This post is a slightly longer read than the ones we usually put out. It’s a short fiction spanning the streets of East London to Western Vitilevu.
We owe Shem more.
More than the measly seventeen times he is mentioned in the bible. If it weren’t for him and his defective alleles, we would be more like his father Noah, living to almost a thousand. No, we do owe Shem a lot. At least this is what Lia thought. And Lia thinks a lot.
Lia thanked Shem as she dragged her fifty-year-old body out of her mother’s bed. She didn’t feel her age and thought she didn’t look it either. “Nice legs,” she whispered at her reflection in her mother’s floor length mirror.
“Yes, though shame about the bones,” her thoughts whispered back.
Lia’s collarbones protruded out of her skin, in fact every bone on her frame did. She had always been slim. And tall. On her first day of school, her teacher walked into class and warned her sternly that older students were not to interrupt the new learners. Lia had no idea what the woman was saying in English but she plonked herself down on the nearest empty seat in silent declaration that the matter was done.
This stubbornness had marked most of her life, propelling her out of poverty, rejection and ridicule. However, when the doctor told her she was dying of cancer, that no treatment in the UK could stop the spread but only slow it down, she hadn’t dug her heels in. She gave up being stubborn. Instead she sold off the house together with her belongings and bought a one-way ticket home. Lia arrived at Nadi International Airport with only a suitcase and the urn which held her husband’s ashes.
The proceeds from the sale of her house and her life savings had been wired to Fiji earlier and Lia had no intentions of using that at all. “What good is money to a dying woman?” she thought. She took another look at her dwindling frame and stepped into the shower which was breaking at the seams. The tiling and the grouting had seen better days, and the tap had a constant drip that the strongest hands could not tighten.
The house had been sterling more than three decades ago. It was built by Lia’s brother, Kaliova, who was seven years older than her and just as lanky. He had joined a boat of Taiwanese fishermen straight after high school and sent money home to their mother. Ma, their constant rock who loved her place at the kitchen sink and never proceeded to move away from it. She had voluntarily clipped her own wings that her children left home at the earliest opportunity starting with Kaliova.
The money was constant at first, appearing every month at the local Western Union. The foundations were laid within three months thanks to his high school contacts who he had kept in touch with and were now employed in construction around the city. Lia remembers the frames of the house going up straight after. She’d come home every afternoon thinking that the exposed timber frames resembled the bare ribs of the cow that was slaughtered when her uncle passed away.
“Lia, iko vakayagataka tiko na wai?” hollered her Ma from the kitchen.
Lia snapped out of her reverie, turned off the shower, towelled her body and went off to affirm to her mother that she was indeed using the water in the shower hence the low pressure at her Ma’s end in the kitchen.
The look on her mother’s face betrayed the brave words she had said the night before. Last night they had discussed Lia’s birthday plans. It was probably going to be her last and Ma was the ever-stoic Fijian woman as she listened to Lia’s plans. Afterwards she had told Lia that together they would pray for healing. If that failed, they would go to a small clan near Vatukarasa that specialised in potions. Lia had nodded along noncommittedly, unable to tell her mother that she had no intention of doing either.
“Ma please don’t look at me like that,” Lia pleaded as she stood in the middle of her mother’s kitchen in her green striped towel.
“Lewa, I can count all the ribs on your body through that towel,” sobbed her mother.
There was that word again, ribs. Appearing once more in her thoughts. The timber ribs that were the framework of her mother’s house were covered within six months. This was slower than anticipated but it stopped the house from looking like Abdul’s slaughtered cow which he had sold at below market price for the funeral. He was one of their few neighbours who actually liked Lia’s uncle.
Lia’s uncle was a prickly character. He was the neighbourhood low brow con artist who could swindle you out of anything. He drank too much kava to find the time to improve on the house his father left him and which he now lived in. His out of prospects sister and her two out of wedlock offspring were the added occupants he kept wanting to throw out. He died of a stroke when Lia was thirteen years old and the only neighbours that paid their respect were Abdul and Risi’s grandmother.
