Saturday, May 13, 2006

Molly Auntie

Mrs Pereira arranged her crisp white cotton sari around her. Funeral houses were notoriously warm and as a full-fledged member of the “funeral auntie” brigade, she was dressed to deal with the heat. She tucked her yellow prayer book into her handbag and patted her still fat bun of hair, neatly pinned up at the back of her head. She was ready to leave for the Moreiras. Helen had called earlier to tell her that the old man was gone and the other members of their little band would be there in the next hour or two. She was ready to leave and as she checked her reflection in the mirror, she saw a prominent nose that had become increasingly beaky with age, large liquid eyes hidden behind round, black-rimmed glasses and a thin, pursed mouth. Her jaw line was now blurred with fat; and her face was covered with a smattering of talcum powder. She smelled strongly of Zest soap, a nice, fresh fragrance. Though not exactly corpulent, she was no longer the slim, swaying figure of once upon a time.

She now looked like what she was – a forceful, majestic woman it was wiser not to cross. The leader of a small band of women who presided over the Catholic funerals in the area, she pronounced judgment on everything from the political situation to the morals of Mrs Fernandez’ daughter with the same authority that would brook no argument. She came across very much like an old-fashioned schoolteacher, but was actually a housewife. Needless to say, the young people who had felt the sharp edge of her tongue, feared and hated her, and were anxious to give her a wide berth.

As she collected her car keys and was about to leave the house, Mrs Pereira did something uncharacteristic. She sighed and allowed her shoulders to droop a little. Her thoughts flew to Colin Moreira, the man who had died a few hours ago. They had been children together, although he was a few years older, and attended the same church. He had been very handsome and popular and she had watched him secretly, longing to attract his attention, but not knowing how. The usual ways were forbidden. Her family was traditional and neither her mother nor her father would have tolerated make up or figure-revealing outfits.

“Chi, chi, chi,” she had often heard her mother say, “that girl is actually wearing lipstick. So cheap! I wonder what her parents can be thinking, allowing her to behave so loosely!”

Her father was even stricter. He did not allow his children to listen to the popular songs of the day. The word “love” was considered lewd in a society where marriages were arranged as alliances between suitable families.

She agreed with her parents. The short skirts and make up of the other girls disgusted her and she would never have resorted to such lascivious behaviour to attract attention. Still, she thought, it was hard. There were not many options open to her. Colin never threw a second glance her way. She was attractive, beautiful even, with her chiselled features, long hair and swaying grace, but her long, dumpy skirts, old fashioned blouses and thick plaited hair hid the fact effectively. Her parents beamed at her in approval. Their friends complimented them on their modest daughter. But the boys were oblivious. They only noticed her voice, which was gaining in stridence.

“A strong-minded woman, inclined to be bossy,” they thought, as they turned away to pay attention to flightier females.

At 23, her parents introduced her to Tom Pereira, a dark, undersized weakling with a university degree. He repelled her at once. There was nothing about him even remotely attractive. Having lived for so long with the shade of Colin Moreira, Tom could not but appear unappealing. She consented to meet him because she could not think of an excuse not to. She had realised by the significant glances of her parents and the fact that the old people who came to call now paid closer attention to her that they would be busy trying to formulate a match. This was their business, getting nice girls and nice boys from good families together, and they thrived on it. She just hadn’t realised that it would happen so soon. So she met Tom and hated him on sight. He looked her over and was quite satisfied with what he saw. Besides being pretty, fair and modest, she was reputed to be a good cook and housekeeper. Her mother had trained her well. When he asked if he could write to her, it was on the tip of her tongue to say:

“What for? There’s not the slightest use. I would rather marry a porcupine.”

But culture was too deeply ingrained. So she gritted her teeth, smiled and said yes, of course. Molly felt the python start to coil itself around her. After a few months of letters, she found that both families considered them practically engaged; and there was nothing she could do about it. She raged into her pillow at night when the rest of the house was asleep but she did not put up much of a fight. Having always been a “good girl”, she continued to fall in with what was expected of her.

