My new electric wheelchair glides rather than jerks. I’m also able to sit back more. It’s like being in an armchair.
Among all the people gathered, walking, or whirring round in similar chairs, somewhere in this vast cluster of convention rooms and corridors there’s a girl: Narayani. She set this up, forced governments to look at the way handicapped people are ignored and sidelined. It’s 1976 and we can’t even get into public buildings without someone pushing us up the entrance stairs.
Naryani’s been amazing. We’ve received new chairs, spectacles and other gear in return for allowing politicians a fresh polish on their ever-tarnishing glamour.
Could that be her? An Indian girl, shining black hair flowing over the back of her wheelchair, laughter bursting from wide lips.
No. I’ve never met Narayani but I know she’s in constant pain. I doubt she’d ever look that happy. We’ve sent over 200 letters to each other, mine all in spidery wandering hand, hers strong and flowing. I can’t afford a telephone but there’s nothing like seeing an envelope with Naryani’s writing on it lying under the letterbox.
At first our letters were just about her campaign; now they’re about our lives and growing friendship too. Well, a bit more than friendship on my part at least.
I need to talk to her, say all the things I couldn’t write in letters and how I feel about her.
The reception desk is a mass of papers and telephones, receptionists scratching notes, looking up at people standing and down on those in chairs. We’re second class, ignored and invisible even in a convention all about us.
‘Excuse me, excuse me excuse me,’ my faint voice drowned out in the general hubbub. I’ll catch someone’s eye eventually.
After an age of fighting for attention, walking people able to squeeze through gaps in the throng and getting to the desk faster than me, I learn from a twin-set busy woman that Narayani Raja has signed into accommodation block C: room 416.
Maybe she’s there now, too tired from travelling to join in yet or getting ready for her first speech. The people thin out as I head away from the desk. The miles of corridors seem empty, quiet but for the occasional click of heels echoing, the sigh of a breeze through open windows, posters and notices fluttering on the walls.
I’m too low to see out of the windows. This is the first time I’ve been out of the UK and all I get are Belgian clouds. They look like any other.
The doorbell on room 416 is too bloody out of reach and multiple sclerosis is a bitch when you need to knock.
Instead of an answer from the room, a woman, all flowing sari and slapping sandals, marches from a group of people in the corridor and says, ‘Can I help?’
I go to answer but she interrupts, ‘Are you Jake Marchant?’
‘Yes.’ A single word in my struggling whisper. ‘Are you with Naryani?’
‘Her aunt.’ I get a smile and her shoulders relax from aggressive to friendly. Clearly I don’t represent a threat to her niece. ‘She’s very tired. We only arrived an hour ago.’
‘I’m only here until two…’ My stomach knots. I can feel barriers being built. After so many letters over the years, so many times we said how much we’d like to meet, am I really only a few metres from Naryani, never to see her face? tell her my secrets?
Pursed lips, hand half way to the door handle, back to her side, she shrugs and says, ‘I’ll see how she is,’ reaches for the door handle and goes into the darkened room.
My heart’s pounding and fluttering.
Narayani, say yes! You do want to see me. Don’t be too tired; don’t have last minute doubts. I don’t care how sick you look, how contorted, how tired… After all our letters you’re my friend, my soulmate.
The door opens and a bedside light has been switched on. I look up at the aunt, my eyes and whole body beseeching her to say “OK”.
She steps out of the way, waves me in and my chair hums forward. To my horror she stays in the room, follows me and pulls a chair over. Does she really have to be here?
A stick-thin girl with huge dull eyes stares from the bed. She’s half sat up, four pillows supporting her.
‘Narayani … I … is that how I say it? you’re name?’
There’s the faintest flicker of a smile on her lips, tiny creases at the corners of her mouth. She nods a bit. I think talking must be hard for her. The smile flicks off maybe snatched away by the torment of her condition.
Most of us, like me, only lose strength: we’re the lucky ones. She looks weak and exhausted. How can she be the power behind a whole movement?
