”Jingle bells, Jingle bells, jingle all the way……..”
“Will somebody switch off that blasted noise?” a voice thundered from the masters room upstairs.
Molly and Jane snapped to attention and quickly switched off the radio. Daddy was not in a good mood. And he would not be in a good mood until christmas passed. Every christmas was met with frowns, bad moods, and surly attitudes. He refused to acknowledge the christmas season. He never bought a tree, never allowed decorations, not even the ones they made with coloured papers in school. If he saw anything that smelled of christmas, he would throw it out.
But Molly and Jane knew they couldn’t blame him.
It wasn’t really his fault. You see, when they were five, mommy got hit by a trailer when she went to the market on christmas eve. She didn’t survive it. Daddy stopped smiling, stopped laughing, stopped playing with them. In their grief, they couldn’t understand why. But eight years after, they had had enough. Even though they missed mummy, they missed daddy more. And they couldn’t do anything to bring mommy back, but they sure could do something to help daddy.
And this year they had a plan. A plan that would not fail. Today, they planned to get their daddy back. They smiled and nodded at each other, their identical faces shining with anticipation.
Molly picked up the broom and began sweeping the parlour while Jane started cleaning and wiping the harmattan dust from the furniture. Aunty Amaka, their housekeeper, had gone to the market and would be back soon to prepare the day’s meals.
House chores done, they rushed upstairs, had their bath and dressed up, awaiting the arrival of their special guest. By the time she arrived, Mrs Amaka had prepared the meals and left.
They rushed to the door and let in their school teacher, Miss Mildred. Tall, elegant and beautiful, kind and patient with all her pupils, Miss Mildred was perfect for daddy. If only he would see it. She would also be a perfect mommy. Though they knew nobody could replace their mommy, at least daddy would have somebody, the way they had each other. And just like the movie, this plan would work. They giggled with excitement.
“Aunty welcome” Molly said as she led Miss Mildred to the sitting room.
“Thank you my dear. How are you?” Mildred said as she sat, opening her arms so they could sit next to her, one on each side.
“We are fine aunty. But daddy is still upstairs. Let me go and call him.” Jane said as she left and ran upstairs.
She knocked shyly, not willing to make too much noise that would upset him. Daddy needed to be in a good mood today.
“Come in….” daddy said gruffly. She opened the door and entered. His room, the biggest in the house, was a mess, like he hadn’t cleaned it in a while. Regardless, he had taken a bath so it didn’t matter.
“Miss Mildred is downstairs.” Jane said. She walked to the dresser and picked up one perfume bottle, handing it to her father who stood up reluctantly, handsome in a white tee shirt and brown shorts. His straight hairy leg peeked at the world.
He looked at the perfume in confusion.
Jane shook her head as if to say ‘Men, They knew nothing’.
“Put it on dad. It’s not good to keep a lady waiting. Miss Mildred said so.”
She didn’t see her father roll his eyes behind her. His children were always planning, scheming behind his back.
He obediently put on the perfume and groomed his hair with the brush she handed to him.
Then he followed her downstairs. Miss Mildred sat calmly, patiently answering Molly’s questions like they were best of friends. The woman had a lot of patience and he admired her for that. He also admired other things. The way she smiled. The way she wore her glasses to peer at class reports. The way she laughed at the children’s jokes, even the ones that were not funny. But he wasn’t in the market for a wife. No need to raise the school teacher’s hopes.
Miss Mildred stood up on seeing him.
“Good afternoon Mr Edwards.” She smiled and held out her hand. Even though Molly and Jane were always trying to get her dating their dad, she knew that Mr Edwards was not interested in her. And not because she wasn’t beautiful. She could see in his eyes that he still missed his wife. Still loved her even. And how could you compete with a ghost? How could you even be jealous of a ghost? But she was jealous. Jealous of the lucky woman who stole this man’s heart and then left him broken. Her interest was not because he was handsome or he was rich. She admired the love he had for his children, his dedication and commitment. He never put his office above them and though he rarely smiled the few times they met, she could tell he was a gentleman. Even now, though unwilling, he bought the children’s fake ‘sickness’ story and agreed to let her bring their report card to his house.
