On the morning of the attempted suicide, Jack flung open the curtains to reveal a sky so empty of clouds there were no shadows to trip up the wildest dreams. A rally of sunlight called the world to action, but a groan from the bed suggested that Laura wasn’t up for the challenge.
“I’ll get the coffee on,” he said as he left the bedroom, still buttoning a freshly ironed shirt.
When Laura shuffled into the kitchen wearing pyjamas and slippers, Jack congratulated himself for taking the kids to the designer shop to buy the sleepwear for Mother’s Day. Back in the days when he’d been considering marriage, her beauty had promised to last. It had not reneged.
Dylan, Sophie and Sam spilled into the kitchen like a box of overturned kittens, squabbling over items picked up and dropped at random. His heart broke a little every time he saw them with the grief of knowing he couldn’t guarantee the perfect future for them.
He had kept them safe for at least one more day. The stock market was dropping again, so he had been up most of the night checking portfolios. It was tight, and there would be some irate investors wanting answers when he got to the office, but his house mortgage was covered for the month.
“What am I going to tell Mani?” Laura asked as she prepared breakfast.
“What’s happening to their investments?”
The tone in her voice warned him that this wasn’t a discussion. She’d convinced the housekeeper and her husband to invest part of their meagre income on Jack’s financial advice.
“Don’t you worry. Their investments are safe.”
She exhaled one of her how-can-you-be-so-sure sighs. “It’s their children’s education fund, you know.”
“Of course I know that. That’s why the funds are safe. The market will come right before their kids go to university.”
“Life is so unfair.” Her voice rose in genuine anguish. “The biggest worry most of your fat cat clients have, is whether they’ll be able to upgrade their BMW. Mani and Ranesh have more integrity than all of them put together.”
He concentrated on eating breakfast, and tried not to take it personally. This was just one of her moods.
“It’s all a game to you lot.” Her voice was still rising. “There should be different rules for people like Mani and Ranesh. If he was allowed to work in the profession he was trained for, they wouldn’t need to risk investing money to educate their children. It would be a given, like it is for our children.”
“Got to dash”, he said, stuffing the last piece of buttered toast into his mouth as he reached for his briefcase.
“But what about Mani?” she protested.
She looked so vulnerable he couldn’t bear to leave her. Her unused economics degree was no comfort to her as she made educated but untried judgments on stories about company directors taking more than their fair share. She was a great mother, but he wished she could get out more and spend less time reading trashy magazines.
He dropped his briefcase, swallowed the toast and took her in his arms. The silk pyjamas felt so good, he sensed the stirrings of an erection.
“Trust me, Honey,” he said. “I know what I’m doing.”
She gave him a dark look.
“Do you think I should come home for lunch,” he teased, brushing her nipples beneath the silk.
She pushed his hands away. “Typical!” she spat. “The world is falling apart, and all you can think about is sex”.
“We wouldn’t be here without it,” he said with one more tweak of a silk-clad breast. It was important to let her know she was still desirable.
“Get out of here,” she said. It sounded fierce, but a slight lift of her top lip betrayed amusement, and her hand lingered for a second on his arm. It was enough to remind him that the woman he loved was still there.
A taxi was pulling up as he backed his car down the drive. Laura would be watching, tangled in knots of imagined responsibilities, so he stopped the Lexus and went to help Mani out of Ranesh’s car. A waft of air refreshed the street as he opened the door to the taxi.
“I’m off to sort out the mess those banks have made of our investments,” Jack assured before anybody asked a question.
“No worries, Mr Fisher. We trust you.” At the end of his smoothly muscled arms, Ranesh’s delicate surgeon’s hands rested on an immaculately shined steering wheel. His perfect white teeth flashed a smile beneath carefully groomed hair, highlighting a dignity that betrayed somebody born to a better fate.
Jack felt an echo of the feelings he had for his children, but had to accept he couldn’t look after everybody all of the time. Speeding into the city, the day’s possibilities were dulled by towering office blocks as they crowded out the sky.
“Morning, Jack.” The terse greeting was normal from his business partner but there was an edge that rang alarm bells.
“Another late night, Tom?”
“I hope you ditched those investments of Leighton’s. If he’s kept them, you could be in trouble.”
“We could be in trouble, partner,” Jack said airily with the emphasis on ‘we’. He felt a twinge that a more nervous disposition would call fear. The feeling congealed when he remembered the charities that their company funded.
There was a message to call Leighton on Jack’s desk. The voice over the phone was tired and defeated. “I really thought there was value left in those shares. Didn’t realise how much they had leveraged against the Sunshine Beach development.”