I ease my chair as close to the bed as I can without bumping it. I want to see Naryani as clearly as possible but don’t want to give her an unnecessary jolt of torture by colliding with the frame.
I wish my eyes worked better. I’m sure Naryani’s beauty shows through the gaunt wreck she appears.
I also wish my eyes weren’t watering so much. ‘Narayani … after all this time. I’m so happy. I’m so honoured to meet you. I want to tell you how much everyone appreciates all you’ve done. These new chairs, the glasses, the…’
She cuts me off with a little wave, hurried, even contemptuous. ‘Forget all that. I’ve met you: I’m meeting you. This may be the only time we are together in our whole lives. Let’s talk about you and me and nothing else.’ She winces and lifts an arm from under the sheet, holds a hand out to me. ‘Touch me, Jake. Take my hand.’
Her auntie stands. ‘No!’ She puts her hand between ours. Stupid. We’d need her help to touch each other.
Narayani drops her hand onto the bedclothes. ‘Omkari, I’m safe. Jake will not rape me and bring dishonour…’
Her aunt gasps. She hisses, ‘That is no way for you to speak…’
Narayani waves her quiet too. The movement required makes Narayani moan and twist with pain. I get a bucketful of anger from Omkari’s eyes – as if I’m to blame for everything.
Between gasps Naryani says, ‘Omkari, please, I joke. I am sorry.’
Omkari pushes between us, catches Naryani’s limbs as if she knows how to stop the pain and settles her in the pillows again. Omkari is gentle and skilled – like she’s looked after Naryani for a long time. She moves quickly, making Naryani wince and cry out but gets her comfortable so fast.
Naryani’s gasps slow and quieten to even breathing. She whispers, ‘Omkari, you have cared so much, loved me so much when others have turned away or felt unequal to the task. Your love made you bold and brave. Let it go one more step. I beg you; help me hold Jake’s hand.’
Omkari whirls round, her back to us. ‘No. I cannot do this thing.’
Naryani sighs. ‘I ask too much of you. Forgive me.’
A rustle of silk; a wringing of hands. Omkari turns again. ‘I am tired and fractious from the journey and not thinking clearly. I will ask Jyeshtha to chaperone you while I rest.’
They’re both crying. What the hell is going on? I move my chair forward a fraction more. I want to get as close as can be.
Muted conversation at the door, women catching their breath. Omkari leaves and a younger woman comes in.
She says, ‘Jake,’ and sits on the chair by Naryani’s bed – but not like a barrier between us. She radiates energy, an intensity. Partially hidden but less than subtle glances in my direction show I’m of interest in some way.
Naryani says, ‘Jake, this is Jyeshtha, my sister.’ She falls silent, head and shoulders crackling the starched pillows.
I nod at Jyeshtha but don’t know what to say.
Naryani says, ‘Jyeshtha’s read all our letters. I show her everything. Omkari will give us only minutes. She’s doing her job but prepared to bend rules for you and for me. You will never know how much guilt she will feel for this.’ Looking at Jyeshtha, she says, ‘Help us. We want to hold hands.’
‘Wait,’ I say, ‘there’s something more important. I need to talk to you alone, Narayani.’
‘It is not possible, not the way we do things. You can speak in front of Jyeshtha.’
If minutes are all I have, argument may waste vital time and ruin my plans. I’ll have to go along with this. I lift a package from my lap and hold it out to Jyeshtha. ‘Can you pass this to Narayani please?’
Narayani’s strong enough to unwrap it herself. Her disease doesn’t destroy nerves and weaken muscles so much, just makes them full of pain.
Narayani says, ‘Thank you for this beautiful gift.’ She looks at the digital watch hanging loose on my scrawny wrist. ‘It’s just like yours. These don’t use hands but show the time in numbers; isn’t science amazing?’ She gazes at the coils of cables held tight with elastic bands. They spill from the packet, paper rustling in her lap. ‘What are these?’
