Five flights up from the business of the yard, from the children's games of cricket, the car washers, the mattress plumpers, from the ice, the chicken, the firework sellers, from the watchman's radio and the sweeping of the houseboy, I find a quiet comfort in these few rooms. A study, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen. The walls are white, the floor tiles blue-grey. Sometimes, as I walk from room to room, not wanting to be in one room more or less than another but simply to be in motion, my feet moving through sunlight, fans turning overhead, the wordserenely comes to mind. My world has shrunk to this manageable size, to these whitewashed walls and cool stone floors, this bounded view of the courtyard below and the street beyond. The thin curtains move in and out of the open windows. Pigeons choke on the window ledge.
Each room is run through with unwanted noise, skewered on voices that rise from the yard. The outside world is forever trying to force itself on this sweet space. I fortify myself against my excursions into that strange land by suspending myself in these chambers of light. Their understated sufficiency reassures me with the simplicity of a doll's house that with very few gestures — a bed, a desk, an icebox and gas ring — demonstrates the function and limits of each room. From my window, the world is illegible and, when I must move through it, threatens at every moment to coagulate about me. Meanwhile there is always the benediction of bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, study. I pass through these rooms serenelylike a bead on an abacus.
Across the road at the end of the lane, the last fruit and vegetables of the day are still displayed for sale, lemons and limes, bananas, pineapples, a handcart of grapes. That time has passed when everything here was only a reminder of something more real somewhere else, when a word here completed a sentence begun in that other country, when two, five, twelve times a day, the faces of strangers briefly converged with those other faces which I had abandoned, which had abandoned me. Yet still these small reluctant fruit, which from my apartment window are barely smears of page 20 colour, remind me inevitably of another garden and the possibility, daily diminishing, of an altogether more promising harvest.
My days revolve about this desk, a felt topped card table with the green fur worn down to the wood at one corner. I have my routine here, my timetable. Every day I work through five hundred words. Every day I post the previous day's work. I imagine those cool blue envelopes making my journey in reverse, travelling along Marine Drive, past Haji Ali's tomb to the Santa Cruz airport, a touchdown in Singapore, then to New Zealand, to Wellington, the curves of the bays, Oriental Parade, Courtenay Place, Taranaki, Vivian, Victoria and Aro Streets, the slow climb of Raroa Road and finally the dark slot of that letterbox whose photograph I have before me as I write, Navaz on this side, me on that, on the morning of our departure, staring down the barrel of a time release Nikon, knowing already, from Lillian's example, that the function of the camera is not to record but to frame.
My real life is conducting itself elsewhere. It continues without me, marked by my absence, like those painted showground tableaux of faceless musclemen and women in bikinis whose circular holes, through which you might insert your own face, are a necessary and untroublesome breach in the scenario's surface. Meanwhile, my daily existence is driven by the twin pistons of memory and desire. Even now, when a hundred times a day I fantasise a letter from Navaz, a phone call, her return, our wordless reconciliation, when her absence here is cold ash in my mouth, I still wake unprotected, the night watchman clearing his throat and spitting, the pigeons gurgling on the sill, and look across the pillow to that blank space, that white sheet, where Navaz once was and is no longer. I know how she would be lying there, what shape she would make under the sheet, what warm smell would rise from her as she slept, pillows pushed aside, face directly on the mattress. She haunts me, marks me, as once long ago, shortly after I arrived in the city — a time I think of now as simplybefore — the furniture I removed from my aunt's house continued to dent the carpet with its absent weight.
By its very nature, memory, like desire, is incomplete.
One morning, in that other country, half expecting another postcard from my aunt, I cleared the letterbox to find instead a surprisingly formal note from Lillian and Navaz, my aunt's next door neighbours. The honour would be entirely theirs, it said, if I would attend their 'little party' that page 21 night. They had seen me several times, and had intended to call on me long before, but a peculiar combination of circumstances had prevented it —signed Lillian and Navaz, in one extravagant hand. Whether it was the allure of that monolithic signature or whether the Zen simplicity of my aunt's newly gutted house was beginning to pall, that evening I washed my hair under the outside tap and combed it back off my face, I wore my black jeans, a loose silk shirt of my aunt's tucked into a heavy buckled belt and, a little after seven, I stepped through the hedge separating my aunt's garden from theirs.
