He couldn't ride a bicycle and he couldn't fall in love. Not since Beetle had left him. But he would reveal only the former to the broadsheet newspaper that had contacted him out of the blue to ask, "What is the one thing you are most ashamed of not being able to do?" Antje Awan, the author and broadcaster with whom he went to university, had recommended him to the journalist. The email, opened in his inbox at exactly 2.47 a.m. on Wednesday fourteenth of December 2010, had made him cry.
Anjte put me in contact with you.
I am composing a double spread in the arts review section of our newspaper on the subject of highly successful celebrities and the one thing they wished they could do. The article, entitled "Your Incredible Excuse", will give the British public an insight into the more human aspects of the public figures they know and love. It will be a playful tongue-in-cheek piece composed entirely of personal testimony and we would love for you to be involved. Please respond by tomorrow (Wednesday fourteenth of December) with a short answer to the below question.
"What is the one thing you are most ashamed of not being able to do and what's your incredible excuse?"
All best wishes
It was actually two questions parcelled up as one, just as the sender"s "all best wishes" had been bundled together, all of them, in a way that felt both annoying and insincere. The writer of the email had simply presumed he would be able to respond at short notice because they had a mutual contact, which irritated him. Maybe it was because he wasn"t that big a celebrity? Maybe Begum Shafak or Terence Wainwright, who read the ten o'clock news, had been given two weeks to respond, and Abhi was a mere afterthought in a desperate journalist's frantic mind; a young man making his way, a friend of a friend and only half a year into his TV career. Of course he'd respond.
Abhi, who had resorted to Facebook stalking after trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep for four hours now, was finding the sender of the email to be most disagreeable. Curious, he Googled her name and found a long list of "lifestyle" articles written by a pretty, a very pretty, young Iranian-looking woman. Abhi looked at her photo again. He sent a brief, animated response.
Will do! How nice of Antje to put us in touch!
All best wishes
BBC Breakfast News Presenter
His mind projected an image of Maya Hendricks standing semi-naked in his newly fitted kitchenette, making herself a cup of Iranian coffee. Fragile as a Chinese vase, Abhi held the daydream and slowly, slowly left his desk to slip under the warm covers of his futon bed. Gently, he pushed his right hand into his jogging bottoms and closed his eyes in anticipation of the sweet release that might help him relax enough to sleep. But just as he began to wade into his new fantasy, just as he began to conjure that image of Maya Hendricks doing exactly what he wanted, the sound of Beetle's laughter interrupted him. Abhi stared up at the whitewashed ceiling and sighed with disappointment. He hated it that he missed her. That damn Beetle!
Again, Abhi sighed. He reasoned it would be better to distract himself from the subject of women altogether. Ensconced in his new John Lewis Brisbane Quilt duvet, Abhi Archarya, aged thirty-four, began compiling a mental list of things he could not do: he couldn't ride a bicycle; he couldn't do quick tidy-ups of his flat (only big ones, and only then only to music); he couldn't tell long jokes like other men; he couldn't unlock doors under pressure (his landlord had told him to go Zen and then turn the key); he couldn't parallel park or touch-type and he couldn't . . . Beetle, he still couldn"t get Beetle out his head, no matter how he tried. Abhi was restless, more awake than ever before.
In all fairness to her, it wasn't just the trapped Beetle of Abhi's mind that was causing this particular bout of insomnia. He had slept well in the immediate aftermath of their break-up, defiant in his belief that life without her was going to be just fine. No, it wasn't just her. It was his job that had been keeping him up of late. Ever since he'd begun the early morning shifts at work six months ago, Abhi had acquired a nervy new internal alarm clock. His actual alarm, set for five each morning, left him too wired to sleep and too useless for anything else. And no, the fully expensed taxi ride to work didn't help. What if, one day, the taxi didn't pull up outside his bedroom window and Abhi overslept? What if the taxi did arrive, but he didn't hear the doorbell? What if he got into the taxi, left for work, went into makeup, got his notes and presented the news only to find that the whole sequence was just one long freakoid dream designed by his subconscious to mess up his life? Hot milk, okay hot milk, he muttered up at the ceiling, throwing back his duvet and surrendering himself once again to premature day.
