Last night I dreamt of Fairfield again. The mist was swirling around the house, shrouding it, trying to reach its tentacles inside. I sensed the figure near my bed, its loathing hitting me in waves. I tried to speak, to explain, but it reached out and covered my face with a pillow. I could not breathe…I could not breathe…..There was smoke all around me, and I crawled to try and reach the front door, but something held me back…my legs would not move….they were caught in a vice like grip…..I knew then that I was going to die….
I sit upright in the bed, my heart thudding wildly, rivulets of sweat running down my face. My legs are entangled in the sheets. I notice the pale light sneaking through the curtains. I look down next to me. Max isn’t there. I find him sitting on the porch, as I usually do these mornings. He is smoking. I see from the stubs that he has been there a while. I go up behind him, and my slender arms encase his shoulders. He turns and lets me kiss his cheek. The puckered skin is smooth to the touch and I, once again, feel a lurch to see my handsome husband’s face so marred by hatred and jealousy.
“Should we go to the beach today?”, I ask him.
“It’s too hot. Maybe another day. I’ll work on the novel. You carry on….”
I step back inside. The distance between us seems to be increasing. He carries his guilt around like a cross. Nothing I say or do, seems to lighten that burden. I slip my shorts and T shirt off and stand under the cool shower. Tears run down my face, mingling with the water, washing my pain down the drain into the sea, to lap at a different shore. I don’t hear him come in. Then suddenly, he is behind me, and I turn and offer myself to him. We make love, and once again,I feel connected. I feel whole.
It was the start of the dry season, the month of May. The cafés were getting busy again, and in the usual scrum of tourists, he seemed to stand apart. It wasn’t just the crisp white shirt and khakis he wore almost everyday. It was his demeanour. He seemed to be sleepwalking almost. As though life had clubbed him around the head, and he no longer knew or cared where he was. Everyday he would sit at the same table, drink the same cups of coffee and smoke the same cigarettes, staring out into the horizon. Everyday he would leave me a tip of Rp 50,000 – a princely sum. After the third day, I tried to refuse the tip.
“Please…sir….it is not necessary. It is too much. It is my job to serve you. I cannot accept….”
His eyes seemed to register me for the first time.
“No, please. Take it.”
And he thrust the money into my hand, and walked out. That was the first time I noticed his limp.
Afterwards, we sit and eat breakfast together. Our conversation is limited to what I need to buy from the shops.
“I need some more biros. The ink seems to dry up quickly in the hot weather.”
“Why don’t you use the laptop? Writing longhand must be tiring for you. I can always get Wayan to fix the connection.”
He pushes his plate away, his toast half eaten.
“I prefer writing this way, Dayu.”
Then he is on the porch again, smoking. The pages of his spiral notebook blowing back and forth between the covers, sparse lines etched carelessly within.
When he leaned over and kissed me the first time, the breath seemed to leave my body for a long long time. How deeply I was in love with this man I had scarcely known for two months.
“A Bule?”, my mother was shocked. “You cannot marry this white man. And go and live in his cold country? They are all made of ice, these foreigners. He wants to take you back as a maid. Dayu, I cannot permit this.”
Permit she did in the end, albeit reluctantly. I was glad to have her blessings. She was the only immediate member of family I had, and she too died while I was abroad.
I cycle to the shop in Ubud. A distant cousin of my mother’s owns it. Ketut sits there all day, toothlessly grinning at all the young women who come in. They don’t seem to mind. It is a pleasant way to while away the time, although I wonder how he makes any money from the jumble of items he stocks in there.
“More biros? Does that husband of yours do anything at all, but let the ink run dry on these?”
I smile and wander to the back of the store. An old copy of a British society magazine falls on the floor. I pick it up, and casually flick through the pages. There, in full vibrant colour, I come upon her picture. My hands start trembling, but I can’t stop staring at that perfectly chiselled face, that cruel mocking smile, those eyes that seem to bore into me, stripping me of all my secrets, denying me my existence. The world goes dark quite suddenly.
He never promised it would be easy. And it wasn’t. His sudden black moods. The long journey to his country from mine. I stood and shivered in the greyness of it all. His chauffeur was late. I looked around me to see people rushing past. No one smiled. No one exchanged glances.
“Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world”, he reassured me. “This is quite normal. Once we’re in the countryside , you won’t feel so out of place.”
I wondered at that. Bali was a pleasant and welcoming place. It greeted you with a genuine warmth. Here I felt lost and alien, my mind and body unable to comprehend the change.
He was silent the entire car journey and my tired eyes drooped as the grey buildings gave way to what he called a motorway, and then to greener vistas. I must have fallen asleep for I felt him shaking me awake gently.
