The shagpile carpet in the Chatterjees’ living room was mustard yellow with overlapping green and brown octagons. It appeared to reduce the height of a room that was crammed with wooden veneer cabinets, a set of carved, nested coffee tables and a leather sofa ensemble. Amongst the wall hangings of well-endowed goddesses and painted elephants was a framed photograph of a young man in graduation dress looking into the distance. Poser.
Nikhil sank into the leather chair by the window. He could hear the preparations for afternoon tea, the kettle and the squelching of jandals against lino. The snacks made a high pitched streaming noise as they flowed into metal bowls. Cups and plates of the best china rattled as they were assembled. They never let him help; they insisted he relax in the lounge. The door was pushed open and the Chatterjees crept in, both holding trays. The teacup wobbled in its saucer as it was carried to a small table. There was just enough room for his bowl of chanachur and a plate with a pink lamington, a chocolate Tim Tam and a colourful Indian sweet, the sort he didn’t like; it would be impolite not to eat it. There was no helping yourself; afternoon tea was prescriptive. A measure of something savoury and three sweets.
“Are you just going to watch me eat?”
“Oh no, no.” They scooped up chanachur with a teaspoon and had a sip of tea.
“Nikhil, you know we have diabetes. We can’t eat sweets.”
“We even drink tea without sugar.”
Yeah, but I bet you eat a bucket load of Basmati rice for dinner every night. Jazz had introduced him to brown rice. She had conned him into trying it by telling him it tasted like nuts.
“What are you writing at the moment? A symphony? A concerto? A sonata perhaps?”
“A divertimento? Or a nocturne?”
“Mostly just arranging. Stuff for school orchestras. Like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”
“Tricky when it’s mostly recorders and ukuleles and only two violins.”
“Of course. What else?”
“Vivaldi four seasons.”
“Yes, yes. More arranging. Anything else?”
“Well, I’ve been commissioned to write a song cycle to poetry by Charles Brasch.” Close enough to the truth. A retired cardiologist and his wife had cornered him at a party the other week. An oration had followed about their granddaughter, a soprano who had returned from overseas. They wanted to commission a piece for her thirtieth birthday. A song set to a poem by Charles Brasch; they had known him in Dunedin.
“Wonderful.” The Chatterjees clasped their hands.
What did I tell you? You said he was a fakibaj. His parents would have been very happy.
I never said fakibaj. You said fakibaj. Very happy, you say? If he had succeeded in medicine, Dada would have been even happier. Nikhil’s working in a shop, can you think of it?
He’s getting a belly. Two sweets is enough.
Did you know that I can understand every word you are saying? Especially bloody fakibaj. If Nikhil tried to tell them in Bengali that he knew what they were saying it would sound idiotic. They would either not understand him or have trouble keeping a straight face. It was better this way; he could eavesdrop.
He stood up to go. A few years ago, he offered to do the dishes; they hadn’t let him.
“You must bring your friend Molly next time. She’s a doctor, isn’t she? We would love to meet her.”
“It’s Jazz. Molly is Jazz’s daughter.” He’d told them so many times. “Jazz, short for Jasmine. I dunno. She’s pretty busy.” He put his shoes on by the front door and grabbed his keys and jacket.
They even managed to Benglify her name.
“Achha. Dekha hobe.”
“Yeah, see you next time.”
They liked him coming over; he reminded them of Ramen, who was doing a post doc at Cambridge University. Ramen was probably never coming back. It was their fault for telling him to get out of New Zealand. Nikhil and Ramen used to bike around the back streets of Karori to the park. When they were older, they rode up Wright’s Hill to the fortress. Ramen had his first cigarette on the hill by the gun emplacements. Nikhil had pinched them from his father’s secret supple in the garden shed. They already had a lighter. The fortress was also where they first drank alcohol. They slipped out during a Bengali function, saying they’d be back in time for the cultural programme and the meal. They weren’t expected to hang around for the kids’ games in the hall and the AGM. Nikhil had found half a bottle of bourbon in the cupboard next to the cigarettes. His father told him it belonged to the previous owners; he didn’t feel bad about smuggling it into his backpack. It was cold up on Wright’s Hill, even after they had ridden their bikes up. The bourbon burned their throats and warmed them up.
