Katrina Patricia Mansfield paused from swinging to contemplate activities in the property below. She looked at her arms and noted how light the colour was compared to kids playing next door. They were tanned brown. Had they been out in the sun too long? Mom had always told her to be careful to put on sunscreen lotion before going outside to play. She’d forgotten to do that one time and her skin had turned brown then skin peeled off her arms and her Mom had been upset and warned her not to forget again. It was too much to understand for this six-year-old.
She alighted from the swing and went downhill to their fence line to see more clearly peering through the slats. Children on the other side playing a game noticed her as a shadow that blocked sunrays coming through from that portion of the fence. They moved closer to the fence and stood silently watching an eye peering through the narrow space between palings. In their experience nothing was to be trusted and one should be ever alert. They conversed in a language Katrina could not understand then moved closer. One poked a stick through the slat bravely. They’d heard a dog barking on the other side of the fence at times and were testing to see if it would bark.
Katrina sprang back from the fence and surveyed the small stick that had been poked into her jeans. “Why you did that?” She shouted in alarm.
There was an immediate response from the other side as the voice sparked their interest. It was loudly discussed in their language. Finally, one of them determining from the voice it was human and small plucked up courage and moved to the fence to peer through. He relaxed and reported to the group it was the girl next door they’d seen occasionally on her swing. He shouted through the palings. “What you?”
“I Katy, you sun too long. Tell Mom put sunscreen now.”
The boy was puzzled and looked at his siblings trying to figure out what she was talking about. There was a loud conversation in their language trying to make sense of her words. They were still learning English and had limited means of communication in that language. Their Mother had gone to an English school back in their own country and later taught the language, but it was never used in their home as their father didn’t understand more than rudimentary English words.
Mom had been their go between when they were registered for classes in this country as refugees and often had to communicate for her husband when there was a problem understanding instructions in his construction work. She’d had to plead on his behalf when employers had almost given up on him over communicating instructions. The work was basic, and he was often in depression as he’d had an important administrative job in his own country before they were forced to flee for their lives. He felt humiliated not being able to use skills he’d been trained for. It was the price he had to pay for his family’s life, but it was depressing and there was little laughter in the home.
Mildred Mansfield looked out the window to check on her daughter. She made a habit of doing this frequently as media news had a constant feed indicating it was wise to keep children under close supervision even on personal property. So different to the era when Mildred had been a child and had wandered around with friends without supervision knowing it was perfectly safe to do so. World mentality had changed and not for the better
Katrina who the family called Katy as an endearing term was not to be seen. Mildred’s Mom sixth sense kicked into gear and she rushed to the basement and out onto the back yard where Katy’s play equipment was located. On the way Mildred did a mental inventory of property safety. She knew the front electric gate entrance control was out of reach of the child and fences surrounding their property were high enough to prevent her climbing out. She was a climber. Mildred scanned the pool entrance and noted the gate was securely locked. Then she spied Katy down at the lower fence.
“Katy, what are you doing down there?”
“Telling kids tell Mom put sunscreen.”
Mildred’s face reddened with embarrassment and she hastened to the fence to retrieve her daughter. Eyes glued to the gaps in the paling fence saw her coming and retreated to the safety of their back porch.
Their Mother Maria sitting on the back porch refreshing her English from an old textbook she used to teach from looked in surprise as her children gathered around for safety. There was an explosion of conversation in their language and Maria sighed. She stood and stretched then moved rapidly to the fence. Bending to peer through the slats she noticed Mildred Mansfield talking with her daughter. She’d met her before at their local supermarket where Mildred had helped as she struggled with unfamiliar products. Mildred had been kind to her, and she didn’t want to complicate their life further by having a bad relationship with a neighbour.
She spoke through the paling fence gaps. “Mrs Mansfield I apologize if my children have been causing trouble for your daughter. They’re still getting used to this place after we’ve been in detention as refugees for so long.”
Mildred was startled to hear a voice from the other side. “Oh, Maria it’s Katy who should apologize for what she said. She doesn’t understand and I’ll see she understands things better. I’ve been meaning to pay you a visit to see you’re settling in properly and if you need any help. If you have time now I’d like to pay you a brief visit.”
