Sugu Pillay’s fiction collection, The Chandrasekhar Limit, was published in 2002. With an MA in Script Writing in 2009 she indulged in play writing. Her poems, Flaubert’s Drum, were published 2012. After a hiatus, she has slowly returned to writing again after years of dealing with EQC, insurance, builders and poor health.
Ramses II Is Dead, My Love
As soon as she got a room in the Bed & Breakfast and had unloaded her luggage, she extravagantly took a cab to The Terrace. In fact, it was all she had thought of from the time she boarded the plane and till it landed in Wellington. At The Terrace, she searched for the side street which had the graffiti she was looking for. She stood there for a long while, staring at the empty, grey wall. Where was the line about Ramses II? The concrete rampart before her was like a slate wiped clean.
Two weeks later, sitting in her favourite pub and drinking a shandy, she was thinking of Ramses II again, when a man asked if he may sit at her table. Before she could react, the man sat down by her side with a casual confidence, as if he was the one she was waiting for all these days. Her mouth fell open and she was about to speak, when he raised his eyebrows and said, “You looked so sad sitting by yourself.”
She stared at him, then replied uncertainly, “I…like being on my own.”
“So I noticed.”
“This past hour.”
She looked him straight in the eye. His long black lashes hooded over his eyes for a bit, then he smiled a little ruefully. She did not return his smile but surprised herself saying, “I had my first Black Russian in this pub twenty years ago.”
“Let me get you one.”
She stopped him as he rose. “I ceased flirting with the exotic a long time ago.”
He placed his palm over her hand on his sleeve. She withdrew sharply, almost with a hiss.
“What kept you watching for so long?” she asked, almost petulantly.
“I needed time.”
“The right moment.”
“Where were you sitting?” She asked looking around the smoky pub. There were dark alcoves and a stairway up to a landing where there were more tables.
“Up there.” He pointed to a table for four, wedged between a stain glass window and a ledged wall stacked with magazines at the back of the landing. “I meet ex-varsity mates here, occasionally,” he added.
“Varsity friends! Lucky you. I never kept in touch. Perhaps it was a mistake to return. No friends, only memories I’d rather not have.”
“You know, it always fascinates me how people talk about their memories. Why don’t you tell me yours and I will tell you mine.”
She considered this for some time. “You’re sure about this? You want to play this silly game?”
“I met my ex at Vic,” she offered.
“So did I. What attracted you to yours?”
“He was Indian.”
“That’s all? No other erstwhile traits?”
“No, your turn.”
“My ex had long blonde hair to her waist. She shone like a Viking princess. But she had no faith in fairy tales. What’s your happiest memory?” he asked.
“When we first met, I took my ex on a tour of the South Island. He was completely bowled over. He said it was like being led into scenes in his favourite book of fairy tales. Every time we drove into a new curve of hill and dale, he would go into a fresh rapture about the angle in which the light fell in this country and the way the contours of the land lay in such seductive green, gold and purple waves. He would fling his hands up and say, I could make love to this land.”
He was silent for a while. “What’s your saddest memory?”
“Confronting his mother. I can still recall the scene in minutest detail. She was sitting on this enormous flowered sofa in their new Island Bay home. The sun was shining, the surf was pounding the rocks and the heater was on full blast. I was perspiring in my sun dress. She was staring at my breasts as if she’d like to tear them out and smash them on the rocks. And while he was cowering in an armchair, she snarled, Without my permission, my son will never marry you. Then she turned to him and barked, Isn’t that so? Tell her! And he…he nodded. I can’t remember how I got to my car and drove away.”
“I asked for your saddest, not your angriest.”
“That wasn’t my angriest, but you’ve to tell me your happiest and saddest first.”
“My happiest? Let me refill our glasses.”
She watched his receding back. Broad shoulders, red silk shirt, narrow boyish hips, designer trousers. Well preserved, she thought, for a man his age.
“Right, my happiest memory,” he said, placing a Black Russian before her with a challenging look. While she gulped her drink, he made himself comfortable and began. “One night, after a game of tennis, we returned to her flat and I was stumbling around for a light switch when she said, What the heck! and pulled me down on to the floor. It was the first time for the both of us. I have never had a night like that with anyone ever since.”
“I feel sick,” she said and rushed past him to the Ladies.
