Sapphire would work at the bakery every morning. ” You must be there by five in the morning. ” She would spend two afternoons a week working at the town doctor’s place, Dr Afang. The doctor thought his wife would welcome some freedom from tending to their little boy. You”ll work nights as long as she needs you. ” He leaned back in his chair. “And you’ll work at Relish two days a week. ” He watched her face closely. ” Don’t think you’re going to eat with your little friend anymore. You’re there to work. Do you understand?

“Yes, Papa. ” Sapphire graspeed her hands in front if her, trying not to show how happy she is.

“And don’t ask for anything. Not from any of them. Henry Coker will pay me himself. Others will also settle me too.

Her face was raised in fury ” Am I to receive nothing? Papa? nothing at all?

“You receive a roof over your head and food on your plate. You receive clothes for your body. As long as you live in my house, whatever you make rightfully belongs to me because I feed you. He turned his face away. “Grace! ” he shouted at Mama.”Are you done with the dress Mrs Arabo asked for?

“I’m working on it now, Jonathan. ”

Angrily, Papa shouted again. “She expects delivery by the end of the week! If you don’t have it done by then, she’ll take her clothes elsewhere! Papa jerked his head. “Go and help your mother. ”

Sapphire joined Mama by the sewing machine. She had a box of colored threads on the table at her side and white wool spread across her lap. She coughed violently into a small cloth, folded and tucked it in her apron pocket before taking up her sewing again. Anyone could see the dark circles under her eyes that Mama wasn’t well again. Mama had weak lungs. Tonight, her lips had a faint bluish tint. “Help your sister, Sapphire. She’s burning up again.

Jane had spent all evening on her bed. Sapphire had helped her until papa returned. If there was something Jane could do well, it was heming. Sapphire had to do the fine embroidery work. Jane struggled as much as Kelvin in school, though not for the same reasons. At eleven, Jane could barely read and write. However, what she lacked in dexterity and intellect was overlooked because of her rare and fragile beauty. Mama’s greatest pleasure took place every morning when she brushed her black hair. She had flawless skin and wide, angelic brown eyes. Papa asked nothing of her, taking pride in her beauty, acting sometimes as though he owned a priceless piece of art.

Sapphire worried about her sister. Papa might be right about suitors, but he didn’t understand Jane’s deep-seated fears. She had an almost a desperate dependence upon Mama and became very scared when papa went into one of his rages, though never in Jane’s life had a hand been laid on her in anger. Papa would have an eye for a settled man with money and position for Jane.

Sapphire prayed nightly that God would bless her sister with a good husband who would cherish and protect her and be rich enough to hire others to cook, clean and raise the children. Jane would never be able to carry out such responsibilities.

Sapphire lifted a stool and set it beside her mother’s chair. “Mrs Arabor always wants things done yesterday. ”

“She’s a good customer. ” Mama laid a section of skirt carefully over Sapphire’s lap so they could work on it together.

Good is not a word I would use, Mama. The woman is a villain. ”

“Its not wrong to know what you want. ”

“If you’re willing to pay for it. ” Sapphire fumed. Yes, Papa would ask Mrs Arabor to pay for the additional work, but she would refuse. If papa pressed, she would become infuriated and threaten to take her cloth “to someone more appreciative of her generosity “. She would remind papa that she ordered ten dresses a year, and he should be thankful for her business in these hard times. Papa would apologize profusely, then add what he could to the amount she owed for the suits mama made for her husband. And papa often had to wait six months for even partial payment. No wonder the Arabors were rich. They clung to their money like a shell to a snail. “If I were papa, I’d demand half of the money before beginning the work, and full payment before any cloth left the shop.

Mama laughed softly. “So much fire from a thirteen-year-old girl. ”

Sapphire wondered how Mama would ever finish the skirt on time. She threaded a needle and set to work on flower petals. “Papa has gotten me a job, Mama.

Mama sighed. “I know, darling. ” she quickly drew the cloth from her apron pocket to cover her mouth. When the spasm passed, she fought for breath as she pushed the cloth back into its hiding place.

“Your cough is getting worse. ”

“I know. It comes from the years I worked in the cigar factory. It’ll get better, darling.

“It never goes away completely, Mama. You should see the doctor. ” Perhaps when Martha worked for the town doctor, she might speak with him about what could be done to help Mama.