A group of people are standing on the front porch, smoking. I can hear their voices, although not what they are saying, their cigarette tips glow and fade. Someone gives a hooting laugh. My former downtown courage deserts me and I press around the side of the house making for the back door. A couple are arguing in the kitchen, I hear them through a window, open above my head. It is a tired script for two voices, worn through in places with repetition.
'You said we could go home whenever I liked.' The man's voice is high and petulant. 'But we've only just arrived. When I said we'd only stay as long as you liked, I didn't mean leaving as soon as we got here.'
'You said we could go home whenever I liked.' His words are drunkenly, precisely, separated from each other.
'Give it half an hour at least.' She takes a conciliatory tone. Underneath the window, I can almost read her parenthetical stage directions.
'I didn't know he'd be here. Why do they invite him and his dirty . . .' The last word is indistinct. I'm not sure whether it is 'tricks' or 'trick.'
'You're shickered, dear.' She is coolly diagnostic. 'You know what you're like when you're shickered.'
I open the door. He is sitting at the kitchen table, head in his arms. He looks up, they both look up as if glad of the distraction, when I come in. She leans against the opposite wall, her cocktail matches the green of her sheath dress. His hair is dark, receding, and he wears, like me, dark trousers and a loose white shirt.
'First time?' she asks.
There is the sound of glass breaking from the front room, more laughter, and then someone is hurrying down the corridor towards the kitchen.
'Helena,' says this woman in a way that suggests at last rather than is it? 'Lillian.' She takes me by the elbow. 'So glad you could make it.' Lillian is page 22 tall and thin and there is something not quite right about her face, a tendency to separate out into its constituent parts, like a composite picture used in police identification.
Lillian steers me out of the kitchen and halfway down the hall where she leans me against the wall like an ironing board. In the open front door, a woman with a ballet teacher's cheekbones and tightly pulled back hair is nodding energetically at a much shorter man. Each abrupt jerk of her head seems to pull another phrase from between his lips. Lillian leans over me confidingly.
'We watch you sometimes in your front room,' she says, confessing that indiscretion so lightly an intimacy is presumed between us. 'Oh you are patient, I have seen you sit hours, where something might have floated up.'
This is how Lillian talks, as if quoting something. Always, this is how I will remember her. Her words have, for me, a familiar, half remembered quality. They hold themselves apart from other speech, from the tedious argument begun again in the kitchen, from the telegraphic utterances of the man in the doorway, the murmur of voices from the front room, as if, having passed through Lillian's lips, they are forever quarantined in quotation marks. Even her clothes are a citation. She is dressed in the classic sportswear look of the 1930s. In a calf length straight skirt, fagoted silk blouse under a soft sweater and a close fitting cloche, she is Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. She has a mouth that troubles you when you first meet her, and troubles you more later.
Lillian takes me by the elbow again, guides me into the front room. Here, sitting on the couch and armchairs, on cushions on the floor, standing backs to the fireplace or, through the open French doors, against the porch railing, eating, laughing and smoking, putting down glasses too heavily on the mantelpiece and floor, are what my mother would describe as 'a crowd'. For my mother, 'a crowd' is a contemptuous term, a qualitative, not a quantitative, description, justified less by the number of persons gathered in one place than their perceived moral slackness, their turpitude. Lillian leads me around the room, not introducing me to anyone but giving brief accounts of them like a guide in a museum. The three men in tweedy jackets are poets, 'dear addicted artists', who write sonnets to each other and declaim them in tequila bars downtown. The woman eating canapés, her flesh the colour of an elastoplast, claims a connection to the Hungarian royal family. The doctor's wife is having an affair with his receptionist. Of the Spanish maid page 23 she says nothing. And the maid, as if she knows there is nothing to be said, moves about, filling a glass, offering a napkin, without saying a word. Her remoteness is a study in superiority, not deference.
