This story is by Ciara and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Four women sit side-by-side on a bench: one old, two young, one unconscious. They have not said a word to one another even though they have been waiting here a long time. Their shared silence is dense with brooding.
The first leans forward and rests her elbow on her knees, clucking her tongue loudly against her palate in boredom. The orange fabric of her top bulges in testament to her love of just-made toast spread thick with margarine and sprinkled with white sugar. Her mouth waters at the thought of her favourite treat taken most afternoons with milky tea: sticky rivulets running down the back of her hands, lips glossy gleaming, and fingers looking to be licked clean.
She inherited her sweet tooth from ancestors who sailed here to harvest sugarcane under the golden sun. Full of plans for prosperity, they tended the long rows day after day, chewing on raw green cane and releasing saccharine juices that ran down their chins. Night after night, they vigorously sweated away their grand plans over the double allure of dice and dark rum, a bittersweet cycle she has also inherited. The canefields have long since given way to an exclusive golf estate, just visible where the swallows are flitting to and fro on the horizon. As she looks that way, a passing sweetness drifts through the air.
The next woman sniffs and sits up, adjusting her headscarf to cover an escaping curl of dark hair. Her lithe curves are tamed by a prim polyester matching skirt-and-shirt suit, maroon with white ruff at the neck. It would be old-fashioned if it weren’t for the blue thread woven through that gives the outfit a holographic ripple and modern zootiness. It is her favourite. Balancing societal convention and her secret passion for dressmaking.
She is going to meet the pastor today to talk about her husband. The husband who does not do the things a husband should, but instead spends all day on the couch in front of the TV wearing not much more than a vest, underpants and socks. Slowly making his way through bags of potato chips and too-pink Vienna sausages dipped directly into the tomato sauce bottle. She sighs. They had been happy once, back when he was a man who walked with jazz in his step and life seemed carefree.
As a young bride, she had expected to trade her taut belly for the silvery stretch marks that accompany the arrival of tiny fists and happy gurgles; but her perfect figure remains longingly empty. Instead of lullabies, evenings are filled with tirades until they both run out of words for “blame.” She shuts her eyes. There is certainly no music in their marriage any more. At the edges of her hearing a dove croons a forlorn melody.
Beside her, the old woman tilts her head to listen with her good ear. She is permanently hunched from years of physical work and the many children she bore, some who still live. She possessively pats the packets and parcels collected around her feet. Each one is stuffed full of old clothes given to her by the lady she irons for on Saturdays – an extra job to save for a dream house she will never buy.
All these packets rustling about her legs remind her of her mother, taking her back to the Saturdays of her childhood. Bustling shopping trips to town would culminate with her standing amongst bags and boxes on the verge of a hot, dusty road waiting for the farmer to collect them. Her mother telling elaborate stories to keep her entertained.
The memory causes the old woman to smile with cracked lips. She uses a tissue she keeps up the sleeve of her pink cardigan to wipe her rheumy eyes. Her mother and little brother would sit upfront in the cab with the farmer. She travelled in the back of the truck with the farm dogs that were so sweet and silly as they jumped up to see over the sides. Barking gamely at tawny hawks gliding effortlessly from their perches on roadside poles. She can still feel the promise of the cool breeze on her skin, even if it has become faded with time.
A breeze now stirs the other women on the bench. The unconscious one kicks a little in her sleep, safe and warm inside the belly of the woman in the orange top. Her mother-to-be doesn’t know about her yet and she is still to develop her own sense of consciousness. She will be a bright child, full of enthusiasm, good at schoolwork, a devoted daughter with an insatiable love of sweet things. She will graduate and go to college, celebrated as the first in her family to make it to an institution of tertiary learning where she will follow a passion she cannot trace and study fashion design.
While she is there, her fellow students will begin protesting for lower fees but she will not have time to join them. On top of her college work and duties, she will have a part-time job to meet her student loans. Applying herself diligently, she will work late one night and take the last bus back to her student residence with its peeling pink paint, abandoned pigeon’s nests and echoing stairwells.
Before the building even comes into view, some rowdy boys boycotting lectures will casually lob a brick at the bus from an overhead pedestrian bridge. Gaining all the force of objects moving in opposite directions, it will break the window next to where she is sitting and hit her solidly on the side of the head, pulverising her left eye on impact.
Several surgeries and long months of painful recuperation will make her miss the end-of-year exams and she will never go back to finish her degree. Instead she will give up laughing, take up drinking and nurse a grudge that she will take out on people who stare at her scar and unmoving glass eye. Right now though, her unformed eyes have yet to open and her mom’s stomach is rumbling at the thought of sticky sweet toast as she shifts a little to ease the hardness of the bench.
The delicate breeze has become a strange wind that blurs the tree line and blows a seemingly insubstantial piece of paper towards the seated women. They look up and see different things.
To the first, it appears as one of the bank notes she has lost to dimly lit croupiers in blinking casinos and she almost jumps up to grasp at the unexpected windfall that would solve some of her ever-present anxiety about unmet debts.
The next is reminded of an application she filled out for a tailoring job that would have changed her life if she had had the confidence to submit the form that she instead crumpled and tossed in the bin on the way out.
The third thinks she glimpses her mother’s handwriting and winces at a pang of guilt for the promised visit she kept putting off and never made.
The unborn child knows nothing of the papers that will frame her life from birth certificate to college acceptance letter, from endless doctor’s scripts to the pages of her unwritten book waiting to share her story of self-liberation, a literary masterpiece that will transform the lives of many.
Time is suspended in that moment that represents the boundless opportunities they could achieve if only they dare to believe in the power of their own divinity. The paper catches on the top of a barbed wire fence: fluttering with the promise of abundance, love, purpose and potential. Beckoning them to spread their wings… opening, expanding, inviting possibility… until it is blocked by the dull hulk of everyday conditioning that casts a deep shadow in the shape of a minibus taxi.
The women are jolted out of their reverie and stand as one to meet their transport home. It screeches rudely to a stop, doors quivering open. Passengers spill onto the pavement. Maroon Suit asks if she can carry some packets for Old Cardigan who smiles in gratitude and compliments her outfit. Pudgy Orange holds the door for them as she inadvertently accepts too much change from the informal conductor, so cock-sure in his backwards cap and drug-gapped teeth. The women are jostled aboard. The driver shrilly shouts directions to nowhere and the doors close.
The paper flies on hopefully.