When his brother told him that he should read a short story by an American named John Cheever, Ulrich immediately thought of at least ten better ways to spend the evening. He could gather all the two- and five-rupee coins scattered in different corners of his room and go downstairs to the Irani restaurant and exchange them for paper currency. He could go to the laundromat across the street and finally collect his socks and underwear.

Or maybe he could just stay put. Why do anything? The smallest of his movements would add to the mayhem. Clare Road was a gaudy mix of hair salons, coffin makers, churches, cheap boutiques, and – worst of all – schools. Those screaming brats had managed to hijack Clare Road. Now everyone and everything had that unbearable quality that most children have.

‘Just read the Cheever,’ said Moses. His brother was still looking for the key to his motorcycle, which Ulrich knew was lying on the floor, at the foot of the table. ‘This guy, this loser American rich type, he’s at a pool party, and he suddenly decides to swim all the way home through people’s backyards.’

‘How the hell do you swim through a backyard?’

‘Through their pools, yaar. He’s tipsy and decides to go pool-hopping. But that’s not what the story’s about . . .’

‘What do I care what it’s about?’

‘You’re a swimmer so I just thought . . .’

Moses finally spotted the keychain. It was a terrible keychain for a motorcycle key. It had Moses’s fiancée’s name on it.

Ulrich pulled his white T-shirt all the way up to reveal his round belly. ‘Do I look like a swimmer to you?’ Ulrich slapped it hard, and it felt hard. That was the strange thing about his belly: it looked like fat but felt like muscle. But today it was extra firm – he hadn’t been able to go the bathroom in two days. ‘I’m a coach, man,’ said Ulrich. ‘Very different from a swimmer. Swimmers swim, coaches sit and watch.’

‘Then just sit there for the rest of your life. Just sit there and stare out the window.’

‘Why does it bother you so much?’

‘Because that’s all you do. It’s embarrassing.’

‘So is your fucking keychain.’

Cussing always got to Moses. His brother had always been the more mannered of the two, the darling pupil at school, whereas Ulrich’s brain retained nothing; every single line that he read passed through the way hot chai passes through a strainer. The only thing Ulrich excelled at was sport.

‘I’ll be back late,’ said Moses.

‘So why you telling me? I’m not your mother.’

Ulrich regretted saying that. Moses kept trying to bridge the distance between them by simple gestures; today, it was by asking Ulrich to read a story. That way, the brothers would have something to talk about at night.

 

From the veranda, Ulrich stared out at Monginis, the cake shop opposite. He envisioned his mother buying sponge cakes. He could still see her, eight years after her death, wiping the edges of her mouth with her small white handkerchief, two dabs on the left and two dabs on the right. It was as though the white handkerchief and the dabbing ensured that nothing cruel ever came out of her mouth. Unlike his mouth.

Below, Moses was wiping the seat of his RX 100. Why did he have to wipe the seat five times? It was not a baby’s bottom. It was a goddamn bike. Ulrich fought the urge to spit on it.

A year ago, he would have done it. At thirty-nine, spitting would have made sense. But turning forty changed things. He had lost almost all of his hair, except for a meaningless tuft, an apologetic afterthought, at the back of his head, for which he still had to pay barbers’ fees. He was now a man with a moustache, a look he had always despised.

As he walked back into the living room, he saw the book by John Cheever lying on the sofa. What the hell, he thought. Cheever’s company in the bathroom might do his bowels some royal good.

 


The Book Tree
Of Roses and Insects