Let us begin with two girls at a dance.
They are at the edge of the room. One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers. The other stands beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor. It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night. The seated girl is dressed in something pale, Esme forgets what, the other in a dark red frock that doesn’t suit her. She has lost her gloves. It begins here.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps it begins earlier, before the party, before they dressed in their new finery, before the candles were lit, before the sand was sprinkled on the boards, before the year whose end they are celebrating began. Who knows?
Either way it ends at a grille covering a window with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.
If Esme cares to gaze into the distance – that is to say, at what lies beyond the metal grille – she finds that, after a while, something happens to the focusing mechanism of her eyes. The squares of the grille will blur and, if she concentrates long enough, vanish. There is always a moment before her body reasserts itself, readjusting her eyes to the proper reality of the world, when it is just her and the trees, the road, the beyond. Nothing in between.
The squares at the bottom are worn free of paint and you can see the different layers of colour inside each other, like rings in a tree. Esme is taller than most so can reach the part where the paint is new and thick as tar.
Behind her, a woman makes tea for her dead husband. Is he dead? Or just run off? Esme doesn’t recall. Another woman is searching for water to pour on flowers that perished long ago in a seaside town not far from here. It is always the meaningless tasks that endure: the washing, the cooking, the clearing, the cleaning. Never anything majestic or significant, just the tiny rituals that hold together the seams of human life. The girl obsessed with cigarettes has had two warnings already and everyone is thinking she is about to get a third. And Esme is thinking, where does it begin – is it there, is it here, at the dance, in India, before?
She speaks to no one, these days. She wants to concentrate, she doesn’t like to muddy things with the distraction of speech. There is a zoetrope inside her head and she doesn’t like to be caught out when it stops.
Whir, whir. Stop.
In India, then. The garden. Herself aged about four, standing on the back step.
Above her, mimosa trees are shaking their heads at her, powdering the lawn with yellow dust. If she walked across it, she’d leave a trail behind. She wants something. She wants something but she doesn’t know what. It’s like an itch she can’t reach to scratch. A drink? Her ayah? A sliver of mango? She rubs at an insect bite on her arm and pokes at the yellow dust with her bare toe. In the distance somewhere she can hear her sister’s skipping-rope hitting the ground and the short shuffle of feet in between. Slap shunt slap shunt slap shunt.
She turns her head, listening for other noises. The brrrcloop-brrr of a bird in the mimosa branches, a hoe in the garden soil – scritch, scritch – and, somewhere, her mother’s voice. She can’t make out the words but she knows it’s her mother talking.
Esme jumps off the step, so that both feet land together, and runs round the side of the bungalow. Beside the lily pond, her mother is bending over the garden table, pouring tea into a cup, her father beside her in a hammock. The edges of their white clothes shimmer in the heat. Esme narrows her eyes until her parents blur into two hazy shapes, her mother a triangle and her father a line.
She counts as she walks over the lawn, giving a short hop every tenth step.
‘Oh.’ Her mother looks up. ‘Aren’t you having your nap?’
‘I woke up.’ Esme balances on one leg, like the birds that come to the pond at night.
‘Where’s your ayah? Where’s Jamila?’
‘I don’t know. May I have some tea?’
Her mother hesitates, unfolding a napkin across her knee.
‘Darling, I rather think—’
‘Give her some, if she wants it.’ Her father says this without opening his eyes.
Her mother pours tea into a saucer and holds it out. Esme ducks under her outstretched hand and clambers on to her lap. She feels the scratch of lace, the heat of a body underneath white cotton. ‘You were a triangle and Father was a line.’
Her mother shifts in the seat. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I said, you were a triangle—’
‘Mmm.’ Her ...