Kambing Soup and Bread
Komi Sellathurai (University Of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
The loose metal rod pierced through the window, empty seat, and then the floor of the 387 bus like a giant barbeque skewer. The same bus, the exact seat, the very shattered window Lalita was looking out from ten minutes ago. Now, a few metres away, she was looking at the accident. But she couldn’t hear a thing. She squeezed her passport and cheque in hand. Not even a pin prick.
‘Isn’t that just the loveliest sari you have ever seen? The colours. Oh, my. Just b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. Oh,’ said Mrs Willoughby, with her palm on her chest. And she meant it.
Lalita thought she looked like the teletubbies had thrown up on her, but she smiled politely anyway. Nod and smile, just like Neethan told her to. The Willoughbys came to the restaurant every Sunday evening without fail. And every Sunday, Mrs Willoughby gushed about something Indian. The earrings, bangles, furniture, cutlery, tablecloth. All of which they’d bought from Kmart and Target. The saris were mandatory wear. Neethan bought them cheap from a friend who owned a sari shop in Harris Park. She didn’t mind them really, except going to the loo with all that material was a real nightmare.
‘Mrs Villoughby,’ said Neethan, as he walked past Lalita to pull out the chair. ‘You look like an Indian actress from the sixties, with your hair pulled back. Please sit.’
Lalita was tempted to ask him to name the Indian actress in question but she resisted. Neethan was Indian only in the loosest sense. He graduated in English Literature from the National University of Singapore, attended a Catholic high school, and went to church with his parents every Sunday morning. In Sydney, however, he picked and chose how he’d like to play up or down his Indian ethnicity, Singaporean nationality and English education according to the given situation, and depending on how knowledgeable his audience was.
‘A compliment from the chef himself,’ said Mrs Willoughby, smiling at her husband.
Mr Willoughby slipped on his reading glasses to look at the special of the day menu, paying no attention to his partner.
Neethan whispered over his shoulder as he walked back into the kitchen.
‘Remember to say Villoughby and not Willoughby. Actually, try not to say anything at all.’
‘Smile and nod. I know.’
‘Good girl. You love me don’t you?’
Lalita started walking towards the table as Neethan grabbed her arm angrily.
He tightened his grasp, his face still smiling for the Willoughbys.
‘Yes. I love you, dear.’
He let go and handed her the notepad to take orders.
The small restaurant was at capacity. Usual suspects celebrating the weekend with a bottle of wine and Chicken Sambal, in denial of Monday. Neethan was proud of his Singaporean Indian-Muslim cuisine. He made each dish himself. Lalita wasn’t allowed to cook. So she chopped and sliced, peeled and shaved, grated and blended the ingredients. She didn’t mind really. There was something calming about destroying all those wholesome shapes and colours. And she never cried when chopping onions.
She used to do the same thing for her father in Singapore. They owned a Roti Prata and curry shop in the National University of Singapore canteen. Her mango cubes were perfect, cucumber strips identical and chilli taken apart so finely they were mistaken for chilli powder. She’d thought no one noticed but Neethan did. He was in his final year then. He bought her a stainless steel knife set for Valentine’s Day and passed it to her when her father wasn’t watching. Girls walked around with flowers and chocolates that day. Lalita had a box of knives.
Paul walked into the restaurant in a grey suit, one size too big. He looked adorable anyhow. A table for one in all that commotion would have shooed off a lone diner but not Paul. He’d only been a patron the past two months but he was such an easy customer. No fussing. He mouthed a shy hello from the entrance before heading to his table. He unbuttoned his jacket and sat down. Gosh, he’d lost even more weight. Gracefully spreading the napkin over his lap, he waited for Lalita.
‘Hi, Paul. Menu or the usual?’
‘The usual,’ he smiled.
Paul looked younger than his fifteen years when he smiled. Lalita didn’t know anything about the sweet kid. And she never felt the need to question his lonely dinners or awkward apparel.
‘You’ve put up the wanted signs for Mas Selamat as well? I noticed them outside the restaurant.’
‘Wasn’t us really. The police put them up. They are going all out to catch him. It’s been a week, he could be anywhere in Australia by now. Would you like some water or juice Paul?’
‘Juice please. You’re probably right. But an escaped Indonesian convict in Rose Bay might be just the thing this suburb needs.’
‘Shoosh! Say it out loud and it might just come true. But you know…’
She was surprised by how much Paul had spoken that day. Most days, he was moody, but never rude. He’d want to be left alone with his Kambing Soup and bread.
‘Lalita!’ Neethan said sternly, but softly.
Lalita was taken aback. He was standing right behind her. He would never raise his voice in the restaurant. He would never shout from the kitchen.
‘People are waiting,’ he said, and stormed off.
She looked around. No one needed her. Paul gave her an apologetic look and concentrated on re-arranging his napkin.
