Angelica

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ANGELICA

Shireen Jeejeebhoy

I HAD TROUBLE washing the pile of dishes that I had been avoiding for the past two days, for my eyes kept being pulled through the open window to the activity outside as I tried to distinguish the bird calls: the raucous caw of the crow, the demanding call of the blue jay, the twittering of the sparrow, and the high-pitched singing of — Angelica? Home so soon? I looked up at my clock. Good Heavens, it’s four o’clock, and I still have the whole sink of pots to wash up before I can put supper on. I washed the pots quickly while I half-listened to Angelica’s childish whisperings. As the filmy water drained out, I took some leftover potato soup out of the fridge and put it in the microwave to heat up. Then I went outside to my herb patch to pick my first sprigs of chervil.

The chervil grows next to the fence, quite close to Angelica’s swing set. I often use the pretence of gathering chervil or other herbs to talk to my young next-door neighbour. But when I went out, Angelica was on her swing, deep in her own world, so I didn’t disturb her. Instead I slowly picked chervil sprigs while I watched her covertly.

When I first saw Angelica playing by herself in her backyard, I tried to make some neighbourly comments; but she told me sternly that she did not consort with strangers. Yet as I became a familiar presence, she shyly became a friend of mine, partly I think because she was curious about all my strange-looking plants. At first, she just watched me furtively from afar. But soon she was standing beside the fence, peering at me through the slats. One day, she asked me what I was doing. As I was explaining to her, I suddenly found her standing next to me. Somehow, she had managed to climb the fence. When I finished my explanation, we introduced ourselves formally to each other. After that, she visited me regularly since Sue (Angelica’s babysitter) preferred to spend much of her time gabbing on the phone and since — of course — her parents were busy professionals. Although Angelica would brazenly climb over the fence when I was out in the garden, once over she would stand with her hands behind her back, say hello politely, and ask me equally politely what I was doing. Then she would help me gather some basil or plant tulip bulbs or pluck juicy tomatoes from their vines, always questioning me and studiously listening to my answers. And occasionally we would share life stories or, rather, anecdotes of my childhood and sobering revelations of her short six years. When we finished, she would thank me, say good-bye, and leave. Recently, though, I had noticed that she tended to stay in her own world much of the time. So I watched her, hoping that one day she would confide in me.

Abruptly, she stopped singing. She turned her dark eyes on me pensively; her hands gripped the chains. Then she smiled. I could feel my face creaking in response as, after one darting look at the house, she ran over to the fence and climbed over.

“What are you doing, Mrs. Shaw?”

“I’m picking chervil for my potato soup.”

“Mom doesn’t have time to grow chervil, and she says potatoes are bad for you: too much ca-ca …”

“Carbohydrates.”

“Yeah.” She crouched down to scrutinize the lacy leaves of the chervil. “Mom and Dad are going away. They said they need a holiday where they can get peace and quiet.” She peeked up at me, “Am I noisy, Mrs. Shaw?”

“No, of course not, Angelica. You’ve never been too noisy for me, and I’m old. Old people are not supposed to tolerate little children and their noise.”

“Oh. I gotta go. Bye.” And she was back over the fence and racing for the house.

I had a practically bare plant and a full plate of chervil sprigs by this time, much too many for my modest pot of soup. But I carried them in and dumped the lot into the soup. I fixed the rest of my supper and sat down to a quiet meal. Afterwards, I gathered up my knitting and settled down in front of the T.V. But the inane programs eventually bored me, so I went to bed, hoping for sleep. Instead, I found myself thinking of my happy childhood in India. I, being an only child, was the centre of my parents’ attention, and their warm, comforting love enclosed me, protecting me from the bad world out there.

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