As the bell signals the end of another tedious and sultry day, there is hurried gabbling, shuffling of papers, textbooks squashed with little dignity into bulky schoolbags, a snatch or two of nervous laughter, leather shoes thundering across the carpet, and the door closing with its plaintive squeal.
She remains at the desk, in the right-hand corner of the classroom. A bead of sweat trickles down the side of her cheek, but she brushes it off before it lands on the grid paper. She scratches the paper with her pencil; solid, consistent strokes of a well-practiced swimmer approaching the final lap. She finds the last coordinate, plots the last point. As expected, the points join in smooth curves. The hyperbola and parabola intersect perfectly.
Satisfied, she takes her time in slipping the graph into a folder before sliding her books into her bag. She steps out of the air-conditioned room as the door bids her farewell. Even though she is still indoors, the air engulfs her in a sweltering embrace. Her eyebrow twitches in annoyance; not at the sudden change in temperature, which she doesn’t mind, but at the murmur of animated voices a few corridors away. As she draws closer, the voices fade to whispers, as though her aura of silence has infused through the crowd. They part quietly and allow her to pass. She nods politely, and proceeds to the sheet of names pinned on the cork board. There are one hundred and twenty of them. Once again, her name is at the top.
Spontaneously, she feels a little pinch of pleasure and pride in her stomach and the corners of her mouth convulse slightly. But she replaces it with a nondescript neutral expression as she turns and walks away. Pride comes before a fall, is the mantra she repeats to herself as she heads home. Nevertheless, her delight seeps into her brisk trotting pace. But she remembers the undertones spoken behind her back, and it slows her to a moderate walk. “How does she do it?”, the voices mutter jealously. “She never asks questions and always sits in corners.”
No, she ponders, not many of them know.
She remembers a time when she was lively and talkative. Her social calendar was filled to the minute. She helped people whenever she could, whoever they were. Her grades weren’t the best, but they weren’t far from the top.
But after it happened, all those things faded into memory.
Hand on the gate, she hesitates. The scent is mild, but she recognises the musty metallic tones of it. A glance at the clouds confirms her suspicion- their bottoms are grey. She pushes through the gate, drops her bag, fishes out a book and grabs an umbrella. She wants to be there when the rain soothes the hot earth.
The jacaranda tree is shedding its vivid purple flowers as she approaches it. The flowers are only pretty when they’re still alive, she contemplates. The weather has resulted in the dropped flowers forming into withered shells. But it is worse when it rains, and the flowers smear into a brown, soggy, fragrant slush which slips and slides and clings onto soles of shoes . . . .
. . . . and she was under the jacaranda tree, a year ago. The sky awoke with a deafening roar and a downpour of rain. A mother pulled her son towards a sheltered table. A gust of wind tore the kite from the toddler’s rounded hands, and it danced in its temporary freedom before it was caught on the highest boughs of the tree. Tears and rain intermingled on the boy’s cheeks as he tried to squirm out of his mother’s grasp. Before she knew it, she was halfway up the tree, climbing higher and higher, reaching for the coloured tail-ribbons of the kite. Her bare legs scraped the bark, but she hardly noticed. The blood trickling down her legs felt just like rain. Watching the boy’s face light up, she snatched the ribbons and hollered in victory. But the elements were against her; rain pelted down, thunder raged and the wind cursed and she lost her footing and down and down she fell until she was lying face-down in the sticky scented slurry of jacaranda flowers and rain . . . .
She remembers waking in the hospital room. The doctors told her about the damage to her frontal lobe, which fortunately only stripped her of her speech. A wheelchair under the tree suddenly catches her attention. She approaches a dark-haired boy, sitting rigidly in the wheelchair and staring ahead.
She waves slightly in greeting. He blinks twice.
She sits in the park chair beside him, just as a couple and their daughter stroll towards them. “Tommy,” the mother says slowly, “Mia needs to go to the toilet. We’ll be back soon, promise.”
He blinks twice, and they leave. The word ‘quadriplegic’ materialises in her mind next to his name. She remembers reading a newspaper article about him- Thomas Kirschen, a prodigious young musician, involved in a car collision paralysing his entire body. Except for his eyes.
A cold chill runs up her neck. Then a fat drop lands on her nose. The sky has begun to cry.
A teardrop trembles in the boy’s eyes. She realises his family have deserted him, and it is probably not the first time. She feels part of her old self reawakening- she wants to give something to the boy who has lost everything.
Soundlessly, she opens her umbrella and holds it above him and herself. He blinks twice. The first few raindrops patter lightly onto it.
They sit under the umbrella as the raindrops thunder down.