My husband, Adam, comes out of the hotel bathroom, a fluffy white towel wrapped around him, just as I finish keying Khalida’s landline number into my mobile. Last night while he was downstairs at the bar with some of his colleagues, I looked for her number in the Brisbane phone book. It was easy enough; there was only one listing for that surname. Quickly, I press the enter button on the phone, toss the scrap of paper it is written on into a nearby bin and turn to look at him. He’s using another big white fluffy towel to dry his hair. For a moment, I have a sense that he’s deliberately avoiding looking at me. I’m sure I’ve noticed before that he does this. Then I tell myself I’m imagining it, like so many other things. Even Adam says I imagine things.
The first time I met Khalida, I almost didn’t see her. I could see a thick black fringe, two dark eyes peering at me and a smidgeon of her snub nose. She hid behind Hasan who stood firmly in front of her, a solid squat figure in a creased baggy pin-striped suit jacket and pants.
‘I am Hasan,’ he said. ‘This is Khalida.’
He turned and said something over his shoulder in a rapid undertone to his wife. He stepped back a few paces and I saw that he dragged his right leg, as if something was wrong with it. He gave her a push towards me. I remember looking down at the small dark woman in front of me. It seemed as if she had hunched together the bones of her body so that she appeared even smaller. She wore a jumble of faded clothes: baggy grey sweatpants and an old purple top with a couple of big blotchy stains that hadn’t properly come out in the wash. I said a few words to greet her and held the door open for her to come in.
She smiled at me. ‘Thank you, you have nice house.’
Hasan followed her inside. He asked about the hours of work, and when he should return for Khalida. He stood close to me and I could smell cigarette smoke on his breath. His teeth were stained from the tobacco, and uneven; there was a gap where one of his side teeth was missing. He listened to my reply, then he said something in the same muttered undertone to her and turned and left, his work done. Khalida’s was about to begin.
‘So,’ Adam says this morning in the hotel room overlooking the river. He towels his dark hair vigorously, but then he does everything vigorously. ‘What will you do today?’
I work with Adam at his surgery three days a week where I am the receptionist/accounts person. But today I am the accompanying spouse. That’s how I am listed on the conference documents. Adam is an orthodontist and the conference has orthodontists from all over the world, here in Brisbane to learn more about teeth and treatments and smiles.
‘The art gallery,’ I say. ‘There’s a new exhibition that’s been brought over from London. And maybe some shopping.’
He nods his approval. He likes it that I am busy because that means I am occupied. He can report back to his fellow orthodontists when they ask what I am doing with my day. The men always ask after the wives as if we know each other well, when in fact the only time we meet is over drinks and dinner during these annual conferences in cities like Sydney and Melbourne and occasionally, Auckland. I notice how quickly he gets dressed. How much of a hurry he is in to be gone to the world of white sparkling smiles and effervescent conversation.
After I showed her around the house – in each room we went into, Khalida would say, ‘Nice, you have very nice house’ – I left her to begin her work. She started in the kitchen. When I checked on her half an hour later, she was down on her hands and knees wiping the floor with a damp cloth. It seemed an old-fashioned and onerous way of doing things. I realised I hadn’t shown her where the mop was kept. It struck me as funny and a little weird. Even stranger, I found myself relating this later to Pip, who was chairperson of the hospice fundraising committee. (Her cleaner was Khalida’s cousin; it was through her that Khalida had come to clean for me.) I told her about the incident, adding a light humorous touch, focusing on the dereliction of my duty towards my new cleaner. Pip looked up from the meeting agenda she was adding notes to, and said, matter-of-factly, yes, well, that really was the only way to get floors truly clean. I felt acutely aware – not for the first time - that I would never be an exact fit in the world that Pip and the other women on the committee inhabited.
Even on that first day, it was clear right away that Khalida knew what needed to be done. There was no need to point her in the direction of the work; she was at once in control, scrubbing at surfaces and polishing glass with a silent and energetic vigour. I slipped out of her way to let her get on with it and busied myself in my study. Mid-morning while she was at the other end of the house, I made tea in the kitchen, selected two wafer-thin floral china cups, filled a little milk jug, gathered up the sugar bowl and set out a small plate of Belgian biscuits.
