It was not yet the end of the rainy season, and the air in the house bristled with all manner of trouble. Even though Piyari had already cleaned everything that same day, Madam took up the dust cloth and wiped counters, pictures, ornaments, and furniture as she spoke. Perspiration glistened on Madam’s forehead and upper lip. Rivulets of it escaped from under her uncoiffed hair, slipped down her graying temples, and pooled about her neck, causing the plain gold-plate chain she wore to shimmer.
“Who would have thought, Piyari, that so late in life a person could get another chance? Look: I have two adult children, and with no warning whatsoever, in what should be the downward slope of life, a light light up, brighter than the sun, to point me in a whole new direction.”
Madam crumpled the dust cloth into a ball, took a quick and deep breath, and pressed the dirty rag to her face. Piyari, startled, leaped forward and as quickly withdrew, realizing at once that it wasn’t really possible for Madam to suffocate herself in this manner. She grimaced. How could Madam talk of happiness in one breath, she wondered, and in the next bury her face in that dirty rag full of dust and that white powdery mold that covered everything in the muggy months? But she was becoming used to the unusual behavior. Madam dragged the cloth across her face and, in so doing, erased the thick application of reddish-brown color from her lips. A dark wetness blossomed about the armpits of the yellow silk blouse Piyari had ironed for her just that morning.
“Let me say once and for all: from the day I left my mother’s house and got married, nobody has bothered to ask me what I think or what I feel. Nobody in this country can imagine that I might have feelings. Not all those people who like to take pictures of Boss and me and put them in their papers, not even Boss, and certainly not the children. I pass my whole life in the service of those two children, and now look: I wouldn’t see Jeevan unless I hand out formal invitation to him and his wife. And Cassie? You could understand why my only daughter had to go so far away, on the other side of Canada, to live? Well, if I didn’t know better before, better and me have at long last become acquaintances. Everything change, Piyari. I am not stepping backward—I cannot go back to the way it used to be. Is time for a fresh start, in truth.”
Piyari had learned to spot a story coming. She slid one of the caned high-back chairs away from the dining table and plopped herself down. An hour or two could pass like this: Piyari sitting, turning her whole body sometimes, sometimes just her head, to face Madam as Madam hustled, cleaned, and talked. And the more Madam provoked her future with stories of the summer past, the harder, the faster she swept, dusted, and polished furniture, cleaned cupboards, threw out old and long-unused household items. Madam’s confidences bestowed much importance upon Piyari, but she knew well that such a privilege had the potential to one day prove burdensome. Still, this revolt brewing in her employer’s house, right before her very eyes, she relished. And besides, the house, Piyari noticed, had never—at least not before that summer of which Madam babbled—been so spotless.
Madam put down the cloth and picked up a ceramic vase rendered in the shape of a fish that had leaped out of the sea high into the air and was captured by the artist just as it hit the water on its arched back. She lifted her head to the ceiling, closed her eyes, and ran a finger along the pale, curved belly line of the fish, and a fingernail into the deep blue iridescent grooves of its well-wrought tail fin. The high-pitched squeal of fingernail against glazed ceramic broke her reverie. She squeezed the unyielding fish with both her hands, then shook the vase. There was a sluggish, guttural swish of old water. It had been almost a month since there were fresh flowers in the house. The water was at least that old, and surely, bitter with the odor of rotted chrysanthemum remains. Madam put her nose to the gaping mouth of the fish and sniffed. Piyari straightened herself, ready to answer to the accusation, ready to get back to her business of housecleaning, of doing chores like washing out that vase. But Madam did not even wrinkle her nose. Instead, with sudden swiftness, as if she had smelled a revelation in the belly of the fish, she gathered up and twisted her shoulder-length hair into a bun. With pins fetched erratically from the pocket of her skirt, she secured the bun, whipped the cloth off the table again, and began wiping, wiping, wiping every ornament in sight. Piyari made a mental note to wash out the fish vase.
Madam executed a sharp about-face and marched into the kitchen. Piyari jumped up and followed. Madam opened the door of the freezer compartment and stared for a long time at its contents. Piyari knew if she stayed still long enough, Madam would begin to reveal more about that holiday on the west coast of Canada and that the refrigerator/freezer would be as clean as the day it was bought, without her having to lift a finger. When Madam started pulling out frozen packages of meat and plastic containers of leftovers and piling them up on the kitchen table, Piyari leaned up against the counter and relaxed.
