Dec 02, 2023
Dec 02, 2023
by Mehru Jaffer
Rover barked in the Vienna apartment.
She paused her daily morning exchange, of thought with words on the computer, to steal a glance at the time, blinking below, on the left hand corner of the screen. It was 10 am, and yet another Friday. The mouse clicked on the “save” icon and she dragged herself away from the warm hug of the radiator, permanently parked against the wall protecting her corner in the home from the rest of the world, to walk across to the kitchen.
Emptying the kettle of yesterday’s water into the sink, she refilled, fastening it back on the electric plate cabled into plugs hidden in a secret crevice below the kitchen counter. She lit a tee candle, with the aroma of oranges, and placed it in between the slim legs of a samovar simplified by modernity into an uncomplicated stand for teapots.
“Whose there…? Who is there Rovy?” she repeated several times in a tone often reserved to talk to children. And listening to her voice dripping with affection Rover barked with greater gusto. While the water in the kettle grumbled towards boiling point she threw in two heaped teaspoons of black tea leaves from a tin labeled “Darjeeling”, into a transparent pot made out of glass that is resistant to heat. She gathered the colorful tablecloth, with the Made in India tag, and shrugged off the last crumbs left over from the previous meal into the kitchen sink. Arranging it back on the square dinning table she thought,
“After all it is no ordinary one who will soon knock on my door but the cleaning lady herself!”
She smiled at the thought, she thought so smart, and also at the idea of Nina, the former street car driver turned caretaker of a housing complex at the foot of the Vienna woods.
Both women lived here, one the wife of an international bureaucrat from the orient and the other a Viennese woman who had failed to entice the socialist ideas prevalent here to improve her lot in life. The two had caught each other for the first time nearly two decades ago in the dimly lit room, adjoining the garage, dropping household garbage tucked tightly inside large plastic bags, into gigantic containers with terrible odors.
Twenty years ago Nina was tall and blue-eyed, with blonde hair that dangled down to her waist. She also had a beautiful bosom. If it were not for the crooked, coarse knuckles that grew out of flat, very broad hands none would have suspected what an ordinary family Nina was born in, in Burgenland, near the Hungarian border.
She strolled over to the entrance and pressed one ear to the closed door. The bang-bang sound of Nina’s broom was still faint.
She returned to place a cup on a saucer before two, out of the four, chairs around the table. The teapot now filled to the top waited above the candle in the centre of the table. Dried tea leaves soaking in steam stretched out their twisted limbs in the hot water that had already changed color from transparent, to urine yellow, to wine red. A stick of freshly lit rosewood incense from The Pride of India store on Nussdorferstrasse had barely begun to bellow its scent when the doorbell rang. She patted her hair back behind the ears and opened the door.
“Hallo, you…” smiled Nina in a pair of faded blue, filthy looking jeans, leaning on a pole attached to a broom, her shoulder hunched, weight on one leg and revealing a bosom that no longer cared how it looked. Her hair had been long cropped short and it appeared like a jungle today of multi colored dyes that had sapped joy out from the very root of her scalp. She was nearly ten kilos plus her weight of two decades ago and these days an indifferent shade of grey was permanently reflected in her eyes.
Nina panted a little from having swept the stairs from the ground floor up to the fifth floor.
Come in, come on in.”
And Nina did come in bringing with her strong smells of chemical soapsuds coupled with stale perspiration and whiffs of food cooked a long time ago. She left the broomstick standing against the L-shaped space where two walls always meet, outside the door.
“Why don’t we have lovers like Shahrukh Khan in real life?” complained Nina pulling a chair. She slumped down on the seat to sulk.
“And more men like Shahrukh Khan…?” Nina sighed.
“What music would you like to hear today?” she tried to help Nina cheer up.
“Bollywood music please. Monsoon Wedding music. I want some happiness today. And a glass of water first, please.”
