'Relief' by Emmanuela Copal de León
Relief, Emmanuela Copal de León, 2000.

 

 

Expecting Nothing in Return

Maimuna Dali

 

Mr. Anderson came to the Island in the middle of winter. It was unusual for a white man to visit here at this time of the year. Only in summer do the hotels, the bungalows, and the beaches crowd with pale-skinned camera snappers, all clamoring to take back to their big cities, colour from the sun. Mr. Anderson was different. He wasn’t loud, nor did he have a camera slung over his shoulder. Father told me not to ask too many questions—the American had taken the best bungalow on the hill and had given Father a big tip. One did not argue with Father, but that didn’t lessen my curiosity.

I was lucky, the next morning, to get sent up to bungalow number 21— Father had asked me to take up the usual breakfast. The tray was heavy and the steps cut into the sides of the hill were steep but I managed without once spilling the coffee. I was proud.

It was a glorious morning. From up here, the sea is a deep blue and far away I could see the ferry bringing in supplies from the mainland. I gingerly laid the tray onto the ground and knocked on the wooden door. There was no sound from within. I knocked again.

“Who the hell is it?” The voice was loud.

One did not disturb the guests. I snuggled my hands into the pocket of my parka and waited to be told to go away.

The door burst open and a large man stood in the doorway, naked except for a pair of shorts. I instinctively took a step back.

“What? What? What?”

“Mr. Anderson? Complimentary breakfast.”

A cold wind ruffled the mass of unruly white hair on Mr. Anderson’s head. He seemed to notice for the first time how cold it was outside, and shivered. He scowled. “I didn’t ask for any breakfast.”

I could feel my nose turning blue. “It’s complimentary, sir.”

Anderson stood for a while, then stepped back. “Bring it in.”

I quickly reached down and picked up the tray. Before I could straighten up, the coffee pot slid to a corner and fell over onto the pavement with a loud crash. As I tried to save the pot from rolling down the steps, the coffee cup smashed to the ground. Hot coffee splashed over my shoes.

“Eeow!” It was Mr. Anderson. He had reached out to help and had stepped on the broken glass. He hopped on one foot and examined the sole of the other as specks of blood began to appear. He scowled at me, then limping back into the house, slammed the door.

Mother was in bed when I got in. The blinds were pulled shut cutting out the morning sunshine. I could only see her head as it peeped from under the thick blanket. She was lying still on her back. The signs were obvious. The headaches were back. I started to leave the room, when she called out. “Lesley? Is that you?” Her voice was weak. I walked up to her. She turned her head. “Don’t look at me, Lesley, I look terrible.”

The ritual. “You look beautiful Mother, as always.”

But today Mother did not smile. She looked at me with a swift glance. “You sound different, Lesley. Do you have a cold?” She sat up slowly and pulled me towards her. She ran her fingers through my hair. I had always savored the feel of her soft hand as it tugged gently at my hair roots, but today I felt restless. I moved my head away. Her hand fell towards my neck and my Adam’s apple. I moved back.

A thin smile touched Mother’s lips. “I am losing my little boy.” She sounded sad. With a guilty start I sat down on the bed and laid my head against her chest.

“Don’t be silly, Mother.”

“Lesley—”

“There’s a guest in one of the bungalows,” I said, sitting up.

“At this time of the year?”

“I took breakfast up to him. He was very nice. I spilt some coffee"— Mother tutted—“but he wasn’t angry.”

Mother nodded. “Nice man.”

I snuggled up to Mother. Her hair fell all over her shoulders. It was so soft and thick—almost like a wool blanket. Most of the time Mother lets her hair go unbrushed for days until it gets so tangled that she threatens to cut it all off. I always protest, and with a brush try to smooth out the tangles.

I cut short my usual hour with Mother that morning. I wanted to get out of the house before Father found out about the morning incident. Father was in the study when I came down the stairs. I could hear a rustle of papers from behind the closed door and the low drone of the electric heater by his feet. Father had once let me take the heater to my room, but it had toppled over and singed the carpet. Father called me a clumsy oaf and had taken it away. I didn’t mind. It was a stupid heater, anyway. The sound of the heater went off and I heard footsteps approaching the study door. I raced outside.

 

I met Mr. Anderson two days later on the beach. He was sitting on some rocks, looking into a pool of water that had collected between them. He looked up, irritated, as I approached, and then looked away. I sat on the sand, a little away from him and started to sketch the sunset.

“There is a starfish there caught between the rocks. High tide must have brought it in.”

I looked up. Mr. Anderson stood behind me. He crouched down beside me. “What do you think,” he continued. “Should we save it, or should we let starve?”

“Anything you want, sir.”

“I said, what do you think?”

“Save it.”

“What about all the other starfishes in the world which are caught between rocks?”

“Maybe someone else will save them.”

“I am sixty years old,” Mr. Anderson said, “and I have never saved a starfish. I have never saved a bird, a dog, or a cat. Once I saw a rabbit lying by a roadside. I stopped the car and went up to it, but it was already dead. The left side of its head was smashed in. The body was still warm.”

“That’s sad.”

Mr. Anderson snugged his hands into his jacket pocket and looked thoughtful. “You want to become an artist?”

“My mother says that all artists die young.”

“I should have become one.” Mr. Anderson stood up. “You play chess? "

I shook my head.

“Come over to the bungalow soon. I will teach you.” He was walking away before I could thank him.

That night I remembered the poor starfish stranded among the rocks and hoped the tide had washed it back into the sea. The next morning it was gone. I wondered if Mr. Anderson had gotten to it.

 

I visited him a few days later. I would have gone earlier, but after school I had spent most of my time with Mother. Her headaches were worse than usual and I had sat talking with her, trying to get her mind off the pain.

Mr. Anderson didn’t bring up chess but sat on his bed and strummed on a guitar. I stood in the middle of the room and wondered what to do. The room was in disarray. Clothes flowed out of open suitcases onto furniture and the floor.

“Why are you standing? Are you nervous?”

“No, sir.”

“Then find yourself a seat.” Mr. Anderson turned back to the guitar.

He did not know how to play it. He just kept tuning and then untuning it. I sat down gingerly onto a wicker chair.

“I have to leave early, sir. My mother is ill.”

“I never see her. Does she really exist, or is she all in your mind?”

I found that funny and laughed. “She doesn’t come out much. The sun gives her a headache.”

“It’s a trick,” he said and put down the guitar. "I always wanted to play the guitar, you know. My father, however, pitied musicians. I didn’t want his pity, so I became a businessman.”

I looked around the room. There were no photographs. It felt cold in the room. I shivered and stood up to go. I was almost out the door when Mr. Anderson called. “Do you play chess?”

“No, sir.”

“Come over another day. I will teach you.”

I heard voices behind Mother’s bedroom door as I went up the stairs. “—stop bull-shitting for once in your life, Ana. The sun is the least of your problems.” It was Father. I leaned against the staircase railing and waited.

“I wish I knew what you are talking about.”

“You and your stupid headaches. Maybe if you drank a little less, I wouldn’t be without a wife.” Father’s voice was low.

“I haven’t touched that in months.” Mother’s voice rose. “I haven’t drunk anything in weeks.”

“Get out of bed and get some clothes on, for God’s sake.” Father’s tone was derisive. I could almost see the disgust in his face. “And try to let Lesley have a normal life. He is turning to be as pathetic as you.”

“Oh, go visit your whore.” Mother voice was muffled. I imagined her pulling the bed-covers over her head.

I started towards my room. I felt feverish. I shut the door to my room, but the sound from across the hall seeped through. I lay on my bed and pulled the covers over my head. It was going to end soon—it always did. I heard a sharp sound of breaking glass. I wished I had found the bottle before Father had. A door slammed and a car started up. I knew Father wouldn’t be back that night. I curled into the bed and went to sleep, hugging my overcoat around myself.

