NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon, or might be an Extract from my two novels RACING WITH THE RAIN and JUNTA.
FOR MORE WRITING LIKE THIS CHECK OUT
Down Independence Boulevard: and other stories
by Ken Puddicombe
December -The Touch Of Peace
Jan – The Interview
Feb – The Underground [2nd Prize Polaris Magazine]
Mar -Welcome To Punta Canada
APR – Return Of The Prodigal [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
MAY- No Thank You
JUNE – The Shoplifter
JULY/ AUGUST: The Last Straw [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
THE LAST STRAW ©
[featured in DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD AND OTHER STORIES available at Amazon and in eReaders]
“Bring my food, I will eat here.”
Zorina heard the command from Raj who was sitting in the family room.
And she brought it, as she’d been doing for what seemed like an eternity.
It was a habit he’d picked up lately. He was looking at one of those long Sunday afternoon football games, refusing to budge, demanding to be served. The first time it happened, she’d suggested they eat together as a family. He shouted her down and told her to mind her own business. She never interrupted his game again.
He stretched out his left hand when she approached. She placed the plate on his palm and he took it without looking away from the TV. The plate was filled with rice smothered with dhal, bhaji, aloo-curry and roti, along with sweet-rice for dessert, an appetizing combination that always brought out the best in him.
She’d been cooking and doing chores most of the morning while he watched television. No frozen food for him, or his mother. Fresh food was essential to a long life, he often said.
“The food is too cold,” his voice was filled with scorn. He flung the plate across the room. “How many times must I tell you that I hate cold food?”
She was shaken. Half-hour ago she’d told him she’d finished cooking and he had ignored her. It was his own fault the food had grown cold while he sat there glued to the set. What did he expect her to do?
Raj had done many mean things in the past but never anything violent. There was the time last winter when he’d invited his friends over for drinks. He had quite a few. His glass fell on the floor and shattered. In her haste to clean up and leave the room, she had nicked herself on the broken glass. As she headed back to the kitchen she heard him say to his friends, “Clumsy woman. She can’t do anything right.”
Back then, she’d felt humiliated. Now, she was enraged. She scooped the food off the floor and hurried to the kitchen. As she passed through the entranceway, waves of nausea engulfed her. She dropped the plate on the table, rushed to the sink and vomited.
After she composed herself she went back with a brush and a bucket filled with water and soap. The rug was stained: a long, yellow streak where the plate landed. As she scrubbed away at the discoloration, Raj sat there, attention focused on the game, not saying anything or acknowledging her presence. It was the same way his mother and three sisters treated her. They would be talking to one another and if Zorina tried to get involved in the conversation, they’d ignore her. What am I, Zorina thought, a servant girl who has to know her place? Only speak when spoken to?And the looks they gave her, cutting up their eyesand turning away, treating her like some mangy cat whose owner no longer could bear its presence.
Zorina went back to the kitchen to clean up the sink and wash the brush and bucket. I can’t take much more of this. If this continues, I will lose my mind. She felt her stomach heave and throb. Especially now, of all times.
There was a presence looming behind her and she thought it was Raj. Had he realised how mean he’d been to her and come to apologise, perhaps?
“Zorina.” It was her mother-in-law. “I don’ like the way you sew dis dress.”
Here we go again. There is no pleasing this woman.
“Why, what’s wrong with it?”
“It not fitting praperly.”
It must run in the family. She and her son are just the same. “It’s like all the other dresses I sew for you.”
“I tell you that dis one not sew praperly, girl.”
Zorina caressed her protruding stomach. I can never do anything right, in her eyes. First, she tells me she wants the dress to be loose fitting, now she’s telling me it’s too slack. This all started when the results of the test came back and she heard that it was a girl. Instead of being happy that I finally got pregnant after so many years of trying, she was far from pleased. She as much as said it, she wanted a boy to carry on the family name. As if it’s my fault. She’s trying to get back at me. I just know it.
“Where is it not fitting properly?” Zorina said.
“It bunching up here and here, and here.” The old lady pointed to the top of the dress, the waist and the hips.
The number of hours I spent on this dress! She must have put on weight since I made the last one. I dare not tell her that, though! She will end up complaining to her son that I told her she is getting fat and useless, and he will give me hell, again.
“Why don’t you try it on again for me to see?” Zorina said.
“I telling you it not fitting right. The whole t’ing gat to rip open and sew back again.”
Zorina was speechless. She knew it was futile to argue, useless to tell her of the number of hours it had taken to sew the dress, hopeless to try to please her. The familiar response would be: “You have to do it the way I want it. Is not your money paying for it, anyhow.” Zorina knew she was better off ignoring the remarks, although they would linger for a long time, gnawing at her like a migraine that can be eased with a pill, but in the long run could be the sign of worse to come.
