Read an Excerpt
The Ivory Swing
By Janette Turner Hospital
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2015 Janette Turner Hospital
All rights reserved.
They did not quite know what to make of each other, Juliet and the boy. They were very strange to each other.
Every morning just before sunrise the sound of his flute would sift like birdsong through the coconut palms. She would be startled from a sleep teeming with a confusion of remembered faces in unfamiliar settings, her past jolting by on buffalo carts, green mould and jungle vines sprouting from the eyes of old lovers, jackfruit and mangoes pressing against the windows of the house with snow on its roof. She would stumble to the storm door ... No. Not that house, not that door. Not a door at all really. She would stumble to the front grille and unlock it, blinking out into the coconut grove already alive with the tending activities of Shivaraman Nair's servants.
The boy would offer the little vessel.
"Milk," he would say proudly in the English learned from her children.
"Pahl" she would confirm, taking it to the kitchen. "Ubagaram"
"Thank you," he would repeat.
That was the full extent of his English vocabulary, but since he was illiterate in his own tongue, proportionately he was doing better than she. Still she would think with wonder: here I am in a South Indian village conversing in an obscure dialect at an hour when I would prefer to be in deep sleep.
She would take the milk to the kitchen, transfer it to a cooking vessel, light a fire in the small clay pit, and balance the pot over it. After the milk boiled she would skim the clotted cream off the top, set aside the portion for the day's yoghurt, and pour the remainder into an earthern pitcher on a cool stone slab. While she boiled the water for coffee the boy would begin his sweeping. She would go back to the bedroom to dress and to wake her husband.
The first time it happened she was outraged. The boy quietly opened the door and began to sweep. She was standing naked, too astonished to move. He watched her as he swept, neither embarrassed nor interested.
"Po!" she said angrily "Po! Po!" Go away!
He left, puzzled.
There were constant misunderstandings. That they had a "boy" at all was one of them. On the first day, Mr Shivaraman Nair had shown them over the house. It looked cool and gracious as a palace under its umbrella of coconut palms.
"It is fit for a maharani!" Juliet had exclaimed.
Mr Shivaraman Nair had asked: "How many servants are you needing?"
"None". She was blithe about it, being preoccupied with the exquisite tilework, sensuously conscious of the marbled floor cool under her bare feet. She did not understand that the kitchen was of a different order, that it was intended only for servants with skills more ancient than her own, that it came equipped with a knee-high sink, a stone mortar and pestle, and a cooking pit.
"I don't need any servants."
Mr Shivaraman Nair sniffed with contempt. She had lost face and caste. All Westerners were wealthy, and wealthy people should behave as befits wealth. Just as Nairs should behave as befits the superior status of the Nair caste. The quality of his tenants reflected on his family.
"Then I will send only the sweeper each day," he said coldly.
"A sweeper! I can do my own sweeping. It is nothing."
This was because she thought she knew what a broom was. She had not yet seen the little hand-held tuft of palm leaves. She had also been taken aback by his anger.
"It is your affair that you are being yourself your own cook-bearer. It is my affair who is being sweeper on my estates. This is the task of servant peoples. No other persons are sweeping on my properties. And so we are only awaiting the auspicious time for you to commence living in my house."
"Auspicious time? But we have already rented the house for this month. We were expecting to move in today."
"No, no, this is not possible. The astrologer has been consulted. The auspicious day for visitors to move into my house is next Tuesday, in four more days. On that day, I will send the boy to the hotel to communicate the auspicious hour."
So it was settled. On the auspicious day at the auspicious hour they took up residence. And the boy brought the milk each morning and swept floors and courtyard. He was called simply "the boy" by Shivaraman Nair, or sometimes "the peon' or "my peon'.
In the first week, when he arrived with milk and morning mists, Juliet had spoken to him in Malayalam. "What is your name?"
He was thrown into utter confusion. It was not a question he was used to being asked. He blushed and stammered. Eventually he managed to say. "Ptabliakaran."
How old was he? she asked. He did not know.
"You cannot be more than twelve," she said. "I think you are twelve. Just a little older than my son."
He nodded rapidly, smiling, happy to accept her judgment.
"Jonathan is ten," she explained. "And Miranda is eight."
You are all only children, she almost added. And yet the boy was a full-time labourer, a bonded servant of Shivaraman Nair.
"Jonathan, Miranda, minna?" he asked.
She knew the word.
Already he had taught her children to fish for minna with cupped hands in the irrigation ditches between the coconut palms and in the muddy water of the flooded rice paddy. She was afraid of malaria — there had been an outbreak at Cochin, not far north — and of hepatitis.
"Later," she said. "After the school lessons."
He smiled and nodded again. They continued to look at each other, anxious to please, willing to be friends, not knowing what to say.