 

A white Volkswagen stood in front of the house when I got back from the market. The driver side door stood open. I walked up and looked inside. A black suitcase sat on the passenger seat. The inside of the car smelled nice— a soft scent of jasmine. The dried fish which I held in my hand by a string, lightly brushed the seat. I moved back. The pungent smell from the fish was starting to cloud the scent in the car.

“Hey!”

I jumped and hit my head against the car roof. I turned around to face a young woman. “I did not touch anything, Madam,” I said. “I was just looking around.” I gently massaged the left side of my head.

The young woman grimaced. “What on earth is that smell?” She looked at dark brown fishes dangling by the string.

“Food, Madam.”

She pulled her bag out of the car, and walked up to me. She looked at one of the fishes. Its mouth gaped open and its glassy eyes were sunken into the dried flesh. She ran a finger over the skin. It was hardened and tanned by the sun. “Maybe I will ask to be dried after I die,” she said. She looked at me. “Do you think anyone would like to keep me in their living room if I am preserved like this?”

Before I could answer, she was walking away. “Where is bungalow 21?

I followed her trail of jasmine. “I’ll show you.”

She smiled for the first time. Her lips were bright red. “Lead the way.”

She walked in front of me as we went up the steps. From behind she looked like a little boy. Her hair was cut very short, longer in the front than at the back. She wore a t-shirt and khaki shorts. There were goose bumps on her bare legs from the cold. “I thought these places were eternally warm,” she said. The climb left her a little breathless.

“We have winters too.” We stood in front of the bungalow. She didn’t seem to hear. With the bag in one hand, she knocked on the door with the other. The wind blew her hair into her eyes. A slight perspiration dampened her upper lip. She turned and gave me a dollar. The door opened.

“Oh no.” Mr. Anderson groaned.

The young woman laughed. “Hello, Daddy.”

Mr. Anderson scowled. “I knew I couldn’t trust that idiot secretary to keep a secret.”

Mr. Anderson’s daughter grinned. “You think this is bad? Mum’s coming in a few days.”

“You always had a sick sense of humour, Melody.” Mr. Anderson took the bag from Melody’s hand and held the door open. She walked in. Mr. Anderson turned to me. “You know, the worst curse of all is one’s family.”

“I like the way you have done up this room, Daddy.” Melody called from inside. “I see a pattern in this chaotic mess.”

I smiled. On my way home, I could not help but reflect on how lines around Melody’s lips creased when she smiled and how her light eyes contrasted with her dark hair.

 

I got a message that Father wanted to see me when I returned home. I found him in the back garden. He sat on the white patio chair, reading a newspaper. I could feel the familiar pressure in my head.

“Lesley,” Father said, looking up at me as I stood in front of him.
“Hello, Father.”

“Sit down. You have become quite an elusive creature. One can almost forget your existence.”

I sat down on a chair opposite Father. The metal chair felt cold.

“I will get to the point. I have decided that it is time you went boarding school. There is an excellent school not very far from here and you can visit home often. It feel it essential for you to go out into the world on your own-"

“I am twelve, Father.”

Father seemed surprised that I should point that out. “Of course. I don’t mean that you be on your own, literally. I feel you need to develop sophistication, maturity.”

“What about the hotel?”

“It’ll survive your absence.”

“I don’t think I like the thought of boarding schools, Father.” I stood up to leave.

Father took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes and turned to me. He looked strangely naked. I wondered with a shock that it was the first time I had seen him without the glasses. He seemed older and tired. “I met your mother at school. She was a trouble maker and was forever in detention.” A smile crossed his face. He slid on his frames and turned back to the newspaper.

Mother was sitting at my desk, when I went up to my room. She had the table lamp on and was looking through my art.

“You know, we always talk about your drawings, but I have never seen any.”

The table lamp was harsh. By the light I could see that Mother’s eyes were shrunken and she had on too much powder. I sat on the window ledge and looked outside. It was getting darker. On the beach, two figures walked, their arms linked.

“I suppose your father has talked to you about going away to school.”

The figures were nearer now. One of them jumped onto a rock and started to act out something. The gestures were dramatic.

