“So, Daniel,” she began in a thick Indian accent that was almost impenetrable to me, although her command of my native tongue was excellent, “you work at home?”
“Yes. I’m a freelance writer. Amazon and Lulu opened it all up for me. So now I can write fiction and publish online without the bother of agents and publishers,” I told her, sipping the wine I’d just poured for us while trying to not let my next-door-neighbour see just how uncomfortable I felt in her presence.
And for reasons I could not explain to myself at the time.
“I know,” she said, totally at ease in my open-plan apartment with views over and across the river towards Greenwich, this as she tasted her own New Zealand Marlborough. “Royalties of around £5000 a month if this is regular.”
My mouth hung open. She was actually holding up one of the bank statements I still received, not, as yet, having gone paperless. And, to my annoyance, had taken it from the open top of my bureau while I poured the wine.
“That… That’s my private mail,” I protested, a little disappointed that the outrage I felt for this invasion of privacy had come out so… tamely.
Nadwa Johar smiled.
As if she had already taken my measure and decided her own went way beyond the readings received in my regard.
Rising from my seat, not trusting myself to mouth any more less than persuasive rebukes, I tried to reach for the statement.
Nadwa held it out of reach, eyes hard, almost as if daring me to challenge her.
I felt like an intruder in my own apartment with this younger and – not to blow my own trumpet – with this woman who was not exactly a stunner and was not, physically at least, in my league.
When it came to mental fortitude these days, well…
I tried to assert myself just the same. I considered myself a tolerant man – too tolerant, according to my ex-wife, but there were limits. And, even allowing for cultural differences and the fact she had not been in England more than a year and had recently lost her own husband, such an uninvited intrusion into my personal affairs went way beyond my self-defined boundaries of manners and good-taste. If such behaviour was tolerated in the pink city of Jaipur where, from our few cursory conversations with each other, I knew she had been raised, then it certainly was not here and she would do well to realise that she was no longer living in the Punjab but in affluent London by the side of the Thames.
Not, or so I believed, possessing a racist bone in my body, the nature of my thoughts towards a neighbour I knew to have been raised in an environment only a notch away from being considered poverty, surprised me.
Even as I considered her breach of etiquette, I prayed that the opportunist braying of Nigel Farage, and the subsequent farrago (a relation once-removed of the man himself, no doubt) that had enabled Brexit was not having some kind of subliminal effect upon my own mindset. Though she had lived across the hall from me for a good eight months now, this was her first time in my home. And, if things did not improve markedly, it would certainly be her last – the geography of her birth notwithstanding.
“Do you always invite yourself in to a neighbour’s apartment and then start reading their private correspondence?” I asked, hoping the mild rebuke would prove enough.
I tried again to reach for the statement but, and far from being discomfited by my obvious displeasure, Nadwa Johar simply swatted my hand away.
“A real man would take it from me,” she said, the eyes staring into mine unblinkingly assuring me she was not playing some teasing game.
But it was the words and not the eyes that troubled.
The same words the woman who had been my wife not ten months ago had used when telling me her reasons for divorcing me and taking off with a man she had met online.
The same desertion, coming on top of having just lost my parents, that had seen me become a shell of my former self and require psychiatric treatment and nursing before I could again function with some degree of normality.
“Don’t worry,” the beloved wife who had morphed into a faithless bitch told me before leaving. “My new man is a real man and has more than enough money to take care of me. You can keep what your parent’s left you. All I want is half the equity of our house when you sell it.”
She was gone after that and I have not seen her since. One second I had thought I was happily married, the next I was forlorn and devastated. I was an only child and had no family to fall back on – especially as Marcia, my ex, had been insistent on not having children.
Not with me, anyway.
You can imagine the healing process was not made any easier for me when a visiting friend let it slip that Marcia had not only married her “real man” the moment our divorce was finalised and the house sold, but had become pregnant by him shortly afterwards.
“Wh-Why would you be so rude?” I asked. “Is that how your people brought you up to be? Or is it just natural?” My voice was croaky and unconvincing even to my own ears.
Still holding my eyes, and without rising from her seat, Nadwa placed her glass down and took hold of my wrist, before turning it over, and placing the statement into my own hand.
It was the first physical contact I had felt from a woman in months and I became erect; praying that the loose-fitting jogging bottoms I had been wearing when she came calling out-of-the-blue hid my disgrace.
It was, after all, embarrassing enough to respond in such a way at all; let alone towards a woman for who I was unaware of having the slightest attraction.
“Calm down, Daniel,” she said patronisingly, as if pacifying an infant on the verge of a tantrum – despite the fact this infant at forty-three was some sixteen years her senior. “I just wanted to verify a suspicion I had about you.”
“Suspicion?” I echoed, taken aback as I returned the statement to the bureau. “What suspicion?”
“Do not worry,” she said, her smirk and the thick accented English accompanying it doing nothing to lessen my agitation. “It is not a suspicion any longer. I do believe I’ve learned exactly what I wanted to learn from you.
“What are you talk…?”
She raised a hand, imperiously, and, as if I were the guest and she the host, I fell silent, berating myself for my timidity as I did so.
I hated rudeness and the overbearing in people and she had just shown herself to be both.
And in my home.
“Sit down and stop hovering over me and I shall tell you,” she said, oblivious or uncaring of my thoughts in her regard.
Angry, as much with myself for my weakness as at her, I returned to the sofa opposite.
“There, that is better,” she told me, again in that irritating tone of voice she seemed to have cribbed from some Victorian governess she had watched on television or in a film.
