Beloved Child


What could explain why the sisters were best friends? Opposites attract?

     It was as though, as they aged, each owned a tiny piece of what the other might have been: a withered walnut of kindness and tolerance asleep in Bella; in Rose, a drowsing beast of anger at all the injustices and let-downs of people’s lives.  Perhaps these unacknowledged kernels explained why placating Rose tore at her shrill hearing aids and threw them across the room, shouting, ‘I’m old and I don’t care what anybody says. There’s nothing I want to hear!’ Or why, after a long visit to her eye specialist, cynical Bella turned from the TV ad and tapped Rose on the arm. ‘We should sponsor a child.’

     Rose had been relying on the subtitles for the hearing-impaired. Now she turned up the volume on her hearing aids. ‘What did you say?’

     ‘I think we should sponsor a child.’

     Rose stared at her. Bella regularly implied her sister was a sucker for every collector who came knocking on the door. Rose pitied drunks, wept over abused animals, and bought a pink ribbon to support cancer research. Bella believed most donations lined the pockets of administrators. She would not even give two dollars to the Salvation Army on collection day. As for children … Bella had resigned from her job as head mistress because, she said, today’s children were such spoiled, ill-mannered brats.

     ‘Why should we sponsor a child, Bella?’

     ‘We’re not going to live forever. Might as well do a bit of good before we go.’

     This was less and less like Bella. Rose knew her sister was feeling low. Bella had never approved of the gentrification that for decades had spread out from the inner city to engulf the adjacent suburbs. Now a developer had bought the villa next door and was busy pulling it down for town houses. There had been more personal upsets too. A month ago, Bella’s old friend Peggy had suddenly died of cancer. And Bella had failed her last eyesight test and was no longer permitted to drive. It was natural that she was becoming indrawn and housebound.

     ‘I suppose we could make enquiries,’ Rose agreed. Neither sister had children. This would be a new experience.



 

Bella and Rose committed themselves to take over the sponsorship of a Kenyan child whose previous sponsor had gone into a rest home. The sisters sent off the first payment to the Hope for A Child Foundation, and Bella searched the atlas to locate the general area of the village near Nairobi. In due course there arrived a letter and a photo, enclosed in a thin airmail envelope with a Kenyan stamp.

     Together they gazed at their needy little boy, who was in fact a youth in his early teens, who lounged on a hoe among a dozen spindly sweet corn plants. A tree out of the picture cast dense shade over the foreground, obscuring his image; but it was clear that Mutuku Maluki Mwendwa was nothing like the huge-eyed babies and wistful tots they had seen on the TV advertisement.

     ‘He looks like a young Muhammed Ali.’ Bella took the photo to the window, but apart from the outline of ears, she could make out nothing but a dark presence; an oval head on a young man’s body.

     ‘He must still be at school or he wouldn’t be in the programme,’ suggested Rose, who was privately disappointed too. She had imagined sending pretty frocks and cuddly toys to Africa.

     ‘Does the letter say anything about him?’ Bella squinted through her magnifying glass. 

     ‘I’ll read it out. “Dear Miss Bella and Miss Rose, I am much grateful to express our warm greetings and trust that through God’s help you are fine together with your family members. Through your sponsorship Mutuku receives school uniform, school building fund, text books, medical examination, deworming and providing of mosquito net against malaria.” ’

The letter went on at some length about benefit to the community, the digging of a well, drip feed irrigation and spraying for mosquitoes. ‘ “We pray to God to pour his blessings to you and your family, from Mutuku’s Uncle Joseph.” ’ Rose looked up. ‘He sounds a good fellow. We should write back, Bella.’

     ‘What can we say? Do you think the boy can read?’

     ‘We can send him postcards. And a colouring book?’

