The Kiss (edited)
He was young, inexperienced and he wanted to be urbane like his Dad and then, this girl teaches him how to kiss like a man.
‘Is this the first time you’ve kissed a girl?’ she asked.
‘Of course not,’ he said, reddening. ‘I can’t count the girls I’ve kissed.’
‘You’ve a lot to learn!’ A teasing twinkle lit her eyes.
Shimmering stars in a dark velvet sky reflect brightly on the pool by which they stand. Parked cars block the bungalow’s ringed drive-way surrounding an island of stepped-up multi-coloured paving stones adorned with flower beds. Laughter and music from the open lounge at the top of a flight of stairs swirl about the night air. Drivers in their khaki uniforms await their charges to chauffeur them home to the city, a half-hour drive away. Some squat by the gate smoking beedies, India’s rolled tobacco leaf, and chat with the nightwatchman. The sound of tennis balls thwacked on the floodlit court; the swish and smack of a shuttlecock on the badminton court. Turbaned servants in white uniforms and gloved hands, so smart against their brown skins, flit about bearing titbits on trays.
The gardens are a profusion of winter flowers. Sweet peas, pastel blue and pink, creep up the wire netting around the tennis court. Globe lights, perched on concrete pillars, shed their glow over the flower beds around the driveway.
Jazz music and laughter float down to where they stand by the pool, hidden in the darkness of a tree.
‘A handsome boy like you,’ she chaffed, ‘with all this to offer, should have tons of girls falling at his feet.’
‘I’m not short of girls,’ he said, defensive. ‘I have plenty. And besides, this place isn’t mine. It isn’t my Dad’s either. It belongs to the Company. He lives here because he’s the manager.’
‘That’s neither here nor there,’ she said.
‘I live in town with my uncle. I go to college there. I come here only on weekends.’ He was unable to stop himself rattling on and began to feel the largest kind of fool.
‘Poor little man!’ she said with a pout.
In her mid-twenties, she had the fair skin from her English blood and the black hair and trim figure of the Indian. Her green eyes flashed with eastern fire. Here was a young woman who knew her way about.
As he turned away from her with a pout, she put her arms around him, preventing him from leaving. It would be nice to take her host’s young son under her wing.
‘Now don’t sulk. I was only teasing.’
She took his sweet face in her hands and looked into his very dark eyes.
‘You are so good-looking. You could be a ladykiller.’ She drew him nearer and whispered in her low throaty voice, ‘I am going to teach you to kiss, I mean, really kiss.’
His heart beat fast as she brought his inexperienced lips to hers.
‘Don’t open so wide. Just part your lips a little – even less.’
She nibbled at his lower lip.
‘Try to do what I do,’ she said in soft tones
His heart was pounding as he tried to place his lips on hers but their noses got in the way. She taught him how to hold her, where to put his nose, the right amount of lip pressure and how to use his tongue. He was an eager learner and followed her lead. He thrilled to the soft touch of her inviting lips.
‘Don’t thrust your tongue into my mouth. Do it gently, softly, so we can savour the sweetness.’
Under the girl’s guidance, he was soon kissing with the expertise of a practiced lover.
‘How was that?’ said he, flushed with pride.
‘If you kiss a girl like that, she’ll be yours for life,’ she said. She was a little breathless herself.
‘Yes, this time it felt really good. I don’t think I could do better. Do you? Come, let’s show my Dad,’ he said.
Surprised, she tilted her head to one side. ‘Do you really want to?’
‘Yes! Yes! Do you mind?’
‘No, but why? Why do you want to?’
‘You want to show off, don’t you? You want him to see what a great lover you are. This is a challenge, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ he blurted, ‘He thinks I’m still a child.’
‘Oh! And you want to show him you’re not.’
‘Yes,’ he whispered, uncertain, shy.
She regarded his bowed head for a few moments. Suddenly her eyes took her to some other place. Her mind was elsewhere. When she returned, she said, ‘You love your father, don’t you?’
He was silent. He looked up at the stars.
‘And how does your father feel?’
He shrugged. ‘He wants me around but doesn’t talk to me much. Sometimes I think he doesn’t even know I’m there.’
‘You look like your mother.’
‘That’s what they tell me.’
‘You’re the image of her picture in the lounge. That’s why you’re so beautiful.’
‘Yes, beautiful. Why do you think I am here with you instead of up there dancing? Don’t you know how good-looking you are? You can thank your mother for that. Obviously your father finds it difficult being with you, now that she’s gone. It’s also why he finds it difficult being with any girl.’
‘But I’m me. I’m not my mother. And I miss her too.’ His eyes glistened with tears he refused to shed.
‘Don’t, for a moment, think your father doesn’t love you. You see, he’s in pain and, right now, his heart has no room for anything or anyone else. These parties and all his girlfriends are his way of trying to push the hurt away. That’s why he’s more attentive to girls than he is to you. And that’s why he doesn’t care two pins for the girls he takes out. Their feelings don’t count.’ A certain bitterness the boy could not discern crept into her voice. ‘He does not know or care if they love him.’
The earlier distance returned to her eyes. She paused but a moment before she continued.
‘You remind him too much of what he has lost and you’re too young and too much like her to offer him comfort.’