“Oh Ma, we can talk about this later please. I’m going to be late for Risi.”
Lia dashed to her mother’s room and went through her suitcase for something suitable to wear. The weather at home was hotter than she remembered, even her most fashionable British summer outfits were no match for the Pacific sun. She finally settled for her white H & M culottes and a pink linen blouse. Shoving her feet into her mother’s brown sandals, she headed for the door after stopping to kiss her Ma on the forehead.
Lia saw Risi as soon as she arrived. Risi had put on a bit of weight and it suited her. She looked content and at home in this hospital surrounding. She had never looked like this when they were growing up. Back then Risi had been aware of her intellectual limitations which Lia always covered for. However, Risi’s stutter was something Lia could do nothing about. The two little girls spent afternoons sitting on Risi’s bed doing homework. It was Lia who explained the solutions to Risi and fixed her math sums for her, just as she now fixed a smile on her face and got ready to greet her friend.
She didn’t want to be here but what good is unforgiveness to a dying woman she thought. Risi gave her an awkward hug. Lia sighed. The two friends had drifted apart years ago, but it was Risi’s grandmother who was Lia’s friend first. It was she who asked her granddaughter to arrange this visit.
Bubu Risi Levu or Grandma Big Risi was in direct contrast to Lia’s uncle. Bubu was the beloved neighbourhood Mayor. She knew everyone’s business. Lia’s first memory was standing underneath Bubu’s big mango tree. Over the years, she gradually found her way into Bubu’s kitchen and by the age of six she was in-charge of selling Bubu’s homemade achar to the neighbourhood kids from Bubus front porch while Risi packed them in bags. Now here they were, in Bubu Risi Levu’s ward, waiting to be called in for visiting hours.
Risi’s grandparents were of a slightly higher breed. Her grandfather was one of the sons of the prominent families chosen to study in New Zealand. He came back to Fiji to work for the Ministry of Agriculture where he met Bubu Risi Levu who was a first-year nursing student at the Fiji School of Nursing in Tamavua. Bubu Risi Levu never did finish her education but her achievement in making it as far as Nursing school made her the woman to go to whenever a relative or a neighbour needed advice. This she dished out in bucket loads and grateful recipients reciprocated in kind; a string of fish for Sunday, two yams for Grandpa’s lunch or a gallon of kerosene for her help in taking a baby to the hospital. Over the years their neighbourhood grew and Bubu’s community visits became more frequent and longer. It seemed like her middle-class house could not contain her.
However, it was to her middle-class house that Lia headed to when she first learnt to walk. Her tiny feet plodded the total thirty yards from her uncle’s tin shack to Bubu Risi Levu’s makeshift kitchen. Before Lia could plonk her bare behind beneath the smooth damp soil underneath the mango tree, her mother grabbed her by the ears and made her walk the thirty yards back. Lia then learnt to walk faster, her long legs deftly navigating the roots of the old mango tree. Soon enough Lia was able to manage a toddler’s sprint from their lean-to shack to Bubu’s kitchen before her mother could leave her post by the kitchen sink.
Lia’s son Gary loved to walk too. She was pregnant with Gary in her third year at University and Gary’s father insisted they get married. Lia stubbornly refused him every time he popped his head through her counter at John the Unicorn, where she worked as an assistant to make ends meet. It wasn’t until the letters from Home Office started popping in too that she finally said yes.
They were married by public registry and afterwards danced to their favourite Phil Collins song. Lia was able to finish off her degree and keep Gary. By the time Gary had turned three, he was refusing to get into the stroller enroute to his nursery at Denmark Hill. Lia would finish her university lectures at Kings to find him walking around the nursery while the other students sat still. They ditched the stroller completely when Lia took her first job in the City, as by then Gary had no trouble keeping up with the rush hour foot traffic.
