by Jude Chaminda Perera
The bench looked empty, she wasn’t there. Her disappointment came in short gasps and an uneven flutter of the heart, she had been running carrying some hope of seeing her. It hurt her eyes as she looked again, it still seemed unoccupied, there was no deception, not when she could almost touch the bench. Four girls from Epping High swarmed over the bench; they looked immaculate in their navy blue uniforms and swore in raw filth as they discussed the previous night’s Bad Brother. They stared at her, she wanted to tell them to piss off and to act their age, but the words clotted in her throat. They were waiting for number fifty-nine, the old lady with the hearing aid perched on the other end smiled at them through painful looking dentures, quite taken up by their innocence. The chilly westerlies that had pinched a perfectly normal summer day finally broke into Olivia, making short work of her stylishly sparse leather jacket and the silk top that crouched beneath. She acknowledged it and shivered, this was not forecasted. Her two timing mind had skipped from enthusiasm to stark dejection. She missed the woman already. She wished she had spoken before when she had the chance, at least made a start. She had a full month, now regret took the upper hand. That faded scarf, which she wore in both hot and cold as she waited with her grandson, to hop onto number fifty-nine, now played with her imagination. She would smile sweetly and shyly, and there was gratitude in that smile, as if Olivia had done her some favours. Olivia had smiled back with her trademark ease, at first with indifference as people sometimes did, then with faint enthusiasm and curiosity. The old woman and her dimpled smile with her worn ankle length skirt had gradually grown on her. Her kindness had crept in with wordless grace and with it some familiarity, strange and recurring. She placed the old lady somewhere in Asia, but didn’t know where; she was hopeless at telling the nationality of people. The old woman had beautiful dark skin, obviously treated by tropical weather. Olivia had pictured her as a young woman complete with elegance and untapped beauty. She thought of the trail of broken hearts the woman might have left before the spread of old age, but then she did not look the type; her fancy was getting away. Olivia had waved, vigorously and spontaneously just the other day, and she had responded with a shy half hand, her cultural tones evidently dressing down her body language. But the little boy had waved back with both hands, wildly. He had made Olivia laugh with his comical smile and contagious energy; she fell in love with him instantly. She missed him too.
The wind picked up again and dashed Olivia’s hopes. The two Acacia trees and the solitary Weeping Cherry that looked down on the bench looked naked and buckled under the icy assault, all their blossoms viciously struck to the ground. Perhaps the little boy was sick, or his mother, that plump glum looking woman who she sometimes saw and who looked so unlike her mother, had already taken him to school. She shook her head violently, hoping to crash the train of assumptions. The girls and the deaf old lady had thankfully got their bus. Many more buses had come and gone, peace reigned and she could suffer at leisure. She was late for work, and decided to call in a sickie. It was dicey, since she could see The Stables from the bench, the mall where she worked as a real estate agent. But she had a right to fall sick whether in full view of work or not, her contract of employment told she could in black and white. She boldly called work. Another sweeping look later she sighed and got up, to begin the long walk back to her car, it was too early to hope again, and tomorrow seemed a bit too far. Then it struck her, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say to the old woman, surely one couldn’t dive into intimacy without some homespun warmers first. One couldn’t peek behind a yearning gaze or define a weak memory on the first day. Or even build a bridge between bleeding edge sophistication and sensibilities slow cooked in eastern values. She began to feel better. She had a full day to work out her approach. She was even amused by the seemingly trifling challenge, it was petty compared to baiting a cash strapped client to a real estate deal way above his budget.
“Are you ok love?”
Sally was worried; Olivia had been ok when she left.
“Must be a bug Mom, this summer has been crazy, half our team’s down, just felt queasy as I got off.”
She made light of it, her mother returned to ease, Olivia actually felt better. She scampered up to her room, but not before she noticed the parched skin and those prominent eye sockets. She looked fairer than a white sheet. Her hair appeared unkept, the grey had all but wiped out the blonde, and there were hardly any remnants of its former glory. Her mother was wasting before her eyes, she saw it clearly, dying of desolation. Her father’s loss had been a bitter pill and she obviously missed her soul mate. Olivia had no regrets in renting out her plush Preston condo to be with her mom after her father’s death. Jake had not been so happy, but had recovered quite promptly, he had no choice. She understood and appreciated his skilled diplomacy in persuading her to move in with him, but she had conveniently forgotten to convey it. He in turn gave her no room to miss him properly; he had declared a second base at her parents’ four-bedroom house in Blossom Park. And she had not complained. But she wanted to be fiercely territorial today, and craved serious isolation.