It wasn’t as bad as it could be. Leighton had sold the shares from the more conservative funds. The other investors were more pragmatic and would accept some losses, but Jack understood he was expected to minimise those losses.
Trusting his ability to make split second decisions, he determined to trade his way out of Leighton’s poor management. As he settled into the drama of watching figures rise and plummet, he was aware of age and experience slowing his thoughts. The heady days of being a star on the trading floor were gone.
With the decision made, he watched the numbers continue to fall. He could no longer deny the spider crawl of fear. Then his secretary loomed, a brown-suited behemoth wearing orthopaedic shoes. “Your housekeeper called – twice. Says it’s urgent.”
He pulled away from his desk where telephones were flashing and ringing. People were shouting in the corridors. Suddenly very tired, he walked to the picture window and looked for a patch of sky to remind him of life’s possibilities.
When Ranesh drove Mani from their over-crowded commuter suburb into the leafy calm of the waterfront streets where she worked, he felt relaxed and content. His taxi was freshly cleaned, smelling of the new air freshener that really smelled like fresh air.
He knew there was something wrong when Mr Fisher got out of his car and opened the door for Mani. She slipped naturally into the role of accepting the service without embarrassment.
Mr Fisher’s comment about the financial news concerned Ranesh. The money he had invested was a trifle compared to other businessmen, but if Mr Fisher felt the need to reassure him, he must have been very worried.
Ranesh had seen first-hand how life could change from a comfortable stability to terrifying randomness in a matter of days. Money was only important if you had no other way to measure success.
Sometimes he missed the respect and gratitude he had once earned as a doctor, but was grateful he no longer had to witness the results of fanatic cruelty. So Mr Fisher’s stuttered apology for the state of the markets made Ranesh want to get out of his taxi and hug the poor man. He wanted to reassure him nothing could be worse than living in a country where your religion made you a criminal.
As he drove away, a car load of youths with shaved heads and facial piercings pulled up beside him, yelling at him; things like “go home to your chinky chong noodle shop” and “curry muncher”. He marvelled at how some people tried to be as ugly as possible, as if their ugliness was their way of getting back at life. They couldn’t see how they were trapped by their own imaginations.
There was nothing they could to do to him that was worse than anything he had already experienced. The body was simply a collection of clever electrical and plumbing systems; home for a spirit that could be as free as it had the courage to be. These punks had shuttered the windows to their own soul and Kharma was already exacting its price for their ignorance.
Ranesh smiled and waved at the youths. They gave him the finger
Mani wished she was a man so she could beat the boys’ evil faces to a pulp. She blotted out the fantasy because she believed in a peaceful God, and knew her thoughts only degraded herself.
She swapped vengeance for pride in her husband’s exquisitely detailed taxi. He spent so much time cleaning and polishing, but his quest for the perfect air freshener wasn’t over. The new one still reminded her of enclosed spaces.
His careful attention to detail could have been used to help people in need instead of being wasted on transport for people running from one mundane task to another. Admiration for his patience was tempered with a tightly controlled apprehension.
She wondered if a day would come when one of them would snap.
From the window, Laura watched as Jack gallantly helped Mani out of her husband’s taxi. The three of them laughed and chatted like old buddies. She decided that a charming, agreeable Asian wife would suit Jack better than an argumentative woman who could do with an extreme makeover.
She’d been woken that morning by the sound of curtains being scraped apart, like the sandpaper of reality. Warmth and contentment had withered in the unforgiving light. Feeling the pulp of her slack stomach, she’d been angry that her will power couldn’t return the tautness of its youth.
Jack had said something glib and cheery while he’d buttoned a fresh shirt over his slim frame. She’d wondered why he had to have a clean shirt every day. For her, pyjamas were good enough. It was too much effort to decide what to wear.
The kitchen smelled like coffee when she’d shuffled in like an old bag lady. At least Jack had contributed that much to breakfast, but he’d been reading the morning paper contentedly, waiting for her to do the rest. He’d be heading for his office where the women would be dressed in stylish suits with shoes to emphasis their shapely legs. Trying to hide behind the kitchen bench, she’d braced for the onslaught as children had barged into the kitchen to begin the daily test of chaos theory.
She’d felt balanced on the edge of a crumbling abyss, opened up by avaricious, ignorant businessmen and politicians content to sit in their ivory towers to watch the helpless minions tumble into financial obscurity. She’d been unsure if her family was living in the ivory tower or careering over the edge.
“What am I going to tell Mani?” she’d asked, trying to show she wasn’t like a helpless client who relied on him to make their decisions.
“You have nothing to worry about.”
But she always worried.
He’d tried to divert her with a pathetic attempt to be sexy. He must have thought an attack on her under-protected breasts could make up for the hours she’d spent alone in bed, worrying about their future, while he’d fiddled on his computer half the night.
