GETTING TO KNOW MOTHER

“Malcolm, are you still seeing that Tayla girl?” The question cut across the breakfast table in an unexpected flash, causing Malcolm to splutter over his cereal. He looked at his mother, warily alert for the agenda attached to the question.

“Her name is Tayla, mother, and she’s not ‘that girl’!” He resumed eating his cereal with elaborate care and carefully avoided responding to her laboured sigh as she wiped the small splashes of milk from the dark polished surface of the dining room table. Malcolm had already guessed what was coming.

“It’s been three years already and we’ve never clapped eyes on her. What are you trying to hide, my son?”

“Nothing at all. Could you pass the butter please Dad?” Malcolm’s father pushed the china butter dish towards him, his face a closed book as he resumed crunching on his toast as if this was the most important thing to be doing.
“Is she of a different race? Is she older than you?” Malcolm’s mother closed her eyes briefly in a gesture meant to convey pain, and then she leaned forward slightly. “Malcolm, does she believe in God?”

“No, no and I don’t know.” Malcolm pushed back his chair and made to rise. “Mother, if you were more welcoming then you might have met Tayla by now. She fits into my university life, but there’s no corner for her to hide – let alone breathe – here.”

“What is there to hide?” His father’s strong voice filled the room. He wiped his mouth with the large white napkin his wife starched every Saturday morning. “Don’t tell me you’ve wasted your Grandmother’s money on a good university education only for you to lose your moral compass?”

Malcolm watched his father’s face redden and focused on the vein throbbing at his temple. During his pre-teen years this would usually be the prelude to his father loosening the broad leather belt with the large brass buckle that he still wore daily, except for Sundays when his garb of khaki trousers and checked cotton shirt gave way to a dark suit worn with a white shirt and wine red tie. For a moment Malcolm experienced the sour taste of fear from those childhood beatings. They had stopped when, aged thirteen, Malcolm had climbed out of his bedroom window in the dead of night and disappeared.

He never let on what had happened to him in the interim. By the time his grandmother contacted his parents a month later, his fair skin was covered in bruises and scratches, his clothes were dirty and torn, and he was very hungry. “You have abandoned my only Grandson, Henry, and have left him in a fearful state.” Malcolm had fought hard to stem his tears of frustration when she had insisted on calling his father moments after his arrival at her door. They overflowed in unashamed relief at her final words: “No, Henry. Whatever you have done cannot be undone. He shall remain with me at least until the end of the year.”

That year had extended into four happy years spent at boarding school at his grandmother’s expense. Her only stipulation had been for him to spend every alternate holiday with his parents. “They are your parents, Malcolm. Whatever they have done to you does not mean they are to be abandoned forever. You are, after all, their only child.” She had sounded very stern then.

His formidable grandmother had given him the gift of freedom: to choose his friends, to play tennis, to play the bagpipes and to excel at Mathematics and English. Malcolm’s holidays with her had been joyful; the ones spent at his parents’ home were dark and restrictive, like their tight social circle that centred on their church and more particularly the members of his mother’s prayer cell.

“Bring her to meet us.” His mother’s stern voice drew him out of his reverie.

“Why?” Realising that his question sounded more defiant that he had intended, Malcolm immediately attempted to soften its effect, despite the stiffening of his back and the tautness in his jaw as he spoke. “When would you like to meet Tayla, Mother?”

“Bring her to Sunday dinner.”

§

“It’s about time you met my parents, Tay. They are curious about you.” Malcolm lay on his elbow on the grass and regarded his girlfriend thoughtfully, inwardly smiling at the collection of metal bracelets catching the sunlight and the sprig of flowers he had tucked behind her ear.

She looked up at him, smiling broadly. “I’ll come if you want me to, but not as a ‘have to’ invitation.”
He squeezed her hand lightly. “Put it this way: if we are to spend even another three years together, it may be important for you to meet them.”

“If they’re anything like you then it will be a pleasure.” Her mouth softened into the ready smile that had first attracted him: her joy was bountiful.

Malcolm caught her hand to prevent her moving away from him. “Tayla, they are nothing like me.” He kissed her forehead. “It won’t be their test, but yours. If you can tolerate them for one Sunday lunch in a blue moon then I hope you will consider me a reasonable companion for our journey through life.”

“Wow Malcolm!” Tayla broke free of his grip and reached across him to extract an apple from the bag containing the remains of their picnic. “Are you proposing to me?” She cocked her head to one side then shook it slowly, her eyes never leaving his. “No, this is not a proposal; this is ‘if you can pass this test I can offer you a life in the bundu with no frills, no – .”

The sombre look on his face spoke of mixed emotions Malcolm would find difficult to acknowledge let alone explain stopped her in mid-sentence. She swooped down to kiss him on his nose. “Say when and I’ll be on my best behaviour.”

