The aridity of the winter first crept through the lonesome frangipani tree in the garden. The stubby branches grew wrinkled and arthritic. In the evenings, the tree’s shadow slept on the street outside the garden walls, like a tired, harmless hydra. In spring, the tree bore fragrant white flowers and Mrs Siegebert, the rather petite wife of the German expat Mr Siegebert, who had rented the property for more than six years, would sit under the large canvas parasol by the tree and read Chekhov.
Mrs Siegebert, soon to turn 30, had a formidable affair with solitude. “Goma, careful there,” she would say to her maidservant when the latter made the slightest noise with the kitchen utensils. Soft spoken herself, she was disturbed when the unwashed crockery clinked too loudly or Goma burst out laughing in her regular hour-long chats with her boyfriend on the phone. Sometimes, she would also give Goma a vexed look when fenugreek seeds made those hissing, exploding sounds in hot mustard oil—an essential ingredient in Mrs Siegebert’s favourite dressing for the cucumber and sesame salsa her husband loved. Initially, Goma had allowed Mrs Siegebert to make her feel guilty about these everyday sounds. She would switch on the exhaust fan while doing the dishes and carry out her entire conversations with her boyfriend in monosyllables of Yeah and No. But when Goma noticed how she put up calmly with the way Mr Siegebert threw newspapers with unnecessary wrath on the kitchen table, the way he hurled spoons across the table at dinnertime, or even the way he broke into a chain of snorts in between his giggles, Goma felt less apologetic. Goma even suspected Mr Siegebert snored in his sleep.
Mrs Siegebert was of a medium build and inspired an absurd picture against her six-foot-eight-inch-tall husband. She walked with an air of melancholy. Her languid amber eyes added a complimentary hue to her flaxen hair, styled in a sleek bob. Her youthful, supple skin concealed her real age, yet the fine lines of crow’s feet that had begun to bear permanent trace around her eyes had been worrying Mrs Siegebert lately. Every morning, she took a long deep breath, held it in her stomach and moved her pupils in 360-degree rotations in both directions. “Facercise,” she had explained to Goma, when she found the latter staring incredulously, carrying a tray full of the Thin Arrowroot biscuits that her husband took with his morning tea. Mrs Siegebert also read a great deal. Her idle afternoons were immersed in the array of books that she picked up from the bookstore by the Provident Fund complex in Thamel whenever she went downtown. She had a special liking for 19th century Russian writers and the elaborate obituaries in The Economist.
Mr Siegebert, on the contrary, was a gregarious person and loved throwing lavish parties. His chubby face was always sodden with drink and hazy mist welled up in his eyes whenever he listened too intently, which he often did. He worked for a reputed diplomatic mission and travelled extensively. He was considered an influential man and his dinner parties had grown famous as mélanges of artists, writers, entrepreneurs, expats and corporate tycoons; all bound by a mutual greed for prosperity and recognition. As one would suspect, these parties often dwelt on the severe topics of flaccid political leaders, lack of originality in art, plagiarism, the horrid façade of the ever-expansive
Chinese market, breach of privacy in social media, the unfair diplomatic policies of First World nations, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, the conversations would also take light and mirthful turns, and young, witty women, who wore expensive silk scarves and cat eyeliner, would speak of a certain young Italian pianist who had stunned contemporary audiences with his rare ingenuity.
During these dinners, where Mr Siegebert assumed the central role in conversations, Mrs Siegebert often resigned herself to chores such as checking the quantity of olives in the salad or checking if the crust on the apple pie, which was to be served as dessert, had acquired the appropriate hardness. People sometimes wondered silently about the dichotomy of their natures; Mr Siegebert himself was never bothered by it, though. Some of his friends thought of Mrs Siegebert as an earnest, reclusive charmer. Her striking beauty and erudite yet withdrawn demeanour made her highly attractive. Whenever someone succeeded in obtaining a faint response from her during a conversation, they were flattered by their ability to do so and prized the moment. When she spoke, she did so with a warm and genuine empathy.
Mr Siegebert was travelling abroad on official work. Whenever he was travelling, Mr Siegebert loved to work his way through a busy schedule, yet found time to speak to Mrs Siegebert on the telephone. After perfunctory greetings, however, both would be tongue-tied and Mr Siegebert would mechanically narrate his daily activities, to which Mrs Siegebert would listen with relief. It was only during these conversations that Mr Siegebert would realise how rarely he spoke to his wife when they were together.
