Short stories, Travel and Health Information
A short story by Sanjiva Wijesinha
It was the little girl who first attracted my attention.
“No, Tiny,” she was addressing the large doll in her hand, “you mustn’t climb on to the fence. You will fall and we’ll have to take you to hospital.”
I could see the bit of garden outside the flat where she was playing as I set about preparing my evening meal. It was nothing much of a meal, I must admit, my dinners usually consisting of some frozen packet from the supermarket that had been defrosted and heated in the microwave, to be eaten without much relish in front of the TV. Even after a year on my own in Australia, my cooking was hopeless – the only reason I did cook was that it was the only alternative to eating in the hospital canteen, where the food was even less palatable.
She was a pretty child – with big eyes and attractive brown hair, a miniature version of the woman who I used to occasionally see coming out of the flat opposite mine.
I’d never spoken to her. My flat – in Australia they called these “units” rather than flats or apartments – was in the staff quarters allocated to me by the hospital in Melbourne for the three months that I was going to work for them as a locum doctor. With the little time I had off duty from my hospital work, I had decided it would be unnecessary to even try to socialise with any of the other occupants of the building.
There were times, though, when I wondered about the girl and her mother. I hadn’t seen a man about the place. Was she a single parent, I wondered? Was she a divorcee, or had she been widowed early in life?
From the little I saw of her, there always seemed an air of sadness about her – which was a pity, because her face would certainly have been beautiful if she had but allowed a smile to bloom on it.
On the first occasion that we actually met, as I was coming out of the front door of our building one afternoon, she could only have been described as having a look of gross exasperation on her face.
“Do stop crying, Christina. You know there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
Her daughter was crying her heart out, tears streaking down her flushed face.
With a smile to the mother, I knelt down on one knee by the girl.
“What’s up, young lady?” I asked.
“It’s Tiny” she sobbed, “Tiny’s got lost.”
Her mother explained. “It’s her doll. She was out in Royal Park with the other kids from the crèche this morning while I was at work, and she must have left it there. We’ve been there just now to look, but there was no sign of it.”
“He must have drown-ded!” exclaimed Tina, “We were watching the swans in the pond, and he would have fallen in – and I know he can’t swim!” With which she started howling again.
I recalled the doll she used to play with. “Tiny?” I inquired, “You mean the little fellow in blue shorts and a yellow Children’s Hospital tee shirt?”
She nodded through her tears.
“Tiny didn’t get drowned,” I reassured her, “As a matter of fact, I met him walking up Gatehouse Street a couple of hours ago when I was coming out of Casualty. I think he’s gone walkabout.”
The waterworks stopped abruptly, and she looked up at me with her wide brown eyes.
“What’s walkabout-ing? And where has he gone?”
“It means that he’s gone to seek his fortune in the wide world outside Melbourne. And as for where…”
I shrugged my shoulders and turned my palms outward, “Who knows? You never plan ahead when you go walkabout. But he’s a big lad, and he knows how to take care of himself. He wanted me to tell you that he’ll write to you. I’m sure you’ll get a postcard from him soon.”
“But why did he want to leave me?”
“Because he’s a young man,” I said (convincingly I hoped) “And young men, when they reach a certain age, need to leave their comfortable homes and travel out into the world outside. Isn’t that correct?” and I looked to her mother for confirmation. Mother, I was relieved to note, smiled and nodded.
“That was clever,” she observed, as Tina ran off into the garden.
“Clever but not original,” I admitted, “I read something similar years ago in a story about the writer Franz Kafka.”
“Original or not, it certainly stopped her tears – and that’s the main thing. I’m ever so grateful to you.”
We walked up the path together, and paused in the landing where the front doors of our respective flats faced each other. “Have you settled in all right?” she paused as she inserted her key into its lock, “When I saw the unit opposite was occupied again, I should have popped across and asked if I could help in any way – but these last few weeks have been chaotic.”
“No worries,” I replied trying to sound Australian, “The truth is, I didn’t have much settling in to do, since I’m only here as a locum for three months. I’m more or less living out of a suitcase.”
“Where do you work at the Children’s, then?” she asked.
I explained briefly about my three month temporary job as a surgical registrar, and added, “Incidentally, I’m Ranjit Kumara.”
“And I’m Cathy Williams. I’m a physiotherapist on the Chest Unit.” She smiled again as she opened the door and waited for Tina to come in. “And thanks again. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know, okay?”
* * * * *
I did not see either of them until the next Saturday – when, returning from the city with a supermarket bag full of groceries (mainly coffee, cereal and frozen dinners), I found Tina waiting for me.
“He sent me a postcard!” she informed me excitedly, waving a card with a picture of the penguin parade on Philip Island.