§

As he drew his 4×4 to a halt outside the square face-brick house brooding over a garden that, even from the road, looked as if it wouldn’t dare harbour a weed or a stray tendril of a creeper, Malcolm turned to face his companion. “As I said, it was at my grandmother’s insistence that I am allowed to attend university. My part of the bargain is to look after my parents ‘until the end of their natural lives’.” He mimicked his grandmother’s stern voice, which brought an impish smile to her face. “Be strong: it is only one afternoon of a potentially very long endurance race.”

Tayla was struck by the door that remained firmly shut in spite of the crunch of their feet on the carefully raked gravel path. She was sure she had seen shadowy figures lurking behind the heavy lace curtains adorning what she would discover was the lounge window. Its twin allowed the bright sunlight to filter dimly into the dining room.

The door opened only in response to Malcolm’s firm knock. Henry Wilson stood stiffly in the dark yaw of the passage leading towards the kitchen and the bedrooms behind him. He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of her presence and stood aside. “You’re ten minutes late,” he admonished his son. “Your mother’s fretting about the dinner.” He levelled his eyes accusingly at Tayla, “She even left the church tea early on your behalf.”

“There surely was no need,” Tayla ventured, then held out the loose bunch of flowers she had picked from her landlady’s garden that morning. “I would like to give these to Mrs. Wilson.” She smiled bravely in the face of the moody silence that followed.

“Bella!” At last there was some reaction, Tayla thought with relief. “Flowers!” Henry pointed towards the kitchen. “She’s in there,” he said tersely. “Join me for a glass of sherry, Malcolm.”

The kitchen was filled with the smell of plain cooking. Nothing was out of place: plates were already stacked on the work surface and the sink was spotlessly clear of any evidence of food preparation. Bella Wilson emerged from the pantry as Tayla entered the room. She reached behind her to untie her apron, leaving Tayla’s arm outstretched and the flowers bent accusingly towards their intended recipient.

“Flowers? They are meant for graves. I suppose I shall have to find a container for them.” The audible sigh was not lost on the giver. Tayla watched the short, dark-haired woman stick the flowers into a plastic jug which she left on the work surface. They were clearly not welcome elsewhere.

Dinner was a silent affair in the stuffy, over-heated dining room. Tayla almost groaned aloud at the thick slices of roast beef and the mound of boiled potatoes, carrots and peas loaded onto her plate and then smothered with a river of dark gravy. Water was provided in tall glasses, each containing a wedge of lemon. Bread-and-butter pudding covered with a coating of golden syrup followed along with desultory conversation about the weather (hot), the local economic situation (poor), and the size of the church congregation (dwindling).

“We will have coffee in the lounge,” Bella Wilson announced as she gathered the plates at the end of the meal.

“Let me help you.” Tayla sprang up, eager to release some of her pent-up energy.

“It is my kitchen,” came the terse reply.

“What about tea on the back veranda?” Malcolm cut in. “It’ll be shady and cooler there by now.”

His mother stared at him unblinkingly. “This is not teatime, Malcolm. We never have coffee outside. Not ever.”

The dreaded inquisition began only once the coffee cups had been cleared and inexplicably replaced with a plate of thick shortbread fingers lightly dusted with castor sugar. Malcolm made noises about going when his father stopped him by asking Tayla directly, “What do you study at that university Miss Barrett?”

“I’m majoring in English and German.”

“German?”

“I think it’s a useful language to learn.”

“And next year?”

“I’m planning on completing a teaching diploma.”

“You wish to be a teacher?”

“It’s a qualification I can use anywhere in the world.”

“So, you wish to travel?”

“I’ll have to earn some money first.” Tayla smiled. “But yes, I would like to visit areas other than what I have already experienced.”

“Money?” Henry Wilson growled at her questioningly.

Tayla felt she was participating in a talk show someone had forgotten to give her the script for. She blinked in surprise, feeling increasingly out of place in the overfilled lounge where the backs of the chairs were covered with crocheted antimacassars and the only reading material visible was an enormous Bible (“They only bring it out on Sundays,” Malcolm had laughed on their way home) and a magazine about gardening. Its glossy cover sporting brightly coloured pansies seemed out of place in the sombre room framed by heavy grey curtains. She dared not meet the glowering eyes of Malcolm.

“Well,” Tayla squared her shoulders, feeling acutely aware of the squat form that had joined her on the couch, forcing Malcolm into the single upright chair opposite his father. “Travelling is expensive, especially if one goes abroad.”

“Dad, we must be going now. Tayla and I have some essays to work on still and it’s getting late.”

Mr. Wilson ignored his son and continued directing his attention to Tayla. “Are you aware that my son stands to inherit a lot of money once he graduates? Is that why you have stuck to him like a leech for all these years and done your best to drive him from his family?” Small quantities of spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth and his bulging neck appeared to balloon above the restriction of his immaculately knotted tie.

“I had no idea.” Tayla looked across at Malcolm, who was scowling at his father. “My travel plans have nothing to do with him really.”