Mrs Siegebert had just finished one of those awkward conversations, when the doorbell broke into impatient bleeps. The sounds overlapped each other, like they were stacks of folded clothes in a laundry house. Goma let the bell ring for quite some time. In her own way, Goma knew to exact revenge for the impertinence of others. Mrs Siegebert, though irritated by the sound, had been thankful to it for the distraction it offered. Even before he’d entered, the unexpected stranger had already made a positive impact on both ladies in the house.
When Goma told her that a certain person named Amar wanted to see her husband, Mrs Siegebert fancied the name had its roots in the word ‘amour’ and smiled to herself. In person, Amar was wearing a starched khadi kurta and linen pants. There was something essentially lyrical about him. He was the kind of man you would expect to listen to Nitin Swahney and the Velvet Underground, and to read Amit Chaudhury. He had a slim body, the clear white eyes of a mountain man and he carried himself with a sense of fragility. Sparse stubble covered his face. He was probably in his mid-twenties.
“I was looking for Mr Siegebert,” he told her. Although he barely knew her, he somehow understood her reclusiveness and was grateful when she explained to him that Mr Siegebert was abroad.
“When shall I come, then?” he asked Mrs Siegebert. Despite his effort to sound casual, he surprised himself by the blithe adulation her presence inspired in him. He thought he could see a layer of indifference in her eyes, the same layer he had acquired himself through years of loneliness in the orphanage where he’d grown up. Like himself, he saw that she too needed to be rescued—what from, he didn’t know. He saw exactly how loneliness had etched its firm roots in her beautiful, young body.
Mr Siegebert had chanced upon his paintings in a jazz bar in Lazimpat and had asked the owner of the bar to have the artist visit his house in Jhamsikhel. Amar, who was living on meagre support from his orphanage, had grown weary of his constant financial dependence on others. His paintings had turned out to be a bad investment, as he could not sell enough to pay off the debt for the seven eight-foot-tall canvases and the rickety easel he had bought three months ago. So when the bar guy called him and said an influential German expat had loved his work and wanted to see him, Amar couldn’t allow himself to be as happy as he wanted to be. He feared the whole thing would turn out to be a joke. But he found the bar owner was in something of a minor frenzy, and Amar knew this would be the first painting the jazz bar would sell. As the owner kept stressing on the 10 percent commission Amar was supposed to pay to the bar, Amar felt saddened, even though he had signed the contract agreeing to the exact terms. He had perhaps thought it didn’t matter how much commission they agreed on, as he was certain they weren’t going to be selling any of the paintings.
Maybe it was just coincidence that the large acrylic painting of a mermaid with navy blue fins that hung in the Siegeberts’ drawing room bore resemblance to Mrs Siegebert, Amar thought. There were several other paintings in the room and an art calendar from 1974. A tapering parade of Russian nesting dolls stood still on the windowsill. By the windows were five sets of ethnic Tharu jewellery, framed in glass and stainless steel. The smell of fried rosemary travelled freely from the kitchen, reminding him of the dinner party at his orphanage three years ago, held in honour of their Danish donors. The Siegebert place certainly didn’t look like somewhere one would need to be rescued from. But there was an unmistakable sadness in Mrs Siegebert’s eyes. It was there, as present and as intimate as the waft of fried rosemary from the kitchen. He hesitantly stole a glance at her. She had a book in her right hand, her index and middle fingers clipping it in half, probably the page she was reading. He looked at her again. She didn’t belong to that richness. It appeared to him that the only thing she owned in that room was the book in her hand.
There was something about this woman. Amar felt a yearning bubble up inside him. He wasn’t the kind to be affected by whims but this sudden passion took over his being. He wanted to kiss each mote of dust that drizzled through the stream of sunrays from the window and touched her beautiful body. He wanted to swim in turquoise lagoons with her, fondle her round, luscious breasts, cry on her lap, clasp her palms to his chest, kiss her toes, drink happiness from the aureole of her hair. He wanted to run. He wanted to jump off a cliff. She reminded him of Neruda, magnolia trees, tiramisu, mahogany bookshelves and a lotus pond, all at once. He wanted to bathe her with joy, give her everything she could possibly want for.
