I met the lady again a week later, walking down the street outside the park with her husband, heading home. She invited me to walk with them and I accepted, still as fascinated by them as I had been on our first meeting. At their big empty house with the big, empty lawn, we drank green tea with honey and parted good friends. Since then, I had seen that portly woman every Saturday, without fail, pant up my office stairs and press her nose to the glass door, looking for a little rest and some cheerful company (which I provided, respectively, with the iron stool from which she regularly tumbled and the twist of conversation that drove her to talk about her amusing ideals as she called them) after her weekly grocery shopping.
On the appointed day, I rang the bell outside the Di Silva residence at five in the evening, and when the door opened, I nodded at Mr. Di Silva in his wheelchair, and then glanced at the place behind him from where, usually, his wife’s little head protruded. Today, it was replaced by a thin waist wearing an apron. Rather discomfited, I looked up to stare into the liquid brown eyes of a tall young Christian maid.
I realize how politically incorrect this seems, but between ourselves, just you, my dear, and me, don’t we recognize them? Especially if we are from rich families; we, who have grown up seeing (and simultaneously unseeing) them walking stealthily around the carpeted corridors of our homes, carrying breakfast trays to and from the kitchen and mutely laying out our outfits of the day onto our beds as we take our morning showers? We see them – elite Muslim Pakistanis that we are – and we think, ah, the new help is Christian, then, and we make a mental note of not letting him or her (usually it is a her. The men in this community do not like working very well is what I hear) hand us any food.
Pardon me, if my interjection has bothered you; while I am sure you are not the sort that takes offense easily, you must pardon the explanation I decided to delve into anyway; better safe than sorry is what I always say, and there is always a potential activist type reading this who might approach me – after recognizing me jogging down some track early in the morning – to give me a good lashing about my racist tendences (I have a couple of choice ideas about racism, too, but I have learned the hard way that it is not fashionable to voice them anymore so I shall not keep you from the story anymore).
We were talking about the back of Mr. De Silva’s chair, where – in place of his fat little wife stood a thin young woman in an apron and a prim knee-length skirt.
Before I could say anything to either her husband who had given up on life or her help who had probably never known what living meant, Mrs. Di Silva’s voice floated towards us, followed by its owner.
“M’dear! Just on time. I see you’ve met Champa, she’s the attendant I told you about.”
As if on cue, Champa turned around briskly and wheeled Mr. Di Silva smoothly away from the gate and over the tiled path in the lawn to the little coffee table set for three. Mrs. Di Silva clasped my hand delightedly and pulled me after her. The Di Silvas’ lawn was a rather magnificent affair, if lonesome; creepers on the walls, every corner lined with exotic looking plants, a marble path woven across the soft green grass for Di Silva’s wheelchair. Once we were seated, the nurse left to bring the tea-trolley and Mrs. Di Silva began to talk.
“You know, dear, not that I do not like work but it is enjoyable to be free once in a while from it, I recommend you take a break from your work too, highly relaxing and not at all dishonorable.”
The nurse returned with a laden trolley and setting the food before us, began to pour coffee for us all. I sat on my chair, legs crossed, observing her as Mrs. Di Silva forced her little cotton balls of blue and yellow words into our ears and down our throats.
She was tall, and the company of the short, fat lady of the house and eternally paralyzed master of it made her appear taller. Her skin was a dark, rich sort of brown that seemed to sizzle and fry in the evening sun. Sauté, almost, I thought to myself and smiled, delighted at the idea of God sautéing skin to the point of richness before putting it onto this Christian maid.
A brief image glimmered in my mind of human beings in cauldrons simmering and frying until some were dark brown, some light and some downright black. I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the transparent Portuguese glass cups on the table; looking at my long, carefully shaven white face, I laughed inwardly at the thought that I would have to be one of the frozen varieties then, which had to be popped into the microwave before retrieving their true colours.
“Your tea, sir,” Starting, I found myself looking at the shiny long fingers of the attendant, holding a teacup and saucer delicately on her fingertips. As I took it from her, I felt my hand brush hers slightly. The young woman pulled her hand away. I gave the incident no thought.
Women, especially young ones, tend to turn pious around me initially, but the sham is always replaced by some pleasantly original impiety. Not that I think any less of them for it. In fact, it appears to be quite an improvement to me.
At that moment, as she pulled her hand from mine and walked away, I wondered with a certain glee about some time with this chocolate nursemaid.
Would one begin at the hands or the ankles? I thought. I scrutinized her carefully. Hands, definitely. Smooth as silk.
Most Christians in Pakistan and India are the low caste Hindus who converted to Christianity after they decided that they would rather be children of Jesus then the footservants of the local Gods’ offspring, which is, I admit, a most sensible decision. I have always thought the priests who started coming to the subcontinent in 1698 (something I picked up a long time ago in history class) with trading ships of the East India Company had it easy. How hard is it to convince a race of trodden doormats that they did not have to be a race of trodden doormats? Another important question that rises to mind is, of course, how long it takes for reincarnated humans to be reverted by their saviours to a race of trodden doormats?
