Swarna Pinto (Macquarie University, Australia)
The grey double-story house in Mill Park, stood out from the other houses on Development Street, with its burglar window bars and its carved stonework facade. On the right side of the house in a little rockery, surrounded by green cacti, a few red roses grew. On the other side was the double garage where Raj parked his shiny, red Camry and Indra, her silver Celica.
Inside the house, in the living area was a large TV facing an over-stuffed faux leather sofa where Raj spent most of his spare time. There were neat rows of his cricket DVDs and Bollywood movies in the cabinet under the TV. The TV sat in between a model ship and an ornate alarm clock. A cuckoo clock hung on the adjacent wall. A clock that changed colour and a pendulum clock hung on other walls. In that house there were clocks everywhere and Raj kept them all synchronised. Guests always looked at Raj’s clocks when they chimed. It was a cacophony for Indra, but Raj was proud of it. While the guests looked at the clocks in amusement, Indra, if she happened to be in the lounge, she would look at the little hole next to the cuckoo clock where a nail had been removed a long time prior and invariably a sigh would escape her.
Twenty years ago, when Indra was a new bride from India, Raj had taken her to the Melbourne CBD to show her the sights. First he had taken her to Daimaru in Melbourne Central and showed her the giant clock. Indra had wanted to go into the shops, but Raj had said there was no point because everything was so overpriced. Then they had boarded the City Circle tram. She had loved the tram ride and had been surprised to learn that the ride was free. They had got off at Kings Domain and Raj had showed her the Floral Clock before going to see the Shrine of Remembrance. Inside the Shrine Indra had learned from a man in uniform how once a year on 11th November at 11 a.m. a ray of sunlight would shine through an aperture in the roof of the shrine and light up the word love in the inscription, ‘Greater love hath no man’, on the marble stone of remembrance. Indra had been so moved she had stood there looking at the word love. She had wondered whether she loved Raj or Raj loved her. Her parents had arranged the marriage, as was the custom, and she had agreed to become Raj’s wife. Love would come later, as they get to know each other; that’s what she had heard about arranged marriages. Her reverie was broken when she heard Raj’s impatient ‘Let’s go.’
On their way back to Flinders Street Station, Indra had seen the National Gallery of Victoria and had wanted to go in. Raj had looked at his wristwatch and said that she could, provided she came back in thirty minutes.
‘We need to catch the 4.30 train. Otherwise I’ll miss the cricket.’
Saying, ‘I’ll just have a quick look,’ Indra had hurried inside. There had been people everywhere. The place was huge. She’d have to come back another day. On her way out she had looked at books and ornaments and reprints of art works in the gift shop. She had wanted to buy something to remember this day, the first day Raj had taken her out. Monet’s Water Lilies reprint caught her attention but she hadn’t had enough money. Disappointed, she had gone outside and was looking for Raj when she had seen a man selling cheap reprints. She bought an A4 sized Picasso, Buste de Femme.
The next day she bought a frame from a Two-Dollar shop. She then drove a nail next to the cuckoo clock and hung her Buste de Femme there. It looked perfect.
She had been barely able to suppress a smile when Raj came home that night.
Beaming, Indra had pointed to Buste de Femme.
‘Why did you put it up? It’s ugly. The face is all twisted.’
‘The face shows emotions; fear and hope.’
‘This face is bad luck. I won’t have it here.’
‘But it’s art.’
‘Hang it in the spare room. You can sleep in there as well’
That was a long time ago and Indra had never bought another piece of art work after that. She didn’t even go an art gallery. Before coming to Australia, she had thought that she’d be working as a Research Officer, as she did in India, and would have money to buy artworks to decorate her new home. However, when, one by one, her job applications were rejected she had given up and found casual work in the local library.
She borrowed books and read most of the time she was home. When she did not have a book to read she listened to her neighbours’ children. In the morning she heard their chirpy voices before car doors slammed and engines roared taking them away to school. Then it would become so unbearably quiet for her, she would get in her car and drive to the shopping centre. There she would see mothers pushing prams and holding children by their little hands and she would imagine herself to be one of the mothers. Almost every night she heard neighbourhood children yelling or laughing or crying, and often she too cried herself to sleep, while Raj slept beside her oblivious to her distress.
Tomorrow, Indra would turn forty. Her last birthday in India had been in 1990 when she turned twenty. It was just before marrying Raj and coming to Melbourne. All her friends had come to her party. Some of them were already married. Shani had been pregnant and Anu, her colleague at the Medical Research Centre, already had two children. Anu was a grandmother now and Indra wasn’t even a mother.
Years ago, she had wanted to go to a fertility clinic but Raj had told her to go to the temple and do pujas instead.
‘Pujas can’t make women pregnant.’
‘My brothers’ wives did pujas. You should too, if you want to have children.’
‘I’ll do a puja if you come with me to the clinic.’
‘Pujas? How many?’
‘As many as it takes.’
And that was the end of it. A few years after that Indra had suggested IVF.
‘If you did pujas when I asked, you wouldn’t be having this conversation now,’ was all Raj had said.