Lillian describes her guests with a viciousness that is not unflattering to herself. She leans back against the wall, head close to mine. The amusement which narrows her eyes does not extend to that troublesome mouth. The whole party has been just for this moment, an unspoken complicity which swells my heart against my ribs. Then Lillian is gone, I am alone, and must take a seat in a room full of strangers. At the end of the couch a woman mimes to the song being played on the stereo. Her lips move in perfect time. There goes my heart again, she mouths, There goes my heart again. I judiciously estimate the amount of couch to place between myself and her, not so little that we are mistaken for friends, not so much that anyone—one of the poets, for example—feels obliged, or even able, to talk to me. The cuckolded doctor is fishing for an olive at the bottom of his glass. My chanteuse smiles politely at me between tracks. I don't want to set the world on fire, her lips are moving again, she holds up her hands on either side of her face, fingers flickering in an imitation of flames. I just want to start a flame in your heart, she sways back and forth, one hand tapping out a heartbeat over her left breast.
I am already planning my escape, calculating whether it would be less obtrusive to slip away past those smoking on the verandah or cross the room and leave by the front door, when Lillian appears in the doorway with the maid. They stand there together, talking, every now and then one or other of them looking across the room to where I sit on the couch. The maid picks her way towards me.
'Something to drink?'
I shake my head.
'Something to eat?' She points her chin at the table where the Hungarian princess is still grazing on the canapés but I am a resolute Persephone, determined not to impede my departure from this other world.
'This is an unusual party for me. I've met Lillian but I haven't even seen Navaz. I live over there—'I wave my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, 'and they sent over an invitation.'
For a moment she looks at me as if she fails to understand.
'I'm Navaz,' she says suddenly, correcting my pronunciation.
Then I am hurrying towards the door, Navaz at my side. It is difficult to page 24 say whether I am making a dignified exit or being shown off the property. Lillian is there and laughing at my confusion.
'Come over tomorrow when all these others have gone,' she says as if my presence alone is enjoyed and the rest are some crude horde, swilling and smoking uninvited. 'Around eleven.'
Later that night, hearing voices carrying in the dark, car doors slamming, laughter, I get up and cross the damp lawn to stand in the gap in the hedge. The last few people are leaving, saying goodnight goodnight and thank you on the front steps. The party is over. I am as dark as a tree trunk and can see into the front room, lit up and seemingly bigger now empty. I wait for Lillian and Navaz. They return in a few minutes, Navaz paces the floor as if measuring it for new carpet. I wait for that revelation, my midnight devotion rewarded, some sign, perhaps a kiss I think giddily, some Strauss on the stereo, but Lillian and Navaz come and go casually, as if unwatched, picking up a glass here, straightening a rug there, until Navaz pauses a moment in the doorway, turns off the light and is gone. I wait in the dark until all the lights are out before returning to my own illuminated space, my room, my mat.
I think of myself infrequently these days. There is no mirror here, no ritualised, domesticated exchange of words and glances, to give myself back to myself. I am in suspension, not simply hanging over the yard and its noisy, immeasurable transactions, but in suspense, an alertness to what lies ahead deadening me to my surroundings. Like those bodies on ice in Californian crypts, whose suspended animation is underwritten by science's pledge to discover a cure for the diseases that would have killed them had they not first consented to this temporary and refrigerated departure from the living, I wait, my past a series of imprints on my cerebellum, my future a deferred promise, my present a chill blank. I wait. Until these last months, I did not know myself to be possessed of such a capacity for patience. All my work, my visits to Professor Mody, my collections and dispatches at the post office, my mornings of dilemma over 'a crow' or 'a raven', over 'a disciple' or 'a pupil', are less concerned with doing than deferring. They facilitate my waiting. I have assembled about myself a life that, like scaffolding, is a structural support but temporary.
When I do think of myself it is not as someone who lives in these rooms, looks out on this view, is translating this novel, but as someone who is deficient, cloven, waiting. I compose letters to Navaz in my head in which page 25 I make declarations and give account in an economic yet delicate phrasing designed to appeal to her translator's eye and ear. Awake in the night and desperate for the ambivalent release of morning's light, I work on these letters, seldom getting further than that first troublesome address. Dearest Navaz, I once began a note to Navaz like that. Given her presence in the next room, the words strung across the page with an extravagant formality. Dear Navaz, Navaz, My dear Navaz, I try them all, the rote, the curt, the paternal address. Sometimes I abandon the problem of salutation and begin work on the first sentence. I am still living , but no, I am still staying in your family's apartment. I am never satisfied with the tone. That time has passed when everything here was only a reminder of something more real somewhere else. The first sentence returns me to the unresolved question of the address and so I fall asleep, invoking the name of one who even now, so many miles away, is getting up, smoking her first cigarette, heating the milk for the morning's coffee, without a thought for me, My dear Navaz, Dearest Navaz, Navaz.
