Swarnalatha Moragodage Pinto (Macquarie University, Australia)
Lisa sometimes thinks of the day she met Abdul as her worst day and other times as her best. That day she had come home from the supermarket to put the milk and the ice cream in the fridge before collecting her sons, Jay and Noah, from school. In the rush, her car key had fallen into the boot as she was closing it but Ed, her husband had not helped her.
‘Where’s the spare key you cut after losing your key at the pokies?’ he had asked.
‘I didn’t cut one. That money went for school uniforms, remember? I told you that I didn’t lose the key at the pokies. It fell into a drain outside the supermarket.’
‘So you say.’
‘Ed, please get a coat hanger and open the car. The kids will be waiting.’
‘You can catch the bus.’
When she said that she had no money in her Myki card, Ed had thrown his card at her. As she hurried downstairs, she had tripped on the steps, fallen on her face and cut her lip. Blood dripped onto her white t-shirt, but there was no time to go back to change. Even if she had time, she wouldn’t have gone back to listen to Ed’s lecture about her being a pokies addict who needed professional help. Covering the blood stains with her hand as best as she could, Lisa rushed to the bus stop, but the bus was already pulling out. She waved and yelled frantically, but the bus accelerated away. Dejected, she sat on a bench and cried for a while. Then she called the school. She had car trouble and will be there in half an hour or so to pick up her boys. Her lip stung and bled more. What if the next bus got late or didn’t come at all? She imagined her sons’ worried faces. They were little, Jay was only six and Noah, eight. She decided to walk to the school.
Lisa was half way to the school when a passing car stopped. She knew the driver to be a school parent. Abdul. He offered her a lift.
‘You okay?’ he asked in a kind voice. Lisa had burst into tears. She said that she didn’t want to talk about it and he had let her cry. He said, ‘Crying helps,’ and gave her tissues. He had cried when his wife left him and took their son with her. He still cried at night when he was all alone in the house. He had no one here. His parents and siblings were in Bangladesh. He had his son twice a week on the days he didn’t work. He asked about Lisa’s family and offered to drive her sons home.
Still sitting in the car, he shook her hand and held it a bit longer. Then he reached across to open the door for Lisa and his hand brushed against her thighs. As soon as Lisa and her sons got into the car, Abdul turned on the ignition saying that his son was away on a school camp. On the way, Abdul had bought ice creams for the boys. Lisa looked at her sons in the back seat, happily eating ice cream.
‘We eat ice cream from a big tub at home,’ Jay announced.
Noah whispered, ‘Shut up, you’re embarrassing.’
‘We do that too. But this is a treat,’ said Abdul.
‘Treat for what?’ Jay had wanted to know.
‘For meeting you guys,’ Abdul had said turning to Lisa and her heart jumped. She looked at Abdul. His hair was dark and wavy and was parted on the side, a few wavy strands falling across his smooth forehead, just touching his Ray Bans. He was lean, his arms and legs long. She thought he was athletic and handsome. She had a sudden desire to remove his sunglasses and look at his eyes. She wondered if they were brown or black.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ she said, reddening. She got him to drop them off at the bus stop near her house. She told her sons not to tell anything to their dad. Let him think that they came by bus.
At first Lisa and Abdul chatted while they waited for their sons at the school. Then he invited Lisa to taste Bengali sweets and Masala Chai and the next morning she followed him to his house. Since then she had been driving to Abdul’s house after dropping off her kids at school. She went there on Mondays and Tuesdays and they had the whole house for themselves. They made love everywhere including on the floorboards, couch, dining table and hallway. He made Lisa feel beautiful and worthy. Lisa said that his ex-wife didn’t know how lucky she had been to have such a caring husband. Abdul said the same to her. They were kindred spirits.
One day Lisa came limping and Abdul asked what happened. She cried for a while and said in a small voice that Ed had pushed her because his dinner was a few minutes late and she had bumped against a kitchen chair. Now her leg was sore. Ed was abusive. He hit her all the time.
‘You should go to the police and show what he’s doing to you.’
‘He’d kill me and the boys.’
Then Abdul had kissed her and that was the end of it.
At home, as Lisa carried on with her household chores–cooking and cleaning and washing and ironing–she thought of Abdul. She still went to pokies, but only on the days she didn’t see him. Once she won $50 and wanted to keep $30 to buy a new top. Then she lost $20 and played again and lost another $20. But she kept $10 and bought a new top from Kmart. She was not a pokies addict. An addict would’ve played that last $10 too. She was not an addict. She was unlucky. She was not even a shadow of the person she had imagined she would be one day. She had wanted to become a lawyer and help refugees. Instead she had ended up working in a supermarket, dating Ed and falling pregnant. She was hoping to go back to work when Jay started school but Ed hurt his back. Ever since, Ed had been on a disability pension and she had to resign from her job to care for him. She was exhausted. Still, she had enrolled in an online TAFE course which offered a pathway to find work in a law firm. She had studied at night and finished the course a few months prior to meeting Abdul. She had been applying for jobs and getting some interviews, but nobody offered her a job. They must be looking for young girls. She had slaved over three years for nothing. It was not fair. She was a good person. She didn’t smoke or drink. Pokies was her only escape. It gave her a rush. She had done her best but Ed failed to see it. Now she didn’t care about what Ed thought. Now she had Abdul. She forgot her worries when she was with him.
