By Jessica Faleiro
Sunny Pereira’s obliging voice crested over the neatly upholstered antique Portuguese furniture, slid across the living room, drifted upstairs, and seeped through the crack under Penny’s door to where Penny sat at her desk writing. She’d been wondering about the frangipani tree outside her window, distracted by its fragrance and making notes about it when Sunny’s recognisable tone diverted her attention. Penny rose from her chair and stretched her stiff joints. She put down her pen, opened her bedroom door, and sat at the top of the stairs listening.
Sunny had stopped talking and her mother had filled the gap in the conversation without missing a beat, as she usually did.
‘I saw your mother just the other day in the market, you know. She looked like she had put on some weight, so I told her to drink warm water with a bit of lemon and honey every morning . . . to clear the digestive system, you know? I’ve started doing it every morning and see, I’ve lost two kilos. Just like that! So simple! You should try it too. You’ve put on quite a bit of weight since I last saw you. Aren’t the kids keeping you busy?’
‘Yes, they are.’
‘Then? You’re not running around with them enough or what? That’s how you’ll lose weight naturally. I hope you’re helping your Sharon around the house and not leaving everything for her to do only.’
‘Yes, teacher. I help her.’
‘Good, good. My husband was useless. I was the one who had to cook, clean, look after the children—everything. Only thing he was good at was business and gardening. At least I managed to keep the frangipani tree alive after he left. Rest of the plants and trees were going to be ruined or were overgrown. No one to look after them.’
‘What about Penny?’
She heard her mother snort. ‘Not her. She’s got her nose stuck in a book all the time. It’s only her and her books, nothing else exists for her. Tell me, are your kids as good as you at Maths?’
‘Yes, the little one is only five and he can do multiplication tables up to ten.
‘Very good! When you’re ready, you can send them to me.’
Penny’s mother, Lourdinha Vaz, had been a Maths tutor to over half of the children in Margao from before Penny was born. Now that she was retired, and recently widowed, generations of students still dropped by the house to say ‘hello’, wish her mother well and wax nostalgic about the good old days when they were school children.
Her mother always told her favourite ex-students that they could bring their children to her for Maths tuition, although she made some excuse if any of them did actually do it. She was losing her memory and didn’t want to admit to anyone that she couldn’t solve a quadratic equation like before, often forgot the Pythagoras theorem, and once even mixed up the area and the circumference of a circle.
Although, it was usually her mother who was doing the waxing and the ex-students doing the waning, those who remembered her fondly were patient, indulgent, and allowed her mother the courtesy of talking till her jaws ached. Penny welcomed these visits to their family home which was in a quiet cul-de-sac just down the road from Gaylin Chinese restaurant, on the outer edges of Margao city. It meant that her mother could have some time to vent and, Penny hoped, empty her mind of all her stories. These were usually stories that Penny had heard so often the edges of her curiosity about her mother’s life had been rubbed dull. But, this never stopped her mother from wanting to repeat them over and over again to any audience present, including her daughter even if she’d heard them all a hundred times before. These days, Penny sought to drown out her mother’s nasal drone which, to Penny, had more of a quality of incessant nagging and criticism than anything endearing.
When guests came over though, they got to see, what Penny called, the ‘Other Mother’—the polite, helpful lady who had helped them achieve top marks in Geometry, Algebra, and Probability. That was the thing about her mother. ‘I never take duffers’, had been something she was quite proud of saying to whoever would listen. Penny still recalled the gruelling tests her mother set for potential students to help her decide whether they were worth the effort of taking them under her wing.
