Shortlisted in the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.
Philopotamus, they called her, the boys in the trees, following her slow progress down the main street of Teresa Colony, Orlem. “Phi-lo-Phi-lo-po-tah-mus,” they would shriek, one ragged chorus picking up where the other left off. She, unsmiling, would walk the gauntlet, her shoulders swinging and double chins bobbing, eyes locked straight ahead. If she looked like she had a purpose, she reasoned, they would pipe down and go away. They never did.
When Philomena was little – a sweet child among the motley bunch perennially outside Obrigado Mansion, where she was born and raised – the elderly ladies of the neighbourhood would walk up to her and tug her cheeks. “So cute men, she is,” they would say to each other, before stumbling into shared memories of former friends and relatives who were once as cute, in better times long behind them. Philomena would endure their caresses and accept their adulation without question. She would then wriggle out of their grasp and waddle back to her games with the other children.
One of their favourite pastimes involved cutting a notch into a paper plane, hooking it to a rubber band, then lighting the tip on fire before sending it whizzing into the air. No one was ever hurt by this potentially catastrophic idea except for Zuleikha Furtado, who once had the misfortune of standing beneath a plane that was half on fire. She survived the incident, but her bald spot took years to disappear and the children of Obrigado never let her forget it.
Then there was the game that involved creating a little noose from the vein of a coconut palm leaf. Carefully knotted, it would be lowered into one of the gutters on either side of the street. While some of the children held their nooses in a row, others a few feet away would swirl the muddy waters, prompting the frogs living in the murky water to move. The trick was to get a noose in front of a swimming frog. The minute one moved its head into a dangling loop, the noose would be pulled, yanking the frog cleanly out of the water and leaving it to struggle. It called for patience and an immense amount of concentration. It also explained why cricket bats and footballs were often found abandoned during the monsoons, with their owners all huddled in groups around a gutter.
Every evening at six, on those wet, windy days and after, Mrs Brigette Sequeira would call for her daughter from the crumbling edifice that was Obrigado Mansion. “Philo, come for tea,” she would scream from the first floor. “Dadda will be home in 20 minutes.”
Philomena would drop her noose and run. Pushing open the red gate with paint peeling at its corners, she would walk past Mrs D’Costa, Mrs D’Souza or whoever happened to be around or staring at her from a doorway. “Evening aunty, Evening aunty,” she would mumble, rushing past before anyone could stop and ask about her parents, and whether or not they were still fighting. She never quite knew how to tell them that they had never stopped. “So big she’s becoming men,” Mrs D’Costa would say to Mrs D’Souza. “Nowadays these children have no time for us only.”
Still running, Philomena would hurry up the narrow concrete stairs of the building, her hands held out against its filthy walls for support, and head for Room 108. It was the last room on the first floor of the one-storey structure built in 1903 by Francisco Fernandez, the landlord, who was born in the village of Quepem in Goa and had spent most of his life here, surviving solely on rent collected from his tenants. Holding her nose as she ran past the two common toilets, both of which stank perennially, Philomena would stop running a few feet from her door. She would wait a second or two, until she caught her breath, before walking in. It was always with a sinking feeling, especially on Sundays, when her dadda was always home.
Jude Sequeira was at the table when Philomena walked in that evening. Before him was a glass, a bottle of water and a quarter of Officer’s Choice, the brand of whisky he preferred, not because it tasted like real whisky but because it was cheap enough for him to afford three times a week. Philomena ignored the table and walked straight to the kitchen, which it took her less than ten steps to do.
Each living space in Obrigado Mansion had one large room and a cooking space, with a small cubicle at the corner serving as a bathroom. The cubicles had no doors, so they could only be closed by the drawing of curtains hung from makeshift rods. There were no overhead or underground tanks for water, so tenants did what they could to store their share in plastic buckets or barrels, waking up daily at 5 am for the pitiful quota of a half hour allocated to them by the municipality.
The Sequeiras had split their living room apart with the help of a wooden partition, after almost a decade of begging their landlord for permission, to create a separate sleeping area that they referred to as the bedroom. It comprised a large bed that Brigette had received as part of her dowry, which had supposedly belonged to her grandfather and had been made from a single block of teak. Philomena didn’t care about the wood but liked the bed immensely. She thought about it for a second as she stepped into the kitchen, reaching for the clay pot in which boiled water was usually kept. The clay cooled the water, unlike refrigerators that chilled it. Few of the tenants could afford a refrigerator at the time. Brigette was at the stove, stirring something in a steel vessel while making balls of dough for chappatis. As Philomena poured water into a steel tumbler placed upside down on the pot, her father called out.
