The shrill sound of the cellphone broke through the silence and caused Mary to jump. Hanging her head in defeat, she huffed out a breath before reaching for her phone. The readout confirmed what the ringtone had already suggested. She pressed the ignore button before muting the phone and dropping in into her desk drawer. She glanced up at the grinning students and rolled her eyes at their amusement.
"Your mom again?" one of the kids asked and Mary fought not to smile.
"Shut up, Daman, and finish the test." The kids all snickered and she returned to the papers she was marking. As a music teacher, she rarely had marking to do but at least three times a year she had to produce some kind of quiz to satisfy the school board. This time, two months into the new school year, the kids were answering questions about terminology and how to read music.
"I'm done," Daman told her. "Was too easy, Mary. Ya gotta give me harder shit than that!"
"Watch your mouth," one of the other boys told him and suddenly the room was no longer quiet.
She had taught almost all of the class the previous year and knew them all well. She sat back in her chair and listened to the young teenagers tease each other. As always, she kept an eye and ear out for anyone either being left out or getting hurt feelings but as usual, it was all fine.
"Mary, could I get a transfer into Mr. Doon's class? Or better yet can Daman get a transfer?"
"Why do you all call her Mary?" a new kid asked and all the students turned on him with gleeful expressions.
"Cuz no one can pronounce her last name," Daman replied. "Spell it out for him, Mary!"
"Got a pen?" she asked the new boy, happy to humour her kids. "Write it down. B-h-a-l-a-h-s-u-u-b-r-a-m-a-n-h-i-u-m." She said it for him when she had finished spelling it and waited for the usual response.
"Oh. Okay then. Mary it is," he surrendered.
"Her name isn't even Mary," Jordan added, a fact that some of the others did not know.
"Really?" Daman asked and Mary shook her head. "What is it then?" Daman prompted.
"I'm gonna assume everyone is finished their test, so file up, put them on my desk then get the hell out of my classroom."
Good naturedly, they all did as they asked, filing out the door five minutes before the bell rang.
"Mary?" a gentle voice asked and the teacher looked up into the eyes of her most beautiful student. Kasandra had been her student for two years, ever since reaching high school in grade eight. Mary had always been hauntingly attracted to the girl, wanting to be in her company as much as possible. The feeling was not new to her; Mary had often felt attracted to members of the opposite sex, although she had rarely been tempted into exploring that attraction. With Kasandra, however, she often found herself fighting her imagination. As a teacher she would never date or sleep with a student but if she ever did, she knew would be first on the list.
"Kasandra. How are you?" she asked, careful to keep her expression and voice neutral.
"Is that true? Your name isn't actually Mary?"
"I've been called Mary by everyone outside my family since I started Kindergarten," she shrugged.
"So what does your family call you? What is your full name really?"
Mary smiled. "My first name is Komali. My full name is Komali Shylaja Abhilasha Bhalahsuubramanhium."
Kasandra was silent a moment and Mary could see her lips struggling to pronounce the foreign name. "Wow," was Kasandra's final response, the word almost drowned out by the sound of the bell.
Mary laughed. "I'll see you tomorrow, Kasandra. Remember your music this time, all right?"
Alone, Mary steeled herself and returned the dozen calls from her mother. "Why do you even have a cellphone if you're never going to pick it up?" her mother asked in greeting.
"I was in class, Mom. I can't take calls during class. You know that."
"But why do you even have to work?" her mother continued in Bengali. Mary had learned English when she was very young but was still expected to speak Bengali when speaking to either parent. Like many families from Kolkata, or Calcutta as it had been known when she was born, they also spoke Hindi but unless she were in their house, Mary would reply only in English.
"To pay for the cellphone I never answer," Mary replied absently, focusing on gathering up all the paperwork on her desk.
"But if you married a wealthy man, you would not need to work and you would have time to spend with your family."
Mary sighed heavily and dropped back into her chair. "I don't want to get married, Mother. I like my life just the way it is."
"You need a man," her mother answered definitively, as if that ended the discussion.
"But maybe I'm a closet lesbian," Mary argued, aware of a faint tingle that caused her to wonder.
"Then marry a wealthy man and hire a pretty maid! It is my duty to see you get married, Komali. At your age, you shouldn't care about anything but getting a ring on your finger!"
"So maybe I'll marry a woman."
On the other end of the line, her mother gave an exasperated sigh. "Dinner is at five tonight. Do not be late."
"I can't tonight, Mom. I have too much work to do."