“Can I make you anything?”
Sally’s voice strained up the stairs, she sounded worried and clingy. Olivia had been silently resentful at first, but affection had got the better of her. She desperately wanted her mother to have peace, at least now, she still saw the ghosts of insecurity flit hurriedly across her mind.
“No thanks Mom, I’ll be fine after a nap.”
She meant it. But the old woman, her scarf and the bench got in the way. She wondered why she didn’t turn up, was concerned, then intrigued by her concern. Before she could work it out sleep sprang a pleasant surprise.
It was her third run, she had just stormed the roundabout at Morang Drive, ignoring the right of way, seriously avoiding an accident, and earning a finger. She could see the bench for the third time, she held her breath, it was still empty. Two of the same brats from Epping High were mouthing off their nonsense; she recognized them and cursed them silently. The deaf woman was prominently missing. It was the fifth day running and the old woman, her scarf and her grandson had not showed up. The first sickie had given way to four days of annual leave. Olivia was paranoid with concern and had launched a hopeless manhunt. The police never crossed her mind and for good reason, she did not know who she was searching for and why. She had marshaled Jake, who was still sufficiently in love to absorb the outrage, which then cascaded to naked concern. Olivia was fishing for answers, for a question she did not know, that frustrated and hurt him.
The dry summer heat lashed Kanthi and she felt the bench beginning to burn through her ankle length skirt, and it was just morning, a high noon was on the cards. The scarf actually provided some shelter, but she didn’t care. She even ignored the light rain of bright yellow and lily white as the Acacia and Weeping Cherry blossoms surrendered to the wind. The white crested Kookaburras annoyed her with their loud racket, purity only confined to the colour of their feathers; she had lost respect for them. Nuwan was forever slipping out of her grasp, she was only slightly irritated. A seven year old had to spend his energy; it was a healthy sign, she had to back her own counsel. Ranjani applied the slap and pinched ear methods quite generously. Her husband was a right off, Kanthi worried whether he might one day hurt the boy, really. They were panting hotly on the rat race. She cleaned floors most weeknights while Ranesh tinkered in a Sri Lankan owned garage seven days. So the boy copped most of their daily lows, the surplus rubbed off Kanthi. Yet she understood, that was her role, grandmothers had to love and bear. She was always pleased with Ranjani’s choice of a man; the two R’s as she called them. That was after the initial shock. Ranjani did not have the cheeriest outlook, which showed and had accumulated some weight even without trying. Ranesh was much fairer in complexion and possessed a ready smile, at least those days. But more shocks were in store as Ranesh graciously agreed to side step the dowry issue, Kanthi had nothing to offer, just the rare virtues she had placed in Ranjani. She never wondered if the token gift from selling the last of her jewellery had played any part in his act of self-denial. He was enterprising and owned his own tin shed that passed off as a garage in Bandarawela. Kanthi was impressed when he showed up one day in his own car, an ancient Nissan Sunny, gifted by one of his loyal customers after the engine had smoked. It was still mobile and did not complain on the steep mountain roads; he knew his craft. They had piled in and made their first visit to the local Buddhist temple, he had even opened doors for Ranjani and Kanthi. But he had soon tired of his polished manners, now he would pull off before Kanthi could get both of her inflexible arthritic legs in. But he was a pioneer; he had used all his savings, left his heavily pregnant wife in his mother-in-law’s care, and hopped a boat to Australia. After two years of processing on an off shore island he had got his visa, and got his wife and baby son down. Kanthi had swapped her four perch third world existence; which had persevered next to ten acres of lush verdant tea estates and circled by a ring of forested mountains, to a twenty-two square weatherboard jail in Melbourne. She wasn’t so sure about her stroke of luck anymore, she was told to feel lucky to witness the wonders of a first world city even at her age, before it was too late.
“What men, this is paradise and she doesn’t even bloody appreciate it, no?”
