The accountant’s wife has seen ghosts before—Bhut they are called in her home country—and she remembers the very mischievous one who would come crawling down from the mango tree, her bangles clanging in the night, and slip through the crevice in the wall at the foot of her bed; the one her mother insisted brought luck, though it often caused the young girl to wet the sheets. At times the apparition resembled her father, featureless and bloated. On other occasions it was a witch with black teeth and a pulsating, red bindi. No more than pedestrians passing through the nightly imaginations of a child, her mother had said. But to the wife, they were real.
As real as the one for whom she is now preparing tea.
“I like my tea strong, dear,” the ghost calls to her from the living room. “And sugar! Most important of all.”
The accountant’s wife adds another tea bag to the pot and opens a can of condensed milk. She knows the ghost is speaking English to her, the consonants whorl with wishes and washes and sticks and chalices, sounds that bite her ear from the radio he allows her to listen to during the day. “No Bengali! You must learn English now,” he insisted the moment she arrived, and he made sure by immobilising the tuning dial with a nail. Unlike the garbled voices in the streets or the indecipherable howls of the neighbour’s children, the ghost speaks an English she understands—affected, but clear, even spiced with idiomatic trills of her own language. Could it be that she has learned the speech of her new home faster than she had expected? She stirs the tea and without thinking, sprinkles some crushed cardamon pods and cinnamon sticks into the steaming pot.
When she returns the ghost is nosing through a pile of laundry. “Your clothes will mould if you leave them like that,” it says.
It is a woman. She is wrapped in dark, bunched cloth and wears a bonnet. Her lips are but lines on her floury face. “And those paintings, they do nothing on that wall. Put them here where there is at least some light.” The accountant’s wife nods and pours the tea. Bhut are like this: demanding and intrusive. This one especially so. She wonders if, like the ghosts in her village, this one has come expecting to find fortune, and whether it will spare her life when it discovers there is none. But there is no interrogation. No audit of her wealth. Instead they sit amongst the unironed shirts, and the ghost tells of her children: seven daughters—three from birth, four adopted—and two sons, one of whom died of illness, and she shakes her finger as if imparting some lesson. She speaks of an affair in Paris, the details of which the accountant’s wife finds tedious and unbelievable, but she pretends to be attentive nonetheless by nodding and occasionally lifting her gaze from the apartment’s narrow window, which looks out onto the adjacent cemetery. “Oh yes,” says the Bhut as if she’s discovering the view herself for the first time. “That’s where they buried me. Among the dead.” And she laughs. The Bhut’s name is Emmeline. This, her only friend in the world.
She arrived unannounced, for that is their way, one morning after the accountant had left for his job. She was standing in the hallway opposite the bathroom, tapping a finger on her chin while she regarded the curious puzzles that were the small toilet and stained shower cubicle. The wife was naturally startled, for the latch had just been set, and she could still hear her husband’s feet pounding down the stairs. But when she saw the ghost’s sombre expression she knew immediately she could suffer freely in its presence; that there was no madness either in the solitude she was experiencing, or in the fact that she was seeing ghosts just after breakfast. When asked what it wanted the Bhut shrugged and continued peering about the flat, marvelling over every object: the kettle, the heater, the smoke alarm on the ceiling in the hall, even the vacuum cleaner she bent down to caress as though it were made of gold. Of particular interest was the gas stove, which, when the wife explained what it was and how one used it, caused her guest’s eyes to shimmer and bulge. “You cook on this thing?” she asked. “How oppressive.”
“Do you like the tea?” the wife asks, noticing that her guest has not touched her cup.
The Bhut turns up her nose. “I told you, I don’t care much for exotic spices. I have a fragile constitution.” And when the wife apologises and offers her something else, something sweet perhaps, the ghost waves it away. “Don’t you worry, my girl! I have known hunger!” She speaks like this. With a mixture of the frank and absurd, much the same way her father did.
