“Anna returns home to face the ghosts of male patriarchy, a long-lost love, and a dour, unaffectionate mother. An afternoon spent in the happy company of family and friends, in the pink-hued bubble of nostalgia, reminds her that home is a place of indefinite abode and changing identities.”
Watching her, Anna feels a wave of resentment surface. She is alone with an old woman who has curled up on her large bed, knees tucked in, white hair sprayed over the pillow and mouth wide open.
Mother is asleep; every ounce of fat in her body siphoned away, every bone brittle and bent, every inch of skin crumpled like washed linen.
Mother was born old. Anna can’t remember a time when Mother was not old. Even in her thirties, Mother had looked weathered, thick and awkward as a plank. Dressed in dowdy browns and stout shoes, she had presided over the household with pursed lips and great efficiency. She had ensured everything ran like clockwork: everyone arrived on time, every extra penny was put aside for the future, every meal was freshly cooked, and every corner of the house kept tidy. Anna always assumed, the tremendous energy that was required to do all this, was responsible for Mother’s dour demeanor and her parsimonious ways with affection. She shirked if Anna tried to kiss her on the cheek; heaven forbid if Anna tried to hug her – Anna’s arms would entwine around a limp body but nothing would reach out to encircle her in return.
Mother’s hooded eyes flap open and stare at Anna. Her eyesight has not gone; that is still good.
Father had definitely gone, but only after he had forgotten his early life. What he remembered was his wounded pride and those things which he thought he should have accomplished but didn’t because of Mother. He became a taciturn old man, who spoke ill of everyone, swore at everyone, and disabused Mother of any pride she might have felt in sustaining a fifty-year-old marriage.
Mother too, began to forget the years when they had gone fishing together, drank port wine, sat on the verandah listening to skits on the radio, safeguarded the bills and paid them diligently, and celebrated the small triumphs of their only child. Their years together had turned into a see-saw of just how far Father could push her and for how long she could go without breaking down. At times, it would be weeks. At other times, when the cold and arthritis had crept into her bones and made her equally wretched and full of aches, the dam would break more frequently, and there would be violent outburst – threats of leaving him- or sullen silences which endured for days and crept into the open spaces of that large house.
“Is everything ready for tomorrow?” Mother asks, clutching Anna’s hand in a cold claw-like grip.
“Yes, I think so,” she replies.
Anna walks over to the window. Once magnificent, the house has fallen to ruin. Anna feels a twinge of guilt run through her. Everywhere, papery spiders have spun aerial safety nets, lizards have staked claim to nomadic homelands and ants have tunnelled their way through walls. Always, seeped inside the plaster of these walls has been the acrid smell of fear. Over the hills, a large moon is nestled into an inky-blue sky, settling between the sprawled branches of an old mango tree. She can hear the foxes crying, just as she did as a child. How many years had Mother and she spent looking out of this window, planning their escape?
The night is hot and still, and her father creeps into her dreams. Loud, raging; angry at the world, at himself, at Mother; at her. She feels his angry breath on the nape of her neck; the brutality of his put-downs seared hot on her mind. She tries to reason with him but he floats to the ceiling and remains unreachable. She shivers and pulls a sheet over her sweating body. She lies awake hearing unidentifiable animals running on the roof, their thundering paws making the aging house groan with misery. She imagines them being furry little cats with whiskers peering into the darkness of the night. The alternative is too unbearable; that they are large rats with porcine-snouts pouring into a house, in which no one has slept in for over a decade.
The guests start to arrive by eleven in the morning. Mother sits at the entrance of the reception hall, dressed in a black frock with a lace trim collar; the grand old lady of the house, once again. Anna sits next to her.
From the kitchen, Anna can hear the sound of plates pattering, oil sizzling, taps gurgling, and above the din rise the country-hoarse voices of old aunts dressed in black, who have turned up early to help, singing an impromptu ballad, praising the virtues of the mistress of the house. Their young helpers with large skirts and talcum-powdered faces, giggle, and distracted by the singing, they stop their chopping and their stirring, and sit around the kitchen table, clapping their hands and singing:
“The mistress of the house
So fair and kind
Faithful and devout
A rare find
Never turned away a soul
May the fates bring her fortunes
Anna feels a deep flush flood her face. Mother might have been the grand old lady, but with no brothers to inherit, she is now mistress of the house.