Both Sunny and his wife had been toppers during their SSC years. Penny remembered this because her mother went on and on for a month to everyone when she found out. A few years later, when Sunny got into medicine, she repeated herself saying, ‘He was one of mine.’ She was slightly less proud when she found out that he’d chosen medical research instead of practicing medicine. She’d been secretly hoping to be able to go to him for a check-up someday, had fantasies of referring her friends to him, giving her the chance to say, ‘He topped Maths because of me.’ The subtext, of course, was that she wanted to take credit for his intelligence and achievements, the way any doting parent did. But, she didn’t miss a beat. There were plenty of other toppers to help her keep high score. Lourdinha took pride in the fact that mothers still knocked on their door begging her to tutor their children because she was still ‘the best we’ve ever had.’
Penny was neither a topper nor a duffer; she was somewhere in between. But the fact that she had chosen a career as a writer instead of getting married and giving her mother grandchildren to dote on had lowered Penny in Lourdinha’s estimation. Penny was painfully aware of the disappointment she was to her mother just as Penny’s father had been painfully aware of Lourdinha’s disappointment in him too. Although, he had had more time to adapt to the situation and bury it under a sheen of indifference when his wife’s scolding voice took on a certain drone.
Penny had often thought in the last few months since her father had died that he’d finally thrown in the towel and let himself drown under the weight of her mother’s displaced disappointment in her own life. He’d been peacefully snoring one moment, then the next he was gone without a murmur, while Penny’s mother lay fast asleep next to him. Lourdinha didn’t even realise until the next morning when she tried to wake him up for breakfast. He was only sixty-five. While Penny felt a little abandoned, the way an orphan might, she also couldn’t help feeling a little envious that her father had managed to escape her mother’s disappointment, finally. Without her father as a buffer between them, the tension between her and her mother, though subtly, intensified. Penny responded by retreating even more into her own self and her writing.
She could hear her mother replying to something Sunny said when he managed to get a word in edge-wise. The louder rumble of her mother’s voice also rose upstairs and sped past Penny, venturing further down the corridor. She peered down from her perch on the top stair into the living room. They were both sitting with their backs to the staircase, the sides of their bodies at right angles to each other. Penny noticed that Sunny had entered the nodding zone. Her mother was in rant mode and was successfully steam-rolling the conversation into gossip about the neighbours, a conversation that they both knew Sunny would neither be able to contribute to, nor fully understand as he didn’t know their neighbours well enough. Penny looked at Sunny shifting slightly in his chair and grinned.
Sunny was of average height and looks. But his charm was in the beaming smile and ready laugh he had for everyone he knew. It came so easily to him that it earned him the nickname Sunny because of his disposition. And he had the patience of a saint. He was just the kind of person who could put her mother at ease and give her the kind of quality attention that Penny struggled to find the patience for.
Penny heard Sunny respond with some inanity or the other and returned to her bedroom to continue staring out the window at the frangipani tree. After a few minutes, she gave a deep sigh and looked down at her hand-written notes. She’d been struggling for weeks with the start of a new novel and it wasn’t going very well. She’d tried going for walks, met up with friends, and distracted herself from writing for a while. But nothing seemed to work. Writer’s block had not only pitched a tent and built a campfire in her mind but also planted a garden and made friends with the neighbours. It had decidedly come to stay. The last few days, she’d decided to just buckle down and metaphorically glue her bum to her chair, forcing herself to squeeze out an odd thousand words a day at the very least. Trouble was, nothing she wrote was any good.
She was avoiding re-reading the words she’d just scribbled onto the pages before her when an idea struck her. She pushed her neatly scrawled words aside and began to write on a fresh page in her A4 notebook, then another and another. Something about seeing her mother talking to Sunny had triggered the idea for a new story about a pleasant, beloved family man who was an IT professional by day and an amateur detective by night.
By dinnertime, Penny had finished writing three chapters without stopping. She wrote another chapter before going to sleep, and when she woke up the next morning, she kept going in full flow. Two unbelievable weeks later, she had the first draft of a decent story that had come to her in an unusual rush of inspiration. She’d just finished working on the last page before breakfast and rushed downstairs in a burst of jubilation into the kitchen where she stood arms akimbo beaming at her mother who was sitting at the breakfast table. Lourdinha looked up from her newspaper at Penny.
