A sample from the novel, ‘Lost in the Woods.’
Chapter 1, Wedding Anniversary
Running like a maniac… I cannot miss my flight; please God let me get on this flight. If I miss my flight I’ll miss the party… and I hate missing parties.
My name rings out over the whole airport for the second time. I increase my speed and race up to my departure gate, completely out of breath. No one else is around apart from one frantic attendant who checks my boarding pass and passport. I stride through with a dramatic sigh of relief and collapse into my seat trying to catch my breath.
Packing is my worst nightmare and I really wish I’d done it the night before. I always think I’ll get to the airport extra early – but I never do, I never learn. I’m always forgetting one thing or another. I blame my neighbours, to be honest. We have a ritual – anytime somebody goes home for more then three days, we throw a party! The intention is always that the party will end at a decent hour… but it never does. Thankfully if I’ve forgotten anything I should have spares at home, and thanks to my company, I’m flying Club and can be all rested when I arrive. Now is my time to sit back with a glass of wine… and relax.
Flying into London has become a moment I treasure. I just love the feeling of returning somewhere familiar. The people, the language, my favourite local bars, Mum’s homemade food. Approaching Heathrow I see a bird’s eye view of my hometown – so magical, everything so tiny and cute. Today it’s misty and it looks like it’s going to drizzle, which would normally make me anxious about my hair going all frizzy, but today, I’m smiling. Today I want it to rain, just to remind me I’m back home, back in my beautiful London. The green fields and the miniature Lego cars with their hazy lights look just so recognisable. After months and months of waiting, I’m circling Heathrow, waiting for a runway.
It was different before I moved to Muscat for work last year. Normally I’d be in tears flying back to London from a holiday, wanting to be anywhere but home. Holidays ending were quite a big ordeal for me. So many times my family and friends would beg the lady at the airport to swap their seat so they wouldn’t have to sit next to me. So what? I get emotional leaving exotic places, who doesn’t? But now it’s different, now I’m ready to jump off the plane, I’m so excited to be coming home. The airhostess has to tell me to sit down and put my seatbelt back on. For the first time in a long time, I’m coming back for something other than my husband, and it’s a relief. This time I’m coming back for a big surprise event – my brother’s ten-year wedding anniversary.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have just been cleared to land at Heathrow airport. Please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened.’
I sit off the edge of my seat with my hand luggage in front of me ready to sprint off the plane as it lands. It’s been about two months since I’ve been back and I start to picture all the faces I’ll be seeing soon. All my friends are coming to the party on Saturday and it’s gonna be so, so fun. Dad said no more than ten friends per person. That’s like sixty people in just friends, which is generous. The venue he picked is in Mayfair, and none other than the Hilton Hotel. He’s going all out for it – and I know why; there’s an extra surprise in store that he told me about, and the only other person who knows is my uncle Dipak. Even with no knowledge of this very special something, my whole family is crazy with excitement and anticipation and I can feel it in the air.
I was brought up in a joint family, in a seven-bedroom detached house in Osterley. Now although it sounds massive, my family is just as big. My dad and his two younger brothers moved to the UK so many years ago I don’t even remember the year. Dad’s a proper family man who loves his family and can’t bear to live without them, especially his two younger brothers. He likes having everyone close by and strives to make sure the family has all the comforts they need and want. My dad is the eldest brother, which means he’s the father figure. Dipak Chacha is next (Chacha means Dad’s younger brother), and then Ravi Chacha. Mum and Dad had me and my brother Rick; Dipak Chacha had Anya, Meesha, and Reina; and Ravi Chacha had Alisha and Sameer. Ravi Chacha died a few years ago, which hit Dad and Dipak Chacha hard, as well as the rest of us. After much convincing by Mum and Dad – even though their house was opposite ours – my aunt, Alisha, and Sameer came to live with us. Dad wanted to make sure Sam finished uni and that Alisha continued doing well in her career without any financial burden. Dad did buy Dipak Chacha a house at the end of the road but he was never there. He was always at ours, and his girls had a bedroom upstairs so they were here most of the time too – so we lived together as one big happy family, and even though I’m twenty-six and married now, I miss living in that house.
For this trip, I had planned to stay at my uncle Dipak’s house, thinking I could hang out with my cousins and we could all have a massive catch-up. Also, if I stayed at Mum and Dad’s, my brother would know Dad was up to something. But when I spoke to my Chacha he told me his house was already packed with guests – we had family flying in from all over the world – it was going to be a huge event. My fault, I should have told him in advance. See, sometimes we take our family for granted and have expectations like – oh, I will just stay there. I didn’t once think about my poor uncle having to handle all the guests, and instead of helping, I was demanding. I’m so used to going in and out of my family’s houses as I wish that I forgot that I wasn’t the only one that needed to be cared for this time. I thought it would be good to have some privacy anyway, so I decided to crash at my friend Shalina’s house. As for my husband – well, I don’t even know if he’s coming. I thought about staying at our house in Teddington, but I would just feel awful about everything so I decided not to bother. Oh well, I can’t do much about it and staying at Shalina’s is going to be a laugh anyway.