Outside, rain paints a moving spectre over the cemetery, an amorphous sheet of plastic wrap on the world. If rain were a person, she decides, then the rain of London would be weak, unsociable, depressed, like the wives of the men her husband knows, and not at all equal to the bustling drops in Bandarban, where the sky opens up in thunderous waterfalls, each free with their own unrelenting purpose. Her new home’s spiritless damp sets her mind on darker thoughts. Like the day her mother informed her, back when she was not a wife or had designs to be, of her impending marriage to the accountant. “A rich man,” she’d said, “from a good family. Very westernised. He has studied at Oxford University!” At seventeen years of age and knowing nothing apart from the earthen streets and humid, screeching jungles of her village, where knowledge was measured, not by letters or numbers, but by years and relationships and the movements of seasons, she could not imagine such a thing at all, and when she tried it brought not wonder to her mind but tears to her eyes. Clearly the prospect should have excited her more than it did—her extended family congratulated her and her mother with more energy than they had when she achieved the top grade in her school. They sent small pouches of the finest turmeric and rolls of white Indian cotton, and it surprised her that something she considered so abstract could trigger such precise emotions in the people around her. The gossip was almost as suffocating as the heat! That very night the witch had come scratching into her room, her red bindi flashing like a torch in a cave, pouring worry into her head and robbing her of sleep. “Most of your friends have already married,” her aunt Payel told her when she came to visit, “and have gone to live in Chittagong. Latika went to Dhaka with a mechanic! Don’t you want a big house? A television? A car? You won’t get many more proposals like this one. Do you wish to be the last flower on the summer tree that no one wants to pluck?” By no means did she want that. Yes, the accountant had seen her photo her mother assured her, and no, her birthmark did not trouble him. In fact he said it was shaped like Great Britain, and that meant good luck everywhere, even in the west. She inquired once more about his age and where he lived, for she fear she would end up like her friend Sanjida, whose husband was so infirm he had to walk with a stick. Could she have a photo of him? “Worry makes you ugly,” was all her mother said. Her wedding was to be in three weeks. Her flight to the United Kingdom was booked the following day.
During the first month she mostly slept and took to biting her fingernails and drinking litres of tea, trying, but failing to avoid her reflection in the windows as she tended to her daily chores. The accountant was indeed an accountant of sorts, though he worked nights at a city restaurant. He was greying and slightly bald, yet not at all as old as Sanjida’s husband. The country was Great Britain, one he told her he hated, the place, London, though Oxford turned out to be a place called Suffolk and, though she searched the flat high and low, she could find no graduating certificate. The Bhut implied that he had probably failed, or not attended university at all. Thanks to the lack of sunlight, the analogous coffee-coloured stain on her neck had become more prominent than ever. She didn’t know which her husband despised most, the map of Great Britain on her skin or the country itself, as he chastised both with similar vigour when he beat her, only relenting when Cornwall, situated on her left jaw line erupted in yellow blooms.
The Bhut is impressed by none of her woes. She too married an older man she says, some twenty-four years her senior, though he was certainly well-educated and, while severe at times, mainly tolerant of her ideas and projects. “My husband left us nothing,” she says, her fists clenched into rocks. “Our entire world was a cage, a maze of locked doors, do you understand? They knew how to construct a cell for both mind and heart, which—and they knew this well—are the very two things one requires to fight.” The wife wants to tell her how her breastbone is cracking under the weight of her own heart; that she feels like- no, she is a caged animal, locked in some clockwork nightmare; that the sound of her husband chewing betel leaf makes her want to wretch, and how he almost broke her wrist when he discovered the letter of complaint she’d written to her mother, a letter she had no hope of sending anyway; she wants to reveal that, sometimes, when she’s packing away the fresh groceries he brings home every week, the aroma of garlic and cumin seed reminds her of her mother’s kitchen, and the tears she sheds she wipes away secretly so that he will not know that she hates his Great Britain as much as he does. However she cannot find the words, and besides, the Bhut does not like to be interrupted when she is talking.
“A horse cannot choose under which conditions it toils, so why should a woman?” she continues. Then she leans towards the wife and points a wan finger at her forehead. “A horse, of course, cannot start fires.” The wife returns to the kitchen, more baffled than ever, and begins cooking rice for her husband’s dinner.
They leave the flat once a week on Fridays and take the train an hour east to visit the mosque and have tea with the other Bengali families, and it’s these times, chatting to the wives about common domestic challenges and the latest scandals of London’s Bengal community, that she feels most at ease. The talk inevitably turns to Bangladesh and its myriad problems, and no one can decide if the constant wave of immigrants from their mother country are compatriots, refugees or parasites. Tahiya, a large woman in her late twenties, shakes with such fervour describing the relief she feels at having been saved from a life of poverty and filth that her baby almost falls from her arms. “And you, Mahmuda,” she says pointing at the wife. “You cannot say that you had it better back in Bangladesh? The English, they are ignorant, but are mostly decent people, if you know their ways and how to talk to them that is. By the way, have you learned English yet? My husband’s English is excellent. Some say he has a northern accent.” The accountant’s wife blushes and reports that she is doing her best, and that she is looking forward to learning more about the English when she can. She wonders how the women get the time to learn anything if they too are barricaded indoors and tending to their husbands and children night and day. This she dares to ask her husband on the way home, and he grunts and says they are all selfish, spoiled prostitutes and that she shouldn’t believe a word that leaves their whorish mouths. That night his breath is stale with alcohol when he claims his marital rights.
