When I was seven, we had a girl from the fishing fleet come to stay with us, although Mother told me that I must never refer to her as being a “fishing fleet” girl.
‘So, she’s not coming to find a husband?’
‘Well if she finds a husband that will be lovely, of course, but “fishing fleet” is such an unsightly term.’
Knowing women come to India to meet a husband was as normal as me knowing that because I was born in India, I wouldn’t be allowed to marry a high-ranking officer, but I knew better than to ask Mother the same question twice.
Sarah was beautiful. Her skin was the colour of milk, not like mine, which continually looks like it has been tinted no matter how much I keep myself covered in the shade. Mud brown I once heard someone call it.
Sarah remained in the shade. Everywhere she went she carried a small white umbrella. ‘To protect my décolletage,’ she used to say. She would always pronounce décolletage with a slight French accent that made her sound even more beautiful.
I would roll the word around my mouth trying to perfect the sound as I stood in front my mirror, holding my brush above my head as if it was a parasol and flicking one of Mother’s scarfs over my shoulder. The sun can be so drying on one’s décolletage, I would say, imagining I was casually strolling through a street in Paris.
I loved it when the fishing fleet boats arrived. There was a buzz in the air when new girls landed. Sometimes they would be coming back having been to school in England, some already had family here but sometimes they just wanted to something different. No matter what brought them out, once here they had one thing in common: their want to marry a British man.
We didn’t usually have fishing fleet girl’s staying with us, they would stay at their family home, or maybe at The Club my Grandparent’s ran, but Sarah was the youngest sister of my father’s friend and their mothers knew each other.
‘What’s my Grandmother like?’ I asked Sarah once.
‘You’ve never met her?’
‘No. She says India is too far and it wouldn’t suit her con-siti-tu-tion.’
‘Her constitution,’ Sarah giggled. ‘Well, she is very amusing and on Sundays, the smell of her roast dinner would waft through my window and make my stomach rumble it was so delicious.’
Apparently, I’ve never had a proper roast dinner because Mother says Indians can’t cook them properly, no matter how many times she tells them what to do.
‘You look a little like your Grandmother.’ Sarah added. I blushed excitedly at the thought of being like an English lady. ‘If your skin was lighter, of course.’
I loved Sarah and followed her around everywhere. When Mother chastised me for not leaving her alone, Sarah told Mother she didn’t mind, that she had never had a little sister and it was nice to have someone to be with away from the same circle of people at The Club.
One day, I remember being at The Club helping my grandmother as I often did on a Sunday. Except for Friday and Saturday nights, which children were most definitely not invited to, after Church on Sundays was the busiest time of the week and children were welcome. My job would be to help set up the children’s games and a drink station on the lawn. Sundays were usually the Ayahs’ day off so all the older children had to keep the younger children entertained so their parents could have some time to relax. It was when I came in to refill a water jug I saw it.
It was the tiniest of things. Sarah was standing talking with her friend Alice, a friend she had made on the boat coming out, and an officer. He said something and they both flung their heads back in laughter, mirroring each other’s movements whilst he swigged the rest of his drink.
‘Time for another,’ he said ‘Alice, will you help me.’
The fall of Sarah’s face was ever so slight but I felt a stab of pain for her. This sort of thing was common in The Club, two women wanting the same man, or a man wanting the wrong girl. But as Alice walked past Sarah, she purposefully brushed the back of her hand against Sarah’s. Sarah’s hand reacted immediately, grasping quickly and fiercely at Alice’s fingers. They looked straight at each other and quicker than it had happened the moment was over. Alice trailed behind the man to the bar. Looking as though she might cry, Sarah quickly turned away.
After that, every Sunday was the same. Sarah would go by Alice’s rooms to collect her. They would arrive smiling, laughing, arms linked together, the way only the best of friends do. They would sit at a table chatting or sometimes they would come outside to us children, help me organise the games or play with the little ones until they got too hot. Then they would slowly drift towards the coolness of the large house and sit together whilst being brought a flurry of drinks. Men would quickly start to circulate, like mosquitos looking for the best piece of flesh to bite. Alice’s officer was persistently the first one and she would get whisked away by him for the rest of the evening. Sarah would keep smiling but in the corners of Sarah’s eyes I could always see a frown.