Smiling sadly, she calmed her beating heart as he held her arms in a brief handshake. She always avoided touching him. Always avoided being close to him. Maybe he would see her strong attraction to him and begin to feel sorry for her. She didn’t want that. So she smiled at him and sat down, bringing out the School Report card from her bag.
“Mr Edwards, Molly and Jane have being good girls this term.” Mildred touched their noses in affection. They giggled excitedly.
“Molly had a great average of 87 percent. Jane had 89 percent.” She announced as she handed the papers to him.
Suddenly, Jane’s left hand shot out and hit hers, in a bid to collect the glass of water on the centre table, throwing the papers in her hand to the floor and knocking the glass of water down. They didn’t see Molly and Jane’s smile.
Mildred quickly bent down to retrieve the papers before the water got to them. So did Mr Edwards. Their heads bumped as they stood up, making her raise her head and looking straight into his eyes.
For a small moment, she thought she saw admiration in his eyes. Then he lowered his head and picked the last paper on the floor. By the time he looked up, all she could see was a mild interest in the papers, not in her. Typical.
What she didn’t know was that Mr Edwards was not made of stone. He noticed the curve of Mildred’s lips. He noticed her beauty. And just now, as they had bent to pick up the papers, he noticed the curve of her neck, sloping down to nether regions. He noticed her sweet fragrance. He was interested. He liked her. A lot. He just didn’t want to. There was no way he could commit to another woman. No matter how much he liked that woman. Joan was his first love and would always be. Suddenly, he began to feel guilty, guilty for looking at another woman. He frowned as he sat down, looking at the papers in deep pretend concentration. The sooner Mildred left his house, the better.
Mildred noticed the smile was gone from his face. Infact, he looked angry. Clearly, her time was up. She stood up and cleared her throat. “I’ll be leaving now Mr Edwards.” She said to him.
He glanced up at her, did a small ‘hmmmm’ in answer and looked back down at the papers like she was an irritation. An afterthought. Tears welled up in her heart. Just typical of him. Every time it seemed they had an understanding, he would clam up and ignore her existence.
Someone tugged at her skirt. Molly. Mildred didn’t know how, but she was the only person in the whole school who could differentiate between the twins.
“Please stay with us and have lunch. Please….” Molly looked up at her, a sheen of tears in her eyes. Her heart melted. The children missed female companionship, an older role model.
Mildred smiled and nodded yes, glancing sideways at Mr Edwards. He was still peering at the papers. She ignored him and followed the girls to the dining table. She set the table and carried the already prepared food to the dining, smiling as Jane put a bouquet of flower at the centre of the table.
“Alright girls, go and call your father.” she said to them. They trudged up to him, still peering at the papers. She kept busy at the table, peeking sideways as she saw him shake his head in the negative. He stood up and went back upstairs, totally ignorant of the look of sadness in his children’s eyes. Maybe Mr Edwards was not such a nice guy. Fuming inwardly, she walked up to them and cheered them up, dishing the food out and promising sweets if they finished their meal.
Upstairs, Edwards was fuming, pacing his room in anger. What the hell was Mildred doing encouraging the children? And who gave her the right to go into Joan’s kitchen, and act like she was the wife of this house? Joan was and will always be the wife of this house, no matter what the kids and any school teacher thought. Even though he knew the kids were hungry for female companionship, he didn’t know how to help them there. Molly and Jane were growing up. They needed a mother. But he wouldn’t be swayed by any beautiful, intruding teacher. Even if he decided to get a wife, he would damn well go out and find one himself. Not a ready-made wife brought to him by his kids. After lunch, he would give Mildred a piece of his mind.
