Clean Slates

by a contributor

Vaiju Joshi

Summer is an orb of golden dust, suspended in a land of clocks that work backwards. It is the kingdom of mango trees, whirring fans, and evenings that hang around for the longest time before merging into hot, sticky nights. You play hopscotch on the blazing tiles, darting nimbly this way and that. You ride your bicycle around the deserted playground tracing endless loops in the arid dust.

Your neighbour has guests visiting from her village. Those kids, they watch you and they watch you all day and then they walk up to your garden and ask to join your game. You are not really doing anything by yourself and they are already fumbling with the gate. So you open the gate and let them in, cementing your friendship over pitchers of orange cordial.

Lying spread-eagled on the freshly mopped floor, you listen to tales of their home by the seaside. They tell you the names of their teachers, friends, their grocer even, the stray cat they have adopted.

“You are a friend too, now,” they say. You nod because promises like that need no prologues really.

At lunch time, they run back home shoeless across the boiling asphalt, silver-footing the pebbles on the road. Your parents have fallen asleep after lunch, but you are awake awaiting the friends’ return and sure enough, the gate creaks lightly and there is a tentative knock at the window.

You race down the steps and join them under the old banyan tree in the garden; it is a hot afternoon and air is sulky and thick. It will rain one day and your friends will go back to their town but that day is not here yet.

“We found a baby jackfruit on the road. It is ours now,” the friends say.

You observe this bounty with much interest: this prickly, smelly, semi-bruised fruit that they insist on sharing.

“Let us eat it,” they say.

You don’t want to. It looks raw and a lone ant hops out of the fruit and crawls away.

“Get us some salt and chilli powder. Oil too,” they demand.

You unwillingly go back inside and get some oil from your mother’s gleaming copper canister. Then salt and chilli powder. Sugar too, because there is some next to the canister.

Your friends want a knife but you are not allowed one.

“You are such a baby,” they say. You stare back defiantly and then look away.

They get a sharp stone and slit open the jackfruit. White sticky sap flows out and your fingers glue together.

“Webbed fingers,” you say. They giggle. There is almost-peace then, you can almost forgive them for calling you a baby.

The jackfruit is dunked in oil and then rolled in salt and chilli.

“It is ready,” they say, these friends of yours from the seaside. These kids that have a pet cat their mother knows nothing about.

“Eat it now,” they urge. On their face is hope. And pride.

You don’t want to, but you eat a little because they are watching you. It tastes horrible. So you spit it out.

“What did you do that for?” they demand, aghast.

You refuse to answer. Your mouth is funny and feathered.

They hang around sullen.

“You are no fun,” they mutter.

“And you are bumpkins,” you say.

They hold each other’s hands and go back home, leaving you alone with a raw jackfruit and half-stuck fingers for company.

You play by yourself and pretend to have the most fun ever—why, they were not even friends till this morning. They spot you and turn their backs. You half-heartedly wait the next morning; perhaps they won’t be a-coming.

But then the door opens and there they are, again.

“What should we do today?” they ask. Clean slates all around.

“We could go down to the riverbed and collect pebbles,” you say. It takes two parties to dump memories overboard; it is always easy to forget things together.

You race down the street with them, your sandals going flap-a-flap, your hair dancing to a side, your arms in their sun-tanned ones, your voices a happy blur. Behind you the silvery road unwinds itself and green jackfruits grow plump on dusty trees.

Vaiju Joshi’s fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, Scissors & Spackle, Bartleby Snopes, Untoward, Waterhouse Review, First Stop Fiction and Adelaide Review amongst others. An engineer by profession, she is currently editing her first novel. She lives in Adelaide, Australia.

See Vaiju’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.