The glue from a stamp furs my tongue like rubber cement. I can’t post a letter into the past, but I can send it to your last known address.
It was the Indian heat. Blistering, a few weeks before Christmas. I was thirteen.
The heat lifts the odour from the latrine. An otherworldly stink seeps through cracks in the pavement and hides beneath layers of paint on apartment walls. It nests with shrill-throated birds in the eaves of the Anand Lok tower blocks. Flyblown sides of meat at the roadside stalls emit a stench that can halt traffic and burn nostrils. Frogs call from stagnant pools, meet-mi, meet-mi, like the boys your mother warned you against.
You and I are sandwiched between the neem tree and the wall that encloses the outdoor badminton court, the thok thok of the shuttlecock the only reminder we are not alone. The thrum of a distant train disturbs the mid-morning torpor. The engine coughs blackened steam and dots the air with pockets of engine charcoal.
I’ve been in India over a week. I’m torn between missing my English classmates and paying homage to our bourgeoning friendship. It’s flourished as rapidly as the lush grass beside the swamp. We can talk about anything.
If I turn my wristwatch upside-down, I can see the time in England. I wonder what Anne’s doing now. Is Sharon going to the Methodist church disco? I guess they’re asleep. It’s four in the morning. I visualise winter seeping into their quilts, and wrapping itself around their feet. They’ll splash through puddles in the morning, their toes cold as stones. They’ll ignore the sleet that pelts their faces. A ferocious chill will bite them when afternoon heat erodes us.
A drop of sweat forms on your turned up nose. It’s there for an instant before you wipe it with your cloth handkerchief. Your skin is as brown as mine, but pocked with scars. The heat cracks the asphalt playground. It warms the memories I lay down, red and fervent.
Elderly aunts curse at the fortitude of beggar-boys, persistent as wasps, who line the streets beyond the compound. Old ladies sever tails and fins off catfish, toss them into korai, watch them turn and flinch in an oily death. Mashimas and pishis complain because the milk-seller adds water to his pans. Perhaps he pisses in them too.
Life moves on here irrespective of what happens in America, Britain or the surface of the moon. It proceeds at its own pace, as it has for a hundred years.
We weave grass into conjoined circles and talk about the greatest things life has to offer. Everything is about possibility. We tell each other how we’ll change the world with our iridescent ambition. We compare religions. We talk about love.
Later we play cricket with younger children who have internally rhyming names like Rinny-Jini or Took-Tookey. Some kids have holes in their shoes. Others wear Crimplene and nylon frills. They wilt in their high-fashion headiness. Their uncles send new dresses from the sales in London every year. The rhyming-girls delight in fashions that are five years out-of-date.
Six, cries a boy from the sidelines. He cannot hit the ball himself, and finds vicarious pleasure in the success of another batsman. There’s something wrong with his eyes. He’ll be blind within ten years.
I show you what I’ve written in my diary. The population of the earth will be six billion by the year 2000. Not sure what a billion is. It depends on whether you’re in the States (ten to the power of nine) or England (ten to the power of twelve). Which is it to be?
I follow my parents on a tourist trail. We leave Kolkata briefly, and meet an infinite number of cousins en route.
When we return to Anand Lok, you are waiting. It is as if our friendship has existed for a hundred years. We walk to the edge of the compound, where the older boys congregate. The smell of danger and excitement is stronger than the putrefaction that laps from the latrine. You extract an oath from me.
I promise to write.
“You will phorget, no?”
“Of course I won’t.” I search my shoulder bag for the skinny black diary I’ve written in almost every day. Your copperplate address is there to this day. You look straight into my eyes.
“No. You will phorget me.” There’s a suggestion of tears. Your voice cracks.
“No. No, I’ll never forget you.”
“When you are with Anne-thhan, Sharon-thharon, you will phorget India.”
But I do. I phorget. Back in England, I became lost in a world of overdue essays and television drama. What was Anne’s new boyfriend like? Did I like Sharon’s haircut? And fighting the cold. The never-ending cold, like something I could touch, it stuck to my feet like limpets.
I didn’t write to you.
I thought about you over the years.
It would have taken a few minutes and the price of a stamp.
But I didn’t write.
The longer I left it, the less possible it seemed.
Then I stopped thinking about you.
I remembered you when my second child was born. Not named after you, but my baby was given the same name. His father chose it. I wondered where you were, and if you were happy. Did you marry, have children?
But I still didn’t write. Not then.
Today, I looked through my old diary.
The glue from a stamp furs my tongue like rubber cement.
I can’t post a letter into the past, but I can send it to your last known address.
A promise isn’t broken until there’s no possibility to put it right.
I write forty-one years after I said I would.
As long as I’m still alive, I can look for you.
I don’t know if you’re still alive, or whether I’ll ever hear back.
I’ll send my letter and hope.