The funeral for her mother over the weekend gave Matilda a chance to see her cousin Susan again. They grew up together but had not seen each other for a few years. When they saw each other, Matilda was too distraught to speak. So Susan placed her hand on Matilda’s shoulder and they just gazed into each other’s eyes. Not a word was said. Yet, Matilda felt completely understood. It was an unconditional acceptance that Matilda that could never find outside her blood tribe. She felt like an outsider anywhere else.
Today is Matilda’s first day back at school after losing her mother. She inhales deeply as she walks towards her classroom. The room looks exactly the same as before but it feels different. Everything seems a bit vague and unreal. Maybe this is what low battery feels like after all the endless grieving.
Matilda needs to keep herself together. She needs to control the urge to burst into tears unexpectedly. Matilda has been crying uncontrollably. She can’t help it. Even when her eyes are sore and swollen, and she doesn’t want to cry anymore, tears fall out. It is as if her body is not hers.
What Matilda has learned in the last couple of years is that an all girls’ high school is not a forgiving place. She must be careful to not draw attention to herself. There is nothing worse than being a target. With hundreds of insecure hormonal teenagers breathing into each other’s space, there is no end to the meanness that some of them can inflict on each other. She has enough on her plate right now and does not need any more drama in her life.
“Hi everyone!” Matilda calls out cheerfully as she takes her seat and greets all the girls sitting around her. “It’s good to be back”, she continues as she pulls her books out of her school bag as nonchalantly as she can. She tries to send a signal to everyone that everything is normal.
“Hey, sorry about your mum.” The girl that sits next to Matilda expresses her condolence with a frown.
“Thanks. It’s okay. She is in a better place now. No more sufferings.” Matilda smiles back at the girl.
Matilda tries to focus on what the teachers are saying but inevitably; her mind drifts back to scenes of the funeral and images of her mother’s lying body. As the school day ends and Matilda packs up to leave, a voice calls out to her from behind.
“Matilda, we’re going to see a film this weekend. There is going to be a few girls from school and a few friends from church. Do you want to come along? “
“Sure Julia. I would love to join”. Matilda turns to smile at Julia.
“Great. We are meeting outside the town cinema at 1pm on Saturday.” Julia provides Matilda with the details.
“Thanks Julia. See you there.” Matilda smiles and waves Julia a goodbye as Julia leaves the classroom.
Matilda’s two older brothers Robert and Peter have grown up overnight with the loss of their mother. They have stopped bickering with each other and they are gentler with their younger sisters. They even offer to help with the cooking and cleaning. Maybe they find warmth and solace in the girls’ presence. Maybe they feel sorry for the girls because they are closer to the mother. Either way, Matilda welcomes their closeness and protection. The four siblings are now closer than they have ever been.
Their father rings the doorbell at 6:30pm sharp. George is a high-ranking officer in the military. He is militant at home as well. Cold and precise, he expects obedience and disciplines from his children. There will be no arguments, and no objections are tolerated. His wife played the critical role of buffer between him and the children. She soothed the water. Without his wife, he feels like a fish out of water with his own children.
With the help of all her siblings, Matilda sets up the dinner table and helps the maid bring out all the dishes. It is a simple fare of steamed eggs; stir fry chicken with vegetables and cooked rice. Everyone sits in silence at the dining table with their eyes downcast. The atmosphere is tense and awkward.
“Let’s start.” George announces as he reaches out to place food onto his own plate. This is new. Serving food during dinner had always been his wife’s job. This is typical of most Chinese households. The wife would regularly place pieces of food on everyone’s plate to top them up. Even though all of them are more than capable of serving themselves at the table, it was an intimate act. It was a way of showing love and inclusivity as a family unit.
Tonight is self-service. The only sound coming from the dining room is the clinking sound of cutlery against crockery and the scrapping sound of chairs sliding against the floor when they shuffle in their seats.
Half way through dinner, George clears his throat and says with authority, “This house needs a mother.” He returns to his eating without offering any more details.
“What is that supposed to mean? It has been like 3 weeks.” Matilda asks herself and darts her eyes towards her father to see if she can learn more. She sees a stony face that is not giving anything away. Nobody at the table is courageous enough to ask for more clarification from their father.
Standing in front of the kitchen sink, Matilda tries to digest what her father has said earlier. “Is he serious? Is he going to re-marry? Really, so soon? I don’t want another mother. I already have one. No. No. No“.
Robert walks up to Matilda and grabs a towel. He turns around to make sure that their father is not in, or near the kitchen and then starts to dry the dishes on the rack. “Looks like Dad is going to re-marry”, he says to Matilda.
“I hope not. I think he is just saying it like a complaint, but he doesn’t mean it.“
“I think we need to be realistic. Think about it. It would make sense for him. He has no idea what to do with us. He has never lifted a finger at home. Mum babied him. He will need to find a replacement”, Robert reasons.
“We don’t need another person. We can manage ourselves”. Matilda protests.
“Matilda, I will be going to university next year. I won’t be at home then. Hannah is only 7. She needs a mother. You are 15 yourself, hardly old enough to take on that responsibility. I think he is just being practical.”