Anna hears the cavalry of feet marching up the narrow garden path, scrapping the mud off shoes in the verandah before entering the reception hall. The collective hum of excited voices move now in a single file towards Mother; their faces flushed with the afternoon heat, their arms clutching gaily wrapped presents, their wet lips pressing against Mother’s cheeks and then exclaiming, oh dear, how very thin she has become, whilst throwing disapproving looks at Anna.
Then the multitude of feet and their owners walk towards the wooden chairs lined against the walls of the grand hall, where they sit, and speak about Father: wasn’t he a great fisherman and a philanthropist too, hadn’t he done a lot for the village church, and what a shame he isn’t alive.
Soon the room fills up with the chatter of men and women, and the cries of little children who wriggle their fat bottoms on their mother’s knees or chase each other around the chairs; someone, a man with beautiful porcelain skin, pulls out a violin, and resting one leg on a small footstool, begins to play. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth his young body rocks, supple and undulating, and his fine delicate hand strike the chords to:
Mama eu Quero(Mamma, I want)
Mama eu Quero
Another man with a Kaiser moustache and a short, sleeveless waistcoat, materialises as if by magic and kneeling on one knee, plays the tambourine. A woman with enormous breasts and long thin legs gets up, fishes out a white handkerchief from her purse, and twirling it between her fingers, moves to the centre of the room. A short, bald man with large spectacles, the local doctor, joins her, wipes his sweaty brow, and bowing in front of her, links his left arm to her right arm; together they begin to move in semi-circles, alternating their linked arms; moving faster and faster and faster as the two men play on.
Mother sits at one end of the hall, clapping and occasionally mouthing words to the songs.
More feet join the couple in the area they designate for dancing; and clearing what chairs and footstools intrude onto their space, the feet begin to tap and march in rhythm to the music. More songs trip off their tongues, singing the praises of Portugal, long after that dwindling colonial power has left Goa with nothing other than a false Luso pride, and ballads of ancient mariners and star-crossed lovers. Now they are part of another country – India -and equally adrift in trying to define who they really were. The State asks of them to condemn the past and embrace an alien newness. They are the victims of small histories and misguided cartographies. And so they cling to their past, to their music, their mandos and their fados, their food and their language, in a desperate attempt to remember their fast dissolving selves.
As the crowds thin on the sides of the room and gather like a whirlpool in the centre, Anna notices a man already balding, smiling at her. She smiles back.
He is a past love; a speck from her distant life. He had not married Anna, instead he had fallen in love with some shop-girl while they were still together. They had had a moment – one memorable moment – on a beach which if she recalled properly, smelt of dog shit and fried potato fritters from the nearby beach shacks run illegally by owners, who bribed the municipal authorities every year to look the other way. He had reached across and kissed her, and then pointed to the stars and identified them. That wasn’t the moment, because quite truthfully, Anna had been kissed before by other men, much more skilled. The moment had come, when they’d both spotted some green gooey stuff on the beach, and in their quest to understand the existential questions confronting the universe, had decreed the green stuff to be extra-terrestrial material deposited on the beach by aliens. That had been the moment.
The shop-girl took him biking and mountain climbing and sailing, and introduced him to things which Anna was convinced would eventually bore him. But they didn’t. He grew fond of them. Like a snake he shed his skin, and morphed into a new being; one that wasn’t interested in things existential, but a man of action, a man surrounded by a posse of friends. Anna wrote him poetry, bought him books and wrote dedication lines in them, before presenting them to him. He loaned them to his friends, who must have laughed at her. Anna hid under a mountain of shame. He married the shop-girl.
He crosses the room now and kisses Anna on the cheek. Then he pulls Anna to her feet, and putting his left arm around her waist, leads her around the room in a wild jig; his feet heavy and his breath short. When they finally stop, he asks if they could go somewhere else.
Anna slips her hand into his and leads him to the garden.
When they are away from the crowds and the music and the zigzagging children, she says: ‘I’m sorry, I heard. Why did she leave? Did she fall in love with someone else?’
He has about him, the sort of youthful enthusiasm, newly divorced men carry, determined as they are to rediscover themselves.
