Leslie woke up with the sea in her mouth.
Salty and pungent, warm as tears. At least that’s what she imagined it tasted like. Her husband – her late husband – Philip had promised to take her, when they were newly-wed, but he hadn’t, and she didn’t begrudge him. There was work to do, a child to take care of, and the trip was shelved away alongside other things they didn’t do together when he was alive. Leslie consoled herself with the thought that the years of monsoon rain she’d seen in Calcutta, where she lived, would probably fill an ocean.
It was one of those mornings. Her cat Gatsby was being fussy about his food. The last time this happened, the vet said he was lonely.
“I’m home all day,” Leslie protested, but the doctor said Gatsby needed company of his own kind. (She muttered that she’d have starved to death by now if she hadn’t eaten each time she was lonely.)
Then when she stepped out to pick up the newspaper, she found the corridor flooded from a broken window at the far end. The rest of the building, like most of its elderly inhabitants, was also falling apart. So was the lift. An ancient contraption with grill doors that often ground to a halt, suspended in mid-air like a piece of obscure installation art. Neither here nor there. Leslie felt that way sometimes.
Leslie was at the dining table, trying to read a damp newspaper when the telephone rang. She glanced at the clock; it wasn’t 10 yet so it couldn’t be her daughter Vera.
A man with a crisp British accent introduced himself – “Crofton Lewis” – and asked if he was speaking to Leslie Gardner.
“I’ve come from London, on behalf of Lawrence Porter.”
“Mr Lawrence Porter.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Mr Porter first made your acquaintance in the summer of 1951, at the McKay’s Guy Fawkes party.”
That was the night she’d first met Philip.
Mr Lewis enquired whether she was free that evening, so he might drop by. He apologised for not informing her earlier, but he’d only arrived late the previous night.
“Would four o’clock be alright?”
“I shall explain when we meet.”
When Vera called later, sharp on the hour, she asked her mother why she sounded preoccupied. Perhaps she should come and stay for the night.
“No,” said Leslie a little too quickly.
“What’s wrong, mum?”
“It’s Gatsby. He’s not eating again.”
“That cat wants attention. Leave him alone; he’ll eat when he’s starving.”
After she hung up, Leslie felt slightly guilty. Vera meant well. She was a thoughtful, caring daughter. She’d even asked her mother to move in with her and her husband. But this was the flat she and Philip chose to make their home. Nothing would convince her to leave.
“That was centuries ago,” Vera had said. “How long will you live in the past?”
“As long as I can.”
Instead of dusting the living room – the Calcutta air deposited a film of grime on everything – and readying it for her visitor, Leslie rummaged through a trunk in her bedroom and lifted out a stack of photograph albums. In the oldest were pictures of her parents, faded now to a yellowing sepia. They were both children of English missionaries who’d travelled to the eastern part of India, working in Christian schools and hospitals. Rather than spreading their faith, Leslie’s mother and father stayed for their love of the land and never returned to England. Here, a picture of her father with his office staff at a tea garden he’d managed in Assam, sitting in front of his white-washed office, a line of workers standing stiff and awkward behind him. One of her mother, next to a row of geraniums. Another of her parents at a party; her father with a beer mug, while her mother smiled at someone beyond the borders of the picture. A photograph of Leslie and her brother, back for winter holidays from a boarding school in the hills of Darjeeling. Leslie laughed at herself – her two thick plaits, her starchy pinafore. Her brother Benedict, or Bottom, as she’d nicknamed him because of his large ears, looked sulky behind his spectacles, a tuft of hair that had forever infuriated their mother, falling over his eyes. Bottom had left for Australia and died in a car accident when he was two years short of 30.
Leslie shut the album; she was holding a book of ghosts. She clasped it to her chest and a photograph fell out – Philip, smiling into the camera. He couldn’t look more alive.
“I hope to see a lot of you,” he’d said, while they were dancing on the night they met.
“What?” Leslie couldn’t hear him above the music.
He was repeating himself loudly when the song ended, and everyone around them laughed. She’d never forgotten that. Then he’d stepped away and allowed her to dance with Lawrence.
Lawrence Porter was Philip’s friend who’d travelled with him from England. They’d finished university and Philip’s uncle, who worked in the tea auction house in Calcutta, suggested they visit the tea estates in Assam. He knew many people there who’d be happy to host them for a holiday. It was the perfect time too. In November, with its long, cool days, and crisp, clear nights, the boys stayed with the Baxters, an English couple on a plantation not far from where Leslie’s father worked. That year, they were throwing a Guy Fawkes party, and they did it in style. The bungalow was aglow like a firefly, the driveway lit by paper lanterns all the way to the front gate. In the centre of the lawn, a stuffed figure, vaguely resembling the human form, lay propped on a chair near a high bonfire. Chris Baxter called Leslie over; there were two young men he’d like her to meet. She crossed the room carefully, a little nervous in her high heels. What if she tripped? They both shook her hand. Philip smiling down at her, tall and well-built, with blue eyes that she later discovered were grey. Lawrence was smaller, with neat hair and a formal blazer. She’d danced mainly with Philip, and stood beside him as Guy Fawkes was tossed into the fire. When the firecrackers were set off, they all cheered. Someone shouted, “Indian Independence.”
Leslie tried to recall whether she’d spoken much to Lawrence apart from when they were introduced. She’d danced with him once, his tweed blazer thick and warm under her hands. He held her differently from Philip, cautious, almost wary, asking attentively about her interests and hobbies. He looked pleased when she mentioned painting, and said he was studying art.
