She was born in the South of England, but spent much of her childhood in Sri Lanka, with short forays to Nigeria and Micronesia, before returning to settle in Yorkshire with her young family. A microbiologist by training, she studied a bacterium called Rhodobacter, which came in handy when she needed a pen name.
You can often find her wittering on about cake, science and Lego on Twitter, when she's supposed to be writing.
Chaya – Colombo, 1994
The day Chaya was due to leave Colombo, everyone came to visit. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. They arrived in noisy droves, bringing gifts that she couldn’t take with her because there was no room left in her luggage.
In honour of the occasion, Amma had cleaned every inch of the house. Between them, Amma and Leela had prepared a feast. Party food was laid out on the table. In the kitchen, a full meal of several curries and rice was warming. A number of aunts had brought food with them too, attempting to ease the burden of entertaining.
There were people everywhere, laughing and talking. Everyone wanted to shake her hand and wish her luck. She was the one everyone loved, for once.
‘A member of our family going to Oxford,’ an uncle said. He himself had been the first in the family to go to university. ‘On a scholarship, no less.’ He patted her shoulder. ‘Who would have thought it, huh? Our little Chaya!’
‘I always said she’d go far,’ said her sister’s father-in-law. ‘Didn’t I? Always said that.’
‘You’ll do well,’ said a cousin. ‘Maybe get a first.’
‘A first from Oxford, imagine that!’ said another.
Chaya smiled and nodded. What else was there to say?
‘You be careful in England, Chaya,’ said an aunt, mopping her frowning forehead with a handkerchief. ‘I hear it’s very dangerous over there now.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the uncle. ‘Oxford is a very civilised place.’
The aunt ignored him. ‘And stay away from the white boys. They only have one thing on their minds.’ She patted Chaya’s hand. ‘Remember you have to come back here,’ she said, meaningfully. ‘You don’t want to be spoiled. You’ll never find a husband if that happens.’
Chaya fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had no intention of losing her focus, but it was a waste of time explaining that to people. Her aunts never really believed her. They were more interested in finding her the right sort of husband than in making a difference to the world.
Keeping her smile fixed, she looked around for means of escape. Her big sister Malini, who was listening politely to an elderly great aunt, caught her gaze. Malini gently excused herself and came over.
‘I need to borrow Chaya for a minute,’ she said and smoothly extracted Chaya from the throng. They hurried through the kitchen and out to the back, where it was quiet.
‘Thanks.’ Chaya sank onto one of the concrete steps that led down to the garden, where Amma tried to grow vegetables under the jackfruit tree. Leela, the home help, was hanging clothes on the line. She waved.
Chaya waved back. The washing line seemed to get less and less crowded these days. First Malini’s bright and stylish clothes went when she got married, and now Chaya’s sensible ones were going. All that were left were Amma’s saris and Thatha’s work clothes. Chaya sighed. The fact that she was leaving was finally hitting home. All this time, she had been so focused on the idea of the scholarship that she hadn’t paused to consider what she was leaving behind.
Malini brushed some grit off the step and sat down next to her. She gave her a small smile that was pinched at the edges with sadness. ‘Are you ready for your trip?’ she said.
Chaya shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It still doesn’t feel real.’ She glanced up at her sister. ‘You know what I mean? Until now, the exams, the scholarship applications, the interviews, all that was just a means to an end and now that I’ve got there… I don’t know what happens next.’
‘You go out there and shine,’ said Malini. ‘That’s what happens next.’
Chaya stared at her feet. ‘I’m scared,’ she said, quietly.
Malini put an arm around her. Chaya leaned her head against her sister’s shoulder.
‘You’re the cleverest, most determined person I know,’ said Malini. ‘Look at what you’ve achieved already. This is only another step. You’ll be fine.’
‘But what if I’m not good enough? What if it was a fluke that I got the scholarship?’
‘It wasn’t a fluke. You earned it.’ Malini rested her cheek against Chaya’s head. ‘Take it one step at a time. I have absolutely no doubt that you will pass your degree and come back triumphant. It’s what you do.’
