This is the eighth of my nine literary/women’s fiction short stories. Casualty of a Situation was inspired by something a very lovely Indonesian woman I once knew said to me. I won’t say exactly what it was, but what she told me affected me very deeply, and really made me think about what some women around the world have to sacrifice in order to build a better life for their family. This story is the result. It was published about ten years ago in the (then) print version of the US-based literary magazine, Quality Women’s Fiction, which became digitised and renamed Quality Fiction, so that men could also submit work.
I cannot think of this story without remembering the woman who inspired it, and the personal sacrifices she made for her family. It may take a bit of careful reading, but I hope that it makes you think.
Casualty of a situation
Luckily, Suki was tiny and her dresses were silky, so they took up much less space than most people’s holiday clothes. She had packed all her clothes in the family suitcases – her entire collection. It was amazing, Suki thought, just how many designer outfits would fit into two suitcases, especially when they’re rolled up so tightly that an entire life can be carried away. As she closed the mirrored doors on the triple wardrobe, the reflection of her beautiful heart-shaped oriental face stared back at her. Even all the earlier scrubbing she’d done couldn’t leave a sparkle like the one in her eyes. They shone like crystals today. Because today was the day she was going home.
It was cold outside. She ensured her black gloves stretched all the way up her arms before she lifted the heavy suitcases into position by the front door. Then she perched herself on the arm of the mud-brown velour armchair, set in the recess of the bay window.
When it was quiet in the rattly old house, like now, Suki gave her mind permission to drift on a sea of memories to the meandering little road through the village where she grew up. And every day in her head, stood the two figures she dreamt of every night. Onihiko’s face would gaze down at her, caressing her with his eyes, and little Miki would smile up at his mother, at her, and clutch her hand with his chubby child fingers.
The phone rang. Suki eyed it, frowning as it clattered against the mahogany hall table. But she did as she’d been told. Her husband had pointed at her, then the telephone receiver the day she’d arrived at the house, and shaken his head like a dog, so that his jowls bobbled from side to side. It had made her laugh out loud. She never, ever, answered the phone. There wouldn’t be much point.
Suki picked up the small photograph in its gold frame, which left its yellow rectangle on the spotless, ageing paintwork in the bay window. She stroked her cotton-covered finger down the squeaky clean image of her in the English wedding dress, her hair fastened under the veil with two large needle-shaped pins little Miki had given her on that road near the harbour, the day she left. Her husband had posed for the camera outside the registry office, teeth on show, his chicken chest puffed out. It was the only photo that had been taken. Suki took it from its frame and placed it in her black leather flight bag beside the two passports and plane tickets. Onihiko had never seen her in a beautiful white dress.
She would return home in English clothes, just as she had been dressed when she had boarded the boat. Her husband had brought them with him, so people didn’t stare quite so much when they finally disembarked at Portsmouth dock. And little Miki had stood waving as they began to sail away. She could still see his little face smiling – a five year old boy who didn’t understand that his mother wasn’t coming back. And Onihiko, tears in his eyes, had held her for an age, before the boat began to pull away. Suki’s picture of the rolling wetness making pathways on his dusty face was as vivid now as it had been two years ago.
Two years is a long time for a little boy. Would Miki still remember her? Would he still run to her and hold her hand with his clammy fingers? Or would he be all grown up now, at seven, and refuse hug her as she bent down to scoop him up in her quivering arms. She wouldn’t have long to wait – hours now. This was the best Christmas present her husband could have given her.
“Every winter,” he had said. “You can see them this year.” Suki had seen such a look of pain in his face, and his head had shone pink through his thinning hair. “You understand?” he’d asked, and she had nodded. Her verbal barrier was a one-way problem. She had laughed, and taken him by the hand to the bedroom, to repay him for his present, although he never, ever asked for it.
Suki levered herself away from the arm chair and stood in the hallway, twirling her eighteen carat gold wedding ring. The taxi would be here soon. Now that really was one word she’d learnt to say. She’d been given the basics – yes please, bedroom, thank you, credit card, taxi. They were suitable for the situation she was in. Her address was written on a piece of note paper in every one of her designer handbags, for occasions when it was needed.
Suki surveyed herself in the large Victorian mirror. The gold cherubs smiled out at her from the frame. She’d married a nice man. He’d looked after her. He called her Suki, and he didn’t mind that she kept her real name private, for her son and her lover. If she was very still and quiet in the evenings, he understood that she was missing her family – the son deprived of his mother, and the man who swore he would wait for her, and who wrote to her every month when the cheque from her husband arrived.
Sleet sloshed down the bay window and tapped on the door, making Suki jump. She buttoned up her thick fur coat, and grimaced at it in the mirror as she touched it. She hated dead animals around her body, but her husband had bought it because it was the best in the shop. She wore it because it was warm, and half-covered her face. Even after two years she couldn’t get used to the cold, after the constant sticky heat of her village.
