“What I don’t remember is your ever saying thank you – for anything.”
Izlena let this sentence drop into the air like a teaspoon of oil dropping into a hot pan. She waited for a reaction, as the oil would react by hissing viciously, but the afternoon air was hushed in the bedroom. The person on the bed was silent, unmoving. Izlena looked at her hands, resting quietly on the apron that stretched across her lap. Slowly she turned them over studying the rose-pink palms. She shook her head, amazed at their plumpness; they should be worn to the bone.
A dry sigh slipped from the thin lips of the body on the bed. Izlena slid the hard wooden chair closer to the bed and gazed at Madam swaddled in a cloud of bedding. The chair creaked under her ample weight and she sighed knowing she would have to carry it back to the kitchen when the night nurse arrived at 5. The night nurse would not need the old chair. The night nurse was white and so would sit comfortably on the fat, padded armchair that waited in the corner.
“What I don’t remember is your ever, ever showing me a single moment of kindness.”
Another sentence, another drop of oil. The shrunken shape remained still, unmoved by this second accusation. Izlena leaned back and closed her eyes; fatigue dragging her down like a crocodile drags a springbok down under the water. Madam’s bedroom was cool even at the height of summer. The French doors behind her were thrown open to the deeply shaded verandah, the perfumed fragrance of frangipani laced its way along the cool tiles. Izlena knew the servants’ quarters would be like a row of ovens, the tin roof acting as a lid on a pot, not a strip of shade to tame the African sun. Maybe she would join the young maids and pull a mat outside to sleep under the stars. It made her think of her childhood, she smiled sleepily.
A whisper of sheets pulled Izlena back to her task. One of Madam’s hands flapped weakly. She studied it, slightly repulsed by the tissue thin skin stretching over the ropey blue veins. The white skin was like a giraffe’s hide, dappled with brown blotches. She knew those hands well. Over 30 years they had taken and taken and taken. Taken the babies – all 3 of them – for a few minutes each day before handing them back to rush off to tennis or golf. Taken the serving spoon to serve the impressed guests gourmet meals made by Izlena’s hand. Taken a blouse and thrown it back, when a stain wasn’t completely removed. Yes, they had taken much, even her youth.
Izlena heard the clock in the hallway strike five. The night nurse would be here but right now she was probably waiting for her customary cup of tea and slab of fruitcake to be carried before her up to the room. She stood, stretched and grabbed the back of the wooden chair. She knew Madam wouldn’t make it through the night.
“Yes”, she said clearly into the muffled perfumed air, “but what I also don’t remember, is your ever really laughing, laughing till tears rolled down your cheeks or crying until your eyes could cry no more, or smiling until you felt your face would split in two. That is more what I don’t remember……………..”