NOT EVEN SNOWFALL COULD MAKE LEYTON LOOK LOVELY. Sootfall was what it was; a fine drizzle of ash that sprinkled the pavements and terrace rooftops, dusting the rusty railings and faded awnings of the few remaining shops along the high road. They formed a puzzling collection of plucky bric-à-brac emporiums (All the Plastic Matting You'll Ever Need!) and defeated mini-marts (Cigs 'N' Bread! Fags 'N' Mags!), braving the elements like the no-hopers no-one wanted on their team, shivering in their sooty kit. Grey flecks nested in the grooves of the shutters of the boarded up homes, abandoned when new roads were put down and old ladies died; they settled silently on the graves in the choked churchyard, giving grace and shadow to long-unread inscriptions Edna, Beloved Wife; Edward, Sleeps with the Angels and dressed the withered cedars in almost-mourning robes of almost-black. Pigeons shook their heads, sneezing, blinking away the icy specks, claws skittering on the unfamiliar roof which had once been the reassuring flat red tiles of the methodist church and was now a gleaming minaret, topped by a metal sickle moon. The moon at midday, dark snow and nowhere to perch. No wonder they said Coo.
An old man picked up a frozen milk bottle from his front step and held it up to the light, squinting at the petrified pearly sea beyond the glass. He'd seen an ocean like that once, in the navy or on the TV, he couldn't remember which now.
`You waiting till the whole bloody house freezes then?' his wife called from inside. A voice that could splinter bone.
And thenhe heard them. Nothing more than an echo at first, muted by wind and traffic, but he felt the sound, like you always do when it brings the past with it. Clop-clop, there it was, no mistaking it. And then he was seven or ten again, in scratchy shorts with sherbet fizzing on his tongue, racing his brother to open up the coal shute at the front of the house before the cart drew up and the man with the black face and the bright smile groaned, his sack on his back, freeing swirls of dust with every heavy step.
`Come here!' the old man shouted behind him. `Quickly! You hurry up and you'll see a ... bleedin' hell!'
The horse turned the corner into his road, white enough to shame what fell from the sky, carrying what looked like a Christmas tree on its back. There was a man in the middle of the tinsel, pearls hanging down over his brown skin, suspended from a cartoon-size turban. He held a nervous small boy, similarly attired, on his lap. Behind him, a group of men of assorted heights and stomach sizes, grins as stiff as their new suits, attempted a half-dance half-jog behind the swishing tail, their polished shoes slipping in the slush. A fat man in a pink jacket held a drum around his neck and banged it with huge palms, like a punishment, daring anyone not to join in. `Brrrr- aaaa! Bu-le, bu-le bu-le!' he yelled.
The old man understood half of that noise, it was brass monkey weather all right, but what did he mean by that last bit? They couldn't like the cold, surely.
`Another of them do's down the community centre then,' said his wife, sniffing at his shoulder.
Other neighbours had gathered at windows and doorways, the children giggling behind bunched fingers, their elders, flint-faced, guarding their stone-clad kingdoms warily, in case bhangra-ing in bollock-freezing weather was infectious.
Swamped, thought the old man; someone said that once, we'll be swamped by them. But it isn't like that, wet and soggy like Hackney Marshes. It's silent and gentle, so gradual that you hardly notice it at all until you look up and see that everything's different.
`Like snow,' he said, out loud.
Trigger, the horse, was enjoying himself. Anything was better than the dumpy pubescents he was forced to heave around paddocks in Chigwell for the rest of the week. This was an easy gig, a gentle amble past kind hands and interesting odours. Early this morning, he'd been woken by an old lady in a white sheet breaking coconuts beneath his hooves. She had sung for him. She smelt of pepper. There was none of the kisses and baby talk the stable girls lavished on him to impress the parents, but her patient worship had made him snort with joy. He stepped lightly now, considering he was carrying a heavy-hearted man on his back.