Thoughts drummed through his head in a passionate stream. He felt feverish. He wanted to drink a glass of really cold water.
She too felt the sudden tremors that escaped his heart. As he stood there, a gentle flush rising in his cheeks, she almost suspected he fell in love with her but, not having nursed any romantic feelings for longer than she cared to remember, she dismissed the idea hurriedly.
She asked him to come over in a week’s time. He regarded her with his clear mountain-man eyes for a while until a strange melancholia soaked them both. Without a word, then, he left the house.
She’d forgotten to ask what he’d wanted to meet Mr Siegebert for.
She imagined he left a faint whisk of fragrance. She closed the door so it could linger in the room. Long after he was gone, she inhaled deeply and sighed with pleasure.
Throughout the evening, an imperceptible guilt weighed her down. “I am not in love with him,” she kept repeating to herself. She didn’t find solace in regular chores or her books. As dusk spread the blanket of the cold winter night, she sat by the fireplace and wanted to cry. She was choked by an overwhelming sense of loneliness and meaninglessness. She remembered the woman friends of her husband who partook in the dinner talks with flirtatious pouts and said, “Ah! Thank you” with charming
exasperation. She remembered how her husband would sometimes greedily gaze at their breasts when he thought no one noticed. It was then that she would retire to the kitchen on the pretext of checking the salad dressing.
She felt an unfamiliar anger rise up inside her. Her heart beat violently. How could she let him do that to her all the time! She remembered how her husband sometimes pulled her towards him in his drunken stupor and tried to kiss her. But mostly, she hated him for his ability to conceal this all in his expensive suits and intellectual talks. It hurt her to see how people thought of him as an important and learned person.
She felt trapped.
But he was an important man, someone people looked up to. Perhaps even Amar thought the same. This idea depressed her even more. Was this the life she’d wanted for herself? What kept her from disowning it? She then realised she hadn’t made an independent decision since she’d married Mr Siegebert 12 years ago. He used to be much slimmer, she recalled. During their first conversation at a Christmas party, he had charmed her with stories of desert musicians and exotic rhododendron forests that set the upper Himalayan trails on crimson fire. He’d then complimented her on her golden pendant and said he would love to see the paintings of Klimt with her. At the time, she was already bored with the redundancy of German towns and saw infinite promises in the paintings of Klimt and blossoming rhododendron forests. It never occurred to her that she hadn’t married Mr Siegebert for love although she had always been of a romantic temperament.
The weight of all the decisions she hadn’t made had slowly seeped into her bones like molten lead. As she lay awake in bed at night, the sadness would sometimes stiffen her back and numb pain would sting all her joints. Mr Siegebert had suggested she get a check up for arthritis. He judged all human emotions with an indifferent scientific perception and bore no trace of guilt for staring lecherously at the swollen breasts of his colleagues. Not that he admitted it to his conscience.
But every time he suggested that check up, she was flooded with the painful memory of the miscarriage she went through five years ago. Hospitals reminded her of abdominal pain, the musky smell of sweat and ammonia, and the blood clots the size of golf balls that slithered down her thighs like a palpable nightmare. Even though they examined her and testified to her
recovery, she’d never recuperated from the sense of emptiness in her uterus. It had stayed with her like a white hole, draining her optimism every day.
It was all too much. Pain, anger, shame and guilt gushed through her blood in a vile stream. She had done this to herself. Her heart trembled violently and despite herself, she broke into a sob. There was nothing she wanted more than to be with Amar. It wasn’t even a romantic feeling. She didn’t want to start an affair. It was nothing of the sort. She just wanted him to talk to her about the weather, or maybe even flaccid political leaders, or perhaps about that lonely, bare frangipani tree in the garden.
She thought bitterly how next spring, the tree would be laden with fragrant flowers again, while she might still sit by it under the canvas parasol reading Chekhov.
“I will have it chopped down tomorrow,” she told herself. This decisiveness suddenly made her feel lighter and she almost imagined that her loneliness had been avenged. Unaware of the entire polemic, the frangipani tree stood through the night like an ailing monk waiting for the final atonement, while the winter chill kept stinging its arthritic limbs.