Thursday, January 21, 2010

Children of the Lie - Chapter Five


Isis Remembered.

She ran her hands over the slippery wetness of her face, through the sticky tangle of her hair... it was too hot to sleep. Her skin shimmered, in a beading of moisture and salt. Born in the nape of her neck, a ball of sweat slid to life along the curve of her throat, before slipping between the crush of her breasts. There was little respite from the steaming onslaught and the slowly turning fan above her head did no more than stir the thick soup of heavy air which filled the room. The heat wrapped closer in a damp, suffocating sheet.

Jo sat hunched on the side of the bed. She had been dreaming again. She looked at the clock, it was barely six. Perhaps she should try to go back to sleep. Then she remembered the dark-faced spectre which had awoken her ... no, no more sleep. The dream had been fearful but she could not remember why. It was only the image which returned to her, the shadowy hovering at the side of the bed.

She stood up and stretched. First a shower and then she would make herself some tea. The others would probably be up soon anyway. Not that she minded a solitary start to the day, it was one of the things which she had come to value the most about a single life. How fearful she was in those cold, dark, early days, of being alone, and yet now she preferred it. She had lost the battle against change but in the end had taken precious ground. She had been no different to any other, unable to see beyond the moment, unable to picture what a new future might bring, unable to let her illusions die; she would have walked blindly into the arms of ruination rather than surrender to the embrace of change. But fate had thrown its lot in with her and she was forced to remain on the field, and now, when she looked around through the clearing drifts of carnage it seemed impossible to believe that she could be any other than what she was. The smoke of battle still lingered in her nostrils but the haze had begun to clear; she could see beyond the changeling field of vision. Change still frightened her but she had come to respect it; when it raised its voice, she listened.

The corridor which led to the kitchen was filled with the smell of soap ... fresh, sweet and warm. It had become familiar over the time of her stay, the simple perfume of Mary's plain soap which she used once a week to wash her long, black hair. There was something uncomplicated and good about that smell, something wholesome. In due course it would be replaced by another fragrance, the rich, sickly sweetness of coconut oil which Mary would stroke through her hair to make it shine.

The kettle came to the boil and Jo poured a little of the water into the teapot and then slowly swirled it around. It was what David had taught her to do. If you are going to drink tea then you should treat it with respect, he had said. The true flavour of the leaves was released by the boiling water and if the pot were cold to begin with then the water could not be as hot as it needed to be. She was not doing it simply because he had told her to, or because she thought she should, but because she found the tea did taste better. It was a lesson learned after he left, when, out of revenge, she refused to do any of the things which he had told her she should do. She discovered then that while some things were worthy of rejection there were others, like the correct process of tea-making, which were best retained.

"Oh Madam. I am so sorry. You are making the tea. “

Jo jumped at the sound of the voice, spilling a little of the tea she was pouring. She turned to face Mary who seemed quite disturbed at the prospect of Jo making her own tea.

"That's fine, Mary. I was up early. It's just as easy for me to do it myself. Would you like some?”

Mary shook her freshly-scrubbed face and the long, oiled plait of hair behind her waved from side to side. She did not speak, but watched her with an expression both of curiosity and concern. Jo began to wonder if it was more of a sin than she had supposed it to be, this making of her own tea. Perhaps she had compounded the offence even more by offering to share her tea with the maid. She wasn't sure that such things were done.

"Do you always get up so early, Mary?" she asked, remembering that Anne had told her it was important to maintain a distance with servants but thinking that it seemed ridiculous to be standing in the same room with another human being without talking to them.

Yes, madam."

"Do you live far from here ... your family, I mean?"

"Oh yes, madam. Very far. New Bombay."

"You go on the train, don't you, on Saturday nights?"

Mary nodded her head and busied herself wiping down the kitchen counters. She looked sad and there was a serious set to her face. It could not be easy seeing her children for only one day a week

. "How many children do you have, Mary?" Jo asked. A slow, quiet brightness spread over the girl's face at the mention of her children. She was not a girl, of course, she was a woman, at least in her late twenties, but there was a girlish quality about her and in some ways she looked to be not much more than a child herself.

“I have three. They stay with my husband.”

“How old are they?”

“Lina, she is ten, and Rita, she is eight, and Lavina, she is one year.”

“Three little girls. How lovely.”

Mary nodded and rubbed a little harder at the counter. The frown on her face grew deeper and she said: " My husband is not happy. He says he does not like girls. He says I should have sons, but it is his fault our son is dead. He would not go to the doctor. He is not a good man. ‘

I am sorry," said Jo, feeling as if she had stumbled into something deep and raw and yet not knowing if she could offer any comfort. "How old was your son when he died?” Jo looked quickly at Mary wondering if she had done the right thing by asking but there was no expression on the face other than that of sadness.

“He was six. I will show you." Mary put down her cloth, turned and walked quickly from the room. Jo sipped at her tea, more than a little troubled at the prospect of what she might be shown.

Mary came quietly back into the kitchen, a photo in her outstretched hand. It was of her dead son, lying in his small, white coffin. Jo took the photo, acknowledging a sense of strangeness in this brightly coloured record of death. The child's face was angelic in its sweetness, pale, drained of life and yet peaceful, as if in a gentle sleeping. He was dressed in white and white flowers filled the coffin on either side, pillowing his soft cheeks and black, still hair. It seemed as if, in just a moment, his long-lashed eyes would open and the full-budding of his baby lips would blossom into a smile. Jo had never seen anyone dead and in some deep part of herself she could not believe that the child upon whose face she gazed was truly lifeless. Mary stood by the side of the coffin, one corner of her light blue sari crushed to her lips, her face contorted with unbearable grief; her dark eyes locked, for one last, deep look upon this cold, sweet face.

“He is very beautiful ... your son," Jo said quietly. Mary had returned to her slow rubbing of the kitchen counter, but she acknowledged the words with a nod and stretched out one hand to take the photo. She continued to scrub, wearing away at whatever grime remained on the granite surface of the counter top; buffing the grey, speckled slab to a glossy shine.

For a moment Jo felt lost. It didn't seem right to just turn and walk away, and yet she did not know what to say.There were no adequate words of comfort for such a loss, but she had to say something."I'm very sorry," Jo said softly, in the direction of the dark, bent head. She picked up her cup from the counter,knowing full well that the tea would be stone cold, but needing something to do before she walked from the kitchen.

When she had gone, Mary took the photo back to her room and returned it to its rightful place, propped on a shelf in her wardrobe, with a red candle on either side, rosary beads draped over it and a photo of Our Lady placed to one side in order that sacred watch be kept over this most precious of souls. Mary clasped her hands in one quick, heartfelt prayer, crossed herself and then closed the door on her small, dead son.

There were days though, when the door was not so easily closed and those were the days when Mary sulked. It wasn't really sulking, but that was what it felt like to Anne and Richard. At these times Mary herself did not know what made her unhappy, nor sometimes even that she was unhappy. She simply sighed a lot and moved at a shuffle, as if she and her spirit were being dragged from one moment to the next. On such days, she did think about her beautiful dead son, but not so much in grief as in regret that death had taken him and not one of her daughters. And then she would sigh. If only it had been one of the girls, or even both of the girls, it would not have been too high a price, not if she could have kept her son. How pretty he had been. How small. How she had sobbed at his side. Her husband disappeared for a week after the funeral and neighbours cared for the girls when she returned to work. But he came back and then she was pregnant again.

