I’m finally in the right state of mind to write fiction. I have time, I have my laptop and a screen, and I’m well-fed and nowhere to get to. I crowdsourced a writing prompt, and I ended up with four suggestions – ‘Holiday fiasco’, ‘Avocado’, ‘Gay rights’, ‘He was a dork, yet stocky knight’. Let me try writing it one sentence at a time and see where it goes….
Mum’s the Word
Anita took the avocado peeler out of its packaging and hung it with the rest of the cutlery. An impulsive grab while grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner. She wasn’t used to cooking for more than one person. And now ten were descending on her for Thanksgiving dinner. The thought gave her a dull ache in her limbs.
Atleast she didn’t have to make everything; just the turkey, gravy and dips for the hors d’ouvres. Michael was bringing the stuffing, Angela-akka said she’d bring scalloped potatoes, and Albert-anna and anni were bringing biriyani. Aishu had finally got time off from her lab. Stephen was doing dessert.
Stephen. Anita hadn’t seen her younger son for almost a year now. Just a few days after he got back from his semester in Europe studying Art History. He’d had a job waiting for him in New York, and left home soon. Too soon for her liking. She stood still, the pestle hovering over the bowl of avocados. Mike and she had had an amicable divorce, and after the first few years of resentment, they had learned to be friends. Still, she felt increasingly lonely as she approached retirement, and wished her son would call her more often. Aishu on the other hand was more attached to Mike, called him more often than she called Anita.
Basting the turkey lovingly with an apple cider glaze, a smile spread across Anita’s face. Her brother and sister would soon come. Mike would, too. But most of all, her babies were coming home!
* * *
“Say what you will, Albie”, Angela said “it is very inappropriate to call her ex husband and all”.
“Aiyo, akka“, Albert said for the millionth time that day, “who else is there for her at this age? Aishwarya is in Chicago, Stephen is in New York, who is there to take care of her?” Nancy, his wife, nodded along, too scared to say anything more countering her sister-in-law.
“Are we not there?”, Angela said in her self-righteous manner.
“Angie-akka, Ani takes care of you more than you take care of her. Especially after your operation”.
Angela scowled. “She should never have divorced him in the first place”.
“Why do you bring up all these old stories? This is why Ani is forced to ask you to come and stay with us instead of with her”
“When they were getting married itself, I didn’t approve. I had taken her aside and said ‘Ani, he doesn’t seem a good boy’. Did she listen to me? No. No one listens to me.”
Nancy disappeared into the kitchen on some pretext. Albert followed her.
“But whatever we say to Angie-akka, I still am not comfortable with Michael coming.”, she said.
“You know Ani has always been like that no. Marrying that fellow even after Appa opposed it so much, then divorced him, and now their children do whatever they want, no rules nothing”.
“Aishwarya does modeling these days itseems”, Nancy snidely added.
“That boy is also some artist or something. Still mooching off parents’ money on Europe trip and this and that.”, Albert grumbled. “If I’d had a son, he wouldn’t have grown up like that”.
“Leave no, Albie, the children have been through enough. It’s not anyone’s fault they are like that. Both Mike and Ani feel guilty and overcompensate by letting the children do whatever they want. What else will they do?”
* * *
“Knight, eh?”, said Stephen to the elderly gentleman riding shotgun with him. “You’ll make a dork, stocky Knight, George”.
A dignified smile spread across George’s lips, somehow making his well-proportioned olive-skinned face even more stately than it already was. His greying at the temples only accentuated the effect.
“It’s not a Knighthood, Stephie-boy. Just an OBE. And at this point, it’s just speculation”
“Humility, eh? I mean, you did hear it from the Queen’s press secretary.”
“Yeah. But if I go around telling it around, I won’t be able to put on my surprised face when the list does come out, will I?”.
“Oh come, you can tell my folks that now and they’ll only like you more. It’ll help our case when I tell them you’re George Alaganathan, OBE for Charitable Services rendered to the Empire, than the whole Royal Family instead of George who I met in Europe and took a fancy to”.
“Stephie…… are you sure you want me at Thanksgiving? I mean, you’re seeing your entire family after ages, and I don’t want to intrude…”
“Nah, it’ll be okay. Mummy and Dad don’t mind when I bring friends over”.
“You know that’s not what I’m worried about”.
“Relax. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m fine meeting your parents. I’m not so sure about your extended family….. are you sure you want me there with your uncles and aunts and everyone there?”