Maria smiled in appreciation. She’d not experienced much compassion in the detention centre or when released into the community on a temporary protection visa with permission to work while their case was finalized. “I’d like that Mrs Mansfield, thank you!”
A half hour later Mildred with Katy by her side was knocking on their neighbour’s door. Maria opened the door and Mildred blinked in surprise. There was practically no furniture in the house, but Maria had placed two chairs in the living room. It looked to Mildred as if this family needed serious help. She compared all the luxurious furnishings she had to decorate a home in which Mildred took pride. Her husband made enough money to have whatever they wanted including vacations abroad and that left Mildred with the freedom to enjoy life to the fullest in their various clubs and charity work.
Maria understood how her poverty would have contrasted with their neighbour’s prosperity. They could barely afford to rent this place and pay for necessary school supplies, but they had their pride and would slowly buy things as they could afford them. She’d been out job hunting, but few were willing to place their trust in refugees who they believed may be here today and gone tomorrow. It hurt her to see the amazement in Mildred’s eyes knowing they’d been so prosperous back in her own country no longer safe for them to live in. She’d watched her eldest son attempt to escape when soldiers came to their house to force him into their rebel army. There’d been the rattle of an automatic weapon and he’d gone down. He’d been dead when Maria finally reached his side her children scattered in all directions at her command. Even her husband had been in hiding for days as his position in administration was no protection in the rebellion. One night he appeared and gathered the family crossing a nearby border only to be interned there. With hidden jewels he bribed those who smuggled refugees and made it to relative safety in this country. But what if immigration after this long period studying his case sent them back to certain death? Maria and her husband were in constant horror of that possibility.
Mildred saw tears form in Maria’s eyes and human compassion had her out of the chair and hugging the woman. Maria wept it had been so long since a touch of concern had been felt from anybody outside here own family. Maria had no idea if her parents or siblings had escaped the wroth of the rebels, or whether her in-laws were still alive. There was no way to contact them. They were alone in a place that was now safe but antagonistic toward them looking on them as a financial burden on this host society.
All of this came out in a flood as Mildred held her while Maria’s children stood gaping at the door. Mildred cried with her. She didn’t know why she cried but the desperation of the woman cut into the depths of her being. Mildred tried to understand the events described but they were so different to anything she was familiar with in this land of freedom. It made her concerns about safety for her own child pale into insignificance.
When Maria had calmed in the warm embrace she suddenly sobered up. She’d embarrassed her guest and began apologizing profusely. Mildred too got herself under control and whispered.
“What can I do for you Maria?”
“Can you help me get a job? Can you influence people to let us stay in this country? I don’t want my family to die if they send us back. I don’t want anything else we will work and improve our own lot if given a chance.”
The emotion of that meeting drove Mildred to the supermarket where she loaded up on essentials. Katy watched the events with interests, even more intrigued when Mildred pulled into the neighbour’s driveway again and deposited these things at the door. Maria had heard a car coming up her driveway and protested vigorously when she came to the front door and saw Mildred unloading all those provisions. It was humiliating to have her poverty bought into sharp focus this way. But she was too overcome with emotion to protest more and clung to Mildred in gratitude.
Mildred sped home with a warm feeling. It was good to help people who needed help. She’d worked in soup kitchens, but this situation had an added hint of hopelessness and she shuddered as she considered what it would be like if their prosperous family were suddenly reduced to poverty. Now it was time to explain a few things to Katy. She explained that people were born with different skin colours but under their skin they were the same.
Katy screwed up her eyes trying to comprehend this amazing discovery. “They talk funny Mom!”
Mildred laughed. “Katy don’t you remember when we went overseas for a holiday you didn’t understand a lot of people there. And here’s something even funnier. Even though they were the same colour skin as you they think our talk sounds funny.”
Katy laughed and clapped hands, then ran to her room to play with dolls.
Mildred spent the rest of the afternoon quickly finishing her housekeeping and headed for the kitchen to prepare an evening meal. Her husband Eric was always hungry when he returned home in the evening.
To be continued.
© Copyright 2019 Ian Grice, “ianscyberspace.” All rights reserved
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