Lying in bed, Matilda misses her mum. Despite having three other siblings, Matilda feels rather isolated. Robert and Peter, being boys, prefer each other’s company. She is not included in their activities. Hannah is just too young to have a proper conversation with. Mum was the only person that she could confide in. Conveniently, that feeling was mutual. Matilda was a girl that her mother could dote on.
When the house was quiet in the late afternoons; when the sunlight started to fade; when there was nothing that needed to be done; Matilda’s mother would place Matilda on her lap and held her with both her arms. Matilda would rest her head on her mother’s chest while her mother gently stroked her back. They stayed like that until it was time to prepare for dinner.
Saturday turns out to be a sunny day. Matilda shows up at the movie theatre. Julia is already there with a group of people.
“Hey Matilda. Let me introduce you to my friends. Here is Tom, Marcia, Frank and David. We are members of the same bible group. You know the rest of the gang from school.”
“Lovely to meet you all.” Matilda greets the group with a smile and a nod.
One person stands out from the church group. There is only one girl amongst three boys. Her name is Marcia. She has long dark hair that is tied into a ponytail. She wears a checkered dress and has long slender legs. She is probably 18 or 19, similar age to her eldest brother, Robert. She is an attractive girl. Matilda senses that boys must like that type a lot.
As Marcia talks, she swings her head around and something glitters near her neck. Matilda moves closer to get a better view. It’s a pair of long earrings. They are beautiful. Each one has a long golden stem with a sparkling stone at the end. They look good on her.
The group socialises for a while and then they go excitedly to buy all the snacks that they need before going into the cinema. Snacking in the cinema is such a fun thing to do. Matilda thinks that the snacking is often more fun than the movie.
“So what do you guys think of the movie?” Julia asks the group once they emerge from the dark cinema and settle into a couple of park benches nearby.
“It’s alright. It has a happy ending. What more can I ask for?” One girl laughs.
“I really like the car chase scene. The look on the girl’s face was priceless”, one boy offers.
“My favourite part is when he proposed to her. How romantic!” Marcia presses her hands together and looks up into sky. “That’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it? ” She turns her head to her right where Matilda happens to be sitting. “Matilda, do you agree?”
Matilda keeps quiet. She is often shy with new faces. She is happy to just listen and observe. Matilda smiles and shrugs.
“Well, it was a great escape. I enjoyed it very much. But sadly, that was just a movie. I wish real life were as sweet as that,” Marcia continues.
Her look turns pensive. Matilda does not know Marcia well enough to ask her questions but she guesses that everyone has their own cross to bear. No doubt, the group will go out again at some point in the future. She can learn more about her then.
Things start to feel more normal after two months. They have settled into a new rhythm. Getting home after school, Matilda puts her key into the front door. The front door pops open before she even turns the key. Robert stands in front of her wide-eyed.
“What’s up?” Matilda asks.
“Dad has a guest for dinner tonight.” Robert speaks hesitantly and has to swallow a few times as if his throat is really dry.
“Oh, who?” Matilda asks sensing that this is highly unusual.
“Is that Matilda?” George’s voice calls out from behind Robert.
“Yes Dad”. Robert answers and stops his interchange with Matilda. He leads Matilda into the living room. George is dressed smartly in his dinner suit. He has a cigarette in one hand and his other hand is in his pants pocket.
“Matilda, quickly get changed and help out in the kitchen. We have lots to food tonight and I have an important announcement to make.”
Matilda obediently rushes upstairs, gets out of her school uniform and then straight into the kitchen. There are piles of vegetables, a whole chicken and even seafood. This is a feast.
“Wow, what’s the occasion?” Matilda asks the maid.
“Hurry, I need your help. Can you please cut up that ginger over there?” The maid instructs Matilda without answering her question.
Through the chaotic clanging and clinking of pots and pans being tossed from one stove to the next and all the steam, Matilda tries a few more times to find out why they are cooking up a feast. It is clear that the maid is not only avoiding her questions, she is even avoiding eye contact with her.
The stoves are finally off and the noise level drops. When activities stop, the kitchen suddenly takes on a different feel. It’s quiet and unnerving. The dishes are ready to be served. Robert and Peter have come into the kitchen to help take out the dishes. Matilda takes the last dish out with her.
As she lays the dish down on the dining table, she notices an extra person for the first time. A woman, a tall woman. This must be the guest that Robert told her about. She is dressed in a long exquisite gown. It hugs her tightly revealing her alluring curves. The pink and the jade green make her skin look soft and pale. Her complexion is almost peach like. She has full make up on and she has long slender arms. Her long dark hair flows silkily down her neck and back. She looks longingly at her father George.
She looks vaguely familiar.
Once everyone is seated, George speaks.
“As you know, things have not been the same ever since your mother is gone. I need someone to support this household and me. As a result, I have decided to re-marry. Allow me to introduce you to your new mother.” George turns to the woman.
The woman smiles at George and then turns her head to face the group. As she turns her head, her hair flows back revealing a shiny object that glitters under the light. Matilda looks at the glittering object and sees a long stemmed earring. She knows where she has seen them before. Her heart jumps up to her throat. She freezes and stares in disbelief. How can this be? This is impossible.
“Marcia?” Matilda stops breathing.
Marcia looks straight at Matilda and says “Hi, children.”