“How is Gary?” asked Risi.
“Oh Gary is good thank you. He is married now with a kid of his own.”
Lia didn’t feel like adding that Gary’s daughter had the most beautiful brown eyes and was just as lanky. Or that he refused to use her money even as his eco-friendly construction business struggled to keep afloat. And she certainly didn’t want to tell Risi that his wife moved back to Brockenhurst with her two children leaving Gary with his own.
Lia did not want to tell Risi all this. But there was a time when she could and wanted to. Like when she told Risi about her uncle throwing her sandals at her after he found out that she had broken it. Sandals were expensive but body parts weren’t. Especially those of unmarried, unemployed mothers who lived off the charity of their brothers and defended their children like Lia’s mother had.
Lia’s mother had a broken face for two weeks after that but the sandal was fixed straight away, nailed down at the edges though they burrowed into Lia’s feet each time she walked. But walk she did. In her sandals, out of her uncle’s driveway and out of sight until she could take them off and walk barefoot to school only to repeat it in reverse on her way home. Risi was always half a step behind, making sure her friends sandaled feet stayed in place. The two girls cried over the brokenness of it all and dreamt of days when they would both own sandals that didn’t break and dazzling shoes that unmarried mothers could show off.
Risi could understand about unmarried mothers. Her’s was one as well, but while Lia’s lived in servitude to her brother, everyone in Risi’s mother’s family lived in servitude to her. Her parents worshipped the ground their daughter walked on. Risi’s mother was beautiful, with hair the colour of the sun at dusk and the mesmerising whites of her eyes had the ability to make you feel special yet unworthy of her gaze. She wore the latest dresses that hinted at foreign places far away from their mango tree.
One afternoon as they played hopscotch underneath the shade, Risi’s mother headed towards them and stretched out her free hand, a cigarette in the other. Taking their smoothened pebble, she flicked it towards number ten. The pebble landed neatly between the lines and Risi’s mother hopped in her stone washed Levi’s through all the blocks. She went from one to nine to pick up the stone at ten in one swift movement then passed the rock back to Lia and was gone. It was the longest she had spent with the two of them. Risi ran after her mother to get her back into the game but her mother tapped her roll of BH10 sending ash flecks Risi’s way and said, “I don’t have time lewa.”
However after a few months it appeared that she finally had time for her daughter. Risi would be moving to her mother and her fiancé soon. The news was unexpected and the two girls barely had time to play their last hopscotch game. Lia ran to Bubu Risi’s house looking for Risi who had missed school that day and saw the fiance place Risi’s bags inside his Toyota.
Lia ran out towards the car and croaked, “Risi iko lako i vei?” she enquired and Risi could only stutter that she was going to live with her mother and her fiance. Lia felt that that word around in her mouth, fee-un-cey, it sounded like a fancy something that lived underwater but to Lia she just wanted to spit it out. Fee-un-cey was taking her best friend away.
Lia understood the pain of having her uncle’s fist land on her face but this one was different. There was no separating herself from this pain, it consumed all of her.
“We will always be friends,” sobbed Lia as she hugged her friend tight.
“Ye-e-e-s-s,” stuttered Risi as she struggled to wipe her tears on her dress.
But they both had lied. Their future saw an end to their friendship and selling achar together. The two girls never shared a bed space again. Until now. They made their way to Bubu Risi Levu’s bedside as soon as the hospital security guard opened the doors to the wards. She was almost ninety and was struggling to breathe with Tubes out from her nose and the drip on her arm was the only thing keeping her alive.
Risi placed the bag of toiletries near the cupboard beside her grandmother’s bed and proceeded to clear and store the contents neatly. Lia ventured closer to Bubu Risi levu and made eye contact. Bubu howled when she saw who it was.
“Lia, na luvequ!” she exclaimed.
