It has been a while since I ran into Helen and Cissy — fondly referred to as The Two Ranis — Helen having her roots in Gwalior and Cissy in Jhansi, India. Helen still recalls how she arrived in Sydney decades ago clad in a pink sari, unwittingly carrying in her luggage a packet of papadams (Indian snack) and jackfruit seeds.
After exchanging ‘long time no see’ greetings, they encourage me to join them for coffee.
“Tell us about things. We’ve heard about your play. How did that go? What was it about?”
I paint them a detailed picture (the hubris, I believe, of all writers talking about their own work) but notice Helen is only mildly attentive. Cissy’s the one hanging on to every word like she’s been left dangling over a cliff, exclaiming at the appropriate places. At the end I ask Cissy how she’s been doing.
“I’m great as you can see,” replies the white-haired one, “but it’s this one that’s down in the dumps,” indicating Helen.
Helen, who is white-haired too beneath the expert dyeing, but few would guess, sniffs and says, “Yea, it’s this Andre episode. It’s playing havoc with my blood pressure.”
That’s a tantalisingly mysterious statement and as a writer naturally I’m intrigued. I know that Andre is her grandson, a serious Francophile, who for the last four years has been pursuing a French degree in Rouen.
“Tell him about it,” urges Cissy, to which Helen replies, “I can’t Cissy, my head aches just thinking about it. You tell him.”
Helen, famous for spotting a chance to be dramatic, uses a paper napkin to dab at invisible perspiration on her forehead.
“I’ve just had it with these youngsters, their whims and, most of all their lack of gratitude,” she sighs.
“Well, it all started like this ...” says Cissy.
A good host
Over the years a few of Andre’s French-based college mates have travelled to Australia and Andre has arranged for them, when in Sydney, to stay at his grandma (Helen’s) place.
“This helps the young chaps since they don’t have to pay board and lodging,” explains Cissy, adding, “Helen, as you know is a wonderful hostess. Anyway…”
Apparently among the recent student-visitors was a pair of South American descent — Javier and Jose. Andre wrote a letter of introduction which was delivered personally by the boys. In the letter Andre cautioned Helen several times.
“Gran, please be very careful how you pronounce their names. It’s Havier and Hose, and you say it ‘har-vee-yeah’ and ‘ho-say’, not hose as in water hose ... Remember that please. In Spanish the J often gets said as H.”
Helen produces another dramatic sigh and takes up the narration: “As Cissy is my witness, I worked really hard and I think the two young lads went away thoroughly pleased. Not once did I slip up.”
Where’s the drama in all this, I wonder?
“Well you ought to be proud of yourself, Helen, not dispirited,” I offer as encouragement but she snorts, “That’s not the end of the matter, as Cissy will tell you.”
It’s true, says Cissy, Andre is annoyed, embarrassed and threatening, from long distance, to shun his grandma when he returns. “It’s like this,” says Helen, either finally finding the strength, or recognising a dramatic climax and claiming her moment. “How am I to know all the different rules in different countries when it comes to names, eh? How am I to know the J is H in South America but not so in Kenya?”
“Kenya?” I ask, perplexed.
“Yeah, this other mate of Andre’s who visited. That’s where he’s from. Extremely polite young man, even when correcting me, saying, ‘My name, Jomo, is said with a proper J, Miss Helen, just like you say Joseph.’ He even laughed heartily when he returned to France and recounted my faux pas to Andre.
“Andre should have warned me, you know, but instead says he can’t forgive. Is he considering my own acute embarrassment? Oh, my head!”
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.