Thursday, 20 August 2020

The Building near St. Anthony’s

by Padmini Krishnan 
chamomile tea 

I hugged Sam, but he pushed me away. Tears sprang from my eyes. He looked at me for a moment, then he slapped me.

“No! No!” he shouted.

Mary, our helper, pulled Sam away. Mary was more of Sam’s caretaker than our housemaid. Having a great deal of experience in working with special children, she understood Sam more than I did.

Sam was around 3 when we feared autism. He neither made eye contact nor smiled and was frequently violent when things were not to his liking. My fears came true. My husband, a practical man, took it well. However, I could never come to terms with his condition. I had begun dreaming about my child when I was diagnosed as pregnant. I had visualized him achieving his growth targets, befriending other kids, and attending the best of schools. I had even considered possible careers for my kid. My dreams shattered so was a big blow to me.

“We have an appointment with the Principal of St. Anthony’s, remember?” My husband, Pat, broke into my thoughts.

In the car, Sam clung to Mary. Occasionally, he leaped to Pat, but never to me. How would he come to me when my face probably depicted my disappointment and unhappiness? Try as I might, I could not be a good mother. I frequently found myself tearing up and could not accept Sam for what he was. I guess he was sensitive to my thoughts, therefore, he feared and despised me.

St. Anthony’s School was located in the eastern part of Singapore, near Changi prison. The principal seemed to be an understanding woman though she frequently emphasized that late payment of fees would mean immediate dismissal from school. We set out to inspect the premises. The classrooms had furniture with toned-down colors. The playground was big.

“Play,” said Sam. He never spoke in sentences.

The principal looked at me and pointed to the right, “Take him, ma’am.”

I blinked. Mary had stayed in the car. Would Sam come with me? “I will go and get Mary,” I said, rising. The principal looked at me, impatiently.

“You take him, Maisie,” whispered Pat.

I took Sam’s hand and led him to the play area. He ran around the sliding bar and jumped near the merry-go-round. I tried to get him seated, but he screamed and pulled away. He began to run wildly. I followed him in panic, as we crossed the school library and the washroom. I called to him, but it only seemed to increase his pace. We passed by barren land and an old building. He ran through the open gate into another big play area. It seemed very old and dirty. Did it belong to another school? He jumped up and balanced on the high swing. I moved closer to him, panting.

“Mom! Move aside. The swing may hit you.” I dropped my purse at the full sentence, my mouth wide open.

He dug his legs deeper into the sand. “Mom! See, I can swing myself.”

I stood there, open-mouthed. Was this a miracle? Or was it something scary?

Sam swung on the monkey bars. He looked into my face with focus and beckoned me closer.

“I have some exciting news for you, Mommy.” His voice sounded different now. “Mrs. Leong has selected me to perform at the annual concert.”

I looked at him in ecstasy, rooted to the spot, finding my dreams in this surreal environment. I connected with my son for the first time in 5 years.

“I will be so bored in the evening, Mommy. Can we visit Ashley’s house today?”

“Yes…”

“Thanks, Mommy.” He hugged me before moving to the joys of the sliding board.

“Mrs. Lee has pasted my drawing in the classroom walls.” He chatted away, his voice changing again. “She thinks I should join an art class. May I, please?”

“Of course, Sam.” 

He looked at me, strangely. “I am Jimmy.”

I felt proud, dazed, and tired at his constant barrage of words. Was this how mothers of the ‘normal’ kids felt? Another part of me had a vague idea about what was going on. Under other circumstances, I would have run for life. But, now, I did not want to move from my place. God had denied me, but the ‘ghosts’ have given me this happiness, if only for a few moments. He squatted on the sand, poured some water, and scooped the mud to build a sandcastle. I dialed my husband’s number, not wanting him to miss anything. However, I did not get the signal.

“Everyone is speaking about the Japanese, mom. Will they attack our country?”

“Japan?” I was confused. “Why would they?”

He gave me a look. “The war, of course.”

All of a sudden, his voice changed. “I am so hungry”. Tears soaked my eyelids. I had longed for him to say these words. “What is for dinner tonight?”

I felt too overwhelmed to speak, “Why are you crying? Are you hungry too? Let us go home, mom.”

He took my hand in his muddy hands and led me outside the play area. The gate was locked.

A middle-aged man in security uniform ran towards us. “How did you get inside?”

“It was open when we came in.”

An odd look entered his eyes and he shook his head before opening the gate for us. I walked away, holding Sam’s hand before the security guy could start his tales of this deserted building.

Pat hurried to us when we returned to St. Anthony’s School. “Where have you been? We have been searching all over the place for two hours.”

Two hours! I felt as if I had lived my whole life in those two hours.

“Sam ran to the play area in the adjoining building,” I said.

“You mean the deserted school building” The principal spoke up. “It has been closed for more than 75 years, ever since the Japanese bombed it.”

My husband was talking softly to Sam.

“Sam, did you enjoy it in the playground?”

“Hmmm...” replied Sam, his unfocused eyes moving around.

Sam came to me and held my skirt, “Hungry. Sandwich.”

I bent down and kissed him.

“You can eat when we get back to the car.”

Pat looked from me to Sam in amazement. Then he smiled. I had almost forgotten how he dimpled when he smiled.

In the car, I took the plum cake from a surprised looking Mary and fed it to Sam.

Pat took off his glasses. “I hope this school works out, Maisie.”

He looked worried. I put my hand over his hand, reassuringly. I felt sorry that he had missed what I had seen. Perhaps, he was not meant to see it. He was selfless, giving, and practical – he probably did not need it. I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror. My eyes had lost their worried look and were clear now. It was not about me; it was all about Sam, I realized at last. It was time to stop being depressed, get back to reality, and devote my energies to Sam.

“Everything will be fine,” I said to Pat. He turned to me and smiled.

 

About the author 

Padmini Krishnan writes free verse poetry and short stories. Her works have appeared in The Drabble, Terror House Magazine, Plum Tree Tavern, and Writing in a Woman's Voice among others. Her e-chapbook was recently published in Proletaria. 

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