I found her polishing a mirror in one of the bedrooms. She had taken the cover off the bed and remade it; it now stretched perfectly across the mattress and the pillows were plumped like the ones you see in the magazines.
‘Your daughter?’ She looked closely at the collage of photos on the wall. In many of them, the elder girl, Lizzie, was frowning. She has beautiful white even teeth, the result of careful dental treatment and thousands of dollars in costs, yet all too often she keeps her mouth shut.
‘No. My husband’s.’ I pointed to the younger girl in one of the photographs. ‘Two daughters. They come to stay here sometimes.’
‘And you?’ she asked. ‘You have children?’
‘No,’ I said. It was too difficult to explain. ‘Not yet.’
Khalida came twice a week on the two days I wasn’t at work to help me in the house. That was how Adam had described it: getting in someone to help. The specialist at the Fertility Clinic had said I needed to look after myself, to be more relaxed and rested. I found I liked the way my empty house filled with life when there was a small energetic person vacuuming the carpets and scrubbing at window panes with scrunched-up damp newspaper. Now, I could concentrate on my voluntary work. I was the secretary for the hospice committee. There was always something to contact the others about. There was a sense of organization and purpose, of being on top of life.
We developed an unspoken routine. Around 11 am, I’d come out of the study and we’d have morning tea together. In the first few weeks, conversation was difficult. I asked her about her family, her homeland, how her children liked their schools. Sometimes she couldn’t follow what I was asking or if she did, then she wouldn’t have the words to reply. I could see she was frustrated when I couldn’t get the meaning of what she was saying. I am not sure how it happened but one day, we began to find a way. We would gesticulate, grab at words from out of the air. Khalida would laugh with surprise when she made sense of something I said. There was relief on my part when I could follow what she meant.
‘New Zealand is good place,’ she said from time to time. ‘You good person, Ruth.’
I liked that.
When the autumn came and the leaves on the trees outside the window became brown and leathery, Khalida often seemed quiet and downcast as if something was troubling her. I asked her what was up; maybe I pressed her. And then she began to tell me.
I think about my son,’ she said. She gave a sniff. ‘He was always a good boy.’
I wondered if he was in trouble. Gangs? Fighting? Stealing? Hadn’t I seen something in the paper about a gang of migrant boys in trouble in one of the suburbs out west? I had no idea. I waited for her to go on.
‘Back home. My big boy.’ I looked around for the box of tissues to hand to her. ‘In the street.’ Her brown eyes held mine. There was a wailing sound. ‘In the street. A good boy. Not bad boy. Good good boy. Not do wrong. The soldiers, the bad soldiers have guns.’ She was making a sobbing noise and I could barely understand her.
I tried to think about what I’d seen on the television news. Soldiers in uniform, big guns, big black boots. Tanks. Cars being blown up in the street. ‘I understand,’ I said.
‘They shoot at truck. Across street.’ Almost too fast now for me to follow her words. ‘ Instead, bullets hit him. Hit my son.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘In the street. He is dead.’ She spoke quietly now. As if she were talking to herself. ‘ Dead. I cannot live, I am so so sad.’
‘I am so sorry,’ I said.
‘He was 14 years,’ she said. ‘My big son.’
I thought of loss and sadness and how easy it was for Khalida to cry when I could not and then it seemed that I was being offered the chance to borrow some of that grief from her. I felt tears fill my eyes. I stood up and put one arm around her shoulder to let her know I was there. We remained like that for a time. Then she pulled away, blew her nose hard and loudly into a tissue, and pulled herself together. We both looked at each other. I blinked away the tears from my own eyes. I gave her an awkward hug.
‘You are kind to me,’ she said. ‘I pray every day for you. You are good person. I am happy to be here.’
