Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World
The Last Days of the Raj
He stands tall and flaccid among his boxes and bags. He is shirtless and sallow and his shorts hang low on his ass. He searches for something, scans the floor while wiping his face with an old t-shirt. ‘Turn on the air. What time is it?’
‘Aircon’s broken,’ she says. She sucks her cigarette and turns a page of the newspaper. ‘Eleven almost. You gonna to miss the plane. I tell you pack last night.’
He bends and rummages. ‘I thought I put it on the dining table. Did you move anything?’
He stands and wipes again. ‘Damn the thing! I wanted to read it on the plane.’
‘I tell you last night…’
‘Yes, you told me. And then you started into the gin and shrieking and went to bed. We said we wouldn’t do that. You said you’d help.’
‘You said, not me. Why I should help?’
He frowns at the floor. ‘I guess I’d have packed all of it by now if I’d really wanted to take it. I’ll let Anthony have it… but hang on, what’s this?’ He picks up a small embroidered cushion. ‘Got this in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh,’ he says, pointing at the face stitched into the fabric.
He hears the tone, trying to spur him. It’s working. ‘It’s called kitsch value. You wouldn’t understand.’
He turns and looks down at her lying there on the divan, the furious grin and the tumbler of whiskey next to her. ‘You really want ugly? Last night wasn’t enough?’ She just sneers and says something sharp in her own language without looking up. He studies her: flat out, hung over, drunk, sour, gnashing her teeth like a goblin, brown skin yellowing from the cigs and this indoor air-conditioned living, the drape of black hair losing its lustre, crimping up into that brittle frazzled malnourished look. He’s seen it on a hundred old women peddling papayas in the wet market. Five more years with the smokes and whiskey and she’ll look like an old shrunken head or a voodoo doll. What happened to that lithe gyrating youngster he picked up in the Ayampu Fried Chicken restaurant not so many years ago? Only trace elements now, mostly down around the slim tight rump and in those hard-driving eyes, watching you, greedy, wanting everything. Oversexed and underfed was the category. It was that greedy look that always got him up, even when he knew she was just angling for a necklace or some shoes or a pricey Caesar salad down at Markett’s. It didn’t matter. He liked the idea of holding rewards in escrow until she came to where he was sitting with his fly undone. A fair trade; we’re all adults here. Lip-smacking greed and sharp black eyes looking at him, well aware of the game, telling him she’ll do anything, wants it all, and she got her share of necklaces and salads. It was always that look that held him when others cuter and with bigger tits were vying for his attention. But the whiskey and tobacco have sucked out the essential oils and now her greed looks desperate and her mouth is creased and grim. Then she started with the homey tenderness angle when she saw she was slipping, and that was it – everything went limp after that. Only her tail holds firm because she runs on the treadmill like a gerbil, but it is not enough. Of her own free she’s cured herself in sour mash and tobacco on that divan in the face of clear warnings from him, and now, soon, a light breeze will come and like a dried-up leaf you will float back down to Earth, back to Ayampu and the fried chicken stench you hated so much because it got into your hair and wouldn’t come out, washing your hair twice a day in the tub to get it out, still smelling it up in your nostrils even when I told you it was all out. I felt sorry for you there in the tub like a sad little kid, crying about chicken fat. He looks at the crown of her bowed head reading the paper. He wants to stroke it, to bow down and kiss her gently and say he is sorry it had to go this way, but thinking of that scowl and tone she’s using now he isn’t sorry at all, so he doesn’t say it. Instead ‘So it goes…’ slips out absently and with a drone of unconscious thought like sleep talk that makes her look up from the newspaper and squint at him.
‘So what goes…? Fuck off,’ she says with a backhand swipe at him like he’s a fly.
He puts palms up in truce and turns back to his luggage. He squashes the cushion into a bag. ‘There!’ He stands and looks at the remaining things. ‘There really are some nice pieces here,’ he says to no one, picking up a woven pencil case. ‘Bali. That first Ubud trip. It looks a bit touristy but it’s hand-woven. I should keep it. Or maybe you’d like to have it,’ he says, turning, asking himself what in hell he’s saying as he turns, but it’s too late – she’s heard the question.
She looks up, contemplates the pencil case, points with her cigarette and smirks. ‘Keep it for next one. You wrap it up nice, I bet she suck your cock,’ she says with a wink. ‘Keep it. You save fifty cents. You love that.’
The cheapskate implication was always a good starter. He can’t leave it alone. He wipes his face, drops the t-shirt on the floor and sighs. ‘No, Iris, I’d be leaving you with nothing, and I wouldn’t feel right about that.’ He tosses her the pencil case and then hurries away down the dark hall to the bedroom before she can find more words.