“Shoes, you bonehead,” Nikhil whispered as they stumbled into the hall. A girl with two fat plaits was on stage, sticking her stomach out and playing ‘The Happy Farmer’ on the violin. It was nearly the end of the cultural programme. Ramen took off his shoes, but the Beethoven didn’t go so well. After Ramen finished playing, Nikhil stood up and faced the audience. He said that he had fallen from his bike and hurt his hand; he wouldn’t be able to perform the Martelli. He had said it in Bengali and bowed. That was possibly the last time he had spoken Bengali in public.
“Who the fuck is Martelli?” said Ramen when Nikhil sat down. He was snorting with laughter. People in the row in front shook their heads and said ‘Chhee, chhee’; they must have heard him. Ramen was usually more careful.
Martelli, Corelli, Mozart, Martinu. God knows what he was meant to be playing. He wouldn’t have practised it. The music wasn’t in his backpack when he got home. He probably left it up at the fortress. His parents looked relieved when he told them the following week that he was giving up the piano; he was going to be a composer. They bought him manuscript paper and sticky staves. Instead of telling him to stop mucking around at the piano, they encouraged him and said, “Bah.” They told their friends their son was a composer and Nikhil would play them his latest. After he left school, he told his parents he really was going to be a composer.
“A composer? Like Beethoven? So simple to be a composer.”
“How will you eat? What about all your shampoo-fampoo? And aftershave? Who will buy that for you when we are gone?”
Dinner. He had clean forgotten. They were waiting for him in the playground across the road.
“Nikhil, it’s 5 o’clock.”
“I thought we’d have burgers.”
“Pastic cheese.” The light was fading. Molly’s shoes lit up as she ran up the slide.
“Can’t have a burger without spastic cheese. High five. Hey Jazz, we need hamburger buns.”
“I’ll go. Get started on the salad. It’s too cold for Molly to be outside.”
Well why didn’t you go in before? You have a key. He extracted Molly from the swing; her fingers were frozen. Jazz was trying to make a point. She didn’t understand why Nikhil didn’t want them to move in; they’d been together almost three years. Her apartment was like a shoebox. Molly waited for Nikhil to turn off the alarm before she ran inside. She slept in his old room. A poster of Marty McFly was above his bed. Molly had taken ownership of his ostrich and the one-eyed stripy caterpillar.
Jazz tossed a bag of bread rolls on the bench and stared at Nikhil who was stirring chickpeas into a bowl of wilting spinach. She yanked the fridge door open and sighed. “You didn’t go, did you?”
Nikhil never forgot to pick Molly up from crèche or from her gran’s; he remembered about laundry and putting rubbish out. Something about the supermarket made his mind go blank. Jazz ran her fingers through her hair. Nikhil handed her a glass of wine and told her to hang loose on the sofa. Dinner would be a while; the freezer had gone into overdrive and the meat patties were rock hard.
Jazz was studying when Nikhil got home from the supermarket later that evening. He unpacked the groceries and brought a bowl of Fruitiloops into the lounge.
“Don’t let Molly see those. How many stories did you end up reading?”
Nikhil couldn’t remember the exact number. A mixture of Curious George and Mog. Jazz agreed Curious George was exhausting.
“How were your friends? Found you a nice Bengali girl?”
“Nah. But I told them to keep looking.”
“I dunno. They were doing their usual thing, talking about me in Bengali. They’ve decided I’m not a fakibaj after all.”
“Fucky barge?” She laughed.
“It’s someone who gets out of doing things, gives you the slip. A bit of a slacker, a shirker.” He didn’t tell her that his parents called him a fakibaj. He was laid back; it was one of the things Jazz found attractive about him when they first met. She sidled closer to him, smiling. It was a sexy look. She eased her hand inside his shirt and asked him why they didn’t think he was a fakibaj anymore. He smiled at her and put the bowl on the table.
Jazz asked him about it again the next morning.
“It’s because I told them about that doctor – can’t remember his name – wanting to commission a piece for his granddaughter.” Nikhil walked into the kitchen in his dressing gown. They had never specifically asked Nikhil to be the composer; they had asked him to recommend someone. It was an alcohol-enabled conversation at a noisy party. He would probably never see them again.