"It was not a question Komali! Be here at five. Aseem is coming." To escape the response she knew was coming, Mary's mother ended the call, leaving her daughter to curse at thin air.
Mary turned her mountain bike into her parent's driveway and coasted down passed the small collection of cars. She checked her watch and sighed. Perfectly on time as usual. Just once, she muttered under her breath, just once I'd like to be unpredictable.
She left her shoes out on the welcome mat and pushed open the door. Immediately the smell of home hit her senses and she paused to breathe it in. Spices, fresh chapattis emitting the warm smell of bread, curried lamb and beneath it all, the ever-present hint of vanilla. Voices drifted out from the kitchen but Mary quickly headed into the room on the left. Her father was bent under the lid of the antique piano that had travelled with the family all the way from Kolkata twenty-four years before.
"Tuning the old girl again, Dad?" she asked, placing her jacket, gloves and helmet on the floor by the couch.
"Ahh, yes Special K. She doesn't sound right to me. Play a few notes?"
Smiling at the way the inside of the piano made her father's voice thrum, Mary sat down on the old bench and played a short melody.
"Good, good. The base keys now." The famous music from the 'Pink Panther' followed his words.
"The bottom 'c' sounds out, Dad." Mary ran through the scales, dropping back to the key that had caught her attention.
"Nope. Too tight still," she replied, counting to ten before trying it again. "That's it. Right there," she smiled, playing the melody again.
"Yes, perfectly," her father agreed, his voice raised to be heard above the music. Smoothly, Mary moved onto another piece of music, working the keys to test each for their correct note. She closed her eyes and let the music take over, the old pianos unique, rich sound reminding her of a happier, easier time.
Her father had worked as a piano tuner since coming to Canada and when she was young, sometimes he would take her with him on a job. By the time she was five, he had already discovered that she had perfect pitch and simply by running through the scales could tell him what keys needed his attention. His reputation had grown until he was the most popular piano tuner in town, despite being the most expensive.
Mary drifted slowly up the keys and it was not until she began one of her favourite songs, The Way We Were, that she found another foul note. A minute turn of the key and her father gently closed the instrument's lid. The two exchanged a smile as Mary continued to play.
"You could have been a concert pianist," he told her, watching the effortless movements of her fingers on the old ivory keys.
Mary shrugged and crossed over into a modern pop song she had heard before leaving her house. "It was never something I wanted," she told him. "I love teaching. I think it suits me."
"Well, it certainly makes you happy," he smiled. "And that's all a man can ever want for his daughter."
Mary stopped playing and rose to give her father a warm hug. "If only Mom felt the same way," she groaned.
"I thought I heard you in here," her mother called from the doorway. "Come in and say hello to our guest, Komali."
"Speak of the devil," Raji muttered as he turned. "Komali was just helping me with the piano, Anala," he told his wife. "I'll send her in when we have finished." With a loud "tsk" and a fluttering hand, Anala returned to the kitchen.
"It's all right, Dad. I should go in there. I can't stay late so the sooner the torture starts, the sooner I can escape."
"You know that fool Aseem is here again?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. "I don't know why she insists on inviting that man!"
"Because he is happy to marry an old spinster like me," Mary reminded him, quoting her mother almost perfectly.
"Foolishness," he spat. "You are 25 years old! And he is a sorry excuse for a man!"
"Shh," Mary warned him.
"I don't care if he hears me!"
"I don't either," she smiled. "But if Mom does we'll both be in a whole lot of trouble."
The kitchen was a very crowded room which opened up into a dining room with a view over the small but immaculate garden. The setting sun was beginning to change the colour of the sky and Mary wished she could have been at home watching the sunset instead.
"Ahh, there she is," her mother crowed. "Aseem has been waiting for you, Komali."
Forcing a smile to her face, Mary looked at the pudgy man who, in turn, stared at her chest. Aseem Gupta was not an attractive man. In his late thirties, he had already lost much of his hair but had grown the sides so that with enough grease, he could perform the classic comb-over. His nose was enormous, his eyes and lips almost too narrow to discern, his mouth small and mean. Thankfully, as Mary looked at him he kept his mouth closed and saved her from seeing his rotten, crooked teeth. Worth of all, though, Aseem had a chronic body odor problem that he seemed never to notice.
"Hello, Aseem," Mary greeted from the doorway.
"Komali. It is good to see you again," he intoned in Hindi, his eyes still captivated by her chest. The man wore brown pants that were much too small, a blue shirt that had never seen the flat end of an iron and a garish green tie, complete with food stains. Mary fought the urge to shudder and moved to help her mother with the food.