“So are you considering going?” Mother’s voice was more insistent. She was watching me intently, her right hand playing with the paper edge of one of my sketches. I watched her bend and unbend the corner.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I might.” I turned back to the window. It was Melody on the rocks. I couldn’t see the faces, but I knew it was her. Mr. Anderson was clapping now, and Melody jumped down from the rock.

“You are very pre-occupied, tonight, Lesley.” Mother’s voice was sad.

I walked up behind Mother and hugged her. “Mr. Anderson said that one’s family is one’s worst curse.”

Mother held my hands. “I don’t like curses.” She suddenly stood up. “Sleep well, Lesley,” she said and left the room.

The room smelled strongly of Mother’s perfume. I ran outside hoping Melody was still performing for her father. I ran to the rock. There was nobody there. The long stretch of white sand was empty. A spray of water hit me as the waves broke against the rock. It was cold. I realized that I had run out without my jacket.

Mrs. Anderson stayed for only a day. She arrived around ten in the morning, three days after Melody’s arrival, and boarded a ferry back to the mainland by five that evening. I was working at the desk when she came in. She was a small woman, her hair cut in a similar fashion to Melody’s. “Where can I find Richard?” she asked. She seemed slightly out of breath.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes, of course.” She looked irritated. “Get me a glass of water.” She wiped her face with a handkerchief. I started to run towards the kitchen. “Make sure the glass is clean,” she added.

Mrs. Anderson was sitting on an armchair when I got back. She put two pills in her mouth and greedily drank the water. “Headache,” she explained. She stood up. “Don’t you just hate travelling alone?” She was walking out. She expected me to follow, so I did.

“So many things to remember,” she continued, “—tickets, baggage, seat belts—I feel faint from it all.” She lit a cigarette. “My family acts as if they don’t know.” Outside, there were two bags on the steps. “Take these,” she said.

The bags were light. They seemed almost empty.

“I had expected Richard to come hide in a place like this. He always had this raw, tribal energy in him, you know.” Mrs. Anderson’s eyes had a blank stare as she looked at the green mountains around. She followed the coconut tree leaves as they shivered at the wind. The wind blew smoke from her cigarette into my eyes. She seemed not to notice. Blinking rapidly to clear the smoke, I scrambled after the thin woman as she walked towards the steps.

It was an overcast day. A sudden lightning was followed by a low rumble of thunder. “Hurry, hurry,” Mrs. Anderson said, an urgent tone coming into her voice. “Storms don’t like me.”

We reached the bungalow just as the first drops of rain came down. The awning on the roof protected us for the moment, but with the rising wind, staying dry was impossible. Another flash of lightning lit up the dark gray skies. Mrs. Anderson screamed.

“Rachel? Jesus, what the hell are you doing?” Mr. Anderson stood in the open doorway of the bungalow. Mrs. Anderson was now whimpering. “Oh, shut up!” Mr. Anderson shouted. He pulled his wife into the bungalow.

“How can you shout at me at a time like this?” Mrs. Anderson whimpered.

“Very easily.” Mr. Anderson turned to me. I had tried to shield the bags with my body. My clothes were wet and water drops dripped down my hair and ran down my face. “You,” Mr. Anderson pointed to me. “Get inside.”

The bags had survived the rain. I set them down by the bed and went and stood by the door. I didn’t want to leave puddles on the carpet. Mr. Anderson threw me a towel. He ignored his wife by the window, and settled down on the bed, with the familiar guitar. Mrs. Anderson had composed herself by now and no sign remained of her recent hysterics. She walked up to her husband and pressed her lips against his. Mr. Anderson pressed back against the bed posts.

“Don’t be silly, Richard. You are giving the boy the impression that you’re not happy to see me.”

“Lesley can keep secrets.”

Mrs. Anderson went back to her seat by the window. “The food on the plane was absolutely unbearable. The flight attendant was very rude, when I gave her some points on boiling carrots. I wished you were there with me.”

“Flight attendants don’t boil carrots.”

