Copyright © 2010 Nina-Gai Till
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
Cover art by BC and NGT © 2010
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people either living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my own angels,
Jillian, Lily-Mae and Cara Grace.
This is not a fairy tale. It’s the truth, my truth, and you’re lucky I’m going to share it with you, because it’s not the kind of topic I would normally get into with just anyone.
In fact, if it were up to me, I’d just be kicking back poolside, reading a trashy novel and smoking illicit cigarettes while my children weren’t looking. But, to my great consternation, I have recently learned that it’s not up to me at all. Not a scenario that fills me with joy, let me tell you. I mean, would you like to be obliged to share your deepest darkest secrets with the world at large? Honestly, if I’d known that things were going to end up so, well, so public, I wouldn’t have gone to the tattoo parlor in the first place.
Of course, it’s all the fault of my ex-husband. Things are generally the fault of ex-husbands; all of my divorced friends say the same thing. The car broke down on the way to work? His fault because a) had he still been around, he would have understood when the mechanic charged for an overhaul that turned out to be replacing old spark plugs with older ones, and b) he would have been on the way to work, not you. Ditto for every other household, mechanical, garden and electronic problem. Not to mention the psychologically disturbed kids, the over-stressed dog and the under-paid electricity bill. All his fault.
And needless to say, I wouldn’t have found myself in a tattoo parlor at the age of 41, lining up to get my kids’ initials inked about four inches above my coccyx if he hadn’t run off with a teenage gym instructor, leaving behind only a pile of debts, two upset daughters and some snide comments about stretch marks.
I can hear you already, sighing and getting ready to put the book down, wishing you’d picked up yet another Grisham because even if you knew how the book was going to end, at least the storyline was going to be original. Not another whining treatise by a bitter ex-wife.
Did you know there’s a club of second wives, on the Internet, dedicated to bitching about us first wives? Seriously. I wonder if they realize that one day, they will probably be bitter ex-wives themselves. It’s not like the guys they married are paragons of loyalty, after all. If this were the case, why would my ex-husband make such a huge deal of leaving me for a “fresh, young body, unmarked by the passage of life”? His words, not mine. When he called to cancel yet another weekend with our daughters, knowing full well that it was my forty-first birthday and that I couldn’t afford both a babysitter and the luxury of going out, I was angry enough to remind him that he was an arsehole, but when he uttered that fateful phrase about my body, the body that had worked like a lunatic for him in our – now his – landscaping business for twenty years and borne his two beautiful if big-boned daughters, well, something in me just snapped.
Fast-forward to the tattoo place. I’ve walked past it every day for thirteen months now. Nestled in between a bank with a squirrel on the front and a white goods store run by a large sweating man in a beret, it’s the third shop I pass when I walk out of the front door to my apartment building.
At first I took it as a personal insult that, due to someone else’s sexual proclivities, my real estate quality of life had been downgraded from a nice house in a good suburb to a crappy apartment in an even crappier suburb. You wouldn’t have found a tattoo parlor in my old street, hell, the neighborhood watch probably didn’t even let people with tattoos onto the block. But all of that changed when the father of my children decided to get a move on with his mid-life crisis and now I live within spitting distance of a place that marks people for life. I’m sure there’s an irony in there somewhere but I’m in no mood to search for it.
And so it was that fateful night when I walked in and demanded a tattoo, right then, right now, for God’s sake, and watched a couple of hairy bikers fall off their stools in hysterics. Perhaps it was my nice Burberry raincoat – that outward symbol of prosperity worn by all school mummies with something shameful to hide. Or the fact that I had mascara streaks down my cheeks from crying like a banshee as soon as I’d bribed the grandmotherly woman next door to watch my kids for an hour while I ran an errand, which at that point was either getting drunk or committing suicide (I didn’t have time for both).
Just as the bikers were stumbling to their feet, still laughing and pointing at me as if I was some kind of freak, the big black door at the back of the shop groaned as it opened and a flash of light illuminated the shop and its customers, just like in those tacky stairway-to-heaven-on-velvet pictures they used to sell in the seventies.
I held up my hand to shade my eyes as the bikers fell silent. As my sight began to adjust to the light, I saw an elderly man standing in the doorway. He raised his arm and pointed to the door, and the bikers moved to leave as if in a trance. I desperately wanted to follow them but my feet were stuck solidly to the floor. I wasn’t afraid, although I was terrified. It wasn’t until the door had closed behind the last biker that the man spoke.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
His voice was calm and posed, with the trace of an accent lingering behind in the air, giving a certain weight to his words.
I looked at him curiously and cleared my throat to speak.
“Why would you be waiting for me? I don’t even know you.”
I didn’t think he was a serial killer but then again, I’d once trusted a man who stood in front of two hundred people and God and promised to love and honor me, so I wasn’t going to let this stranger off so lightly.
He turned away from me and walked back through the doorway to another room. I stood for a minute, thinking I should just leave, but then I followed him into the light, feeling somehow reassured that at least he knew where we were going. And thus begins my story.
Now I’m certain that at this point, you are seriously regretting the Grisham. You don’t do mystical books or crystals or any other of that new age crap, so why the hell should you consider continuing this book? And you’re probably so annoyed with yourself for buying this book – a book whose title specifically states that it is not a fairy tale – that you won’t believe me when I tell you that there are few people in the world more pragmatic than I.
Honestly. I’ve never had my fortune read. I am proudly agnostic, totally pro-science. I don’t follow my horoscope, read the runes or believe that everything is pre-ordained. Especially that last part, because if it were true, and everything that had gone wrong in my life was destiny, I would have had some serious words with the one responsible for all the planning. I mean, what kind of a sadist would set people up like that?
So when I tell you that I followed the pale little gent into the backroom, and that in doing so, I felt like I was taking the first steps on an incredibly and profoundly important journey, you’ll just have to set aside your sniggers for a moment and read on. I’m not going to say “trust me”, because I’m not selling used cars, or indeed, anything else. But at least read on a little way, because things are about to get interesting.
Talking unicorns and
My eldest daughter has a thing for unicorns. She loves them. It’s not just a childish fixation. She’s always adored them, and now that she’s older, she not only collects them in every shape and form, she also has become a font of unicorn lore. It’s uncanny but some days she even looks like a unicorn. Minus the horn, of course.
She’s tall and colt-like, in the way that only pre-teens can be, and with amazingly large dark-blue eyes that stand out all the more against her pale skin and white-blonde hair, a throwback to some Icelandic gene lurking in our family pool. There’s something otherworldly about her, accentuated by adolescent hormones and the faint aura of tragedy that has surrounded her since her father left.
All of which to say that I am used to seeing unicorns about the place, granted, usually in a two-dimensional format, so when I saw a horse-sized unicorn standing proudly in the corner, its breath as sweet as hay from across the room, I didn’t think anything of it. I was more interested in what the old man had to say.
But it wasn’t the old man who spoke.
The unicorn eyed me suspiciously and then nodded.
“Yes, you’re right. It’s her.”
The unicorn looked at me again and I could have sworn I saw a flash of disdain.
“All the signs are there, including those buffoons who hang around outside all of the time. Three bearded beasts bearing the mark of the wanderer, Ulysses.”
Its voice was soothing, like waves on the shore at night, even though I felt that it did not approve of me but that wasn’t helping me with the idea – yes, I’m a little slow sometimes but it had taken me a moment to realize that I was listening to a talking mythical creature.
The unicorn shook his head despairingly and whinnied, a sound like tinkling silver bells that sent shivers down my spine.
“I must go and warn the others. You know what to do.”
Another whinny and he was gone. I turned to the man.
“How do you do that? Was it a hologram? And why all of this trouble for me?”
The man laughed briefly, gestured to a chair and told me to sit down. Once I was seated, he wheeled his cart of inks and needles over and sat down on a stool, opposite me.
My voice had lost a little of its resolve; I was less than certain that this circus was the right place to get the tattoo that would show my ex-husband that I was still wild and young and carefree, and that my body still had some mystery to it.
“You will not be tattooed today. First you must embark upon the quest. If all goes well, then you will join the brotherhood of the ink, but not before.”
I hadn’t asked a question but this was clearly an answer of some kind.
His words swirled around my head and for a moment I thought that I might have been dreaming. Or maybe I’d had an aneurism and was in fact lying in a medically induced coma, in a nice firm hospital bed with clean white sheets. But the old man laughed and poked me in the arm, none too gently, and offered me a cigarette.
I took it and breathed deeply when he held a flame to the tip.
“Look,” I tried to sound like the kind of woman who knew her mind. “This is all very amusing and I’m sure that your other clients get it. But I don’t, and all I really want is a small tattoo on my back.”
I shook my head and stood up, dropping the cigarette on the floor and grinding it under my heel.
“And now I’m not even sure I really want that.”
As I reached the door, the old man coughed gently. I turned around and saw that he was standing, seemingly taller than he had been only a moment ago. In his left hand, he held a set of scales of a kind, not unlike those used by penny dealers in gang movies. His right hand, however, held a smallish television set that appeared to be showing my life. I took a step closer, suddenly breathless.
“That’s me, that’s my family…but how? What did…?”
He waited patiently while I tried to finish a sentence. A million thoughts rushed through my mind, not the least of which was that I had finally flipped my lid and gone crazy. How on earth did this strange little old man happen to have a video of my whole life, and why was he running it backwards? As the images flashed before my eyes, I could see myself becoming younger and happier. When had I stopped smiling so much, laughing so freely?
The old chap let his arm slide and the television disappeared into thin air. I sank heavily onto the rustic old lounge behind me, my head spinning. I sneezed as the old man sat down next to me, raising another cloud of dust.
“Confusion is the first step towards clarity.”
He nodded as if his words of wisdom could be of some assistance to me but all I really wanted was to go home and have a large glass of wine, and forget what was clearly an episode of drug-induced paranoia, sadly without the drugs.
He patted me softy on the arm and continued.
“Otherwise said, you haven’t lost your marbles; you have only misplaced your life. And now you are being given the gift of finding it, and yourself, again.”
None of this was making sense, but he wasn’t finished.
“Do you know what déjà vu is?”
I nodded. I might only be a lowly advertising copywriter and frustrated housewife, but I had spent one of the most amazing years of my youth working as a software writer in Paris. So, in addition to destroying large chunks of my liver in the semi-permanent happy hour of Café Monparnasse and stocking any number of wild memories to keep me warm during the last days of my life in some gray nursing home somewhere, I’d also accumulated a reasonable bit of French.
The old guy interrupted my musings.
“Not the literary definition,” he said impatiently. “Any fool knows that. I mean the true sense, the meaning behind the words.”
He shook his head when he saw the look of incomprehension on my face.
“Déjà vu is that which is already seen, in this life or others. It is a gift from those who know you best, to remind you of that which you have forgotten.”
He smiled at me suddenly, and I began to feel warm again.
“That you saw the parts of your life that were shown to you a moment ago is the final sign, the signal that you must begin your quest. Had you not seen, then we would know that you are not ready to go forth.”
It seemed as if I were in some kind of surreal psychological maze, a place where information kept arriving, only serving to lose me further.
“You keep mentioning this quest. It seems like a lot of hassle, just to get a tattoo.”
My voice sounded petulant and I looked at him suspiciously.
“You don’t have any tattoos. For a man who runs a tattoo shop, that’s not a very good sign.”
He smiled sadly at me.
“Not everyone is worthy. Many people seek the true ink, very few receive it. It is my destiny to assure the decoration of others when they have completed their journeys. That is my journey. Perhaps one day I shall be blessed, but until then, I must guide people like you, as I am instructed. Now come.”
He picked up a small book from the table beside the couch.
“Follow me. I have much to show you before you can begin.”
I crossed my arms and refused to budge.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I insisted stubbornly, “until I know what all of this is about.”
He stared at me and I stared back. With one husband and two kids behind me, I was good at staring and by now the fires of righteous anger were well stoked. I wanted to run but there was an undeniable force keeping me there, a strange and enticing energy that made me want to find out exactly what was going on. I’d stomped out of my house in a fit of fury, now, I realized, not only directed at my ex-husband but also at the absolute frustration of a life spent putting out fires and making beds, and yes, raising children, but doing nothing exceptional, nothing worthy, it seemed, of a life well lived.
“Seriously, you’d better sit back down and tell me what the hell all of this mystical blah blah is about or I’m going to go home and skip the tattoo. Or better still, go find another tattoo artist.”
The old man raised his wrinkled hands to the sky and muttered “why me?” under his breath and then looked at me and nodded, and I exhaled slowly, not realizing that I’d been holding my breath.
The story would have been better with popcorn and beer, but as it was, the old man moved over to the ancient kitchenette and made, with much clanging and muttering, a pot of tea.
When he had finished mumbling under his breath about the sheer incompetence of disciples these days, and how was he supposed to get anything done when he was obliged to teach such imbeciles, he brought the tea over, handed me a crusty, chipped cup and looked at me severely over the top of his mug. I took a sip and sighed. This was undoubtedly the most amazingly wonderful tea I had ever had the pleasure of drinking in my life.
“Right,” he said briskly. “It’s as simple as this. You have been chosen to go out into the world and teach our message…well, not just our message. The universal message.”
I choked on my tea, and he shook his head despairingly.
“Yes, I know,” he continued. “You wouldn’t have been my first choice either. But they do know what they are doing, and if they’ve chosen you, it’s for a good reason.”
“Who are they?” I wondered aloud. “And what is their message? I mean, I don’t even believe in God, let alone angels or whatever the hell you’re talking about.”
The old guy looked profoundly shocked.
“How can you NOT believe in angels? They’re everywhere!”
“Where, everywhere?” I countered. “Are they here now? Can you see them, because I sure as hell can’t?”
He smirked at me.
“Then you’d better get your eyes checked. Not to mention your parenting skills. Who do you think is taking care of your children right now? And why did you leave them with Mrs. Brinkley so confidently, you who never leaves her children with strangers? And don’t tell me that Mrs. Brinkley is not a stranger. She’s your neighbor, yes, but how much do you really know about her?”
I thought about it for a moment. Effectively, Mrs. Brinkley was no one more than a little old woman who had moved into the apartment block just after I had. Our paths crossed when we went to collect our mail or throw out the garbage, but that was about it. She seemed clean, and she had a lovely soft air about her, but for all I knew, she could have been the devil incarnate. Or one of those dreadful witches who lured children into their homes and then sold them to pedophile networks for retirement mad money.
“Haven’t you noticed how she’s always there, just when you need her? How many times has she given you a helping hand, without ever asking for anything in return?”
It was true. The day I’d dropped my keys down the elevator shaft and found myself blocked in the lobby, unable to go out or in, let alone go get my spare keys from the super, Mrs. Brinkley had just happened to pop down to check her mailbox and was more than happy to loan me her pass key.
Another time, when I was running against a pressing deadline, complicated by a sick child demanding constant attention and desperately waiting for a letter that hadn’t arrived, she came knocking at the door with the said letter, which had just happened to fall in with her mail. And when she’d seen the pale little face of my feverish daughter, she’d popped back almost immediately with a large mug of hot lemon and honey as well as a book of enchanting fairy tales that she proceeded to read to my child while I finished my work.
Effectively, if an angel there was in my life, then Mrs. Brinkley might be one, but that was it.
“No, no,” said the old man furiously, reading my mind again. “Keep looking! The guy who blocked your garage exit the other day so you couldn’t get out? He prevented you from being part of the huge accident that killed six people further down the road. And the electrician who shorted the power and made the blackout that lost you half your work last week? Well, didn’t you do a better job, starting all over again, and get a raise because of it?”
He shook his head.
“Honestly, miracles are wasted on you people.”
I wasn’t prepared to concede him any ground.
“Angels, shmangels. Kind people and strokes of good luck.”
“Chicken and egg,” he shot right back. “Where do you think luck comes from? Or kind people, for that matter?”
“OK,” I smiled winningly at him and he looked at me suspiciously. “If there really are angels, then why don’t they teach this great message?”
I smirked triumphantly.
“Why choose a dumb human when angels can use all their powers to convince the world of their magic?”
He looked at me pityingly.
“We’ve tried that, obviously. But you humans are an obdurate lot, and you just won’t listen. We’ve tried everyone from Krishna and the Vedic chronicles to Jesus and the Red Sea scrolls but you guys just won’t hear a word. We’ve thrown all kinds of miracles at you, and you haven’t even noticed. It’s very frustrating, enough to make you want to give up, really.”
I laughed out loud, not very polite but given the circumstances (freaky old men reading my mind, mystical creatures postulating on my usefulness, a televised version of ‘This is My Life’), it seemed that a little impolitesse was acceptable.
“Right, so you’re telling me that Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, all the great prophets, were angels? Sent to earth to teach us all some extraordinary message?”
The sardonic tone melted away as I realized what I’d said.
“Have you finished now?” asked my strange mentor. “Ready to listen and learn?”
I sank back, defeated and not a little confused.
“As I was saying, we’ve used some of the best angels we have but it hasn’t done any good at all. Some of the marketing has stuck, but basically, you’re all still out there, making wars and mistreating each other. Not sharing the wealth of the earth. Spending your lives chasing after things while children starve.”
He shook his head at the sheer hopelessness of it all.
“There are only ten rules to follow, seven if you adhere to the simplified system. How difficult can it be?”
He caught my confusion and scowled at me.
“The ten commandments? The seven deadly sins? Don’t you know anything?”