All went well until Abdul went to Bangladesh for one month. She missed him terribly. She counted days. I am acting like a teenager, she thought with pleasure. For three weeks they texted and swapped photos via WhatsApp. Then Abdul asked her not to contact him. His siblings took his phone sometimes and he didn’t want anyone to read her messages. After three long months he texted her that he was back and she rushed to him. She told him how badly she had missed him and he said that he had had to attend to some family things.
‘What family things?’
He gave her a shoulder bag made of jute.
‘Export quality, best in the world,’ he had said proudly. Did he even hear my question? And why isn’t he kissing me, ripping off my clothes? Hiding her disappointment she kissed him. Afterwards they ate some sweets called Rasmalai he had brought from home. It was very sweet and tasty and sticky. She read the label. It was made from milk, flour and sugar and spices.
‘Very tasty,’ she said licking her fingers. He said that his grandmother made it.
‘How come? This label’s from a shop.’
He laughed and said that it was a fake label which he printed. Sweets not commercially prepared and packaged aren’t allowed into Australia.
‘What if you got caught?’
‘I had an escape plan.’
‘Hmm. Why did you stay back for so long?’
‘What family stuff? You cut me off for more than two months. I didn’t know what was going on.’
‘Just some paperwork. I bought a holiday home in Sunamgonj. It’s a beautiful spot. You can see the hills from that place.’
Lisa pictured herself strolling hand in hand with Abdul towards distant hills, the setting sun golden and the sky reddish orange, their three boys laughing and chasing each other on the lush green grass.
‘A penny for your thoughts?’
‘I want to wash my hands.’
When Abdul was washing his hands, Lisa noticed that the skin around the base of his ring finger was pale. Her insides dissolved in acid.
‘You were wearing a ring. What happened over there? Tell me the truth,’ her voice quavered.
‘It’s nothing. My parents had arranged all that. They wanted me to marry. So there was endless paperwork and endless ceremonies.’
‘You got married and didn’t think to tell me? I was missing you and –,’ Lisa broke down in tears. Abdul assured her that nothing was going to change. She need not worry.
When Lisa got home, she threw the jute bag onto the floor and stamped on it. Then she grabbed her kitchen scissors and cut it into pieces. It was a hard job, but she did it nonetheless. Afterwards she swept everything into a shopping bag and chucked it into the rubbish bin. She had expected Abdul to bring jewellery. Before going to Bangladesh he had asked what type of jewellery she liked. She had thought that he would propose after he came back. She was even thinking of divorce. She could say that Ed abused her. She would take the boys with her. Abdul would treat her kids the same way he treated his kid. The image of her kids eating ice-cream in Abdul’s car came to her mind. But he had gotten married. What a fool she had been? Then again, he had said that everything was going to be fine. Perhaps he’ll not bring his new wife here? That must be why he bought a house over there. He’ll go there once a year or so. She could live with that.
Although Abdul had said that nothing would change, some things did. He asked her to park two streets away, because some friends of his new wife lived on his street. Lisa was to call him before knocking on his door, just in case someone was visiting him. Nowadays people dropped in to congratulate him. They invited him to their houses. As he was busier now and could only see her once a week. Lisa did as he asked. She didn’t want to know about his wife, but often he spoke about her, usually when they were in bed and she hated it. She pretended to listen, now and then murmuring, oh, and ah and mmm. Then his wedding album arrived by post. He was smiling happily on all the photos. His bride was in a red and gold sari and wearing a lot of jewellery.
‘She looks very young,’ Lisa commented.
‘Oh yes, Neela just turned twenty.’
‘You’re old enough to be her father! Either she’s very poor or she’d been in some sort of trouble.’
‘Oh,’ Lisa managed to say.
Neela arrived six months later and Abdul asked Lisa to stay away for a while. He’ll contact Lisa when things settled down at home. He said not to call or text until then, but after a few weeks Lisa texted him and realised that he had blocked her number. How dare he do this? After two years together? She drove straight away and parked right in front of his house and knocked loudly on his door.
Abdul opened the door.
‘What the hell?’ he whispered. Louder he said ‘How can I help you?’
‘I came to see you, Abdul,’ she said loudly. She pushed past him and went inside.
There was no furniture in the lounge. Several big boxes were on the floor. A young girl in a blue salwar kameez floated from the bedroom and stood by Abdul. Neela. She looked at Lisa and then turned to Abdul.
‘She’s looking for someone,’ he said.
Lisa’s mouth opened but no words came out.
‘Ah, I thought the removalists have come early,’ Neela said softly. All three stood still. Then Neela came forward and held the door, smiling and showing perfect pearly white teeth.
‘You’ve come to the wrong house.’
As if in a trance Lisa walked out of the house. She heard the door shutting firmly behind her. She wanted to bang on the door and yell, the bastard fucked me for two years, but her legs carried her to the car. She sat there panting. She must do something. She should ram the car against the bastard’s door. As she started the car with a roar her phone rang. Annoyed, she turned off the engine. It was a law firm in the city, where she had been interviewed some time ago. After talking with Lisa for a while the HR lady said, ‘Would you be able to start work next week?’
Lisa started her car and did a fluid U-turn and headed to the shopping centre. She bought new clothes and got a new haircut. As soon as she got home she started to collect all the clothes she had bought when she was with Abdul. Clothes Abdul had liked to see her in. She was embarrassed for how she had clung to him. He had lied to her and she had let him. She was shoving the clothes into a rubbish bag in the kitchen when Ed walked in.
‘Guess what? I got a job, starting next Monday. I bought some new clothes for work. I don’t need these anymore.’
Ed looked startled, almost scared. He nodded and said nothing.
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.