a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
Chapter 5 – Matron’s new campaign of rebellion leads to broken bone
I think it appropriate to continue now with the story from the episode of the water pump from where we had left off.
Matron said after that time life went on without any great disturbance until the matter arose of her first grown-up dress. Mrs. Atkins, their seamstress, had Millicent’s and her measurements in her records and it was customary for her mother to purchase and send materials for her to sew their clothes, providing trimmings and suitable styles and sewing identical dresses for them both. When she reached sixteen, however, Mrs. Atkins recommended that the birthday should be marked by a special service at Church, at which time she should wear a dress made to order and properly fitted since she was now no longer a schoolgirl but a young lady.
Her parents were in agreement, so, accompanied by her sister, she had been sent to see Mrs. Atkins to work out the details. Matron was not used to paying much attention to clothes in the past, her father discouraging what he called “vanity” in his daughters; but she appreciated the opportunity to have an outing and to visit Mrs. Atkins who, apart from being the most popular seamstress in the town, was innovative, lively, kind and friendly, as well as very stylish.
Mrs. Atkins guided her into choosing a simple dress in white rayon with a tunic-type bodice trimmed with a design of coloured soutache braid and buttons, with a four-gored skirt. The colour she selected for the trim was red, to contrast with the white of the material.
While at the seamstress’ home, her two little daughters were in and out of the sewing-room, with the younger, Enid, spending more time inside while the elder, Pauline, came and went to consult her from time to time about something she was cooking. She and Millicent were impressed by the easy, playful manner in which mother and daughters interacted, but were surprised that Pauline was allowed to use the stove at such a young age. Mrs. Atkins had observed that she was only seven but wanted to attempt everything except sewing, while Enid, a year younger, only wanted to sew.
Octavia and Millicent had left the Atkins house after arranging a date for a fitting and hurried back home, only to be asked on arrival there why they had taken so long!
Along with Millicent, she had returned for a fitting a few days later, and the completed garment was delivered by Mrs. Atkins’ son the Saturday before the birthday service. Her father had opened the package in the study in the presence of her mother, Millicent and herself. Without taking it out of the wrapping he had signalled his wife to, “Look at this!”
“She can’t wear this to Church!” had been her immediate comment and they had both attacked her about choosing “red” trimming.
“What is wrong with this girl?” her father had enquired of her mother, who had remarked: “It’s just like her to choose a colour like that. No sense at all!”
The pair had gone on like this about the dress as if she and Millicent were two pieces of stick, Matron had told Mama, wanting to know why “this girl” was so troublesome, why she couldn’t have chosen a pink, or yellow or blue trimming? Why she could never do anything that was expected of a person with her upbringing? Had she ever seen her mother wear anything so daring and out of place?
The dress was left on her father’s desk, sitting in the wrapping paper, and she and Millicent had been dismissed.
“To this day I can’t understand what those two were so upset about,” had been Matron’s comment, while all my mother could do was sympathise with her friend.
Mama believed that the episode had been so hurtful to Matron that she had been unable to leave it alone, every now and again harking back to it: “You would think that after all I went through with those two nothing they did or said could ever surprise me. Well, I was wrong. I knew that they had a ban on wearing red clothes to Church, but trimming? If that was so improper wouldn’t Mrs. Atkins have said something? And wouldn’t Millicent have given a warning? When we left the room she put her arms around me and gave me a big hug! If what I had done was so bad do you think she would have been so openly sympathetic?”For the birthday service she had worn a simple blouse and skirt and everything had gone smoothly, with Mrs. Atkins decorating the Church beautifully and her whole family, including her husband, two sons and two daughters being in attendance.
Millicent found out that Mrs. Atkins had been able to sell the dress at a profit, and had refunded the cost of the material to her parents; but the incident had marked the beginning of a new campaign of rebellion by Matron in retaliation for their cruelty. She stopped forcing her hair into imitations of popular hairstyles and started using cornrows, saying that her grandmother came lovingly to mind whenever she did, as that was how she wore hers.
As time passed Matron undertook a project, finding she had time on her hands in the mornings. She sent a message to her grandmother with a boy cousin she met at the market to send her cuttings and seeds of different plants, cleared an area behind the large shed that her father had built some yards from the back of the house and started cultivating what she called her “plot.” Richie Sabal helped her sometimes and they would have interesting conversations about his experiences in different parts of the country, Richie having moved around quite a bit until ending up in their area with his grandmother and younger brother.