‘One is for power. It plugs into the little box; the other connects to a phone line.’ In my urgency the words tumble out. ‘You see the two buttons on the side of the watch? They change the time and date…’
Jyeshtha interrupts, ‘It can tell you the date? That’s very clever. What will they think of next?’
I go on, ‘If you push both buttons at the same time, for five seconds, the numbers change to letters and you can press the left one to choose them. Don’t go for words with “Z” in; you have to press 26 times to get it.’
Narayani frowns, ‘Letters, why?’
‘The right button makes a space between words. Then you can plug everything in and send the message by phone. Our watches have a different identity code and you can send messages to one another. When they’re plugged in to a phone line they receive the message or you can have both phones plugged in and write to each other.’
Naryani shakes her head, a small pain-sparing movement. ‘Really? But why do we not know about these miracles?’
‘My dad invented them, him and his friends. He wanted the world to talk to each other. He thought it would bring friendship and understanding…’
Naryani looks at me, those huge eyes turning my muscles to water. ‘I am so sorry about your loss.’
Jyeshtha looks at the watch, head tilted and eyes narrowed. ‘We read in your letter… What happened?’
I say, ‘Someone killed my father and his friends. They smashed up the laboratory.’
Jyeshtha squeaks and jerks in her seat.
I press on, ‘I couldn’t say that bit in a letter. What if someone like them read it? They might realise I know everything and come after me.’
Naryani says, ‘But who would want…?’ and falls silent.
I shrug, ‘I have no idea. People who didn’t want people and countries to be friends. People who make weapons? I don’t know. But these watches mean you and I can talk to each other openly, even hold conversations though we’re thousands of miles apart.’
Jyeshtha looks at me in silence, takes a deep breath and says, ‘This is truly a miraculous invention and it could, as your father said, change the world. I think whoever killed him would have been after this technology. There’s huge money in it. Someone else will be developing it now.’
I answer, ‘No, Jyeshtha, all the important stuff was always with me. In the lab were materials, never the product or any useful information. I think dad knew trouble could come.’
She tilts her head again, ‘Why didn’t they link you with this? Why didn’t they search your flat?’
‘Jyeshtha, it took me ten minutes to be noticed at reception here. People moved around me, talked to each other, didn’t look down. I don’t exist to them. They don’t want to look: I’m invisible. Anyway, Dad taught me all he knew and kept me up to date. I even came up with ideas he thought were good.’
Jyeshtha stiffens, more alert than ever. ‘You can make these devices?’
‘No, well, sort of. Dad stored a load of stuff with me and taught me a lot but it’s really hard to get other things I need. I haven’t got the money. People would ask questions. Maybe I’d end up dead too.’
Jyeshtha takes Naryani’s hand and mine. Her eyes fired up. She looks at both of us in turn. ‘Jake, I have money and Naryani is in contact with so many people and her movement receives donations. What if we made thousands of these? kept it all secret… No one will suspect a group of handicapped people could change the world, lead a revolution. When enough people are using it in enough countries who could squash it? Everyone would want these watches. We could do this; make your father’s dream come true.’
Naryani whispers, ‘Jyeshtha, please, I am tired. I want to hold Jake’s hand. Please help me, sister.’
Jyeshtha’s chair hisses on the carpet and clunks against the bedside cabinet. She stands, lips pressed together and looks at us in turn. ‘Yes, my sister, I will help.’ Pulling my chair forwards, her hand brushes the little lever I use to control it. I lurch forward and crash into the bed. Naryani gasps in pain, hard lines creasing her face but sighs and smiles as Jyeshtha lifts my hand and lays it over Naryani’s.
Everything’s forgotten in that touch. I’ve never been so full of joy. I’m here with Naryani, holding her hand. This is what I came for really. Fingertips feel so much, say so much, whole worlds and hearts. Tears form in our eyes. Jyeshtha looks down, fidgets, turns away. Her shoulders shake. She sniffs.
I say to Naryani, ‘This is the best moment of my life. I wish I could kiss you.’