She was sat with her legs crossed on my low leather armchair and was dangling a shoe from a bare foot. The leg above the dangling footwear was, I had to confess, shapely and deprived as I was of the real thing, soon deflected my thoughts away from her rudeness. Her toes were painted a blood red, which, contrasted with the dusky brown of her skin, seemed to me an apt choice of coloration.
My thoughts were accusing.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” they screamed/
“It is better, is it not?” she repeated in a cooing voice.
I remained silent, hoping my facial expression alone would give her pause and let her know I did not appreciate being treated in such a fashion in my own home.
It did not.
Or, if it did, seemed to deter her not a jot.
It would only be when looking back – though I feel a part of me knew it at the time – that I would realise my less than manly response to her was the green-light she required to press on with an agenda she had developed in regard of me from the very beginning.
“You keep a very tidy home, Daniel,” she said, still holding my statement between her fingers. “I like that.”
It took me unawares.
“Thank you,” I told her, fighting to hold on to my indignation. I was indeed proud of my home and the fact I did not live like a slob. Which did not mean she was free to be invited in and invade its privacy.
“My late husband was your complete opposite,” she went on. “For him it was a woman who should take care of such matters for a husband. To perform such household chores, he insisted, would make him less than a man.”
I sat and bridled, sensing her insult and continuing to wonder why I simply hadn’t just snatched my personal correspondence from her and told her to leave.
“Paavan was older than me and more… traditional… in the way he viewed how men and women should interact,” she went on. “Our marriage was an arranged one and, had it not been for the fact he was relatively wealthy, I am sure I could have persuaded my father to find another prospect for me. But there you have it. Paavan was interested in a grown woman and not a child and had decided I was for him. The wedding dowry paid to my father was quite considerable.”
Her lip curled and her eyes seemed to become pinpricks as she pondered the injustice.
“He was an ugly, mean and despicable pig no dowry, not matter how big, should have persuaded a father to part with his daughter.”
We sat in silence for a few moments and it struck me that it was impossible to tell who she was angry with most: pig of a husband; or mercenary father.
“Surely you could have refused?” I pointed out finally, her rudeness forgotten for the moment. “This is the 21st Century. We all have a choice.”
“You have no real conception of either my country or my background,” she told me. “Believe me, my life would have proved a living hell had I somehow managed to prevent my father accepting Paavan’s offer and have my extended family miss out on the money that would come their way from the… transaction.”
I nodded, feigning understanding of a way of life that was beyond my Westernised conceptions, my eyes magnetised towards her toes as they gently swung back and forth, though I had been aware of no attraction to her until this moment.
And certainly not for the somewhat avian and cruel set of her facial features; even if I was aware there was something… authoritative… in her bearing.
I tore my eyes away from her feet and looked up, “And what of now? Paavan is gone and there is nothing to keep you here. Have you thought of returning home at all?”
Her head shook slowly from side-to-side.
“This is my country now.”
“But you haven’t been here that long. Surely, you…?”
“There is not enough money on earth to persuade me to return home to live amongst my people back there,” she came in, the passion of her words ensuring I was required to concentrate upon the thick accent in which her English was spoken. “And especially not after having experienced life here. The poverty and ignorance I experienced growing up were not so painful when one had nothing with which to compare them… Now, however…”
She sipped at her wine and trained her eyes upon mine.
I felt uncomfortable and wondered why I simply didn’t just ask her to leave.
“I have become quite the Anglophile,” she told me proudly. “I even prefer the eclectic cuisine of my adopted country and seldom, if ever, eat or miss that of my own.”
She became suddenly thoughtful.
Of course, there are certain… personal… aspects of our Indian culture that I enjoy but, other than those, I am happy to remain exactly where I am.”
I nodded, so engrossed in her words and curious, as to exactly what it was of her own country it was that she missed, I had almost forgotten her earlier rudeness.
“To be an Indian woman of the status I held in my homeland is to have no power at all,” she continued. “Whereas here, I am now the employer of those people working for my late-husband’s Temporary-Staff agencies and hold a position of some importance.”
Again, I nodded.
“I have found also that exercising an amount of… power… over people is not something that displeases me,” she finished, eyes again holding mine as if to convey some extra meaning to her words.
Something lurched inside me, seemingly independent of myself, and suddenly I had the weirdest feeling. It was almost as if Nadwa Johar grew by a foot before my eyes. One second she was just my neighbor – and a rude one – and in the next she became…
She had suddenly taken on a change in my perception but, for the life of me, I could not figure out the nature of that change.
Though the goose bumps at the back of my neck seemed to insist they would not be of a kind designed to make my life easier.
Taking her glass with her, Nadwa stood up and walked over to inspect some of the pastel prints of French Impressionists, notably Degas, with which I had decorated my walls. Stopping before one to lightly trace a pained nail – blood-red like those of her toes – over the form of a redhead in the process of brushing out her hair after bathing.
“You enjoy the female form, I see?” she commented, making reference to other artwork in the same vein that lined the walls.
I felt my face colour, embarrassed, despite having genuinely purchased the prints for reasons of aesthetics rather than lust.
She had reached my open bureau by this time, the same bureau from which she had removed my bank statement.
“Do you mind if I take a look inside?” she asked, placing her wine on the top of my filing cabinet and placing a hand on one of the drawers, in readiness to open it.
I half rose from the sofa, both stunned and outraged, when she halted me in my tracks.
And with no more than a simple:
“Please stay seated.”
“What?” I asked, not quite believing what I had heard
“I told you to please stay seated,” she repeated. No, “asked”; or “if you’d mind”; but a simple and direct order.
Enough was enough, I was gathering myself, despite my revulsion for conflict, to rise up and show her the door when she smiled suddenly.