By Sarah Salway
Your mother had always loved India, although she’d never been there. Your father had once, during the war. Crowds, he’d said when you’d begged him to tell you about it. Hot, he admitted when you pleaded for more.
India is full of Indians, your mother had agreed. But it doesn’t matter because they are always so polite. Even with a country she had read about only in newspapers, she was always happiest to be the authority. A boy like you would learn to behave properly there, she said.
Manners, your father said.
Your son has an insatiable thirst for knowledge, the English teacher had told your mother.
I should tie his hands together, your mother shouted at breakfast the morning after she had surprised you in your bedroom. He’ll turn himself blind.
Tell me about India, Dad? you begged, hoping to change the subject.
Your father looked at you. You held your breath.
No, he said.
His thirst is a good thing, the teacher had said. You should be proud of him.
Can you see how many fingers I am holding up? your mother asked. You are a dirty rude boy. Where will such insatiability end?
Indians don’t kiss. That’s what your mother had said, and it was another point in their favour.
Why don’t they? you asked your father.
Tantric, he said.
Your mother hushed him. Not in front of your son, she said. As if he needs encouraging.
Hot Indians crowded politely, properly into your bed that night.
Your first worry was that it was something to do with spiders.
You were scared of animals. Even in your mind. Especially in your mind.
And so it stays unexplored for at least ten years until you discover the internet. You pretend to be searching for Indian culture, although you are not exactly sure why you bother with secrets any more. No one’s there to trouble you, even when you click on one site and your computer suddenly bursts into heavy breathing and you search, your hands fumbling, to find the sound button, even as the breathing carries on and on into the darkness, surely taking worryingly longer than normal.
Always alone. It’s how you like it best these days.
It’s hard to get the breathing right to begin with. You place your hands on your ribcage and co-ordinate with the ins and outs of the mirror. But someone told you once that you never see yourself exactly how others see you so you start to think about this. And soon you can’t see yourself at all. The condensation in your breath steams up the glass as you bicker about which one of you is getting out of step.
How can I be expected to look directly into my eyes, you mouth at the mirror, when they are back to front, left to right?
You exhaust yourself, but the site tells you to prepare to put time aside every week, it says. You’re not sure you’re up to it.
Hot. Crowded. You just want to be alone.
But always a polite boy. Like your mother told you to be.
We can try again tomorrow, you reassure your reflection.Things will be better then.
A new site tells you that you need to use ritual to develop intimacy.
You are not sure you will be very good at intimacy. Rituals, on the other hand, are your strong point.
You face the mirror again. You’ve drawn a felt pen line around your reflection so you will be in exactly the same spot each time. You stare into your eyes, your hands on your chest. In. Out.
It goes right this time and you feel something. You are sure you feel something. But when you shut your eyes briefly to check, your reflection has looked away also. After that it’s hard to get back.
One of us must keep the pace, you say. Your reflection winces at exactly the same time you do but it seems to have more power behind it.
Next morning, you place your head carefully within the drawn lines on the mirror. Has your hair grown? You get the scissors out to clip some curls so you fall exactly into the margins.
You have the rituals, you have harmonised the breathing, you are making time for it.
You look at your notes. Read poetry to each other.
Some steps take you too far.
You rub your outline clean, watch yourself fade away.
Mae West used to suck karmic energy from her men. It was what turned her into such a strong woman.
India is the jewel of our empire, your mother said. They love our cricket, our education, our courts, and they turn out proper little Englishmen. Better even. Take the nice man in the corner shop. He stays open all hours. What’s happened to service in this country? That’s what I want to know.
The nice man in the corner shop smiled when he called your father Sir. He would let you stand behind the till when your father slipped into the back room with him. If a customer came you had to shout out kipling.
Why kipling? you asked your father as you walked back home together.
Poet, your father said. And even though you loved poetry, you laughed at his expression, slipping your hand in his.
Secret, he said. Ours, and you agreed because you were so happy. You wanted everyone in the park to see the two of you like that. A normal father and son. Later, you’d both spent the whole of supper answering your mother’s questions with one word answers. It drove her mad. She talked more and more until you wondered if she’d ever be able to stop.
Your father and you just stared at her. Harmony.
When tantric sex is done properly, you read, there is no need for beginnings or endings. You are not rushing to achieve. Or to finish. Sometimes you do not even need to begin.
You have dressed provocatively. You take a soft silk scarf from the pleasure chest a website has told you to enjoy filling. When you’d bought it, you told the assistant it was for your mother. She’ll love it, she’d said, so you told her your mother had been ill. In fact she’s dead, you’d admitted finally.
The woman had served you in silence after that, but the scarf draped over the table light now makes the atmosphere in your bedroom exceedingly inviting.
You know there has to be a beginning but what if there really will be no end and you get lost in your reflection in the mirror? Which of you is sucking the karmic energy from the other? Which will be the strongest? What if the real you can’t break away?
The day that you were so busy reading your magazine and so forgot to shout kipling when the shopkeeper’s wife came in, your father didn’t hold your hand as you crossed the park. It wasn’t fair. Poetry, you shouted after him as he walked too fast for you to keep up. Poetry. Poetry. Poetry.
Tell me about India, Daddy. Do Indians kiss?
None of you were in harmony at supper that night, but your mother talked so much she didn’t notice. She had been reading about the French and thought they might be more interesting than the Indians. Not as polite, but very good at girdles and nipped in waists.
What you know is that a French kiss is messy. Tongue tennis, the other boys call it at school. Even the English kiss, dry lips touching briefly, feels like something you wouldn’t enjoy.
Their figures are so unnatural that it’s not surprising French men misbehave, your mother said, her eyes alight. But we mustn’t talk like this in front of the boy.
Enough, your father agreed.
The breathing, the harmony, the eyes, the atmosphere, the pleasure, the treasure, the silks, the chests, the look of it all.
Your favourite site has it all laid out in bullet points.
Two days after you forgot to say kipling, your father ran away. Like a bullet, your mother said. I didn’t see that coming, but you had. Kipling. It was all about the poetry. A bullet in the mind. You never saw him again and even your mother ran out of countries to fantasise about. You tried hard to be polite until eventually, she ran out of mind.
On your favourite website the instructions are spread out spaciously. Not crowded. Not nipped in.
The words sound properly polite.
It even tells you how to begin.
And because you are insatiable, you know where it ends.
You look in the mirror. Harmony.