My mobile rings. In the board room, its tinny ringtone sounds loud as a steam-whistle. I look at the number. Not again! I excuse myself and take the call outside the room.
“Mrs. Downey, Rahul’s class teacher would like to meet you after school today,” the assistant from my son’s school says. “Will you be able to make it?”
“I’ll come over.” I am relieved; on two previous occasions I had rushed to the school because of medical emergencies.
When I return to the meeting, the screen is full of Microsoft icons swimming in a sea of green. The problem with the projector must have been sorted out. Probably by Terri-Ann, my manager. It makes me look incompetent somehow. I start the presentation. Unbidden, thoughts churn in my head: What had Rahul done this time? Had he gotten into a fight? Was it something to do with his homework? His nose-diving grades, perhaps?
In the afternoon, I leave early. “Family comes first, Sid,” Terri-Ann says. “Work can wait.” She too is a single parent, but she doesn’t appear besieged with problems as I am. It’s easier for a woman, I guess.
On the way to my son’s school a blue Beamer cuts me off. Pounding on the horn, I try to give chase. I miss my intersection and have to go around the block. I am ten minutes late. But finding Rahul’s classroom is no hassle; I’m a frequent visitor there.
Mrs. Downey and Rahul are seated at a low round table. Mrs. Downey’s going through a pile of books. She is tall and heavily built. Around her, the Grade 3 furniture looks like things from a doll’s house. Rahul’s doing a jigsaw with an unconcerned air. When he sees me, he drops the piece he is holding and leans back – erect, alert.
Mrs. Downey rises and comes around the table to shake hands with me. As I negotiate my butt onto a tiny chair, Mrs. Downey says, “Mr Kumar, I don’t enjoy calling parents over to listen to my complaints about their children. I know how busy you are, but Rahul....he has misbehaved again.”
I sigh at the emphasis on the last word. Mrs. Downey has always had it in for Rahul from the time he corrected her when she had identified an African elephant as Indian. She has never forgiven him.
“Look, what he’s done...” she says and hands me something I take for a toy.
But the thingummy is a small 4’’X 4” erasable white board with handle. One of those cheap fancy things children bring to school and which then gets left behind. A coiled plastic attaches a dry-erase marker to the board. In the centre of the writing area are two words in red: fuck you. The first ‘u’ looks like an ‘a’, but there is no mistaking – Rahul’s handwriting. The two words glow as if they’re written with LEDs.
“I notice a spelling mistake,” I say. “Is that what’s bothering you?”
“Mr Kumar!” says Mrs. Downey. “Using the F-word in school is a very serious matter. And writing it...it’s, it’s inexcusable.”
“Rahul, did you do this?” I ask. My son opens his mouth, but no words come out. I raise my voice: “Did you do this?”
“It was....it was Daniel who did it. I...I only.......”
“Did you hear that?” says Mrs. Downey, pouncing in. “He’s always blaming others. He never takes responsibility for his actions.”
“Rahul, you’re going to be in real trouble, if you don’t apologise to Mrs. Downey.”
“Mr Kumar, this isn’t about apologising. I’ve been observing Rahul, his behaviour is going from bad to worse...”
“Mrs. Downey, you’ve told me that before. Given the circumstances, I’m doing all I can.”
“I think Rahul needs some expert help.”
“Do you mean counselling?” I ask. I’ve no faith in such things. Hogwash, if you ask me. But I say, “I’ll look into it.” Jotting down the 1-800 number Mrs. Downey gives me, we take leave.
There was a time when I didn’t even know how to make a cup of coffee. But now, I’ve learnt to cook, even downloading Indian recipes from the internet. I drop off and pick up Rahul to and from school every day, I see to his homework, do the laundry, vacuum the house....
When I stop at an intersection, I burst out: “Next time you get into this kind of trouble at school, I’ll beat you into...” I look over my shoulder at Rahul. He always sits in the back, leaving the front passenger seat unoccupied, as if for his mother to return to.
Rahul has fallen asleep.
His mother is never going to return. A little over year ago, Reena was involved in a single car collision. That very morning we had had one of our nasty rows. She had been laid off a month ago, and both of us were feeling the stress.
The drive to the hospital where Reena was admitted seemed so long, as if we were journeying to land’s end. Wreathed in mist, the hospital was dark and unwelcoming. But inside, it was awash with bright, hurting light. Reena was dead when we arrived.
We performed Reena’s last rites at a Hindu funeral home. Except for the hymns which sounded like Bollywood tunes, it might have been a Christian service. Weighed down by grief and guilt, I did like an automaton what the priest bid me to. The thing I remember most is the sight of masses and masses of blood-red roses.
Reena’s parents came from India for the funeral. They stayed with us for two weeks, confining themselves indoors as though the RCMP had put them under house arrest. When the day of their departure neared, my father-in-law said to me: “Would you like to send Rahul to India with us? Just for a few months, you know. It will give you time to settle down.”
I had been wondering about Rahul’s future. As an unwilling and new single parent I felt let down, and even angry with life. Taking care of Rahul alone was a daunting prospect, and no amount of piety and tears would bring Reena back. The moving finger wrote and moved on.
“It’s not easy for a man,” my mother-in-law chipped in, “to bring up a child all by himself.”
Rahul ran over and squeezed himself into the space on the sofa next to me. “I don’t want to go to India,” he said, “I want to stay with Daddy.”
Every time Mrs. Downey points out Rahul’s shortcomings to me, I feel personally chastened. I’m under pressure to do something about it.
“No TV time for one week,” I tell Rahul.
Though there’s no change in Rahul’s expression, I can sense he’s relieved. Even overjoyed, perhaps – he must have been expecting to be leathered.
