Thursday, December 10, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 8: The snake in the garden

In the darkness of the dining room, illumined only by flaming crème brûlée, I noticed Netta’s silver tray sloping slightly forward.  She was trembling, but it wasn’t until Calixthe came running toward her that I became certain that Netta was losing her grip.  

“I don’t need any help, Calixthe,” Netta said, coldly. Calixthe stepped back from her instantly, letting Netta place the tray of flaming cream firmly on the table, her hands suddenly steady.  

The children were still singing, of course, but Netta ignored them, focusing solely on her contribution to the evening’s festivities, transfixed on the fire that burned in blue-white heat before her eyes.  I, on the other hand, focused on the fire behind them. 

“That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love.”

When the children finished singing, they rushed to their father’s side, climbing all over him as though on a jungle-gym.  He responded, as did Calixthe and I, with a round of thunderous applause. 

“Wow!  The Singing Silvermans!” James joked.  “Who knew?”  

More laughter and loving exchanges between a father and his children.  

Oh, the glory of love, love, love!

“Let’s sing Happy Birthday to your father,” insisted Netta, making a vain yet valiant effort to smile through her pain.  

We sang, we ate, and we laughed until it came time to clear the dishes.  The fire behind Netta’s eyes that had seemingly died down was instantly reignited. 

“Lia, what in the world are you wearing around your neck?”
“It’s a scarf, Mama.”
“Whose is it?”

Lia glanced over at me then back at her mother.

“It’s Chrissy’s.  She said I could borrow it for the show.”

Netta coughed up a laugh.

“It’s seventy-nine degrees outside.  You look silly wearing a scarf.”
“Chrissy said it looked pretty on me.”
“It’s time for bed anyway.  Give the scarf back to Christina.”
“Yes, Mama.”
Lia unlooped the pretty blue scarf  and handed it to me with her head down.  

“You can borrow it any time, sweetie.”
“Now let’s all go upstairs and get ready for tomorrow, okay?”
“Awwww!” whined the children in unison.  
“I know, I know.  Come on, it won’t be so bad.”

The children kissed their parents good night and wished their father one last happy birthday.  

“Hey, you guys were great, tonight,” James assured the Singing Silvermans.  “Now scoot.”

Netta still wouldn’t look at me.  When I offered to help her and Calixthe with the dishes, it was James who acknowledged me.

“I think we have it under control, Christina.  Thanks.”

Once upstairs, I set about selecting the children’s first-day-of-school outfits, attempting to capture the “essence” of each individual child.  After everyone’s choppers had been brushed, and all were tucked in with a book to read, Soryah asked me to continue our reading of The Secret Garden.  

“So you really like this story, huh, Soryah.”  
“Yeah.  It’s really good.”
“What is it that you like about it so far?” I asked, wondering if Soryah saw the similarities between herself and little Mary Lennox.
“I don’t know.  It’s just good.”

Soryah hopped into her bed and I sat on the chair beside it, reading aloud a story about a wealthy, spoiled little girl who was about to realize what it meant to be alone in the world.

“She was grinding her teeth and saying this over and over again when she heard her mother come out on the veranda with some one. She was with a fair young man and they stood talking together in low strange voices. Mary knew the fair young man who looked like a boy. She had heard that he was a very young officer who had just come from England. The child stared at him, but she stared most at her mother...Her hair was like curly silk and she had a delicate little nose which seemed to be disdaining things, and she had large laughing eyes. All her clothes were thin and floating, and Mary said they were "full of lace." They looked fuller of lace than ever this morning, but her eyes were not laughing at all. They were large and scared and lifted imploringly to the fair boy officer's face.”

“Who is that boy her mother is talking to?” 
“We need to read on to find out.”

As I read, I would watch Soryah’s facial expression, noting how dramatically it shifted at certain times.”

“It was in that strange and sudden way that Mary found out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and been carried away in the night, and that the few native servants who had not died also had left the house as quickly as they could get out of it, none of them even remembering that there was a Missie Sahib. That was why the place was so quiet. It was true that there was no one in the bungalow but herself and the little rustling snake.”

“I don’t know what I would do if that ever happened to me,” Soryah said, looking sad and frightened. "I'd be scared if I was alone in a house with a snake and there was nobody who loved me to protect me."
“Me too.  But don’t worry, sweetie,” I assured her.  “Your parents aren’t going anywhere.”

On the way back to my room, I thought about what I had just said to Soryah and realized it was something of a lie.  James would be leaving for Africa after he took the children to school the next day.  And it was rumored that Netta would be leaving for England some time in November.  

Walking past the living room, I saw Netta and James sitting by the fire, talking quietly.

But it’s seventy-nine degrees outside!

Calixthe was still in the kitchen finishing the dishes.  

“Hey, can I help you with anything?” I asked.
“No tanks,” she said, shaking her head.  “It’s pretty much done.”
“You look exhausted.”
“Dat’s cause I am.”
“Did Netta even help you?”