“You could say that. She fell in love with herself. She wanted to do new things with her life.”
“The curse of turning forty.”
“No, the curse of realising that without children there is very little that binds people together.”
“That’s a lean heart,” she tells him, thumping her chest twice.
“A lean heart is the permanent resident of an empty home,” he says, looking down at his shoes which have clumps of garden mud sticking to them.“It’s exciting to think of my life ahead. There is no goal you see, just the long, open road.”
It occurs to her, that he might as well be talking about a brand-new bike purchase, along with numerous maps which detail the lay of exotic and foreign lands.
But he is a shade paler than his former self and his tone betrays the truth: that he is middle-aged, that he is lonely, that he is anchorless, that he sees his life ahead of him as meaningless, without children and with all his achievements reduced to rubble in the turmoil of his current state.
Anna takes him back into the grand hall and watches as his back disappears into the thicket of guests. We are all dissolving, she thinks, every moment of our lives, we are dissolving. And then, somehow, miraculously we reconstitute into our new selves.
One of the aunts has announced lunch. The dancing feet come to a standstill and their owners fan out towards the long, slim dining table, spooning heapfuls of pilaf rice onto their plates and topping it with pork, beef and seafood. The children plate mountains of food and then tire of it, leaving uneaten mounds in their plates. The women sit on chairs with their legs crossed, stabbing their forks into slices of roast piglet, vinegary squids and prawns. The men gather in two and fours with large beer glasses near at hand, talking with their mouths full or with grains of rice stuck to their beards, about the church and the local elections. And now and then, someone or the other raises their glasses in the air, and cries, “Viva re Viva.”
Finally, as the afternoon sun begins to wither, the hum of voices dies down; the shuffling feet form a single line once again to kiss Mother and Anna, goodbye. Little children fold their hands as if to pray, and ask Mother to bless them. The women tear up just a little bit, and speak about how tragic life can be without husbands and sons, and make Anna promise, next time, she’ll come home with her lovely daughters, and how old were they now, and could she please think about finding a good man to remarry.
When all the guests have left, Mother sits in a chair on the verandah. Anna sits next to her.The sun dips into the horizon; the crickets sing in the low grass. Somewhere the Angelus bells ring calling people to prayer and tiny fireflies lit up the darkening sky. How many years had she spent inside this house awaiting rescue? That had come in the form of a short-lived marriage filled with even more terror until she had fled the country. Mother reaches for Anna’s hand and putting it to her lips, kisses it.
“Why were you so distant when I was growing up?” Anna asks, withdrawing her hand.
“I was taught no different. I didn’t know you wanted affection from me. I didn’t realise you needed me in that way. My job was to keep you fed, clothed, safe. And I was afraid.”
“Of what Mother?”
“That you’d grow up to be me. Weak. Accepting of everything that was thrown at me. Making excuses for my lack of courage.”
Anna kisses the top of her mother’s head. “It wasn’t all bad,” she says, looking at her, “You did what you thought was right. You held our world together as best as you could. You survived.”
“Well the house has gone to rot. Do with it what you will. It was never a home to you and for that I’m sorry,” Mother says, getting up from her chair and reaching for her cane. She walks back into the reception hall, small and misshapen, a heap of brittle bones and loose skin, diminished but not beaten. They had survived, the two of them. Tomorrow, Anna would depart for the airport where a nine-hour flight to America awaited her. Mother would leave for Mary Magdalene’s Home run by Carmelite nuns, where she’d been living for the past ten years.
Mama eu Quero – popular Portuguese song “Mamma, I want.’
Viva re viva – cry of joy; literal mean ‘to live’.
Mando – Konkani (native language) folk songs.
Fado – Portuguese (adopted language) folk songs.
Author’s Bio: Selma Carvalho is a British-Indian writer and author of three books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. Her short prose has been published in Indian, British and North American literary journals. She has been long and shortlisted in short story contests by Almond Press UK, Exeter Writers UK 2015and again in 2017, TSS Quarterly UK, DNA-Out of print, India, Strands International Short Story, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. Of Indian origin, she grew up in Dubai, spent several years in Minnesota, USA, before moving to London where she currently lives with her husband and daughter.