     ‘As they say, the sponsorship’s only the price of a daily cup of coffee,’ said Bella. Although she would never dream of going to one of those jumped-up pavement cafes and sit outside where everybody and his dog ate their meal in full view of the public. She disapproved of an outdoors where gay couples strolled arm-in-arm, openly kissing, and profiteers dabbed on a bit of paint, planted a flax bush and sent the real estate prices rocketing



 

When Rose and Bella were children, people often said You aren’t a bit alike. As they aged, waists thickened and ankles swelled. Bella’s black hair faded. Rose’s corn floss went a patchy blonde. The sparkle of intelligence in their eyes, the deep creases scoring their necks, the fine hairs along their chins, the flare of nostril and crinkle of laugh lines all reinforced their likeness now. But their ways of remembering remained the same. Bella was linear; Rose perceived in highlights. When Bella told a story she began at the beginning and peppered it with fact. She could say When I was four and a half we moved to Auckland. It was a Friday. We had fish for tea.

     Rose recalled wonders and pleasures. Years of her childhood were tabula rasa on which in a flash she could sketch in the bejewelled Civic Theatre elephants; the radiant coloured spray of the Mission Bay fountain; the dripping, hot-buttered toast at the Nibblenook Café. She could so easily replay the slow soft slop of oily water against the wharf piles, and the plaintive screaming of gulls. Whereas Bella had neatly tabled everything about every moment of her life: times, dates, countries, Prime Ministers, the correct way to remove red wine stains, the koechel numbers of Mozart’s sonatas. It seemed she even knew the future; how and when global warming would reach crunch point, which species were becoming extinct, the kind of dwellings people would choose in 2050.


 

The sisters sent a small package to their sponsored child. Its contents caused them much thought. Would clothes fit? Could Mutuku read English? What toys would appeal? Would foodstuffs be appreciated, and was it legal to export them? Bella decided on a pad and coloured pencils; Rose sent a Postcard Panorama and a baseball cap.

     A few months later there was an appreciative response from Uncle Joseph who said Mutuku wished to thank them in the enclosed note. Rose and Bella stared at a scratchy drawing of a stick figure and a column of addition.

2+3=5, 3+3=6, 4+5=8, 9+1=10, 6+6=13. Uncle Joseph, in his neat handwriting, had signed the page. From your beloved child, Mutuku Maluki Mwendwa.

     Bella raised her vanishing eyebrows at the arithmetic and perused the stick figure.

     ‘No fingers or clothing, and rudimentary arms. On the DAP scale I’d say our boy has a developmental age of 7.’

      Rose was smiling at the signature. ‘School might not be so important over there.’

     ‘Then it should be. That’s what we’re paying for,’ said Bella in her head-mistressy voice. She left the drawing on the table and went to lie down in her darkened room.



 

Eight weeks before Christmas, the sisters decided to send Mutuku money rather than a book or toy. Unsure of the procedure, Rose bundled $5 into an envelope, along with a nativity card and a request for a clearer photograph. As a further thought, she enclosed a polaroid of themselves, standing in bunchy skirts and crumpled blouses outside their front gate. Privately, she thought a gift of $5 rather mean; but Bella said that was probably the average weekly wage in the village.

     On the first of December, when they sent their own cards, Rose had to help Bella decipher the cramped names and addresses in her diary. When she came to Peggy’s page, Bella burst into tears and said, ‘Cross her out.’ Each sister had many old friends and colleagues gathered throughout their single, working lives. Bella’s were, like herself,  matter-of-fact people, admitting inevitable change as they retired and developed chronic ailments. In Rose’s mind, girls she’d known at school, nurses she’d trained with, an old love or two were embalmed, forever young. Regardless of how they’d aged and changed, whether they coughed and spluttered, grew fat or thin, were disagreeable, fought with their children, nagged their husbands or needled their wives, developed vile diseases or lost their memories, all her friends were exactly as she’d first met them.

     As their Christmas mail arrived, letters were read aloud and the cards were ceremoniously strung above the unused fireplace. An airmail envelope arrived from Kenya. Uncle Joseph had enclosed their sponsored child’s school report and a better photo; this time taken in the school grounds where outside a run-down shack the boy was sweeping a patch of dirt with a bundle of straw. He was looking up at the camera rather furtively, as though he’d been surprised in some unseemly act.

     Bella was skimming the report through her magnifying glass.

English, 29, Maths, 35, Swahili, 35, Geography/History/Civics, 57,  Science, 39.

