He’s standing by the hippos at Byculla zoo, wiping the sticky mouth of a winsome pig-tailed girl. She’s sitting on a carved wooden bench, coughing, sucking at a slightly damp roll-up. She follows the tenatitive strokes of his hand. He chokes at her chain-smoking and moves away.
She’s standing by the notice he’s trying to read, resplendent in an embroidered teal salwar kamees, holding a gold cigarette holder.
He says, those things will kill you.
She says, something‘s got to.
He likes the way she saunters away.
He walks over to where she’s waving spoonfuls of aloo chaat at the crocodile lake and puffing at a cheroot, hair up in a messy bun.
She says, feeling peckish?
He says, the staff said you’re here every month.
She says, just waiting for the new penguin exhibit and whatever else might show up, Have you ever seen Charade?
He‘s waiting for her outside Byculla station, wearing orange chappals and green shorts, holding a packet of nicotine gum.
She says, You‘re a rescuer Zarif, you want to show me how I’m wrong.
He says, I’m a doctor, Prema, that snide tone won‘t work on me. I’m just thinking of the penguins, they’re used to clean air.
She says, I’ve interviewed Saif Ali Khan, I know a line when I hear one.
And takes the gum.
He’s eating kulfi with a tiny spoon, she’s nosily drinking a Thums Up. Their legs are barely touching.
She says, I bet they miss their air-conditioned chamber.
He says, I expect they miss Chile.
She says raspily, they won‘t remember it, they’ll only remember that Seoul aquarium.
He says, some things you remember in your bones.
They’re watching one of the impassive black-headed birds who seems to be staring at nothing.
He says, it‘s cruel to put publicity over their needs, a tragedy waiting to happen
She says, who knows what they need, who knows what anyone needs.
He says, what does that say about us?
She spits half-chewed gum into a tissue, leans agianist a chainlink fence to catch her breath.
She says to the back of his head, their tongues have spines, nature is cruel, life isn‘t black and white.
He‘s waiting for her at the station but she already knows. She walks to the exhibit without a word, only her kitten heels clacking insistently. She makes clicking sounds to the remaining penguins as they huddle in a bedraggled mass, a crowd of well-dressed mourners. He’s loath to interrupt her, not even to say he told her so.
He says, can we meet at Sanjay Ghandi park instead?
She says, to be attacked by monkeys or gawk at tired leopards?
She says, in times of trouble we cleave to what we know.
He says, it’s not healthy to dwell.
She says, not everything has to be healthy to be what you need.
She listens to the dial tone as if it’s Mozart..
She’s slowly moving toward the rhinos, holding a packet of chewdah, her cheeks flushed. He strides up as if she’s trying to get away.
He says, why didn’t you tell me about the COPD? I could have helped you.
She says, but journalism is cut-throat, can you be discreet?
He says, I didn‘t think you were going to pick up.
She says, your answer was a dandy.
He says, you use words as a weapon.
She says, I take my cues from nature, some of us fight to survive.
The clonking sound of his Dr Pepper can missing his wastepaper basket chimes with her choking breath.
She sits on a carved wooden bench by the penguin exhibit, devouring kulfi in chunks that make her teeth hurt. He stands by a Buddha at Kanheri caves, wondering who to ask to take his photo.. He pulls his sandwich away from a scavenging monkey. She wipes at her sticky mouth as she coughs up blood.
The white sheet on the hospital bed brings out the inky blackness of her hair.
He says to a passing nurse, no, she’s not a patient.
She says, to his bowed head, I didn‘t expect to see you again?
He says, I just wanted to know, why penguins?
She says, on an exhale like a bullet through water, they have style, they have character.
He sits by the bed, stretches out his hand. They stay there together, not quite touching.
About the writer:
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 former cactus mag, Litro, New Flash Fiction Review, Porridge and Longleaf Review. @coffeeandpaneer
Image: “The Watcher” by Tana Lynn. Mixed-media– acrylic and encaustic wax. A self-taught Canadian artist living in Vancouver, BC, Lynn’s training & schooling comes from Makeup Artistry for the film industry.