She had prayed for a son. Oh, how she had prayed for a son, begging the Holy Mother to make good her loss. But her prayers were not heard, the baby was another girl. Even in the hospital they had sneered at her; this mother of three daughters. Her husband did not come to see the baby, neither did any of his family. They did not want to come and see a girl, they said. It was sons they wanted. Good Indian women always had sons.

But, despite the prayers, the puja, and the plea: ‘May you be the mother of a hundred sons’, Indian women do not always have sons and then the mourning begins, for the birth of a daughter is a terrible thing. The girl-child is a burden, for whom dowry must be found. In order for her to marry the family must in effect pay her husband to take her away and from that point she will belong to his family, often with little or no contact with her own.

But the blight of woman was greater even than the financial burden which she brought, for within the heart of the society lived ancient beliefs, long written into religion, that woman was evil. Even the Buddha had condemned the state of woman. ‘Deceitfulness,' he said, ' is natural to women,' and, 'such is the nature of women: impure and monstrous in the world of living beings.' The holy men had for so long reviled the feminine that wickedness and woman were known to be one and the same. It is not surprising therefore, that, when a husband dies, it is his wife who is considered to be responsible; she who carries the malignancy of woman. Her fate as widow, the unclean remnant of her husband's life, is to be rejected, excluded from the social life, not only of the community, but of the family, for fear that her evil will infect others.

There was no escape for woman in this old, unyielding land, not even for Mary, who had placed herself into the hands of Jesus and his Holy Mother. The beliefs which ruled her life may have sprung more forcefully from other faiths, but they were now well and truly Indian and condemned both Mary and her daughters to the same indignities suffered by any other woman in the sub-continent. No-one outside this world of virulent mysogony could have any understanding of the magnitude of Mary’s tragedy... to have lost a son and to lay claim to nothing more than three small daughters.

”I have to do some shopping," said Anne, as she and Jo sat on the verandah having breakfast. "Would you like to come along?”

"Sure," Jo said, spreading marmalade thickly over her slice of thin, crisp toast. "I'd like to get to see as much of the place as possible. And I do think I'm getting used to it”

Lucky you," said Anne wryly. "We'll go as soon as we finish here. It's cooler in the morning and I want to get back in plenty of time to get lunch ready. I've asked a friend, Jill Singh, over today. She's an Australian, married to a Sikh. I think you'll like her. Oh, and while we're going through the day's diary we've been invited for tea at four o'clock by Mrs Mehta. She knows we have a visitor. I think she must have spotted you on the verandah during one of her nightly rose inspections. She's not a bad old sort. I think you’ll find her interesting though. Just be prepared for lots of questions. People here do seem to ask a lot of questions as you may discover. I guess it's one way to find out how useful you are, given that they don't seem to remember much of it."

Jo cast a quick, curious glance at her sister, conscious of the deep cynicism which her comments revealed. She said nothing however. Anne, while perceiving the glance, refused to acknowledge it and went on. "They're not too good on answers, although you may do better with her than me. You got Virgil to talk to you and that's a feat in itself."

"Well, I didn't really get him to talk to me," replied Jo, he just kept talking. Perhaps he thought it didn't matter because I don't live here.”

Anne nodded. "Well if you're all finished I'll call Mary and we'll make a move. Wear some flat court shoes. Some of the alleys are fairly revolting and you don't want God knows what seeping up through your sandals.”

“I'm not sure I even want to go after that," laughed Jo.

"Don't be a wimp. I live here. I have to do it all the time," replied Anne.

“Only kidding. Should I wear thick socks as well. I've got some which go up to the knee," said Jo teasingly.

Anne made a face and said: "Get moving or it will be stinking hot before we know it. I'll see you at the door in five minutes.

It was already hot as they got into the car, but it was still only just before ten and there was at least an hour or more of respite to be had before the heat could call the day its own. The watchman on his wooden stool waved gaily, as if their passing were a highlight of his day. The driver steered the car sedately down the crowded road, leaning on his horn with obvious delight. He was an amiable young man, debonair, with plump cheeks, thick hair and well-trimmed moustache. There was a sparkle to his black, impassioned eyes and a ready smile hovered around his lips. This was Lawrence of the quick deal and the quick answer.

The car wound slowly down the hill, past the little girls in their school uniforms, white shirts and blue tunics, oil-slicked hair tied up in tight, bright red bows; the scrap collector, skinny, bent under his huge sack, a handkerchief tied on his head and plastic shoes on his dirty feet; and at the bottom of the incline, the grime encrusted street children with flecks of food on their faces and filthy hands outstretched. The car stopped at the intersection and the 'tap, tap' on the window began. Anne, who had been filing one rebellious nail, continued to do so, ignoring the leper's dried and scaly stump which waved outside the car.

Maybe I'm not getting used to it, thought Jo, as an armless child waggled its tortured buds beyond the glass. "I'd like to give her a bath ... and a life," she said softly, more to herself than to Anne, who continued to file her nails with deliberation, but offering as reply the unanswerable question: "Who wouldn't?"

Jo turned her attention to the buildings rather than the people. There was Ashok, Ladies and Gents Tailor in his cluttered but well-swept hole in the wall, sitting on a blue plastic chair, sucking the thread for easier sewing. A little further down could be seen the sign helpfully informing, that Watch and Allkind Of Electronic Good Repairing, was to be had nearby. The owner of this useful if meagre establishment sat proudly on an upturned wooden box with a few simple tools arrayed at his side. They drove on past the shoe repair man, squatting on the footpath, busily working on a frayed sandal, while his customer sat on a wooden stool, his one bare foot propped up on a piece of wood.

The car puttered down busy streets where people spilled from houses, out onto balconies, through doorways, sometimes a trickle, sometimes a flood as if the sagging and seemingly derelict dwellings had finally burst at the seams. Meher Mansion, Guzder Mansion, Dr. Bacha's Memorial Belle Vue Nursing Home ... grand names and battered buildings, dirty, dusty and dispirited, roofed with rotten tiles, where the scabs of tar, drying at the edges, bore witness to a brave, but futile bid to keep out the streaming tears of each new monsoon.

The car stopped. They had pulled up behind a water tanker, which leaked more than a little of its precious if potent liquid. It was bravely named: The Good Luck Water Supply Company. Jo pointed to the sign. "That seems appropriate," she said with a grin.

"It certainly does," replied Anne as she scrambled from the car," given that the stuff can kill you unless it is boiled for an hour.”

Jo followed Anne as she walked around the car and stepped across the litter-strewn gutter with its drizzle of evil-smelling water. They walked down the lane with its tiny shops, set like shelves into shallow walls; past the rows of vegetable and fruit sellers with their produce proudly polished and piled methodically into colourful but ordered heaps. A wooden cart held mounds of vivid yellow sweets and a little further on sat two fisher women, cross-legged on the ground, picking over their shrimps which lay on an old piece of sacking; languidly flicking at the flies which rose and fell in a black blanket, refusing to be distracted from their purpose.

The corn seller did not even look up as they passed, busy as he was with the blackening of the cream-coloured heads of corn, which were then stacked to one side in a perilous pyramid. And as they walked along, the women watched them from above, leaning over their balconies to get a better look. When Jo looked up she could see that the alleyway was festooned with coloured lights. "It must look pretty at night with all the lights," she said.