     ‘Our lad’s no Einstein,’ she remarked, but she did not sound concerned as she picked up the photograph and held it to the light. ‘A good-looking young man, in his own way. We must put him in a frame.’

     ‘Uncle Joseph says Mutuku thanks us sincerely. He bought 3 chickens with his money. And look, he’s done another drawing for us.’

     Bella took the paper; a large page, drawn in vivid colours. ‘Nice and clear!’ She was delighted. ‘He must have used my coloured pencils. The sun. And a hut. I wonder if that’s us, standing outside? And look, that must be the chickens! What does he say here?’

     ‘Good bless from your beloved child.’

     ‘So, he can write! Well, print. Three chickens! Imagine any Western child showing such enterprise. He’ll make a business man.’ Bella chuckled, and was in a good mood for the rest of the morning.

 




On Christmas Eve, the sisters were looking through all their Christmas cards when Bella broke down. She’d been subdued all afternoon; now tears ran down her cheeks.

     ‘What is it? What is it, Bella? Are you ill?’ Rose was deeply frightened.

     Her sister’s voice was choked with grief. ‘I’m going blind. One day, I won’t be able to read, to write, to see the world. Oh Rose, what am I going to do? How can I bear it?’

     Rose went to her and held her. ‘You’ll see inside your mind. Everything’s there --faces, people, places. And I’ll be here. We’ll get talking books. I’ll read to you. It will be alright. You’ll see.’

     Rose did not know whether what she said was true. Neither did Bella. But she pulled herself together. They put the cards away and discussed whether to have plum pudding or fruit salad with their Christmas lunch. Then Rose took Bella for a drive. They saw the Christmas lights, and ended up at Mission Bay where Bella gazed intently at the scene, as though memorising everything. Families were strolling in the warm evening air. Children paddled and ran about, eating ice creams. The fountain was playing; soft illuminations spouted high, broke up and blew away in fading plumes of colour.

 

In March the sisters received a warning letter. Sponsors should not send money in response to requests from overseas. Instances of scams had been reported. All dealings should be through the headquarters of the Foundation.

     Next came a letter from Mawia, the sister of Uncle Joseph. Her brother was busy tending the shamba. She, Mawia, wished only to work as a dressmaker, but could not afford a treadle machine which cost 1000 Kenyan shillings.  The rains were beginning and a good crop was hoped for, God’s will be done. Mutuku was also working in the shamba. His chickens were laying. She was writing on behalf of their beloved child, who was studying well and doing very well, thanks be to God and the marvelous support of his sponsors.

     The sisters digested this news.

     ‘How much is a 1000 Kenyan shillings?’ said Rose.

     ‘Look it up on the Internet.’

     Rose did. ‘It’s only twelve dollars. But what about that letter?’

    Bella was fired up. It was a long time since she’d had an opportunity to do battle with bureaucrats.        

     ‘Can you imagine the red tape? Twelve dollars won’t break us. Let’s send it and be damned.’

     ‘Aren’t we encouraging begging?’

     ‘Who cares? One way or another, we’re all beggars,’ Bella said. She was relying more and more on Rose, and lived with a sinking fear that her sister, too, was ageing, and would not be there forever. Meanwhile Rose found out about Western Union and sent the money, feeling pleasantly corrupt and cosmopolitan.

      Mawia sent back effusive thanks to the sisters and to God, along with a photograph of herself, industriously hemming a length of fabric. The sisters placed her beside Mutuku’s image. Throughout the years, letters continued to pass back and forth. Bella’s eyesight seemed to settle at a steady level; legally blind by now, she just managed to make out the new faces as Mawia’s marriage and the new baby were added to the framed display on the cabinet. Rose read her the overseas news. Mutuku left school and the formal sponsorship was at an end. But from time to time a letter came from Kenya, written by one or another of his clan. Mutuku no longer sent pictures, nor had he mastered the skill of letter writing; not really necessary now that he was a strapping young man who followed his heart’s desire to be a farmer. However, appended to the end of every communication was his printed signature.  Your beloved child, Mutuku.

     ‘It’s almost like having a family of our own,’ said Rose.


 

 

Copyright 2010 Margaret Sutherland



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