Joan of Mazgaon

Every morning Joan and Gilly wake up before their children do, set the house and day in order, settle down in the balcony with two cups of tea and a newspaper. Joan cuts a loaf of bread and a pair of tomatoes – do tomatoes come in pairs? she wonders – takes the chutney from the big fridge in the small kitchen and places it all on the table where they eat. Gilly does a load of laundry, sets the tea to boil, stands by the kitchen window, looking out.

They used to have nice neighbours. A Catholic family who shuffled into the building twenty years ago, one baby, two dogs, and a large painting of Divine Mercy in tow. Gilly still remembers how he stood at the kitchen window that morning, as he watched them make their way up the jamun-stained path. They didn’t look around as new people do in new places, and for a moment Gilly considered the possibility that they had always been their neighbours – their neighbours, John and Mary, with their baby, Jerry, whose christening they attended last May.

Then the man stopped suddenly, handed the baby to the woman, and walked back to the parked car at the end of the road. The woman looked up. She saw Gilly at the window and smiled; and in that moment the tea hissed and spluttered and Gilly looked down at its leaves of brown and its bubbles like butter paper, and called to Joan, “The tea’s ready!” although Gilly never did that.

Their names were Eddie and Norna. He worked in the State Bank of India, she as a tutor of children. The boy, Eric, was joined by another, and then another, and Joan would often joke – much too loudly, Gilly always feared – that when a dog died in their home, it was replaced immediately by a child. She called it the circle of life, completely natural to want to fill a space, and why shouldn’t they – if they wanted to have ten children, that was their business, not hers. Gilly only wished that she wouldn’t choose to say this when he happened to be in the balcony, hanging the clothes out to dry. All of Mazgaon now knows your theory, he would hiss, as he wrung a bra over the wall.

Eddie and Norna were kind, pleasant people, but every time one called them kind, one got the feeling that the word just didn’t sit right, as if they were too young, too new to be called kind. And so they became Eddie and Norna, the nice, young couple who lived in the house across from Joan’s – no one ever called the place Gilly’s, because it wasn’t Gilly’s voice that one heard as one passed by – who had the three boys with the long hair.

Norna rang the bell that first evening. She came with Eric on her hip and amusement in her eyes, and sat in the chair farthest from the main door when Joan asked her to please come in.

They had been robbed, she said. It really was some story. Eddie, her husband, was at the Mazgaon Police Station as she spoke, and she still couldn’t quite believe what had happened. You see, when they came back from lunch the unpacked boxes were all gone, and they only noticed when Eddie asked, “Where’s the box with the folding chairs?”

A neighbour saw a man and a woman carry the boxes to a tempo at the end of the path, Norna said. And she knew this because the old lady later said to her, “Oh if I was younger I would have helped you move; but it looks like you managed well between the two of you!”

Gilly waited for the amusement to leave her face; for it to tuck itself behind her ears and shut its eyes. But Norna finished her story and the amusement was still there, lodged in her irises like green pigment that has skipped two generations. It never quite left, Gilly noticed. It was there when she became pregnant the second time, the third; when they returned from a vacation in the last week of summer, Eddie with his sunglasses atop his head; when it rained and the power didn’t fail; when the milkman handed her the month’s bill; when the jamun tree bent to touch its toes and snapped with the sound of feeble thunder. And it made Gilly nervous, that one person could be so wholeheartedly amused by so little.

***

            They hadn’t bought the chairs. The chairs were a gift from Norna’s sister, who was in the habit of gifting the things she didn’t want in her life, to the people she did. They were a dark red when she purchased them – Don’t they look scrumptious? she had said to Warren – but they soon turned a dull pink – the same shade, she happily discovered, as the curtains in Norna’s apartment.

Norna didn’t tell her that she was pregnant. She fully intended to, but over the course of the conversations she’d had with her friends, the fact of the baby and the fact of them moving had somehow become one. She was apprehensive about the move, she said. And then she’d found out about the baby. And now there would be three of them, not two, when they moved. She told each friend the tale, and she heard them laugh, and she heard her own laughter join theirs, as she watched herself lean into a brown box to pull out a baby and a stack of plates.

She called Dana in the evening, her legs falling over the wooden arms of a dull pink chair. When they were children, they liked to play a game called The Afternoon Game. They waited for their parents to go back to work; they waited for their grandmother to take her nap; they waited for Celine to wash the dishes and leave. And then, when the front door had closed, with Celine on its other side, they would run to the balcony. Dana always went first, right leg over the railing, then left, and finally, a little hop from the balcony to the ledge beneath it.

The ledge ran around the building, but they always stopped at the corner because Dana said it was unwise to push your luck. When they sat down, legs dangling off of the ninth floor, Norna would start.

“Leopold’s,” she would say, and Dana would pause to consider what Norna had said, although Norna always began with Leopold’s.

“Canara Bank.”

“Colaba Police Station.”

“Bademiya.”

“Regal.”