Downstairs, Mildred and the kids ate, washed out the dishes and arranged the kitchen. Already, the kids’ were looking sad. They kept bringing up fake problems to make her stay till evening. But how could she stay where she was not welcome?
“Am sorry kids. I have to go now okay? You be good girls to your father. Tell him I’ve gone.” she said as she carried her bag and walked to the door.
“Miss Mildred, can I talk to you for a few minutes outside?” Mr Edwards called out, standing at the staircase.
She nodded yes and he followed her outside. Immediately they got to his car, well out of the children’s earshot, he turned to her roughly.
“This will be the last time you come to my house Miss Mildred. It’s bad enough that Molly and Jane keep seeing a mother in every woman that pays them attention, you are the one encouraging them. If you think you can use my children to get me to marry you, you’re wrong.”
Mildred looked up at him in shock.
“How dare you say that to me? How dare you talk to me like that? All I’ve shown your children is kindness and love, something they don’t get from you, their supposed father. If you would let go of your grief for just a tiny moment, maybe you will see that your children badly need a mother. But how can someone like you understand what it is to grow up without a mother? You’re just a selfish man. A man like you wouldn’t understand that. All you care about is yourself. “
Tears welled up Mildred’s eyes, and she brushed them away angrily. “And by the way, I could never ever be interested in a man like you. And for your information, I have a boyfriend.”
”Uh oh!” Molly said as she peeped through a window.
“What is it? Lemme see…” Jane hurriedly opened a corner of the curtain and peeked out at daddy and Miss Mildred obviously having an argument. As they watched, Miss Mildred started crying, then she said something to daddy and left. Daddy didn’t look happy either. He just looked at the gate for a while, then came back inside. The twins quickly closed the curtain and ran into the rooms. The plan didn’t work. At first, Molly was so sad that Jane had to hug her for a while to calm her down. They both knew this plan had to work this christmas season. That was their only wish to santa this year. It had to.
When it was time for dinner, all three sat at the table, eating slowly and deep in thought. Suddenly Jane blurted out “daddy, you have to apologise to Miss Mildred.”
Daddy looked surprised. “What?” He yelled. “Apologise for what? How do you know we had an argument?.”
“Because we were peeking through the window.” Molly chirped in happily.
“What have I told you about eavesdropping? There’ll be no TV for two weeks for both of you.”
Jane glared at Molly in anger. She just had to open her mouth without thinking. But they came up with another plan. Though the school year was officially over, a christmas carol/party had been organised for pupils, teachers, and parents the coming weekend. The twins worked out another plan and waited happily till the weekend for the christmas party.
The day of the christmas party arrived and the twins prepared anxiously. Daddy drove them to the school which was beautifully arranged for the party. Already christmas carols were being played through the speakers. Immediately they spotted Miss Mildred talking to the music teacher, they walked up to her.
“Molly and Jane…” Miss Mildred cried excitedly “how are my lovelies today?”
“We are fine…” they replied simultaneously. Not wasting any time, Molly opened her back pack, removed a bouquet of beautiful flowers and handed them over to Miss Mildred.
“My daddy said we should tell you that he’s sorry.” they chorused, looking up at Miss Mildred with hope in their eyes.
Miss Mildred could tell Mr Edwards had not sent them. She had noticed him the moment he entered the hall, handsome in a sky blue shirt and black trousers. Their eyes had met and she had looked away flustered. She was still so angry at him. Accusing her of using his children to get to him had hurt her deeply, so deep that she had spent that entire night crying. The man obviously had no respect for her. And she made up her mind to avoid him at all costs. But she couldn’t hurt the children. So she took the flowers and sent them to play with other kids.
“What was that all about?” Raphael, the music teacher asked after the twins had left.
“Oh! Nothing really.” She said flippantly, even as her eyes searched for Mr Edwards.
“Who are you looking for? Are you even listening to me?” Raphael bursted out.
Mildred turned in surprise. She hadn’t expected such vehemence. Then she understood. He was jealous. She knew he had a crush on her. Smiling, she laid her hand on his shoulder “Raph, nothing really happened okay?”
