Bindiya knows these words are important. She rubs at her lips as if that will help.
“I don’t know why she’s behaving like this, she must hate me.”
Too much about her—she needs to find the start, the cause of it all.
“It happened on her birthday. We blew out the candles, she made her wish, opened her mouth. I said, don’t tell me, or it won’t come true.”
Both women look at Neha, who is neatly folding a square of paper corner to corner.
“I didn’t even notice until the morning when she wouldn’t tell me what she wanted for breakfast. I just let her take what she wants now.”
Neha turns the paper around, makes tiny creases, tears the edge. Her brow furrows, her jaw clenches. As if the paper is the only thing in the room.
“There are many reasons why children stop talking. It’s often about control. Has anything changed recently?”
The silence that swells has texture, like crushed eggshells or spilled salt. The speech and language therapist finds the folded papers when they leave. There’s a miniature boat, perfectly outlined and unable to function in water, and a tiny blank book.
Bindiya pulls on her new smile, the one that uses all her teeth and is supposed to be encouraging. “Your father was the one who wanted the car. We don’t need it. The bus can be fun, right?”
There are no seats downstairs so they trudge to the top, a slender, pig-tailed girl and a pony-tailed woman holding five bulging plastic bags. The bus starts moving as Bindiya gets to the penultimate step. She bangs her elbow, and the bus pass in her mouth muffles her squeal. She can’t brush the sweat off her forehead, or rearrange the hair that’s sliding out of its knot.
When she struggles into a seat, Neha holds a piece of paper in her lap. There’s a faint squeaking sound as she presses hard into a perfect crease. Bindiya stares at her daughter’s slim fingers as she tries to catch her breath. The bus jerks, and an onion rolls out of the bag she’s still holding. She watches clammily as it rolls down the stairs.
The fan Neha leaves on the seat looks like any of the crumpled leaflets and flyers that end up on the floor, but after its careful creases flatten, something still remains.
Bindiya barely gets the shopping put away before she has to leave for parents’ evening. She peeks in at Neha at her neighbour’s house, sitting upright with her hands occupied in her lap. She seems to be creating a tiny fence, perhaps a boundary for the other children.
The hall is filled with couples, holding hands or not looking at each other but still attached in pairs, like Kit-Kats. She sits down on an uncomfortably large plastic chair, and tries to take up the required amount of space for responsible parenting.
Mrs Menezies is small and smartly-dressed. Her tiny pearl earrings match her scarf. Bindiya turns over the cuff of her lavender jumper to hide a turmeric stain.
“Mrs Sethi, it’s nice to see you. Neha is a joy to teach.” Her large mouth turns down at the corners. “But, obviously, the quietness has been noticed. And the … folding.”
Bindiya inches her shoulders up the impossible chair, from where she’s been sliding down. She puts her fringed brown bag on her lap and clutches the strap, to give her hands a purpose.
“I took her to the speech therapist, like you said. I sit with her now and play, and we go back next month.”
“It’s not you, of course,” the mouth droops like forgotten spinach, and is brought closer to the uncooperative handbag. “Neha must feel her father’s … absence.”
There is a checked impulse to use the bag to hide in. “My husband is not absent, he’s just …not …here.”
Neha stands by the net curtains, her white dress showing up their yellow streaks. The flat has grown and shrunk since Chirag left, the floorboards seem to echo and the ceilings are too far away to contemplate. Bindiya is concentrating on the broadband connection, something she was aware of only in the abstract before, like savings accounts or quill pens. It never had such immediate physical impact. She hears Chirag before she sees him, he’s telling her to turn on the camera. The screen on her ancient laptop crackles as he condenses into view.
“You’re not eating! No, don’t argue with me Chirag. What did you have for lunch?”
He has that half-smile, that are-you-my-mother-I-like-it-when-you-fuss smirk. The need to push her thumb into his dimple throbs in her knuckle. There are important things she has to tell him, but it’s the unimportant things she misses: he would know why the fridge smells, she never has to put the toothpaste cap back on any more, she hasn’t told anyone the cactus died.
“Parents’ evening was horrible, I’m just going to be ‘Angry Mum’ now. Everyone is very loudly not saying it’s my fault. It’s not my fault, is it?”
“This is difficult on everyone, but it’s no-one’s fault. Or it’s mine. I failed the test.”
“We can’t go on like this. I’m forgetting what you look like.”
She puts her hand up to the screen, and he copies her. He’s been biting his nails.
“Shush, now, where’s Neha?”
“I’ll get her, she’s been waiting to ta- see you.”
There’s a swish as Bindiya pivots. The curtains are empty, and there’s a forlorn piece of paper on the floor.
“Oh, just because she doesn’t talk, it doesn’t mean she’s not there. But all she looks at are these things.”
She grabs it roughly, hauls it over to the bin. She’s half crumpled it in her clawed fist, not with the intent to destroy but not careful of it either.
“Wait, wait, look at it.”
She does so automatically, responding to his urgency. In the centre of crimps and furrows, there is a drawing of a thin tall man, a pony-tailed woman and a small girl. They’re all smiling, turned-up mouths complete with lips, teeth and dimples.
“She heard you-you’re forgetting me. She made it for you.”
“She heard me?”
There was her old family, the one no-one else believed in any more but her, drawn out in strokes of pencil. Bindiya marches into her daughter’s room with the laptop, Chirag’s voice in her ear telling her to slow down. But her daughter made her a gift, one that she didn’t know she needed.
The walls are pale green, the carpet a practical grey that was covered in hundreds of tiny books and boats. Neha sits on her Dora the Explorer bedspread, with pleated fingers and furrowed brow. Bindiya walks a careful path towards her daughter and places the laptop between them.
“Neha, please, I know you’re trying to talk to me. Please tell me what all this means.”
She braces herself for the ‘I hate you’ and ‘you’re not enough.’ Her daughter leans towards the screen and whispers.
Chirag’s voice is hollow, a sucked out egg, drained by more than just distance.
“No, no, Neha, that wasn’t your fault. I made more than one mistake on the citizenship test.”
The paper swirls around her in a storm of revelation. The citizenship test that Chirag failed before he had to move back to Poona. Her daughter sits up straight, no longer looking at the movements of her own fingers.
“The hovercraft is a 20th century British invention. Not the printing press.” Neha’s voice is dry, thick with effort, like the push of coffee dripping through a filter.
The hovercraft and the printing press. Tiny boats and tiny books. A confession, a penance, not an accusation. Bindiya reaches for her daughter’s empty hands, and they fold themselves around their missing piece.