“George, when else can I take time off and go meet my parents? And when do you ever get time off anyway? We’re staying the night at Ma’s place aren’t we… we’ll talk to just them later after everyone else has gone home”.
George still brooded.
“Forget about it and keep a look out for some place we can get some gigantic cake or the other?”
“Where in Sri Lanka was your family from?”. Appa and Albert-mama had rather taken a liking to George.
“Near Jaffna. It was very long ago, Sir. My mother escaped to live with relatives in Birmingham in 1984, when the fighting was just starting. I was just a lad then…. I thought it was just for a few weeks.. but…”.
And thus began a line of conversation Stephen had heard only a million times before, which George invariably was asked to narrate whenever in the company of diaspora Tamils.
“Was your father Alaganathan Arulsamy?”, Angie-periamma interrupted. “In 1983, when I was involved in the Christian Mission in Vavuniya, I think I had met him… wasn’t he a civil servant in Jaffna then?”.
“Illai-nga, my father was Alaganathan Manivannan. Passed away in 1980 itself. He was not a civil servant actually, just an electrician.”. George gave his faraway smile that always managed to charm everyone.
“Oh, your mother must have been Dhanaletchmy? I remember she was very active in the local church…..”
“Oh, yes, you know her then. Wonderful to know.” George’s face lit up with genuine happiness.
Stephen suppressed a giggle. George’s mother Rukmini had remained a devout Hindu until her death.
“Turkey’s delicious-nga. Best I’ve had in a very long time”, George added to Anita who then giggled like she was eighteen and said “Oh, it’s nothing”.
That old fox, Stephen smiled. George, having had his charitable organization that helped immigrants and refugees to the UK assimilate for the past twenty years, knew exactly how to make people feel comfortable.
Mike and George then went into a long tirade about how the US government had been unfair about Raj Rajarathinam. Stephen tuned out.
“Aishu, my laptop’s not working pa, fix it no”, Stephen turned to his sister. She gave him a look that suggested she’d heard this joke a million times. “Northwestern computer science and you can’t fix your brother’s laptop?”.
“Poda, you’ll use Internet Explorer and it’ll have a thousand popups and toolbars and viruses you’ve got from random sites”.
She leaned in closer, and in a low voice, said “What’s going on here?”.
“Nothing, George didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanskgiving, so I brought him here.”
“Don’t give me that Stephie.”
“Not now, Aishu. Later”.
“No, no, it’s alright! Nancy and I will clear the table, please don’t bother!”, Anita shooed George as he attempted to help her in putting the dishes away.
George tried to protest when his phone rang, and he excused himself as he pulled it out of his pocket.
“Kudutthu vecchirukanum, Stephen”, Angie-perima was saying, “To be friends with a man as highly esteemed as this. His mother was a very distinguished and dignified woman, and I’m happy to say he would have made her proud…..” She trailed off and stared into space.
“What’s that?”. Angie-perima walked over to where George had been standing. She picked up a bulky leather wallet.
“Oh, that’s George’s, perima. Give it here…”. Angie had already opened it.
“What is going on here? I demand to know. Who is this man?”. She thundered.
Everyone looked around in confusion. Just then, George walked back in from the patio.
“You are not Dhanaletchmy’s son”. she said as she burnt him with her gaze. “That boy died of measles.”.
“Ah, madam, you caught me there. I was just…”
“And now…”, she sobbed, “What are you doing with our boy? See everyone, he keeps a photo of our Stephie in his wallet”. She held his wallet open for everyone to see. Sure enough, there was a photograph of Stephen, standing by the Thames.
“Who are you?” Mike and Albert-mama cornered George. “What is this supposed to mean? Our boy shows you kindness and this is what you do with it, is it?”
“No, sir, it’s all just a huge mistake….”
“Appa, Mama, please leave George alone. He’s done nothing.”
“Stephen, what is going on?”, Anita angrily asked.
“Amma, Appa, Aishu, George and I are in love. I brought him here to introduce him to you people. We wanted to talk to you later tonight. We certainly didn’t mean to let you find out like… like this… ”
“What have you done to our boy?” Albert was livid. “I know all your types. Catching boys at an impressionable age, and brainwashing them. Should whip you people senseless”.
“How can you call yourself a Christian?”, Angela’s eyes were full of hot tears as she clutched at her cross.
“Everyone, please calm down. I know my brother. He isn’t gullible enough to be brainwashed. He’s been aware of his preferences for quite a while now”. Aishwarya protectively held her brother.