The pioneer would often lament, curse, safely within her hearing, often inspired by Kanthi’s sighs for Bandarawela. Ranjani would incorrigibly make a face at him; he fretted over the ticket that crouched in those sighs. But Kanthi had never asked, she hit her homesickness with resigned resolve, but had made a tearful appeal for her ashes to be taken back. She never reminded herself of the insignificant fortune she had gifted them from selling her beloved property back home. She would smile resignedly and light an extra joss stick, which she had bought from the local Sri Lankan grocery store, for their wellness. The miniature Buddha shrine in her room complete with tiny bronze colored statue from home was her private access to peace. She had even spotted Ranesh and Ranjani paying cursory homage in passing, she sighed then with simple contentment. But she held no such hope for her grandson, who would visit the Buddhist temple in Craigieburn once a year for Vesak; the festival of lights, and ogle at the beautiful pandols and the colourful lanterns, never understanding the sacred stories told on the pandols. She nursed a simple ambition to set the record straight before it was too late, for her and him.
She loved the occasional outing they took, which involved a two-kilometer foray into South Morang; the Dandedong ranges ruffled her nostalgia as they shimmered through the distance on a clear day. She would close her eyes and enjoy the tea carpets, the high winds, the mists, and the waterfalls. Ranjani saw, understood, and sighed in quiet agreement, she saw them too. But she was too busy running, and did not suffer like her mother. Kanthi rarely saw her husband’s face, she was grateful; he had spared her with his death. He had spent her happiness with his booze, the local hooch that was brewed between the tea bushes: a dispiriting tonic laced with barbed wire and the occasional lizard that would fall in to the fermenting pot. It gave heaven to the addict and hell to his dependants. The tonic soon turned toxic, thankfully not long after she had begun wanting a world without him. She did not miss his abuse, the scars were both visible and invisible, she wanted to forgive him, but could not fully, not for spoiling her desperation to be a good mother. She was happy, more likely relieved, to be a pretty widow at forty, and happier still to maintain it afterwards. She still lit a joss stick for him at her personal shrine; it softened the hurt. Her son, her first-born did not stand a chance, he was tainted by his father’s example, and so he did the inevitable and turned into one himself. She had wept and pleaded, but the rot started when the estate school evicted him for assault. The hooch held out the same invite, and he joined his late father on the plantation trails, senseless on the ground. She had protested and wailed when he decided to marry, she had pleaded with his future in-laws for their daughter’s life. They thought she was unhinged, he proved them wrong by killing her, when she started an affair with a more eligible man a few blocks down. He had gone in for twenty years, she had wept again before she came to Australia, when she saw him last. She knew he would not come out, she prayed for him daily. It was not his fault.
Kanthi pondered often on her tragedies, Melbourne helped dull the pain, suffering was the central theme in life, she knew, her philosophy taught her that. The challenge was to carve out happiness from resigned acceptance of circumstances, she was facing the challenge but the upper hand was nowhere in sight. Some memories simply could not be put down; they were buried in guilt and haunted her relentlessly. Poverty and abuse had made her sacrifice her gorgeous three year old, her second born, but the void had struck her conscience first and turned on her sanity next. She had adopted a seven-year-old orphan to stop the mental rot, after the demise of her abuse. They were still poor.
On all her daughter’s birthdays she would make one of the main meals for the Buddhist priests at the temple, which she would send through Mrs. Fernando, a friend she had met at the temple, along with a small monetary donation. This was for a Pahan Pooja: an outpouring of homage through light made from countless oil lamps, and was intended to invoke the essence of all goodness, material and spiritual, on her lost child, and perhaps influence a single reunion in this life before she moved on to the next leg of her Samsaric travels.
“C’mon Sally move your arse,” the words crawled over Kanthi’s flesh, and she desperately hoped her shock was not too obvious.
It came from the little sweet looking thing with the neatly pleated hair, the one she thought was innocent; they all looked really pure in their navy blue. Kanthi smiled sweetly at her and offered a silent prayer for their reform, and prayed also that Nuwan would be spared the influence. He had shocked her a few days earlier when he had enquired after the four-letter word, just one month in to his new school. She had told it was bad and evil; and will hurt him a lot in some way if used, like losing their spanking new forty two inch LCD television. It was a threat he could not resist, he was a hopeless addict.
“Archchi, Archchi, it’s that Aunty see!”
Nuwan yelled, still prancing around the bench.