* * *
The Bhut materialises on a cold November afternoon in a terrible mood. She sweeps the flat, raging at the accountant’s stack of old DVDs and the row of coloured sandals lying at the door. “Most disagreeable!” she rails. “Nothing is ever improved. It must be made new. And when it won’t yield, you snap it off! What do you do with so much flour?”
The wife makes tea, this time according to her guest’s preferences. All week she has been looking forward to this visit, reciting, planning, calculating. Even the low temperatures cannot cool her simmering subterfuge. “I haven’t seen you lately,” she says. “I thought maybe you weren’t coming back.”
“Hoped maybe,” the ghost grins and blows on her tea. “The poor girl thinks she’s the only one to plot against her oppressors! I have been busy you see. Things are changing. They grit their teeth and offer us a ‘Jolly well done!’, but underneath they’re seething, oh yes. Mark my words! We have a say now. After everything. And soon we’ll be the ones telling the stubborn reprobates how things are done.”
The wife peers through the fog at the cemetery. Headstones, wiry branches, yellow grass. Nothing stirs. Does anything she say make sense? “Busy?” she asks, inquiring more about the meaning of the word rather than what it refers to.
“Well of course! If you want to do something, you have to do it yourself. I didn’t starve, burn and shout so you could sit there wondering what you should do.”
In the silence that follows she cannot control her tongue, and the words explode from her mouth, like mustards seeds on a hot pan. She explains her hidden desire to escape the flat, to risk her life on the streets of London and leave her husband. “I am frightened,” she says. “I don’t know where to go or whom to speak to. I don’t know why my husband is the man he is. But I know it was a mistake to come here. I want to return to my mother. I know it is wrong, but what should I do? You are my only friend, Emmeline.”
The ghost waits until the wife has dried her tears before she clears her throat and floats gently towards the window, where she remains, shadowless, casting no reflection. After some time she makes what the accountant’s wife would later describe as a chilling lament. “When they came to beat and imprison me, they could not even bring themselves to look me in the eye. They are cowards, and it stands to treat them as such. What do we do with cowards? We beat them with their own axes!”
The wife whispers: “Do you mean I should kill him?”
“Heavens above no, child. They do that well enough themselves. You’ll know what to do when the time comes.”
And with those words she drifts up and out until she is mist in the night.
For two hours afterwards the wife paces up and down the small flat, testing the windows and door. She retrieves the pickle jar she has ferreted away in the electric box and counts in handfuls the coins she has rescued from her husband’s trousers—brown, silver, some gold—and not yet knowing the money well, she cannot be sure whether she possesses a fortune or nothing at all. At last it occurs to her to find the sturdiest knife in the kitchen drawer and take to the door’s lock in the hope she might be able to pry it open. For all her efforts she is rewarded with a bowed knife, a scratched door frame and a hastily planned supper, which she is still preparing when he walks through the door. He enters the flat and shucks off his gloves, and unlocks the boiler cupboard to turn on the heater. “Why isn’t dinner ready?” he demands.
“I lost track of time,” she says quietly as she dices the onions. The tears are her own. “It’s the light. I’m not yet used to it.”
He snorts and rubs his round belly. “That’s what I get for marrying a peasant girl! All day left alone and she still cannot find time to cook. I suppose I cannot blame you—you know nothing. In fact, if I hadn’t come to save you, you might still be penniless and hawking wood apples in the bazaar, like your crone mother.”
“I would like to call her one of these days. She hasn’t heard from me since I arrived.”
“I should think not,” the accounted says. “Do you know how much international calls cost? Money doesn’t grow like mangos on a tree, you stupid dog. Let you mother call you if she is so worried.”
“If I might use your phone then…”
“You wouldn’t know how, I’m sure.”
I would, she thinks to herself as she drives the knife down. But her attempt at breaking the lock has bent the blade and it catches on her long nail and slips, slicing the top of her thumb. Blood oozes over the raw vegetables, fat drops fall to the floor. The accountant reels in disgust. “Look what you have done! Can you do nothing right?” He throws a wet cloth at her. “Clean yourself, and wash and cook those vegetables before you bleed to death and I starve,” he grumbles and shuffles over to the sofa and begins watching videos on his phone.
