Excerpt

“Latha!”

Enava Madam!” She always had to yell just as hard as Mrs. Vithanage in order to be heard, and she was still working on finding a way to infuse reverence into her screams. Mrs. Vithanage was becoming testy with her.

“This girl is always somewhere else. Those days she used to hover next to me like a cat. Now I never know where she is. Latha! Mehe vareng!!

Latha cringed. She hated it when Mrs. Vithanage used the derogatory conjugation of verbs on her, the vareng, palayang, geneng that was the lot of laborers. She stopped running and began to walk. If she was going to be insulted, she was going to deserve it. Let her wait. She passed the driver who stood by the family car, a sedate black Peugeot with white, plastic covered interior that had arrived in the country in a fleet that had been imported by the government seven years before for something called the Non-Aligned Conference; she had learned about that at school because it was one of her principal’s favorite topics, the conference, not the cars which he had condemned bitterly. All day the driver loitered there, next to that car, even though he knew exactly when he was needed and even though that schedule never changed: take Thara to school at 7.00am, take Mr. Vithanage to The Ministry – whatever that was – at 8.30am, bring Mr. Vithanage home for lunch at 12.30pm, and return him to The Ministry after, and bring Thara home from school at 1.30pm; on Tuesdays, take Thara to elocution lessons (where she had learned, and subsequently taught Latha to recite parts of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ and ‘The Highwayman,’ which last was her, Latha’s, favorite, what with the maiden and all) at 3pm; on Wednesdays pick up and drop off the piano teacher at 4pm and 5pm respectively; on Fridays, take lunch for Thara at school and wait until she finished swimming lessons to bring her back, smelling of chlorine, ravenous; and everyday, bring Mr. Vithanage home at 5.30pm. Thursday mornings he took Mrs. Vithanage to the market, with her hair in a bun.

“Latha?” the driver said, as she passed, a greeting and an acknowledgment of her existence.

She stopped. “What?”

“No…nothing. Why in such a bad mood?” he snapped a green twig from a bush of poinsettia (there were poinsettias all along the driveway and personally, she thought they were ugly: pale, undecided colors and too much foliage) and began to pick at his teeth, sucking bits of lunch out from behind his jaws. Disgusting. He wasn’t bad looking despite the fact that he was short, and the dark skin, but my goodness, what terrible manners. “Too much work?” he asked her, after a particularly robust, and clearly productive, suck.

She scowled. Why he insisted on talking to her as if she were an equal she had no idea. Didn’t he notice that she sat in the back seat with Thara when she accompanied her on occasion? Not next to him like the gardener did?

“I don’t know why you suck your teeth like that. It’s such an ugly habit.”

The driver snorted. “Madam is in for trouble with you isn’t she? Sending you to school and all that. You better watch your attitude. Soon…”

Mr. Vithanage came onto the verandah, dabbing at the perspiration on his face with a creased brown and white chequed handkerchief. She had washed and ironed it just yesterday. Washing. She hated having to do the washing, but since Mrs. Vithanage’s row with Soma, the old servant, she was the only one left. She wished Soma would come back. In her absence she had become the cook, cleaner and laundress and while she didn’t mind the ironing she detested the washing. It made her hands sore. It made her back ache. Most of all, she had no time to pick flowers with Thara, which meant…

“Latha! Child, can’t you hear Madam calling you? What are you doing standing here? Go and see what she wants.” Mr. Vithanage gestured vaguely into the house, shook his head and stepped down to the portico.

The driver held the back door open for him and then shut it. He leaped up the steps, picked up Mr. Vithanage’s briefcase from the cane chair between the mahogany pedestal table and the matching urn with its arrangement of fake ferns the likes of which Latha had never seen in nature, and deposited it with great respect on the front seat. He got in on his side, stroked the steering wheel three times and brought his hands together in worship. He touched the picture of the Buddha that he had cut out of a Vesak greeting card and hung around the rear-view mirror with a bit of black cord, then started the car. He caught Latha’s eye and held her gaze as he drove slowly down the curving driveway. Latha rearranged her body, pulling it up to its fullest height, and shouted, this time with more deference.

“Madam, I’m here. I’m coming.”

© Ru Freeman

The Disobedient Girl
A Disobedient Girl is a deeply affecting novel by a compassionate and observant writer.— Michelle de Kretser, author of The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog