‘Call me Cindy.’
She tried it out in the mirror; off-hand, with a bored sideways look, then coy, then direct. She wasn’t especially convinced by any of them. Would he be?
‘Hi, I’m Ella. Nice to meet you.’
Ella. Cindy. Cinda. Rella. Should she just try her full, over the top, embarrassing name?
‘Cindarella’s my name. And you?’
Her face in the mirror looked girlish, friendly – but the eyes gave her away. They seemed scared. She hastily rubbed off the lipstick with a tissue and flushed it down the toilet, just as her boss yelled out from the living room. She should have finished cleaning the bathroom 10 minutes ago. The pipes squealed and clunked as she washed her hands; a noisy alibi.
‘Sorry miss, coming.’
The family were going out tonight to Priya’s graduation ball. It had to be PERFECT. Each of the sisters had a new outfit, perfectly pressed. A light meal was to be provided at 5:00pm, before they left the house. Everything was to be cleaned while they were out, in the event that they invited friends home afterwards. There was to be plenty of ice in the freezer. The glasses were to sparkle. She knew that the girls would want to go on to their own parties; that Vidya would sneak off with that boy and that the others would go out clubbing. But their parents were ever hopeful, and who was she to comment? Nobody. That’s who. She scooted into the kitchen and started loudly clattering dishes. They liked to know where she was.
By 7:00pm the apartment was still. Cindy slipped, barefoot, across the cool tiles, gathering plates, straightening cushions, and setting the place quickly and efficiently to rights. One quick mop and she would be done. The golden carriage clock chimed from the shelf. Your time starts NOW. A sudden twinge in her belly. So soon? The mop sped across the floor, catching her feet. No problem. The dirty water, no problem. The dishes drying slowly in the kitchen, no problem. Nothing was a problem. It would all be fine. She had planned this and planned it and planned it. She had never planned so thoroughly for anything. It would be fine.
She showered briskly, carefully avoiding her hair. No time for drying. Her boss’ underwear fit her perfectly, as did the dress. The sparkling slippers with the glass beads, she had bought at the market. The lipstick, she borrowed from the bathroom cabinet. Priya was careless with it; she’d never notice. Nairya kept her make-up in her room in a special case. Whatever. Cindy only glanced at herself once when she was done. Any more and she’d lose her nerve. She covered herself with a house-coat, in case of neighbours, and slipped out of the door.
The heat embraced her in the stairwell, with all its comforting humidity. Even as she hurried down to the ground floor, slippers tap tapping on the steps, she could feel herself relaxing to her bones. It was not possible to be stressed in this heat, not really. The air smelled of good times; of incense and street food, smoke and fruit, and under it all the damp, lush growth of plants in every corner. Trees and parks and jungle and lawns. Bananas. Jackfruit. All the richness of the world from soil to streetlamps to piled-high market stalls. And above them all, the skyscrapers, their glassy exteriors shining like a festival of lights. She crossed the street to the station entrance. More stairs, more tiles, the dry air of the subway tunnels pushed back and forth by trains. She passed a homeless man sitting on a small mat. His hair was as tangled as hers was glossy. Sorry mister, she thought, today I have time only for my own destiny. The MRT card pressed its hard edges into her palm.
Would he be there, as promised? It seemed too good to be true and yet, why not? Why shouldn’t she have a chance at such a life? She thought about the other maids, Adelina in particular, wasting her youth to send money home. And then her prime, sleeping in that tiny room off the kitchen. And then her middle age. The train rocked her soothingly, showing her reflection in the window as it sped through the dark. She was young. She could be beautiful. She could, sang the train. She could, she could, she could. She had to be home by the end of the ball. That was all, that was all. She had to create an impression to last, but fast, but fast. He’d fall in straight love and would offer her marriage, she’d have him before she came home on this carriage – stop it, she told herself, this is no time for childish rhymes. But she was smiling. What if?
The train slowed. She folded the housecoat into her bag and shook out her hair. There was a man waiting nervously on the platform. Crisp shirt, good haircut, tie. A little shorter than expected, perhaps? But not repulsive, from this distance. She checked the picture one more time. It was him. He was punctual, then. The train drew to a halt. He was looking towards her now; soon their eyes would meet. She smoothed her skirt, took a deep breath, and stepped off the train.
‘Hello sir, I’m Cindy. It’s good to meet you.’