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Politics Short story

The Hole

In this magic realist horror story published at Novel Noctule, a wealthy young woman in metropolitan India faces her alienation in literal form.

[Image courtesy: Novel Noctule and Tracey Whiteside: “I Will Never Marry”]

This magic realist short story was published in the February 2020 issue of Novel Noctule: https://www.novelnoctule.com/post/the-hole-by-amita-basu.

I was the featured writer in this issue. Here’s the Spotlight: https://www.novelnoctule.com/post/writers-spotlight-amita-basu.

***

THE HOLE

Pothole. Without warning bang mid-street.

Deftly, he maneuvered around it. They always gave me good drivers.

Down J. N. Boulevard, we had been coasting. His hands relaxed—his neck relaxed, but he was ready.

This one I’d had for, let’s see—about ten months. Yes, I remember: The first day this driver drove me was when I had my teeth taken out. My dentist had spotted a cavity in the last molar. A tiny hole he said had healed, but I’d had him take it out anyway. Take them all out. Good riddance: After two decades of smoking, my teeth had acquired a yellow patina, increasingly unconcealable. It had been a choice between my Treasurer Menthol Slims and the teeth.

My dentures, they claimed, would be stainproof.

I had the teeth out all at once. All twenty-eight, which they avoid, but there’s nothing money can’t buy. It had been this chap who’d picked me up afterwards.

I had emerged from the clinic, groggy behind my shades, the mouth cotton-stuffed. I had purchased for that weekend, to wear outdoors and in bed and bath until the swelling subsided, a D&G ecru charmeuse hijab. Groggy, on my 120-mm stiletto Louboutins, I strode out, the peril of stepping keeping me awake. Left right left right. My Marc Jacobs pencil skirt gripping the buttocks, the slit tickling the backs of the knees. I became aware of stares.

Man Sporting Swastika in Islamagunj Lynched by Mob! I read through the tinted glasses of a Volkswagen stuck in traffic. Read in a fat man’s Economic Times.

Down the road, a man in white, immaculate head-to-toe, staring up and down from her hijab to her bare legs, takes offence. Is she a bad Muslim, or an infidel abusing for vanity the sacred cloth? Down the boulevard, she comes striding, neck relaxed, titanium heel-tips clicking. Before she notices the fanatic, she is thrown to the ground. Satin cheek crushed into pavement arousing instant, ugly purple bruise. The purple bruise that has been waiting under satin skin for thirty years to arise. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please.

But no. But I was okay. There he was at my car, holding open my door, saluting as I strode up puffy-faced from my twenty-eight extractions. This driver, in the old one’s uniform altered, I could see though groggily. Perfectly. I slid in. Glancing back down the block, I saw no fanatic in white. Not around my dentist’s office. Not here. Never anywhere my life takes me. They say the world changed after 9/11. Not my world. To me, nothing will ever happen.

Pledging to End Two Wars, Pres. Obama Finds Himself Entangled in Three! So they said, as we cruised down J. N. Boulevard, on my car radio, clear and soft in the quiet. My driver got my windows re-beaded: top-of-the-line nano-adhesive sealant. Now, in there, tomb-quiet. That day, the mourners had placed on the grave a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley. My driver changed the channel. There’s More Violence in Darfur Now, Not Less: Fourteen Years After Conflict Erupted! Clear and softly they spoke, in the silence of my Lincoln Signature. CDC: Ebola Could Kill 1.4 million in West Africa by January! A lively scent, lily-of-the-valley, filled the tomb. This, from the pico-porous Valentino car-freshener sachet I snatched on impulse yesterday at aisle’s end. How clear and soft was this voice on the radio, arising into my tomb of silence. Who would imagine there was, outside, a noisy dirty whole world?

Down J.N. Boulevard we coasted, the asphalt baby skin-smooth. Smooth as the skin on the belly of a baby unbreathing. Baby freshly dead. My driver got my car’s shock absorption upgraded too: Now I’ve got in my little Rolls-Royce Sweptail quintuple state-of-the-art Bilstein shocks, patented last year for sixteen-wheeler freight trucks.

Newborn Unearthed Amid Khyber Pass Wreckage! Roads Closed for Remainder of Monsoon! This they didn’t say on the radio, but when I dreamed up the baby headline, I heard it in their voice. The voice of the news. The voice, so concerned. Apologetic. The voice that coopts you into apology. As if other people’s bad luck has anything to do with you.

God save those to whom news happens. Thank god news never happens to you and me, for there is no god.

Without warning bang mid-street, the pothole.

