Mathison, Chapter One

You were in a great hurry to be born.

You’re like your mother, aren’t you? Impulsive, keen to get on with things when they need doing. Reckless, some of her friends would say; unpredictable, her Dad thinks. Plenty of common sense, says her Mum.

It was a bracing day in late February. The daffodils in the garden were showing only slim green shoots, but already early blooms were being flown over from the Isles of Scilly, and your mother bought several bunches to cheer up the kitchen before you came. Of course it was your father who tended the garden, with his characteristic mixture of love and backbreaking hard work. You mother could only ever recognise three flowers in it: but in February there were no roses, the lawn was not yet sprouting its daisies, and they were still looking forward to his daffodils.

“I want our daughter to see bright colours straight away,” she told him, arranging the flowers from the shop and brushing aside his complaint at the expense. “Where’s that other vase? The one Caroline gave us.”

“Just so long as there’s nothing wrong with her, Ann.” Your father looked tired and haggard as he shut her suitcase. “If there’s anything you’ve forgotten I’ll bring it in.”

“Don’t look so worried, darling! Our baby’s going to be perfect, I’m certain of that. That’s why she makes such a good subject for Mathison. Have you asked your father for that other diary yet?”

“Sorry, I forgot again. He rang last night – he’s worried about you.”

“People fuss such a lot! You must ask him if he’s still got the diary – Mathison’s been asking for it.”

“Damn your experiment – let’s get this child safely born first!”

Her waters broke that night. She had just sat down to watch a party political broadcast on television after supper – no actually she didn’t tell me which party but I could ask her if it matters to you – and as soon as it was over she suggested quite calmly that perhaps your father ought without undue panic to ring the hospital AT ONCE and get the car out.

Slightly over two hours later it was all over. Your father was sitting by the bed holding you in his arms, a tiny bundle wrapped in a white cellular hospital blanket, your eyes squeezed tight shut against the harsh lighting. Your mother lay back against the pillows and smiled at him.

“I didn’t think she’d be so – I don’t know, so real, somehow,” she said. “For a long time I thought Mathison was more real than she was.”

Your father laughed. “Mathison is a figment of your over-active imagination, my love. Yours and Caroline’s. This little thing’s what counts now.”

“What shall we call her? We’ll have to make up our minds now.”

He considered. “Nothing too corny. We’ve already decided not to lumber her with any sort of commemoration of The New Millennium, or anything like that.”

She laughed. “Right, not Milly then. Not even Nova? No, perhaps not. I thought something nice and ordinary. Old-fashioned.”

They had looked exhaustively at all the names in both their families.

“Victoria, she might have been called, if she’d been born exactly one hundred years ago,” your father pointed out.

“Now there’s an idea, darling: we never thought of Victoria…”

At that point you gave an enormous sleepy yawn, and your father tucked the blanket under your chin.

So there you are, safely born in a clean sterile modern hospital and wrapped in polyester and tenderness: all rather different from your great-grandfather’s arrival some century before you.

*

The young servant girl struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp on the table. It was nearly six o’clock and the doctor would want some light when he came. The flame flickered and built up steadily, casting shadows on the family portraits hanging on the high walls.

“Child! Where are you? Have you cleaned those cushions yet? I told you to get everything ready.” Memsahib came bustling into the living room, wrapping the end of her sari round her shoulder and tucking it into her waist. She was more agitated than usual, and the girl knew better than to argue.

“I washed the floor – it’s just drying. The cushions are here.”

Memsahib went to the doorway and looked down the step into the room where all the family cooking was normally done. Now all the fires except one had been cleared away and the stone floor thoroughly scrubbed. All was prepared for Memsahib’s first grandchild; she was determined that nothing should be amiss.

“It’s going to be tonight – I can always tell. She’s got that pinched look about her eyes. Give that wall a good wipe down, will you? Shanti can’t lie down here looking at old soup stains!” Memsahib was a short woman who had put on a good deal of weight in middle age but retained a fresh unwrinkled face and considerable energy. “And we’ll need another light. Oh and make sure there’s plenty of oil, will you – it’s bound to be a long job, being her first. They always are.”

The girl inclined her head in acknowledgement and went out into the courtyard to look for oil. It was going to be another warm night, she thought. Winter was over, but the heat was still dry – not as unbearable as the monsoons later on. It was her favourite time of year.

She had to go out through the narrow passage into the street to buy some oil from the old man on the corner. On impulse she crossed the road and bought some sweets from the stall: for Shanti at sixteen was only a couple of years older than she was herself, and would surely need cheering up. When she came back, she couldn’t find Shanti anywhere in the house, and at last she made her way up the step-ladder and out onto the flat roof. Dusk was falling swiftly, and Shanti had come up to water the pot plants.

