Every Friday Mrs Pinto receives six fifty-pound notes folded inside a cream envelope with an embossed print of a golden hawk at the top right hand corner. Her employer, Mrs Ibrahim, locks the pantry door at night and counts the number of eggs in the fridge, but there are certain courtesies she insists on observing. She gives the envelope with a slight bow and inclination of the head.
‘For you, Mary… Mrs Pinto,’ she corrects herself. It is well known in the household that Mrs Pinto does not care to be addressed by her first name.
‘Thank you, Madam,’ Mrs Pinto replies, her right hand pressed to her chest, to show her employer just how much she appreciates the money.
A wave of the hand dismisses her as Mrs Ibrahim turns to her mobile phone ready to plot luncheon and shopping excursions with her friends for the coming weekend.
‘Mrs Pinto, before you go, make sure to mop the bathroom floor. My husband... he dropped something.’ Her voice is distracted.
‘Yes, Madam,’ Mrs Pinto says. They both know that she has cleaned the entire house from attic to cellar just that very morning.
The master en suite is bigger than her two-bedroomed house in Colombo. She could eat hoppers off the floor if she wanted, but she still kneels down, her fingers running like a searchlight on the marble tiles. Not a speck of dirt. Mrs Pinto straightens herself and pauses in front of the mirror that covers an entire wall. There she stands, all six foot of her. Gangly like a coconut tree. Which boy is going to marry you? her mother had wailed when she continued to grow well past her eighteenth birthday.
Mrs Pinto unties her white apron and quietly runs a hand over her waist – still svelte despite the years of scrubbing, polishing and peeling. There is life in her yet, she thinks, as she walks to the shelf where the perfume bottles, shampoos, and lotions stand rigid and alert like soldiers in a firing squad. She shifts one bottle closer to the next, twists open a lid and sniffs the perfume before putting it back. This is not her world. Mrs Pinto accepts that. Little does it matter that she, a graduate in public administration, is at the age of forty taking orders from a chit of a girl with big bouncy hips and hair who hasn’t done a day’s work in her life. The reality is that her week’s salary here is worth a month’s back home. She must never forget that.
In her attic room, Mrs Pinto, eyes narrowed, carefully counts the notes before placing them inside the blue steel box that she stores under her bed. The box will stay there until Tuesday afternoon, when Mrs Pinto catches the 230 bus to Edgeware road.
‘Why don’t I drop you, habibi?’ Ali the driver says. He is outside the house, flicking a yellow dust cloth over the bonnet of the blue Mercedes that shines like a newly-minted coin. She shakes her head and smiles. It is not the first time he has called her beloved.
‘Thank you, but I prefer to take the bus.’ She likes to climb up to the top and find a seat near the front, the sprawl of the city spreading beneath her, her box nestled between her thighs, her head giddy, seeing the neon signs and the billboards speed past.
He shrugs. ‘Okay, I walk you to the bus stop.’ They walk in silence with Ali whistling. She recognises the tune. It is from a popular Bollywood film.
‘How come you know this song?’ she asks. Ali is Egyptian. He has close-cropped curly hair and a husky voice. At night when she has trouble sleeping, she squeezes her eyes shut and imagines him riding camels across unending sand dunes, his white robes like a splash of milk amid the golden barrenness. He laughs. ‘I only sing when I see you and your swaying hips, habibi. You are my film heroine.’
Mrs Pinto’s mouth trembles into a smile, but she wags a finger like a teacher. ‘I am only a housekeeper. A married housekeeper, so don’t you be trying any hanky-panky with me. Is that understood?’
‘A joke, habibi. You know I’m a gentleman.’ He winks.
The mobile in Ali’s pocket vibrates. ‘Ach... Madam want me.’ He slaps the side of his head in mock despair and imitates her high-pitched voice. ‘Ali, take me to the hairdresser. Ali, take me to Harrods. Drop me here and drop me there. Doesn’t that lazy woman know Allah gave her two good legs? She needs to use them, not save them for a rainy day.’
Mrs Pinto purses her lips and pretends to look severe. ‘She pays our salary, Ali. Don’t make her angry. You go along now. I’m almost there.’
‘One day, I will take you to see the bright lights of Blackpool. We will drive there in the Mercedes. Go on all the rides.’ His eyes shine as he turns to her. ‘Promise me you will come, habibi?’
‘Maybe,’ she says. She knows that Ali’s English life started in Blackpool. It was where he got his residency papers while working at the back of a fish and chip shop, gutting the fish and throwing their silver thin bones to the cats in the alley. Blackpool for him is the most beautiful city in the world. ‘The lights at night, like a necklace of diamonds, and the cold air blowing in from the sea. So good for your soul.’ Ali always closed his eyes when he said this and she saw him, swaddled in sweaters walking up and down the beach, a snarl of pink seagulls circling his head, the waves biting his feet. She had even googled Blackpool once and been shocked to see pictures of boarded up shops and sea the colour of dishwater. The amusement park looked tacky, like an abandoned film set from a Bollywood film.
