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The husband had always thought of his wife to be content, after all he provided her with everything she could ever need…what else could she possibly have asked for? Disorientated, he put the diary back from where he had found it and went downstairs. Downstairs, his mother was cooking cauliflower curry, her speciality and had ran out of hing, which was, she insisted, essential to the recipe. The Indian grocery store was closed but the husband remembered that sometimes his wife used to keep extra spices on the top shelf.
So he climbed on a chair to look. There were no extra spices, but he did find something he had forgotten about, an old tea tin in which he’d asked his wife to hide her jewellery in case the house ever got burgled. Nothing major was ever kept there. The expensive wedding items from his wife’s dowry, such as the twenty-four carat gold chokers, earrings and diamond bracelets were all stored in the bank. Still, the husband thought it would be a good idea to take them to the bank in the morning. But when he picked up the tin it felt suprisingly light and when he opened it, there were only empty pink nests of tissue inside.
He stood holding the tin for a moment, not breathing. Then he reminded himself that his wife had been a careless woman. The pieces could be anywhere – pushed to the back of her makeup drawer or forgotten under a pile of books in the spare room where she used to spend inordinate amounts of time reading. Nevertheless, he was not himself the rest of the evening so much so that his mother stated, “What’s happened? You’re awfully quiet. Are you all right? Your face looks peculiar.”
He told her he was fine, just a little pain in the chest area. Yes, he would make an appointment with the doctor tomorrow, no he wouldn’t forget. “Now could you please leave me alone?” he babbled. “I need some space for a while.” As he could not concentrate at work, the next day, he took the afternoon off but he didn’t go to the doctor. He went to the bank. In a small, stuffy cubicle that smelled faintly of mould, he opened his safety deposit box to find that all of his wife’s jewellery was gone. She hadn’t taken any of the other valuables. The edges of the cubicle seemed to fade and darken at the same time, as though the husband had stared at a light bulb for too long. He ground his fists into his eyes and tried to imagine her on the last morning, putting the boy in his pushchair and walking the twenty minutes to the bank.
They only had one car, which he took to work: they could have afforded another, “But why?” he had questioned, “when you dont even know how to drive.” Maybe she had sat in this very cubicle and lifted out the emerald earrings, the pearl choker, and the long gold chain. He imagined her wrapping the pieces carefully in plastic bags, then slipping them into her purse. Or did she just throw them in anyhow, the strands of the necklace tangling, the brilliant green stones clicking against each other in the darkness. The boy laughing and clapping his hands at this new game.
At home that night he couldn’t eat any dinner and before he went to bed he exercised for thirty minutes on the dusty exercise bike that sat isolated in the corner of the family room. When he finally lay down, the exhaustion did not put him to sleep as he had hoped. The unaccustomed strain made his calves ache and his head throbbed from the images that would not stop coming, and the bed sheets, when he pulled them up to his nose, smelled again of his wife’s hair.
Where was she now? With whom? Surely she couldn’t manage on her own. He’d always thought her to be as delicate as the purple passion-flowers vines that they’d put up on trellises along their back fence and once, early in the marriage he’d presented her with a poem about this. He went over and over all the men she might have known, but they, mostly his Indian friend’s, were safely married and still at home, every one.
The bed felt hot and lumpy. He tossed his feverish body around like a caught animal, punched the pillow, threw the duvet to the floor. Even thought, for a wild moment, of shaking the boy awake and asking him “Who did your Mama see?” And as though he had an in-built antenna that picked up his father’s agitation, in the next room the boy started crying, which he hadn’t done for months. When his father and grandmother rushed to see what the problem was, he pushed them from him with all the strength in his small arms. “Go away!” he screeched. “Don’t want you, want Mama, want Mama!”
After the boy had been dosed with gripe water and settled in bed again, the husband sat alone in the family room with a glass of brandy. Had his wife been having an affair? Had she been seeing another man whilst she lived with him and his son? Were her reasons for not having sex because someone else was fulfilling her sexual needs? Had she left him for another man? Abandoned her son for a stranger? The thoughts made him shiver. He knew that if the Asian community found out such things then wherever his wife was, she would be demeaned.
“Whore!” women would chant. “Fancy leaving her poor husband and son for another man!” She would become a social outcast. Good, thought the husband but suddenly he felt guilty. He remembered the amount of times he had had affairs. Times when he had told his wife he was on a business trip but in reality was in a hotel, having sex with other women. But that was ok, acceptable. After all he was a man and Indian men can do as they please…but the women can’t. Nevertheless, he made his way to the dark bedroom, a trifle unsteady, the drink had made him light-headed. The unknown areas of his wife’s existence yawning blankly around him like chasms.
He groped in the bottom drawer beneath his underwear until he felt the coarse manila envelope with her photos. He drew it out, along with the diary from other the mattress. He tore them both into pieces. The he took them over to the kitchen, where the trash compactor was. The roar of the trash compactor seemed to shake the entire house. He stiffened, afraid his mother would wake and ask what was going on but she didn’t. When the machine ground to a halt, he took a long breath. Finished, he thought. Finished.
Tomorrow he would contact a lawyer, find out the legal procedure for remarriage. Over dinner he would mention to his mother casually, that it was okay with him if she wanted to contact his second aunt. Only this time he didn’t want a college educated woman. Even good looks weren’t that important. A simple girl, maybe from their ancestral village. Someone whose family wasn’t well off, who would be suitably appreciative of the comforts, he could provide. Someone who would be a real mother to his boy. He didn’t know then that it wasn’t finished. That in years to come, as he would force his new wife, a plump, cheerful girl, good hearted, if slightly unimaginative woman to bed, or as he would beat her for spending too long on the phone he would wonder about her.
As he would help his daughters with their homework or discipline his increasingly rebellious son he would often wander, was she alive? Was she happy? With a sudden anger that he knew to be irrational, he would try to imagine her body tangled in swaying kelp at the bottom of the ocean where it had been flung. Bloated. Eaten by fish. But all he could conjure up was the intent look on her face when she rocked her son back and forth, singing a children’s rhyme in Hindi. Years later, when he would be an old man living in a home for seniors, his second wife dead, his daughters married and moved away to distant towns, his son not on speaking terms with him, he would continue to be dazzled by that brief unguarded joy in her face. He would say to himself, again, how much she must have hated me to choose to give that up.
But that was all to come in the future and he had no inkling of any of it yet. He found himself back in the kitchen as he switched the trash compactor off with a satisfied click, the sense of a job well done and after taking a shower, long and very hot, the way he liked it, went to bed and fell immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep. Three years had past by now, three seemingly endless years of struggling for Zeneve. As she sat in her loose jeans and mauve top in the oak rocking chair, she wore a serene look on her ever-glowing face. Three years ago on this very day she had taken her son out for an early morning walk to the bank. He had complained all the way. “My feet are hurting Mama.”