WHAT GOES FASTER THAN THE TRAIN?
–Shall we take your coat off?
–Aren’t you warm?
–Sit up then, because the train is going to go fast now
The child was warm. She perched on the edge of the seat in her pink raincoat patterned with watermelons, her blue jeans rolled up at the ends. It was the coat making her cheeks flush, not the radiator. Avini picked her up by the armpits and shoved her backwards until the hood of the coat touched the back of the seat and her legs stuck out in front, two tiny pink and white tennis shoes waving back and forth and the child indignant. She was warm, far too warm. But they had already fought once and the man opposite had already looked up from his crossword once and smiled a smile that said I don’t mind children as long as they are quiet, ma’am, but unfortunately for Avini, Amara was rarely quiet and rarely a child. That morning she had screamed Amara, you are six. Six. I make the decisions around here because I am the adult. But she wasn’t always sure.
Wintry London hung on outside. It was all sad little markets and cramped little houses and Londoners at their patio tables, noses turning pink as they struggled through their cigarettes. Londoners working and arguing and making love with faded sarongs taped across their windows. Temporary and transient because everyone who lives that way in London eventually ends up going somewhere else. Avini had been happy to be among them once, a drifter, relieved to be invisible, finding respite in not having to exist. There were no Tamils in London and no Sinhalese either. You barely managed to stay Sri Lankan. The first time a man spat the p-word at her she had shouted hey you, yes you. I’m from Sri Lanka. Not Pakistan. Why don’t you buy yourself a map?
He hadn’t even looked up.
She behaved a lot better now. She’d learned to be patient when she met Vettri and carried on learning when they had Amara and she’d lost her faith in English law and order anyway. No crime there, her mother had said when she left home to study medicine. There is crime, her father argued, but there’s justice too. The British would never go through what we go through here. Not the massacres, not the landmines, certainly not the government corruption. They’re outraged if one of their ministers takes a lover. If you get lost, my child, you ask a policeman.
She had asked a policeman once, but only because she’d only ever been lost once. The tube station was closed. They said walk to the next one, it’s only ten minutes, but she’d seen the policeman and she’d asked him. God knows, he said. Where did they tell you to go? She told him. No idea, he said.
Now buy yourself a map.
–How fast does the train go Mummy? Faster than a plane?
–Aeroplanes go faster Amara. Shall we take your coat off now?
The child kicked her in the leg. She shifted to the right, out of Amara’s reach, and the man looked up from his puzzle again. He looked Sri Lankan, but who would dare to ask? Her husband hated being asked. Vettri had moved to London when he was three. He supported Arsenal, said he found cricket too confusing. Their questions make me feel like an outsider, he said. And the ones that consider themselves educated, they’re the worst. I don’t care that they’ve scrutinised my name. I don’t care that they’ve been on holiday to Kandy and to Anuradhapura, seen the Sigiriya paintings, stayed at the Galle Face, stuffed themselves with chicken curry and taken selfies with the monkeys. They’re trying to make me feel like I don’t belong. But Sri Lanka is so lovely, such great weather, such beautiful people, how can you bear to live in London? Avini shuddered when she knew his patients had said such things. One day he would answer if Sri Lanka is so great, why don’t you go live there yourself? We don’t choose where we’re born, but we do choose where we live. I choose London but you, yes, Sri Lanka would suit you. I’m sure of it.
–What else goes faster Mummy?
–What else goes faster than the train Mummy?
Avini tried to understand. It was tiring being forced to feel grateful all the time, especially when they both toiled in the great struggle that was the British NHS. But she still felt Sri Lankan, still talked about Sri Lanka, still missed Sri Lanka. Are you Indian? the woman in the shop had asked her once. Sri Lankan. Ah, but it’s all the same to them isn’t it? We’re all just foreigners to them. Just… and she had used the p-word too. I hate that word, Avini told Vettri that night. I hate it. It’s not ironic. It’s arrogant and it’s awful and I don’t think we should use it, not even among ourselves. Yes, Vettri had said, yes, but there was no way he was listening. What are you thinking about? Oh, nothing. Just wondering who the manager is going to play against United on Sunday.
–What else goes faster than the train?