Still, she humours him, ‘Yes, yes. We will go to Blackpool one day.’
The bus drops Mrs Pinto in front of Nizam’s fresh juice parlour. She crosses the road to reach the newsagent who also doubles up as a Western Union agent. She feels important as she signs her name and counts the money twice before nudging it through the hole in the glass partition.
The bushy-browed old man leers at her across the counter. ‘Money for boyfriend. For toy boy, no? Your lover Omar Sharif?’ His voice is thick and slurred after a recent stroke.
‘For my family,’ she says with a scowl.
Mrs Pinto likes her excursion to Edgware Road. The summer sky above her is pallid yellow, like spilled dal. Her coat, one of Mrs Ibrahim’s hand-me-downs, feels snug and warm around her broad shoulders. She wanders among the shops that are so different to the hushed ones her employer visits where men with unfriendly faces and white-gloved hands stand guard at the door. She prefers the gutter glitter of these shops, their fabrics, scents and spices spilling onto the pavements. It reminds her of Colombo and her son and husband weaving their way across such a street, elbowing their way through the crowds to reach her.
‘When are you coming home, Ma?’ her son asks her in their weekly Skype conversations. He throws the question at her like a cricket ball, then runs outside to find his friends in the playground. He is happy even if he misses her. Matthew, her husband, is her real worry. Where was that strapping, smiling man with the handlebar moustache who had taken her on his bike to eat garlic crabs under the shade of the banyan tree? The man who stood mumbling across the screen had changed, with sunken cheeks and hooded eyes that hid secrets.
He talks of money, always money, not of how she passes her days five thousand miles away from him.
‘We need money. More money, Mary. Do what you have to do.’ His face dissolves for an instant into the blue mercury buzz of the laptop screen before swimming back in focus. The words fade and his eyes do a dance, one moment he is staring at the floor, the next looking at something behind her shoulder. Rarely do his eyes return to her waiting face.
‘The roof is leaking and Raju needs a new school uniform. I have to buy new painkillers. They will be coming from Dubai.’ His life is one long shopping list and it is her job to tick off each item. She listens patiently. Poor Matthew, what can he do? An accident in the garment factory where he worked had turned his left arm into mince. He was now only good for grumbling and gambling.
Mrs Pinto’s steps falter as she thinks of her husband. There is a heaviness in her chest and a dryness in her throat. She must try to be a good wife and earn more. The crowds drift past her, laughter spilling from their faces. Seeing them lulls her heart. She makes the sign of a cross and whispers Amen. All will be well. She still has sturdy limbs that work and a head that will not lose its cool. She is proud to be the breadwinner, working twelve hours a day so her family has air-conditioning in the summer and new clothes to wear to Mass. She can hold her head high. As for more money. She will ask Mrs Ibrahim for a loan.
Waiting for the bus to take her back, Mrs Pinto allows herself one luxury. A tall glass of mango milkshake and two pieces of baklava that she packs in her bag, one eye alert for the red double decker bus lurching towards her through the traffic.
‘All good, my friend?’ It is Ali, sitting on the front step, playing with the car keys, chucking them from one hand to the other. He runs forward to take her shopping bag, ‘Ya Allah, it’s heavy, what do you have in there? An elephant?’ He screws up his face.
‘Why are you still here?’ Mrs Pinto asks. ‘Are you not taking Madam shopping?’
Ali presses his hand on his forehead, sighing as he wrings out imaginary drops of sweat. ‘Madam has a headache.’
‘I brought you some baklava,’ Mrs Pinto says, shyly, holding out the pistachio-crusted pastry wrapped in a Kleenex.’
‘It is to repair the roof,’ she says.
‘What roof are you talking about? Our house is good.’
Their eyes meet in the mirror. Mrs Pinto sighs. She needs to simplify and elaborate her request to the woman who sits hunched in front of the dressing table painting her eyebrows with a crayon. She clears her throat and begins again.
‘I need extra money to repair the roof of my house in Colombo. The monsoons are coming and it is urgent. My son also needs a new school uniform.’ She pauses to check the effect of these words, but Mrs Ibrahim’s hands have wandered to her mouth, which she is painting grape red.
‘School uniforms are expensive in Colombo.’ Mrs Pinto finishes.
The hand holding the lipstick wavers as Mrs Ibrahim swivels around on her fur-lined chair. Her bottom lip sticks out and she scratches her chin.
‘I didn’t know you had a son.’
Mrs Pinto draws herself to her full height. ‘He is fourteen. I left him when he was ten, and my husband is...’ She searches for the right word. Mutilated, incapacitated, handicapped, failure, drunkard, womaniser. ‘He is disabled because of an accident at work. He has lost an arm. That is why I came to England to work. I left my son behind.’
She remembers the day. It was raining and her flight was early. She had left the boy fast asleep, the bedsheet tangled around his little legs, his mouth open in a half-smile.
‘Okay I will ask my husband. You go now. Go, go...’
That night Mrs Pinto sits on her bedroom floor, the empty blue metal box open next to her. She turns on the laptop and her husband’s face floats into view. There is an ugly twist to his mouth and his words rush out. ‘Bitch. Whore. Send me more money. I know you are keeping it all for yourself.’