Now, the day before her fortieth birthday, Indra knew that she is past the peak of her reproductive years. From now on she should stop day dreaming about having a baby. She placed a bookmark inside her book and put it away on the bedside table. It was time to go downstairs to cook dinner. She got up from the bed and stretched. Looking out the window through burglar bars, she felt as if she were in jail.
Sighing, Indra went into the bathroom. She washed her face and combed her long straight hair. Although she had a few grey hairs, her face and her body had not altered much. She changed into a white T-shirt and a denim skirt. If she wanted to, she could still wear her wedding dress. She’d rather throw herself off a cliff. Plaiting her hair, she climbed downstairs.
For her birthday dinner tomorrow, Raj had invited his parents, his two brothers and their families over. Indra had no one to invite. Her parents had gone to be near her brother and his three children in Newfoundland. She had a few friends at work, but they were not very close. All her good friends were overseas.
That morning, Raj had told Indra to cook a lamb curry for their dinner. She took out the meat chopping board and a knife. She also had to prepare the finger foods for tomorrow’s dinner party; onion Bhajiye, aloo tikki and samosas, and put them in the fridge. She would fry them tomorrow, just before the guests arrived. Everyone liked her finger foods, especially the children, her nieces and nephews. Although she loved them, she did not like them. They trashed her house every time they came to visit. They threw half eaten snacks at each other and their mothers pretended not to see. Sometimes a mother would half-heartedly say ‘that’s enough’ and one child would say ‘he started it’ and another would say ‘liar’ and renewed the vigour of the food fights.
Many times after dinner parties, Indra had told Raj his nieces and nephews wasted food and trashed the house, and he always said ‘Okay, okay, I’ll clean up next time.’ But he never had.
Indra would have liked to tell those mothers a thing or two about their children’s behaviour, but dared not. They had a condescending way of looking at Indra whenever there were conversations about their children. Mostly they bragged about their children’s achievements and their schools and Indra had nothing to say.
‘Kids have to be very smart to get into Melbourne High and Mac Robertson.’
‘Grammar schools are better.’
‘Scotch College is the best.’
‘Scotch College seniors do drugs.’
‘My Amy is doing VCE literature this year. She is in grade 11.’
‘My Jason did VCE maths in grade 10. He was the best of the class.’
Indira looked at the time and opened the fridge. She pulled a leg of lamb out. As she passed her thumb over the cold and slippery marbled flesh she felt a familiar sense of distaste and shivered. Lamb was certainly not her favourite, though Raj insisted on it most of the time. The cuckoo clock and the pendulum clock chimed their different tunes in unison and Indra realised that Raj would be home quite soon. Hurriedly, she tied up her apron and started cutting up the meat. There was no time to cook it in the slow-cooker as Raj told her in the morning. Instead she would to cut it into smaller cubes. As she cut, the lamb smell went right into her nose and she turned her head away and vigorously blew out through her nose to dispel the smell. She took a deep breath and held it while dicing the meat quickly. In the rush, the knife slipped and cut her left index finger. She put on a Band-Aid but the blood kept oozing through. She removed that and put two Band-Aids tightly over the cut but the bleeding did not stop. She then wound a rubber band around the finger underneath the cut and resumed dicing the lamb. Although the bleeding stopped, the finger started to throb with pain and swelled above the rubber band. Indra threw the knife, the lamb and the cutting board into the sink and stood still staring ahead.
Abruptly, she darted into the laundry room and jerked open the detergent cupboard. Bottle after bottle stood neatly on the shelf, their nozzles perfectly aligned. Handy Andy, Mr. Muscle, Mr. Sheen, Vanish. She had to spray Vanish on Raj’s collars and scrub them by hand to get the grime off them. Next to Vanish was a bottle of bleach. As Indra looked at this bottle, she heard Raj’s car turning onto their driveway. She grabbed the bottle and looked at the label. POISON. DO NOT SWALLOW. Indra ran into the kitchen with the bottle, poured a little water into a tall glass and microwaved it for a minute. She added a heaped spoon of coffee and two sugars to it and stirred. As she poured some bleach into the glass, she heard Raj closing the garage door. The concoction started to froth and bubble. She realized that the water had been too hot. She tipped it into the sink and started the process over again. She knew Raj would take his time at the letter box reading junk mail. Indra heated water for forty seconds this time. As the microwave dinged, she heard Raj closing the flap of the letter box. She added coffee and sugar and stirred before adding bleach past the halfway mark. As she topped this with milk, she heard the front door slam and Raj walking down the hall. Quickly, she put the bottle of bleach in the pantry cupboard and put the drink in the fridge. She then stood erect with her back to the sink. As Raj came into the kitchen, she said ‘I made iced coffee, just the way you like it’.
