And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caughtThe Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám
EDWARD PATTEN, BORN in England but still eligible in the first decades after India, independence to be made Bishop of the Church of South India, was not a worldly man, especially when it concerned his daughter. In fact, in everything concerning Nalini he was a doting fool. Now he frowned, tapping his pen on the desk. Arranging a marriage wasn't a man's job and more than ever he missed Vijaya who had known it to be hers.
Vijaya never had any doubts about how to find a husband for their daughter. Before her death from a heart attack she had sat each morning at the computer, scrolling through prospective grooms on the Anglo-Indian matrimonial websites. None had met with Nalini's approval. Too fat, too old, too ugly – no one pleased their precious girl.
Born to them in later life, the Pattens' only child was beautiful, willful and clever. Having completed her BA she intended further studies and it was accepted that whoever she married must fall in with these plans. But married she must be. At twenty-two, time wasn't on her side. Bishop Patten sighed and took up his Waterman.
Dear Cousin Nita… He penned a paragraph of greetings and chewed his lip as he came to the nub of the matter:
Nalini tells me that Griffith University in your city offers an excellent course in feminist theory which she hopes to enrol in. But her mother also had a dearly held wish which was to see our Nellie married. This is a difficult subject to broach, but I was wondering if you might have some suggestions regarding a suitable…
Nita replied with the promptness of a woman called upon to match-make. Bishop Patten scanned her letter:
…arranged marriages aren't the way here of course but as it happens I do have someone who might meet with your approval – John's nephew, Harry King. Dr King, actually. (I've enclosed a photo of him taken at our last Christmas party.) Harry is thirty-one and lectures at the same university Nalini wishes to attend. To be honest, I must tell you we are a little worried about him lately. He's become quite reclusive since that wretched wife of his left him. Is that a problem by the way? They're divorced now and there are no children to complicate matters…
Bishop Patten's skin crawled. Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea after all. And Nalini had just told him she liked the fellow's photo.
'But it's only a photo and you'll be going so far. Let's find out more about this chap first.'
'No, Daddy-ji. I told you, I like him. Ask Nita to do her stuff.' Nalini arched her toes, looking at them thoughtfully. Outside the window the coconut palms shivered as if in sympathy.
Well I'm afraid you won't like my news. I went over to Harry's place – he's holed up there now he's on sabbatical, writing some book or other – and the upshot is he's agreed, but with one proviso. He's prepared to marry Nalini but in name only. He said he quite understood a bright young student in a developing country might want to further her studies and if the antiquated notions of her father – you must remember Harry is Australian so please don't take offence – if that meant she wasn't allowed unless as a married woman, it was no skin off his nose etc. etc. I believe he thought he was striking a blow for something. So of course I said that wasn't…
Bishop Patten threw down the letter. Insolent pup! How dare he insult Nalini with such a proposal. A marriage in name only indeed!
But when he told Nellie at dinner that night she laughed. 'Don't worry, Daddy.'
Bishop Patten spluttered. 'Don't worry? I'm surprised you aren't insulted.'
'On the contrary, I think it's gone very well. Just as I like in fact.'
'Good heavens, how has it gone well and not badly? The proposal that man has made is dishonourable.'
Nalini jumped up from her chair. Her red sari shimmered like a flame. She stamped her slender foot on the polished tiles; her dark eyes flashed, her lips pouted.
'Honour schmonner! Honestly, Daddy, if you understood men you'd know he's not called King for nothing.' She pulled the photo from her tight choliand waved it at him. 'Can't you see? He's a king among men.'
Bishop Patten stared at the limp, breast-warmed photo, then at Nalini who was laughing. 'Don't think twice about it,' she told him. 'I'm going to Brisbane and when I get there we'll see how long Dr King wants a marriage in name only.'
AT DAWN THE first rays of the sun struck rainbow-coloured light from the bevelled edge of the mirror. Harry opened one eye to scowl at it. He groaned, groped for his jogging pants beside the bed, shrugged them on and stumbled out to the kitchen.