–Birds. Birds go faster than the train
Crossword man looked up again. A vacant stare this time. What clue did he have ticking over in his mind? Do birds really fly faster than the train? She could google it, give Amara the accurate answer she deserved, but Vettri was still pretending that smartphones didn’t exist. Some study or other, he said. Too many parents stunting their kids’ development. Children literally not receiving enough face time. No phones, not in front of Amara. Can birds really fly faster than the train? She’d watched three parrots outpace a Jeep in Sri Lanka once. Three fat green bellies with three fat red beaks, showing a big fat car how it’s done.
They were in the countryside now. London was gone, its wealthy suburbs long behind them. Fields stretched to the horizon, trees clustered at their edges. Winter’s pointless sun was setting. It had barely scratched the day. A skinny fox below them jogged towards the tracks. How many years had it been since the parrots? Could it really be fourteen?
Jennie knew what she was talking about. Seven years it had taken, for Jennie to divorce her husband. All that time spent just making up her mind. Sometimes I think about being single, she would whisper to Avini on those endless nightshifts. I don’t think about divorcing, not at all, but I do wonder what I would do if I were divorced, or if Robert were to die. I’d go back up north, buy a cottage on the beach, visit China, and Egypt, and Bhutan. All those places he doesn’t want to go. It was years later that she said it. Avini, I made that decision long before I realised. Once you start imagining how different your life could be, you’ve already begun to change it.
–What birds go faster than the train Mummy?
–Parrots go faster than the train?
–I don’t know Amara. But I do know how fast they go
Fourteen years it had been. Fourteen years since her once-in-a-lifetime return. That was what they called it. A single wave travelling five hundred miles an hour, whiplashing the country at half past eight on a Sunday morning, killing tens of thousands of people while they slept, or cleaned, or walked their beloved children to the church.
Once in a lifetime.
If I could steal some equipment for you, I would, the labour ward manager had said, hugging Avini to conceal the tears sliding beneath her glasses. We bought some toys for you to give the orphans, Jennie had whispered. We had a little whip round. We even found some blow up cricket bats, and some balls. London was hurting. There were too many images of shaken backpackers and Thai masseuses, crouched among the rubble. Nothing was heard of the villages that were so close to the sea. We’re cursed, Avini said. First the war, now this. Hush, Jennie said. Stay focused. There’s so much you can do out there. I keep thinking of the children. All those children, without any parents.
I keep thinking of the children, Avini said, when Dr Lakshay Jayawickrama briefed her in Colombo. All those children, without any parents. Take a seat, he said, short and slim with a graceful pointed face. His patience was professional but his eyes, at least, were kind. We’re grateful to have you back Dr Jeereddy. Call me Avini. Avini, as you know, the aid is not getting through and the hospitals are full. Kilinochchi District Hospital’s maternity ward already had two women in one bed and one on a mat underneath. Now we have women giving birth in the garden. We have the equipment but we don’t have the staff. Of course, she said. I can’t imagine how many were killed, how many doctors and nurses… it’s terrible, after everything… Yes, he said, on top of… Dr Jeereddy. Avini. I do want you to consider something. Think about this before you reach the coastal beaches. The wave was enormous when it hit the shoreline but it did decrease when it came inland. Dr Jayawickrama’s left arm shot out and hovered somewhere level with his shoulder. Anyway, the group, uh, as you know our lands are divided by barbed wire, which didn’t help. So, if the wave was this high… What I am trying to say Dr Jeereddy, Avini, is that orphans are not necessarily the issue here. You are more likely to meet men and women who have lost their children than the other way around. Thank you doctor, she said. Yes. I understand. I’ll keep you all informed. Four steps she managed before she bent double in the hallway. She was retching by the time she reached the bathroom.
Amara’s brow was damp now. It was far too hot on the train. I’m going to take your coat off. It’s winter outside, but it’s warm in here. The girl scowled and shook her head but before she could ask her question Avini pulled her grown up six-year-old into her arms and held her there, coat, jeans, shoes and all and the word came out her mouth. Waves, she said. Waves go faster than the train and Amara shrieked and the crossword man frowned and Amara said you’re wrong mummy! Waves don’t go faster than the train and Avini said you’re right, you’re right, you gorgeous girl, but do you know what does go faster than this train? Sparrows. Sparrows and double-decker buses. Sparrows and double-decker buses and the players in daddy’s football team. They all go faster than this train.