"India always looks better at night," replied Anne."The less you can see the better,” she finished sourly. Anne stopped outside a small shop where large hessian sacks were stacked on either side of the steps, their wide open mouths revealing a varied assortment of grains. "This is where I get my rice." Anne climbed up the two steep steps and stood to one side of the tiny counter, which, along with yet more bulging sacks, contrived to occupy almost the entire floor space of the store. Jo squeezed in beside her.

"Hello Mr Shah. How are you today? I've come to get some of your best basmati rice," said Anne brightly. Mr Shah, who had emerged from behind the counter at the sound of Anne's voice, returned her greeting with a smile of equal brightness.

“I am very pleased that you should come back to my small shop," he said, bowing slightly with folded hands. Mr Shah had the most wonderful wiry curl of moustache wandering off both sides of his face and did not look at all like the kind of man who would be selling rice. But his film-star looks were no mean advantage in the rice trade and despite the humble appearance of his shop, Mr Shah did in fact, have a highly successful business on his hands. He muttered something to a scrawny youth who hovered behind him and then turned to Anne: "And is there anything else which you would like today? We have many good things.”

No," smiled Anne," just the rice. Two kilos please. You know I make a special effort to come to you because you always give me the very best rice.”

Mr Shah beamed. Perhaps today he would give Mrs Thompson the very best rice. She was a friendly woman. He turned once more to the busily scooping boy and whispered something which soon had him scurrying off to ladle from another sack. “And the best price, Mrs Thompson. I always give you the very best price.”

“Yes, you do," said Anne, " and that is why I always come to you.” Mr Shah and Anne contined to beam at each other. Jo watched the thin, bony arm of the boy who was filling the bag with Mr Shah's very best rice. It didn't look as if he got anywhere near enough rice himself, not like the birds which hovered in a scattering. The open sacks were an invitation which could not be ignored by twitterings of tiny, brown, full-bellied sparrows, who hopped and pecked with gay abandon, chirping with delight at their good fortune.

The money paid, the rice collected, the last smiles flashed; they left the shop. "I'll just get some vegetables on the way out," said Anne. "I've got a quiche in thefreezer which we can have for lunch but I want to make a capsicum salad to go with it. Here, could you hold this while I see if this fellow has anything worthwhile.” Jo stood, clutching the precious rice, while Anne picked over the pile of green capsicums, much to the horror of the stall-holder who rushed to restore order in the wake of Anne's search for the perfect specimen. With the haggling completed they carried both rice and vegetables back to the car. “Just stop off at the fruit stall near home Lawrence," said Anne as they got into the car.”It won't take long," she said, turning to Jo. "I just need a few more things. Are you okay? It is getting a bit hot and you must be feeling it a bit having come from winter. I heard it was a cold one this year. Mother wrote and said something about chilblains.”

“I'm fine," said Jo, allowing only a small sigh of relief to escape, as the air conditioner rattled into action. "Anyway, mother gets chilblains because she insists on using that ridiculous one-bar radiator which never warms up the room and doesn't even keep her warm unless she sits right on top of it. She thinks it saves on electricity and then spends a fortune buying cream for her chilblains.”

“Well, take it easy," said Anne solicitously. "You do look a bit tired and while it does get hot at home it is never as humid as this. It takes a bit of getting used to.”

“The whole thing takes a bit of getting used to,” laughed Jo. "I feel half the time as if I'm an extra on the set of the Decameron.”

Anne chuckled."Yes, people talk about travelling back in time and yet if they want medieval they only have to come here.”

“It's fascinating though," said Jo. "Don't get me wrong. I am not sorry I came. Being here makes me realise just how far the world has come; how much better things are than they were. I mean, parts of London were like this last century. We really do take it all for granted.”

“I can't remember. It seems so long since I've been able to take it all for granted," Anne said with a long, sad stretching of her words."Then again, going without things makes you appreciate them all the more when you do have them.”

“Does that apply to men?" Jo asked with a smile.

"You tell me. You're the expert in that department.”

"I guess it depends upon the man," Jo said thoughtfully."I can't say I've had much luck in that regard. I'm not sure that dad was a good example to go by and David was the only man with whom I ever became really involved. Dad drank too much and got angry and David demanded too much and got angry. I guess I never got it right with either of them, so I suppose I don't have all that many good memories to make me wish I had a man again.”

“Dad wasn't so bad," returned Anne firmly.

“Well, that's easy for you to say," replied Jo, aware of the tension which had crept into her sister's voice. "There are ten years between us and he was a different man by the time you were growing up. Quieter anyway, more tolerant. In a way we had different fathers... at least as children we did.”

“But you loved him, didn't you?" asked Anne with concern.

"I'm not so sure what love is anymore. I guess I did. I must have. I certainly hated him enough to love him. I know I loved him when I was really small, but then he changed, things were different. I can't ever remember loving mother but I suppose I must have. Children always love their mothers don't they? At least they are meant to. I never liked her though. I know that.” For some reason Jo could not bring herself to say out loud that not only did she dislike their mother, she knew too that she hated her. She wasn’t sure that Anne would understand; she wasn’t sure that she understood herself and so she changed the subject.”I guess they must have loved each other. Do you think they did?”

“I'm not sure that mother knows what love is," said Anne acidly.

“Sometimes I wonder if any of us do,” returned Jo, “not that I’m making excuses for her, she does a good enough job on that herself.”

"You know I still dream about him," Anne said, in a cold, quiet voice.

"Who?," asked Jo.

“Dad! I dream about dad," Anne said, turning toward her sister. Anne's face had grown pale, but whether from the air conditioning, which only ever had two settings, full on or full off, or because of her dreams, which were similarly set, it was hard to say. “It's always the same dream. We sit at the dining table and he looks like he did just before he died, all shrivelled and haggard, yellowing, with dark sunken eyes. I say to him. 'You are not my father,' and he just looks at me and says. 'Yes, I am.' And then, another man comes in and it is dad as he used to look, before he got sick, when he was younger, healthy, handsome ... and I turn to the horrible, ugly, emaciated one and say: 'You are not my father, this is my father.' And the beautiful father sits down on the seat next to him and the ugly father just smiles at me and shakes his head from side to side.”

“And what happens then?" asked Jo.

“Nothing. Then I wake up and I always feel so sick and all I can see is that face, that ghastly, gaunt and wasted face.”

“Perhaps it just means you haven't finished grieving yet," said Jo. "You should write down how you feel about it and see if it doesn’t help you to understand your feelings better.”

“Oh, I can't be bothered," said Anne, shrugging her shoulders in an effort to regain her composure. "I haven't had it for awhile anyway. I don't know why I'm talking about it. You brought up the subject of dad. I think it is better not to dwell on these things.... oh, here's the fruit seller. Do you want to get out or wait in the car?”

“I'll wait here," replied Jo."Someone has to guard the rice.” Anne responded with a wan smile and then hurried off.

Jo watched her as she walked away, watched as she stepped neatly over the rubbish in the gutter and then, as if she had never been, lost sight of her amongst the jostling crowd gathered around a row of fruit stalls.

“Madam, I will leave the car running so you will be cool,” said Lawrence, turning around as he spoke and grinning broadly at her.

“No, no,” she replied, feeling more than a little chilled as it was and wanting only to be warm, even if she should have to be too warm, it would be better than being too cold. “You can turn it off Lawrence, it will not be too warm for me.”