Her mother-in-law tossed the dress on the kitchen table and left the room.
Zorina sighed and shook her head. Days like this she had to keep reminding herself that it was not the end of the world. She reached into the cupboard, pulled out a plate, made her way over to the stove, filled it with food. She stuck the plate into the microwave and pressed the Reheatbutton.
Zorina was reworking the dress on the machine in the master bedroom as Raj prepared for bed. She could see him through the open door of the washroom. She knew all his habits—could tell what he would do, when he would do it, how he would do it. It wasn’t as if she was gifted. After all, he reminded her often of the advantages of a good family background and first-class education. And if he didn’t tell her that so many times, there was always his mother to remind her how fortunate she was to marry into an upper class family, considering the small dowry she had brought with her.
Raj opened the grooming kit and started his nightly routine in front of the mirror. Over the years she’d noticed the increased dedication to his moustache and before long it became something attracting favourable comments wherever he went. When the comments came, they seemed to strike the right chord with him, bringing out a sense of pride and accomplishment. She knew he was following in his father’s footsteps. He’d joined the police force in what was then British Guiana, same as his father. He joined the military after independence came; his father served with British forces during WWII. And he had grown his moustache, the same as his father.
Zorina continued her sewing, taking an occasional glance at Raj.
The moustache: handlebars that started off thick and abundant immediately below his nose, spiralling outwards and upwards across his cheeks, the outer fringes gradually tapering off until the ends looked like two small paintbrushes around the sideburns.
The most important part of his primping: he used a small pair of scissors from his kit to trim the hair around his nostrils, black flecks falling all over the bathroom sink which she would have to clean before she went to bed. All through the day, every day, he defended the shape of his moustache from wind, sleet, hail or rain, ensuring it retained its structure with an application of wax in the morning and a second before bed. She wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he applied wax at work, too.
The waxing was just one of the ways that his moustache managed to retain its appearance. She saw many men fidgeting with their moustache in a pensive mood or during a conversation. To her, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, a habit so ingrained it became second nature. But Raj had tremendous willpower. She saw him many times as he sat with his friends, drinking whisky and soda. His face would twitch and jerk; yet he never touched his moustache. When someone entered the room he looked down his nose and along the sides of his face, checking that all the hair was still in place, fully knowing that sooner or later, his moustache would be the centre of attention.
Raj always boasted of the discipline he acquired in the police force and the army. In public he sat with hands folded, as if he were grasping them and refusing permission to scratch, until all his features eventually assumed the traits of a twitching rabbit. His face went into spasms and his large brown eyes dilated but he would not pull or tweak or curl his moustache. At times like this, his large nostrils flared, his cheeks turned dark brown, his eyes watered. She never saw what happened to his lips—they were concealed beneath the thick growth above and below, but she thought surely they surely had to be quivering.
Now, Raj took his last look at the mirror. Even as he made his way out she knew he would look sideways, keeping his eyes on the mirror, checking the shape of his pride and joy from every angle, right up to the moment his reflection disappeared from view. It was the same when he left for work in the morning; he took such a long time to lace his shoes she swore he was looking at his image in the bright sheen. And not once had he told her what a good job she did on his shoes. When he went through the door and paused to take the flask of tea from her, he would take a last glance at his reflection in the glass in the top half of the door.
“Do you remember what you said about the dress that I sew for Ma?” she said.
He hesitated at the side of the bed. She thought he looked wary, as if he felt she was trying to lure him into a trap.
“Don’t you remember how you said it was so nice? Well, here it is. I’m reworking everything for her–she didn’t like it one bit.”
“Oh?” He climbed into bed.
“Yes, and there is nothing wrong with it. I sewed it exactly the same way she wanted it.”
“Why is that such a big problem? Why do you always make such a big fuss over such trivial matters? If she doesn’t like it, it must mean that it doesn’t fit her good. Just sew it over again.” With that, he turned away and pulled the blanket over.
She shook her head. So many times over the past years, she wondered how things had reached their present state. When they were first married she was happy, even though she was living in his parents’ house on Independence Boulevard. Eventually, she realised she was the one doing all the housework, even though Raj had three sisters who were old enough to share the burden. She soon started to feel like a stepdaughter, instead of a daughter-in-law. Like the Cinderella character, only, there was no prince coming along to save her. She already had someone who thought he was a prince.
She hoped he would change, and in those first few years when they lived in their own house on Canal Road, before it was renamed Independence Boulevard, he was a lot more considerate. Sometimes he even helped with the household chores on the weekend. Then, came the period of political instability in Guyana, a general strike that crippled the entire country and riots sending refugees fleeing to areas where they felt safer among their own kind. He started to feel the discrimination of being one of the few East Indians in the armed forces. It didn’t take long to realise there was no future for them in the newly independent Guyana.