“You would have set her right.” Mrs. Anderson went on. “I know you would have.” She looked around the room. “Where’s Melody?” she asked as if she expected to find her daughter hiding among the furniture.

“Melody wants to be dried by the sun after she dies.”

“I thought she wanted to be mummified.”

Mr. Anderson turned to me. “You gave her the idea.”

I was feeling cold in my wet clothes. “It was the fishes, Sir.”

“Melody hates fish.” Mrs. Anderson said.

“Melody likes fish and so do I. We kept that a secret from you, all these years.”

The rain had stopped. I had to get back behind the desk. I folded the towel and placed it on the radiator. The door burst open and Melody came in. Her clothes were wet and they clung to her body. Mascara ran down her checks as if she had been crying. She was laughing and seemed to be filled with a strange euphoria. “I nearly drowned today,” she said. She saw her mother for the first time. “Mummy,” she cried, “you should have been there.”

 

Mrs. Anderson asked that I help her carry her bags to the pier. Father offered to call a taxi. “I’d rather walk,” she replied.

I didn’t mind—her bags were so light. Maybe I could get a nice tip too.

Mrs. Anderson was quiet on our way to town. She walked ahead of me, her head high and back straight and stiff. I carried one bag and it banged against my left leg as I walked. The other bag had wheels and I dragged it by a strap.

Once we reached the town, Mrs. Anderson stopped and turned to me. “Is there a coffee shop in this place?”

I pointed to my right with my head. “There is a cafe by the bookstore, Madam.”

She nodded. “Lead the way.”

During summer the cafe had tables outside. Tourists sat under umbrellas, and sipped malts. Father had taken me there once last summer and we had sat outside—a rare treat because the umbrella seats were usually reserved for the visitors. I had gotten a papaya shake. Father hadn’t gotten anything. He had asked me questions about school and my favorite subjects. I told him that I didn’t have any favorite courses or teachers. Father made some comments on the weather and after that we didn’t talk much. He smoked a cigarette and I drank my fruit drink. Then Mrs. MacMillan came and joined us. She seemed surprised to see Father. Father had offered her his seat, and got a chair from a table nearby. Mrs. MacMillan owned the bookstore beside the cafe. She always stopped to talk with me whenever I dropped in, but that day she didn’t say anything to me. I had left soon afterwards anyway. Father stayed behind with her.

Mrs. Anderson ordered a cup of coffee, and a chocolate shake for me. I don’t like chocolate but didn’t say anything. We took a table by the window. I kept the suitcases by my chair and sat down.

“I am not surprised, you know,” Mrs Anderson said.

I stirred my shake and looked around. The shop was empty except for an old man who sat at a corner table on the other side.

“You’re not listening.”

I quickly looked back at Mrs. Anderson. She looked irritated. I apologized. She continued to pout. I stirred my shake some more, and looked outside. A slight drizzle was clouding up the evening.

“Richard was always the restless type,” Mrs. Anderson said.

This time I looked at her, but she was looking outside. She seemed unaware of my look. “He ran away from home several times when he was young. We grew up next door to each other and every time the police came to his house I knew that Richard was gone again. I asked him once why he kept doing that and he laughed and said that once in while he wanted to see how it felt to be free.” She turned to me. Her eyes were focused onto something distant. “On my wedding day, someone told me that I was being cruel—that Richard was a like a panther and that he should not be caged. I threw a perfume bottle at her and told her to leave me alone.” Mrs. Anderson looked thoughtful. “I can’t remember who it was. I remember throwing the bottle at her and feeling bad that it had missed her, but I can’t remember who it was. Does that ever happen to you?”

I thought for a while. “I remember once going to a funeral,” I said, “but I don’t know who had died.”

Mrs. Anderson nodded briskly. “Absolutely!” she cried. She nodded a few more times and sipped her coffee. She suddenly stood up. “We better get to the pier or I’ll miss the ferry.”

I jumped up and followed Mrs. Anderson as she left the shop. She stopped to light a cigarette and I was able to catch up with her. “I hate birds,” she said as she started to walk. “They are stupid creatures.”

