by Anne Benjamin
He knew not to try to touch her. Not now. When all he wanted was to lie close beside her, feel her warmth seep towards him and stroke the mysterious bulge that they both had created. For months she’d drawn away from him. He didn’t have the right words to plead with her or find out why. She had a quick way of cutting him off: a shift of her head that made her long black hair slither across her shoulders, and then a sigh of exasperation. He knew he annoyed her. He wasn’t sure why. Or, rather, he did know why – but didn’t like the answer – because he couldn’t change things, couldn’t change himself, become someone she’d warm to again. He knew it was who he was, himself, that alienated her.
The baby was born after twenty-nine hours of torture. He’d watched Sharon as the contractions started, hovering around, helpless. He went with her to the hospital, went in with her to the delivery ward, but slunk out before the birth because through clenched teeth she’d hissed at him to go. “Stop staring at me. Charles, just get out.” And he couldn’t’ tell her how much he was hurting, seeing her pain, the anguish and shock on her face as she forced the little body from her own.
“Elizabeth,” he murmured, gazing at the infant sleeping in a sea of satin and frills. He patted the top of the cover, melted as tiny fingers curled around his thumb. He was entranced and mystified by it all. How such a thing could happen to them, him. The dark down on her forehead, the little pucker of skin in the middle of her upper lip, a sweet smell of powder, his wife’s milk and something he could only name as “baby-ness”. Surely things would be better now for him and Sharon. After a while, after Sharon recovered from the birth.
Elizabeth began to whimper and Sharon bustled in, her house coat swinging open. He felt her softness as she brushed past him to pick up the baby, soothing her and carrying her back to the lounge to feed her. Charlie went to the kitchen and made his wife a cup of tea, the way she liked it, traditional South Indian style, milky, sweet and spicy. He put it down beside her and stood at the door watching the two, mother and child. The baby was fretful, not easily fixing on Sharon’s full breast. Sharon looked pale, her eyes darker than usual, set deep, and once again he fell in love with her.
She was struggling with the infant, whom she held in the crook of her left arm, while she cupped her breast with her right hand trying to make the baby attach. Elizabeth’s little face cruised blindly over the engorged flesh in her search for the nipple. He wanted to say she had the angle wrong, to hold the baby differently. As an engineer, he knew about angles. Sharon looked up.
“Stop it. You’re not helping.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“She won’t feed when I’m nervous and you’re making me nervous.”
Charlie went back to the kitchen, crashed some pots around for a while. He took a load of clothes from the washing machine and carried them outside. He was happy to help for a while but he’d be back at work next week and Sharon would be on her own, picking up on all the usual housework. It was not his job to do these sorts of kitchen and laundry things.
He sat on the back step and stared at the yard, the grass that needed cutting, the half-dug garden plot for vegetables, a dried-out pot that once held a rose he’d given Sharon for her birthday. The card still hung there. He went across, bent, and deciphered the washed-out outline of what he’d written back then when, newly-married, they’d moved into their own home. To my own Rose of Sharon, with all my love. As he snatched at the card, a thorn scratched across his hand leaving a trail of blood. Still the nylon tie on the card resisted him, so he broke off the whole brittle stem and shook the card free. He rammed it into his pocket and went inside and slipped it in the small bible he kept on his bedside table.
The child grew and Sharon continued her absorption in feeding, bathing and watching over her. She showed no interest in anything but the child and spent hours on the phone to her parents in Chennai.
“I thought we agreed you’d go back to work once Elizabeth was old enough for childcare. She’s nearly one already,” Charles reminded her a couple of times. He was feeling the burden of being the sole provider.
“Mmm, I’m looking,” Sharon replied.
Sometimes, Charles upbraided her when he’d come home from work at the local council to find her still in her pyjamas, her hair undone, the previous day’s dishes still sitting dirty on the bench, washing still wet and left in the machine, baby paraphernalia all over the place. He noticed she’d put on weight.
“What are you doing all day?” he demanded from time to time. “I work all day so we have a home and food. It’s your job to clean the house and cook and wash.”
Increasingly, too, as she grew older, he found that Elizabeth was becoming troublesome. Making noise. Pulling things onto the floor. Crying when Sharon put her to bed. He told Sharon she should discipline the child more, children had to learn.
“Can’t you control her?” he shouted one night as the child once more spilled her milk over the floor.