By the time Anne returned to the car Jo was half-dozing, languid and listless in the heat. “Here take this," said Anne, handing two large and heavy bags to Jo as she clambered back into the car. “Whew, it's hot out there," she added, running the back of her hand across her forehead. "Home Lawrence please.”

“What have you bought?" asked Jo, peering into the plastic bags.

“Just some sweet limes to make juice; a few apples ...I thought I'd make a cinnamon apple teacake to have with coffee, and some mangoes for breakfast.”

"Sounds yummy," said Jo, suddenly feeling hungry." Do you want some help with lunch?”

“No thanks," replied Anne, as the car turned into the driveway,"I much prefer to have the kitchen to myself. I even banish Mary when I cook. Thanks all the same though.”

“Well, if you don't need me I might freshen up and then write some letters. I probably should let a few people know I haven't disappeared into some bottomless pit.”

“Good idea." The words floated back to Jo from a quickly retreating Anne, who was already disappearing up the staircase. Jo left the car in rather less of a hurry and Lawrence followed behind, bearing all the purchases of the morning, including the bag of Mr Shah's very best basmati rice.

Bombay. Midday.

Dear Susie,

Well I have arrived. More than that, I have been here two weeks and as Richard told me I would, I am getting used to it. I hate to admit it, but things don't seem as awful as they did. When I first arrived I felt as if I had come from a bright world to a black one, everything seemed so dark, the buildings all stained with mould and peeling, looking almost derelict ... as if this were, in parts, an abandoned city, and yet it is teeming and bursting with people.

The worst thing though is the poverty. You can't see these things without feeling that you should do something. So many people, so much filth, so much corruption ... it really is like some mad nightmare. I keep thinking of the broad clean streets of Adelaide, the endless garden suburbs, real shops, and real salad ... we don't eat it here because all fruit and vegetables have to be soaked for an hour in some sort of disinfectant and then preferably peeled and cooked. Apparently, if you want to eat lettuce it should then be washed in dishwashing detergent to burst the amoebic cysts! Anne says she wouldn't risk it and anyway couldn't be bothered with the effort given the poor quality of the lettuce available here. I'm happy to go along with that. The coffee is awful too, it tastes more like roasted wheat than coffee. I yearn for a decent cappucino!

I've just realised how terrible that sounds. Here I am in a city where millions of people live on the streets and I'm complaining about the cappucino! Perhaps that's how we tolerate the intolerable ...concentrate on the trivial so we don't have to think about the diabolical. It really is another world and one I can hardly describe to you.

I read a story the other day, hidden somewhere in the middle of the paper, not even important enough for the front page, about a baby which had been eaten by dogs in a Calcutta hospital! Apparently the woman had been in labour and the dogs had been around her bed, no-one to help her and so she had dragged herself to the toilet for safety but when the baby was born they broke down the door and grabbed it. They probably came back for the afterbirth!!! Can you believe it? It's incredible, in this century, that such things happen. But they do. On another day I saw a photo in the newspaper of a boy ... I guess about ten years old, lying in the gutter... suckling on a stray dog! Apparently he has been doing it for as long as he can remember.!

It is such an assault on the senses, and definitely not restful but it does distract me from my own misery. Not that I have been feeling so miserable since I have been here. I think I may be over David. You will be pleased to hear that. I can actually think about him these days without feeling depressed and shaky. Do you think I am on the mend? I hope so. Hugs and love, Jo.

Jo slowly folded the letter and slipped it into the envelope. She felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction with what she had written. How could she even attempt to explain? In didn't seem right to tear the country to pieces when she knew so little about it, and yet, it was impossible not to talk about it. There was a constant sense that somehow it could not be real. Life could not really be like this. Yet it was. Putting it down on paper helped in a way, gave substance to the unimaginable, helped her to find form within the structure of that thing she called sanity.

Writing had always been a refuge for her, both in journals and in letters although it seemed so long since she had written a letter, but that was because she had not known what to say, had not known who she was. During that dark time there was so much left unsaid; so much that simply ceased to be, including herself. But it wasn’t so much that she had disappeared as a person as she had been slowly but surely dismembered, taken apart by David over the years, piece by piece, until at last, she had been so surely scattered across her own heartland that she ceased to exist.

She had offered him herself and he had selected what he had liked and rejected the rest. It hadn't seemed unreasonable at the time. She was so much in love, so much in awe of his sophistication: so grateful to have been chosen. A few nips and tucks here and there in the billowing folds of herself had seemed simple enough. One is always eager to please in the beginning of a relationship, at least women are, because they are brought up to believe that it is their task not just to get a husband but to keep him, as if there were no deserving involved in the exercise, no love.

But even with all the tinkering he hadn't been able to get her quite right. He had found someone else, although she had not been quite right either, and now there was a new woman. Perhaps this time he could truly bring forth the woman of his dreams, created in his own image.

But she knew she wasn’t being completely fair. She had also tried to change him it was just that he was better at it and had more confidence in himself. She shrugged at a niggle of irritation. It was pointless to think about it. It was all gone, her old self, the house ... her beautiful house ...that had been the hardest of all to let go.

It had been her home for so many years . She had loved it from the first moment she had seen it. More than a hundred years old, it had been built in the steely cool bluestone that is so much a feature of early Adelaide houses. The verandah ran along three sides of the house ... she remembered when she planted the glory vine, that ornamental grape which shades in summer, erupts in a curtained shock of orange and red in autumn, and succumbs to a final dropping in the face of winter, with a daily dance of light, dried leaves until all that remains is the knotted vine, black, twisted and bare.

She had planted it before Michael was born and in those fertile days of mutual blooming it soon took hold in the rich earth and began to strike forth from the black soil, reaching out for the warm heart of the sun. It had climbed and curled up the verandah posts in a ceaseless stretching, until, by the second season it hung in a bountiful drape along the gutter's edge. She would ofen sit on the verandah, even in the depths of winter, huddled under a blanket in a cushioned wicker chair. The garden always brought calm. There was a slow serenity to its changing and she had felt at peace with the movement of the seasons; seeking respite from the whirling chaos inside herself, in this natural world where the process of birth, death and resurrection was constant, but gradual.

Sometimes though the stillness would be broken; the crisp twitter of the tiny birds drowned in a wave of mocking laughter, drawn from the dark, deep throat of a kookaburra, sitting,watchful, hidden in the surrounding bush. It was a sound which always sent her fleeing inside, shutting the door behind her in an effort to close out the raucous, reverberating echoes. But she hadn't been afraid of the kookaburra, she had been afraid of the sound. It was such a stretched, demented sound ... a laughter without joy.

It must have been how she had sounded then. She heard herself once, or rather, the sound of laughing came to her. She had hated the sound of her laugh because it was hollow, false. But when she learned how to laugh again, to truly laugh, from deep within, not just from behind her teeth, she was able to love the thick-set bird with the big, pointed beak and its rollicking, rasping laugh which broke through the hushed stillness of the bush.

She looked at her watch, and rose to her feet in a rush of guilt. It was after one. Anne's guest must have arrived and here she was sitting around daydreaming. Anne hated people who were not punctual. She hurried from the room, hoping against hope, that just for once her sister would be running late and so too would the guest.

“I thought you had run away from home," quizzed Anne as Jo walked into the lounge room.

“No, sorry. I was so busy writing my letter I completely forgot the time," Jo said, wishing she didn't sound so guilty.

