The Man in the Yellow Shirt
Airports are the worst places to say goodbye, everyone knows this. It's hard-wired in collective psyches, like fear of snakes and lust for sugar. Too many other people, bad lighting, the smell of bleach. So that she lied about plane times and departure gates shouldn't be taken as significant. She rushed through passport control, head down, hand against her pounding heart.
There's a small hawk approaching
The sheaf of papers fluttered in the draft from the door as the bustle intensified in the kitchen. Dinah pressed her sweaty toes into the floor, tilted her head to the static fan. There had to be somewhere in Mangalore with aircon and space for her laptop.
"Mi, I'm going out."
The compact woman, her emerald sari barely wrinkled by the intense heat of cooking and atmosphere, appeared at the door.
"Be careful baccha, it's not the same now. You going to meet Harbir, like I told you?"
Dinah was very careful not to bang the screen door.
Only an antelope, no threat
It wasn't the presentation that bothered her but the act of giving it. She hadn't reconciled to the frustration of working on something, considering the clarity of diagrams and the appropriateness of jargon, the relevance of references and the firmness of conclusions for them not to be noticed. At Bangalore University, it had been her neckline, in Arizona it was her accent. Everywhere she went, she had seemed to have focused on the wrong sort of tone. If she had something important to say about animal or plant communication, it became easily lost.
A pile of orange fruit
She could go to Pabba's, but the ice-cream parlour held other distractions. Memories, anticipation. The man at the fruit stall looked at her sandals and doubled the price. She walked away on principle, the craving for sweet mango intensified and there he was.
The slow man in the yellow shirt has a gun
They've avoided two groups of young men playing cricket on the beach, three sandcastles and one group of girls paddling. The salt of the sea mingled with the sweet of the kulfi sellers. She's rejected three different openings: canopy shyness, acoustic communication in moustached bats, did his mother ever forgive her.
"I thought you might come back for the Communication conference." His voice still made her nerve-endings shake, as if they're sending out tiny filaments looking for light.
"Prairie dogs all use the same cry for black ovals, even though they've never seen one before." She could feel his head tilt, from where she studied the way her bare feet left only partial imprints. "I think that tells you a lot about instinct."
Sand rubbed at the skin between her toes. He took her hand, which they both knew was the next step, "instinct is important."
She dreamt she ate mango ice-cream in Pabba's, blinking at the bright lights and dazzling white tables. In real life, it was vanilla and she hadn't noticed anything but her term paper. He'd sat down in his custard-apple yellow shirt, asked if she had a spare pen, she looked into deep brown eyes and nothing more needed to be said. The tinkle of spoons in metal bowls became tiny stones rattling against glass. An old ritual from the last time she'd slept in this room.
"Are you awake? I want to show you something."
His dry hand covered her clammy palm, the night air lifted her hair, brushed gently over her neck and arms. Her toes pressed into red soil, releasing clay and earthiness. He always walked as if the world would wait for him.
Space opened up before them, tiny lights and a huge black rectangle. She'd seen heli-pads before but not in the middle of nowhere. Something was being said, and she had to find the answer without knowing the question. Prairie dog communication was compact and flexible, alarm calls, food, scenery, indicated with pitch and inflection, able to recognise people from clothing as well as the danger they carried. She'd always admired the way they got a message across.
"Harbir, I didn't go to Arizona because I thought America was better."
The press of lips against hers was like a chemical release.
The slow man in the yellow shirt
The airport is bigger, flashier, the people louder. Studying how plants and animals convey threats makes her more aware of them. Her cheeks heat up, her eyes can't focus. A woman almost runs over her feet with a chunky silver suitcase, a baby shrieks in her ear and there he is. Her mouth goes dry. She can't stay, not yet.
He holds up one large smooth hand - a plastic bag of mangos, she smells their intense perfume.
"I would never ask you to stay. Just remember this time, you can come back."
Their hands touch as she takes the bag, their lips brush. He smells of ink and masala tea, spicy and mellow.
"I always wanted to come back."
Dinah walks to the gate backwards, ignores tuts of disapproval and squeaks of outraged luggage. So that his face and the yellow shirt are the last things she sees.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Spelk, Lost Balloon
. She's on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction
, a reader for Bare Fiction
and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer