IT'S STILL SOME TIME BEFORE Loretta takes her morning walk down our street, which at this moment is at a perfect calm of deadpan, save for the sound of bread trays being pulled out of the bakery’s oven. She’s just begun her morning ablutions down by the rocks behind the old graveyard, where she sometimes goes to visit the dead asking for a place to stay.
It will take her some time before she passes this street.
The bakery is the first to roll up its shutters, but the salesmen are still in the backrooms touching each other and kneading dough with their feet. An old woman makes her way to church, her face the life source of the morning’s deadpan.
The church bells sound, but nothing moves, save for the old woman’s fingers that have just crawled into her bra for a bit of a scratch. A milkman zips by on his cycle. He’s hurrying to catch a glimpse of a woman bathing behind the rocks. Four milkmen and three paperboys convene each morning for a private showing on the rocks just behind the graveyard. But, he’s late today because Loretta’s already put her clothes on and left the scene. He’ll have to hear it from the paperboys who’ve been giving serious thought to investing in a camera.
She’s older now. Her eyes have yellowed and her teeth have long since left their birthplace. But, nothing a little liquor can’t fix, she’d say. She was on her way to the joint or permit room as they say these days when she ran into the old woman on her way to church.
“Morning Doris,” Loretta greeted in her high-pitched voice. She knew the names of most of the morning’s usual suspects.
“Morning,” Doris replied out of duty.
“Doris you’ve got a ten-er to spare? Give me please I need to go to the market today. I wanted to buy my dress material for Christmas.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Ten rupees you don’t have?”
“No,” said Doris as she crossed the threshold of the big church door and sat beside the statue of St. Anthony. For Doris, Charity began at home. But, it never left the house to accompany her anywhere.
Loretta stood outside cursing and turned to complain to a statue of Christ the King, where she was joined by two other complainants and a petitioner. Loretta walked up beside the petitioner and using the petitioner’s ear as a microphone, complained to Christ the King about Doris being a selfish hypocrite whose prayers should not be entertained today. She even complained about the house down our street that’s not being used. Finally, her complaints grew softer and warmer and slowly evolved into a petition that was only meant to reach the ear of the petitioner beside her. Without turning around, he took out a ten rupee note from his breast pocket and handed it to her. She took it saying, “thank you, God bless you and may He grant you all that you ask for, just don’t ask for a house because he never gives those away” and turning around she left.
The joint was empty save for Gabby the one-eyed Casanova and Placid the bartender whose face was a deserving runner up to the morning deadpan award.
Placid’s bar is a story in itself and should be told one day, but today we’re waiting for Loretta to finish her drink and pass by our door. She’s finished her first drink and is contemplating a second, when Gabby the one eyed Casanova gets off his stool and walks over to her table to sit beside her. She ignores him even though he’s the only man in the world who really makes her feel like a woman all over again.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
“No thank you. “
“You always smell so good in the morning. Doesn’t she always smell good, huh? Placid, doesn’t she always smell good?”
Placid doesn’t reply lest he lose his place as Dead Pan Runner Up ’08.
“Tomorrow I’m going to bring you flowers. You like flowers? I’ll bring you nice flowers? Huh? You want flowers or no?”
“I don’t want anything from you.”
“You want a drink? I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll buy you one drink if you drink with me. You don’t talk to me. Just drink with me. Huh? Placid. Drinks. Repeat.
They drink in silence. Gabby keeps his promise and says nothing, but this moment is secretly the best time she’s had all week. She finishes her drink and mumbles something about market and dress material and leaves.
She makes her way past the fisherwomen and vegetable carts. She picks up a carrot and puts it in her little cloth purse that hangs around her neck. She makes a stop at a grocery store to ask for a cup of rice, which she fills in her cloth purse.
It’s only a few minutes before she turns down our road, but before her comes Doris from church. She’s in a better mood because the parish priest stopped to chat with her in the sacristy. She had asked to make her confession even though she knew that God knew that she hadn’t sinned since 1987. Her confession was more a set of complaints that really needed to be addressed at the office of Christ the King out front. But, the parish priest listened in silence and raised his hand - by the power vested in him - to forgive her, which was something she secretly thought was very hot. She replayed that final blessing in her head all the way home, which was why she had smiled at us when she passed our house.
