Jayanti burrows into the lavender-scented pillows on the carved walnut bed, surrounded by an orchestra. The mice scrabble in the red-tiled roof again, the percussion. A rhythmical chorus of April raindrops dribble down, plucked like a swaggering violin. Her stomach gurgles, an oboe. She should eat, but there’s no need yet, and no-one would notice if she doesn’t. She should get up to finish her unpacking, but she’s safe here. Nested.
The door rattles, claves or a hand-drum. There’s enough percussion, so she ignores it. If it’s the whistling postman with another letter from the lawyers, it can wait. The cymbal chime of the letterbox flapping, a fluting voice says ‘I’ll just leave this vinegar cake on your porch, dear.” Not a good start with the neighbours, but Jayanti is waiting for the crescendo, the sign to begin the day. That’s been harder to pinpoint lately.
The fluting doesn’t stop, transforms into a background pipe of choop, choop, choop. The eaves outside her window flutter, the barest suggestion of frantic wings. She rolls across the plump mattress, peers down from the latticed window. The piping is in the middle of a lavender bush, a jarring note. She glances into the guttering of her aunt’s cottage, it doesn’t feel like her cottage yet, spots a clump of apparent pebbles pale against the silvery, damp-streaked slate walls and a glimpse of beak.
Rain runs down her neck, a drop travelling to her armpit, as she edges outside. The chooping becomes a chord, several notes at once. Jayanti runs back inside, emerges ripping the tag off a checkered tea towel. Reaching into the lavender, drenching her wrists with scent that lingers for days, she cradles a bedraggled baby swallow. Inches into the kitchen, finds the box that contained the kettle, layers it with more cloths. Makes a cup of tea and munches soggy, fluffy, fruity cake while she works out what to do with this unexpected guest. No-one has needed her, not for a while.
Outside May’s door, small children march to school, tramp, tramp, tramp. She marks the splash of discovered puddles, the airy giggles, the squeal of drenched ankles. She knows every sound of her snug kitchen, in the enforced silence. Conversation can be found, in the slowness of the post-office or the bustle of the fish-mongers. No-one’s crossed her threshold though, not for a while.
The wide pale oak table squeaks as she scrubs it, stacking up the splattered utensils from making a cake for her new neighbour. On your birthday you should bake a cake, May always has done before, when there were people to gorge themselves. She returns the apple cider vinegar, the currants, the caster sugar to their places, slowly closing the whining cupboard. The ancient Aga grumbles as it settles down from working unexpectedly. She often eats her meals straight from the tin now.
The loudest noise is the silence of the black plastic telephone, layering over the familiar ones. Her stomach gurgles, she should eat, but no-one would notice if she didn’t. The hum of the kettle echoes. The flutter of the cuckoo clock chimes in, an artificial chord to cross off another hour. It almost drowns out the whistle of the postman, his fluting “Morning, May”, the slap of paper on her rubber doormat.
She bends to retrieve it, an ivory envelope covered in daisies, and the swallows in her neighbours’ eaves cheep as if to announce it. It’s wedged between the mat and the skirting-board, she opens the door to rescue it. The new girl is driving off in a tiny car, May waves on an impulse, unsure she’ll be seen. The girl smiles, waves back forcefully. May props the half-flattened, half-streaked birthday card from her daughter on the cluttered pine dresser, pops some granary bread in the toaster, rattles all the jars as she looks for the good marmalade.
The whistle of the kettle startles Craig today, although it’s part of his routine. Coffee at 9.15am, one thickly buttered crumpet, take the round pill. Something isn’t right, he’s missed the footsteps of the postman walking past his door. He takes low, slow breaths, hands pressed under his diaphragm, centring himself in time to the rattle of the fridge, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. Nothing can hurt him here, he’s safe.
He should eat, his stomach gurgles in agreement, but there’s no need just yet. Sometimes it’s good to test his limits. He’ll wash up as he goes, an old way of pleasing people although he knows he doesn’t have to do that now. 9.20am, he could take the butter out of the fridge anyway. He stares out of the rain-streaked window at the carefully pruned, butter-coloured Noisette roses instead.
Something flutters at his front door, there’s a shadow blocking the left-side of the window. Craig knows it’s the postman, but he opens the door a sliver, to be sure. A pony-tailed woman shivers on his door, holding up a box full of tea-towels. She mumbles something, squeaking like a flute, Jayantinewneighbour, help me please? She stumbles over the threshold, 9.21 am, the box chirps at him. He leads the way to the kitchen. The kettle will need boiling again.
She drinks his syrupy coffee, he talks about nestlings and fledglings, and how the mother will come back. The fledgling swallow pipes in, now and again, a note of enthusiasm in the quiet room. 9.38am, Craig carries a ladder over to her cottage, holds it while Jayanti edges the box into a beech tree next to where the swallows have retuned again to nest. She thanks him brightly, offers to make the coffee next time, says she has to buy some more cups and a new tea-towel. He looks at the cottage across the road as he walks back, where his best friend from school’s mother lives. He could go and say hello, 9.45am, check if she needs anything. It’s been a while.
About the Author
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Little Fiction and Gone Lawn. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer Her debut flash collection, ‘Families and other natural disasters’, is available from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com