“Where you’re going without saying good evening?”
“Good evening, dadda,” she called out, meekly.
“You can only say it when I tell you or wot?” Jude asked, his voice rising a notch.
“Wot you did all day today? Come and tell me.”
“I went to school and then went down to play.”
“Playing with all those bleddy roadside fellows all day. Wot you’re thinking men? I’m working to send you to school and you want to bleddy play with these loafers? You did your homework?”
“I’ll do it after khaana, dadda.”
“Why khaana men? All the time khaana. Look at your size. You’re becoming like your mumma, bleddy fat –”
He was cut short by the appearance of Brigette at the kitchen door. “What you want men?” she asked. “Our daughter wants to eat khaana, let her eat no? If you don’t want to spend on food for her, what you want to buy, more liquor or what?”
“Shut up men,” Jude shouted. “Wot is your bleddy business what I buy? You’re working or wot? You bleddy sit and gossip with the building ladies. My money, my liquor. Your father’s paying or wot?”
“Keep my father out of this men,” Brigette shouted back. “When he was alive he gave everything you asked no? Now he’s dead you want to bleddy take his name?”
“Wot big thing he gave men? Wot he bleddy gave? One big cupboard and bleddy gold chain? You want me to put a garland on his photo or wot?”
“Gold chain and cupboard only you remember men? Wedding money who gave? That wedding car who paid for? Your mumma wanted new dress, who gave?”
“Wot your dragging mumma’s name men? I’ll bleddy give you a tight slap.”
“Give men. You can only hit ladies. If my brother comes, you’ll bleddy sit in a corner like a coward.”
“I’ll fuck your brother men. Wot I’m scared of? You think I’m scared of him or wot? Bring him and show men. See what I’ll do then. Bring men, go and bring if you got guts.”
Philomena returned to the kitchen, the cup of water untouched before her. She stared at the walls, the sickly green paint peeling. It had been wallpapered once, before she was born, but the pattern was no longer recognisable. She thought she could see a hint of sunflowers, but it could easily have been yellow dots in an abstract pattern. It didn’t matter, either way. A crash of breaking glass interrupted her, followed by the sound of a slap. She rushed outside to see Brigette trying to push Jude, her left cheek reddening, tears streaming down her face. Jude, his eyes bloodshot, pushed her away. “Wot you’re looking at men,” he told Philomena. “Bring another glass from inside and sweep this up. Do some work men around the house. This is hotel or wot?”
She did as she was told.
It wasn’t always like this. When she was little, Philomena would never hear her parents scream at each other. Now, all she heard was her father’s roar. All she could remember was his abuse, directed at her mother, his drunken lurch on Saturday evenings when a quarter of whisky undid him entirely. Those evenings were the worst because he would scream until he passed out. It was as if he bottled up the anger of his six-day week and locked it away for use over the weekend, with a little help from Officer’s Choice.
The slightest mistake on Brigette’s part could push him over the edge. The dal not being hot enough; his inability to find anything good to listen to on the radio; the barking of a neighbour’s dog; Brigette forgetting to serve him peanuts with his whisky; Philomena’s weight; cabbage on his plate twice in four days. Anything could set him off, so mother and daughter learned to keep a low profile until he fell asleep, food often dribbling from the corners of his mouth, staining the bed linen.
When it was over, his snores echoing across the room, Brigette and Philomena would clean up. They had little to say to each other, each struggling to come to terms with what they had witnessed, and what they knew they were compelled to live with. For Brigette, the choice had been hers; for Philomena, it was a tragedy not of her making.
The neighbours always knew. Obrigado walls were paper-thin, playing a game of whispers with each family as they struggled to rein in their secrets. Everyone knew everything about everyone else. Over time, they grew accustomed to this lack of privacy, mistaking it for a sense of freedom that enabled some of them to stumble home drunk, others to urinate on staircases, and still others to masturbate on rainy afternoons. Their windows had curtains, but only to keep up the pretence that their lives were their own, their secrets theirs to share or withhold.
On days when Jude was sober, though, he would hold Philomena close and ask about her day. What did she do? What did she study? What did she want for her birthday? The daughter of Brigette and Jude Sequeira should get the best, he would say, eyes avoiding the peeling plaster above them both. Father and daughter would smile, thinking of a time when she would get everything she wanted, and he would manage to give it to her.