I unconsciously observed Champa most of the evening, wondering whether she knew anything about what little history there was to her dark skin, her religion and her position of nursemaid in a Portuguese house in the capital of my country.
It was when I was resisting Madame Di Silva’s annoying insistence to eat another of her unpalatable scones after Champa had served tea that I noticed the nurse maid standing behind Mr. Di Silva’s wheel-chair, rubbing clean the fingers of the hand that had brushed mine vigorously with the hem of her dress.
When she saw me notice it, a deep blush rose to her dark cheeks and she stopped immediately, clenching her fists and looking pointedly at the ground. My aversion to Champa started, I believe, with this incident.
In the beginning, it was just an egotistic annoyance at the apparent rejection of what had never even been a proposal, but as I started seeing her every Tuesday regularly, thanks to Madame Di Silva’s kind invitations, the annoyance boiled into revulsion.
If you are thinking, dear reader, that my hatred stemmed from that little action of the first day, you are wrong. I had no need of the affections of a common Christian nurse. I was a man who eased himself into women’s minds the way some men ease themselves into coats. Champa was neither interesting nor beautiful enough to make me want to bother getting closer to her.
I hated Champa because she was detestable, with her careful gaze that never stayed anywhere longer than was necessary, her dark face constantly vacant of all emotions and the big, dark eyes that always looked like they knew things I did not.
I hated that woman because of her faux piety that she had somehow convinced herself and everyone around her was real.
Now, at the Di Silva residence, I applied myself to studying the young woman meticulously. She had very common features; a dark skin, a thin nose, big eyes that made her look like the subject of one of those tantalizing paintings that attempt to realize the average orientalist’s idea of Asian women, an eternally closed mouth, common grey garbs of cotton covered with an apron of white, and braided hair. There was nothing dreamy about her, unlike the other young nurses I had seen and fallen in love with, having lived near a hospital during my teenage. This thought cheered me up immensely and I felt a superior emotion awaken inside me, as I remembered all the nurses, young and old, I had enjoyed the company of in my teenage and during law school. Not just nurses either, interns, doctors, a surgeon or two, too, shockingly enough.
I gave the dark Christian attendant a scoffing look, deciding that the mere fact that she thought any contact with me was bad displayed the fact that her taste in men and values was terrible. And anyway, I thought, as I sipped my tea, a few Tuesdays later, and carefully looked away from her, what care had I for her tastes? What was she? An essential nothing. Not one endearing quality in her sullen, sulky face.
With a sneer, I had decided on my fifth meeting with her that this was not the sort of woman that attracted me. Having reached this conclusion, I watched her now with the new pastime of judging her, and understood quickly that my gaze discomfited the creature. I enjoyed her discomfiture almost as much as I enjoyed my dwarfish hostess’s quirks.
When you constantly observe a woman, however, the downside is that you discover one endearing quality to every ten bad ones; I found a couple of endearing qualities in Champa, too. (I beg you to wipe that smug smile off your face before I tell you what it is, for I have said that this is natural and would happen to anybody for it is impossible for a woman to not be likable at all.)
It was her form, for me.
Always covered in a drab dress which tread the line between tight-fitting and loose very artfully, it did not seduce me. I was always the sort of man who abhorred clothes and fashion and all that, but her dress definitely exhibited carelessly its contents, which, from what I could tell, were worthy of some credit.
Everything about her: arms, legs, waist and feet, seemed to me to be caught up in some invisible ballet, moving continuously, snaking this way and that almost imperceptibly. When she walked, her entire body seemed part of a dance to a tune her audience could not hear.
“Where’s she from?” I asked, my eyes following Champa as she walked primly up the front steps to the door, carrying the tea-kettle for a refill, one rather cloudy Tuesday.
“Who? Oh, her,” Mrs. Di Silva shrugged. “A Christian colony nearby, dear. Very dishonorable, lazy people. It’s shocking, how prospect-less their lives are.”
It was that particular Tuesday, the seventh, I think, since I’d first met Champa that when I bade the Di Silvas goodbye after tea, I walked home thinking of the nursemaid without the usual sentiments.
I had always felt a swift hatred stirring in my heart against her upon thinking of her, but today that hatred was coupled, or perhaps overcome, by an ill-placed sense of wistfulness and anger.
Why doesn’t she look at me? Even by accident? I fumed as I briskly walked towards my apartments. What message are you trying to put across? That I’m not worthy of your attentions? I snorted derisively, and a passerby paused to look at me. Tell that to somebody else. I am everything you should ever dream of in men, you dimwit. I caught my reflection in the window of a dark shop and paused to admire myself.
I was, indeed, everything a woman wants. Black curls, high cheekbones accentuated with narrow black eyes, a lean, muscular body, a ready wit and an excellent dressing sense. For a woman like her, I was Zeus himself.
The next Tuesday, I dressed more meticulously than ever, driving my maid nearly mad by rejecting four shirts and two trousers and actually going out to buy a new coat. I sat across from Champa for two hours, chatting with the lady of the house, and not one glance was thrown my way. Her eyes remained glued to the sweater she was knitting for Mrs. D. I walked home irate. There was no limit to the insult I felt that day.