The Five Polaroids of Winter by Nikita Zankar

It isn’t me, it’s you, he says, so I leave behind the love of my life at sixteen and travel to England to live with my uncle and his family. My drunk father gets easily coerced by his I-know-better brother to send me across the world. They decide because they are adults, and men think men can make decisions like that for others. I study history and poetry for a year but when my uncle’s wife finds out I’ve been smoking in my room to recover from my heart break she throws me out. I am not cultured enough, she says, and Uncle agrees. In summer, I beg outside the McDonald’s on the high-street. Men look at me like I am this wild, uninhibited thing they can conquer. Some throw pennies my way, some stick their tongues inside their cheeks suggestively. Some see through me; some shake their head in pity. The world needs to be punished. 

I get a part-time job at a construction company. I sign people in and out of shifts and manage trivial things. At night, I work the till at the petrol station. It pays me enough to make rent for a small room on the east side. My begging days are long behind. One night, the old man I once begged with comes over, drunk and dressed in a shabby suit. He tells me he’s won the lottery and deserves a good time. I let him come inside me because he promises to gift me a matte-peach coloured Polaroid camera that I saw in a fashion magazine when I was twelve. I like photography and the idea of seeing the photos instantly makes me giddy. Next morning, I find a neatly wrapped box outside the door. I open it to find a bubble wrapped matte-peach coloured polaroid camera with five white bordered films. 

I meet the twins at the construction site. They are the new security guards replacing the old Elis who died in his sleep and big Mason who didn’t want to do it without Elis. When I ask the twins to choose between their birth country and the country of their ancestors, they say fifty-one percent Morocco, leaving Italy with the remaining forty-nine. They boast about the time they first travelled from Italy to Morocco as children, on a fifty-hour ferry that taught them a lesson of a lifetime. They never tell me the lesson. Instead, they tell me about their trip to the football clubs in Manchester where they tried their luck with the kicks only to find out that they were too short for it. Ayub finds it illogical and silly that he is shorter than average, damn them genes, he says, and snorts like a pig when he laughs, and it makes me laugh more at him than at his stature. He points at his brother standing outside the cabin and tells me that it is not so bad when someone shares the bad luck. I meet Sufian in the parking lot of the construction site where he is photographing a blazing sunset in the middle of an English autumn. He laughs when I ask him the same questions that I asked Ayub but his laugh does not have a snort like Ayub’s and that is how I tell them apart for a while. Sufian tells me his name means nothing, literally nothing and that is because he was unexpected, born only four minutes after his identical twin. I make notes in my head, jot down the little details so I can tell who was who when the time comes. 

They co-own a yellow hatchback with windows that open if you slide them down with bare hands. It isn’t hi-tech or anything, their ride is just old and broken. I plant myself in the back. The seat covers are torn, mark of a well-travelled car, they tell me. There are empty bottles of wine that struggle for space between my feet so I kick them under the driver’s seat and secretly hope they end up in the space between the floor and the brake pad so when Ayub hits the brakes, he gets stuck and we all get stuck and die together.

They ask me what I want for dinner, and I tell them anything Moroccan would be nice, so we go to their apartment to make some maraq. They are sure they have all the ingredients for it, but it turns out that they don’t, so I make ramen while they order couscous from a local restaurant that isn’t even nice. I tell them I want to smoke something green, and they tell me they know someone who knows someone who deals and if I promise to stay, we could all have a happy time. It becomes a three-way thing when we sit in their backyard and pass a sleek roll around. When we spot a fox digging for food in the park across from us, the twins scream. They’ve never seen a fox, so I tell them that their first fox experience must be a good fox experience. I ask them to follow me up on the roof of their house so we can get a better look. When they are convinced, they join me on the roof, and we watch the fox for half an hour before the twins tell me that their first fox experience was indeed a good fox experience thanks to me. We’re sitting close to each other battling the force of wind, when the bare skin of my sleeveless arms brushes against their navy-blue work hoodies on both sides, and I feel a chill from within. Ayub is the first one to laugh with his typical snort because the green has messed his head from the inside, so I laugh too, with clattering teeth. Three of us, high up on the roof, cry with laughter and laugh with tears and I feel like that is the happiest I’ve ever been. Click.

Sufian is the loud, carefree type and Ayub is the ying to his yang type. I add myself to their mix and whine about my non-existent family when we get ales in a pub the second time. A drunk father in Kolkata, mum missing in Kochi. They pull me into bear hugs before we roll for the night, and I know then why two is better than one. We drive to the peaks in their yellow hatchback, the seats still torn but wine bottles missing. We bang our heads to Sex Pistols, and I hit my head on the window a couple of times. When it bleeds Sufian reaches out with his kerchief to wipe. I want to bite his lip so hard it bleeds. 

