Dejeuner sur l’herbe
Mehran’s piece on Elizabeth Chou was incomplete: he’d been given until June 30 to complete it, and the deadline was looming. June had gone by in a haze of phone calls, messages, writing a short fiction which was also grossly overdue. And – finally – he had started to slip away from isolation to meet people, on the broad pavements just beyond his home to begin with, and later in a park by a lake, a few minutes’ walk away in the other direction. Elizabeth’s books had piled up on the floor beside him. He’d read one, put it down, pick up another. As always, he’d be dazzled by her penetrative intelligence, baffled by some of her provocative views, and always annoyed by the fact that he hadn’t – couldn’t – include personal details of their friendship in the piece. Instead, he’d written a piece just before Rafey died about how human contact, virtual or real, had become more important to him than books during the first three months of lockdown. But was that really true, or was he only echoing the voices of others? Was it a premonition of mortality, foreshadowed by the suicide of a young Bollywood actor, which had induced almost pathological grief among some of his acquaintances, that actually made him abandon his books to spend hours consoling others?
He was sitting in a hospital room, waiting for a blood test, when he received a text from a young man he’d mentored in the past, demanding help for a very long application and then a reference for a scholarship in the US, all within two working days.
Mehran had just been informed that if the new treatment they’d assigned to him – no chemo, no radiotherapy for you during the pandemic, it’s too dangerous, the MRI you had last week confirms that the cancer has metastatised to your ribs and your pelvis, it’ll have to be pills for you, it’s a risk but one you ought to take blahblahblah – he had a life expectancy of about two years and up to five if he was really lucky. In February they’d given him ten years. He hadn’t believed that: he’d known for a while he was slowly dying, but still today’s cold diagnosis shocked him.
The connection on his phone in the crowded room, with masked people sitting two or three seats apart, was weak. He wanted to ignore the message but there were two more: hey? Are you there? Why aren’t you replying? My future life depends on this reference. Can’t you help me just this one more time?
I’m sorry – he responded, thinking of the treatment and the unfinished article. I’m busy for the next week. And it’ll take another week for me to get round to doing any of this. You’d best ask someone else if you’re in a hurry.
The green light beside his name on the board flashed, summoning him to Room 5. He switched off his phone, which was only on because he knew his sisters were waiting for news and texting him every few mins because he’d insisted on coming alone.
The nurse scolded him for not drinking enough water and jabbed him about three times in each arm before getting the blood she wanted. He told her he had no idea he was going to have to give blood this morning: he’d only had one a week ago. With bandages on both arms, he reeled out into thin sunlight and lit a cigarette. He walked past a bed of sunflowers but didn’t have the energy to take his phone out of his pocket to take pictures. His nephew had wanted to meet him outside the hospital but he’d forgotten to text him. He’d come by taxi; he decided to go home by bus.
On the ride home, he switched on his phone. A message from the young man who’d asked for help flashed up at him:
ego selfish inhuman you think you’re great but you’re not a friend to me nor a mentor any longer I’m done with you rid of you before you rid yourself…
His head was spinning. He couldn’t make the sentences cohere. The phone pinged. He deleted the old message, slipped down his mask, and checked new ones. A beloved friend from Dubai who knew he was going to hospital today and didn’t like to be beleaguered with questions. She’d sent a video of a woman shouting from a balcony:
I just want you to know that I miss you and I love you. I just can’t wait for this shit show to be over so that I can touch people, be with people, and have the best life ever….
Elizabeth walked into the room at dawn. He raised his head and rubbed his eyes.
Your small clothes, she said.
Socks. Underpants. I’m doing a handwash.
But Elizabeth, you can’t wash my…
I’m a doctor. And you’re a little bit like my son.
Not a dream, but a memory of nearly thirty years ago: like a scene from a film, vivid. He wasn’t asleep, just lying back on the sofa, exhausted after writing about Elizabeth and her books since morning. He was in that space where clock time ceases to exist.
