Short Story: The OE

By Mallika Goel

Short Story: The OE
While hostelling overseas, Leela, an independently minded girl from a traditional Indian family, meets a young French traveller, but will their connection endure?

Foreign words sit on our tongues, laced with rain and one beer too many. “It’ll be fun,” he says, pulling me to the floor. Sandals off, dance battle on.

Maybe it’s the hour (late, so late), or the heat (persistent, oppressive, stifling), both demanding self-preservation and stamina if you are to last all night, but the protest dies on my lips. I give in, and I turn to watch.

He moves with an easy grace, all fluid limbs and distorted shapes. The smile never leaves his face. If only I could be so expressive, so free. The fans aren’t working, or maybe they’re broken, because beads of sweat are gathering on his forehead, sliding down his arms. My eyes follow them, entranced, a flush staining my cheeks.

It’s my turn next. Dancing in front of the mirror is one thing, but an audience? The music changes to some ridiculous pop remix (which isn’t really my vibe) and my feet are no longer as tough as they once were, but after a couple of attempts I do it: a single, perfect pirouette. I don’t win, but that isn’t the point.

“Where did you learn that, Lay-la?”

I like the way he says my name, split down the middle with his lilting accent. A two-part word, more delightful than I have ever heard it.

“YouTube, of course.” I don’t tell him about the lonely hours trying to perfect poses in my room, the carpet burn, the many fights with Mum who always wanted me to pursue classical dance instead.

Later, we sip our balloons, bursting with laughter.

“First time?” the bartender asks, with a knowing gleam.

Yes, I think giddily (guiltily). I don’t ask what’s in them.

Anna, the German girl with beautiful blue eyes and white-blonde hair (“Dyed,” she confesses, when I look at it admiringly) climbs onto the table and proclaims us all best friends. We clink our shot glasses together. The bartender doesn’t flinch; he sees this every night.

I watch the others’ easy camaraderie, the way Anna slips under Felix’s shoulder and settles under the crook of his arm. Felix grins, like he can’t believe his luck.

Charles never takes his eyes off me, though. “Should we go back?”

“What?” The music is stupidly loud.

“The hostel,” he says in my ear.

We reach the building, light-headed and delirious. It’s late (so late). At some point the others grunt goodbyes and melt into their rooms.

“Rooftop?” I ask, alight with liquid courage, already tip-toeing up the precarious staircase and bursting once more into that sticky, humid air.

If you squint you can see initials scratched into the rusted railing, embellished with little love hearts. I lean over, as far as I dare. From here, the city feels endless and dizzying, a mass of neon signs, cars and the muffled thump of house music.

His bus, going north, leaves tomorrow.

“I’ve three alarms,” he says, the dimple more pronounced, his words blurring together.

We make an interesting pair – me with my short dark hair (dry now, and starting to frizz) silver studs sparkling in my nose and ears, skin that grows darker every moment in the sun – and him, the boy with wide blue eyes, a hint of stubble that won’t be shaved for weeks, a faint tan from just a couple of days of exposure. He’s tall enough that I can fit neatly into his chest. He smells like smoke, and aftershave and far, far away.

He loops a finger around my bangles. “So, where to next?”

“London.” The bubble of excitement is tight in my chest. I offer up a bangle, a cheap red thing I bought at a Diwali bazaar. “Keep one.” The dimple re-appears.

“I live outside of Paris. Come see me sometime.” He drops his cigarette and crushes it neatly. “I should go.” A hand finds my waist, pulling me close. His stubble grazes my cheek. (Later, I will berate myself for being too drunk to remember my first kiss.)

Reluctantly we part, belly full of goodbyes and promises neither of us will remember the morning after.


London is not everything I have dreamed of. The flat I’m renting with three others is small and damp. Everything is expensive too, and so bleak. I throw myself into work, at a small creative agency that promises it punches above its weight. I’m a junior graphic designer, but I land a client a few months in. It happens at an art show, over a glass of wine, casually chatting to the curator about the work, as he laments about his failed attempts to attract a younger demographic. Young people like me. “Sounds like a re-brand could help,” I tell him sincerely. “We’ve helped some of the UK’s top brands re-invent themselves.”

James, my boss, is pleased. “This is exactly the kind of initiative we need,” he tells the team, beaming. At drinks on Friday, his hand slides up my skirt and I realise what a sleazebag he really is. I know then, I’ll be home for summer in New Zealand.

“When are you coming to Paris?”

It’s a teasing invitation, delivered one sunny Sunday morning in a voice heavy with sleep or drink, I can’t quite tell. I’m hopeless at updating my socials. I don’t ask how Charles found me. I imagine him in bed, eleven hours behind. His accent is thicker than I remember, like wading through cream or butter. There is laughter in the backdrop and I wonder if he’s alone, then berate myself for wondering at all.

It has been one year, three months and 11 days. I’ve thought about him often, though in an abstract, wistful kind of way.

“How is London?”

“Um. Well, I’m back in Auckland now.”