When she started to reap the produce, Richie offered to sell the crop at the market; but, instead, she told him to sell part and keep the money for his education, and dispose of the rest in whatever way he chose after giving part to the infirmary run by the sisters of a Roman Catholic order which had been opened in the area a few years earlier.
At the time that Teacher Bertram’s farm had begun to develop and prosper, he had hired a Mr. Solis as his “go-between” with the workers and himself when he was occupied with the teaching work. Mr. Solis was a big man, tall and stout, smart and quick-witted, but with a childlike playfulness and sweetness which she felt caused her father to underestimate him, treating him like a simpleton and referring to him as “vagabond” until the name had stuck.
Matron said this grown man insisted on calling her “Miss Octavia,” so she reacted by giving him a handle and calling him “Mr. Solis.” He became her friend and would offer assistance in any way he could; and when she expanded her plot and produced more, she had passed the increased yield to him for the use of his family.
In Matron’s seventeenth year her father’s farm produced a bumper crop and after selling the bulk to the government Marketing Board, and some to the local grocery stores, there was a large surplus of beans, rice and corn, large enough to last for a very long time, which he had stored in his shed. Keenly alert, she got the idea that the increase was due to new techniques or to fertilizers with which he had experimented, or maybe both, as he discussed nothing with her since the “dress” episode, only supplying such information as she had been assigned to enter into his records.
She started studying the whole situation, especially when she noticed from the data how deposits to his bank account were increasing steadily; and finally came up with the bold opinion that as the same workers had produced the bumper crop, it would be only fair to share the excess with them. Uncertain whether such an idea might be considered radical or not, she still felt that if she made such a proposal to her father he would reject it, so she took it on herself to take action, plotting the best way to do this without his knowledge.
One Saturday while he was out seeing a government official on business, she enlisted the help of Mr. Solis in rounding up the workers and, using some extra sacks from the shed, she had them transfer some of the surplus to the sacks and distribute them among themselves, urging that they cart them away quickly so as to clear the shed by the time her father returned. She had not mentioned to the workers or to Mr. Solis that this was her idea and so far unauthorized by her father, and they had worked quickly, believing she was acting on his instructions. When everything was over she went upstairs to her room and waited for the hurricane she knew would strike when he returned.
In due course she heard her sister’s footsteps running up the stairs and met her on the landing to ask why she was in such a hurry? Breathing hard, she had said that their father wanted her in his study right away, so she had gone down the stairs in a timely manner, entered the room closing the door behind her, and asked with fake innocence if he wanted her. This was one scene she told my mother later that she would never, ever forget!
Her father had his hat in his left hand, his walking stick in his right, and, his face congested with rage, barked: “Is what Vagabond is telling me true, Octavia?”
She had replied quietly with the question: “You mean, did I distribute some of the surplus to the workers? Yes, it’s true.”
His action had been reflex and instantaneous. He had raised his walking stick and started to bring it down with force towards her, but had stopped abruptly half-way. Also by reflex action, she had raised her left hand to ward off the blow a split second before he had stopped himself, and so had caught it mid-air. She said later that she understood what it meant “to see stars,” and heard a scream without realising it had come from her.
Mr. Solis opened and quickly came through the study door, her father simultaneously dropped his hat and stick and gave an order to Millicent, who had followed Mr. Solis into the room. He pulled two rulers from his desk drawer and, with a towel that Millicent, returning, pushed into his hand, made a crude, bulky splint. Mr. Solis lifted her up like a child, walked through the door, on to the veranda, down the steps, on to the walkway and towards the road followed by Millicent and her father.
“Where are you taking her, Vagabond?” she heard her father ask Mr. Solis, who replied, while trotting, “To the R.C. Convent – they say that one of the sisters there studied medicine, Sir!” Millicent was right alongside him as he had proceeded towards the convent, her father walking more slowly in the rear.
Matron said that all she was aware of was pain such as she had never felt before. When they arrived at the convent Mr. Solis had spoken quickly with the Sister Superior, who had immediately called for someone who directed him to a small room with a long, low table, telling him to set her down on it.
