By Kavita Nandan
As Maya lay in their bed, she was pleased with herself, having emailed her director that she was sick and wouldn’t be coming to work. She knew this would be the perfect opportunity for the ambitious new recruit to wheedle his way onto the Afghanistan project ... the sleazebag. But she had been working on the project all month and she needed a break.
Bruce had already gone to work so she had the bed all to herself. She snuggled up in the double sized quilt which for one person was perfect and hugged the hot water bottle like a child. The day looked cold and miserable through the apartment blinds. It was hers and Bruce’s second Canberra winter together.
Maya stretched a lazy arm from under the quilt to take a book of short stories from the bedside table. In one of the stories, the author had anthromorphised the hot water bottle. That’s what she loved about writing. It made the ordinary interesting:
It lies in a forgotten place barely alive. Cold, empty and alone. The memory alone, of lungs bursting to capacity, boiling in inescapable heat, keeps it sane. It waits for a single person to embrace it. It has a vague notion that this has all happened before. It thinks: when the right season comes, I will be given what I long for the most – a complete life.
She began to actually feel sick. No relief came from the dryness in the air. Some memory that had been tucked away was coming back to her uninvited. She felt hot, hotter then it seemed possible on such a cold day. Her chest began to hurt badly. She flung the hot water bottle from her and it lay there like it had been one-punch hit. “Stupid me!” she cursed as she pushed the book aside. She had filled the bottle with boiling water again. Bruce had warned her many times to stop using it. He said she was going to burn herself one day.
He was right, but not in the way he thought he was, because he didn’t know about the river. No one did. Not even Mere and she was the only person who knew that Maya had gone to the river that day. Maya reasoned with herself: She was an adult now and the incident no longer had any bearing on her life. She had an interesting, well paid job; a loving, attractive partner; her parents were still healthy and she and Bruce had recently bought the stylish apartment in which they were now living. By most people’s standards in this wintry city she was a success. But memory scalded like hot water.
That day when Maya was walking home from school, she went into the water even though her mother had forbidden her to go on her own. In her mind, eleven was old enough to act independently. The river was especially enticing; smooth with dark mysterious pockets, warm and hot like love. Maya took her clothes off except for her underwear and laid them on the riverbank. She would conceal the wet underwear in her empty lunch box and then remove it before her mother could check if she had eaten her lunch. She floated on her stomach. Surrounded by the river’s embrace she wasn’t aware of how much time had passed. The sun soaked her entire body and dulled her other senses. She closed her eyes and didn’t hear them come.
All three boys were from school. The biggest boy (he was repeating a year for the third time) gave the commands with his hands. The humidity was making coconut oil drip down the forehead of the second boy, the pimply one. The third boy was almost handsome but not quite, as if God had been conflicted when he shaped his face.
They had silently entered the river and glided towards Maya catching her by surprise. She had stumbled in the water and then stood upright, automatically covering her naked body with her hairless arms even though she was submerged up to her neck in water. She recognised the pimply boy instantly, who during PE class, would stand behind her and punch her on the arm if she took a few extra seconds before passing the ball or hesitated before diving into the pool. She would hide her bruised flesh under a jumper even though it was too hot to wear one. The other two she had nothing to do with in school and so she couldn’t understand why they were looking at her as if they could see right through to her very essence. The half handsome boy stared at her in a funny way but the big one shook his head. She expected to see hatred in their faces but it wasn’t there, instead, they exuded a mix of calmness and satisfaction. As if they had hatched the plan weeks ago and had been waiting patiently all this time for her to be alone.
The two smaller boys held her thin arms while the leader pressed her perfect sized head into the water. He did it gently at first, as if he was baptising her, and only applied pressure when she tried to lift her head out of the water to breathe. The river had been warm at first and she could feel little fish and plants dancing at her feet. But then the rush of river water inside her felt like a dragon was breathing into her lungs. When she could bear it no longer, all of a sudden, she was released but instead of floating upwards, like a freshwater eel, she was going down and down into a deep water hole.
The next thing Maya recalled was seeing her house girl’s usually happy face look as white as uncooked cassava. She was pulling clothes on Maya repeating: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” not like she did at church but as if she were cursing. Her underwear felt cold and damp under the dry clothes. Mere must have come to collect taro from the local village garden near the river. Maya begged her not to say anything to her parents. She was too ashamed. She didn’t know how long she had been alone before Mere found her almost naked on the riverbank. Mere mustn’t have seen the boys because she had made no mention of them. They would have run away anyway after they lost her in the river. She probably thought Maya had been swimming in the river and accidently nearly drowned.
To this day, Maya doesn’t know how she made it to the riverbank. She didn’t know if what happened to her was motivated by adolescent male madness or the terrible season of racial violence and anger that Fiji was experiencing. The Fiji coup broke up many peoples’ lives but it put hers back together again. She was given a way out of hell when her parents made the decision to migrate.