3.02 a.m. Standing in his kitchenette, with the warm glow of the streetlight outside, Abhi's fingers riffled beyond the numerous boxes of tea in the dark of his cupboard. There was tea for all occasions; Sleepy Time, De-Stress, De-tox, Inner Goddess, Mildly Spiced Indian Chai tea, Green tea, an untouched Puerh brought over from Hong Kong by the BBC Financial Correspondent, Samantha Bodden, whose ex-girlfriend ran a New Age shop out there. Unsatisfied, Abhi's hands continued their search until they found what they were looking for. It was the watermarked Robertson's strawberry jam jar his mother had given him on her last visit to London. It contained shaved pistachio nuts, cardamom, cashews, almonds and sugar, all interlaced with delicate saffron hairs that looked weirdly ethereal to Abhi, like beautiful alien antennas. A few days ago, the same concoction had helped him sleep when nothing else would. He opened the old jar and inhaled its warm cardamom scent.
Abhi realized he was crying. A prickly hotness burned his cheeks. He raised his fingers to his face, as if exploring it for the first time. Yes, there were tears. Why was he crying? Abhi felt anxious and disorientated, like a man who had lost his keys. He backtracked, retraced his steps: He had read the email, responded, raised himself from his desk and returned to bed. Then, exasperated, he had wandered into the kitchen to make himself a cup of hot milk. It was then that something inside him had begun to thaw, causing tears to roll freely. But why? Abhi's eyes searched the flat for an answer and found it, finally, in the open laptop on his desk. Of course, he whispered to himself. Shaken by the discovery, Abhi stood stock-still, staring into his memory.
December the fourteenth. Today was the fourteenth of December: the date of Beetle"s mother's death. For four years, Abhi had marked it with her, an occasion that had made him feel both privileged and loved. Still, there was no need to cry. No reason at all to cry like he was crying now, stood in the cold new kitchenette, waiting for the milk to boil. It had been ten months, after all, since Beetle had left him, carrying her bright red suitcase out of their smart Kensington flat. It had been eight months since he had moved to Ealing Broadway in an effort to erase all traces of her. And, by and large, he had managed it, except for moments like these, when she came blundering into his consciousness unannounced. December the fourteenth. She"d done it to him again. That damn Beetle!
Beetle (aka Bernadette McKenzie) was a journalist. She was the politics editor of a respected left-wing, liberal magazine: a lower paid but intellectually superior job to Abhi's BBC TV news anchor role. She was a short, smart woman with an American accent and designer bangs that cut across her forehead like a three-fifteen deadline. She had the intellectual edge in their relationship, was always snorting and guffawing at the dubiously sourced news reportage she saw Abhi and his cohort turn into stories and recount on TV each day. She would have laughed at Maya Hendricks' email request, referring to her as a "lifestyle journalist" or a "list-monger", categories Beetle reserved for anyone working in the "inane, nepotistic, Oxbridge, balls-fondling" arts sections of the British print media. Beetle was a direct sort of a woman who lived and breathed politics, and it wasn't just Abhi she served it to straight.
When Abhi had expressed concern at their meeting his parents together (after all, Beetle was white, upper-middle class, half Scottish-American and half Jewish), she had insisted on a gathering the following week.
"Don't be so stiff, Bug!" she had said.
When Abhi's parents arrived at his London apartment with their usual plastic bags and Tupperware boxes filled with cooked food, Beetle had greeted them wearing a black Stella McCartney dress and pillar-box red stilettos. She had drunk dark rum in the kitchen with his mum, had argued about the Maharishi with his dad and had told him, in her post-rum pensiveness, that Islam was by far her favoured religion. Later on that evening, Abhi had caught Beetle in their kitchen, plaiting and un-plaiting his mother's long oiled hair, twisting it into new shapes as they talked, an intimacy unfolding before him. The odd thing was, they had all gotten along so well. It was Abhi who had spent the evening sullen and nervous, hovering on the periphery of rooms, waiting for his loose cannon of a girlfriend to hit someone in the face. But Beetle was Beetle was Beetle and Abhi's parents had sensed this. Abhi"s father had even emailed him one of his weird messages to say just that:
Bernadette is a nice girl! Mum wants to teach her cooking. Carrots growing in the garden, but they are too small. Maybe I did something wrong? Ask in your BBC. Hi to Terence Wainwright.
