‘English at the End of Time’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Evening lingered among neem leaves and palm-crushed chunks of unpeeled turmeric at the bottom of Mrs. Narine’s teapot, until the sky above the cane fields turned bitter and orange. The tea had grown too cold to drink. Sharpened pencil in hand, Mrs. Narine refused to take a tea-time break from her onslaught on English subjects and their disagreeable verbs.
Subject-verb agreement was no joke.
Ramdeen, self-professed poet and self-taught English teacher, sat across from her at the kitchen table. He was spooning handfuls of rice and dal and chataigne into his mouth. He noted her eighteenth sigh. At 10, he would have asked if she needed help with the question he had set her, but Fridays were for examination on the week’s work, so he let her suffer.
Mrs. Narine erased her answer, paused then rewrote her chosen verb. Ramdeen read the struggle on her face in the intensity of her eyes. They were always dark. Always tired. Though 17—eight years younger than him—her forehead bore deep lines, and her small hands were rough and bulging with veins that snaked along her wrists, arms and thin neck.
She had been five years married and twice pregnant, both times losing her child because—according to Pundit Sharma—of past-life karma and unfavourable planetary alignment. After that, she would not conceive though the pundit prayed and puja’d and advised them of astrological signs and Ayurvedic lore. It was no fault of Mr. Narine, who drank bois bande bark each night and was known for his strength and cane-cutting prowess.
Everyone knew of the day he cleared an acre of ripe cane with a dull cutlass to save the field from a spreading wildfire, defying the wrath of Agni—the fire-god—whose murti had been shattered in the neighbouring village. And who had not heard of his submission of the black macajuel? Who had not heard of the single blow from his dull blade that split the giant boa constrictor in two?
It pained him that he did not have a son to carry his strength and name, but he refused to believe he would be left childless.
The thought never crossed anyone’s mind that perhaps it was Mr. Narine who was the problem, not his wife; that perhaps it was his karma; or that nearing sixty, bois bande bark could no longer do him any good.
Mrs. Narine’s exam had begun at three. Her husband was still hacking cane in the field. The pot of tea was set on the chulha and left there until the woodfire was reduced to embers. He would be back at 10. It was harvest season and it was Friday which meant twice the rum and twice the time it would take Mr Narine to get home.
Mrs Narine had been stuck on number eight for half an hour and was on her 45th sigh. Nine minutes left, and she had not finished half the paper.
At least she would run out of time, and Ramdeen would not correct it in front of her. She hated that. She hated the colour of his pen. The shade of red reminded her of the sindoor she applied each morning to her parted hair. Mr. Narine never let her wash off the itchy powder which was particularly bad during the first week of their marriage when she’d scraped her widow’s peak raw. Though the spot had grown insensitive over the years, the powder still itched, and no amount of peppermint balm and aloe vera stopped it.
She had five minutes left, Ramdeen said. He rose, took his empty bowl to the sink and washed it with water from the bucket. During his two years of tutoring Mrs. Narine, her house remained the same—a small bare hut, clay floored and clay walled, with galvanize over the thatched roof that leaked during heavy rain.
He nodded to a picture on the wall. ‘Who’s them?’
‘Great Mama and Papa,’ she said without looking up. ‘1864 it did take. Some years after Fatel Razack bring them ‘cross from Calcutta.’
‘It had camera in 1864?’
‘That look like drawing to you, Sahib? Let me concentrate, nah.’
But she couldn’t. She was wholly convinced that subject-verb agreement was beyond her understanding. Those disagreeable action words and their picky performers taunted her with their meaningless rules that mocked her broken English.
That’s what they called her language.
When was it damaged?
Did it fall into a state of disrepair?
Ramdeen, English repairman, approached the glass-framed picture. Her great-grandfather was bald and naked but for the dhoti around his waist. His wife, wrapped in a sari, held an unsmiling child that stared off into the distance. They all bore empty expressions, as if their gaze had been fixed elsewhere, as if their thoughts were left labouring in the field. Beside this photo was another, a portrait dated 1922 showing Mr. Narine and his former wife who had passed 10 years ago.