I did a quick count-off in my head. It was more difficult than trying to remember the names of all Snow-White’s dwarves. I gave up at six commandments and five deadly sins. Not too bad, and if I couldn’t remember the others, that was probably because I was so pure of mind that…
The old chap slapped the table with the little book he was still juggling about.
“Will you stop it? This is not a parlor game. It’s very serious. The world is going to hell in a hand basket and you’re the one who’s been chosen to stop the spread of Chaos.”
By now I’d had more than enough. If I’d wanted to be ridiculed, I could have stayed at home and called my ex-husband. I had books of fairy tales at home too, and if there was one thing I knew, it was that fairy tales were just nonsense, nothing more than words put together to explain away man’s rampant imagination. There was enough craziness in my life without taking on the starring role in someone else’s fantasy life. Not to mention the fact that the old man’s metaphors sucked. I stood abruptly and made my way towards the door. The old man breathed out as if he was trying hard to keep his patience.
“Promise me one thing,” he called as I reached the doorway. The gravity of his tone made me turn to look at him.
“The only thing that we ask is that you watch for the signs. Just keep an open mind, because this is the most important thing you’ll ever do. Watch for the signs.”
I closed the door to the tattoo parlor behind me and stood for a moment in the bright, late afternoon light before I looked at my watch. I’d been gone an hour – twenty dollars worth of babysitting fees – and I had nothing to show for it. I decided to cut my losses and go home. I’d had enough silliness for one day.
Dancing plates and
As I put my key in the door, I noticed a wonderful scent wafting out from my apartment. It smelled like the best meal my mother, or indeed anyone’s mother had ever made. Suddenly I was ravenous. I opened the door and my youngest daughter raced up to greet me with a huge hug.
“We’ve been having the best time, Mummy. And we made you a surprise. Almost all by ourselves.”
She tugged my arm and I followed her into the living room.
My eldest daughter jumped up from the table where she was adjusting a place setting.
“This is your happy birthday dinner.”
She was practically glowing with excitement.
“We told Mrs. Brinkley that it was your birthday and she helped us to make all of your favorite foods. We even made a cake.”
“A cake that you’d better get back to decorating if you want your mother to eat it tonight, my little angels.”
Mrs. Brinkley stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on a floury apron. The light from the kitchen cast a halo-like glow around her head and I smiled inwardly. Of course. Now I was seeing angels everywhere. My daughters rushed off to the kitchen and my benefactor gestured to the table, set with an unfamiliar but beautiful china and strewn with gardenias and white roses.
“I hope you don’t mind but the children were quite desperate to make a special treat for you and I just didn’t have the heart to say no to them.”
Her kindly eyes surveyed my face with a touch of concern.
“No, of course not, it’s a lovely surprise,” I lied, wishing the children were in bed and I could just sit down and dwell on the injustices of my life.
I reached for my purse.
“But you must tell me what I owe you for the flowers and the dinner ingredients, and of course the babysitting.”
I knew full well that a bit of leftover roast chicken, some mango yoghurt and a mangy salad – the contents of my fridge the day before shopping day – were hardly likely to be the basis of the mouthwatering scents that were wafting into the living room and making my stomach growl in anticipatory delight.
Mrs. Brinkley looked horrified.
“Of course not, my dear, it’s only some things I had floating around at home. And I hope you don’t mind but the girls asked me if I would join you tonight.”
She looked wistful for a moment.
“But perhaps you’d rather be alone with your lovely little family?”
I smiled at the sweet old dear who had clearly gone to a lot of trouble, suddenly happy that for once we would have another adult at the table with us, not just me and the girls.
“I would be thrilled if you would join us. I hardly know how to thank you for taking the girls this afternoon, let alone cooking us what smells like an amazing meal.”
I looked at the table.
“And loaning us your crockery. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
She fussed with the front of her apron.
“It’s very precious to me and I’m thrilled to have a reason to use it. I’ll tell you about it later but for now I must go and supervise my charges. Why don’t you sit down and rest until dinner is ready?”
The idea was so alien to me that I obeyed out of sheer curiosity. This was the evil hour, when my body was normally running on third or fourth steam. The hour of cooking dinner while making school lunches for the following day while emptying the dishwasher whilst supervising homework and piano practice whilst answering emails from clients whilst washing sports uniforms for last minute soccer meets. A single, working mum always had something to do, even if it was just watering the plants, but as I looked around me, it seemed that I had suddenly been made redundant.
The kitchen was clearly out of bounds and anyway, dinner was being made by someone else. Due to a school trip to the museum the next day, lunches were unnecessary. The washing was in the machine – I could hear it running. I’d finished the ironing last night. We’d done the homework and piano practice earlier that afternoon. I could have sworn that the house had been vacuumed and dusted. I stuck an experimental finger into the soil of the house plant next to my chair and was surprised to see that not only was the earth damp, the leaves had also been polished and trimmed.
I sat back in the lounger and closed my eyes for a moment. “Look for signs,” the crazy old tattoo man had instructed. But this wasn’t a sign, it was a blessing, and I for one was grateful. Only this morning, in a moment of soul-shredding frustration, hadn’t I begged the powers that be – the ones I didn’t believe in – to send me someone to lighten my load and share at least one dinner with, someone who would help instead of add to my current exhaustion levels. Hey, maybe I should have asked to win lotto too.
A gentle kiss on the cheek and a faint giggle dragged me out of a strangely deep dreamy doze in which I was being pursued by a crowd of unicorns screaming “you can do it, you can do it” while I ran as fast as I could up the mountainside.
“Mummy, it’s dinner time. You have to wake up.”
My youngest daughter, Grace, now dressed up in her ballet clothes and a pair of white feathered angel wings, pulled gently on my hair. I stood unsteadily, still a little in the grip of my dream, and walked over to the chair my eldest daughter Lillia was holding out to me. She too, was dressed in a long, ethereal dress of some gossamer material, and wearing angel wings with a silvery white glitter on them.
I gazed down at the gorgeous plates, set traditionally for a multi-course meal. They were really elegant, very simple, very good china with only a faint decoration around the outside of the plates. I looked again. Unicorns. Lots of elegant little unicorns dancing around the edges of the plates and bowls, the light catching the silver of their horns. I could have sworn they were moving, but then again, I thought I’d seen my life on a television in a tattoo parlor that very afternoon, not to mention a rather large unicorn that spoke to me. All this without wine, too.
As I was contemplating the mysteries of the dishes, Mrs. Brinkley bustled in, carrying a largish crock-pot with steam billowing out from under the lid.
“The girls told me you adored lobster bisque, my dear, and so that’s what we made.”
She placed the pot gently in the middle of the table and laid an intricate silver ladle next to it.
“Just as well I had some lobsters at home. Imagine if you’d preferred steak, we would really have been stuck then.”
She laughed merrily and the girls joined in, as if everyone kept fresh lobster in their kitchens in case a neighbor suddenly needed a birthday dinner. As Mrs. Brinkley sat down next to Grace, I noticed that she too had angel wings on her back. Small, elegant ones made from tulle and lace, but angel wings nonetheless.
Before I could ask the silly question, everyone raised their glasses to me.
“Happy birthday Mummy,” cried the girls, as Mrs. Brinkley beamed her benevolence.
I looked at their joyous faces and every bit of tension in my body melted away. Who cared if the world was going to hell in a hand basket? I had my magnificent, healthy, happy, loving daughters, and that was truly all that mattered.
By letting us down yet again, my ex-husband had done me the greatest favor of all. He’d given me the opportunity to enjoy my children, something I did so very rarely these days. I cooked for them, cleaned up after them, worried about them, helped them, took excellent care of them, but I couldn’t remember the last time I simply spent time being with them. Not the quality time accorded by my driving them somewhere whilst hectoring them about piano practice or good manners. Just sitting, listening, talking, sharing a meal. Allowing them the joy of doing something for me.
I listened to them chattering away about how much fun it was cooking and cleaning, especially knowing it was all for me. How come I didn’t feel that happy when I was cooking and cleaning for them? Pushing the vacuum cleaner around generally involved fantasies of full time help or lottery wins for me – I don’t think I had ever once run around, overflowing with passion, simply thrilled to be removing the dust and toast crumbs from the rugs of our lives.
More often than not, I did my daily and weekly chores in a fit of barely suppressed fury and resentment. Certainly because I generally had far too many things to do to actually spend time doing any one thing properly. And perhaps because I resented doing the grunt work that I had once paid someone else to do for me. But that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was that I had forgotten for whom I was doing all of this. I remembered back to those extraordinary, unforgettable days when I’d discovered I was pregnant, and how I swore to myself and my unborn children that I would willingly give my life over to taking care of them for as long as they desired. I was the one who offered, I was the one who brought them into the world. So why the bad attitude now?
Across from me on the other side of the table, Grace was chopping bread as if carving a diamond. Every slice was perfectly cut, and when she was finished, she arranged them on the plate like a florist arranging blooms. She looked so pleased with herself, and the bread looked so good that I couldn’t resist either the bread or her smile as she proffered the plate. It was just your usual bread but I swear that tonight, it tasted different, better, sweeter.
To my left, my other daughter Lilia was gently tipping her plate this way and that, watching the unicorns dance in the soft candlelight. She was totally and utterly lost to the glittery creatures. I watched her for another moment, marveling at her beauty and wondering what was going on in that golden head of hers, when Mrs. Brinkley spoke.
“Shall I serve the birthday girl first?”
She leaned over and poured a healthy serve of the fragrant soup into my bowl, then into the girls’ bowls, and finally, served herself. Before we could begin, she cleared her throat and timidly asked if she could say a blessing.
“If you don’t mind, of course, it’s just that it seems the appropriate thing to do…”
I didn’t mind. On very special occasions, like Christmas or Easter, we gave a prayer of thanks – and no, I don’t know who we were giving it to – for loving family and good food, and today seemed as special an occasion as any.
We bowed our heads and closed our eyes, and listened to the comforting tones of our new friend as she began by blessing the food on the table before us.
“May this meal feed our bodies so that they may remain strong, may this meal soothe our minds, so that they remain open to the many possibilities of life. May this meal be the first of many to be shared amongst new friends, a chance to nourish each other with sustenance and beauty. And finally, may others enjoy the same bounty as us tonight. Amen.”
We all said “amen” and began to eat. The bisque was amazing, just the right side of creamy and fragrant with the particularly pungent odors of the lobsters. The flesh was tender and sweetly fresh, and I realized that this was undoubtedly one of the best meals I had ever tasted. As I listened to the girls and Mrs. Brinkley nattering away about cooking, I thought about her blessing, and about my peculiar day.
The events of the afternoon were beyond strange, and now, with a little distance, I could see that some of the more difficult moments were, well, too odd to be anything but the truth. I knew I wasn’t going crazy, so if I saw a unicorn, well then, I saw a unicorn. As my good friend Ombeline often said, “reality comes in many guises”. What was more troubling was the little film of my life. Looking back was one thing, but seeing myself so tense or distracted all the time frightened me. Was I like that, not ever really in the moment, only worrying about what had been or what was to come?
“So Mum, what are your wishes this year?”
Grace was looking at me expectantly. It was our tradition, on the night of our birthday day, to tell what we hoped to accomplish, see or do during the year to come.
Mrs. Brinkley and Lillia looked up from their conversation, and I smiled beatifically at them all.
“Well, you know, I want my family to be happy and healthy…”
Everyone groaned, even Mrs. Brinkley.
“Mum, that’s like saying you want world peace.”
Lillia frowned at me.
“You always teach us that words are important, and to be precise, but right now you’re just telling us…” she wound off, searching for her own precise word. “Cotton wool. Or that plastic packing stuff they put around fragile things. You’re not telling us a truth.”
She said the word with emphasis and looked at me with a challenge I was unused to seeing in her eyes.
Mrs. Brinkley smiled at me and said, more gently.
“She has a point. What do you really want? Imagine that you only had one year left on earth, how would you like to spend it?”
She’d nailed it, the exact reason behind the tradition. When I was twelve, my father died suddenly in a car accident, and immediately I lost all of the great things we were going to do. We’d had so many plans, but he was just starting his own business, always far too busy to take time out. Everything – his dreams and mine – were put on hold for a later that never was. I liked to think that if he’d known that he had such a short time, he would have spent it better, spent some of it making memories with me, doing things of which we could have been proud.
I looked around at my waiting audience. One year? Only one year, three hundred and sixty five days? Such an impossibly short time when you have children. At once, it became blindingly clear and I laughed at the simplicity of it all.
“Easy. If I only had one year, I would spend it living the most extraordinary adventure I could find, with my daughters. I would want to create enough memories in that year to last them – you – a lifetime.”
Grace leaned in, her blue eyes huge in the candlelight.
“What kind of an adventure, Mum?”
“A learning adventure. A teaching adventure. A trip that would take us to a completely different part of the world, a place where we would meet all different cultures and types of people. To a place where we could help others and have experiences that you could look back on and find life lessons in, the kind of advice I would give you if I was still around…”
I sat back and looked fondly at my girls.
“That’s what I would do if I only had one year left.”
Mrs. Brinkley picked up the bottle of wine and refreshed my glass.
“Bravo, my dear, that’s admirable. But I do have one question.”
I smiled to thank her for the wine.
As she leaned in, it seemed as if the dress-up wings on her back were fluttering of their own accord.
“My question is, why wait? Why wait until you only have one year left?”
“Yeah Mum,” piped Grace. “Why can’t we have an adventure now?”
I laughed a little insincerely, trying to make light of the responsibilities that so overwhelmed me.
“Well, I have to work, to feed you, for a start. There’s school, and your friends. We have an apartment to take care of …”
“But you said the adventure would be a learning adventure,” Lillia interjected. “So why do we need school?”
“Well, yes, but the thing is, you don’t just pick up and take off, just like that. I have responsibilities!”
Now Mrs. Brinkley smiled over at me and I saw that her wings were flapping rapidly, fluttering with a barely suppressed excitement.
“Your mother is most certainly right, girls. It’s quite a leap, to just leave everything that’s stable and safe, for an adventure.”
She paused, and then continued.
“Although, I suppose that you would learn so much about life and the world and yourselves, traveling.”
A wistful tone entered her voice.
“And if I were young enough to rent out my apartment and use that income to have such an adventure, I would be very tempted.”
She shook her head and looked off into the distance, as if contemplating another life, then briskly rose and started clearing some of the plates.
“Now then, my little angels, it seems we have a birthday cake for your mother.”
The girls flew to their feet and rushed off to the kitchen. I went to get up too, to help at least clear the last of the dishes, but Mrs. Brinkley patted me on the shoulder.
“Oh no, my dear, this is your special day. All you have to do is enjoy.”
With that, she whisked away the last of the dirty plates.
Minutes later, the lights went out and a trio of singing angels emerged from the kitchen, bearing a magnificent cake in the shape of a – what else? – unicorn, candles flickering in tune to their rendition of Happy Birthday.
As always, the girls and I blew out the candles together, and then Mrs. Brinkley turned the lights back on as Lillia passed me a knife.
“Make a wish, Mummy,” she said, kissing me on the top of my head.
“And don’t tell us what it is! And don’t let the knife touch the bottom,” squealed Grace, almost incandescent with delight.
Mrs. Brinkley, who was passing out the plates, looked over at me and winked.
“Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.”
Yoga, diamantes and
People say that life begins at 40 but a week before my fortieth birthday, life as I knew it ended when my husband left us. And the morning after my forty-first birthday, after a wonderful meal and a good night’s sleep, I woke up feeling as if the end was waiting impatiently right outside the door. I was in absolute and utter agony. My back ached as if I’d been carrying bricks up mountains and my legs cramped every time I tried to move. Clearly, decrepitude had set in overnight.
After an hour of trying to sit and work at my desk, I gave up. Sitting was impossible, lying down didn’t help and so I finally decided to go a take a yoga class. Maybe a little exercise would help and there was a studio right across the road that ran classes during the day. I had often meant to go but never made the time, another of those good resolutions that went out the window due to laziness and lethargy disguised as lack of time.
As soon as I walked into the studio, I felt better. There was a lovely scent of orange blossom in the air, it was cool, and a soothing music issued forth from behind the reception desk, something lilting, with tinkling bells.
“Hello. You’re just in time.”
A short, dark-haired woman popped up from underneath the desk.
“Am I?” I asked, somewhat bemused.
“Yes. Maeva will take you for your private class now. Just go on through. She’s waiting for you.”
Shaking my head, I tried to explain that she must have confused me with someone else, that I’d just decided to come on the spur of the moment.
She frowned and looked down at the appointments book.
“So you’re not Margeurite Tabberet?”
I looked at her with surprise.
“Yes, I am. But how did you know my name …”
She smiled at me, a touch of mystery dancing in her eyes.
“No time to explain. Just go on through to Maeva. She’ll sort you out. Off you go.”
She made a shooing gesture with her hand and so off I went.
I walked into the practice room and stopped. Sitting on the floor, cross-legged, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She appeared to be meditating, and every now and then, she clicked a tiny pair of cymbals in her hands, in rhythm with the ethereal bell music I had heard out in the reception area.
It felt rude to stand and stare, but before I could leave, she opened one eye and smiled at me, a glorious flash of white teeth against her golden skin.
“Hi. I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve been wondering when you’d come.”
She stood up and stretched her luscious body, flashing a perfectly taut stomach under her short white tee shirt. I looked at the inscription across her chest. “Angel” was emblazoned in sparkling diamantes. Of course.
