Jonathan let go of my hand as we passed through the wrought iron gate and walked up the semi-circular drive. A massive limestone portico extended from the front door. He rang the doorbell. Who rings
the doorbell and waits to be let in to their parents' home? I wondered. It was an important clue. The door opened, and Mrs. Compton, martini in hand, smiled.
Her hair, pulled back from her face, was wrapped in an elaborate pillbox creation on top of her head, adding to her already imposing height. Miniature pearl earrings and a necklace complemented her flawless skin, a surprising amount of which was visible above the deep V-neck of her black silk dress. I hoped that thinking of her as Mrs. Compton would repress the usual facetious streak in my conversation. I reminded myself not to comment on her Sunday afternoon libation.
"Darlings!" A composite salutation. What has Jonathan told her about me? We stepped into the vestibule, and Jonathan gave his mother a peck on the cheek. "Mother, I'd like you to meet Tom Fischer. Tom, this is my mother, Margaret Compton." She leaned over and tilted her head to the side.
I mimicked my boyfriend's kiss on her cool-as-ivory cheek. She straightened up, looked into my eyes, smiled again, and turned to lead us into the living room. Not a drop of vodka spilled. Jonathan gave my baby finger a little squeeze. So far, so good.
"Walter. Jonathan and Tom are here," she called out quite naturally. "I'll be right out," a gruff voice responded from another room. The living room oozed old money. A large oil pastoral scene in an ornate gesso frame dominated the wall over the open fireplace. It looked like an early Turner.
I thought I'd try to surreptitiously check it out later. It looked like I would have a great deal of sleuthing to do. Intriguing art hung on every wall, hanging from old European masters to an impressive Rothkoesque painting over the sofa. The principal seating was of the oversized, large-armed variety, upholstered in a soft taupe. A massive oriental carpet covered the floor. It would have been overbearing in most rooms, but the size of the Compton living room accommodated it with ease.
Margaret saw me studying the rug. "Do you like it?" she asked. "Walter and I bought it in Tangiers on our honeymoon. It's more than a hundred years old. It's called a kingdom carpet because it was made for one of the royal family members. The Moroccan royal family, that is," she said, smiling. "All the patterns mean something in Arabic culture.
The salesman did explain them to us. He took us through this absolutely lovely tradition of sitting on the carpet in his store and drinking tea together, a symbol of hospitality, as the carpet was about to change hands. We knew it wouldn't fit in our apartment back home, but we figured that when we came to buy a house to start a family, we'd just have to get one with a room large enough to handle the carpet."
I ventured my first intimacy. "I like your sense of priorities, Mrs. Compton." "Do you now?" she replied noncommittally, and she studied me for a moment. "Mother, don't bore Tom with stories about all your stuff ."
Not missing a beat, he replied, "Well, I chose you, didn't I?" Jonathan bit his lip. Okay, that was way too blatant an endearment, way too soon. The following silence was awkward. I glanced at Margaret. She was looking benignly at the two of us, enjoying our moment of discomfort.
"So, where's my scotch, Margaret?" Walter's robust baritone voice broke into the living room's fragile ambiance, his words slightly garbled because of the smouldering cigar clenched in the corner of his mouth...
Dad steered the land rover carefully around another pothole and eased it slowly down an embankment into the riverbed that functioned as the main road leading up toward the border. Patricia grabbed hold of the armrest and closed her eyes.
The sun had been beating down on the vehicle with relentless intensity. We would have been farther along by now if it hadn't been for a morning crisis in the clinic that demanded Mom's presence. Dad had intended that we leave at first light. It was now late afternoon. Clearly, we would not make it as far as Dad had planned by nightfall. We were carrying a precious cargo—a small package of provisions for Sittina's mother, who had not had the stamina to make it out of southern Sudan to Kakuma with her daughter.
But the expedition was less to deliver these supplies than to find her and ensure that she was still alive. Sittina had had no news of her mother for quite a while and had grown increasingly panicky. Mom and Dad had promised to make the informal reconnaissance trip some time before but had not been able to extricate themselves from more pressing needs in the camp and in Nairobi. Their intention to take Patricia and me up into southern Sudan provided them the necessary rationale.
For the umpteenth time, I checked my back pocket to reassure myself of the security of my passport and visa papers. Dad had arranged for us to gain access into southern Sudan through the Nairobi offices of the New Sudan Council of Churches. The NSCC collaborated with the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement, the administrative and diplomatic counterpart to the liberation army, the SPLA.
Mom reached into the glove compartment and pulled a handkerchief out. "Are you okay?" I asked. "Just a bit of dust in my eye." Her muted sobbing said otherwise. I unbuckled my seatbelt and edged far enough forward to place my hand on her arm. "What's wrong?"
Dad glanced at his wife and then said over his shoulder to Patricia and me, "Happens every time we leave camp, a bit of predictable water works." "It's just stupid me," Mom sputtered. Keeping her focus glued to the passing barren landscape, she eventually confided, "I always feel horribly guilty every time we leave the camp."
"What in heaven's sake is there for you to feel guilty about?" Patricia asked. Still looking out her window, Mom said quietly, "I feel guilty because I'm so relieved to be getting out of that stinking, oppressive hellhole. And then I immediately feel awful about all the people I love who are locked in that stinking, oppressive hellhole."
"For God's sake, Mom and Dad, don't you think that it's about time that you came home?" Patricia said. "I agree with her," I echoed, speaking to the back of my parents' heads but looking at my sister. "You have gone far, far beyond the call of duty." "Duty?" Dad shouted. Everyone jumped. "You think our time here has been about duty?" Mom reached across and laid her hand on her husband's trembling arm. "We have been talking about coming home," she said quietly. "But we can't. Not quite yet."
The four of us sat in silence as the Rover bungled along, an occasional loud scraping against the chassis underneath signaling the presence of a rock bigger than Dad had estimated. Suddenly, Dad braked to a stop, rowing us all forward. "What is it, dear?" Mom asked in a totally controlled voice. Dad nodded toward his left. We looked in the direction and saw a cloud of dust speeding toward us.
"You kids just stay calm," he said quietly. "Let me do the talking." "What is it? Who is it?" Patricia demanded. "Shhh," Mom replied. In a few moments, the outline of a jeep came into view. It slowed and pulled past us up on the bank above. Patricia and I craned our heads around and looked out the back window, watching it descend into the gully and ease up behind our vehicle. It stopped. Nothing happened. We waited.
"Oh, Jesus," Patricia whispered. "Are they going to kill us?" "Quiet, dear," said Dad. "Listen to your father. Do as he says," Mom added. Two men in army fatigues stepped out and slowly approached...