“What we keeping leftovers for? Throw them out. Look at this fridge. Throw everything out. Don’t keep a damn thing. I have to say it yet again? Is time for a fresh start.”
When the freezer was emptied, Madam looked around. Piyari anticipated her need and quickly fetched a bowl of soapy water and a sponge. Madam dipped the sponge in the water.
“Christmas round the corner, Piyari, but summer—like it was only yesterday—that summer just past was the candle burning bright on my future. And today, today-self, the future is unfolding.” She turned back to the freezer.
“But let not one-man-Jack have cause to say I spoil their Christmas. I, exemplary wife, will make no waves before then. We will put up the tree—tell the yard boy to climb on top the cupboard in the storeroom and to bring down the white plastic tree, not the green one, but the one that nice and white and look like it have snow on the branches, and we will put out some ornaments. We will set the table for Christmas, usual as usual: turkey, ham, pastels, sorrel. But, mark my word, come New Year’s, it will be a different story, because I am finished with “exemplary.””
Piyari perked up and, for the sake of the possibility, as slim as it was, of taking a little holiday time off, risked interrupting the flow of Madam’s thoughts.
“You planning something for New Year’s, Madam? Is best if I know all now so, so I will know what days off you giving me. But all what so will be happening, Madam?”
“All what so is happening? All now so, you see me standing here in front of this fridge, things happening. You asking? I not fraid to say, you know—not fraid, that is, to say to you, but what I have to say is not any and everybody business and is not to travel, eh. You hearing me good?”
Madam looked in Piyari’s direction, but Piyari knew that she did not really see her. Madam inhaled and breathed out long and hard, then slowly shook her head as if regretfully resigned to the weight of what she was about to say. “Now, you must know, and you must know good, that until I was sitting right there in Cassie’s living room in her apartment in Vancouver, with the telephone on the side table next to me, until the moment that I did it, I had had no plan to see the Eggman again. You know who I talking about? Ent you remember the Eggman?”
Piyari frowned. She did remember him. She was eager to hear why her Madam would telephone a man like him. She had heard that he had done well for himself up there, but still, it was strange that Madam would look him up.
“It was the same day that Boss left. You could well say that I waited for Boss to leave and then I ring the Eggman, and you would be right. But to this day the Eggman has not made any judgment whatsoever about me ringing him so. He say to me that if I need to go anywhere, if I want to shop, to see sights, to visit anybody, he was ready anytime to take me. He wanted to come that same day. But, I say, I busy. I wasn’t being truthful. After all, what I would be busy doing up there? Life up there was quiet-quiet, and I liked the change from this place. I wasn’t busy one bit. Still, I didn’t think it right to behave too-too eager.”
The main body of the refrigerator took longer to empty and sponge clean. Piyari, not too surprised that she hadn’t received an answer to her sideways plea for time off, helped with this only so much as to give the impression of keeping busy, but reserved her movements to a minimum so as not to distract Madam’s chatter. She thought of the Eggman coming to the house before he emigrated, in his rusted-out and rattling car to bring a basin of eggs, or a side of a goat, or a fowl plucked clean. If, when he came to the gate, the children were in the yard playing, they would run inside to call their mother, and well enough away from his seeing or hearing, they giggled and teased her about him.
Madam rested a bowl of rice on the table. Piyari picked it up. She removed the plate that covered it, smelled the contents, covered it again, and then, with the cloth she continuously clutched for good effect, she wiped the condensation that had formed about the bowl. She set it back down exactly where Madam had put it. Madam examined a little piece of lime in cellophane that had gotten lost at the back of the second shelf. She handled various vegetables as if making a decision, and then, her decision seemingly made, put aside a celery stalk, a sweet pepper, and two hot peppers.
Piyari thought of Boss. He had laughed at the Eggman, too, for coming around so often and getting no more, naturally, than a five-minute conversation with Madam, and even so with the gate drawn between them. Boss used to make good play of being jealous, but of course this never amounted to anything. And Madam herself used to laugh at the Eggman. Still, she always seemed pleased by the teasing his visits engendered.
