Linda Godfrey (University of Wollongong, Australia)
As they drove over the volcano on their way to Pulaki, the spicy scent of her driver’s Krecuk permeated the car.
They stopped at the Botanical gardens. Louise got out and walked among the tableaux of medicinal plants, hot houses of flowering cacti and brackets of spotted trees that receded into the hills. She looked down over Lake Bedugul. Workers sitting in the shade watched her. It is cool here on the edge of the volcano, she thought, cold enough to need a blanket at night.
She shivered; she did not want to think about blankets or beds or sex. Martin had been shocked when she had scratched his face after he casually agreed that, yes, he was sleeping around; he wanted more than married sex with her.
‘But you said you loved me.’
Martin wouldn’t tell her when he was going out or when he’d be back. He said he was making it up as he went along, to suit himself.
‘Everyone,’ he poked his finger in her direction, ‘will have to get used to it.’
‘We’ve only been married ten months.’
Louise held out her hands.
‘Listen honey, I was married when we met. Remember?’
He said he was at an age where he wanted to explore all of his sexual personas.
‘I won’t be tied down. But if you want to tie me up…?’
After two nights in bed alone, crying herself to sleep, Louise made up her mind to adopt his spirit and do exactly as she liked. She decided on a geographical solution.
That first night in her hotel room in Ubud, Louise fussed about how easily she sweated with the humidity, how freely her feet became swollen in the heat. But she loved being in a country where she did not understand the language. Before marrying Martin she had worked as a hostess at the Yacht Club, and she had been drained from having upbeat conversations with strangers.
She had been attracted to him because he didn’t talk as much as the others and what he did say seemed sincere. She was young. She was dazzled by Martin’s wealth and his ease with money. He had plenty of cash, houses in Aspen, Rio, a flat in London, and he wanted to share all that with her. She dreamed of Rio for Carnevale and baby blue ski suits for Aspen.
Yet, after they married, not much changed. She spent too much time touting her breasts in a backless dress, flattering his business associates, serving them whisky and smoked almonds and smiling at Martin, while the men played cards and closed their dodgy deals.
As she sat on her hotel balcony, the colours and patterns of the tropical garden around her were overblown. She could hear the sap groaning and straining, pushing up through the veins of plants. It was lush, all joyous growth. Everyone seemed so calm and peaceful in the midst of this riot of colour and movement, but she didn’t ask; she was too lazy to listen to the answer.
At a dance performance of the Ramayana, Louise knew that she had made the right decision. She was mesmerized by the fine shivering of the gold leaf frangipanis on the dancers’ headdresses. She watched as Sita was stolen by Rawana, a demon king, and taken to his court, accompanied by a male chorus of monkey chatter. The trusted monkey warrior, Hanuman, found Sita. But when she returned to her husband, Rama, he accused her of being unfaithful. She had to take a test of walking through fire to prove her innocence.
Louise fell in love with the idea of emerging pure. She felt unclean thinking about Martin’s grubby behaviours, and then him bringing them back to her bed.
The driver came to stand beside her and pointed at his watch. Louise turned and walked back to the car. He opened the door for her and she slid back into her air-conditioned world.
The road wound down towards Singarajah until there was a break in the coffee plantations and clove farms and they stopped for lunch. A line of black water from the volcanic soil stained the sea one hundred metres from the shore. The hills were steep, the forests dark green with a mist rising from the valleys. It looked like a sleeping dinosaur. Pulaki was way off to the west, down at the edge of the sea.
Past the shops and half-demolished buildings she found the entrance to the café. The waitress greeted her with a shy smile and a half bow. She didn’t look like a young woman who had to stand in high heels until one o’clock in the morning with the balls of her feet burning and she didn’t look like she had to suffer drunken men leering down the front of her dress.
Anticipating the first hint of breeze, Louise took off her sunglasses and sat at a teak table. She gazed into the heart of a huge mango tree. It was humid but the pavilions and water gardens made the place cool and shady.
‘Lime juice and the banana pancakes. Please.’
Louise’s eyes followed the lines of the carved wooden statue of a dancer over by a wall, the folds of the wooden sarong and the repose of her expression; she wondered who had placed fresh tuberoses behind the statue’s ear.
Her mobile rang. She dug around in her bag to find it. Martin’s daily call meant she could never fully relax.
‘You’re having an affair,’ her husband said.
She held the phone away from her ear. He hadn’t tried that line with her before. She wondered which of his friends had suggested it.
Her waiter brought her lime juice.
‘Come off it, Martin. I’m here alone.’
She knew he was cruel but that was too much. To hurt him back, she made up stories about lovers, people he knew, his brother.
Louise launched into a story of a man she had picked up at a restaurant and screwed. The details were so sober that he was silent for a while and then screamed abuse at her and accused her of betraying their marriage.
She took a long loud suck of sweetened, sour lime juice through her straw.
‘Lulu, who are you with?
‘Only my mother calls me that.’
‘She won’t be happy that you’ve left me. What are you doing?’
Banana pancake with clove syrup appeared in front of her. She was tempted to hang up.
‘That’s not what the credit card and phone bills say.’
‘You’re missing me then?’
A mouthful of the pancake with the overly sweet syrup and cloying banana overloaded Louise with a tenderness that brought her close to tears. Sometimes the generosity of this tropical place proved too much for her. She wasn’t used to it. Mistrusted it a little. In her experience everything had a price.
