Excerpt from a novel-in-progress.
By eleven Anita was drunk. She’d had three screwdrivers on an empty stomach and danced far too much. Her friends continued on the dancefloor as she returned to the table. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Avinash make a beeline towards her.
‘Hey,’ she said, sitting down on one of the cold plastic chairs.
‘Hey,’ he said, joining her, raising a near-empty glass. ‘Get you another drink?’
‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’
‘Oh, come on, Anita, one drink. This is your last big night out, isn’t it?’ He smirked. ‘Might as well party properly, no?’
‘Not right now. Where’s Bharat?’
‘Why? I’m sure your baby brother can manage just fine without you.’
‘I saw him push off with the boys back to the parking lot for another joint.’
‘Fool,’ she said without malice. It was one thing returning home smelling of alcohol and smoke, it was another returning home with pink eyes. He needed to be careful, otherwise Uma Aunty would give them both a proper thrashing.
Avinash downed his drink, looked around, and then asked, ‘How about we see the tiger now?’
‘Now?’ She inspected his expression. ‘I thought you said the place was closed.’
‘That doesn’t mean we can’t go there.’
‘You want to go now?’
‘Why not?’ He raised an eyebrow.
It was unfair to see it without Bharat, but then again, he would have more opportunities in the future to do so than she would. Her reckless voice egged her on. This was her last chance before the States. ‘Okay. You’re sure it’s no problem, right?’
He was already up, face shining with enthusiasm. ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’ he said, clapping his hands like a drill instructor.
She stood up, swayed, and he leaned forward and supported her, one arm gliding down to her lower back. They walked out the lawn, past the swimming pool – its shifting surface reflecting shards of yellow light – towards one of the larger blue-and-white painted buildings with a circular driveway and steps that led to a columned entrance.
There was no one around. Anita, halfway up the stairs, took off her heels and carried them by her fingertips. They strode past the entrance into the muffled silence of a wide foyer. The smell of ink and oil hung thick in the air, and on the walls were green bulletin boards with pinned-up typewritten sheets of member bylaws. Potted plants and worn leather couches lined the sides of the room. From the ceiling descended a glass chandelier, ornate, glittering, the bulbs for candles empty and waiting. Anita’s feet were cold on the white marble floor.
Avinash held a hand up, motioned for her to wait, and took a few tentative steps, peering down one of the hallways before beckoning her forward. She followed. They walked down a narrow and dimly lit hallway with high walls. There were gold-framed photographs of British soldiers resting, of members decked in suits, posing with cigars in one hand and a drink in the other, of a huntsman standing with his kill, gun on his shoulder. Looking up, she could see the stuffed heads of stags and bison, their silhouettes sharp despite the dark. And then, at the end of the corridor, on the floor, were rainbow-coloured fragments of light cast by glass and she knew, knew with such certainty that she gasped, that the tiger was there, waiting for her after all those years.
They rounded the corner and on display was the glass case containing the mythical animal. The glass was not clean, faded around the corners, but as she stepped closer, Anita could make out the shape of the tiger, it’s astonishingly large size, and then the colours began to fill in the space, slices of black cutting rich orange, making it whole, bringing with it a brilliance she could not have even imagined. Oh, if only Bharat was there. They should have seen it together.
Anita knelt and pressed her face to the glass. Just as she had heard from her friends, the tiger was poised to attack, the front of its body low, the thighs tensed. Its claws were extended, cruelly curved. Nestled within blades of yellow teeth was a faded pink tongue. She was shocked to see a bald patch on one leg, fur on the tail that had faded to resemble wisps of straw. It was heart-breaking. The more she looked, the more it seemed the skin of the animal didn’t fit as naturally as it should, as though there was something within straining to get out. One eye was missing, but the other, though made of glass, was alive; glinted green in the dark, moved with her, watched her, anticipating her every move.
‘What do you think?’ Avinash asked.
She stood up, felt a rush of blood to her head that made her dizzy, and tottered towards him. ‘It’s brilliant. Sad, but brilliant.’
‘Uh huh,’ he said, his voice shades deeper, and then his hand cupped her chin and he kissed her.
Anita, startled, felt his intrusive tongue slide into her mouth before she pulled back and sputtered, ‘Oh, sorry. Sorry, no, I wasn’t expecting that.’
‘It’s okay,’ he said, stretching the final vowel out as he leaned forward.
Anita pulled back. ‘No. Sorry,’ she repeated, abashed but annoyed she was apologising so much.
‘No problem.’ He strained a smile.
Anita looked around and then said, ‘Come on, shall we go? I really need to use the loo anyway.’
He nodded and pointed. Right across from where they stood was the doorway to the women’s bathroom. She excused herself and stepped inside. The bathroom was plush. Gleaming white tiles and black marble counters. Even the porcelain sinks were spotless. She placed her shoes on the counter as the bathroom door opened and Avinash stepped inside. His reflection’s eyes met hers.