My driver starts. The passenger is jerked forward. The body hurled at 80kph between the seats headfirst into the windshield. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please. The car comes to rest nose-first, body airborne. The windshield shatters into a thousand-rayed cobweb, each glass edge star-bright. Starlight. In a web of starlight, under the morning sun, the body that’s been pitched forward is held suspended. For an instant inside the car, while my driver head in hand battles to get out. He shuts the door behind him bang and then, with the sound of music, the web of starlight collapses, spilling out the body. The body trails over the hood, still shiny the contents of the skull, and comes to rest on the asphalt.

But no. But “Sorry ma’am,” said my driver, already back in control of my car. Back in control, before the nails of the clutching fingers had sunk into the back of the empty passenger seat of my car, leather-shrouded. My driver had pulled short at the last instant and now maneuvered around the pothole. This could’ve been my tomb. Carbon-steel chassis, leather shroud to hand (handmade Prada chamois leather), and an incinerator too. Instant cremation. Next time?

A black pothole. Glancing at it as we passed, I saw its sides were the same black as the baby-smooth road. A pothole meter-deep, but exposing underneath the asphalt no other road-layers. No base course, no embankment. Only asphalt. Only a surface, meter-deep. For all you know, a surface mile-deep.

Ebola: Five ways the CDC got it wrong! Sudan Pres. Hails Role of Qatar in Darfur Peace! they continued.

“I wonder where that came from?” said my driver, coasting again down the Boulevard. “Wasn’t there yesterday.” His English was excellent and his manners were subtle. He glanced up at me for a half-second in the rearview mirror. I saw what he wanted.

“You’re an excellent driver.” Whoever he was, driving me that year. Didn’t know their names. Why bother. They always gave me good drivers.

“Wasn’t there yesterday,” he repeated, scrutinizing the road ahead.

And then I saw: He was curious. He had done his job and, after all, nothing had happened. Nothing ever happens and still, he was curious about the world and sudden potholes. Plebeians.

New Militia Attacks on Villages in Darfur Emblematic of Continuing Genocide: The World’s Forgetting and Ignoring Now Complete!

“Someone must’ve dug the hole on purpose!” he concluded. No longer looking for reassurance.

God bless the plebeians. Always looking for intent.

I produced my compact and reapplied my lipstick. Estée Lauder Pure Color Envy. That always shut him up. God knows who had raised him: A woman applying makeup in public caused this one acute embarrassment.

He dropped me outside the Tata compound where I’d been consulting all week. As I strode across the paved garden, through the blood-deep shade of weeping willows, through the gold-sparkling music of the fountains, I saw him cruise around the corner to penetrate the cervix of the underground parking. The path was clear. Without slowing down, he thrusted violently. Without warning, throwing the system into shock. Underground, the recipient’s scream of ecstasy, muffled.

The Tata compound was six blocks of steel and glass. The monster Scylla, raising from the wine-dark sea snapping at Odysseus, her six snakeheads. Monster of glass and steel, raising on sinuous necks her six heads into the sky. The heads so high up, they were faint in Delhi’s gray-lung winter smog. Steel fangs bared, glistening in the sun, Scylla leaned on air contrapposto.

It was in the lift while checking my face in the mirror that was the floor when I first saw it. The hole.

It was my last day. I was ushered from one glass conference hall to another. It was 23:10 before I had time to look at my face. Sitting against the mirror on the granite countertop in the 33rd floor bathroom.

Yes: a hole. Bang midface, above the upper lip. Exquisitely centered on the philtrum. Under the Possini lights angled discreetly out of their beveled black chrome hoods, I peered into the hole in my face. The hole was the color and the texture of my skin. Odd. My breath clouded the mirror. I watched the vapor dissipate, half-expecting the hole would vaporize too.

I sprang down, landing on the balls of my feet and the heel-tips of my 100-mm red bottoms. I strode out of the restroom, and the door swung discreetly closed. A soundproof door, closing on the silence of a tomb. Left right left right. In Scylla’s belly of glass and steel echoed my footsteps, black and red.

Would he notice?

I’d texted him: I’d be late and if he wished, we could reschedule. “We’re still on,” he’d directed, so here I sat now awaiting him at The Red Peacock. I am never the first to arrive but, that evening, I’d wanted time to select a table and arrange myself. The hole on my face in the shadow. Would he notice it? He had the sharpest eye for appearances. He wasn’t particularly wealthy, or successful, or attractive—but he had discrimination. No use going out with a man who doesn’t discriminate.

Child Labour on Nestlé Farms: Chocolate Giant’s Problems Continue! Where did that come from? Not the radio: They were playing music, of course, in the restaurant, not news. So where did I hear that? Looking around I saw across the room, on the captain’s desk, a UNICEF donation box. Painted with a child. A child with chocolate chip eyes in cherry-red rags. It was the colors on the donation box that had reminded me of this bit of news that I’d read somewhere. Chocolate and cherry: a lush palette for a winter ensemble. In focus, in the photo on the donation box, are only the eyes and the little scarred fingers. Excellent photography.