She watches him: roiling blubber in dirty shorts, the stinking fissure between the cheeks, the pocky pits and blemishes scattered up his slab of back, the halo of grey hair skirting a pink skull. Forty two years old, that, the end product of low-cost perversions in grimy Bangkok alleyways with filthy people and tainted substances long before they met, and after. She’s wondered more than once whether he didn’t have AIDS or syphilis to achieve that rot, that stench, now slipping away from her down the hall forever. Slipping away, not to return, not to be reeled back in, not in her present condition. ‘Nope,’ she says to her whiskey, swirling it, draining it down her throat. She throws the pencil case down the hall with a grunt and a spit.
She falls back on the divan, lights a new cigarette and then pans across the living room: polished hardwood floors and teak furniture, fixtures with dimmer switches that went down low in the evening for a warm candlelight effect, big screen TV and this divan for sipping wine and watching movies, the pair of them cosy with popcorn and slippers and sparkling wine and that warm safe glow, safe like she’d never been, a kind of clean heavenly peace for once, sleeping without frightened dreams, feeling almost at home – drunk and high and conflating the customer next to her with the pleasure of the moment, when really it was just the Cava and the duvet that were doing it. But she didn’t know that then, wanted to say something to him, bring him in, wanted to kiss without the tongue for once, hold his hand rather than his organ. Maybe she thought saying something clean and kind might de-grease things a little, give her just a little more reliable footing on the divan somehow. She doesn’t know exactly why, seems insane now, terrible strategy: he always sensed it was coming long before she’d opened her mouth. It was as if a still silence and the right temperature under the duvet set off an allergic reaction. He’d shift around and then take her hand and guide her fingers down under the duvet and say something filthy to stanch the glow and keep her cold, and then there was the time you went ahead and started saying it anyway and he just cut in and said he had to go for a piss, and when he came back he had his trousers off and he stood over you with a woozy leer and a nod. And you took it. ‘God, you did,’ she says with a wince, with her palm up and waving around the room as if to acknowledge the furniture and fixtures as witnesses.
She rolls her head and looks out at the wicker patio furniture and potted plants and the late-morning sun cutting across the balcony. She stands, walks slowly out to the balcony railing, looks down at the steaming jungle and the asphalt of the car park fourteen floors down, feels the air beginning to stir, a breeze blowing back her hair. She looks over the jungle canopy out to sea, looking into the breeze, looking at nothing. Her eyes widen and moisten, not in misery but in physical pain, struggling to accommodate nothing as it reams her like he used to do when he was in that rough guy mood. She grunts and swallows and blinks the water out of her eyes and wipes her cheeks with slaps. She bares her teeth at the sky, looks down the fourteen floors to her friend Anthony, an ant of a man from her village back home, down there washing a tenant’s car. She grunts at him, grits her teeth, grips the railing and steps forward, leans over while watching him bobbing down to the bucket. She wants to shriek down the fourteen floors and land on his head, but she stops herself, steps back, lets go of the railing and turns back. She picks up her tumbler from the coffee table, goes to the bar and takes slow deep breaths while sloshing a final Glen Livet into the tumbler, laughing a little, laughing at nothing and wiping hair out of her eyes. ‘Ayampu,’ she says, taking up the tumbler and strolling out to the balcony with empty eyes.
He steps into the shower. ‘Where did you put that damned book, idiot?!’ He needs to calm his nerves. He squirts conditioner into his palm. He remembers the time, strokes quickly, leans against the wall tiles and watches it drip to the floor and slip into the drain with the soap and water. He rinses and twists the tap, pulls back the curtain and sees no towel hanging off the wall hook. ‘Iris! I need a towel!’ He stands there dripping in the cubicle. He glances at the mirror hanging on the back of the door. The daylight’s too bright in here and the mirror is almost full-length. The raw light shows the contours of the flab and the varicose veins. It’s too much in the morning. But in the evening that mirror was always a pleasure. He could adjust the dimmer switches for best effect. He’d slip into the Jim Thompson silk robe. He had a little twinkle in the eyes in the evening, something a little mischievous, cocktail and a smoke in hand, light jazz drifting down from the living room, his cock hanging lower, warm, pleased, feeling good, liking life, swinging around the flat. Things always got a little horny in the evening in the robe. He sticks his tongue out at the mirror, tries for a grin, and then shouts. ‘IRIS! A TOWELLLL! for fuck’s sake please.’
He hears those little feet padding down the hall, little feet forever bringing something. ‘I have to bloody well hurry up here, Iris!’ She holds the towel with both hands, like hotel staff. He takes it and turns away to dry off. At first it feels only as if she’s punched him hard. He jerks up straight. ‘What the hell!’ but as he turns she does it again, and this time he feels a deep gutting gouge up under the ribs, and now he can see the knife as she pulls away, the big chef’s knife, German stainless, a hundred dollars worth of knife that he told her never to touch so it wouldn’t get nicked, and he slips and cracks his head on the wall and then the floor, and he’s down and gasping and looking up at the knife.
