Victoria Standford is a poor but beautiful Anglo-Indian girl who has been dealt a poor hand in life. Her impulsive decisions have left her pregnant, the feckless English father of her child long gone.
She meets Sunil Roy Choudhury, a young and attractive Bengali businessman. They meet by chance and though he is in India to take part in an arranged marriage, the love affair between them is gentle and meaningful.
Sunil is in India to take part in what appears to be a lucrative arranged marriage, which fails disastrously, as he is faced with charges of impotence. Although Sunil has troubles of his own, Victoria - now in dire circumstances - appeals to him for help.
Sunil agrees to take Victoria on as an employee in London, hoping she will become his mistress, despite his impending second marriage. Victoria learns that Sunil is prepared to do almost anything to obtain real wealth.
There are troubled times ahead for both Sunil and Vicki, as they face fraught family relationships, and the threat of murder...
'Joyce is not only that rare thing, a 'natural' story teller whose novels glow with colour and emotion, she is also a deft craft worker. She writes with such finesse that the reader is drawn ever deeper into her world and is compelled to turn the page. Her every story is a superb read.'
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing
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Home On A Saturday Morning
It seeped beneath the decaying wood of the window frame forming a miniature rivulet, ending in an ever-increasing puddle on the red stone floor. The monsoon, with all its discomforts, had arrived.
The year was 1960. Saturday mornings, in our one bed roomed flat in Free School Street in Calcutta, were particularly difficult for me. I was sixteen and due to leave school. My mother wallowed in self-pity and the daily prayer hour she subjected me to, kept me away from the normal activities of girlhood and the company of any friends I might have had.
As I knelt by my bed, supposedly saying my morning prayers to please the mother I loved, who had brought me up single-handed in difficult circumstances, I kept repeating to myself, 'I will get myself out of this trap of poverty. I will be rich and wear stylish clothes. I will eat good food. I will, I will, I will.' She knew I wasn't praying.
'Victoria, rise from there and stop mumbling. Find a rag and mop up the puddle that's invading this room, threatening to become a tributary of the Ganges and then do some study.'
I mopped up the puddle only to see yet another forming. Study was far from my mind as I took stock of the dingy flat I called home. A faded photograph of a smiling young man in army uniform was housed in a cheap wooden frame. It stood in its permanent position on a unit which almost covered the wall. This characterless piece of furniture, with its white painted shelves and cupboards, contained most of our worldly possessions. I looked at the photograph and wondered what it would have been like to have a father, whether he would have loved me, made me feel safe and secure, providing for us as a family as my mother had always struggled to do.
With closed eyes I tried to imagine a different girlhood, willing him to become real and step out of the photograph, take me for an ice-cream or cold and refreshing lemonade, walk with me, talk with me and perhaps buy me pretty ribbons. I had always had a longing for soft and shiny coloured ribbons, instead of the black cotton strands of material my mother used to tie back my hair. At sixteen she still treated me as a child.
The Second World War had been forgotten by those it hadn't touched. The British Raj in India was over but the habits, customs and prejudice remained, as did the language. My father had been killed in the Burma Campaign, a volunteer, like many young Anglo-Indian men, supposedly to fight off the enemy as the Japanese had already entered Burma.
He was sent to the Forward Area which was at the Burmese border and was killed early on in the campaign. What did he know of war and fighting the enemy? He had been a junior clerk in a mercantile house earning little money.
I shouldn't have looked at the photograph longingly as once again she repeated to me the story of the tragedy that had overtaken us. She told of how my father's body had never been found in the dense jungles of Burma; tragically how little time they had together and worst of all, leaving me, a fatherless child, for her to rear.
She sighed, saying for the umpteenth time, 'My poor darling lost his life fighting for his country.'