If he didn’t notice, he was worthless, and I’d move on. I receded further into the shadows. To distract him, I unbuttoned my Dior burgundy silk blouse down to the lacy gore of my Chantal Thomass bra. I shook loose around the shoulders the fresh curls. They had permed the hair last weekend: It was redolent of saffron shampoo. Closing my eyes, I inhaled—myself.

Under the languid autumn sun, from the earth blood-red, burst hundreds of thousands of saffron crocuses. Violet and white. Dew-fresh in the dawn. But already, they’re picking the flowers: dozens of ragamuffins, driven by the whip against time. Dew-fresh, already wilting, petals trembling like new brides under the touch of little scarred fingers. Miles of crocuses, kilos of flowers.

Indoors, ripped by the little scarred fingers, from the bowels of the flowers, their saffron stigmata. Kilos of flowers, milligrams of saffron.

In a factory, the dried saffron dissolved in acids and alcohols, stripped of color. The essence bottled by little bloody fingers. Kilos of saffron, milligrams of colorless essential oil.

So that I could shake from my curls at him in The Red Peacock the fragrance of saffron. The fragrance of the first rain in Rome. In September, the blood-drenched capital of the world, at Mediterranean summer’s-end, bone-dry. In the world’s oldest cosmopolis, the fragrance of the first rain. City rain. Dust rain. Far from the swelter of tourists and commuters, sipping espresso in a room cool and dim in the bowels of an obscure palace, walls hung with brocade from the Borgias still unfaded. The fragrance of saffron. Of experienced luxury.

Marshalling her raw-silk shopping bags, rising from amid them their general, draped in Loro Piana vicuña-wool shawl, she strides down the street in her 105-mm Louboutins. From the Via Condotti, back towards the Hotel de Russie down a cobblestoned street. Left right left right. Down the street over which Sulla’s thugs overran the city, cutting down their brothers, assassinating the Republic.

Organic Clothing Magnate Hot Under the Collar: Appalling Conditions for Bonded Child Labourers in Dharavi! This must’ve come to her from a radio at the gelato shop. But why did they say, on Italian radio, ‘Dharavi.’ Why not ‘Dharavi, Mumbai, India, Asia.’ She glanced over her shoulder back at the shop. Striking Workers Suspended, WTO Backs Management, Negotiations Stuck!

Stuck. Without warning her left heel is stuck between cobblestones. Her hands flail. Her raw-silk shopping bags go flying. Hermès scarves soar free into the peacock-blue sky. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please. She cracks her skull against the cover of an open manhole, and, slumped, falls down the hole. Her vicuña shawl flies clear of her body, thank god— a priceless item—and they run towards the manhole to fight over it. They, even the illiterates who’ve never heard of vicuña can see that it’s a peerless work of art that flies from the falling woman’s shoulders. They fight over her shawl, the echoes of their shouts escorting down the manhole the falling body. She is dead before the body touches bottom. Slips into the sewage veins of the cosmopolis.

For now, she sinks, the sewage condescending to cover her. But soon, she will bloat, bursting out of her clothes. But soon, she will float, floating up amid all the floating bodies. Heads well-coiffed, faces sewage-bleached. Bodies tossed down the manholes by little scarred fingers.

Deep in its belly, bodies dissolving in the soup of stomach acids, the cosmopolis recycles efficiently its blue blood.

I closed my eyes. I smelled—myself. He wouldn’t see the hole.

There he was. Whoever it was, fucking me that month. Didn’t know their names. Why bother? They were all decent fucks.

“Evening,” he said, as the waiter waited in the offing menu under arm. “Not late, am I?”

I sent him, over the orchids in the Murano vase, a smile and, with a shake of my head, the fragrance of saffron. “I came early.”

He glanced at me. He knew I never came early.

We ordered and chatted over an ’86 Chateau Bastille. The waiter set down our dinner. Before my date, the shark fin soup. Before me, the grilled fugu and the organic crowberry salad. The fugu was tiger blowfish, the most prestigious of the pufferfish, shipped here from Shimonoseki, packed in a ton of ice fresh cut from the Greenland Ice Sheet. A ton exactly: a Shylock’s ton. A ton of ice, messing up the deck—but what can you do? They no longer use R-12 as a refrigerant. CFCs caused the ozone hole, you know. A hole in the sky: the scientists had found. Fugu from Shimonoseki, well-travelled in Greenland ice, then smoked over Mexican hickory. The crowberries were from Greenland too: I smiled at the coincidence. Before me, the waiter laid down the poison fish and, before my date, the waiter laid down shark-death floating in embalming fluid. We fell to. The Puiforcat silverware kissed the Wedgwood bone china. The sound of music.