And then I realized what she had said.
“I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. I only decided to come and do a class a few minutes ago. I don’t know how you got my name but…”
She laughed, a tinkling sound not unlike the bells.
“Oh no, there’s no mistake. I knew you’d be here sooner or later. All the signs told me.”
She gestured to a chair in the corner.
“Put your things down and then we’ll get started.”
I decided to let it go. All I really wanted was to stretch out whatever kink was making me feel so old and sore, although now that I thought about it, everything hurt a whole lot less.
Maeva put me through some very basic salutations, touching me gently every now and then to adjust a position or incite me to breathe into a posture. After a few positions, she stopped and smiled at me.
“You know why everything hurts, don’t you?”
I laughed out loud.
“Yes. I turned 41 yesterday. I’m a single parent to two kids. I’m broke, exhausted, I work more than fulltime and barely have a moment to breathe, let alone exercise and sleep. My husband left me for a teenager. I think it’s called stress,” I finished somewhat sardonically.
She shook her head and tutted, “No, no. That’s just the rationalization. The real problem is that you’re holding on too tight.”
I suddenly felt furious.
“Listen. Thanks for your analysis,” I said crisply. “If you mean holding on too tight to my sanity, I couldn’t agree more. I think a little stretching might help, so could we get back to the lesson?”
“Of course,” she smiled sweetly at me, not at all perturbed. “That’s why you’re here. The lesson.”
We spent the next hour working through a variety of positions and breathing exercises until I began to feel the knots in my spine unravel. Every time I came up against a block, unable to go into the stretch, she placed her hand on my solar plexus and told me to take a deep breath.
Finally, she stepped back and looked deeply into my eyes.
“OK, one more exercise. This is designed to open your chest, to remind you to really breathe. Most people think that breathing comes naturally, but it doesn’t. We tend to forget that air is the life force, the one thing we cannot live without, and yet we are so cavalier about the way we breathe.”
She stopped and grinned at me.
“Now that’s a lesson, isn’t it? It’s so easy to become blasé about the most essential things in life, to take them for granted and just assume we are owed them, unless we stop and really think about them. It’s one of the great sins, Pride. Not stopping to give thanks and focus on what’s really important, like breathing. Or love.”
The sparkles on her tee shirt seemed to get brighter and “Angel” flashed at me like a neon sign. She moved to stand behind me, and hooked her arms softly under mine until her hands were resting on my shoulders and her elbows lay against my hips. I could hear the bell music getting louder and suddenly the scent of orange blossoms filled the room.
“Now, when I tell you to breathe in, I want you to take a slow deep breath from your belly.”
As I breathed in, my eyes closed, she gently pulled my shoulders back until my rib cage felt open and my lungs as if they finally had the space to fill up on the scented air around me. We repeated the exercise three times and each time I felt a little lighter, as if I were somehow being freed of the weight of being me.
“OK, good work. I think that is enough for today.”
I stretched again, for the sheer pleasure of feeling my body work. It seemed that I hadn’t felt so at ease in twenty years.
“Thank you so much. That really did me the world of good. I haven’t done any exercise at all in the longest …”
I stopped as the bell music grew louder.
“What is that music? It’s so peaceful.”
“Do you like it? It comes from my home. If you like, I’ll make you a copy.”
She smiled at me and the “Angel” flashed at me again.
“Come on, I’ll make you a cup of my special tea while I burn you a CD. It’s a good thing to hydrate after a lesson anyway. Water and air, two of the essentials, right?”
I followed her down the hall and into a small kitchenette. She grabbed a CD from a pile next to a computer and slid it into the machine, clicked on a few buttons, and then switched on a kettle.
“So where are you and the music from?” I asked curiously. There was something exotic about her, but I couldn’t place it.
“Well, this time around, I was born in New York, but I am actually from Bali. From Ubud, to be precise.”
She poured boiling water over the mix of herbs and spices she had spooned into a ceramic teapot decorated with Asian designs.
“How did you get from Bali to New York? Or vice versa?”
She poured the tea into two matching ceramic mugs and breathed in the scent.
“Oh, that’s a long story, my journey. A beautiful one.”
She passed me over a mug and shot a look at the computer.
“The CD isn’t finished yet. Shall I tell you my little tale?”
I took a sip of the tea and nodded.
“Wow, this is really good. What’s in it?”
“Green tea, for cleansing. A little star anise for longevity. Some ginger to warm the blood and for courage. And cinnamon to stimulate and open the mind. Actually, this tea is part of the story. My father showed me how to make it.”
She looked pensive for a moment.
“Did you ever feel like you were missing something important, that even though your life was good, there was something essential that was just out of reach?”
I thought back to my married days. I had love, material comfort, plans for the future, but in retrospect, I realized that I’d always been looking for the next big thing, as if what I had wasn’t enough, or not to be trusted. I nodded.
“Same for me. That’s how it all started.”
“Well, the tattoo helped too,” and lifted her tee shirt to show me a small dragon just above her right hip.
“You see, I grew up in New York in rather comfortable circumstances. My parents are wonderful people, very loving, and because I was an only child, I was totally spoilt. I went to great schools, made some amazing friends, and when I left university, my mother helped me to get a job as a junior stylist with Vogue magazine.”
“Wow. From stylist to yoga instructor. That’s quite a fashion leap.”
Maeva nodded enthusiastically.
“I know. I loved being a stylist. I loved the clothes, the people. And New York is a great place to be in the middle of it all. I probably would have stayed there forever if my parents hadn’t decided to get a divorce but out of sadness come blessings. You see, when they told me, I was devastated. Not just because of the divorce, although that was pretty difficult to swallow. Apparently, one of the reasons they had divorced was because my mother had finally told my father about, well, about my real father. As it happens, she went on a trip to Bali a month before her wedding, to relax, and when she was there, she had an affair with a Balinese guy. And that guy was my biological father.”
I looked at her sympathetically.
“That must have really upset you.”
She burst out laughing.
“Upset me? Understatement of the century. I went nuts. Stayed out every night, slept with anyone who asked. Took a lot of Class A drugs, drank far too much. Classic reaction of a spoiled brat trying to drown out the fact that everything she’d believed in was a farce.”
“So what happened then? I’m guessing you went to find your father…”
She shook her head.
“Not willingly, that’s for sure. I hated him, sight unseen, for sleeping with my mother. Which is pretty funny, because if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here, so it was like hating myself.”
She reached over and filled up my mug.
“I probably would have gone on self-destructing forever but one night, in a fit of absolute fury, I decided to get a tattoo. Mostly because my parents hated them with a passion.”
The CD popped out of the computer, making me jump. I watched her take the CD and slide it into a clear plastic pocket.
“So that’s how you got the dragon?”
“If only it was that simple. No, but from the minute I walked into that tattoo parlor, my life began. My real life. I thought I was so cool, so hip, walking into that place, but the minute I set foot in the door, three big Hell’s Angels bikers – Ulysses gang members, as I recall – started making fun of me. I brazened it out and started looking for a tattoo of a dragon in their catalogs, when a drawing leaped out at me. Not a drawing, really, but a name. It was ‘Ubud’, in Carakan, the ancient Balinese script.”
I thought about the three hairy bikers in my tattoo shop making fun of me. Maybe it was part of the international tattoo experience, some kind of rite of passage.
“So how did you come to get a dragon?”
She touched the dragon gently.
“I didn’t get a tattoo that night. When I showed the tattoo guy the word I wanted, he sat me down and explained that it wasn’t a drawing, but an instruction.”
She laughed merrily.
“That’s where being drunk and more than a little stoned was a benediction. If he’d told me everything when I was sober, I wouldn’t have believed a word. Not to mention the giant talking unicorn! You see, what I learned that night is that the book of tattoos is actually some kind of oracle. I always thought that oracles were set in stone, but it’s very important to know that messages and signs appear where we are most likely to heed them, and in the form that is certain to get our attention.”
She paused in her storytelling to take a sip of tea and I thought about the unicorn I had seen in my tattoo shop. If I saw one, maybe it was because my daughter was so passionate about them, that I was certain to take notice.
“And that’s why ‘Ubud’ appeared to me in the book of tattoos. Because I had to go to Ubud to begin my journey, and if anyone had told me to go, I would have ignored them. But when a unicorn tells you, well, you just have to do it, don’t you?”
I nodded nervously, uncertain as to whether or not I should tell her about my own unicorn story but before I could speak, Maeva touched me gently on the arm.
“I know. That’s why you’re here. But let me tell you the end of my story.”
She leaned back into the cushion.
“The next day, I packed a pair of jeans, a tee-shirt and a bikini, and I got on the first flight to Ubud. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even if I wanted to find my father. So I just got on the plane and ended up sitting next to a man who owned a resort just outside of Ubud. He needed a waitress and I needed a job and a place to stay, so I went with him. Not far from the resort, there was a yoga school. I was still pretty lost, and so I decided to try some yoga.”
She paused, and looked over at me seriously.
“As soon as I set foot over the threshold of the yoga school, a man came up to me and hugged me. He called me ‘daughter’ and told me he always knew that I would come. And I knew he was my father because he had he exact same dragon I had wanted, tattooed on his right arm.”
I looked at her in disbelief.
“But how could you know? And how did he know that you’d come? Or that you even existed?”
“Good questions. I asked them too, even though I knew in my heart that it was him. It took me a long time to understand that just as he knew, I had always known, even though my mother had never told either of us. I began doing the yoga every day, and spending a lot of time at the centre, until finally I quit my waitressing job and moved into the dormitory at the centre, in exchange for some secretarial work. I spent three years there, learning to listen to my mind and my soul, through my body.”
She pointed to an embroidered picture on the wall.
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Buddha. It means that if you don’t really live an experience fully, you cannot learn from it. And it goes further, because I had to live through the destruction of every foundation I’d ever had in order to learn who and why I was, and what my life’s purpose was to be.”
Maeva gazed at me for a long moment.
“When you came here today, it was because you were looking for answers to the questions that have been haunting you for a long time. Your body hurt you until you were forced to take a step along the path you must travel. You know what is your life’s purpose. We all know, and then we forget, until we are reminded that our life force depends upon it.”
She stood up gracefully and offered me a hand. I stood too, feeling more limber than I had in years.
“The Balinese believe that the secret to a long and healthy life is stretching the body and mind. The two go together. If you stay flexible and continue to be aware of your outer being, to gently push it to new limits, your body stays strong and capable. Same thing with your mind. And if you do both, then you open a pathway to enlightenment.”
The light caught her tee shirt and once again the word “Angel” shone up at me.
Maeva saw me looking at her tee shirt and grinned.
“Glitzy, isn’t it? Not what I normally wear for teaching but an old friend from my stylist days sent it to me a week ago.”
I looked at the pictures of her around the reception area, showing different poses and wearing natural earth tones of taupe and beige.
“So what made you wear it today?” I asked.
Maeva laughed and handed me the CD.
“Well, how else would you have known who I was?”
Down to one cigarette. I shook the packet hopefully but it didn’t change anything. Talk about torture. A deadline looming five hours ahead, and almost no more cigarettes.
After ransacking the house in search of an emergency stash I usually kept hidden about the place, I gave into the fact that I was either going to have to bite the bullet and go without until tomorrow, or head out in search of a stray packet at eleven thirty on a Monday night. Given the stress associated with the job I had to do – a campaign for my most disagreeable and impossible to satisfy, not to mention my biggest client, cigarettes were essential to my continued survival, so I grabbed my car keys and headed out the door. At least the girls were sleeping over at friends’ houses tonight, so I was actually able to go out, I thought, trying to look on the bright side.
As I drove from service station to bar to late night convenience store, cursing the anti-smoking ordinances that made it so difficult to find a packet of cigarettes for sale these days, I thought about my client. More than seventy percent of my billing came in through that one client, which was a lot of eggs to have in one capricious basket. Certainly, I hadn’t planned things this way. It was just that I was so grateful for the work to be coming in that I didn’t notice when it started to take over everything else. Not unlike the cigarettes, I thought wryly. Just the odd one to get me through the stress of the breakup and now I couldn’t go a night without the damn things.
Finally I pulled up outside my last resort, a French-style bistro known for its bad food and cool reputation. I parked the car and walked in, feeling terribly out of place in my ancient jeans, old cardigan and definitely the worse for wear fluffy sheepskin boots, the ones my daughters called my “comfort food boots”. It wasn’t just middle aged paranoia that made me think everyone was staring at me – practically every person in the place was under twenty-five, and the last word in cool. It was abundantly clear that I was well over twenty-five and not even the slightest bit cool.
The girls were all beautiful in that most-popular chick in school way, with long blond or brunette hair, lithesome bodies and pretty faces enhanced with cleverly applied makeup. I watched them writhing to the rhythm like flowers on stems in a breeze, then turned my attention to the guys. Buff, bronzed, almost all decked in the unspoken uniform of stylish jeans, variations on white shirts and sexy Italian loafers. They danced with the girls, confident of their attractiveness and attraction to each other, safe in the knowledge that they’d always be adored. If only they knew what lay ahead.
As I stood at the bar, invisible to the bar staff and feeling persecuted by the clientele, a wave of bitterness hit me. Youth was wasted on the young. God knows, it had been wasted on me. Why didn’t I realize how lucky I was, way back then, when I was gorgeous and confident and sexy? Once upon a time, I would never have had to stand at a bar, waiting to be served, while the bar staff looked right through me. Hell, there would have been men lining up to buy me a drink. I looked at my watch and saw that more than hour had passed since I left home on my quest for nicotine. Only four hours remaining to finish up three days work and deliver it to the printer.
Suddenly, a light came on over on the stage, and everyone moved over to get closer to the guy sitting on a stool, nursing a black guitar. He looked up and smiled directly at me.
“Hi folks. I’m Chris Gabriel.”
I checked behind me to see if he was staring at some nubile young blonde and then turned back as I heard him say, “This is for the lady out there with the sheepskin boots.”
I looked down, and then around to find everyone staring at my feet. Somehow, I doubted that anyone else in the room was wearing sheepskin boots.
“It’s called ‘The Girl You Want to Be’ and I wrote it just for you.”
He winked at me, then struck a chord and started singing, his velvet tone wrapping itself around the lyrics as his fingers danced over the strings. The girl next to me sighed and said, “He’s got the face of an angel.”
Angel. Gabriel. The angel Gabriel, singing a song to me. Of course.
You came upon the scene
Like the warmest summer dream.
Eyes so bright in the deepest night
You touched me right
Down in my heart,
Where I hope you’ll always stay.
But the fear inside of you
Takes you so very far away
From where you want to be.
Why can’t you see
What you are is free
To be the girl you want to be?
You look around the room
And all you can see is doom
As if you’re not good enough
To live the life that you’re dreaming of
And yet you’ve got everything you could ever need
To reach out and touch the stars.
Cause you’re the angel of my nights
And the sweetheart of my days.
Want you near to me
Where you’ll always be
The girl you want to be
The girl you are to me.”
The crowd roared its approval and he raised a hand in thanks and then moved onto another song. I slipped away to the bar, which was finally clear of gilded youth, and called the server over.
“A packet of Marlborough Lights, please.”
She smirked at me and said, “Sorry. We only sell cigarettes if you’re a customer.”
I grabbled in my purse for twenty dollars.
“OK, fine. A shot of tequila and a packet of Marlborough Lights. Please.”
Just as she was placing the drink and the cigarettes on the bar, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was my angel Gabriel, holding out a light.
“Those things will kill you, you know.”
He smiled at me, and I realized that he was a lot older than he looked onstage. Not old, just older. Maybe my age. Suddenly I regretted my tragic clothing.
He lit my cigarette, called for a beer, and then leaned back and looked me over.
“Thank you for dressing like that.”
I searched his face for signs of sarcasm but he seemed to be sincere.
“You are kidding, right?”
I gestured at the fabulously dressed girls around me.
He leaned in and said confidentially, “Well, if you’d been dressed like them, I wouldn’t have noticed you and then we would never have met.”
He paused and passed me an ashtray.
“Although we haven’t, yet. Chris Gabriel,” he said, holding out his hand. I took it and temporarily lost the power of speech as a surge of something, part lust, part emotion, raced through me. He started to speak and then shook his head and clearly thought better of it.
When I could line up two words again, we talked for about fifteen minutes, exchanging the basic data two adults who fancy each other do, until he excused himself to go and perform another set.
“Will you wait for me? We could maybe go and have a drink somewhere quieter afterwards?”
I was dying to say yes but the reality of my deadline hit me. I looked at the clock over the bar. Only three hours and a bit to go.
“I’m so so sorry. Really. But I have this major deadline tonight and I really have to go. I only came out for cigarettes, obviously,” indicating my awful clothing. “But maybe we can swap numbers and continue the conversation another time?”
He smiled his laid-back smile at me, and reached into his guitar case, pulling out a sheet of music paper. He grabbed a pen from behind the bar and quickly scrawled on it, then folded it up and handed it to me.
“This is for you. I’m so glad you came tonight. I was waiting for you.”
He gave me a soft kiss on the cheek and disappeared into the crowd.
At the first set of traffic lights, I unfolded the paper and held it up to the light. It was the lyrics to the first song he’d played, when he’d noticed me. I searched the page for a phone number, but there wasn’t one, only a note at the top that said exactly what he’d said in the bar.
“I was waiting for you.”
I banged my head on the steering wheel in frustration. What was this? Some kind of psychic joke the universe was playing on me? Why was everyone waiting for me?
