This story is by Vuyo Ngcakani and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As she sat at the kitchen table, Irma warily regarded Derek, the repairman who was testing her water at the kitchen sink.
Oh Norman, I wish you were here?
The homes on her street were at least 50 years old. They were single detached homes with large properties. Norman and Irma had been in theirs for 43 years, having raised their four children there, and welcomed their nine grandkids and counting. Norman had passed away last year.
“It’s just a formality, Mrs. Harris,” Derek had told her. “The underground water pipes leading to the houses on this street are very old and we want to make sure that no particulates are getting dissolved in the water and coming out of the faucets. It won’t take me long.”
Norman would have hovered over Derek and watched his every move. He had two reasons for doing so. One was he didn’t trust any repair guy and the other was he wanted to see what they were doing so he could do it himself if possible. No need to hire someone if you can do it yourself, he used to say. Thinking of him made her smile.
Derek had his back to her so she couldn’t see what he was doing.
“Well, young man. Is my water okay?”
“Well, the good news is I fixed your leaky faucet. That can cost you a lot of money in wasted water, Mrs. Harris.”
“Thank you. My son was going to take a look at that when he had the chance.”
Derek sat himself down and held up a beaker of a cloudy, brownish liquid.
“I have bad news as well I’m afraid, Mrs. Harris. This colour indicates that your water is full of lead. You need to stop drinking it immediately.”
“Are you sure?” asked Irma, alarmed.
“This test doesn’t lie, Mrs. Harris.”
“Oh dear! Do I have to call the city then and let them know?”
Derek responded quickly. “Eh..no, Mrs. Harris. You don’t have to call them. I can do that for you. I have to let the city know what I find.”
He cleared his throat. “What you do have to do, Mrs. Harris is get a water filtration system. I can install one immediately so you can continue to drink and cook with your water. Boiling your water won’t help with this situation. Your water has to be filtered. It’s imperative.”
Derek opened up his folder to show Irma some models.
“This is the one I recommend, Mrs. Harris. It has a 25-year warranty and filters out 99.9% of particulates. Your water would basically be pure.”
What would Norman do? He would have followed Derek and seen him perform the test. She filled a glass with water from the kitchen tap and asked Derek to test it in front of her. The water turned brown and cloudy.
“How much is the filtration system,” she asked.
His Adams apple bounced as he swallowed.
“We have financing available as well should you need it, Mrs. Harris. This is regularly ten thousand dollars but right now with installation, they’re going for $8999.99. It’s a great deal.”
It had been almost twenty-five years since Irma had taught in the public school system. Now almost eighty years young, she had not used her skills as a lie detector in a while. Her children had long since left the house and generally speaking, adults tell the truth in normal interactions, or if they were being dishonest, they had learned to do so well.
Derek may have given himself up. If he was lying, he had done a pretty good job of hiding it. He spoke clearly and normally and he maintained good eye contact with Irma. And taken by themselves, a throat clearing and a swallowing may not be cause for concern. But done together so soon after the other, had Irma’s spidey senses tingling.
“That is a good deal,” she said. “But I’m going to have to think about it. Do you have a card so I can call you?”
Derek handed her his card. “I can’t guarantee this deal if I leave, Mrs. Harris. You have to buy now if you want this great price. As I said, there is financing available.”
The slight quivering of Derek’s hand was not lost on Irma.
“How old are you Derek?”
“I’m twenty-nine, Mrs. Harris?” answered Derek, surprised.
“Is your mother proud of you?”
Derek couldn’t keep his gaze on Irma any longer. He remained silent as he aimless opened his folder and fiddled with some pamphlets.
“Do you remember, when you were growing up, what you actually wanted to do when you grew up? I can’t believe that fraudulently taking money from the elderly was part of your plan.”
With his shoulders slumping, Derek swiped at something on the coffee table with his hand, as if removing a crumb. He cleared his throat. “I’m trying to help you, Mrs. Harris. The test doesn’t lie.”
Irma said nothing.
“I wanted to be a police officer,” Derek admitted.
“That’s a great profession. You haven’t given up on that dream, have you?”
Derek’s eyes glistened. “Are you going to purchase a water-filtration system, Mrs. Harris?”
Irma said nothing.
Derek’s voice cracked. “No, I haven’t. I’ve already been accepted to the cadet in-training program but my wife and I have a young son with another on the way. I have to make money right now. I just can’t go back to school.”
Irma was unsympathetic. “How many of our senior citizens have you conned into unnecessarily buying these expensive systems?”
A tear escaped as Derek zipped up his folder and rose from the table. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, spinning around to leave. Before reaching the door, he turned back, wiping a tear off his cheek.
“I just want to do right by my family,” he said, despondently. “Is that so wrong?”
Irma now felt sorry for him. “You know the answer to that question, Derek. Would you counsel your son to do what you’re doing if he was in the same situation you find yourself in?”
Derek said nothing.
“Let me help you, Derek.”
Derek looked quizzically at her.
“As you saw, I need help around the house. I need other things fixed and I’d like to paint some rooms and my yard needs some grooming. Depending on how you do I know of other seniors who could use some help. What do you say?”
“I just tried to scam you,” he admitted. “Why would you help me?”
Irma looked at him kindly as he wiped away another tear. “I’ve seen many children with big plans, settle for what life gives them, instead of finding a way to go after it. This is your chance, Derek. Take it.”
She pointed to the Kleenex box.
“Thanks, Mrs. Harris. I’ll call you to let you know when I can start.”
Irma smiled and pointed to his folder. “You already have my number,” she said.