I was new in that neighbourhood.
I came from the village to work for this family as a house help. The first morning after arriving I was instructed to rise early and prepare breakfast for the family. I was in the kitchen trying to get the cooker on and failing miserably. Everybody else was sleeping in. I did not know what to do. This was my first as a help and it looked like it would be my last that very morning. I started getting anxious. I could see the look on my mother’s face. Hear the heavy whispers of the villagers at my sudden return home. The looks given to a girl who’ve come of age yet she is still at home tending her mother’s house. Then I heard footfalls, a furtive turn of the door handle and then he walked in.
I stood staring at the sudden disruption of my thoughts. He stood by the door. I looked at him without really looking. I noticed his towering height, his hands heavy by the side, his lean body clothed in a jungle green sweater hanging loose. Then his eyes; the moment I made contact with his eyes something moved. And I knew.
The events of the minutes that followed immediately are hazy in my mind but I knew that I wasn’t going back to the village after all. He had the cooker on. No word spoken. I made breakfast. Cinnamon pancakes and porridge.
Soon I settled in, learnt how to do the house work as his mother wanted and yes I learnt how to get the cooker on. Life soon became a routine. Breakfast, cleaning, lunch, cleaning, dinner, dishes and finally sleep, always in that order. I also made friends with girls who worked in the neighbourhood. After the expected suspicion that is subjected to a stranger they started including me in their talks. They would call on me. At times ask me to accompany them to the shop. I became one of them.
Then the stories started coming in.
Stories about him: Crazy Julian. The girls had all sorts of stories. Every day I heard a different version. I was used to gossip in my village and treated this just as an old time gossip. When the girls realized that I was not taking them seriously they became incessant with questions, insinuations, details dropped in passing but meant to provoke me to try and validate them or at least believe them.
From all the stories I was able to piece together ‘his’ story according to the helpvine. He was born right. Well educated, from private schools in the country to a prestigious university in the US to study medicine. While in the US something happened and he started doing drugs. In his final year at the university he lost it and had to come home. He was in and out of rehabilitation centers until his parents gave up and decided to watch him for a while. Twenty years down the line, they were still watching him.
So I started watching him.
He would come in the kitchen for lunch and I would sneak looks at him from the corner of my eyes as I pretended to do the dishes. He would go about his business, serve his food and leave the pots of food uncovered. At times I would be cleaning the house. He would come in from outside, through the door, across the living room to his room leaving smudges in his wake that coloured the freshly washed floor and coloured my face with anger. He would come by in the early evenings for a cup of tea which he’d lace with teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar and butter. Often the mess he left behind got to me. When his mother was out I’d voice out that anger in shouts that soon drained into frustrated sighs seeing that he never said a word. Until he walked in on me one afternoon and everything changed.
See, I had never been to his room before. His mother preferred to clean it since he didn’t want anything moved. That day however she asked me to do it since she was working. I waited for him to go out. On the bed, lay a novel which he must have been reading. I hesitated then took it. Held it to my nose, buried my face in it and smelled it inhaling his smell. I let the words in, the characters, their joys, their struggles, their triumphs, their fears, their love…if only I could read… I felt his presence and tensed. Slowly I put the book back on the bed and turned to face him sure that this time I would be going back to the village. I looked at him. He looked into me. I looked into him. And I knew.
That evening when I went to bed I found the book on my pillow and a note inside.
‘I could teach you how to read’
And so began the silent classes. He teaches me in silence yet the loudness of his words on paper tugs at my heart. We communicate via words on paper. Though he doesn’t utter a word to me I can feel his words come to life on paper. Sometimes in between the silent classes the questions from the girls will spring into my mind. I no longer watch him though. Sometimes I think he knows I have questions and I can see his questions in his look. In the meantime we just look. I go to bed every night hoping that tomorrow will be the day his words finally find a way via his mouth to my heart. I like to believe that day is near because I have something to tell him; something that I need to speak out and which will need for a spoken response.
Should need be, I will wait as long as it takes. See, I already know what he will say.