I almost dropped dead of shock when I received an invitation from the Queen. In the year we’d spent working together, she had never made eye contact or spoken directly to me. If we bumped into each other in the office corridors on rushed mornings, she swept past in all her imperial glory, looking right through me. In work emails she simply addressed me as “hey, there.” Assistant editors come and go, the newsroom carries on. To Her Majesty Padma Kumar, Resident Editor, we were all passing apparitions.
And so the invite—the words resting on creamy note paper embossed in gold—knocked me out. I stared at it as one would gaze at a vision. The other assistant editors around me had the same dazed look on their faces. None of us knew why, or how, we had made it to the Queen’s guest list.
It wasn’t just a matter of designations. The Queen lived in a completely different world, a planet light years away. There, turbaned waiters waited on her all day. Breakfast in bed. Tea in the rose garden. Gourmet dinners, whipped up by a personal chef, served every night without fail. Mr Kumar came from old money. His family’s mansions were scattered around Delhi. The clan’s name was engraved like royal insignia on their portals. A street in the heart of the city was named after his great grandparents, in memory of the donations the couple had made to cultural institutions–museums, theatres, art galleries of all stripes. Mr Kumar kept the donations flowing while growing the family fortune. He owned homes in Delhi and London, Paris and Berlin. He was a canny businessman, a jetsetter, a connoisseur of fine cuisine. From his travels, he brought home exotic fruits and vegetables, exquisite French desserts, and caskets of rare wines. He famously gifted his wife the world’s most expensive bottle of champagne. Flew her to food capitals across the globe to treat her to dinner or lunch. The man haunted fine dining establishments with the passion of a fanatic. Rome or Prague, Bangkok, Cuba or Tel Aviv, Mr Kumar had tasted the best they had to offer.
The Queen ate caviar for lunch. The Queen sipped cognac at dinner. I survived on omelettes and soggy sandwiches, rustled up in the stringy light of dawn in my studio apartment. Elaborate meals danced in front of my eyes like luscious fantasies. Shopping for them took time. Labouring over them was a luxury I couldn’t afford. My work week was seven days long, my designated day off existed in name only—a wish that came true once in six months. There was always a piece to finish. A deadline stalking me like a killer. On the rare Sundays I got to spend at home, I slept in. At noon, I would crawl out of bed and cook some sticky rice and a curry, or settle for stir-fried noodles doused in a fiery sauce, which I concocted by mixing a bunch of foul-smelling Chinese herbs with paprika and pulped tomatoes.
More than our designations, it was the food we ate that set us apart. Food loomed between the Queen and me—a solid, sky-high edifice sealing our places in the hierarchy.
Sunday evening. Silver sky, warm sun, cold breeze. I hopped on the M train and snuggled into a seat. Unlike on weekdays, nobody elbowed me out or stomped on my feet to grab a seat. No battle for survival onboard, no frenzied crowd. The train sped past stations, zippy as a cloud. The Kumars lived in a lush green enclave in the suburbs. If I hadn’t received the Queen’s invite (tucked away safely in my purse), I would never have ventured into this high-end paradise. Only the super rich lived there. What reason could I possibly have to visit Windsor Gardens on my own? A trip to Mars was more likely!
When I got off the train, a giant map etched on the walls of the platform informed me that all the streets in Windsor Gardens were named after English blooms: Lavender Lane, Larkspur Lane, Daffodil Lane, Snowdrop Lane; flowers that never bloomed in Delhi, flowers that would go up in flames in the scorching summers. Lavender Lane, the path I took, was bereft of lavenders. The hedges bordering the lane were precisely trimmed. Even the gently swaying trees on either side seemed well-behaved. Not a leaf underfoot. No stray dogs lounging around. No trace of poo or dust or dirt. At the end of the pristine lane loomed the Queen’s bungalow. A plaque nailed to the gate confirmed I was at the Kumars’ royal abode.
