My daughter came back late in the evening, when the smoke of the fires were drifting across the old railway station. She stood back in the shadows, watching me, so it was a few minutes before I was aware that she was there.
“Is anything wrong?” I asked. “Why are you standing there like that?”
She shook her head slightly, without speaking. In her black waterproof cape, which she’d been wearing when she’d gone out in the rain, she looked insubstantial part of the shadows. I could almost imagine she wasn’t there, that she was a ghost made out of my imagination and the memories of the past. There had been a lot of ghosts over the years.
“Well?” I demanded, when she made no move to enter the old railway wagon. “Come here and sit down, then.”
For a few moments longer she stood there, before stepping forward slowly, climbing off the platform with an effort. She was a tall, angular woman, my daughter, thin and looking much older than her years. That wasn’t her fault – all that we’d been through would have aged anyone.
“Are you ill?” I asked her, for the third time, watching as she took off the cape and draped it over the box in the corner. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said in a dry whisper, folding herself down across from me. In the light of the little oil lamp, her face was like a piece of abstract art, planes of light and shadow. “Nothing’s wrong. Not more than usual, anyway.”
“Did you get any news?”
“No,” she said shortly, and looked at the lamp. “There’s not much kerosene left, Father.”
“Tomorrow I’ll go and look for some,” I said.
“There isn’t any to be had. I asked.” My daughter turned the knob at the base of the lamp until the light faded to a dim glow. “Besides, we have nothing to trade with anymore.”
I lowered my voice and leaned across to murmur in her ear. “I still have a little cash hidden in my shoes.”
She shook her head. “Nobody wants money anymore. It’s not good for anything.”
“Something will turn up.” I tried to be optimistic. “It always does.”
“Is that what age taught you?” My daughter gave a tired smile. “Father. I’m too old for fairy tales now.”
“It’s not a fairy tale.”
“No,” she agreed. “It’s no fairy tale. If it were one, like the ones you used to tell me, you know, the ones where the brave girl would save the people, then by now we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, would we?”
“You still remember those?” I asked, surprised. I hadn’t told her a fairy story in twenty years.
“Of course I remember,” she said, pulling off her sandals one by one, wearily. Her pale soles were splotched with mud. “You know what struck me about your fairy stories, Father?”
“No, what?” Behind her, through the open door of the wagon, I could see the moon come up. It was full, huge and red as dark blood. I could not take my eyes off that moon. It looked as though it were pregnant, and waiting to give birth to something I couldn’t even imagine. “What struck you about them?”
“Just how they were as much not like the usual fairy story they were.” She grinned suddenly, and I realised once again that under the exhaustion and strain, she was actually a very pretty woman. “You know the drill, the way it usually goes. Beautiful princess gets caught by cruel witch, and the silly bitch has to be saved by the valiant prince. All of the women in those tales were such ninnies. Pretty much an object lesson in how a girl should not be.”
I said nothing. The moon looked ready to roll out of the sky and down on us. I watched the moon.
“But your stories weren’t like that,” my daughter continued. “In your stories, the girl was always the strong one, wasn’t she? And the ogres and giants and so on were usually misunderstood, harmless or even the protagonist.” She laughed, with genuine delight. “Do you remember the Cinderella story you told?”
“No,” I replied. “Remind me, will you?”
“I still remember the time you told me it,” she said. “I was, what, seven years old? I’d asked you what happened to Cinderella after her marriage, and you sat back and looked at me, frowning a little. I’d thought you were angry at me.”
“I can’t have been,” I said. “I don’t think I ever got angry at you for asking questions.”
“Of course you weren’t really. Not asking questions is the cardinal sin in your book, right? You were just thinking of an answer. And then you told me to sit down and started off on your version of Cinderella.”
“And that was...?” I remembered some of it, and wondered how much she recalled. “My old man’s memory is going, so you’d better remind me.”
She snorted. “You’re still as sharp as a tack, old man. Well, you told me that the official story was a bunch of lies. Cinderella – the real Cinderella – was a hard-working girl who thought she deserved a little pleasure out of her life. A night out, with a movie and dancing, maybe; just a break from the drudgery of working day in, day out.
“Your Cinderella had no cruel stepsisters. She lived with a couple of flatmates, vain young women who spent their money on fancy clothes and cosmetics and looked down on poor Cindy for living within her means. But Cindy ignored them, because she knew they were vain and foolish. But at the same time she yearned for a break – just one day’s break from the routine.
“Then she got word that the local rich man’s son was throwing a party, at which all the pretty women were invited. The two flatmates were going, of course – they never missed out on parties, even on invitation-only affairs like this. But Cindy hadn’t a hope, because she didn’t have an invite, and besides she had nothing appropriate to wear.
“Well, the evening of the party came around and the two flatmates dressed up to the nines and left, throwing a couple of good-natured gibes at Cindy as they did. Normally, Cindy would have spent the evening reading or mending her old clothes, but tonight she was filled with rebellion. She went to the window and stood looking through it at the mansion on the hill where the party was going on. She could almost hear the music.
“ ‘I will go to it,’ she decided. ‘Just for once, let me have some fun.’
But she had nothing to wear, so she thought a bit and remembered that on the floor below, there lived someone, a man who liked to dress up in women’s clothes and put on shows where he called himself the Fairy Godmother. She didn’t know much about the man, but she had never heard anything bad about him, so she went downstairs and knocked at his door. When he opened up, she explained her problem and asked to borrow a dress, good shoes, and his expertise with make-up.