‘Ah,’ said Raj and took the glass from the fridge. As he lifted it to his lips, their home phone rang. He left his iced coffee on the kitchen bench and went to the lounge to answer the phone. It would be Raj’s mother, she always called on the landline and Indra didn’t want her to talk with Raj just then. She ran into the study to disconnect the phone. She looked at the sockets and saw the one marked ‘Phone’. She pulled out the cable and stood up. Beside the computer was a framed photo of Raj, taken during their wedding ceremony in India. He wore a red turban and a red and gold silk dhoti-kurta and looked very pleased. She wanted to smash this photo to smithereens, but did not touch it because she didn’t want to make any noise right now. When she hurried back to the kitchen Raj too came in, puzzled, saying, ‘The line got cut off.’
Indra shrugged her shoulders, which she knew irritated Raj but he seemed not to notice. He started whistling a Bollywood tune, which he knew annoyed Indra. As he reached for the glass of iced coffee his mobile phone rang. He placed the drink back on the kitchen bench and, still whistling, went to get his phone which he had placed on the TV cabinet. Indra looked at the coffee and saw that the milk had curdled. She sniffed the coffee and quickly topped it with ice cream. Raj came back listening to his mobile and lifted the coffee but angrily put it back down.
‘Why the hell did you put ice cream on it? I have to watch my cholesterol. You want to kill me?’
‘I don’t want it.’
Raj poured himself a glass of milk.
Indra poured the coffee into the sink and ran the tap.
‘What a waste. Where’s my dinner?’
‘I couldn’t cook. I fainted. I cut my finger and it bled a lot and I fainted.’
‘You should’ve told me before. Let’s go to Amma’s then. Hurry up. I am starving.’
As Raj drove, he called his mother. Then he turned to Indra and said ‘Ravi is there,’ but got no response from Indra.
‘I said Ravi’s there. Listen to me when I am talking. He’s going back to Chennai this weekend to bring his wife here’.
Then Raj got rather excited, saying ‘He was one of the page boys at our wedding, he’s the one who tripped over your wedding dress. Remember, Amma put sticky tape over and no one noticed the rip in the hem?’
As they approached the house, Indra saw Raj’s father cleaning his taxi and a tall young man beside him. When Raj’s mother saw Indra’s finger, she screeched, ‘Oh my God, what happened? Dad, come here. Her finger’s blue.’
Raj’s father came over to her with his medical bag. He was a doctor in India although he drove a taxi here. He tutted while he cut off the rubber band. He dressed her finger, checked her pulse and told her to rest.
At dinner, Ravi was seated right across Indra. He’s very handsome, like a movie star, thought Indra and she stole glances at him. He had dark wavy hair and smiling eyes. His lips were sensual and Indra wondered how it would feel to kiss him. The talk revolved around Ravi. His wife had finished her Master’s and had landed her dream job in a big law firm in Melbourne. Although they did not have children yet they had already planned their education. They would go to a Grammar school. His new house was walking distance to Ivanhoe Grammar school in Mernda.
‘Very good,’ Raj’s father approved of buying a house close to the school.
Ravi’s eyes met Indra’s. She held his gaze without blinking and Ravi blushed and looked down. Afterwards, everyone went to the lounge to watch cricket. India was going to start batting soon. Ravi went over and looked at the model ship beside the T.V.
Raj said, ‘There’s more in Dad’s study. Cricket’s starting. I’ll show them to you later.’
Indra got up saying, ‘I can show them now, if you want.’
Ravi too got up.
‘Thanks, I’d love to see.’
‘Oh, okay. Show him the ship in the bottle,’ Raj yelled as she led the way.
As Indra and Ravi climbed up the narrow stairway their bodies touched and neither moved away.
‘Here,’ Indra opened the door of the study and waited for Ravi to go in.
‘Ladies first,’ he said.
‘How come you didn’t say this on the staircase?’ she teased him and waited for Ravi to go in. Ravi put his hand at Indra’s back and steered her into the room.
Indra pouted, ‘You ripped the hem off my wedding dress.’
‘I know. Everyone scolded me and I was punished for life. No one asked me to be a page boy after that. I am very sorry.’
‘You don’t seem to be very sorry,’ countered Indra, and added, ‘I don’t care.’
‘Now you don’t, but back then you obviously did.’
He looked around.
‘You are supposed to show me the models.’
‘See for yourself. They are all in display, just look.’
‘C’mon, be my guide,’ he extended his arms toward her and she came up to him.
They stood facing each other and when Ravi took a step forward Indra didn’t move back. Then he put his arms around her and bending his head, murmured in her ear, ‘I want to see hidden things.’
She pressed herself against Ravi and time stopped for Indra as she lifted her face up to him.
Years later, after her divorce from Raj and going to live with her parents in Newfoundland, fragmented memories would come to her mind when she looked at her son running on the beach and pointing to distant ships on the horizon. She would try to remember what exactly happened all those years ago, that day in her former father in law’s study, but would never remember how they ended up doing what they did. But right now, she was kissing Ravi and thinking There are no clocks here.
Swarna Pinto was born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to Australia in 1990. She completed a Master of Science degree in Soviet Russia. Swarna’s life experiences provide a narrative canvas for her writing. Her fiction has been published in The Quarry and SWAMP. She is a Master of Creative Writing student at Macquarie University.