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Saturday, 13 October 2012 10:48

Umbrella in the Snow

Still perfectly elegant after all these years, she never leaves home without it.

"It’ll protect you," her daddy said, "when I can’t."

"l'll treasure it forever, Daddy." 

The earnest echo of her six-year-old self curves a smile on her face, smoothing the wrinkles guarding her narrow lips. Her heart warms at the memory of his booming voice. Forty years on – with him dead in his grave the past ten – she can make his vibrant voice manifest in an instant.

"I kept my promise, Daddy," she murmurs.

The taxi driver slews a puzzled glance over his shoulder. Pretending she’d said nothing, she looks out of the taxi, surprised at the flurry of snow beating densely against the window.

"Will we get there on time?" 

"Sure," the driver confirms laconically. "As long as the storm stays away."

Relaxing, she leans back into the cracked leather seat. Snowstorms hold no fear for her, for they never touch her. The umbrella always keeps her safe.

Unknowingly her hand reaches out, seeking the strong steel handle. Colder than usual in the freezing weather, still it comforts her as she pulls it onto her lap, in much the same way her Daddy had done to her. Her palm cuddles the familiar shape.

Perfect. It's perfect. The best umbrella anyone could ever have.

"One of a kind, Princess, just like you," Daddy said, as he’d helped her open it for the first time.

She’d tossed her thick plait of black hair over her shoulder, her eyes glowing. Inside — where it counted — she was a Princess. With her beautiful umbrella in her hand, everyone at school would see it too.

But the children in the playground only sniggered at the contrast the umbrella made against her shabby clothes. "Look at Naledi," they laughed. "She’s barefoot again!" 

She regally ignored them. Despite their amusement, she knew she was more special than they were.

With a flick of her wrist, the umbrella opened and she was safe. Safe from their coarseness. Safe from their vulgar minds, which saw her only as the daughter of a lowly toilet paper salesman and not the one-of-a-kind princess she was.

Eventually, though, she convinced them. The way she spoke; the lift of her chin when displeased. She made sure every action reflected the inner majesty she saw in the mirror each day.

Soon people began to treat her with the respect she deserved. The girls stopped giggling when she walked by. The boys still kept their distance. Her beauty and her intelligence—the aura of dignity she surrounded herself with — were too good for the simple government school she attended.

Her Daddy agreed.

"I’ll be chief salesman soon," he promised. "Then you’ll go to a proper school. One that teaches only the daughters of princes and presidents."

"Like me, Daddy?"

"Like you, Princess!"

She tensed with disappointment as her mother asked, "What about the washing machine you promised to buy me with the extra money?"

"That can wait," Daddy said. "Naledi’s future is more important." 

When the girls at her new school, who were no different to the ignorant children from the townships, laughed at her badly pronounced words, she simply opened the umbrella. It hid them from view until her elocution lessons polished everything but rounded vowels and clipped consonants from her speech. Slowly they, too, come to recognise she was one of them.

She fitted right in, as she’d known she would.

Moreover, rich girls have brothers. Soon she met her prince.

"You’re extraordinarily gorgeous," he said. "One of a kind." Like Daddy, Mandla saw exactly who she was.

She married him.

The rounded vowels came more easily. Eventually she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t spoken with the biting edge of her new crystal voice.

She learnt, too, that with a trust fund behind her, it was easy to forget what being poor was like.

"High ideals are another privilege of the rich," her mother often said. "You’ve time to think, because you’re not worrying about where the next meal for your children will come from. Or," she looked at the dirty shirt in her chafed hands, "doing the washing and ironing."

"Nonsense." Sometimes her mother irritated her beyond belief. "You enjoy what you do,"

"Only because I have to." Her mother looked at her bleakly. "We’re still paying off your school fees."

Some truths one could only ignore. Silence reigned, until she asked, "What’s happening in the village?"

"Lungihoek Primary is having their reunion. Are you going?"


"They were your friends, once," her mother — or her conscience — said, "You’ll be sorry."

A twist of the umbrella blotted her out, and Naledi returned to her place at Mandla’s side.

Her life became better and better. She hardly needed the umbrella at all, until recently.

"We need to talk, Naledi. Really talk  – from our hearts."

"Later, Mandla," she said, again and again.

When he insisted, she fancied his voice leaving jagged footprints in clean, crisp snow. She poked him gently, almost affectionately, with the tip of the umbrella. "Rather tell me about your day."

With a sigh, knowing he can’t fight the strength of the umbrella, he did. The flurries inside her subside again, leaving her calm and still, hunched under the safety of the umbrella’s arc.

Sometimes she thinks the snowstorms are coming closer and closer. Like the storm gathering ominously outside the taxi. A wave of unexpected heat engulfs her, making her clutch the umbrella tighter.

"Turn down the heater," she orders. "It’ll melt the snow and make me filthy."

The click is loud in the small interior. She shivers gratefully. The cool air surrounding her makes it easier to think about The Telephone Call.

"Is that Naledi?"

The woman sounded vaguely familiar. Perhaps one of Mandla’s secretaries, for she could never tell them apart.

"Yes," she’d said, dragging the word out with flawless diction. She doesn’t enjoy being on first name terms with employees.

"Mandla wants a divorce. He says he can’t talk to you."

The sudden hiss of an approaching snowstorm drowned out the woman’s words.

"You say Mandla wants to talk to me?" Why would Mandla get some strange woman to tell her that?

