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Celine’s Journey

Rose Malone


Celine shivered in the unaccustomed chill of an Irish late October morning. This, the damp coolness and muted light, was what she had been longing for, when the unremitting heat and light of India had felt unbearably oppressive. But now, the early morning darkness felt like a physical weight. An autumnal storm during the night had stripped the browning leaves from the horse chestnut tree in the grounds of the apartment block. Her balcony was submerged in a damp mulch. The naked limbs of trees seemed at once threatening and vaguely indecent. Tropical vegetation crowded into her memory. Huge, leathery leaves jewelled with cascades of rain. Coloured birds, shrieking. Tree bark glowing a fiery brown.


She wrapped herself in a warm dressing gown and put some milk in a saucepan to heat. She was constantly seeking out the trappings of comfort – cushions, chocolate, a cat on her knee. Her real cat, Zany, with whom she had been re-united for some days, was still ignoring her, stalking angrily about the apartment and narrowing his green eyes whenever she came into his field of vision. He scratched at the balcony door and demanded that she let him out. She responded to his imperious mewing and stooped to fondle his ears. His body stiffened and his hackles rose. A minute later, he favoured her with a look of utter contempt, then turned around and jumped onto the sofa. The milk boiled over.


“India”, she thought. She wasn’t sure whether she felt longing or relief. Her mind drifted back to a morning several months ago.


~


She wakes at dawn, as usual. The kites are still clustered on the flat roof opposite. Dampness thickens the air and a feverish longing for the monsoon fizzes in her veins. The power is on. A cacophony of sound grows around her, rising up from the streets below. The lavatory on the landing will be free, if she hurries. She passes her neighbour, Swaroop, on the stairs. Celine’s thin, but big-boned, European body takes up too much room on the narrow turn. Swaroop averts her eyes as she passes.


Celine heats water in a small saucepan and turns on her laptop. Slow connection … but Alleluia! broadband. She reads the emails from home. Her sister sends greetings but no news. Her office colleagues are looking forward to hearing “all about India”. Her book club plans to read ‘Three Strong Women’, by Marie N’Diaye. They hope she can join them on Skype. Their lives are continuing without her. Sinead has moved to the west of Ireland to facilitate her husband’s job. What a strange thing for a feminist like Sinead to do. Celine has intuited some tension between Dervilla and her husband whom Celine suspects of being abusive. And Alice, the youngest of them may have embarked on some unspecified adventure. She has picked up this information from group emails and direct emails from her closest friend in the group, Ruth. Ruth has given little information about herself, but Celine knows that she is worried about her elderly mother. Celine decides to try and read the book and spends some time trying to find the text online, and downloads it in the original French, having failed to find a translation. Her French is rusty, but surely she’ll manage to get the gist. Maybe she’ll be able to make contact. Maybe she’ll join the conversation as though she’d never been away.


~


The apartment was a temporary arrangement. Her large comfortable house, which had been her family home, was rented to tenants during her months in India, on leave of absence from her job as a senior systems analyst in a large computer company. She had been an “early adopter” of electronic media and had trained as a programmer when women were still a rarity in the industry. Her level of experience and her high degree of competence had allowed her to take a highly-paid job with a newly established international company in which she was, by quite some distance by quite some distance, the oldest employee. A growing sense of alienation had led her to take a leave of absence to travel to India where she had done some voluntary work, helping women’s groups to develop contemporary computer skills. The work had been partly funded by her company. She’d never been a great traveller before this expedition. One of the problems of being a single woman was the lack of a like-minded travelling companion as one headed into middle age and one’s friends married and became submerged in family. Short trips to mainland Europe had been poor preparation for the full-on experience of India in the July monsoon.


~


She steps off the train into the cacophony of the station. Her entire body is immediately sheened in sweat and her mouth dries. Heat and noise take on the bulk of concrete objects and her movements seems as random as those of a molecule in a liquid. A porter, red cloth tied around his head, relieves her of her rucksack and her eyes desperately scan the crowd until she sees a sari-clad woman bearing a placard with the label “Saline”. Relief softens her bones.