I took the card from her and read my own handwriting aloud.
“It says, ‘My dear Tina. Last evening I saw the fairy penguins on Philip Island. I am sorry I left without saying goodbye, because I don’t like farewells. I’ll write again soon. Love, Tiny.'”
I handed the card back to her. “I told you he would write, didn’t I?”
As I knelt down on one knee beside her (my usual position for talking with six year olds), I glanced over her shoulder and saw Cathy, smiling.
“Hello,” she said, “How’re you? Can I get you some coffee?”
“Come in and see my other dolls,” insisted Tina, “there’s Linnie and Tammy and Kitty and Little Fin – and I’ve also got a little white mouse called Sugar.”
By the time I’d met all the dolls – and of course, Sugar – Cathy came, carrying two mugs of coffee with milk and sugar on a tray.
“Do you know where Tiny’s going next?” asked Tina, as I added some milk to my coffee and settled down into one of the chairs.
“Can’t say, Tina – maybe to Sydney, or to Adelaide, or even to Brisbane or Townsville. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll write and keep in touch.”
“Maybe Dad will meet him, if he goes to Townsville. Dad lives there, Mum, doesn’t he?”
“Umm – and so will we soon, I hope.” Cathy passed me the plate of biscuits. “My husband Simon’s working up in Townsville at the moment. They’ve recently established a department of Tropical Medicine in their new University, and he’s got a temporary research job. It’s for six months to start with, but if things go well, he’ll be made permanent. Then we’ll all move there.”
I took a sip of my coffee. “That must be tough for you both. Being separated, I mean.”
She shrugged. “He didn’t have much option. Jobs for physiotherapists are easy to get – but for a scientist with a PhD in parasite immunology, job opportunities in Melbourne are very poor. We decided that Tina and I would move into a hospital flat and I continue working here, while he went on alone to Townsville; once he is sure of a permanent job, I can quit my job here and move up north.”
She looked away for a moment, and continued.
“Anyway, things seem to be working out now. And of course, Simon’s worse off than I am – I mean, it can’t be much fun for him, living all alone in a single room in the university staff quarters. At least, I’ve got Tina with me.”
“It isn’t much fun, I can assure you,” I said, with feeling.
“Of course,” she laughed, “You’re in the same situation as Simon, aren’t you? How much longer have you got here?”
We talked for a bit about my work, and my former home in Sri Lanka, which I’d left last year, and the difficulties of starting life in a new country. When I got up to leave, she walked with me to the door. “It was sweet of you to send her the card, you know. She really believes that Tiny sent it from Philip Island, and she’s so happy.”
She stopped for a second. “Ranjit – would you like to come and have dinner with us this evening? I’m not making anything special, but I was thinking – I’d be happy if Simon had some friendly neighbours who’d invite him over for a proper meal now and then.”
“Anything will be better after the hospital canteen food and my own cooking,” I grinned, “I’d love to, thanks.”
* * * * *
It was a very pleasant evening that Saturday, as well as the Saturday that followed.
Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, it was foolish of us: a young married woman entertaining another man – a tall, dark stranger, at that – to dinner, while her husband was over two thousand miles away. Even in these modern times, it would have been enough to raise eyebrows, though at the time it was purely an innocent gesture of friendship. Cathy was simply doing unto someone the kindness she hoped others would extend to her own husband far away.
As for me, I was more than grateful to accept the opportunity of a good home-made dinner and the pleasure of spending the evening with a family after two months of nights on call, late night surgery and frozen dinners.
The fact that Tina was around lent a semblance of respectability to the occasions – although on the second evening (the day that Tiny had sent her a postcard with a picture of the Sydney Opera House) I stayed on for a little while after she’d gone off to sleep.
“I had a call from Simon last night,” said Cathy, pouring the last of the bottle of Chardonnay I’d brought into our glasses, “He was planning to come tomorrow to spend a few days with us – he’s been away three months now – but his Professor has asked him to delay taking his week off and stay on to finish some urgent project. Since his being made permanent depends entirely on the Prof, he’s had to postpone coming.”
She looked away for a moment, and I followed her gaze to the large framed photograph on the coffee table. It showed her carrying a new-born Tina, with a pleasant looking young man by her side.
She took a sip of the wine before continuing.
“Sometimes I get so fed up with all this. It seems that everything is against us these days.” She drank some more of the wine and replaced her glass with a trembling hand. “First it was Simon losing his job here when the research grant was not renewed. Then he kept getting more and more depressed, not being able to find the kind of work he was trained to do. Even when I went back to working full time to keep the money coming in, he was so resentful of having to change roles and look after Tina while I worked.”
“I suppose it isn’t easy for an Australian husband – any husband, for that matter – to accept the fact that his wife has to support him,” I ventured, “even if it is only temporary.”