She smiles a bit, closes her eyes and says, ‘I don’t think either of us can manage that.’
A knock on the door and Omkari says, ‘Naryani, you must get ready. It’s only twenty minutes until you’re to speak.’
Jyeshtha calls, ‘One minute,’ opens a suitcase, and takes out an embossed and patterned note book. She whispers, ‘I’ll write the address of my bank for you and authorise…’ She goes to pull a sheet from it. The page has a faint but exotic pattern of turquoise birds courting in a tree.
Narayani interrupts, ‘Not that note pad, sister. Mother gave me it. I keep it with me for luck and there’s only one sheet left. Use another pad please.’
I think Jyeshtha’s the driving force behind Naryani’s campaign. It’s obvious now. Jyeshtha’s bursting with energy; possibly a tiny bit of fanaticism. The watch has fired up something in her too. There’s an agenda there, maybe a personal one. She seems to care about Naryani, but she’s scary.
It’s cloudy outside, not that I could go out even if I wanted. My wheelchair has been faulty for months, groaning and grinding. If I did go out it would get me as far as the corner shop and back but no more. I wish I could travel all the way to India where I could see Narayani and strangle her cow of a sister.
The roar from the bypass sounds like fury, an echo of how I feel. On my lap sits an electric typewriter – sent as a gift from Jyeshtha. On the screen that runs from side to side are the numbers burned into my memory. The code that connects me to Narayani’s machine. She’ll be on soon for our daily chat and we can talk about how Jyeshtha has patented and marketed all my dad’s work.
On the TV today … endless adverts for network writers, how Raja Electronics has revolutionised communication and supported nearly a quarter of a million handicapped people with watches that can write to each other. But now everyone can buy a writer and talk to anyone around the world – provided they buy one too.
Jyeshtha must be a millionaire by now but where is the extra care for Narayani? the better pain control? As far as I know there’s sod all happening for her. What can I do? Nothing … and my MS is acute at the moment. I’m weaker than I’ve ever been.
I wait and wait. Narayani’s sometimes late by up to an hour. She’s in a bad way and getting worse.
My screen flickers. “Good morning, Jake. How are you?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“Jyeshtha’s with me. I’m wearing lipstick!”
“Have you seen the news?”
“Of course I have, my love. Isn’t it great?”
She called me “My love”. Maybe that’s permission for me to say the same to her. I type, “You will look so beautiful with lipstick, my love!”
“Of course I do but it tastes awful. Do women really put up with it all the time?”
“I’d still kiss you.”
“Jyeshtha’s going to make lots of money for us.”
Really? Maybe I’ve misjudged Jyeshtha. No, I’m pretty sure she’s untrustworthy.
“Will you get better care?”
“That’s what she says. You haven’t asked why I have makeup on.”
“Go on, my love, tell me.”
“The TV company are coming to speak to me.”
“The campaign, you, your clever father and how Jyeshtha has made his vision a reality.”
Now I’m confused. None of this fits with my idea of Jyeshtha. I’m going to have to build a whole new opinion of her.
Another line of Narayani’s text pops up before I can reply. “She’s going to England tomorrow to do a deal and…”
I wait for the rest but it’s five minutes before she responds to my repeated question, “Are you OK?”
“No, I’m not well today. So much pain. I shouldn’t burden you with worry. Sorry.”
“I wish I could do something.”
“You are doing everything. My body may be a mess but you make my soul rejoi…”
Again, she stops and I wait. A pigeon rattles to the windowsill, bobs its head and scans the room for danger. It eyes up the crumbs on my plate. I hate it when pigeons come in. I’m too bloody weak to scare them off. If I press the little warning hooter on my chair, they panic, flap around and shit on everything.
Narayani goes on, “I’m back. Sorry. Lots of pain. I’ve taken some painkillers but they’ll make me drowsy.”
She must be taking the really strong ones. Bugger, she always stops typing when she takes those. “I’ll type you to sleep.”
“Tell me a bed-time story about…”
“Once upon a time… I’m not very good at this.”