If anyone had looked closely at the bride on her wedding day, they would have noticed her eyes were red and slightly puffy; and they would probably have surmised that she did not get much sleep the night before.

So she married Tom and submitted herself to his clumsy, unimaginative lovemaking, thankful for its brevity, if nothing else. In the beginning, she would get out of bed and scrub herself down in the bathroom till her skin was raw. But after a while, Molly stopped caring. She learned to distance herself from the act as effectively as she had distanced herself from her husband.

It was not that he was a bad husband. He adored her unquestioningly and in the first month of his marriage, he presented her with his entire paycheque of 500 ringgit, starting, as he would continue for the rest of his life. Being an excellent manager, she saved a good deal, which she put into fixed deposits and when there was enough, she would use the money to put down payments on property. She did not trust the stock market despite some magnificent bull runs. She watched her neighbours and friends lose their heads and end up poorer in the pocket than when they had started and resolved not to be similarly fooled, in another bull run were to come along.

Once Tom came to tell her he was thinking of quitting his nice, secure job as financial controller in an MNC to join some bright young things who were looking to set up their own dotcom. They had offered to double his salary and give him stock options. Molly, being the financial controller of the family, kept up to date with all the latest phenomena through the various business newspapers and magazines. She had followed the dotcom craze with some interest and seen the overnight millionaires it created. She did not, however, see what value these companies created or how they could hope to sustain their astronomical market valuations. Her husband had a good job with a good company and he had risen slowly through the ranks. The multinational was not likely to close its doors tomorrow and it looked after its staff pretty well. In fact, most of their housing loans were from the company at very favourable interest rates.

Molly looked at her husband with some amazement for imagining that he would be allowed to topple their carefully constructed life.

“You will do no such thing! Call them now and refuse!” she barked.

Tom sighed. And did exactly as she told him. He had fallen into the habit of going along with what his wife said that it would have been unthinkable to argue. If anyone had suggested that he was henpecked, he would have been surprised. The thing is, Molly was so terribly sensible. She saw things nobody else did and was never carried away with the excitement of the moment. He called the young entrepreneurs and told them he had talked it over with his wife and would have to decline. They were disappointed and tried to change his mind. This time though, he was unpersuadable. Five months later, the start-up crashed from a nasty cocktail of problems that included a lack of funding, management inexperience and an unproven (and unprovable) technology. Tom thanked his lucky stars for Molly.

They had two children, Rahel and Chacko. She managed them like she managed everything else in her life. She made friends with all their teachers, sent them for tuitions, picked their friends and decided on their careers. Sometimes her children, unlike her husband, would kick at their fetters and try to break free. But they were used to their chains. Besides, they loved their mother.

Today, she thought proudly, Rahel was a doctor and Chacko, an engineer. True, they had both migrated and were living abroad, but the silken threads that bound them to their mother were not exactly broken. She talked to each on the phone, once a week and once a year, they flew back for a visit. Neither was married but she fully expected to choose their respective mates. Nasty people whispered that the two had run away to escape being strangled in the maternal embrace, but she ignored such talk. People could be so jealous, she thought, shaking her head sadly.

It was time to go. The other ladies would be wondering what happened to her. She usually led the prayers and songs for all the Catholic funerals in their BEC (basic ecumenical community). Her brisk businesslike approach was appreciated by the bereaved families, who were usually too distraught to do much for themselves.

Mrs Pereira drove to Moreira’s house and parked outside. They lived in a less prosperous suburb and the street was choked with cards parked untidily in every available space around the house. Usually she arrived early enough to get a good spot, but today, being uncharacteristically late, she had to park a good distance away. When she entered the house, she spotted the members of her little band, similarly attired, like a brood of white pigeons, seated around the coffin. She glanced at the body and quickly looked away. Trying to preserve her equanimity, her eyes darted around the room until they came to rest on Rose Moreira, Colin’s widow, a diminutive figure in black, her greying hair falling in wisps around her still youthful face, looking dazed and heartbroken.

