HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Purple We Battle For The Taj

We Battle for the Taj

Tuesdays, I turn out the sitting room. Itís the day she always did it, I see no reason to change. Best to keep on top of the cleaning and the boy brings the family this weekend. She liked dusting the mantelpiece best; the carriage clock, my leaving present from the Council, the photo of our boy graduating and that piece of the Taj Mahal.
Tried to get her to throw it away when we moved out of Motherís house. Just clutter, I said. But she said we had saved for a down payment on a bungalow, and she wanted things in her home that she loved. Reminds me of India, I told her, a place I hated. But there it sat on the mantelpiece all our married life: while our boy grew up, when our first telly was delivered, when the boy left for London. And the day everyone came for tea after her funeral.
I was stationed in India in 1944. One day our troop visited the Taj Mahal. I can still hear the officer haranguing us with the story of the broken-hearted Mughal Emperor building a monument to his wife. Seemed like the officer didnít approve, the way he spat out the story, clipped moustache wriggling like a worm on a hook. I spied that piece of marble lying in the dust and slipped it into my pocket. Always wondered if Iíd stolen a piece of the Emperorís heart.
One day, she must have been six months pregnant, I saw her pick it up, press it to her lips, eyes all dreamy. And out of nowhere it came, this terrible swelling like my chest was boiling. I found myself screaming at her. It brought it all back; the war, and the weariness, how horrible and lonely Iíd been. I may not have suffered like some, no terrible mutilations, but on the inside I was torn up. Makes me anxious even now; Iím better if I stick to the routine.
She accepted me the way I was. It was one of the reasons I loved her. She never minded that we did not holiday on the Costa del Sol like our neighbours with their sun-beaten skin and sombreros. Instead, we went by train to Llandudno or, when we could afford to buy one, by car. Once we drove to Scotland but the midges were terrible.
I wear always one of her aprons when I clean. Some might think thatís strange, me in womenís clothing but itís practical. I tie the strings round my waist and itís as though Iím pulling her towards me. The family arrives Friday evening. Iíll run a feather duster along the picture frames and Ewbank over the carpet. Plump up that cushion and weíre tip-top. Shoppingís been done. Two ham and cheese quiches from the delicatessen counter, daughter-in-law will like that, and a pot of coleslaw. It will make a nice supper. Iíll sleep in the boyís room in his single bed. They can take our double.
They arrive by taxi from the station. Train must have been dead on time. And here he is, my boy, still with the beard and crumpled shirt. And my daughter-in-law. Iím fond of her really but why does she wear that red lipstick? Itíll leave marks on my cheeks when she kisses me; always on both sides, donít know why. The babyís grown into a lovely little toddler, waddling in with her arms outstretched. Not sure that sparkly dress is suitable for travelling.
She says they brought supper. Hardly in the door, and she brings out containers of dips and meats and cheeses. Kitchen tableís too small for four so I spread a sheet on the sitting room floor for the crumbs and she plonks my granddaughter down among the pots of food. Never thought a toddler would eat that kind of thing. When I kiss her goodnight, thereís garlic on her breath.
Next day we walk into Chester. A big pushchair for a little girl, like a small car really. Thatís when my daughter-in-law tells me. Says they are planning to visit India. I should go with them, she says, I can show them where to go. I can feel my neck getting hot. I say I think a visit like that is beyond me now. I wonder if sheís serious.
Itís new to me, pubs serving coffee, but thatís where we go. My son finds a quiet corner where we can hear ourselves think. Iím unsettled by the talk of India and I hope it wonít come up again. They put my granddaughter into this floating high chair with no legs which grips the table edge. Doesnít look safe to me but I am told not to fuss. When my daughter-in-law touches my arm again, I know Iím not going to like what sheís about to say. A flake of croissant is stuck on her lip and I concentrate on that. She says: ĎWe will visit the Taj Mahal. We could return that piece to its rightful owner, you know.í
My eyes prickle, what can I say? So I go to pay the bill and itís stupid but I feel like shouting. Then my son comes up and, thank goodness, suggests a walk around the City walls, and we leave the pub and all that noise. But itís no quieter on the streets, so many people shopping and talking and no one looks where theyíre going. A girl knocks me on the head as she holds up her phone to take a photograph of herself by the Eastgate clock. At the Visitor Centre, the man says we can join a tour and a family ticket costs sixteen pounds. Daylight robbery, I think, but my son hands over the cash without turning a hair. I say Iíll wait with the pushchair and they put the toddler in one of those backpacks and set off with some Chinese tourists. A lady in the Centre offers me a leaflet. To be honest, I donít feel well.
When I was stationed in India, it was hard to sleep. The heat, the homesickness and the racket. In the village where the camp orderlies lived there would be music. Above the buzzing of the mosquitos trying to get through my net, I could hear the ring of the tabla, those tight little drums they played.
Thatís what my heart sounds like as I lay in my sonís bed next to his Beano annuals and football certificates. Itís in my palm, our piece of the Taj Mahal. Under the pillow, I stroke its gritty surface.