He turned around and watched her fleeing back. Curly black hair swishing over mauve jacket, fulsome hips, short black skirt, long tanned legs. When she came back, her face was washed clean. She had not bothered to re-do her face.
“My saddest,” he continued as if there had been no break, “was when she sent back the ring and all the photos we had taken cut in half with her face missing in all of them.”
“Very brief with your memories, aren’t you?”
He reached for her hand and coaxed, “Tell me your angriest.”
She snatched back her hand. “We got married in secret. No one knew, not even our friends. Our witnesses were two clerks from the Registry, total strangers. After my final exams, I returned home to Gore where there was a family crisis brewing. My parents and younger sister had had an accident on their way to Christchurch. Luckily, my parents escaped with minor bruises, but my sister had several ribs broken. As she was hospitalized in Christchurch, my mother stayed back to be with her. But when my father returned to Gore, he, too, was hospitalized for observation. He was diabetic and had a heart condition. I was beside myself with worry.”
She stopped and looked at him. He nodded. She continued.
“While I was in Gore, my ex told his mother about our registry wedding. She hit the roof. Then she calmed down, and asked him to fetch his wife ‘home’. He arrived in Gore without warning and asked me to leave with him immediately. My parents knew nothing about our marriage. I pleaded with him to wait till my father was discharged from hospital. But he was afraid his mother would change her mind. She had threatened to kill herself.”
He reached for her hand and held it, stroking it with his other hand. She was intent on her story.
“So I took him to see my father in the hospital, but he insisted on staying in the car while I went in. My father put on his dressing gown and came out with me to meet his son-in-law. I heard my father plead, Give me a week, I’ll be out by then and we can make arrangements for a Church wedding. Then you can take her where you want. My father stood waiting for a response. There was none. So he went back to the ward. When I got into the car, my ex said, It’s now or never. Make up your mind. I got out of the car. I never looked back.”
He began to stroke both her hands and to kiss them. She pulled her hands free. “You haven’t told me your angriest memory. Go on, tell me. Can it even begin to match mine?”
“Can’t you guess, Jane? It was when you asked for a divorce from Canada. I didn’t even know you had left the country.”
She twirled her glass spilling wine recklessly. “You did re-marry?”
Gently, mopping up the wine, he replied, “Yes, Why didn’t you?”
“How do you know?”
“Just a guess. Why have you dyed your hair black?”
“Why have you grown a beard?”
“Don’t you like it?”
“I guess you don’t look so much of a boy now.”
“Yes, I was that, wasn’t I?”
“Yes. Two daughters.”
She broke the silence.
“Remember the house on The Terrace which had a high concrete rampart with Ramses II is dead, my love painted across in bold white, like a banner?”
“Yes,” he answered, very softly.
“We kept expecting it to be painted out, but the graffiti remained on the wall all through our years at varsity like a perfect illustration for Omar Khayyam’s The moving finge…”
“On my first day back two weeks ago, I rushed to The Terrace to see if it was still there. A bit silly, I admit. But…” She paused. Then, she firmly announced, “It is my strongest memory of us.”
“Us standing there making up stories about the context for the graffiti?”
“You assumed it was a student or students out on a drunken spree.” She said it as if they were in the middle of that argument.
He smiled as he recalled. “You said it was a student of anthropology whose girlfriend was into reincarnation and who bored him stiff with accounts of her life as an Egyptian princess.”
“Which princess, you asked me,” she smiled back.
“I think…my response was that the graffiti was probably the work of a wimp, mad with incestuous love for his sister.”
“I said there was more to Egyptian civilization than pharaohs and incestuous marriages.”
“And I…out of the blue, said…cross-cultural marriages weren’t easy.” He began perspiring.
“I snapped who was thinking of marriage?” She was actually smiling, pleased with her success at prompting memory.
“And I said I was and proposed to you.”
“You went on your knees there on the pavement. You pointed to the Southern Cross and said, I swear by that Cross in the Heavens, I will love you until we all return to stardust and dissolve into the mystery of our Universe.”
She looked radiant.
He held her unresisting hand in his.
“Take me home, Vikram. Please.”
As they left together, there were whistles from the landing.
He drove, while she sat pale and stiff like a newly wrapped mummy. In her room, he stumbled around for a light switch. Then he said, “What the heck!” and pulled her to the floor.