There were times when Philomena thought she could love her father, on days when he wasn’t crazed with drink, and looked as if all he needed was a hug to make his world all right again. She had no knowledge of the cloud he laboured under, the pressure to make it seem like he was a success when he was anything but, because the men he had been to school with had found better jobs or better wives, or had managed to make it to those fabled cities of the Gulf, where they could slave away as dishwashers but return triumphant with dinars and dirhams in their pockets, assured of being welcomed like kings. Philomena knew nothing about these men and the measures of awe, revulsion and impotence they inspired in her father, compelling him to do everything he could to forget about where he had found himself, washed up in a room that belonged to someone else, with no escape route on his horizon.
She didn’t notice as he began to get harder around the edges, the whispers of love towards her slowly fading from memory as the reality of his life consumed him entirely, spitting him out and leaving him bruised at the side of a rickety table, looking for elusive answers at the bottom of a glass. As she grew older, and her hips grew wider, he began to lose interest, first in her studies, then in her presence itself. He had long given up conversations with her mother, speaking only to voice a grievance or bark a comment on her life, both of which she had slowly begun to ignore herself as she turned her back on the man she thought she once loved. Through it all, Philo held on to an unreasonable affection for what her father once was, her dadda who had promised to give her the best, if only for a moment, because he thought she deserved it.
This affection vanished forever soon after she turned thirteen, when Jude followed her into their bathroom, flinging aside the flimsy curtain that hung from a wire drawn across the parapet. She turned quickly, trying to grasp what he was there for, struggling to remember some slight or mistake that may have compelled him to put aside his drink and reach for a cane. He used to buy them outside the church in packs of a dozen, for ten rupees each. She didn’t know why anyone selling canes outside a church was not looked upon with suspicion, but the good people of Orlem didn’t care. Maybe their reasons for buying them had nothing to do with the beating of children. Maybe her dadda alone beat her. She couldn’t ask anyone at school, because that could turn into a whole other nightmare. And, so, she turned, looking for the cane, and found that his hands were empty.
“Philo baby,” he said thickly, “Wot you’re doing?”
“I’m having a bath, dadda,” she responded, wondering where her mumma was, before realising she had left for mass and wouldn’t be back for another hour.
“Let me give you bath,” he said.
“I can have by myself, dadda” she replied. “I’m 13 now.”
He slapped her then. “Don’t talk back men,” he said roughly, pushing her further inside, past the two plastic buckets and single mug waiting forlornly beneath a stainless-steel tap. “Take off clothes and I will give you proper bath.”
“No dadda,” she said, tears beginning to trickle down her face. He slapped her again and pulled off her T-shirt, exposing the new bra Brigette had purchased for her a month ago. She began to cry louder now, asking him to go, but he pulled off the bra, then began undoing her jeans with one hand, holding her palms above her head with the other. When they were off, he roughly pulled down her panties and stared for a second, before letting her hands go and turning the tap’s faucet. There was no water at that hour, so he reached for the mug and plunged it into one of the buckets, kicking her clothes aside. Leaning to one side of the wall for support, he poured cold water upon her head. It flowed swiftly, mixing with her tears, stopping for a few seconds as he grabbed a bar of Cinthol soap and rubbed her face and breasts with it.
“Do the rest men,” he said, standing back as she wept and scrubbed herself. When she was done, he poured more mugs of water before stepping out and returning with a towel that he handed over to her roughly, asking her to dry herself. “Don’t tell mumma I helped you,” he said. “Bleddy jealous bitch she is.”
When Philomena entered the living room a few minutes later, her eyes puffy and pyjamas in place, he ignored her. The drink was back in his hand and he was reading a copy of God’s Grace, the monthly church bulletin delivered to every home in the parish. Brigette returned a half hour later and headed straight to the kitchen, where she began hacking away at a frozen chicken.
“Don’t go to church in the evenings, mumma,” said Philo.
“Why men,” asked Brigette, not bothering to look up.
“I don’t want to be alone with dadda,” said Philo.
“Why?” replied Brigette. “He’s eating you or what?”
“He came to give me a bath, mumma, I don’t like it.”
Brigette froze for a second, before returning to the chicken. “So have bath in the morning,” she said. “Why you have to be shameless and have it when he’s at home?”
Philo never mentioned anything to her mother again.
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.