Rose was a gentle creature that Colin had married soon after Molly’s own wedding. Theirs was a “love marriage” a scandalous proceeding in their time, but their liberal parents had taken it in their stride. Rose was a loving, if weak wife, and she did not have Molly’s penchant for managing her five children. Each went their own way, with only Ruby, the eldest, going back to school at 25, to get her degree. None of them were married. The ladies of the parish (with the singular exception of Molly Pereira) were generous with their advice and warnings. Rose listened politely but never did anything. She and Colin had agreed that their children were adults and should be left to find their own way. The others could neither understand their attitude nor respect it. To them, not interfering in your children’s lives was tantamount to not loving them.

Molly offered her condolences a little stiffly (they had never been very intimate) and Rose invited her to take a seat, grateful that she did not press for details of Colin’s last hours. It hurt her to talk about it, but a procession of corpulent middle-aged relatives had seated themselves next to her in the past few hours demanding to know how it was. Rose was not the type to refuse and if Molly had asked she would have gone through it all over again.

Molly then rose to join the other ladies around the coffin, in one of the metal, fold-out chairs. The house, like most funeral houses, smelt of incense and formalin. The other funeral aunties eyed her expectantly and held their prayer books open in readiness. She led them in a Rosary, ending with the traditional petition for the soul of the deceased.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord.”

“And let perpetual light shine upon him.”

“May his soul rest in peace.”

“Amen.”

Having led dozens of funerals, the words came automatically, her mind a million miles away.

She kept her head resolutely bent over her prayer book as she announced: “ We will sing two verses of God of Mercy.” They quavered out the hymn mournfully.

When the singing ended, the others gathered around her for the news. Usually she would hold forth in an undertone. The topic, which held them in breathless suspense? The deceased’s last hours, how he died and who said what to whom, how his wife reacted, how his children reacted, how his doctors reacted and so forth.

It would run something along the lines of: “Yes, and in the morning the maid brought him his breakfast. He did not want his coffee though.” For no detail, however insignificant, was too inconsequential. The others would hang on to every word. Sometimes, she would break off in the middle of her narrative to comment on some new arrival, especially if the new arrival happened to be a young unmarried girl.’

“There, that one over there. That’s Menon’s daughter, you know, the reporter from Straits Times. Yes, good family and such a pretty girl, but very loose, you know. I heard her parents are looking for a boy, but how to find when your daughter has such a reputation? I don’t know what they were thinking, letting her work in a place like that. The girls today ah, donno how they were brought up. In my time we would have kept them under lock and key until they had been married off. Such trouble they give their poor parents these days,” she would trail off in disgust.

A few of the listening ladies may have been tempted to remind her that her own daughter was not married and living overseas, in a very free and easy environment and who knows what she was up to? But they didn’t dare. It was wiser not to cross Mrs Pereira in any way, as she made a very formidable adversary and never forgave an insult. So they clucked sympathetically and agreed.

Today, however, she remained strangely silent. She struggled to keep up a façade but her sadness kept slipping through the cracks; sadness she had no right to feel and which she couldn’t justify. She had not known Colin well. To the outside world they were practically strangers. Molly had hardly exchanged two dozen words with him in the whole course of their acquaintance because he never sought her out and she was too shy to intrude herself upon his notice. The world may have thought her bossy and overbearing, but she did try to preserve the niceties. Besides, how did one speak to an idol? How to preserve your dignity and not appear a fool? The usually loquacious lady was tongue-tied in his presence. Through the long years, she berated herself for this stupid senseless passion she continued to feel for this man. She waited for age to bring wisdom and resignation. It hadn’t. The secret continued to linger in her deepest recesses that nobody knew about and nobody could touch.

Once, she glanced at the desiccated old man in the coffin but her eyes filled with tears and she was forced to look away.