She must have been asleep when her mother rang the buzzer because she woke up with a start. She felt awful. If only it had been a bad dream. Maya grabbed the hot water bottle, now lukewarm, and her dressing gown and ran to the phone to buzz the front door open. As she made a pot of herbal tea, she felt grateful that her mother had come to visit.
Amrita smiled at her daughter before her eyes travelled up to her face and then to the top of Maya’s head. She was thinking that her daughter was beautiful and smart, confident too. Australia had been good for her.
“Your hair looks bushy like it used to in Suva. You should use that smoothening hair conditioner I gave you.” She was glad Maya had finally met someone. It had been two years now and Bruce had proved that he cared a great deal for Maya.
‘Mummmm!’ said Maya in the whiny tone of a teenager as she patted down one side of her head, the side that was closest to her mother.
Maya had noticed that lately her mother seemed more carefree. She thought fondly of how these days very little made her mother angry. She only seemed to lose it when she couldn’t find the right spice in the supermarket or she and her Dad had a nostalgic moment about Fiji at one of their family dinners. She would raise her voice to a high pitch and say, “Can’t you people leave the past where it belongs? We have a new life now. A much better one.” If Maya thought for a moment she might, after all these years, tell her about what happened at the river she let it go, seeing that her mother was finally happy.
“Mum, Bruce is jealous of my hot water bottle.”
“Surely you’re not serious,” her mother replied.
At first, Maya had thought that Bruce was joking around.
“You hug that thing more than you do me.” Maya recalled him saying.
“Ha, ha. Don’t be silly Bruce. You’re being ridiculous,” Maya laughed.
But then he started making comments in a manner that suggested he was actually angry.
“There it is again. You’re always with it,” he would say. As if the hot water bottle had morphed into a person or far worse, another man. Whenever she boiled water in the electric kettle specifically for it, Bruce would glance up from the news, his green eyes narrowing and say bitterly, “I thought you were boiling the water for tea.” She had certainly not gone out of her way to deceive him.
Maya had heard Bruce on the phone to his mother, complaining that she did everything with it in tow. He was right though, for whenever she was in the kitchen cutting onions, chillies, garlic or vegetables on the chopping board, she had it tucked under the arm that was free of the knife, and when she stacked the dishwasher, her hand gripped it by its neck.
“Maya, if you are cold, why don’t you just put on the heater?” her mother asked.
“Bruce doesn’t like the heat,” Maya said in a tone that made it sound like an accusation. You remember the trip he recently made to Finland to visit his mother? He told me that it was only when he heard on the Finnish news that it was minus 48 degrees that he realised he needed another jumper!”
Bruce never talked about his past to Maya. It was as if, as soon as he came to Australia, he became a blank slate. Even his name didn’t give away any hint of an alternative identity. Luckily, Bruce and Maya wanted the same things out of life: a good relationship, secure jobs and a home. They felt no pressure to get married or to have children. Like her, he must have had some secrets. Even though they hadn’t shared them, they still had the ability to come between them. The past manifested in trivial and deeper ways, through moments of miscomprehension and feelings of jealousy and betrayal.
“Maya, Bruce is a very considerate man. Tell him you want the heater on when it’s cold.” Her daughter, Amrita was thinking, had grown into a lovely woman, those dark eyes and soft, smooth brown skin would melt a man but she could also act like a child sometimes.
“Mum, he doesn’t understand temperature.”
“Maya, that dressing gown that you are wearing makes you look plump. Stop using the hot water bottle so much,” Amrita said as if the two things were somehow related to each other.
“Mum! There’s nothing wrong with being a bit overweight. And it’s winter ...”
Every morning before he left for work, Bruce asked Maya to make him a cup of tea. As Maya heated the water in the kettle, she welcomed the thought that very soon he would leave and she would be preparing the water for its sake alone. When that moment came, Maya boiled the water, filled the hot water bottle and placed it under her pink, fluffy dressing gown, tying the belt in such a way that the hot water bottle and she were held together in a tight embrace.
The thing that Bruce (and her mother) didn’t understand was that they weren’t fighting an obsessive habit but something invisible that would always be part of her. All those years of growing up on an island in which there was both languidness and lawlessness had infused in her blood, brain and bone. No matter how much she became like everybody else in this place, she would still be drawn to the heat and the humidity of the old place even if it landed her in hot water. Perhaps weather or temperature were not absent of history and identity and they were not the surface of things but signalled what lay down below.
Kavita Nandan’s first novel Home after Dark was published in December 2014 by The University of the South Pacific Press. Other work includes editing Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian fragments (2005), and co-editing Writing the Pacific: An Anthology of Fiction and Poetry (2007) and Unfinished Journeys: India File from Canberra(1998). She lives Canberra but remains connected to Fiji where she grew up.
Photograph by Kyle Post CC. 2.0