Martin was yelling down the phone about Louise missing his mother’s eighty-third birthday party, where’s the bloody engagement rock, those gold chains he had given her last Christmas and, ‘This house, that was your idea, is bleeding me dry. Come. Home. Now.’
Louise watched a young man sitting at the next table. Blue eyes, sunburnt skin, Bintang t-shirt showing off one tanned shoulder. Writing postcards. He looked so buoyant.
Louise could only dream of not having a care in the world. She was sticky all over from the humidity, but it was so much better than looking into Martin’s cold eyes. She was tired of laying out his clothes, tired of the way his spoon clanged against his teeth when he ate his morning bran, his personal trainer, sick of being interrogated about every purchase on their joint credit card, so tired of her Pilates classes and completely over the pain of dermabrasion on her laugh lines. Her marriage was a tight leather belt around her waist greased with a bit of money.
‘Honey, I don’t know what has got your knickers in a twist, but I want you here, we’ll work it out, we’ll go skiing in Aspen, like you’ve always wanted…’
While Martin made promises with money he didn’t have, Louise made lists.
She looked up into the mango tree and there was a monkey, legs spread, picking fleas off his belly. He bared his fangs at her, gripped the branch to steady himself. He was the embodiment of Hanuman come to release her from her imprisonment, strangling serpents in his strong grip. The waitresses gathered near her and smiled as they watched the monkey. Louise turned her head to look back into the café. She was Sita, protected from the evil Rawana.
She asked for red hibiscus tea.
‘I heard that. Does he know you’re married?’
Workers next door were breaking apart a concrete wall reinforced with steel, and carting away the pieces in woven baskets.
They drove on, she talked to the driver about wanting to come and live there on the island. He gave her a price for a ninety-nine year lease on land available to Westerners.
‘Not much in Australia, right?’ he shrugged and looked at her in the rear view mirror,
‘Just one week’s money, eh?’ He smiled at her. It seemed so simple.
She shook her head, ‘It doesn’t really work that way.’ She couldn’t even buy a cup of tea without accounting for it.
Only after she had married Martin did she see the smoke and mirrors. He lived on an overdraft and had rented those places on holidays. Now she shopped at second-hand designer boutiques and he drove a leased Bentley. It was her fault they never had any money. If not her, he blamed the first wife, the second wife, Louise for not having a job…Louise for not contributing. All the bank accounts were in his name and the bills in hers.
The driver had gone back to watching the road. Louise stuck her head out of her window like a dog, opened her mouth and breathed in the fresh air. She wondered if he thought she was crazy. Well, she decided, crazy was good, crazy was easy, crazy was free. Then she settled back into her seat and got out a scrap of paper and made some notes about her finances. She had never felt entitled to much. She would not be cruel, but she wanted what was hers, to fund her plans and dreams.
Stiffly, she got out of the car at Pulaki Temple. The woman at the entrance, who had a stall of flowers and rice, threw a handful of holy water into Louise’s face. She wasn’t expecting it and gasped. The woman put a pinch of cooked sticky rice onto the driver’s forehead. He received it with palms together. Louise and her driver walked into the temple.
Sacred monkeys were sleeping curled along a pole or catching the breeze, lying in the shade on a piece of carved stone, running at people and grinning and screeching, fangs at each corner of a squared jaw. One monkey sat irreverently on the Spirit House, moved the head of her baby aside and scratched her belly. They owned the place.
Louise loosely held a bag of grapes she’d brought for the monkeys. While Louise and the driver were waiting to receive their sashes to wear inside the temple, one monkey ran up behind her and snatched the bag, spilling the fruit as he raced away, galloping sideways, tail curled upwards and shoveling grapes into his mouth. The driver laughed and Louise blushed. Reminded her of Martin.
Her driver said Hanuman, the father of all these monkeys, lived here but humans could not see him. He had to explain it several times with his hands making curlicues in the air and him bending towards her from the waist but finally she understood that Hanuman was a spirit, invisible but real.
As Louise climbed up a set of stairs behind the temple to watch the mountain mist burn off over the sea, she thought about what would happen when she went back to her husband. His betrayals and disappearances would no doubt continue. It was excruciating for her to watch those women who flocked around him with dollar signs between their legs, his awful family, and all those dodgy business partners and their sure-fire investments. She did not need, or even want, any of that. But she missed him all of a sudden.
Louise wanted to grab life, like the monkey who had grabbed those grapes, with gusto and a few laughs – to move to Ubud and live by the ocean with the volcanoes nearby. She could persuade Martin that they could be happy there. She would demand her own time and money. There had to be a way to fund all this, maybe just enough for a small hut with a mango tree. She could sell her diamond ring. There was always a way to get another one.
She got back into the car and her phone rang. She picked up the phone and her ring caught the light. Damn it, she didn’t want to sell it; she loved it.
Martin said, ‘Baby, let’s make this work…’
Louise replied, ‘Why don’t you and your mother fly over here for her birthday? There is the most darling little temple.’
Linda Godfrey lives in Wollongong, south of Sydney, close to the ocean. She is writing a novel, can’t resist a prose poem, has a Masters of Professional Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney and is studying for a Research Masters of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong. And yet, strangely, still works as a youth worker.