In the photo album, Leslie found a single photograph of herself from the winter of ’51. Her father had insisted she stand next to a flowering bougainvillea, although in the black and white picture, the colours didn’t show. The blossoms matched the sash of her new dress, and the soft white material that fell to her knees. She wore it for the New Year’s eve party. Philip had kissed her then; not at midnight when she was standing dutifully by her parents, but later when wishes and hugs had been exchanged by all. They’d walked out to the quiet veranda, and he stopped by the flowering jasmine that tumbled out of a hanging pot. The kiss was heady and sweet, just like the fragrance that hung in the air. On their way back they’d passed Lawrence, who said he was out for a smoke, he’d join them inside later.
Mostly everyone ached with a hangover at the New Year day picnic. Yet by the time the last car had bumped its way to the pebbly river bank, the crates of beer had been brought out and submerged to chill in the river. A general air of merriment resumed. Philip was there, although she sensed an odd distance between them. Perhaps because of what had happened the night before.
“Is everything alright?” she’d asked tentatively.
“Yes, of course. Gearing up for the match.”
It was tradition, on this annual outing, to play riverside football – which usually turned into water polo. Leslie watched him for a while – he was a good player, deft and quick on his feet, but she was distracted and decided to walk upriver. The cheers and applause faded behind her, replaced by the sound of rushing water. She sat on a smooth boulder and dangled her feet in the river – icy against her skin, clear enough to see tiny silver fish. When she and Bottom were younger, they would try to catch them, mostly missing when the fish swam neat and free through their hands.
From behind her came the sound of footsteps. It was Lawrence, looking awkward in casual clothing, a cotton shirt and trousers rolled up to his knees.
“May I join you?”
“You’re lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world.”
“I’ve heard England is pretty too.”
He smiled. “It is. In a tame, picturesque kind of way. Have you been?”
She shook her head.
“Would you like to go, someday?”
They sat in silence for a while, as though he’d run out of things to say.
“Do you like rivers?” he asked.
“I prefer the sea, but I’ve never been…”
“One day, I’ll take you.”
She didn’t know why but she flushed.
He looked at her, his skin touched by the heat of the sun.
“The most beautiful woman in the world was born of the sea”
Leslie saw him a few more times after that day; at the club, playing tennis, at someone’s dinner gathering and at the farewell party held for him and Philip before they left. A few months later, only his friend returned to ask Leslie to marry him. They received a card from him before their wedding; he sent his congratulations.
She found the picture taken that New Year’s day picnic tucked into the back of the album. A large group smiled into the camera – her mother sat on the ground, next to Bottom waving a straw hat, Chris Baxter held up a bottle of whisky (the football trophy). Philip stood next to her, her father on the other side. Lawrence was on the fringes, looking away.
Leslie shut the album, annoyed with herself. It came to no good, all this living in the past. Vera was right. How difficult it had been when her parents passed away, and then Bottom and Philip were gone. Yet she couldn’t help looking at her picture again – was she really ever that young? Her skin smooth and unwrinkled, her hands, firm and soft, clasped in front of her. Curling around her ears, her hair was dark and shiny, like her mother’s. The sash held a tiny waist, her feet pretty and small in white sandals. Her smile seemed to come from another face, one that Leslie found increasingly difficult to recognise.
When she checked the time, it was a quarter to four. Why was Mr Lewis here, dragging up the past? In the kitchen, she filled the kettle and left it to boil, arranging some biscuits on a floral plate. She combed her hair and looked at herself in the mirror. Where had they come from? These lines, the grey in her hair, the sunken eyes, skin so translucent she could see that delicate, terrifying pattern of veins. Five years past 60, and she’d never felt closer to the edge of that dark, silent place.
Mr Lewis was a bald, serious-looking middle-aged man, dressed in a dark, well-cut suit, and carrying a black briefcase. He accepted her offer for tea but refused anything to eat. He seemed nervous, as though he didn’t want to be in this house, this city, or this country.
“I was Mr Porter’s lawyer.”
“Was?” repeated Leslie.
“He passed away a fortnight ago. I’m not sure whether you’re aware of this…but Mr Porter was a well-known artist in Britain, in the tradition of the Old Masters.”
Mr Crofton sipped his tea, lightly, and continued. “In his will he bequeathed you a painting. You’ll find it’s very valuable.”
Leslie found herself disliking this dry, hollow man and his quantifiable world.
He cleared his throat as though to continue, but instead reached for his briefcase and drew out a packet.
“This is for you, Mrs Gardner.”
She held it in her hands. It was small, yet heavy. The room throbbed with the sound of distant traffic.
“How did he die?”
“Cancer. It was quick and sudden. He didn’t suffer. Not much.”
“Did he have a family?”
“A son and two daughters. He and Mrs Elaine Porter were married over 40 years.”
At that, he placed his cup and saucer on the table and took his leave. He didn’t use the lift; Leslie could hear him hurrying down the stairs.
Neatly wrapped in brown paper, the package had For Leslie written across the top.
She wondered whether it was Lawrence’s handwriting. When she slit the envelope there was another layer to unwrap, an opaque plastic covering. Leslie picked at the tape and finally it came undone and lay in her hands – an oil painting framed by dark, varnished wood. A portrait.
A moment later she smiled, and, for the first time in years, she felt it came from the face in the photograph.