to apologize and excuse herself, as though she were a schoolgirl asking to be let off gym class, instead of the rest of her life. When she had returned, having not gone through with it after all, her hair damp and reedy-smelling, as though she had simply been swimming in the Hampstead Heath Ponds instead of trying to drown herself there, the note was still on the counter. Patrick had been working late. She wasn’t sure if she had failed to end her life because she was too lazy and noncommittal – she hadn’t tried hard enough; the gentle, shallow water hadn’t tried hard enough either, it had bobbed her back up again and offered no helpful current. Perhaps, like the water, she was just too kind – it was kinder for everyone if she lived, wasn’t it? All life, even a life as unimportant as hers, performed some kindness to those it touched; wouldn’t her husband, if no one else, appreciate this kindness? Or perhaps that was just vanity – she hadn’t destroyed the note, but had smoothed it into their diary on the kitchen table, as one might a shopping list, or a love letter, or a poem; but Patrick had never noticed it, because he didn’t make appointments, she supposed. She eventually screwed it up and put it into the recycling box, which Patrick did take care of, judiciously separating paper, glass and plastic. He still didn’t see it – or if he did, he saw it as just another piece of paper. Patrick, ironically for a medical professional whose job is to observe, seems to see very little indeed, at least when it comes to her. He persistently mistakes her for someone better than she is, as though his gaze stops just short of her. He frequently expresses his love for her, but the truth is that he doesn’t know her very well, and she is sure that should he need to fill out a missing persons form, he would be distressed to realize that he doesn’t know her height, her weight, her dress size. He would possibly even be unsure of her exact age and birthday. Although he would probably get her hair and eyes right, as she has the same hair and eyes as almost every woman of Bengali descent. She imagines him filling out this part of the form with confidence, with relief, even; hair: black, eyes: brown.
She didn’t leave a note this time, as she has no idea what she would have put in it; apart from saying that she had left, but her absence would do this anyway. Wouldn’t it? Was it possible that Patrick would come home and go to work and come home and go to work and not notice until the weekend that she was missing, assuming that she was out shopping or working late in the faculty library, especially as she has recently been in the business of avoiding him in order to steer clear of the difficult conversation about babies that he seems so intent on pursuing. Was she wrong in assuming that her absence would be more noticeable than her presence? They live parallel, independent lives, and have always done so; he complains that even when she’s in, she’s out. When at home she supposes that she is not much more than a small creature curled indifferently on the sofa or in the bath or in the corner of the bed, scrawling in her notebooks with a quiet persistent scratching, working on her laptop with a quiet persistent tapping, but otherwise barely there, without a height or a weight or a dress size worth recalling.
She supposes that such a note should say the truth about why she is leaving, but there is no larger truth. There is nothing significant. There is no Big Important Question to be answered. She has not had an affair, she is not in trouble with the law or in debt, she does not hate him or dislike him at all: like most couples, they fight and bicker all the time, about the ridiculous minutiae of their shared life; who last loaded the dishwasher, and where the toilet roll should be stored. They argue about her refusal, thus far, to consider pregnancy and whether to spend Christmas with the in-laws. There is really nothing but the trivial problems of the everyday, and to other people she looks like nothing so much as an ordinary woman, recently married, as yet childless, with ordinary cares. She looks like this even to herself, on occasion; an ordinary woman, in an ordinary life, wondering why she has striven to be ordinary above everything else. Perhaps she expected it would bring her peace of mind, bringing together the pieces of mind that still inhabit her, their little voices whining inside like shards of glass waiting to pierce through her skin and reveal how sliced up and fragmented she has secretly been within herself, for such a long time. The only thing that currently makes her more than ordinary, extraordinary even, is that she has written and recycled a suicide note, without anyone in the world noticing, and that she has decided to stop fighting, and go home.
The funny thing, laugh-out-loud funny when she dwells on it, is that she didn’t say those words in an earnest discussion with her husband, they weren’t advised her by a mother or a friend or a therapist or a lover. The words simply fell out of a book she had been skim-reading over breakfast that had some relevance to her research; fell out almost as casually as a child’s gift from a cereal packet, or junk mail from her morning newspaper. It was a comment between one prodigal son and another, unwilling opponents in a bloody conflict. And as she read it, she thought, OK then. Like a switch had been gently flicked in her head, and she had finally been prompted into action; leaving the breakfast table, dressing carelessly and rather too lightly for the British weather, and taking her handbag. She had put her passport in and taken her keys out, feeling a weight fall from her as she let them tumble onto the glass table in the hall with a musical tinkle. She had breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of them as she shut the door behind her. How easy it was, ridiculously easy, to leave. She suddenly felt so free that she really did laugh out loud, and stopped herself abruptly in case the neighbours heard. It was important to her that she didn’t seem mad, that she didn’t leave the house in her dressing gown, that she wasn’t seen laughing or muttering to herself or crying in the streets; she felt that if she ever let her little bit of insanity out, she might never contain it again, like a wild thing set free. She hadn’t laughed because she was mad, she had laughed because some random words written long ago by a stranger had spoken to her, and she had unaccountably given them the importance of a prophecy. Her keys left on the table were her proof – she wouldn’t be coming back this time.
