THE RIVER’S SONG
The pale-blue and white buildings of All Saint’s High School were spread over several acres. The dusty playing field was bordered by thick green shrub, and this my mother and I were crossing. In the centre of the field was a paved volleyball court, and, in the distance, a huge auditorium with blue and red stained-glass windows rose up like a colossus. Classrooms and administrative offices were on either side of the auditorium and a large swimming pool was to its right. The school was so huge. How would I ever find my way round?
In front of the auditorium was a short tree with thick, rough bark and short gnarled branches. It had large sweet-smelling reddish-pink flowers and squat brown fruits. Some of the fruits had fallen to the ground and splattered, giving off a strong unpleasant odour.
“Still here, after all these years,” my mother said quietly, looking at the tree.
“What is, Mama?”
I kept a tight hold on my mother’s hand. Earlier, after I’d put on my new uniform, I’d stood in front of the mirror looking at myself. The girl in the burgundy tunic and pink blouse looked unfamiliar – me, but not yet me. I was stepping out of an old skin for something I hadn’t yet fully grown into. My life was changing, whether for good or bad, I did not know. I suspected that one girl was starting All Saints High School, and at the end, another girl would emerge.
“I wish I had a camera.” Mama was looking at me with so many different emotions in her eyes. “I would like to have this picture forever.”
She called me over to stand in front of her and fidgeted with my collar, my ribbons, the sleeves of my blouse. When she was satisfied, she finished her own dressing, picked up her handbag and we were ready to leave the house. Just then Rachel came up to the door.
“I just had to come and see you.” She looked me up and down. “You looking good, though you need a sweater.” I was shivering.
Earlier in the week Rachel had given me some barrettes and clips for my hair and brown socks for school. I had them on now and I could see she was pleased I was wearing them.
“Let we go,” Mama said, handing Rachel the house keys. When I came home in the evening I would get them from her.
“Go to school and learn something for you and me,” Rachel said, waving to us as we walked towards the front of the yard. She stayed there for a long time, watching me walk, step by step, into my new life.
The closer we got to the auditorium the more my stomach tightened. Would I make friends at All Saints? Would I settle here? Looking around, I could see that some of the other girls knew each other and tight knots of friendship were already forming. I knew absolutely no one.
“You know,” Mama patted my hands in hers, “I felt just like you my first day here. Yes, I did. This school has that effect on you, big and imposing as it is. But trust me, you’ll get used to it like the rest of us did. If I could get used to it, and I was coming all the way from the back of beyond, from Lluidas Vale Primary School all the way in Portland, you’ll certainly manage. All Saints will come to be your school, as it came to be mine. It has a kind of charm that comes over you – even with all its rules and regulations. You’ll have a fierce kind of love and dedication for this school. You’ll see!”
I looked up at my mother. What must it be like coming back to the school after all those years? Mama never talked about it, about being expelled from All Saints, but over the years Grandy had filled me in. How Mama cried and cried for weeks and weeks on end. How she did everything to expel me from her body. How I stayed put, arriving feet-first five months later. How, when she first saw me, she burst into tears and held me close. Let All Saints High School go. She had a daughter now. Yes, I thought, looking at my mother as her eyes darted all over the place. Yes, it must be quite an experience coming back to All Saints after all those years.
Inside the auditorium the stained-glass windows let in an ethereal blue light. Each frame illustrated an aspect of the life of Jesus. Chairs were carefully arranged in rows and a bright red carpet ran through the centre of the auditorium all the way up to the elevated platform. Nuns directed girls and their parents to seats and the place was filling rapidly. I started looking at the nuns out of the corners of my eyes. I could not help being curious about them. I had heard so many stories about them that I was almost afraid to look at them directly. I had heard they thought themselves holier than everyone else because they were “married” to the Lord. Kept themselves “pure” for the Lord. Rachel was the one who told this to me, snorting in disbelief.
“Can you imagine marrying yourself off to someone way up in the sky, instead of having a flesh and blood man here with you, someone to keep you company at night, someone to...” She remembered who she was talking to and did not finish her statement. Instead, she said, “ Well, I guess God will take better care of them than any flesh and blood man, because, God knows, those flesh and blood ones have a way of leaving you when you need them the most!”
I became conscious of my mother’s close attention. She was staring at my dark brown socks and new brown shoes, my light pink cotton blouse and thick burgundy tunic. She passed her fingers over my purple heart-shaped school emblem. Then she took my face in her hands, tears welling in her eyes, before she almost pushed me away and we started looking around for seats.
Sister Marie Claire, the principal, ascended the podium and immediately there was a hush. She was a short fat woman who wobbled when she walked. But what an effect this woman had on the audience! Everyone seemed in awe of her.
At that moment one last student and her parents hurried into the auditorium. Both parents looked harassed and embarrassed and the girl untidily dressed. The nuns and teachers seemed to know the harried man and his fat, pleasant-faced wife who smiled and nodded at them. The man was trying to smile but could not. He was struggling with the girl, who had the longest face in the world. The man stopped for a moment, searching for a place for them to sit. The only available seats were behind Mama and me.
“Stop the staring!” Mama shushed me, when she saw that I was looking round at the latecomers. Wild brick-red hair framed the small face of the daughter. Disheveled school uniform. How could her parents let her leave the house looking like that? The night before Mama had combed my hair and tied it down so it would be especially neat in the morning. My uniform had been sent to the cleaners weeks in advance; when it came back the box pleats were like the blade of a knife. How could the girl come to school looking like this?
“Annie, why must you always be so difficult?” The girl’s mother hissed at her, as we stood up for prayer. I looked back and saw her using a hankie to dust her florid face.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Katherine, not now, not here!” the father was saying under his breath.
The girl then fixed me with an irate stare that said I should be minding my own business. Instead of looking away, however, I held the girl’s stare for what seemed an eternity, and then she grinned. Mama looked down and elbowed me, but I just kept smiling and smiling. No, this girl could not cow me…