Mrs. Narine chewed her pencil, lost in memory. She recalled what Pundit Sharma had said once in a post-puja lecture—that their parents committed Samudrolanghana by leaving India and crossing the Kala Pani. He said the land across the black water defiled them and their children who now knew nothing of the old ways, nothing of family and tradition and God. They cared little for Hindi; less for Sanskrit. What few words were left would not survive, and Pundit Sharma feared that soon his own village would succumb to the godlessness of English literacy. Of course, this corruption of spirit along with the war marked the end of Kali Yuga. Despite the generally accepted date of 428,899 CE, Pundit Sharma said the world would end in one year: September 2nd, 1945.
Mrs. Narine, however, was quite enjoying the age of spiritual decline. Though frustrating at times, English remained her greatest pleasure. Nothing compared to the feeling of writing a sentence, learning a new word or reading the labels on cans and boxes.
She had cried after learning that her curry was called Vardaman’s Madras Blend #1, that it was 100 per cent authentic, used only premium spices from India and was the best in the world. She had told Ramdeen of this discovery, but he called it hyperbole. A figure of speech, he said. It only impressed her further. There were secrets in her pantry.
English was hard and near incomprehensible at times, but it gave her an awareness of a hidden world. There was power in knowing. And Mrs. Narine, for the first time in a long while, felt a sense of accomplishment. She did not look forward to the apocalypse but wondered what other godless pursuits were this rewarding. Perhaps she would learn to drive.
Ramdeen stretched and yawned. ‘Time up.’
‘I ent done, Sahib. Have some patience.’
He stood over her and studied her verb selections. She had written and erased the answer to number eight until the paper had frayed and ripped on the spot. The question was rewritten beneath in neat letters:
8. YOU IS / ARE GOING TO THE MARKET.
He snatched it, sat at the table, took out his red ink and went to work. Mrs. Narine folded her arms and sighed, looking around the darkening room—anywhere but at the paper, anywhere but at his face which knotted and wrinkled at her verbs. She tapped the wooden table with her nails, and Ramdeen glared at her.
‘How the poetry book coming along, Sahib?’
‘When it coming? I go buy one.’
‘It have long yet to go, Mrs. Narine.’
‘You must have an idea when it go done. How much more poem you hadda write?’
‘Only one poem in the book. Is an epic, like the Ramayana.’
‘Sahib, last time you tell me bout your work, you was going on about sugar cane. Just so we clear, that’s the thing growing outside like wild bush for a few acre.’
‘It’s not bush, Mrs. Narine. Sugar cane is a grass. Like bamboo.’
She laughed. ‘You reading too much book, Sahib. Next you tell me flying fish is bird.’
‘I serious. And sugar cane is an important grass.’ Ramdeen nodded at the picture of her great-grandparents. ‘Is the reason why we here.’
‘But it have nothing epic bout it. You ever cut cane? You ever break your back in the hot sun sowing shoot? Look how your hand soft and nice; I wish I had pretty skin like you.’
‘I does bruise easy, Mrs. Narine. It only looking pretty.’
Ramdeen removed a rag from his shirt pocket and wiped the tip of his pen.
‘Seven out of 20,’ he said and slid the sheet across. ‘You shoulda move on to the next one and leave eight for last. Is nearly a whole hour you spend watching that question.’
‘Sahib, don’t take me for no big thinker like you, but eight come before nine. Not so?’
‘You don’t have to do the thing in order. Could do it back to front, even numbers first, random order. However you want, once you finish.’
‘Tell me something, Sahib. When you making bhagi, you does wash the dasheen bush after it boil down?’
‘Mrs. Narine, I does burn my bread every other morning. I don’t know the first thing about making bhagi.’
‘Well, I never see more. If not for all we woman you tutoring in the village, you woulda starve. But let me tell you something and listen good. When I boiling rice, I don’t pick out the stone when I sit down eating. When I making chataigne, I don’t sprinkle the curry on top when it done cook. When I roasting—‘
‘That’s not what I saying. The point is—‘
‘The point, Sahib, is that I don’t do thing back to front. I ent bout that even numbers first, random order kind of thing. I well aware I coulda do the rest before eight. I ent dotish. And I know are is the answer. I wasn’t sure right at that moment, but now I know.’ She picked a grain of rice off the table, glared at it and threw it into the sink. ‘I think.’