Calixthe shook her head again.  “No.  But...”

We could barely utter our motto, “How man go do?” without laughing.  I was just so grateful for the laughter.

We walked upstairs and as I entered my room, I realized I had left my blue scarf in the living room.  I considered leaving it there till morning, but then I felt that Netta might deem it thoughtless or rude to leave my personal belongings strewn about her home.  

So I headed back down, and as I approached the living room I saw James still sitting in his chair, staring at the fire, alone, in near darkness.  He gave me a quick glance when he heard my footsteps. 

“Christina,” he said, looking back at the fire. “Why don’t you come sit down for a minute.”

“I left my scarf down here after dinner...I just came down to get it...”
“That’s all right.  Come and sit down.”

The fire flickered and flashed across James’s face, casting an eerie glow in his green, cat-like eyes.  He glanced at my freshly painted pink toenails.  

“How are things going so far.”
“Are you sure? 
“Come on.  You can be honest.” 

Silence ensued for at least a minute.  What on earth could I have said? I didn’t at all believe that James really cared how I was doing, let alone that he wanted me to be honest.  Eventually, I came up with what I thought was a pretty diplomatic response.

“Well, to be fair I think we’re all going through a period of adjustment right now. I think it’s going to take some time for things to run smoothly.”

He puffed on his cigar in an exaggerated way, rounding his lips after sliding the cigar out of his mouth. 

“I’m going to be frank, Christina. Netta and I feel that you’re up to the expectations we had of you when we hired you.  We feel like you’re not reinforcing the rules that we’ve had in place for our children for years.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, James.”

Another puff of his cigar.  

“So what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You see...the problem is that Netta feels that you don’t respect her.  And...I’m not sure if that’s something she can ever come to terms with.”
“With all due respect, James, I feel the same way.  About Netta.”

The fire popped and crackled, sending a lone spark sailing through the grate.  It looked like a van Gogh painting, where just about everything appeared to be moving upward in swift, jagged lines, where every part of the painting looked like fire. 

James uncrossed his leg and leaned forward, letting his elbows rest on his knees.

“You know, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“I mean, things don’t have to be so unpleasant.”
“I never said they were unpleasant, James.”
“Let’s be honest, Christina.  It’s fairly obvious that you’re unhappy, here.”

I didn’t appreciate being psychoanalyzed--again--especially by him.

“I guess that makes all of us, then, James.  It’s fairly obvious to me that you and Netta are unhappy.  With me.”

James smiled and shook his head.  He looked down at his hands and then back at me, again with those eyes.

“It’s getting late, Christina.”
“Good night, James,” I said, rising from the chair.
“Tomorrow is the first day of school,” he said, dabbing out his cigar.
“Yes.  Big day.”
“I’ll be taking the children, and we’d like you to come, as well, so that you can see the layout of the school, meet their teachers...stuff like that.”
“Yes, of course.  Netta suggested I go along. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Well, like you said, it’s late.  I should be getting to bed.”
“Me too.”
“Good night, James.”
“Good night, Christina.”

I was almost to the kitchen when James called me back.

“Hey, you forgot your scarf.”
“Oh, thanks.”

Standing in front of the fire, he placed the delicate scarf in my hand.  

“That’s a very pretty scarf.”

He stood there, much too long.  And then, a voice.


Both of us turned around and saw Netta standing in her robe, holding the flap closed with her bejeweled fist.  Her face was hidden by the harsh hallway light behind her.  

“I was just getting my scarf, Netta.  Good night.”
“See you in the morning,” James said.

“Oh, and Happy Birthday!” I called over my shoulder.

I hurried past Netta, through the kitchen and up the Cinderella stairs to my room.  I threw into a corner the scarf that I used to love, took off the clothes that were suddenly suffocating me, and stepped into the shower. The water was still ice cold, but I stayed in anyway, letting it fall all over me, numbing me.  I grabbed the bottle of body wash that hung from the shower head and laughed until I cried, thinking how proud Netta would be that I had remembered to use soap.  


  1. Tell me what this is? Are you trying out a book? Is this a book you have published? Your dialogue style is great. I read part 7 and part 8 but my Granddaughter is here and I know my minutes are limited. I'm curious.

  2. Hi, Jenny! Thanks for dropping by! As for your question, I have no IDEA what this is or ever will be--but right now, it's just a project to keep me out of trouble while I look for a new teaching job. Thanks again : )

  3. are good...told you so
    someone else(Jenny) wants to read more
    Netta....still a witch...did you read my suggestion of casting the characters..netta(I like spelling her name with a small n....hahahah
    anyway...netta-Meryl what do you think

  4. Suz, I LOVE the idea of Meryl! Would it even be possible? Ahh..a girl can dream : )

  5. Oh yes dream
    how long do I have to wait
    to read more?

  6. How great to have a reader who cares!! Coming soon...Part 9!