Himali works as a family doctor in South Auckland, a place that is rich with stories and community. She writes short stories, articles, essays, flash fiction and occasional poetry. She is a constant gardener, a beekeeper and a pretend vet.
On that first day of March, Mr Patel did not come home.
I remember that day so clearly. Kala and I were playing in the garden. We scratched squares in the dirt with a stick, threw small pebbles to mark our progress, and hopped. The light turned syrupy and warm. The sun sank towards the horizon. There were mosquitoes that bit our damp cinnamon skin and were slapped away.
The usual call for dinner did not come. I felt tired, my limbs molten with lead. We trailed into the house. The front door was open, the wooden blinds were still up, small insects fizzed through the darkening rooms.
I remember the perfume of the brugmansia floating through our house. Other memories shift and change. When Kala thinks back to this night, she remembers small, specific details that I completely missed.
How her mum wore the same clothes all night. Or that her dad’s briefcase was by the kitchen counter, like he’d just popped home from work and was elsewhere in the house.
We ran next door. Kala and her parents lived in a brick and tile square-boned house. Anne, Kala’s mum, was on the phone, the cord twisting and untwisting around her slim brown wrist. My mum Felicity was there too, her face furrowed with deep lines.
“What’s up, Ma? We’re starving.”
Two plates were placed on the table for us with some bread and cheese. Anne hung up, dialled another number, and after some talking, sighed and put the phone down.
“He’s not there either.”
“Have you tried the private hospitals? Mercy Hospital, Ascot? Maybe you should try calling the police?”
Kala swivelled in her seat. “Mum, what’s up? Where’s Dad?”
Felicity flapped her hands at us. “Shush! Nothing’s wrong. Eat your food and go upstairs, girls.”
We stamped out of the kitchen and up the stairs. I aimed a deft kick at Kala’s cat as we left. I felt like hungry and tired and growly. But there was nothing to do but wait till our mothers gave us some real food.
Real food did not come. Kala and I crawled into bed together, way past our bedtime, fingers and toes grubby from the garden. She was so slight I almost had the bed to myself, and spread-eagled myself out. All night long I dreamed of hot chips and sticky chicken wings and Mr Patel wearing his favourite apron, saying “Eat up girls! Or you’ll be half the women your mothers are!”
Mr Patel wasn’t there the next morning, either. Anne was pale and smudged, a night moth caught by the harsh morning glare. There was a policewoman in the kitchen, who smiled kindly at us and kept writing notes. Her colleague barked into his phone and didn’t look at us.
Someone must’ve dropped us off at school that day. My thoughts were fuzzy from the late night and not enough to eat. When we got home, nothing had changed. The same tableau, Anne at the kitchen table, my mum next to her.
Their similarity struck me then. Small, fine-boned, handsome. Almost sisters despite having been born oceans apart. Both with a single child.
And now, both with missing husbands.
Although my father’s disappearance was more defined, more certain, and had lost some of its clout with the passage of time. Mr Patel’s absence was a yawning black question mark that hung over the house. I smelled the brugmansias again, the flowers large and pendulous, wafting over the fence and through the kitchen windows, lancing the dusk with comfort.
My mother refused to keep any photos of my father in the house. The only photo I had of him was hidden inside a textbook. I studied this small scrap of paper sometimes, tracing the outline of his face, the scribbled message on the back, hoping to divine some answers. I remembered his big shoulders, how he would swing me up and run with me under the monsoon rains. Me shrieking with delight as water poured down my face, Felicity screaming at him to bring me inside.
My mum always tells me that I have my Dad’s appetite, and his dark skin and big feet. She also says that Dad destroyed her life.
Perhaps she is right. He’s never tried to contact us. He may be afraid; Felicity is a tigress when angry, with flaring green eyes and bared teeth. Maybe he doesn’t know how to find us, now that we live in a different country.
The phone rang again. Mum lunged and picked it up in one fluid movement.
“Patel household, Felicity speaking…Yes she’s here.’ Mum passed the phone to Anne.
“Hello…yes…Really? Not that I know of. Okay, thank you.” A click as the phone was put back in its cradle.
“They’ve found his car. But it was miles away, parked by Hunua Falls. I don’t understand. He’s never been there before. What could be happening?”
“Any sign of him?”
There is one thing I remember clearly from our old life in Sri Lanka. One memory, etched with precision. I am standing in our garden. It is hot and still, the air heavy with impending rainfall. The sudden odd smell of plastic and burning fat makes my head hurt. I peer out through the rusty red slatted gate. There is a man, lying down. Neck encircled by a burning tyre. Surrounded by a jeering, laughing crowd waving kitchen knives and crowbars. The monsoon rains start with a thunderclap and a lightning flash lights up the sky. Mum hustles me inside.
Everything changed after this. Everything.
Dad left us the next day. He was wearing his best suit, worsted wool with pinstripes and a single button at the waist. His face shone with sweat. His shoes also shone, reflecting my puzzled little face. Everything he needed was packed into his old leather suitcase. He hugged me hard, slipped his photo into my pocket. Mum locked herself upstairs and didn’t come down till he’d left. She then bustled about, getting dinner ready.
We left too, some years later, when mum’s Dutch-Sinhala pedigree and the green-ness of her eyes couldn’t protect us anymore. She dropped Dad’s Dravidian surname and reverted back to her maiden name. Mum was a tigress, I was her only cub. She brought me to safety in a new land.