We stood by the pier and waited as the distant smoke began to take form of a boat. “I once got two lovebirds. I had them a week before they were gone. Then I got some more—Oh hell, what’s the use. What do you understand. You’re just an errand boy and you will always remain one.”

I didn’t feel angry. For some reason I felt sorry for her. She seemed very lonely as she stood clutching her coat, trying ineptly to keep wind blown hair from her face. She turned to me suddenly. A pale smile across her face. “He will come back—like he did countless other times.” She laughed, and stubbed out her cigarette with her heel. She leaned down and picked up the stub. “Here,” she said handing it to me. “It’s wrong to litter.” She took her bags and walked towards the ferry, her head up high and shoulders stiff.

 

I saw Melody on the beach a few days after her mother left. Melody sat near enough the shore to have the waves wet her feet. I was walking past her when she called out. “Hey! What did you think of my mother?”

“Lisa from house 127 got her toes bitten by a crab once. She was dangling her feet in the water.”

“You shouldn’t let my mother intimidate you.”

“She also got pneumonia. The doctors said that it was the cold water.”

“I had pneumonia once when I was little,” Melody said, as she curled her toes into the wet sand. She looked thoughtful. “Or was it mumps? Have to ask Mummy.”

I started to draw on the sand with a stick. “Your mother didn’t scare me.”

“You handled her very well, I hear.”

The figure on the sand was beginning to look like a mermaid. “She just wanted a little attention.”

Melody looked at me, her eyes narrowed. “We are not as harmless as you make us out to be.”

“There are some caves a little way down from here. Would you like me to show you?”

Melody stood. “I have to go pack. I am leaving in a little while.”

“You’re leaving? How? There aren’t any boats leaving today.” I stood up quickly. In my haste I slipped and stepped on the drawing.

“Poor mermaid,” Melody said. “You should draw another to make up for this mutilated one.”

“I thought you were staying longer.”

Melody laughed and reached out and ruffled my hair. “You look like a lost puppy. Daddy always wanted a puppy.” She started to walk away.

“How are you going?” I shouted angrily.

Melody stopped and turned around. She looked surprised. “I am driving into the mountains and will be flying out a few days later.”

“The mountains are dangerous this time of year.”

“Yes, Mother,” Melody said over her shoulder as she walked away.

I didn’t go to see Mother that night. I walked around the beach for a long time. When I realized that it was time to go home, it was dark.

Father came out into the hallway when I walked in. “I was about to send a search party out.”

“I am fine,” I said.

“Your mother has been throwing hysterics.” Father’s tone was flat. He seemed calm but his left hand holding his spectacles was restless.

“You will drop those, Father.”

“Your mother was ready to go out and look for you, hours ago. I managed to quiet her down.”

The maroon sweater on Father seemed very bright. I hadn’t seen it before. The colour suited him. He should wear it more often. “Weren’t you worried, Father?” I asked.

Father started to go back into his study. “Go take a warm shower, Lesley,” his tone was kind. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Upstairs, I walked past Mother’s closed bedroom door.

 

I had overreacted. I knew that the next morning while I lay in bed and let the warm sunlight cover me. I had made a complete fool of myself. What an idiot Melody must think me. Clinging to her like I was her boyfriend or something. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I jumped out of bed. I needed to get away from the house. I hated winter. I hated being alone on the island. But this year was different. Mr. Anderson was here. I went up to his bungalow. There was no answer so I walked towards town. I could visit the library.

It was late afternoon when I returned. I had fallen asleep while reading a book and if the librarian had not woken me up, I would have been home late again. A little boy was sitting on the steps by the front door. He sat with his arms hugging his knees drawn up against body. Even from the distance the boy looked unhappy. As I walked up closer, I noticed a glass of milk and a plate of cookies by his side.

“Hello,” I said.

The boy looked up at me. I recognized him. I had seen him several times in the bookstore, running among the shelves, playing with a paper plane. Sometimes he would play with imaginary friends and I would hear him sitting in a corner talking to himself. I felt scared. Why was Mrs. MacMillan’s son sitting at our doorstep?