100 Million Sharks Killed Every Year: If They Die, So Will We! Where did this come from? I looked around: Not over the radio at The Red Peacock had this headline come. Must’ve seen it elsewhere. Ah, yes. In the N.Y. Times my aisle-side neighbor had been reading Lisbon-bound in the spring.

But, you see, I’m not eating shark-fin soup. I’m eating fugu. Fugu’s not endangered.

True: They had been neighbours. On the ship, packed inside the ice-block, the fugu one meter of ice away from the shark fins.

I’d never fancied shark fin myself, though it was the house specialty. Of course, it’s a delicacy, or they wouldn’t go to the trouble of hunting a 600-kilo tiger shark for 20 kilos of fin. Just 3% of its bodyweight, and who would imagine the shark would miss such a little part of its body? Silly, I call it, catching such an enormous thing to shear off such a little part of it then tossing the thing back into the sea when the part doesn’t even taste good! My brother raved about M. Gullet’s shark fin soup, but I stuck to the fugu. I was never disappointed. M. Gullet at The Red Peacock had kept ten years running three Michelin stars. His food was a G-spot orgasm in paradise under god’s benediction.

My date and I toyed with our food. He leaned over the table. The flame of the Bottega Veneta candle shone on his face with a steady red glow. The glow was an artist’s eye: not imposing, merely eliciting. Eliciting, through the skin painstakingly bronzed, the lusty red of youth. Preparing to speak, but I knew what he would say: I’d watched him thirty-one minutes crafting the words.

Lounging in my Jean Dunand chair, toying with my smoked fugu, waiting for him to speak, I brushed back a lock of hair tickling the skin between the breasts. With a flash of platinum on fingers, I flicked the lock away. But the skin between the breasts tickled still. Puzzled, glancing down at my arm. I couldn’t.

Couldn’t glance down at the arm, the neck wouldn’t move. Couldn’t brush the hair off the skin, the arm hadn’t moved. Staring at the lock of hair tickling still the skin, watching the ribs rise and fall, rise faster, faster, rise and unable to fall again— now I feel it.

The muscles of the trachea are lax and numb. Across the table at her date, the eyes stare bulging out of their sockets. Paralyzed. She is being poisoned, she realizes. M. Gullet has erred: the fugu was incorrectly prepared— she is poisoned—already paralyzed. If he will act, she can still be saved. But he stares at her through the orchids, uncomprehending. He doesn’t know that fugu is poisonous if incorrectly prepared, and she hasn’t told him. Why bother. And now she can’t tell him: The muscles of the larynx are dead. Her eyes bulge at him and her lips, already blue, struggle soundless. What charade is this? he wonders, exploiting this lull in the conversation to thumb through his smartphone. Her face falls lax into her crowberry salad. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please. The crowberries burst, staining he satin cheeks with their crimson blood.

Dead from tetrodotoxicity. It’s her brother and her date who have an appetite for endangered shark. Fugu isn’t endangered. But they had been neighbors. For their appetites, she has paid. Please oh please.

I knew what he would say. I’d watched him thirty-one minutes crafting the words.

“Why did you come early tonight?”

I examined him. Then I too leaned on the table, clear into the light. Arms on the table, crossed, pushing up between them the breasts. I saw his eyes travel with experience, luxuriously without haste, over my face and down the décolletage. Assessing. Then his eyes travelled back to mine.

“I don’t want dessert. Do you?”

For the twenty-eighth night in a row, or perhaps the twentieth, who knows—he had assessed the goods and had approved them. He hadn’t seen the hole in my face. Now he looked into my eyes steadily. He had approved of the goods, but not been unduly excited by them. Not now and not the first time. He would savor me, and he had savored other delicacies before, and he would savor other delicacies after.

I was a shirt. A shirt of finest Flanders linen, one in a row of three hundred and sixty-five shirts of linen and silk and merino. My sister shirts and I lounged against the right wall of a closet womb-deep. Tomb-quiet: the quiet deepened by the periodical purr of the closet climate-control system keeping us nice and dry. And he was a tie. A tie of finest silk handknitted, hand-dyed, hand-embroidered. One in a row of ninety silk ties parading up and down a tall suave rack leaning contrapposto against the back wall of the closet. In all the history of time, he and I would meet once: tie and shirt in one exquisite ensemble. For one gala evening, he would slip inside my collar, the collar turned down again, discreet: sealing him in. And then out, and done, and we would lose one another forever in the star-bright crowd.