“I know it wasn’t easy for him. But it was no picnic for me either. And instead of supporting one another through that spell as we should have, we only seemed to flare up at each other all the time. And now, with him being so far away…..” Her eyes filled with tears, and she began to look very much like Tina did the day that Tiny got lost.
“Cathy,” I went over, producing a clean hankie, and knelt on one knee beside her chair (as I had knelt by Tina the day she had been crying). “Take it easy. Things will work out in time. It’ll be okay.”
She dabbed her eyes with my hankie. “I’m sorry, Ranjit. I shouldn’t be saying all this. You must think me very disloyal to my husband.”
“There are times when all of us need someone we can talk to,” I offered, “Perhaps it’s easier with someone who doesn’t know us too well.”
She gave me half a smile.
“That’s just it. There’s been nobody I could talk to. With people at work, you tend not to talk about things like this, and with Simon – well, you can’t really unburden yourself of all the troubles of the week over the phone, can you?”
She looked at me again, and gave a wry laugh. “The last few days have been more than I could cope with, really. First I broke one of the glass panes in the bedroom window trying to close it. Then the microwave packed up, and I had to pay a fortune for a new one. And this morning” she gestured towards the bathroom, “the bathroom tap started dribbling.”
“Well,” I admitted, standing up, “microwave ovens are not my cup of tea – but surgery is a bit like carpentry and plumbing, so fitting a new pane and a new washer should be no problem, if that’s all that’s needed. And what you need yourself, Cathy,” I added firmly, as we went to inspect the window and the faucet, “is some going out yourself. Would you and Tina like to come with me for a drive tomorrow – we can go out to Philip Island like Tiny did and see the penguins ourselves.”
The drive out on Sunday was delightful. Tina insisted on slipping off her shoes and paddling in the water – though even in February, it was too cold for me, accustomed as I was to the tropical surf of Sri Lanka.
“It’s so nice to get out of Melbourne for the day,” exclaimed Cathy, “It seems years since we’ve been anywhere. Have you travelled at all in Australia since you’ve been here?”
“A fair bit. I’ve been mainly doing these locum jobs, and they usually last for a month to six weeks each time. Long jobs like this one don’t come up too often for Overseas Trained Doctors like me.”
“It must get lonely for you, I guess. Not being able to settle down in one place, I mean.”
I looked out over the sea, stretching out to Antarctica. I remembered a view of the sea, just like this, in Yala on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. One could look out over miles and miles of ocean stretching out towards the South Pole. Perhaps loneliness was what I had sought when I came to Australia…..
“That’s true, in a sense. But I tend to get so involved in my work that I keep myself busy – so I don’t really get the chance to feel lonely.”
We had to wait until dusk for the penguins to come in out of the sea. Tina was thrilled to see the little creatures scurrying up the banks to their nests. “Tiny must have loved watching the penguins. Now I’ve seen them too.”
On the way back, Tina dozed off, and was fast asleep when we reached home. I carried her in and helped deposit her on her bed.
“It’s been a lovely day, Ranjit. You were right. I did need to go out for a change.”
It had been a lovely day – for me as well, after a long time a day that was pleasant and light hearted and enjoyable. I couldn’t remember when I’d enjoyed a day like this for a long time.
* * * * *
Simon arrived two weeks later, late on the Saturday afternoon, and he stayed till Tuesday. I’d planned to stay away, to give the family as much time as possible together – but Cathy came round to ask me over for a quick drink on Sunday evening.
Simon seemed to be a personable chap, friendly and easy to talk with. We chatted about the penguins, and the pandas in the zoo, about surgery and immunology, about football and cricket – about everything, in fact, that would be discussed by two men who have a lot in common.
Didn’t he suspect anything? Didn’t he sense that the whole situation was unhealthy?
Maybe he was so involved with his work in Townsville that he didn’t think too much about what was happening at home. Maybe he was too confident of her love for him to even suspect that the last year had put such a strain on their relationship. Maybe he was being careful not to jeopardise the delicate balance they had achieved by appearing to query what was, after all, nothing more than an innocent friendship.
“Do you feel better now that you’ve seen each other?” I asked Cathy when I saw her some days after Simon left.
“It was such a short time,” she replied, “I felt that we were just beginning to know each other again when it was time for him to go back.”
She added, “But it looks like the job is going to be permanent, so he has started looking for a house. Then we can all move there.”
“Then Mummy and I will be going away, Uncle Ranjit.” announced Tina coming in, “just like Tiny did. Did you see his latest postcard? It’s from a place called Orange.”
* * * * *
“Ranjit, how are you going to get out of this?
It was a week later. Tina had dragged me in to see the latest postcard from Gulgong (The Town on The Ten Dollar Note) before she was sent off to bed.