“I would have done that for you!” the girl cried. “Look, I’ve got you some sweets.”

“Oh, lovely – I’m starving! I couldn’t eat any lunch.”

“Memsahib thinks you ought to be resting – we’ve cleaned out the kitchen for you. You shouldn’t be climbing all these steps.”

Shanti giggled. “She’s looking for me – I heard her calling, so I thought I’d come to the one place she’d never think of looking!” She put the watering can down and gave a sudden sigh, putting her hand across the tight expanse of her stomach.

“She’s calling because she thinks you’re due to start!”

“Don’t look so worried,” Shanti said. “Come over here – there’s plenty of time. Look, I love the view from up here, don’t you?”

The girl followed her to the edge and put her hand on Shanti’s arm. There was a low wall to lean on, and they could see right out across the flat roofs of Calcutta towards the sprawling river and the pontoon bridge at Howrah.

“It’s all so different from home!” Shanti was a country girl from near Dhaka, about a hundred and fifty miles away. Her father was a doctor, and last year he’d been able to arrange a marriage for her into an old landowning family in Calcutta.

“Do you miss your home?” the girl asked, curious. She herself had always lived here, in this house in the middle of everything. Her father had been a servant here for thirty years, and she could scarcely imagine the countryside.

“Oh no – it’s much more exciting here. There’s always something going on,” Shanti said. “Look over there – that funeral procession – can you see who it is? Is it anyone we know?”

“It’s Memsahib’s friends from across the river, I think – the lady called the other day, remember? I think her nephew died of typhoid.”

Shanti shivered. “They’ve got typhoid at home – that’s why I wasn’t allowed to go back there to have the baby. I hope they are all right…”

“And look over there,” the girl pointed quickly in the opposite direction. “Look, you can just see the Basus getting ready for their daughter’s wedding next week.” A couple of streets away they looked down into another courtyard where bamboo poles were being erected and streamers draped over them.

“Oh yes! But will I miss it? Will they let me go to the wedding? What if…”

“Of course you will! Shall we go downstairs now?”

On the way down Shanti slipped on the stepladder and had to clutch at the railing. “It’s O.K., I’m fine,” she called back to the girl, who had cried out in panic. “Don’t fuss!” I’m fine, she thought: only she did miss her home. She missed her mother, who had always comforted her whenever she’d been ill, and she missed her little brother, who was naughty and clever and played jokes on her but somehow left a kind of emptiness. He’d probably forgotten about her by now.

Down in the kitchen Shanti found her mother-in-law arranging the cushions on the floor.

“There you are, girl! Wherever did you get to?”

“Memsahib, the oil is here,” said the servant girl.

“Yes, yes, put it over there by the door. Now Shanti, how are you feeling?” She gave Shanti a look almost of kindness.

As it turned out, she was right about it being a long job. The first light of the sun was already tinting the sky above the rooftops as Lokenath Banerjee – your great-great-grandfather indeed – stood on the roof waiting. His mother was naturally in charge of proceedings downstairs. She had been there all night, refusing to be relieved by any of the aunties in the household. She was determined not to miss the arrival of her first grandchild.

Lokenath stretched out his arms and flexed his muscles. At twenty-four he was a strong, handsome man, just over six foot tall, with thick black hair. It would be a boy of course; he had no doubt of that. It had to be a boy because he himself was an only son and he would need a son to care for the family land. He placed his large supple hands on the parapet and looked out across the city, waking up now. He loved this house. It was already over a hundred years old, for the title deeds bore the date 1794, but the family had owned land here for much longer than that. The tradition was that the British had granted them land during the early settlements built here on the banks of the Hooghli by Job Charnock in 1690. An uncle of Lokenath’s had once drawn him the family tree stretching far back long before that date – he himself appeared on it in the twenty-fifth generation. Now this son of his, born so auspiciously at the very beginning of the twentieth century, would start the next generation – who knows, he might even see out the British. The British, who had had the audacity to declare India part of their own Empire in 1876, the year of Lokenath’s own birth.

He heard a cry from downstairs, and turned to go down. On the stairs he met the servant girl, her eyes blazing with excitement. “It’s all right, it’s all right!”

He caught her arm. “What’s happened?”

“It’s a boy! Memsahib says you can come down now. Your wife…”

He turned back. “Is she O.K.?”

“She’s sleeping now. She’s exhausted. But she’ll be all right.”