She turned. ‘Women’s bathroom,’ she said as a joke, even though her heart was already beating hard. There was a thin vein that split his forehead in two, and he glanced behind him before letting the door shut. ‘Avinash, seriously,’ she whispered, voice catching. Her high was gone, replaced by a clammy sensation weakening her legs.
Avinash smiled and raised his hands, as though to indicate he had no secrets up his sleeves. ‘What’s the big deal? I was just checking to make sure you were okay.’ He took a step forward and there radiated from his body a smell, not unpleasant, of coconut oil. ‘Come on, Anita,’ he said. ‘You’re smashed. I’m just trying to help.’
He was too close to her now, and all Anita could think were the feeble words, ‘Women’s bathroom,’ dying on her lips. His hands were on her arms. Anita stiffened and pulled her face away from him.
His face tightened. ‘What’s wrong? What’s the big deal?’
Bitter fumes of alcohol mingled with the smell of coconut. ‘Avinash, stop.’ She needed to defuse the situation, to make him realise. ‘Please stop. I just want to go, do you understand?’
‘It’ll be fun, Anita, come on.’ He leaned his body into her, so that their faces were inches apart, and then Anita felt his hardness against her thigh, just as he grabbed her hand and plunged it inside his trousers. She yanked her arm away, tried to pull her entire body free, but he wrestled with her, rammed her against the sink counter and pressed himself against her. He was panting. He bent down and bit into her neck, sucked flesh.
Anita grunted in repulsion and shoved. He fell backwards onto the floor, his trousers undone, his erection straining against the fabric. She leapt for the door, swung it open, just as he grabbed her ankle and pulled her down. She fell, her knees squeaking against white marble, half her body out the bathroom. There, under the tiger’s eye, Avinash climbed on top of Anita, grabbed both of her wrists with one hand and pinned them to her chest, while with his other hand he hitched her dress up and fumbled with her underwear.
There was no more restraint; Anita lashed out. She kicked hard, again and again, her feet pounding wall. She contorted her torso, writhing as she bucked his heavy body, trying to dislodge the sharp knee in her stomach. ‘Stop, stop,’ he kept saying, shushing her, and then suddenly his fingers roughly thrust themselves inside her, splitting her as they scraped her insides. A screen of red obscured Anita’s vision. She was screaming, spitting, thrashing under the weight of his body. ‘Stop,’ he commanded, shoving his fingers deeper insider her, widening her. He looked down, at where their groins and his hand met, and Anita looked too, could see the head of his penis, purple, throbbing, poking out of his trousers’ zippers. ‘No,’ she gasped, and then she craned her neck, reached with all her might, and bit deep into his forearm, tearing skin from flesh.
He yelped and rolled off her. ‘For fuck’s sake, Anita!’
But she was already up, running, as hard as she could, away from him, from the glass case, from the eyes in the photographs on the wall, from the eyes in the dead animals above. Anita ran straight into a steward.
It was the same one who had checked their passes, and he frowned at her. ‘Madam? Everything okay? Did you just now shout?’
She gasped for air, pointing behind her, unsure whether Avinash would casually appear, adjusting his cuffs with a smile on his face.
The steward understood. ‘Stay here, Madam.’ He walked past her, disappearing down the corridor. It was silent in the hall, the air thick around Anita. She trembled. Her wrists were sore from where Avinash had held her and there was a scrape on her forearm where he had drawn blood. But they were nothing compared to the sharp-pronged pain forking its way between her legs. She wanted to clean herself with warm water.
The steward stepped out. His moustache was twitching. Balanced on one of his palms were her heels, arranged with such care, standing up, agape and waiting for her feet to slide into them. ‘Madam, there is nobody there.’
‘But …’ Anita paused, remembering the way Avinash had greeted the steward. She felt a pulse of anger. ‘I’m going to call the police. I’m going to call them right now.’ Immediately his manner changed. Apologetic, he placed the shoes neatly by her feet and raised his hands. ‘No need, Madam, no need.’ He unclipped a small walkie-talkie from his belt and radioed security. His words blurred into meaningless sounds as she sat on the floor. One of her ankles was swollen, a bruise blossoming around the joint. Her shoulder blades, the bones in her back, they were all inflamed. She reached for her phone and dialled Bharat’s number.
The steward once again said, ‘No need, Madam, no need. I have alerted security.’
She looked up at the man. His skin was dark, his moustache trim, and of all things, he kept nodding his head, as though to reassure her. ‘I am calling my brother. Can I do that at least?’
A crease wrinkled his forehead before he said, ‘Of course, Madam.’
She dialled. When Bharat answered, voice hazy from marijuana, Anita smelt coconut on her hands, her arms, felt fingers scissor her body, and she dropped her phone. She descended the marble stairs of the building, ignoring the calls of the steward asking her to wait. But she would not wait. She would not return.