“You don’t understand,” Sharon complained. “You’re too strict. She’s only a baby. And I’ve never had to do these things before. Why can’t you do some housework for a change?” She returned to the lounge room and slumped back down on the sofa to resume watching her newly-developed absorption with something on one of the commercial channels where the tv cameras focus on people getting caught as they brought things in through customs.
Later, that night, before they slept, she sat up in bed and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Charles, I think we should take Elizabeth home to meet her grandparents. They’re desperate to see her. What do you think?”
They agreed that Sharon would take the child and visit her parents in Chennai for a while. Charles encouraged her to take three months. Perhaps, she would feel more settled after some time with her own family. He would join them for a few weeks in the middle of this time.
Sharon had met Charles when she’d been looking for accommodation as an international postgraduate student. Rentals in Sydney were as hard to find as ever and Charles had been renting a house which happened to have an independent granny flat attached. It was ideal for a single young woman and Sharon snapped up the deal, especially since Charles was offering it at a much lower rate than comparable places. And it was close to transport.
Mostly, the young Indian woman went her own way which suited Charles well, who, nudging forty, and about ten years her senior, lived a solitary kind of life. If he socialised, it tended to be with his parents who had a market garden on the fringes of the city or his brother Joe and his family when they were visiting from the Central Coast. Occasionally, he felt obliged to join his colleagues from the Council’s Roads and Planning Department for a Christmas lunch or a farewell, but he was not easy with small talk and would find his companions wander off when he was in the middle of an earnest description of a vegetarian recipe or gardening tips.
It was only after the young student knocked at his door one evening and asked him if he knew how she could go about finding part-time work relating to engineering that he realised they shared a professional interest. This conversation led to his lending her some of his old text books and then going over some of her assignments before she submitted him. What Charles lacked in social ease, he made up for in technical knowledge and Sharon benefitted from his serious approach to his tutoring of her. He also found out that she was a Catholic as he was and he began offering her a ride to Sunday Mass when she wanted to go.
Charles found Sharon a little overwhelming, almost too lovely to be so close to when they were confined together over books. She reminded him of one of his mum’s porcelain dolls that she kept on display in a glass case in the Muscat family lounge room. He’d grown up knowing the dolls were for looking only and not touching and he carried this idea over to the beautiful Indian student who was spending more and more time with him. He asked her to go with him one Sunday when he was visiting Joe on the Central Coast. Sharon was inside with Joe’s wife Leah after lunch, helping put things away and Joe took his older brother outside to inspect the garden. “She’s something pretty special, Charlie,” Joe had said. “Watch over her. You don’t find many like that.”
In fact, at that stage, until Joe’s remark, Charles hadn’t thought beyond the immediate and had not figured Sharon into his plans beyond the present. He certainly was surprised when she initiated some time off, some activities that took them to restaurants, to the beach and for drives into the mountains. And it was Sharon who kept nudging the relationship further into something more intimate. Charles was smitten and Sharon herself was enthusiastic and bubbling about the possibility of a life together.
Their wedding was a small event by the standards of both families. Sharon insisted on a “Western-style” affair, tossing her head with disgust at the thought of wearing a sari. “This is my life now,” she declared. She also was adamant that she didn’t want her parents to make the journey from India “just for one day”.
“They’ve done everything for me all my life,” she told Charles. “Just once, I want to do something important for myself. They’ll have time to get used to the idea.”
At the time Charles wondered about this remark, but kept his comments to himself, as he often did.
He was impatient for his leave to come through and to be on his way to see both Sharon and Elizabeth. How the little one might have changed in the past weeks. Would she still recognise him? How Sharon might have changed also.
Despite the anticipation, his visit left him unsettled. Sharon’s parents lived in an area of the city called Besant Nagar. Its large open spaces and nearness to the ocean made for pleasant days and cool nights under large ceiling fans. A maid padded around the house in her bare feet, cleaning and dusting. Another older woman prepared the meals, although Sharon’s mother insisted on shopping for the food ingredients herself. Meals were leisured, although their formality left Charles stumped for words and picking at his food.
He found little common ground with Sharon’s father in the few conversations they had and was grateful that business matters kept Mr D’Souza largely out of the house. Sharon was taken up completely with her mother who cosseted Elizabeth and spent hours telling Sharon what she should be doing. Charles found time to wander the streets around the house and along the beach front.
