I could hear her from the gate. “Muu-mm-my,” she screamed. “Hapana!” (No!) she squealed.
Each time she yelled my heart was shattered into a million pieces. I pressed the remote to lock the automatic gate. I parked the car as the big black gate rolled back into place, picked up my newspapers from the passenger seat, rolled up the windows, opened the door and jumped out.
As I pulled open the metal-and-glass door, I could hear the question to which she was answering, “Hapana”: A stern “Utarudia tena?”, which was murmured with sadistic seriousness, as her tormentor repeatedly extracted a promise, a pledge not to repeat whatever transgression she was being punished for.
But there was no Pavlovian logic to it. Every time she made the pledge, the presumed answer that her tormentor was looking for, the cane came crashing down, landing on her little bottom.
The irritated nerves did their job; the brain did its job; and her mouth did its job. The tear glands yielded. She cried.
The moment I stepped into the house, I heard the swoosh of the bamboo cane cutting through the air ready to inflict another dose of pain.
“Muu-mm-my,” she cried out, then looked at the door, “Daa-aa-adddy!”
Expectant relief washed over her face, but she was held in place by the large hands of her tormentor, Imelda, my domestic manager.
“What are you doing, Imelda! Stop it!” I barked. Imelda loosened her grip.
My daughter ran towards me, clutched at my legs with all her strength, the tears on her cheeks soaking my trousers as she hugged my legs.
I dropped my car keys and newspapers. I scooped her up, all her 14 kilos, hugged her as the cries dropped to a sad whimper.
“Shhhh baby. Shhh.” I said.
My heart, a mess of emotions, was swinging like an out-of-control pendulum between anger and sympathy, disgust and relief, vengeance and forgiveness.
Imelda picked up the tiny pink shoes from the floor, the hollow bamboo cane, as thick as my little finger and about three feet long, and walked away.
“I am here now, baby,” I assured my daughter.
I sat down and placed her on my lap. She was calm now and wiped her tears with the back of her tiny palms, then the front.
Then she went to her pink schoolbag, the one with a colourful picture of Barbie doll, which lay on the rack next to the television stand.
She removed a little mirror that she had cajoled her mother, my wife, into buying for her. She looked at her face and carefully wiped away the tears.
Satisfied, she smiled.
My heart melted.
“How do I look, Dad?” she asked.
“Like a princess, honey!” I said.
She came back and jumped on my lap.
“What did teacher Jenny say today?”
It was always my opening line. Always about school.
“Very good! She gave me a lollipop!” she said excitedly.
“Oh yeah? Show me,” I said.
Her mother would have asked if she had brushed her teeth upon getting home, worrying about another visit to the dentist.
I never asked about lollipops as I never made those trips to the dentist. I only waited to hear about the drama.
She quickly jumped down from my lap and rushed to her schoolbag, pulled out two little books and opened one to display her colour crayon-doodles, where the teacher had written “Good work.”
Then she opened the second one, where she had correctly copied the letters of the alphabet. “Very good!” was the teacher’s comment.
“That’s my princess. Smart girl!” I said.
I live for days like this.
Imelda came back to the sitting room, carrying the laundry basket. I noticed my daughter momentarily freeze as she watched her tormentor on her way out to collect the clothes that she had hung at the back of the house to air.
As Imelda opened the door, I heard the gate rolling up as my wife drove in from work. Our daughter jumped to her feet and ran outside to meet her mother. They hugged and the chatter began from the car, into the house, only interrupted by a short “Hi, Honey” sent my way.
I left them in the sitting room and went to look for Imelda.
“You should never do that again!” I said.
“Do what?” she asked, surprised.
“Beat up my daughter like that!”
“She was licking sugar and spilling it all over the house,” she said.
“Whose sugar? Whose house?” I fumed.
Imelda, an elderly woman with three of her own children, worked as our daily domestic manager. She went back home every evening.
Her job, my wife said when she hired her, was to mind the house, cook for Mariko the gardener, and prepare porridge for our daughter as soon as the yellow bus dropped her off after school.
I walked back into the house and found my daughter and her mother in animated conversation. The little one was narrating her ordeal. She bared the swollen bruises where each stroke of the bamboo cane had landed.
Her mother was fuming. She stormed into the kitchen, but Imelda was not there.
“Imelda!” she called out.
“Yo! Mama,” Imelda responded. She was still outside, folding clothes as she took them off the line.
My wife went outside. My ears perked up. The chatty little one was assembling her toys, oblivious of the impending explosion.
When my wife returned to the house, she was calm. There was no hint of upset, no inkling of anger, not even a clue about the satisfaction of protecting her daughter. I had no idea what had just transpired between her and Imelda.
Imelda soon followed, hauling the folded clothes to the wardrobe in the corridor. It was her last task for the day. She bid us goodbye, just as she always did — “see you tomorrow” — and left. Even the little one hugged her as she always did. The fleeting enmity seemingly forgotten.
We had dinner, laughed and watched TV. We prayed, and then I took our daughter to bed, read her a bedtime story, and joined my wife in bed. She was in deep thought. Her eyes on the white ceiling.
“You know, when I went to confront Imelda, she told me something that I had not thought about,” she began.
“What did she say?”
“She said that she has brought three children into this world. She disciplines them when they mess up. She said she loves our daughter just as she does her children,” she went on.
“She said, ‘I have been with you for three years. I taught her nearly everything she knows. I mean no harm. But you and your husband are upset. I understand that. If you want me to let her be, grow up on her own, trying out every bad thing she hears at school in this house, I cannot do that. I love her, and I want her to grow up to be like you.”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“She asked me to read the Bible, Proverbs chapter 13 verses 18 and 24,” she said.
“What do those verses say?”
“That she was right!” she sighed.
I grabbed my iPad, tapped the Bible App and read.
“Whoever disregards discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honoured... Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
I switched off the lights and stared into the darkness until I drifted off to sleep.
Imelda returned the following morning. Jovial as usual. It was just part of her job.
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