After that, it was as if a floodgate had been knocked down. Her sister’s baby had died because there were no drugs in the hospital. Hasan’s nephew became ill on the long journey to a neighbouring country, fleeing the war. ‘He die, too.’ Each time, as I’d go to pour the tea it seemed as if the action made her recall another tragedy. Her body would shake as she cried. I could see her sadness and grief and often I would have tears in my eyes. And then, there would come a point where one of us would stand up and there might be an awkward hug and she’d get back to work. Now when I watched television news at night, I looked out especially for small bodies in the rubble in the background behind the reporter. I watched aghast as mothers struck their breasts and screamed shrilly. The scenes were no longer just pictures.
Khalida had a favourite expression: ‘No good.’ Hasan was trying to get a job; he went every day to the job centre. But everything was no good for him. Too different from home, where he had a good job. ‘No good’ covered many things that were wrong in the world. It was a surprisingly comforting phrase and sometimes when I was alone at home I would hear myself saying it aloud. I liked how she could be dark; she could brood; she could cry. At one of the hospice meetings, I found myself saying something to Pip, casually, about all the suffering Khalida and her cousin and their families had been through. She looked at me in surprise. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I make a point of not being home when Yasmeen is there.’ She snapped her handbag shut. ‘After all, she’s there to do a job, not stand about chatting all day.’
My birthday falls on the shortest day of the year. When Khalida showed me the letter from the hospital neurologist, I noticed the date at once: the day before my birthday. She told me that she had had a numb feeling in her little finger for a long time.
‘Does it hurt?’ I asked. I felt guilty that I had not noticed until now the odd way she held her left hand in her lap when we spoke. As if she were resting the first digit.
There was some complication about the car – it was out of action, for some reason – otherwise her husband would have gone with her. I knew at once how I could assuage my guilt. I offered to drive her to the appointment.
She was silent on the way to the hospital. I could see she was anxious. I drove into the car park and waited for her to get out. Instead, she stayed sitting there in the passenger seat, her seatbelt still clicked in place.
‘Please,’ she said after a few moments. ‘Can you come with me? Sometimes hard to understand doctors.’
‘Same for me,’ I said. It was true.
So it fell to me to listen to the neurologist’s diagnosis. Khalida had a pinched nerve in her elbow. He seemed to think that the nerve would in time repair itself and the numbness would go. In the meantime, there was nothing to be done.
‘Is good?’ Khalida looked over at me when he finished speaking.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Very good news.’
On the way out of the hospital, I told Khalida we had two things to celebrate. ‘First, your good news. And also, tomorrow is my birthday.’ I asked her if she would like to look around the art gallery with me. There was a new photographic exhibition – images of children from all over the world. I couldn’t imagine Khalida, with everything she had to do, ever finding the time to go and see it.
The big airy rooms that were set apart for the exhibition contained dozens of photos of children, some smiling, some playing, others fearful and suspicious. Perhaps I had thought I would feel some kind of maternal longing, something might stir deep inside and unlock a spark of life, but when I looked about me, the images were just children. Other people’s children.
Khalida, however, appeared entranced. ‘Beautiful,’ she said again and again as she studied each picture. Finally, she paused in front of a large picture of an olive-skinned teenager with sad, hopeless eyes. The caption beneath it read: Beirut, mid-day, after the bombing. She sniffed, took out a handkerchief and wiped at her face. She began to sway on her feet. She muttered something over and over again. Her voice began to rise in a peculiar wail on the ends of each gulped breath in what I imagined might be described as a keening sound.
I didn’t know what to do. Some other people who had come into the gallery were looking over at us. Finally, I reached over and patted her arm. When I got her attention, I suggested we head to the café for some coffee and cake. After all, it was nearly my birthday.
Perhaps I did want to get involved. I wasn’t like Pip, I knew that. Was that why I told Khalida? None of the people we’d met since we moved here knew. Adam said it was something private between us, it was sad, it was very sad, but it was the only sensible thing, and what was done was done and we should move on. No need for anyone to know. It wasn’t their business. And I had agreed. And yet now I wanted so much to tell someone.