Echoing in my head, I heard the old tattoo guy.
“Look for the signs.”
I slammed the car into gear and pulled out onto the road, feeling like I was fighting a losing fight. Hours wasted, the only cute man I’d met since I divorced lost to a bar full of lush teenagers, and the manic voice of an old man with needles belting around in my head.
When I finally got home, I raced to the computer and tried to get back into work, but it seemed that the joke was continuing. My screen froze, the printer blocked, a file mysteriously went missing. I burned myself making coffee, and there wasn’t a lighter or a match to be had in the house, which was beyond ridiculous because I always, always had spare lighters floating around. Not even a safety match!
I battled away until I’d done as much as was humanly possible, and then changed my furry boots for proper shoes and rushed out the door to get to the printers. The job was finished. It wasn’t my best work, but it was pretty damn good, considering the insane deadline and the lousy money I was earning. I dropped it off at the printers, did one last proof read and then dragged myself home for a quick nap before the girls arrived back.
I woke a few hours later, slumped wearily on the couch, I noticed the red light flashing on my answering machine. Tempting though it was to ignore it, I reached over and pressed Play.
“Well, I’m sorry not to find you at your desk. I did expect that you’d be working, however perhaps it’s just as well that you’re not.”
I sat up. The pompous tones issuing forth from the machine belonged to the client who’d kept me up all night, and he did not sound happy.
“After some discussion within the group, we have decided to let you go. While you work is quite up to standard, we feel that it is important to develop relationships with fresh, new collaborators. Bring a bit of fresh air to the campaign. I’m sure you understand. Please send us the invoice for any outstanding work, and good luck in the future.”
Just then, the doorbell rang and I knew it was the girls, back from their sleepover. I hurriedly rubbed the sleep and tears out of my eyes and tried to pull myself together. The last thing in the world I needed to do was worry the girls – they’d had more than enough adult problems over the last year. It was my job to take care of them, and one way or another, I would.
Falling to pieces
Once the girls had finished their homework, I proposed that, exceptionally, we all go out to dinner. Normally, we ate out but rarely as I didn’t have the money to waste on such extravagances, but between working all night and the telephone message informing me that I had lost almost all of my income, I really hadn’t had the time to go grocery shopping. And to be honest, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to keep the panic out of my voice if I was all alone with Grace and Lillia.
As I was bustling them out the door, we saw Mrs. Brinkley hurrying down the hall, carrying a bag of groceries. She stopped short when she saw us and smiled, but there was a certain weariness in her eyes. The girls rushed over and gave her a hug.
“Thank you again for the wonderful dinner the other night. We really appreciated your cooking and your company.”
I gently removed the heavy grocery sack from her hand while she rattled around, looking for her keys.
Lillia looked at me and I immediately knew she was thinking the same thing as me.
“Mrs. Brinkley, would you care to join us for dinner this evening, my treat? We are not going far, and it would be our pleasure to have you with us.”
Mrs. Brinkley brightened a little and nodded her head.
“Thank you, my dears. That would be lovely. You’re very kind.”
The girls helped her to stow her groceries and then we all walked together to the Chinese restaurant along the street.
Despite the girls’ merry tales of their sleepover and school trip, I could see that Mrs. Brinkley was not her usual chirpy self. When the girls had gone off to look at the giant carp in the tank near the kitchen, I asked her if she was alright.
“Oh yes, my dear, nothing for you to worry about. It’s just that I received notice on my apartment today, and I have to move out in a month. Only for six months, while the owners do some necessary renovations, but still. I’m afraid that no one is going to rent me an apartment nearby for the same price around here.”
She took a sip of her green tea and I saw her hand trembling. Now that I had time to study her up close, I realized that she was much older than I’d initially thought, perhaps in her mid seventies.
“It’s not that I haven’t been looking, my dear. I’ve been very assiduous but the only short-term rentals around here are so exorbitant that you’d have to be Croesus to afford them. And if I have to move away, I won’t be able to continue my charity work, and so many people depend on me…”
I promised to help her look around, and swore that we’d find a solution, one way or another. She was such a sweet soul, and I felt a certain kinship with her since her kindness the night of my birthday.
The next day, given that I had no work, I went to visit all of the local real estate agents but I met with the same negative reception every time. A couple of the agents even laughed at me when I told them that I wanted to rent an apartment for a short time, for my elderly mother.
“Sure lady,” one guy wheezed at me. “I’ve got one for you.” He quoted me such a ridiculously high price that I wanted to kick him, and even more so when he informed me that he had a special bond he applied for old people “in case they die and stink up the place”. It was hopeless. Barring a miracle, I did not see how we were going to find a place for Mrs. Brinkley.
When I had exhausted all of the agencies, I returned home to confront the problem of my lack of work. I certainly didn’t face eviction as I owned my apartment outright, but I desperately needed to work to pay for everything else or we weren’t going to survive. Food, utilities, insurance, car repairs, school fees, extra-curricular activities – this quietly static life we led was bleeding me dry. It seemed that every day, there was something else to pay, more money owed. I didn’t begrudge it – what goes around, comes around, after all. But it was the never-ending supply of demand that was hard to take.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, one of my two remaining clients sent me an email to let me know that they were closing their business and that a check for my work to date was in the mail.
I flopped down onto the keyboard. Chaos rules. I was losing a battle I couldn’t afford to fight. Just then, my inbox pinged and I raised my head, not even remotely ready for the next drama.
As I clicked on the email to open it, I head the old man from the tattoo shop say very grumpily “angels are everywhere”. I jumped in fright and whipped around to see how he’d gotten into my apartment but there was nobody there. Great. Now I was hallucinating. I turned back to the email and sighed. It was nothing more than a missive from Ombeline, a girl I’d met in college and spend twenty years trying to avoid since.
Well, perhaps that was a little harsh. She was a dear friend, an old friend, but Ombeline was the kind of girl who believed in everything. Street corner gypsies, newspaper horoscopes, and messages from the clouds – nothing was without valued and insightful advice in her fluffy little world. Don’t get me wrong, she is a good person, the kind who helps old ladies across the road, raises money for orphans, and so on. In fact, it was her very goodness that drove me insane. I had tried for so many years to let our friendship drift until it dissolved from lack of interest, but no matter how long I ignored her, she always found me. Mostly I was grateful but in my current state of bitterness, Ombeline’s sheer goodness was more than I could bear.
I hadn’t heard from her in about six months, which was a long time to go without news from Ombeline. In my more clement moments, I missed her missives. She was always off saving the world somewhere – the last time I had heard from her, she was in Uganda, handing out worm medicine and hugs to baby warriors recently deprived of their machetes, machine guns, and often enough, limbs.
I looked at the email again. It looked like she had moved on from Africa, and I clicked on the body of the message to find out where she’d gone. Surely somewhere interesting, and even more surely, somewhere where she could do someone some good.
“My dearest friend,
I must apologize for the lack of radio contact, or indeed, any other. Life has been so very busy over the last few months and I really wasn’t able to write. And if I am to be honest, I am only writing now because I need your help.”
I sat up. How unusual. Ombeline never hit me up for money. Sure, she’d asked me to sign the odd petition and once even to draft a couple of posters for a protest she was attending, but never once had she asked me for my “help” (and we all knew that in the charity business, help means “give me a large donation, it’s tax free”).
I shoved my chair away from my desk and stalked off to the balcony in high dudgeon. How dare she ask me, a struggling single parent, for a damn cent? Hell, the way I got screwed over in my divorce, people should be giving me money. I took a furious puff on my now ever-present cigarette. I really didn’t need any more aggravation right now, and certainly not from any airy-fairy, do-good, would-be angels disguised as friends.
Behind me a door slammed and the old man’s voice came though loud and clear.
“Miracles are wasted on you people. And angels are everywhere!”
I rushed into the living room, determined to find out how he had got into my apartment and make him shut up once and for all. As I stepped over the frame of the sliding door, I clipped my heel on the metal floor latch and went sprawling head first into my desk. I clumsily pulled myself up and slumped into my desk chair. The email was still in front of me on the screen. I went to grab the mouse to delete it but as I reached over, the word Ubud caught my eye. Ombeline was in Ubud? A week ago, I had never heard of the place, and now everyone was either coming from or going to Ubud.
Tenderly rubbing the nasty lump of the side of my head, I settled back and began to finish reading the email.
“I know how busy your life is, and I know how hard you must be working, trying to keep everything together. Even though I don’t have children, I understand the notion of responsibility.
For the last year, I’ve been working in a little village just outside of Jinja in Uganda, setting up schools for children who have escaped the war in the north. Some of the kids have lost their parents, others have lost their limbs or their health. But the ones I feel most responsible for – the ones I love the most – are the ones who have laid down the guns their were obliged to use from their earliest ages. These are the children who need us the most. These children are raised with and defined by hate, and all that can save them, and their generations to follow, is education and love.
I have been working with a wonderful team of World Peace volunteers, to give these children life skills and a sense of their place in the world, to value themselves despite the horrific crimes they have committed. It’s never enough, of course, but it has been going so well. However, about a month ago, I came to Indonesia to give a speech at a UNESCO forum. A bomb went off outside our hotel, and two members of my team were killed. I was lucky; I survived. But the problem is that a piece of debris went into my spine and apparently severed my spinal column.”
I gasped in horror and tears suddenly filled my eyes. What a terrible thing. Poor Ombeline, the girl who’d always worked so hard to save the world, now a victim of the world around her.
I wiped my eyes and read on.
“Right now, I’m recuperating at a friend’s house in Bali. Ubud, to be precise. I don’t now what I’m going to do next – working in the field and being in a wheelchair are not exactly compatible. But I’m more worried about what’s going to happen to my little school in Uganda. I lost my second in charge in the bombing, and there’s no one else available to keep everything on track.
Which is why I am writing to you. I have to say that I’m not expecting a positive answer. I’m not even really sure why I am writing to you, except that there have been so many dreams and signs that I felt I had no choice but to contact you. So here goes: I need you to go to Uganda for two months, to oversee the school and keep things running until I can work something else out. I know already that you’re reading this and thinking that I’m just as crazy and impractical as I’ve always been, but do me a favor. Just sleep on the idea. I don’t know why, just do it for me. You’re an angel.
I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Ombeline in a wheelchair. Ombeline getting blown up whilst trying to save the world. It broke my heart to imagine that someone so incredibly kind hearted and honestly helpful could find herself in such a position. And I really would have loved to help her. But I couldn’t go to Uganda. I had a job – or at least, I had to get a job. I had children in school, and Uganda sounded dangerous. What kind of a mother would take her children to work in a, well yes, in a school, but a school in the middle of a dangerous, foreign place.
On impulse, I looked up Uganda, and then Jinja. The first link I clicked on filled my screen with a smiling and dusty Ombeline, surrounded by children of all ages. She was holding a child on her knees who appeared to have lost both his legs and one arm, and when I looked closer, I saw that most of the children were disabled in some way or form.
The article was called “Hope for Uganda’s Child Soldiers”, and it went on to discuss the problems of helping children who had lost everything but their souls become loved, and lovable, again. My eyes welled up when I read Ombeline’s quote in the interview – I could almost hear her talking.
“There’s only so much food and medicine and housing to go around, but the one thing we have an abundance of is love. Showing these children true and accepting love is the only thing that heals them. They need our money and all that it can buy, but more than anything else, they need our love.”
Every day, the news is filled with tragedy, death, murder and mayhem. Only recently, at the hairdresser, I was reading a trashy magazine (I know, no one ever buys the damn things but we all seem to read them), desperate to discover if Brad and Angelina had given birth, when I turned the page to see a photo of a dead baby girl in a gutter somewhere in China. Literally a whole glossy page of a dead baby, in a sewer filled gutter. Horrifying but much less interesting than the extravagant proportions of a Russian oligarch’s new mega-yacht, or whether a certain rock star heart throb was really was sleeping with a teenager.
The problem is that horror surrounds us. It’s insurmountable, there’s simply nothing that we can do so we zone it out. But when it’s a close friend, actually getting her hands dirty, not to mention getting blown up, it gives the horror a more personal dimension. I looked at the children in the photo on the website, and saw how much they appeared to adore her. Each and every one of them was somehow leaning in towards her, as if just touching her made them feel better.
After looking at a few more website about Uganda and child soldiers, I clicked on the email to close it, and closed the web pages too. Although Uganda was apparently safe enough to be a cool tourist destination, there was still absolutely no way I could uproot our lives and go rushing off to Africa. I would have to find a good way to tell her that it was just impossible. Maybe I’d send a check too, if I got another job sometime in the near future.
Glancing at the clock in the hall, I realized that the girls would be home from school in half an hour, and I still had job applications to fill out. Scrolling though the business writer forums and copywriter sites cost me another half a pack of cigarettes, and by the time Lillia and Grace walked through the door, I’d sent out more than sixty copies of my CV, as well as a number of emails to past clients and, hopefully, potential ones. Who knew, if I got a decent job, maybe I’d be able to really help that little school in Uganda.
After the girls had finished their homework, I set about making dinner while they organized their clothes and school bags for the following day. For some reason – strange, given the afternoon’s events – I was extremely upbeat and dancing around the kitchen like a lunatic to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, when Grace walked in.
“Air guitar, Mum? At your age?” she asked, with all the condescension of a matron. I quickly put down the wooden spoon that was doubling as my microphone, and turned the music down to a reasonable level.
“Yes, my child? What is so important that you feel the need to interrupt my concert?”
I smirked at her but she was clearly not in the mood to be smirked at.
“Mum, this is serious.”
She pushed her hair behind her ear, and handed me a flyer.
“We’re doing a school project on Africa. It’s really scary, because there are so many bad things happening to the people and animals there. And the children don’t have food or water or even toys.”
She paused to let the full horror of this notion penetrate.
I looked at the flyer. Apparently each child had to pick a region and study it. In addition to the usual focus on history and politics and natural resources, the project had to include an essay – at least two hundred words – on how to fix the problems in the selected region.
I thought briefly of Ombeline, and how, had I not received the email today, I would have asked her to give my Grace a helping hand. But this was a school project, for children, not a real life horror story for my protected little girl.
“Goodness darling, that’s quite a project. Shall we go and get the atlas and find a region that interests you? I’ve got about ten minutes before the pasta is ready…”
“No thanks, Mum. I already picked a place to study. And I got some books from the library.”
I took a deep breath. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in coincidence, it’s just it was the overwhelming theme of my life right now.
“OK, where did you choose?”
She smiled at me and somewhere in my head I heard Ombeline laughing – at me or with me, I have no idea.
“Uganda. It’s really cool. There are heaps of really beautiful places and stuff, but there’s also a war and a whole lot of mean people who kidnap children from school and make them fight and even kill people.”
“It actually makes me like the idea of school.”
“So how can I help?” I asked, stirring the pasta so that it didn’t boil over and trying to ignore the manic beating of my heart.
Grace drew herself up and smiled her best, perfect daughter smile.
“I want to go there and give the children my toys. All of them.”
I almost dropped my spoon.
“All of your toys? Even your Nintendo DS? Even your Barbie computer?”
She nodded at me and the steely glint in her eye made me realize that she was serious.
“Grace, that’s very admirable. But Africa is a long way away, and it’s expensive to go, and dirty and not always very safe. And while giving your toys away is a very kind idea – very kind – it would cost a fortune to post them and I think there are probably other things that the children need more than toys…”
Grace cut me off with the seasoned skill of a practiced negotiator.
“Yes Mummy, I know that they need lots of other things, like houses and food and doctors. But they also need toys to play with.”
She raised her eyebrows at me.
“Otherwise, how will they know they are kids and not adults who have to kill other adults?”
I sank down into a chair and looked at her. Strangely enough, she was making a lot of sense. At least, the last part did. The timer pinged and I stood up to drain the pasta.
“OK, dinner is ready. Go wash your hands, my little piglet pie, and we’ll talk more at dinner.
Africa, Africa, everywhere
After dinner, Grace went off to begin packing up her toys, ever convinced that we were about to wing off to Africa and begin distributing largesse at any one moment. I’d managed to survive the rigorous grilling during dinner by proposing to investigate the possibility, and while this hadn’t really placated her, it did serve to buy me a little time before the necessity for one of those “because I said so” discussions arose. And as for the packing up of toys, I really didn’t mind. Between their father, who seemed to buy almost all of the contents of Toys R Us every time he saw them, probably as a way of making up for not paying school fees, and their paternal grandmother, who was trying to makeup for her son, we were overrun by toys.
I had finished clearing the table and was gazing blankly into the fridge, trying to imagine what new and amazingly tempting school lunch I could concoct out of lettuce, three eggs and a jar of pickles, when Lillia wandered in and propped herself up on the kitchen bench.
Out of both of my children, Lillia was the one who had suffered the most from the divorce. While Grace was understandably hurt and upset, her youth and very character gave her the power to push past the sadness. Lillia, on the other hand, was wounded to the core by her father’s actions, and even though she no longer cried herself to sleep or bit her nails, she bore an unmistakable aura of tragedy about her. Although she’d never been the kind child to be raucous and full of beans, more the drifty, dreamy type, she’d still been fairly happy-go-lucky. And most of all, she’d been the eternal optimist.