One step at a time. It sounded so easy. Chaya sighed again. Maybe it was that easy. Malini had a point. She had made it this far and … being clever was what she did best.
She felt Malini’s cheek crease as she smiled. Her sister removed the arm from around her. ‘I got you this.’ She pulled something out of her pocket and handed it to Chaya. ‘It’s nothing much…’
It was a photo of the two of them, taken on the morning of Malini’s wedding. They were laughing at something, the laughter bordering on hysteria as they tried not to cry. That’s how she felt right now. Chaya’s eyes filled with tears.
‘It’s not much,’ said Malini again, her chin starting to wobble.
Chaya threw her arms around her sister, tears running down her face. Malini hugged her back. After a while, they disentangled themselves and sat side by side, both sniffing and wiping tears off their faces.
‘You will write, won’t you?’ said Malini.
‘And tell me everything.’
Malini took her hand. ‘I’ll miss you,’ she said.
‘Malini? Chaya?’ Amma’s voice came from inside the house. They got to their feet, both wiping away the last tears.
‘There you are.’ Amma bustled out of the kitchen. She had been holding her emotions in check, by concentrating on being the super hostess. ‘Suri Nanda and her family have arrived, you should go say hello. Or goodbye …’ she stopped and looked at the two of them. She sighed. ‘My girls,’ she said, putting a hand to each of their faces. ‘My darling girls.’ Tears glinted in her eyes. ‘One married and the other going off to university abroad. I’m so proud.’
Marriage and education … twin holy grails in her parents' eyes. Malini, by virtue of being beautiful, could get away with just one. Chaya, it seemed, would have to achieve both in order to be complete. She leaned in and gave her mother a hug. Irritating as it was, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Later, Chaya got into the car, checked her passport and tickets for the hundredth time, and looked at everyone who had gathered to wave her off. There was quite a crowd, some smiling, some crying, all wishing her well. To the side were Malini and her husband Ajith, standing too close to each other, like newlyweds do. Behind them, Leela was sobbing quietly into a towel. Amma and Thatha were in the car with her. Someone opened the gate and the car started out. Chaya waved and a host of hands waved enthusiastically back. All those people. Her family. All she had to do was make them proud.
How hard could that be?
Gimhana – Birmingham, 1994
The music from the club was super cheesy and he was so drunk that he was actually singing along. He wouldn’t be caught dead singing along to East 17 normally. Gimhana raised his arms above his head and did an elaborate Bollywood dance spin. Because he could. He came to a stop, overbalanced and stumbled. A strong arm grabbed him around the waist.
‘Steady,’ said a voice in his ear.
He looked down at the hand that was splayed against his side. Moving his gaze up, he found the eyes of that guy. The guy. They’d been catching each other’s eye all evening. Sneaked glances, hastily lowered. ‘Hello,’ he said.
The guy smiled and didn’t let go of his waist. ‘You okay?’ He had to shout in Gim’s ear to be heard.
Gim relaxed and let his head rest against the other man’s shoulder. He had looked inviting from a distance. Up close, he was delicious. ‘I am now,’ he said.
The guy laughed, but didn’t move away. ‘Drink?’ he said.
This was the first time Gimhana had ventured out to this bar. It was known, apparently, for being gay-friendly. Seeing the mixture of couples around the place, that much was clear. He hadn’t known it was possible to just be like this. To flirt and dance like everyone else did. They stood near the bar together, talking as best they could, Gim exaggerating his drunkenness to lean closer and his friend gently pushing him back, each touch lingering, until the moment when he slid his hand briefly into Gim’s and said, ‘Want to go somewhere?’
Gim nodded, finished off his drink and followed him.
Outside, the night air was a sobering slap in the face. ‘I’m Gimhana,’ he said. ‘But everyone calls me Gim.’
‘Nate.’ They shook hands, oddly formal.
‘My flatmate’s away,’ said Nate, looking sideways at him. An invitation.
Gim nodded. ‘Okay.’
At that time of night there were knots of drunk people and a few policemen. Gim and Nate walked along, side by side, trying to look like there was nothing more between them than casual friendship. Nate told him he was a builder. Gim explained that he was a student. They were heading towards the bus stop a few streets away. They turned into the side road.
This street was less crowded. Deep shadows filled the recessed shop doorways. They got halfway down the road before they found one that was empty.
Nate’s kiss was hot, urgent. Gim wrapped his arms around Nate and pulled him closer, kissing him with all the pent-up need of the past hour. He tasted of beer and peppermint. He reached under Nate’s jacket and t-shirt and found warm, bare skin. Nate’s breathing hitched at his touch.
Nate’s kisses moved down to his neck.
‘How far is it to yours?’ Gim said.
Nate responded by moving his mouth back to his. It was wonderful, passionate. For a Sri Lankan boy who had realised long ago that he was different, it was almost unbelievable that he could have this. This touch. This kiss. This feeling.
The blow came from one side. It knocked them both, limbs tangled, into the door of the shop. His head hitting the door frame made Gimhana’s ears ring. There was blood in his mouth. Nate was dragged, shouting, away from him. Gimhana staggered to his feet and felt the crunching pain as someone hit him in the stomach and then in the back. He fell. His knees crashed onto the cold concrete. He saw the next kick coming and lurched out of the way, just in time. He saw Nate push one of the attackers off. The man fell against the guy who was about to kick Gimhana again. Taking the opportunity, Gimhana scrambled to his feet and ran. ‘You get that one. I’ll take the other.’ Feet pounded after him. One pursuer. More shouting. He hoped Nate had managed to run too. He could see the main road ahead.
‘Help!’ he shouted. His feet pounded, fear giving him speed he never knew he had. He burst into the street. People scattered around him. He looked around wildly for a policeman. There wasn’t one. Two homeless people who had been looking through a bin came and stood beside him, looking past him. Gimhana turned. The man following him had stopped. Gim stared at him, not sure what to do. The guy had short cropped hair and what looked like a tattoo of a starburst climbing up his neck. He wore a snarl and, Gim knew from the pain in his side, heavy boots.
‘Piss off home,’ one of the homeless men growled. ‘Leave the boy alone.’
Astonishingly, the guy turned and disappeared back down the side street.
Gimhana leaned forward and put his hands on his knees. His face was a mass of pain and he couldn’t work out where the pain was exactly. His ribs hurt too and his hand, which had taken part of the first blow.
‘You okay, sonny?’ said one of the men who’d helped him. His breath was something foul and Gimhana felt the urgent need to be sick. He swallowed hard and nodded.
‘You’ll need to get that seen to,’ the man said. He frowned. ‘You got bus fare?’
Gimhana felt the pocket of his jeans. Miraculously, his wallet was still there. ‘Yeah.’ He was dimly aware that there were more people around now.
‘Get to A&E, then. That bus goes there.’ The man pointed.
‘Thank you,’ Gimhana said. ‘Really. Thank you.’
The man patted him on the shoulder. ‘Just do the same for someone else sometime.’
Gimhana limped away. He didn’t catch the bus. Instead, he pulled up his hood and walked home, making sure he stayed in well-lit areas. He would report the attack in the morning. Then he would go and thank the homeless men properly. For now, all he wanted to do was to get back to his student house and clean himself up. The fact that there was no law against loving who he wanted to made no difference. Britain may be more amenable to people like him on the surface, but under the surface, things were exactly the same as they were at home.
Chaya – London, 2005
Chaya couldn’t concentrate. It was nearly time. The Geology department lecture theatre was only thirteen minutes away, twelve if the lift came quickly, which it would at this time of the evening. She glanced at the display on her computer screen. 18.50. The lecture started in ten minutes.
She shouldn’t go. Really. All those times she’d stopped herself from typing his name into Google. All the techniques she’d learned to not think about him. All of those would have been wasted if she went.
She sighed and opened up her emails again. Her friend Sara had sent her a link to something funny, the rest were just work emails. There were three queries from students. About a hundred emails were marked unread because she hadn’t had a chance to deal with them. Most of it was administrative nonsense anyway. Although, administrative nonsense needed to be done if she was to keep successfully getting grants.
She picked one marked ‘urgent’ and opened it.