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27 June 2022

Eggs keep falling from the fourth floor by Bhavika Govil

Wasafiri is proud to publish the shortlisted works of the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by skilled new writers from all over the globe. In this short story, Bhavika Govil makes inventive use of a child's voice and vernacular to dissect relationships and societal structures, resulting in a gripping, emotional piece. The 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 30 June. You can enter the prize and read more about it here.
On the fourth floor, an aunty lives. She calls out to the kids passing by and whistles at us and shouts, Hellooo, get me a shikanji, will you? But all the parents, the good ones, the bad ones, have told us to look away when she’s shouting. She doesn’t really need anything, don’t go to her when she asks for things. And when she’s crying or wailing, they say, it’s fake. But it’s hard not to look, because when she shouts, it sounds almost like she’s singing. She has a voice like that. A little like imli — khatta meetha. Or like honey with lemon when you pour it into a scratchy throat and it feels bad at first and then it goes down plonk-like smooth and you fall asleep. Aunty’s voice is like that too.   When Papa started hitting Amma properly, they made so much noise that they couldn’t even hear it when a gunshot went off on TV or when some boys from outside set off fireworks or when the watchman’s madwife was so angry at him for looking at another woman that she shrieked like she saw a huge spider, for days and days and days. So I started slipping out of our flat and going to Aunty’s house. Her door was always open which was funny because most people in our building keep their door shut, then double-shut with locks and bolts and all sorts of things like that, like they are rich and have plenty of things to hide.   Aunty looked at me and grinning from her teeth, she said, There are three ways to get their attention. You know na what to do. When you think they’re not listening to you, you can jump out of a window.  I said, But I’ll break my head.   She continued, scratching her head which was a little grey and a little brown, That’s right, the problem is that you’ll break your head.   Yes.  When you go falling down down down.  Like an egg? I asked.   Like an egg, she confirmed.   So we dropped the idea.    The next time I was sitting inside her house, Aunty said, Let’s move on to option number two. She said, I can run away from home and run faster than everyone and go to a place where everybody listens to me.  I said, you mean I can?  She looked at me blankly and nodded. Yes, of course. You can.  But my legs are shorter than Papa’s, I said.  She scratched her head and said Ah.  Then her eyes, which before this were sleepy and weepy and even a little bit crusty, became big and brilliant and she said, But this one will work. Then she whispered in my ear and grinned. Yes, this one will work. 

*

Misi at school still can’t believe I had the guts to go to Aunty’s house all alone but that’s because Misi gets scared quickly. I told her that Aunty looks like a monster from way way way below — with scraggy hair and big bulbous eyes and a little goop that always hangs from the side of her mouth. But she isn’t really like that.   No one thought Misi and I would ever become friends either. We are so different. For one thing, she has many siblings and I have none. She has parents that don’t hit each other, in fact they don’t really talk at all, and I have ones that bash and beat each other like they are villains in a movie. Misi lives in a big house with one whole floor all to herself and many big windows to look out of. I don’t. I have to climb on top of the cupboard in our one-room flat and then peer out the tiny, dirty window that we never clean because Amma always says What’s the point? There’s nothing to look at outside anyway.   Plus, Misi has long hair that never get lice. Mine get lice. Mine have got lice twice. But we still became friends.  Whenever I go to school after a whole night of drama inside our house, I have big puffy eyes. I try to keep quiet and not say anything even when the teacher asks us to because if I do, I’ll cry. So I keep my feet tap-tapping and roll my head into my top like a turtle and put my head on the desk. And whenever I feel like I need to see people I just pop my face out of my neck and there I am. And although Misi is rich and Amma and Papa and Aunty and everyone says that rich people don’t understand much and can’t think outside of themselves, Misi still does. When I’m in my turtle home, she knocks on my shell and comes sits next to me and holds my hand. And if there’s nothing to say, she braids my hair and says it doesn’t matter if I have lice or not. That’s Misi for you.  

*

Amma and Papa didn’t always hit each other. When I was four, maybe five, they told each other things like I love you and No I love you more. When they hugged, they took me into the centre of their hug and wrapped themselves around me until I couldn’t see or smell anything but them. And when they thought I couldn’t tell, they held hands under the blanket but we shared a bed and of course I could tell what they were doing by the lump. But when Papa stopped going to the factory and Amma started coming home late from the building she works in, they began spending more time fighting and hating everything: our house, each other. Even me.  

