:: Article

Plastic Emotions (Extract)

By Shiromi Pinto.

This is an extract from Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions (Influx Press).

Stars, millions of them, beating like hearts. She sees them pulsing over the rim of her arrack glass. The sky is an open book, she thinks, written in a language I don’t understand. She slides back into the planter’s chair, tries to get comfortable, and fails.

‘Baby Nona?’

She sighs, takes another sip from her glass. Jaya is standing behind her, looking at the almost empty tumbler. She will not offer her another one.

‘Minnette, Miss? Ivarada, Miss?’

Minnette considers the contents of her glass. There is only just enough liquid left to wet the tip of a fingernail. One last sip. She feels the impulse before she recognises it. One last taste before she abandons herself to the community of sleep. That community, she realises, is up there, brilliant with dreaming. Millions of stars waiting for her.

She hands the unfinished glass to Jaya who tries, but fails, to conceal her disapproval. Even if I gave it back to her full, she would not approve. Young ladies drink sweet wine, not spirits. She smiles. Am I still young?

‘Baby Nona?’

Minnette shakes her head. ‘Hari, hari. Thank you.’ She waves Jaya away. Baby Nona. Even at thirty-two, Minnette knows she will only ever be the youngest, and so a child to Jaya.

Upstairs, in her room, Minnette collects her drawings. The Ariyapala Lodge is her first project. If not for her father, she might still be searching for work but fortunately, Ceylon — the new Ceylon — appears amenable to the ambitions of a woman architect freshly returned from England. It helps that the Ariyapalas are old family friends. Minnette’s drawings are neat, precise. The Ariyapalas were impressed. The house is sited on a hill, overlooking Kandy Lake. Minnette has sketched the elevation of the building, considered its aspect. Her calculations are meticulous. The house will be Modern and yet intrinsically vernacular. Materials will be local, as will the decorative work. Exterior spaces, like the balcony, will be as important as the interior. The Ariyapalas agreed to the plans without fuss. But as the months go by, first one objection, then another, is raised.

The project was commissioned more than a year ago. The honeymoon period, in which Minnette’s ideas were greeted with pleasant surprise and excited applause, has given way to suspicion, resentment, and occasional distress. ‘Hanh,’ says Mrs Ariyapala, ‘but why not paint the walls? Otherwise, it will look like an abandoned building, no?’ This to Minnette’s insistence that the interior walls remain unfinished. When Mrs Ariyapala realises that not only will the walls be unpainted, but they will also remain unrendered, she closes her mouth and does not open it again until she is alone with her husband, whom she then castigates for trusting an ‘upstart woman architect’.

All of Minnette’s energies are directed into the Ariyapala Lodge. She has set up her studio at Nell Cottage, hired local artisans to fire clay tiles, weave dumbara mats, carve and lacquer mouldings. The artisans are an extension of her studio, a community she, like her mother before her, hopes to nurture while engaging their considerable skill. She has forged friendships with weavers, learning techniques from them that she uses to create her own, exquisite saris. For Minnette, the Ariyapala Lodge is more than a house; it is the culmination of an architectural tradition that goes right back to Anuradhapura itself.

She examines her drawings as she arranges them into a pile. The foundations went down some months ago. Not easy, given her engineer had refused to work on them unless Ove Arup in London okayed the plans first. So, Minnette sent them to the famous structural engineer, whose first achievement had been the penguin enclosure at London Zoo. He approved them. The work continued. Still, Minnette has overheard the baas and his crew talking about that pissu ganni. They say she is crazy to site the house in an area vulnerable to earthslips. Minnette ignores them. Her task is to use every foot of land, sloped or otherwise, so that nothing is wasted. Anyway, it has been years since the last flood. She knows there is no risk.

She opens her notebook, makes two calculations based on measurements she took at the site earlier today. Accept this little card as a promise of more to come, he wrote. That was in June, just before she left London. A kiss for every one of your fingertips. Believe me when I say this is not the end. And then, as a postscript: Chère amie, do not be offended. I ask that you do not send letters to No. 24, but to my office at No. 35. I know you will understand.

Minnette closes the notebook. She understood. She wrote back almost immediately: Corbu, please forgive me. I don’t know how it happened. Heartbreak, no doubt — a momentary madness. It wasn’t intentional. I would never do anything to hurt Yvonne.

In the quiet of her room, Minnette is suddenly, overwhelmingly, filled with need. Why doesn’t he write? She has been waiting for months and she is tired of it. Moths circle her lamp, immolate themselves. She decides to forget Le Corbusier, to ignore his letter when it comes. Then she sits down at her desk, moves her drawings aside, and begins writing.

Joyeux noёl, Corbu. I have not heard from you in so — She re-reads the words, crushes the sheet of paper, begins again. Joyeux noёl, Corbu! You must be busy — She crushes this, too, lights a cigarette, starts again. Joyeux noёl, Corbu. This should arrive well after you have digested your goose or duck or whichever fowl Maman Le Corbusier is roasting this year. I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while. Like you, I have been busy. The Ariyapala Lodge. Not without its challenges, Corbu. They are trapped in their parochialism. The Ariyapalas are short-sighted, lacking adventure. Sometimes I despair. I could really do with some of your advice, if not the certainty you bring to a room as soon as you enter it. The knowledge that I am what I am because of you.

Minnette stops, considers throwing the letter in the bin, stubs out her half-smoked cigarette, and lights another. Too late, she thinks. She inhales and exhales a long puff of smoke, fanning it towards the window. Jaya would not approve of this either. Smoking is for prostitutes. As is arrack-drinking. Minnette applies the nib of her pen to the vellum sheet.

But what of the knowledge of who I am? That seems only to exist somewhere else, when we are together. I don’t know if I can survive this separation, Corbu. So many months without a letter from you — without a word. All this waiting. It gnaws a hole in me. Minnette puts a hand to her stomach, is convinced she can feel it hollowing out. This is what comes of being forgotten. Have you, Corbu? Have you forgotten me? ‘No,’ Minnette says aloud, causing a moth to flinch before extinguishing itself in her lamp. No, you cannot. Not yet.

You wrote, all those months ago, not to give up on us, so I will not. I know you have a good reason for not writing — What am I saying? You are Le Corbusier. That in itself is a reason. Everyone wants something from you. So, in the spirit of Christmas, I am going to give you something, Corbu. Take as long as you need to write to me. This is my gift to you. Time.

Minnette signs off, folds the sheets, puts them in an envelope and seals it. She places the letter in the centre of her desk and stares at the address written in flowing blue cursive. No. 35, it says. Not 24. She can be sure of this.

This is the latest Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019.