The Heart of India Grey
When India Grey was five years old, Grown-Ups often told her she was a ‘funny’ child. She never knew exactly what this meant, and The Parents wouldn’t give her much of a clue either. She was a polite little girl; distinct, yes; curious also, but she had been well brought-up in her small pocket of London; knew how to smile and ask to leave the table, and with all this in mind, it was impossible for her to comprehend why she had been pronounced ‘funny’. The Grown-Ups still spoke to her with genuine interest in what she had to say, and if they did not go away laughing at her far-stretched stories or fanciful opinions – secretly in wonder, perhaps even jealousy – they would at least admit that she was a very beautiful girl, ‘funny’, in her own sort of way. Her hair was dark, straight and pulled back in her signature red alice-band to emphasise the broad globe of her forehead, milky from many summers spent travelling; its only protection a Lonely Planet guidebook that she insisted on reading to anyone who cared to listen. Eyes wide-set and grey, like sharp, bloodless wet stones, any casual onlooker would declare her some sort of pretentious model, or even film star, from the way she languidly sat or posed, to the way you could only notice the small freckle on her upper- lip when her mouth curled with excitement or curiosity – to India, these were the same thing. She was a Grey after all, and that was not something to be taken lightly.
The Greys were strong, competitive; they knew every card game and how to win. They judged a person by their tennis serve; they had lived through enough tragedies to last several lifetimes, and they dressed unforgivingly. They did not look like kind people from the outside, but that was because they were cautious. They did not want their already broken hearts to be broken again.
You cannot sellotape a broken heart, as her mother had always said.
Three extraordinary events would happen in her life, and at each she would encounter her heart. The first would be when she was just six years old, and had discovered a Tommy gun buried at the foot of their apple tree; pressed its cold, beetle shell to her cheek and contemplated murdering her older brother (just to see if she could). She liked the idea of dressing up as God, coursing electricity through speedway veins and then: snap. Popping a lung like a balloon, a small cross drawn for the heart to pierce; to hold it; to drop it like a peach stone to the ocean floor. Surgeon to patient, patient to surgeon. Breathe into the barrel. See the way the light enters the bullet, arc your back slightly, drink the chamomile sun. Unlatch the clasp, tighten your grip–
India, the strange boy had whispered. Don’t do it.
Little would India know that she had just fallen in love, nor that this would not be the last time he would save her life. She would turn seven under a tiger-lily sky, hand in hand with the boy whose name she could never pronounce; drawing their futures on graph paper to make their print on the world. Sweets were like heroin and the air was soupy with dragonflies. Mangoes grew like sticky heartbeats and they would guzzle its juice like bears, laughing in arpeggios as he told her of the fiery summers in his home country; the lobster-red suns and glass lakes of her name’s origin. He spoke in quiet lurid breaths and she in excited cries, their bond deeper than the prejudices that drove them apart. She loved the syrupy whisper of his native language, the shh shh of barley around their feet…India would never really let him leave. She made a snow angel in the soil and buried her heart along with the gun. He exited stage-right.
The second would be when she turned 43, diving into the sea to save her daughter who could not swim but wanted to anyway. The sky was drunk on thunderstorms, an alabaster swirl of heliotrope grey. Her husband would hold her head to his chest and tell her that she had done everything she could, but as they pressed their bodies together like emperor penguins in the rain, the absence of her child would shuffle around their feet; take up all the negative space. She could feel the hot little body hug her leg, the soft smell of infancy that she still clung on to. Her hands were numb with cold; rain-stained, and for the first time in her life she realised how stupid she had been, to think she could make her own permanent history, when she, India Grey, was as temporary and small as everything else in the universe. India tried to remember how it felt to be happy. Exaggerated, perhaps, but still, poetic. She wondered why she had ever decided to bring a child into this world, a world that seemed so perfect when she was younger but now seemed war-ravaged, debilitated, torn. It was so much harder falling out of love than in, she thought. A heart-shaped scar split her sternum from where the water had cut through her. She vowed to never grow attached again.
The last would be when India was very old, old enough to start to understand the heart, but young enough to still fall in love. The sky was like spilled gasoline, not artificial, but veined with indigo, moonless, cold, and bright. Her life had been extraordinary, but complex. An eventful chapter, she decided, complete with the curious meetings with both grief and joy, and rich enough to precede the next – to wherever life would take her. Watching the last train draw a thin line of pallid light across the coast, she laughed foolishly to herself as she remembered being called a ‘funny’ child. She was different, that was all, and if anyone wasn’t on this planet then it would very much surprise her. It was an adjective that she wore with a bizarre kind of pride, and suddenly she felt like shouting it against ocean’s endless hiss, bled by its capillary waves. I’m a funny old woman! she wanted to say. And pressing her hand against her chest, she felt strangely comforted by the murmur she found there, the beating of the heart of India Grey.