Aruna only makes it as far as the cafe on the corner, when she starts to have doubts. It is her reflection in the glass that stops her; she sees herself in her summer jacket and sandals, on a blustery spring day, dressed for the weather of the place she is going to, rather than the place she is leaving. She realizes that although she has dressed, she has not washed her face, brushed her teeth, or combed her hair, which crackles with artless tangles and stands away from her face. She has a feverish flush, and she is sure that she can see that bright glint of madness in her eyes that she has worked so hard to suppress. Her disguise of jeans and a T-shirt isn’t working as well as it might – instead of having the invisibility of a Gap ad, she feels as transparently out of place as a bag lady in a ball gown. Perhaps she should have just gone out in her dressing gown after all, because then someone kind would have seen her for what she is, seen her glassy eyes and wild hair, and escorted her back to her flat (not to her home, she never calls the flat home, she just calls it the flat, or occasionally, when she is speaking to American colleagues at her faculty, the apartment). Perhaps this good Samaritan whom she will now never meet, whom she unaccountably regrets not meeting, would have made her a fresh cup of tea, and then tucked her back in bed like an invalid. Her reflection nods at her knowingly – she is acting irresponsibly again. The reflection seems a little too knowing in fact, as though it is no longer connected to her, and imitates her gestures in mockery rather than by necessity; she waves at it tentatively to check that it will wave too. She is taken aback when a figure inside the cafe comes up to the glass, and waves back instead. ‘Hi Aruna, nice of you to stop by,’ says Syed, the cafe owner, coming across to his open doorway, sipping from a cup of coffee that lets off little wisps of steam into the cool air. Aruna says nothing for a moment, stunned at how easily real life has invaded her again, someone waving to her and naming her, mistakenly thinking that she was greeting them from outside their window. She is unsure whether there is an edge to his voice, a criticism, something that implies she doesn’t stop by often enough.
‘Hi Sy,’ she says eventually, hiding her hostility behind apologetic guilt, as though she really has failed to fulfil some mysterious etiquette regarding the acceptable frequency of attending one’s local cafe. Everything makes her feel vaguely on guard, even a casual greeting from a shopkeeper she barely knows.
‘Your hubby stopped by this morning too. Picked up his coffee on the way to work. He told me that I was drinking too much of the stuff, can you believe? I said to him, I said, “Patrick, mate, I wouldn’t trust a bald hair-dresser, I wouldn’t trust a skinny chef, and I wouldn’t trust a cafe owner who doesn’t drink his own coffee.” ’
Aruna says nothing; her eyes have drifted back to her reflection, and Syed, who is old enough to be her father, asks almost kindly, ‘Are you coming in then?’ There is no edge to his voice after all, just a touch of impatience, as though she is a dawdling child in need of a little push. Aruna is unable to say no, as that would involve explaining why, and so she nods and drifts in, and takes the seat near the window.
‘So, coffee?’ suggests Syed, ‘I’ve got the fair trade stuff that you guys like. Americano for you, isn’t it?’
‘OK,’ says Aruna, aware as she says it how ungracious she sounds, as though she is doing him a favour. ‘I mean, please.’ She sips the coffee when he brings it over, making an appreciative noise at odds with how she really feels.
‘And how’s the family?’ asks Syed politely. Aruna smiles back, just as politely; she has no family, apart from Patrick, and it strikes her as funny that Syed doesn’t know this. She is relieved that he doesn’t know that much about her after all, perhaps her disguise is still intact.
‘Oh, we’re all fine. How about yours?’ she asks.
‘Fine too. My wife went away for the weekend with her girlfriends. Went to Madrid, and complained about how some overpriced restaurant she went to was run by Pakistanis rather than Spaniards. As though we weren’t Pakis ourselves. Funny how bigoted she gets when she goes abroad. She expects London to be cosmopolitan but the rest of Europe to be lily white.’
‘I didn’t know you were from Pakistan,’ says Aruna, stirring her coffee.
‘Where did you think I was from, with a name like Syed?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know. Here, I guess. I just thought you were English.’
‘So, where are you from?’ asks Syed, cleaning out the filters, just making conversation. Another couple of customers come in and start examining the chalkboard menu hung on the cafe wall.
‘Singapore,’ says Aruna, ‘But my parents were from the Bengal.’ She has another sip of coffee, and realizes that she has to leave, before she gets sucked back into her ordinary life, before she calls a locksmith and gets herself let back into her flat, where she will finish her cold porridge, load the dishwasher (it is her turn, her husband reminded her this morning, trying not to nag, but not quite succeeding) and have a shower. ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she says, going up to the till and handing over her change.
Excerpted from Half Life by .
Copyright © 2010 by Roopa Farooki.
Published in May 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.