“That money ought to be given to the Church!” Henry Wilson pounded his fist on the arm of the dark brown leather easy chair. “She had no right, no right at all to bequeath it to our only child so that a flibbertigibbet, hippie-like vixen should squander it on travel!” He spat out the last word as if it was poison.

Tears smarted in her eyes. “She?” she asked of no-one in particular as Malcolm intervened angrily.

“That’s quite enough, Dad,” he said and turned to Tayla. “My Grandmother,” he grunted holding out his hand for her. “Come on, we must be off.”

“Do you believe in God Miss Barrett?” The thin lips of the woman seated next to her hardly seemed to have parted, yet the voice was steely and commanding.

“Of course. Most people believe in a higher being. Spirituality is an important part of our humanness.”

“Empty words. Those are empty words Miss Barrett. That is why you come here in a provocatively flowing dress, why you encourage my son to don jeans and an open-necked shirt and to wear leather sandals instead of rightfully respecting the day of the Sabbath by wearing a suit. Have you no shame?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything,” Malcolm cut in. “We’re leaving Mother. Thank you for the dinner.” He turned to his father. “Don’t worry to see us out, Dad.”

As he led Tayla towards the front door Malcolm’s mother’s words followed them like barbs. “He hasn’t darkened the doors of a church since his grandmother’s funeral. It is scandalous!”

§

“Could you bear darkening the doors of a church for our wedding?” Tayla smiled at Malcolm three years later. “If we are going to be living in the middle of nowhere for a while then I want to splurge on beauty and light while I can.”
Malcolm shuddered. “My research project in the Transkei is not exactly in the ‘middle of nowhere’. We’ll be back in town as soon as I get my results –”

“By which time we’ll hopefully have a child and so when will I ever be truly free again?”

“Let’s get married in court and have a beach party for our friends afterwards. A fish braai sounds like a good idea.”
“Malcolm, your parents would be horrified!”

§

Malcolm listened to the melodious sound of organ filling the small stone church and looked up at the brightly coloured stained glass windows that adorned the walls on both sides. The church his parents attended had nothing of beauty to distract the congregation from the sombre message delivered from the dark wooden lectern that towered above them.

His mother sat in the front pew, her characteristic brown bun now streaked with grey covered by the demure purple hat she had worn to church for as long as Malcolm could remember. His father sat upright next to her, a brooding figure in his customary dark suit. Neither smiled when he met their eyes, yet he felt a twinge of compassion for their obvious discomfort in a congregation of young people all dressed comfortably for the party afterwards.

The organ music lost its hypnotic quality and took on a jauntier air, accompanied by the curious rustling of the congregation craning their necks to see Tayla wafting down the aisle, her bright eyes and warm smile fixed on Malcolm only. She was alone. At her request Tayla had declined offers of substitutes for the parents she had lost in a boating tragedy two years earlier. There was no bridesmaid as he had no best man. The front pew on the bride’s side of the church was deliberately empty.

Bella Wilson blinked away the tears at the sight of the longhaired slim young woman who had gradually brought a degree of warmth into their home. “You will be our children’s only grandparents,” she had once said in passing. One Sunday in every six she had brought their son to them along with containers of fresh salads, a light pudding or sometimes a cake for afternoon tea. They always stayed for afternoon tea and chatted about Malcolm’s research projects and the children she taught. She had never again brought flowers … never flowers.

“Please look after these for me,” Tayla bent over Bella and thrust her bridal bouquet into her startled hands. “I throw them away later,” she winked and returned to the altar.

Henry Wilson found himself in front of the microphone before he had even thought of what to say. Listening to his son’s speech about his new wife had stirred something deep inside Henry: memories of a happier Bella who had laughed freely and helped him with the running of his trading store. It was after her third miscarriage that she became so involved with the church group that had advocated austerity rather than joy. Even Malcolm’s birth had brought no relief as she continued to seek penance for what she perceived to have been sins of the past. They had nurtured the belief that Malcolm could not be enjoyed and they were fearful of his straying from the path they had chosen and be lost forever to them.

Malcolm tried to stop him on the grounds that an address by the father of the groom was unscheduled and quite unnecessary. “I have to my boy. There are some things that simply must be said,” he had responded gruffly.

Henry cleared his throat and looked across at his wife smiling in response to someone at her table. Bella smiling! “It is no secret to those who know our family that Malcolm has not enjoyed the full benefits of a truly happy family life,” he began falteringly. A stunned silence filled the room as he continued in a stronger voice. “I want him to know how sorry we are that Bella and I didn’t know how to show our love for him. I also want to thank Tayla for the courage she has shown in taking us on and, most of all, for bringing our son home.”

His voice dried up as he choked back unbidden tears. The applause was thunderous, yet he heard little of it. Instead he headed straight for his wife and hugged her as he had not done for years. “Welcome to our family, Tayla,” he whispered over Bella’s shoulder. “Welcome.”

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