“It doesn't matter. Anyway, meet Jill Singh.” A tall, blonde woman rose from the sofa and stretched out her hand.

"Delighted to meet you. I can see the family resemblance," she added smiling first at Jo and then turning to Anne.

“Yes well, there may be a resemblance but Anne is the pretty one and I am the old one," quipped Jo, wishing she could bite back the words as she said them, having made countless vows not to put herself down.

Jill Singh smiled. A slow, warm, understanding smile, which bespoke a gentle knowing and full acceptance of the foibles of others. "You are lucky to have each other," she said. "I am an only child. I would love to have a sister.”

“Sit down, both of you," said Anne, who had been busying herself at the drinks cabinet. "What can I get you. We have some freshly juiced sweet lime or a very chilled sherry if you are prepared to lose the afternoon.”

Jill laughed. " What an invitation. I think I shall have the sherry.”

"Likewise," said Jo, as Anne turned in her direction with a questioning furrow of her brow.

Jill settled the cushion behind herself and wriggled a little before saying:"It's so nice to relax. I don't know about the patter of tiny feet but I do get tired of the chatter of tiny teeth.”

Jo laughed."How many do you have?”

“Three little girls, seven, five and two years.”

“Ah, so you failed the Indian motherhood test too?”

Jill chuckled. "I'm afraid so. These are not boy bearing hips. Not that I care and neither does Nicky. Our only concern is that they are healthy.”

“So Nicky isn't your average Indian?”

“Not at all. He's not even your average Sikh. Not only does he not wear a turban, but he also cut off his hair. That's radical. I'm afraid he's been seduced by common sense, although he would say it is a statement against the Sikh extremists. He says he can't be proud of something which causes so much bloodshed.”

“Where did you meet?" asked Jo.

“In Sydney. He was studying down there. Love at first sight I guess. At least enough love to keep us going after we came back here to live.”

“How long have you been in Bombay?”

“Six years, and still going strong. It's my home now. It's Nicky's home. His parents are here. He feels he has to be around for them. He is the eldest son so there is an expectation that he will look after his parents. I don't mind the place so much. We have lovely kids, a good life ... unless things get nasty in India I don't see us moving anywhere else. I've learned that the trick to life is to make the best of 'what is' and not to worry about all the 'what if's.' I would much prefer my girls to grow up in Australia simply because it offers them a greater quality of life and more opportunity... children have so much more freedom there, lots of sunshine,bare feet and endless space; not to mention a rather more civilized attitude to women which is of course, of concern when you are blessed with three girls. But life is what you make it and I still think that the most important thing parents can give their children is experience of a loving marriage, and I can certainly give them that, no matter where I live.”

Jo nodded. Anne walked up carrying a small, round silver tray, upon which stood three long-stemmed sherry glasses, glowing golden, slowly beading with moisture.

"Ladies," said Anne, proffering refreshments.

“That's a beautiful tray," said Jo, her eye running appreciatively over the finely fluted edge and engraved centre of the plate.

"Yes," agreed Anne, with a pleased look. "It's one of my finds. I picked it up from the silver bazaar. It belonged to a maharajah. The engraving in the centre is his crest.”

“Cheers," said Jill as Anne placed the tray on the coffee table and sat down. Anne took a small sip and then put her glass on the table beside her. She sat, almost stiffly, at the edge of the sofa, as if uncertain about whether to lean back and let herself relax. "And have you two had a chance to get to know each other?” asked Anne.

"Well, Jo knows my life history but I don't know much about her," Jill replied with a quick grin.

“There isn't much to know," said Jo. "I'm not very interesting.”

“All people are interesting," countered Jill. "It just depends upon how much of themselves they are prepared to show and how much of them others are prepared to see.”

“Well, what you see is what you get," said Jo.

"Somehow," said Jill, slowly sipping her sherry," I rather doubt that.”

Anne, who had been intent upon the straightening of her seemingly disarrayed skirt, looked up brightly and said "Well, it is lovely to have a chance to get together. It's always so busy at this time of year with school finishing and everyone heading off on holidays. How are the girls?”

Jill readied herself for a reply, but not before Anne quickly turned to Jo and added:"Jill has three lovely little girls. They are so adorable.”

"Yes, I know," smiled Jo. "We were talking before about how she had failed the Indian motherhood test.”

"Oh yes, well I've certainly failed that too, although I have only committed the sin of giving birth to a daughter twice. I wonder if that means I am less of a failure than Jill.” They all laughed, although each knew that this was a subject which was not in the least funny.

“You're the lucky one Jo," continued Anne." You have proved yourself. You have had a son. You have given birth to a god.”

Jo grimaced: “Some God!”

“Godliness, “ laughed Jill, “ is all in the eye of the beholder and around here you only need one thing to be a god and we don’t have it.” They all laughed again but it came with hollow ring. “It’s not funny though,” she went on, her voice sounding more serious,” it’s really not funny at all but I suppose if you can’t laugh at awful things then they become too terrible to bear.” Anne nodded.

“What many people don’t realise is that the grief is real, “ Jill continued, “ and that’s the worst of it, the grief these people feel at the birth of a daughter is absolutely real in a way we simply cannot understand. There’s nothing rational about it. It’s just the way it is. The good thing is that Nicky and I were able to talk about it. He would have been lying if he had said he wasn’t disappointed with all these daughters... he couldn’t feel any other way given the culture he grew up in, but at least he could recognise that his feelings while real, weren’t reasonable. He’s over it now but it did take time. “

“What about his family?” asked Jo.

"Oh, they were quite polite about it all. They even came to visit me in hospital. But they were not happy. They could not manage happy. I didn't think about it too much until Nicky's brother and his wife had a son and then the comparison was just so great I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It was carnival time for that one small boy. I had received one little gift for the girls. We had two of them by then, but when the grandson came along it was gifts by the truckload... well almost! Excuse my exaggeration. I suppose it reflects how I felt at the time .. how I feel now I guess. But the fact is, they were at the house every day, fussing and petting, so much more than they had done with the girls. I suppose I should be glad about that. I wouldn't have wanted them around me every day.”

"I think it would have made me angry," said Jo. "I would have wanted to say something to them. I probably would have kept silent though. I'm much better at thinking about what I would like to say than I am at saying it.”

Jill gave a small, cold laugh. "It does make me angry, when I let myself think about it which I try not to do. At the same time I feel so desperately for them, for their enormous loss of joy; for their ignorance which causes so much pain and suffering. It's a sickness which infects the whole country. ”

“Yes,” said Jo, “Mary was telling me about her son who died and I got the sense she would gladly have lost three daughters to save one son.”

“Without a doubt,” said Jill. “When you ask people here how many children they have they will tell you how many sons they have and may or may not mention any daughters as an afterthought. This is a country which hates women so much that they seek to destroy them even before they are born. Do you know, in the women's compartments of the trains there are probably as many advertisements for abortion clinics as there are for mosquito coils ... getting rid of pests, female foetuses and mosquitos being of major concern in India.”

Jo looked shocked, but Jill barely halted: “Take a suburb of Bombay like Bandra, it has over one hundred such centres with the job done for as low as ninetey rupee or as high as seven hundred rupee, give or take the demand and the rise and fall in costs. They would probably get through around ninety a day in one clinic., and believe me, they’re all girls, except for the odd mistake.”

“It does sound awful,” interjected Anne, “but there are worse ways to die. In more primitive areas girls are still drowned, buried alive, poisoned or choked to death after birth.”