Amazingly, my dad has organised the whole event with only a little help from my uncle. This is strange for me as usually it’s my dad taking the back seat while my uncle runs around. We all have a rough idea of the itinerary but he hasn’t given anyone any specific details – apart from the secret he told me to keep. I’m so impressed with my dad for coming up with this. After everything my brother and Amy went through, they deserve it.
My brother and Amy Bhabhi (Bhabhi means sister-in-law in Indian) had a registry marriage ten years ago. We only call her Bhabhi when Mum and Dad are around – otherwise it’s Amy. It’s not that we don’t respect her, of course we do, but when we are all out and about drinking we don’t want her to feel that she is about to hit menopause. Before this, whenever Rick was introduced to girls he was never interested.
I giggle to myself as I remember how entertaining it used to be watching Mum agonise over Rick’s marriage prospects, like something from a film. It all came to a climax when she became suspicious about his sexuality:
‘Maybe we should find him a boy, Rishi,’ Mum said to Dad. ‘Times are changing you know – if he will be happy with a boy then let’s not get in the way.’
‘Oh my God, he just doesn’t want marriage right now. I mean what’s the big deal?’ I said to her. ‘Rick isn’t interested in boys.’
Instead of listening to me, Mum snuck into Rick’s room and hunted for his laptop. She’d told my uncle to take him out for a few hours so she could search for evidence of his sexuality. See, there was a Bollywood film that had just come out where the mother discovers her son’s sexuality when she goes through his laptop and my mummy wanted to copy. This is the reason why you should be creative with your passwords, especially when living with your parents… but not us, no – we all had the same password and just trusted each other not to invade each other’s privacy. My mum ran out of Rick’s room in horror and in floods of tears.
‘What happened Mum?’ I asked.
She completely ignored me and made a beeline for Dad with tears of mascara streaming down her face.
‘Did you know about this? Rishi, he has a gori on the scene. I have seen pictures… I have evidence, Rishi – selfies of Rick with a gori!’
And the dramas began.
‘No one will marry a gori under this roof. You will see my dead body before I allow a white girl in this house!’ Mum screamed.
I knew the moment Mum mentioned ‘my dead body’ it was not going to be easy. It went on, and on, and on. There were so many issues with both sides of the family. Rick and Amy tried really hard to convince everyone that love was more important, but the dramas continued, so in the end Rick and Amy decided to go for the easy option: they did a runner.
I never believed it when Mum said she was OK with Rick marrying a boy. Especially when marrying Amy was the end of the world for her. Eventually we all realised it had been a trick, that Mum pretended she would be OK about it just to find out the gossip and so we’d be honest with her. So conniving, Mum – she really needs to watch less of these Indian soaps.
So my brother became the first person to marry out of the religion in my family and it was chaos, all hell broke loose in my house. It’s funny looking back now, as Amy is probably more Indian than us. From the moment she signed the papers, her mission was to become a good Indian wife and Dad threw Rick out the moment he went against him, or shall we say his ego, and changed all the locks – very stupid of Dad – but somehow, Rick still managed to get into the house and he lived exactly where he planned to – in the loft! My uncle had sneaked a new key to Rick. This really didn’t go down well with Dad.
‘I disown you Deepak, you went against my wishes.’ He didn’t talk to my uncle for a week.
Then my uncle fell ill – he got a cold – and all was forgotten. Later Reina, his daughter, confirmed it was all a plan and he wasn’t really ill.
Slowly, everyone got used to Amy and she eventually became my dad’s favourite daughter. She meets his expectations more than I do, in a traditional Indian daughter sense, and she’s always there. Mum and Dad are retired and have one grandson called Aariyan. Aariyan is my brother’s son who is eight-months old. He is the apple of all our eyes. Amy loves my parents too and they still all live happily together in our big house. All credit to Amy, living with sisters-in-law, mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law, and anyone else that visits. This is no easy task I tell you. It’s amazing she’s never once lost her temper.
They were so young when they married. I mean, Rick is only just thirty-three now and Amy is thirty-one. My dad felt so guilty that Amy wasn’t brought into the house in the traditional way; he’s always wanted to make amends for it. So he called me up in Muscat about two weeks ago and told me his big secret – slowly, of course, for dramatic effect…
‘My dream is for Rick and Amy to be married again, and this time properly… that’s why now, on their tenth wedding anniversary… there is going to be a wedding!’
