"Still Time", by Jocelyn Watson
We were pinpricks of pink, amidst hundreds of shades of red, orange, yellow, green, black and violet. But what stood out more than the plethora of colour were the faces: eyes as though they were torches in the dark, lips beaming, cheeks puffed up, teeth glinting and white, hips swinging left to right, arms reaching for the sky. We were all swept up in a high-octane, emotional ecstasy. But just as I was drinking it all in, for no reason I could comprehend, I found myself plummeting. Even with the cacophony of whistles, trumpets, tablas, choirs, and the steel bands, I felt as though I was walking in abject silence. Gitanjali was by my side. She squeezed my arm and perhaps that triggered it.
I was a second year sociology student, sitting in my University digs with Dad. Mum was in the kitchen, unpacking all the curries she had cooked and frozen for me. We had just returned from Tai Pan, the best Chinese restaurant in Liverpool. They had taken me and three of my friends including Gitanjali, out for dinner. Everyone had enjoyed the Mongolian Hotpot. It was different. They had all skilfully manoeuvred their chopsticks, lifting the bite size pieces of thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables, dumplings and seafood, putting them into the bubbling, clear stock, and then into the array of rich black soya bean and spicy red sauces, and finally into their mouths. The broth we were let with was exquisite. By the end of the evening, every one of us was all smiling.
‘Gitanjali seems a nice girl.’
‘She is. I really like her.’
‘The other two girls are lovers, no?’
I was shocked. I just stared at Dad open mouthed. How did he know? He had only just met them. We had sat round the table, happily dipping and eating, till there was no food left on the table. When we had finished, Meeka and Pauline had left the restaurant to catch the bus home. Dad had dropped Gitanjali off and driven Mum and I back to my place. I was flummoxed.
‘Rabeea, you may think I am, but let me tell you, your father is no fool.’ Dad shook his finger at me and smiled.
I was just stunned.
Just then Mum came in and the conversation ended. Dad never brought it up again and neither did I. He had been right of course. Meeka and Pauline, had become my friends, shortly after I met Gitanjali. We had got to know each other through who the University Women’s Group. They were the first lesbians I’d ever met, or perhaps I had met others and hadn’t realised, but they were the first lesbians, who, from the very beginning, were open about their relationship.
The next day, after Mum and Dad had left, I remember telling Gitanjali. We hadn’t started dating yet.
‘The fact that your father said lovers is amazing. He could have used any number of terms and he opted for lovers. Rabeea, I think that’s cool.’
I felt so proud of him.
It took us another six months, with Meeka and Pauline gently nudging us along, before Gitanjali and I actually got it together.
I thought a lot about what Dad had said and spoke to Gitanjali and others, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to actually say anything to him. I slowly began to appreciate that he was the one person, who would have been happy for me, pleased that I had found love, even if it was by their standards totally unconventional. He had already given his blessing, so to speak, when he said he liked Gitanjali. But in the middle of my second year, Dad developed renal failure and had to have dialysis three times a week. We were all in such a state of shock. I didn’t even consider saying anything after that. I was in my third year and rushed home when Dad’s condition grew worse and he developed heart, lung and renal failure.
While the others had returned home to change and rest and have some food, I had held onto his hand and rested my head on his bed, as he lay there breathing heavily, in the sour, ammonia-smelling hospital room.. I was alone with Dad that night before he died. I could have told him. He would have heard what I said. I could have told him how I met Gitanjali on my first day at Liverpool. That we had both been wandering aimlessly around the campus, not knowing where to go, or even what to do, and both desperately trying to cover up our awkwardness and look confident. We were alone, sitting on two separate tables in the Union cafeteria while the other second years and post grads were laughing and chattering away. I spilled my coffee and Gitanjali just got up and helped me clear the mess and that was it.
A sympathetic, sensitive man, Dad had tried to clear a path for me, but I had been too slow. He passed away before I was woman enough to tell him. Mum’s response has always been so different from Dad. Her comments when I returned to London after my second year were always wary and cautious. She hadn’t liked Gitanjali’s short hair from that first time they had met and continued saying so, each time they came to see me in Liverpool, or Gitanjali visited me in Walthamstow during the holidays. As for Meeka and Pauline, she didn’t say a word about them which was damning enough.
I missed the chance with Dad. I kept mentally kicking myself that I had been so reckless. I could have and should have told him. It was thoughts of Dad that preoccupied my mind that blocked out all the festivity and frivolity of Pride. My face must have appeared tortured as Gitanjali grabbed hold of me and swung me towards her and kissed my on the lips, her tongue searching for mine and her eyes trying to lull me into her embrace.
‘What’s the matter, Rabeea?’
I didn’t want to spoil her fun.
‘Is it your Mother?’ Gitanjali was shouting as it impossible to speak over the hullabaloo.
‘No. Maya’s at home with her now. I saw her …’
I began to shout. But there was no way of being heard.
Gitanjali dragged me onto the pavement and into the Burlington Arcade
‘I couldn’t hear a word you said. But the look on your face. What’s up?’
It was all so overwhelming and I suddenly found myself crying. Gitanjali put her arm around me and hugged me tight. She let me cry and cry and then, as I was slowly getting my breath back, she pulled out a tissue from her jean pocket and wiped my tears. When I had calmed down, I began to speak.
‘Mum is still alive. I want to tell her even though I know it’s going to be hard. She’s not going to like what she hears. But she’s my mother. She deserves to know. Gitanjali, you are the love in my life. You are the love of my life. We’ve been together since our first year and now we’re post grads. This isn’t some fling. You’re at Queen Mary’s and I’m at King’s; we’ve found other Asian lesbians and gay men, and even Muslim lesbians. We have a home and friends. We feel safe and loved.’
