A Woman Much Like Me
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2005 and 2018
About this story: This was published by Woman’s Way Magazine, Ireland October 26, 2005. Set in Goa, India, which is one of my favourite places.
Una could feel the heat immediately as she stepped off the plane and made her way down the steep metal stairs. A sense of euphoria bubbled up inside her. The sun embraced her body, warming her bones and lifting her spirits. She thought of Garrett and said under her breath, ‘can you feel that, Garrett? Isn’t it marvellous?’
‘Look, Mum, there’s the terminal over there. Will we have to walk?’ a little boy said to his mother who was trying to carry about five pieces of luggage and not really listening.
‘I think we will have to walk. You’d better help your mam with all that stuff,’ said Una. He looked up at her in surprise, but her warm smile reassured him.
Una started walking. She couldn’t stop smiling. ‘We’re here. In Goan paradise at last,’ she whispered, looking down at her two swollen feet bulging out of her beige sandals.
The airport had been modernised since she and Garrett had come, and things were very efficient this time. The taxi ride took half an hour. She just stared out of the open window at the strangely familiar sun-scorched scenery. The palms clung together in forests, and then they straggled out across fields, some with crops and some barren and daunting.
‘Are you travelling alone?’ the taxi driver asked her after a while.
‘Well, I lost my husband last year. But we planned to retire out here. And I think he’s sitting right here beside me if you know what I mean,’ Una grinned as she was sure she was right. She stroked the crucifix pendant that she wore for reassurance. She was sure this was all quite plausible. She did not notice the frown on the driver’s forehead. Or his inability to reply. It wasn’t her problem. She had arrived.
All the arrangements had been made with Mr Atal whilst Garrett was still alive. And she had been in regular contact since. The girls thought she had gone mad. They even tried to talk her out of it. But she was so sure. So determined. One day they spoke harsh words to her: ‘Mum, you’ve gone crazy. It’s a normal grief reaction, but you have to see it for what it is. You’re an old woman; you won’t survive in India on your own.’ She had lain awake that night fighting off the terror they and other well-meaning friends had instilled in her. Una had wept until they took pity on her and tried to approve and be happy for her. ‘I know the place like the back of my hand; it’s like a second home,’ she had insisted.
She sensed she might be an embarrassment to them. But Una didn’t feel old. And now she was here, out of the grey, drizzly November of Ireland, she felt even less so. Mrs Atal was there to greet her. She had flowers for her on a string, like a Hawaiian necklace. She hugged her and told her she was ever so sorry about Garrett. ‘You’ll be okay. We are nearby. I will send friends to help you settle in,’ she looked the old Irish woman up and down. Her grey hair was still the same length, in big awkward curls, and her face was red and shiny in the heat. She had lost a little weight, but her face was still plump and pleasant. She wore a coloured silk blouse that had been purchased there and was showing its age.
‘You’re so kind,’ Una squeezed her face and gave her a kiss. Mrs Atal looked a little embarrassed but remained warm. She showed her around the house that Una remembered so well. It had been changed a little. Celtified. Garrett had stated what decor and facilities they would need and it had all been arranged for them. It was still very India though. Kashmir rugs that they had bought three years ago had been aired and thrown across the tile floors. The bed had a good mosquito net around it. The bathroom was now wheelchair friendly; this had been the most expensive job of all. You just never know, Garrett had said as she had sighed about all the money it was costing.
‘You just never know indeed, Garrett,’ she said quietly.
‘Pardon,’ said Mrs Atal.
‘Oh nothing, Pet, I’m just mumbling on to myself.’
‘You must miss him, Una. I think you are a very brave woman,’ Mrs Atal turned to face her.
‘Thanks, Love, I don’t know if I’m really all that brave at all.’
‘You are, you are wonderful,’ she smiled, and then looked away quickly in case Una should squeeze her face again. That minute her mobile phone rang.
‘Oooooh things change don’t they? Everywhere you go… There was none of them the last time we were here,’ said Una.
Mrs Atal smiled politely and answered the call. She spoke quickly in her own language. Una had seen this before. It looked as though she might be having an argument and then suddenly the tone would change and it would all seem friendly again. She would try to guess at what the words meant. Mrs Atal was not long on the phone. ‘My husband wants you to join us for dinner. Would you like this?’
‘Of course I will. I’d be delighted,’ Una laughed.
‘That’s good. I’ll pick you up at five. Is that okay?’
‘That’ll be just grand,’ said Una.
‘Do you need anything before I go? I bought you some bottled water for drinking.’
‘You’re as good as gold, Mina, as good as gold.’
After Mrs Atal had gone, Una realised that she was here for the first time without Garrett. Even though she felt he was here in spirit she missed his physical presence, and someone to talk to. She looked down at her flowers, which were already starting to wilt with the heat of the day and the warmth of her body. ‘I’ll go and have a shower before I unpack, Garrett,’ she said, and carefully peeled off the necklace.
You do that, love, she imagined him saying.
‘It’ll be too late to go to the beach now; I’ll wait until morning, shall I?’
Yeah, better off. It’ll be dark by the time you leave the Atal’s house.
Unpacking was strange. None of his socks and shorts to sort through. She wished she had brought them along anyway. She put her hand into the empty suitcase and smelled. Trying to get a smell of him. Sun cream that had spilt years ago filled her with memories.
Oh, feck that bloody suncream! Look at that, Una! My best feckin’ shirt!
‘Don’t worry love. I’ll sort it when we get home,’ she said to the case. ‘Home… but now this is home. This is our home now, Garrett. I’ll have to see if I can sort it here,’ and she laughed to herself. She laughed until she curled up into a little ball on the floor and began to cry.
Dinner at the Atal’s was lovely. Their son was back from the States on holidays and his wife had a strong American accent. Una enjoyed knowing more than she about the place. Her parents were from Delhi and she had never been here before. She was beautiful and elegant. But not as elegant as Mrs Atal, even though she was twenty years younger. Mr Atal kept looking at Una, as though he was afraid she might burst into tears at any moment. But Una felt happy here. She loved the company and the local food. She just wondered how she would face her lovely house all alone tonight. And tomorrow, and the next day.
On the beach the next day Una remembered she must phone the girls. It was too early now. They were five hours behind. There were more bars and restaurants on the beach this time. Lots of bodies, young and old, were sauntering by. She shook her head firmly at the beach sellers who offered their produce, then kicked off her sandals and walked into the sea. The Indian women kept covered up, even in the water. Yet the Westerners bared all, ignoring the stares. ‘Nobody would stare at me,’ Una said to the sea, and laughed at the idea of stripping down to her swimsuit. ‘Not today thanks, I’ll take this sun one step at a time.’ Just then she noticed another Caucasian woman that looked her own age. She had seen her and was wading towards her.
‘Good morning,’ she said in a European accent.
‘Morning. Lovely isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it’s very beautiful. Have you been here long?’ she asked kindly, for Una was snow white in colour and had obviously just arrived.
‘No, only got here yesterday. How about you?’
‘I am here for one month. I am thinking of living here for the rest of my life.’
‘Me too. I have a house just a minute inland.’
‘I am renting but wish to buy too. I was supposed to be coming with my husband, but he died a few years ago. So now its just me’ the lady smiled bashfully.
‘Really? You are brave. But then I guess that makes me brave too.’
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