Margaret glances at him as he adjusts his glasses holding a list. She shakes her head and sighs. How dreadful such times are. Her heart sinks at the knowledge of what it all means. She should have gotten used to this but every time it happens, she gets heartbroken. Being in her final year, time is precious. To avoid tears that threaten to embarrass her, she opens her locker and starts packing. It’s pointless to wait anyway. Her deskmate, Carol, looks the other way; she can’t stand it. The pain her friend goes through is tangible and she hates herself for her inability to help.

” Tell your parents and guardians not to send you back here without having cleared everything! Yes, every coin must be paid.”

And his statement is final. Everyone knows better than to mess around with  Mr. Caleb, for that is his official name though to most of the students, he goes by The Iron. His strict principles and unconventional, ruthless measures on offenders earned him the nickname. Outside the school vicinity, he is known as TM.

” I’m the principal and I know what is best for this school.”

Other stakeholders complain about him, but that’s just that.

With all the books and items she needs in her worn-out school bag, leaving her locker nearly empty, she is set to go. Since she joined the school, her name has always been on the principal’s fee balance list. She bids Carol goodbye and joins a swarm of many others who march towards the large school gate. Inscribed on the gate are the words: The Roots Of Education Are Bitter But The Fruits Are Sweet. Margaret pauses as her eyes bulge out staring blankly as if seeing the School Motto for the first time. Blinking several times, she rubs her eyes. Who came up with this motto anyway?She has indeed tasted the bitter roots but as for the fruits, well,she may never get to taste those given her unending woes.

 Her schoolmates walk cozily in small groups and speak animatedly. Every step they take speaks volumes: they will get home fast, eat whatever it is they could find then with a not-so-serious tone say, “Pay up or I’ll be here until you do, that’s what he said.” Of course, most would be accompanied back to school the same day.

Not so for Margaret, her feet defy proper movement and therefore she results into dragging them, leaving her without company. She shrugs, solitude helps her think.

“ Why Mom, why did he have to leave us? What did we ever do to make him abandon us?”

“ No need to dwell on the past, child. God will take care of us.”

“ But look at you mother, so weak: no proper shelter and cancer taking such a toll on you. We can barely get enough food let alone pay for my school lunch and…”

” My child, complaints will get us nowhere. At least we have a roof over our heads. Things will change one day.”

Margaret wonders where her mother gets this kind of inwardness. She means the world to her. This great woman had literally poured out her life so she could live hers- well, until recently, when the sickness hit. Change? She needed more faith to believe that.

” Ouch!”

Buried in her thoughts, she doesn’t see a sharp stone that sends her sprawling to the ground. Ignoring her pain, she struggles to get up, straightens her navy blue skirt, though not necessary, and treads on limping a little. Seeing her at that early hour, her mother would be devastated but as usual, would conceal it, so she heads for Maria’s café to hang out till late afternoon. Would she take pity on her like she always did and offer her some tea for a God bless you?

” You can be anything you dream of; it doesn’t  matter what your story is.”

Really? This must be a cliché that teachers think they should regularly use to hype students up. She spits on the ground and curses.

A few heads turn as she passes, their lips move animatedly. Others shake their heads in silence. Poor thing, they must wonder.

Maria offers her a half-cup gruel instead, probably suggesting that this would not continue for long. With the economic crisis worsening by the day, even the kind-hearted take precaution.

” Things are pretty bad, my child. You know it, don’t you?”

Holding the mug like a guarded treasure, sipping the content little by little, she looks up and nods appreciatively.

” Yes Mama, thank you very much.”

” What’s the balance?”

” A lot.”

” ‘Every coin must be paid’, huh, I’m sure that’s what TM, I mean the principal, warned.” TM was short for Total Man.

She bursts into an unpleasant, sarcastic laugh. Other customers ignore her. Maria’s café for the longest time was a meeting place. The village converged here to share silly talks, gossip, news, rumors, and for some guys, to watch soccer.

Through the crevice of their tiny wooden gate, she peeps. She sees her mother seated outside their hut on a tiny, wooden stool gazing at the sky. With her neck craned, she looks thinner and paler. Close by, her wrinkles, representing the darkness hovering over them, are in an undesirable winding. Margaret swallows a huge lump that threatens to choke her. Her mother’s unspoken anguish, sadly, deepens her own beyond description.

In the evening as they sit in their tiny kitchen having their usual meal, Ugali, and kales, Margaret imagines her mother’s disappointment when she finds out the following morning that she cannot go to school.

As the fire dies off gradually, items in the house assume grotesque apparitions. The lamp is only lit when necessary, like when serving food, otherwise light from the firewood flame does the magic for a while. It is at such times that she sees him or at least imagines she does; tall, bushy hair, and with always sagging trousers. He had lost his belt and never bothered to get another one.

He had packed lightly like he always did when he traveled for a day or two. Masa, Margaret’s mother accused him of running, running when they argued, when the new school term began, when there was no food, and so on. However, there were good days when he bought her cheap but pretty dresses, bought them some meat and wheat flour for making chapatis, good days indeed. If they only lasted forever.

‘ Maggie, are you alright? What’s with all this silence, go rest now. I don’t want you getting to school late tomorrow.

She is startled. It’s been five years since he left, five. Sadly, she shakes her head facing her mother who can barely see her.

” Yes, Mother.”

 Her voice is nothing more than a whisper. Her mother deserves some good night’s sleep at least for one night.

The preacher on the radio ends his evening sermon: Hope, my dear friends, hope is what keeps us going, if you lose it you ‘die.’



By Phyllis Kennedy

Phyllis Kennedy creates Inspirational stories and poems that impact lives. She also has a great passion in teaching English and Literature. She can be reached on for personal coaching and professional engagements.

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