“I didn’t ring him again. I didn’t want to appear overly forward. Then two days pass, and thank blessed God I didn’t ring him again, because just as I was opening my phone book, it was he who ring. He ask if Cassie and I had already made plans for dinner that night. I tell him I would have to wait and ask her when she return from her work. Like he didn’t hear me, he asked if I had plans. But I realize now that he well hear me. I say again I had to wait until Cassie come home before I could really answer. He laugh—he has that way of laughing, you know? He say he would ring back later.
“When Cassie came back, I didn’t say a thing about his phone call. Time pass, and since he didn’t ring again, I start to prepare dinner, and she and I eat. To tell the truth, I was disappointed. But as I was cleaning up the kitchen, the doorbell ring. It was his voice on the intercom. Well, Piyari-girl, I get confused. Cassie raise her eyes, she put her hands on her hips and say, “It’s the Eggman, Mummy. I didn’t know you were expecting him.”
‘she let him up, and before he arrive at the door, she went straight to her room. Well, I get vexed with her for leaving me like that. I went and tell her to come back outside and sit down. She talk back at me, that child, grinning like a grouper, “He didn’t bring any eggs with him?”
‘she reckless too bad. I had to put my finger on my lips to hush her up. Sometimes she has no sense, that child.
“”I don’t think he came to see me,” she answer me back, and she turn to face the computer screen. Well, she rile me up for so, but she is not a child. When they living abroad so, by themselves, they change plenty-plenty, you know. You can’t make them do anything anymore.
“I standing up here in front of this refrigerator in my kitchen telling you this, and I can remember exactly how it was when I see him. All these years pass, and he didn’t live an easy life like the kind of life people we know does live—his life wasn’t all that easy—and still he never turned into a hard man, you know. He remain kind. And he was always good-looking, in a soft way. His skin lighten in the cold weather. He used to be dark-dark here. But he got a little fairer, and it suits him.”
Madam sucked her teeth as if in resignation and added, “He would have made nice children, but he never had any. Not one. He would have made a good father, yes. I used to like the harder look in a man, but suddenly I see Harry St. George as a kind man, strong in a quiet kind of way. Not mousy, but not full of himself, either, and not bad-looking one bit. I offer him a sandwich, but he say he wasn’t hungry. In any case, I still make the tea and a cheese sandwich and put it on the table in front of him.
“When Cassie finally make an appearance, he ask if she wanted to take a drive through the city and then up a mountainside road to a place they call Cypress Park. He wanted to go there so she and he could show me the city, all light up, from there. She say she had work to do but that it was definitely something I should not miss. It was like she eat hot pepper and her mouth wouldn’t stay shut. She say she needed to concentrate on her work, but the weather was just right for that kind of sightseeing, and so I should take the chance to leave the house and get a bit of fresh air. She didn’t wait for an answer from me; she take a set of keys off a hook on the wall and give them to me, saying not to worry about time, that I should just come and go as I please. Well, I can’t tell you how vexed I get with her. I follow her back to her room to ask her if she gone mad. I tell her that her father would kill me, and I ask her what would people say back home if they knew Shem Bihar wife had gone sightseeing with a man at night. She say, “And how would anybody know? Who knows you up here? Guanagaspar is not exactly a place that people are too concerned about up here. Go and enjoy yourself. For once, at least!”
‘so, I change my clothes. I put on a nice-enough dress and a little color on my lips. I daub cologne behind my ears. I wrap a cardigan around my shoulders, and out I went. You know, it was the first time since I married that I went anywhere with a man other than Boss.