She surprises herself. She comes forward again. He squeals at her to stop as she sticks two high up in his guts as hard as she can and then takes a swipe at his scrotum as she pulls back. The blood spills out in waves like it’s sloshing out of a bucket. She watches for a moment, shocked by the flood and the way he just dropped like a sack of potatoes, easy as that. Then she turns and runs.
He rolls his head and sees her go, watches a child running, his greedy woman-child running off with his expensive knife and his important blood. ‘Iris!’ he hears himself say but can’t raise it to a scream. He rolls onto his back and looks up to the dripping spigot and the tap, wheezing, trying to shout but only hooting and rasping and waving at the steel fixtures coated in lime scale and the mildewed grouting that was snow white when he moved in. He’s giddy and wet and cold, and second sight comes as he coughs and his head rolls over to the corner and eyes begin to glaze and he sees her tiny frame trembling out in the living room. He wants to hug and strangle her. ‘Ah Jesus, Iris,’ he says to the tiles. And then he sees his book, right there snug where he packed it last night just before bed so he wouldn’t forget it in the rush to the airport and dealing with Lin. And now he realises. He arches and heaves one last time to fill his collapsed lungs for a final redemption.
‘In the vest! Iris!’
She sits at the dining room table, smoking a cigarette and waiting. She washed herself and put the knife in a pot of water to boil, unlocked the door and now waits for Anthony or Lin. She closes her eyes and bathes in the rush of whiskey, lets the shock and the shudders subside. She’s heard not a sound since that one awful gurgling shriek, and she won’t go back in for another look at what she knows is no longer moving. She fondles her cigarette and watches it quiver, sets it in the ashtray and goes to the bar for another whiskey. She hears the faint ding and slide of elevator doors and then Anthony’s quick knocks. ‘It’s open,’ she says in their dialect, and he pops his head in around the door. He looks around the room and squints at her as she sits again with her whiskey and takes up her cigarette. He raises his hands and eyebrows in a plea for information.
She says, ‘It’s okay. He’s gone.’
He creeps in and closes the door. He sees all the luggage and boxes on the floor and looks again at her, whispering, ‘Where?’
She waves at the hall door. ‘In there.’
He comes nearer. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Go on. It’s okay.’
He goes to the door and eases it open. He can see down the long dark hallway to the bright lit bathroom at the end. The door is ajar and he can see the shower and the body wet and flat out with one foot hanging over the stall’s ledge. He inches forward, squinting with his mouth hanging slack. He goes a little further forward and can see the flood of blood pooled around. And then he sees the scrotum half severed, turns away and grunts and then looks again. He goes as far as the doorway and then stops, cocks his ear toward the stall, then steps into the room, closer, down touching the chest with his palm for a moment, then he stands again and stares while wiping his palm on his coveralls and backing away into the hall. He closes the door, holds the knob in the darkness and looks into the gloom of the master bedroom. Then he turns and runs back down the hall to her. He screams in a whisper. ‘You were going to take some cash and come down! It was over! You said!’
She just waves her hand as if to brush him away, lifts her cigarette from the tray and looks out the window.
‘You know what they’re going to do to us?!’
She waves again and smokes.
‘Were you fighting?’
‘Just being ourselves,’ she says. ‘It was a parting gesture.’
His bug eyes take in her leisure, the crossed legs and the poise and what looks now like a mild smile. He opens his mouth but nothing comes out. He shuts it again and watches the smoke curl off the cigarette up to nowhere in the still air, rising and swirling in the lampshade above her head. Still she won’t look at him. He clutches his head like he’s trying to plug leaks from his ears. He rakes his scalp with his nails. ‘God DAMN you, Iris. You god damned …!’ and then bows his head. He squats down close to her, ‘Could anyone have heard it?’
She blinks at the sky. ‘He shouted once, after I came out.’ She draws on her cigarette and considers it. ‘I think he said Invest.’
She shrugs. ‘Always about money with him,’ she says with a definite smile now.
He reaches to grab her by the throat but then he stops and stands again. He wipes his face, takes a gulp of her whiskey and studies that frozen calm, tries to imagine those little hands doing it. Still she gazes away out the door. He drops onto a chair, drops his hands in his lap and looks back to the hall door. ‘It’s done. It’s done! Isn’t it? Dead. Dead! Doesn’t matter what I do now,’ he says. She flicks ash and scratches her nose. He stands again and circles the chair and looks at the door once more, takes a long breath. He releases his words softly and slowly as if patiently instructing an idiot: ‘Nobody’s around right now…. I go get Lin… We get him out of here…’
‘You’re not really angry, are you,’ she says, turning to him for the first time, reading in his kind, oily brown pock-marked face the same thing she hears in his voice.
