1st Place (2009/10) - The Silent Isle by Rowena Macdonald

The Silent Isle
by Rowena Macdonald

‘"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.’
- Tennyson

On either side of the Whitechapel Road chaos is in full flood. Market stall-holders hammer out their patter: “bowl for pound tomato pepper onion bowl for pound”, “seventy pee coriander parsley parsley coriander seventy pee”. An African woman stalks through the customers shouting about God through a megaphone. Behind her is another African woman with a banner that reads ‘Christ is Risen’. A white woman spits at a Chinese woman who is selling pirate DVDs on her patch. A fight breaks out and a bottleneck of people forms around it. The police are called. An air ambulance lands on top of the Royal London Hospital. The noise of its blades obliterates all other sounds. A police car carves a swathe through the traffic and halts between the stalls with a brief whoop of its siren. Even the car’s blue lights seem loud. In Fresh Eatz next to the station the Turkish boy behind the counter cranks the Gaggia and blasts hot steam through the hundredth coffee of the morning.
          Halfway down the Whitechapel Road, overlooking this anarchic carnival, is a cool, lily-scented, dimly-lit island: the Shalothi Beauty Salon. Embowered in this island, languidly waiting for the tinkle of the bell which signals a customer, Shruti reclines on a treatment chair that she has pushed back to the most horizontal position and thinks about the Turkish boy. He is the most handsome boy she has ever seen with his coal-black curls, his broad clear brow, his dark liquid eyes. So much more handsome than the men her family keeps making her meet. Every day, passing Fresh Eatz on the way to and from work, she glimpses him through the window and he always smiles at her.
          Any moment now, Ramesh will put his head around the screen and tell her to wipe the spotless mirrors or sweep the shiny floor. The screen is patterned with peacocks and tigers and divides the main salon from the reception area where Ramesh sits behind a desk reading the Inqilab. Ostensibly the screen is there to protect the customers’ modesty from the eyes of the street – although the truly intimate operations, the Hollywood, Bollywood and Brazilian waxes, occur in a back room – but sometimes Shruti wonders if it is also supposed to stop the beauticians from being distracted by the excitement of life beyond the tinted salon window.
          The only customer is a white girl with dreadlocks whose upper lip Anjali is threading. She keeps waving her arms to make Anjali stop, then sitting upright and dabbing her watering eyes. They both laugh and the girl says something that contains the phrases “oh my God” and “pain”. “Next time…better…not so pain,” says Anjali in English and then, turning to Shruti, she says in Sylheti, “These English girls make so much fuss, eh? So much fuss over a little bit of threading. Though it is true she did practically have a full moustache when she came in.”
          Shruti smirks and Ramesh says loudly from the other side of the screen, “Stop talking about the customers in front of them. One of these days one of them will understand Sylheti and you’ll end up ruining my business.”
          A surprising number of white girls come into the salon. They are attracted by the low prices and the efficacy of the treatments – Ramesh’s beauticians are, under his strict regime, skilful at their jobs. Shruti also suspects they feel adventurous and liberal coming to the Shalothi. She is as interested in them as they are in her. She wishes she could answer the questions they ask when she is divesting their nether regions of pubic hair. But her English is limited to the basics necessary for her job: “Sit here”… “Head back”… “Open legs”… “Sorry for hurt”… “Finished”… “Good?”…On arriving in England a year ago she was given a job in the Shalothi as Ramesh is her father’s cousin. No one has considered that she could go back to school. Every time she suggests it to her father, he changes the subject or says “yes, yes…we’ll think about it…maybe when we’ve got more time and money…” But there never seems to be time or money and so she has gradually started teaching herself English using books borrowed from the Idea Store further down Whitechapel Road. She is definitely getting better at it but there is rarely any chance to practice, except with the white girl customers and, unless she is the back room with them, Ramesh filters their questions, relaying them to her in Sylheti, so Shruti is never sure if Ramesh is giving her the full translation or a mangled paraphrase.
          She supposes she should feel lucky that she isn’t stuck at home and that she has a job she generally enjoys. As she is trying to hang onto this positive thought, the doorbell tinkles, and behind the screen she hears an English voice making an inquiry. “Shruti,” Ramesh announces, “Girl here wants a mehendi. Come out, please.”
          The girl is white and wearing a tiny skirt. It is mid-June and very hot but Shruti can’t believe the girl has actually walked down Whitechapel Road in a garment that barely covers her private parts. Actually, she can believe it, since she sees girls like this every day though the window but, even so, it amazes her. Still, the girl is smiley and full of appreciation as Shruti takes out a fresh foil sachet of henna, snips off the pointed end and begins drawing a swirling spray of leaves and flowers down her left arm, which she plans to extend over her hand and down to her ring-less ring finger. Shruti is the best mehendi artist in the salon and she particularly enjoys decorating white girls because they are impressed by whatever you do, so you can lose yourself in the pattern and not stick to the designs in the template book that Asian girls tend to choose.
          It takes her half an hour to produce an intricate design that rests on the girl’s skin like a mud-caked spider’s web. The girl asks her a question which Ramesh immediately answers.