I thought she would understand, she who had experienced so much grief. I wanted to explain the big solid house with no one in it. The air of waiting I always experienced when I came home.
‘Before,’ I said, ‘before we came here, I was pregnant. Like this.’ I mimed, arms joined in front, a big belly. I waited for her to nod.
She smiled. It was a big wide smile, as if she were relieved at last. ‘Baby,’ she said. ‘Good.’ Perhaps she thought I was going to have a baby soon.
‘Not now,’ I said. ‘Before. There was a baby, but…’ The words rushed out. ‘Then, no baby.’ I looked at her face. ‘Baby gone.’
‘Baby no good,’ I said. I tried to tell her. ‘We took a test to see if the baby was okay.’ I shuddered as I thought of the long needle. ‘Baby no good.’ How to say it? ‘Down Syndrome.’ The words hung in the air.
‘Down Syndrome?’ Khalida said the words carefully. She frowned. She didn’t understand.
‘My husband said no.' She nodded. Husbands saying no, was that something she understood? ‘He said it was for the best.’ Still not clear. I tried again: ‘I think he wanted a son he could play cricket with.’
I mimed hitting with a bat. I swung my arm and tossed an imaginary ball. ‘It wouldn’t be the same. He wouldn’t be a great player.’
‘Okay.’ She seemed to understand. ‘No good.’
I heard myself sniff. ‘I said yes, it was sensible. It was the right thing to do.’
‘You are sad?’ Khalida said. She looked at me expectantly.
I took a tissue from the box, but the tears refused to come. I couldn’t cry. Then I allowed myself to think about some of the worst of Khalida’s stories and I remembered how she would scream and wail. I felt my body begin to rock to and fro as I pictured young children lying dead on crowded streets, their bare feet sticking out from under bombed cars or market stalls. Then Khalida was holding me and making soothing sounds and my face felt wet.
In the weeks afterwards, I was surprised to find that something dark had lifted from me. I slept better at night and woke up refreshed. Adam even seemed happier and began to talk about taking on yet another partner in the business. For my birthday, he had given me a membership to the most expensive gym in town. I hadn’t used it yet. Now, however, I became a zealous attendant. I liked the way my legs soon became toned. I admired to myself the tight little muscles that built up in my arms. We had a number of events to attend – the Russian ballet, a new play, the orchestra - and I bought new things to wear. Slinky dresses, peep-toe shoes with stilettos.
I looked good, like the young woman Adam had first set eyes on and desired. I went back to the fertility clinic to see the specialist. He had been replaced by a blonde woman with a big perfect smile and an air of confidence. ‘Your blood tests were excellent,’ she said. ‘You’re really looking after yourself.’ She glanced at my notes on the computer screen. ‘Go home to your husband and make love. Any time is a good time,’ she said. ‘Think positive thoughts, that’s what I always say.’ And as I stood up to leave, she gave a twinkling shrewd little smile and told me to make sure I enjoyed trying for the baby.
Shoots of daffodils were starting to pop up in my garden, but each time Khalida came to clean, the sad stories came with her. It was as if she wore them. She was often tearful. Hasan was not happy. He had had a good job back home as a mechanic but now here, he was unemployed. Now the job centre wanted him to go to English classes. I asked Khalida if she wanted to go to these classes.
‘No.’ She spoke firmly. ‘Too much cleaning, and besides, Hasan would not want it.’ As if there could be no argument.
I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t warmed to Hasan. A few days later, he came to the house in the early evening when I was alone. He stepped inside the hallway, far too close, so that I had almost to lean back into the wall. I could see his tongue through the gap in his mouth where the tooth was missing.
‘Khalida must change the time of cleaning,’ he said. ‘I go to class mornings. On the other side of town.’ Of course, he would want to take the car, not the bus. ‘She can come afternoon.’
There seemed to be no room for discussion. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I agreed that Khalida could change her hours.
‘You nice person,’ he said. ‘I tell Khalida you will say yes. I know I can ask you.’ There was something about the way he said this that I did not like.