Yes: This was our last evening. He’d been fucking me all month and he’d failed to see the hole in the middle of my face, and he’d not be fucking me again.

Pakistan: Qandeel Baloch Found Dead in Family Home After Being Asphyxiated by Unrepentant Brother! This headline I heard the man at the next table telling his date. I’d had my eye for a week on the man at the next table. He would do nicely next.

“So? Dessert?” repeated my date.

“Dessert? Let’s see… I rather fancy the lavender trifle.” I didn’t, but I had to draw out dinner. You’ve got to play the game. He didn’t yet know this was our last night. I had to arouse in his mind that suspicion. To arouse him, at the fag end of our month jaded.

He signaled the waiter.

In the street “No,” I said, seizing his arm midair and pinning it to his side. “Let’s walk.” Over my shoulder, I dismissed the taxi as it drew up.

“It’s three kilometers to my place. Why walk? Missed your Bikram yoga today?”

No. Because I need a stimulant. You’ve been fucking me a month and my flame, too, needs fanning. I need to be ogled, in my undress on your arm, by a few other strangers. A few hundred other strangers between here and there. Then I’ll be ready for our last fuck.

“Look at that full moon!” I replied. “Isn’t it romantic?”

Turning a sneer into a smile, he consented. Yes: he knows.

Midway, his phone rang. We halted. I looked into the gold-lit Gucci window, displaying merlot patent handbag and bourbon suede booties. I looked through the glass at the muscle-colored, skin-textured, blood-fragrant leather goods. I looked past them into the now dark shop. I brought my eyes forward again to focus on the glass. Behind the glass, the goods so vivid and, on the glass, this face so pale. A ghost. Whose pale ghost is this that leers at the blood-red intoxication of life? Peering in the glass at the ghost, I saw the hole was still there. Bigger. How had he not seen the hole? No discrimination at all. He’ll fuck anyone. I stifled the urge to walk away, leaving him hissing into his phone.

He had tried to cut the conversation short, but now it absorbed him. He turned, frowning away from me, and I leaned forward peering. Yes: No mistake. Wider, deeper. The hole had now engulfed my philtrum. The lower edge of the hole nestled in the groove of my upper lip. The upper edge of the hole was poised to rise through my columella. As before, the hole was the color and texture of my face. A pothole the color of the texture of the road: That’s how we’d almost fallen in. A ghost hole.

Changing the focus of the eyes, I conjured a fanciful image. Behind the glass, out of the merlot handbag, grew a flower. Out of the blood-red handbag, on a neck, grew a face bleached white. Mine. Weird flower growing out of weird pot. A face that had been, perhaps, once full of blood. Now a ghost-face. And, in the middle of the ghost-face, the ghost hole. I smiled at my fancy.

“Sorry,” he said, ending his call and putting his phone, I saw, on silent for the night. I stayed unmoving until he looked at me. I had moved from the window to stand bang under a streetlamp. In the jaundiced light I stood, I knew, illuminated. And still, he didn’t see it: He looked at me unseeing, hoping that I wasn’t put off by his work interruption. “Shall we go?” he asked.

Still, he didn’t see it. He didn’t see the hole!

I burst into a smile. Of meaningless delight. Of the meaningless delight of health, and youth, and freedom from the illusion that life has meaning. I seized his arm and strode down the street, the concrete slick with the evening rain. Casually, not wishing to appear to apologize, he alluded to the business associated with the call he’d just taken. Kurfürstendamm, billion-euro deal, CET deadline. Et cetera. He wasn’t saying ‘sorry’, so I forbore from saying ‘hey, it’s fine’. Didn’t bother to reply, savoring his growing fluster: the paprika fragrance of his stress-sweat. Leaning on his arm as we neared his flat, I remained sullenly silent. He was bridling his fluster: bridled, the steed of his worry was growing into a fine arrogant stud. I was going to enjoy our final fuck.

Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah! The infant-shrill scream of a car-alarm rent the night on Curzon Street. He broke away from me and galloped towards the corner. He bridled himself before he reached the corner and cantered awkwardly back for me. I saw that he had recognized the sound of the alarm: It wasn’t his car they were trying to rape. If it were, he wouldn’t have come back for me. “Don’t be alarmed, it’s nothing,” he said, facing me struggling to hide his shame. But why ashamed? Because you value a 2013 Mercedes S-Class above this month’s woman? Because you heard the sounds of violence and left to her own devices, a woman who hasn’t bothered to remember your name? Smiling at his irrational shame, I took his arm and strode around the corner towards the car being raped.

