Title: Sport 14

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, April 1995, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Conditions of use



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Sport 14: Autumn 1995

Virginia Were

page 103

Virginia Were

Roof of the World

Three are five families living in the house where he lives in the highest village in the world and they argue about who should pay the electricity bill. No one does and finally the electricity is turned off. His brother rewires the house and joins it up to the one next door and the lights go on again.

When she met his parents his mother was so shy she had to leave the room. A mixed marriage is problematic–something no one of her generation is able to acknowledge–this blonde daughter-in-law entering the dark house with her son. This blonde daughter-in-law entering the dark house through the heavy, carved wooden doors.

They speak of other things. At times an uneasy silence descends as Nicole’s Nepali deserts her and this topic lies on the table between them. The house grows dim at that hour because of the curfew on electricity. There is also a curfew on water and everyone must take their showers between certain hours. This is one of the driest countries on earth.

She wrote me on the back of a black and white photograph which shows her thinner than I remember. Her eyes are closed and her hands clasped around her knees–pale against the batik print fabric of her dress. She makes drawings in pen and ink of a temple. Two enormous lions crouch at the entrance and in the background are mountains. She feels as if she’s perched on the roof of the world–the steep, tiled roof of a temple. Antlers or maybe the branches of a tree dipped in gold grow from the roof. Her room overlooks the Kathmandu Valley and she can see snow even though the village is below the snow-line.

She travels over the mountains to Leh by bus and there is so little oxygen she finds it difficult to breathe. Her head feels as if it’s going to explode and each time the bus stops she has to walk a long way to find the shelter of a tree or a bush to squat behind. The driver seems not be paying attention. He combs his hair, gazing into the mirror as he drives over the spine of the precipitous mountains into the valley that is Leh.

The bus is filled with convicts on their way to the Leh jail. No one is supposed to drive over the pass at night and the police pull them up and force them to spend the night in a large tent. Raju lies stiff with rage beside her as the men speak in Hindi about the Nepalese man and the white page 104 woman—what he will do to her, what they would like to do to her. She understands nothing of what is said. The next morning she remembers an entire train journey in India spent camped beneath her shawl—eating and sleeping inside its folds to escape the men who had somehow found their way into the women’s compartment.

She sees a woman in the street cup her hands to catch a cow’s yellow stream—drinking it as if it’s holy water—the purest stream poured forth into the street from God’s urn. She takes a photograph of the rough sketch of an elephant beneath a shrine. ‘You see them everywhere—these shrines,’ she says. There are buffalo lying down in the street and their hides have the dull, purple bloom of grapes. Raju’s eyes also have the bloom of grapes, the bloom of the buffalo’s hide only darker, with a slight opacity. His hair is glossy black, the expression on his face beatific like the sadhu in the photograph. He tells her a sadhu is just someone who has grown his hair long and painted his face and body. ‘Like me,’ he says with a wry smile and gestures to his own hair pulled back from his face, falling between his shoulder blades. ‘That is all,’ he says, refusing a cosmic explanation.

‘Death is not a calamity in Nepal,’ she says. ‘When someone dies no one is upset for long—unless it’s someone young. Death is not the calamity we think it here. The bereaved wears white for a year afterwards. Some of my students wore white for their parents. In the extended family an uncle plays the role of a second father.’

She draws cities in Rajasthan. Cities separated by desert. She travels for days on the back of a camel. The cities are painted the colours of the earth and each one is a different colour. Warm pinks, ochres, greys. One of them is a surprising bright blue—the colour of the desert sky. Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. In some of her photographs the rippled sand of the desert resembles water.

Raju makes a small box with drawings on the side. One of the drawings is a famous Tibetan temple, another is a view of the city of Kathmandu, the third is a pair of carved, wooden doors. The box contains a silver brooch depicting the sun and the moon. The sun is a smiling face cradled by the moon. Just below his thumb is a tattoo of a tiny moon, on the other hand is the sun. ‘Don’t you miss Nepal?’ she asks him. ‘But it’s only been a month,’ he says and smiles his dull, grape smile. The form of a Hindu God stands proud from the carnelian on her left finger.

We eat pizzas in Sydney and she shows me a leather-bound diary filled with sketches, each one titled in her small, untidy handwriting: ‘Woman page 105 from a hill tribe,’ ‘Sadhu,’ ‘View from Raju’s Window.’ She has pasted a newspaper article about dowry murders into the diary. ‘The signs to look out for,’ says the article. ‘Many of these murders can be prevented.’ There is a picture of a bride.

She tells me an Indian woman was burned because her family refused to buy her husband’s family a scooter. When the woman’s family turned up to collect their daughter’s ashes—the husband refused to give them a cloth to wrap the ashes in. ‘Wives are not for burning,’ said the slogan in Delhi.