I let out a swift breath. What about the other women Khalida cleaned for? Had he asked them to change their routines? I said as much to Adam later when we were in a taxi on the way to the theatre. ‘Why me?’ I said.
Adam didn’t answer. He was listening to a sports’ commentator on the cab driver’s radio. I got out a mirror and checked my hair. The blonde highlights looked good. At the party afterwards, Adam stayed at my side more than usual. I was glad I had made the effort. He kissed me in the taxi on the way home and fondled my knee, his fingers caressing the sharp nylon of my stockings. It was a passionate kiss that reminded me of when we first met. After we kissed, I asked him who the woman was who had turned to greet him at the bar. He said she was no one in particular.
The strong winds of the equinox gales battered against the house. Khalida also seemed affected by their force as if she had had to battle her way to the front door. She would arrive, tired and worn and sometimes sweating, from the two houses she had already cleaned before coming to mine. I had now started going to the gym on the days she came to clean. Often when I came home, I’d open the French doors to let the air and the light in. I had a nightmare one night and when I awoke I replayed it in my head. Something black and large and shadowy had almost smothered me.
Khalida told me that Hasan wanted them to move to Australia. There would be more chance of jobs than New Zealand. He had cousins there. It was a better place, he said. More chance of success. Better employment opportunities. She said each word carefully and distinctly, like she had repeated the words Down Syndrome that time. As if the words were new to her.
I held back from wondering aloud how successful it would be for Hasan. He had a brooding, proud air about him that didn’t make him a great candidate for work. Not after all this time. And at his age.
‘What do you think?’ I asked.
Khalida sighed. She said she didn’t want to go. ‘Is good here. Kids happy at school. I have good job. Many jobs. I have you. You good person. I pray every day for you. I am happy here. But Hasan—’ she raised her shoulders in a shrug. ‘Hasan. No. No good here for him.’
It didn’t seem an appropriate moment to inform her that we wouldn’t be seeing much of each other in the house any more. I left it a week before I explained to her that with Christmas coming up, I would be very busy. So much to organize, so many appointments in town. That I would leave her pay on the sideboard. She could let herself in and out of the house. ‘And please,’ I said, ‘help yourself to tea.’
Our paths didn’t cross for a while after that. Then I arrived back late one day — an unseasonably humid day — to find her still at work. It was almost as if she had been waiting for me. She had a dry dusting cloth in her hand. I saw how the red patches of the dermatitis on her hands had flared up. She got it from all the cleaning products she used in all the big houses. All that scrubbing of bathrooms.
Hasan had booked tickets for Australia, she said. ‘I don’t want to go.’
I could see she was about to cry again. I put down my shopping bags and let out a sigh. It had been a tiring day. ‘But it might be good. It’s a nice place,’ I said. ‘It could be good for the family. Warm. Nice beaches.’ I didn’t know why I wanted to persuade her to look on the bright side of things. Perhaps I was thinking about the specialist at the fertility clinic. Being positive. ‘You never know till you try it.’ I thought my tone sounded reassuring. Positive even.
I was surprised to see something dark and strong flash in her eyes.
‘And what about me?’ she said. She placed her hands on her hips. It was as if she seemed to stand taller for a moment. Her eyes grew darker. ‘What if I don’t want to go? Why should I have to go?’
‘Oh, Khalida. Don’t say that.’ I began to search in my gym bag for my mobile. I avoided her gaze. ‘You’ll soon get to like it. Of course you will.’
They left after Christmas. Khalida came to say goodbye. I gave her an expensive hand cream. We hugged each other.
‘I am losing my friend,’ she said.
‘Me, too,’ I said. And it was true. But what was also true was that I wanted her to go away so I could focus on the future once I managed to get pregnant.
An envelope bearing Australian stamps – wallabies and koalas featured – came a few months later. The handwriting was neat and childish: her youngest son had written it on her behalf. It said she was lonely. There were no jobs there. She asked me to write back, she even included her phone number. But life got busy around that time. There was a Christmas card the following Christmas and the one after that. No message this time, but best wishes and greetings from their family to ours. I always meant to reply.