Through the french doors came assorted warblings and twitterings. A vista of smoke-blue hills framed in leafy light pressed up at every window but Harry didn't glance at it. He'd seen the view often enough in the five years he and Jennifer had lived in this converted farmhouse on the outskirts of Brisbane. Not that he noticed anything much these days; he was too busy working on his manuscript. Today was 1 September, most of his sabbatical gone and the bloody thing was still dragging. He carried his coffee to the veranda and sat staring blankly at the trees. Slivers of light pushed above the eastern hills and the whole valley trembled in welcome with the tiny movements of millions of back-lit leaves. The only thing not moving was Harry.
A car was coming up the driveway – a red Astra. Who on earth? At this hour?
He watched the car crawl towards him. It stopped and a young woman wearing a sari got out. Christ! Not that Indian student. He'd made it clear he wasn't to be bothered by her. It was strictly a Clayton's marriage so she could study in Australia. He was already having misgivings about his grand gesture and now for God's sake, it looked like she had come out here to bother him. Well, he'd soon get rid of her. He got up and walked to the edge of the steps.
The girl wore a deep blue sari with a shiny gold hem. A tinkling sound came from the bangles on her arms as she walked up the path. She looked up and smiled. 'I was hoping it wasn't too early but I see you're up already.'
She came up the steps and put out her hand. 'Hello. I'm Usha, pronounced as in bush.' Her red lips curved in a smile. 'Usha Saraswati.'
'Saraswati?' Harry was relieved. 'Uh…you're not related to Professor Saraswati by any chance are you?'
Usha nodded. 'His daughter actually. I have him to thank for my divine name.'
'It is? Er, won't you sit down?' He gestured at the table. Best not invite her in the house.
'Yes, all Daddy's fault,' she said, sinking into a chair. 'Usha is the dawn goddess and Papa saw fit to name me after her.' She laughed. 'And here I am, visiting you at dawn.'
Harry nodded, a little dazed by her smiles.
'I'm a friend of Nalini Patten's,' she went on. 'My father and hers are old friends so of course we offered to put her up.'
'Right.' Harry realised he was staring at her. She was extraordinarily pretty, but then Indian girls often were. 'Sorry. Would you like a drink? Tea, coffee?'
'I'd love a coffee. I've just come off night shift and I'm exhausted.'
She looked cool and self-possessed and not exhausted at all. 'I'm a nurse at the retirement village down the road so it was easier to drop by on my way home. Coffee would be great.'
When he came back from the kitchen Usha was staring at a magpie on the railing. He passed her the mug and sat down. 'So you've come about your friend?'
'Yes. Nalini wanted me to bring you this.' Usha opened her carry-bag and brought out a spray of jasmine which she put on the table. The starry white flowers with their delicate pink throats lay there looking absurdly feminine and frivolous. An almost indecently languorous scent floated to Harry's nostrils. He drew back as if offended.
'It's traditional where she comes from. The bride must send gifts to her betrothed for five days before the wedding.'
'There's no need,' Harry frowned. 'The marriage is just a formality.'
'Nalini wants to do it for her mother's sake. Vijaya, that's her mother, would have been upset if she omitted the custom. We talked it over and Nalini decided, since it's not a proper marriage, she needn't send anything of value.'
'I'd rather she didn't just the same. Isn't her mother dead anyway? So, um, Miss Patten doesn't have to worry.'
'That's not the point. Just because her mother is…' Usha played with her fingers. 'It might be polite to show some sensitivity regarding her feelings, don't you think?'
Harry assumed a solemn face. He had been politically incorrect. 'Of course, if it's customary where she comes from.'
She stood up and stretched out a hand. The gold border of her sari falling across her arm caught fire in the slanting light, momentarily dazzling him. 'So, shall we say each morning around this time? It suits me and if you're not up I'll leave the flowers here. On this table.'
Harry watched Usha's bum as she went down the path, watched her get in the Astra, watched it disappear down the driveway. He picked up the jasmine, tossed it over the railing and went inside. A pushy young thing, he decided as he poured out muesli. After breakfast he rang Nita to complain about the intrusion on his privacy.
'Does Professor Saraswati have a daughter?' Nita said vaguely. 'I thought it was just the two boys. Well, that's nice. It'll be good for Nalini to have a girlfriend to help her adjust. Not that she needs much help there, I must say. She drove herself over here the other day in –'
'But Nita,' interrupted Harry, 'it's a bit much if I'm to be constantly visited by her friend. I didn't expect this when I offered to help out and I can tell you I don't appreciate it.'