‘What are you smiling about?’
‘The novel I was working on.’
‘Oh,’ said her mother. ‘Finally! Now maybe you can put that nonsense aside and get a real job. One that actually pays,’ said her mother brusquely before sharply flicking her handful of newspaper and delving back into its depths.
Penny’s shoulders slumped forward and she lowered her arms slowly. If she wasn’t so hungry, she’d have left the kitchen. She slunk quietly over to the gas stove where she could smell the chorizo sausages her mother had kept aside for her. She shovelled two tablespoonfuls onto a chipped China plate with a faded blue Victorian pattern on it and grabbed a cold chapatti from the quarter-plate on the table. She took her breakfast into the back garden, sat on the shallow stone ledge around her father’s frangipani tree, and munched her breakfast in dejected silence under the scent of its fragrant blossoms.
Penny had once vowed never to let her mother get to her when it came to her writing, but in her moment of excitement, she’d forgotten that no success or achievement would ever be enough for Lourdinha Vaz. She’d worked relentlessly on this novel, fuelled by the adrenaline of her thoughts which, for the first time, had come in thick and fast. She’d never experienced anything like that before and was pleased with the outcome. Penny made a quick decision. She wasn’t going to let her mother’s disapproval of her passion drown it out of her, ever. She wouldn’t make the mistake of telling her about her stories ever again.
Her agent loved her novel and the characters, especially the short, burly protagonist who wore polo shirts, zipped around on a Kinetic, and worked in a medical research lab while helping out his neighbours and family members by night with a little secret sleuthing. The publisher loved it too and demanded more books featuring the same character. She signed a three-book contract and got a hefty advance for the next book. Penny began working on a sequel while her first hit the publication process. It took six months, a relatively short timeframe, for the book to be out on shelves.
Fresh-off-the-press copies arrived in the post a few days later. Penny tore open the small brown paper package and sniffed the spine of one of the books to get high on the crisp smell of fresh print on paper. She glanced at her mother, debating whether to show her the copies or not. She hadn’t even told her about the contract or the advance.
Her mother was on the phone with a fixed expression of concentration on her face, oblivious to Penny and her parcel of books. She finally looked up at Penny and said into the telephone, ‘Okay, we’ll be there,’ before putting the receiver down. Penny spotted the teardrop starting to form in the corner of her mother’s left eye.
‘That was Tia Marie. She called to say that Sunny was in an accident. He’s dead.’
Penny stopped smiling. She watched as her mother’s thoughts started to spiral and she began to wring her hands in distress.
‘He was such a good boy, you know? I don’t know how I missed seeing his name in the Obituaries today.’
Lourdinha went through the Obituary pages in the newspaper every morning. It was a part of her daily breakfast ritual. She sat in her ankle-length, cotton nightdress at the dark wooden kitchen table, buttered toast in one hand, a crisp O Heraldo in the other open to the Obituary pages. Penny hurried in and out of the kitchen, hastily making herself a cup of instant Nescafe coffee and exiting before she was caught in her mother’s litany of the recently deceased. Her mother’s social engagements revolved around attending funerals, at least three a week. It wasn’t that her mother knew these people on a personal level; it was enough that she’d just heard of them. She felt that that gave her enough license to attend their funerals. Attending funerals here seemed less like a celebration of life than a part of what Penny secretly referred to as another duty on the list of social engagements for the local collective entity of Margao society. Penny often thought that the only reason her mother volunteered at Our Lady of Grace church was to increase her social status within the collective and keep abreast of local gossip.
Penny grabbed her parcel of books and rushed to her bedroom to escape the inevitable lamentation for Sunny, which was the result of her mother’s need for attention and drawn-out emotional drama. Why couldn’t she just grieve in silence, like a normal person? Her mother had been quite the grieving widow when her father died. She’d really laid it on thick when she spotted mourners approaching the front door to pay their condolences, weeks after the funeral. She’d get her embroidered hanky out and Penny would watch in wonder as her mother tried to squeeze out a tear or two for them before they’d even entered the house. The memory of that false drama stuck in her throat now.
