Pares retreated inside himself. He ignored texts from his friends and watched the bruising around his eyes change colour and deepen like the stages of an exotic sunset. He cancelled his gym membership. What was the point? He couldn’t even sit on the toilet without convulsing in pain. He stayed off work for a week. The first three days he texted his boss to let him know. Food poisoning, he wrote. After that, silence. The following week his boss called him.
“Pares, is everything alright? This is very unlike you.”
“Yeah,” Pares choked out, trying not to cry, “I’ll be in next week.”
Pares didn’t tell anyone about the attack. Not his sisters or friends, and definitely not his mother. She’d finally eased into a softer place in life after raising three children alone. She would have carved her body up and offered it on a plate if any of them had asked; her love for her children vaster than any ocean. But recently he could see the toll life had taken on her gathering in the corners of her eyes, in the way she moved, in how she forgot chunks of the past, grasping at details her children shared before they danced away like wisps of smoke from a fire.
He’d been walking home from the pub one evening across Hackney Marshes, back to the flat he shared with a university friend. The sky churned almost like it was angry and looking for a fight with the clouds. Two boys on a bike and one on foot started shouting across the park at him.
Pares eased himself out of bed and took more painkillers, the taste of dried blood in his mouth made him wretch. He took small, unsteady steps, like a baby first learning to walk and stood in front of the full length mirror. His eyes travelled across his body as though it were an unfamiliar landscape, taking in the new colours and bulges. And then, in the stillness and quiet, with only the brief interruption of an ambulance siren nearby, he started to cry, watching as thick tears rolled down his face, picking up momentum until they blurred his vision entirely.
Morning, afternoon, night, morning, afternoon, night, morning, afternoon, night. He broke his days up into these three blocks of time and waited for each one to pass. He didn’t go to work. His boss emailed him to say it was a most regrettable situation but that he had to let Pares go.
Pares’ housemate, Lizzie, said that he could stay at the flat until he found another job. He knew he should be grateful but the conversation only made him pulse anger and induced a violent urge to smash the place up; rip apart the hand-woven rugs and eviscerate the ceiling-to-floor oak bookshelf. When he was able to sleep, the attackers were often waiting for him, lurking behind trees and once, rising up from the mud of Hackney Marshes with faces like demented flowers, arms like twisted stalks reaching for him.
Pares ignored the shouting. He kept walking but quickened his pace, determined not to run. He glanced behind him after a couple of minutes. They were still following him. Oh fuck it, he thought, and started sprinting. He was fast, but the bikes were faster and they sped up behind him chanting, “fuck off, paki, fuck off.”
Pares felt a bead of sweat roll into his mouth, its salty taste dissolving on his tongue. One of the bikes swung round in front of him blocking the path. It was dark, the sky and clouds had come to a truce and day had conceded to night. Even the moon was hiding behind some trees.
It was a Tuesday, maybe a Thursday, he didn’t really know. Pares was rooting around in the fridge and found an old Budweiser hidden at the back next to a half-eaten, moldy jar of pesto. He drank it. Then he went to the supermarket and bought six more. He came back and gulped three of them down while watching a TV programme about the secret lives of bees. The looseness around his mind emboldened him to fire off a round of texts to friends he’d been avoiding. They made plans for Friday night. A bitter wind howled around the city, whipping it’s residents in the face as they hurried this way and that, seeking shelter. In a couple of months, it’d be 2017. It might not be so bad, Pares thought, as he forced a slice of pizza down his throat. Living like this. At least I’m barely spending any money.
He went back the next day and bought a bottle of vodka, more beers and half a dozen microwave pizzas. He didn’t leave the flat for the rest of the week, feigning illness to Lizzie.
The other bike was in front of Pares now and he could sense a third person coming up behind him on foot.
He was slugged in the back with something large and wooden.
Pares folded neatly in half and dropped to the grass. He saw a scuffed white Adidas trainer sail through the air and make contact with his stomach. He tried to get up, but the same heavy object slugged him again. He no longer knew where his feet were or how to make them move. The kicks came faster and he became vaguely aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. It was thick like cream. The skinniest attacker spat in Pares’ face and some of it went into his ear. He found this deposit of bodily fluids to be disgustingly intimate.
“Why. Won’t. You. Just. Leave,” one of them grunted between kicks, “just fuck off.”
A kick to the face and a tooth came loose, rattling inside Pares’ mouth. The shock and pain morphed into a white ball of light that reverberated behind his eyes. He wondered if he was now blind. The grass next to his face was flecked with blood, like frosting on a cake made of the earth.
Time recoiled and rebounded. He didn’t know how long the attack lasted, but a couple walking their dog eventually found them. The woman screamed with such force that it froze the three attackers in place like deranged participants in a game of musical statues. The rest was a blur. Pares felt a final kick in the gut and then they sped off.