“That’s right,” added Jill, “and if she happens to be allowed to live she will be overworked, underfed and illtreated for the rest of her life. In the state of Bihar alone ninety-five percent of girls are seriously malnourished and suffer from rickets, blindness, anaemia, and a succession of infectious diseases. From the moment they can walk little girls care for siblings, cook, fetch water, help in the fields...they are no more than slaves in many cases. They do twice as much work around the house than any boy would do.It's a fight against all odds for girls in India and those who do survive, will grow up, in most cases, illiterate and continually exploited, forced into early marriage, frequent pregnancy and continued ill health. You probably don’t know it, most people don’t, but a quarter of the twelve million girls born in India every year are dead by the age of fifteen. Some 300,000 more of them die each year, than boys, even though they are born biologically stronger.”

“You have to be more than biologically strong to survive someone choking or starving you to death," said Anne bitterly.

“You must find it very upsetting,” said Jo, feeling in some strange way that she had betrayed the other two by giving birth to a son.

“You mean because I have daughters?” replied Jill. “No, I think I am upset more than anything because I am a woman and until I came here to live I had no real sense of what it is like to be considered inferior. Things at home weren’t perfect but we’ve come so far compared to our mothers, and here, well, this is just a reminder of how awful it has been, and still is for most of the women in the world.”

“It’s the sense of helplessness more than anything,” ventured Anne.

“Yes,” agreed jill,” and the sheer magnitude of the problem. Where do you start even if you wanted to? Probably with health and education but whatever you do, until people change their minds about women in India then females will always be treated worse than males. They are less important in the scheme of things and that’s the beginning and the end of it. Less than half of all girl children receive medical treatment compared to boys and their food is frequently deficient in quality as well as quantity. A lot of them live on nothing more than left-overs. These little girls who will grow up to give birth to the gods live on no more than scraps.”

“But can't something be done about it?" said Jo, feeling crushed by the immensity of it all.

“I suppose it will, in time," answered Jill. "Nothing lasts forever. It is just hard to sit by and watch it. There are women's groups but they are small and they lack power. One of the biggest problems is that women are their own worst enemy, they participate in their own destruction. But then some seventy five percent of Indian women are illiterate so you are fighting ignorance as well as misogyny. And the way things are going, not only do the men have all the power but they physically exist in greater numbers. The ratio of men to women continues to widen and is totally at odds with the world norm. Then again, if you look on the bright side, less women means two good things: there will not be enough wives for all these god-men and so caste barriers will have to break down or they will have no-one to kiss their feet and wipe their bums and generally wait on them hand and foot; and less babies will be born which will help reduce the shocking over-population.”

“It is just a rather barbaric way to go about it though," said Anne.

“Oh, there's no order to it," said Jill with a dead laugh. "Your average Indian would be apopleptic if you suggested that the end result would be a forced breakdown of caste barriers.”Jill cleared her throat, of something which sounded like embarrassment. "Heavens above, aren't I being awful. Ranting and raving on like this. I must be boring you to death. I am sorry."

"Don't be silly," replied Anne in a comforting voice. "I know how important it is to talk and you probably don't get much of a chance. I mean, you can't keep saying all this to Nicky because then he will just feel bad. It is his country after all and you couldn't help but feel ashamed at what it has become. And believe me," continued Anne, feeling more than a little comforted by the fact that she was not the only one who suffered under the weight of India. "I know, it does catch up with you, no matter how much you try to make the best of it."

"You are right," agreed Jill. "I don't get much of a chance to talk. I certainly can't be frank with Nicky's family and he and I have talked it through so many times I don't dare mention it again. He feels so helpless and so guilty. In a way it is worse because if he didn't have to stay here for his parents I think he would move to Australia and so, when I am unhappy, he feels terrible. Not that I am unhappy," she added, with a new, firm note to her voice.

“But will things change?” asked Jo.

“Everything changes, the question is to what,” replied Jill.

"Well," said Anne with conviction. "I can't see any hope of the men changing! I mean who would give up being a god without being forced? They will have to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way. And it will be the women who will have to do it.”

“It always comes back to the women,” said Jo wryly.

“ Yes,” said Jill. “Let’s hope they have the strength and will to do it. I certainly hope so, if only for my daughters sakes, but the attitudes are so ingrained in women as well as men. There’s so much fear behind it all, fear of losing a possession and that possession is woman. The Indians will tell you that they revere women and perhaps in some ways they do, but they also hate and fear them. The attitude to rape says it all. I mean Hindi movies are full of rape and always the woman who is raped is portrayed as being wrong, as having asked for it. The rape is an expected part of the bill of fare, along with song, dance, tragedy, comedy and love. Violent sexual assault is the norm ... and this in a country which censors lovemaking and kissing from being depicted on the screen. Another contradiction in a country of contradictions. Hypocrisy in an art form in India."

"It says a lot," interjected Anne with a sneering twist to her pretty little lips, "when a society allows vicious rape scenes but will not allow a film to show a man kissing a woman. When you look at the number of rapes reported in the newspaper it’s a sick joke. These people who were supposedly so passive and gentle ... the land which gave the peacemaker Gandhi to the world. He must be turning in his grave. It's a farce!”

Jill nodded in agreement."More than eight thousand cases of rape are reported in India each year, but it's the tip of the iceberg. When you consider that the raped woman is always blamed, always shamed, that both she and her family will be shunned by their community, how many do you think will actually go through the trauma of reporting the rape?"

"The police find rape very useful," interrupted Anne once again, as she warmed to the theme. "It keeps the lower castes in line. The upper caste men, the landlords like it for the same reason. I remember one case where police were accused of raping eighteen Harijan women in Bihar, but they were acquitted because the judge felt that the women were so poor they could have been bribed to file a false complaint."

"Yes," said Jill," as Christianity once did, Hinduism honours woman as mother and reviles her as a sexual being. Not that Islam is any different, nor Buddhism for that matter and each and every one of them contribute to the culture that is India. Their teachings say that when creating them, Manu allotted to women a love of their bed, of their seat, of ornament, of impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice and bad conduct. And, as the sacred Sanskrit teachings say,'only when fire will cool, the moon burn, or the ocean fill with tasty water will a woman be pure.' It’s been handed down, religiously you might say and the colloquialisms that you hear today reveal the real attitude to women. Things like , 'The intelligence of a woman is in her heels.' 'The place of a horse and a woman is under the thighs.' 'Barley and millet improve by addition of salt; woman through beating.' 'Better to keep the race of woman under the heel of a shoe.' 'A woman who shows more love for you than your mother is a slut'..and 'an unmarried woman has no more value than a glass of water.'“

“Now that does say a lot," said Anne. "Given the foul condition of the water!"

Jo shook her head. "It’s all so horrible isn’t it? And to think that we like to believe we’ve left that sort of thing behind.”

“Not here we haven’t,” said Jill ,” and we won’t for a very long time. Anyway, it’s not your problem so count your blessings.”

“I think things like this are every woman’s problem,” replied Jo, becoming defensive..”It is not really so long ago even in the modern world that people believed the same sorts of things about women. Sometimes, when I look at my mother I think we have come so far and then at other times it doesn’t seem so very far at all.”

“Do you have a daughter? “ asked Jill.

Jo nodded. "Sophie. She is nearly nineteen.”

