BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

October Book Club Pick: China Room

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From China Room

Radhika stopped by often, to check how I was getting on, to help with the painting, or sometimes simply to talk. The more she came, the more I wanted her to stay, and the more I started to feel for her. The morning after Tanbir’s visit, I was looking out from the roof, hoping to see her, and suddenly there she was, turning towards the farm, waving. She joined me on the roof, standing right beside me, and we watched the work on the Krishnastatue up ahead. The legs, a pair of thick blue columns, pressed together, were complete. A blue torso, too. A web of ropes tethered the thing to the ground. Constructors milled. Trucks came and went. In one, its rear panel swinging open, lay a gigantic blue arm, palm cupped towards the sky as though it were pointing out the two bright green parakeets flying overhead.

‘Who’s Isabel Archer?’ I said.

Radhika crossed her arms loosely and exhaled, and I felt her shoulder touch mine. ‘A clever girl in a novel. Ends up— Why?’

I didn’t know how to explain. ‘No reason.’

She looked at me closely. ‘It’s an idea, you know. You should read. It’ll help you pass the time.’

I’d picked up a book at the airport, one I hadn’t started yet but was eager to; as if I hoped reading about life might be a way to overcome it. ‘Yeah, maybe.’

‘I can bring you some. What’re you into?’

I didn’t know that yet. ‘Anything. I don’t mind.’

We embarked on my task for the day, which was painting the porch, staying out of the midday heat. Radhika took one end, I the other. Suddenly she waved her paint roller at me. ‘That washed-up teacher. Has he been talking to you?’

I stopped painting. ‘Who?’

‘He likes his books and whatnot. Probably wanks over James. Has he? Been here?’

‘Who’s James?’

‘Long hair. Beard. Middling height. Fat cheeks.’

‘James?’

‘I believe his name’s Tanbir Singh.’

I shrugged, admitting defeat. ‘He came to say people were talking about you.’

‘Ha! I knew it! I knew he would! He takes his job way too far. He thinks he walks some moral high ground looking down on us all, throwing out advice.’

Still, I couldn’t help noticing that she was far from outraged. Humming to herself, she moved the roller through the tray of paint, once, twice.

‘I assumed you were from the city?’ I said, keen to continue the conversation.

‘What made you think that?’

‘I don’t know. You live there, don’t you?’

‘For now.’

‘And before?’

‘Before?’

‘Where are you from?’ I said, already exasperated.

‘I’m from Ranchi, which is the capital city of the state of Jharkhand. A very long way away.’

‘So how did you end up here?’

She reached quietly for her cigarettes then thought better of it. Worried I’d hurt her, I tried to think of something light-hearted to win her back.

‘Should you really be smoking around me? Offering me whisky? It’s a pretty slippery slope I’m on.’

As if I’d not even spoken, she stepped towards me, looking serious, and I thought we might kiss, something I wanted very much and, now it seemed possible, felt completely unprepared for. ‘I had all this anger,’ she said, ‘all this resentment and energy that had no good outlet. And then I found my outlet and things improved.’

‘Your outlet? Like a pipe?’

‘My work, doofus. Medicine. Look alive.’

I smiled. ‘Sorry. And you come here to help me find my outlet? Like you did?’

‘I don’t think I can do that,’ she said. ‘That’s all on you,’ she added, and I nodded, because it was true. ‘But I do find this place a haven.’

‘I think my mum loved it growing up.’

‘It’s a respite from…’ She gestured beyond the farm. ‘Plus it’s a nice change to spend time with a young man who doesn’t judge me too much.’

‘You know I was joking about smoking around me and…’ But she was smiling. ‘I’m glad you come here,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’

‘Please don’t. There’s no need.’

She kissed my cheek and brushed past my arm, and I watched her walk back to her side of the porch. I felt a sharp longing for her, and beside that longing, faith that life need not remain a wail of anger, that it can also be full of beautiful moments that just seem to arrive with the birds.

From China Room by Sunjeev Sahota, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2021 by Sunjeev Sahota.

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