“You can’t go on sending postcards for ever and ever, you know.”
“That’s true.” I agreed. “I’ve collected a fair number of picture postcards during the course of my travels, but they’ll soon run out. I guess from Gulgong he can go on to Alice Springs, and then Darwin – and perhaps from there he could hop a boat to Hong Kong or Singapore. That should keep him out of circulation for a while, don’t you think?”
She laughed, and I laughed with her.
It’s strange how quickly a situation changes. One moment two people are laughing together; the next, their eyes meet, and the laughter stops abruptly.
“Anyway,” she said, breaking the silence, “Tina will soon forget about it all.”
“I know,” I added without taking my eyes off hers, “but what I’m afraid of is that Ranjit won’t be able to forget Cathy.”
I will never know which of us moved first. Was it Cathy who leaned towards me, or did I reach out for her?
It was like one of those slow-motion sequences in a movie, with two individuals coming together until they finally fitted in to where they belonged.
When she finally pulled back from me, she spoke quietly, as if in control of herself. “I love Simon.” She said it with a conviction that was lacking in her eyes. “I know things have not been good between us lately, but I do love him. I do, really.”
She looked at me as if she couldn’t quite separate dreamworld from reality, looking to me for confirmation…..
“I know you miss him.” I told her.
Then she was in my arms again…….
* * * * *
I didn’t see Cathy the next day. I was tied up operating on two children who had been involved in a car accident, one with a lacerated kidney and the other with a ruptured spleen, so I didn’t get home from the operating theatre till after midnight. It was only on the Friday evening that I knocked on the door. Tina opened it for me, as Cathy came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands. I did not attempt to meet her eyes.
“Did you see me waving at you, Uncle Ranjit? From the garden?”
“Yes, Tina, didn’t you see me waving back at you with both hands ?” She nodded, and I pretended to tickle her. “Then don’t ask silly questions.”
I swallowed, wishing I could have avoided the next scene and done it the easy way as Tiny had done.
“I’ve come to say goodbye, princess. I’ve finished my job, and I’m leaving early tomorrow morning.”
She looked crestfallen. Whether Cathy shared her expression, I could not say, since I dared not glance up at her.
“I do love him,” she had said that night “I do really.”
And I know that she does. Because if I had never appeared on the scene, she would have survived these bad times, and gone to join him in Townsville, and everything would have turned out all right for them.
But I did appear, like a tall dark stranger out of nowhere – at a time when she was sad, and lonely, and disappointed after a troubled year.
I, if anyone, know how easily these things can happen.
Perhaps, if Vijay had had the strength to walk away, Rani and I might still be together – and I might not have had to seek refuge in Australia.
Rani had been sad and lonely too – frustrated by all too frequently being left on her own, without even a child like Tina for company, while I was away operating for months on end at the Army hospital in Jaffna. There was a war on, and Army surgeons being in short supply, I hardly ever seemed to get leave to come home. It was then that she met Vijay, who was there for her when I couldn’t be, filling the gap that I in my blindness had never realised even existed…..
“But where are you going, Uncle Ranjit?” Tina’s voice brought me back to the present.
“I’m going walkabout.” I smiled down at her. “Australia is a big country, and I’ve got to go and seek my fortune, just like Tiny did.”
“Will you send me postcards, like Tiny used to?”
“No, Tina,” I said putting my hands firmly on her shoulders, “because I won’t know where to send them when you move to Townsville.”
It was then that Cathy came forward. I could face her now. Whether it was sadness or relief that flooded her eyes, I could not say.
“You’ll be moving away soon yourself, Tina. You’ll be going up north to live with your Dad, in this new house he’s getting for you and Mummy.”
I lifted her up, and planted a kiss on each cheek. “Goodbye, big girl. Look after yourself, you hear?” I aimed a mock punch at her tummy as I set her down, and she giggled. I placed my hand on Cathy’s shoulder.
“Goodbye, Cathy. I know things will work out well for you in time. Take Care of yourself.”
* * * * *
“I’ll miss you, Ranjit,” she had said as she touched my arm for a brief moment.
Her words rang in my ears the next morning as I carried my two bags out to the waiting car. I stood for a moment, for a last look at their window with its curtains drawn, before getting into the car. I eased the vehicle out into Flemington Road.
Time will ease the pain – for both of us.
She has a new life to look forward to. This brief encounter will gradually get relegated into the realm of memory, as just another episode of a traumatic year.
As for me – well, as I told Tina, Australia is a big country, and there is a lot of Australia that I haven’t yet seen.
Unfortunately, there is a big difference between the memories of a marriage and those of a brief encounter.
The memories of a brief encounter last longer.