I will never write to her unless she writes to me. I will never pick up the telephone and dial that long string, that final familiar clump, of numbers unless she rings me first. She was the one who said, 'I think perhaps I might go home,' those qualifiers indicating less her uncertainty than her belief in the possibility of a gentle cruelty. She intended me to go with her, of course, and I intended nothing less, yet still I punished her for her easy claim of that other place as 'home' by saying that she could do as she liked but I was staying here. She argued with me, her family were going to Matheran for the summer months, I didn't know anyone here, what would I do in the city when it heated up like an oven, I would run out of money soon, I didn't speak the language, any of the languages. I didn't say what I was thinking, take me home, we made a mistake, I also miss Lillian , I only repeated, do as you like but I am staying here. She was the one who kissed me, then, with those Judas lips. She was the one who left.
I was to clear her post box every day and forward the mail to her. She had just begun translating Kaeko's latest novel which he was sending to her in air mail instalments. He had the whole thing worked out in his head, he told her once, now he was writing it down, without revision, from the first to the last word. I opened that first envelope when it arrived intending only to continue the story which Navaz used to read to me in the evening before bed, to trace the proliferating lines of hostility and desire between the teacher, his beautiful second wife, his ambitious disciple. Finding myself page 26 stuck on several important phrases, uncertain of whether the second wife has a small blemish or her hair in a braid, I bought this dictionary from the Strand and forwarded the letter to Navaz only when I was satisfied with my own translation. This was how it began, as all these things begin, almost thoughtlessly and motivated by the simplest and most satiable desire.
It was in later weeks that my intercession in the line of communication between Kaeko and Navaz became more complicated, that my interference exceeded the twenty-four-hour delay necessary for my dictionary-assisted translation of Kaeko's latest chapter. I no longer only steamed open the blue envelope to find out who had left the book, open and underlined, on the master's desk or whether the first wife, a shadowy presence in this narrative despite her titular precedence, was a figure of absolute ignorance or knowledge, oblivious or attuned to the soft tendrils of desire beginning to feel their way across her household. I began to retype Kaeko's text, changing a word here, inserting a phrase there. The pupil, who in Kaeko's version hada face broad as a boat's oargains through my rewriting a mouth that troubles you when you first meet him, and troubles you more later . It is no longer an elaborately detailed sampler, but the loamy promise of a small vegetable garden, that the second wife bends over in the dim evening light, her exertions exposing the back of her neck whose sensuousness she could not yet name or know.
Navaz speaks five languages, can write in eight and read two more. Once when she was talking to me about a book she was reading, she asked, 'Do you have any Russian?' Not can you read Russian, can you follow it, but do you have any? Not having any, and suddenly feeling this as a lack, an impoverishment, I made that open handed gesture you make when approached on the street to indicate that you have come out without money, that you don't have a light. She had started out as a translator for a government department in the city but soon she was getting enough work as a translator of fiction. These were her own words:getting enough work.It was Lillian who showed me the shelves of books that Navaz had translated.Against the Season, an award winning volume of poetry from French Canada; Cage, the prison notebooks of South America's most celebrated political prisoner, 'now available in English for the first time'; The Green Fuse, a sonnet sequence whose translation was praised by The Times Literary Supplement as 'maintaining the easy control, the unlaboured phrasing and breadth of allusion, which marked the Russian original'.page 27
Translation seemed to me a secretive business. I never saw Navaz actually translating anything although she spent hours at her work. She had a study at the front of the house and worked at a long desk which overlooked the garden and, beyond that, the street. Whenever I came in to see her—to catch her at it, was the phrase I used to myself—she would be looking out the window, a pencil tucked over one ear, dragging slowly on one of the cigarettes that were kept burning at her elbow, narrowing her eyes against the smoke. And the books themselves, their titles and authors' names running along the spine, never looked like translations. I would run my hand along their backs, take one down, open it randomly at any chapter, any page, and read the first sentences that claimed my attention. This morning I traded my soap for a piece of paper. I have since prepared a hundred sentences in my head but none are beautiful enough to risk that smooth white perfection. There is no sign that these words belong to someone other than that dissident whose name is displayed so prominently under the title on the front cover, that the author may not even understand the language he claims to have written. There is nothing to suggest that these lines are less real than those unseen and unintelligible ones, choked up with unpronounceable consonant clusters, from which they derive. It is only on the title pages, in the smallest typeface, that Navaz's name appears, translated by Navaz Nicholson, or sometimes, more specifically, translated from the German by Navaz R. Nicholson.