It felt good to dance, immersed in the darkness, bodies thronging together in repetitive music. The same beats, the same thoughts.
The smoking area was a wire cage too small for all its inhabitants. A view of a dump glimmered in the distance.
“Paris, like the city?” She asked, her breath a cloud of cigarette smoke. A petite blonde with tiny features and thick eyebrows asked for a lighter and stuck around.
Pares had lived with this question his whole life. He laughed along with it and occasionally leveraged it for a hook up; A Night in Pares, that kind of thing, but tonight it really pissed him off.
“No, Pah-res. It’s Indian.”
“Sounds like Paris,” she said giggling.
“You’re an idiot,” he said but it sounded distant, like a voice coming from someone else’s mouth.
He turned away, pushing through the sweaty crowd into a far corner of the wire cage. He lit a cigarette, took a couple of long drags and then pressed it to his forearm, lightly at first and then more firmly as he gained confidence. He was so drunk, he barely felt it. That part of what he told Payal was true.
The couple rushed to him, asking if he was okay, clamouring about the police, an ambulance.
“No, don’t,” Pares gasped. “Don’t. I’m fine. Can you...just...can you help me up?”
The couple put one of his arms around each of their shoulders and heaved. Hot, ragged pain jerked through his body, but he could stand.
“Mate, are you sure about an ambulance....” the man trailed off as Pares spat out a mouthful of blood. It felt like an earthquake was happening inside his lungs as they protested against respiration.
“No,” he grunted. “I just want to go home.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” the woman said. “Can we drive you home?”
“It’s okay, I live just over there,” Pares said. “My housemate is ho….” Something sliced through his ribs and he felt like he might faint.
“Let’s go,” the man said, and they started walking slowly. It hurt to breathe.
When they got to his flat, the woman fished a key out of his back pocket, but he buzzed instead. Better get it out of the way, he thought, rather than limping in looking like a victim of a chainsaw accident.
“Hello?” Lizzie answered.
“Liz, something’s...happened. Please come down.”
Pares ducked into the cafe and with the tinkle of a bell, he was out of the rain. He spotted his sister and walked across the space, sliding into the booth opposite her. She looked up from her book as he sat down.
“Stealth entrance,” Payal said, with a smile. She reached over the formica table to give her brother a hug.
“It’s nice to see you, Py,” he replied.
“You didn’t really dress for it,” she said, waving at the downpour outside. Pares was soaked. He’d left his flat in Clapton wearing a t-shirt in relative sunshine but the journey to Brixton had bestowed all four seasons upon him, ending in monsoon levels of rain.
“What is that on your arm?” Payal asked, her lip curling back slightly.
Pares automatically went to tug his sleeve down but found no material there to help him.
“It’s, er, a cigarette burn. Happened when I was out last night, we were packed in the smoking area and I didn’t even feel it at the time.”
“It looks like a boil from the bubonic plague,” Payal said, leaning forwards to take a closer look. Her curly black hair skimmed the table.
“I don’t know anyone else who could bring up the bubonic plague in under two minutes.”
Pares’ head felt like an industrial washing machine and fluids from last night lurched threateningly in his stomach. He loved his sister, but she had a way of making the air in the room feel very dense, and when she looked at him it was like a giant spotlight was aimed directly at his head.
Their other sister, Poonam, lived in California and worked in tech. She spent all her time talking about Burning Man and extolling the virtues of something called microdosing.
“What have you been doing?” Payal asked, studying him. “You haven’t been to see mum in weeks.”
“I thought we met up to talk about your wedding?” He asked.
He was saved by Payal’s phone bleating. Taking his chance, he went to the counter to order a coffee.
Payal walked him to the tube station.
“Do you wanna come over for a bit?” She asked, as they walked down Electric Avenue. “You look really skinny, I can make us dinner, watch a movie after?”
He thanked her but made his excuses. In his current state, he couldn’t spend too long under Payal’s spotlight. He stuffed the intricate wedding invitation in his pocket and weaved through the crowds in the station.
A text popped up: Hey P, did you leave with that woman in the smoking area last night?! Party tonight at Mo’s. You in?
He closed his eyes and remembered how the sky had churned that night.
He texted back: I left alone and barely managed that. I’ll come for a bit, send me the address.
He made sure to wear a long-sleeved shirt this time.
At the party, Pares gulped down a glass of ambiguous red punch. Someone faceless topped up the glass. He drank that as well, then another.
It was as though a bolt of lightning struck her face when she saw him.
“What the...Oh my God, P…what happened?”
“I was attacked. Can we go inside?”
The man and woman helped him up the stairs. They’d found rhythm as a trio, it seemed risky to abandon it for a new formation. Introductions were made on the trip. Julia and Mark.