At Sunny’s funeral, Penny got a chance to chat with his sister Charlene, whom she hadn’t seen in years. Charlene had thick, lustrous hair that fell to her waist in a long curtain. She wore it away from her face with a headband and it moved in a gentle swathe of black night with every little shift of her body. Charlene had always been beautiful and the years had been kind to her, but now, it struck Penny, that somehow, the loss of her brother had made her look even more beautiful in her vulnerability. During the funeral, Penny noted how regally she carried herself; the image of her strength lingered in Penny’s mind.
After the funeral rites were said and most of the mourners had finished murmuring their wishes to Sunny’s family, Penny saw her mother sidle up to Sunny’s mother. Penny stood a distance away but was still within earshot as she overhead her mother ask how she was doing.
She heard Mrs Pereira lean in and say, ‘It’s one thing to lose your spouse but the most painful thing is living through the death of your own child.’
‘Yes, yes, but thank God you have the grandkids to keep your mind occupied, no? And at least Charlene will be able to devote more time to you. After all, she doesn’t have any kids to keep her busy.’
Mrs Pereira leaned away and Penny watched her veil the expression of disdain on her face. She stared in stoic silence at her son’s casket being covered with clumps of soil by mourners surrounding the hole in the ground. Penny, mortified, wished another hole would open up in the ground before her.
Penny recalled that Charlene was a team leader at Siemens, just under the operations manager. She had a tough job and was making good money. And if she couldn’t have kids, that wasn’t a bad alternative to keep her mind occupied from her infertility issues which, for some inexplicable reason, her mother was obsessed with. But, even after you’d achieved the pinnacle of success, it appeared to be all for naught to Lourdinha unless you were also a wife, a mother, and eventually a grandmother. Sometimes it seemed to Penny that it didn’t matter how many glass ceilings women broke in the corporate world, they’d never be good enough for some mothers until they had assumed the same roles that they had.
Penny already knew she’d be converting this idea into the central premise for her next book when she heard her mother mutter something as they were leaving the cemetery.
‘What was that?’
‘No, I was just saying that Charlene is so pretty. It’s such a shame that she can’t pass her beauty on.’
Penny sighed inwardly. Not again.
‘It could be her husband, Ma.’
She paused for a millisecond, considered Penny’s words then said, ‘What does it matter? In these cases, people blame the women only.’
Penny sighed. Her mother didn’t realize that she was doing the same; being a part of the problem, not the solution. Had anyone even considered asking Charlene whether she wanted children or not? Penny was sure that her mother’s generation assumed that no woman in her right mind would consciously choose not to have children. Penny didn’t want to bring it up. It would have just added to the tension between her and her mother.
Her mother was about to say something else when someone from the cemetery came up to say ‘hello’ and walk home with them. Penny watched the expression on her mother’s face change from the rock-stiff hardness that it was when addressing her daughter to the smiling, cheerful, shuttered façade that her mother had spent decades perfecting ever since she learned the skill from her mother and grandmother before her.
‘Never let anyone else see what you’re really feeling. Smile through your pain. Nobody wants to be around a sensitive soul who openly feels everything, cries so easily. People prefer to be around cheerful, happy, smiling faces and be told untruths about themselves and the people they love.’
Penny was eleven and had come home from school crying because one of her schoolmates had bullied her. She entered the house, her eyes full of tears, so didn’t see her mother’s best friend in the opposite chair. She missed her mother’s slight frown as the friend regarded Penny’s wet face. Neither came to her comfort.
‘What’s wrong, Penny?’ she heard her mother say in a voice she had long ago learned meant ‘Stop Crying Now’.
‘Sheila teased me at school because my breasts are bigger than the other girls’.’