“Coryse Salome.”

“You can’t say that!”

“Why not?”

“Because I said Regal! It’s in the same building! Why do you always have to cheat, Nonnie?”

“Shh, Nana will wake up!”

“Alright. Fine.”

“You know, it’s kinda cool. We can see Coryse Salome, but they can’t see us.”

“So?”

“Mama is behind that glass window, but she doesn’t know we’re up here.”

“But what if she does know?”

“There are too many buildings around Regal. She obviously can’t see all the way here.”

“But imagine if she could.”

“Dana! You’re spoiling the game.”

“And I’d be in trouble, not you.”

“No! I’ll say I also wanted to play.”

“Right. I believe you.”

The only rule was that you had to be able to point to the place with your big toe. Otherwise, it was too far away and didn’t count. When they had been playing for a while, and it was getting more difficult to think of places, Norna would quickly say “Flora Fountain.”

But her foot couldn’t reach Flora Fountain, so she had to think of another place. And then she would look down and say, “Watchman uncle’s cabin,” and Dana would get angry.

***

Gilly was handsome but kind of wiry. That is how Joan described him to her friends. The first time they hugged she was surprised by how strong he was and felt bad for thinking that she ought to end up with someone whose strength didn’t surprise her. She decided that she would break it off with Gilly before it could begin, and pictured him with a woman shorter and skinnier than she was.

They would have three daughters who all looked like her cousin, Ann, and Joan knew that to look like Ann wasn’t a bad way to look at all. She saw them as teenagers, beautiful long legs they would pretend they didn’t know they had, jaws like the bones of birds. It would all work out.

She told Gilly about it when their daughter was born. He looked uncomfortable, like he didn’t think it was appropriate to say these things in front of their child. And so she told him again, early one morning while Esme was fast asleep and he was hanging the clothes out to dry.

“I tell you, La! I kept seeing their legs,” she said.

“You’re mad,” Gilly said. “Lucky thing your daughter can’t hear you talk such nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense. Oh believe me! That picture, it was burned into my head. I almost didn’t marry you because of those legs!”

“Talk louder. Your friends in Crawford Market can’t hear what you’re saying.”

“I don’t bloody care who can hear me. I have nothing to hide, let them hear.”

“I changed the oil in the car. The boy said he couldn’t come to see it before we left. I told him leave it, we’ll stop at the garage on the way. All this waiting, we won’t end up going.”

“I called Lynette. She said Morrie wants to go, only she has to finish packing the bottle masala.”

“How many she wants to take now!”

“Not to take, La! Ray is here, she’s sending three bottles with him to New Zealand.”

“With that he won’t be able to take anything else.”

“Anything you talk sometimes. Ample space is there! Last time I took two bottles for Alice, still there was lots of place in the suitcase!”

“Arrey, I don’t care, I’m not taking it! I only care about my roses. Have to be careful when we’re loading the car. Last I’ll put them, on top of the grill.”

“I kept two cloth bags on the counter. You can put in that.”

“Terry said they’ll start to bloom in four to five weeks.”

“Wrap nicely, La. They’ll be dead before we reach otherwise.”

***

In the first version Norna runs away.

It is early in the morning. So early that the sky is the navy blue of pleated skirts. Hundreds of them. More than she can count. As if the Catholic school girls all fell down.

Their cheeks are pink like cough syrup but they tell her not to worry. We’ve been running, they say. How we ran! Did you see us?

She wonders why she leaves like this. She doesn’t need to run. But it is not really a decision. How she brushes the hair from Eddie’s forehead before she kisses it. How she lifts herself out of bed, her body like a spider’s, suspended in air. How she slips her feet into her shoes. She takes his gym bag, not hers, because she has never used hers and isn’t sure if it works.

No one stops her. She doesn’t want them to but she is disappointed. She ought to have bumped into someone. Gilly on his way to the meat market. Joan on the landing below, a Virginia Slim between her fingers. Don’t worry, she tells Norna. I will blame it on my sister if they catch me.

You don’t have a sister, Norna says.

Have fun, Joan says. But she is not looking at her.

Maybe this is how Catholic school girls learn to smoke. A woman doesn’t tiptoe out of her home. She doesn’t reach for a lighter in the dead of night. She doesn’t gulp like an asthmatic from an inhaler. Or an asthmatic from a cigarette.

They don’t smell it. They don’t look down from the heavens. Their games are not interrupted ever so briefly.

You have guessed that there are many versions. Since you insist, I will tell you a second.

In this version Norna does not even think of leaving.

Leaving? Who leaves like that? What reason does she have to leave? She cannot even say the words to match the reasons of other women.

No, no. She stays.

One day she decides that she will learn to cook. Joan offers and she accepts. Come in the afternoon, Joan says. We will make a chicken.

They skin the bird and it peels away just as she imagined it would. Joan is very fast. See, I put this and this and this, she says. Her hands throw red and green and black into the dish, and Norna thinks, This, this is a magic show. Joan is going to make the chicken disappear.

