Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Letter X

In this work of original fiction, an elderly man, travelling across the English countryside one summer, begs his beloved to come back. He reminisces about summers past, in England and India, where her grandmother came from many years ago

10 September, 2016.

Dear Mary,

Since you went to France, you have not been answering my calls. I’ve tried to tell you that I couldn’t come to your grandmother’s funeral: the timing was too difficult. I was devastated to miss it, so I am writing you this letter. I know you don’t think I am old, but I warn you that I sound more than my age on paper. I have a theory that when we try to put our thoughts down and we are not used to doing so, we mimic the great writers we were exposed to in our youth. Being a man, and so much older than you are, I don’t suppose I sound much different to Amis (Kingsley, not Martin) to your ear on a normal day. Having said that, you probably haven’t even read him. The thought makes me feel melancholy, and rather alone.

I took the cross-country train to Sheffield, that day in July. It was to meet a contact whose invitation to lunch I could not refuse. He stood for the ticket. There was an offer of work to secure. You might not consider this a good enough reason for my absence but it is the truth. You said that you needed me there, but I could not be there. It was something of a pickle at first, but in the end, one must be level headed. I was once a civil servant, after all.

Do you know, I never cease to be astonished by this country. There is the romance of the railways of course, their superb construction, the sense they give of time’s movement. They lend all landscape beauty, all life purpose within a journey’s confines. Larkin understood. Read The Whitsun Weddings, Mary, and you shall know my meaning. Though I admit Whitsun was in May, the poet was on to this scene. At each small station, a shock of women dressed as cats were selling cakes for charity.

My dearest, I know that you were depending on me to be with you, to stand by your side and such. I say, I was thinking of you. Your relative youth fuels your anger, but do put me out of my misery. Will you, if I offer you a meteorological titbit of the kind that I enjoy? You know that I am an amateur enthusiast of the weather. A historian of it (if you will allow), I wanted to make a career of it once. That, or be a poet: a young man’s dreams.

So: that day, the train passed through the market town of March, which once recorded the highest temperature ever for the United Kingdom in October. In the year 1985, the year Larkin died and you were born (and I was, I suppose, around the age you are now).

It raises the blood, to feel the sun at that time of year. And we met last October, at your older friend’s wedding. The same late-year heat. I was with someone else, and there you were. I asked you to dance, I remember the surge that was felt. I told you that such heat in October was called an “Old Wives’ Summer", when I was young. The term has fallen from favour, and does not belong in this letter to you, despite that all your friends, as you say, are getting wed these days. I want you to come back to bed, Mary, come.

I glanced up from my phone where I was searching you. There are so many images of you online, at this or that party. I looked out—the scene from the train evoked the jacket of that book you once gave me, your precious Penguin Classics edition of Tagore’s Selected Short Stories. Though I haven’t read it in full, I keep it safe as an object, because it was yours. Anyhoo, we crossed the lattice of canals clear of industrial froth: liquid pathways through country otherwise undivided. Land met air, as if the sky herself had taken the path of least resistance, and lain down at water’s edge. There were barges, just like the book jacket! All that was missing were the coolies, squatting on the roof. I swear I looked out at the Fens half expecting to see a mirage: an artist’s impression of Bengal. Uncanny familiar. But then there was a wind farm, its propellers sluggish. And the sudden red smack of a fast food restaurant—then a swathe of yellow again, the colour of cut mango, as you love to serve it: still in its green skin. Alien fruit: so delicious ripe.

Though I know the landscape, I don’t know the terrain. My usual journey passes a TATA plant of some description, and fields that in the appropriate season contain migrant workers. Not for much longer, I suppose. In Sheffield I was to meet the architect, an Indian American called Engineer. His accent is of the city, which surprises me, since he says he grew up in California. Still, he has lived over here for years.

I know very little about Sheffield, except that it once had a grand reputation for industry, and more lately for reinvention. And isn’t it strange that your great-grandfather was born in the city, before he became a soldier, and served Queen and country in India and our other former parts? And then he fell in love with an Indian girl, and ran away to the South, where your grandmother was born. My darling (if I may), perhaps it was right that on the day of her sending off, she who remembered her childhood years out there with such nostalgia, I should be on my way to the English city where her own father was a young man. What fascinating ancestry; your blood holds a trace of it (and so does your temper), though both your poor parents were as pale as me. My poor Mary, orphaned so young, growing up with your grandmother, did you dream that we would meet one day? On the grounds of Sheffield alone you must relent, a passionate woman such as you must, in honour of your grandmother, the last of your maternal line, understand my devastation.

