Historical Fiction

Bracelets chinking, Shirleen popped a slice of bread into the toaster. “Mum, why do we still have this kind of bread? Couldn’t we make some chapattis?”

Bronwyn looked at her daughter as if she had just fallen out of the sky. With a puzzled frown, she said, “Shirleen, I don’t mind if you want to make chapattis, but we are a normal English family living in Dorset. Why would we be making chapattis instead of bread for toast?”

She had to admit her daughter dressed more like an Indian girl every day. From the moment she got back from school, the metamorphosis took place. School uniform off and into a long floating skirt, a row of bracelets up her arms and an unusual gold pendant strung around her neck with a bright yellow cord. Once dressed like an off-duty Indian princess, she took her plate of toast up to her room. Soon the plaintive sounds of the sitar echoed around her room.

The door to the kitchen slammed open, and two tousled headed boys popped their heads around. “Mum, please can you ask Shirleen to turn down the volume on her music?”

Their Mum looked at them bemused. They looked so ordinary and so English. “Boys, don’t be so difficult. The volume of the music on your days is so loud. I’m sure the neighbours can hear it.”

In the typical habit of twins, they looked at each other and both spoke simultaneously. “Mum, our music is normal, that wailing music of Shirleen’s is weird. Anyone would think we had an Indian living in the house.”

Their Mum nodded her head. “I know what you mean, but she has as much right to express herself as you do. You agreed to the arrangement. She has her music on Mondays and Wednesdays, and you guys on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You have to put up with it, I’m afraid. Anyway, why aren’t you at football practice? It’s your day, isn’t it?”

The boys clumped up to their room and the kitchen was quiet. Bronwyn sat looking out the window watching the birds as they swooped onto the birdfeeder and argued whose turn it was to peck at the fat balls. She thought, even birds have to put up with offspring fighting and squabbling. That’s not the soothing birdsong we all love so much.

More chinking sounds alerted her to the arrival of her daughter, who slid onto a stool and looked earnestly at her Mother. “Mum, you know it’s getting close to the time you should consider suitable young men for me to marry.”

Taken aback, Bronwyn looked at her daughter. She always drew her thick dark brown hair into a plait hanging down her back. Her lovely green eyes were her most striking feature. Her face was Caucasoid. What was this obsession with India and Indian? “Tell me, Shirleen, why do you identify as Indian rather than English? I gave birth to you. I know you are my child. There’s no chance of you being mixed up at birth. You were the only girl born that whole week.”

The girls’s eyes glittered with unshed tears, “I don’t know, Mum, I feel so mixed up it’s as if there are two sides to me. Does that make me schizophrenic?”   

“No, darling, I’m sure you do not have schizophrenia, but I don’t understand what you are feeling. I’m fine with you wanting to dress as you do and play music. I’ll try to cook at least some things you want, but you have to consider the rest of the family too. I'll speak to a psychologist friend of mine and see if she can throw any light on how you feel.”

Later, when her husband came home, Bronwyn had a word with him. He said, “I don’t want you talking to all these funny people and putting ideas in her head. She’s a typical teenager. I expect she has a crush on some Indian looking celebrity or other.”

Bronwyn knew she would have to help her daughter sort out this strange situation without the support of her husband.

Shirleen's room did not look like any of the other girls in her class. They had posters of pop stars and masses of cuddly toys all over the bed. In contrast, Shirleen had a plainer looking bed with a cotton duvet cover decorated with elephants. Her desk was unadorned, but she had turned her dressing table into an altar. A white cloth, bought at a charity shop, covered the surface. There were carvings of a strange elephant-headed human and always a scattering of flowers. She recently took to burning an incense stick by the open window so as not to set off the smoke alarm. 

Her brothers complained about the smell in the house, which they had to retract when their Mother reminded them of the chemistry experiments they had undertaken during the summer lockdown. 

Upset, Shirleen arrived home one day early in Autumn. She went and changed into her ‘proper’ clothes before slumping onto a stool at the breakfast bar in the kitchen. Her Mother was busy cutting bread for the ever-hungry boys. She knew they had appetites like swarming locusts. Then she looked up at her daughter. “What’s the matter, love?”

Shirleen was rocking backwards and forward, her arms curling over her head and in an emotion-chocked voice said, “I can feel the despair of the wife after her husband has died. Soon, like her, I will have to walk to the burning pyre and lie beside my dead husband.”

Bronwyn was shocked at her daughter’s identification with a culture alien to their middle-class English one. “Darling, pull back. You will not burn on the pyre.”

The phone rang. “Hello, Bronwyn? It’s me, Angela. After our last conversation, I spoke to some of my colleagues. We wondered if Shirleen would be interested in talking to us about her identification with an ancient Indian culture. It won't be treatment, but after talking to her, if she is willing, we might try some hypnosis. Do you think she would be interested?”

“She is here, let me see if she will speak to you.”

Shirleen took the phone and listened to Angela. After a while, she wandered into the lounge with the phone for quiet and privacy.

Sometime later, she returned looking a lot happier, “Mum, I’m going to meet Angela and her colleagues next week on Friday after school. Will that be alright?”

On the following Friday, Shirleen took the bus to the University and wandered along various corridors until she found the Psychology Department. A brief tap on the door and it was flung open by a small woman with bright eyes which put you in mind of a bird, a Robin maybe. “Ah, you must be Shirleen.” Putting her hand out, she shook the young woman's hand then guided her down a short corridor into a room. It was the staff room. Three other lecturers were sitting in comfortable chairs reading. They looked up and smiled as she walked in. “Shirleen, these are my colleagues.” Pointing to a youngish-looking redhead. “This is Vanessa” to an elderly gentleman “this is Prof Fielding and there in the corner is Amy. Take a seat. Would you like a coffee? As it’s Friday, it will have to be black as I doubt the milk will be useable.”

Shirleen smiled, they were a friendly lot and her fears of an academic inquisition evaporated. “Black coffee is fine with me, thanks.”

She left hours later. They had talked to her about school and also about her identifying with an ancient Indian culture. She had agreed to go into hypnosis where they visited her unconscious mind, then they did a past life regression. Their surprising revelations showed Shirleen had lived in India about two hundred years ago. Like now, she was a young woman, unlike now that girl was married to a much older man who had died before she had a child. As was the custom, she had ascended the burning pyre and lay beside her dead husband as the flames licked around her. They felt that young life, snuffed out too soon, was leaking into this one. She agreed to attend more sessions to allow that other aspect of her to accept its fate and she to get on with this life.

It worked. She still wore the floaty skirts, the bangles and burnt the incense sticks but did not feel the disturbing emotions from the past. Now she felt comfortable being a little different from her peers but could easily enter this life and go out in jeans and tee shirts.      

September 29, 2020 16:26

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