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From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama

a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan

Chapter 6 – Teacher Bertram summons Octavia

When Matron was leaving the convent, after arranging to return at intervals until the cast was removed, the Sister Superior had asked if she would take a message from her to her father. Somewhat taken aback, she had been quick-witted enough to agree on condition that it was in writing, as, from the trend of remarks voiced by the Sister from time to time, she had begun to have the uncomfortable feeling that she wanted an opportunity to pass judgment on her father concerning how the accident had occurred.

As far as she knew, the Sister had not been given any details by her father; but perhaps her curiosity had been aroused by the speculations expressed openly by some influential people who knew of his reputation for cruelty. Maybe she felt that having facilitated his daughter’s stay in the convent, as well as making available the medical services of a member of the Order, her father would be obligated to accept an admonition from her with good grace. Matron had said, however, that whatever was the Sister’s intention, she would not allow herself to be involved.

While all this was only conjecture on her part, she was aware of the condescending attitude which missionaries of whatever denomination had towards natives; and felt it was not the Sister’s place to use her advantage to judge or attempt to humiliate her father, whatever his faults. When Millicent and Mr. Solis had come to escort her home, therefore, she had gone to the Sister Superior to collect the correspondence, only to be told that the plan had been changed.

She left the convent after thanking everyone there for their many kindnesses during her stay. When she got home her father and mother had welcomed her home with formality, and she had left to go to her room after her father mentioned that he wanted to have a talk with her when she had rested. As it was a Saturday and he did not have to go out, she decided she might as well face the music as soon as possible and, after only a few minutes of lying down, went to his study and knocked on the door.

Invited to enter, she did so, and told her father she was ready to hear whatever he had to say, anticipating a long lecture.

He asked her to take a seat and began:  “You know, Octavia, you have always been a puzzle to me, from when you were little. I never know what to expect from you. . . “ And he had launched into his warmed-over speeches from first to last  . . . losing his audience almost from the beginning while he had chronicled his Christian virtues and listed all her imperfections.

Matron said that by now she was almost word-perfect about the speech and stopped listening after a few minutes, only noting some of the special highlights of this particular occasion when he went into the details of how well he knew what to expect of “these people” who, true to form, had sold their share of the surplus to the nearest shopkeeper and squandered the proceeds.

She had countered with the question whether he hadn’t expected that some of the workers would use the money from the sale of part of their share to buy other necessities? That maybe rice, beans and corn were not all they needed? There were things like seasoning, ingredients to make bread, for instance, clothes for their families, maybe even treats for their children! After all, people who were poor had to do without so many things that when they got some unexpected money they had to try to fill as many of the holes in their lives as possible!

Her father had not disagreed with her observation, but moved the discussion back to their many shortcomings, and to his proposed solutions, claiming that there was a right and a wrong way to go about things, and implying that she had taken the wrong way.

Feeling the usual discouragement at her inability to get through to him, she had finally given up and fallen silent. Abruptly he had changed the subject, beginning with the statement that she had a little over three years to reach the golden age of twenty-one and couldn’t she benefit from her most recent experience to improve her behaviour until then and have more control over her life? In reply, Matron had made one last attempt to make her father understand that  she was at the end of her rope and not interested in hearing about three, two or even one year from now! He had to loosen his hold NOW!

But at the end of their conversation, Matron had said, she and her father had looked at each other helplessly for a long time, straight in the eye, then he had reached out his hand and taken hers, a very unusual gesture for him, saying quietly: “Why not let us make another try at understanding each other better?” And she had realized that he had not heard a word she had said. She had nodded sadly, and he had shaken her hand as if settling an agreement, while the idea passed through her mind whether there would ever be a right time to talk to him about a career in nursing, as her mind was now firmly made up!

(Chapter 7 in the weekend issue of Amandala.)

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