Nowadays, although she wasn’t glum, it seemed that there was no way to remove the ever-present mist of tristesse from her. On bad days, I felt like the most terrible mother in the world to have let this happen to my beautiful first-born; on worse days, I wanted to shake her and scream “You’re alive! You’re healthy! You’re young and you can make any kind of life you like! People love you! Get a grip!”. It wasn’t that she was ungrateful or disagreeable, only that she’d lost the gift of finding joy and utility in life. In my head, an evil voice whispered that I wasn’t so different, but the nice thing about voices in our head is that you can ignore them.
“What’s up, my chickadee?” I asked my daughter who, while physically present, appeared to be much elsewhere.
Lillia looked up at me and smiled, swinging her legs back and forth.
“Nothing much. I think I’m going to stop going to school though.”
I closed the fridge door and walked over to her.
“Well, I’m sure you have your reasons but unfortunately, it’s not legal. You have to go to school until you are sixteen, at the very least.”
A mutinous frown appeared on her face.
“That’s not true. I can be home-schooled. You can teach me.”
Ah yes, an excellent idea. In addition to attempting to maintain some kind of professional motivation in life, at least enough to keep us fed and clothed, I would also take on the role of full-time teacher. I tried desperately not to snort cynically but failed, only to see my daughter’s eyes fill up with tears.
“Oh sweetheart, I’m sorry. I wasn’t making fun of you. It’s just that it’s really hard for me to work and run the house and be a mummy all at the same time. I don’t know how I’d find time to be a good teacher too. Gosh, you know more than me anyway,” I joshed, trying to lighten things up a bit.
“Anyway, wouldn’t you miss your friends? All alone here all day with your grumpy old mother doesn’t sound like much fun.”
Lillia shook her head, keeping her eyes on her toes.
“That’s the whole point. I don’t have any friends. Not real ones, best friends. Not since Maria moved away.”
Maria was her best friend of two years who had, in an impeccably ill-chosen case of bad timing, moved to England just about a week after Lillia’s dad left home.
I began to point out that she’d make more new friends at school than hanging around at home with me, when she interrupted me.
“I don’t want any new friends. Everyone I love just goes away in the end and then I’m sad again. There’s no point.”
I sank heavily into a chair and thought for a moment. This was far worse than I’d imagined. Lillia wasn’t depressed, she was demoralized, and the most horrible thing was that somehow, I understood her. I didn’t date for pretty much the same reasons; despite the occasional waves of lust and longing that hit me from time to time; I preferred not to have to get attached to people who were probably going to disappear from my life anyway. But that was different. I was past forty. Lilia was a baby and she couldn’t spend the whole of her life in isolation, scared to love anyone or anything in case she lost.
Pushing the chair away from the table, I walked over and put my arms around my little girl. It wasn’t the right time to launch into any rallying pep talks. I needed to think this through and find a way to make my daughter understand that even though she’d lost some love, she’d gained experience, and that life was waiting to surprise her with so much more, more joy.
The next day, I was busily hassling more potential clients when a gentle knock at the door alerted me to the presence of Mrs. Brinkley. When I opened the door, I found myself facing a huge and somewhat terrifying African mask, its rictus invoking cannibals and painful death rather than cool holiday trophy.
Mrs. Brinkley’s head popped out from behind the mask.
“Oh hello dear, I hope I didn’t startle you. It’s just that the only way I can hold this thing upright is to stand behind it.”
Shaken out of my state of surprise, I rushed to hold the mask so that the elderly lady could let go.
“Um,” I began tentatively. “Should I ask why you are dragging this enormous … relic … through the hallways?”
She looked at me, nonplussed.
“But it’s yours. I couldn’t just leave it there – someone might have stolen it.”
I refrained from remarking that such a solution could only be wished for, and concentrated on the “mine” part.
“Mrs. Brinkley, I’m sorry that you’ve dragged that thing all the way up here but it’s not mine.”
“Of course it is, dear,” she said, foraging in one of her usual voluminous pockets, big enough to store any kind of miracle. “Ah, here it is. This was attached to it but it fell off when I put the mask in the lift.”
She handed me a cream cardboard tag with a piece of red string hanging from it. I turned it over and saw that it bore my name and address, as well as a postmark from… Jinja.
“I don’t suppose there was a letter with it, was there?” I asked hopefully.
Mrs. Brinkley clicked her mouth to indicate no and then spent a minute perusing the mask, her head cocked to the side as she ran her fingers over the wood grain.
“If I’m not mistaken, this is Arawa. She’s the moon goddess. Daughter of Tororut, the creator god, and Seta. She’s mostly worshiped in Uganda and Kenya.”
She stepped back.
“A lovely piece of work, my dear. You’re very lucky.”
She laughed when she saw the look of surprise on my face.
“A long time ago, I lived in Africa and got to know quite a bit about the mythology. It was when I was working in a mission, before the war.”
Mrs. Brinkley gazed at the mask, clearly remembering a different time and place, and when she spoke, her voice witnessed her nostalgia.
“The people used to call me Malaika, which means angel sent from the gods. Every time I see a falling star, I remember the good old days.”
I manhandled the giant mask into the entry hall and invited Mrs. Brinkley in for a cup of tea. There was no way I was going to get anything done now. Talk about being beaten over the head. First Ombeline, then Grace and now my next-door neighbor, all African missionaries in disguise.
“A cup of tea sounds just lovely, my dear. And I made an orange cake this morning. I’ll just pop home and get it while you make the tea.”
While the kettle was boiling, I stepped out and look at the mask again. Now that I looked more closely, I realized it wasn’t as ugly as I’d first thought. The carving was remarkably fine and the detail was incredible, right down to the grain of the skin. A line of seven tiny stars framed each of the eyes, and when I looked closely, I saw that what I had thought were bumps near her left ear were actually tiny horse-like creatures, each with a single horn.
I was just warming the pot when I heard Mrs. Brinkley come back in. She was bearing a beautifully decorated cake on one of her precious unicorn plates, but her eyes were worried.
Pushing aside the question of what I was going to do with the mask and how I was going to turn down Ombeline – in spite of the mask, which she had obviously sent – I ushered Mrs. Brinkley over to the table.
“You seem upset. Is everything alright?” I asked, pouring the tea.
Mrs. Brinkley visibly pulled herself together and flashed me a bright smile.
“Oh yes, dear, everything will be fine.”
She faltered for a moment, stirring her tea with a trace of agitation.
“It’s just that I’m going to have to move out much sooner than expected. Apparently the owners have decided to begin work almost immediately in my apartment and given that I don’t have a rental contract, they are well within their rights to have me move. And you know dear, I haven’t found a single thing to rent, not even at a distance.”
Another tremulous smile.
“Apparently, I’m too old to rent an apartment.”
I could see that she was very upset, despite her attempt at a cheery tone. Leaning over to pour some more tea, I tried to reassure her.
“You can stay here with us for as long as you like. I know it’s not the same as having your own apartment but we’d love to have you…”
Mrs. Brinkley smiled gratefully at me.
“That’s very sweet of you, my dear, but I could not impose like that. Something will work out before the end of the month. It always does. Now tell me, who’s been sending you moon goddess masks all the way from Uganda? A secret admirer?”
I shook my head and tried to prevent a snarky cynicism in my response.
“I doubt it, or else it’s the world’s best kept secret.”
While we sipped our tea, I told her about Ombeline and the orphanage, and then about Lillia and work, or the lack of it. That was the problem with Mrs. Brinkley – she was such a good listener that sooner or later, you ended up telling her everything.
When I had finished my own tale of woe, she patted me gently on the hand.
“My dear, you really do have a lot on your hands. Of course you can’t go rushing off to Africa, with all of that going on.”
She paused to sip her tea.
“It’s such a pity that I’m too old or it would have been the perfect solution. I loved my days in Africa. I can’t remember the last time I felt so useful. We think we have problems but until you live with people who have less than nothing and are still filled with the joy of being alive, you really can’t understand how terribly lucky you are.”
She entertained me with tales of her adventures in Africa until it was time for me to go and get the girls from school. We were one week away from the dreaded two months of summer holidays, and the teachers were cleaning out the classrooms. I knew the girls would have far too many things to carry home on the school bus, so I’d arranged to pick them up.
As I was driving to school, I thought about how I’d have to get cracking on finding some activities for the girls to keep them distracted during the summer break. We weren’t going away because I really couldn’t afford to spring for a holiday, especially given that I had virtually no income planned for the immediate future.
As always, there was nowhere to park near the school, so I drove into the car park of the local shopping centre, hoping that no one would catch on. One of the school mummies I know had had her car clamped there only a few weeks ago – the car park was strictly limited to shoppers.
Given that I was actually a little early, I decided to go for a quick window browse through the shops. At least that would make it seem that I wasn’t abusing the car park hospitality. As I headed off into the centre, I noticed that the strange little mystical shop – the kind of place that sold Buddhas and incense and crystal rock formations with intergalactic names – had morphed into a travel agency. On impulse, I walked into the agency. Perhaps I could find a last minute, cheap trip somewhere not too far, after all. It couldn’t hurt to look, although I really didn’t expect to find anything much in my budget. Heaven knows, pony club and tennis club and art classes were going to cost a fortune anyway.
The tall black guy behind the counter stood up as I entered and smiled at me. His tee shirt bore the ANC flag and a map of Africa with the names of all of the countries on it.
Before he could speak, the words were out of my mouth.
“Could you give me an idea of prices for flights to Uganda? One adult, two children, return tickets for early next month.”
He looked at me in surprise.
“It’s funny that you should ask, because we received some extraordinary package deals this morning for holidays in Uganda and Kenya. I was just about to send them back to the head agency because this is not exactly the kind of place to sell adventure holidays. Club Med maybe, but not gorilla trekking or white water rafting on the Nile…”
He indicated a seat and started pulling some brochures out of an envelope. I was about to interrupt him and tell him that I really only wanted flights, not a holiday, when he passed me a brochure.
“Here we go. This is what I was looking for. The price is all-inclusive and they have an impeccable safety record. You fly into Entebbe airport. A bus takes you to Jinja, about 45 kilometers away…”
I sat up in my chair. Enough already. I looked around nervously to check that there wasn’t a snippy talking unicorn lurking in the corner.
“I’m sorry, where?”
“Jinja. It’s right on the Nile and one of the best places to go for adventure holidays. The rafting is even better than Zimbabwe, and much safer too.”
I turned the brochure over in my hands. Even with the three of us, the prices were slightly less than what I’d been expecting to spend on holiday entertainment for the girls. I quickly scanned the pictures of laughing, smiling tourists of all ages. The camps seemed clean and respectable and the airline had won safety and service awards three years in a row.
The travel agent was busy with his computer, muttering to himself as he worked.
“Ah, that’s it. Goodness me, I don’t know why they send me these promotions if they’re already sold out…”
Breathing a sigh of relief – one sign from above shot down – I was getting up to go when the man reached over to his printer and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he handed to me.
“You’re very lucky. There were only three places left to go and I’ve reserved them for you but you’ll have to book quickly. There’s an extra twenty percent off if you book before five pm. The departure dates are fixed but you can change your return dates if you want to spend a little extra time exploring the region.”
I looked at my watch. It was half past three, time to go and get the girls. I grabbed my handbag from the floor and drew out my credit card.
“Then let’s do it now.”
The first step of the journey
While the girls were doing their homework, I quickly sent an email to Ombeline, telling her about our trip and explaining my plan. Although I couldn’t go and just live there with the children until she managed to find somebody, I could certainly pop in and have a look at how things were going with the orphanage for a couple of weeks. At least that way she’d know from someone she trusted how her precious orphans were getting on.
When I’d finished, I popped next door to invite Mrs. Brinkley to dinner. It took a moment to persuade her that she wasn’t imposing, and after letting her promise to bring a desert of some kind, she finally accepted.
When we were all seated and served, I looked around the table and smiled.
“Does anyone mind if I say a blessing?”
The girls looked at me in amazement and even Mrs. Brinkley looked startled. Clearly I needed to work up my visible gratitude a little more often than I’d been doing.
“But it isn’t a special occasion Mummy,” said Grace, her eyes wide.
I couldn’t contain myself any longer – I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets, especially ones as amazing as this. Given that I’d spent the last year or so manically taking care of all of the non-frivolous, extremely essential basics like finding an apartment, working, taking care of my family, I was practically drunk on the idea that I’d done something so impetuous as buying airline tickets to extremely foreign destinations. It reminded me of the first time I drove a long distance with the girls after the divorce. Prior to that, my husband had done all of the driving, and I’d completely lost confidence, but once I was in the car and behind the wheel, a certain exhilaration took over at the fact that I was indeed capable of driving after all.
“Actually, my dears, it is a special occasion. I thought you might like to know that I have some very good news. We’re going on holidays. To Africa.”
I quickly explained to the girls about Ombeline and the travel agency. Grace whooped with delight, thrilled that she was going to be able to implement her plan to give away all of her toys. Even Lillia smiled happily, as if there might actually be something to look forward to in life.
Mrs. Brinkley smiled fondly at us all.
“That’s splendid news, my darlings. You’ll have a marvelous time and I can’t wait to hear all of your adventures. Oh, Africa! So wonderful.”
I took a breath and prayed that what I had to say next would come out right.
“Actually, Mrs. Brinkley. I have to ask you a rather big favor. Would you mind terribly taking care of our dog while we’re away? It would have to be here in the apartment – he’s too old to get moved around. Would you mind staying here for a few weeks? Then, when we get back, we can help you to find somewhere else but at least you’d be set for as long as you want to be. And I’d feel so much better about having someone I trust here while I’m gone,” I added hurriedly, knowing that she wouldn’t accept if there was the slightest impression of charity.
Grace and Lillia jumped up and ran over to her.
“Please say yes! Say yes!” they chorused.
Mrs. Brinkley smiled over at me and hugged both girls.
“Oh, you’re angels, all of you. Of course I will. Thank you so much. This is just perfect. Of course I’ll stay here and keep everything just so, but you must promise me that you’ll have a marvelous adventure.”
I went over and joined the group hug.
“At this point in time, I don’t see how it can be anything but!”
The next ten days flew by in a rush of packing and organization. There was so much to do, between organizing visas and finishing up the few work commitments that remained.
Ombeline and I corresponded almost non-stop via email. She was so grateful that I was going – even if it was for a holiday – that she sent constant emails with instructions and arrangements. Grace managed to pack up every single toy in her room – four large packing boxes full, while Lillia organized a collection at school of old textbooks and supplies – pens and pencils and notebooks. Thanks to the girls, even the PTA got involved, offering us a computer to give to the orphanage school, as well as an invitation to become a sister school. Our little holiday became quite an event, especially after Grace presented her project about Uganda.
In the midst of the madness, we also packed up Mrs. Brinkley and put her furniture into storage. I gave her my bedroom and slept with the girls, at least the little I did sleep. You would have thought I’d be exhausted by all of the preparations, but for some reason I graduated from junior to fully-fledged insomniac.
The night before we left, I was practically bouncing off the walls. We had to leave for the airport at the ungodly hour of four in the morning, and I knew there was absolutely no way I was going to get a wink of sleep. I worked a bit, tried to read and watch a film, checked the bags and tickets and passports, smoking like a chimney all the way. By eleven thirty, I was down to one cigarette, so I scrawled a note for Mrs. Brinkley and grabbed the car keys.
As I drove out of the garage, I realized that I really was hoping to cross paths with the handsome angel I’d met during the last cigarette crisis. There was no other reason to put on lip-gloss and my nicest jeans.
Fluffing my hair, I took a breath and walked into the bar. It was quieter tonight – in fact there was practically nobody there. I made my way to the bar and ordered a glass of wine and a packet of cigarettes. When the barman bought everything over, I asked him if Mr. Angel would be playing tonight. He looked at me strangely for a moment and I wondered if he got lots of requests for the handsome musician.
“No Ma’am, he won’t be playing here anymore. That was just a one night gig.”
“Really?” I couldn’t help myself. “But he was so good. Do you know if he’s playing elsewhere?”
God, how desperate did I sound? A middle-aged groupie, that’s what I was.
The barman kept polishing his glass, undoubtedly wondering what to say to the madwoman with the crush on the guitar player.
“Actually, he was just on holidays here. From what I understand, he’s gone back home.”
He smirked up at me.
“And no, I don’t know where home is. Sorry.”
I finished my wine and picked up my cigarettes, leaving a bigger tip than was warranted by my embarrassment.
Out in the car, I shook my head. What kind of a fool was I, drag-netting bars for men? It was a stupid idea, and I was an idiot for coming out for anything other than cigarettes. In a fit of temper, I threw them out the window. Maybe now was a good a time as ever to quit. That way, the next time my loneliness got the better of me, I would have to find a new excuse to behave like a teenager.
Driving home, I tried to work out what had been going on in my head. Maybe all the coincidences and impetuosity had finally pushed me over the edge. Maybe I had a secretly slutty side that had been lurking under the surface all these years, just waiting for the right moment to break out and trawl the bars. Or maybe it was just that I was so very lonely these days, lonely, I had to admit, for a man. No, not just a man, but a life partner, a special someone with whom to share our adventures, to share our lives. Not that I wasn’t thrilled to be doing this trip or indeed anything else with my little family, but when the children went to bed at night, I wanted someone to turn to, someone to discuss the day with. A partner. Someone who knew my state of mind by what I didn’t say. Someone who knew me and loved me anyway. Someone to love and be loved by, grownup love at its best. But there wasn’t someone, there wasn’t anyone. It was just me, and as my mother would have said, I wasn’t going to meet my soul mate in a bar, for heaven’s sake.