The friend laughed and turned to Penny’s mother, ‘Such a sensitive girl you have.’ Then she turned to Penny and said, ‘A day will come when you’ll be the one laughing at Sheila, my dear. You’ll have all the boys after you and Sheila will have a small face, watching from the corner.’
After that Penny got ‘The Talk’ from her mother. The worst of it was that Sheila was now married to one of the richest property developers in Goa, had three children, a business of her own, and a dog. From Penny’s experience, bullies always ended up getting what they wanted. No one wanted to admit this. Instead, society preferred to believe in a lie. Society’s need to believe that justice would ultimately triumph was so strong it found a way to justify or excuse just about any kind of abusive behaviour.
Penny learned this from her mother that day. And remembered it years later when she was at Sheila’s high society wedding, her mother waltzing merrily with her father on a high from being associated with the cream of society and getting to rub shoulders with them.
Penny remembered this now, and as soon as they got home, she mounted the stairs two at a time to avoid giving her mother the chance to continue in private where they’d left off outside the cemetery. She shut the door with a bang, just loudly enough for her mother to know to leave her alone.
Penny had two more books left on her three-book contract and her publisher wanted to squeeze more detective fiction out of her since the last book had been such a tremendous success. In order to focus on nothing but writing the book, she decided to rent a hotel room for a few days at the secluded Royal Grove luxury resort in Majorda. It was off-season and her uncle Mickey worked there, so she was able to get the staff family discount. Besides, she had enough of an advance to cover the price of a very comfortable standard room for just a few days, till she had all the sketches of the first draft worked out.
Penny had always had good memories of staying at the Royal Grove when she was younger. Her father used to book a room for a few days at the hotel every summer holiday to give his wife a break and a change of scenery so that she could relax away from the daily strife of managing the family and their household. This was before the resort became so successful that it grew into a luxury destination with a five-star rating. Its seclusion, nestled in a grove of coconut trees surrounded by rice fields and the beach on one side, hadn’t changed over time. It was perfect for a writer looking to be away from phones, callers, and in Penny’s case, her mother.
It turned out to be a good plan. Once Penny had settled against the carved teak headboard of her bed, propped up by fluffy white pillows, with her legs stretched out before her and laptop on her thighs, she found herself instantly in the writing zone she needed to be in. The idea that had formed earlier in her mind was burning a hole through her frontal cortex. She opened her laptop and began typing furiously, noting words down as soon as they popped into her head, forming uninterrupted streams of lines that evolved into seamless chunks of paragraphs. As before, this book, completed three weeks later, was another labour of divine intervention. Penny had used Charlene as the inspiration for her character, and the memories of her mother’s early instruction about pain suppression helped her to create her best villain yet—someone with Charlene’s looks; an independent woman-turned-serial killer; short, beautiful, sweet-faced, and sensitive; someone unlikely to be a deadly murderess. But the one quality that made her character a psychopath was the emotional torture provided by her mother over the years which had turned her character from a sensitive soul into a person who was emotionally detached and vented her creative expression of pain by killing others. She kept only Charlene’s original physical characterization in the book though she changed her name in it. The rest of the characters and the plot were entirely made up.
Her editor was ecstatic. On the phone call, only twenty-four hours after receiving her manuscript, he said, ‘I’ve already spoken to the marketing guy and they’re focusing on a mammoth launch strategy for this book. We’re talking potential best-seller! You have to write another, and we’ll be able to see the best-selling box-set of all three books within the next couple of years. I think you have finally found your genre. It’s going to put you on the literary map!’
That phone call kept Penny elated for at least a month while she went through the gruelling process of revision and edits that both she and her editor were happy with. When the artwork for the book covers came through, she jumped for joy.
The day her author copies arrived in the post, her mother knocked on her bedroom door. ‘Come in.’
As her mother entered, Penny turned away from unwrapping the small parcel on her desk to see her red-rimmed eyes.
