She rises up behind the computer and stretches. It is 4pm, time to go home.
She has had a long day, typing sheaf after sheaf of paper dumped on her desk by her boss into the computer on her desk. Her boss is a fat man whose tummy bobs up and down when he walks. His neck is so thick that whenever he speaks, he sounds like one who is speaking through a muffler.
Mother has finished the last of the typing task. She yawns as she checks her wristwatch again. Even if the day had been so busy and tiring, time had flown too. You watch as she gathers the white sheafs of paper up, holds them between her palms, bends and and bounces them on her desk till they align. She pats them on the top as a final touch, and slips them into a pink file.
She turns off her system, and grabs her big brown bag which is on her desk.
You walk by her side to the staircase.
“Aina, I am leaving,” she announces to the female messenger who is dozing on the balcony. Aina springs up from the bench on which she is sitting, and wipes the saliva on her mouth with the back of her right palm.
She has a funny red and orange scarf tied on her head. It does not match the dark blue frock she is wearing, or her yellow bathroom slippers. One thin braid done up with black thread peeps behind her neck.
“Aright Madame. Good night ma,” she says, courtesying.
You listen to mother give her instructions on locking up the office. She nods at every word. Mother tells her everything again, and adds that she knows how deaf Aina can be. To that, Aina laughs childishly.
You go down the stairs with mother.
Mother spots his car among the many in the parking lot and halts. You watch her face contort angrily, sadly. Father has seen her too. He gets down quickly from the car and comes towards mother. She begins to walk briskly towards the gate, ignoring father.
Father rushes after her, in a slight sprint. His hair is bushier on his head, and so is the beard that cordons off his lips. The tribal marks on his cheeks appear deeper, and wider, and angrier. He is still painfully handsome.
“Clara, Clara…” he calls out to mother.
You struggle to keep up with mother. Her walk is angry. The livid expression on her face is set in stone. A crying stone it has to be because you notice a mist in her eyes.
Father catches up with you and mother. He ignores you and grabs mother’s hand at the elbow, spinning her around. They stand like that, looking at each other for a second. You look up at them both, from one to the other.
“Its been two whole weeks! Why have you been avoiding me?” he asks.
“What do you want?” she asks.
“Why have you been avoiding me,” he repeats.
“There is nothing between us anymore.”
They glare at each other through the hypermetropic lenses of mother’s verdict.
“My hand please…” mother says. Father leaves her hand and apologises. He did not realise he was squeezing so hard. Mother does not respond, and makes to leave.
You do not like that pleading tone in his voice. It takes out the music, makes it harsh and cold, with no rhythm or life.
“What exactly do you want? What exactly is the ‘please’ for?” mother asks, rolling her beautiful eyes.
“Please hear him out…” you say to mother. She ignores you and faces him.
“Can we talk in the car?” The music is creeping back in.
“I don’t have a car.” says mother, wryly.
“I know that. I meant my car.”
“You must be joking,” breathes mother. Her words are angry. Her breath too. She reels off a string of expletives you cannot keep up with.
“So, this is who you are? Well, I do not want to come into your life and ruin your family. I beg you to please leave me alone too, and let me move on with my life. You have done enough.”
“What is this about?” father cries.
“I almost died!”
“I am sorry.”
“The best way to show that is to respect my wish, and leave me alone.” Mother is crying again. Father is standing there, speechless. One or two people pass us and give us more than a passing glance.
“It is enough I had an affair with a married man. I want to seek restitution and make peace with myself. It’s been hard and painful. But it has ended. Even if sadly. It is the only way such things end. I want to be left alone.”
You watch a tear drop cascade down mother’s lean cheeks. You place a tiny white palm in the way to catch it as it falls, but it slips through your fingers and evaporates into thin air.
There are tears in your eyes too now. You feel a potpourri of emotions run through you and you sink to the ground on your knees. You wish the crack in the cement flooring is big enough to swallow you. You wish you could disappear somewhere among the weed growing in the pavement cracks. Maybe then, somebody would think about you for a change.