Burning. Already she was burning: an Audi Q3. Inside her flailed two bodies. It was the bodies that were burning, set afire by the man who stood watching outside on the pavement. In one hand, he held a pistol. In the other, flicking on and off a lighter. At his feet, dripping, rolled a canister. Through the locked windows, between the locked doors of the car issued the smell of petroleum, and I saw the headline tomorrow morning – I glanced at my watch: Yes, there was still time before the papers went to press. Engaged Daughter of Media Mogul Caught with Lover! Brother Locks them in Car; Sets them on Fire! The bodies flailed around inside, warring bones and burning flesh damaging the car’s exquisite upholstery. Violently, they flailed, and the car rocking against the pavement had set off its own alarm. Leaving my date lagging, I approached the car from the roadside to sniff the fumes. The media mogul had good taste: I could smell the burning flesh, and the heated plastic, and the petroleum: rude smells all. But the upholstery, all silk and bamboo, that burned odorless.

“Stand away,” spat the man with the lighter.

I straightened myself to my full height, steady on my 110-mm red-bottoms. Really rude, all this ruckus at 03:00 in a polite neighborhood. I crossed my arms and stared at him. He glared back at me, squaring his shoulders. The Crown-Prince of Media keeps in shape, I saw, as he stalked off the pavement around the car towards me in the road.

Deftly, with his fist thick-veined, he catches her in the jugular before she sees him raise his arm. She sees the arm now, in retrospect, the next instant on her way to the pavement: an arm in retrospect is the last thing she sees. The pavement, she doesn’t see: On its edge, she cracks open the skull. The body rolls under the rocking, burning car. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please. But conscious, still conscious and hot with the murder of his sister, he straddles her and rips easily her skirt across her thighs. Split in two, the split of the skirt high-waisted rising to meet the split of the blouse unbuttoned all the way to the French-lace bra.

The man who’s been fucking her for a month is about to cry out—then realizes he doesn’t know her name. He watches for some minutes; The murderer expends the testosterone of the hunt. Then he turns away, jogs up the stairs of his building, and is half-asleep with boredom before he has let himself into his eleventh-floor condo. News never happens to him.

“We don’t want any trouble,” remarked my date, looking neither at me nor at the murderer, deftly catching my wrist and swerving me away down the street towards his building.

In the atrium “Please go upstairs,” he whispered, “I’ll hang back and find out what’s happened.”

“Engaged Daughter of Media Mogul Caught with Lover!” I declared. “Brother Locks them in Car; Sets them on Fire!”

“Maybe so. Please wait for me upstairs.”

It was I who fell asleep waiting and, when I awoke, he was in the room tearing off his clothes. Alternately swearing at the backwardness of the so-called educated class, and explaining to me what had happened downstairs.

It had already happened and he was alive, and still, he was curious. It hadn’t happened to him, and nothing would ever happen to him—and still, he was upset.

I rolled over and let the left leg fall away from the freshly waxed groin. Eyes closed, caressing with my burnished fingernails my thighs, I heard him falter. Regrouping, remembering that he was upset at the indecency downstairs, he resumed talking. I went on caressing myself, eyes closed and, at last, the bed groaned and I felt his heat before I felt his hands.

Per plan, I enjoyed our final fuck and when his breathing had normalized I got up, got dressed and, stooping over him to caress the sweat away from his brow, I told him we should see other people. His eyes shot open, he frowned, and he was about to protest, remembering—remembering what? I no longer bothered to read him, so I don’t know what he was remembering. The last month, perhaps. Perhaps what we’d just been through together. Then he remembered that he was a man; He remembered that we’d not been through anything.

We were not them. Not the people downstairs, who fell indiscreetly in love and got burned. We were not the people to whom anything ever happens. We were not the people who, suffering together, come together and stay together—fancying, in suffering, intent. A world where things are intended.

He closed his eyes again. His eyebrows shot up supercilious. He closed his mouth with a civilized sigh, and his lips pursed: So that’s that then. I patted his chest and strode out of his condo. Behind me, the soundproof door swung gently closed.

Distorted, in the lift, in the rose gold plate of the control panel, I saw that it was still there. And growing.

I was asleep again before I was in my penthouse, so it wasn’t till morning that I got a good look at it. Pausing—as my Nuova Simonelli Aurora espresso machine ground my freshly roasted beans and released from her innards the fragrance of freshly ground coffee—to inhale. The fragrance that would arouse the dead ready willing and able. Placing in the receptacle my 1812 Nymphenburg espresso glass, I squatted before my Aurora peering into her torso chrome-plated, mirror-bright.

Sudan Govt Accused of Using Chemical Weapons in Darfur!