The heat started in Lia’s cheeks. Bubu Risi Levu had not called her daughter when they last met. Lia looked down at the floor to avoid looking at the two of them. Her mother’s beautiful brown sandals on her feet reassured her of all the promises that she had kept. To buy great footwear for her unwed mother and to make silent bones speak. Bones she had long ago buried at Bubu Risi levu’s porch the last day she left.
After Risi left to live with her mother and new stepdad, Lia would continue to sit at the porch in Bubu Risi Levu’s house selling archar waiting for the gleaming Toyota to get her friend back. Every time it appeared it carried only two occupants, the third having been dropped off in Town to hang out with friends. Lia had continued coming because between her mother’s sink and her uncles’ bed where he snored, there was little else room to study. So Lia sat on the porch with her homework and the achar while Bubu Risi Levu went off to impart some advice to the neighbours.
One afternoon Lia sat as usual with her green basin of achar and tried her hand at integers. “What are you doing Lia?” asked Risi’s grandpa, startling Lia.
“Oh Grandpa I didn’t hear you arrive,” said Lia. He usually arrived home later when Lia would be down to her last half a dozen or so achar for the afternoon, and Bubu would be home as well, sending Lia home with the last two.
“I am the boss,” he chuckled, “I can come home whenever I want to.”
He nodded as she worked out the integers and commended her when she gave the children change without difficulty.
“Smart and beautiful Lia,” he said and Lia had never felt prouder. All her sixteen years of life and no male had ever said that. Her uncle had wanted to deface her and her brother was already long gone out at sea.
The afternoon appearance by Grandpa became more frequent and he arrived home earlier than usual. Soon he was inviting Lia to do her sums at his study table and take all the achar home.
Lia thought that was what grandfathers did. That they breathed close to your ears and sometimes took their clothes off. She had only ever seen him before arriving home as she was leaving or speaking in church fully clad. This latest development unsettled her. But with a mother that only saw the world from her kitchen window and fellow students who could not see past her nailed down sandals, there was no one else she could talk to.
Apart from the self-appointed community counsellor- Bubu Risi levu.
“Lasulasu, kaisi, ono-ono,” shrieked Bubu. The whole neighbourhood could hear Lia being called a liar, commoner, and a prostitute.
At sixteen Lia thought that she really was those things. That she had imagined it all and that male expressions such as those were natural expectations for all the other charity she had received. So when she was the talk of the neighbourhood she didn’t fight it. Her mother, when she dared to leave her sink, heard whispers about their lifestyle. In school Lia was known as the girl that gave herself for things. Relatives kept away by fear of association to this wretched girl, who tempted the well to do neighbour.
There was no one Lia could talk to. Her friend Risi had a new life far away. Her mother’s mended face could deal with one sandal but not the whole community’s pitchforks and jibes. And her uncle was gone now, not that he ever cared. Lia’s stubbornness kicked in and she applied for scholarships and schools as far away from home as possible.
Lia stood at the bedside and looked down as Bubu Risi Levu repeated herself. Lia’s throat had caught a toad and she struggled to swallow it down. “What good is unforgiveness to a dying woman,” she repeated to herself.
“What did you say?” asked Bubu, her papery brown hands reaching out for Lia’s.
“Oh I’m just wondering why you had called me a liar, a low-down commoner and a whore.” The toad wouldn’t dislodge so Lia’s voice cracked before it landed.
Risi dropped the soap collection she had been neatly storing away and Bubu Risi levu’s hand fell by her side. Risi looked at Lia, and Lia knew she shouldn’t dig up old bones but she didn’t have long to live. She wanted to know why the older woman who befriended and fed her had not done the main thing, to protect her. After all, she was the go-to woman of the community.
Lia had left Fiji determined to never come back. It wasn’t her trust in men that dogged her but her distrust in women. When Risi had contacted her on Facebook telling her about Grandma Big Risi’s health woes and requesting for a chance to reconnect, she had ignored the message and carried on with the chemo. But the messages kept coming in. Seven arrived while she lost her hair and twelve when her weight went down to 42 kg. When the doctor finally gave a timeline to live, she answered Risi’s message and told her she was coming back home to Fiji. After All, silent bones can still creak.