Then, sombrely, he produced the little wooden flute that he wore tucked into the waist of his dhoti. He played a short strange song, alien to her western ears, bittersweet. She perceived it as some sort of gift, and brought her hands together in front of her face in the traditional way of thanks.
They both made namaskaram, bowing slightly towards each other. It was not, Juliet knew, the way one was supposed to greet a servant.CHAPTER 2
"India!" Jeremy had said slightingly and incredulously. "It makes me think of dust and mosquitoes and bananas gone overripe and rancid."
She was crushed. She had expected him to be envious and excited. She had expected that she would be sustained under the equatorial sun by her fantasies of his fantasy of a nut-brown Juliet smelling of the tantalizing tropics with a hibiscus in her hair.
"You must be crazy!" he said. "For a whole year! It's like being buried in a swamp. You'll be pining for snow and books and rationality, whatever the wanton tropical inclinations of your body."
It was a slip, a forbidden word. Her body One of the unspoken rules of the complicated game they played was that they never alluded to the fact that they had once been lovers.
They both looked silently at the table between them. The fingers of Jeremy's left hand drummed a light rhythm. Juliet studied, mesmerized, the distance between her right hand, resting lightly beside her glass, and Jeremy's fingers.
"I suspect you're not admitting to yourself your real reasons for going," he said.
Another error. Another impasse. He thinks I'm going because David requires it, Juliet decided. She was annoyed and defensive. What would Jeremy — with no children and two divorces behind him — know of the complex adjustments of marriage and family life? It was another rule that they never spoke of their marital states or living arrangements or current partners.
She was irritated with herself for having called him. These things happened occasionally. There was a blurred borderline crossed by accident at certain moments. Randomly. Sometimes events were safely pliant in her mind. Sometimes Jeremy was actually there, tangible, disruptive, in the precarious terrain of slithering reality.
"Hello," he had answered.
"Juliet!" She heard the note of pleasure. And caution.
"I'm going to India for a year. Just calling to say goodbye."
Ridiculous thing to say since she hadn't seen him or spoken to him for about a year anyway.
"Good god! India! Why India?"
"For David's sabbatical."
"India," he said again. There was a pause. "Can you get here for a day before you leave?"
Typical, she thought. Now he feels safe. When acceptance will be difficult or impossible, Jeremy issues invitations. "Here" was Boston, and she would love to have said simply and lightly: "Sorry. Not a hope." She would love to have been the kind of woman who could say that with casual regret and then shrug and hang up.
Instead she held onto the receiver like a drowning woman clutching at a life-line. They were pulling her to safety now: Jeremy's voice, the background sounds of a city.
But is it really Jeremy I crave? she asked herself. Or is it just the vibrant echo of youth? And the lure of a city, any city, any real metropolis, gritty and boisterous: tidal waves of unknown people, of anonymity, of excitement; the huge ebb and flow of life lived avidly. Any crust would do, any reminder, any testament to that other lost self. (Once I soared, once my career was marked "fast track," once a small world turned on my opinions. Once Jeremy, reckless with desire, brought lilacs ... And then David, his star rising, obliterated everything else, threw a shimmer over the future. His and mine. Our glittering life together.)
Oh how young and arrogant and intoxicated with my own life I was, thought Juliet, dizzy with loss. Before this. The plummeting. This wingless limping around the cage of a small college town musty with propriety and smugness and myopia.
"Hello?" Jeremy said. "Hello? Juliet, are you still there?"
Don't go, she pleaded mutely, waiting for her voice to return from the golden muddle of the past. Don't leave me stranded here.
"Yes. Sorry." She could barely hear herself speak. "Bad connection"
"Can I see you before you go?"
The question flowed into her like Benzedrine. His eyes, as always, would give back that mislaid image of a woman lively with confidence, professionally significant, dazzling. She would be able to feed on the illusion that that other Juliet still existed since he could have no inkling of the slow seepage, the loss of vital fluids, that occurred in small provincial places.
"Juliet, is something —?"
"No, it's just ... I'm thinking ... Boston is impossible. The time, the children ... it's truly impossible." Her voice pitched about like a kite caught in the cables that linked them, veered erratically away from intensity, alighted on the flippantly suggestive. "But somewhere in between? Montreal? Can you get to Montreal?"
Silence. As cold as the Canadian Shield that stretched endlessly northwards away from her. Jeremy was not in the habit of making large incautious gestures.
In her mind she rehearsed saying: Just kidding.
In her mind she said airily: I'll call you in thirteen months or so, when I get back.
She pictured herself hanging up and walking away. Shrugging. She pictured it so vividly she thought perhaps she had already done it.