“ We were luckier than our mothers and Sophie is luckier than you were. Things have changed for all of us, and they have changed in India too, however slight those changes may be. I like to think they will keep on changing, but still, in this day and age, young girls hang themselves from the ceiling fans because their parents are too poor to pay dowry and they cannot face the thought of living a life of shame as an unmarried woman."

Jo instinctively looked up at the fan which slowly turned above her. Were its broad, metal blades strong enough to support a body?

As if reading her mind Jill said:"More than strong enough for at least three daughters ... one for each blade. I saw a photo once of two girls, aged eighteen and nineteen they had the most exsquisite faces, beautiful girls, their necks stretched, the scarves of their salwar kameez tied tight around their throats and onto the blades of the fan. Now, they had really found the greatest truth of the sub-continent, the endlessly turning, never-ending cycle of sorrow." Jill's voice was bitter.

Anne finished her sherry with one angry gulp and put her glass down onto the table rather more forcefully than she could possibly have intended, for it snapped at the stem, sending the intact bowl in a slow roll across the glass. “Damn," said Anne, jumping to her feet. "This country drives me mad. Barbarous place. I'll just clean this up. Serves me right for letting it all get to me." She collected the shattered remnants and cradling them carefully in her palm, carried them from the room.

"It must be hard not to get upset," said Jo, watching her retreating form. "It must be harder for you, with three little girls who are going to grow up in this country.”

“Oh well, I'm a bit of a fatalist which helps. And anyway, I comfort myself with the thought that the Goddess may yet have her revenge”.

Jo looked quizzical and Jill half smiled as she spoke: "With malnourished little girls growing up into malnourished women it would not be surprising, if, in the years to come, if it isn't happening already, India finds itself to be a nation of people who are mentally inferior. No woman, in poor condition, suffering from stunted growth, anaemia, rickets,lack of nourishment and overwork, can produce a truly healthy child. When the mother lacks adequate health and nutrition it is the development of the foetal brain which suffers the most.They are producing, through their hatred of women, a nation of morons. It may well be the most cruel revenge yet, which Kali has brought to bear on India.”

Who or what is Kali?" asked Jo.

“Terror is thy name, death is thy breath," intoned Jill in reply, a shadow drifting over her face and stilling her eyes. "The black Kali ... she who swallows all. Calcutta is her city, it is built on the land of Kali and the name is taken from the village of Kalikata. You have not been to Calcutta I take it ... go. Then you will know Kali. I find it appropriate that she should be the most powerful Goddess in this country which purports to hold woman sacred and yet abuses her most fearfully. Kali wears a girdle of severed arms and a necklace of skulls, her tongue lolls from her mouth, dripping blood. She has four arms, one grasps a bloody sword, the other dangles a head by the hair, another confers blessing and the other bids her devotees to be without fear.”

“She sounds awful," said Jo with a shudder.

“Oh, she is awful, but then look around you ... this country belongs to her," said Jill quietly.

Anne walked back into the room."I think it is time for lunch and perhaps a lighter conversation," she said briskly.They stood up and followed her through the door.

It was in fear that this hatred of woman was born in India. It was fear that lived, in each and every Indian man-child. Not one of them could ever forget the hands of the mother, stroking, soothing, sliding across his oiled, infant body, caressing his tiny manliness; looming, huge, threatening to devour him with a love which grew hungrily, voraciously from her own powerlessness, from her own terror.

The mother knows, without that small, soft, vulnerable bud of his new-born male being, she is nothing; she is lost, forever damned. And so the man, the god, is held forever in her desperate hands, desiring to be caressed and yet, fearing always that he will be crushed and torn asunder. The mother knows her greatest and her darkest power in India, as Kali, she who has prevailed where others have fallen, for where the gods of the Aegean triumphed and swallowed the goddesses of old, in India it was the goddess who remained ... only to be deceived when the fathers crept in and gave their own names to her many faces.

It was she who suppressed the ego, dissolved the will to individual life, and doomed those who thwarted her to eternal childhood. If she would not be honoured then she would take vengeance upon all those who desecrate her name. It is she who continues to scream from her hideous depths:'I want' and 'Thou shalt', demanding only that she be served, with humanity as her eternal unwilling sacrifice. She sits, even yet, her open maw dripping red, as she drinks the blood of her beheaded victims; wreaking revenge on her unfaithful people, filling the world with her foul breath.

It was just before four when the two women took the first step of the fourteen which would take them up to Mrs Mehta's door. Anne wrinkled her nose: "Curried something for tea at the Patel's tonight," she said.

"What do you expect?" laughed Jo. "Lasagne!"

"Well I wouldn't mind so much if it were good curry but she has the most awful cook ... he is a filthy old man unshaven, dirty clothes;he spends most of the day sitting on the step smoking those disgusting beedis. How anyone could allow something like that in the kitchen is beyond me."

Jo smiled quietly to herself as they trudged up the steps in the gloomy stairwell. She never ceased to be amused, just a little, by her sister's lone and valiant crusade against dirt and disorder. Somehow it seemed to be the most futile of exercises, given where she was forced to live ... it was a pity she could not put her obsession with cleanliness to one side, just for the duration, if only to make her life more bearable.

But then Anne was not the sort to make life easier for anyone, including herself. There was a rigidity to her idealism, as if the airy world of thoughts and dreams had, in her case at least, been rooted, fixed immoveably, in hard, dry earth. It was, in effect, a painful, even tortured coming together of conflicting forces ... an ill-starred inheritance if ever there was one.

They reached the top step and Anne ran her fingers through her hair and then straightened the waist of her skirt. She turned to Jo:" Do I look alright?"

"Fine as always. How about me?"

"Oh fine too," replied Anne with barely a glance in her direction, intent as she was upon knocking at the door. They were ushered in by an elderly gentleman, with heavy-lidded eyes, who wore a brilliantly white, if somewhat crushed, dhoti. As he turned away to lead them in the required direction he displayed a less than neatly combed head of hair which suggested that he had but barely risen from his afternoon nap. He was however, awake enough to lead them directly to his mistress who was awaiting their arrival, draped in readiness, upon a heavily carved chaise lounge.

Mrs Mehta looked for all the world like some great white whale, stranded upon a beach of heavily padded brocade. She raised one pale, limp wrist as they entered the room and greeted them as if the sheer effort of speaking was too much to bear: "Mrs Thompson, you will forgive me. It is so rude of me not to get up but I have been sleeping so very badly of late. So hot, so very hot.” Her words ended in a slow sigh which escaped steam-like into the already sweltering air.

“Not at all, Mrs Mehta," said Anne with more courtesy than she usually considered necessary. "You must stay exactly where you are. We should not have come if you are not feeling well.”

Mrs Mehta sank back onto her pillows in slow but graceful decline. "But I would not inconvenience you in such a way. I have asked you to tea and you must come. It is so silly for me to be tired in this way.”She allowed herself a brief moment's rest, panting softly and yet audibly before forcing her half-closed lids open and giving Jo a look which spoke of rather more energy than her poor, wilted body was supposed to possess: "And this must be your sister? Forgive me my dear ... what a terrible hostess I am.”

Jo stepped forward, called by the quick, sharp command in those, by now, very much open eyes, to pay due homage. "I am very pleased to meet you Mrs Mehta. I am sorry you are not feeling well.”