Deepak had noticed the hostile onlookers, albeit in fragments through the shimmering curtain that hid him from the world, but the cold stone in his chest, hidden beneath the silk brocade of his bridal suit, made them unimportant. He had explained his dank foreboding away many times, over many months now, using the dimpled smile and the mercurial tongue that had made him a business success and rendered matrons in the neighbourhood giddy with gratitude when he graced their kitty parties. Fear of commitment, he'd said to the stone in the spring. Any eligible bachelor taking the plunge is bound to feel some pangs of regret. She is as sweet as the blossom outside my window, and just as virginal. Fear of failure, he'd told the stone as he'd eyed up the passing girls from his pavement café, pluckable, all of them, bruised by summer evening blue. She doesn't need to prance around in thongs and halter necks, her beauty is beautiful because it's hidden and it will be mine. Fear of becoming my father, he'd smiled at the stone as he tramped through new-fallen leaves, recalling his parents' amazed faces as he'd confirmed his choice of bride. A Punjabi girl! They had almost wept with relief, having endured a parade of blonde trollops through their portals for most of their son's youth. Marrying her does not mean I will become my father, take up religion, grow nostril hair and wear pastel-coloured leisure wear, he told the stone playfully. We have choices. Wasn't that the reason his parents had come here in the first place? And now it was winter and the stone refused any further discussion on the matter. It was done.
And there they were, waiting. Ahead of him, the bride's welcoming committee stood in the doorway of the crumbling hall, garlands of flaming marigolds in their hands. His own Baraat, the menfolk from his side who were his companions on this journey from callow youth to fully paid up member of the respectable married classes, roared their arrival. Bow and be grateful, the man who will take your daughter off your hands for ever is here! His future mother-in-law teetered forward, her face shining; brown moon, white horse, grey snow. Deepak drew his tinsel curtain back over his eyes and felt the warm horse rumble and heave beneath him.
* * *
Chila looked at his toenails and felt a strange sense of dread. His feet were fine; brown, not too hairy, clean enough. But she could not tear her eyes from his toenails as they walked round the fire (about to be wed, head bowed submissively just in case anyone might suspect she was looking forward to a night of rampant nuptials). Ten yellowing, waxy nodules crowned each toe, curled and stiff as ancient parchment, a part of him she had never noticed before, feet that demanded attention because of their glaring imperfection, the feet of a man who might read Garden Sheds Weekly every evening instead of loving her. Chila told herself off. This was unfair, sacrilegious even, on your wedding day.
Or maybe it was just being prepared, like her mother was. Her mother who had handed over a parcel of brand new and frilly pink lingerie which she had bought as part of Chila's trousseau, ready to wear when her daughter finally moved in with Deepak tonight, man and wife, all official. Her mother who had coughed with embarrassment as Chila discovered the sprinkling of rose petals hidden amongst the Cellophane, shyly folding in on themselves like her own fingers were doing now. `Sweet, Mum.' Chila smiled, ignoring the subtext in her mother's eyes, My poor baby will have the dirty thing done to her tonight. Chila had not had the heart to tell her the dirty thing had already taken place many months ago in a lock-up garage just off the A406.
`Move, didi!' her brother Raju hissed, pushing her round the holy fire. She could not look up even if she wanted, weighed down by an embroidered dupatta encrusted with fake pearls and gold-plated balls. The heavy lengha prevented her from taking more than baby steps behind her almost-husband to whom she was tied, literally, her scarf to his turban. She would have liked to wear a floaty thing, all gossamer and light, and skip around the flames like a sprite, blowing raspberries at the mafia of her mother's friends whose mantra during all her formative years had been, `No man will ever want that one, the plump darkie with the shy stammer.' But she had shocked them all, the sour-faced harpies, by bagging not only a groom with his own teeth, hair, degree and house, but the most eligible bachelor within a twenty-mile radius.