They laid him down on the sofa while their dog yapped in the hallway. Lizzie, Mark and Julia moved in a pincer-like motion to the front door, where he heard muffled voices including ‘didn’t want an ambulance’ and then they were gone.
Lizzie came back into the living room and it was evident that she had no idea what to say.
“Liz,” Pares said. “Don’t look at me like I’m a corpse.”
“No, yeah, of course,” she said, and as a relief to both of them, she busied herself with the cleanup operation and gave him painkillers.
Exhaustion hit Pares like an anaesthetic and Lizzie helped him into bed. He shifted around until he found a position that minimised the pain and once the painkillers kicked in he fell into a murky sleep.
He woke up the next day with his eyelids stuck together. His body felt like a congealed mass of bruised flesh and bone.
Lizzie knocked on his door and he grunted in response.
She stuck her head around the door, “Morning, P. How are you feeling?”
His mouth was dry. “Mmmphh, hurts, but fine,” he said.
Lizzie stepped further into the room, “Do you want to talk about what happened? It’s so awful...”
“It hurts to talk,” Pares said quickly, sitting up. “I’m fine. Honestly.”
“I can take a day off, take you to the hospital? You really should go y’know, what if there’s internal bleeding? Are you gonna report it to the police?”
These questions alarmed Pares so much that he sat up fully despite his body punishing him for it and told Lizzie he’d think about it. He was relieved when he heard the front door click.
The same swishing sound started inside his head as the lights became harsher and the room became curvier all at once, like being inside a snow globe. Pares felt flustered and sticky, he went outside where a few people were hanging around smoking. He took out a cigarette and told himself this would be the last time. He rolled up his right sleeve, and stared at his arm while he burnt himself again. Then he threw up.
A woman with an enormous amount of hair piled into a bun, approached him, “Hey – are you alright?” She asked.
“You looookkk like you have two heeeaadsss,” Pares slurred.
“What?” She said, self-consciously raising her hand to her hair.
Pares started laughing, it was a strange feeling, “two headdsssss,” he repeated. “Your hair looks like a second head,” he was laughing harder now, almost hysterically.
Two guys walked over, “you should probably go home,” one of them said.
Pares didn’t reply, everything was blurry. He clutched his phone, stabbing at the screen with a slippery finger and ordered a car. He collapsed as soon as he walked in through his front door. The last thing he remembered was the white and blue geometric pattern of the living room rug weave zooming in as his cheek hit the floor.
Pares woke up in hospital with a drip in his arm, feeling like a person made of just skin with no insides. Lizzie found him passed out and close to choking on his own vomit. She called an ambulance and two paramedics lifted his limp body onto a stretcher, and rushed him to A&E to have his stomach pumped. His mother was by the bed holding his hand when he woke up, and Payal was dozing in a chair next to her. He started crying as soon as he saw them.
“My sweet boy,” his mother said, stroking his hand. “You were very unwell,” she offered euphemistically.
“They want me to leave, mum,” he said through his tears. “But I don’t know where I would go.”
A doctor noticed bruising around Pares’ abdomen and sent him off for an X-ray. He had four cracked ribs.
Three weeks later, Payal, Pares and their mum were having lunch at a new Indian restaurant in East London. Conversation flowed around Payal’s wedding. Poonam had photoshopped pictures of her brother and sister onto Bollywood movie sets. Her laughter bubbled out of Payal’s phone, which was propped up against the salt and pepper shakers. Pares was happy to be a participant in his sister’s life, rather than the damaged protagonist of his own for a while. It all came out at the hospital: the attack, losing his job, the drinking.
Pares gave in and went to the police to report the attack, mainly to make his mum happy. They never found his attackers.
A few years later, he launched his own photography studio. Their opening exhibition was about the duality of the British-Indian experience. It received fierce praise, with words like ‘seminal’ and ‘transformative’ thrown around in Accent magazine and Paper Journal.
On the exhibition’s last night, Pares sent his small team home early. They’d been labouring around the clock to make the exhibition a success, and when he’d thanked them during his little speech, he’d felt choked up with gratitude. He took his time cleaning up, carefully demounting framed photographs and loading wine glasses in the dishwasher. When he was finished, he locked the doors to his studio and smoked a celebratory cigarette. It was dark outside and he felt the buzz of the evening diffuse into the moist summer air.
Pares threw the cigarette butt in the bin and contemplated walking home. Even now the squeal of a bike break caused him to freeze and clench his jaw, every molecule ready to confront a threat that was no longer there. ‘Nothing to see here’ the cyclist would indicate with his body by whooshing past. Only powerful ghosts. He lightly rapped his knuckles on the studio door to say goodnight and started walking into the night.
By Abi Ramanan