Canada beckoned and they came with great expectations of a better life. The first thing he did was to apply to join the Metro Toronto Police but was rejected outright as being unsuitable. The explanation given was vague, something about not meeting requirements, but he was sure it was discrimination all over again. Working for private security companies in a series of low paying jobs followed. It was never the same again.
On the few occasions they went out together shopping at the City Centre, he walked ahead, as if she were a servant required to follow in her master’s footsteps. When they returned, he wouldn’t help to bring in or pack the groceries. Clearing snow off the driveway was entirely her job, and his contribution to cutting the grass was to raise his feet off the ground as he read newspapers on the lawn chair.
Despite all her misgivings, she knew she should be thankful. She had security; a large house with all the conveniences she never knew existed when she was a girl back in British Guiana. And now, she had a child on the way. But, every new confrontation with Raj or his mother made her feel as if it were the last straw, as if she would end up doing something rash. Her situation became so desperate at times that she wanted to scream and lash out at both of them, tell them she had enough, and couldn’t continue to take their lack of consideration.
It was no different when his family came over to visit. Not only did they take her for granted, they acted as if they had more rights in the house than her. At times she felt like his mistress instead of his wife, especially with their habit of glaring and whispering in the background. What really troubled her, though, was the lack of recognition of her contribution to what she and Raj had achieved so far. Why, it was her sewing that brought in the extra income over the years and if it hadn’t been for her skimping and saving, they would never have been able to leave their apartment in Toronto and move to their first house in Brampton. She could remember the look of defeat when he was about to sponsor his mother for immigration and he thought he would fail because of lack of funds and accommodation, and then the amazement on his face when she pulled out the bankbook and showed the money she had saved, all from sewing for people who recognised her talent.
She woke up early the next morning, starting her chores earlier than usual. She’d already piled all her clothes in the laundry basket the previous night. Now, she brought the basket down to the kitchen, pulled her suitcase from the basement and started to pack. She stuffed the old suitcase, folding her dresses, slips and underwear, with swift, precise movements, the stillness of the morning broken only by the low-pitched whine of the condenser in the fridge kicking in every now and then. The steady rhythm of the pendulum of the clock on the wall counted the minutes until daybreak when Raj would rise.
She finished packing her suitcase, but before closing it, there was one more thing she had to do. She hurried up the stairs and headed for the master bedroom.
There was no sound coming from her mother-in-law’s bedroom as she passed it. In the master bedroom, Raj was still asleep. There was no waking him; that was the way he slept after a heavy meal. She’d made sure the food was piping hot and was not surprised at the satisfied look on his face, the contentment of a man whose two pleasures in life were flagrant exhibition of his moustache and that from eating a hearty meal.
She opened the walk-in closet, turned the light on and reached for the sewing kit on the top shelf. It was the one item she needed, had to have if all her plans were to work. The kit almost fell from her hand as she reached for it. She caught it just before it hit the floor but the lid flew open and banged on the door. She held her breath and tilted her head in the direction of the bed but the steady rhythm of his breathing continued. She opened the kit and extracted the scissors. The twin blades were cold steel in her hands.
It would be so easy, she thought.
He’s sleeping. He would never know what happened. Am I brave enough to do it? Should I repay him for all the insults, all the cruel acts he and his mother inflicted on me over the years?
And it was true. She felt she had reached her breaking point.
She waited on the driveway for the taxi she had arranged the night before; she wanted to make sure the doorbell did not ring when it arrived. The taxi took her straight to the GO station and she caught the first train to Toronto.
Settled in her seat, she looked at her watch. It was exactly fifteen minutes to six. Raj was like clockwork and he was rising at this time. In the next minute he would be calling for her to bring his first cup of tea as he headed for the washroom.
At ten minutes to six, he would stand at bathroom mirror to wash the sleep from his eyes. She could imagine him, reaching for the towel from the stand.
He’d be saying: “I wonder what the devil is taking dis girl so long with my tea,” and he’d shout her name at the top of his voice. “Zorina, you trying to make me late for work or what?”
He would take his first look in the mirror after he washed his face. In that exact moment, he’d probably notice the image staring back. He’d wonder who the stranger was. She could picture the lack of comprehension, the horror growing on his face by the second as he reached out for his cheeks, pulled them to see if he was really awake or in the middle of a terrible nightmare. Then, he would open his eyes wide as the truth stared back—the right handlebar was gone, pruned like a brush cut-back all the way to its trunk in spring. She had snipped as close to his nostril she could get without disturbing him. Later, he’d find the snipped section in his lunch box—a present to ponder for a long time. The best part of it: he’d have to trim the left and feel the pain of the moment as he did it!
She wished she could be there, if only for that moment. It would almost make up for everything.