She stole a sneaky glance at Deepak, who was checking his profile in the fractured reflection of the silver mirror ball above their heads, each winking pane with its own tiny flaming heart, a thousand holy fires refracted in its shiny orb. Bloody hell, he was fit and he was hers. She wanted to celebrate. But instead she was mummified in red and gold silk, swaddled in half the contents of Gupta's Gold Emporium, pierced, powdered and plumped up so that her body would only walk the walk of everyone's mothers on all their weddings, meekly, shyly, reluctantly towards matrimony. Chila tilted her head with difficulty and took in a deep gulp of air before she began the next perambulation, glad of the momentary rest while Deeps adjusted his headdress. She locked eyes with Tania, sitting straight-backed on the front row. She's looking a bit rough today, thought Chila, with an unexpected tinge of pleasure.
Tania shot Chila a reassuring wink and just managed to turn a grimace of discomfort into an encouraging smile. She ached all over and the new slingbacks she'd bought in five minutes flat yesterday had already raised blisters. She was squeezed between two large sari-draped ladies, fleshy bookends who exchanged stage whispers across her lap, giving a wheezy running commentary to the great drama unfolding before them.
`You see, how nicely she walks behind him? She will follow his lead in life. That is good.'
`Oh, now the father is crying. About time. Daughters are only visitors in our lives, hena?'
`Hai, they are lent to us for a short while and then we have to hand them over to strangers like'
`Hah! But then where does the journey end, hah?'
`Hah! Yes. Only God knows, as he is the driver.'
`Now the sister is howling. I'd howl if I had a moustache like hers ...'
Tania leaned forward pointedly, hoping to obscure their view of each other and save herself another half-hour of homely wedding quips in stereo. But the women merely adjusted themselves around her, heaving bosoms into the crevices of her elbows. She suddenly remembered why she had stopped attending community events, cultural evenings, bring-a-Tupperware parties, all the engagements, weddings and funerals that marked out their borrowed time here. She could not take the proximity of everything any more. The endless questions of who what why she was, to whom she belonged (father/husband/workplace), why her life wasn't following the ordained patterns for a woman of her age, religion, height and income bracket. The sheer physical effrontery of her people, wanting to be inside her head, to own her, claim her, preserve her. Her people.
Tania checked her watch, angry at herself for hoping that the wedding might be running to schedule. Indian time. Look at the appointed hour and add another two for good measure. Memories of family picnics, outings to relatives' homes, rare but treasured cinema visits, where she would bring up the rear, mute with shame at her clan's inevitable late entrance. `So what if the food's cold/the park shuts in ten minutes/the film has started?' her father would boom. `Nobody minds, hah?' Tania minded so much she got migraines. She closed her eyes as the priest began another mantra, willing the familiar words to take her back in time and get rid of the small voice that chanted in time with the distant finger bells, the voice that said, You don't belong.
Sunita slipped into an empty seat at the back of the hall, just as Chila and Deepak were making their final round of the fire. Nikita stood at her side, shivering in her pint-size silk suit, so cute on the hanger and sodding useless in the snow.
`Come here, Nikki,' Sunita whispered, pulling her daughter close to her and moving her sleeping son to the other arm, plumply snoozing in his rabbit-eared Baby-Gro. She rubbed Nikita's hands and face until she felt the glow returning, and heaved her onto the remaining inches of lap. The pristine magenta suit she'd squeezed into this morning was now a map of motherhood, marked out by handprints, chocolate streaks and a recent vomit stain which bloomed from her breast like some damp crusty flower.
`Look at Auntie Chila, Nikki! She's getting married, see?'
Nikita nodded dumbly, absorbing the fairy grotto effects around her.
This is where it starts, thought Sunita, a little girl at her mother's knee wanting to be the scarlet princess whose beauty lights fires. Sunita felt a green stab of envy, seeing Chila, dark, dumpy, dearest friend Chila, parading her joy like a trophy. Sunita had been a perfect size eight when she wore her wedding sari. Akash had kissed each of her fingertips that night, awed by their perfection. She used to paint her nails then.