'Well it won't be for long, only four more days. You can cope with that surely? Now don't forget, it's 10 o'clock at the Customs House. I think I told you that.'
'Of course I won't forget.' Harry hated the way Nita talked to him as if he was still a child.
'And perhaps if you wore a suit. I know it's none of my business but it would look better wouldn't it? We don't want Nalini thinking Australians are uncouth.'
'Mmm…sure…well I'd better keep going, Nita. Busy day.' Harry hung up in no better mood than when he began.
NEXT MORNING, GLOOMILY spooning up muesli, he heard a car. That woman again? He wiped his mouth and went out to investigate. Yes, the Astra. Two rosella parrots swooped over it and landed in the grevillea bush beside the steps, making soft clucking sounds as they inched towards the flowers. The sun was just rising, throwing a band of pale light across the valley. Somewhere in the distance magpies carolled.
Usha came quickly up the path. Her sari, a gauzy peach colour today, was half hidden by yellow wattle.
'I had to pick so many,' she said, glancing down when she saw Harry looking. 'The trees are so bursting it seemed mean not to be generous.'
She put the flowers on the table where they lay in a circle of pollen dust. He noticed a smudge of it on her cheek which for some reason was charming, though not charming enough. He knew he would have to offer her coffee and get involved in meaningless chit-chat.
'Cup of coffee?' he said, making off through the french doors without waiting for a reply. It was hardly a question. She followed him to the door.
'Please don't trouble. I know you're busy.' She looked around the room.
'Come in. It's no trouble. I was going to have another one anyway.'
He might just as well he thought, turning on the tap. He watched Usha drift round the room, her sari shimmering whenever she paused in one of the bars of light that streamed through the windows. She picked up a book from the coffee table and made a space for herself among the ones on the couch. She was reading when he brought over the mugs.
'Thanks.' She held up the book. 'This looks interesting. Is it part of what you're studying?'
Harry sat down opposite. 'It throws a little light on what I'm writing about.'
'Post-modernist theory you could call it, insofar as that term has any meaning.' He paused. What was he doing, gabbing about post-modernism to some nurse who'd just come off night duty?
Politely he stifled a yawn. As often happened nowadays he had slept badly. He noticed the kilim-covered cushions Usha was leaning against, cushions which Jennifer had bought. He remembered how she had spread them out to admire and he'd pushed her down on them and made love to her. His eyes travelled upwards encountering Usha's, and he realised he'd been staring at her hips outlined against the cushions.
She looked at him thoughtfully, then at the book. 'Intellectual Impostures,' she said, reading out the title. 'Ideas pretending to be what they're not I suppose. Is that it, Dr King?'
'More or less.' He shifted in his seat. 'It's written by two mathematicians, complaining about the way some academics borrow terms from science and apply them to their own areas of study.'
'You mean like Kristeva's use of maths to describe poetry? What do they say about that?'
Harry did a double-take. 'You're into Kristeva?' he said, recovering.
'Only because Nalini always talks about her,' Usha wrinkled her nose. 'Kristeva's difficult, don't you find?'
In no time at all Harry found himself launched on a sea of Derrida-speak while his coffee grew cold and scummy on the table. Usha had an excellent understanding of the functional limits of metaphor and he had just reached an interesting point when she stood up and announced she must go. She gestured at the windows, now filled with sunlight. 'My namesake has departed,' she said, smiling, 'so this Usha must depart too.'
Brushing aside Harry's protests, she prepared to leave. He watched the little ritual of sari-patting and hair-smoothing and when it was over, walked her out to the car.
SPRING IN BRISBANE is not a particularly noticeable event. The weather grows warmer, certain flowers appear, but it is not the spring you read about in the northern hemisphere – the beginning of new life after a hard, cold winter. When he woke up next morning Harry decided dispensing with the blanket was overdue. He went into the kitchen where he smelled the verbena outside the window and decided to clean his teeth. While he was cleaning his teeth he decided to find a clean shirt, but the reason for these decisions did not impinge on his consciousness.