          “She wants to know how long you’ve been doing this; whether it’s taken you a long time to learn,” he explains. “I told her my wife taught you everything you know.”
          Shruti says nothing but this isn’t true. She has been doing mehendi since she was very young. She and her friends used to practice on each other during the breaks at school. She remembers her best friend, Samhita, lounging against the schoolyard wall, impatiently picking off the curlicues of dried henna before it had even had a chance to properly imprint her skin.
          The girl asks another question and again Ramesh replies before Shruti can find out what it was. His answer makes the girl gaze in beatific wonder at the pattern being created on her.
          “What did she want to know?”
          “She wanted to know whether this mehendi you’re doing means anything. I told her it meant Allah’s love was shining down on her.”
          He and Shruti snigger.
          “Why does she want a mehendi anyway?” Shruti asks, “Is she going to a wedding?”
          Ramesh and the girl exchange a few sentences in English, of which the only words Shruti catches are “party’ and “Bollywood”.
          “She’s going to a Bollywood theme fancy dress party.”
          It bemuses Shruti that the English have suddenly caught onto Bollywood. Her bemusement is mixed with something else, something she can’t quite pinpoint – irritation, perhaps; irritation that they never get it right. She imagines this girl and her friends turning up to this party in lengths of cheap shiny cloth fashioned into ill-tied saris, lipstick bindis on their foreheads.
          “Tell her the darker the colour turns out, the more her husband will love her.”
          Ramesh translates the old proverb into English and, after some frowns and demands for Ramesh to repeat himself more clearly, the girl beams at Shruti. She obviously has no husband but Shruti is curious to know if she has a lover.
          “She says she isn’t married but she hopes the colour will show that her boyfriend loves her very much.” Ramesh relays the sounds that come out of the girl’s mouth in reply. Shruti conceals her envy with her most decorous smile.
          The girl leaves the shop in a flurry of delighted gratitude. Shruti watches her disappear into the sunlight with her bare legs and her confident strut and feels a silent sob swell up inside. For half an hour she had been happily lost in her talent for making pretty patterns, but it is not enough. She is sick of the shadowy salon, sick of her hidden away life. She looks at the gold mirrored wall clock. Suddenly she feels brave enough to come out with what she has been daring herself to say for days.
          “Ramesh, can I go out for lunch today?”
          “I want to go out for lunch today.”
          “Haven’t you brought something from home?” Usually Shruti brings in last night’s leftovers.
          “Well.” Ramesh peers behind the screen to see what Anjali makes of this extraordinary request but she is performing further depilations on the dreadlocked girl in the backroom. “You can have some of my lunch. Or I could go and buy something from the corner shop for you.”
          “I want to go out for lunch.” Though she is wobbly inside, Shruti is determined. “I was reading about English employment law and, by law, if I work for more than four and a half hours I am allowed a half hour break spent away from the place where I work if I want.”
          “Where did you read this?”          “A Government leaflet in the Banglatown Women’s Centre.” Helpfully the leaflet had been translated into Sylheti.
          “Well, if that is what the Government says and that is the law…” Ramesh trails off, completely thrown by Shruti’s boldness and the threat of higher authority. “But if any customers come in and Anjali is busy then you must come back. I will ring you on your mobile. Don’t go far. Where are you going?”
          Shruti smiles mysteriously.
          Out in the market, the blue unclouded sky beats down and the bustle, heat and noise slaps her in the face. Without her usual scarf, Shruti feels exposed and noticeable in the pure white shalwar kameez that Ramesh insists all his beauticians wear. She feels foolishly clean as she weaves through the grubby confusion of the market. She heads to Fresh Eatz. Yes, he is there, the Turkish boy behind the counter, his smile as charming as usual, his dark eyes welcoming her as she points to a pastry then to the word on the menu which she knows means coffee. She is too nervous to attempt any English. Her heart is thumping. Here she is, alone, standing opposite the boy she loves.
          He asks her something complicated of which the only word she understands is “milk” so she simply nods. She sits at a table in the window so he can see her and she can glance at him surreptitiously as he works. This is the first time she has ever sat alone in a cafĂ©. She feels even more out of place and self conscious than she did on the street. Her white outfit seems to glow.
          The fact he must be Muslim will work in her favour; she clings onto a crumb of hope that eventually she will be able to persuade her father, even though she knows Turkey is irredeemably Westernised in his eyes. She yearns for the boy to come over and speak to her but customers keep crowding up to the counter. He is friendly to everyone and she realises with a hollow drop in her stomach that his beautiful smile, the one she thought was for her alone, is given to all. Beyond the window she sees, with a flutter at the coincidence, the girl with the mini-skirt entering the shop, holding her left arm out so as not to smudge the drying henna. Shruti is about to say hello when the most terrible thing happens. The girl doesn’t notice her at all and instead walks straight up to the counter, where the Turkish boy is pouring hot milk into someone’s coffee. In front of everyone, she kisses him full on his red lips and he kisses her back. Shruti’s heart cracks from side to side.

© Rowena Macdonald, 2010

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