`Mama looked just like Auntie Chila when she got married to Papa,' Sunita told Nikita with a kiss.
Nikita blinked. Disbelievingly, Sunita thought.
Deepak and Chila finished their seventh round of the fire and paused before the priest, who held his hand up dramatically, waiting for hush. Pandit Kumar was pregnant with his own importance at this solemn point, emphasized by his impressive belly, which strained the seams of his beige and gold-trimmed shalwar kameez. He often thought of Elvis Presley at this juncture in the wedding ceremony, how the King would possess the microphone, angle that profile just so to the watching cameras with a daring insouciance, toss that quiff and casually break a thousand hearts. At such moments, Pandit Kumar forgot he was bald, sweaty and bandy-legged. He had the stage, he held the futures of two young lovers in the palms of his hands and he had a god-given duty to put on a good show.
He shiftily checked that the squinty videoman had adjusted to close-up mode before he cleared his throat, swallowed a sizeable phlegm-ball and began: `Ladies and gentlemen, now I will ask the bride and groom to swap their seating, symbolically showing that dearest Chila will now pass into the hands of dearest Deepak and his loving family. Her old life as her father's daughter has ended. Her new life as her husband's wife has begun. Chila, Deepak, please will you now be seated!'
Chila gathered her sari about her and did a clumsy do-si-do with Deepak, negotiating fabric and high heels and the coconuts hanging from her wrists until, at last, she came to rest on a seat warm with Deepak's body heat. She saw Deepak's mother grinning mistily up at her from the floor. Chila grinned back, suddenly light-headed, feeling her stomach trying to rise up and displace her heart. She realized, with a shock, what it was that had possessed her body. She was happy.
Deepak reached over and squeezed her hand. He stared from Chila to his mother and back again. So this is what it felt like, he thought, to belong, finally. He leaned into Chila and whispered something into her ear, which made her titter and blush, and precipitated a spontaneous round of applause which began at Sunita's seat, rippled through eighteen rows of smiling, satisfied guests and reached the platform in a wave of goodwill and joy. The videoman risked an ambitious wide shot of the hall. Pandit Kumar raised a funky fist in the air and shouted, `All right! Let's hear it for Chila and Deepak! All right!'
`So what did he say, then?' Tania demanded, before lighting up a slim menthol cigarette.
`Not in here, Tania!' gasped Sunita, instinctively swivelling to the door of the tiny anteroom, ears pricked to the noises of celebration outside.
`It's locked.' Tania smiled mockingly at Sunita. `Calm down, Auntieji, we will not let the evil fumes ruin Chila's reputation.'
`I'm thinking of Chila,' Sunita retorted, cheeks burning. `Chila's mother-in-law's hovering outside.'
`She's still ours, though.' Tania exhaled. `Officially, until the doli. So they can wait, hey Chila?'
Chila wobbled on one foot, trying to squeeze a leg into bright pink silk pyjamas.
They made an odd threesome. Tania was svelte, sharp-featured, with long-lazy limbs and a leonine mane (never cut, odd for a Modern Girl), dismissive of the beauty that was her passport out of East London and into cosmopolitan circles where she was now termed merely exotic. Sunita and Chila had feared they might lose her, when Tania broke loose from her traditional moorings and drifted into an uncharted ocean with her English man and snappy Soho job. But they also knew, when she did return, it was always for them. And they forgave her, for when she did breeze in smelling of leather office chairs and tangy perfume she seemed to drag the world in with her, full of possibilities, on spiky heels. `Here I am! Back with the pindoos,' she'd trill, back with the village idiots, she'd joke, although, Sunita noticed, Tania still sat like one with them, crossed legs, shoes off, unknotting herself in a way that suggested, despite her protestations, that part of her still responded to them like Home.