The strong winds crash against the hills making loud sounds like monsters wailing. We get out and stand in the cold till it stings our bones, wearing puffer jackets that we bought from a charity shop for a fiver each. We make a deal to take two drags off a stout one, but I cheat and take four before I pass. When I am high enough, I tell Ayub to hike up the hill next and he looks at me like he has never seen a woman tell him what he should do. Get back in, he smirks, which irks me enough to want to run at him with the speed of light and hold the top of his neck between the thumb and the first finger of my fist. I imagine his eyes go bleak like life is eloping him. But Sufian laughs from behind warning Ayub to not evoke Aisha Kandisha in me and the two brothers nod and sigh and go back in the car to survive. I stay outside and summon the spirit of Aisha Kandisha, the Moroccan ghost that kills men in their prime, and pray for the power to push the car over the cliff so I can watch the twin bodies bounce on rocks and float in the air and break into pieces. 

We throuple our way into everything. From Monday-night gym sessions to Tuesday-night McDonald’s that we eat at the bus stop because Sufian can’t stand the smell of fried chips. Wednesdays are reserved for cheap liquor and a late-night drive to the peaks. Thursdays I don’t see them at their poker nights. They tell me I could join them if I wanted, make some money on the side. But I am rigid on my terms, I need a night to read and revise all the ways I can take all their lives. On Friday nights we buy beer cans from the local store and gulp Jager bombs at the club with the teenagers who snuff salt on the toilet seats. When we get bored of the music, we hit up Ade, who is a student from Nigeria and a friend of the boys. He never drinks or drugs but gets us to the best Afrobeats parties in sight. He is our driver every time Ayub passes out and Sufian is making out with someone in the backseat and I’m on the passenger side drinking vodka straight from the bottle even though it makes me sick on the insides. When I get home, I puke my guts out in the pot and tear off my clothes to sleep naked on the bathroom floor as the bathroom walls swirl around me and I ask myself if this is the happiest I’ve ever been? And if someone could click me from the top, would it look like a suicide or a murder scene? Click.

On a Sunday night two weeks later, Sufian meets a blonde woman outside the construction site, and I follow him because I have come to realise that I do not have control over my curiosity. I light a stick and stand around the corner from where he is with her. He kisses the woman and then looks around to see if anyone is watching. I am watching. He doesn’t see me. I want to gouge his eyes out for being so weak-sighted. I walk back to my workstation and tell the manager about Sufian kissing someone during the shift and the manager watches it on the camera and fires Sufian that evening. When Ayub learns about it, he quarrels with Sufian and tells him he needs to grow up and learn to keep it in his pants or they will never be able to drive back to Italy. I board the bus from across the fight and see Sufian spitting on the road at Ayub’s comments and walk towards the blonde woman’s car and leave with her for the night. 

On Monday, when we’re at the gym, I ask Ayub why he wants to go to Italy. He tells me about the old pals who got them tickets to try football at a local site. I ask him if I can go with him, and he says I can, so I smile. But Ayub doesn’t smile, he says he wants to find out who reported his brother to the manager and bust their balls. But I don’t say anything, I don’t have the balls for it. Sufian walks into the gym and tells us the blonde woman he hooked up with said her friends called her racist and she slept with him only to prove otherwise. Sufian looks hurt and says something about never sleeping with them imbeciles again, but I am already rolling on the floor laughing while Ayub snorts, holding his belly. Sufian joins in when he realises it is not all that bad if we can laugh at it instead. 

Later that month, when I get together with an Indian boy after a Bollywood party, he tells me he has seen me going around with those twin boys and I should keep myself safe from the likes of them. We’re only three kisses in when he tells me it is against our culture to have relationships with people from another religion and that they can do bad things. He unhooks the button of my jeans and I do the same to his shirt while asking him if it is the same culture that has taught him to tell a woman how to live her life while she is on top of him, doing all the work. It throws him into a rage, so he shrugs me off him and tells me to get lost. I pull up my jeans and zip up my jacket and pick up my shoes and walk out. On my way to the twins’ house, I buy candy floss from a shop near the park because pink things make me happy, and the sugary cotton taste of the floss keeps my mouth dry while a lump of tears gathers in my throat. I plan to plan a proper revenge. It is four degrees, and the wind is losing its way in my thick, black, unkempt hair, making it puffy around my bony face. When I reach their home, the twins tell me I look like a churel from the Bollywood movie we watched last week. I tell them that the churel is coming for them next after the over-smart, know-it-all Indian boy I almost made love to an hour back. Their laugh mixes with each other’s and sounds like a donkey’s braying. They go back to watching South Park on their old junk of a TV and I sit on the side scrolling on my phone. An hour later I tell Ayub I am hungry, so he jumps up to say that they finally have all the ingredients for maraq and goes to the kitchen to cook something up while Sufian and I get cosy on the couch watching a documentary about the ghosts and the spirits of South America, then make out. Ayub brings hot food and while I eat, I complain about how Bollywood parties in this country are nothing but real life tinder and they tell me that all parties everywhere are like that and it was precisely where the idea for tinder was born. I don’t agree. I finish eating the maraq and Sufian never mentions what happened between us like it was no big deal and things like that happen between friends sometimes. I go home and add a tick on the post-it that has the twins’ name on it at number 45. Click.