“You knew, Aishu? Why didn’t you tell us before?”. Anita burst into tears.
“Amma, it’s Anna‘s business. I left it to him to tell you in whatever style he found suitable”.
“Why didn’t you give me any indication at the very least? Some warning? Why didn’t you, Stephen? Your poor mother has to find out like this?”
“Amma…. I…” Stephen mumbled.
“Where did I go wrong with you? Mike, where did I go wrong? Where did we go wrong?”, Anita sobbed into her ex-husband’s arms.
“Stephen, what did we do to make you feel you can’t trust us like this? How long has this been going on for? Everyone goes through confusions, Stephen. You shouldn’t let others take advantage of those confusions of yours. You could have talked to us about any confusions”.
“And you would have said they exist only in my mind!” shot back Stephen. “This is what I am. And I won’t let any force on that take this part of me away from me”.
“Aah, I’m feeling faint”. Angela shrieked as she crumpled onto the couch. Nancy rushed to her with a glass of water.
Albert and Nancy had taken Angela away, not before cursing the whole family and telling them nothing good will ever happen to this dysfunctional family. George patiently stood in the patio while the family disappeared into one of the bedrooms to talk. He gazed at the stars, worrying for Stephen, worrying for them.
“Chilly, isn’t it?”. Aishwarya was standing next to him. “I’m used to colder, this isn’t so bad.”, George said. “Listen, I’m really sorry for everything today. I was uncertain about my coming, but I never anticipated things could go this way”. Aishwarya looked at him.
“I know what you must be thinking. I must seem like a dirty old man….”
“Listen, as fiercely protective of Stephen as we are, we at the end respect his choices. Besides, he loves you. I’ve never seen him this way about anyone”.
“Likewise for me. I had consigned myself to a life in the closet, ‘Confirmed bachelor’ as they call it. Until I met Stephe at a fundraiser”.
“He’s a great guy”.
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me”.
“He says the same thing”.
George smiled shyly.
“Just promise me one thing? I know I can’t ask you to never break his heart. But if he breaks yours, do be gentle on him? He’s only a boy.”
* * *
An hour later, they were all having a nightcap of brandy, toasting George and Stephen. Mike said it was wonderful to have George be part of the family, and Anita said they both were lucky to have found each other. They laughed and talked. George narrated stories about how they met in Europe, mentioned his plans of expanding his charity to America and said he would no doubt need the goodwill of people like Mike and Anita to do so. Finally Aishwarya began to yawn while laughing at Stephen’s jokes, and everyone went to turn in. Anita stumbled while getting up, and Stephen went with her to tuck her in.
“So… what do you really think, Ma?”, Stephen asked.
“You both are really in love, aren’t you Stephe, I can see it in your eyes”, she smiled.
“Yes! He takes good care of me. He’s always there to tell me right from wrong. He’s my rock. He’ll give his life for me”.
“Of course he will, Stephe. That’s what a significant other is for”
“Stephe, be your own person first. It’s easy to not get a chance to develop that if someone’s always protecting you from the world. Don’t make the mistakes I made”.
“But Mummy, you’re so independent. You raised us almost single-handedly”.
“I wasn’t always, Stephe. Even now, I find it hard, keeping my own company. I’m still learning to be happy without having to have someone else working at making me happy”.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are exactly where I was just before I married Appa. You don’t have to commit to the first person who asks you to, you know that, right? I was very naive. Appa was just getting ready to settle down. I never explored myself as a person, Stephe. I gave up a promising career, all my hobbies. And who do I have to blame for that? Not Appa. He never stopped me. It never occurred to me to take care of myself. If I’d waited a while, things might have been different… Appa and I aren’t right for each other, Stephe. We can be friends, but it just got too difficult toward the end. I don’t want you to become like me, Stephe”.
“First take care of yourself, Stephe. Don’t let anyone make you feel obliged to put their needs first”.
“Yeah, he is a lot like Appa. But he’s awesome, Ma. Gives me a lot of space. The long distance really does help. He doesn’t always get it that I want some alone time, but that’s our challenge. That’s something we have to work out.”
“We’ll work it out, Ma. Don’t worry. I’m just glad you’ll be there for me no matter how it turns out. It’s… it’s comforting to know.”. Stephen squeezed his mother’s hand.
He rose to leave.
“Ma?” he said. She turned. “I love you. I want you to know that”.
Anita hugged him close. Her baby boy was growing up.