"Montreal," he said. "What day?"
How did I think I could arrange ...? At such short notice! What on earth shall I ...?
"I have to be there," she invented shakily, "next Wednesday. The McGill library. I need to look up a few references."
"Wednesday? Yes, that's possible. Next Wednesday then."
In Montreal their drinks were garnished with the light that fell like a blessing on Place Jacques Cartier.
"I don't know why it is," she said, noticing that the distance between their hands was diminishing slightly, "why I always feel this ridiculous compulsion to let you know my current whereabouts. At least roughly. It makes me nervous if you don't. As though some essential reference point had vanished"
"I know." He gestured with his hand and it came to rest a little closer to the centre of the table. "We've preserved this image of perfection, the unblemished view of the lover." He used the word sardonically, deprecatingly, in a generic way. "We never contaminate it with reality"
"Such a relentless debunker of mysteries!"
She wondered whether he was married again or was merely living with the woman who had answered her first long-distance call. She did not wish to intrude on his arrangements, however temporary. She had hung up and called him again at his office.
Now they watched an old flower seller heft huge wooden tubs of begonias across the cobblestones, massing magentas and corals in front of his trestle tables.
"I know a few people teaching at McGill. Dropped in on them while I was waiting for you. They're looking for someone in my field." Jeremy leaned back and examined the light through his wine. "It's a marvellous city. I could live here."
"Yes. So could I. In fact I toy with the idea constantly." Then she felt embarrassed, as though she had made a proposition, and added quickly: "But any city would do. My sustaining escape fantasy. Any place big enough to offer me a position I'm not seriously overqualified for. Any place big enough for me to go to a concert without seeing my dentist and my gynaecologist and my kids' schoolteachers and the candlestick maker."
"Is it really so awful?"
"Oh well, you know, on and off. I survive. After a fashion."
"When I picture you there," he said, "I think of a Roman candle on an ice floe. I would imagine you take the town by storm."
"It's not a place that approves of storms. Storms don't have the proper sense of decorum."
"There must be compensations. Clean air, no traffic jams?"
"Give me a gritty subway and freedom any time."
"Then why for god's sake, India?'
"Well, because India ... Are you going to tell me you've never dreamed of the fabled East? Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama. Surely everyone, I thought everyone ..." But she was embarrassed to admit to the jejune lure of travellers' antique and brocaded tales — of tigers, elephants, sandalwood and ivory, the whole exotic paraphernalia. "I thought you'd envy me."
"You must be crazy. Even your thought processes will turn rancid. My idea of a year's escape is an apartment in Paris with some Left Bank ferment and the libraries of the Sorbonne close by. Or, failing that, a London flat close to the British Museum with ale and politics in the local pub. But to move from sub-arctic isolation to equatorial isolation — I can't see the point of that."
"Isolation! In a country of over five hundred million? With that kind of crowding, anything could happen. Anything! That's what grabs me — after a near fatal absence of risk for the last twelve years."
"Poor caged bird who's forgotten how to fly. Done in by a surfeit of security."
"Not funny. You don't know what it's like, living in a place that's lethally safe."
Their hands had gradually moved so that their fingertips touched, an unnerving sensation.
"Well," he said. "If it's risk-taking you want, here we are. Alone in Montreal."
He laced his fingers through hers and it was like the pull of a current swirling her back to her own element, her own life that had slithered away from her. But then her heart snagged on something else, the hook of children, of those innocent sleeping faces damp against their pillows. (She would stand in their rooms at night and think helplessly: I would die for them. I would even go on living here in Winston, Ontario, for them.) And then there was David, she was caught on that hook too, she would never get him out of her flesh.
Jeremy lifted her hand to his mouth and ran his tongue across her fingertips.
Shall we? his eyes asked with an unwavering intensity.
No! hers replied, alarmed, hypnotized. Think of the chaos! That wasn't what I meant. (Was it?)
"Enjoy India!" he said lightly, withdrawing his hand.
"Think of me with jasmine in my hair."
"I'll think of you wilting from heat and humidity and covered with mosquito bites," he said unobligingly.
"You are cruel."
"No." He looked directly at her. "You are cruel."
There was some clouding — irritation? hurt? — in his eyes, but she could not — or was afraid to — read it. I have never known what he wants, she thought. Or what he really thinks of me.
"I wish you knew what you wanted," he said.
She was startled, and blurted without thinking: "I want to maintain my balancing act."
The hazardous, arduous balancing act of someone born on the cusp between eras. A mutant form on the Tree of Woman. She had evolved wings her mother never had, but not the free flight patterns of her younger sister, Annie.
Excerpted from The Ivory Swing by Janette Turner Hospital. Copyright © 2015 Janette Turner Hospital. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.