My 45 year old eyes looked at the letter my 10 year old hand had written all those decades ago. I had been a studious boy with an odd love of punctuation and the letter was flooded with quotation marks, drenched with capitals and awash in semi-colons. The title, all caps of course, was simple: The Promise, close quotes. The inspiration for this missive was Mary-Jane Slater-Varley and the fact that her name contained not one but two hyphens only made her more wonderful in my eyes.
She had come into my life by accident and the first minutes of our initial meeting were not at all promising. Every Thursday my mother hosted an afternoon tea party at 4pm sharp. She would spend the morning feverishly baking before bathing, dressing and emerging at exactly 3:30pm to prepare the finger sandwiches. The tea trolley was set but never rolled through to the lounge until the guests were seated. Mother would agitatedly stroke the short strand of pearls at her throat if a guest was even five minutes late; mother didn’t brook tardiness. But the ultimate annoyance occurred on a sun-drenched summer’s afternoon when one of the ladies dared to arrive with her daughter in tow.
From my bedroom upstairs, I was suddenly summoned to ‘please come down dear, quickly now’ and immediately knew something was horribly wrong; I was never, ever allowed to hover on tea party days. Suspecting a catastrophe I rushed down the stairs, thrilled that Mother finally needed me, only to find Mrs. Slater-Varley marooned in the entrance hall clutching the hand of a girl about my age.
With a tight smile, Mother bent over toward me: “Sebastian, dear, would you take Mary-Jane outside? You two can find some fun games to play.” I was dumbstruck. Mother knew I rarely played outside and on the odd occasion I ventured onto the enormous verandah, it was more due to the fact that I had accidentally strolled out through the French doors, my nose buried in a book, rather than by intent. As for fun games, I truly had no idea what she meant.
I nodded dumbly and walked with not a small degree of panic toward the doors that led off the hall. What on earth was I meant to do with this girl? Little did I know that this feeling of utter dread would, within a few weeks, be replaced by a sense of joy I had yet to experience. After an hour and a half, tea ended promptly at 5:30pm, I was utterly smitten with Mary-Jane Slater-Varley. At dinner that evening, I casually enquired if Mrs. Slater-Varley would be coming next week. My father had raised one eyebrow, curious as to my sudden interest in one of the tea guests and also positive that this was unlikely as Mother never repeated a guest two weeks running. Invitations to her Thursday afternoon teas were highly coveted in the social circles of Kenya and no one had ever earned a repeat visit in such quick order. But, she shocked both us by simply saying that yes, she was sure this could be arranged. After 3 consecutive weeks of Mrs. Slater-Varley being a tea guest, Mother took the bold step to simply invite Mary-Jane alone.
She was entranced by our huge rambling garden, a place I had always found foreboding, filled with giant spiders and snakes that thrived in the tropical heat. She could think up amazing games using nothing more than a few pebbles and the creamy flowers off the frangipani tree. We would spend hours pretending to be explorers and for the first time ever I ventured alone into the vast banana fields that ringed our property. My face sprouted freckles, my arms grew tanned and my previously skinny legs filled out with muscles. I sported cuts and bruises which I wore like badges of honor. My hair bleached bright blonde in the African sun and I remember being permanently hungry. I would collapse into bed exhausted and exhilarated as the pile of books alongside grew dusty from lack of attention.
And suddenly January dawned and the new school year started, class-rooms beckoning both me and Mary-Jane. Back at boarding school, surrounded by other freedom-deprived boys, I quickly realized that the halcyon days of the past summer might never be repeated. I wanted to somehow capture every detail of it so that I could roll it out next December as perfectly as Mother rolled out her tea trolley every Thursday. Using an early evening homework period as cover, I carefully extracted one sheet of lined paper and titled it; The Promise. Ten carefully thought out points followed, laden with subordinate clauses, each detailing how Mary-Jane and I would recreate our perfect summer. I promised we would again swim in the dam, even though this was forbidden. I promised we would sneak shortbread from the kitchen and then eat it under the huge Jacaranda tree on the front lawn. I promised and promised, totally unaware that the letter would never be seen by another person. Sometime in the winter, Mary-Jane’s mother was finally granted her deepest wish; they left Kenya for Scotland and I never saw or spoke to her again. The letter grew brittle and brown with age but each time I open it I am transported back to those perfect days of my youth.