‘Did you read this morning’s paper?’
‘Of course not. That’s your morose occupation, not mine.’
‘Not the Obituaries, page three. Charlene D’Souza was murdered yesterday.’
‘What?!’ The shock on Penny’s face was palpable. ‘What happened?’
Her mother came closer, enthused that she had the audience she had been hoping for, and sat on the edge of Penny’s bed. She sniffed and wiped away a tear with the familiar white cotton embroidered hanky Penny suddenly noticed balled up in her mother’s fist. Penny couldn’t help wondering if these were more crocodile tears in practice for the funeral she was sure her mother would attend, or the real thing.
‘I saw the story this morning in the paper just as I was finishing my tea. Just called up her mother’s neighbour, and stupid woman, she hadn’t even heard yet. I was the one who had to tell her whatever little I knew from the paper. So I rang the neighbour living opposite Charlene’s mother and thankfully she’d already been to the house, so she had the details first-hand.’
Penny’s mother was bursting with the news she’d spent collecting the last hour over the phone.
‘Apparently Charlene got home at eight from work last night and her husband had gone to watch a football game at a friend’s house. Police say that they were probably in the process of being burgled when she entered the house. They cut through the balcony grill and slipped into the house. They had already collected all the cash and one of them was rifling through her jewellery on the dressing table in her bedroom when she opened the bedroom door. He stabbed her under her left breast, between her ribs. They left quickly after that. Police say she died almost instantly and her husband found her a few minutes later lying in a huge pool of blood. He said she was still warm when he touched her arm.’
Her mother was sobbing uncontrollably now.
‘Isn’t it terrible?’ she gurgled through blowing her nose loudly. ‘First Sunny, now Charlene, barely a year later. Her mother must be suicidal.’
Penny stared at her blankly, lost in her own thoughts. Her mother continued.
‘It’s as Mrs Pereira said, it’s such a penance to survive your own children. I would hate to be left behind if you passed too.’
That brought Penny’s focus back to her mother. Something about it rubbed her the wrong way. She wanted to tell her mother that her venom and bitterness was enough to keep her pickled for all eternity but she didn’t want to pick a fight now. She had to get her mother out of the room. Her mother read her silence and lack of eye contact as dismissal. She looked around the room forlornly. Then casting her eyes over the piles of books stacked against the wall because the bookcase was full, she said, ‘Those need a good dusting.’
‘So send the maid in.’
‘Mala? She’s still new. Besides, she doesn’t speak Konkani and barely knows English. I have trouble making her understand what I want her to do as it is. She’s good for nothing. I’ll have to do it.’
‘Nobody asked you to.’
‘Then who? You won’t bother.’
‘It doesn’t bug me. I like the way the dust looks on the books.’
‘I’ve never heard of such a . . . Why do you need so many books? What for?’ asked her mother, scanning the overflow of books around the room with disgust.
‘Send the maid in or leave it alone. I don’t want you touching my books or anything in my room. Got it, Ma?’
Lourdinha’s lips went tight as a taut thread, the skin around her mouth pale. Anger flared in her eyes. She stood up from the bed, left the room, and shut the door behind her with a bang.
Penny’s mind was already miles away. A knife to the heart under the ribs. That’s how she’d killed off her villain in the last book—with a large kitchen knife. She racked her brains to recall how Sunny had died. What had the paper reported? A scooter accident. A collision with . . . something. Was it a TATA Sumo or a truck? Penny got up and rummaged through a pile of papers filed away neatly in one corner of the room. The stirred up dust motes tickled her nostrils, causing her to sneeze thrice in quick succession. There it was in O Heraldo—a small write-up about the accident that her mother had kept aside for her obituary collection of people she’d been fond of. Penny had photocopied and filed it away because the photograph was so gruesome and interesting. It showed the truck still standing and a crushed abandoned scooter lying on its side, shards of shattered glass scattered everywhere. The scooter was half under the front of the truck, which was painted bright milk chocolate brown and had a violently fluorescent pink lotus flower printed on the back with the words ‘HORN OK’ in bright red lettering stamped below it.