Annoyed by this remark, repeated many times by my mother over the years, and wishing to put the matter to bed once and for all, I snapped at her. 'What country did he die for? We are Anglo-Indians. I've never heard of a country called Anglo-India. He died in the swamps of Burma during the torrential rains of the monsoon season. Snakes and other vile creatures were the cause of his death, coupled with the fact he was not a regular soldier well trained in the art of jungle warfare.'
Astonished at my outburst her reply was terse and she replied irritably. 'Don't speak like that, Victoria. I've told you you're too young to voice such opinions and stop calling me Mother in that arrogant fashion. I'm Mummy to you.'
As a child I never understood the full implications of my mother's constant complaints. Now, as a young girl, I had started to realise that our poverty, lack of a father figure and my mixed race put me at a distinct disadvantage. I was not Indian; white but not English, so where did I stand?
My mother was what was then termed as a 'coloured' Anglo-Indian. She was pretty with regular features, slim and small with dark curly hair. I, on the other hand, looked more like my father. I was pale with green heavy-lidded eyes, full lips and high cheek-bones. Mother had told me that my grandfather was English and had come to India, during the Raj, to work on the railways and married a local girl.
Reality, like an open-handed smack, hit me squarely in the face one afternoon on my way back from school in the rather ramshackle bus that transported us home from the convent each school day.
A group of English children, with their parents, were getting out of expensive imported cars and congregating near a restaurant to attend a party. The bus had stopped at a red light and I had time to compare the differences between these privileged children and my poor state.
Dressed in pretty party clothes, with matching ribbons in their well-cut and groomed hair, they were holding hands and talking happily together. Their sandals matched their dresses and as I looked down at myself, I noticed my shabby shoes, stretched out of shape to house my growing feet. My clothes, though clean, were much the worse for wear.
Fourteen Anglo-Indians and Indian Christian children were in the bus. One of the little girls standing on the pavement pointed to us and laughed, another waved her hand and smiled. One or two of us waved back. Were they acknowledging us in friendship, sorry for us, or were they laughing at our strange appearance and our obvious poor state? The bus had blazoned on its side for all to see, Free Convent School for Girls, confirming our lowly station in life.
It was on that day, a small voice in my head persistently repeated to me all the way back from school, drumming into my memory for all time, words with manipulative and dishonest intent.
'Vicki Standford, you can claw your way to the top if you forget your scruples. Without conceit you know you are unusually attractive. You have nothing to lose and are not as stupid as some people think. Use this perishable gift to your advantage as there are those that will surely use you.'
Mother repeatedly told me how lucky I was to get even a basic education as she couldn't afford to pay for my schooling. Over and over again she remarked, 'Something is better than nothing, Victoria. You're getting a good lunch every day and being taught to read and write properly.'
This was true, and as much as my poor mother could do for me, but how could this be enough? Never – I needed more – I must have more. A good life, pretty clothes, money and a comfortable home was what I desired, not a begging bowl filled with hand-outs, self denial and frugality. What need did I have of these?
Fewer Anglo-Indian girls attended the free convent school as the years passed. Many families had emigrated to Australia and The United States. Those with British connections were reluctantly welcomed by distant relatives.
My mother's older brother, Dennis, who was a bachelor, now lived in Acton. He wrote to her frequently offering her accommodation in his house if and when we arrived in England. He worked in a post office and unfortunately couldn't afford to send us the air fare to join him.
It was up to my mother to find the air fare. Unfortunately, she didn't have sufficient funds as we lived hand to mouth, day by day and few, if any, luxuries came my way.
This Saturday morning there was post from him, an unusually bulky letter which contained photographs of his house and a not unattractive middle-aged man standing proudly at the door. My mother passed over the mail to me saying angrily, 'See this, he says he has no money for our air fares yet he is posing pompously like some Burra Sahib in front of an attractive house which I assume is his.'
She then strode out angrily from the room, coughing as she went, dragging heavily on a cigarette, coming back a few minutes later with Aunt Amy who lived in the flat opposite.