Putting the car in gear, I resolved to focus on what lay ahead. Surely an African adventure was enough to keep me satisfied for a while. And anyway, I’d had love once. That was more than some people had in a lifetime. And if I didn’t ever have that romantic, soulmate kind of love, I had the precious love of my children and family, and that was worth more than all the soulmates on earth or in heaven.
Far too keyed up to sleep – although curiously not nervous or apprehensive in any way – I spent the rest of the night writing up the little diary I had decided to keep. In fact, Mrs. Brinkley had surprised each of us that evening at dinner with a beautiful, leather bound diary.
“I want you to promise me that you’ll write down everything. Every day. I don’t want you to miss a moment of this journey.”
She turned to me.
“I’m counting on you. This is the first day of the rest of your life, and one day, you’ll want to remember every moment.”
The girls woke up before the alarm even went off, and Mrs. Brinkley got up to wish us a safe journey. As the taxi drove away, I had the strangest feeling that I was leaving something behind. I double-checked the passports and tickets. Everything was there, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had closed a door on something. Mrs. Brinkley’s words from the night before echoed in my head. This was the first day of the rest of my life.
Another land, another life
The flight was uneventful and I even managed to sleep for a couple of hours while the girls watched films and read. I was surprised at how relaxed they were. I felt as if we were off on some kind of momentous journey, a great life-changing event, and there they were, merrily playing Uno as if it were a Sunday jaunt.
I closed my eyes again and lay back in the seat, trying to follow how we’d managed to get from a temper tantrum in a tattooist’s shop to a war-damaged part of darkest Africa. A brief moment of panic seized me again, a reminder that in some people’s estimations, I was about the most irresponsible parent one could imagine. My ex-mother in law made it perfectly clear that she thought I should be reported to the child welfare agencies for dragging the girls to such “dirty” parts of the world. Never mind the fact that we were going to perform a charitable exercise. Or that no one castigated my ex for his parenting skills or lack thereof, when he left us. Apparently, it is better to lie, cheat and steal within the appropriate social codes than to act a little outside the normal boundaries for the higher good.
Dozing, the gentle buzz of the airplane’s engines lulling me into a lazy acceptance, I thought back over all the “signs” that had occurred since that fateful day in the tattoo parlor. Signs was a big word for what I still considered to be a remarkably – ok, freakishly – large amount of coincidences. Angels, from sweet little old ladies to pert-breasted yoga instructors to sexy men with guitars. Dreadful catastrophes, in the case of Ombeline, to cheap airline tickets to predestined destinations. The loss of clients and the timely emotional crisis of my daughter.
If I was honest, I could see a timeline of events that led from one to another, with a commonality of theme that served to link everything together. The only problem was that I did not have any idea where any of this was leading. It was all very well to listen to mad old chaps in tattoo parlors hand out the great lessons of life but for the moment I seemed to be even more confused about my future than ever. A serious person, a responsible parent would have stayed home and focused on getting a job. If anything, all of these coincidences had made things worse. Before, my life was in a mess but it was a well-ordered mess, whereas now it was just aimless chaos.
A small voice piped in my ear and I sat up to see my little Grace sparkling with excitement. She drew my attention to the window.
“Look! I can see Africa!”
I peered out of the window and right there, through the fait haze of the high-level cloud, was a great expanse of land, punctuated by the straggling grayish blue line of a river. Every now and then what appeared to be settlements rose from the dust. Suddenly I was seized with the same excitement as my daughter. Effectively, life at home had been a right royal mess and now we were on the other side of the world, about to embark on a fantastic adventure as well as do some good. It wasn’t really costing me anything much other than time, and in return, my family and I were about to enter a new culture, a new world where we could create our dreams out of dust.
Looking over, I saw Lillia, head bent, deep in conversation with the small African man seated next to her. They hadn’t stopped chatting since we boarded, to the point where I hoped that my daughter wasn’t being intrusive, although that seemed unlikely give that Lillia was usually more than economical with her words, especially in the presence of strangers.
Under the guise of going forward to the toilet, I walked past their seats, leaning in gently to try to catch a drift of their conversation. As I casually implemented my spying program, careful not to disturb Lillia and thus suffer the slings and arrows of adolescent disdain, a sudden burst of turbulence knocked me off my feet and I landed – to all intents and purposes – in the lap of the man.
Lillia looked at me, horrified, as I hastened to apologize and right myself.
The man clucked worriedly at me, patting my arm anxiously as I reassured him that I was fine. In truth, I was more worried about him than myself – he was quite frail looking and I wasn’t exactly a lightweight. Once we had managed to reassure each other that nothing was broken, I held out my hand and presented myself.
“Aah, you are the mother of this delightful young girl, Miss Lillia. I must congratulate you on your charming daughter; she is a credit to you. We have enjoyed the most fascinating conversation. Indeed, I have learned quite a bit form your daughter about a subject most dear to my heart.”
Lillia was too excited to acknowledge the compliment. She tugged on my sleeve and told me, “Mr. Van der Kock is a naturalist, and you’ll never guess what he studies?”
She answered before I could even begin to hazard a guess.
“Unicorns! They really exist, or at least they did…”
I smiled indulgently at her and looked over to Mr Van der Kock, expecting to share a sympathetic smile, but instead, he nodded vigorously.
“Indeed, indeed,” he smiled broadly at my daughter.
“I am on the path of the great unicorn hunter, Dr. Sparrmann, the Swedish naturalist, who visited the Cape of Good Hope and the adjacent regions in the early 1700s. He saw, with his own eyes, the fabulous beasts!”
Here he gesticulated so wildly that his glasses, already precariously balanced upon his nose, fell off onto the seat. Lillia reached over and passed then to him; in accepting them, he graced her with a tender smile, that of acolytes alone in a world that is unto themselves. A shiver passed through me as if the breath of the future herself sought to reassure me, and I suddenly saw my daughter not as she was now, in the glory of her precious youth, but as a regal but aged dame, surrounded by the admiring and respectful suitors to her knowledge. The image disappeared in a flash and suddenly I realized that both Lillia and her traveling companion were staring at me strangely.
“Are you alright, Mum?” asked Lillia, still looking at me with a degree of concern. I hurriedly reassured her, and just as she was about to encourage Mr Van der Kock to speak more of his magical creatures, the flight attendant, asked us to regain our seats in preparation for landing.
As I strapped myself in, I thought about the strange flash of prescience that had occurred a few moments ago. The oddest thing, to see your child in a future so far removed that it implies your own death. And yet I felt at peace, as if I knew the vision was a gift, to show me that my daughter would find her way and follow it to her destiny.
I looked back over at the unusual couple made by my ethereal daughter and the peculiar chap next to her. Now that I could see more closely, at least in context, I realized that he was not so much older than her, and that despite his unusual appearance, he was more appealing than unattractive, with a natural omniprescience that only passion inspires.
As we drew closer to landing, I turned to look at Grace. She was staring out the window, absolutely transfixed by the image of Africa as it rolled out beneath us. It was as if she were in love with the place before we had even arrived, and while it made sense to be in love with the idea of the place, I felt that her focus was deeper than a childish whim.
Leaning back in the chair, I realized that if we had been led to this place in our lives, if I could see clearly the route that brought us here, and indeed had been given glimpses of the future that could be after this place, then perhaps indeed we were tracing destiny’s lines. I could see how this notion encompassed Grace and Lillia, but for the life of me, I could not see how my own salvation could lie in this direction. If anything, I was heading away from the security and balance I so desired.
Children with guns
As we stepped out of the khaki concrete terminal that served as Entebbe’s airport, the heat and dust of the air greeted us like an overwhelming aunt, covering us and pushing us and taking possession of our eyes and mouths and bodies.
Mama Akanit shifted her kanga about her head, pulling it in closer to protect her from the powdery red earth that filled our mouths. She had stood out like a beacon as we emerged from the customs hall. Draped in colorful cloth as bright as a field of tropical flowers, as large as a hippopotamus and as shining black as a beach pebble from a volcanic sand, she held aloft a hand the size of my head and trumpeted my name in a voice destined to carry across the most packed marketplace.
She parted the seas of people in front of her with one majestic wave of a paw and flowed towards us until she towered over me, benevolent and redolent of sandalwood oil and good humor.
“My name is Akanit. It means ‘hard times’ in my language, but such a name is a blessing when it is offered, because a body who can move through hard times and still grow to be good and strong is a powerful body indeed, and this is me.”
She bowed first to Grace.
“You are the child who will bring us compassion, it is written in your face and your name speaks the truth. Welcome.”
Next, she turned to Lillia.
“The mystical creatures have spoken of you on the wind; they send their greetings and thank you in advance. Welcome to you also.”
Finally she turned to me and looked at me with great interest.
“And you, the mother who brings her children to the mouth of the river that is their destiny. You have the courage of a lioness, I think, who protects her cubs while she prepares them for their lives to come.”
She clapped me on the back heartily and smiled a strangely tender smile.
“But do not fear, because the creatures of the wind have much in store for you as well.”
She bent down to pick up the heavy cases.
“But first, let me take you to your new home.”
After two bone-shattering hours perched in an ancient four wheel drive vehicle laden down with every kind of produce it was possible to imagine, I spat another mouthful of feathers from the cage of chickens balanced on my lap and followed Mama Akanit’s finger to the rough outpost of buildings some distance in front of us.
Lillia, amazingly, was sleeping the sleep of the just in the back seat, leaning against a bag of grain. Grace, who had spent the entire voyage shouting her delight (“Look Mummy, a lion! Look Mummy, an elephant! Look Mummy, a man with a gun!”) gazed silently at the buildings as we drew closer. Up close, they were less than impressive, more like some falling down temporary shelters than a hospital and orphanage.
Lightly, I told her that this was the start of our adventure and that the buildings were probably much nicer inside than out, to which Mama Akanit snorted derisively.
Grace looked at me, concern written large in her eyes.
“I certainly hope they are nicer inside, because we only have to stay there for a little while, but the other children have to live there.”
Mama Akanit turned to look at my child while the truck continued its bumpy route, unperturbed by her lack of attention.
“In Africa, we say that if we do not have windows, it is so the gods can breathe on us as we sleep. Don’t worry, my little gnu, there are much bigger problems than some old houses.”
She turned back and smiled me cheerfully.
“Your child has a good heart.”
I nodded but inside my own heart squeezed, one of the little flashes of fear that I’d been having since we’d left. What if I was exposing the girls to physical danger? And what if I was completely destroying their innocent children’s hearts, by plunking them down in the middle of such misery.
There was no more time for reflection as the vehicle screeched to a halt in front of the largest building, kicking up a huge cloud of dust that served to cover the fifty or sixty children that arrived out of seemingly nowhere.
As the red dust settled, I could see children of all ages, from tiny babies in the arms of older girls, to young teenagers, their adolescent bravado the same the world over. It was only when I looked closer that I saw that almost all of the children, even the babies, were missing limbs or bearing the same vivid purple slashes across their faces. My stomach rose in my throat and all I wanted to do was grab my girls and rush back to the nearest civilized outpost, somewhere with Disney television and cold white wine, somewhere where children were children and not creatures out of Dr Mengle’s imagination.
Mama Akanit patted me gently with her rough hand.
“Every morning I cry before I get out of bed, and every evening, I cry again. And then I remember that these children are alive, when so many others are not. So they are blessed.”
If I had been able to speak without the fear of throwing up, I would have questioned her notion of blessing. Given the wounds, I could only begin to imagine how they had suffered. How could such children be blessed?
I busied myself with our bags, keeping a close eye on the girls until I was sure I could speak without tears or worse. Lillia and Grace were surrounded by a clamoring mass of kids, all of whom seemed amazed and excited by this latest addition to their lives.
I watched as Lillia held out her arms to a miniscule baby who could only have been a month old. The girl holding the baby gave a shy smile and passed her small charge over to my daughter, who held her tenderly, passing a pale finger over the tiny head.
Mama Akanit leaned into me and whispered into my ear.
“This is her baby. She is thirteen and her family was all killed by the Karamojong. She was raped but now she wants to keep the baby because it is her only family, so we must help her to finish school so that she can support her child.”
She gestured for me to follow her into the building in front of us. I called to the girls to stay where they were and went after Mama Akanit, who carried our bags as lightly as if they were air. As we made our way through rooms, each more ramshackle than the last, I reflected again on the wisdom of bringing the children to this god-forsaken place. Finally, Mama Akanit stopped in a room with no windows or doors, and three rustic camp beds lined up against the far wall. She dropped our bags with a thump, causing more dust to rise from the dirt floor.
She looked around with approval.
“Good. It is clean.”
I looked at her with consternation and she guffawed.
“Clean for us. Now clean for you. This morning there were still scorpions but now no more.”
She bent down and pulled out three UN-issue packets from under the bed.
“Mosquito nets. Never forget them. Now, come, we will go and meet the others.”
“Ok, but I have to go back and make sure the girls are safe. They don’t know about all of the dangers here…”
I wound off, uncertain of how to say that I was more worried about the horrors they might hear, rather than the risk of scorpions or other bush creatures.
The large black woman gazed at me for a moment and then took both of my hands in hers.
“You are right to feel afraid. Being here will change your children right in their hearts. But you have been brought here for a reason, and so have your daughters. Now you must trust that they will hear and learn from the lessons of this place.”
I understood what she was saying. Everything that had brought us here, every reason I had for coming on this epic journey, was designed to put us out of our comfort zones, hopefully for a good greater than our own. But it was hard to imagine my protected, tenderhearted babies dealing with issues that were so large as to be simply overwhelming to adults, let alone the innocents I knew them to be.
Out again in the sunshine, I held up my hand against the blinding light and gazed in wonder at my little angels. Lillia was sitting on an upturned wooden case, gently cooing at the little baby in her arms, while Grace was sitting on the floor having her white blond hair braided into cornrows by a busy team of small girls. I watched in awe as one of the girls managed to braid, one handed, her other arm a useless stump at her shoulder.
Mama Akanit nudged me.
“See? Making friends already. Children know that life is too short to wait, so they make friends without care for tomorrow.”
She raised her voice and uttered a command in a language I did not recognize. Immediately, all the children stopped what they were doing and looked to her for further instructions.
“Now I speak in English for our friends.”
She indicated each of us with a large finger.
“We welcome our guests as our family.”
She pointed again to each one of us in turn.
“You must look out for them, and help them. Teach them to speak our languages. Help them to know the heart of our Africa. Keep watch in the bush when they peepee, for they know not the dangers of the creatures who will profit from such fair white skin.”
The children laughed, all except a young boy who stood transfixed on the edge of the crowd.
While Mama Akanit issued a few more orders, I took a moment to check that the girls were not feeling too overwhelmed. Lillia smiled up at me, her Madonna’s face glowing more than ever.
“Look Mum, look at how tiny he is.”
Lillia stroked his soft caramel forehead and the baby gurgled up at her.
“His name is Paul. I chose it because his mum wanted a holy name and Saint Paul was the guy who was blinded by lightning and then got to see because he had faith.”
She smoothed the wiry little curls on the baby’s head.
“I want him to have faith that his life will be better than his mother’s life.”
Grace snuck over and snuggled into my side, her hand reaching up to touch my hair as she always did when she was upset. I knelt down to look into her eyes, and saw that they were shining with unshed tears.
“My baby, are you OK? This is a lot to take in, I know.”
Grace shook her head and smiled bravely at me.
“I’m not sad for me, Mummy. I am sad for my friends. They don’t have any mummies or daddies anymore. Or houses or anything but they are so kind to us.”
She looked at me questioningly.
“How come they are so nice when people have been so mean to them? Why aren’t they filled up to the top with hate?”
I pondered for a moment. It was a good question. How was it that those who suffered the most, or had the least, found the energy to be so generous? I thought of the poorer mothers from school who always sent the more expensive gifts to birthday parties, and of my own angel, Mrs. Brinkley, who gave her time and money to those who really needed help, even though she lived on limited means and was clearly getting on in years.
“I don’t know, my darling. Maybe it’s their way of stopping the cycle of cruelty.”
I patted her neat little cornrows.
“I like your hair. It really suits you.”
She smirked at me and gave my hand a squeeze before bouncing off to rejoin her friends. I watched her chattering away and trying out African words as her friends pointed out the essentials in their world. Mama Akanit was right – part of this journey was learning to find the balance between safety and freedom, support and encouragement, the trial of every parent I knew and my own particular daily struggle.
It was then I noticed the little boy, standing on the outskirts of the group, watching intently but remaining aloof from the children around him. He caught me staring and flinched, shrinking into himself as I tried out a friendly wave. Mama Akanit shook her head.
“It is no use to wave. The boy’s heart cannot see, even if there is no problem with his eyes.”
She gazed at him impassively for a moment and then turned to me.
“One truth you must know immediately. Some of these children we will never save. Some we must let go back to the devil that took them. For some, we are just too late.”
She looked at me to see if I had understood, and I nodded back, even though I could not for a moment imagine letting any of these children “return to the devil”.
“He killed his parents, and his two brothers and sisters. On the orders of the boss soldiers who took him as their own, he shot and killed each member of his family. He was eight when this happened, now he is twelve and he has been with us for three years. We only know what happened because two of the other children are from the same village and they witnessed this with their own eyes.”
I couldn’t believe it. Even after researching and reading hundreds of articles about child soldiers and the atrocities they were forced to commit, I still couldn’t even begin to imagine that the quiet child in front of me was a murderer.