*

When Aunty whispered the third idea to me, I first didn’t understand what she was talking about.   Get me the pills, the pills, she said and began rubbing her eyes fast.  I looked at her blankly, wondering if she had a tummy ache and wanted the pink Digene medicine which tasted horrible but always worked.  No, no, Aunty said, irritated. The pills which make your foam up like when someone washes your mouth out with soap. They make your body act like an earthquake is taking place inside you. You can get the pills from the man in the striped shirt behind the market. Then she added, If you ask nicely enough.   I stared at her.   She continued, Eat enough of the pills and everyone will notice you.   Everyone? I asked. I was thinking of Amma and Papa.  Everyone. And you’ll share them with me, won’t you?  People in the building say a lot of things about Aunty. That she used to be married to a woman. That she’s a witch. That she was rich. That she drinks her face off. Drink what? I ask. And they laugh. That she travelled over from Pakistan. She secretly owns a big van. They say a lot of things, but they don’t say one thing for sure — she’s smart as hell.  

*

Misi is not coming to school nowadays. The girls around are saying lots of things — that she has shifted schools, which can’t be true because she’d never do that without telling me. That she has fallen down and broken her neck and legs and teeth all at once. And worst of all, that her parents died, which is a very bad thing to say when it’s false but even more when it’s true. The teacher shushed them all and said, not die, they got divorced. Everyone sniggered. Later, I told Aunty the die-divorce thing, and she muttered that sometimes it means the same thing. Then she roared with laughter.   I asked her if she was married once and she said, Yes, perhaps. Perhaps, I was.  

*

The guy behind the market exploded with laughter when I went to him. He looked at me like I was joking. And even though my legs were shivering and I wanted to turn into a turtle home again, I asked again loudly, pointing vaguely towards Aunty’s flat. The man creased his eyebrows, and said, So, she’s sent you this time, has she?  Then he asked, Got the money?   When I said no, he said, There are other ways to pay, you know. Surely, your aunty must have told you that. He looked at me in my school uniform from top to bottom, slowly, licking his lips as he did. I ran away to my house as quickly as I could, thinking the whole time that Misi would never believe I had the guts to do this. 

*

Today after ages, Misi came to school. I asked her what happened. Why was she gone for so long without telling me, and this time she was the one who was shivering, not me, so I took her to a corner in the girls’ bathroom. She said that her mother didn’t love her father anymore. It was true, they were getting divorced. In fact, Misi said, But you can’t tell anyone this, and then she paused, hanging her words in the air. So I shook my head violently and promised.    I don’t know if it’s true or not but Misi says that she saw her mother kissing her best friend.   Kissing? I asked, opening my eyes wide.   She nodded. Apparently, her mother never loved her father very much at all, and now she goes around kissing her best friend who’s a woman.   At least that’s what Misi says.  

*

Aunty with the imli voice fell from her balcony two days ago. She fell falling splat and made such a mess that people around complained that they had to pay money to get the floor scrubbed. Her head broke and cracked like an eggshell, but instead of yellow, red blood spilled out, and kept on flowing and flowing and flowing. I thought a lot of police people with their big cars and red rotating lights would come like they do in the movies to see a body fallen on the floor. But only one man came and he was wearing loose brown trousers and honestly, I swear, he looked like he also didn’t want to be there.  Misi at school says that it’s not possible that Aunty just fell. People don’t simply fall out of balconies. Sometimes I think maybe Misi’s right. But other times, I think that maybe what people said is true. Maybe Misi doesn’t understand these things because she is too rich. And even if I’m not, I think, at least I’m better than Misi. At least my Amma only kisses my Papa when she does and not strange women, and at least lice like me enough to come stay in my hair. And at least my building has four floors, not two, even if people fall out of it like eggs sometimes. At least. 
Bhavika Govil is a writer born in New Delhi, India with a master's in creative writing from The University of Edinburgh. She is writing her debut novel, which won the Pontas & JJ Bola Emerging Writers Prize in 2021. She has performed her short fiction at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Paisley Book Festival and been published in Extra Teeth, Gutter, BooksFromScotland and Vogue. www.bhavikagovil.com        Photo by Emmanuel Julliot on Unsplash  
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