“About our wedding day.”
Fat chance of anything like that happening but my heart sings because she’s said it… I’ll try to write in the spirit of her mood though. “You will look so beautiful in a shining satin sari…”
She interrupts, “I forgot. Jyeshtha’s bringing you a present and news tomorrow.”
Oh great, maybe Jyeshtha’s millions could fix my bloody chair, maybe lots of things. Time to dream later…
“Something from you?”
“im sleep y love you.” It comes up on my watch too. I’ll never delete that. I type, “Love you with all my heart and soul.”
I’ve closed the windows and the heat is awful. Coming from India to the UK, Jyeshtha may appreciate it and the lack of pigeons. I just hope I don’t develop horrendous BO; washing is really hard for me at the moment.
She’ll probably be exhausted from the flight and it takes about three and a half hours to drive here from Heathrow. I wonder if she’ll be so sharp and full of energy as when we last met.
I still can’t bring myself to trust her even though Narayani clearly does. Jyeshtha has some explaining to do before I’m prepared to relax. I can see her, heady with success and wealth, totally ignoring Narayani and I. If that’s the case somehow I’ll make sure the world knows the truth about my dad, Jyeshtha the thieving bitch and how she ignored a sister in pain.
I jump as the doorbell goes. Of course, windows closed, I didn’t hear the car pull up. My chair grunts its way to the wall and I press speaker. ‘Hello?’
‘Jake, Jake! it’s me Jyeshtha. So good to hear your voice again. I’m so happy everything’s going so well for us all. Let me in; let me in! Hey, I’ve got a present from Narayani for you and I’m dying to see you open it.’
She sounds ingenuous, bubbly and full of life.
I hear someone taking the stairs two at a time. I hardly get to my flat door before she’s banging on it.
I have to really lean from my chair to reach the door catch. Even the controls on this stupid chair are going wonky and it’s hard to get close.
Jyeshtha bursts in and crunches the door against my arm rest. I’m lucky to get my hand out of the way in time and avoid broken fingers.
She’s dressed in a red and blue sari with patterned gold woven through it. In fact there’s gold everywhere, necklaces, bangles round her wrists and ankles, shining sandals…
‘Jake, I come bearing great news and the wonderful present from Narayani.’ She waves a flat silk covered box at me. ‘Open it please. Do you need any help?’
She slides the writer from my chair, lays the present on my lap, takes command of the wheelchair, pushes it back into the room and kicks the door shut. ‘How are you, Jake?’ She’s almost wriggling with happy energy, words tumbling out, ‘Open it!’ She places my writer on a shelf and claps her hands in front of a beaming smile.
‘Wait, Jyeshtha.’ I can’t help grinning; her energy flows into me. Or maybe it’s this shining packet in my hand, turquoise tassels tickling my hand and wrist. A present from Narayani … wow!
But Jyeshtha is here; I have to drag myself back to earth. ‘Jyeshtha, you’ve made or are making a lot of money. Where’s it going?’
‘Oh, I’ll tell you everything; there’s so much to say but please open the present.’
Somehow by not opening the box I’ve taken command of the conversation. Jyeshtha’s overwhelming tsunami of energy recedes and leaves me calm. ‘I will open it but first we need to talk. Take a seat. Would you like tea or something?’
She claps again. ‘Yes but I’ll make it.’ Scanning around, she heads for the kitchen and says, ‘This place is too small. You need more room to move – much more.’
I follow, head spinning again. Now what’s she on about?
‘And you need a new wheelchair.’ She picks up the kettle, puts it down again, spins round, pushes her hands together like she’s praying and puts the tips of her fingers to her lips. She’s bubbling with joy. ‘I must tell you something. I can’t hold it in. Tell me I can say it. Even Narayani doesn’t know this yet.’
She takes a deep breath. ‘The family have agreed that you and Narayani can be married. Think of her face when you amaze her by proposing!’
Shock, surprise… I can’t speak. So many thoughts battle in my head that I can’t deal with them.