Where are my dead, he thought? Sister, mother, companion, all gone, within a few months…Are they ever far away from me? Is the distance that we feel from those we can’t meet – because of lockdown or other separations – only easier to bear because we imagine we’ll see them again, some day, and we know the dead are gone for ever? His memories wouldn’t go into his article. Elizabeth in her Lausanne flat, sitting at her typewriter, running her fingers through her strong grey hair, passing on each page to him to read as she completed it. Calling for a can of strong lager at 11, which she drank in a porcelain mug. Cooking millet couscous and lambchops for him in her Swiss kitchen. Eating hot Szechuan peppers as if they were pine nuts. Elizabeth in London, sitting in a Marylebone pub, lighting a cigarette which she held between her thumb and finger and laughing at a joke she’d made, signing a book for him with ‘all love to my dearest friend, more than friend’. . Elizabeth, who had written in one of her novels: ‘Don’t ask me to cultivate a cautious heart, a fenced-in backyard for myself alone’. The unknown Elizabeth, losing her memory when she vanished from his life ten years before she died, gone now for eight years. He’d always thought he’d see her again.
Elizabeth, enfante terrible and then grande dame of pan-Asian literature, who said she wanted to leave this life with the wind in her sleeve, without the burden of a single breath left to shed. She died neglected, but not forgotten.
He went back to the laptop.
Sunday. Sophia had walked all the way from her house and was waiting for him on a bench in the park with a flask of coffee and a bag of snacks. It was the third time she had left home since March to see him; the first time was at the end of May, when she’d come by car and they sat for an hour in the courtyard of his block of flats – they hadn’t met since early March. Now lockdown had eased up this weekend, though only slightly. You could buy coffee to take away. Cafes and restaurants were still closed, but promising to reopen with outdoor seating the following week.
Sophia had spent much of her time writing a novel, which was now with her agent.
I’ve brought you some more masks, she said, handing them to him. He fitted one over his nose.
They walked around the park which was full of roses: white, yellow, pink, red. People were picnicking on the grass, young people had brought their children out to play, they were tumbling over each other and bruising their shins and knees.
Two young women were sitting on the grass in summer dresses with an open champagne bottle, and an embroidered tablecloth between them.
Look at those two, Mehran said. They’re distancing. Two meters apart.
It’s like an impressionist painting, Sophia said. Dejeuner sur l’herbe.
They sat down on a bench at the very edge of the lake, the flask and the bag of snacks she’d brought creating the required distance between them. Sophia slipped off her mask.
Have you been sleeping?
Well, the birds start singing so early. Like coloratura sopranos singing that aria from Lakme. Beautiful. But 3.50 am is early, I wish they’d begin later…larks, I think.
Those are robins, I’d say, Sophia replies. They’re back. My garden’s full of them.
How’s your article about the Chinese writer coming along?
I finished it today. But it’s always hard to let go of such things. I’ll have another look tonight and send it off tomorrow.
By the way, Sophia said. I’ve started work on my book about elephants. My India research is done. But I won’t be able to travel to Burma or Thailand as I planned. Do you know that most of the books I’ve read about elephants are written by women? And I’m born on a Wednesday, which is an elephant day. What day of the week were you born, by the way?
Friday’s child, he replied.
Loving and giving – Sophia smiled. And there are times I think that lovers and givers like you have to look after themselves. You don’t; you tend to the needs of others and ignore your own.
But I have you, he said. And Mimi and others phone regularly. And there’s Sama who phones me from Karachi, and Mani who messages from his village in Punjab…some friendships are flourishing, while others freeze.
Are you writing about your mother’s death? It’s been more than 40 days….
No, Mehran said. I can’t. Not yet.
Sophia, who’d written a series of beautiful elegies for her mother some years before, was silent. Her blue-green gaze spanned the water, took on its colour.
The leaves over the lake had turned to melted gold. A swan was swimming right up to the edge of the lake. He took out his phone, made a brief video of leaves and swan, then took a few photographs of Sophia unmasked.
Next time we’ll have drinks in my garden, Sophia said.
Go on, smile, Mehran said. I want another photo of you smiling in the sun.