Violet nandhi had always been petite but age had shrivelled her up. She wore white blouses, and saris and skirts in pastel hues. She was the option they turned to when no grandparent was available to watch the children. The parents didn't mind the drive, and it was always comforting to have a maiden aunt, someone who had passed through life untouched by sex and violence. Sharmini horned till the gardener opened the gate and then she parked under the mango tree and the children trickled out reluctantly from the car. She felt the little stab of guilt as the old woman with a neat silvery bun appeared at the door, though it was brought on more by the state of the house. The house was an old ancestral home that Rohan’s father had grown up in. The walls were green with moss and cratered with broken plaster like the surface of some alien moon. The wooden eaves over the windows had fallen out at erratic intervals, giving the impression of a mouth with missing teeth. She left them on the porch, running a hand over her youngest boy's head and promising to be back at seven. Her children watched her leave with forlorn looks, and when the gate shut they all drew slightly closer together, a temporary allegiance forged in the face of an encounter with a distant relative.
Violet nandhi had watched them several times before, especially the two girls, but they had never taken a shine to her. She never smiled and though she spoke softly, the words were steely and cold. Sandhya said, "Nandhi can we play in the garden for a bit?"
She said they could and went back inside. The tension lifted and Sachin jumped over three steps in one leap and bounded into the garden, followed by Sandhya. Nilu sat down on the porch, her legs dangling over the edge and watched the sky turn colour. A flock of parrots winged their way noisily across a pink and lilac sky. The visit wasn't turning out so bad. Her mind turned to the intricacies of the day and the dread of double Sinhala that awaited her tomorrow and then the vague excitement that was less about the maths tuition class and more about the gawkish football player who had joined it recently. Her siblings were playing a game involving a large stick, going around the business of killing time with a forceful earnestness. Sandhya was only two years younger than her but now they rarely spoke, and if they weren't ignoring each other, they mostly fought. She thought about the audition for the play at school. She knew she would get a part, even a small one, though she wouldn't admit it to anyone else. She imagined herself casually mentioning to the maths tutor that she would have to reschedule the classes because of rehearsals, within earshot of the football player who would look at her with renewed interest. The air grew cooler and dusk unfolded like the creased wings of a bat.
Violet nandhi called out to her. "You better come in. It's getting dark".
"Come inside," she said, in the big sister voice that was bearing a message and so couldn't be argued with. Sachin opened his mouth to complain and then he remembered Violet nandhi and quickly shut it. There were only a few lights switched on in the house and the shadows from the unused sheet covered rooms strayed at the edges of the corridors, barely kept at bay. She hated this time; the in-between purpling twilight hours when cartoons were over and there was nothing for children to do. She wasn't really a child, of course. But she still wasn't sure how adults spent this strange meeting of sunset and darkness.
There were other people in the house. If you listened carefully you could hear the sound of the crash of water as the gardener had his evening bath at the well at the back and the slow shuffling of Latha in the pantry. In Nilu's mind their lives were lit by kerosene lamp light, as if they were from a film about a distant village before independence. They went into the dining room, dark unwieldy furniture covered with lace and newspaper. The three children sat at the dining table and Violet nandhi pulled out an ice cream container. Sachin and Sandhya's faces lit up for a second but Nilu knew better than to hope, and she was vindicated when the tub was opened to contain dark gloomy slabs of dodol. Sandhya looked like she was going to refuse so Nilu kicked her under the table. Sachin wolfed his share down, because he ate everything without question. Nilu took a gulp of tea to drown the cloying flavour. Sandhya broke hers into little pieces as if that would make the task of eating it easier and looked helplessly at Nilu.
Now began the ritual of questions, routine queries about school and grades and favourite subjects and hobbies. Nilu cringed inside as she answered for her siblings when they failed to understand the old lady's faint whispery voice. How was she to explain to her that children didn't really have hobbies anymore? The old lady stopped questioning and instead began telling them a story which no one could understand because she spoke so softly. The bare bulb threw dirty yellow light on her face and the brown glass tumblers gleamed as they caught it. She seemed to shrink under the children's gaze. Nilu was sad but also terrified because it was a huge house for such a small person to live in every minute of every day, and she had a sudden fear of a future where she was the one sitting in front of a crowd of bored children and telling them things they didn't want to hear. She nudged the feeling away and tried to think about the last maths class when the footballer had asked to borrow a compass from her. Everything would be easier if she just had a phone, she thought. The dusk heavy silence was broken by the chiming of a grandfather clock. The children counted the strikes and shot up with the seventh, animated by the promise of the end. Any moment now the car would pull up.
They waited and waited, each second growing tenser than the last. But there was no click as the gate opened. She was shocked. It was quarter past seven. How could they possibly be late? Her siblings slapped their calves as mosquitoes took refuge under the table. Violet Nandhi went to search for a coil and Sachin said in an urgent voice, "Akki, where's Ammi. "
"I don't know. But she’ll come soon I’m sure." She replied in soothing tones. A large gecko made a run from one corner of the wall to the other.
Sandhya started, "It's 7.30."
"They were supposed to be here at seven."
"I know so what can I do? Make them magically appear? "
"You can call them or something." Sandhya hissed.