'Do you translate the titles as well?'
A small smile tightened the corners of her mouth so I knew it was the wrong question, one that would be repeated to Lillian after I had gone home for the night.
Lillian shows me a series of photographs she has taken of Navaz. When she offers to show it to me she says, 'Let me show you one of my pieces.' It is not really a series of photographs but one photograph mounted many times in the same frame. It is stacked in the back room along with Lillian's other pieces. In the photograph Navaz is at her desk. You can't see the desk but I recognise the bluffed blocks of colour behind her as the books in her study. She is smoking, of course, a yellow pencil resting over her ear, a thick curl of smoke obscuring one eye. Perhaps Lillian has taken this shot through the glass of the front window for Navaz looks straight ahead, her single eye resting easily on the camera's. The picture is titledPortrait of the Translator. There is a small piece of card taped to the back of the frame with these words typed on it and underneath it states Private Collection. Below each picture page 28 of Navaz is a handwritten caption, an extravagant scrawl of dark ink which I recognise from the invitation in my aunt's letterbox, and now know to be 'artistic'. Navaz as Milan Kundera, says one. Navaz as Nicole Rocquefort. Navaz as Yoshio Kaeko. I am giddy with the realisation that I am standing in a private collection , one of Lillian's pieces in my hands as casually as a breakfast tray, and that I understand completely. It is the first time it has occurred to me that there might be something to understand in a picture, a way of reading that is more than just looking. I can't imagine how I might indicate this to Lillian. I stare dully at the faces of Navaz, feeling as wooden as the frame still held between my hands, Lillian watching the side of my face so intently she might be taking a light reading.
Lillian is always showing me things. It is she who shows me the dust jacket of Navaz's translation of Kaeko's third novel,Skin Behind Bone. Kaeko himself has written the back cover blurb: 'I always knew Navaz Nicholson to be a fine translator but her work on my latest novel far exceeds that of translation. Nicholson does not return my work to me, she rewrites it entirely. Skin Behind Bone is a new novel and I will say an altogether better novel than anything I have ever written. This does not debilitate me, it revitalises me. From now on, the first appearance of my work will be in Nicholson's translation.' I go to see Navaz in her study. Smoke rising, she is looking out the window. I put the copy of Skin Behind Bone on her desk.
'What will happen to the original of Kaeko's next novel?'
'It will come out a couple of years later as a translation.'
'But what is it a translation of?'
'Of the original English text.' The corners of Navaz's mouth are tightening in that small smile. I try another line of questioning.
'What did you think when you first heard of Kaeko's intentions? What did you do when you first read this?'
'Translated it,' says Navaz.
These are the scenes I rerun for myself now, the sound of the fans turning above my head like the clacking of film from a projection box, scenes which doubtless continue, diminished, without me. Then the view from my window, the woman on the porch opposite picking over tonight's rice, the children chasing a water truck from the yard, is more distant than these grainy images from that distant country, these jerky takes of Lillian and Navaz. My memories have the hand held quality of home movies. The camera pans across our faces, Navaz's, Lillian's, mine, swinging too close page 29 and pulling back for focus. Our lips move in silence, our unsynchronised voices trail across the next scene: Do you translate the titles as well? Let me show you one of my pieces. Here I am, in my aunt's white shirt, hesitating in the gap in the hedge; here we are, the three of us, lunching on the afternoon lawn, sprawled carelessly in the sun like an advertisement for sanitary protection; our faces are overexposed, bleached flat, our mouths, unfathomed holes, our movements are spastic, continuity the one thing the camera cannot preserve.