And creak they did. When Lia asked Bubu Risi why she could lie easily, Bubu Risi’s aged shoulders heaved and then sagged so loosely about her that Lia thought that the old woman was dead. Then she started speaking, low and slowly at first. She said that they had appearances to keep up, a family name to uphold and positions to fill.
Then the memories started spilling into her old brown eyes, yellowed by years in the sun and from seeing too much. Bubu Risi spoke faster, like she needed to get the words out quickly. She told the two women that the first complaint was from a female colleague who had felt uncomfortable in his presence. As a young affluent man, it was easy to label the accuser a liar and the newlyweds, Bubu Risi levu and grandpa quickly put this incident to bed.
However whispers were heard of grandpa putting half the female members of the church choir to bed as well. As the most educated member of the congregation, he was naturally given various posts within the church where he took liberties with the sheep. The whispers reached the Pastor but the case was quickly closed and no record of wrongs was kept because the two men shared regular drinks around the grog bowl.
Bubu Risi levu paused. It was easy to blame others for indiscretions until it happened at home. In such a case, it wasn’t a misstep or a momentary loss of mind. It was a major dysfunction.
Risi had been sitting very still, no longer rearranging soaps. Lia suddenly felt cold.
“Is that why you moved away suddenly?” asked Lia.
Risi could only nod her head. Way before Grandpa had started coming home early to help Lia with her homework, he had been frequenting Risi’s bed. One day Risi’s mother had walked in to see grandpa attempting to fix Risi’s stutter half-clad but instead of shouting it out from the rooftops, she took her daughter and fled.
Risi was too young to understand but by the end of the week her bags were packed and they drove away in the Toyota. Bubu Risi Levu had quietly kissed Risi as her mother silently smoked her BH10, neither one daring to broach the topic and silently agreed to let broken bones sleep. Risi only knew that something very bad had happened and they would not speak of it ever again. So they didn’t.
“Vosoti au luvequ.” Grandma said, asked Lia for forgiveness.
Lia staggered towards the door, the tears in her eyes had reached her creased pink culottes. She had arrived looking for explanations but she realised that none could be given from people who could not understand it themselves.
“What good is unforgiveness to a dying woman,” Lias’ thoughts asked her again.
In her final year paper she had wanted to analyse the mathematical possibility of Shem ending up with bad alleles when the original human gene pool was supposedly perfect. Her Supervisor made her reconsider; there were just too many variables that were hard to understand. Much like this situation. Thank you Shem for not being perfect, she thought. If it weren’t for you we’d live to be a thousand and cause silent damages our whole lifespans.
Lia stopped by the door, looked at the two women on the bed and gave them all the forgiveness she had.
Gary arrived a year later with his daughter having cashed it all in to try life in the islands. Lia’s mother had been awkward at first, not knowing how to be maternal to a grandson she never knew. But the young Leah had eased their existence and now things were slowly fitting in.
The drip was finally fixed. The seams of the shower filled in. But Lia’s mum still liked to stand at the sink by the window so Gary’s renovation plan of an open plan kitchen with an island sink was shelved. The sink would remain by the window.
And that was where she stood when the delivery came.
“Gane, sa yaco mai.” The heavy package had arrived.
They rushed to the living room to open it and little Leah came bouncing in after them.
“Dad, are we going to finish Grandma’s grave now?
“Yes baby we are,” Gary kissed her forehead.
They removed the packaging and read Lia’s final words etched on the marble:
Lia Mareki Senikauciri
2 August 1968- 13 April 2018
“He protects all his bones. Not one of them is broken.”
Pic credits: 1) Peter G -Mango Mania 2)渭滨 任 and 3) Freedom all on Flickr