The hole had grown downwards, engulfing the mouth. The lips were intact, the palate, the tongue. The teeth, too, were intact, of course—my dentures. The texture of the tongue, the shape of the palate, the feel of the lips, the color of my dentures—all these properties of a body disciplined, decorated, disowned—the hole had assumed, and so had grown to engulf the mouth.

The ground coffee slipped into the brew group and, as the water was forced at 9-bar pressure through the perfect puck, the only indication of the tumult inside my Aurora was a quiet humming: the water in the steam boiler. I hummed along.

Let them eat cake

Oh for pity’s sake

Don’t be such a hog

There’s a good dog

On my way to my closet to assemble my ensemble for the Ambani charity ball that evening, I flipped on my Bang & Olufsen television set.

Pan-Drug-Resistant TB On the Rise! they said soft and clear into my ochre and sepia penthouse. Doctors on Demand of Affluent Patients Overprescribing Antibiotics Creating Superbugs!

They’re so dramatic. Voices capitalizing every word. But such nice voices newscasters have. Rich texture, lovely cadence, and diction like an aged Chateau Lafite. Voices so fine, in your tomb so quiet, lulling you. So I kept the news on and my nanotech speakers wafted through my penthouse fine lullabies.

Superbugs Spreading Through Fæcal Waste Among Manual Scavengers! Scavengers Warned but Death Threats Keep Scavenger Castes in Job! In June alone, One One Three One Two Cases Reported! Three two one and Chime. Drop by blood-rich drop, my espresso had finished dripping into my cup and Chime. I rushed back to my kitchen.

Four Four Eight Six Soldiers Have Died in Iraq! Pres. Obama Is–

The perfect cup. Hands joined at wrist and fingertips, my espresso cup cradled between them, I closed the eyes and inhaled deeply the fragrance of my coffee. The fragrance of possibility. Of scaling Everest, of the sub-9 second 100-meter dash, of the novel intoxicated with possibility written sober in a week. My coffee was a single estate from the Ethiopian highlands. This was the last of my batch: Last month, genocide had broken out over there and half a million coffee workers had been macheted. Or scimitared, or axed. I had agonized over how I would get my next batch—then remembered they were sure to have been hoarding a few tons of beans, and there’s nothing money can’t buy.

Doctors Without Borders (India) Urges ICMR to Control Epidemic of Superbugs Bred in the Private Wards of Nation’s Five-Star Hospitals!

Must Act Now, DWB Warns, Else–

Warns.

Must get it excised, stat, warns the oncologist: It’s engulfed now your whole body.

– But what is it, she says, and how did it grow so fast. There was nothing when I dressed that morning, and when I glimpsed myself, in the mirror that was the floor of the lift, soaring up through the glass flesh of the steel-spined Scylla—Stop!

He stops her. Stop yes, I know. It appeared suddenly, yes I know! This type of cancer always does.

– What type is that, she says. (All her life she’s waited for this. For the moment of being shocked awake. Resting herself, preserving herself for this moment that would change how she moves in the world. Now the moment’s here. Without warning, thrust into her. But now she’s too sleepy to wake up.) What type of cancer, she remarks thumbing her Goldvish Revolution smartphone.

Why sweetheart, says the doctor, it’s cancer of the soul! Your soul has hypertrophied, poor dear. Your soul, oversensitive to the suffering of the world. Your soul, over-bleeding for the troubles of the world.

– Yes, that’s me. And what’s the cure, she says.

Darling there is no cure, we must just cast you into the hole!

– What hole, she says.

Why, the hole in the ground, that we shall dig for you especially, ten-by-ten-by-ten!

– Feet, she says.

No dearest: meters!

– Meters, right, much better to use meters. Dashed Americans, dragging the Old Imperial into the 21st century: rather rude I call it. Right, so you’ll bury me then, is it, in this metric hole, she says.

Oh, dear no! chuckles the doctor, no need for that. We’ll toss you into the hole, and when the hole of your body strikes the hole in the ground, in the meeting of the holes you shall be neutralized.

– What, at once, she asks.

No, silly! after a moment. One moment after you hit the ground. To be precise, between 100 and 130 meters after impact. You’ll be fully conscious till the last, and I fancy you’ll rather enjoy yourself!

For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please.

In my kitchen, my Second Reich Black Forest cuckoo-clock chimed 11:00, warning me: My weekend workday had begun. I laid out my ensemble for the charity ball. Versace gown, Chanel clutch, Landoux 5-carat solitaire studs, my 130-mm Louboutins, and my makeup too. Then I fetched my Ferragamo lambskin binder: The Tata people had waded deep into shit and preferred the security of friable paper. Of course, I could photocopy the papers, and of course, they had to trust that I wouldn’t. Lambskin binder. Pages marked Confidential, gangraped by red ink. By the dozen top execs who’ve rifled through this document’s crisp white, discreetly scented flesh. The binder’s carcass landed with muffled thud on my Sri Lanka ebony countertop. The sound of music.

