Short Story by Zahirra Dayal
It was her sister’s idea to steal them. Amira’s games were usually laced with danger and pregnant with the possibility of punishment. Zaynah and her younger sister skipped along the wide avenue under the umbrella of Jacaranda trees. Lilac petals cushioned the footfalls of their leather buckled school shoes. The girls came to a halt outside a sprawling house with crumbling paint and an overgrown garden. They shook the wobbly wire gate back and forth with all their might to get the attention of Mrs Stone’s gardener who was dozing under the shade of the Msasa tree. He opened one eye and then the other before kissing his teeth in irritation and unlocking the padlock for them.
Mrs Stone was their speech and drama tutor. Every Friday afternoon, Zaynah and her sister went to her house for elocution lessons. Mrs Stone taught small groups of children how to enunciate their syllables, stand in front of an audience with unwavering confidence, and give impromptu speeches. It was Mr Horsfield – the girls’ headmaster – who had recommended Mrs Stone’s classes to Zaynah’s parents. It wasn’t that Zaynah and her sister had any kind of speech impediment – they were both confident speakers – it was simply because they were brown. Mr Horsfield believed that all the brown and black children in his charge needed speech correction. It was his personal mission to undo all the damage done at home by their parent’s accents.
Zaynah and Amira were ushered through the back door by the uniformed maid to the small living room where they had their lessons. The room was crowded with mismatched sofas and the air was musty. Mrs Stone lived alone with the ghosts of her past. Most of her family and friends had fled to Europe after independence in 1980. Her double storey house was an eerie place, teeming with antique furniture and black and white portraits of her family, many of whom had fought in the great world wars. Everything about Mrs Stone and her house seemed to belong to a different time and place. A giant living anachronism. But it was the dolls that captured Zaynah’s imagination the most: a large collection of Victorian porcelain dolls locked in a glass cabinet. They wore wide hats and layers of petticoats under their intricately adorned gowns. With their tiny black-dot eyes, they watched pokerfaced as the children mimed, recited poems, and gave speeches under the watchful gaze of their speech teacher.
Zaynah smelt Mrs Stone long before she saw her. Her musky rose perfume filled the room as she entered. Her face was caked with baby powder and her white hair was wrapped in a tight bun that squinted her eyes. The classes always began with tongue twisters to loosen their mouths. “Now, open your mouths wide girls,” said Mrs Stone clapping her hands. “She sells seashells on the seashore.” They took turns to stand up and repeat the silly sentences. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Their giggles were cut short by Mrs Stone’s stern bejewelled finger. 30 minutes and $10 dollars later, they were promptly dismissed, and Mrs Stone disappeared into her cavernous house. Mrs Stone’s housemaid escorted them out making sure they didn’t touch anything.
That day Mrs Stone’s mulberry trees overhung on the road and the berries were too plump for Zaynah to disagree with her sister’s master plan. Some of the overripe ones had already fallen to the ground, their weight too heavy for the thin branches to bear. Purple juice stained the pavement where they lay stamped and crushed by big and little feet. The girls waited for the gardener to lock the gate and retreat. Zaynah then hoisted Amira up to grab a bunch of the mulberries. “Don’t choose the light red ones, they’ll make our stomachs hurt and give us diarrhoea,” she shouted from below. Amira turned around from where she was straining her neck to reach for the dark berries. “Give me something to put them in, I can’t carry so many.” Zaynah dug out her empty lunchbox from her bag and her sister threw the berries in before climbing down from the high fence. Plonk, plonk they fell.
The berries were deceptive, you never knew which one you would get; sometimes a sour one that would screw up your whole face and another time it would be a burst of sweetness in your mouth. The sisters feasted until there were none left and then ran the rest of the way home with Mrs Stone’s gardener in hot pursuit of them. Their stomachs hurt from all the laughing.
Mum was furious when they got back; she had to soak their white shirts in bleach to get the stubborn stains out before school the next day. “How many times have I told you not to eat those mulberries. Did you even wash them?” asked their mother. “We didn’t eat any mulberries,” said Amira, her tongue and fingers stained bright purple. Zaynah put a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter, but the joy spilled through the tiny gaps in her fingers impossible to suppress.