Kanthi’s heart progressed to a sprint; it was her young beauty, her silent joy, the one who smiled at her daily with such sincerity and purpose. She glowed in the sun, she wasn’t sure which worshiped which, between the sun and her skin. Her complexion radiated with good health, a gentle combination of the dark and the fair, perhaps a dreamy golden brown, Kanthi could not quite define it. The girl was painfully thin; Kanthi had wanted to fatten her up ever since she first saw her, if ever she got the chance. She had straight black hair that rested grandly on her shoulders flaring symmetrically on either side of her face. Kanthi imagined dark and trusting eyes, she was never that close to admire them; and the sunglasses got in the way for the most part. But that smile, with the two dimples unleashed, lit up the atmosphere and bathed her countenance with rare charisma. She knew her, she knew that, but that was all she knew, her memory let her down with the rest. It didn’t really bother her; she was just happy to see her, overjoyed to feel the warmth inside.
Then her heart froze, as the young girl sprang a full-hearted wave from across the road. She laboured with her clamped nerves and managed only a limp half handed return, and hated herself for her tiresome debilitation. Nuwan thankfully applied all his energies to a wild and excited response with both hands. Kanthi saw the girl collapse into laughter as she disappeared into the Stables, still waving. Kanthi hugged the little boy with gratitude, praising the heavens for his unspoilt innocence and confidence. The moment was timed in heaven, Kanthi genuinely believed as she saw the green and yellow colours of number fifty-nine suddenly pop out of Prince-Of-Wales street. The summer sun was still stepping up as they thankfully stepped into the artificial cool of the bus. Kanthi looked contented all the way to the school and didn’t even mind the girls from Epping High who had relapsed into their disrespectful dialog in earnest. She offered a silent prayer for the familiar stranger, she wished her happiness and good health, and had no doubt that her prayers would find heaven despite the confined space on the bus. The tears trekked down the furrows of her neglected skin, but there was no sorrow in them.
Kanthi was terribly excited, she was about to cross Morang drive to begin the tiring, kilometer long walk home, she had got off the bus at the bench. Her breath came in short puffs and her heart pumped at an unsustainable pace. She couldn’t believe her luck, her memory had let go. She recognized her stranger; she knew who she resembled. Herself. She had forgotten how she looked as a young woman. But she quickly forgave herself; she had no time to waste. Courage welled inside her; she knew she would find the right words when tomorrow arrived, somehow. After all she had smiled first, that day, a month ago. She couldn’t wait, she just wanted to breathe till tomorrow, now she wished for herself.
She never heard it; she never saw it as the van slammed in to her. She felt nothing, not even any regret for sending Nuwan off with an absent-minded kiss. She felt perfect emptiness, and that heavy liquid soaking her up and covering her like warm velvet.
The cool mountain air felt the same; Ranjani cursed it, while the sweet calls of a yellow fronted barbet and a bush warbler stabbed her ears. They reminded her of the past. They walked in single file to the village river, in deathly silence. They were all dressed in white, Ranesh struggled to keep in his tears, Ranjani could not stop hers, and Nuwan did not shed any. He held the little urn so tightly against his chest that it hurt. He hoped that the river was still far away; he wanted to ignore the gentle gurgle that had kept them company along the way. He knew he would have to scatter his grand mother over the water when they reached the river.
Olivia had been watering the grass for the past half hour; the roses and dahlias had not received a single drop and were beginning to wilt under another summer hammering. She felt the ring bite in to her finger as it pressed against the hose, she wanted to feel happy. She had said yes quite hesitantly when Jake popped the question clumsily, on one knee. It was meant to be a regular night out to toast her thirtieth. The crowd at Satores had applauded and a couple of older ladies had wept. Olivia couldn’t understand their sick fascination with just another proposal of marriage. It was unexpected, but inevitable, she had enjoyed the delay, it was never a wait. Sally could not stop weeping; it annoyed Olivia. Jake was a good man that was all that mattered. She hated her own indifference. She had not looked at the bench again. Olivia finally trained the hose on the roses and dahlias.
Sally felt at ease, finally after twenty-six years. She never thought it possible, but her insecurity had suddenly left her alone, it never came back. She enjoyed the fruits of a strange peace and hoped she would have enough life left to play the wedding planner. She watched Olivia in the garden, spraying her flowers, and she didn’t want to look away. Some bonds were made and not born; her husband’s words finally homed in. She felt a certain pride growing inside, they had made the best choice.
She didn’t mind that trip to Kerela twenty-six years ago at all, when a wide-eyed four-year-old Indian girl had made her a mother.
Archchi – Grandmother