It was always tense for Abhi, introducing his old life to his new one. Though Abhi loved his parents, loved them so much, he'd never told them he felt like a freak. Even among the two people proudest of him and his achievements, Abhi felt shame, a surfeit of it. The truth was he couldn't remember a time when he did not feel it. It was monstrous, the things he'd achieved! He still remembered those three long winters during which his parents had refused to pay for heating, so Abhi could continue at the private school he had grown to hate. As they worked, he was chased and beaten by the local white boys, was rejected by the richer ones at school. Abhi had grown up associating success with the cold that had settled in his bones. Success was lonely, cold and strange. There was always that fear of being found out. So when Beetle McKenzie came along, with her loud American intellect and her soft, kind heart, Abhi still couldn't open up. Everything was buried so damn deep. He was willing to give everything of himself to her, but for that deep, dark kernel of shame. And who was she but another one of them, that conveyor belt of Alfies, Francescas, Sandeeps and Lisas, the bastards he'd honoured and hated so ferociously to get where he was. And for what? For Beetle McKenzie to keep trying to prise him open like a live oyster on her dinner plate? For Beetle, everything had been debatable, solvable, manageable . . . but he wasn't like that. So what if she was a "serve it to you straight" sort of woman? If Abhi "served it to you straight" he felt like the sky would shatter and fall down over everything. It was like the whole game was bloody rigged! Stupid, clever, straight-talking Beetle. God, he had loved her.
It was December the fourteenth. Each year on this day, Beetle and Abhi sealed off the world in memory of Mrs Beetle. Abhi had never told Beetle, but in the four years they had been together, he had grown to look forward to her mother's death day more than his own birthday. December the fourteenth had opened Beetle up even more, brought out someone softer, more fragile, a Beetle who needed Abhi more than he needed her. He found it odd and wonderful that she could spend it with him.
For Beetle, the day had its ground rules and Abhi was more than willing to obey. There would be no laptops or mobile phones, each would take the day off work and in this stolen pocket of time they would remember Mrs Beetle. The first anniversary was five months into their relationship. Abhi had never met the dead woman, but there he lay with his gorgeous new Beetle on her couch, smoking the last of the weed she'd bought for her mother, an attempt to alleviate the pain of the cancer that had taken her in the end. By the second year, Beetle and Abhi had moved in together. They made cranberry and banana oat bread in the swish breadmaker Mrs Beetle had gifted her daughter before she died. Then Abhi had sat with her under the duvet, watching Grace Kelly movies, listening to Beetle as she laughed and cried intermittently. The following year – the year of the abortion – Beetle had ignored Abhi's phone calls and spent days at a girlfriend"s house listening to Nina Simone on her iPod, her mother's favourite singer. Abhi sat alone in their flat, longing to stroke Beetle's hair, make her feel all right. But by December the fourteenth last year, things were much better between them. In high spirits, Beetle had rented a cottage in the Lake District. The plan was to watch Forrest Gump in the morning (Mrs Beetle had liked Tom Hanks), and then hire bikes in Windermere to cycle through the National Park, an activity that would be followed by an indoor picnic. Ashamed, Abhi had waited until after the film to reveal that he could not, in fact, ride a bike. Beetle had been furious.
"Why do I make you so nervous? Why can't you just tell me the truth?" she had asked, her green eyes glinting with incredulity. He had stared at the TV screen, unable to respond. Beetle left him in the cottage, hired a bicycle alone and didn't come back until evening; her face flushed and blotched with cold. Abhi had laid out the picnic items perfectly for her, spelling "I SORRY" with cheese sticks. He'd even lit a fire with real logs, the first in his life. After they had made love in that very English rented cottage, Beetle had fixed him with her gaze, serious and kind.