Now, Aunt Amy was a tall angular lady, always dressed neatly in floral prints. She was not my real aunt, but I had called her Aunt Amy from early childhood as she had cared for me on a daily basis when my mother was at work. I went into the kitchen and made tea while they talked, my mother whinging as she spoke, showing Aunt Amy the letter and photograph and asking for advice but Aunt Amy had no reply or advice for her dilemma.
All she could suggest was that perhaps Uncle Dennis should be asked to take a small loan against his house and lend my mother the money to get us to England.
Shock crossed my mother's face at this suggestion, but deep down she had probably considered it. 'Oh my word, Amy,' she exclaimed, 'that would be most inappropriate.'
This was a word she loved to use. Too much money was inappropriate. The state of the building we lived in was inappropriate. The education nowadays was inappropriate. My conduct was often inappropriate and last but not least the language and behaviour of Aunt Amy, who was really my favourite person, was definitely inappropriate.
Aunt Amy had known Uncle Dennis when he was a young man in Calcutta. She now decided to joke a little about him merely to break the tension in the room.
'I wouldn't be surprised, Ella, if he has plenty of money anyway. He was very tight-fisted as a young man, if I remember correctly, but no wonder he never married. Girls like to be wined and dined. He wouldn't give anyone a stale chapatti, let alone take them out to dinner.'
I started laughing at Aunt Amy, much to the annoyance of my mother who now spoke angrily. 'This is not a matter for jokes and laughter, Amy. I thought you might handle the situation seriously,' but then it was not in Aunt Amy's nature to make heavy weather of most situations. As a child she had wiped away many a tear from my face with a little fun and laughter and silly stories.
Aunt Amy nodded at me, her eyes twinkling, lighting up her slim pretty face, ready to break out in a smile. Not so my mother, whose face nowadays seemed to be perpetually veiled in a worried expression.
The matter was unresolved and my mother left soon after for work, coughing as she clattered down the stone steps. Aunt Amy stayed and spoke to me a while longer, before returning to her flat across the passage.
Life was not all doom and gloom in Free School Street, as we had the eccentric Aunt Amy to entertain us, both knowingly and unknowingly. Most of the young children in the flats called her Aunt Amy. She was outspoken, was loved, laughed at and occasionally feared by the rowdy element that lived in the flats as she brooked no nonsense from them. She was a great organiser of games and activities for the smaller children who lived in the flats. It kept them busy and out of trouble, but she often swore at people she didn't like. These unmentionable outpourings were half in English and half in Hindi, some of her sayings causing great amusement amongst the older children.
The rain had all but stopped and as I looked out of the window of the flat I saw the caretaker Mr Banerjee, portly, but swift of gait, with hair as black as the crows who frequented the compound for tit-bits. He was now crossing the rain-soaked and garbage- strewn courtyard and hurrying to confront him was Aunt Amy. It was the end of the month and he had come to collect rents.
I opened the window wide, hoping to hear the sometimes amusing and confrontational conversation between them which was about to follow.
'Hello, Burra Sahib Banerjee. Rent day again.' she said. He merely nodded his head and tried to get past her to go to his office.
'Not so fast,' she said. 'How do you expect anyone to pay rent for this place that is sliding into dereliction? Get it cleaned, get the lifts working and some order restored. Where are the gates to this place? Where is the watchman we used to have?'
At the word watchman, Mr Banerjee almost squeaked his reply. 'Watchman,' he said, 'watchman,' he repeated. 'Why, the rents I get wouldn't keep a monkey in bananas, let alone pay a watchman. Nobody wants to pay rent here. I'll have to get some of these loungers evicted.'
A few people had gathered around to hear this monthly confrontation and with sarcasm in his voice Mr Banerjee spoke loudly.
'I'll tell you what I'll do, Memsahib Amy. On Monday I'll register for an engineering course at the college, and after three years I'll be qualified enough to get these broken old lifts into working order. How about that?'