Is this then the moment of which the Bhut was speaking? If there was an axe to beat him with, she did not see it. She regards the knife, her red thumb. To cut oneself is so easy. How would it be to cut another? Death she had encountered before: the bloated form of her father after they’d found him drowned in mud, the enamelware seller’s son mangled foot in the spokes of a wrecked motorbike, and all this before her twelfth year. What would one more life be? But whose life? If only she could contact her mother, perhaps in learning the origin of this arrangement she might find some loose thread that she could unstitch and follow home. “This is your chance,” her mother had said from the street as the bus to Dhaka pulled away. “Don’t let me down.” Disappointment is returning via the door you left through with empty hands, that much she knew. Disappointment would be her mother’s hands, angrily slapping dough on the polished surface of her new countertop one last time before the dowry was reacquired. Disappointment might also be found somewhere later in a newspaper when they read about how acid burns the eyelids. More painful still would be her own disappointment should she succumb to her passion, and destroy all chances of freedom before she has even defined for herself what freedom is. She stands there like that, lost in a swirling reverie for several minutes. The accountant launches himself at her and drags her by the hair into the bathroom, where he thrusts her into the shower with his foot and turns on the cold water. “So I shall eat cold rice and raw onion. This is what I get for my trouble.” He switches off the light and exits the room.
She lies there shivering, counting the on and offs of the tiny red light of the smoke alarm, thinking it’s the witch coming back to finally finish her off. She waits with her neck crooked against the cold tiles until he’s gone to bed and she can hear his grunting snores from the bedroom.
The next day she tells this tale to the Bhut. The ghost is unmoved. “Did you really think it was going to be that easy?”
The accountant’s wife says no, and pleads to know what she should do and why couldn’t the Bhut offer some real advice instead of unintelligible platitudes. The last phrase she does not utter, but the underlying reproach is clear enough, and the ghost clicks her tongue as though she has heard such childish questions a millions times in both life and death. “From the moment we’re born we’re foreigners. I don’t mean in the sense that we come from another country.” When the Bhut draws near, the wife can feel the skin on her arms prickle. “Hardship is in our blood. If we don’t suffer, then everyone will. It’s as simple as that. Hardly equitable, but that’s the nature of the world. The secret is to change the game. They expect us to shout, yes, scream even. But they haven’t the foggiest notion that we will use our arms and legs, that we will walk right up to them and tell them to their faces that we would rather burn, and burn it all down with us, the entire lot of it, than live in a wicked well of their design.”
“You speak in riddles. While I wash and cook and clean and live between these mildewed walls like a cat, you offer only jokes.”
“Hmmm. Shall we have tea? I have a chill this morning, and I believe a squirrel just made a nest for himself behind my headstone.”
The wife senses a flush in her stomach and before she can make it to the sink, vomits over the table.
* * *
The doctor tells her she’s pregnant in the same voice she imagines he would report the presence of a life-threatening tumour. The accountant slaps his knee as if he’s lost a large bet, and pulls her from her chair by the elbow. Before they can leave the doctor requests that the wife return the following day.
“But I work,” the husband complains. “I cannot bring her.”
“A friend then,” the doctor says. He is known at the mosque and is said to be a reasonable man, very westernised. From his eyes, the wife understands that he knows what type of man her husband is. “It’s routine.”
“It is impossible, she is busy. We shall come the following Saturday.”
* * *
“Pregnant!” howls the ghost. “You think it’s better because you are married Console yourself with this small fact—in death you find no emancipation, in life no bondage but those you accept.”
The wife rubs her mark. These days it’s like an unhealed brand on her skin. The colour of punishment. “You are saying I deserve this,” she says waving an arm to each corner of the room, no bigger than her mother’s chicken coop, “because I let it happen?” The ghost spins in her chair, tutting and remarking about the soot on the windows, the lime scale in the sink, the dust that coats the skirting boards. This Bhut only wishes to torment her. She speaks of suffering and rebelling and of ‘womanhood’ as some triumphant force; she demands tea she cannot drink, confuses her with lectures to the point of fatigue, and not once offers any practical advice on how to cope with the burgeoning life in her womb, or with the accountant, who will not let her out of the hellish flat long enough for her to learn the name of the streets in her neighbourhood. Finborough Road is the only written sign in English she understands because she can see it from the kitchen window.