Sunita, they had all three decided, was always the one Most Likely to Succeed. She'd sailed through school and college with straight As, and was halfway through a law degree when she'd met Akash. He'd called her a scab as she'd entered the university refectory to buy a pasty and lectured her right there on the pavement, in his open-toed sandals and fraying jumper, about the oppressed canteen staff within, who relied on their support for their ongoing work-to-rule protest. Sunita barely took in a word. She was trying to work out what planet he'd landed from, this man full of fizz and fury with Medusa-messy hair, and why the hell hadn't she known that there were Asian men around like this one. She failed her finals, unsurprisingly really, as most of her revision had taken place on Akash's bedsit mattress. Ten years on, the fledgling battling barrister had a comfy desk job at a local Citizens' Advice Bureau, and the children of the revolution's children held them, comfortably, together. Sunita's delicate, doll-like features were now softened by the fleshy mantle worn by married Indian ladies in their mid-thirties. It was like a uniform, the designer silks, the ostentatious gold jewellery, collected on booty trips to Bahrain, the rippling belly rolls escaping from painted on sari blouses. No guilty aerobic sessions for them. The old rules still applied; coming from a place where starvation was a reality rather than a fashion statement, fat meant wealth and contentment. So Sunita could claim her cellulite was a political stance, rather than something, like many other things in her life, which had crept up on her unawares.
And then there was Chila, wrestling with fuchsia folds. Known as Poor Chila for years, while relatives and educationalists alike mistook her innocence and unworldly joy for stupidity. First she was slow, then thick, then sweet, and finally, concluded her sorrowful parents, unmarriageable, for didn't the boys nowadays expect smart yet domesticated women with both culinary skills and a Ph.D.? But Chila's close friends knew better; Tania and Sunita had noticed early on the cinnamon smiling girl standing by herself in the corner of the playground. They had even briefly joined in with the mob teasing of all the unfortunate rejects who were herded into the prefabricated hut reserved for the Special Children. They had watched through the hut windows, giggling, as Chila and her classmates, mostly black and Asian children, cut out pictures from catalogues with blunt scissors, tongues out in concentration, and wondered why she never got angry or embarrassed at their gawping. And one day, suddenly, Chila appeared in their classroom, clutching her folder nervously, and was shown to the empty desk behind them. The news spread that Chila had entered an essay into a schools' competition and won. The school had assumed that the recent refugee from East Africa could not speak a word of English, never mind compose a lyrical treatise on the joys of spring. Chila's essay was pinned up outside the headmaster's office. It was full of violent African blooms and flame-coloured birds, a different kind of spring that briefly inhabited a musty corner and made those who read it sigh longingly and wish for the sun. Chila never wrote anything as good again. In fact, she consistently failed every exam going, as if that single swansong had depleted any formal intelligence she may have possessed. But by then Tania and Sunita had adopted her and discovered that the girl they'd once tagged the Dark Dumbo was funnier, sweeter and kinder than anyone else knew. They kept the secret like they kept each other's friendship: close, to themselves.
Tania picked up the top half of the suit and wrinkled her nose. `Is this what his side have given you to wear for your exit?'
Chila nodded, hitching the trousers up quickly and tying the cord with trembling fingers. She couldn't understand why she felt shy in her underwear in front of her friends, the two friends who'd seen her through mammary growth, menstruation and men problems. Maybe it did all change once you got married. She'd already had the lecture from Tania about how pathetic those women were who acquired a wedding ring on one hand and dropped all their female friends with the other. That was not going to happen to them, especially as Chila was the last of the three to get a man. If it all fell apart now, it would be Chila's fault. Definitely.
`It's ... a bold print,' ventured Sunita, eyeing the spangly top which Tania dangled from a manicured finger.
`Bold? It's positively Bolshie!' laughed Tania. `What is it about the bloke's family and the doli suit? You've got Chanel designing catwalk Indian suits and they go to Mrs Patel's bargain basement bin for the loudest pindoo suit they can find, to bring their new daughter-in-law home in.'