Sitting on the veranda in a clean shirt with clean teeth, he looked out at the wooded hills. A bird was calling, distinct from all the rest, four notes rising except for the last which fell away in a dying cadence like the embodiment of longing. Over and over the bell-like tones sounded, remote and distilled by distance. He had the sensation of being caught and held in the moment, pinned by the notes of the invisible bird. For the first time in a long while he noticed the light on the leaves. Overhead, small fluffy clouds tinged with gold floated in a sky of baby-blue. Canaletto clouds, he thought idly. Downstairs in the computer room work was waiting but Harry gave no thought to it as he usually did at this hour. The clinking of frogs came up from the creek and he wondered if they really were frogs or if they were toads. In his present mood he preferred to think they were frogs. It went with the morning which was hopeful, calmly expectant, waiting for the sun to rise.
The clouds were now palely, ecstatically gold and he stared at them in surprise, even a little wonder. Time to make a move, he decided. The Astra appeared at the gateway and began crawling up the driveway like an industrious red beetle.
THAT NIGHT HARRY dreamed he was running. In his dream he came to the base of a hill that rose in a perfect hemisphere, a child's drawing of a hill, a hill like a breast. He began to run up its grassy flank and found he was flying, or not quite flying but floating up the hill and the sensation of joy this gave was very sweet. He saw that Usha was floating beside him, the two of them moving together towards the crest of the hill. They were almost there when he began to lose speed; he was not going to make it and his disappointment was intense. Usha looked back and held out her hand. He grasped it and together they floated to the top of the hill.
Harry woke with a feeling of euphoria and immediately realised he was in love with Usha Saraswati. And just as quickly remembered that in two days time he was to marry Nalini Patten.
But even this thought couldn't dispel the delicious feeling the dream had left behind. He would not think, he could not think, until he'd made himself a coffee.
Ten minutes later, sitting on the veranda, he still couldn't think. There was nothing to think, and even if there were, he couldn't think anyway because the whole crazy fact of Usha pushed all other thoughts aside. He lusted for her, that much was certain. He was also about to marry another woman and there wasn't a dead dog's chance of getting out of it. Harry knew himself trapped; he had made a promise and must keep it.
He listened for Usha's car. A number of cars went by but none were hers. At eight o'clock he cursed the world and all its misbegotten inhabitants and went downstairs to the computer-room where he spent a miserable, unproductive morning.
At midday he was upstairs again, slumped on the couch in the living-room, apathetically picking at a cheese sandwich when Mrs Ford came bustling into the room.
'Shift your feet, Dr King,' she ordered. 'I gotta get this room done before I start downstairs.'
A tiny dumpy woman with a high, unhealthy colour, she began sweeping under Harry's raised feet and engaging him in conversation. 'How's the book coming along? Nearly finished I s'pose.'
She liked Dr King and had noticed his glooms ever since that wife of his upped and left him. Each cleaning day Mrs Ford had noticed the pile-up of empty bottles in the kitchen and wished something would come into Dr King's life to cheer him.
'Still working on it, Mrs Ford,' muttered Harry.
'Complicated plot I suppose.'
'Not really.' Yes, really. He knew the evasion was patronising but the thought of discussing post-modernism with Mrs Ford was too awful to contemplate.
'What's this then?'
Mrs Ford's broom had hooked an earring from under the couch. She picked it up and eyed it severely as if demanding an explanation from it. Perhaps Dr King had a friend, which would be all to the good in her opinion. The secrets of his bedroom were known to her and she knew no woman except herself had been there since Jennifer. She handed him the loop of gold.
'Someone will be missing that, you can bet your bottom dollar.' She watched him attentively, noticing the way he stared at it, noting also that he pocketed it with a furtive air. She was instantly alerted. 'Whose could that be I wonder? That's an expensive piece of jewellery that is. The owner will be looking everywhere.'
Long experience told Harry that she wouldn't give up. 'It belongs to a friend of mine.'
'Well that's good,' Mrs Ford said, beginning to sweep again. 'Nice to know you're having friends over.' She eyed him shrewdly.
'Not a friend exactly. Just a – a messenger.'
'No. Well, yes, sort of.'
'That would be papers from the university then?'