Two uniformed guards let me in after a round of questioning. Down the winding driveway I went, past flowerbeds ablaze with colour. The breeze was soaked in their perfume. A marble fountain shaped like a swan spouted jets of snow-white water by their side. The house, a red-brick castle with a porch, was built to impress. Tall columns, arched windows, high-hatted towers, chimneys plucked right out of a fairy tale. I stepped in. The living room was where the guests had gathered. The Queen stood at the centre of the room, smiling and shaking hands with people with royal reserve. She welcomed me with a gracious wave. “So glad you could make it,” she smiled, smoothly sidestepping the fact that my name still escaped her.
I played along. Thanked her for having me. Thanked her for her hospitality.
Mr Kumar was seated at the head of the dining table, where my colleagues had flocked. He was a tall man: long legs, wiry arms, gym-toned abs, a gleaming bald head. When he smiled he displayed a set of unnaturally white teeth. His gestures were studiously casual. His voice modulated to perfection like an actor’s.
The Kumars’ maids served us a stunning spread—scones with heaps of Pimm’s-soaked fruit, five kinds of finger sandwiches, éclairs, fluffy pastries filled with rich cream, macaroons to die for, scones with jam and clotted cream, savoury scones filled with apple slices and green chutney, dainty butterfly cupcakes, rich raspberry cupcakes, tiny shell-shaped sponge cakes, a melt-in-your-mouth Moroccan orange and cardamom cake. The food lit up the table like a work of art. Disturbing the perfection of it felt like sacrilege, but we did.
And then there was the selection of teas. Mr Kumar, master of the cheery host act, stood up and recited their names, the words rolling off his tongue like poetry—black teas from Colombo, Assam, the wild mountains of China; fruity Paris teas; oolong, green, and white; Earl Grey, English Breakfast; ginger-lemon tea sweetened with honey gathered from the frosty Himalayan foothills; soothing tulsi, fragrant jasmine, tart hibiscus, earthy vanilla.
The teas sounded grand but I desperately needed a smoke. The house, the Queen warned me politely but firmly, was a no-smoking zone. Smokers were free to take off to the backyard though. So off to the backyard I went, after excusing myself from the table.
The backyard was landscaped to within an inch of its life like the rest of Windsor Gardens. Fountains gurgled from behind tastefully arranged rock formations. Creepers, angled by gardeners at specific tangents, hugged the wall. Flowers bloomed in orchestrated clumps. Palms, planted at equidistant spots along the perimeter, swayed sadly in the breeze.
“Hello, fellow smoker!”
Mr Kumar’s baritone made me jump. He had followed me to the yard—a man with a plan, a big cat on the prowl. He lit a cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke. His hands were oddly wrinkle-free, his skin pale as parchment.
“Are you wearing Clair de Lune?” He sniffed the air.
“None of your business, you loon,” I mumbled.
“What’s your favourite tea, Tara?” he asked, stepping too close to me. “Black, green, or white?”
“Coffee. I’m a coffee drinker.”
“London has the best coffee shops,” he said, grinning.
I glared at him. He carried on, not in the least deflated.
“I have a home in London. If you fancy a holiday, my home is all yours,” he said, grabbing my right arm, “Happy to show you around. Take you dancing. Keep you up at night…”
Drunk on the glory of his Mayfair Garden address, he waited for my answer.
I broke free of his grip. A chilly gust of wind clawed at my face.
“I’m going in.”
“Wait,” he ordered without raising his voice. “We’re not done here.”
I turned around and walked away. Didn’t slow down or stop until I got to the dining room. The house was warm and toasty, the hum of conversation pulled me in like a gentle tide. I slid into my seat, watched cups of tea being passed around, kettles refilled, cake wolfed down.
“Would you like a macaroon?” the Queen asked, all solicitous, from across the table.
For the first time since we met, I was overcome by a strange impulse to protect her. A wave of fondness washed over me. She looked as vulnerable as a child building sandcastles on the beach, blind to the gathering storm. I reached out and took a macaroon. I fought off the urge to give her a hug, to gather her in my arms, to shield her heart from harm as the light outside dimmed.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, A Happy Place and other stories (HarperCollins). She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award June 2018 and she is a nominee for Best Small Fictions 2019. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab, Singapore), Gravel magazine, the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Bombay Review, Asian Cha, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and chosen for the Longform fiction pick-of-the-week.