He turns, looks and purses his lips as if he’s holding back from spitting on her. ‘Dump the whiskey and wake up. I’ll get Lin.’
They washed him off in the shower and slid him like a wet seal down the hall into the living room and rolled him up in the rug. Anthony got the big luggage trolley from the storage room in the basement and they heaved him on. Lin went ahead and got the lift doors open, went down to the car park and got his van backed up against the lobby entrance. They brought him down and rolled him into the van. Iris stayed behind and mopped everything up while the two of them took him up to the quiet jetty in the jungle on the river where Lin had his little outboard boat. You could back your car right down the road into the water and load on and off the way Lin did with all his smuggled crates. They rolled him out of the van right into the boat, climbed in and whizzed up river to the estuary where Lin knew there were plenty of sharks. They grabbed hold and hauled him over the side naked with an old jeep wheel tied with a stretch of rope around his waist. They threw the rug in after him and watched it all sink and drift out toward the open sea. They stood in silence until the surface was just sparkling darkness again. Then Lin said ‘long pig’ in their dialect and they both laughed a little. They wiped their faces and turned the boat around.
The ease and speed of the whole thing softened Lin’s fury a little and now he feels almost giddy, ready for a drink as they drive back into town. ‘We got to make the story. He was going to Jakarta, right?’
‘From the Island airport or city?’
‘Iris said Island.’
‘He had to take the ferry over. If they check it, that’s where he disappeared. They’ll dredge over there, not here.’
‘That’s where his wallet and passport will be. After lunch we go to the ferry terminal.’ He shifts gears and shakes his head. ‘But we go and check on the butcher first. I can’t believe it,’ he says as he rolls down the window, shaking his head again, almost laughing while lighting a cigarette. ‘She might start screaming or something once she has to clean it all up. Never seen that much blood before. Sick. I’ve never gone this far, boy. My hands are shaky.’ He draws on his cigarette. ‘I need a good look through his stuff.’
He looks askance. ‘He owed a lot. He was going to give it to me when I dropped him off at the airport. I got to pay up this week. There wasn’t much in his wallet. It must be in the bags somewhere. You sure she couldn’t have taken it before you got there?’
‘You saw her. She was out of her mind. No chance.’
‘I saw her.’
‘Maybe he was going to take it out of the cash machine at the airport.’
‘He said he’d closed his account a few weeks ago, said he had cash yesterday. It’s in the flat somewhere. For her sake it better be. I told her to keep her hands off.’
Anthony glances at him. ‘She heard you, Lin. She won’t touch anything. You don’t have to hurt her. You know what it was like for her. She…’
‘Who’s talking about hurting? One step at a time!’ Lin shoves the gear shift and pinches his nostril and snorts some snot out the window and wipes his nose with his sleeve. ‘And spare me the sad stories! Look at me!’ he says, pointing at his T-shirt. ‘I got blood and dick juice and guts on my shirt and pants here and you’re trying to tell me sad stories! No more talking.’
The scorched parking lot is empty. Anthony shuffles along in the sun with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, sweeping up leaves with his broom and long-handled dustpan. He drags his flip-flops as he walks. That lazy hiss, hiss, hiss of his sandals is the only sound out here in the steamy heat apart from some birdsong and a cicada buzz in the tamarind trees between the car park and the road. He’s thinking about a beer and a nap but then his phone rings. He checks the screen. It reads Matussin.
‘Yah?’ he says.
‘Anthony? You got a viewing today.’
‘One. From the university. Wants to see a three bedroom up high. I think 901 and 1401 are ready, right? You finished painting them, right?’
He doesn’t answer.
‘Yah yah. Uh, 1401 isn’t finished yet.’
‘Why not? It’s been empty for three weeks.’
‘Had to fix a lot of holes in the walls. Uh, and the toilets were …’
‘He can look at it anyway. Get it done fast. They said they got more people coming this month. We need all the places ready. Full house by next month.’
He squints up the side of the building. ‘Okay, okay. How many coming today did you say?’
‘One guy. He asked about one bedrooms. He’ll be there before lunch. Call me when you’re finished with him.’
Anthony slips the phone into his pocket and wipes his face, goes into the shade and sets his broom and pan against the wall by the maintenance office. He goes to the lobby, steps into the elevator and presses 14. All the way up he picks his nose and frowns at the sliding doors.