The manhunt for Mas Selamat bin Herriyanto continues after his escape from Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre. The Indonesian born is believed to be the head of militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in Sydney. ASIO has alleged that he planned to crash several bomb-filled trucks at various locations in the CBD, however, he has not been not charged with any terrorism-related offences but was detained for illegal entry into Australia. His activities had been closely monitored by ASIO even before detention by authorities.
A wanted poster of Mas Selamat flashed on the screen as the news reader continued.
He is about 1.58m tall and walks with a limp on his left leg. He is not known to be armed. Anyone who renders assistance to him is committing a grave offence. Please call authorities immediately…
‘Closely monitored? What a mockery. ASIO has probably finished him off and spun a legendary story to cover it up.’
‘Neethan. I’m trying to watch the news.’
‘He escaped from a “high-security” detention centre.’ Neethan enacted the inverted commas with his fingers. ‘If they find him in the next few days, he might have a future in Guantanamo, if not, he’s done. What an embarrassment!’
Lalita had given up. There was no way tonight wasn’t going to be about Neethan.
‘I was in the cab the other day and the driver told me Selamat was probably hiding behind Kevin Rudd’s house. It’s the last place they’d look!’ Neethan laughed out loud and took another swig from his Carlton bottle and burped.
He scratched his balls and yawned loudly before switching to another channel.
‘Come sit beside me, Lita. Give me a kiss.’
Lalita didn’t move. Neethan moved next to her instead. He was stripped down to his boxers but still had his sweater tied around his shoulders.
‘Give us a kiss will you? You’re not thinking about that fifteen year old are you? Come on, just a peck.’
Lalita reluctantly kissed him on the cheek.
Lalita’s mother had run away with another man when Lalita was eleven. Her father never got over it.
Lalita squeezed eye drops into her eyes after many failed attempts at trying to cry. She wanted to keep her father company in his misery. He begged and pleaded with his wife for a year. When it finally hit him that she was gone for good, he focused all his energy on the Roti Prata shop and Lalita. He never let her out of his sight. He forced her to quit high school when she had only a year left. He’d told her he got fidgety when she wasn’t around. He’d round up every conversation with, ‘You don’t know what’s best for you, Lita’. He meant boys, of course.
Lalita didn’t know any boys and she never desired to. She already had one big one in her life that she couldn’t shake off. Besides, she went to a single-sex school. So when she met Neethan at seventeen, she did exactly what her mother did.
Neethan pulled Lalita close to him. ‘I’ll come with you to Coles to do the shopping tomorrow. It’ll be fun, just the two of us.’
Those two hours on Monday at Coles was all she had. 11am to 1pm, not a minute late. Neethan would call her twice within the two hours to see how she was going and at exactly 1pm he’d wait outside in the car. The bus ride to Coles was her favourite. He’d still be in bed.
‘I have to go down to the Immigration office tomorrow, remember. I’ll do the shopping after and get back on my own. Besides, you have to prepare dinner for the birthday party at the restaurant tomorrow. There’s not enough time to do both.’
Lalita looked at him in anticipation.
‘Hmmm, yeah. I’ll give you your passport now. Don’t wake me up in the morning.’
He’d kept all her documents in an oversize chrome-coloured safe that only he had access to. Lalita breathed. She remembered what happened the last time she mentioned coming home on her own.
‘Don’t lose it. Give it back to me the first thing you get back tomorrow.’ He gestured to hand over the passport and pulled it back.
‘You’re not going to run away are you? Come here and tell me you love me. Come on.’
‘I love you, Neethan.’
She wouldn’t run away. She tried it once (from her father) and look how that turned out. She resented her mother for dong it so well. Life wasn’t so bad. She was in Australia, for god’s sake. She’d seen more than any of the girls she went to high school with did. Besides, she was too excited about her very own Monday. Immigration had spelt her name wrongly on her visa and wanted it clarified. All the way to Central station this time. Her eyes were wide open in the dark as she visualised her trip to the office and made a mental list of all the groceries she would get. Neethan had started to snore. His face inches from hers, his hand tightly around her waist, his leg intertwined with hers. She stared at the ceiling, fantasizing about tomorrow.
She thought she’d closed her eyes for a split second when she felt someone watching her. The mirrored sliding door of her inbuilt closet was ajar. It was pitch black but she sensed movement. She looked over at Neethan but her body was paralyzed. Then there was rustling. Whoever in there was coming out. She wanted to scream but physically couldn’t. She was pinned to the mattress by her incredulous weight. That’s when he walked out – terribly quick for a man with a limp.
‘Your father made amazing Murtabak and you ran from him. Is Neethan’s fish head curry really worth sticking around for? Don’t you want to be making your own?’