In the hotel room with views over the river, Adam kisses me on the cheek. I can smell his after shave. His suit is new and beautifully cut. He is packing his briefcase with papers and does not notice I am quiet. I am thinking about Khalida and wondering why I should expect her to remember me. After all, it has been five years since she left. There is no baby, not yet anyway.
Adam’s business has continued to become very successful. We’ve bought a holiday place up north. He is a very busy man working late at night on paperwork. I am often asleep by the time he comes to bed. There are some nights where I can’t sleep and I get up and then I might find him on his mobile in the study and I ask him who he is speaking to and it’s always a colleague in a distant country needing advice or someone who is not important. On other nights when he comes home late from meetings and seminars, he often brings me a big bouquet of flowers which he has purchased during the afternoon. Sometimes he still kisses me passionately, especially after we have been out some place at night. If you asked me, I’d say it’s all good.
His daughters still come to stay on the odd occasion. The elder one is at university and likes to argue about politics and religion. She waits for me to say something and then pounces on it. Recently she accused me of being racially prejudiced. Bigoted. I was taken aback. ‘That’s not true,’ I said. Khalida came to my mind. ‘I had a good friend who—’
His daughter cut me off. ‘God,’ she said, ‘you weren’t really going to say that were you?’ She mimicked my voice in an exaggerated tone. It sounded high and plaintive. ‘One of my best friends is…’
I looked over at Adam but he was texting on his mobile. The younger girl looked at me and I saw something like pity in her eyes.
I had not expected Khalida herself to answer the phone. In the past, it had been one of the family. She didn’t recognise my voice at first. ‘Who?’ she asked. I told her that I was in the city and I wanted to see her. For a moment, I imagined she might invite me to her home. I tried to picture it: one of those anonymous apartment blocks that I had seen on television, with concrete stairs running up the outside, washing strung across balconies, garbage-strewn public playgrounds. Instead, Khalida handed the phone to her youngest son and he told me the name of a café near Central Station. When I think of it, I can see it is much easier for us to meet elsewhere.
In the Greek café opposite the train station I read a magazine and wait for plain, dumpy Khalida to arrive. I see someone coming towards me. She is slim and confident, her hair is shining. It takes me a moment to recognize her.
Khalida hugs me and tells me I look lovely. ‘Beautiful hair,’ she says in the old way, but now there’s a touch of an Australian twang. She sits down. ‘How are the girls? All grown up?’
‘Yes, very grown up.’
She smiles. ‘Easy for you now.’ She glances down at my stomach. ‘Did you have a baby?’
‘No.’ I shrug. ‘No baby.’
‘Never mind. Maybe later, there’s plenty of time.’
‘Perhaps.’ I think about what I want to say. Now I can stop pretending all is well. I will explain how things are. Khalida will understand. We will look at each other and there’ll be the same shared sorrow, the pain of loss. I inhale, get ready to speak.
But Khalida beats me to it. ‘Australia is good for us.’ There is no mistaking the accent. It’s the way she pronounces Australia. ‘It was hard at first, so hard. But now everything is great. My big boy, he has a job at a designer clothing factory.’ She is talking fast and fluently. ‘Very good job. He brings me home nice clothes. See?’ She points down at her black trousers and I can see, even from here, the classic lines. Good designer.
I nod, admiring them. ‘How is Hasan?’
She gives a broad, forgiving gesture. ‘No job, but lots of family here, now he drives cousin’s taxi some nights. Late at night. Good money. Danger money.’ When she laughs there’s a glimpse of beautiful strong white teeth.
The waiter is making his way over to us.
I smile and lean forward. ‘Oh, Khalida,’ I say. ‘Remember how sad you were. How you wanted to stay in Auckland?’
Khalida’s gaze meets mine. Level. Cool. ‘No, Ruth,’ she says. ‘You were right, Australia is good place for us.’ She actually makes little quotes marks in the air when she says the words, good place for us. She picks up the menu card from the table and looks at it. ‘Black coffee, no sugar,’ she says to the waiter.