He raps five times so she’ll know it’s him. She opens the door a crack to check and then opens up and goes back out to the balcony. Anthony follows, looking at her tight little ass in those spandex shorts and her long dark hair wet from the shower. She’s getting darker by the minute from all the sun tanning, looks rested and younger with all the sleep since she finished all the whiskey and started going to bed early, hair bouncy and swishing like plush drapes across the belt of her shorts out onto the patio.
‘How’s life?’ she says, lying back down on the chaise.
‘Not so great. Matussin just called. Someone’s coming to look at apartments today.’
‘Not this one.’
‘There are other ones you can show.’
‘Only two vacant, 901 and this. Matussin told me to show this one too. I can’t say no. It’s vacant as far as he knows.’
She raises her head and squints at him. ‘Come on, Anthony. Matussin won’t know. Just show the other one.’
‘I can’t. He’ll find out if I don’t. Anyway, he said more people are coming this month. Time’s up, Iris. You had over a month up here. Haven’t you found a place yet?’
‘No!’ She jumps up and stomps inside with her towel. ‘What time?’
She puts the towel up to her face and shrieks into it. She falls on the divan with the towel over her head. ‘Come on, Anthony. Please! Show them the other one!’
He hesitates, looks her up and down and then drops into a chair and sighs. He wipes his face and looks up to the ceiling, takes a cigarette from the pack on the coffee table and lights it while studying her legs. He blinks hard a few times, shakes his head and laughs at the room like a resigned man laughs at the gallows. ‘Jesus Christ. I don’t know why I’m telling you this – sorry, I do know why but I can’t believe I’m letting myself get sucked again….’
‘Stop mumbling. What is it?’
‘…by a god damned pussy in spand…’
‘WHAT IS IT?’
He falls back, blows some smoke at the ceiling and looks at the towel. ‘It’s one person, Iris.’
‘A guy. He’s alone.’
She pulls the towel off her face. ‘Are you sure?’
Anthony sits with his feet on the dirty little desk in the office, drinking a can of beer and waiting. He doesn’t want her in the apartment any more but he’s afraid of her. He also thinks about her three or four nights a week when he masturbates. And she’s from the village not far from where his parents live back home. He just can’t kick her out. But her presence is a daily reminder, and every morning he wonders whether today someone will come – police or, worse, the investors, the collectors, to find out with a sharpened screwdriver whether he and she are lying. He’s sure they will come. Lin warned him, said they weren’t all convinced that it was stuck in the bank account, and anyway a beating had been mooted a few times regardless, just as punishment. She said she didn’t know anything about it. And then she surprised Lin. She came back with her teeth bared and a sharp icicle finger pointing at him, said she knows who they all are, knows they’re all just cowards and they wouldn’t ever try any such thing, and if they did they better kill her because she’ll call the wives and police and explain what those poker nights up here were all about. Then she looked at them both and said, ‘We all hang on this. You think about that.’ And Lin looked at her and saw something that made him shut his mouth. That was a first, and he hasn’t said anything since. But still it lingers. Anthony told her she should get out and slip away just in case. She said she would if she had all that money. She says staying here proves she doesn’t have anything. She says it all while combing her hair or massaging lotion into her thighs and he always gives in. But still he sits here in the office chewing the callous on his thumb and worrying. If she were gone and someone else moved in he’d feel like a layer of history was being paved and the fear would fade. He can’t shake it, and he knows it won’t go away while that horny little witch torments him from her lair in 1401.
He hears the van pulling in to the car park. He quaffs his beer and tosses the can in the bin, takes his feet off the desk, picks up an invoice and studies it with fake interest. He watches out the open door as the van stops by the gazebo. Anthony can see Muhdie in the driver’s seat. The guy is in the back seat looking out the window up the side of the apartment building. He’s younger than Curd, maybe 30, big boulder head covered in thick curly chestnut hair, looking soft and tubby with a stupid smile on his face – your standard teacher’s face when they first arrive. Anthony drops the invoice on the desk and stands. ‘God,’ he says, ‘spare him.’
He lights a cigarette, picks up his ring of keys and shuffles out into the sun. The guy pulls the van’s sliding side door open before Mudhi has a chance to get round the side and do it for him. ‘Not to worry there, Mudhie, I can do it!’ He hops out, shakes hands with Mudhie and looks around, grinning as Anthony comes across the lot. Anthony can hear him saying, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Mudhie leans against the van, lights a cigarette and points with it, ‘This Anthony,’ and then he smokes and fiddles with his phone.
The guy holds out his hand. ‘Anthony? Neil Trench.’
‘Uh huh. You want to see apartments?’
‘That’s right. Thanks for making time for me on short notice. I only need a one bedroom, maybe two. I don’t need a whole lot of space.’