“Aren’t the other children afraid of him?” I asked Mama Akanit, making a mental note to tell the girls to stay well away from him.
“No, they have seen far worse. Anyway, the boy was in the power of the black junk…”
Noting my confusion, she clarified.
“Heroin. He was so filled up with the poison that if we hadn’t got him, he would have died from it very soon. So the children know that what he did was not something that came from him; it came from the evil in his veins and the evil people around him.”
Later, after we had made the basic rounds and got our bearings, Mama Akanit left me alone for an hour while she went to consult with the radio to find out when the doctor was expected the following day. I brushed off the nearest camp bed and sank into it, overwhelmed by jetlag and the heat, but mostly by the evidence of evil around me. What had seemed like a good idea back in the safety of our clean, loving home, now seemed like a folly. How could anything we did here help? There was simply too much to do, and so much misery around. I tried to remember what Ombeline had said, that saving even one child meant saving the next generation, but it wasn’t enough. All around us, so much misery, and all I was going to do was destroy the secure world of my own children as they learned that the world was indeed a dreadful place.
Chicken bone truths
The deafening noise of an air raid attack woke me screaming to the girls to come inside, to stay close, to get under the beds, as I crawled across the dirt floor to grope in their beds in the semi-darkness. My screaming turned mute when I realized that they weren’t there but before I could raise the alarm, Mama Akanit loomed in the doorway, soaking up the faint light from the hall.
“What a lot of racket. Isn’t there enough already outside?” she asked scoldingly and pointed to the window. Through the huge cloud of red dust, I could see a helicopter settling in front of the hospital.
“Who is it?’ I asked, vaguely reassured by Mama Akanit’s calm demeanor.
She strode in, brusquely rolling my mosquito net into a ball and placing it on the end of the bed.
“It is the doctors. They have come to help with the wounded ones.”
Her face clouded with sadness and I caught a glimpse of the heartbreak she hid so well.
“Many arrived in the night. Some are very bad and we cannot help them without the doctors.”
She shook her head to chase the darkness and smirked at me, a twinkle lighting up the gold in her generous brown eyes.
“We call them our witch doctors, because they always seem to know when there is a good reason to be here. Today there is a better reason than most!” She smirked at me.
Before I could ask her what she meant, she strode out the door, already issuing orders as she went.
I made my way to the primitive bathroom outside the back door and quickly rinsed the night and the previous day’s voyage off me as best I could. There was no point in putting on face cream – no amount of cosmetic was going to remove seventeen hours of traveling and a rough night from my face, and anyway, the day was warming up to its promise and I knew that in half an hour I’d be sweating like a pig.
Once I’d finished my ablutions, I followed the sound of voices out to the front of the hospital. Standing in front of the helicopter, now miraculously quiet, was Mama Akanit, facing a man who was hidden by her bulk so that only a tumble of black curls showed. Mama Akanit was grinning broadly and poking the man in the chest while he shook his head sheepishly. She turned and beckoned to me to come over, and as she moved, I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that the man standing behind her was my very own angel, this time minus his guitar.
Seeing my shocked face, Mama Akanit burst into a great rumble of belly laughter.
“I told you that there was a reason to come and here it is. You should see your faces.”
I hastily sneaked a look at Chris Gabriel and saw that he looked as pole-axed as me. Mama Akanit doubled up with laughter again and then straightened up and poked Chris in the chest again.
“You, boy, I don’t know why you look so surprised. Didn’t the chicken bones tell you this would happen?”
He nodded, obviously too stunned to speak, as Mama Akanit shook a rather large finger in his face.
“When the bones say your soul mate is where the big bird takes you, I tell you it is the girl who will come here, to you. Now let’s see how smart you are, my friend. What will you do with this great love that has been dropped on your head?”
She turned to me. With an appraising glance, she took in my absolute and utter amazement, and before I could ask her how she could possibly have known, how this could have happened, she took me by the shoulders and looked me firmly in the eye.
“You know that he is one of the big reasons you are here, yes? You will not be so stupid as mess this up.”
It was a statement and not a question, and I nodded, trying not to look like someone dumb enough to insult the gods and their representative on earth, who kept her hands heavy on my shoulders until she was certain of my response.
Chuckling wisely, she picked up the bags and boxes and began to head into the hospital.
I tried a tentative smile on my angel and nodded towards Mama Akanit’s retreating form.
“Did the chicken bones really tell you that I would be here?”
Chris Gabriel smiled right at me, a smile that was so friendly and familiar that I felt again as if I’d known him since the dawn of time.
“Funnily enough, yes. And I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
“In chicken bones?”
I smiled, trying to lighten the ambience, for suddenly I was finding it difficult to breathe.
“In all the wrong places, apparently.”
He took a step closer and my heart rate went up a notch. At least if I had a heart attack, there was a hospital nearby.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times I went back to that bar. Why didn’t you call me?”
“But you didn’t give me your number,” I protested. “Just a song. A lovely song, but no telephone number.”
Chris shook his head impatiently.
“No, I wrote my number on a piece of paper. I didn’t give you a song.”
He stopped talked and a look of comprehension passed across his face.
“The song. You have the song?”
“Yes. I thought it was for me. It’s such a lovely song.”
Chris smiled and took my hands in his, gently rubbing the tops of my hands with his long fingers.
“It was for you. I wrote it five minutes before I went on stage. I’d never sung it before. And I never sang it again. I couldn’t find the music for it, and for some reason, I couldn’t remember it at all.”
He gently pulled me into his arms.
“I have a feeling that we have a lot to talk about, but for now, I have to go and see what’s going on inside. We got a call that we were needed. Come with me?”
He took me by the hand and led me to the front door leading to the ward and stopped right in front of the door.
“Before we go in, I just want to say that from this instant on, you belong to me. I don’t know how or why and I don’t care about the details. I’ve never felt anything like this in my life and I don’t expect to ever again. I know this, I feel like I know you, and I know with every fiber of my being that we are going to spend the rest of our lives together. Nothing matters as long as we are together.”
He took a shuddering breath and looked at me a moment before continuing.
“I know I sound like a crazy person but I have never been more serious in my life. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but is that OK? Is it OK that I love you?”
I looked deeply into his eyes and what I saw overrode any apprehension I might have had. In another time and space, I would have told him he was nuts, to give it some time, that I knew nothing of him other than the obvious, but each and every cell in my body was screaming “say yes”. I tried to focus, to find exactly the right words, knowing that what I said next would define the rest of my life, the rest of his life, and the lives of my daughters.
“Yes. Yes, it’s OK. I love you too.”
He squeezed my hand in relief and I squeezed back, reveling in the warmth of his palm against mine, our lifelines aligned as if they too were finally home.
“I don’t understand how you came to be here or even how I got here, all I know is that from the moment I saw you, I knew it was you. The one. I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
He pulled me close to him and kissed me tenderly on the lips, a promise written in flesh and blood, and then opened the door to the ward.
This time, it was me who stopped. Above the stomach-wrenching scent of blood and putrefying flesh was the vision of what seemed like hundreds of tiny faces, all showing the wounds of war in their most brutal form. As I followed Chris down the hall, I tried not to stare at the children as they lay listless or agonizing on their dirty beds. Even I could see that they had received only the most rudimentary medical care and I did not know how the doctors knew where to start. I realized that the noises I’d heard in the early dawn were in fact the bush ambulances arriving, bearing the morbid fruit of yet another tribal battle. I shrank into myself, feeling guilty for not having helped in some way, and for loving life, my life, when these tortured children’s lives were line drawings in blood and hate.
Chris took a quick glance at the roster and then started examining the child in the bed closest to the door, a little boy of no more than eight or nine. From the state of his wounds, it looked like he’d been hit in the head with a machete and then left to die. Flies buzzed around the gaping wound at the top of his forehead, and dark, dried blood congealed in the corner of his eyes. He didn’t flinch when Chris gently probed the slash with a giant cotton swab drenched in antiseptic.
“We’ll do this one first. Get me fifteen milliliters of Demerol and we’ll knock him out here before we move him.”
The nurse stepped up and frowned.
“No more Demerol, I’m afraid. Only half a bottle of ether until the next shipment arrives.”
Chris scowled at her and then turned to me, his face serious but calm.
“You’re going to have to help hold him. The ether will help with the pain but it’s imperative that he doesn’t move at all.”
He indicated the washing up area next to the wall.
“Go wash up. Sandy will show you how to do it. See you in there.”
My knees were shaking as I made my way to the room that sufficed as an operating theatre. It wasn’t so much the operation that worried me, although I was already sick to my stomach at the idea of watching anyone poke around in this poor child’s head, as the responsibility – what if I moved and caused some irreversible injury? What if I fainted or blacked out or moved at the wrong time? Chris caught my eye and smiled encouragingly.
“Just your being here gives him a chance to live. You’ll be fine.”
After the operation, I went outside and retched behind the compound wall, throwing up until there was nothing left in my stomach. It was only when Chris had started operating that I realized the extent of the child’s injury, and what a good job he had done in trying to save the boy. But how did he manage to do this every day, in such dreadful conditions? How did he stand seeing such misery and knowing that his contributions were only a drop in an endless sea?
I straightened up hurriedly as I heard Mama Akanit’s steps coming towards me.
“Ah, here you are!”
Her glance took in my pallor and the remains of last night’s dinner at my feet.
“Do not fear, it is a common reaction the first time. You will be stronger now that the bad feeling is out.”
Clutching my arm, she drew me to her.
“You are a strong woman. The gods have plans for you. Big plans. And good plans, too.”
She nudged me, as was her habit, gently butting at me with her shoulder.
“Now you have a man to stand by you, so you can concentrate on your other destiny.”
I made to protest weakly but she wasn’t having any of it.
“Enough. Tonight you can make big eyes at Doctor Angel but now we must be like Jesus and feed the hungry people with not enough food.”
She pulled me by the arm.
“Food first, then you can think of all of the lying down fun you will be having with your doctor.”
My face betrayed my shock, and she laughed, throwing her head back so that the sunlight shone on the magnificent planes of her face.
“You think I don’t know about the lying down business?”
She puffed up her enormous chest and bumped me two steps sideways.
“I am the queen of the lying down business!”
Again she laughed and somewhere in the night a hyena answered.
The kitchen was thick with women chattering away as they plucked chickens and chopped leafy green vegetables I did not recognize. Mama Akanit clapped her hands and the chatter died away to a murmur as the women took stock of their newest recruit. A tall, thin woman as black as ebony stepped forward and handed me a knife.
“Come, I will show you,” she said kindly, in heavily accented English.
After lunch, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking stock in the infirmary storeroom, counting mosquito nets and medical supplies in the cool half-light, stopping only when I heard the voices of my daughters, laughing out in the central yard. I made my way out to find them giggling as they twirled a skipping rope around, shouting out an African rhyme that kept rhythm with the little girl jumping rope. I smiled to see that witness to children being children, the same the world over, and waved to the girls as they leapt over the rope.
As usual, the silent boy stood on the outskirts of the group, his eyes blank before the merriment of his colleagues. He looked over and caught me staring at him and I risked a brief smile, but he only looked away quickly, as if afraid to make contact.
After the game had calmed down, I beckoned to Lillia and Grace, anxious to hear how they had spent the time since I had glimpsed them at breakfast. That morning, they had assisted in the school, helping the thirty or so members of the mixed age class as they learned their sums and numbers.
“We helped clean out the chicken shed, Mummy,” laughed Grace, clearly enchanted to be covered head to toe in feathers, chicken poop and dust.
“And I took care of little Paul while his mum worked in the office with Mama Akanit.”
Lillia smiled down at her charge, sleeping blissfully in the swaddling that bound him to her.
Some of the other children called out to the girls and I let them go, promising to catch up at dinner. I watched them as they rushed off, wondering if I ought to have told them about Chris. Not that there was a lot to tell. For the moment, I didn’t know anything, other than that I’d meant what I said when I told him I loved him.
I shook my head at the madness of it all. From the day I’d stepped out to get a tattoo, I had embarked on a crazy ride that had brought me to Africa, where I’d met the man of my dreams, even though I didn’t really know what those dreams were. A second, admittedly remarkable chance meeting that, without rhyme or even a smidge of reason, had me convinced that I had a future with the man. I shook my head. A man I knew absolutely nothing about. Really, there was nothing I could say to the girls until I knew what to say to myself.
Resolving to put it out of my mind, I set off to be useful. There were so many troubling things about the orphanage but the lack of resources was the worst. In addition to lacking the most basic items of care, the requirement for a full-time doctor was overwhelmingly evident. Even if there was work to do to get the buildings and the school up to par, nothing would change unless there was a doctor there all the time, to deal with the frequent incoming war-inflicted wounds as well as all of the people who came from miles for a wide variety of illnesses and accidents.
I thought about how Mama Akanit was convinced that we were all here for specific reasons, and how adamant she was that I had a special role to play. Maybe I wasn’t much help as a nursing assistant and I certainly wasn’t a competent cook, but the one thing I was good at was communicating. All I had to do was get the word out about this place, raise enough money to pay for a doctor for a year and some of the more urgent renovations, and then maybe the NGOs would take over a permanent salary. So caught up was I in my reverie of saving the world that I walked straight into the little silent boy, who was crouched down, huddled against the door frame as if hiding.
I held out my hand and he looked up at me, trembling with fear, and shrunk further back into his corner. I stepped back, unwilling to frighten him any further and unsure how to proceed. He continued to huddle in his corner, so I sank down into the opposite corner and sat quietly on the floor. He gazed at me and I was sure I saw a flash of curiosity in his eyes before he made his regard go blank again. We sat this way for more than an hour before I saw his body relax ever so slightly. He sank onto his heels, still perched against the wooden doorframe, and started drawing stick figures in the dirt floor. I inched closer, tentative at first but when I saw that he was studiously ignoring me, I moved close enough to see what he was drawing.
The stick figures were laboriously rendered and each character showed clearly: man, woman, two girls and one boy, all standing together in a ring with their hands in the air, in supplication. Off to the right, some very large men carrying huge knives pointed to the huddle of people. Only when I looked closely did I see a tiny stick figure – a little boy – at the centre of the giant people. He was holding a gun and when I stared at the drawing, I realized that one of the big stick figures was holding a machete over the boy’s head.
The next frame showed all the people from the huddle lying down on the ground, surrounded by puddles of what I took to be blood, for I quickly realized that the boy was drawing his story. The little boy stood all alone, off to the side in his drawing. He was in a large container of what seemed to be his tears, with the water rising above his head.
He continued scratching away at the ground while I followed his tale. The following drawings told the story of a little boy forced to follow his captors, being fed like a wild dog on occasion. Only that piles of bodies painstakingly etched along a winding route and the clouds floating around the boy’s head after each heroin fix showed any of the whimsy usually associated with children’s drawings; for the rest, his sketches illustrated the ignominy of his situation better than a thousand photos.
After a while, he left off drawing and sank back into his semi-catatonic state by the doorframe. I sat with him, not attempting contact and trying to make sense of what he had told me, and why. Finally, when I heard the dinner bell ring, I shakily rose from my crouch in the corner and moved towards the door, beckoning to the boy. He shrank back in terror as I tried to tempt him to come and join us for the meal, but he was impervious to my efforts and so I left him to go and join the others.
Taking a chance on love
When I got to the dining room, there was the usual ruckus I had come to associate with mealtime, and my eyes searched the room for the girls, and for Chris. I found Lillia and Grace ensconced on the other side of the room, laughing and roughhousing with their friends. Lillia looked up to catch me watching them and she nudged my sister, who looked around the room. I was still trying to beckon them over when I felt his hands on my shoulders.
“I’ve been looking for you. Shall we take our meals outside and talk?”
I turned to smile at him, and despite the weariness in his eyes, he smiled back.
“I think we have quite a lot of catching up to do. Although,” his eyes twinkled merrily, “I think I know a lot more about you than you know about me. Chicken bones, aside.”
I looked at him and he laughed at the confusion on my face.
“I got two new helpers this afternoon, both of whom know you very well. Your daughters are beautiful girls, inside and out. You can be proud of them.”
He went on to explain that Lillia had brought Paul in for a vaccination and had been so interested in the baby clinic that she and Grace stayed on to help throughout the rest of the afternoon.
“There’s more too,” he said with a smirk. “Apparently we have their benediction.”
I must have looked startled because he laughed out loud again.
“Camp rumor has us married already. I still think they came along to secretly check me out. Happily we all got along like a house afire. Imagine how awful it would have been if they’d hated me on sight?”
I sat back against the wall, balancing my plate on my knees, trying to find the right words.
“So correct me if I’m wrong, but we met once in a bar. Then ran into each other again here, in this half-hell. I have no idea why you are here or even how I came to be here, really. But now, thanks to some chicken bones and my well-meaning daughters, we are practically married?”
The more I spoke, the angrier I felt. I looked at him accusingly.
“How come you’re so sure about this?”
I gestured towards us.
“I mean, how can you possibly know that we’ll be suited? You know nothing about me. You don’t know what I have to do, you know nothing of my family and my life…”
Chris grabbed my hands and held them to his chest, a curiously reassuring movement that felt both intimate and loving.
“Listen, we’ve got the rest of our lives to talk about the details. Suffice to say that if I told you everything, you’d think I was nuts. I’ve been working in Africa for about ten years now. Until a couple of months ago, I was running the Medecins sans Frontières hospital over the border. It was all going well but I kept having the strangest dream about going home and singing in a bar.”
