Something always came down like a guillotine to split her life in two, so that on one side was happiness, and on the other, the present. That afternoon, she had been going at her top speed through the wood, jumping easily over the widest ditches though she was only ten and a girl, when she’d remembered the school reports in her satchel. She had slowed to a walk, pulled out the yellow slips, and breathing hard, begun to read. She read carefully at first, and then skimmed. She did not recognise the girl described in the reports. Or the several girls. It was impossible to make a single girl from the words that lifted off the pages and settled in Uma’s mind as she read: insubordinate—shy and anxious—appears cut off from her peers—understands basic concepts—does not understand English—an indifference bordering on insolence—sloppy, disruptive, hostile, will not pass. With every line Uma’s heart beat faster, and the guillotine began to fall. She pushed the typewritten slips back into her bag.
At home, her sister, a year older, told Uma to keep the reports to herself. She said she would hold her own reports back so Mama wouldn’t know, but Uma thought that whatever they did Mama would know. Thinking all night, she woke up sick. It wasn’t only because of Mama; it was because of these other girls. Girls who grew limbs in the dark, rose up off the carpet, took her place while she lay sleeping. Even now a girl born in the night was very likely halfway to school, waiting for others to come. ‘Sonia,’ Uma whispered into the room. A pale arm appeared near the window, nudged aside a heavy curtain. The curtain returned heavily to its place and her sister swore, then climbed out of her bed and came over. She knelt and put her face close to Uma. She said didn’t Uma know that the reports were meaningless, that her teachers were dead on their feet, could barely stay awake, let alone remember the name of every child who had stepped foot inside their classroom?
‘You think everything printed in black and white is true,’ Sonia said.
‘Some things. You think some things are the Holy Gospel before you even see what they say.’
The books in the far section of the library, Uma thought. Daddy’s accounts. Everything in the registry office where she went with Daddy when Grandpa died. Everything under Mama’s side of the bed.
‘I don’t,’ she said again.
‘You don’t know enough to know what is true and not true,’ Sonia said.
‘Does Mama know?’
‘Don’t show her the reports.’
One line kept rising to the top, because Uma knew it could be proven one way or the other.
‘I do understand English,’ she said.
Sonia was quiet, and Uma saw that this was what their mother wasn’t supposed to read. A new thought came to her.
‘Let me see your reports,’ she said shyly.
Sonia stood up. ‘You’re not listening,’ she said, and returned to her bed.
When Mama came in at 6:00 a.m., she was already in her sari. She rustled warmly in the dark. She leaned over Sonia and opened the curtains fully. Sonia said something to her and Mama came and sat on Uma’s bed and touched her hand to Uma’s chest and back.
‘You’ll have to come to the shop,’ she said.
Uma started at this, and across the room she sensed Sonia raising her head. Spend the whole day with Mama? Delicate, forgotten feelings rose up. It had been many months since Uma and her mother had spent the whole day together. She remembered how, sometimes, on such days, a moment would come when Mama would forget that Uma was only a child and she would begin to talk to her the same way she talked to her friend, the one Mama had known since she was a girl. Mama would talk softly and for a long time about people Uma had never met. The memory of these talks dissolved her night-time fears. The sun was shining into the bedroom, making a tall yellow rectangle on the wall, like a door. Did Mama notice it? Mama’s face was lit too, but it was as if from inside, and Uma let herself forget that it was always like this when Mama still had her coffee to look forward to downstairs.
In a second, Uma was up on one elbow, pushing her blanket aside, and Mama was shifting to make space. But when she’d gathered herself to stand, Uma saw, across the room, her satchel, right where Mama could see, with all her reports lying inside it like a pile of snakes around a rock. She stood quickly, put herself between Mama and her satchel. In her head, she heard her sister’s voice. The voice rooted her to the spot. It accused her of not knowing enough to understand what was true and not true. And then it wasn’t her sister’s voice but Mama’s, because wasn’t that what Mama had said, in the end, about her friend? That her friend didn’t know enough to understand what was true or not true. After that, Mama had dismissed her friend, and soon there was a blank where the friend had once been, this woman Mama had known her whole life. It was as if she had never existed.
Uma began to shiver and could not stop.
‘It’s okay,’ she heard herself say. ‘I’ll go to school.’
‘You get ready. I cannot send you to school like this.’
It was Daddy’s shop, that was how people talked about it, but it was Mama’s too. In the shop, they sold buggies, cots, baby clothes, a few toys. Most people didn’t buy big items new, but instead bought second-hand or brought their old buggies into the shop for repairs. Daddy took his time over the repairs and charged his customers hardly anything. When someone did buy new, Daddy told them about the repairs he could do for them in the future if something went wrong. Mama said that sort of thing left the customer feeling they had bought an inferior product and Daddy said she was right and stopped doing it, but he made a big sign saying REPAIRS which he put next to the TOYS AND BUGGIES sign outside. Then Mama said the shop and the office at the back were small enough already and all Daddy did was fill them with broken buggies, so that there was no room for a person to breathe.