"Life should be so cool," she had said. "You just need to loosen up from time to time. You're so stiff sometimes, Bug."
The alarm read 4.15 a.m. Still, Abhi could not sleep. He warmed his hands with the mug of hot milk, inhaling its sweetness, and looked out onto the street below. He made out the shadowy figure of the big-bellied Turkish newsagent. He was pulling up the metal shutters of his shop window in anticipation of the oncoming day. A Polish family had previously owned and lived in the flat above the shops, but Abhi preferred this new Turkish family, with their bored teenage girl cashier, their odd business plan that involved converting the traditional newsagent's into a jumble sale; plastic buckets, steel colanders, pitta breads and succulent vegetables as well as cigarettes and lottery tickets. In the first few weeks of his own early morning shift, Abhi had been warmed by the man's insistence on starting early, his morning ritual of opening up shop, followed by a coffee and newspaper at his counter. Abhi felt an affinity with him, an unspoken closeness. He felt they were brothers, morning crusaders, and considered it auspicious if he spotted him. But today it wasn't just the old Turkish man Abhi saw. He had seen something else, another shadowy object. He took a long slug of his mother's hot saffron milk and pulled the blind back a little further.
It was a bicycle. A slim burgundy frame, a hybrid; somewhere between a racer and a mountain bike. There it stood under the warm glow of a streetlamp, unlocked and beautiful, glinting its metallic burgundy splendour, broadcasting its presence to no one. Intrigued, Abhi forgot his tears, forgot Beetle McKenzie. He opened the window, wide enough to poke his head out. Things were changing. The Turkish man had entered his shop. He was making coffee and reading his newspaper. Again, Abhi eyed the bike. It was still there, a hot girl waiting for date. Abhi checked his alarm clock: still forty minutes before the taxi arrived, taking him, his brogues and his newly pressed suit to present the news at BBC Television Centre in White City. Forty minutes and no bike owner in sight.
Abhi unlocked the door of his Ealing flat and made his way onto the street outside. Eager not to be seen by the shop owner, he kept his head down, and made his way stealthily towards the bike. In no time at all, he was stood in front of the old newsagent's, sporting the jogging bottoms and the hoody he'd worn in bed. He took the bike by its handlebars and led it toward the empty road. "Okay," he said. "I'm going to do this." As he climbed onto the seat, he felt the same relief he had felt as a boy, happiness that his feet touched the floor.
Right. Right. Here goes. Abhi pushed off with his right foot, teetered cautiously, lost his balance, fell first to the left and then to the right. At his most audacious, he managed two whole seconds of blissful balance before swerving to a halt. Then he went ahead once more, managing to lift his feet off the ground, coasting along the road for three whole seconds. Bolder, he added pedalling. First two rotations of the pedals, then four! After several runs, he was rolling along the road on his bike. It was only on his last run, going faster than he could believe, faster than he had ever gone before, feeling at once exhilarated, free and fearful that the latter emotion took over and Abhi braked hard. The bike stopped abruptly and he went shooting over the handlebars.
A stinging sensation on his palms and knees. And he"d bloodied up his face! He remembered his five o"clock TV news slot and moaned. This realization was followed by a short bout of swearing. It took him a moment to become aware that the bicycle was hurting his left leg, and he shifted position slightly. It was then that he heard the sound of slow feet on gravel.
"Are you alright love? Let me get you up. Eric? Eric? Come here. Will you come here? This young man's had a fall."
It was a heavy-breasted old woman with thick arms and a wrinkled, concerned expression.
"Oh, love. You should come in to ours to clean yourself up. It"s not pretty, your face."
As Abhi looked at the old woman, fear set it. Maybe she"d seen the theft; maybe she"d seen it all. "I was going to take it back," said Abhi, stumbling over the bike as he tried to raise himself. But she seemed concerned only with his bruises.