It was horrible clearing out Dadís bungalow. Everything I saw and touched was moulded by him. The door handles shaped by his hand and the carpet pile pressed by his tread. When I pulled out the cotton wool heíd stuffed in the key hole to block out draughts, it was as though I was pulling him apart.
We always used to visit him in the summer when the tomatoes were ripening. When she was little, our daughter would wander through his greenhouse, dwarfed by the plants, be-dazzled by the glistening red globes that hung above her. She would cry for granddad to pop a tomato into her mouth and sheíd giggle when her chin ran with juice. When I gave her a bath, the tang of tomato perfumed her hair. As she grew taller, she would help him with the plants, careful fingers nipping off the side shoots or measuring out the feed.
My wife made clearing out Dadís stuff much easier; she has a practical approach. Even got me laughing when we found his stash of sugar in the loft. Forty bags of the stuff. Towards the end, heíd started to hoard. Shampoo bottles inside the bath panel, baked beans tins on the book shelf, continence pads behind the kitchen door. And if he found a bargain in Wrexham market where heíd shopped most Thursdays, he repeat bought. Four exact-same blue anoraks, still in their plastic wrapping, were carefully laid along the top of the wardrobe, and there were seven pairs of tartan slippers in a box under the sofa. I suppose it was the war. You bought when you could.
Dad scrimped methodically. Like a sweetshop which offers every type of confectionery, the garden shed was crammed with stuff. Nails, nuts, screws, bolts and washers, all odd sizes and types and all rusted, were carefully boxed and labelled. Twists of wire, tangles of string, very short and very long pieces of wood, a bundle of bicycle spokes, tins containing drips of oil carefully sealed with tape, three brooms. My wife said she admired it. Sheís committed to recycling, but I could tell she was exasperated.
While our daughter was growing up, we holidayed in Europe. It was easier not to travel too far and we love Italy and the German forests, too. But when we cleared out the bungalow and came across the piece of the Taj Mahal lying on the mantelpiece, she remembered the trip to India that we once talked about but never took. Her eyes lit up. She pointed out that our daughter would be going to University the following year - Inshallah she said, which irritated me Ė why didnít we take the opportunity and go to India, just the two of us? We could take the marble fragment back to the Taj Mahal, she said, like we told your Dad we would. I came up with a few reasons why it wasnít a good idea. Expense, jet lag, diarrhoea, theft, heat, insects, terrorism, political unrest, long flight, dodgy water. But when she announced she wanted to go there to celebrate her Ďbigí birthday, what could I say?
So itís planned that after Christmas, weíll go to India. To say Iím terrified is only a slight exaggeration. Itís too uncertain, too different. I just prefer holidaying in Europe. The plane will be full of middle-aged people escaping the winter, sitting in the Premium Economy thinking itís a good deal to pay a bit extra for leg room and a glass of warm wine, saying just wait Ďtil we show the neighbours our pictures, no letís put them on Facebook.

Iíve only ever seen photographs of the Taj Mahal where the sky is bright blue. But today itís so misty I can barely distinguish the palace from the white swirl that surrounds it. The guide tells us itís quiet here today but there are thousands of people swarming through the gate. We ignore the men who hassle us to buy trinkets. Then weíre taken to a queue and I see itís for a bench and I realise itís the place where Diana sat, sad and lonely without her Prince. My wife wants her photograph taken there. It makes me wonder, is this significant?
We wait for some time. In front of us are three transvestites; beautiful doe-eyed creatures drenched in gold bling, their slender bodies wrapped in iridescent pink and citrus yellow silks. When itís their turn, they squash up together on the bench, coy for the camera, jewel-encrusted fingers entwined under coquettishly-turned chins. Then my wife takes her turn. Itís hard to distinguish her pale face against the mist.
There is no fresh way to describe the Taj Mahal so we donít try but walk in silence towards the monument as the sun creeps higher in the sky. I think of my Dad. When he was here all those years ago, was it chilly or hot? He would only have been a few years older than our daughter is today, just another raw recruit ripped out of a town or village to serve his country, hoping to do his best but wishing he didnít have to.
We gaze over the slow-moving Yamuna River to the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son and mourned his wife for many lonely years. My wife presses up against me and I think she wants a kiss but I hear her whisper for me to give her the piece of the Taj Mahal that my father stole so long ago. She says she wants it to leave it here in sight of the Shahís place of vigil, return it to its rightful owner.
And out of nowhere it comes, this terrible swelling like my chest is boiling and I find myself wanting to scream at her that I have not brought it. I have left it back in England, under my pillow, safe from her fingers. I want to spit out that it will remain with us forever on our mantelpiece. Does she not know that the Shah will understand? But I cannot, here of all places, shout at my wife. So I tell her I have forgotten it, itís in my bag, must be the jet lag, and we return to the crowds that gather round the Taj Mahal like flies round a piece of rotten fruit.

Pamela Holmes was born in Charleston, South Carolina. At the age of eight, she moved with her family to England. She studied nursing at London University as a mature student having spent three years living on a commune in Somerset where she developed a love of gardening, milking cows and laying hedges. She became a health journalist and on-screen reporter. She now works and volunteers to improve the lives of older people including those with dementia, and sings in a rock band. Her first novel, The Huntingfield Paintress, is being published in May 2016. She won the Jane Austen Short Story Award in 2014. She is the mother of two boys and lives in London with her husband.
Pamela's website