The woman builds a sandwich and thinks of what she will say when the man comes back. She hears the cry of the whip-bird and says, ‘The bush is taking over.’ She notices the lawn, a small uncertain square of green beside the house. The bush is encroaching on all sides, slowly reclaiming its territory. ‘There’s something I want to talk about,’ she says, practising the words before he returns. An old caravan subsides in the grass. This is where the man slept when he first arrived. On either side of the drive car bodies which belong to him are like the shells of previous lives. She can’t bear to throw anything out—a broken-toothed comb she uses to divide the horse’s mane, a cake of Sunlight soap knotted into an old stocking. She tells herself she should never have let him move into the house.

She looks around the lounge searching for the right words and sees two Siamese cats and a litter of kittens in a cardboard box. She needs someone to take care of the animals while she goes to town to see lawyers, financiers and bank managers. During the boom she made enough money to buy five acres on the edge of the Royal National Park. She cleared the land and built the house with the help of the man. Now she can no longer afford to make the mortgage repayments and the bank is threatening to foreclose. She looks at the crocheted rugs flung across the furniture and the ladder which is strung from the ceiling and draped with wet clothes and she remembers during the night she knocked a glass of milk off the bedside table in her sleep. Some days the illness makes her so tired she can’t get out of bed in the page 106 mornings. Her limbs are made of stone and her body is a boulder lying in the bed of a river. On other days her friends come to visit from Sydney. She meets them at the station and they notice the way she stands on the platform with her legs slightly apart as if she has a strong relationship with gravity. On days like this she is happy because she knows she can manage without him.

During the bush fires in ’94 they packed the car several times and prepared to leave. The phones were jammed and they listened to reports on the radio as a wall of flame leaped from the tops of the trees, crossing roads and rivers and eating into the National Park. Conflicting reports told them the fire was now on one side, now on the other; finally the roads were closed and they were surrounded by a ring of fire. They filled the gutters of the house with water and hosed down the roof. She decided they would stay and fight the fire until the last possible moment. Ash fell from the sky and at dusk the sun resembled a raspberry sweet. She tried to imagine what it would be like to lose the house.

She hears the car coming down the steep drive and wonders how she’s going to tell him.

He sits down at the table and she sees the tattoos on his arms and remembers how she used to like them—a woman’s name—not hers—and an eagle. Also a sailing ship heeled over in a stiff breeze, L O V E stamped across his knuckles. She wonders if she can live without him. When she first met him he told her, ‘I’m a flag and barrel man myself,’ and she saw his short, sturdy body crouched over the neck of a galloping horse. He leaned way out to one side—so far she was afraid he would fall. Wove in and out of a row of 40-gallon drums. He wore leather chaps and rowelled spurs, hand tooled boots. The tattoos were sharper than they are now—a deep Prussian blue. The flags snapped on the ends of the long, supple poles.

She gives him a sandwich and he reaches across the table and puts his thick hand on her arm and she begins to tell him how he must move out. ‘I’m tired,’ she says suddenly and the weight of his hand, its blunt, bitten thumb, pins her down. This gesture of love is unbearable. Her mind floats above the trees and she leaves her sentence trailing, unfinished in the wet, still air—the tendril of a creeper become unfixed from its host branch, dangling in space. He can’t hear her above the sound of the rain which has now begun to fall. ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’ She takes her arm out from underneath his hand and brushes a stray piece of hair out of her eyes. ‘Perhaps it’s not the right time,’ she offers and pushes back her chair and carries the lunch things inside.

page 107

She remembers the time they went to the thoroughbred sales at Randwick and he paced up and down the row of boxes peering through the steel bars at the unruly colts. He took her arm and tugged her in the direction of a black colt he liked the look of and she followed unwillingly, not sure whether to humour him or not. She had no intention of buying a colt. ‘I never want to own a stallion again,’ she said and her words were a physical blow which knocked all the wind out of him. He stood in front of the box and became a child. His shoulders collapsed and he began to whine. He felt a little flame of rage toward the woman who had forgotten about the colt and was now deep in conversation with someone she knew.

He pauses, puts his sandwich down on the edge of the plate with great care. He too is overcome by the weight of the moisture-laden trees, the heat and the chorus of cicadas, the cry of the whip-bird like the cracking of a whip. He stares hard at the bush trying to remember the question he was about to ask—some small detail in their lives, something about the truck perhaps—before she went inside. He can’t remember. Instead he touches his face, presses the hollow beneath his Adam’s apple. There is a thickness in his throat as he looks at the woman who he would like to be his wife. She stands at the sink with her back to him wearing a pair of pink rubber gloves and washes up. He rolls down his sleeves to cover the ship on his arm and goes inside to see what needs to be done.