“Mummy will be back soon,” the little boy said.

“Is she inside?”

The boy nodded. “Would you like some cookies?”

I sat down beside him. “When did you get here?”

The boy bit into a cookie. “Mummy says that I should offer first.”

I couldn’t hear anything from inside the house. I wondered if Mother was asleep. I wanted to go inside, but it seemed cruel to leave the boy outside. “Do you want to come in?”

The boy shook his head and looked up with a smile. I noticed with interest that he had Father’s grey eyes. A sudden loud crash came from within the house, followed by a shrill scream.

“Eat your cookies,” I said to the boy and raced inside the house.

The screams were coming from the study. As I reached the door, Mrs. MacMillan came running out of the room. She stopped short when she saw me and then quickly stepped past me. “Your mother needs to be locked up,” she snapped.

Mother was standing by the door, a brass candlestick in her hand. She threw it at one of the paintings in the study. It hit the frame with a loud bang. Shards of glass flew across the room. By the time I put my hand on her arm she was already wildly looking around for something else to throw. She stopped abruptly and stared at me. Her eyes were unfocused. I put more pressure on her arm. She leaned against me. “I am very tired, Lesley.”

I let go of Mother’s arm and moved back. She almost fell but balanced herself by holding onto the door.

“Go upstairs, Mother. I will come up soon.”

I watched her walk up the stairs before turning to Father. He sat on his leather chair, his head resting on his hands. The electric heater lay over turned by his side. I walked up and set it upright. Father didn’t look up. An ashtray lay near Father’s feet. I bent down to pick it. I noticed then that there was blood seeping through Father’s left hand fingers.

I gently lifted Father’s head. The cut on his forehead gaped. Before long, blood was running down his corner of his face. I grabbed some tissues and pressed it against his head. “Hold this, Father,” I ordered. “Keep it there while I call the doctor.”

When I got back, the tissues were red pulp. Father rested with his head against the back of the armchair—his face, pale. I took the soaked tissues and replaced them with dry ones. The bleeding had slowed. “The doctor will be here soon, Father.”

“Thank you, Lesley,” Father said weakly.

“Father.” I sat down in front of him. “Father, can you hear me?”

He opened his eyes and nodded.

“Father, I don’t like this.”

He looked at me.

“I don’t like this at all.” My voice shook, but I didn’t want it to. I wanted it to be strong. “Mrs. MacMillan must never, ever come to this house. Do you understand?”

Father stared at me. I waited for him to say something, but no answer came from him.

“Answer me, Father. The doctor will be here soon, and I want this over with as soon as possible. She and her son must never come here. She must never be brought into our family again.”

Father started to laugh. It was a dry laugh, almost like a cough.

“The doctor will be here soon,” I said and left the room.

The door opened as soon as I knocked. It was as if Mr. Anderson had been expecting me. He had been in the shower and his hair was wet. There were packed bags by the door. The room looked like it had never been lived in.

“You are leaving,” I said.

Mr. Anderson stopped talking and looked around the room. “Yes, Yes. I am going to Tahiti. I met a young man in town. He has a small plane.”

“You are leaving.”

Mr. Anderson scowled. “Yes.”

I started to cry. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t a little boy anymore and men don’t cry. I started to sob. I turned away.

“Maybe you will come back again,” I suggested.

“But you won’t be here.” Mr. Anderson went on.

I took a deep breath and moved away.

“I hear Tahiti is really beautiful.”

“Everything is beautiful at first.” Mr. Anderson smiled.

I turned to go.

“You know, Lesley, I once saved two birds. A long time ago. It wasn’t intentional. It was a prank but it counts, doesn’t it?” He smiled, a little nervously.

I wiped my face, then stretched my hand out to Mr. Anderson. “It was very nice to have met you, sir,” I said politely.

“The pleasure was all mine.”

 

 

 

 

Text © 1996, 1999 by Maimuna Dali
"Expecting Nothing in Return" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume II, Number 2. The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image, "Relief" © 2000 by Emmanuela Copal de León


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