Mrs Mehta nodded, full pleased with the honour given. She turned her head in one quick, sharp movement toward the waiting figure of the servant and said:"Chai!” As he scuttled away, he looked for all the world like some great, white hound; his grey locks straggling behind him as he ran to do the bidding of his mistress.

Mrs Mehta patted a low stool by her side. "Come, sit here, I must have a good look at you. You are older than your sister, are you not? Yet you look so young. I do not know how you do it. Look at my poor, old, tired face. Once I was beautiful but it has gone, all gone. But it does not matter, for he has gone too.” Mrs Mehta allowed yet another small sigh to escape as she raised her reverent eyes to the portrait of the unsmiling, dark-skinned, gentleman which graced the wall on one side of the room.

“Is that Mr Mehta?" said Jo, obediently following her gaze. Mrs Mehta nodded and dabbed one flaccid hand to the corner of one seemingly dry eye. "I was beautiful for him. That is enough.”

The truth of the matter and one of which even Mrs Mehta was not unaware, is that she was still a remarkably attractive woman, despite having entered the autumn of her years. She was especially proud of her fair skin and rightly so, for the ancient teachings stated quite clearly that dark skin was evidence of serious misdeeds in the previous life and the blacker one was ... well, it was too awful to contemplate. It disturbed her just a little that she had not been righteous enough to warrant rebirth as a man, for being born a woman was also a sign of evil living the last time around. But such was the way of things, and in the main she accepted her karma with good grace, secure in the knowledge that her fair skin and prestigious place in society were sure signs that she had been close to exemplary in her last incarnation. With just a little more effort this time, she would be able to purify herself enough to return, not only pale-skinned and wealthy, but as a man. There were times, when she would tremble just a little, at the thought of how very close she stood to earthly perfection.

And so, despite the minor technicality of the feminine, Mrs Mehta, counted her blessings and tip-toed toward the saintly years of old age with some pride. Her hair was still strong and thick and streaked just a little with grey, while her skin remained smooth and generally unlined. Her nose was generous, but nobly beaked and it gave her an aristocratic profile of which she was justly proud. It was also one of the reasons why she liked to receive her guests, displayed, recumbent upon the chaise lounge, her profile given the greatest opportunity to be revealed to an appreciative world.

After a few moments, appropriately given over to reflection and grieving upon the loss of the sombre Mr Mehta, his stoic widow withdrew her eyes from the earthly evidence of his existence and turned to Anne:"And how is your family Mrs Thompson? Are your daughters well?”

"Very well, Mrs Mehta. Thank you," replied Anne.

"And your mother and father, they are also in Adelaide are they not ... are they well?”

“Our mother does suffer a little from arthritis and our father died some years back," returned Anne.

Mrs Mehta nodded amiably, apparently oblivious to the hard edge which had appeared in Anne's voice and which was all too obvious to Jo. Mrs Mehta was mercifully protected from such insights into the feelings of others.

What Jo could not know was that Mrs Mehta had asked the very same question on many previous occasions and had been given almost exactly the same answer. The reply varied only as to the health of their mother since the health of their father did not, by necessity alter. Mrs Mehta would have been mortified, if she had, for one moment, become aware of the offence which had been given. But the gods kept her safely locked in the murky world of insensitivity and she was duly spared such pain.

What Anne in turn did not realise was that Mrs Mehta merely asked such questions because they were meant to be asked ... there was never any expectation, on her part, that any answers given were meant to be retained. She entertained Mrs Thompson simply because Mrs Thompson was there and because that was what one did when one was being sociable. It was not an occasion for an exchange of views or thoughts or a sharing of selves, it was merely a ritual which would enable Mrs Mehta to be able to say that Mrs Thompson was her friend and they often took tea together.

The fact that she recalled virtually nothing which Mrs Thompson ever told her and therefore had little or no knowledge of her as a person, nor any real interest in her, did not prevent her from talking to all those who would listen about 'Mrs Thompson, my very dear friend.' Mrs Mehta sincerely believed that she and Mrs Thompson were very, very close, and it would have displeased her greatly to be told that Mrs Thompson considered her to be no more than an acquaintance, and first and foremost, her landlady. It was not that Anne had any objection to becoming friendly with her landlady, it was just that she found it impossible to conceive of Mrs Mehta as a friend when that good lady apparently found it impossible to remember, from one day to the next, that information which had been shared with her ... even information so painfully intimate as that which related to the earthly extinction of one's father.

In truly bitter moments, when Anne contemplated revenge upon the indifferent Mrs Mehta, she thought about standing before the portrait of the revered and very dead Mr Mehta and enquiring: "Who is this Mrs Mehta? Some departed relative?" Not that she would for a moment have done such a terrible thing for Anne was nothing if not correct and she considered courtesy to be the noblest of all attributes. She may not have always achieved such heights but she did strive for it and failing to remember that Mr Mehta was long dead would have required an active turning away from all polite aspirations. And so Mrs Mehta remained in blissfull ignorance, delighting in each, increasingly rare occasion, when she could take tea with Mrs Thompson.

As the servant returned with the laden tray Mrs Mehta rallied a little and drawing her legs behind Jo's stool, endeavoured to sit up. Anne went to speak and obviously anticipating a plea to remain as she was, Mrs Mehta waved both soft and floppy palms and said: "No, no. I must serve you. It is only right.”

Jo took the opportunity to stand having found the low stool more than a little uncomfortable and was directed by Mrs Mehta, who it seemed had gained a little more strength in each previously limp wrist, to a high-backed chair of heavily varnished black wood.

"It will be easier for you if you sit there, Mrs ...."

"Baker," said Jo."But you can call me Jo."

Mrs Mehta gave a benign smile of acceptance. She would of course do no such thing but she was inwardly pleased all the same at being offered such an opportunity for intimacy. She did remember christian names, there was no question of her forgetting such a thing, even if she did not choose to use them.

The tea was poured, a steaming, caramel drizzle. Sugar was passed, with both Jo and Anne declining and then a plate of shortbread biscuits which had been purchased from Rustom's store that very morning. Mrs Mehta knew better than to serve savouries with tea. She would not eat the shortbread herself for she did not like such things, and so would never know that the faded, yellow biscuits were decidedly past their prime. She would however urge her guests to "Eat, eat. Come, you must have one more. They are very good with tea.”

Mrs Mehta's bidding was duly done and in the name of courtesy, both guests did 'eat, eat' consuming a greater quantity of stale biscuits than they would ever have done, had they been given rather more of a choice. Their genial hostess barely touched her own tea. She was far too happy, delighting in the enjoyment of her two guests who seemed to be both drinking and eating heartily. They had each made the independent discovery that the tea was invaluable for washing away the rancid butter taste of the biscuits and soon called for second, and then third cups. Such enjoyment was obviously enormously tiring for Mrs Mehta, who, after a short while allowed another gentle gasp of air to escape and then wearily raised her legs to permit her exhausted body to recline, in fulsome rest, upon the couch.

Anne, who was experienced in such things, soon put down her cup and said: "We must go Mrs Mehta. It was so kind of you to have us to tea. I do hope you are feeling better soon.”

Her hostess gave a feeble nod and allowed both lids to droop, just a little, before saying: "We must do it again soon.”

As if on cue the hovering shadow of white by the door, materialised into the elderly servant and Anne and Jo were led from the inner sanctum to the door which would return them

materialised into the elderly servant and Anne and Jo were led from the inner sanctum to the door which would return them to the outside world.


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