“Let’s not worry about that now. Mrs Arabor must have her dress! ”

Sapphire quickly became used to her work schedule. She got up while it was still dark, dressed quickly, and went up the stress to the bakery. Whenever Mrs hope let’s her in the front door, the room smelled of fresh baking bread. Sapphire went into the kitchen and chopped nuts and the owner stirred batter.

“We’re making ginger bread today. ” Mrs hope announced as she sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and cinnamon then poured the mix into a bowl to mix well . Added the butter and mixed until the mix looks like breadcrumbs. Stirred it in the sugar.

Sapphire, lightly beat the egg and golden syrup together, add it to mix in the bowl and pulse until the mixture clumps together. Tip the dough out, knead briefly until smooth, wrap in clingfim and leave to chill for 15 minutes.

Sapphire worked quickly, aware that Mrs hope watched her. Mrs hope preheated the oven and rolled the dough out to a thickness on a lightly floured surface. Using cutters,she cut out the gingerbread men shapes and placed them on a tray that looks like a baking tray, leaving a gap between them. For decorations, she made a small hole in the top of each biscuit, baked for 15-20 minutes and handed the golden brown bread to sapphire. “Go ahead. Have some. ”

Mr hope laughed. “Ah, see how the girl can smile. ” Mrs hope gave her husband some ginger bread. “You learn quickly, sapphire. ” we’ll have to teach you how to make cakes this coming Christmas. ”

Mama loved spicy ginger bread and cakes. Mrs hope took the baking tray and tossed it in the sink. She set butter, flour, and sugar on the work table. “Tomorrow, I’ll teach you how to make cookies.”

Martha took the bread to Mama for her to eat. After doing her chores and eating an early lunch, she headed down the road past the school to the doctor’s house.

His wife looked distressed when she opened the door.

“Here! Take him! ” She handed her screaming baby over into sapphire’s arms and grabbed her scarf. “I’m going to visit a friend. ” she slipped around sapphire and headed off without a second glance.

Sapphire went inside and closed the door so people wouldn’t hear the baby wailing. She paced, singing songs. When that didn’t calm little Steven, she tried to rock him. She checked his diaper. Finally, frustrated, she put him down on the rug. “Go ahead and scream your head off. ”

The baby stopped crying and rolled onto his stomach. Arching his back, he reached his arms out and kicked his feet. Sapphire laughed. “You just wanted a little freedom, didn’t you? ” she collected scattered toys and dropped them in front of him. He kicked his legs harder, gurgling with pleasure . He squealed, his hands opening and closing. “Reach for it! I’m not giving it to you. ” He managed to scoot a few inches and grip a rattle. Sapphire clapped. “Good for you, Steven! “He rolled onto his back.

While little Steven wore himself out, Sapphire picked him up and rocked him to sleep. His mother came in an hour later, looking refreshed. She stopped and listened, looking somewhat alarmed. “Is he alright? ” she hurried over to the crib and peered in. “He’s sleeping! He never sleeps at noon. What did you do? ”

“I let him play on the rug. He tried to crawl. ”

The following afternoon, Sapphire went up the hill to Relish. Precious’s mother worked with her, sharing amusing stories of past guests. “Of course, you have some who are not pleased with anything you do and others who enjoy your service.”

Two of Precious’s older sisters kept great pots of water boiling on the traditional stove, àrò. Sapphire was exhausted from packing dishes and pots, washing them, arranging them after cleaning, cooking and the smoke from the traditional stove. She dropped a plate out of exhaustion and packed the broken pieces quickly.

“Oh! ” Precious’s mother came over and held out her hands, strong and square, hardened from years of cooking. Let me see your hands, Sapphire. She turned Sapphire’s hands palms up and clucked her tongue. “A cut. I should not have worked you so hard on your first day, but you didn’t complain. Your hands are so hurt. ”

She put her arm around Sapphire. “Go on upstairs. Precious will be back from school by now. She’ll want to have snack with you before you leave. And if you have time, she needs help with Maths. ”

Sapphire said she’d be delighted.

Precious jumped from her chair. “Sapphire! I forgot you started work today. I’m so glad you’re here! I missed you in school. Its not the same without you. No one to answer Mr koko’s difficult questions. ”

“Your mother says you need help with your Maths. ”

“Oh, not now. I have so much to tell you. Let’s go for a walk. ”

Sapphire knew she’d have to listen to the latest escapades of James Dominic. Precious had been in love with him since the day he caught her and picked her books for her when she tripped down the hallway. Ever since then, James had been Precious’s knight in shining armor.