The skies open up again.
You do not hear the rest of the words that pass between your parents. But you know that they were strong enough, helping mother finally walk out the gate while father stood rooted to the spot, his bushy head bent in the rain.
It is time to go.
You have to hurry to the school, so you can say goodbye to Pretty and Little. You have lived with them for a month now, and grown to love them, your brother and your sister. And their mother, and father.
You enter the school gates. It is a big and beautiful, and flowery place. You are wearing Pretty’s uniform. You asked her permission to do that this morning, and as always, she had not responded. They do not respond to you, but you love them. Though they complain and fight too much.
Like the day you broke Little’s special Donald duck cup. And he had cried and cried till their mother bought another one. Pretty had insisted that she did not touch the cup, and you had owned up as the doer of the deed. But Little had maintained his position. Pretty it was who broke his cup. Period. Funny duo.
The school has closed and the children spill out of their classes, with their backpacks and their water bottles. You stay by the merry go round, and watch Pretty walk up to the shade of the tree where they will wait for their mother to pick them up. Other children wait there too.
You walk up to the tree and stand there looking at Pretty.
“Hello,” she says to you.
“Hi,” you respond.
“Are you new in school?” she asks.
“Yes, I am. But I am leaving soon,” you answer.
“Why? You do not like our school?”
“I do not like the world. Everyone is so selfish,” you say.
Pretty looks confused.
“When are you leaving?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” you say, making a face. “But for now, we can be friends.”
Little arrives at the shade and promptly settles his small frame in a space on the giant tree root just vacated by a child whose father has arrived. You watch the child waddle towards his father’s green car.
Little ignores you. He and Pretty ignore each other.
“I want to show you something,” you suddenly say to Pretty.
“What is it?”
“Follow me,” you say to her.
Together, you walk out the gates to the little bush at back of the school. You keep talking little girlie things till you lose yourselves in the ever deepening forest.
Thank God, thank God. Thank God. That was all their mother could say as she hugged her daughter.
She had arrived at 1pm as usual to pick her children. Only Little was waiting. Pretty had gone missing from the school compound. Everyone swore they still saw her at the tree not too long ago, where she always waited for mother. Then she had disappeared, suddenly. No one noticed her walk away.
The search had been long and scary. They had called all the teachers and all the parents they could think of. But no one had seen Pretty.
Then at about 5pm, someone had suggested they comb the bush behind the school. And after a one hour search, they had found her safe, tired and asleep under a big palm tree, deep inside the bush, her backpack beside her.
She had refused to speak to anyone, only demanded to see her daddy.
“What happened?” father asked. “You had us really worried back there baby.”
It is night, and they are in the living room, she, their mother, father and Little. Even Bushido. They are all dying to hear her story.
“I saw her again,” she says.
“Who?” cries mother.
“The girl in the tree…” Pretty answers.
Their eyes go to the tree, recalling the incident of the last month at the dining area. She had never told them what she saw, and they had put the matter behind them as all had returned to normal.
Or, had it?
“Okay, what did she want?”
“She asked me to give daddy a gift.”
The parents exchange worried glances.
“Okay, where is the gift?” asks father.
“It is in my school bag.”
“Okay baby, can you get it?” father asks.
Pretty nods, enthusiatically slides off the leather sofa and bounds up the stairs.
“Please honey, go with her” their mother says, sinking into the sofa, exhausted.
As father gets up, Pretty bounds down the wooden staircase, her small feet making quick pattering sounds on the plush red carpeting. She is holding a squeezed black polythene bag in her hands. Whatever is in it emits a strong, putrid odour.
She thrusts it at father.
“She said she wishes you gave her a chance like you gave me. That she would have been a good girl. And that she loves you daddy.” Pretty had tears in her eyes.
Father takes the bag, a puzzled look in his face and opens it. He looks at the wet, red indeterminate looking object inside it. It looks like a human organ.
When he pulls it out, it is a dead fetus.