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Leather and Willow

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England would be the first to admit that they'd come a long way. In the 400 or so years they'd known each other, they'd disagreed on a lot and agreed on a few things. But England would never have thought that she'd take to this game of his with quite as much tenacity as she had.

He clinks the teaspoon against one of the cups and dumps it in the sink. He snags a packet of biscuits and puts them on the tray  with the two cups - why were her teacups so small? - and brings it out into her living room, where the sounds of an Australian stadium buzz.

She turns her head slightly as he sinks down on the sofa next to her. 

"Just in time," India informs him, "they're about to do the toss."

Her team line up in blue on screen as they watch the coin being flipped and the Australian team choosing to bat.

India leans back into the sofa with her cup, eyes fixed firmly on the screen as they would be for the rest of the evening.

England smirks and mirrors her, shoulder resting against hers. He is about to prop his feet up on the table too out of habit, but at a slight scrunch of India's face puts his feet back on the floor again.

Her lips twitch.

 

*****

 

Five balls in, she says, "You know, we're the only team to have won the cup at home. Australia has never managed that. They may not manage it this year." Her tone speaks of the hope of a team yet unbeaten firing the first cannons of their Waterloo.

After his own team's disastrous performance this year, England decides his reply will be a quiet dunk of a biscuit into his tea.

 

*****

 

25 overs in, halfway through Australia's turn, his team are proving well worth the reputation they hold. 

He brings in yet more tea, giving her cheek a quick kiss and her shoulder a conciliatory squeeze as he does so.

India has her arms folded tightly across her chest, her expression one that England thinks Churchill would have been proud of.

She hadn't even liked the game when he'd first dragged her to one. His merchants had started their unofficial teams, slipping their coats off and producing a bat and ball every now and again, playing in her countryside. He'd taken her along to watch, to show her that he was here to stay and this was how it was going to be and that was a good thing. She'd snorted and thrown her head back and told him his men sweated like horses as it was and there was no reason to spend their day flaunting the fact that their faces could go as red as those of her monkeys. And she'd said it so politely that he was left, as he so often was in those days, feeling like a lost little boy next to her.

Even now, after he'd spent years making it up to her and had pledged years more in the future, he shies away from the memory of himself and her all those years ago.

The game had started to grow on her gradually, as it did on her people. Especially when she discovered she was good at it. She loved it perhaps more than he did now, a fact she liked to tease him about. 

He finds it hard to understand why she took to the game as religiously as she did. For him, it is like an old friend. A game that was there before his empire and had survived it. A game that reminds him of pluck and stiff upper lip and all the eccentricities people like to attribute to him. A game that brings together all the people he yearns to call his family.

He wonders what the attraction to the game is for her. But as he sneaks a glance at her and runs his eyes down the dark tresses of jasmine-scented hair that frame her tense face, he isn't surprised that the game that has had so many lofty ideals of fairness and decency attached to it is the one she loves.

 

*****

 

Australia's 50 overs are up and they have scored a comfortable 328 that India will find it hard, nigh on impossible to beat.

India has her chin in her palms, fingers raked across her face, leaning into the television like a bullet.

"You should never have given him that cricket bat when he was so young," she informs him.

At this England has to laugh. He throws back his head and does so and even India's tense mask betrays the beginnings of an amused smile. He takes one of her hands away from her and squeezes it. "It's not over yet," he assures her.

Light has long faded from her skies outside and England had thought to turn the volume down out of courtesy before India assured him that everyone in her block of flats was watching anyway.

England no longer feels tired at all, though in a few hours the sun will rise over the city again. He has stayed in India's flat for a little longer than the duration of the Cricket World Cup so far and the visit has seen them stay up late several nights, side by side, watching matches set to Australian time. He visits her for a few weeks at a time and she visits him and they alternate, of course, spending as much time with each other as their work will allow. But England is not sure it is a total accident that his visit coincided so neatly with the world cup when her time difference is so much closer to Australia's than his. Even so, he is content to analyse the overs with  India as light slowly begins to creep over the sky again.

 

*****

 

It is done. Done as they all knew it would be. The Indian team all out before they could reach anywhere near Australia's score.

India stands up abruptly. "I need a smoke." 

She grabs the cigarette packet on the side table and heads out to her verandah. England watches a few of the post-match interviews, half-attentive. After a while he stands, stretches laboriously and ambles out to join her.

It is only February but the night is muggy; the lingering heat of the previous day swimming in the air. She stands on the far side of the little balcony, her back to him, a trail of white smoke snaking out into the air, several storeys above the ground.

He knows she knows that he's there, so he walks up beside her and wraps an arm around her waist. "You gave him a good run for his money," he tells her. She smiles and nods distantly.

"Besides," he adds, "Australia's still got New Zealand to contend with before he thinks about celebrating."

She hums quietly in agreement, switches the cigarette to the other hand and puts the free one around his torso. She leans into him and they turn to look out at the city from their vantage point several metres in the air. Kolkata lies sprawled and heaped before them, its usual mania now just a quiet thrum. Terracotta balconies line the soaring block of flats opposite them. Above them the clammy sky bleeds a little red in the eastern corner, enough to light the waking city by. Solitary yellow taxis trundle down empty streets that in a few hours will teem with life and noise. Stray dogs walk on pavements waiting for street vendors and the dusty footfalls of children.

His knowledge of this city is second only to hers. Calcutta, it had been first named, when his people sewed the roots of the metropolis. He had watched it grow, watched red college buildings and white governors' mansions spring up under her yellow skies. The names of his people became the names of the streets, the city becoming a warm, old, comfortable mix of English and Indian. The second city of the empire, it was called. It was here the first independence riots sprung up too. Here where the blood of civilians was torched in the furnace of empire. Here, where the belief of freedom was truly born in the wide, dusty roads. 

He watches the city quietly again in a way he hasn't done in a long time, feeling India breathe against him. She is quiet too, her eyes trailing over the city. It has grown, burst, bloomed. But the old red buildings and white houses dot the sprawl too, dark against the lightening horizon. England looks at them, feeling dizzy as he thinks about the passage of time and teem of cities moving outwards against their old centres. Next to him, India lets out a long, steadying breath and their thoughts seem to be the same. Yet again the old ache of guilt and grief seeps through him.

Kolkata is full of memories for both of them. He isn't sure if it is another total accident that she had asked him here, not when she has flats and houses in her other cities and villages. They haven't spent this much time together for the last seventy years. They haven't been this at ease with each other for much longer.

She turns to him and smiles; smiles that soft smile that makes his heart twist. The colours of dawn spill across the muggy sky as he leans in and they share a kiss that tastes a little like home.