“So the Fairy Godmother – you know, Father, that was the first time I’d ever heard of cross-dressers and gay people. Your Fairy Godmother was a positive character, and I’ve never had anything against transvestites since. Well, the Fairy Godmother lent Cindy smart clothes, spiffy shoes, and even let her drive his car, on condition that she return by midnight, because he had to go on a trip early in the morning and needed the car back by then.”
I nodded. “Go on.”
“So Cindy drove to the mansion, and found that there was a man at the door checking invites. But she’d come too far to turn back now, so she sneaked round the back and climbed in through an open window. After wandering around a bit, she found the hall where the party was going on. All the people were dancing, and there was loud music and bright lights, more than Cindy was used to.
“Now the rich man’s son had grown bored with all the women at the party, and when this new young female arrived, he was taken with her at once. He came up to her, and – taking her by the hand – pulled her to the dance floor. All this without asking her permission, because he imagined that any girl who got the opportunity would be so glad to dance with him that she would never dream of refusing. He was a very rich man’s son, and had never lacked for anything in his life.
“Now, Cindy wasn’t like all the sophisticated young women this rich man’s son had known. She was thoughtful and intelligent, not careless and shallow; he was quite taken by her, and paid her so much attention that the other women all burned with jealousy, not least the two flatmates, who wondered how she had wangled an invite and where she’d acquired these clothes they’d never seen before.
“Cindy was having quite a good time, when she suddenly realised that it was almost midnight, and she’d promised the Fairy Godmother that she’d return his car by then. She started looking for a way to leave, but the rich young man was by her side, pressing a glass of wine on her, and insisting on another dance.
“ ‘I have to go,’ Cindy told him. ‘It’s getting late.’
“ ‘It’s not even midnight,’ the young man said. ‘The evening’s only just begun.’
“ ‘It’s late for me,’ said Cindy. There were only a few minutes to midnight, and she was getting frantic. Taking a moment when the young man’s attention was diverted by a telephone call, she ran down the stairs and out, quickly going to the car and driving home as fast as she could. In her haste, though, she tripped, losing a shoe, and when she stooped to put it on, she dropped her driving licence. When the young man came looking for her, that was all he found.
“Well, the next day, the young man was at Cindy’s door bright and early. Cindy was without makeup and in her own old clothes, so he didn’t even recognise her till she introduced herself.
“ ‘You left without a word,’ he said accusingly then, holding out the licence. ‘Why didn’t you wait?’
“Cindy was getting ready to go to work, and said so. ‘I can’t be late for my job,’ she said. ‘If I don’t work, I don’t earn.’
“The young man laughed. ‘Marry me,’ he said, ‘and you will never have to worry about earning.’
“ ‘Marry you?” Cindy asked. ‘Why should I?’
“ ‘Why...’ the young man repeated. ‘Because then you won’t ever have to work again.’
“ ‘And supposing I like to work for a living?’ Cindy asked. ‘Suppose I prefer to be financially independent, and responsible for myself?’
“ ‘You can’t enjoy living in this, can you?’ the rich man’s son asked, sweeping his arm around the tiny flat. ‘This is a...dump. Think of the luxury you could have.’
“ ‘A golden cage is still a cage,’ Cinderella said. ‘I prefer to be free to fly.’ Politely thanking him for returning her licence, she ushered him out. And only when the door shut behind him did she begin to laugh, thinking of the expression on his face.”
My daughter smiled, remembering. “It was such a real story, you know? You could imagine it happening to people you knew. All your fairy stories were like that.” She looked up. “Did you have anything to eat?”
I shook my head. “I’m not hungry.”
“Liar. Of course you’re hungry. Wait.” Leaning over to the cape, she fumbled out something from an inner pocket: a hunk of bread wrapped in an old newspaper. Clumsily, she tore it into two, and handed me one part. “Here.”
I didn’t ask how she’d got it. Perhaps I thought it better not to know. We ate, chewing slowly, making it last.
“Father,” she said later, lying down under the cape, which she was using as a blanket. “Are you awake?”
“When I came back, and I was watching you – I was thinking, how much we’ve been through together. We’ve lost so much, and yet we’ve gained, too, in ways that can’t be measured in possessions.”
“You think this is a gain?” I asked. “This old train wagon in this abandoned railway station in the middle of nowhere?”
“You know what I’m talking about,” she said. “Don’t pretend to me that you don’t.”
“I do,” I acknowledged. “But it isn’t a life for a young person, with her future ahead of her.”
“Everyone’s future is ahead of them,” she snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
There was a pause.
“Do you think things will ever be better?” she asked softly. “Do you think we can ever go home again?”
I didn’t know, and said so.
“I heard that they’re talking about an amnesty,” she said. “Give up, ask for pardon, and you can go back.”
“Do you think we should?”
“Of course not” my daughter said. “It would be easy to give up and do as we’re told, wouldn’t it? But that’s not the way your women characters would’ve acted. That’s not the way Cindy would’ve done it.”
“No,” I agreed. The moon was higher in the sky, and smaller, and whiter. It no longer looked like a boulder about to roll down on us. “Perhaps things will be better tomorrow.”
“Or else we’ll find a way to make them better.” She paused. “No golden cage for us.”
“No,” I repeated. “No golden cage for us.”
She was silent so long that I thought she’d gone to sleep. Then, suddenly, she spoke.
“Wonder what Cindy’s flatmates thought of her choice. You never said. Do you suppose they laughed?”
"I don't know. Who cares what they thought?"
"I don't know. Who cares what they thought?"
The moon crawled up the sky. I looked at my watch. It was getting on for midnight.
“Good night,” I said. “Sleep well.”
“Perhaps,” she said, finally, “this will turn out to be a fairy story, after all.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013