I could have said no to this job, but I didn’t.
Two reasons stopped me from saying no. My fast-emptying bank balance. And the second, and more important one – no one would want to say no to old Ms. Welland.
Ms. Welland was undoubtedly the most loved person in the area. Forever ready to help one and all, the frail and docile lady had a pleasantly goofy grin on her face always. She would go out of the way to help her neighbours, be it by coaching older kids or taking care of the little ones while the single mums ran to their jobs. She never asked for anything in return. Never. Ever.
Just a few months ago, she had chipped in to pay my rent when the landlord was standing at my door and screaming at the top of his voice. She just passed the notes into my hand, gripped her walking stick tight, and continued down the gravelly path as if nothing had happened! Well, that’s Ms. Welland, ever so kind and generous.
She had been living alone in the quaint little house for as long as I have known her. No one remembers when she moved in or if she ever had a family. But we all remember the kind deeds she has done for us.
And yesterday morning when she asked me to help with her garden, I couldn’t refuse. I’ll pay you $10 an hour, she said. I knew the old lady loved her gardenias and roses as much as one would love their kids or pets.
After packing off my kids to school, I pushed my feet into my gardening boots, grabbed a pair of gloves, and my gardening tools, and started walking toward her house. She lived just 2 streets away, and I reached her place in no time. I was pleasantly surprised to find the old lady slumped in her rocking chair. A few trickles of drool had formed a wet patch on her blouse. I lifted her spectacles from the floor and placed them on her side table as noiselessly as I could and shuffled to the back garden. Her soft snores continued to fill the silence, even as I started raking the dry leaves.
In no time, I cleared the garden of all the dry leaves and twigs. I dug loose the soil around the plants to air them. I was at the farthest corner of the plot and whistling happily when my trowel hit something hard. Something really hard.
Who hasn’t heard about the cat that died out of curiosity? But then, when has it ever stopped any of us from being curious?
Landing on my knees, I started digging furiously. My eyes popped out and I shrieked in disbelief. A box stared at me. A large jewel box!
My heart and imagination raced faster than a motor car as I lifted the box and placed it next to me. I ran my gloved hands over the lid, sweeping away the thick brown soil and moss that was carpeting the lid.
The box was unlike any I had ever seen, and much heavier than I had expected. It was made of some expensive wood. Intricate patterns ran across the lid and sides. I wondered if I should run to Ms. Welland with my discovery, but decided otherwise. My intent was certainly not to steal the precious items that I might find. It was more to keep away the old lady from disappointment.
The tiny lock gave way with just a twist. I let out a deep sigh and lifted the lid. Alas, to my dismay, the box wasn’t filled with glinting jewels or precious stones. All it held were newspaper clippings and pages roughly torn from a diary. Yes, brittle yellowed papers, aged with time.
No doubt I was disappointed. And yet, still curious!
I roughly threw away my gloves, wiped my hands on my overalls and lifted one paper, and noticed the date. The clipping was over five decades old. Damn, it was even older than me!
I sat cross-legged on the freshly dug ground and started flipping through the news. “Unidentified body found near the tracks.”
The local police had found a dead body near the railway tracks. The face was crushed beyond recognition and the victim’s hands were completely burnt. Since the police had no clue to work on, they were appealing to the public for information.
I kept the clipping aside and picked up the diary pages. I could make out from the flowy cursive handwriting that they belonged to a woman. A woman who was being abused by her husband daily. A woman who was tired of the beatings and burning and wanted to take her life. Days and nights, weeks and months, and years of agony and trauma.
Her painful words shook me to the core.
Hot tears singed my cheeks. The stories felt familiar and personal. It reminded me of Jimmy and the seven years of living in a hell called marriage. The day I walked out of that hell was the happiest day of my life.
I imagined how difficult it would have been for this woman so many years ago, when, even today, women find it hard to leave an abusive relationship.
But there were no more letters or anything else that would give me a clue about the writer’s identity or the police case. I was about to place the papers inside and take the box to Ms. Welland when I wondered why the box was so heavy when all it had were papers. I ran my fingers through the box and found a little latch at the base. When I pressed it open, the base lifted up slowly to reveal a lot of contents.
A birth certificate belonging to one James Hillby, a marriage certificate of Mr. and Mrs. Hillby, a pack of matches, some gasoline, a lighter, an old stained sheet rolled into a bundle, and a heavy mallet.
But what shook the ground underneath me the most was another certificate. A change of name certificate of Donna Hillby to Nancy Welland.
While I was still wondering how to process the information, I felt a light tap on my shoulders.
To my horror, it was Ms. Welland.
Her face was blanched, and her lips were trembling. Her eyes remained glued on the sprawled contents. She tried to speak, but all I could hear was a gush of air escaping through her mouth.
“Ms. Welland, there’s no cause for worry. I was just discarding some unwanted junk.”
Before she could say anything, I emptied the papers onto the pile of dry leaves and lit them on fire.
Quickly, I covered the pit and placed the empty box next to it. Ms. Welland stood frozen, kneading her palms furiously. A stream of tears flowed down her cheeks as she mumbled, “I know what I did was wrong, but… I was scared and lonely…”
“No need to say anything, Ms. Welland.” I pressed her arm lightly before stuffing the mallet into my bag with the rest of the tools. “I will take care of this and please don’t worry. My lips are sealed.”
Before she could say anything else, I started walking towards the gate.
I knew I had committed an offense, but when I stopped in my path and turned to look at her, all my guilt vanished. Her deep eyes were swimming in tears of gratitude.
My brush with the law was worth everything.