I set to work, but my mind wandered. Brown, a certain shade of brown: What is it called? The name of a liquor, the name of a color. A shade of brown, but why is it that I want its name? All that day, my mind wandered in pursuit of the unknown that I wanted for reasons unknown.

Will Trump Agree to the Pentagon’s Permanent War in Iraq!

My deadline hours away, I worked leisurely, wandering with my binder and my Montblanc fountain pen from ebony countertop to porcelain bathtub.

It’s nice in my bathtub, the water gurgling and rippling, not as quiet as the rest of my penthouse. Quiet is lovely. But quiet is merely the setting. You don’t go to a resort on Easter Island for the quiet. 3,700 kilometers from inhabited land, it is quiet. But you wouldn’t expend a quarter’s salary to go there if you didn’t expect the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and the Queen of Denmark to be there. As in the resort, in my penthouse the quiet was a fine linen canvas, waiting to be painted on with the sound of music. The thud of my lambskin binder on my ebony countertop. The ripple and the gurgle of mountain spring water in my Boca de Lobo bathtub. The airiest of Bach’s cantatas drifting in, through my bathroom door ajar, on my Goldmund Epilogue home theatre system. What’s the name of that shade of brown?

As I dried the body on my Sferra towel, gentle on the eyes, I picked out an organic rambutan and parted my blinds while flipping my channels. My telly was across my kitchen turning left and at the other end of my boudoir, but these radio-frequency remote controls work through walls.

Obama: Iraq War Will Be Over by Year’s End; Troops Coming Home!

While drying the body on my towel while nibbling at my rambutan while parting my blinds to pass the eyes over the street below—I inhaled the fragrance of Saturday. The fragrance of inkpot and sealing-wax: the fragrance of an age when time trickled honey-slow. A bit of work, the adagio of a cantata, a nibble on a rambutan, idling two hours over brunch while working and bathing and nibbling. Idyllic, doing idly so many things at once, things which it doesn’t much matter whether you do them. Idyllic not having to be anywhere: being not quite sure where you are. What’s the name of that shade of brown?

Donald Rumsfeld’s Holy War: Pres. Bush’s Iraq Briefings Came with Quotes From the Bible!

The Bible! Exclamation point! How absolutely darling of them to care so much about the world!

I gazed into the street below. Park Street. Park Street where? Anywhere in the world. From another world, from the afternoon news on my telly in my boudoir two rooms away, meticulously subtitled, came the wails of Dharavi slum-dwellers, their homes suddenly razed. Through my blinds I followed down the road a white van surmounted by loudspeakers. Is it election season again? The van is headed to another world. They aren’t allowed to campaign on my street, thank god, the—whatever party they are. Who can keep track of the parties. What’s the name of that shade of brown?

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir Charged with Genocide for a Five-Year Campaign of Violence in Darfur! The President, an Indicted War Criminal, Ignores Threats of Arrest: Travels Abroad to Eritrea!

A restlessness stirred within me. What was it bothering me? I took the vital signs. All okay. What’s the name of that shade of brown?

Towards evening, I began to dress. I finessed into my gown and ambled about in stilettos. Queen of the castle. My makeup, I applied bit by bit over two hours. Reluctant to be finished with this most magnitudinous task, drawing line-by-line, shade-by-shade the face the world shall see. Putting off finishing it with chores. Pressing the button of my dishwasher, pressing the button of my coffee roaster, pressing the button of my rubbish disposal.

Pres. Trump Repeats Wrong Claim That He Opposed Iraq War!

At 21:57, I finished applying my makeup. I stood before my Passerine mirror. Done? No, not done. I stumbled around my penthouse racking the brain. Something’s missing, what’s missing? My buzzer buzzed: My cab’s here. The buzzing transfixed me: I saw that the thing making me restless, the thing I’d been looking for all day was–

I had it. What’s the name of that shade of brown? Cognac.

Rushing to my vanity I rifled among my things. Cognac bronzer. That’s what my face needed. The finishing touch to my ensemble. Puzzle glimpsed, puzzle solved, I giggled with relief. I found my Elizabeth Arden Cream Blush #171, unscrewed the jar, and scooped on forefinger a dollop. A dollop dream-thick, blood-rich.

I raised my hand to my face and my eyes to the mirror.

I raised the hand to the face and the eyes to my mirror.

But now the whole face was gone.

END

Do you enjoy horror fiction? How do you cope with alienation? Have you experienced depersonalisation, out-of-body experiences, or hallucinations? Up to what point do you think wealth brings happiness?

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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