“And he know the city well. After almost twenty years of living up there, I suppose it is to be expected. He give up some of his Guanagasparian ways, though, you know. He used to be so quiet here—almost frighten-frighten to come in our neighborhood—but he is a man of his own making now, you know. He has his own business, and he employs people. He really come up good, and with not one bit of help from anybody. If you see where he was born, where he and his mother used to live when he was a child. Well, the evening I speaking about, we drive—we drive so much that if we had done that over here, we would have circled the island a good few times in that one day-self. And you know, nine, ten o’clock in the night it is still light—nobody in their house sleeping—everybody outside—the streets full of people walking, eating ice cream, window-shopping—and your head turning this way and that, nonstop, because the place pretty-pretty—you can’t help but watch everything! We pass through a park that was bigger than Marion. Stanley Park, I believe they call it? And we cross bridge after bridge after bridge, to all knd of different neighborhoods, one area they name Chinatown and another they call Gastown, to a market where, in the daytime, they sell fish and meat and yet the market clean-clean-clean and it don’t have no bad smell whatsoever, and as I telling you, everywhere we went, he had some story to tell. He tell me the history of this and a story about that—but this history business is of no interest to me, in truth, yes. So I wasn’t really listening to what he was saying. I mean, what is the point in knowing so much detail about a place you are not from?
“In any case, I thought Mr. Harry was just showing off how much he know. I say to myself he only interested in hearing himself speak, so stay quiet and let him speak. But a few times he ask me a question. And when I nod instead of answering his question, he realize I wasn’t really listening. It was then I come to know that he was talking to me in truth, and not just to hear himself.
‘so I try my best to listen. But is like you have to learn how to pay attention. It takes energy to pay so much attention, in truth. You know what I mean, Piyari? It make me uncomfortable for so to know he really addressing me when he speaking.
“For all the talk he talk, suddenly, driving up the mountain, he get quiet. I get the feeling his mind was on me, me sitting there in the car with him. It was a strange feeling. I was uncomfortable, yes.
“At a pullout halfway up the mountain road, he stop the car and we get out. It was so high up, Piyari. It was like looking down at a city from an airplane window, a city shimmering with lights.”
Piyari, not having been in an airplane, couldn’t imagine it at all.
“Even with the cardigan I was wearing, it was too cold to be outside so. But he don’t miss a thing. He noticed me gripping the neck of the cardigan, so he went back to the car and he return with a small blanket, a piece of flannel they call a throw. He open it out and throw it around my shoulders. It was nice and soft. And the minute it touch my skin, I stop trembling, it was so warm. It was then I realize I wanted him to keep his arm right there. Around me, I mean. But he didn’t keep it there longer than it took to wrap the blanket-throw around me. Look how much time pass since then, and I can still smell the blanket. It smell just like him. The aftershave he wear. Like lime. I didn’t want him to move away.”
A sweat broke on the back of Piyari’s neck and her upper lip. What she was hearing was, on one hand, better than anything she had ever seen on one of those late-late-night movies on Guanagaspar’s only television station. She couldn’t help being curious; she wanted, in truth, to hear if Mr. Harry had kissed her Madam, and how they had kissed. But it worried and frightened her, too. Something about Madam revealing all of this to her wasn’t right, wasn’t fair.
“On the way back to Cassie’s apartment, he ask if I wanted to stop and get a hot chocolate and dessert. I say, “You’re hungry, eh? You didn’t eat much for dinner.”
“He say, no, don’t worry about him, he is fine. He talks nice, you know. Like Boss. You could still hear that a little bit of this place remain in him, but he sound Canadian. Is a good thing Cassie is up there. She speaks nice, too. Well, you have heard me—you know I can speak like them, too, if I want or if an occasion calls for it. But is different over here. We more relaxed over here, and besides, what you going to speak like that for on an everyday basis to people who don’t know any better, and all you end up doing is making them feel uncomfortable and like you are plenty higher than them?
“As I was saying. He say, “I thought you might like a hot drink to warm you up.” My mind went to Cassie. She might be worrying about me, I say to myself. And what, pray tell, she would be thinking of her mother taking off like that, staying out so long and so late, I wondered. So, we find a phone booth, and I ring her. You know, she wasn’t there! She had work to do, my foot! She left a message on the machine saying “we”—boldface so, you know! We. I knew immediately it was that woman she spending so much time with—“We went to the movies.” The message finish up with that casual way she pick up over there, “Take it easy, now!” She bother to worry herself about me? But one good thing about that message: if her father had called looking for me, he would think that same we meant she and me.
‘so I take hot chocolate and he take a soft drink. He ask what dessert I want, and I ask him back which he liked. He laugh, that same laugh again, like if he know something you don’t know, and he say, “Which do you want?” Piyari-girl, I come so accustomed to accommodating everyone else’s wishes that I didn’t even know I myself had desire. A simple thing like a dessert and I didn’t know which one I wanted, but still, I say the first thing that jump in my mind—cheesecake. And is that we had.”
