‘Delcie...? Auntie, is it really you?’
Auntie? The intonation penetrated through the raucous sounds of market day, like an alien siren. I stopped, turned, and squinted away from the sun; pushed up my Dior’s, and stared in the direction of the voice. Accents I remember well, but this one -- although sounding vaguely like someone I used to know -- escaped me. It came from a tall, youngish woman -- a full head above the natives; several of them carrying laden bags were gawping at her. A sideshow?
She was waving at me.
I shook my head, trying to clear the hazy recollection.
She pushed her way through the heaving throng -- pack animals, Charles called them -- and reached my side.
‘I’m Jane...Jane Parrington...remember?’
My mind cleared, and her profile came into focus. Not a niece, but in those days at social gatherings, any friend of her mother’s -- Mary -- was called Auntie this or Auntie that.
I might have sounded doubtful. ‘Ah, yes, I remember you. What a surprise. You look…well …grown up.’
Jane had close-cropped orange hair and freckles; she was wearing cargo pants and a grimy white t-shirt with NEMO in black letters emblazoned across the front. She could have been a survivor -- a displaced person -- than, presumably, from an Aid Agency. Aid Agencies proliferated in Sumatra, much to Richard’s mortification, spawning and spewing bottomless dollars to grateful beneficiaries. None of which benefited us -- all it did was to put up the cost of living, he said.
Jane’s smile lit up her face. ‘So it is you’, she repeated, touching her face, somewhat gingerly. Her hands revealed more. Chewed fingernails, index and middle finger stained yellow. Heavy smoker?
She looked a bit wistful. Sighed. ‘You still have lovely skin. What brings you to Sumatra?’
An envious compliment? Followed by a good question. At one time, a guarantee of fine crop of fresh white grapes from our kitchen garden. Now the vine had withered.
So had I.
So had I.
So had I.
‘I live here,’ I said. ‘In the Manor House.’
‘Really? The Manor House? Awesome.’
Awesome? How I hate Americanisms. “No class”, Charles would say.
She babbled away, pointed to her T-shirt. ‘I’m with NEMO…we’re tanking in water supplies to a few remote villages…well that’s the theory, anyway. Not that it’s my job. I’m a counsellor...you know...helping people overcome the trauma.’
I sucked in a pungent breath; my nose wrinkled, and I gazed aside. Smells of rotting garbage piled high against the walkway, children screaming and running wild, helmetless riders on rusty motorbikes weaving in and out of the throng; a drum beat in the distance -- a tattoo in my head. Had fate dealt me a bad hand or a trump card? Could Jane be my saviour? I discarded my initial prejudices as easily as stray thoughts.
‘How fascinating. Tell me more.’
After the initial encounter, cut short by Jane’s need to return to base camp — a corrugated roofed enclave near the harbour — we met a few times to exchange pleasantries and to share her work, while I contemplated how to reveal the one thing I’d kept locked away for decades. We formed links, strengthened memories, and we became — not friends, exactly -- more like confidants when she listened to how I coped with losing Angelique.
Jane’s company lightened my grief, and I welcomed our meetings. One day she phoned and suggested we take tea together at a local cake shop. She sounded breathless.
‘I have something to tell you,’ she said.
She giggled. ‘Secret...but I must tell someone.’
I was intrigued. ‘Jane…you’re teasing me. I’m too old for guessing games.’
She sounded shocked. ‘Auntie, how could you say that? I only wish I looked as…well…young…as you.’
Flattery. I glossed over the innuendo that I passed for a youthful fifty-something; like my face, the silken image I showed to the outside world was far removed from the empty husk inside.
‘Jane, you’re too kind, and I’d be delighted. What time?’
At four o’clock we were seated at a white wooden table on prim-red chairs in a quiet corner of Majestyk Bakery -- a spotlessly clean, Swiss-owned café — me sipping tea and her devouring a plate of assorted pastries, swilled down with bottled spring water. Jane brimmed with vitality — radiant, and her fingernails were neatly manicured, without the trace of yellow I’d noticed before.
Apart from a couple of Aid workers who were studying road maps and an elderly gentleman with a white handlebar moustache who was reading a dog-eared paperback, we were the only customers. Our small talk petered out. I carefully placed my teacup on its saucer and pursed my lips.
‘Jane, you’ve acquired a large appetite all of a sudden. I’ve never known you to eat so much.’
She giggled and wiped a few stray crumbs away. ‘That’s what I’m longing to tell you.’ She patted her stomach. ‘I’m eating for two.’
A warm glow, and then a cold chill, went through me. I struggled to find the right words.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Congratulations.’ It sounded limp, and I sought to recover. ‘I mean, that’s wonderful news. I’m so happy for you.’
Jane didn’t notice. While she bubbled away with the prospect of being a single parent — she had split-up with her partner, Adil something — my mind filled with images of Angelique…
…‘Richard, there’s something I need to tell you.’
‘Oh…you mean it was a mistake?’
‘Not that. It was…wonderful.’
‘I can guess. Others can think what they like. You’re no loose woman.’
I blushed. But soon he’d notice the bump. I counted to ten, crossed my fingers, and prayed for forgiveness.
‘We should have taken precautions.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You mean you’re…?’ His eyes held mine.
I hung my head; my mother’s words seemed appropriate. ‘I’m with child.’
The silence between us lingered. Richard was ten years older than me; in his youth, debonair, with an eye for a pretty girl. Handsome, charming, and I had one too many glasses of champagne. With Charles absent, I didn’t resist his advances. And he was good. Very good.
He frowned. ‘I take it, it’s mine…?’
‘…Auntie, you’re not listening.’
I snapped out of my reverie and wiped away a loose tear with a napkin. ‘Oh, so sorry, dear. Your news brought back memories of my Angelique.’
Jane must have noticed my distress. She leaned over and gripped my hand.
‘No… it was selfish of me to think of myself. How are you feeling?’
I squeezed her hand in return. ‘These last few months haven’t been easy. Richard…Charles…we’re all suffering.’
Jane nodded. ‘It will take time to heal, Auntie. Now that I’ve more time on my hands – NEMO insisted I lighten my workload -- would you like me to… I know it sounds silly…but maybe I could help you?’
Charles would say, “When an opportunity beckons, embrace it. You might never get another chance”. Still, my mind dithered.
‘Counselling, you mean?’
Jane laughed. ‘Grand sounding name for a listener, but it would be a shame to waste my training.’
My eyes settled on my teacup. Empty, save for a few soggy leaves at the bottom.
Jane sounded worried. ‘If you don’t want to…’
‘No...No, it’s very kind of you. But what about the baby?’
‘I’ve thought of that. And don’t think you’ll get away lightly. I’m setting you up as a part-time babysitter.’
A small bird sprung out of the wall clock above Jane’s head and cuckooed. I smiled, loosened my grip on her hand, and picked up the last pastry.
‘I’d better get into shape, then.’