She looked for the sound track of Monsoon Wedding, the Indian film, she had watched with Nina at the Votiv Kino and slipped it into the compact disc player that she kept in the kitchen.
Sitting down opposite Nina she poured tea for both.
Then she asked as gently as she could, “What is it Nina?”
“You already know everything. It is the same old story,” Nina slammed the now empty glass of water on the table.
“Tell me again if it will make you feel better,” she smiled.
“You don’t really want to know, do you?”
“The same boring mess over sex, money and ego…the salary drowned in alcohol. He is sleeping with a girl younger to his daughter and still demands to have sex with me. I refuse. I feel sick.
You know what…? Recently he has been squeezing parts of my body as he “makes love” in ways that makes me feel that I am no longer as taut as his young girl. Last night he was so drunk and so annoyed that he picked up the brass statue of the elephant god, you gave me, and flung it at me. The children don’t like talking to him anymore and I avoid him too. How can everything be my fault…? Indian men are not like that, I know…No man, I think, is like he is…”
Nina talked as if to herself, her gaze having bolted out of the grand picture window before her to vanish into the verdant vales of Vienna’s most valuable 19th district. She looked at Nina. What could she say?
She smiled and slid the teacup meant for Nina closer to her friend.
The tea tried its best to parch bewildered feelings.
Nina distracted herself from the way she felt by concentrating on the music playing in the background.
As she actually listened to drums roll, clarinets clash and sitars serenade her sighing subsided.
A smile radiated eventually from unknown recesses of her soul.
Her toes tapped and she poured herself some more tea. After a few extra sips she swayed on her seat. Soon her hands were waving above her and the head jerked from side to side. She had heard this music so often that she was able to also parrot some of the lyrics.
She picked up the teacup, did a bottoms up, and took position. She pushed the chair far into the table and thumped her feet for a while before letting her limbs fly into the space she had created in between the kitchen counter and the dining table. Nina shook her body up and down, then up and down and down and up and she only went faster and faster. Her arms gradually began to swing like a serial killer giving that finishing touch to a favorite victim.
Nina stopped for a quick second to pull her friend out of the chair, for company.
She too tried a step or two but an ankle twisted. So she kicked off the shoes she wore and went up and down and up and down and round and round, in imitation of Nina, matching each movement and pausing only to turn the other way round and round and round again, again and again…jiving, twisting, swinging, rocking and a rolling all at once.
Her hair lost all its pins and clips and it hurt on both sides, below the rib cage. She
could hardly breathe but the thought that she should stop did not occur to her.
Rover tried ballad on hind legs jumping up and down alternately before one woman and then before the other, adding sounds to music already so mesmerizing. Rosewood essence mingled with fume from candle, tea brewing in pot, breath that once lay dormant at the bottom of lungs, dog smell with human sweat that sprayed different salts all over the atmosphere, forcing fat collected upon the skin, to do the same.
Tears toboganned down two pairs of flushed cheeks in quick succession by the time the music had ended and full-throated laughter from the pit of the stomach made it unnecessary to say much more. The two women slumped down to the floor while Rover waited for the next move. The giggling trickled down to a finale as Nina looked for the mobile phone vibrating in one of her pockets.
“I am coming,” she spoke into the phone a little less out of breath and probably to her husband who works each Friday in the garden, circling the housing complex, while she cleans the floors and the staircase indoors. They stood up and hugged each other for a while longer than usual before parting.
“Shahrukh Khan, the king of Bollywood Cinema is back in town at the Top Kino,” Nina announced triumphantly.
“Shall we go on Sunday for the 9.30 pm show?” Nina’s suggestion was accepted with another smile.
Then Nina disappeared down the stairs, springing back for one second more, to take the broom with her. She closed the door and walked to the largest window in the room to open it wide. For a while she let the fresh air flagellate her before she shut the cold out. She returned to the computer and saw Rover hop up, into his favorite chair, and evaporate into the upholstery.
More by : Mehru Jaffer