I just screamed with excitement. He is going what I call ALL OUT. Tonight will be the mendhi night, Friday will be the church wedding ceremony, and Saturday will be the reception. It’s incredible that the man who can’t keep a secret from my brother managed to plan a secret wedding for him.
With my feet finally on the ground, I jump in a cab to Shalina’s house. I’m completely woozy with anticipation, and my head feels like it’s still in the clouds. Thank God I had that glass of wine on the plane to calm me down – it’s all go from here. Shalina opens the door looking gorgeous as always, and in a whirlwind of excitement and laughter we catch-up as we get ready for the mendhi night. Shalina is sexy, super-confident, and successful, the kind of person who inspires you – she’s even written a book. She’s a complete perfectionist and a bit tough but she’s a sweetie, and we’ve been friends forever.
On the way to the mendhi night I call my cousin Anya to see if she’s heard from my husband. She answers the phone all excited but when I mention Aarush her mood suddenly changes.
‘Leah, you’re here for your brother and all you think about is your man, please get a grip,’ and she hung up the phone.
That girl is so flaky. I just wanted to know if she’d heard from him. OK, so maybe I am dwelling on Aarush. Should I get a grip? Maybe she’s right – I will get a grip. But it’s been months since I’ve spoken to him properly, just the occasional sweetie I hope you are happy, sweetie hope all is well, sweetie you are dead to me so don’t bother replying as I wont be responding. OK, so he never quite said that but I mean, come on. Men tend to make a bit more effort with their wives – this is clearly not happening here.
We arrive at a lovely venue in North London where the surprise is to be revealed to the bride and groom. We walk into a huge, dimly-lit room and see a massive banner that says RICK WEDS AMY. My family are spread across the room, bustling around, tense with excitement and anticipation. Amy’s parents are in the middle of it all with wide eyes and big grins. They’re best mates with my parents now – it only took about four years! My dad is chatting to Amy’s dad, John, as I walk over to say hello.
‘Why is it so dark?’ I ask my dad while I give him a hug. Then I notice tiny star spotlights and sparkles everywhere amongst the black colour scheme, and a silver moon, glowing subtly amongst the stars, as if the real moon has been hired for the night.
‘The mendhi theme is Moonlight.’ He smiles and looks up, opening his arms wide to present the sparkly night sky.
‘It’s beautiful, every little detail, Dad,’ I look up with him and truthfully, I’m so impressed with him I’m almost left speechless for once.
John had insisted on paying for everything, but my dad wouldn’t have any of it. Your daughter is now my responsibility. I took away her wedding… now I want to give it all back, Dad had told him in his Indian accent. In the end, after hours and hours of bickering, they agreed that Dad would let John pay for the church wedding.
Everyone got changed at the venue so as not to cause suspicion at home with Rick and Amy. Mum has all of Amy’s outfits, jewellery, and shoes sorted. All brand new and designer. She wants Amy to look beautiful but at the same time, she wants everyone to see what an amazing mother-in-law she is. My cousin, Sam, is in charge of bringing the bride and groom to the mendhi night. Amy and Rick think they’re going for a dinner that Dad arranged as an anniversary present. It was brilliantly planned. Sam the gent said he would drive them to the restaurant so they could both relax – which means get wasted.
Everyone gets more and more anxious as it gets nearer to their expected arrival time of 7pm.
‘Wouldn’t it be funny if they didn’t show up?’ My cousin, Reina, laughs. She’s in typical Reina mode: high heels, sexy dress, a glass of wine in her hand, and causing trouble. ‘I mean what if they planned an evening out somewhere after dinner and they didn’t come? What a waste of money.’
Anya thankfully drags this madam by the ear and gives her a good telling off.
‘There is a time and place for jokes and now is not the time, why do you always insist on stressing everyone out?’
My other cousins, Meesha and Alisha, had spent the whole day arranging everything with Mum and my two aunts. Meesha works as a barrister and Alisha as an IT programmer –they’re definitely the most reliable of the cousins, which is why they were given the task of arranging Rick and Amy’s arrival. With all the stresses of organising, the biggest stress was Sam. While he was the person that would cause the least suspicion offering Rick and Amy a lift, he isn’t the most reliable person at the best of times, so this was a difficult operation to organise. Dad had all my cousins on watch, keeping track of him to ensure he completed his mission of getting the bride and groom to the venue on time.