Precious brushed her hair as they looked down on Relish. Tears welled up Sapphire’s eyes as she listened to Precious’s contemplations about James. Her friend didn’t have a care in the world other than whether James liked her or not. Pressing her mouth tight, Sapphire tried not to feel jealous. Maybe papa was right. She and Precious would be friends for a little while longer, and then their different situations would build a wall between them. Sapphire worked for the Coker now. She wasn’t friend who came to call or have snack or sit and chat while Precious’s mother put cookies on a plate with a smoothie in their cups. Everything was about to change, and Sapphire couldn’t bear it.

Now that papa had removed her from school, she would only be qualified to be a servant or tend someone’s fractious baby. She could help Mama with sewing but mama made little money when one considered how many hours she worked for women like Mrs Arabor, who expected perfection for a meagre amount of money. And Mama never saw a dime of what she made. Pap held the purse strings and complained bitterly about how little they had, though he always managed to find enough for beer.

Precious put her arm around Sapphire’s shoulders. “Don’t look so sad. ”

Sapphire stood abruptly and moved away. “I was going to learn Economics. I could have continued with geography. If I finish school, I might be able to find a decent job. If my father has his way, I’ll never be more than a servant. ” As soon as the bitter words poured out, shame filled her. How would she say such things to precious? “I’m not ungrateful to your parents. Your mother was so kind to me today… ”

“They love you like a daughter. ”

“Because you’ve loved me like a sister. ”

“That’s not going to change just because you’re not in school. I wish I could quit. I’d rather stay home and help my mother than try to cram facts into my head. ”

“Oh precious. ” Sapphire covered her face. “I would’ve given anything to stay, through secondary school at least. ”

“I could give you my books. ”

“I’ve not time now. Papa’s seen to that. “Sapphire stared off at the mountains that stood like prison walls. Her father intended to keep her captive. She was stronger and healthier than mama. She could learn faster than Kelvin and Jane. Mama would be kept at home. After all, someone would have to do the work when Mama couldn’t.

“I have to go home. I need to help Mama. ”

As they walked down the hill. Precious took sapphire’s hand. “Maybe when James makes it into school, your father will allow you to come back to school. ”

“Kelvin will fail again. He has no head for books. “At least, the next time Papa would not be able to blame her.

Sapphire spend two years working for the Cokers, the bakery and the town doctor. After days and days of hard work, the baker will pay her with snacks and when Papa saw it, he went into a rage and threw one against the wall.

At least, Mama and Elise appreciated the fresh breakfast loaves Sapphire brought home from the baker, and sometimes brought cookies. At Christmas, the Cokers gave her food. Dr. Afang came to see Mama every few weeks, although Papa preferred money in his pocket to the cataplasm and elixirs the doctor gave Mama. The baker also paid in fresh vegetables and fruit from her garden. Mama didn’t have to purchase anything from the market.

Only the Cokers paid money, but Sapphire never saw any of it.

“Henry coker said you’re smart enough to run your own restaurant someday. ” Papa gave a scornful laugh as he dipped bread into hot tea. “Since you’re so smart, you can make sure Kelvin passes the examinations next time. ”

“And how can i do that, Papa? ” Sapphire bristled. “Kelvin has to want to learn. ”

His face flushed in anger. “Listen to her, kelvin. She thinks you’re stupid. She thinks you can’t learn. She thinks you’re totally useless. She thinks she’s better than you”

“I never said I was better! ” Sapphire shoved her chair back. “I am just more interested! ”

Papa stood and loomed over her. “Make Kelvin interested. ” and maybe I’ll send you to school. If he fails again, you’ll answer to me! ” he leaned across the table and shoved her back into her chair. “Do you understand me? ”

Angry tears filled her eyes. “I understand you, Papa. “She umderstood him all too well.

He grabbed his shirt and went out the door. Jane didn’t raise her head and Mama didn’t ask where he was going.

“I’m sorry Sapphire. ” Kelvin spoke glumly from across the table.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Martha says:

    What a father! I’m so disgust at his attitude towads the poor girl. An example of what children go through in our society today. I love this piece.

    1. Hadassah Oladimeji says:

      Thanks reader!!!!!

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