‘Listen, don’t feel I don’t study my rules. Every night, time you see Shiva snoring, I does sneak in the back with a candle and read all the notes you give me. Everything from word order to vocab, spelling and subject-verb. I does sit and read that notebook cover to cover.’
‘You sure you didn’t dream that? I never see anybody waste so much time staring at a question that take a minute to answer. Ten seconds if you know your rules.’
‘You calling me a liar, Sahib?’
‘I calling you a waste of time. We do a hundred subject-verb question before. Plenty with this rule.’
‘I know, Sahib. I know.’ Mrs. Narine hesitated. There was the question, but also the question of its stupidity. Rules were a delicate matter, and she knew there was little compromise, especially with Ramdeen. In the end she decided not to ask, but to state: ‘I was thinking about number eight. About why the thing is you are and not you is. It don’t make no sense to me.’
‘That’s what you was bussing your brain over for a whole hour?’
‘See! Look it right there. You was. You. Was. We does follow the rule. Singular subject take singular verb. So why them saying it supposed to take plural?’
‘It have exceptions. It in the notes I give you.’
‘Yes, yes. I know it have exceptions. What I asking you is why.’
Ramdeen scratched the stubble on his chin. ‘That’s just how it is. It have rules, and I sure it have some reason why the rules there. But English people make they English and give we English a certain way. Don’t matter if it have reason, if they put it cause it sounding nice or cause the Queen say so.’
‘That make any sense to you, Sahib?’
He shrugged. ‘Is not we language to do what we please. If they say singular take singular unless the subject is you or I then that is what it be.’
Mrs. Narine sighed. ‘Well, it ent matter now. I done fail.’
She opened the cupboard above the sink and began to dig around, stretching on her toes to reach a bottle in the back. ‘Still, is a funny thing, you know, Sahib. And no, I not talking about English, although that’s a funny thing too. What I mean is I spend so much time studying, but how much better I really bettering myself?’ She jumped and grabbed the bottle off the shelf. ‘What’s the point when the most I does do with the English is read tin can label?’
‘Go and learn Sanskrit with Pundit Sharma if you think is a waste of time. Because if that’s what you think, then you wasting my time. The others I teach in the village does struggle much more than you. They could use the extra help.’
With a thud, she set the rum on the table and slumped into her chair.
‘Then go and help who need the help. Don’t bother with my waste-of-time self.’
Mrs. Narine looked out the window. It had grown dark. The blackness past the baigan patch buzzed while in the distance, Friday’s tired feet made their way home to the bars and parlours and late evening parties. A breeze rattled the windowpane and brought with it the sweetness of bruised cane and damp, trodden earth.
‘Mrs. Narine, tell me something. What was the reason you wanted to learn English in the first place? Why you take the risk?’
Why did she?
Mrs. Narine began to speak but stopped. Her eyes glazed over, staring at the dark that had gathered in the corner of the room. The shadow of a memory rose out of it. A father. The man. Her face behind the veil. The smell of henna, milk and vermilion. She remembered how time stretched, how night screamed, how the stars dragged the moon and burnt the body at sunrise and buried it beneath the nutmeg tree at the far end of the village where she had twice given birth.
Mrs. Narine lit a candle and set it on an overturned dish at the table, staring into the flickering flame.
‘I wanted to run,’ she said. ‘From time they married me I did want to run, but you can’t be no fool out there. I know the world cut you open and eat you from the inside out. But still, I wanted to run. I did plan to go England before thing did get too serious with the war. I used to dream about working nanny or seamstress or cleaner maid. Or whatever it is they wanted me to do.’
Ramdeen went to the window and took out a cigarette.
‘I never once get a say in what I want in my life, Sahib. Never. Here, I is slave to cook and clean and wash. Sometimes I does feel I going mad in this house. And Shiva look like he going senile. Or maybe he just mad too.’
‘Mrs. Narine, get some rest. You looking dead out. And tomorrow, finish the paper. Don’t throw away everything you learn.’
‘Sahib, you know what he tell me yesterday? One in the morning, he guzzling bande for two hour straight, but like every other day it do nothing except give him shittings. And you know what he tell me?’
‘I sit down waiting on the bed, and I hear he start to cry. And I know I in for lash. But he come quiet quiet in the room, lie down and say, “Aditi, I sorry.” I wanted to walk out that house then and there, but I ask him for what. He say everything. He say he sorry for everything. The word so stink and nasty after all he do, but he bawling sorrysorrysorry like he feel it go fix something. Like he feel I go start feeling sorry myself.’