I can see the worry on everyone’s faces now, and all thinking the same thing. If Sam wanders off then this whole plan will go wrong. People are fidgeting and whispering now. Reina can’t help herself and does some more stirring.
‘Your dad even paid Sam’s girlfriend to keep him under control the whole day,’ she says to me. ‘I’m pretty sure afternoon tea at Claridge’s is taking the piss.’
I smile at her attempt to liven things up again. ‘When you need your son to turn up at his own henna party on time, it’s a price he has to pay.’
Sam, as predicted, is now officially late (for the time Dad told him to be here anyway – one hour earlier than he actually wanted them) and so when Sam does eventually arrive, everyone will make out he is late, even though he actually won’t be. And Mum already has that dramatic soap-opera look on her face, and not surprisingly: the thing that I’ve been dreading starts to happen – Mum starts panicking.
‘Rishi, he isn’t going to show up,’ she says to Dad with her hands on her cheeks. My dad is a professional at dealing with this, after years of practice.
‘Don’t worry, Lila, I will make sure they arrive.’
This doesn’t calm her down though and she puts the back of one of her hands to her forehead. I reach my arm around her shoulder.
‘Mum, it’s only 6.45, please stop the drama – most people panic when there is a problem not when there isn’t one and right now everything is going to plan.’
Anya hangs off my shoulder. ‘Well, except I’m pretty sure Reina has knocked back a couple of Jaegers with the boys,’ she says.
The cheeky mare, she’s enjoying the drama!!
‘Like mother: like daughter,’ she whispers in my ear and giggles.
‘Call Sam, bebi, please’ Mum begs and she means baby as I’m her youngest but the accent makes it sound like a weird vegetable or something.
‘OK Mum, I’ll call Sam.’ I need to calm her down before she goes full Bollywood.
Thank God he answers. ‘Sam, you were meant to be here an hour ago, where are you?’
‘I’m coming Sis, don’t worry – I’ll be there in five minutes.’ I hang up the phone and shout to the restless guests:
‘They’ll be here in five minutes!’ The lights go out, whispers die down, the doors open and – everyone shouts:
Rick and Amy’s faces are priceless. They both look so confused. The lights come on and they see the banners. They still look confused – they have an idea of what’s happening but it’s not quite sinking in. Then Dad makes a mini speech:
‘My son, my daughter-in-law, from the bottom of my heart I apologise: Many years ago I took Amy’s chance to be a bride away from her, I took away your dream wedding by being narrow-minded… My child Amy, your mummyji is holding your mendhi outfit and all the accessories. Your makeup artist and hair stylist awaits… hurry up my child… it’s your mendhi night. Get ready so we can party!’
God, Dad shouldn’t act like he is twenty-one sometimes, saying so we can party in front of four hundred people. I mean, you are a grandfather! Amy’s face just shows pure shock. She bursts into tears and runs up to Dad.
‘Daddyji, you did this for me?’
(She also watches Bollywood and it’s clearly rubbing off.)
‘Yes my child, I did. You are the daughter I never had,’ my dad says.
‘Erm… hello?’ I blurt out, loud enough for all my cousins to hear, who copy me.
‘What about us?’ we all ask.
‘Well, OK, Amy is the gori daughter I never had.’ Gori means white – so racist but Dad doesn’t intend it to be – he loves Amy more than he loves me.
Rick sees me and comes straight over.
‘Leah, baby doll, what you doing here?’ He hugs me so hard I think I almost pop. He looks as handsome as ever, with cheeky grin and sparkling eyes.
‘I wouldn’t miss my own brother’s party now, would I?’
‘I missed you,’ he says.
‘I missed you more,’ and I giggle. Rick giggles too – we both know the times we would’ve missed each other most: when we needed something; like being picked up on a night out and like that time when Amy had to be rushed to hospital when she was in labour and Rick was drunk in Mayfair somewhere. We always used to be there for each other in these kinds of situations, before life got in the way.
Tonight we’d make up for it though. The champagne is flowing, there are canapés, dancers, and mendhi – wow – it is so spectacular and the queues start to form where the mendhi ladies are so the girls can have their designs made on their hands. It’s all very loud and happy, and everyone is talking over each other – it’s the perfect party, really. Everyone turns and gasps as Amy glides out of the changing area, shimmering like a thousand diamond chips under the lights. She’s spent an hour in the changing room being transformed by my mum, my aunties, and a makeup artist and all eyes are on her and she looks stunning… but it’s hard not to notice how revealing her top is.
‘Mum, why is Amy’s top like a bikini?’ I ask.
‘Because goris like this kind of thing bebi doll.’ Mum smiles, with her eyes fixed on her creation.