Harry wasn't about to explain the details of his private life to Mrs Ford. He knew if she had any inkling he was about to marry a woman he'd never met, she would be appalled. He felt the same way. 'We, er, we just talk.'
'Talking's good.' Mrs Ford continued sweeping. 'It never hurts to talk. Get a few things aired, get them off your chest.'
'I suppose so,' said Harry, adding, 'she brings me flowers.'
Mrs Ford was confused. 'I didn't know you'd took up gardening,' she ventured at last.
Suddenly Harry found he was unburdening himself. 'I haven't, but the thing is, I don't know what to do about it.'
Mrs Ford was so astonished she stopped sweeping. 'You don't know what to do? I'd of thought you'd know most things.' She spoke truthfully. She was deeply suspicious of this mystery woman who was coming to Dr King's house and upsetting him.
'And do you give her anything in return?'
Harry felt a rush of gratitude. Of course! It was all one way.
THE DAWN CHORUS was getting underway, the sun nudging hills dreaming under a veil of blue; luminous ribbons of light fell along the grassy lower slopes. It was the morning before the day Harry was to marry Nalini Patten. In the kitchen he put freshly-ground coffee in the percolator. A jug of red roses stood on the bench. The familiar sound of the Astra reached his ears and he grabbed the flowers and hurried out to the veranda.
'Come in, come in. You're just in time for coffee.' She was wearing apple-green today, very fetching. He held out the roses but she made no move to take them.
'For you, Usha.'
'You mean for Nalini.'
'No, for you.' Harry smiled extravagantly. 'I'll put them in water shall I? Where would you like to sit? Oh, is that a water-lily?' He saw she was putting down a flower.
'It's a lotus. From Nalini.' Her clipped tones told her annoyance. The lotus lay as though floating, its petals seeming to give off light.
'Uh, thanks. I mean, please thank Miss Patten for me.' He pulled out a chair for her. 'I'll get the coffee.'
When the coffee was on the table he drew up his chair. 'I was thinking, if you're not busy today, if you like, maybe –'
'If you're asking me out the answer is no. Aren't you forgetting you're getting married tomorrow?'
'I don't go out with married men, not even ones who won't sleep with their wives.'
Harry protested. 'But surely Miss Patten told you it's an arrangement. It means nothing.'
'I'm sorry. That's how it is.'
He slumped in his chair and as though in triumph at his defeat, a magpie carolled joyfully.
'So lovely,' breathed Usha, leaning forward to peer at the fig-tree outside the veranda. 'Madge-pies have beautiful songs.'
Suspicion slithered into Harry's brain. He tried to calculate. To his knowledge Professor Saraswati had been teaching history for decades which meant Usha was brought up in Australia. So what was this madge-pie business?
'And how do you think they compare with the bakerbirds?'
'The bakerbirds?' She hesitated.
'Yes.' He gestured at the fig-tree where butcherbirds were enjoying a game of chase. 'Their song is beautiful too.'
'Oh, the bakerbirds. Yes, they're lovely.'
'Liar!' Harry leapt to his feet. 'What the hell's going on? Who are you anyway?' His heart was jumping.
'Who am I?' She too had risen. Her eyes were dilated. They looked enormous. 'Can't you guess?'
'What?' He took a step towards her, glowering. 'I don't –' He breathed heavily. 'Oh God!' He let out a shuddering sigh. 'You!You're her! I mean she's you.I'm marrying you!'
She smiled faintly. 'Does that please you?'
'I'm marrying you,' he repeated slowly. Tentatively he put his arms around her, breathing her scent. He started kissing her, her ear, her lips, but she was pulling away.
'No Harry, wait. Just let me – wait I said! I have to make a phone call.'
She had her mobile out and was busy keying numbers.
'A phone call?' Harry was shell-shocked. 'Then you'd better – you'll have to go outside. The reception isn't too good here.'
Dazed, he followed her down the steps.
'Hello Daddy. Did I get you up? No, everything's fine. Yes, tomorrow. No, it'll be just as you wish, a proper marriage. Yes, of course there'll be a party afterwards. Mrs Saraswati has seen to that. Would you like to speak to Harry? He's here beside me.'
She handed Harry the phone. Above them in the fig-tree, the magpie burst into song.