And while Emmeline prattles on, the coals in her mind grow hotter and she pushes her chair from the table, stopping the ghost mid-sentence. “You know nothing! Why do you come here if not to belittle a poor, pregnant foreigner?” The Bhuti says nothing and simply stares at her. “You never ask how it is for me, how I feel. You only seek someone you can preach to. Well, I am tired of listening to your criticisms. Do you think I am like the women down at the mosque? Like fat Tahiya, who boasts about her ugly husband so much you would think he was the Maharaja? I can think and choose for myself!”
“Evidently, my dear,” comes the ghost’s reply and in her ghostly face, the wife suspects she can see the ghost of a smile.
That evening the accountant does not come home until very late, smelling like alcohol. He fumbles with the lock for several minutes before collapsing through the door with sundry complaints and grumblings. Her back aches and her feet are swollen but she rises to make him a cup of chai. With the smile of a tiger he points out she is getting so fat that soon he’ll have to knock out a wall to build a bigger room for her, and he makes a show of measuring her girth and then the doorway. “Yes, I think we shall have to move. No son of mine will want to share such a small space with his moping mother all day. We might find something in the east, closer to the mosque, where the respectable men live.” The milk simmers quietly as the husband breathes on the nape of her neck, he twirls a finger through her tightly wound bun and presses his stomach against her back.
She inquires if they will need to lock the house in the east, seeing as the men are more respectable. Surely he understands that she will have to venture outside in case their son needs food, or more clothes, or heaven forbid, if he falls ill. “Possibly”, her husband says. His breathing quickens, and the wife finds she has to adjust herself sideways so as avoid squashing her belly against the kitchen top. She holds out her elbow so that she can continue stirring the chai and accommodate her husband’s hand, which is now wrapped under the armpit and around her neck, and the thought occurs to her that she has at least become adept at something since arriving in Great Britain. “Let’s just cover that awful shit stain,” he pants, tugging her bun loose. If she orders him to stop, she cannot remember, or else he doesn’t hear her, and when he pulls her towards him she gasps and drops the wooden spoon onto the stove. Protests are often built on whispers, her English Bhut once said to her, or in the wife’s case, whimpers, and there have been so many that if they were brought together they would form a shout, which would echo from their kitchen right over the continent and the vast Indian ocean. Still the accountant does not pay her any heed. His belt is off, his fingers are greasy around her arms and he draws her towards him, making assurances for the immediate future, which is all that he can do as a man. It is when she bites her lip, struggling to keep her dress around her legs that she sees the silhouette outside, the bonnet’s edge in the window frame, the cream-coloured eyes, the bored expression. The Bhut points to the stove, where by the now the milk is frothing over the saucepan, and all the wife can do is nurse her growing child while her husband, whether he is aware of the impossibility or not, writhes and growls as he attempts to prematurely bring about the existence of another. She closes her eyes. What does the ox think before he takes the yoke? The rooster before the farmer’s machete falls? The elephant as her calves are led away with chains on their feet? These are the questions she asks herself while her toes struggle to find purchase on the carpet, her bangles rattling once around her ears, then behind her back. Do they think and feel as we do, or is it that we just cannot understand them to know?
She senses the Bhut watching her, hears the hiss in the kitchen. Burning milk smells like burning skin her mother once told her. The husband notices nothing. He is adrift in her. Something falls to the floor and now they are in the bedroom, and she has a direct view out the door down the hall to the kitchen. The red light glowing from the ceiling, a broiling mist steaming the window behind which Emmeline floats. She is smiling, her Bhut, smashing one hand into the other and smiling, and when the alarm releases its piercing bell she applauds. The accountant swears and, shocked by the noise, teeters off her, but his foot is wrapped in a sheet. He grasps unsuccessfully at her before he falls and crashes to the floor. The thud is the sound of skull striking wood. The bookshelf wobbles. Scrambling off the bed the wife pleads with him to get up but he either does not listen or is trapped in a lustful coma. Even one who has been shut away from the world knows fire. One is born with it, and the wife knows enough about the personality of flame to guess that the spoon she dropped has spread to the table and floors and cabinet in a fiery contagion. And it’s with deathly calm that she holds her breath and extricates the keys from the accountant’s pockets, tries each one until the bolt withdraws, and steps barefooted down the stairs and into the freezing air.
When she finally exhales, it’s with a choking resonance. “Is this what you wanted?” she cries out to the Bhut, who, she assumes is still watching from the window. But her ghost is not there, only the flicker of red flame licking at the glass. She stares at its inexorable growth, too ashamed to call it liberty, too clever to call herself a murderer, and it amazes her how suffering can be so quickly incinerated in fantastic circumstances.