"Come on, love, up with you now. Eric? Eric, wake up will you? You coming out or what? We"ve got ourselves an injured man."
With the old woman"s help, he heaved the bike to one side and made his way up to what could be called a standing position. "There you go. Up you come, my lovely." she said, shaking the dirt from his sweatshirt. "Dear me.. That's a sore-looking face you've got there."
Abhi grimaced. David Rogers would have to take the morning slot.
"Name's Gladys," said the old woman, holding out her hand and gesturing towards the front door of her flat, only metres away from them.
"Now. Tell me one thing. You're not a drunk, a rapist or a murderer, are you?" she asked briskly, as if getting an unwanted task out of the way. Abhi shook his head vehemently, gladdened by the fact that she hadn"t mentioned theft.
"Well, that settles it then. You had better come in and get yourself cleaned up."
It was unorthodox behaviour for a Londoner, inviting a stranger into their home so early in the morning. Abhi wanted to tell her that he himself lived close by, but she was making her way back to her flat, expecting him to follow. He didn't want to go back just yet. He was feeling too shaken, too full of a cold ache in his bones.
"Can't sleep these nights. That's how I heard you. Eric! Get up! We've got ourselves a guest," she said, holding the door open and guiding Abhi to the living room.
"That's it, sit down love. I"ll get you some Dettol for your bruises."
Gladys reminded him of the dinner ladies he had known at school; there was an ease about her, an indestructibility. When her husband finally arrived, he nodded silently at Abhi and seated himself on the chair in the corner of their small living room. But just as Abhi got comfortable, that unspoken fear encroached upon him, the fear that their poverty might contaminate him. Eric turned on the TV to display rolling news. Abhi's initial anxiety was quickly replaced by the more rational concern that the couple might recognize him from TV. It would be too awkward: a BBC news anchor in a stranger's home having fallen off a stolen bike. He braced himself, but neither the silent old man nor his wife behaved as if he were a criminal or a TV celebrity. Gladys handed him a cup of coffee. Softly, she applied antiseptic to his face, "Don't you worry. You're sorted now."
Abhi smiled. "Please," he said. "Can I use your phone?"
She took him to the corridor, where an old-style blue rotary phone was sat on a high table near the door. Abhi dialled. "Hello, Fran? It's Abhi," he said. "I"ve got a five a.m. shift today, but I"ve had an accident."
Abhi could feel Fran's disdain from the other side.
"Who's going to replace you?"
"It was an accident with a bike. I don't know . . ."
"Are you all right?" asked his producer as an afterthought. Her concern felt laboured.
"Yes, yes I am. But it's my face," he replied. "Bloodied up completely. No, I"m afraid makeup won't do it. Not today."
Abhi heard Fran shout David Rogers' name across the newsroom. She told him to keep her updated throughout the week, made her excuses and said a rapid, slightly annoyed goodbye.
Back in the living room, Eric was still staring at the TV. In his blue-striped pyjamas he watched the news like he watched Abhi, semi-present, as if the world was one long, strange movie.
"He doesn't talk much," said Gladys, pointing over at her husband. "But he says what he thinks when he's got something to say." Silence. Abhi felt a stinging sensation on his face. There was blood on his cheek.
"You look like one of them Turkeys over the road," she said suddenly, reaching again for the bottle of antiseptic. Abhi sat politely as she dabbed it on too roughly. He frowned, remembering the bike. He hoped someone else hadn't stolen it from the lawn outside Gladys's flat. He wondered if it had been wise to leave it out at all. A framed photograph on the mantelpiece caught Abhi's attention.
"Is that your granddaughter?"
"That's our Amy when she was little. We like to keep it there. There are others around the house. Makes her feel a bit closer to home," said Gladys.
"She lives abroad?"
"You could say that. This is her place, really. We travelled down from Hull to look after her for a couple of weeks when she first fell sick, but we ended up staying with her for the whole year." Gladys shook her head. "About your age, she was."
Besides her, Eric sat in silence and watched the screen. Abhi began to wonder if he spoke at all.