‘Things will pick up soon,’ Mama said in the car, and Daddy was silent.
Mama had brought the blanket off Uma’s bed. At the shop, she got Uma to lie down across two chairs behind the till and moved the electric heater closer to her. Uma tucked her satchel under one of the chairs. She lay quietly, trying not to think of the satchel below her, and the reports inside it.
A few customers came into the shop but they only bought clothes. It didn’t matter. Mama stood at the till and called out to Daddy in the office to tell him what had been sold, and Uma heard the sweetness in her voice and knew that Mama had hope for the day ahead.
After their lunch of rice and dal which Mama warmed up on the little stove in the office, a woman Mama’s age came in. She had a buggy and there wasn’t a baby, just some bags of shopping and a dark pink raincoat. The woman’s handbag caught on the door handle. She stared at Mama before untangling it. She threw it on top of all the things on the seat of the buggy. The woman had to push the buggy into a gap between a stack of shoe boxes and a playpen, which she did so roughly the boxes shuddered. She said in a soft, clear voice that she wanted a new buggy. She looked beyond Mama, to the office where Daddy was. Mama didn’t like the woman and she didn’t like Mama. Uma got up and went to stand next to Mama.
When Daddy came out, he asked the woman what was wrong with her buggy. She said it was just old. Also the brakes. Daddy approached the buggy and crouched down. He inspected the chassis.
‘I can fix it,’ he said, rising to his feet.
Uma looked at Mama, but Mama’s face said nothing.
‘I want a new one,’ the woman repeated. ‘That one,’ and she pointed behind Uma’s father, to the deep blue, gold-edged Tour 7 in the window.
Uma’s father placed a hand on the frame of the woman’s buggy.
He said, ‘This is a good buggy.’
The woman was silent. In the window, the Tour 7’s gold edging glinted under the shop’s lights.
‘We take cash or cheque,’ she said, but she wasn’t looking at the woman, she was looking at Daddy.
He was standing with his arms at his sides, looking back at her.
Uma stared from one to the other. She didn’t know what it was about Daddy that made her feel so strange, and then she did know: it was his guillotine. It was coming down, and Mama could see it, but she wasn’t saying anything.
The woman approached the till and told Mama she would need the Tour 7 delivered. She gave her address while Mama wrote it in Daddy’s book.
And then from where he stood in the middle of the shop, Daddy said quietly that he would take the old buggy in part exchange. It was as if, with his eyes on Mama, he had risen to his full height and stopped the guillotine with his fist. Still, Mama didn’t say anything and when the woman left, the Tour 7 was on the shop-floor marked as sold, and the woman’s old buggy was standing next to it.
At the till, Mama wrote the exchange into Daddy’s accounts. She stood in a way that told anyone in the office who was wondering that she had no use for them. There was a hard, cold atmosphere between Uma’s mother and father, and it didn’t only come from Mama. Daddy worked silently in the office and the cold coming from him was not gentle. It blew right through Uma’s mother to Uma herself. The shop had become an inhospitable place, but Uma was sure it couldn’t continue like this. A customer would come, and either Mama or Daddy would see that they had to meet somehow, and whichever of them saw it would move towards the other.
But no one came.
In the shop, the argument between her mother and father was about money and about something Daddy believed in, but underneath the shop, where the argument really lived, Uma didn’t know what it was about. All she knew was that when it was like this between them, everything took on a new shape. Everything was frightening and alien, and only something from outside, something that did not come from Mama or Daddy or the shop could help them. Her blanket had been wrapped around her. Uma opened it and let it fall. She pulled the satchel from under her chair, took out the reports.
She stood next to Mama. Mama read the reports and then moved past Uma, into the office. When Daddy had finished reading, he looked at Mama.
Uma stepped forward.
She said loudly that she knew that what was written there was not the truth.
Neither her mother nor her father answered her, but whatever her mother was thinking was being heard by her father as if she was placing her thoughts directly into his mind. If Mama was angry, Uma thought, it wasn’t at Daddy and it wasn’t at her either. Slowly, something in Mama changed. She moved very close to Daddy, and she looked tall. Her face was glowing. The sun was shining in through the windows at the far end of the office, there were yellow doors everywhere, and Daddy had his arm across Mama’s shoulders.
Daddy came out of the office and began boxing up the Tour 7. He enclosed it in bubble wrap, lifted it into a white box. Then Mama joined him. She held down the edges while Daddy maneuvered around her, fixing the tape, taking care not to catch Mama’s fingers. Uma watched them and began to feel the same way she’d felt when they’d all gone to the Lake District on the train with a little money Mama had gotten from Grandpa, and the woman at the hotel above the lake had unfolded a map onto her desk and started drawing on it with a blue pen, showing them where they were, and where the closest supermarket and the nice restaurants were, in relation to them. Sometimes, even when it was like this, Uma would think about the guillotine, but not always.