She goes on. Words, laced with joy dance from her like droplets around a sunlit fountain, ‘You can come to India or Narayani can come to the UK. You can be together all the time. You can…’
I don’t hear the rest. I’m overwhelmed again.
No. I will not let her distract me. I can handle it all, enjoy the news after I’ve dealt with her stealing my father’s work and calling it hers.
She’s still talking but I interrupt, ‘My father’s work. You’ve patented it.’
A pretty hostile opening. It’s a shame to deflate her but it has to be done. Blunt, out in the open, businesslike.
‘Oh that. No problem. Look, the profit will be shared with you; your father will get all due credit. You’ll be a very rich man, Jake. We can pass the patent to you if you want and operate under licence. It’s all in the great Narayani, Jake and Jyeshtha plan. I just needed to get the patent done fast and in secret.’ She’s back to smiling again and talking over the rattling of pipes as she fills the kettle. ‘And look what we’ve achieved. Nearly a quarter of a million people have the watches. That’s way too many for anyone to silence. And with the patent all tight plus the media coverage we’ve made everyone hungry for your father’s incredible idea and our writers.’
She switches the kettle on, turns and kneels before me: kneels on my sticky kitchen floor. ‘Your father and his people did wonderful work.’ She takes my hand, only the fingertips, like she did with Narayani so she wouldn’t cause pain. ‘We can find out who did it: bring them to justice. Money has made you powerful. You can put things right.’
‘Can you get my writer down from the shelf, please? I want to talk to Narayani.’
Jyeshtha sighs. ‘She’s probably sleeping now; yesterday was a trial for her. Anyway you can afford to phone her now. I’ll get the family to set up a microphone and speakers for her when she’s awake.’
‘I don’t have a phone, only a line I use for the writer.’
‘I’ll get you one after our cup of tea. Then we can start thinking about house hunting for you both and talk to Narayani when she wakes,’ she claps her hands again, ‘and do anything we want.’ She sags a little and sighs. ‘I do have a meeting with clients this evening but they’ll come to me. I’m booked into a hotel here so that’s where they’ll have to go. Do you want a room there too?’
‘I don’t know. It’s all too much to take in.’
She rips open a new packet of tea and rinses mugs, long red fingernails clicking on ceramic. ‘You’ll get used to it. Your world just right flipped over…’ she giggles, ‘and now it’s the right way up.’
I reverse into the bed and lounge area. I’m numb and confused. I need a few seconds alone, away from Jyeshtha’s rattling of cups and torrent of words.
Narayani’s packet, my present. A secret; a thing to open in a moment like this. The lid’s only held closed by a shimmering cord. She’s made opening it easy for me. I feel a rush of love for her. She touched this only yesterday. My hand jerks as I stroke the material. I’m clumsy as always but the knot falls apart as I tug the tassel.
Lifting the lid, my heart skips. A single piece of paper, patterned with the faint images of courting birds. This is the last treasured sheet from her mother’s notepad.
Lipstick. She’s kissed the paper.
In her lovely handwriting … ow, that must have been painful for her … she’s written, “Put your lips on mine, my darling. This is as close to a kiss as we can get. All my love is here for you. See you soon.”
I’m gulping, eyes watering. My hand jerks too much and I have to calm down or I’ll drop the paper.
I relax, take deep breaths and try again. The paper feels cool and smooth on my lips; they catch and drag on the thick lipstick. Narayani’s mouth was here. I giggle, lipstick tastes awful.
Lowering the paper I see Jyeshtha leaning on the door frame and smiling at me. The mugs clink as she goes back into the kitchen – and returns without them. Walking to my wheelchair she strokes the side of my face. ‘It won’t take long. Fortunately Narayani took painkillers shortly after so she avoided the worst of it. I can’t do that for you. It would look a bit suspicious; like murder and not a tragic lovers’ suicide pact.’
She pulls a tiny aerosol from her pocket. ‘I can give you a little more if you like. It would speed things up.’
©Gary Bonn: 2013