I asked Mother once if she had ever seen the crushing pain in Sarah’s face when Alice was with the officer, or ‘her gentlemen friend’ as Mother would refer to him. Mother said Sarah was probably a little jealous of Alice, that she wanted the officer for herself. I didn’t know how to explain she was wrong, that Sarah never wanted the man, so I didn’t say anything. Within weeks, Alice and the officer were engaged.
My unknown English grandmother wasn’t the only one who didn’t have the constitution for India. If you aren’t born there, the heat does strange things to your body. Women become what the Indian-born British ladies call willowy, or what the British-born British ladies refer to as an over-stimulated constitution. I don’t know what the difference is, from what I saw; they become sluggish. Like a sloth bear, only moving when it was essential and sometimes not even then, getting staff to bring food, hot water and bedpans to their rooms.
Their skin would get blotchy and swollen because they could never get their mosquito nets right. They would stress that it was because of the heat, the dust, the smells, even the noise constantly penetrating their skin, seeping into their bodies, toxifying it from the inside out. They never mentioned the alcohol or the fact they dressed for a winter’s day with high necks and tight corsets. Normally I would ignore the complaints because the English loved to complain when they first arrived, but it was different with Sarah.
She didn’t complain. She slipped from well to sick so quietly, it almost went unnoticed.
It was the day of Alice’s wedding. I took the flowers that Alice wanted weaved through her bridesmaid’s hair up to Sarah’s room. Ayah was there, dressing Sarah in the most beautiful pale pink dress, which somehow made her skin look a more graceful shade of creamy-white. The front of the dress was high and wrapped around her collarbones. Then it sank slightly at the back into a cowl shape revealing the top of her spine, showing a thin veil of tight, white skin that looked like it was only just about holding her bones in. Sarah had always been petite or what the Indian-born ladies referred to as ‘delicate,’ but I had never seen anyone look so thin.
English people often lost weight during the first few months. The contents of their stomachs would be twisted inside out as their bodies rejected the unusual spices and flavours. But Sarah’s weight loss wasn’t about her being unable to hold food down. Occasionally Mother would comment on her lack of appetite, and I would watch her force down a few small mouthfuls of rice. Sarah blamed her ‘delicate constitution’, which satisfied my parents. Sarah made it to the wedding. During the service, her face was completely blank, her eyes staring dead ahead. She was so still, she reminded me of a doll I had seen in a shop window.
One Christmas, my parents bought me one of those dolls. I said I didn’t want it, but Father told me I was being ridiculous; that all little girls want a doll so special. He was right, I know he was, but I was still nervous about playing with something so delicate. Very carefully I placed the doll onto of my wardrobe to keep it out of harm’s way and there it stayed. Until one day I was spinning in my room, trying to make the bottom of my skirt fan up the way Sarah’s sometimes did when she danced. I lost my footing, fell back and crashed straight into my wardrobe.
There was a crack that went from the top of the doll’s forehead, over her nose, to under her chin. The way the porcelain had split created a dark shadow under one of the doll’s eyes, making it look as though she was crying. I thought I had got away with it but Mother found the doll hidden underneath my bed. After taking a ruler to the palm of my hands, Mother put the doll back on top of my wardrobe to remind me that I needed to watch what I was doing and take better care. Every night I would fall asleep with that china doll looking down on me and wonder if she really was crying.
After the church service, everyone went back to The Club. Captain and Mrs Banks had organised a magnificent spread. There was champagne from France and ginger beer for the younger ones.
I protested when Mother said it was time to leave the party and ‘let the adults have some fun.’ It was dark outside but they hadn’t cut the cake yet and I desperately wanted some. After Mother had promised she would bring me some, I left. Wearily and half asleep, I trailed along next to Ayah until she finally relented and carried me the rest of the way home.
The house was the darkest I had ever seen it, as most of the staff had been given the night off because we were at the wedding, so I imagine no one saw Sarah come home early. No one knew that she had run to her room, ripping the buttons and stitching off her dress as she pulled it off in desperation, as though the dress itself that was causing her pain. No one heard her as her fainted body hit the floor with such a thud it caused the skin above her right eye to split open.
There was a lot of talk in the days that followed about Sarah’s weight, her sick stomach and her over-stimulated constitution. Some women just aren’t built for India they said. I never understood how everyone couldn’t see.
She had died of a broken heart.
All because I didn’t have the words to tell someone why.
Nicola Bourne has just completed her Masters in Creative Writing and when she isn’t working on Clover & White, she can be found writing away. Nicola is currently working on her first novel. Find Nicola on Instagram
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