Then there were the same old rituals she was forced to perform every school day. When she’d told Sophie her missing book would be where she left it, she’d found herself on the receiving end of a Diva’s glare. Dylan’s complaint that he needed a new shirt because this one looked “bogan” had degenerated into a shouting match, with Laura agreeing he was one of the loser kids. Sam had started to cry.
Guilt had piled on frustration as she’d blamed her ungrateful older children, for distracting her from her beautiful baby. It was Mani who made the peace and got the children out of the house in time to catch their bus. Then, Laura started to cry.
“Don’t you worry, Mrs Fisher,” Mani comforted. “They are good children, but they test you. Remember, you are smarter than them.”
“Smarter!” Laura sobbed. “I couldn’t even finish my Master’s Degree. So much for my brilliant career.”
“Oh, Mrs Fisher.” Mani made it sound like a threat. ‘You don’t need a career with three lovely children to look after.”
“Is that what you think? What about your Ranesh? What about his career?”
“I don’t think Ranesh really wanted to be a doctor. He wants to get his poems published, and he’s happy to see his family make the most of all the opportunities here in your wonderful country.”
“But what about you? Don’t you miss your home, and the luxuries you were used to?”
“You don’t understand. Our home might look humble to you, but it’s comfortable and I like how it is. Our freedom to do as we please is more important. Believe me, you would give up your house gladly to live without fear.”
“This house isn’t so great. If sea level rises, it will be flooded anyway.”
“It’s a lovely home, Mrs Fisher, don’t you forget that. I enjoy coming here, and I get to enjoy your luxuries, too.”
“Don’t get to enjoy them too much. If the markets keep falling, we could all be out on the streets. I don’t know what will happen to your investments.”
“We all have far more than we deserve. Our savings are just an investment in hope, and hope guarantees nothing. Happiness is here and now, not something we can buy with promises of money.”
Laura stood to leave the room. “I’m going to take a shower and get dressed.” She needed to get away from this woman who was too stupid to understand that she really could lose everything all over again.
“To live without fear.” Laura sat on the bed, repeating the mantra, and rocking herself to try to ease the physical pain of a futile life.
She had felt the luxury of selfishness for a few seconds, but her carelessly unguarded words would start a lifetime of shame and disappointment for her children. They would grow up, despite her, and they would have hidden secrets that could save the world or destroy them all.
Jack would be at the office, where all the women admired him, and would love to have the chance to be a better mother for his children. There was no point in making the effort to get dressed when he was going to have an affair and lose all their money. The children would blame her when the marriage fell apart. Then she would end up as a withered old lady, waiting in vain for visitors in an institution where the staff didn’t care.
She knew where the pills were kept. There was no cure for a pointless existence, but she could lie on the bed, and sleep forever.
When Mani didn’t hear the sound of water in the shower, she assumed poor Mrs Fisher had fallen asleep, so tried to work as quietly as possible. As the silence continued, she looked in to check if Mrs Fisher might want anything. Then, the world spun into a strange and dreadful universe.
She cried into Ranesh’s shoulder at the hospital, “I don’t understand. She has such a lovely home and a beautiful family.”
The look on Mr Fisher’s ashen face had frightened her. Mrs Fisher would live, but everything was changed.
“I knew she could be a bit moody.” His voice shook. “If only I’d known it was more than that. I don’t know what I did wrong. Don’t know how to make her happy.”
Ranesh stroked Mani’s hair as he replied, “It’s nothing you have done wrong. She is the only one who can find happiness for herself.”
“Do you think she wants to leave me?”
“No, no, Jack.” Ranesh gently lifted her head off his shoulder to move closer to the distraught man. “There are many reasons for depression. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with life – it’s just wrong in the brain. Something has upset the chemical balance. Medication could fix it, but sometimes it’s just bad thoughts. If you think them for too long, it can become real. Therapy will help her.”
“Do you think we can cure her?”
“She will cure herself. But you must be prepared to allow her to change, and accept her when she does.”
“Oh, of course, of course. Not bad advice for a taxi driver,” he smiled weakly as he took Ranesh’s hand in both of his.
“Or a failed doctor with bad investments.” Ranesh grimaced.
“At least I can fix that,” Jack brightened slightly. “I managed to judge it right – sold while the market was falling and now we can buy back even more shares, now they’re all undervalued.”
“Well then, I’m a wealthy poet who can provide for my talented family,” Ranesh beamed.
The original version of this story was shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing published on the Royal Society of New Zealand website. You can read it there if you want to see why it didn’t win, and make your own opinion on the improvements.
The theme of the competition was based on this quote:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”