‘We only got three bedrooms apartments. Everything three bedrooms here. All same.’
‘Three bedrooms? I’m allowed that?’
Anthony points to the lobby and they go in. They enter the lift and Anthony presses 9. ‘I got a nice one on nine. Already painted. You can move in tomorrow.’
‘Mr Matussin said there were two. One on the 14th or 15th? I’d like a really high floor. I really want a view across the jungle, you know what I mean, if possible.’
‘Uh huh.’ He glances up at Trench. ‘Uh, you lecturer, right?’
‘Three years contract?’
‘Yep. Looks like I’ll stay longer with a place like this to live in!’
‘No no. I’m not married.’
‘Uh huh. You from America?’
‘That’s okay. We sound a lot alike.’
The door opens at 9 and they step out. Trench looks both ways. ‘Incredible! Only one apartment on the floor? Great elevator. Is that real wood on the door frame there?’
‘Yah, wood.’ Anthony stubs his cigarette in the ashtray next to the lift. ‘Nine floor is pretty high up. Nice view,’ he says and unlocks the door. ‘You like it. Maybe better than 14. 14’s too high. Takes a long time in the lift.’
They enter the gloom and the stink of fresh paint. ‘No lights working now. I switch on the electricity when you move in.’ Anthony goes to open up all the curtains and sliding doors. He pulls the dining room balcony door open for air, and as he turns round he sees Trench over in the living room opening the others. Anthony sits at the dining table and watches Trench go out to the balcony.
Anthony has seen this man before. Ten years of showing apartments to new faculty have given him insight. This is a nice one, an ignorant one, inexperienced. He’s going to shake hands with Anthony at the end of the tour. After he moves in he’s going to make very polite requests and pay Anthony extra money for fixing things even though he doesn’t have to pay. And he might keep paying even after he finds out he doesn’t have to. He’ll be embarrassed about this luxury flat once he’s seen Anthony’s converted broom closet-bedroom down in the parking garage. And then after a while one of two things will happen: he will adapt, or else he will reject the life and go. Anthony rubs his eyes and chuckles in disgust at Iris upstairs, ready to tilt the table. A fucking spider in spandex. He watches Trench out there wiping off his glasses, looking daft, spinning around in circles, soaking up the view and the patio, now looking back inside at the marble-effect floors and teak furniture, amazed, thankful, humane. Anthony likes this man, wants to help him stay likeable. He wipes his face, leans his elbow on the dining table, cups his chin in his hand and does not know what to do.
‘I really can’t believe this. They told me the accommodation was good here, but wow! Are the bedrooms through there?’
‘Yah. Bathroom with shower end of the hall. Another in the master bedroom.’ Down that dark hall. ‘This is better one. New light bulbs, good water pressure! I fix the toilets last week! You move in today no problems!’ he shouts as Trench disappears down that hall. Anthony watches after him, down into it where he lay gashed and bleeding and still warm but slimy wet and dead. There was nothing left, nothing you could have done, never occurred she could do such a thing with those little hands no matter what he’d done, or was it worse than she told? Or was it not worse? There were never any bruises on her and he always seemed the beaten one the way she’d wiggle away from him and tease the others at the parties and he’d get that hurt doggy face on and then she’d tease him too and then he’d laugh again. Like some fish being played, you thought. Like she had it all in hand. But he was the one who ended it, she said, broke promises, reamed and ran. Abandoned, she said, felt left for dead, she said … and here Trench comes, alive and snickering out of the darkness like Curd used to with a bottle in hand and cigar in his grinning mouth and his music up loud and people shouting and laughing with him when he was still breathing before she gutted him like that with that awful carving knife she’s still got in the block in the kitchen as if it didn’t happen. Cold, something very wrong with someone who can still use that god damned knife like she almost did with the pork roast the other night before he screamed at her to put it away for Christ’s sake and she didn’t even see what the problem was …
‘Just great, really great. Got to send some pics of this to my mother. I’d like to see the 14th as well. You said it’s exactly the same?’
Anthony stares with eyes out of focus, as if he sees right through Trench’s belly to the dark hall beyond. ‘You okay, Anthony?’
He refocuses, coughs, nods and heaves himself up out of the chair. ‘Yah. You want to see 14.’
‘Please. Can we go up now?’
Anthony shrugs, nods and leads him out, locks the door, presses the lift button and they step in.
‘So this one on 14 is exactly the same?’
‘Almost. Didn’t paint it yet. Water pressures not as good, higher up.’ Now he looks up at the LED display for the floors and says what he was told to say. ‘Uh, last guy’s maid is still in.’
‘Still in what?’
‘Inside. She stay to clean the place.’
‘I see. She’ll be leaving soon?’