“Don’t be stupid, Molly!” she told herself sternly, to no avail.

Once or twice, she allowed a sigh of such sadness to escape her that the other ladies glanced at her with some amazement. They wondered what had gotten into Molly Pereira. They tried to give her various openings to launch into one of her usual stories but she remained silent and pensive.

“She must not be feeling well,” thought Adela Gomez, a widow herself, looking at her friend with some concern. She had never seen Mrs Pereira in less possession of herself and she wondered at the cause. To guess at the truth would have been beyond her, or anyone present. The veneer of old age and respectability covered both parties concerned. Molly, in fact, had been middle aged, when she was still a teenager. Extraordinarily sensitive, with an excessive regard for appearances, she had never put a toe out of line.

Molly felt the glances of her friends with a sharpened sensitivity and tried to pull herself together.

“Have you heard about this flu strain going round? I was at Solly’s house the other day and his daughter was not too well. I think I may have picked up something,” she offered.

“Aiyoh, why did you come then? You could have called one of us and we would have been happy to take your place,” Mrs Gomez sympathised.

“Nolar, not nice. I mean, poor Rose, so sudden and all. I think the least we can do is come and show our support. How would she feel if I didn’t bother to show up?” Mrs Pereira countered.

Mrs Gomez looked at her strangely. After all, Molly was not close to the family. Why all the fuss? “She must be such a busybody that she can’t bear to miss a funeral, even if she’s sick. I hope I don’t catch anything.” And she unobstrusively moved her chair a little away.

Molly was having trouble controlling her expression.

“I am going to start weeping unless I think of something else,” she thought desperately.

She cast her mind back on her life, looking for something to hold on to. Anything. Her children? They had grown up and flown the coop. And no matter how she tried to fight the idea, they were living their own lives now. Her husband? He was about as significant to her as the beige wall behind the coffin - the Mr to her Mrs and the body on the other side of the bed. Otherwise, he did not signify. He hardly existed. She did not love him nor could she pretend to herself that she did, after all these years.

The only thing she had, the only part of herself that was still hers and not subject to the tyranny of the world’s opinions, was the love she bore this man. All else had been her Herculean attempt to conform to a society that was not fitted for people like her. Not unless you wanted to challenge the system, which she never did.

“Why do I love you? There is nothing special about you. I don’t even know you. So why does it kill me to think that after today, I will never see you again?” she was blinking back the tell tale moistness.

She sighed heavily: “You were the one excitement in my boring, mundane life. Filled with activities and busy-ness that really did not matter. All those little ways I kept myself occupied to pass the days. I used you to fill the emptiness inside. I never realised before how empty I actually feel. Everyone thinks I am strong. Strong? I am this scared, conventional woman stuck in a straitjacket of custom. I married a man I couldn’t stand because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. A fool, that’s what I was. And now at the end of the day, I have nobody to love me and nobody to love. Not in the way I want to be loved. You never loved me. Why should you? What did I see in you?”

The hearse arrived. The pallbearers started to lift the coffin to take it out of the house. This was always the most painful part of the funeral for the family. It was the moment they realised that their loved one was leaving, never to come home. The grief-stricken widow collapsed in sobs. A howl rose in Molly’s throat. She strangled it into a whimper and covered her face. The ladies around started back in horror and amazement. Oblivious, Molly ran out the house, fumbling for her car keys. She drove home, sobbing uncontrollably.

She knew she had behaved madly. She knew she had set tongues wagging wildly and her husband would come to hear of her strange behaviour and draw his own conclusions. But she couldn’t help herself.

Her career as a funeral auntie was buried with Colin Moreira.

10 comments:

goldennib said...

This is a great story. I've been thinking about it since I read it this morning and I will be reading it again.

Thought #1: I don't want to be someone that has such lingering regrets.

Thought #2: Why do all of the last names sound Hispanic?

Thought #3: We all are very controlled by our societies, even if it is just the struggle to be different. It is so hard to be your own person.