Loretta made one last stop at the bakery on the corner of our street where she flirted with the salesman for a loaf of bread. The bread was for her pet dog named Bird. As she approached, we could hear her singing
“I’m coming home I’ve done my time. Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine. If you received my letter telling you I’d soon be free. Then you’ll know just what to do if you still want me. If you still want me.”
She trailed off just before taking a seat at the bottom of our steps. She took the rice out in her hand and handed it to my mother saying,
“Just make this for me and put some chicken curry at the base like they do with biryanis. I feel like a biryani today and I didn’t want to buy one from the shop. Why spend unnecessarily, no? Correct? I wanted to go to the market today to buy something for Christmas. Have you done your Christmas shopping? What happened? You look very tired. You should make yourself a cool glass of lemonade. Go. Go make yourself something cool and make one for me as well. Actually I’ll have a beer. You’ve got any beer? I’d like a cool beer from Leopold Café. What say? You want a cool beer from Leopold Café in Colaba? I’m going there tomorrow. I need to go to Crawford market and buy some material, then I’ll go to my mummy’s house for lunch, take a nap in the afternoon and in the evening we’ll dress up and go to Leopold Café. They’ve got lovely prawn biryani. Prawns are very expensive now. That’s because there are no prawns in the sea. If you want good prawns you come with me. I’ll take you to a place in Dockyard. I know a chap there who used to sell me the best prawns. Twenty rupees for ten tiger prawns.” She took a moment to visualize ten tiger prawns and a Russian salad.
“What happened? You look very tired. You should take some medicine. I just took my medicine in the morning and now I feel good. You must look after yourself. See I just went and got myself a summer haircut. What do you think?”
She took off her headscarf to display a shiny baldhead.
“It’s my summer haircut. I showed it to Bird and he just couldn’t stop laughing. He’s going a little mad I think because he laughs all the time. There’s nothing wrong in laughing, you’re right, but you can’t be laughing all the time, people will think you’re mad like Doris. I know she doesn’t laugh at all, but she’s mad. You know something; she’s not to be trusted. She’s a cunning woman I tell you. Do you know what she did? Never mind, it’s not my business to get involved.”
She went silent for a while, but you could see from her eyes that her mind was racing… to another time, perhaps? A moment in her youth when she studied at St. Xavier’s College or another time when she was in love. But, that was a painful memory, we were told. The doctors said that it was a memory buried so deep that she would never be able to recall it, except maybe in dreams. Nobody knows why he left. Some say it was another woman, others say that she was always a bit cuckoo and so he left and some believe that it had nothing to do with a man at all. But, nobody knows the real reason for a woman - once beautiful, educated and cultured - to be found naked eighteen years ago in our church compound beside the statue of Our Lady. We only know that she never returned to her past world, which in reality was a twenty-minute ride on the train.
“What are you thinking?” She asked me. “You’re very pensive this morning. Don’t think, just enjoy life and be happy. As long as you have a house and a mother you’ll be happy. I tell Bird that everyday. He’s got a house and a mummy. He’s very happy. I don’t know when I’m going to move into my house. Did you find out about the key to that house upstairs? Find me a key for that house. There’s nobody using it. At least I’ll open it up, air it out, clean it up and use it. A house is meant to be a home for somebody, not a morgue for furniture. Am I right? She stopped talking and broke out into song again.
“I’m coming home I’ve done my time.
Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine…”
“That’s my Bird’s favorite song. Just see if the biryani’s ready. I don’t want to waste my morning sitting. You shouldn’t be sitting either. It’s not ready? Shall I go and do my marketing and come back? Will it be ready by then? Make me some salad also; a fresh green salad with some cucumber and carrot. Here take this carrot. I bought it from the market this morning. You want some beer? Shall I pick up some beer? No? Ok, just keep the biryani ready. What are you cooking for tomorrow? How about some fried pomfret or some shellfish? There’s a lot of shellfish in the market. Let me see what I can get. In the meantime, you keep the biryani ready and just see about that key. Ask them to give it to you. But, don’t mention it to Doris. She’s a twisted woman."
She stood up to leave, but sat down again because at that moment Gabby the one-eyed Casanova was walking by dragging his cycle along. He spotted her and stopped for a moment. He smiled like a schoolboy and not knowing what to do, he simply carried on, discussing the matter with his cycle as he passed.
“He’s in love with me,” she said to us. “I don’t think I love him back. But, I’ll wait and see. If he gets me flowers I’ll think about it.” She laughed to herself and stood up and left.