"She was trouble. You do wrong to the dead by dressing them up prettier than they were in the first place. But she made her peace in the end. I just wished she'd done it a bit sooner. I"d have liked for her to find a nice boy, get married or whatever you call it these days."
Gladys laughed gently to herself.
"Please," said Abhi. "You've been so kind. Thank you. I should leave you both to get some sleep."
Gladys nodded and, as she raised herself up with much effort, she motioned to Eric in the chair beside her.
"Come on then, up with you, let's see our guest to the door."
Abhi left the flat, escorted by Gladys and her husband. He picked the damaged bike up from the cold morning grass, feeling a deep pain in hands, knees and chest. His face felt sore and bloody. Still, he took the bike by its handlebars, and started pushing it back up the hill towards the newsagent's. At his back, he heard the old man shout. "Here lad! Aren;t you gonna get back on?"
As the sun rose, Abhi remembered Beetle after the abortion. How tired she had looked in the hospital, how shut out he had felt when she had pushed him away. The abortion had been their mutual decision, just as ending their relationship had been. But Beetle had refused to speak to him for days. When she finally began accepting his calls, it was to say that she loved him, that she didn't want to change anything, just to learn how to live with what had already been changed. Abhi had felt relieved. It was his Beetle talking again, that rational, strong, "serve it to you straight" woman he so adored. Soon after they moved back in together, Beetle had called his mother for consolation. So easily, she had done the one thing Abhi never could. He wouldn't have believed it, a woman of that generation supporting the unmarried white girlfriend of her son through an abortion. But they had talked for what seemed like hours, the two women, after which Abhi's father had arrived by train from Leicester, bringing with him homemade kaju katli in a pink-lidded Tupperware box, just in case Beetle needed strength. His eyes sunken with sorrow, Abhi's father had told them to pray for themselves, for each other. "When there's nothing more to do, you pray," he said. "A true heart's prayer, it comes from a broken place." To his surprise, Beetle had nodded. She promised his father they would. When evening came, Abhi saw his father to the door. As he hugged him goodbye, he wondered whether he and Beetle would pray together that night, but she did not mention it again. The following day, normal life had resumed. He reasoned that his Beetle was back together with him, so what was the use of looking back?
Now, in his morning kitchenette, Abhi smiled. He raised a mug of still-warm saffron milk to Beetle McKenzie, to Mrs Beetle, all the lost souls of December the fourteenth. And in that moment of calm contemplation, he opened his laptop and began to write.
14th December, 2010
Subject: Your Incredible Excuse
My parents were newlyweds when they fled Uganda in 1972. In that absurd twist of fate experienced by countless other middle-class Ugandan South Asians, they found themselves on a derelict council estate on the outskirts of Leicestershire. I was born in England five years later and I suppose I took it upon myself to rectify this gross misunderstanding. Both my parents worked in the local biscuit factory until retirement. As they worked, I accepted a partial scholarship to the local private school, top marks in high school exams, a First Class in English and History from the University of London, a postgraduate certificate in Journalism at City University. I worked for several years as a researcher for Newsnight, followed by a fast-track TV news presenter traineeship with BBC Worldwide. My parents are proud of me. But there are many things I still wish I could do and my excuses aren"t all that incredible. I wish I could be more myself, say it when I need to without my tongue faltering in my mouth. I wish I could feel better, have more pride, less shame, be more open with people, be less scared.
I can't ride a bicycle. I was too scared to learn how to on the street where we lived. For me, the experience of watching children riding bicycles has always been anxious and beautiful. I don't know how they do it! They are so young and so able to balance, so free in spirit and so fearless of falling. They might teach a man like me a thing or two. Perhaps now that my father has retired (and while his body is still robust), he might still be able to teach me to ride and fall. Because I suppose you can"t learn how to balance without a few falls here and there. It"s late in the day, I know. But we all have to start from somewhere.
BBC Breakfast News Presenter
Your Incredible Excuse by Divya Ghelani is extracted from Too Asian, Not Asian Enough, published by Tindal Street Press.