She is in the kitchen dicing the lamb into little cubes. Chopped onions sit in a pile on the chopping board. They are the reason for her red-rimmed eyes.
She swings around. Mr Ibrahim stands at the door. He is wearing his favourite black t-shirt and loose jogging bottoms with gold entwined Cs splashed all over them.
‘Good afternoon, Sir.’ She bows her head and waits for his order. Maybe he is after a snack.
‘I hear you want a raise,’ he says, hands stuffed in his pocket, one foot swinging as he leans against the doorframe.
‘I want a loan. The roof at home needs repairing. I will pay it back,’ Mrs Pinto replies. Her eyes itch and she rubs at it with the hem of her sleeve.
He comes closer. She can smell the tobacco on his breath.
A hand shoots out of his pocket and cups her breast. ‘How are you going to pay me back?’ he asks as he kneads her breast.
She pushes him away and runs to her room.
Mr Ibrahim is normally a shadow. A benign shadow that occupies the house and leaves behind traces of his existence but is never actually there.
‘He spends a lot of time in the Gulf,’ Mrs Ibrahim had confided in her at the start of her employment. ‘Important business. Many factories.’
And Mrs Pinto had nodded, humbled at the chance of working in such an illustrious man’s house.
It is only at night when the moon is high in the sky and the roar of traffic dimmed to a purr that she allows the trembling in her bones to ease. She takes off her clothes and peers at herself in the small round mirror that hangs above the sink. Being tall, she has to contort and manoeuvre her body, bending down to see as the mirror slowly offers up small pieces of herself to observe. There lies the crook of her arm, dry, scabbed. Her belly button floats up next, sunken with a stray grey hair peeping through. She plucks it and sighs, turning away only to return. She must see her face. What was it that Ali had told her? The face is the gatekeeper to the soul. There it is – her mouth with its downward droop, and her eyes wide and slanting up at the corners, the colour of brown toast. She brings her hand up and strokes her cheek and then her belly, feather-like touches that sooth her and make her forget.
The shrill squeak of her mobile phone under her pillow wakes her. It is 3am but lunchtime in Colombo. It is her son. His tearful voice tells her that the father has gone missing. ‘He came back late and shouted, made some rice, burnt it and then went out again, holding a bottle of whiskey in his good hand,’ the boy whimpers.
She comforts him and tells him to pack his things and go to his grandmother’s house. She is tired of holding up her world.
She wakes up the next morning, her limbs still heavy with sleep.
‘You are very late.’ Mrs Ibrahim taps her gold watch. ‘I had to give breakfast to my children all on my own, and look, the kitchen is a mess and I’m late for my hairdresser.’ She flings up her hands in exasperation and stamps her foot. The cereal packet has fallen, the cornflakes dribble on to the floor. Piles of dirty plates fill the sink and the empty frying pan hisses on the hob.
There is a peculiar fire burning in Mrs Pinto’s eyes as she stares at her employer. She nods but does not apologise, and says she will start cleaning the bedrooms first. Methodically, concentrating hard, she whips off the bedsheets from the beds and throws them on the floor. She goes into the bathroom and gathers the lotions and toothpastes, unscrewing their tops and emptying the contents into the toilet that she does not bother flushing. In the lounge, she empties the vases of their flowers and leaves them strewn on the carpet along with the cushions. She finds Mr Ibrahim’s tracksuit bottoms and carefully scissors through them until they are like shredded confetti. In one hour, she has gone through the house leaving behind a trail of destruction. Except the children’s room, she cannot bring herself to upset them.
Shutting the front door softly behind her, she goes out. A pink balloon set free from a child’s hand floats above the cream stucco roofs of the houses. The cherry trees shiver with flower and Ali is outside, whistling under his teeth as he polishes the hubcaps of the car. He straightens up when he sees her and raises his eyebrows.
‘Someone is in a good mood.’
Mrs Pinto smiles. ‘Where’s Madam?’
‘Still at the hairdressers. I have to pick her up in an hour. She is not happy with you today. Says you’re lazy.’ He shakes his head. ‘I tell her she is lucky to have you.’
Mrs Pinto considers this as she stands on the step, her face raised to the sky to catch the sun’s warmth. She stretches out her hands and examines her palms. There runs her lifeline, long and strong. She will not let anyone halt its flow.
Opening the car door, she slips into the passenger seat and pats the empty driver’s seat beside her. ‘Come on, Ali. What are we waiting for? It is a wonderful day. Let’s drive to Blackpool.’
RESHMA RUIA is a writer based in Cheshire. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester and is the author of Something Black in the Lentil Soup. Her second novel, A Mouthful of Silence, was shortlisted for the 2014 SI Leeds literary prize. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in various international journals and anthologies and also commissioned for Radio 4. She is the co-founder of a writers collective of British writers of South Asian origin, The Whole Kahani. Her narrative portrays the inherent tensions and preoccupations of those who possess multiple senses of belonging.