"Aseem was just telling me how he has made another million in the stock market."
"Really? Again?" Mary asked sarcastically. "It must almost seem boring by now." Her mother shot her a warning glance but Mary met it with an exasperated expression of her own.
"Well, let's eat," her father grumbled as he came through the doorway. "Komali cannot stay long," he stated firmly, effectively ending any future argument.
Anala made Mary wait until most of the meal had been eaten before she began guiding the conversation toward the subject of marriage. "What do you think about these modern women having careers, Aseem?"
The man shrugged, struggling to empty his mouth enough to speak. "I don't mind really," he eventually managed, spraying grains of rice over the table.
Anala was taken aback. "You don't mind?" she repeated, and Mary caught the wink from her father.
"No. I say let the girls do what they like."
Mary was not fooled. "So, Aseem, you would have no problem with your wife working…after the wedding?"
"Oh no. Of course, any married woman has a responsibility to her husband. After the wedding, she would stay at home doing what women were born to do. Children would fill her time before too long," he added.
"What we were born to do? Not working?" Mary repeated.
"Men are better suited to work. We are smarter, stronger, more capable and just generally better. Women are clever in some ways, cooking, for instance, but they just don't have the ability to be as smart. They are for keeping men fed and producing offspring."
"Well surely things have changed slightly," Anala stuttered.
"Like in the last 500 years or so," Komali added quietly.
"Not really," Aseem shrugged. "Some women have just need discipline. They can all be trained."
Silence settled over the table. It was simply out of respect for her family that Mary did not stand up and let her opinions fly, or the cutlery for that matter.
"Oh, Komali," her mother suddenly blurted with false happiness. "You'll never guess who I saw the other day?"
"Carrie Chapmann Catt?" Komali guessed. "Susan Brownell Anthony? Not Belva Ann Lockwood?" Three blank faces stared at her and Komali raised her hand in a gesture of dismissal. To explain the identity of three of the world's most prominent suffragettes would only fuel an argument. "Never mind. Google them later. Who did you see?"
"Dallas Jones. You remember her?"
"Dallas Jones? Really?"
"I know! I was shocked, too. I'd heard rumours that she was back in town but I never paid them much mind. But there she was…standing in line at the gas station."
"Komali? Wasn't Dallas the girl who tried to kill someone in eighth grade?" her father asked.
"No, Dad, she didn't hurt anyone else. She tried to commit suicide." Komali was quiet a moment. "I've often wondered what happened to her. We were good friends when we were young."
"I used to tune their piano every few weeks," Raji recalled. "One of the pegs was too loose but they didn't want me to drill the hole needed to fix it. You remember?"
Silence fell over the table and she grabbed the opportunity. "Oh goodness! Look at the time! Thanks for dinner, Mom but I have to get going. Love you, Dad. See ya soon. Bye Aseem." And she was free! Once again, on her bike, she flipped into a fast gear and pedalled home as quickly as she could.
It was a small house, set atop a hill with nearly two acres of land. A high fence enclosed the yard, effectively containing the collection of rescue animals; four dogs, three hamsters, two goats and a donkey. There were also several cats around the property but because of the dogs, they had chosen to remain relatively feral. The donkey and goats were the easiest to take care of, just a small shed, fresh water, hay in the winter and fresh grass for the rest of the year. The hamsters were all skittish thanks to a pair of cruel children but they still emitted loud squeals whenever she came in the door. Carrots, pellets and handfuls of spinach were all needed to quieten them down.
The dogs, though, were what always made her feel loved. Two Newfoundlands, a Rottweiler, a Norfolk Terrier. The terrier she had renamed Tuck after he had been unceremoniously dumped on her doorstep by his owners. "His name is Fuck, cuz that's all we been saying to him since we got him. He shits on the floor, pees on the bed and now finally he bit my boy. Either you have him or my shotgun will."
Naturally, just as everyone in town knows, she took him in. He lived in a crate for six weeks, the enclosed space making him feel safe in the new environment. Once comfortable with his new home, Mary had begun retraining him. Three months later, Tuck was comfortably the alpha male of her pack and unquestionably devoted to Mary and the hamsters. Whenever they got out of their cage, Tuck would herd them all together and keep them safe from the other dogs.
A large dog door had been fitted at the back of her house and every time she came home, she was greeted by four happy faces. It was always the best part of her day and after dinner with her parents and Aseem, she sank to her knees and buried her face in clean, warm dog fur.