`God I know,' Sunita said. `I got some frothy lemon yellow thing with bells on the scarf from Akash's mother. When the DJ asked for requests for our first dance, someone shouted out, "Have you got `My Ding A Ling?'" I could have died.'
Tania choked on her cigarette, giggling out fumes from her nose. Sunita patted her on the back, before stealing a quick drag and blowing a blissful cloud right into Tania's face, which made her choke all over again.
`Tut tut! Bad Indian woman,' teased Tania, wiping her eyes. `Thought you'd given up.'
`I have,' Sunita said, `I really have.'
`Go on then,' said Chila. `How bad is it?'
She was standing in a pool of sunlight that had brazenly, unexpectedly spilled through the dirty single window. The gold at her ears, throat and wrists caught the light and threw it back in dancing darts, the dark brown of her skin softened and glowed, the dreaded pink suit flamed around her in rosy benediction. She had stopped the snow in mid-fall. Her watching friends' hearts contracted in unison; they had never assumed Chila would get married, that any man would understand or recognize her hidden, fragile charms. And now they saw her beauty in full bloom, they worried for her and about him.
`Chila,' breathed Sunita. `You look beautiful.'
Tania smiled tightly. `It's better on, for sure. What did he say, then?'
`Who? Dreamboat Deepak. You know, when he whispered something and you went all girlie and the pandit went gospel for a moment ...'
`Oh, it was nothing. Bit weird, but nice.'
`Something romantic, I bet.' Sunita grinned. `From the movies. Your hair is like the black monsoon cloud, your eyes like the startled faun ... hai hai.'
`No. He just said, "Thank you."'
The moaning began as Chila fell into step behind Deepak, who strode manfully towards the glass swing doors. The guests gathered either side of the exit, spilling out into the courtyard and around the silver Mercedes, whose bumper sported two shrivelled balloons. CHILA WEDS DEEPAK the balloons said, or rather whispered, in deflated, croaky voices.
Sunita had dragged Tania to a prime spot, next to the back seat of the car, arguing that their faces should be the last Chila saw before being chauffeur-driven off to her new life. Sunita was already sniffling into a shredded tissue, glad she had left the children indoors with a vague relative. She didn't mind them seeing weddings, but the doli was too upsetting, at least for her. She looked up at Tania, who was standing stiff-backed against the breeze, obviously bored. Of course she doesn't understand why this is so painful, Sunita concluded. Unmarried women never do.
Tania thought it was a swarm of bees at first, wrong-footed suddenly, wondering how they had amassed and appeared in the middle of winter. Then the swing doors flew open and the hum became a keening, a mournful wailing with no end and no pauses for breath, taken up by one throat and then another until the sound enveloped them all. There in the quiet eye of the storm was Chila, head bowed, face contorted, black trails of mascara running down her cheeks, with her father clinging onto one arm and her mother to the other, wide-mouthed, emitting this awful endless moaning, broken with pleas in Punjabi to `Please God, don't take our daughter from us, our baby leaving us for ever, please God, keep her safe ...' Other members of Chila's family followed in a hysterical wake, raising impassioned eyes and arms to the sky, towards Deepak's family, towards Chila's parents, the all-purpose Indian gesture of `Life's crap but what can you do, huh?'
Tania bristled with irritation at the sobbing around her, watching Chila being push-pulled slowly towards the open car door, where Deepak's family stood now with the sorrowful but resigned air of funeral directors, saddened by their unpleasant duty to remove this woman from her grieving family but determined to fulfil their role with dignity and, if need be, a gentle shove.
`For God's sake,' Tania whispered, `she's only moving to Ilford. She's not being kidnapped in a bleeding bullock cart to a distant village, is she?'
`It's not how far you go,' Sunita said, `it's who you're going with. She's his now. Her parents have got to let her go.'