The article said that the scooter had tried to overtake the truck but was in the blind spot when the truck moved to the left, and the two-wheeler had crashed into the side and ended up under it. The villain in her first book, whom she’d fashioned after Sunny’s physical characteristics, had committed suicide by drinking half a bottle of whiskey and then driving his motorcycle at night on the Western Ghats. He’d swerved to avoid hitting a truck at the last minute and his two-wheeler had rolled down a cliff killing him instantly with a broken neck. Penny opened the door and found her mother downstairs in the kitchen, preparing dinner.
‘Ma, how did Sunny die?’
‘Scooter accident,’ she said abruptly, without looking up.
‘No, I mean, did he die because of internal haemorrhaging or a head injury or . . .?’
‘His mother said that his neck vertebrae had snapped.’
Penny walked slowly back up to her room and shut the door behind her. So, was this how it was now? Did Penny suddenly have the actual power to murder whoever she wanted by writing about them? In what universe was that even possible? But there were two deaths so soon after each publication. In the same manner as the deaths portrayed in her books. There was the matter of her last book. She still had to write it.
For weeks, Penny struggled, starting off a section then dropping the idea when it started to get obvious that she was writing in a character from real life. She began entire chapters over and over again, re-writing them from scratch, then discarding crumpled balls of paper that were almost the size of the dust balls that grew in her room as she receded further into solitude.
Penny grew afraid of meeting other people; she avoided friends and family. Even seeing them could cause her to inadvertently write their descriptions into her work and then . . . what if that resulted in dire consequences? She could never forgive herself. Her mother was the only one with whom she had any contact with anymore. After many months of retreating from the world and no chapters to show her editor, Penny’s frustration turned into sleepless nights and the lack of sleep ate up Penny’s meagre reserve of patience, especially around her mother.
Everything changed the moment she realized that she could write in actual villains from her community as characters. Like the chaplain of the next village who, it was known, was sent to the backwaters of Goan village life after he was found fiddling with an altar boy in the Mahim Church sacristy, or the local politician who was known to be cheating on his wife and had fathered a child with his mistress, then beaten and thrown his wife out of the house and installed his mistress there instead. Not to mention all the people he’d bribed to shut up about it.
Penny’s fingers flew across her laptop, trying to recall the details of how they looked. Did he have a moustache or a bald head now? She rushed downstairs and into the back of the kitchen to look through the pile of newspapers left there for recycling. She picked up two and lay them flat on the kitchen table, quickly flipping through them, looking for a photograph she could refer to for descriptions. Her mother entered and was startled to see her out of her room after months of self-imposed solitude.
‘What are you doing down here?’
‘Nothing,’ she said curtly, trying to concentrate.
‘What are you looking for?’ insisted her mother.
‘Nothing, Ma. Just leave me be.’
Penny heard the sound of exasperation in her voice and tried to ignore it. She turned over another page quickly.
‘I just sorted through those. Don’t mess them up.’
Penny ignored her.
‘I’ll get the girl to do your room while you’re down here,’ her mother said suddenly as she heard the sound of Mala’s chappals enter the house through the open front door. Penny slapped her open palm down on the paper in front of her.
‘I said to just leave me be. I’m busy.’
‘What did I say?’
‘Could you keep quiet for a minute—even a minute—whenever you see me? Or does my presence automatically trigger a string of verbal diarrhoea from your mouth?’
Her mother looked at her, horrified.
‘Sheeh! What rubbish you’re saying! How can you speak to your mother like that?’