‘Yah. But, uh, maybe you need amah. You know? Maid, I mean? She looking for a job.’
Trench chuckles. ‘I don’t think I need a maid – amah, is it? It’s just me. If I had a family maybe we could use a little help. What would I need an amah for?’
‘Cleaning. Laundry. She cook nice, too.’
‘You know her well?’
‘From my country. She lives here for a long time, amah for the last guy.’
‘Five years maybe.’
‘Where did he go?’
‘Dunno. New job. Lecturer. Like you.’ The doors slide open at 14 and they step out. ‘Maybe not so nice on this hall as nine.’
‘Looks the same to me. Just fine.’
Anthony sighs and gives his up-to-you-I-tried smile. ‘Okay,’ he says, knocks on the door and lights a cigarette. As always he bows his head and tries not to recall but can’t block the visions of her sitting there at the dining table telling him it was okay, the boxes and luggage, Iris all weird and quiet at the table, moving toward her, knowing something had gone wrong, opening that hall door just knowing it was all wrong. The lock snaps from the other side and he jumps back. She pulls open the door and he looks her up and down. He wouldn’t have recognised her on the street. At first glance she looks about ten years younger in a clean loose frock and this light, underhanded make-up job. She half bows, looks quickly up at Trench and says ‘hello’ almost in a whisper. She smiles like one of those helpless girls who’ve just arrived from their home country and scared as hell of everybody.
Trench sticks his hand out past Anthony, ‘Hi. Neil Trench.’ Anthony looks askance at the hand as she takes it. She pulls the door open wide and stands aside.
Anthony goes in first, still looking at her. Trench goes right past them both through to the living room, swivelling his head around and heading out to the balcony, saying ‘Paint looks fine, Anthony.’
Anthony studies her now with a grim twisted frown, shaking his head at her. She glares back at him and points to the dining area. He shuffles through and sits at the table. She stands in the centre of the room and waits for Trench, posing like a little ballerina with her feet pointing just so, hands clasped behind her back like a waitress, poised to dance into the kitchen at the snap of his fingers.
Trench comes back inside shaking his head. ‘I don’t care about the water pressure, Anthony. This is IT! What a view! I can see the ocean from up here! I can smell it!’
Trench turns to her. They stand facing each other, he looking down at her, she flicking her eyes up with the servant’s sad smile. They look like different species, a huge fortified bear next to a brown Tinkerbelle in a frock. Anthony has a vision of Trench trying to get his cock into her, she screaming and suffocating under him and biting his nose off. Trench looks to her and then to him, shifting his eyes back and forth, not sure who to address. ‘Uh, do you speak English?’
She says nothing. Anthony says, ‘She speaks okay.’ He looks at her and says in their dialect, ‘Say something. It’s your move. I did my bit.’
She smiles at Anthony and then turns to him. ‘I am amah for Dr Curd,’ she says, looking at the floor.
‘Yes, Anthony told me.’
‘You like some tea?’
‘Uh, no thanks, no,’ says Trench. ‘I don’t have much time here. I’ll just go check the bedrooms. Anthony, maybe you could, uh, explain my situation. I’ll be back in a minute.’ Trench turns and escapes through the hall door.
She looks at Anthony. ‘Situation?’
He shrugs. ‘Says he doesn’t want an amah. Wants you out.’
She hadn’t considered it. ‘What do you mean he doesn’t want an amah? They all have one.’
‘He’s new. Doesn’t know.’
‘Stop smiling, Anthony. You got to help me.’
‘How? Better yet: Why?’
‘Tell him how much he needs me.’
‘You tell him.’
She opens her arms and invites him to look at what’s she’s portraying. ‘Does this give a hard sell?’
He looks her over and puffs his cigarette, coughs up some soot and swallows it. ‘Why you think I should help, I do not know.’ He studies his finger nails and digs out some grime with his thumb and looks at her again. He can smell that sweet scent she likes to splash on when she needs something. He butts the cigarette in the tray and slaps the table with his palm and looks at her, shaking his head again. He stands and stomps to the hall door, looks back. ‘But this is it, Iris, the last time.’
She nods and puts her hands together in a disgusting little-girl beg. He turns away and shoves the door open. He shuffles down the hall and gets that sick feeling when he sees the light at the end. He goes to close the bathroom door but Trench comes out of the master bedroom and says, ‘Wait wait, I’d like to see.’ He opens it, goes in and leans into the shower, turns on the tap. A hard blast of water comes out. ‘No pressure problem there, Anthony.’