The D’Souza family was extremely well off. Any doubts Charles might have had about their standing were obliterated on the evening they hosted a small gathering in honour of Sharon and her new family. Caterers provided food and wine that even Charles recognised as being “high-end”. The guests included a judge and his wife, someone senior from the Australian Consulate, a local television hostess and a clutch of seriously-wealthy business associates of Sharon’s father.
“Charles’ family is on the land, you know,” Mr D’Souza proclaimed to one group, “property just near Sydney. Yes. Charles? He’s a Government official, aren’t you?.” The guests swivelled towards Charles who gulped at his Champagne. He thought longingly of his dad with his farmers’ thick fingers, his mum in her floral apron and slippers and his own cluttered desk in the Council.
Once home again, and with Sharon and Elizabeth still in India, he continued his work in the backyard and in the garden. He planted lettuce, tomato, eggplant, capsicum and herbs. At the local Fijian grocery shop, he found a small curry leaf plant and brought it home, in case Sharon ever wanted to cook a curry. In the meantime, he practised a few Indian dishes himself, sambar, vegetable dishes, a raita.
Every evening, around nine, he called Sharon on her mobile, hoping to catch her after her afternoon nap. The calls were short. Often almost curt. “Yes, we’re well. Bye.” And then more often, “You know you don’t have to call every day, Charles. You know I’m safe. I’d tell you if anything was wrong.”
He rang, as usual, one night just as the three months of Sharon’s visit was due to finish. After a few cursory comments, she said, “Oh, by the way, Elizabeth has a fever, so I’ve delayed our flight.”
His heart sank. Terror at the thought of something happening his daughter so far away.
“She’s alright, Charles. We’re taking care of her,” Sharon was determined. “Just relax.”
Each day for the next week when he rang, he got the same answer.
Then, Sharon told him she needed to stay on another month – or two, she added. “Just to get my energy back.” And added, “And please stop calling.”
So he bided his time, tended his garden, and sent her emails instead.
Six months after she had left, Sharon stopped taking his calls. But she did send him an email in which she asked for money to cover living expenses for Elizabeth and herself while they were in India. Fifty thousand rupees a month should be sufficient, she suggested. $1000. Charles recalled the house and servants and driver.
He sat down and transferred the amount she’d requested. That month. And the next. And the next…When Elizabeth’s birthday came around, he made sure his transfer of $10,000 was done well in advance of the actual day. He did the same for the next birthday when it came around as well. And the next. Sharon didn’t ever acknowledge the money. The little tee shirts and toys he sent, they were returned unopened after three months, the packages scrawled roughly with felt pen, Not at this address or Return to Sender or Unknown at this Address.
The divorce papers found their way to him too. But too late for him to respond before it was finalised in the court in Chennai.
He bumped into a lawyer who spoke to him about something called The Hague Convention that was intended to provide a protocol for situations like his where one parent forcibly takes a child from one country to another without the other parent’s approval. But then, the lawyer said, unfortunately, India hadn’t signed and was not yet a party to the Convention.
By then he had lost his job, because he was too distracted to think of anything except his daughter, too distracted to think straight about anything. Weeds and unkempt grass had taken over the back yard. His once flourishing vegetable patch was overgrown and gone to seed.
By the back steps, was a terracotta pot with a straggly green bush in it, the only sign of life in the whole garden. He knew it was time to take the curry leaf plant from the pot and plant it in the ground. He’d do it one day.
Dr Anne Benjamin is a Sydney-based writer deeply connected with the Indian Subcontinent. In addition to academic writing in education and leadership, her publications include her memoir, Saffron and Silk. An Australian in India (2016) and Gemstones, an anthology of collaborative short form poetry (2016). Not Forgotten. Australian Catholic Educators 1820-2020 (co-editor) and Leadership for Ministry in a Synodal Church (co-author) are in the process of publication. Her writing often appears in Kerala Nadaam, an annual Malayalee literary magazine and her poetry is regularly published in Australian and international literary journals. Her poetry has won awards, including Montreal Poetry Prize Longlist 2011, ZineWest Winner 2016, ACU Poetry Prize Shortlist 2014, 2018 and 2019 (Highly Commended). Anne is an Honorary Professor at Australian Catholic University and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Western Sydney.