“A very good afternoon to you too, madam.”
“Yes madam, this is she.”
“Yes of course Madam headmistress, It is indeed a good time to talk.”
The mother of two young children listened attentively, pressing the small, burgundy mobile telephone to her right ear. She winced occasionally. The long fingers on her left hand reached for her forehead involuntarily. A somber look came over her face and some sweat glistened on the smooth edge of her left palm as the voice on the other side of the telephone line engaged in what was obviously a monologue of a rather serious nature. She struggled to maintain her composure and to defuse the shadow of melancholy that had began to creep to her rounded, pretty face. She eventually mustered stamina that proved adequate to sustain her thoughts, words and her voice. She proceeded to offer an impromptu speech of gratitude that sounded more like a requiem of some sort.
“Of course Madam headmistress. My husband and I understand, and our two small children will hopefully understand in due time that it is not always that good things happen to good people. We perfectly understand that the school cannot make any exceptions for our children. Saint Aquinas Nursery and you, Madam headmistress, have been very kind to our two children during the past school year. We could not have asked for a better school administration and a set of teachers than that which St. Aquinas has offered. All is not lost, Madam Headmistress. We will remain in touch, and into God’s hands we deposit everything for it is only by His abundant grace and through His merciful will that all things transpire and expire. Have a very blessed day and God’s speed, Madam Headmistress.”
The two ladies indulged in a brief prayer over the telephone and pledged to maintain contact at all times.
Although she had expected the school authorities to call since the school opened a week ago, the call from the headmistress left the mother of two worried and pensive. She remained motionlessly on the sofa in the living room, recalling the details and the conscientious tone of the telephone conversation. Soft spoken and generally shy, the stay-home mother obviously surprised herself by the deftness with which she applied herself to the situation on her own behalf and on the behalf of her absent husband.
She gazed vacantly at the glass window that opens into the courtyard of the apartment complex. Warm tears streamed down her cheeks. She sobbed in silence. But she suddenly realised that it was less than five minutes before the school bus arrives at the main gate of the apartment complex. She ran down the staircase from the fourth-floor apartment, arriving at the gate just in the nick of time. She hugged the children warmly as if afraid to lose them to some unknown future.
“Mom my jacket is on the school bus,” said her little daughter, pointing to the departing bus. They shouted in unison for the bus driver to stop. The bus stopped at the bend of the road, only half a block away. The five-year old boy ran toward it as fast as he could, his royal blue school jacket swinging clumsily behind him like a malfunctioning pendulum.
Back in the compound, the young girl, to her mother’s amusement, mimicked a fashion model striding on a catwalk. Her hands on her small hip, her jacket hanging precariously on her narrow shoulders, she shuffled her small feet and walk in exaggerated, long rhythmic steps.
“Not bad at all,” her elated mother said approvingly. The few onlookers in the compound, including the gatekeeper, laughed and applauded the girl’s creativity. As if to signal that “the best was yet to come,” the girl too a quick bow before she ran into her mother’s open arms. The mother hugged her daughter tightly as if afraid to surrender her to an unknown fate. A vague tear escaped from the corner of her right eye, cascading timidly down her unsuspecting cheeks. She ushered the two young children towards the small iron door and disappeared into the apartment building. Their footsteps echoed cacophonously as they climbed the stairwell.
Back in the apartment, the five-year old boy began to narrate to his mother the details of his class’ visit to the public library. “It is a very large building that has many books; more than the books in dad’s reading room.” He said that the public library was a gift from the government to the people of the city. “The library has books for old people and for children.” He said.
The mother, a librarian by profession, added to the delight of her children that the library also contains books for blind and deaf people. “That is nice! I did not know that blind and deaf people read,” said the little boy approvingly.
Not wishing to be left out of the conversation, the little girl pulled her swimsuit from her school bag and began to narrate her adventures at the school’s swimming pool. She recounted the benefits her sport’s teacher said result from swimming.”In addition to making one clean, swimming makes body muscles strong,” she said, showing off her minuscule biceps and tiny stomach to her mother. Her brother giggle disparagingly.
Being a Friday afternoon and a day after the children missed the weekly buy-one-get-one-free pizza bargain, the mother knew too well that she will have to drive a hard bargain with the children in order for her plans for the day to fall in place. Eventually the children agreed to indulge in an afternoon siesta, and to do their homework before dinner in return for chips with the evening meal and an extra hour in front of the television. That compromise left the mother with ample time to share with her husband the content of her telephone conversation with the school headmistress earlier in the day.
“Hello love!” she exerted her level best to sound as cheerful and effusive as always, especially now that her husband’s voice was as warm as it sounded close.
“i am fine and so are the children.”
She told her husband that the children were asleep and that they all miss him very much. The children, she said, cannot seem to stop asking about whether their father will come home for the season’s holidays as usual.
As a segue into the jest of her earlier telephone conversation with the headmistress, she asked her husband about the impact of the ridiculous devaluation of the national currency on the family.
She steeled herself to hear and digest the details of the worst financial challenge facing their middle class family. He described the latest financial measures adopted by the country’s financial institutions as the straw that broke the camel’s back, It was bad enough, he said, that he had to buy dollars at exuberant rate from the black market in the past few months, but it is even worse now that one has to buy dollars at even more ridiculous rates from the bank. He explained to her how the family’s once decent monthly income of $4,000 doesn’t amount to a hill of beans under the new draconian currency regime. The family’s monthly income, he said, has now shrunk overnight to a paltry $700.