Aunt Amy knew she had lost the bout this month. She knew there were no funds for parts to repair the lifts, and all she could do was to accuse him of negligence as little was done about the upkeep of the buildings.
She turned and entered the flats. Her argument for the month with Mr Banerjee was over, as were my schooldays, or almost, only the graduation day to go, then my seventeenth birthday and though I didn't know it then, there were bad times coming.CHAPTER 2
Prizes And Humiliation.
Each step I now took posed its own difficulties as even in times of achievement I faced derision.
The end-of-year Prize Giving was on the second of October and now at 17, hope was in my heart as I told myself I could be free of ugly shabby uniforms, the dreadful daily bus ride. Perhaps I could then shake off my feelings of inadequacy, but it was not to be – not now anyway.
Sue-Lynn was a particular friend of mine in school. Her parents offered to share a taxi with us to the convent but my mother, with false pride, refused. In doing so she turned the day into a fiasco and embarrassed me in front of my peers.
October should have been cool and sunny. Instead we had heavy rain on the day of the Prize Giving. My mother insisted we take a tram as far as we could and then get a rickshaw to the convent. The acrid smell of the goat-skin screen in the rickshaw, supposedly shielding us from the wind and rain, was sickening, the stench permeating our rain drenched clothes. We were late; the rickshaw puller having slipped a couple of times, unnerving us, though disaster was averted. Our frail umbrellas had been no match for the downpour.
Wet and bedraggled, with dripping hair and squelching shoes, we took our seats at the rear of the hall. Twice I walked up the isle for my prizes, a sorry sight, much to the amusement of my classmates and their families. This was to have been a happy day for me. My peers should have been looking up to me and I should have been filled with pride. Instead they sniggered at my wet and bedraggled state. My mother had made a laughing stock of me.
I received two prizes, one for Mathematics and the other for English. At the end of this hour of agony for me, emotionally whipped, and a prayer having been said, we were subjected to soggy sandwiches, and strange looking buns of dubious freshness.
Because of the heavy downpour, the nuns arranged for the school bus to take us home and parents and children were crammed together, whilst the bus, of advanced years, lurched dangerously. This then was my journey away from the convent for one final time.
My mother, shivering and unwell, took to her bed on our arrival home, refusing to see a doctor, irritable when I tried to put my arms around her for comfort. Instead, she asked me to make her a hot cup of tea, lit a cigarette and swallowed a couple of aspirin.
Later that evening, when she had gone to work, I went to Aunt Amy's flat, and it was Aunt Amy who lifted my spirits when I showed her my prizes of a leather covered prayer book and a matching gold embossed bible.
She was pleased for me saying, 'Oh my ba ba (child), you're such a clever girl,' admiring the handsome prizes as she spoke. 'Your mother should be proud of you instead of grumbling and griping.' She smiled and hugged me, reassuring me when I needed it most.
We spoke of my mother, her continuing poor health and her constant refusal to seek any medical advice. Aunt Amy was thoughtful and suggested it might be that my mother was afraid of losing her job at the hospital should she be off sick for any length of time.
Then in a lighter tone she said, 'Oh my pretty little Vicki, your mother just 'wanna wanna' go to Beelight,' using the Hindi word for Britain in fun. Aunt Amy then suggested it might not be a bad idea for us to stay in India.
'This is home to you Vicki,' she said emphatically. 'The young men and women in England have their own families and groups. Where will you fit in? You'll be so isolated. You should insist your mother let you join a few of the young peoples' clubs around here. You could marry a nice policeman like my Cyril. Oh! He was so handsome in his uniform.' And then she told me, once again, stories she had repeated many times, of her husband and their comfortable life together during the Raj.
She shook her head and laughed a little.
'My word, what parties we had. These flats were well looked after then, and people smiled, money jingled in their pockets. Look at us now, grumpy, frumpy and many unemployed.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Bride for Sunil"
Copyright © 2014 Joyce Mackenzie.
Excerpted by permission of Thistle Publishing.
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