Gitanjali nodded, holding onto me, as we stood there in the Arcade, watching thousands and thousands of proud lesbians and gays, sped past in their costumes, on stilts, waving flags, blowing whistles, holding up rainbow balloons, all wrapped up in the commotion.
‘Mum should know this. Why am I frightened? I want her to know that I am truly blessed, surrounded as I am, by people who I value and who value me. We may have taken over Oxford Street today but it’s more than that. Once upon a time Mum had nothing to fall back on. But we can marry now. It’s ok. India will accept same sex marriages one of these days. I have to tell her.’
Gitanjali let my waterfall of words just pour, until I had said everything I wanted to.
‘Well. Let’s do it.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Let’s do it.’
‘Do what?’ I was almost getting annoyed.
‘Let’s tell your Mother.’
‘Let’s tell your Mother.’
‘Easy for you to say.’
‘Listen Rabeea, it’s important. Time’s not on your side. You’ve already lost your Dad and like you said you wished you had told him. Well the time’s now, today.’
‘What you mean tonight?’
‘No I mean now. Come on we’ll jump on the Tube at Piccadilly and change.’
I didn’t argue as Gitanjali took hold of my arm and walked me to the Tube. We barely said a word and when we arrived at the doorstep of 34 Cairo Lane, I looked across at Gitanjali. ‘Now that we’re here. I’m not so sure about this.’
‘You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but here is a chance if you want to take it.’
We stood by the front door for what seemed a lifetime until I finally rang the doorbell. Maya opened it, pulling her chin in as she stared at us.
‘Sis, I thought you were on some demo?’
‘I have to speak to Mum.’
‘She’s sleeping at the moment but anyway come in.’
Maya made us coffee and talked about karna but I certainly wasn’t hungry. I left Gitanjali chatting to Maya in the kitchen and went to Mum’s room. As Maya had said she was asleep. I sat on the chair by her bedside and took hold of Mum’s hand and stroked it. Her skin was as soft as the flesh of a ripe Alfonso mango. It felt small and warm, like a kitten in my hand. An hour passed and then another and still Mum showed no sign of waking. Maya popped in a couple of times and I told her I would stay until Mum woke.
At ten past six, I know the time, because I had been looking at my watch, Mum opened her eyes and smiled to see me there stroking her hand. I brushed my fingers over her forehead and then went to her feet and gently massaged them and rubbed her legs. All the time I was chivvying myself along, urging myself to find the right words but seeing Mum lying there peacefully I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
Just as I was about to get up and go downstairs, Gitanjali came in. I merely shook my head and she understood.
‘Rabeea you are as close as you’re ever going to get.’ She took hold of my hand and lifted it to her lips and then turned to leave the room.
‘Stay. I need you by my side if I’m going to do this.’
‘Sure.’ She stood beside the chair.
‘Mum.’ I almost whispered the word.
When Mum’s eyes opened they were the colour of soft brown earth. .
‘Mum I have something very important I want to tell you.’
The calm expression on Mum face changed as her eyes looked back at me like a bird in flight caught in the glare of a searchlight.
‘Rabeea, what?’ Mum’s voice was barely audible.
‘Tell her Rabeea. For goodness sake don’t leave her worrying what you’re going to say.’
I looked at Mum and then at Gitanjali and back to Mum again and finally, almost ready to choke, ‘Mum, Gitanjali and I are lovers. With your blessing, we want to get married.’
The two of them looked shocked. I hadn’t asked Gitanjali if she would marry me.
Mum looked up at me. Her nose wrinkled, and across her forehead were creases as her eyes squinted and her mouth opened wide.
Gitanjali took hold of my hand and held it tight.
‘Mum we love each other and we have ever since we first met at College.’ I felt as though if I said anymore I would be rubbing salt in Mum’s wound.
‘Auntie, I am a very lucky woman. Rabeea and I have a closeness that has made my life rich. Please give us your blessing.’
I looked across at Gitanjali and though I wasn’t at all sure she wanted to get married, she had understood that it was the easiest way for Mum to take on board what I was saying.
Mum struggled to reach our hands but she was too weak and exhausted. We lowered our hands and I placed her hand on top of ours. It was as though a gentleness had enveloped the room; words weren’t necessary.
I knelt down my Mum’s bed. Gitanjali kissed Mum’s hand and left the room while I drank in the relief and gratitude I felt that I had at last told Mum and she had accepted me for who I was. We looked across at each other and though I know it was difficult for her, she smiled and I gently kissed her cheeks.
Mum passed away the following Saturday. I, together with Maya and Gitanjali, and my two Aunties were with her throughout those last days, washing her, cleaning her, feeding her drops of water or milk and just sitting there at her bedside. When she finally left us we were all there, holding her and kissing her and telling her how much we loved her. I am eternally grateful that in those final moments I found a way to tell her. She knew and she understood. She saw that Gitanjali and I are here to support and love each. Whatever she thought about us being two women together, she saw us together and could see for herself what the nature of our love meant to both of us.
Highly Commended, While There's Still Time: Writing about putting things right
About the author
The Asian Women’s Writers Collective was Jocelyn Watson’s first writing home. She has a mixed racial background with an Indian mother and an English father. In 2011 she gave up full time employment as a human rights lawyer to focus full time on her writing and has subsequently won various prizes including The Freedom from Torture Short Story Competition for London Plane and earlier this year for the UK Asian Writer Short Story Competition for The Gardener. She is an activist and a feminist.