They put it in the oven and wait.

When they take it out it is still raw. This has never happened to me, Joan says. How is it possible? Did I put the oven on? See, it’s ice cold!

Suddenly there is an explosion. There are chicken feathers everywhere. On the counter, on the walls, even in the half-open fridge.

How can it be! We removed the feathers! It is impossible! she says to Joan.

But Joan has disappeared.

Then she understands.

If there are too many versions, it is like they say about too many cooks: The chicken is delicious, but who made it?

Therefore this must be the final version.

Norna is back on the ninth floor ledge with Dana. The game is almost over because she wants to say Flora Fountain but knows she must not.

She gives up.

“Okay, you win,” she says to Dana.

“You can still say Flora Fountain,” Dana says.

“You know I cannot reach it,” she mumbles.

“What do you mean?” Dana asks. “You have the longest legs in the world. Don’t you remember? They wanted to build a statue of you but the workers quit on the seventh day. Severe dehydration. Too close to the sun, they said.”

Norna looks down.

It’s true. Her right foot is tapping a beat on the roof of watchman uncle’s cabin.

She flexes her toes.

***

Every morning Joan and Gilly wake up before their children do, set the house and day in order, settle down in the balcony with two cups of tea and a newspaper. Joan cuts a loaf of bread and a pair of tomatoes – do tomatoes come in pairs? she wonders – takes the chutney from the big fridge in the small kitchen and places it all on the table where they eat. Gilly does a load of laundry, sets the tea to boil, stands by the kitchen window, looking out.

Esme goes to college. Lino follows. Esme gets a job as a translator and moves to England. She writes every weekend without fail. One weekend she says that she has news. Lino says that he has chosen the wrong profession. He moves back home. He plays the piano in the mornings and it makes Joan happy. Doesn’t he play like an angel, La? she calls to Gilly. Gilly shushes her. Of course he does, Joan says. I’m right ninety-nine percent of the time, and didn’t I tell you that he had a talent? I told you, didn’t I.

Lino begins to chop things. Capsicum and carrot and onions and tomatoes and herbs that Gilly has not heard of. It is like there is a woodpecker in the house. Only it does not fly away when you ask it to, Gilly says. Joan laughs. It is temporary, she says, and goes back to her newspaper. As if I thought it was permanent, he mutters. All day chopping, but he won’t cook a thing. Joan grunts in response and sips her tea.

Esme writes and there are lots of exclamation marks. Joan jumps up and down and wakes Lino up. Connect me to the Skypi, she tells him. Lino groans. Gilly cries. He tells the milkman and the bread man and everyone in his phone book except a few people. Lynette calls Joan. What colour will you wear, she wants to know. Yellow, Joan says. I have always known. Yellow. She goes to the tailor in the evening but first she goes to the church. She leaves a yellow rose at the altar.

Lino graduates. He is offered a job in Bombay. Then a job in Bangalore. Of course you take the job here, Joan says. Aren’t you sick of living at home, Gilly asks. Esme has more news. This time Lino is excited. When I have children, I’ll name them Zoey and Zack, he tells her. I decided the names years ago. Esme has twins and names them Zoey and Zack.

Joan teaches Norna how to make lonvas. Norna is a terrible cook. We can move now, Gilly says. The kids have left, we can buy a place in a nicer place. Joan considers it. Gilly doesn’t mention it again. Joan doesn’t remind him. A Muslim family moves in downstairs. A goat arrives before Eid and eats all the plants in the neighbour’s pots. It disappears before Eid but not in the usual way.

Lynette says that Morrie is going deaf. I tell him, keep the mug in the kitchen, but he never listens, she says. You should have married Gilly, Joan tells her. Yes, but you got to him first, Lynette says. Esme writes. She’s a Buddhist. As long as you’re still a Catholic, Gilly tells her. Morrie does go deaf. But only in one ear and only partially. He can hear the news but not the family, Lynette explains.

The washing machine makes a funny noise. Esme writes. Lino writes sometimes. The jamun tree grows tall. Taller than the building. Look son! That’s how Jack climbed into the clouds, Eddie says. David stares at the sky and coos at it in wonder. Gilly watches from the window. He calls Esme, then Lino. Lino doesn’t pick up. His caller tune is those punk goth people. Gilly calls again. This time he gets the right number.

Joan stops colouring her hair. After thirty years? Gilly asks. I’m a grandmother, Joan says. My hair can be white if I want. I don’t bloody care what anyone thinks.

A real woodpecker appears. It taps on the window in the middle of the night and Joan screams. A burglar would not tap on the window, Gilly mumbles. Oh! Thank you for that information! Joan says. The woodpecker tap-taps for another hour and a half. Then it flies away. Gilly chuckles. Joan frowns. Gilly laughs, his mouth open, its sound like loose furniture in the back of a truck.

No one is driving the truck. Joan is not afraid.