Nilu wished she had thought of that. Violet nandhi returned with a lit mosquito coil in hand issuing spirals of smoke around the room. She steeled herself and asked, "Nandhi can we call Ammi and Thaththi and ask where they are? "
"There's no phone noh putha. " she said. Nilu's heart sank. If only her parents had let her have a phone. There was no telling why they were late or how late they would be. She shrunk back, defeated by the clock that showed it was quarter to eight.
"We might as well have dinner." said Violet nandhi and Sandhya found her voice and said desperately, “But they could be here any minute! "
Violet nandhi spoke louder than usual. "You better have dinner. I'll tell them to start". Sandhya looked like she was about to cry. The gecko above them let out a menacing cry. The acrid smell of frying chillies escaped from the kitchen and Sandhya coughed loudly while Nilu struggled not to.
Latha brought in the food and took the opportunity to remark at how they had all grown and when she smiled at the children, the few teeth left in her mouth were vermillion from chewing betel. She was tall for a woman, and wiry thin. Her movements exaggerated and slow by some unseen disability or injury and in the gap between her jacket and the waistline, her spine was like a knotted rope. Nilu’s father said that when he was a boy he had seen Latha climb a coconut tree. He let her fuss over him and call him baby as if he were Sachin’s age and not a middle aged lawyer with a growing beer belly. She also knew from her father that Violet nandhi’s mother used to beat Latha. He spoke about it to his wife with a kind of second-hand embarrassment. “That’s how things were back then no. Absolutely terrible if you think about it.”
The food was like cardboard in Nilu's mouth. Violet nandhi watched Sandhya like a hawk so she finished all the food on her plate, each mouthful a slow torture. It was 8.45 and Nilu felt like she was in a dream. She had thought of all the reasons that her parents would be delayed. The wedding was supposed to finish by 6. Her grandparents were at the wedding as well. She imagined a car crash, nothing less, killing them all on the spot. That could be the only explanation. She wallowed in the tragedy of it all, fighting back the tears. Violet nandhi took them down one of the shadowy corridors and opened the door to a room with a brass key. The children piled onto the bed, the lumpy mattress smelling of must and damp. Latha unfurled the mosquito net and it fell around them, imprisoning them in folds of baby pink mesh. They brooded together in the dark, the rusty ceiling fan creaking with an irregularity that defeated any chance of sleep.
“Akki. I think I need to throw up” said Sandhya.
“Shall I get Violet nandhi?”
“No. Don’t. Please.”
They wrestled with the netting and finally wriggled through a gap, leaving Sachin who was predictably asleep. The house was completely dark, filled with a hollow liquid blackness that amplified every sound and sensation. Nilu felt her way into the corridor, one hand gripping Sandhya’s wrist. Their bare feet made no noise on the cool cement floor. Nilu didn’t know how she found the toilet when she was swimming in the cold terror that Violet nandhi would discover them. The toilet in the dark was another nightmare, flooded, broken floor with something that looked like a fern thriving in the damp between the tiles. The steady drip-drip of a leaking tap into a broken bucket of water.
She remembered that her mother always held her forehead when she was sick and throwing up so she did that now for Sandhya who knelt over the squatting toilet.
“Nothing’s coming.” said Sandhya, after they had been in that position for some time and Nilu’s muscles ached.
“That’s ok. It’ll be ok” said Nilu, the shape of her mother’s words feeling fake and large in her mouth.
They made their way back to the room and Sandhya curled up against her. Now that this brief crisis had passed, the lump returned to Nilu’s throat. Her head spun with plans and contingency measures, the only way of making the uncertainty bearable in her head. She was certain that someone was dead. It was just a question of whom. She flicked through alternate scenarios and analysed how she would feel in each one. Even the thought of living with Violet nandhi for the rest of her teenage life was something she could get accustomed to she realized. It was terrible but you could get used to anything. She was almost at the borders of sleep, the thoughts dissolving into air when she heard the clicking of the gate. She didn’t want to believe it, it seemed hopeless to--but there was the familiar sound of strong sturdy footsteps and the light was switched on to reveal her father grinning foolishly, tie loose around his neck, his eyes sparkling. There was his smell, that mix of cigarette smoke and aftershave and something uniquely him that meant that everything would be alright.
"Kids, say bye to nandhi" he said, when the joyful reunion had finished and slippers had been located. The children lined up and as Nilu stooped to let the diminished lady in the white nightdress and feeble silver braid inhale sharply against her cheek. They walked to the car, a sleepy Sachin on his father's shoulders. Sharmini stepped out of the driving seat to be hugged by her children. Nilu clung on the longest, her face buried in the cold blue silk of her mother's sari. "I'm sorry we were so long darling. We had to drop Achchi and Seeya off and then Uncle Sarath made us go to the club for a drink. We're sorry."
"It's ok, Ammi," said Nilu, quietly.
Sharmini drove back. She put a hand on Rohan’s thigh and he smiled in his sleep. The roads were empty and she felt a deep sense of peace at this time of the night. Soon they were back at home and the ascending roller gate revealed their house, white and clean and shining as the garden lights threw ordered beams against its walls.
“You’ll have to carry them.” she told Rohan, gesturing at the younger two children. She gently shook Nilu awake and then walked away to unlock the front door.