She informed him about her telephone conversation with the headmistress of St. Aquinas Nursery School. There was a long, uneasy pause. His voice shaky, he confessed to his wife that he has lately spent sleepless nights agonising over what the future might have in store for the family. He intimated to her that although he had anticipated it, the call from the school could not have come at a worse time.
They weighed their options, made difficult choices, and agreed to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the children as soon as possible. He thanked her immensely for her wisdom, but more importantly for being his wife and faithful friend. Although they had said all there was to be said on the telephone that afternoon, the couple clung silently to the telephone line as if afraid to surrender part of something to the unknown. They listened to each other’s breathing in melancholic silence.
She remained motionless on the sofa in her living room long after she and her husband hang up. A fleeting tear dropped from her eyes as the echoes of her husband’s words rang in her mind. “Only God knows how strong I have to be for you, and I want you to be strong for the children.”
The sound of tiny footsteps cut the train of her thoughts. She quickly wiped the tear away and pretended that she had not noticed her little daughter trying to sneak up on her. She decided to be complicit in her daughter’s nefarious plot.
Sporting a mischievous smile that made her tiny dimples disappear even deeper into her shiny cheeks, the little girl tiptoed and quickly blindfolded her mother with her tiny hands. “Peek-a-boo. Guess who is there?” she asked, trying gallantly to disguise her voice.
“Could that be the one and only beautiful daughter of mine who could not complete her nap on time because the only thing on her mind is a plate of chips before nine!”
Her little plot exposed, the little girl surrendered into her mother’s embrace. “Mom, that is not fair,” she said with a defeated smile on her face, “You are not supposed to know that it was me who covered your eyes,” she added. They laughed, waking up the boy in the process.
The mother spelled out the program for the evening and the following day, including the weekly trip to Jeffrey’s Sports Complex. The children responded to each of her announcements with shouts of approval. There was even louder applause, cheers and clinched fists when she announced that their father would call before an important family meeting in the morning.
The first rays of the morning sun weathered the few clouds that had threatened rain at dawn, adding more brilliance to the purple flowers of the handsome Jacaranda tree standing tall in the backyard of the apartment building. Having gotten out of bed early on Saturday morning, the mother was somehow surprised by her rather calm mood. She seemed to have digested and internalised the facts and consequences of their financial predicament. “Only God knows how strong I have to be for you, and I want you to be strong for the children.” Her husband’s words resonated like a mantra in the cool morning breeze as she stood on the balcony.
“As you heard from your father, a few things will change until our money situation improves. The dollar has caused our money to buy us less things,” the mother said to her attentive children after breakfast.
“What is the dollar mom, and why us it making dad angry?” The three-and-a-half-year-old girl asked with enviable innocence.
“The dollar is Obama’s money; President Obama was here, remember?” her brother volunteered half of the answer, to their mother’s delight.
In her own way, the mother explained the impact of the country’s dire economic condition on families like theirs.
“Now, the real bad news is that we don’t have enough money to pay your school fees this term,” the mother said, her voice breaking. “Your father and I love you so much that there is nothing we wouldn’t do for you. Therefore, we are terribly sorry that you will not be able to go to the school on Monday.The headmistress called yesterday and said that she was very sorry that this had to happen to you. She said that you have been among her best pupils but said that school regulations have to be applied without favour.” The mother added with a lump in her throat.
With tears in their eyes, the children protested bitterly, arguing that they will miss their classmates, swimming classes and singing in the school chapel. The mother told them that she sympathised with them and that she was even more angered by the situation than they could imagine.
The children cried miserably. Heartbroken, the mother tried in vain to calm them down by assuring them that things will be better in the near future and that they will have to wait only for the time being.
The boy rose from his chair, fetched his school bag from the room and placed it besides him on the sofa, across from his mother’s. His sister followed suit, but lied down next to her bag on a separate sofa. They both sobbed quietly, staring pleadingly into their mother’s eyes.
With her husband’s words resonating in her mind like a mantra, she struggled to hold back her tears.
After staring at nothing in silence for a long while, the children fell asleep on their respective sofas. The mother watched their dried up tears in pain. She stared at the ceiling endlessly until she wandered off into dreamland.
The mother felt some tiny hands wiping her face. She opened her eyes suspiciously only to see two pairs of bright, small eyes staring at her affectionately as she lay on the sofa. Having lost track of time, she seemed confused momentarily before she realised that she had fallen asleep on the sofa shortly after the tearful family meeting in the morning.
Unfazed, the children continued to massage their mother’s face urging her not to cry and assuring her everything will he okay.
The little girl held her mother’s face in her small hands. Her little, shiny face radiated innocent calm and serenity that seem to flow from a bottomless spring of inner placidity.
“Mom I will wait,” she announced with mature spontaneity that left her mother temporarily confused. But while her mother struggled to comprehend the announcement, the little girl bared her little soul.”Since there is not enough money for both of us, let my brother go to school. He has more homework,” she pleaded quietly as she fiddled with her mother’s hair.
The mother totally moved by her little daughter’s profound selflessness, fought back the tears. She remembered her husband’s words; her mantra. She hugged her daughter as if afraid to lose her to uncertainty.
“Honey, that was very nice. I am proud of you!” she told her daughter. “But your education is as important as your brother’s,” she added sternly. “So you will both wait. In fact, we will all wait!”
`Like a jealous hen, she gathered her children. They put their arms around one another’s shoulders and pressed their foreheads together softly. Their eyes glittering in the huddle, they giggled, and high fived one another. They donned their sportswear and set out for an afternoon of physical exercise and fun at Jeffrey’s Sport Complex in nearby Lavington. After all, there can’t be a better tomorrow without a good today, fraught with tribulation and jubilation as it were!