By this time the refrigerator was cleaned and everything put back in an orderly manner. Madam wasn’t finished, so she walked over to the oven. Piyari opened the cupboard under the sink where the oven cleaners and the mitts were kept. She took them out and handed these to Madam.
“After, he drop me home. He is a decent man, so he ride the elevator up with me. I push open the door, but I telling you, in all sincerity, he didn’t even put a foot in the doorway. He waited right there while I turned on lights. My good-for-nothing daughter wasn’t back yet. I was worried he might want to come in. If he asked, how I could say no? He had come such a distance to take me out, so kindly. But he had the car keys in his hand dangling, ready to leave. How long you think he stayed? Only so long as to say I should call him, that it still had plenty place he want to take me. But, he say, he didn’t want to make a nuisance of himself, so it I was who was to call. I was sorry after all, yes, that he was so quick to leave. But I couldn’t bring myself to invite him to come in. I was worried he might think bad of me. But that is another thing—if he had come in, I wouldn’t even have known how to behave with him. That is young-people kind of thing. I remind myself I am a married woman. Married with two full-grown children. Imagine me thinking this way, and in my own daughter’s house?
“I say to myself I will just step forward, give him a hug, quick, nothing too meaningful, you must understand, just to say thank you and goodbye, but he was halfway down the hallway heading for the elevator. Well, Piyari, I went inside the apartment and I was like a high school girl. I only hearing his voice in my head, and remembering how he asking me questions about myself and waiting for answers, and how when he look at me in my eyes I could hardly look back at him, fraid he see how I watching him. And I couldn’t get over how his hair was black and soft. When he used to live here, he used to grease it up. Ent you know how fellows like to slick down their hair with grease? Well, he stop that, and I was surprised to see how thick and soft his hair get. And in a little breeze, the front part lift up nice-nice. And is a full head of black-black hair, you know, not a bit of gray in it. Oh Lord, that man confuse me for so that night. Piyari, you know what I like about that place? Nobody minding nobody business. I could sit down in a public place with a man like him and eat a piece of chesecake and enjoy myself and there was nobody watching my every move, ready to run their mouth off.”
Suddenly Piyari straightened herself and looked toward the back door. She had heard the car. It hadn’t yet pulled into the driveway, but she knew the particular hum of its engine as it rolled in front of the neighbors’ houses toward the back gate. There was a time when Madam would have heard it, too, from well away, even as it entered the residential area from the highway. But not these days. Piyari lurched toward Madam, pushing her away from the oven and taking the cleaners from her. ‘madam, that can’t be Boss come for lunch? I didn’t know you was expecting him.”
The car horn sounded—three sharp hoots.
Piyari’s hands flew to her hips, akimbo. “That Dass. Who he think he is, blowing horn like that? He is the only one of the court drivers who does blow up the horn when he come here. He too important for himself. And today, just because he driving the attorney general, he will be so full of himself. I have to give him lunch, too? But Madam, lunch not make yet. What to do so?”
Madam pensively fingered the gold-plate cross on the chain around her neck and calmly ordered Piyari, as if there were no urgency, to take out a can of beans and a can of sausages and to heat them up. Piyari cupped her face with her hands. With her eyes wide in disbelief, she contradicted her employer.
“Sausage and beans, Madam? Can food you want to give Boss? I hope you forgive me, Madam, but is best I fry up some salt fish and edoes, and it have a coconut bake in the freezer. Or you throw it out? Five-six minutes in the microwave, and the bake will thaw out. Otherwise I could lose my job this day self. Why you didn’t tell me Boss was coming home for lunch, Madam?”
Madam walked away from the kitchen calmly, smoothing her hair. “Lord, in truth. What I was thinking? Is a good thing you here with me, yes. Don’t worry yourself. Your job safe. He can’t fire you but over my dead body. Who else I would talk to if not you? Who else would listen? Relax yourself.
“Don’t forget to give Dass a plate of food. He have attitude, is true, but is lunchtime; he will be hungry. And you eat, too. I am going to take a little dip. If Boss ask for me, tell him I was feeling hot. That I in the swimming pool.”