“Yeah …”

The story of why I fled London eventually spills out. It feels good to put it in words, because I haven’t told anyone, not even Mum.

“Oof,” he says when I’ve finished. “I’m sorry you had this experience.” He says something else, which I don’t quite get.

“I like when you speak French,” I say, smiling into the phone, “though I have no idea what you mean.”

We skim over light things – books and movies, travel and food, a mutual love of languages and writing.

After Vietnam, he backpacked through Cambodia and Laos. Now he’s studying architecture. The course is intense, balancing internships and project work, but somehow he still manages to find time to visit Spain, Italy, Switzerland.

“Do you still … dance?”

“Sometimes,” I admit shyly. And no longer just in front of the mirror.

And as if no time has passed at all, the boy from the rooftop slides back into my life, as easily as he slipped out of it. Some days I’m content to just listen (worried my own news sounds boring by comparison). Some days the conversation loops round in a circle.

“I do want to visit next summer. I miss – ” I almost say “you”, but catch myself “ –travelling.”

“What are you waiting for?”

“It’s just … going to be hard to get time off.”

My new job is all-consuming. I have to stick this one out. I’m on the verge of a promotion and isn’t this when careers truly cement themselves?

Summer blends into winter and the thought of travel (the thought of him) is faint in the back of my mind. Late one night my phone bleeps. I can’t bear to look at the message, can’t bear to delete it.

“Maybe we can meet halfway?”

“Maybe,” I reply, hating myself.


It’s getting harder to remember his face.

French lessons, every Thursday evening, become a chore. I’ve become sloppy at doing my homework, finding my mind drifting during classes. The why becomes murky too, until the teacher pulls me aside one evening and asks what on earth is going on. A sigh. “Take a break for the next term.”

Distractions come and go; my flatmate (I swear I’m never doing that again), a handful of half-hearted dates. I start journalling, random thoughts
at first, a few broken poems. Charles would have approved,
I think, though we haven’t spoken for months.

Maybe, someday I’ll share it with him.

Mum, tired of waiting, pushes me towards an endless carousel of faces. All of them are accountants, or lawyers or doctors.

“You’re not getting any younger, beta. It’s time.”

“I’m twenty-six!”

“I was married at your age, with two children.” She closes her eyes demanding patience.

“We let you choose your career and go travelling … alone. What else do you want? Please Leela, do not bring shame on this family.”

So, I swallow my retorts and dress demurely, serving tea and homemade sweets to prospective suitors. The parents make small talk, discussing the challenge of letting kids grow up here, losing their culture, getting firangi (foreign) notions into their head, so far away from India.

I try not to roll my eyes.

“I’m glad he’s finally decided to settle down,” simpers one of the suitor’s mothers.

Mine nods sympathetically.

When there’s a pause in conversation, both ladies disappear into the kitchen. I lean across to the man. “What do you do for fun?”

He is surprised by my question. “Well, I play golf. Watch Netflix.”

“Netflix is not a hobby. Can you dance?”

He winks. “If I have a few drinks.” I groan.

Dad’s strained voice echoes Mum in the background. “Beta, why are you making this so hard?”

I picture Charles, hand in hand with someone else – a brunette, maybe a blonde. Maybe they met in a bar, or at a gig, or in the train on the way to a far-flung destination. An instant attraction that never had to be forced. “Good for you,” I whisper in my head.


The ceremony is small and tasteful. My hair reaches my waist now, though I’m hopeless at doing anything with it. My cousin, with clever fingers and three little girls for practice, braids it intricately, weaving in a garland of jasmine flowers.

Henna trails down my arms, blooming into patterns on my palms. And my bangles are now thick bands of gold.

I twirl in the mirror, watching my reflection with surprise. The lehenga (traditional Indian outfit) was my mother’s, altered for my small breasts.

“Thank you,” I tell her, though I haven’t forgiven her fully.

My husband, a friend of a friend of a friend, smiles at me across the fire. He has square rimmed spectacles and an intelligent face. In time, I think I could grow to love him. There was no time for a courtship, only a few chaperoned dates. All my relatives chime in to tell me how lucky I am.

“Good boys are hard to find.”

“He’s from a great family.”

“You should be happy, beta!”

The priest chants unintelligible words and we repeat them, one after the other. My heart is clanking against my chest, threatening to burst from my body. I wonder if anyone can hear it.

In a far corner, the DJ is starting up again. I hear the song – that ridiculous pop song from what seems like years ago. I slip off my shoes and hitch up my lehenga, blinking furiously.

“Want to dance?” I ask my husband.


Author: Mallika Goel

Mallika Goel is a marketing director. Born in India, Mallika spent her childhood in five different countries, before calling New Zealand home at 18. This nomadic lifestyle inspired a love of languages and travel, but sparked persistent questions of identity, which is a recurring theme in her writing. Mallika is currently working on her first novel, a mystery. When she is not penning stories, you’ll find her mountain biking for headspace.


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