~


Celine filled a glass at the water-cooler. Three of her colleagues - Sarah, Ross and Cian - were deep in conversation, oblivious to her presence. They were discussing targets for a group project. Teams were pitched against each other to complete specified tasks, to do with reducing the number of keystrokes needed for operations, thereby increasing efficiency. The team at the water cooler was engaged in a raucous, laughter-filled argument about whose tactics would succeed. Celine felt her throat prickle in the dry air. The static in the carpets seemed to crackle on her skin. She was continually getting small electric shocks whenever she touched things. She felt tearful but it seemed to her that her tear ducts were like Indian wells in the dry season. The laughing team returned to their screens without acknowledging her. She felt like a grey ghost of herself, or like the discarded skin left behind when a snake emerges in its new, bright colours. Sarah’s designer emerald silk blouse recalled the parakeets that roosted in the trees on the computer campus in Bangalore. Her own smart, but old, cashmere sweater matched her streaked hair. She returned to her screen and noted an email on her personal account. It was from Sinéad, suggesting E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ as their classic read. She smiled grimly.


~


She lies under the white cloud of mosquito net and notices, in a detached way, the slow trickle of perspiration down the sides of her face, the gathering moisture on her upper lip. The fever is back, and she relaxes into it, lying limp. Memories of the Skype conversation about Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ are entangled with fragments of dream. A Hanuman monkey takes her by the hand, his slender, clever fingers knotted into hers. He looks up at her and says ‘Weird on stilts’.


‘You can’t talk,’ she replies. ‘Monkeys don’t have language’.


A troop of monkeys dance around her as she went down the narrow alleyway. They grasp each other’s tails and form a benzene ring. A chimpanzee bares his teeth in terror as he pounds the keys of a typewriter. The ‘Complete Works of Shakespeare’ lies open beside him. Dervilla takes a bright silk scarf from her head and waves it like a flag. Silver tears fall, one at a time, down Alice’s face. She catches them in her hand and they change into little shining fish. She hears voices speaking in the room. Ruth says ‘Call a doctor,’ in Irish. A damp cloth mops her face. She falls headlong into deeper sleep.


~


Celine, still in her pyjamas in the apartment, sent her email and opened her Inbox. It was only 6.30 in the morning, but she liked to get an early overview of the parameters of her day. She noticed an email from her immediate boss. It began “Yo, Celine”. She knew that he was at least forty-five and felt such a sense of alienation and irritation that she couldn’t read any further. She scanned the rest of the crop of emails, wrote a couple of replies, then showered and dressed and drove across the toll bridge to the office. There was nothing remarkable or unusual about the day. She helped herself to the excellent coffee available, but declined the pastries. Her Indian weight loss was being rolled back in quite an alarming manner and her pencil skirt was excessively snug about her hips. She opened her onscreen calendar and began to write a “to do” list for the day, with pencil, on a notepad. She paused as the current of tension in her spine alerted her to the presence of someone behind her. The “Yo Celine” man was standing there. A half-smile played about his features.


If he says “Yo Celine”, I may just have to kill him.


‘Hi, Celine. Good morning,’ he said in his native south-Dublin accent, from which the mid-Atlantic vowels had temporarily been scrubbed. It was as though he had read her thoughts. ‘Can you step into my office for a minute, please?’


So, not just the accent, then. He’s using real, normal words. This must be serious.


The walls of his office were entirely of glass. It was furnished with two armchairs in citrus colours, a glass cube coffee table and a standing desk, bearing a state-of-the-art laptop. When he stood at his desk, he had the air of a ship’s captain at the bridge. He gestured towards the armchairs and Celine sat down. The chair was far too low for comfort. He perched on the arm of the other chair. Celine looked up expectantly. He cleared his throat.