Raphael took a deep breath. “Okay. Want me to get you some punch?” He asked, like he was trying to apologise for something. She nodded yes and he left.
Across the room, Mr Edwards watched Miss Mildred as she talked to a tall young man, probably the boyfriend she told him about. She held a bouquet in her hand, it looked like a gift from the boyfriend. Whatever. It didn’t affect him in anyway. She could do whatever she wanted. It’s not like he cared. She was a grown woman and could take care of herself.
That was until she put her hand on her boyfriends shoulder. What did she think she was doing, playing love with her stupid boyfriend in front of the school children? How immoral.
Infuriated, he walked up to her as soon as the boyfriend left.
“What do you think you are doing? Publicly romancing your boyfriend in front of the school children? Have you no shame?” Edwards said angrily. “Please behave properly in front of the children, especially my kids.” He stalked away. He didn’t see the tears in Miss Mildred’s eyes. He didn’t see her when she ran out of the hall.
Molly and Jane walked up to him. “Have you seen Miss Mildred dad? She was just talking to our music teacher now.”
Mr Edwards stood in surprise. The music teacher? Not her boyfriend? Pure joy filtered into his mind. Until he remembered the angry words he had spoken to her earlier. What would he do?
Mildred was standing at the balcony beside the basic 5 class, looking out into the darkness. Edwards could see the sheen of tears in her eyes.
She didn’t turn.
“For what exactly Mr Edwards? For accusing me of using your children to get you to marry me? For telling me never to come to your house? Or for being so rude? Which one exactly are you apologising for?”
Guilt ran through him. She didn’t deserve any of this from him. All she had done was be nice to his kids and him. And how did he repay her?
“For everything okay? For everything.” He took a deep breath.
Mildred turned to him. “Why do you always do that? Everytime I try to come close to you, you insult me? Do you hate me? What is it?”
“It’s because I like you okay? I like you so damn much.”
Now that he had said it, he felt lighter, like a weight had been lifted off him.
“And I feel so guilty about it. You gotta understand Mildred, I loved my wife. I loved her a lot. And I pledged to never look at another woman. But everytime I see you, I lose myself. I begin to feel things I shouldn’t feel. Am sorry.” he leaned on the door, standing so close to her.
“How did she die?” Mildred asked. She turned to look at him directly.
“It was eight years ago. The kids were five. That christmas eve, she left for the supermarket to buy sweet corn. I love sweet corn and she had forgotten to get it. She got hit by a trailer.”
For a while, neither spoke. Then Mildred said…
“She’s dead Edwards, there’s nothing you can do about it. Am sorry for your loss. But am not sorry that I like you too. That every time I see you, I lose myself. I can’t apologise for that. But I also won’t accept anything from you until you make up your mind about me. It’s either you choose to be with me or not.”
Mildred looked up at him, awaiting an answer. He didn’t say anything. Disappointed, she walked away, her heart breaking. He treasured the memory of his dead wife more than her. It shouldn’t hurt this much, but it did.
Mr Edwards watched Mildred walk away, feeling as though he was losing a part of himself. He wanted to call out to her, to tell her that he had made up his mind, that he wanted to be with her. But his voice was trapped. Trapped inside the memory of Joan. For eight long lonely years, he had treasured the memory of Joan, had held it close and ignored everything else. He had even ignored his children’s need for a mother. She was right. Everything she had said about him was true. He was a selfish man. In his grief, he hadn’t cared about anybody else, not even his own kids. He had cared only about himself, his guilt. Joan had only gone out that evening because of him. Because she wanted to please him.
But maybe he had paid his penance. Maybe he had paid the price. For eight long years, he had been loyal to the memory of his dead wife. Maybe it was time he became really selfish and do something for himself. For his kids.
“Wait…” He called out to Mildred just as she got to the door of the hall. She stopped and turned back. He smiled. She smiled back.