‘Mum, they like bikinis on the beach, not for everything,’ I sigh.
OK, so her top is a little small and revealing but luckily Amy is hot and she covers herself well with the chuni. She looks amazing. The outfit is a beautiful off-white colour like the moon… OK, so that’s the moonlight theme. The intricate mirror-work glimmers and shines in the starry spotlights, like something out of a Disney film. She has her blonde hair up in a twist with diamantes, and it looks like her dress weighs a ton but it’s magnificent: so much so that I almost cry. Her makeup is so elegant, bringing out her delicate features and maintaining that natural, fresh-faced look that she has. I’m sure I’ve seen the same outfit in a film recently – typical Mum copying the Bollywood movies! Rick’s eyes are extra sparkly now, he’s so happy to finally see his bride. His dimples are on full display with his big grin—we always tease him for being the only one in the family with dimples! Bless him, he only found out he was getting married an hour ago – but really he waited ten-years for this.
Amy holds Dad’s hand. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ she says to him.
Personally, I think she’s still in shock and can’t believe that it’s all really happening.
John and Linda are over the moon to see their little baby girl look like a Bollywood princess and Linda is admiring the material and glowing with pride while John takes pictures. This is their first Indian wedding and they’re straight in at the deep end with everything, including the most important part – eating lots and lots of food. There’s a sumptuous feast laid out on a long table that people are helping themselves to, and delighting in all the different flavours.
‘Tonight is about the food, henna, food and fun.’ Mum tells Linda and John.
‘And the champagne.’ Reina says, striding past with a bottle in her hand – with Mum giving her the disapproving glare. Her eyes flick back to Amy:
‘It’s time for your henna.’ Mum leads Amy over to the amazing henna artist she hired – just for her – so that her design will be the best and truly unique. ‘The bride needs to look the best,’ she says proudly.
Meanwhile, while Amy gets her henna done, all the young females of my family check out her gorgeous brother, Damien. He’s a personal trainer with the body of an Adonis. He’ll definitely look like George Clooney in twenty years time. Eighty per cent of his clients are women… I wonder why?! Reina is right in there with him, and Dad notices what is going on straight away. He watches over them, his hands on his hips.
‘I would love Damien to become my son-in-law,’ he says.
‘One step at a time, Dad. What will your brother say if you give the blessing without having the chat first?’
‘I am the oldest, I decide.’ His chin is up in the air.
‘Yep, typical Indian attitude!’ I think to myself. I’m pretty sure it’s only because Dad wants fitness tips from him. Damien has a reputation for making people lose weight and look fabulous. So shallow, Dad, happy to give your child away just so you can have some free personal training sessions?
Soon everyone’s dancing and after a few drinks we make a deal that next year we’ll go on Britain’s Got Talent and show Mr Cowell the Bollywood dance talent. We’d impress the judges and audience with our speed and how many of us there are, but let’s face it – the Queen doesn’t need to see that – and the only talent they’d probably end up seeing anyway would be the drinking shots talent.
As the mendhi night comes to an end and the drama, festivities, and fun dissolve, I remember my husband, Aarush – but where is he? I didn’t message him at the beginning of the evening because what would be the point in being disappointed early on in the night? And I didn’t get the chance to message him the whole rest of the evening. I might as well just leave it now, I figure. But then, before I can stop myself, I find myself asking Dad:
‘Why didn’t you invite Aarush?’
‘I did darling but the boy has been off the radar for months now.’ Dad rushes off, mumbling something about helping Mum.
There is one person who will know for sure where this husband of mine is.
‘Reina, where is he? You talk to him don’t you?’
‘Babe, listen, I shouldn’t get involved,’ she says – and is already trying to run off!
‘What do you mean you shouldn’t get involved? You and Aarush became mates through me, and now you’re treating me like I’m dumb and pushing me to the side, saying pathetic things like BABE, I SHOULDN’T GET INVOLVED? Alisha, tell her…’ Alisha is the most sensible one out of us, so I had to go there. ‘Alisha, are you listening?’
‘Look Leah – it’s not fair for you to put Reina in this position.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Listen, why don’t we just have a good time? Big Dad has extra champagne in the back… ’ They call my dad ‘Big Dad’ as he is the eldest of three brothers. ‘He said he wants us to all have a toast to my dad.’
Dad and Dipak Chacha give a lovely toast to their beloved brother, they both sob and sob. They planned this for the end of the night for this reason – they know thinking about him is painful and once the tears start… there is no stopping them!
I really wish Aarush would tell me what is going on; it’s been months now and I don’t know how much longer I can carry on with it all. If he wants to move on, he should just say so. I would let him go – I just want to be happy and I want the same for him.