“Dayu, my beautiful one, we’re here. This is home.”
My sharp intake of breath made him grimace. His ‘country pile’ was enormous. He had never told me, never described the wealth he came from. Our tiny home in Bali would have fit into one of his living rooms.
“I did nothing to earn this. We inherited it. It costs an arm and a leg to maintain. I wish I could get rid of it. Especially after….” He stopped abruptly.
There were so many gaps, so many blanks in his story that I wanted him to fill. He wouldn’t and I was too afraid to ask. The one thing I did know was that he had a twin sister. A disabled twin who lived in this grand house, and from whom I was to receive a very frosty reception.
I come to on the floor of the shop. Ketut has rolled up some old material and placed it under my head. He sits there watching me, wordlessly chewing on his tobacco.
“I’m sorry!”, I exclaim sitting up. My head swims once again, and I lie back down.
“What happened there child? Why did you return all fearful, and him like that?” He waves his hand all over his face.
I curl myself into a foetal position and start to sob. I miss my mother. I miss the innocence of the days gone by. He lets me cry, and once I am done, he brings me some water, and waits.
“Bapak Ketut, I cannot repeat what I saw. But we came away because we had to. It was the only way to survive.”
He’s holding the magazine open on the page of her picture. She looks out of the page, her hauteur adding to her ethereal beauty.
“So, who is this then? This woman that made you faint?”
“She’s his ex wife.”
The house was a shrine to her. Not a thing had changed since she died. From the furnishings to the photos of them as a couple, as a family, with friends, with her dogs- everything was intact.
“You have to understand, Dayu. Amelia and Becca were childhood friends. Becca still hasn’t come to terms with her death.”
The elusive Becca had yet to emerge. I dreaded the meeting, especially after our phone conversation, which had been stilted at best. How would she respond to me? Would she view me as the interloper that I was, replacing her beloved sister in law and friend in her brother’s life and bed?
“So this is the little Balinese doll you picked up on your travels, Max?”, she smiled at me coolly. Her wheelchair had made no noise, as she’d snuck up on us. Was it my imagination, or was it a deliberate ploy to wrong foot me, to catch me unawares?
I smiled back at her, leaning down to embrace her. She moved her wheelchair sideways.
“Not so soon, Dayu. That’s your name, isn’t it? We need to get to know one another. Then you may kiss me.”
Hurt, I stepped back.
Max laughed, and pulled me close.
“Don’t mind Becca. She’s as prickly as a hedgehog.”
The tea Ketut brings me is sickly sweet. It is just what I need. I sit and sip at it, letting it calm me, feeling the strength returning to my bones.
“She died a couple of years ago.”, I speak slowly at first, and then the words come out in a gush. “That’s when Max came here. He wanted to get away.You see, Ketut, she disappeared for a very long time. Then they found her body.”
He bows his head, thinking. “Was it because of him?”
“No”, I say, “Well, yes….in a way…it’s so complicated.”
“Then tell me child. You cannot bottle this up forever. It is not healthy. I see what it is doing to you.”
I shiver in the heat, and he hurriedly fetches me a shawl to cover myself.
The staff in the house had dwindled to two, a cleaner and a gardener. It took me a few days, but I started to see how the house was slowly falling into disrepair and ruin. Neither brother nor sister seemed too bothered with its upkeep. I tried, and failed to make it appear homely. It was too large, too grand for that. So we stayed confined to the few habitable rooms there were.
“This is your first Christmas tree, isn’t it, my darling?”
Max could sense my excitement as I hung another silver bauble off a branch. With a fire roaring, the cards sitting on the mantlepiece, and the Christmas tree he had helped me put up, I was finally starting to feel a part of this house.
“Heaven knows she’ll get it all wrong. Amelia’s trees were always stunningly beautiful. Remember the time they were featured in Perfect Home magazine?”
Max glared at Becca but said nothing. All at once, I felt deflated. Becca never passed up an opportunity to make me feel inferior to my predecessor. And Max never defended me.
“They had known each other all their lives. Their parents were friends. They belonged to the upper crust of society where you only married one of your own.”
Ketut nods in understanding. “Go on”
“The sad thing was realising that they didn’t love one another after all.”
“Then why not divorce? It is acceptable in white society, no?”
“They wanted to, but Max’s mother fell ill, and then Becca had the accident. Then too much time went by. Oh, it’s all too confusing…..I don’t know why they stayed married. But they did.”
“And they were unhappy?”
“Yes. Max says they were terribly unhappy. He started to travel more for work. She began to have affairs that she didn’t bother hiding. The only person that truly bound them together was Becca.”