“Dr Hamilton. They gave you their number. Haven’t you called them? Bloody hell, Nikhil. That was a couple of weeks ago.” She zipped up her coat. “Can you put some extra clothes in Molly’s bag? They’re sure to do water play. And we’re back at my place tonight.”
Nikhil brought his coffee into the lounge. The table was covered in scratches and dings. Molly was less destructive these days; he could sand it down and polyurethane it. If they moved in, Jazz’d want her pink and yellow stain-resistant couch and her glass coffee table in the lounge. Her furniture and stuff was scattered all over Wellington. He’d have to put his parents’ things in the attic.
“Crikey Molly. We’re going to be late.” Nikhil crawled around, putting lids on felt pens. He didn’t pack water play clothes; the crèche always had extras.
Nikhil walked into the shop at five past nine. Oscar was out the back doing stock take. He told Nikhil to make a contact form for the Impressario website. “And upload the photos of the new guitars. Put some zany borders around them. If we look like we’re the IT specialists, we might get to stay open. You know Napier’s closing down.” That’s all Oscar ever talked about. His wife was expecting twins.
Nikhil logged on at the computer behind the front desk. His laptop was in his bag; he usually found time during the day for composing or arranging. Oscar turned a blind eye.
“Three stores closed in six months. And that’s not including Christchurch.”
“Customer,” said Nikhil. Hardly anyone ever came into the shop before ten. Nikhil hadn’t seen her before. She turned her nose up at the steel violin ‘a’ string Nikhil showed her and walked out without buying anything.
“Jeez Nikhil, you could have ordered her what she wanted.” Oscar called out from the back room.
“She needed them today.”
The photos were taking forever to load. Nikhil took out his wallet and found the cardiologist’s phone number scribbled on a post-it note with a picture of a test tube on it. He took out his phone. Jazz had texted him the first verse of Winter Anemones by Charles Brasch.
“Fuck that.” He put the phone number back in his wallet and his phone in his pocket.
Nikhil took his sandwiches outside during the lunch break. People were wandering in and out of numerous narrow shops on both sides of the road without buying anything. Mack was on his usual bench with two dozing companions. He raised his paper bag.
“Nice day for it, Nicky.”
It was over a year since Mack had called him ‘you black bastard’. After ignoring him the first couple of times, Nikhil had walked over and introduced himself. They had been friendly ever since. Mack and his mates sat closer together as the weather grew cooler. Nikhil didn’t know where they went in the winter time. Mack was once a trumpeter; he had toured with a Baroque ensemble until it folded; he never played again. Nikhil waved at him and headed to Civic Square. He ate his lunch in a patch of grass in the sun. The light reflecting off the aluminium ball sculpture was dazzling. He loaded the number from the post-it note onto his phone. He wasn’t intending to call it immediately; he must have hit the button accidentally. Someone answered. Nikhil introduced himself.
Bloody Jazz and her crazy ideas. “It’s Nikhil. We met at a party a couple of weeks ago. I’m a composer.”
Dr Hamilton thought Nikhil had lost their phone number.
“I’ve had a lot going on. Oh yeah, I did lose your number. My jacket went missing. In my girlfriend’s flat. Hidden. It was under the bed.” He used to be better at lying.
There was silence.
“I’ve found the perfect poem,” said Nikhil. “It’s called Winter Anemones.”
“Great! That’s the one we had in mind.”
“I could have a go, if you like.”
“Why not? We love Carnatic music.”
“I don’t know much about Indian classical music.” His parents and their friends had always listened to Tagore. Nikhil had a faint memory of a sitar concert he went to when he was a child. Someone had given his parents a CD of some Ragas; it was somewhere in the garage.
“It’ll come out through your music; you won’t even know you are doing it.” Dr Hamilton seemed very certain. Nikhil walked back to the shop. He had a melody left over from another composition that could fit the words of the first two lines:
The ruby and amethyst eyes of anemones
Glow through me, fiercer than stars
Flambeaux of earth, their dyes
From age-lost generations burn
A droned fifth might make it sound Indian, but would change its character. He should have told Dr Hamilton he didn’t have time.