The job is to re-commission the old factories to the kind of apartments they call “luxury" these days. A schema must be drawn up. There is work to be done, the robustness of which I could relish if you were here to talk it all over. And it shall be seamless, as all good work is: as if completed by an invisible hand. The Roman road has been freshly tarmacked. We sped past pocket estates of box houses. The girls in the gardens were displaying their voraciousness for summer, as if such hunger can last. We passed a McCain frozen chip factory, and I thought of your unaccountable distaste for potatoes, the great nourishment of the common man. The way you crave rice with each meal! I’ll never understand.

Where are you now, Mary? The farms gave way to more alien buildings, generating power. Fields laced with pylons, lines of communication criss-crossing the sky. (May I say, though it is the autumn of my life, that thinking lace puts me in mind of your panties, black, delicate against your milk-chocolate skin? Ah! To bite you again, my love.) Remember that description we laughed at together, from a novel you were reading last year? A woman was reflecting on herself. “I make sure I waggle my behind," you read. “My delicious behind sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man I would not be able to take my eyes off me." You laughed, and said no woman would write that way—no woman, even a fictional one, would think that way about a strange man looking at, as you put it, her “ass". The word sounded inappropriate coming from you. I laughed, but I felt you did not entirely grasp the novel’s depth—I mean that as the gentlest of reproaches. I didn’t tell you then that men do appreciate your behind, though I’d reckon with any who dared say so, and you could choose to be flattered by that. (Naturally your grandmother would have agreed with me, of that I am sure. And though she did not approve of your feelings towards me, she and I shared some values, of course.)

But to return to my journey. Between Ely and March, the land flattened out to a surprise of water. Proud machines had been at work: the fields were brown, ploughed deep. The bright yellow rapeseed made a painting of the day, and I was witness to it. Demand for seeds is high in the Commonwealth countries this year, or so the papers say. I saw a combine harvester, bright red, cutting crops, pluming husks into the air, creating a kind of smoky haze. This vivid country: spilling out with such abundant summer. And blending into liquid flats, reed clogged, stretching out, hiding snakes of all kinds. One could almost imagine ten little boys playing Red Indians at water’s edge. You would correct me, say, Native American, for the people first documented over there, the people you insist know all there is to know about self-sufficiency, whose history is hunting in late summer. I’ll say anything my dear, to please you. (But no boy ever played native across English farmland: of that I am sure.)

My dear, what other scenes can I offer? We were promised a raging season, hotter than ’68. I fear that time may never come again. A cold wind was blowing by the time I reached Sheffield; the sky was the colour of its famous steel. More fitting for you, at your grandmother’s graveside. A killing frost took her, my dear, let it not also lay waste to my hope that when October comes, and you have returned from your sojourn in France, the sun will warm me again. You, withholding yourself from me (on your grandmother’s diktat, I have no doubt), c’est un crève-cœur to think of it.

I took the meeting at The Globe near the station, a pint and pie type of place with an old saloon bar still going. I told Engineer he had better raise his fee or shave off his beard. No other monkey would dance for him for that fee, I said. Do you know what he replied? Take it or leave it—there are younger men than you in line for work. We shook on it, at least. I left the stainless city satisfied with my efforts.

All of the long journey home, I wrote to you, furiously. These middle-summer days seem so changeable: one minute clouds as dark as your frown, a minute later and they are streaked a florid pink. That colour of silk that your grandmother had a penchant for, fuchsia its proper term. Paisleys belong on ties, not on skirts for goodness sake. Promise me, my Mary that though you have taken yourself to France, you will not return wearing pink paisleys on silk: might as well wear ankle bells. By St Martin and St Luke, do not do that.

Mary, I was devastated to miss that day. You must show the Christian kindness of your grandmother’s heritage, learned in the churches and hospitals of far-off Kerala. Font of our nurses: profession of angels, the life’s work that brought her to London. You are as caring as she was. Come live with me and be my love, so the poet wrote. Belong to me, as I know you want to. And do not show this letter to anyone, my darling. Do not cut me. Keep me safe.

A loose, sinking sun and the wind turbines were moving. Up the breeze blew, stripping the Golden Rain Trees of buds. A sense of falling, somewhere out of sight over this green land. Our time on this earth is so limited, Mary. I care less and less for the work I must do, I retreat from the fray. Your father, having been military, would have caught my meaning. (Shame on me, for invoking his spirit while attempting to cheer you up.)

This letter is all I have for you, Mary. You may find me thoughtless, but I am desperate for one more halcyon day with you, Eternal Woman. I will devour it, when it comes. And now, time’s up on this writing. Press this paper to your heart, and when I say I want you, say “me too".

Your,
Hector.

Preti Taneja’s debut novel We That Are Young (Penguin Random House India) was longlisted for the 2018 Folio Prize and is shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

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