Later, in telling her story to Mama, Matron had said that from this point on she had had to depend on Millicent for details of what happened next, as all she was aware of was pain! She said she vowed to be a better person in the future no matter how mean and cruel her parents were to her, if only the pain would go away! She was sure that her suffering must be God’s punishment for her misbehaviour. At some point she must have been given something to make her drowsy as, between “sleep and wake,” she was aware of Sister Magda (that was the name of the nun) and Millicent being busy close to her; of being wrapped in a soft blanket, her arm being touched from time to time; and, finally, Millicent whispering in her ear that she would be leaving now but returning in the morning, and gathered that she would be staying where she was overnight. She had overheard Mr. Solis and Millicent whispering to each other before she had finally gone to sleep.
Matron learnt that her father had come to see the Sister Superior the next day, along with Millicent and Mr. Solis, and that she had advised that he leave her at the convent for the time being instead of her being carried back and forth between there and home, since there were no means of public transportation in that area in those days. Arrangements were made for Millicent to come twice a day to maintain contact, until further notice, and to bring clean clothes and whatever else she might need. Her father had not asked to see her, only whether she was all right or needed anything.
Matron stayed at the Convent for nine to ten weeks, during which time Richie Sabal and Mrs. Atkins and her daughters visited once or twice, while her sister Millicent came morning and evening every day, accompanied often by Mr. Solis. She said she settled into a routine of reading and observing the life of a religious order, which really did not seem too different from the lifestyle she was used to at home, except for the prayer sessions. Of course, being Anglican, she was not included in these but said her prayers privately.
As soon as the pain lessened she was up and around the kitchen, where the staff consisted of a cook, two maids and a yard boy. There were about six or seven nuns resident in the convent, but she spoke only with Sister Magda and the sister who supervised the housekeeping most of the time, was visited by the Sister Superior from time to time, but rarely came in contact with the rest of the nuns.
“My dear sister Millicent said one day that although Father did not speak about the incident she knew from his behaviour that he regretted losing his temper. Of course I did not ask her how she knew this, as I realized that she was just being her usual peacekeeping self,” Matron related, continuing that although her father and she were the only ones who knew what had actually happened, she was pleased at the thought of his ever being regretful of anything concerning herself.
She missed working on her plot and as soon as she could she had moved around in the convent garden helping the yard boy. She had found the cast cumbersome, which Sister Magda had been surprised that she had kept on for only about four months. Sister Magda had thought it would have been needed longer but was satisfied with the rate at which she had healed. She had gone home with the cast on after about ten weeks, but had returned at intervals for her attention after that.
While at the convent they had had some interesting conversations, as Sister Magda had tried discreetly to discover how the accident had happened. Matron said that knowing how our people were, she had been curious to hear their version but did not care to bring up the subject.
In the course of conversation Sister Magda had revealed to Matron her reason for joining the order, with no probing on her part, although she was very curious about the whole idea of people isolating themselves and cutting themselves off from the world. Sister Magda was American, born in the United States of Irish immigrants, who had sacrificed to pay for her medical education but had cut her off when she had insisted on marrying her classmate before completing her residency. She had become pregnant almost immediately but had aborted from the shock of the news of her husband’s death in an accident. She and her parents had been reconciled when she had recovered, and she had gone back home. Eventually she had started her residency, but after a year or so had decided to join the Order, wanting to utilize her training to help people but to be relieved of having to make personal decisions.
This was one thing Matron said she could never understand then, or at any time in her life since, that anyone could be willing for others to make decisions for them, when she so longed to be in charge of her life and was ready and looking forward to taking on the world!
She considered how her father was accumulating wealth when so much was missing in the lives of those around us. Imagine that right there in the capital town of the largest district in the country, there was not a government clinic or hospital to take care of sick people; no secondary school for those needing higher education; no job-training for primary school leavers in fields like tailoring, growing food, boat-building, shoe-making, crafts, sewing, nursing – just everyone running off to the Capital at the first opportunity and turning their backs on the district!
The compulsion to take some kind of action towards relieving the situation made her consider training to be a nurse – which would mean, among other things, leaving home and going to the Capital for a time. Would her father agree to this? Maybe the accident was a sign as to the direction her life should take? She decided to broach the subject to him as soon as she got a chance and sought opportunity to speak with Mrs. Atkins, who had moved from the Capital when she had married her husband, for gaining information as to what to expect. She decided to consult Sister Magda, also, about what such training would entail and whether she could make any suggestions.
(Chapter 6 in Tuesday Amandala.)