‘Am I too young? You think I’m a child, don’t you?’
‘No, I don’t. You’re an exciting young man.’
‘So you won’t mind kissing me in front of him?’
Her eyes searched his and saw only innocent eagerness.
‘Not one little bit,’ she said, each word sharp and separate.
Since his mother’s death, his father had wallowed in a sea of faces. During the first weeks of aching loneliness, he clouded his brain with alcohol to the neglect of his work. He threw parties at his bungalow and frequented friends’ get-togethers in town. His was a familiar figure at Firpos, at Princes and the Golden Slipper. He escorted several women to these nightclubs and drank until he was silly. From the night a cabaret enter-tainer, disturbed by his rowdiness, shouted across the hall, to the delighted roar of the patrons, ‘You there, shut up or I’ll pour you back in the bottle,’ he curtailed his boozing. His bosses had been understanding but for them too there was a limit. He knew he had reached it. He took control of himself again.
In his forties, brimming with sophisticated charm, he made a woman feel nothing in the world mattered but she. The ladies knew it was but flattery, yet they found him irresistible. His status as widower and single man brought out their maternal instincts and their hopes to be his protector for life. However, no sooner had they succumbed to his allure, he was bored and moved on to his next conquest. Many of his past playmates mingled with his guests. In the face of his urbanity and flair, most found it diffi¬cult to maintain their chagrin as discarded lovers. They drank at his bar, danced to the music of his radiogram and searched for new bedmates to keep them in the society to which he had accustomed them.
The boy idealized his father, the epitome of all he hoped to be. He yearned for the easy grace his father employed in company. People told him how fortunate he was to have such a wonderful father, so handsome, so charming, so wise. His wisdom was forever sought to patch up connubial conflicts and arbitrate between battling brothers. Everyone praised his tact and insight.
‘I hope you realise how lucky you are,’ they told the boy. ‘You can learn so much from your Dad.’
In truth, he hardly saw his father. What he knew of him, others had told him. Finished with boarding school and now at college in the city, they were rarely alone together. Weekends at the bungalow were social events with people everywhere. When the driver fetched him on an evening from his uncle’s home, he’d be driven to a flat where a party was in full swing.
‘Ah! Here’s my son,’ his father would exclaim as soon as the boy appeared in the doorway. ‘Come. Have a drink with me.’
His arm would encircle his son’s shoulders. The familiar tinkle of ice-cubes in a glass would sound in the boy’s ear.
‘Bearer! Over here,’ he’d summon, speaking in Hindi. ‘Give my son a brandy and dry. He doesn’t like whisky.’
He’d flip open his gold cigarette case and proffer it to the boy. ‘He’s not my son,’ he would announce, ‘he’s my friend.’
Bursting with pride, the boy would take a cigarette though it afforded him no pleasure. In darker moments, he would think, ‘I wish I were more his son than his friend.’
He tried to make his father more attentive to his emotional needs and to spend time with him. He became argumentative, stubborn, and peevish.
‘You don’t care about me,’ he snivelled. ‘Your girlfriends mean more to you than I do.’
It served only to aggravate the situation.
‘When will you grow up?’ his father snapped and left him to himself.
The remark cut more deeply than his father realised. The boy did not know how to grow up. If only someone would tell him what he must do! He wanted to be grown-up for his father’s sake.
Now that day had arrived. He knew how to kiss. He could live in a grown-up world. Like his father, he had proved himself with women.
Eagerly he pulled the girl up the stairs that led onto a wide verandah, where people were chatting and smoking cigarettes. In the lounge, couples danced. Bursts of laughter punctuated the noisy air. Gaity and fun were the order of the day.
‘Dad! Dad!’ cried the boy.
The father watched as the boy approached towing the girl behind him.
The boy led his kissing teacher to his father, upon whose arm a peroxide blonde hung possessively.
‘See this!’ He whirled his lovely partner into an embrace and kissed her on the mouth. She responded with an unexpected ardour. Her arms went round his neck, her hands grabbed handfuls of curls. She moulded herself against him and pressed her lips violently to his. He felt wild thrills and heart-pounding elation. This is love, he thought.
Wrenched from the girl with tremendous force, he was flung across the room. He would have fallen had not one of the guests caught him. Someone stopped the music. His father’s eyes flamed like those of a man possessed; his face was tense, his jaws rigid. He drew his hand back and struck the girl across the face with a resounding smack. She fell across the sofa, holding her cheek in shock. A moment of dreadful silence followed.
‘Get out!’ His father’s low voice quivered with rage. ‘Get out of here and never let me see your face again!’
A smile of triumph widened the girl’s lips. Sitting up straight, she lifted a defiant head. Sweet tit-for-tat revenge glowed in her eyes but remained unspoken. They proclaimed her awareness of having struck him as hard as he had struck her when he discarded her.
‘Bearer!’ he called sharply in Hindi. ‘Tell the driver to take this woman home.’ Then whipping back to her: ‘You incestuous bitch, you…you’re worse than a whore!’ The words were pistol shots. ‘Dare come near my son again and I will kill you.’
As she was hustled down the steps, laughing, victorious, the boy trembled, cringing with incomprehensible shame. Petrified, he waited for his father to turn on him, wondering… what had he done wrong?