Amrita was standing at the stove when someone grabbed her ponytail and yanked hard. She dropped the bread dough on the counter and swivelled around, meeting Madam El-Sheikh’s crazed black eyes, outlined in heavy kohl. Her employer pinned her hand against the wall, her nails digging into Amrita’s wrist. She reeked of neroli perfume, her straight teeth bared in a grimace.
‘I told you to lay out my red dress,’ she hissed. Amrita gasped as she spotted the carving knife in her hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, reaching for the dough with her free hand. ‘I couldn’t find it.’
‘You’re a good-for-nothing cunt,’ Madam spat. Amrita watched as the glinting knife edged closer to her face. In a quick gesture she lifted the dough, flung it against the woman’s eyes and elbowed her in the stomach. The knife clattered to the ground.
Amrita ran. The thick carpet in the hallway muffled her steps as she headed towards the stairs. The vivid colours of paintings lining the walls blurred as she sprinted, her breath laboured.
At the top of the stairs little Nour stood with wide eyes. Without a word she took Amrita’s hand and gestured to her bedroom. From the hallway below, furious screeches increased in volume.
She followed Nour into her pink room with its polyester-draped canopy bed. Nour opened the cupboard and pushed her inside. All was black. The skirts of the girl’s dresses pressed around her head and she fought a sneeze.
The door reverberated against the wall as Madam entered.
‘Have you seen the Indian?’
Amrita cowered, wishing she could disappear through the plywood and be home in Ratnapura, her mother sponging her with a jasmine-scented cloth. Her brother, Devi, chasing her through the bright green leaves of the plantation. At that moment, a longing for home sliced through her. Grief bubbled in her throat, threatening to burst out in a scream. She bit her lip and hugged her knees.
‘You’ve seen her, I know you have. You speak to her, Nour. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’ The woman’s voice was high-pitched, apoplectic.
Amrita imagined Nour shaking her head. There was a thud and a yelp. She sucked in her breath.
‘No Mother, I haven’t, I haven’t.’
‘Where is she?’
The sound of glass shattering as something was hurled against the wall. Her heart was deafening in her ears.
A slap, a squeal, low curses from Madam. Amrita could not take any more. She kicked the door open and emerged. Madam was beating Nour around the head with rapid-fire smacks. The little girl was in a ball on the floor, whimpering.
‘Leave her alone.’
Madam sneered and launched herself onto the servant, grasping her neck. Amrita was pushed to the ground where she flailed at the older woman, attempting to prise her fingers from her throat. She felt pressure in her lungs and behind her eyes. Her vision was monochrome.
The woman’s black scarf fell over her eyes and she could not see. There was a hollow thwack and Madam stilled. Amrita shook off the scarf and felt the lifeless weight of her tormentor. Nour’s terrified face was inches from hers.
‘Are you all right?’
In her small hands, she held a glass lamp. The side of Madam’s head was bloodied, her eyes open and mouth agape.