Ramdeen blew a cloud of smoke, waved it away and snuffed his cigarette. The bottle of rum looked at him. He remembered the tea. Turmeric and neem leaf would do her well. He went to the chulha, and she opened the rum.
‘So much years and I never take a lick of something strong. But no time like the end of times to drink your liver dead. Eh, Sahib?’
She poured half a teacup, pushed it over to Ramdeen and looked at him looking at her with the bottle gripped in her hand.
‘What? Is not Shiva rum if that’s what you worried about.’
‘That’s not what I worried about.’
‘Then what you watching me so for? Drink nah, man.’
‘Mrs. Narine. Put the bottle down.’
‘We only have one year til ’45, you know. Better enjoy weself. And God know I going and do just that.’
She closed her eyes, tilting the bottle back and her head with it, but downed only a mouthful before he grabbed it out of her hand. Rum splashed across the table and floor and down her arm and neck. It burned the back of her throat, and she vomited bile and fire.
Ramdeen grabbed the mop, and Mrs. Narine watched him take it to the sink and soak the grey rags with water from the bucket. She wiped her mouth. The wind blew, her shadow flared on the wall and then it was still. She laid her head on the table. The candle dripped.
Because Ramdeen would not let her clean her own house, Mrs. Narine took to insulting his poetic interest in bush, insults which he corrected with the greatest boredom and relief.
She had changed into her night dress, putting her sari to soak at the back of the house. The mop head was discarded. The room was aired. To fix any smell, Ramdeen held a bundle of thyme to his nose and then sniffed the air. Coconut. She had rubbed oil into her hair and braided it. They sat once more at the table, a new candle between them, and thought of what to say.
She looked at him and smiled.
‘Fix your face, Sahib. You go get wrinkle.’
Ramdeen listened to the dark outside, his eyes on the little lights that gleamed through the thick bush.
‘World ending and I learning English,’ said Mrs. Narine. ‘I ent understand half what you learn me. But still, is these evenings what get me through the week.’
‘I hardly understand English myself.’
‘Eh-heh? So say the poet.’
‘Is a textbook what I learn all this from. I don’t know the gears turning behind the pages. I wish I could teach the village more, but I can’t.’
‘Is still a good thing you doing teaching we, Sahib. Rules important, not so? And I know—‘
‘Mrs. Narine. What you going to do?’
‘What you mean what I going to do?’
‘Look, if you going to run I will—’
‘No, Sahib. It have nowhere to run.’
‘I will find you somewhere to stay. I know plenty Port of Spain people, plenty respectable family who go take you in for cheap.’
She shook her head. ‘They ent go be respectable no more if they take me in. And for beside, I not going and get you involve in nothing.’
‘We already partners in crime. Like you forget English is a felony in Pundit Sharma village?’
‘Look, Sahib. World going to shit, but if is one thing I want to do before Trinidad turn to little Germany, is learn why the ass subject you take are. So if you still want to help me, then teach.’
Ramdeen held his smile for only a second before he burst out laughing.
‘Don’t watch me so. I done know I ent going and sleep good until this thing make sense.’
‘I can’t teach you that.’
‘But I go need English to figure it out.’
‘I only here for one more month.’
‘You did tell me. Getting work with Gazette, right?’
He nodded. ‘If is help with English you want, I go guide you. Though it don’t have much else to teach.’ Ramdeen reached into the bag at the side of his chair. ‘I was planning to give you this before I leave, but it look like you need it now.’
He held the book out to her and she watched it and then watched him.
‘I read this thing about a hundred times already. Is yours now. Keep it safe.’
Mrs. Narine held the clothbound tome to the candlelight and stared at the faded cover, at the golden-haired girl that chased a rabbit with a pocket watch in its paw. The old pages smelled faintly of sandalwood and candle ash and clove.
‘I can’t pay your passage to go England, but if you want to get out this place—even if is just for an hour or two—find yourself between some pages.’
She thanked him. Taking a tablecloth from the counter, Mrs. Narine wrapped it with careful folds as if it were a newborn, tied the ends and placed it in the cupboard above the sink.
