Flash Fiction by Anita Goveas
Fariah started taking her lunch outside onto the narrow concrete balcony, unable to chew her parathas while watching Kate gnaw on a sitaphal like a bonnet macaque. Usually it was Devesh that annoyed her, answering his calls with the accent he’d practised by watching Mulholland Drive 22 times.
“They want to speak to someone from HSBC about how they’ve locked themselves out of their account, not Robert Forster with adenoids.”
“Fariah, a man's attitude determines, to a large extent, how his life will be.”
Sometimes, she caught him working in other movie quotes into his ISA advice, but no-one else seemed to notice. They were all too preoccupied with who was going to get the supervisor job, with the chance of the raise and the more comfortable 6-hour shifts. Devesh had started biting his bottom lip, Kate was bringing in an eye-watering range of raw fruit and nuts, and Fariah herself had developed fluffy patches of skin behind her ears that she tried to scratch when Ambika wasn’t watching. Although, Ambika seemed to be always watching, when she wasn’t drinking coffee as thick as halva.
Fariah was the only one who’d grown up in Bangalore, and every day there seemed to be less trees and more shiny buildings sprouting. The air was steeped in car exhaust fumes, when she’d walked to school in the scent of cork trees and the melodies of bulbuls. The Garden City seemed to be losing its grip on its greenery, and the sky was more grey than blue from construction dust.
Inside, Kate chattered about an article in the Bangalore Mirror about a doctor who found a Russel’s viper curled up on the seat of his motorcycle, parked in the grounds of the Fortis Hospital. The venomous creature hissed at him until he walked home. Devesh laughed, said he would have hit it with a stick. He told them about the time he found a mongoose chasing a rat in the parking area of his apartment building. They’d locked eyes for a moment, as if the mongoose was assessing him, then both animals had disappeared under an SUV. Fariah scratched behind her ear, whistled softly. She watched someone dig up another one of the old silver oak trees in the grounds of the school opposite, for fear the roots would straggle into the road, the bark spluttering out clouds of spores. Last week, the workmen had disturbed a wasp nest while chopping, and had fled, throwing their tools behind them. Her sympathy had been with the tree, as if it had been avenged. Now the spores floated in the air, splattered their topis and clothes, but they persisted.
She walked backwards into the office, rubbing the new itch at her spine, trying to bring some of the freshness with her, and trod on something malleable with her kitten heels. Ambika stood behind the balcony door, unmoving, unblinking.
“Sorry?” Fariah blurted, watching Ambika’s pinkly pointed tongue flick out, once, twice, then again.
“Sssorry for what? I ssee you eating vegetables, as if that will ssssave you from Shiva. When the Destroyer starts on his path, nothing can stop him.”
Ambika’s chestnut brown eyes seemed flecked with gold, and she was incapable of keeping her tongue in her mouth. Caffeine could cause high blood pressure and insomnia, Fariah had studied that at nursing school, all the waiting had got to Ambika first. She’d always put too much effort into every phone call.
Fariah settled back at her desk, rolled her shoulders until they snapped, picked up her headset. Her screen was blank, a fathomless void. She sat back, unable to think of the next step as her colleagues seemed to dissolve into panic. Kate grinned, clicking her teeth as if challenging an invisible enemy. Ambika coiled up under her desk, hissing, as Devesh paced past chirping and biting his bottom lip with rodent-like incisors. Fariah licked her lips, preparing to calm them down, but the layers of noise overwhelmed her senses until she thought she smelt urine and wet fur and fled into the kitchen.
That space used to be full of leaf tea and teapots, Ambika’s French press. a scattering of teabags and three types of sugar. The main substances the call centre ran on were junk food and legal stimulants. Fariah had been avoiding it since she brought lunch in to excuse her escape to the balcony. Now, there were boxes and tubs everywhere. As well as Kate’s bags of slightly rotting fruit, Devesh definitely had some problem with his teeth as there were piles of bark in his cupboard, as if he had reverted to more ancient ways of dental care. A box in the corner vibrated, Fariah’s mouth dried as she realised it was packed with tiny scrambling lizards. Her stomach lurched at someone’s idea of a snack, in horror and a sudden desire to dart at them and crunch them in her teeth.
She turned back into the office, drawn by chittering and hissing and the crackle of monitors. The screens were back on, her bosses face flickered as he explained no-one got the job, they would be remotely supervised by a man transferred from the London office to Chennai. Where Ambika had curled up, a Russel’s viper rasped at the blinking menace. Where Kate had leaned at the window, a flash of pale fur vanished outside as a bonnet macaque leaped for the nearest tree. Where Devesh had paced, a giant squirrel gnawed at a desk drawer. The shock vibrated though Fariah’s body as her mongoose self balanced on her tail and called out loudly at the threat.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Bending Genres, Flash Frontier and Third Point Press. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer Her debut flash collection is forthcoming from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com