“Yes, the twin. She was in a wheelchair after the accident, and living with them. They both adored her. She was like an extension of them. Breaking up with each other would have meant breaking that bond too.”
“You’re not half the woman she was!”, Becca sneered at me.
Max was out of the country again, and I took to spending my days outside, as far away from his venomous sister as I could. It was clear to me that I would never win her over. No overtures of friendship, no home cooked meals, no head massages or offers to play Monopoly would ever fill that gaping wound she carried around her like a badge.The loss of her confidante, her friend, her sister.
“Can we not make peace Becca? I do not want to quarrel with you. For Max’s sake, please?”
It was getting unbearable. She barely disguised her contempt for me, or her hero worship of Amelia.
“Why did she kill herself? The wife? If she was that beautiful, that talented, that rich?”, Ketut enquires.
“What sort of guilt?”
A wave of nausea assails me then, and I shakily make my way to the ramshackle toilet at the back. I retch into the bowl, then splash my face with water, feeling hot and cold alternately.
I had come upon the diary by accident during my irregular cleaning forays. I started reading it out of boredom, and then with the ensuing knowledge that it belonged to Amelia. The entries were commonplace to begin with. Hairdresser appointments, fittings at boutiques, dog grooming sessions. Then, almost as though she wanted to spill her most intimate thoughts to me, they became more explicit. Assignations with lovers. Details of what they had done. How long the conquests had lasted before she became bored and moved on. I devoured it all, with a ghoulish fascination.
Then the entry that shook my world.
“Dayu, you are aware aren’t you?”, Ketut asks me gently, handing me a towel.
Shakily I accept. I look at him wonderingly, as he places a wrinkled hand on my stomach, and pats it briefly.
“Oh!”, I gasp, the age old knowledge filling me with a strange happiness.
“Perhaps you have said enough for one day. This is not the moment to live in the past. This is the time to celebrate the future. Go on home child.”
He ushers me out tenderly.
“It was because of you”, I stood before Becca, holding up the diary as proof of my accusation.
She narrowed her eyes, still not following.
“You loved her. But not as a sister. You wanted her for yourself. You could just about share her with Max. But no one else. You drove yourself mad with jealousy over her affairs!”
She laughed then.
“Yes. Yes, I did. She was all I had ever wanted. All my life, I had wanted to possess her. Max had her, and he didn’t care.”
“So you seduced her.”
“It was only a few times, but it was sublime. It was how it should have been.”
“Except she didn’t think so. She wanted out.”
“Is that her diary you’ve been reading, you dirty little spy?”
“Did you blackmail her? Is that what you did? Did you drive her to her suicide?”
“Shut up! Shut up!!!!”, she screamed at me, wheeling her chair around in fury. “No one will ever understand. No one!”
I stood there, suddenly emptied of all rage. The diary dropped out of my hand. I made my way up to bed.
I cycle back slowly, the biros jangling together in the plastic bag that hangs off the handlebar. I’ve always wondered if Max read the diary when he returned unexpectedly that night. Or perhaps, he didn’t get a chance. I hope he didn’t. What he saw has filled him with enough horror for a lifetime.
The mist was swirling around the house, shrouding it, trying to reach its tentacles inside. I sensed the figure near my bed, its loathing hitting me in waves. I tried to speak, to explain, but it reached out and covered my face with a pillow. I could not breathe…I could not breathe…..
Her arms had a superhuman amount of strength, as she tried to suffocate me. I struggled vainly, my feet kicking out, till they connected with flesh. I heard her grunt of pain, and the brief respite was all I needed to wriggle out of bed, and crawl towards the door, my ravaged neck stinging.
Somewhere I could smell smoke. But uppermost on my mind was escape. I could hear the whirring of her wheels not far behind me, and I sent up a desperate prayer. “Save me….God, save me”
She threw herself upon me. Her arms were a vice around my legs. Then Max’s voice, “Bloody Hell Becca….what are you doing?!”
He tried to save us both. He went back inside for her. His seared face was a legacy of that futile attempt. Nothing would assuage the guilt of his failure.
I stop to pluck a Jepun flower. Frangipani. They are in bloom everywhere. A riot of colours that sings out a summer song. I place it in my hair.
It is the month of May again. It was May, a year ago, when I first met him.
Perhaps, just perhaps, we could begin afresh. Maybe we could start our story from this point. With a growing certainty, I pedal home faster. To my husband, to my love, and to a future I will not allow to be blighted by the past.
©Poornima Manco 2014
A tribute to, and a twist on, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’.