“No TV time for two weeks,” I amend. “You’ve behaved very badly.”
Rahul says something that sounds like “Uh”. It occurs to me then how little Rahul and I have been having by way of conversation. Rahul, put on your socks, it’s getting late! “Uh.” Hurry up, finish your dinner! “Uh-uh.” Turndown the TV, can’t you see I’m working? “Uh.”
I call the number Mrs. Downey gave me. A recorded message, spoken like an airline attendant, asks me to leave a message. But when the social worker from child and family services calls back, we are not at home. I try again, with ditto result. Anyways, I think counselling is all hogwash, a waste of good money.
This not my first brush with the topic of counselling. When Reena and I got married, we were the toast of our in-laws’ family. They made much of us and invited us to every party and festival. They were of great help too when we set up our home. But for them we couldn’t have afforded the appliances like a washing machine and a dish washer. The first year of our marriage was unalloyed bliss.
But once Reena’s younger sister Asha got married, suddenly there were more claimants on my in-laws’ attention. Asha gave birth to two children in as many years and our parents-in-laws’ interest in us began to wane. Reena and I had only a series of miscarriages to show by way of our marital performance.
Ugly quarrels were flaring up between Reena and me, set off by the most inconsequential of remarks. The strain told on my working life and I found myself not making any headway in my career either.
One day my father-in-law took me aside; he always behaved as if he had proprietorial rights over me.
“Siddhu, I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time,” he said. “Have you and Reena ever considered going in for counselling?”
“I think it’s a lot of bull,” I said.
“If you ask me....”
“I’m not,” I said. My father-in-law never raised the matter again.
I was fed up with life in India. All around me, friends and relatives were leaving for places like the US, Australia and New Zealand. I got in touch with a consultant. He helped me apply for immigration to Canada.
“Do you think things will improve if we go to Canada?” Reena asked.
“I think a change of scene would do us good.”
A year later Rahul was born. Birth of a son brings a certain cachet, and we recovered some of our social standing. I took it as a good omen. Soon enough we received the landing papers from the Canadian High Commission.
We are already into December - a month of snows, squalls and staff parties. It’s more than a month since I met Mrs. Downey, and I’ve not been able to make contact with the counsellor.
At work, the date for my performance appraisal comes up. Terri-Ann feels that I am not giving hundred percent to my job. She says, “You need to be more focussed on results, Sid.”
In a fit of pique, I send out my resumé to hiring agencies which specialise in the financial services industry. A few interviews are set up. Though business is slow, they are openings in places like Okanagan in British Columbia and Regina in Saskatchewan.
One busy afternoon, just before the yearly closing date, my phone rings. Absently I pick up the receiver instead of allowing it to ring itself into the voicemail.
“Hi, I’m Rosalita speaking. We’ve been playing phone tag for a month now. I’m so glad I could get you. Is it OK if we spoke now?”
“What’s this about?”
“You wanted counselling for your son.”
“Oh! Yes, of course.”
“When you would like to come in?”
“Let me look at my calendar...I’m sorry, I’m very busy this week. Can I call you sometime next week?”
“As you wish.” She sounds disappointed. “We’re always here to help you.”
In the week before Christmas, I receive a call from the head of the hiring agency.
“Sid? I’m Bob here. Congratulations! They’ve selected you for their Calgary office.”
“I know it’s a far cry from Toronto, but a change of scene would be good for you.”
“I think so too, Bob.”
“They’d like you to come on board ASAP. Think it over and tell me when.”
“I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.”
That evening, Rahul brings home two envelopes. It’s the last day before school closes for the holidays. One of the envelopes contains a report card. For the first time since Reena’s death, Rahul gets an A in one of the subjects, though it’s only in Visual Arts. I must remember to give him a hug. Unlike the last time when I had said, “Rahul, I only see a swarm of B’s!”
The second envelope contains a class photo. Twenty five beaming children stand in battle formation rows on either side of Mrs. Downey who looks an Amazonian general about to say, “Charge!” The children’s names are provided at the bottom, left to right, row by row: John Fast, Zainab Hussain, Anne Wong, Manuelo Sanchez, Sanat Wickramasinghe, Ankur Patel, Weixing Zang, Ashfack Youssef.
I stop short. I read the name again. Two words, with a ‘u’ that looked like an ‘a’.
“Rahul, where are you?”
Rahul sidles into the living room. He has that what-have-I-done look on his face.
“Can you tell me how you came to have those two words on the white board? I think it has something to do with name Ashfack Youssef.”
“Daniel and I wrote down the names of...of all the noobs in the class...”
“What’s a noob?”
“A noob is a, is a...”
“Don’t worry. Go on.”
“When I wrote Ashfack’s name, Daniel, he, he ...”
“What did he do?”
“He wiped out all the other names and most of Ashfack’s name. Daniel thought it was a big joke.”
In spite of myself, I laugh. It is so egregiously silly, yet...
“But Mrs. Downey didn’t think it was funny,” says Rahul.
“You ought to have explained to her.”
“She didn’t give me a chance.”
Neither had I, for that matter. “Come here,” I say. I put my hand around his shoulders, and draw him to close. “I’m sorry.”
The next morning, forgetting all about Bob and Calgary, I call Rosalita and make an appointment. Not for Rahul, but for myself.
Pratap Reddy was born in India and he moved to Canada in 2002. A poet and a spoken word artist, he writes short fiction about the agonies and the angst (on occasion, the ecstasies) of immigrants from India. His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. He received the ‘Best Emerging Literary Artist’ award from Mississauga Art Council in 2008.
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