“My mother appeared to be in command of herself”: an excerpt from Suneeta Peres da Costa’s Saudade

The following text is an excerpt from Saudade, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Giramondo Publishing, Sydney, 2018. Copyright © Suneeta Peres da Costa, 2018. Reproduced by permission of Giramondo Publishing.
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Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade

Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade.
Giramondo Publishing. $19.95.
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When we moved to the capital my mother resolved that we should make a new impression on the world too. Papá was often away on business and so Caetano drove — and as we passed from the new dis­­­trict into the old district of the city, I read the street names: Rua do Senado da Câmara; Rua de Dom Joâo II; Rua de António Enes. I recited them to myself with wonder, as Galileo might have recited the relation of the earth to the sun and the planets rotating in their vast orbits: Avenida dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra; Rua do Coronel de Paiva. I did not know they were merely set out on the same grid as Lisbon, being a mirror of the colonial imaginary. And now that the names of the streets have changed, I wonder would I recognise them or be lost when moving through them again? … As I accompanied her on errands to the bank, to the hairdresser, to the market, my mother would tell me whom to greet, what to say, even how we should walk away. From the Rua de Camões we entered the Baixa and she found her way to merchants whose supplies she favoured. There was an officious Saudi who had the bags of fruit and citrus measured out exactly. We bought spices from a dealer from the Antilles; his prices were inflated, but the aroma of his cumin, peppercorns, turmeric and cloves was irresistible. We bought coffee and a particular kind of tobacco for Papá from a Guinean merchant who suffered a skin disease — my mother told me not to stare. From a garrulous old woman called Francesca who was said to have a lot of lovers we bought cassava flour and palm oil. Francesca’s African grey parrot perched on her shoulder and greeted one with good morning and trilled kisses when she said beijos. We bought chocolate and cheese — items which had been scarce in Benguela but which we now regularly enjoyed. My mother appeared to be in command of herself, but one day in the midst of proceedings, felt faint and had to sit down. We were in the middle of the fish market and the fishwives abandoned their posts to help her. She resisted, made little of this spell of giddiness. I meanwhile stared at the catches of prawns and fish and the fisherwomen themselves who were spread-eagled on their jute mats and waving flies from their wares. If I looked, and I could not help myself, I could see the dark cavities between their legs and wondered if rivers of blood flowed from them too. Soon my mother recovered, brushed her weakness off, said it must be due to the change in climate from Benguela, and continued how watermelons which came from the Congo were sweeter and more mellow than the watermelons from Angola… Her voice trailing, I soon found myself on the far side of the market amidst the old women selling sausage and salt pork. The area was rank with the stench of smoke and cat piss; litters multiplied each week and the kittens meowed and curled in between the cool stone tablets of the auction blocks. I wanted to take one home with me, but my mother had forbidden me to touch them. Now I stopped to caress one, a runt; it was fractious and leapt from my hands. When I turned back I could no longer see my mother. At first the delirious pleasure of finding myself completely free overcame me. What did it matter where my mother was? I thought I could find her if I wanted but right then had no desire to do so! How exciting to be observing all the things about me without her asides! It was nearly Carnaval and in one corner of the market a ventriloquist had set himself up on a beer crate; the puppet’s wasted legs fell over his own and, despite the slightly parted lips which betrayed the simulation, the ventriloquist’s string of dirty jokes appeared to issue directly from the puppet’s wooden orifice. I looked for a long time before plucking up the courage to approach one of the bruxas. She was counting the crumpled banknotes in her rusty tin, surrounded by small bottles whose contents seemed half-evaporated, as well as seeds and dried salt fish and plants laid out to sell as curatives. I looked at her feet, noting that they were for all intents and purposes anatomically correct, when she said, in Kimbundu, something that I could not understand. Then she clapped her hands and spoke again in Portuguese: What do you say, Cleopatra? She was chewing kola and her mouth, stained scarlet with the juices, looked