The taxi beeped outside. Suki peered out of the window, through the yellowing net curtains. She’d tried to make them look clean, but the stain of decades’ old nicotine had become ingrained upon the patterned holes.
Suki moved the suitcases onto the doorstep for the taxi driver, and she checked once more – two tickets, her passport, and her husband’s. And the letter from the ante-natal clinic, dated last spring, for her to show at the reception desk when she went for her first scan. Suki touched the creased edge of the folded paper. She had struggled to read many of the words, particularly the technical ones. But she’d hung on to it anyway, to keep with a black and white photo in the depths of her bag, of a wriggling jellybean with four little bent sticks poking out from all directions: a photo to make her smile.
The long hair pins protruded sideways behind Suki’s ears in the mirror, holding back her long mass of black hair. She’d grown it for the last twenty years since she was five, and it had the texture of a horse’s mane, groomed for gymkhanas. She gave the pins a nudge into the correct position and wrapped her head in a large purple silk scarf. It covered the top and back of her head entirely, wrapped around her ears and folded around the front of her face, leaving little more than her eyes peering into the mirror. Would anyone recognise her in this scarf? Would little Miki even recognise his own mother? Would he remember what she looked like? Would he be as excited to see her when she walked up the road in the village, her heart attempting to explode from her chest, as she would be to set eyes on him again? And how would her first-born child feel, if she had been able to tell him he had a sibling back in England – not quite as swarthy as him, but just as beautiful; just as precious to her?
Onihiko had understood this might happen when the deal had been done. It would be a casualty of the situation, a risk worth taking. And for a long time, the risk remained dormant with every monthly letter, and her husband had been polite and gentle, and careful. Then she’d begun to be sick every morning and every evening, and most mealtimes until it couldn’t be ignored. She’d held her hand across her twitching mouth and clutched onto her stomach as she’d cooked her husband’s food on the days when he didn’t arrive home late after business dinners, and she’d felt faint when she’d massaged his feet and cleaned his toilet.
But her heart had been alight. At last, someone to ease the pain of not being able to hold her son in her arms and sing him to sleep anymore each evening. A child who’s schooling could be paid for because the skin and bone belonged to her husband’s loins; not because of the guilt this time. And after all, wasn’t this really what she was here for – to create and nurture an heir for the empire of the man who treated her well, and was polite and gentle?
In a few hours, though, when she finally stepped off the little boat onto the dusty village road, Suki knew she wouldn’t be able to tell her son any of these wonderful things. She couldn’t show him a photo of his tiny sibling and promise that, one day, they would meet and her children would inhabit the same world.
With a sigh, Suki closed her bag on the letter. She’d not needed it after all. Her husband had taken her to another hospital, and made a very different appointment for her. The drugs had kicked in and sent her into a blackness she hadn’t recognised. It had only been when she awoke that she’d recognised the blackness as her nightmare – the one which stopped her being sick and made her empty inside. When her husband had taken her home and laid her to rest in the velour armchair, he had talked and talked at her, holding her forearms and staring into her dead, brown eyes with his darting blue ones. He’d pointed often at himself and his grey hair. “I’m too old,” he’d repeated over and over, and he’d shaken his head so violently that all the fat on his sagging face shook. This time she’d not laughed. This time, all the language in the world wouldn’t have made her understand. Or forgive.
Suki put the key in the wet lock on the outside of the door. Slowly and as noiselessly as she could manage, she closed the flaking, dirt-grey door, on her husband’s cold brick and stone life. She turned to check that the taxi driver was putting the cases into the car. Yes, there he was, puffing and glowing crimson against his rust-battered white Mercedes, as he yanked and heaved the cases over the perishing rubber rim and into the boot. As Suki pulled the front door towards her, she could just make out the half-open bedroom door at the top of the stairs. For as long as she was able, she would leave behind the white bed linen, embroidered with a covering of snowdrops and lilies. She’d always kept them pristine, without a mark or a stain. This day was no exception, apart from the one small patch which wouldn’t wash away, ever. She could just detect the bottom half of her husband’s bare legs, still wearing his checked socks, dangling over the end of the bed. But she couldn’t see the stain, or the small deep hole in his back, which protruded through into his chest, that she’d made while he was being polite and gentle to her.
Through her purple scarf, Suki pushed at her hair, just to make sure her hair pins were safely fastened. She put the key in her bag and perched herself on the filth-streaked back seat of the taxi.
“Where to, love?” said the driver.
Suki delved in her bag and showed him the plane ticket. “Yes, please,” she said. Then she lowered her stinging, crystal eyes for the journey, as she took out the photo of the beautiful oriental woman in the white English wedding dress, and her husband. When she reached that road where her son would be waiting and her boyfriend would have tears in his eyes, she would show them the photo, and remember the man who paid an extortionate price for the food, and school, and who was polite and gentle. And she would hold her only child and try to forgive the relief in Onihiko’s eyes that, luckily, there was no casualty of the situation.