They sat and looked at the other, searching the air above the candle for words that had not been said. Yet all that remained was the sound of their breath, the breeze and cane. The kitchen stood silent, and what moonlight pooled into that quiet space grew pale and placid in the stillness.
Ramdeen gathered his things and stood in the doorway, looking out at the wind-whipped fields.
‘You going to be okay, Mrs. Narine?’
She was staring at her exam paper, at his seven ticks and 13 crimson crosses.
She folded the paper.
She folded her arms.
The candlelight threw shadows on her lap, and Ramdeen watched them play over the back of her hands. He watched the light collapse over the folds of her dress and the soft pockets of darkness that lay still between each valley. He studied the fabric, the cotton knit. A stitched square of white where yellow should have been. Black thread. Neat, parallel lines.
Mrs. Narine smiled and said she would be alright.
September 2nd, 1945.
The war is won, the world has ended and begun, but the woman in the library still shivers at the thought that it may be far from over. She wraps her scarf around her neck, rubs her palms and blows into her cupped hands. The breath turns into a yawn. She has been reading for the past hour, and though it’s been a year, she is still unaccustomed to the London chill.
The woman with the scarf is falling asleep. The library is cold but safe. When not on shift at the hospital, she works her way through tomes of history and literature in search of words and sounds and little knowings. She owns a few books of her own, three of them, stacked neatly at her bedside. One she rescued from a pile of roadside rubbish, another a gift from an old friend and the third she bought just that morning.
She had searched half of London for it and in the end found an old Guyanese bookseller who had it. His hole-in-the-wall was crammed with stacks of paperbacks and hardcovers. He knew the author, a friend from his days in Port of Spain. He’d promised he’d buy his book once it was finished. If it was ever finished. He regretted the deal. He had not sold one copy until she came along.
The man had lit a cigarette, flicked the match into the drain and watched it sizzle.
‘So you know Ramdeen, eh?’
The woman had held the book to her chest and smiled.
‘Ambitious man,’ he’d said, blowing a cloud of smoke. ‘Too much ambition for a West Indian if you ask me. I hear he quit Gazette and start he own newspaper.’
The woman with the scarf sits at her kitchen table, a sheet of paper before her and a cup of tea to the side. It is dark and bitter. They do not have neem leaves in London, and their turmeric is no more than chalk.
How long has it been? I have counted 12 months, though time seems to escape me as of late. I do not wish to worry you. I am happy, without regret and in good health. I hope you are as well. My apartment is in South London, and I work at the hospital not too far away. The hours are long and hard, but they pay me enough and the nurses are kind. I wash dishes, peel potatoes and take food to the ward when it gets busy. Sometimes, I help the polio patients. The children are always happy to see me, and they like having someone to chat with. I have learnt their names and they know mine.
Sahib, I have seen things I wish to forget. I know I will not. My memory finds me at night. Still, I am committed to my work. There are people who need me, and I will not abandon them.
I often dream of Caroni and the village. It is indeed quite terrible what has happened to my late husband, and I will not speak ill of him. I hope he is enjoying his new life as a cascadura. As for me, his terrible and undutiful wife, I do not care what karma brings, and I aim to live on my own terms. I have been doing just that, and I am pleased to say that the results have been fantastic. When I am not working, I read and I write. I dare say, I may complete a book of my own one day. Would you be surprised if I told you that I have yours on my lap at this very moment? I have started reading it, but I could not get past the first page as sugar cane is incredibly dull, I’m afraid. I can see your scowl. Do not look at my letter like that, Sahib. I hope you have been taking care of your skin.
Before I forget, I found the explanation to question eight. I do hope that you remember. It is quite simple: ‘you’ originates from plural ‘ye’ in Early Modern English. The plural was more formal at the time, and people liked being formal back then. So the informal singular ‘thou’ became irrelevant.
Sahib, your copy of Alice’s Adventures has been well taken care of and well read, and I think you would be happy to know that the children enjoy it too. My shift begins in less than an hour. London is freezing and the tea is dreadful, but I will be okay. There is a library. Also, they say the war is over. I have my doubts, but we will see.
Please write as soon as you can, though I would understand if you would rather not. I’m sorry for disappearing without a word. I could not stay, and it would not have been right to involve you any more than I already had. Still, I do worry about you. Please write as soon as you can.
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