‘I’m going up to my room. Don’t send Mala in today,’ said Penny in frustration. She hated that she’d snapped at her mother but she was in the middle of a literal life or death breakthrough and the last thing she needed was her mother’s voice intruding on her thoughts when she was in creative flow. Finally, Penny found a picture of the politician she had in mind. She grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled some preliminary character sketches as thoughts flowed through her mind. She doodled absent-mindedly on her pages later, sated with her idea and coming to terms with the thought of killing off a corrupt local politician—after all she wasn’t one hundred percent certain that she was the one responsible for their deaths. That was just ridiculous . . . wasn’t it? It was probably just pure coincidence.
A couple of weeks later, Penny sent the preliminary draft to her editor who was thrilled for the third time in a row and gave Penny another month to send him the completed manuscript. Penny was a nervous wreck throughout the three-month long publication process. When she couldn’t sleep at night, she took to driving to the politician’s house and parked a distance away, just watching as he and his mistress moved through their lighted rooms at night, having their dinner and living through another ordinary day of their lives. She pored daily through the morning papers, surprising her mother by taking an interest in them, and looked for news of the politician. He had recently become embroiled in a case naming him and others for taking bribes from government contractors, all vying for a road building commission from the Public Works Department. Additionally, when she’d asked around, she’d uncovered rumours of a conspiracy to have his wife killed off by a hit man because she wasn’t agreeing to a legal divorce. Technically, Penny reasoned to herself, she was saving another life by ending his, if that was indeed what was about to happen . . . wasn’t she? Her digestive system was on the verge of gastric distress by the time she heard that copies of the book were on their way in the post to her.
Penny was at Borkar's supermarket hunting for a half kilogramme box of Lipton loose leaf black tea her mother had requested. She offered to go to the shops just so that she could get out of the house and out of her head. The post had been delayed by a week and she was going crazy with anticipation. She finally found the tea she was looking for, grabbed a few other things that her mother had asked her to buy for dinner that night, and dumped the grocery bags in the passenger seat of her car.
She braked hard just outside the driveway when she saw an ambulance parked in it. She rushed in and found Mala in tears, clutching the arm of a paramedic. As soon as she saw Penny, she grabbed the collar of her cotton shirt and said in the few English words she knew, ‘Madam is gone.’
They told Penny that it was a heart attack, and even through her shock, she was able to reason that it was just fate. The books hadn’t arrived yet after all. It couldn’t possibly be she who had caused her mother’s death. Besides, she’d written the politician into the story, not her mother. She’d been very careful about not writing in someone with whom she had a personal connection.
It was only later the next day, after the funeral and after the constant stream of mourners to her house had died down to a trickle, that Mala brought her a small package.
Penny took it from her hands with wide eyes. ‘When did this arrive?’
‘Yesterday only. Madam take from postman and put on top fridge for you. Then fall down and I calling ambulance.’
Penny spent the night poring over the Obituaries of all the local papers for any sign of the politician’s name. There was nothing. She was crestfallen and confused.
Penny retreated to her bedroom and thought about how silent the house was now that her mother was gone. As she listlessly moved the papers on her desk, her eyes fell on the dust-covered character sketches she’d used in her last book. She stared in shock at the doodles she’d made next to the lines describing her antagonist’s death.
She’d inadvertently doodled the word Ma into a skull and crossbones image right next to where she’d written notes for her villain, ‘. . . dies young of a massive coronary brought on by the hard-heartedness of a corrupt life.’ Penny’s heart sank. She stared out the window into the darkness beyond the frangipani tree.
The image in the banner is of the Canadian actress Mary Pickford. It is taken from Wikipedia Commons and used here for representational purposes only.
Jessica Faleiro is the author of Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa (Rupa; 2012). Her fiction, non-fiction, poetry and travel writing have appeared in several literary journals, Asia Literary Review, Indian Quarterly, and Mascara Literary Review among them. She hosts talks on the writerly life and runs creative writing workshops in India. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, UK. To follow her writing click here.
'Penny' is extracted from Faleiro's forthcoming novel, The Delicate Balance of Little Lives.
Her book Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa can be purchased here.