Thought #4: I will look more closely for the person behind the mask.

I have to go do chores now, my usband is giving me dirty looks. Or maybe I'll just punch him. No, I jest. Ah, see, obligations.

Jenn said...

Hey Nessa. You know I think the worst form of control is to be thought of as a "good girl". There is so much that that doesn't allow you to do.

Um, you see, when the people converted around St Francis Xavier's time, they had to take on names to signify that they had converted - hence you have Pereira, Fernandez, Gomez, the lot.

I dunno. I wrote the story on a wave of emotion (most of it painful) and I can't honestly say that I see the person behind the mask. When the other person emerges it usually takes me by surprise.

Haha..I wonder if you punched him. Affectionately of course.

A thinker said...

Very good story. Do you know these people? Your stories are really amazing. Each one is a gem in itself, worth reading.

goldennib said...

My mother is from the Salzburg area of Austria. In their dialect, instead of Auntie Molly, they would say Molly Auntie, too.

One of my next projects is to learn about your country. I feel quite ignorant.

I didn't punch him. I guess things have to be cleaned sometime. God, I hate cleaning, especially when there are much more interesting things to do, like read your stories.

David Cho said...

Wow, what a story.

There is so much to be said about the futility of the facade largely built on the cards made of expectations imposed by society. It does little for you as a person other than making you appear a lot of things that you are not.

Could she have been happier if she had ended up with the man she loved secretly? I doubt it because her problems go much deeper than having married a man that she couldn't care less about.

As I said, you should write a novel. I will write the forward.

David Cho said...

A couple of more observations came to my mind.

The husband turned out to be nothing like a mysogenic tyrant unlike many in traditional homes. He allowed her to manage all the finances, and took her advice not to take not to jump on the dotcom bandwagon. And apparently in raising the children, she called all the shots.

Yet, her unhappiness and disregard for her husband persisted all through the marriage, all because of the man's looks? And she did turn out to be "bossy" as the boys suspected.

Women! Can't live with them, and can't .... uh... because they won't let you.

Jenn said...

a thinker: thanks so much. I do know them. They are some of the closest people in my life, which means I get to observe the results of thwarted love, at firsthand. It's not pretty.

Nessa: Haha. Don't worry. You're not as bad as the guy who thought was from "Micronesia". I mean to say, what? If you really want to know about that comfortable little corner of the earth we call Malaysia, I will be writing a series of posts on that. Stay tuned! :)

David: It was very astute of you to pick up on that. No, she would have just been a different type of unhappy - the type that comes from disappointing family expectations and forfeiting your title of "good girl". Yes, her husband was a sweetie. But maybe she would have respected him more if he had been a little more assertive. You know it's a little difficult to love someone when didn't choose to be in the situation. And that feeling of frustration and helplessness sort of poisons all the love you may have had.

As for your thoughts on women:

Such was that happy Garden-state
While man there walk'd without a mate:
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But 'twas beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises 'twere in one,
To live in Paradise alone.

Apparently Marvell agrees with you. :)

David Cho said...

Hmmm, that poem sounds very similar to this one about animals in paradise . Heaven ... no women and full of animals?

On a somewhat related note, I love this joke that my Indian friends told me.

What is heaven?

American salary, a British house, Chinese food, and an Indian wife*

What is hell?

A Chinese house, American wife, British food, and Indian salary.

* That is very sweet of them to say that and I have no doubt that Indian women are great, but I also think they are just saying that to stay alive.

Jenn said...

Did you ever do Greek Myths? Do you remember the Golden Age? That was before Zeus perpetrated the ultimate punishment on men by creating women.

Good old Pandora. She opened that box and the world has never been the same since.

Funny joke, although the nationalities vary depending on who tells it.

(I actually like British cooking. Have you ever had proper scones?)

goldennib said...

Jenn, I can't wait, I'm sure your information will be better than what I read in the history books.