`Well, they should be having a laugh then, the number of years her mum's bent my ears about Chila not getting a decent bloke.'
`Not now, Tania.'
`They spend half your life nagging you to get a degree and keep your hymen so you'll bag a husband, and beat themselves up at your wedding because you have.'
`Tania, that's it, shutit now.'
Tania had a comeback all ready, tart on the end of her tongue, because she loved winding up Sunita more than anyone else. And then, despite her best intentions, she looked at him. Deepak stood in the centre of this circle of grief, the lone male in an ocean of heaving female flesh. The other men had regrouped in awkward clumps, giving the women space to grieve, exchanging rueful glances, scuffing their shoes guiltily in the melting slush. For hadn't they all done this once, pretend cavemen for a day, dragging their women away by the hair, parping their victory on their car horns? Deepak's face was a mask of calm, almost ennobled by the task ahead of him, to protect and nurture this weeping woman. And his serenity, his certainty were what helped Tania understand as she scanned the keening women at his side. They knew what lay ahead, they remembered their own dolis and wept for what they didn't know then, and what they knew now. They wept symbolically for Chila and noisily for themselves. Unexpected tears pricked Tania's eyes. She let out a long shuddering breath, which Sunita noted with surprised satisfaction.
As Chila was finally bundled into the back seat, eyes downcast, nose streaming, headdress awry, Tania pulled Sunita forward so they were right up against the door, only a millimetre of glass separating the three friends. Tania knocked on the window and forced a manic grin, nudging Sunita to do the same. Chila looked up and blew her nose pathetically. Impulsively, Tania kissed the window, leaving the lipstick imprint of a rueful, lopsided smile, which she later thought most appropriate. Sunita mouthed `Love you' between hiccuping sobs. Then Deepak slid in smoothly next to Chila and tapped the driver to move off. As the car edged forward, Tania looked straight into Deepak's eyes and told him silently what she had wanted to tell him since she had found out about this wedding. Look after her, she warned him and then, with an arch of an eyebrow, added a PS, Better than you looked after me.
Pandit Kumar threw a final handful of petals at the car bonnet with what he hoped was a Goodnight and thank you Vegas flourish. Ladies and gentlemen, the newlyweds have left the building ... Tissue-clutching matriarchs reattached themselves to harrumphing husbands, reaffirming their bonds to each other and the watching world. Single girls clucked in feverish groups, high on the drama of the departure, tossing their fancy dupattas at the single men, torn between the horror and the longing of it all. The single men back-slapped each other, their ushering and whisky-serving duties over, loosened ties while they felt themselves pulled along by the girls' invisible embroidered scarves. It was a game the young singles all played at weddings, regardless of the secret lives and liaisons outside these rarefied hours. For now, they could flirt as their forefathers must have done, brush up their smouldering technique, pretend that their futures were arranged at such venues under the eyes of their parents, rather than on their mobile phones on the way home.
The few English guests stood in a confused huddle, wondering why such a splendid day, replete with aching colours, mountainous piles of delicious food (much better than you get down the Viceroy), embarrassing hospitality, ear-splitting music, wild and strange folk dancing (a bit like jive, this Indian business, once you get the footwork going), inhibitions peeled off with second-best jackets, had to end with such a tragic performance. They had all got through the occasion without making an awful faux pas. Now what were they supposed to say to Chila's slumped and tearstained family? Thank you for a lovely day?
For everyone else, it had been, despite the weather, a lovely day. A perfect day, because rituals had been observed, old footsteps retraced, threads running unbroken, families joined, futures secured. `Bas! Now they are settled,' the women said, satisfied, their biggest worry over, blissfully unaware that some settled things can melt away, as easily as snowfall.
The car engine backfired once as it sped down the high road, scattering the pigeons from the mosque roof, who took to the sky in startled flight, momentary scudding shadows across the watery sun.