"Go to the Hilton tonight. Be there at eight." The ‘phone had clacked down in her ear and, replacing her handset, a slow smile had pulled up the habitual droop of her mouth. How romantic! She sighed dreamily. After all these years, my Prince is setting up a secret tryst.

The moan of the storm stopped as suddenly as it started.

Excited in a way she hadn’t been for years, she primped, preened, and powdered herself. Looking at the result in the mirror, she’d congratulated herself on how much she’d achieved in her life.

A happy home, in the best suburb in the north. Two children, educated at the best schools, grown now, and happily climbing the ranks in their father’s business. Exciting events to fill her days with activities once out of reach for people like her: tennis on Mondays, movies with friends on Tuesdays, Wednesdays she works for Mandla from the computer in their home study. And so her weeks, and her life, went on.

At times, when the winter blues brought the snowstorms ever closer, raising goose bumps of unknown fears on her skin, she’d wondered if her life was too happy. Can life be too happy? But, safe under the haven of her umbrella, she’d stopped worrying and the whiteout always faded away.

This one, she notes, with another glance at the driving snow, is taking a while to pass by. The taxi driver, his untrimmed moustache reminding her of a dense, unexplored forest, is as unconcerned as ever.

"I’ll get you there, lady," he promises. What has he seen in her expression? "Look," he adds, pointing with two fingers, a stubby, ash-tipped cigarette between them. "There’s your hotel."

He’s pleasant, she decides, despite the shabby appearance. Perhaps he only needs some of her guidance. "Smoking’s unhealthy for you. You should give it up."

She can’t be sure, but she thinks he looks annoyed.

"We all have our weaknesses, lady." He pauses, briefly capturing her eyes in the mirror. "At least mine bring me pleasure."

Is that a warning? She frowns, and then starts as a gust of snow hammers the small taxi, dragging her thoughts away from his odd reply.

"You should try to overcome your weaknesses," she urges.

"Eish! You’re one of a kind, lady, you know?"

She smiles imperially at him, pleased, and surprised, he has the intelligence to recognise what she is. Not approving the habit of giving gratuities to people who, when serving her, are only doing their jobs, she decides to add a small tip to his fare.

"We’re here," he says, opening the door for her. Sometime during their conversation, they must have passed through the last of the storm, for there is nothing but clear, crisp snow lying all around.

With all the grace her long-ago dancing lessons instilled in her, she climbs out, nodding her thanks.

Casually tapping his forehead with two fingers, he says, "Good luck," and laughs as he disappears, his final words drifting back at her. "You’ll need it."

What an odd man, she decides, dismissing him from her mind as she searches the foyer for Mandla.

She sees him, coming out of the bar.

"Mandla," she calls, "I’m here." 

He swings his face toward her. Instead of the smile she expects to see – the familiar, slow smile he’d given her when they were first in love – his face clenches with an indescribable agony.

"Mandla!" She rushes to his side, thinking heart attack! Her own heart thumps loudly in her chest.

"What are you doing here, Naledi?"

The relief that he is well barely allows for curiosity.

"You invited me to dinner," she replies.

He shakes his head, the streaks of grey softening the black curls cupping his head more attractively than ever. "It wasn’t me," he denies, turning his head away from her.

Only then does she see the young woman standing next to him, her hand, smooth and unwrinkled, lying possessively on his arm.

"I invited her," the young woman says. A pleading note enters her voice as she looks up at Mandla. "It’s time she knew about us."

"Mandla ...?" 

"Naledi, are you all right?"

Of course, I'm all right, she wants to say. I'll be fine, just fine: as soon as I open my umbrella.  Then she can apologize for interrupting his business dinner. She’ll return home, grabbing a quick bite of leftovers from the fridge. She’ll wait for him to come and, as usual, tell her about his day.

"I ... I ... " Her hands struggle with the umbrella. "J-just let me ... "Her voice breaks on a sob as the umbrella refuses to open. "What am I going to do," she cries, "without my umbrella?"

"Naledi ... "Guilty exasperation laces his deep voice. "There is no umbrella."

She ignores him, jerking and tugging the worn catch. For the first time ever, the umbrella refuses to open.

"Mad old cow," she hears the young woman say, her voice faint in the soft sibilance of this relentless storm. "No wonder you want to divorce her."

Mandla’s reply is lost ... lost as her umbrella as she falls, deep into the banks of melting snow, drowning, drowning, in her old nightmare.

She isn’t, after all, one of kind. Like so many other souls on this earth, she is simply an ordinary woman.

An ordinary woman: alone and unloved, without even an umbrella to keep her safe.  

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Judy Croome

Judy Croome lives and writes in Johannesburg, South Africa. Shortlisted in the African Writing Flash Fiction 2011 competition, Judy’s short stories and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, both local and international, such as The Huffington Post. Her books "a stranger in a strange land" (2015);"The Weight of a Feather and other stories" (2013); “a Lamp at Midday” (2012) and “Dancing in the Shadows of Love” (2011) are currently availableJudy loves her family, cats, exploring the meaning of life, chocolate, cats, rainy days, ancient churches with their ancient graveyards, cats, meditation and solitude. Oh, and cats. Judy loves cats (who already appear to have discovered the meaning of life.)  Visit Judy at www.judycroome.com or join her on Twitter @judy_croome

Website: www.judycroome.com

1 comment

  • Comment Link Claire Robyns Saturday, 04 May 2013 11:03 posted by Claire Robyns

    Powerful writing. Emotional and thought-provoking. Ms. Croome has a beautiful ability to take us a through a lifetime in a few pages.

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