Thinking now of all that is lost to me but to which in my mind I continually return, I remember a dream I had the night before. I am at Raroa Road again, in the kitchen with Lillian. She has a pile of flour on the kitchen table and is breaking eggs, one by one, into a well in its centre. I am walking down the corridor to Navaz's study. For once she is bent over her desk, her pencil working furiously. She has another desk immediately behind her and when she finishes writing at the desk in front of the window, she turns on her revolving chair and begins working on something at the second desk. There is no pencil behind her ear, cigarettes burn on both desks. She looks up as if she has been expecting me. She says that she is trying something new, that she is translating Kaeko's novel into English, then back into German, to English again. It never comes out the same. She makes the gesture of pouring water back and forth between two containers. Each time, the plot lines, the characters' interactions and outcomes, are recognisable yet recognisably different from the time before. Kaeko is pleased with her work. His publishing house are bringing it out next season as a trilogy.
This is all I ever wanted, to be moving between Lillian, breaking eggs in the kitchen, and Navaz, turning and turning in a smoky room. It is as if, too late, I realised that Lillian's photographs were the real thing, not the simulation they pretended. I live more fully in the flickering half light of recollection and dream work than I do in this room, in this country whose fiercely bland light allows no deception. Like some old sports hero who watches himself again and again breasting the tape, I understand that my worth is reckoned in terms of what I was once, of what used to be and, unlike that old man, I fool myself into thinking that that place waits for me still, is not lost to me with the passing of time. I wake in my narrow bed in a strange country, cast up, adrift, exiled. Below my bedroom window I see a small dot of light, glowing red, first on one side than the other, as the watchmen downstairs pass a beedi between them in the dark.page 30
This morning clearing the post box, there is no letter from Kaeko but a postcard addressed to me from my aunt. The stamp, a familiar one from home, gives me almost the same jolt of shock as the photograph. My aunt is lying on the hard tumbling mat I had arranged in what used to be her living room. She is wearing a pale blouse and her skirt is pegged out on either side of her legs like a tent. She looks as though she is lying in state. Her fingers are laced across her chest, candles burn on either side of her head. Her eyes, which not even the weight of two pennies could close, stare through the camera, suspended somehow above her body, to lock with mine. A map of the world, the pink triangle of India visible at her left ear, supports her head like a pillow. The message on the back is the longest she has ever sent.E.R. Morrow, it says, 51 Raroa Road. Welcome Home. I am unsure how to read the last two words. Is this an ironic staging of her own return home to a house I had emptied and then abandoned or is my aunt addressing herself to me, reassuring me that everything is as I left it and awaits my return? My aunt, her goldfish eyes fixed unblinkingly on mine, gives nothing away.
Two things I know at least: my aunt is home again and Navaz has given her this post box number. I imagine my aunt slipping through the hedge to the neighbours' house to see if they know of her niece's whereabouts. I imagine Lillian recognising her from the photographs I showed her, which were the inspiration for her Travels with my Aunt series, and inviting her in. The three of them in sunwashed complicity, over a glass of wine or a cup of tea at the kitchen table, talk about me in my absence, Navaz writing out the address which, translated into my aunt's sloping hand, tilts across the envelope I hold now in my hand. While no letter arrives from Navaz, the handing over of that address, as once, on a barely remembered railway platform, my mother handed over my aunt's address to me, is surely a gesture of farewell. At my desk, I prop the photograph of my aunt against the typewriter. It occurs to me suddenly that there is a touch of theatricality here—the clasped hands, the world map, the liturgical candles—which I do not recognise from my aunt's previous self-portraits. This is Lillian's work, Lillian of the fake scar and inked in tattoo. I imagine the two of them, perhaps Navaz also, collaborating over this piece, my aunt arranged docilely on the mat, Lillian suspended over her, the Nikon to her eye. I reread the message as worded by Navaz. It makes no more sense than my previous readings, no more sense of the places I have left behind, of this one in which I now find myself. Welcome Home.