‘You didn’t apply for promotion last week,’ he said. Celine nodded. This was true. She waited for him to say something else. The silence bounced off the glass walls. She was damned if she was going to break it. She waited.


‘Erm ... I read your report on the Bangalore project,’ he said. She nodded again and allowed a slight smile to soften her face momentarily. ‘It was ... fascinating. Must’ve been a great experience.’


She nodded again. ‘It was,’ she said.


‘Must be hard to settle back.’


She varied her response by shrugging. The chair was bloody uncomfortable. She put a hand on each of its arms and made as if to rise. He cleared his throat again. She subsided back in the chair.


‘You’ve been in your current position for quite a long time. You haven’t applied for promotion. I was wondering ... I was wondering how you saw your career trajectory?’


‘Trajectory?’


‘Where do you see yourself in ten years’time?’


In ten years’ time, she’d be nearly sixty-seven.


‘Ehmm ... retired?’


‘Oh ... yes, well. Did you know about the company’s early retirement package?’


He picked up a brochure from the coffee table.


‘Are you suggesting I take early retirement?’


‘I just thought you might find it interesting. Give it a read.’


He held out the glossy brochure and turned back towards his desk. He surveyed the floor from his eyrie. All the work stations were occupied and people were typing vigorously, frowning at screens and sipping coffee.


‘Thank you,’ Celine said. She took the brochure and struggled out of the embracing chair.


‘Yo, Jake!’ her supervisor said, waving to a youth with a flotsam of acne and stubble on his face, who was gliding down the concourse on his electric scooter.


~


She walks down Commercial Street, threading her way through the throng. The one-legged man with the wooden crutch and the woman with no tongue recognise her and hold out their hands. She gives each of them a few coins and smiles at them. Relative humidity is over ninety percent. She feels like she is breathing under water.


‘It’s very sticky today, isn’t it’, a young man says with lilting, precise enunciation. She replies with a neutral expression, not quite a smile. Her sister has asked her to bring back a sari length of silk. The sari shop is empty, except for the owner, who is squatting low, in an attempt to access cooler air. A fan moves the damp air in languid waves. Celine makes her request, tentatively. Her gaunt, raw-boned, sweating Western body is out of scale with her surroundings. The shop owner serves her with unfailing graciousness.


~


Celine stood with a glass of something fizzy warming and flattening in her hands. The bubbles rose, burst, faded. The noise level rose all around her. She heard someone tapping a glass for silence. The hubbub subsided slightly.

‘Yo, people.’ Her supervisor’s voice cut through the rising din. He tapped again and most people turned towards him. One shriek of laughter continued into the relative quiet and was followed by a somewhat shame-faced hush.

‘Yo, people,’ he said again. ‘Hope you’re enjoying this ... this really, really big, really ... historic occasion. We’re saying goodbye to one of our most ... senior workmates, senior colleagues. I know we’re all going to miss her, er ... inimitable ...

‘Woo-hoo!’ A male voice interrupted.

‘I know, I know ... big words. But it’s a big, big occasion when someone as ... I don’t know, significant as ...’

‘Woo-hoo!’

‘Ah, give over lads.’ His natural south Dublin accent slipped out. ‘Let’s all drink to ... to Colette.’

‘To Colette!’

Some of the more sober colleagues looked vaguely puzzled. They all turned towards Celine, drained their glasses and immediately sought refills.

A man she didn’t know handed Celine an envelope and a young intern, on her first day, handed her a bouquet at whose centre was an ornamental cabbage. It was already emitting a pungent odour. She thanked them and slipped quietly away. The envelope contained a card that said ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’. It was signed by a very large number of people, most of whom called her “Celine”. A few, however, called her “Colette”, one called her “Cynthia” and, most puzzling of all, one called her “Liam”. It also contained a 100 euro voucher. Her heart lifted until she realised that it could be spent only on the company’s products.

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