Lalita did not expect the kindness in Mas Selamat’s voice. So she stopped trying to move or speak. It was too much of effort.
‘Giving up so soon? You’d move if you really wanted to. You know, getting into the detention centre was a grave miscalculation on my part, but getting out was a choice.’
He was close enough for Lalita to notice that his eyes were starting to assume a sinister squint. He inched closer to her with one hand raised like he was about to hit her. His tone had changed.
‘Why won’t you fucking move?’
Lalita opened her eyes and took in a desperate breath as if she’d just came out of the water after being held in there forcefully. Why could she still not move? She looked down at Neethan’s heavy arm over her neck. She squirmed out of his hold without waking him. The morning sun was peaking through between the blinds. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she pulled back her hair and looked at the time on the radio clock.
She envied her father when he’d burst the waterworks the year her mother disappeared. She was in awe with how easily tears rolled down Neethan’s cheeks when she’d agreed to elope. She was amused when they’d both secretly wiped off a teardrop when the Singapore soccer team lost in the final round of Asian Cup. And she often wondered if her mother sobbed when she thought about Lalita, if she thought about her at all. She would have loved to cry right then.
Lalita was in the shower when Neethan’s phone rang. He hated waking up early on his day off, and she’d have liked to have got out of the house without having to speak to him. He had hung up the call by the time she stepped out.
‘Remember the fifteen year old? Of course you do. He’s got cancer,’ Neethan said, without an ounce of sympathy.
‘What do you mean? How do you know? Paul doesn’t have cancer. Why would you say that?’
‘Arun remembered seeing him in the restaurant. He’s going under the knife at Arun’s hospital. Pretty messed up it seems. Might not come out…’
‘Don’t say it, Neethan. Please, I’d rather not.’
‘Look, the boy was taken care of. Lucky fellow had a fortune left to him by his grandmother. He’s living with his Aunt, some big shot lawyer. Arun’s not too sure what the story with his parents is but he knows they are not in his life anymore.’
Neethan paused to see if Lalita was crying. She wasn’t.
‘You should get going. The Immigration office will be crowded.’
Lalita’s day passed by faster than she’d wanted it to. She pressed the fast forward button on her Discman instinctively as she looked out the window of bus 387. She fiddled with the buttons from inside her handbag, too embarrassed to take it out. Cheryl had given it to her, during 3rd period in the science lab, for her fourteenth birthday with a mixed CD inside. Lalita kept it in mint condition all these years, six to be exact.
You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away?
Lalita was mouthing Tracey Chapman’s words as she felt the sun streaming into the bus. She pulled her hair forward to feel the heat on the back of her neck.
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone.
Bellevue Hill looked heavenly at this time of day. In between majestic houses, Lalita caught glimpses of the city backdrop accompanied by the bluest waters she had ever seen. The road uphill bathed in golden rays made it almost difficult to see. A scraggly man with a torn beanie on a bench in front of a nautical-themed house raised his coffee cup, most likely not filled with coffee, as the bus passed him by. Lalita smiled. She got off two bus stops early and walked the rest of the way as the bus slowed down for a senior citizen tour group. Her tiny, old apartment on the slip road off Old South Head wasn’t too far.
She stopped to check her mail before buzzing in. Neethan never made that copy of the house keys he’d promised her. She liked checking the mail so Neethan gave her the mail box key. There was an envelope without postage stamps addressed to her. She tore it open and pulled out the hand written letter first.
Hi Lalita, I was passing by your place, intentionally. If that makes sense. I am writing this outside your home, sorry if it doesn’t sound very composed. I’ve been ill for a while and I’m tired of it. So I’m leaving. Leaving Rose Bay and Australia. It’s a good thing, so don’t worry about me. Oh shit, this is Paul by the way. I come to the restaurant. Kambing Soup and bread. Anyway, I wanted to give you something small before I left. I remember you saying you loved checking the mail, that it made you feel important. So, fingers crossed that this reaches you first.
Goodbye Lalita. It’s not too late.
She pulled out a cheque for six thousand dollars, addressed to her. That’s when it happened.
The wire rope holding the metal rods in the back of the lorry snapped as it swerved into the slip road in front of the 387. The bus screeched to its left, avoiding the lorry. In one flawless movement, a single metal rod flew through the window of the bus. If only Lalita could hear herself.
She made a loud piercing sound, more than a scream, it sounded like a stabbed animal. She cried like the day she’d been born. People rushed to the accident scene to help. She heard whispers. No one was seriously injured. Thank god the seat the metal rod punctured was empty. Still weeping, she dumped the grocery bags and her ringing phone into the bin.
She had all she needed in the envelope.
Komi Sellathurai has a background in English Literature. She has dabbled in copywriting and journalism but found that doodling was what she is best at. She is appropriately doing a Graduate Diploma in Writing at UTS.