You came for me at midnight. A squishy hand tugging mine, yanking me awake. I rubbed my eyelids, asked what the heck was going on (I needed sleep. I was a growing girl). You giggled through gap teeth, passing me my robe before continuing to tug-tug as we crept from the cave of my room, past the rumbling snores of Amma’s lair, down the stairs and out of the flat. Your brother was standing outside in lightning- bolt pyjamas. The scruffy strands of his hair matched the zigzag pattern. He looked sleepy and cross at the same time.
‘Marianne . . .’ I said, trying to sound stern as my body yawned.
You pressed a finger to your lips then turned away, guiding us through the night. Our feet stumbled against concrete steps, hands stretching up to metal railings that made me shiver.
On the fourth floor you signalled for us to sit in our usual places. Our legs dangled through the balcony railings as you slid your body between us and linked your arms through ours. Curls of your hair brushed against my cheek. You pointed to the sky.
‘Look,’ you said.
I looked. I saw. A billion stars against an indigo sky. The brightness of them. The sheer number of them.
‘That,’ you said, pointing straight up, ‘is the Constellation of Cartwheels.’
Your head fell back, a crescent grin across your face.
I sneaked my hand into the pocket of my robe and felt the edges of the book inside.
‘That,’ I said, pointing to a wispy cluster, ‘is the Constellation of Mini-Dictionaries.’
I looked over at Jonathan, waiting for him to object.
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head, his glasses wobbling on the bridge of his nose. ‘That is the Constellation of Thunderstorms.’
You looked at me and I at you; we were fizzing with surprise.
Our fingers rose, arms outstretched.
‘The Constellation of Lemon Sherbets . . .’ you said.
‘The Constellation of Hurricanes . . .’ your brother said.
‘The Constellation of Vegetable Dhansak . . .’ I said.
We continued naming the constellations all through the night until we weren’t even using words but a jumble of made‑up sounds. I felt your body next to mine, warming me like a blanket. When I looked at the horizon I saw a shooting star. It skimmed across the velvet night in a streaking blaze.
Or maybe I didn’t see that. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to see . . .
The Constellation of Bed
I wake up to find my room has been entered ninja-style during the night. Streamers line the ceiling, balloons are taped to the corners in clusters and a giant holographic banner dangles crookedly on the wall. Below it a dozen photographs are tacked in a row. It’s like a museum timeline done on the cheap.
Photo 1: 1992 – Birth of Ravine (shrivelled newborn with too much hair)
Photo 3: 1996 – Nativity Play (girl dressed as sheep, straw hanging from mouth)
Photo 8: 2009 – New Year’s Eve (teenager lying in bed, party hat perched jauntily on head)
If there were an award for the World’s Worst Listener, my mother would win hands down. Give her the simplest sentence and watch the cogs of her brain pull in the words, twist them up and spit out a new meaning. You say you want a kitten; she buys you a coat. You say you don’t like cabbage; she cooks seven different cabbage recipes. You say you don’t want a party and you wake up to a sight that makes you sweat so heavily your pyjamas stick to your skin and you have to check your knickers to make sure you haven’t wet them.
I rub my eyes as the smell of onion bhajis floats up from the kitchen. It’s mixed with the heavy scent of citrus breeze air freshener. I hope this is a nightmare. As I prop myself up, the twisting muscles along my arm confirm the truth. This is real.
‘You are up!’ Amma says, wobbling through the door with a cake the size of a coffee table in her arms.
She’s wearing an orange sari pleated perfectly down the middle, a gallon of coconut oil combed through her hair. Leaning to the side, she kicks the stereo with her heel to ‘play’. Synthesized drums erupt into the room. She stands grinning at me as though this is the finale
of a great show and it’s time for me to applaud.
I place my pillow upright behind me and sink back.
‘Amma . . .’ I say.
She shakes her head, eyes fogging over as she cocks her ear to the music. I watch her nod in time to the beat. The song continues to play, the cake begins to slide.
‘Amma,’ I say.
‘Wait, wait!’ she says, straightening the platter.
Cymbals crash over drums as Stevie Wonder hits the chorus.
‘. . . Happy biiiiiiirthday!’
I wait until it finishes, then watch Amma wiggle over to me before placing the chocolate gravestone across my lap.
‘It took three days to make,’ she says.
Covered in brown frosting and a series of plastic roses, the cake has a collection of half-used candles plotted around its perimeter. In the middle, iced in pink loopy writing, are the words ‘Happy 18th Birthday Ravine Roy!!’. The letters shrink as they reach my name but somehow Amma has still managed to ice a smiley face after the exclamation marks.
My spine rolls forward like a sapling snapped in the wind. Amma interprets this as a sign of awe.
‘It is not a problem!’ she says, waving her hand in the air. ‘Anything for my darling Ravine!’
I made it clear the week before: no balloons, no cake, no party. But somehow Amma’s brain has churned my words into all the balloons she can blow up, the biggest cake she can bake and as many party items as she can fill the room with.
Amma begins lighting the candles. Because there are so many this takes a good two minutes. By the time she’s on the fourth match my face is clammy; the throbbing in my limbs is making my vision woozy. I suck in a huge breath, ready to blow the whole monstrosity to another building, but as soon as the last candle is lit Amma begins slapping her thigh, singing
‘Happy Birthday’ to me in Bengali.
Amma’s been singing Bengali to me since I was in the womb, trying to trick me into learning the language. When I was a toddler she translated every nursery rhyme and changed all the animals, but ‘Baa Baa, Kala Chaagal’ doesn’t have quite the same ring. At bedtime she sang me folk songs about boats and paddy fields until I couldn’t get to sleep without them. I rebelled against her sing-song brainwashing by blocking out the meaning of all Bengali words. I can now chant the entire national anthem of Bangladesh without any idea of what I’m singing.
The only Bengali I actually use is ‘amma’, meaning ‘mother’.
With my cheeks puffed out and afraid that either I’ll pass out or Amma’s sari will catch fire, I blow out the candles. She stops mid-verse and looks down at the cake.
‘Of course you made a wish?’ she says.
Spirals of smoke circle my body. I close my eyes and clear my throat.
‘I wish for no more celebrations.’
I look up eagerly. Amma frowns, shaking her head as she pulls out a pillbox from the waist of her sari petticoat and places it on the bedside table.
‘If you say it out loud, it will not come true,’ she says. ‘Everybody knows this, Ravine.’