Two weeks go by without much happening between me and the twins because I am stalking the brash Indian guy. Every time the twins call me, I make excuses which they believe. One morning, I spot the Indian boy at the parking lot of a grocery store. I smile like I just happened to be there, surprised; he smiles back awkwardly. I tell him I am sorry for the other night, and he says he didn’t mean to upset me but was only giving me some good advice. I nod, maybe we can give it another try, I tell him and lean. A kiss to make up for all that? He abides, brings his face forward and that’s when I stab him in the neck with the tip of the pen that I’m hiding in my fist. I do it more times than he needs. It isn’t until he falls on the floor hurling abuses that echo in the empty parking lot, that I stop. I kick him in the groin, twice or thrice and I run. I run and run and stop only when I reach the twins’ house where they are planning to leave for our road trip. Ayub dumps a suitcase in the trunk and Sufian puts his denim duffle bag on top of the suitcase. They make fun of me for not having any belongings. I hold up the pen in my fist and quote how the pen is mightier than a sword. They don’t notice the blood on my fingertips. At sunset, we leave behind the ancient English towns and cross the Channel. We halt at an inn outside Calais and get one room to share because we only have so much money and the weather is particularly wild. I skip dinner and munch on crisps before getting under the duvet and sliding into deep sleep. I do not wait for either of the twins to decide their side of the bed so when I wake up in the middle of the night, I see two identical looking men snoring in rhythmic patterns on either side of me. I sit up and look out the window at the pouring rain. A sort of melancholy washes over me. I miss them already. Click.

When we reach Turin, we meet the twins’ old friends and all of them drive off to an old pub to rehash their memories. I am forgotten, left behind, the other gender - fend for yourself in this town you don’t know. You will be fine by yourself; we will take you along then leave you to it. England will be good for you. Italy is home with all its food and wine. Men and their empty as shells promises; all these years of taking and taking until they leave me with nothing to give. Lying comes easy to them and I have realised that I don’t particularly enjoy being lied to. Surprises are disgusting and I don’t like being sidelined. I want to be always wanted and I can do anything for that. I take charge, walk alone on the city streets and stand under the porticoed cafe-filled arcades and stare at the people drinking their rich black coffee and when they see me staring at them drinking their rich black coffee, their faces turn bluish-green and it hits my dopamine right. Their discomfort is funny, therapeutic even. 

In a dark alley between two faded ochre-shaded buildings, I find a yellow street sign that I bring home. Home is where the twins were born and raised. The right place to end up at. I siphon out the petrol from the hatchback and spray it around the floor with the garden spray. I slide a lighter in my back pocket and wait outside the house for the twins to arrive. Three hours go by before they come home drunk and braying. I am only slightly mad but hugely disappointed. They are no different than my father and his brother, abandoning others is a thing among twins because they always have each other. When the brothers go inside, I lock the door behind them and set the house on fire. The yellow work in progress street sign stands outside the burning house. It makes for the last polaroid before I board the bus back home. Click.

I hang the five polaroids on a string of red lights in my room on the east side. Come winter, I watch it all freeze: my lips, fingertips, polaroids and the memories of the twins. 

It is not until spring, when the sun thaws the frost, that I step out of my house and get a job at a cafe that stays open all night. I see a lot of them wandering around, the men who do it all wrong and deserve to be punished. Then you walk in, and sparks fly. You get a shot of espresso at 2 in the night, and I know then, you’re going to be my seasonal delight.  

Nikita belongs to the land of storytellers, India, which is the root of all her inspiration. She hikes and writes on the weekends and spends her week doing sales and marketing for And Other Stories, a Sheffield-based independent publisher. She is often found around cats.

Twitter: @nikitazankar

Website: nikitazankar

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