There was nothing to fear here. It was so peaceful, the streets so empty mid-morning. No people standing silently around burning men. There were big trees popping with red flowers – these I would fall in love with, and practice their name over and over. Po-hoo-tu-kawa. I curled up in their roots, read books, fell asleep as their shiny green leaves whispered to me.
I didn’t miss the heaving morass of Colombo one bit. I trotted off to my new school, and contorted my tongue to fit elongated diphthongs. I learned to flick the bird at rude drivers. I made new friends easily.
It took time for mum to settle.
She kept her chin high when we went shopping. I loved going to the supermarket. The abundance of food made me feel expectant and happy. But mum often seemed tense on these outings. Often a stranger would say something to her that I didn’t understand. They would laugh, but she would not. The laughter did not sound kind. Mum’s small hand, holding mine, would clench. She would slit her green eyes, reply politely, then leave.
Anne, Mr Patel and Kala were the best neighbours we could have ever asked for. So kind and so friendly. And Mr Patel loved to cook and feed all his girls.
And now he had disappeared, as suddenly as my own father had.
Anne remained silent and drawn over the next few days and weeks. The police were mystified by her husband’s disappearance. He had no enemies, his bank accounts hadn’t been touched. A press conference was organised in the hope of dredging up more information. Mum did most of the talking, her eyes glaring down reporters who suggested shady dealings. She demanded that anyone with information come forward at once.
I grew taller and stronger. I ate so much my mum complained that I needed to get a job. I learnt to run fast, faster than everyone else. My feet and hands now fitted me perfectly. I was a jaguar, sleek and black and fierce.
Kala retreated into herself. Her dad’s absence followed her everywhere. I loved to talk about her dad, about his delicious meals and silly practical jokes. I missed him so much. Kala slipped out every time I brought him up.
Ever since I’d known her, Kala had dreamed of being a dancer, of joining the Royal New Zealand Ballet and touring to exotic destinations. After her dad disappeared, she never spoke of dancing again. She got a job as a cleaner at the Cordis hotel downtown. When she wasn’t working she’d lock herself in her bedroom.
Almost two years to the day after Mr Patel disappeared, I came home to find Mum sitting on our porch. She looked liked she’d seen a ghost. Inside, I found Anne and Kala sitting across from a tall, dark man. My stomach lurched with delayed recognition. My father looked up at me. Only a slight greyness around the temples and a flabbiness around the waist spoke of the passage of a decade.
“Rosa. Darling. It’s me.”
Anne got up and came to stand by me. Her hand reached for mine. Kala sat, knees pressed together, sleeves down to her wrists, eyes on the floor. Dad got up, reached out a hand to me hesitantly. He was smaller than I remembered him. His shoulders sagged under his old coat.
A wave of bile travelled up from the pit of my stomach. Wrenching myself free, I ran to the toilet and threw up. I slid down the locked door, rested a hot cheek against the cool tiles.
I am a jaguar. I am fierce and strong and brave.
I went back to the room and sat opposite my father, my back straight, my chin up and my nails digging into the armrests.
“Rosa,” he tried again. “Look at you. You’re all grown up. It’s been so long….”
“How did you find us?”
“I live in Melbourne. I saw the news reports. I had to save up to come here, and then I had to find where you lived. It’s so good to see you.”
“You never called. You never wrote.”
“I tried. But your mum…I know it must’ve seemed like I abandoned you. I had to get away before something terrible happened. To me. It wasn’t safe to stay. And I tried to take you both with me, but Felicity…”
The air shifted in the room as mum came inside. She stood next to me and looked pointedly at the wall. Dad fell silent and stared at his lap. The heady scent of brugmansia washed over me, again and again.
Mum spoke quietly, “Please go.”
“Don’t do this, Felicity. Not again.”
“Go! She doesn’t need you messing up our life.”
The reverberations from my father’s visit continued for some time. Mum seemed limp, a seedling scorched by an unkind sun. Anne became the comforter, bringing us cups of tea, sugared for shock. She cooked for us – not as well as her missing husband, but much appreciated nonetheless. She would hug me suddenly or pat me on the head. I felt five years old again, and a small secret part of me liked it.
One night I dreamed of Mr Patel. There was dusty soil and the light was dry and hot. He was walking in front of me. He turned to smile and wave. Kala was suddenly beside me, her smile wide and stretched with delight. She skipped ahead and took his hand, and they walked off, into a dark cool forest. I held back, my heart thudding with fright. I wanted to call out to Kala, but no sound came.
I lay in bed awhile after I woke, the morning light slitting through the wooden blinds. My heart slowly settled its frantic scrabble inside my chest. Outside, I could glimpse the buttery yellow Jerusalem artichokes in bloom. Golden furry bees circled happily with rich pollen. I felt the weight of the blankets, the softness of the bed, a cotton cocoon smothering rather than protecting.
My mum rapped on my door, and then rushed inside. Irritated, I was about to speak, then stopped as I saw her face.
“It’s Kala. She’s in the hospital. They found her in one of the hotel rooms. Oh Rosa. We should’ve seen this coming!”
At the hospital, Kala was asleep. Her cheeks were concave underneath sharp bones, and I felt a sudden shock at her emaciation. Her wrists were thick with white bandages. A monitor beeped out her heart to me. A sad, quiet beat. They’d found her just in time.
Anne rose to greet us, hugged as fiercely.
Later, as we stood to leave, Anne touched my hand lightly. She looked me in the eye, slipped a piece of paper into my pocket, and said simply, “Call him. He’s the only father you’ve got.”