like a gash. Someone admonished the ventriloquist to stop but he had the puppet repeat the threats like a game of echoes. A scuffle broke out and soon a policeman arrived to break up the crowd. Everyone was speaking at once and my temples throbbed to hear them. Near to where I was standing a woman was plaiting zimbo shells into bags much like the one that my mother carried. I made my way from one aisle to another where the mountains of dried cassava and maize cast tall shadows across my path. Each time I came to the end of a row of stalls, it was as though I was in a bad dream in which the wares displayed had been switched to disorient me. I slipped and someone laughed at my falling. At one moment I thought I saw my mother in the butchery area. The heads of lambs had been hung up for fast sale; flies swarmed about the lakes of their eyes and threads of blood stained the flagstones. I had mistaken her for a mestiça with straightened hair. I knew we were to go to the tailor to pick up a dress that had been stitched for my birthday so I made my way there by myself, crossing the street to his little shop on Rua de Sousa Coutinho, out the front of which there was a concrete bench on which I sat and watched the people going by. Soon I saw my mother coming toward me, shouting my name. When she found me, she said that I could have died crossing the street without her. Tears welled in her eyes and smudged her kohl… The tailor was a small, tubercular man, bent over a Singer machine. He had dubbed my mother Marie Antoinette and me her lady-in-waiting. He got up to greet us as soon as he saw her; and when he brought out the dress with white heart-shaped buttons down the front, I was captivated by the fabric which we had chosen at Saratoga. It was printed with a picture of a girl and boy accompanied by their mother on a picnic: in the first scene, the girl was portrayed carrying her doll by one arm to a place where her brother was playing with a dog; in the next, the mother was feeding the children iced cakes and tea; in the final tableau, the father was holding the car door open for the little boy to climb in, to go home. The girl on the fabric was wearing a dress made of the self-same fabric and this story-inside-the-story intrigued me no end. I was so enthralled by the easy domestic enjoyment of this family that I barely caught on when, while my mother paid him, the tailor said that not every child who does not talk is demented but some turn out to be. From the corner of my eye I loked at the tailor: I now decided that he had a smile that I did not like. When he smiled I could see how few teeth he had left in his mouth and that they were all rotten. Then I looked at my mother: she too was smiling and still very beautiful. She put the change in her purse, thanked the tailor and took my hand. We had not gone far though when she suddenly broke step with me. She said that the tailor was right and that people took me for a deaf-mute. She said that the problem was that she had cosseted me far too long. All these things she said with a look of such disappointment that she seemed an utter stranger… That I was not the cause of her disappointment was suddenly apparent to me, but when I turned my head back to see where it may have begun, it was indistinct, there was no clear picture of it. And when I strained ahead to see where it might also end, I could see far out across the sea and to the petrels gliding on the crests of the waves and I could even see the horizon, but I could not see where her unhappiness might end… On the Avenida de Álvaro Farreira she asked Caetano to stop at a café where we could have cool drinks. We were being seated, when we suddenly saw Papá at another table across the floor, deep in conversation with Senhor Mascarenhas. My father was supposed to be out of town and seemed startled when he caught sight of us. He approached our table, greeting us with a formality by which even Senhor Mascarenhas seemed embarrassed. Senhor Mascarenhas insisted on paying for our drinks and then he and Papá accompanied us to the car. I looked behind me, I looked in front of me and then looked sidelong at my mother. Her head was held high but she had begun to weep; the kohl ran down with her tears, staining her face. And although I thought she was still beautiful, it was as a stranger seen in passing, a person who makes quite an impression in the moment but whom you have forgotten only seconds after they have gone.

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Suneeta Peres da Costa was born in Australia to parents of Goan origin. She has published and produced widely across the genres of fiction, non-fiction, playwriting and poetry. Her novel Homework was published by Bloomsbury in 1999. She is the recipient of numerous literary fellowships and awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship and the BR Whiting Studio Residency in Rome.