Anthony looks at him standing in there with that jolly mug of the lucky prize winner. He wonders how long the chummy face will last before it makes the turn. It would be easier if they arrived as pre-assembled bastards so he didn’t have to be reminded anew that morality and manners dissolve like salt in this tropical sweat. You’ll wash it all down with iced vodkas at Markett’s patio on the boat quay in the evening while old hands like Swales tell you how it really is, what you can get away with, and then you’ll wobble home and kick my door at 3am and tell me you lost your keys, but I can’t tell you to sleep in the fucking parking lot, can I. The time will come.
‘Not many people taking showers now. Everybody at work.’
Trench steps out. He checks the grouting and the taps in the sink, looks out the window. ‘Anthony, it doesn’t matter. A little mildew is nothing. This is the nicest apartment I’ve ever seen. I’ll take it.’
‘Uh huh. You say you want one bedroom. Other buildings they got one beds. Nice. Not too big.’
Trench bends over and plays with the fancy doorknob’s tricky lock. ‘It’s okay. I think I’ll cope with three, Anthony. I’ll cope just fine.’
Anthony watches him fondle the door knob with a loving touch as if it’s a precious ornament. And there’s the glint! Right there! That quick shift from disbelieving touch to greedy clutch. There he is, squeezing his new knob, soaking up this special-treatment three-bed pad that he doesn’t need and could never afford anywhere else, ignoring advice that recommends modesty, enjoying a great fat erection over the hardwood floors and dimmer switches and ocean view, absorbing it all, adjusting to it, soon to be demanding more of it. It took about five minutes to inflate his ego and fill the three bedrooms, probably a few months to start complaining it isn’t enough, a few more still to see the staff can be pushed around with impunity. It’s a law of nature, can’t be stopped any more than gravity. And once he grows big and ugly enough, Iris will circle in and feast on the colossus until there is nothing left but a pale grey sack of fat bleeding on the tiles for you to shovel up and dump in the river. Anthony looks in at the shower stall one more time, bows his head, draws breath, shrugs and looks back to Trench. ‘Up to you. But uh, this big places need lots of cleaning.’
‘It’s still only just me.’
‘Yah but, you know, last guy lived here said no amah first, then a few weeks he asked me do I know a good amah. Lots of laundry, you sweat, new clothes every day. Dishes, laundry, cleaning this toilets. You got four toilets in here. Ironing…’
Trench blinks at the last item. ‘Ironing. True. I’d just never thought about a maid before. Never occurred to me. I don’t know anyone at home who has a maid. It’s for the very rich only.’
‘Yah, cheap here. Iris works cheap.’
‘Oh. No. No-no. I’m not interested in paying someone badly… like that, you know. I don’t do that kind of thing.’
‘So you pay her more! She’s very happy for that.’
Trench smiles. ‘Good point. Thing is, I don’t want anyone living in the apartment. It looks like she was living here – her clothes are in one of the bedroom closets.’
‘Yup. Lived in.’
‘That’s a problem. All I’d need is someone to come in a couple of days a week. She’d really have to find a place to live. I feel bad about asking her to leave but I need privacy, Anthony. I just can’t.’
Anthony sees the wall. ‘Okay, I tell her. I come back in a minute.’ He turns back down the hall to the living room.
She’s out on the balcony hanging the wet shirts. ‘Okay?’
‘He says a couple of days a week is okay but no live-in.’
‘No!’ She drops a wet t-shirt back in the bucket. ‘What do I do now?’
‘Put on some tight shorts and try again?’
‘Go to hell.’
‘I’m not joking. That dress didn’t sell a thing. He didn’t even look at you.’
‘He isn’t ready! You don’t…’
Trench comes out and she stops talking, goes back to hanging the laundry with a smile. Trench and Anthony watch as she stretches a shirt across the two lines. Anthony looks askance at him, sees a buyer.
‘Maybe you’re right, Anthony. A few days a week might be helpful. Irene, is it? Iris, sorry. But as I say, I really don’t need someone to live in. Being alone, you know, I don’t need a full time person. I can’t afford it either. I hope you understand my situation,’ he says, looking at her, then at Anthony, not sure she’s getting it all.
She turns from the line and looks around at him with a soft smile, a pout but not pushing it, and then she looks at Anthony. ‘Done.’
He sniffs and rubs his eyes ‘She says okay.’
‘Where will she live, Anthony?’
She takes another shirt from the bucket and turns to the line, saying back to Anthony, ‘Ninth floor. I’ll work him from there.’
She turns and smiles at Trench and then Anthony. He looks at her one last time, holding her eyes, those cold clear black eyes of hers that remind him where he stands, has to stand, even now, in spite of it all. He grimaces at her, gripping her eyes one last time, saying, ‘She stay downstairs for a few days. She find a place soon. She has friends.’
She smiles and nods and Trench gives the chummy two thumbs up. ‘Great! Okay, what’s this arrangement going to cost?’