He shook his head.
“Definitely strange, considering I hadn’t played in years. And not just once, I must have dreamed the same dream a hundred times.”
He went quiet for a moment.
“I probably would have ignored everything and kept working, if…”
Chris looked up at the stars in the clear night sky.
“One night, the rebels came and attacked the hospital. There was nothing we could do except let them. By morning, the only ones left alive were us. The hospital was destroyed and all of the people, all of the patients we had tried so hard to save, they were all dead.”
I gasped, horror-struck and heartbroken for him. He contemplated his hands, face up in the moonlight, and I tried hard not imagine those lovely long fingers covered with blood.
He looked up at me and smiled sadly.
“Of course, we couldn’t stay after that. The hospital was closed down, the rebels came back and took what was left of it over.”
He shook his head.
“We had no medicine, no electricity. No food. And those of us who remained were terrified. We knew just how lucky we were to have escaped.”
I mumbled something about not being able to give more than your life, when I realized how stupid that must sound, so I shut my mouth and tried to look supportive.
When he reached over and took my hand again, I squeezed as hard as I could, letting him know that I was ready to listen when he wanted to talk.
“Suffice to say, they sent me home for three months, supposedly so they could work out my next posting, but really it was all about getting me out of the field for a while. But at home, there was nothing for me. Everyone – my friends and family – seemed so obsessed about their own silly little problems. I found myself pushing away just about everyone I knew or cared about, and when I found myself with a whiskey bottle in hand at four in the afternoon, I knew something had to give. So I wrote a couple of songs and started singing in a friend’s bar. One thing led to another and I started to play regularly, which was good, because I still wasn’t sleeping. It was all going OK – not great, but OK – until I heard about Ombeline.”
I started so suddenly the top of my head banged his chin.
“Ombeline? You know Ombeline?”
I looked at him, wide eyed with amazement.
“Ombeline and I have known each other for about sixteen years, since we worked together in the Peace Corps. She’s a wonderful girl. A little crazy but her heart is in the right place. But how do you know her?”
I explained about our long-term friendship and how her accident – and a whole lot of other reasons – brought us to Jinja. After my brief résumé, Chris pulled me close to him and drew my face up to his.
“Please don’t think I’m insane. I promise you that normally I don’t believe in all the airy fairy stuff that goes around, but to ignore this would be to spit in the eyes of the gods.”
I tried to demur but he kept on talking.
“When I had the first dream, I knew it was about you. Something was leading me to you, even though I didn’t have a clue who you were and to be honest, the very last thing on my mind was a relationship.”
He stopped, drew a deep breath, and then continued.
“I never intended to play in that bar that night – I only came in at the very last minute, to lend a hand to a friend who couldn’t play.”
Chris looked at me seriously.
“But when I was waiting backstage, a song – your song – came to mind. The music and the lyrics practically wrote themselves. And then I played the song, and saw you, and in that instant, my life changed. When you drove away and never called, I felt like it was a lesson: that somehow, my purpose in life was not to find love but to work in the service of others. It was an epiphany, a message of light sent to me at a moment when I was truly lost and didn’t know what to do with my life. I felt that if I’d lost you – the woman I know I was meant to spend the rest of my life with – then it was because my path lay elsewhere.”
“And here you are,” I said, leaning into him. In the moonlight, his green eyes glowed like emeralds. I snuggled into his chest, solid like the old oak of a family tree. I could feel his heart beating with love through his shirt, and I wanted more than anything to melt into his skin.
“You’re not the only one with a wacky story. I am the world’s most irresponsible mother. And a sleazy middle-aged woman to boot. Hell, I even went back to the bar, trying to find you. If that’s not slutty, I don’t know what is….”
I looked up at him.
“So to resume, I am a terrible mother who dropped everything and dragged her kids to the other side of the world, on a whim, all the while pining for some musician I’d met in a bar. You’re a guy who lost it – justifiably, I might add – and then defied reality by returning to the scene of the crime.”
I smirked up at him.
“And then, to make matters even more interesting, you pine after strange women you meet in bars, only to conjure them up in foreign countries. I’m wacky, you’re weird.”
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
“Either this is a love affair written by the gods, or else we both need heavy medication.”
He gazed at me a long moment and then leaned in, and ever so gently, kissed me. The touch of his lips, soft as velvet but alive with the fire of a thousand fires, kick started my heart as if it had received a thousand volts. I kissed him back, losing myself in his mouth as if it were the center of the world, my world.
“So here we are.”
He pulled me to him tighter, as if he were afraid to lose me.
“I’m terrified to ask but I can’t not. What happens next?”
I looked up and saw the fear in his eyes. In the silence, I gazed up at the black night and focused on Cassiopeia, the constellation that had always bought me peace in my darkest hours. He took a deep breath and I turned my head to look at him.
“The question begs to be asked. On which level are we operating here?”
There was only one answer. If I had learned anything over the last few weeks, it was that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith. I had been led from one crazy circumstance to the next, right up until now. If this was love – and I felt sure it was – then the only thing left to do was jump.
Reaching up to touch his beautiful face, I said, “I think that we are operating on a level that brooks no argument.”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped.
“I think we have to recognize that we have been given the gift of love, and now it’s up to us to make it work.”
Suddenly giddy, I looked deep into his eyes and saw the confirmation of every single thing I was feeling.
“I don’t know how we are going to do this, or where. All I know is that I want to be with you, I want to hold you hand and follow the signs.”
Even as I spoke, I knew how crazy it sounded. I barely knew this man. I hardly had a job back home. I had two kids whose stability depended on me and me alone. It wasn’t that I was discounting all of that, only that I felt sure that everything would fall into place, as it should, when the time was right.
Chris smiled and ran his fingers down my cheek.
“I know. It’s madness but I’m with you. Let’s just commit to this love. Anything that doesn’t work out, we’ll fix it as we go along.”
Suddenly serious, he said, “I’m sure that we’ll come upon hard times, but I promise you, with every fiber of my being, that together, we will always find a solution. Always. As long as we are together.”
A lion called out in the darkness, and the clatter from the kitchen indicated that mealtime was over. Chris grabbed my hand and pulled me up.
“Let’s go talk to the girls. I get the feeling that they knew about this before we did. Apparently Lillia has been talking to the unicorn.”
He caught my concerned glance and smiled.
“The unicorn is the name the local medicine man goes by. Rumor has it that he turns himself into a unicorn and learns the future, and apparently the chicken bones did not lie.”
He grinned at me.
“She seemed to know all about us, even before we did.”
I stopped in the darkness and squeezed his hand.
“You realize that I come as a package deal? You not just getting a wife, you’re getting a family too. A house full of women.”
My mind flashed back to Mrs. Brinkley, who was as much a part of our family as anyone.
He laughed out loud.
“Honey, trust me, that’s not a problem. This may strike you as ironic but I have five sisters, and growing up, two of my aunts also lived with us. Believe me, a house full of women is less than unusual for me.”
As we walked along, hand in hand in the bright African darkness, I imagined all the things we had to learn about each other. Our childhoods, our families, our lives until now. Starting out as we were, a blank slate for one another: was this a blessing or a curse? If we knew nothing of each other, how could we take into account the complexities of each other’s personality. If we don’t know where the other has come from, can we ever really know them? But then, my heart argued, people change over the course of the years, so love means accepting the evolutions of our loved ones.
I was still tossing around these arguments and more, wondering what on earth I was going to say to my darling daughters.
“Hi, this is your mother, the voice of reason, and I’ve just fallen in love with someone I don’t know and we’re going to live happily ever after?”
Somehow, I knew I would have to slow this rollercoaster down and find a way to show them that I knew what I was doing, that I was not just rushing full steam ahead into the unknown.
But before I could say a word, one of Mama Akanit’s helpers grabbed Chris and dragged him off to look at a new arrival. I offered to come and help but Chris could see that I was exhausted and told me to get a good night’s sleep. With a brief but tender kiss, he told me that a date with Orpheus would help me to see more clearly and I loved him even more for being able to see past our love to my worries and fears.
And so, for the first time in a million years, I fell asleep safe in the knowledge that my heart had found its home.
The next morning, I got up early, or at least, early for me, for the whole camp seemed alive with energy and purpose, and went looking for the girls and Chris.
Before I had taken a step out of the kitchen, I heard the helicopter take off, and then Suzanne, the lovely girl who had helped me in the kitchen the first night, came bustling through the door.
She smiled at me and gave me a piece of paper. Music paper, and a familiar scrawl that apologized for leaving without seeing me. Apparently there was trouble in a nearby refuge and Chris had gone to help out. He hoped to be back later that night, and wanted me to know that he’d spent the night dreaming of me, and our future together. He signed it “all my love, forever and always”, and I pressed his words to my chest like a lovesick teen.
My face must have shown my dopey disappointment because Suzanne laughed, a bright sound in the darkness of my heart, and drew me to the window.
She pointed to a group of children, mine at the centre.
“Look, they are practicing for your wedding. Do not worry, he will be with you for all of time. It is written in the bones.”
I could see the children dancing around, Lillia in the middle, wearing a mosquito net as a veil.
I thanked Suzanne and sank into a chair, trying to understand if everything I had seen and felt yesterday had been a mirage. Was I suffering from jetlag hallucinations? How could I possibly have committed my live, our lives, to a man I did not know at all?
And then I had an epiphany – a very loud epiphany in the voice of Mama Akanit.
“What is the essence of your question?” asked the booming voice.
“Are you questioning the wisdom of loving someone you don’t know? Could you walk away from this? Because if the answer to either of these questions is yes, then in my opinion, this is not love.”
“But how can we know for sure what love is?” I asked, well aware of the naivety of my question.
Mama Akanit let out one of her famous raucous belly laughs.
“Ah my child, do you hear yourself speak?”
As quick as night to day, her tone changed.
“When you turn on the switch and a light comes on, do you question what electricity is? And when you met this man, your heart lit up and yet you question the feeling.”
I felt a shadow block the light from the door and turned around to see her there, standing in the doorway, larger, as always, than life.
She shook her head, clearly bemused by my apparent confusion.
“Here, we take nothing for granted. At any moment, our breath may be taken away. Doctor Chris has lived this too, even beyond his job.”
I knew she was referring to the massacre that had led him, strangely, to me.
“You too, have lost things of value in the blink of an eye. So let me ask you this: if you knew that you could lose this love tomorrow, would you still want it? And if you were to die tomorrow, would you regret not having loved this man?”
She stood tall, stretching her extraordinary arms to the sky.
“I must go now and see love of a different kind. There are three new orphans arriving this afternoon and I must prepare.”
I sat there for the longest while, letting her words sink in. In another life, I would have run a mile from such strong feelings. Excessive emotion had always frightened the hell out of me, and after the hurt and anger of my husband’s betrayal, the only élan d’esprit I allowed myself, other than the occasional surge of rage, was the overwhelming love I felt for my daughters. Could it be that I was making excuses not to fall in love with Chris because I was afraid to feel again?
What, after all, was love? Once upon a time, people were put together in arranged marriages that prospered. I had taken stranger leaps of faith in the past, based on instinct and a desire to succeed. Maybe that was the essence of true love, unconditional like the mother has for her child, engaging in love before even knowing the child. Maybe love was defined by a lifetime promise, the kind Chris was proposing, a promise to love and honor the other, no matter what. In sickness and in health. For richer or poorer. Until death do us part.
I remembered the wedding of some Buddhist friends I had attended a few years previously, and the wise words of their celebrant.
“To say the words ‘love and compassion’ is easy. But to accept that love and compassion are built upon patience and perseverance is not easy. It is the work of a life time, the work of a life.”
Sitting out under the wide open sky, I thought of my marriage, and how, so long ago, we had said the words that sealed our union. Certainly, we had meant them at the time, but now, I could see, those promises had not been kept. Somewhere along the line, we had disengaged from each other. Sure, we were there in principle, walking the walk and talking the talk. But somewhere very early in our marriage, we let go of each other. Our passion degenerated into individual projects, a certain distant kindness towards each other, but our hearts no longer spoke to each other.
In that distance, measured in spiritual miles, a form of mutual distain installed itself. It seemed so distant now, and yet pertinent to my story, a point of reference where my past was to become my future.
Sanding up to dust myself off, I decided to go and join the girls, when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. My little friend, the boy who never spoke, was crouched against the rough brick wall of the infirmary. His eyes glowed bright with tears in the light, and for once I decided to go with my instinct. I walked over and sat down next to him, close enough that our legs were almost touching. Even though I knew he didn’t understand English, I decided to speak anyway.
“I’m not going to say that I’m sorry for what you have suffered. I think you’ve heard that enough. Everything that you have seen and done, had and lost – it is gone now and there is nothing I can do to change that, as much as I wish I could.”
I reached out slowly, daring him to take my hand.
“What I can do is this: I can promise that from this moment onwards, your life will get better. I promise to watch out for you, to take care of you. I don’t know how best to do this right now – this is something that we must work out together. But from this instant on, I am your godmother, and I will make sure that, no matter what happens in your life, you will be loved. By me.”
As I spoke, I realized that I was speaking to myself, to Chris and to this child, all at the same time.
I felt him move in closer to me and I knew, in that instant, that Ombeline was right. No amount of medicine or education or money or housing was enough for any one person. Only true and committed love was enough to save a life, to build a life, to have a life.
What happened next is not what is classically termed a happy ending.
If this was a Hollywood film, the last scene would have us dancing around a fire with all of our friends, celebrating our joyous marriage under the full African moon.
There have been many such celebrations, and in some way, all were mine. Chris’ and mine, even though he was not there to share them.
Later that day, when he was returning to camp, the helicopter suffered an engine failure and crashed into the Nile. There were no survivors.
Sometimes I wonder if I imagined our love, so brief and yet so true. But over the years, I have learned to listen to the signs, and to this moment, twenty years on, not a day goes by without a glimpse of my angel. Sometimes it is just his voice in my head, when I need most to hear him. At other times, I see his face in the reflection of the river, or hear a fragment of music that reminds me of him.
I have been lucky enough to have found a different kind of love, the love of service to others, and in doing so, have been blessed with a life so full and rich that I can barely believe my own luck.
And what of my girls? Well, we stayed for the rest of our holiday, helping the new doctor to settle in and become part of the camp. And then we stayed some more – eight years in all. The girls attended the international school in Moshi, and I found a job helping one of the organizations that works to supply medicine and doctors to camps such as ours. In school holidays, we returned with love to the home of our hearts, and to the wide-open arms of Mama Akanit.
Mrs. Brinkley has come to visit on many occasions, and is now considered to be the camp grandmother by all and sundry. She and Mama Akanit are firm friends, and communicate by email, thanks to the instruction of Grace, who now travels the length and breadth of Africa, setting up communications networks for other aid organizations.
Lillia, of course, is a word-renowned anthropologist, specializing in the relationships between African cultures and, you guessed it, mythical creatures, including unicorns.
My little friend, the boy who never speaks, is now a helicopter pilot, flying our doctors all over the continent. He still doesn’t speak much, but what he does say, comes from the heart.
And just so you know, I finally got my tattoo. I think you can guess what it is.
The other commandments:
a commonsense guide
to a happy life
Believe in others. Expecting good from your fellow man encourages them to be good.
Know how (and when) to sit and just enjoy the moment or person. Go lie in the back garden or on your bed with your child and listen to the same iPod for an hour, one earphone each and all phones off. Open a bottle of wine in the middle of the week and share it with your husband while you both make drawings from the stars and ignore your tax returns. Don’t try to tell your story; let someone else tell theirs. And listen.
Get a better attitude. Seriously. Whether it’s making a bed for the millionth time or unclogging the septic tank, be grateful and act with good will. Think how happy the person who climbs into smooth sheets will be tonight, how you will have contributed a fundamental and yet under-recognized part of their well-being. Same thing for the septic tank: it may have failed you once but think how many dumps it’s taken for you, without fail.
Don’t assume that others are thinking the same as you. When you project your expectations onto someone else, you are robbing them of the right to act according to their feelings. Instead, be the best person you can in a given situation, and then assume that everyone else is working for an all-round positive solution.
Have a little faith. Regardless of whether you are a born again Christian, a flaming agnostic or you venerate the pixies in the bottom of the garden, practice believing way deep inside that everything works out for the best. There is a blessing in every situation, no matter how sinister. Pollyanna had it right. There’s always some good news, somewhere, if you just open up to it.
Commit to life and love. That’s right, pick something and get on with it, with all your heart and soul. Doesn’t matter whether you’re choosing to love a person or a job or a project. If you’ve decided to do it, then do it with all your heart and all your love. And if you can’t think what to do, pick something that makes others feel good and get on with it. Inspiration will follow.
Assume responsibility. For your choices and your life. If you are not happy with something, change it. If you can’t change all of it, change a part of it. Let’s put things in perspective here: most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on our tables. Our lives are not so bad, and even if there’s room for improvement, we at least have the choice of what we do. And if you chose it, then you’re responsible for the choice. That’s empowering!
The ongoing abuse and – when we are lucky – rehabilitation of child soldiers in African nations is truly a past, present and future issue.
To my mind, harming the innocence that defines a child is the one of the worst possible crimes. It is not of an evidence to fix that which appears irreparably broken, but with love and patience and understanding and education, we can help these children along the path to a form of healing, and in doing so, ensure that such horrors are banished from generations to come.
To find out more about how you can help,
go to the UN site:
Another great site is:
For a list of other organizations, go to: