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U3A Writing: Winter Comes And Goes

Ida Smith's story concerns a mysterious and troubled school teacher.

She came in the early winter of that year. She, the small child and a nanny.

The mealies had been harvested and lay in great dry heaps on the threshing floors, waiting for the machines. Everywhere there was a feeling of great sadness in the air at summer’s dying. The trees stood naked in the cold. Their branches trembled and their twigs moved like long black fingers in the wind. The air was icy and bitter and the earth turned hard and grey.

The ugly little corrugated iron school on the hill beyond was, at last, to have a replacement for the teacher who had died. The joy of the farmers in the district was great when they were told that a woman had applied for the long-vacant post. But it had been hard to find a place for her and the child and nursemaid to live as no one was prepared to take a stranger into their homes. The dominee from the nearby village had tried to help. He’d enquired around and at last had found a home that would give them a place.

The family who were to provide the accommodation bought a new mattress for the bed in the spare room and scrubbed the old wooden cot which had stood in the outhouse for many years, and it was brought inside. New curtains were hung at the window, and a place was arranged for the helper in one of the worker’s cottages nearby. It had meant a great deal of trouble, but they hadn’t been able to refuse the dominee. He’d written to the teacher to inform her of the arrangements.

Soon after, by way of introduction to her prospective hosts, she‘d written to thank them for providing her with accommodation and had indicated, perhaps a little too intimately, the great financial loss she and her husband had suffered in their farming efforts, leaving them with nothing. In the letter she told how her appointment at the school meant so much to her. Her husband, she said, had left them to work at a place some distance away where he would try to make a home for them again.

After reading the letter the old woman of the house sat for a long while and thought of her own daughter, studying at the teacher’s college and of the day when she would come to take up a position in the little school and be with her parents. She thought too, of the young farmer whom her daughter loved and who was waiting for her to finish her studies so they could marry. She sighed at these thoughts and wondered at the woman whose coming had already disturbed her.

The appointed day came and the car, bringing the new people, approached the yard. The old woman came out to meet them, her large body rippling softly under her woollen dress as she walked. When she saw the stranger, her fears vanished and she laughed silently as she put out her hand in greeting. In front of her she saw a thin, unattractive little woman, peering meekly at her through thick glasses. She saw too her bony arms, holding the pretty little fearful child and the old woman thought, “It’ll be all right. I know that this timid little woman won’t make trouble in my house.”

Taken to her room, the new teacher saw that the new blue curtains were drawn, and the approaching dusk had made it very dark. The fresh, new fluted candle was lit, but even the soft flame could not suppress the feeling of despair which overwhelmed her once again.

Later, when she had completed all that had to be done, she went to the window. Far away, against the rosy backdrop of the darkening sky, she could make out a line of tall trees. ‘They look like a wall, a shelter,’ she thought. Then, speaking aloud she said, “Here my pain will pass and things will be better.”

That evening at the table, with the woman and her large silent stubble-faced brooding husband and the farmer boy-friend of the daughter, simple prayers were recited. Then the meal was dished up. Deep within her, the new teacher wept in her misery and thought of the past crop failures which had brought her here.

In the early morning the coarse rumbling sound of a vehicle’s engine warned her to hurry. The school bus was at the gate waiting to take her to school. The child, outside with the nanny, cried pitifully when she saw her mother leaving.

Along the rough winding road through the lands children waited at their farm gates for the bus. They scrambled inside, their small hands and faces blue with cold. All were polite and smiled at the strange lady sitting there among them, trying to chat to them above the noise.

Soon after her arrival at the two-roomed school, she began to feel happiness enveloping her. The elderly principal, in the classroom next door was friendly but distant and kept mostly to himself. Her contact each day with the friendly children, some from poor homes, was creating a bond between them and she felt the previous deep anger and dismay at her circumstances diminishing rapidly. In the afternoons she devoted her time to her child, who had become very fond of the old woman. This had made their partings in the morning less painful.

In the evenings she worked at the table in her room, where she’d been provided with a standing oil lamp which shed a gentle warmth.

One day the dominee came to enquire how things were.

“I’m pleased with the boarder, and the lovely child.” the old woman told him. “She knows her place, and works very hard, sometimes until late at night.”

But she did not mention how also at night she heard stifled sobs coming from the woman’s room and how she turned over in her bed and prayed to the Almighty for her daughter’s happiness in the years to come.

One night, when the wind was violent and one could hear the deep swishing of the branches from the trees beyond, the old woman invited the teacher to leave her books and join them in the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Shyly she came, as she was usually left on her own. The sound of the roaring of the fire in the black stove was very pleasant. She was welcomed by the old man and the future son-in-law.

“You are working much too hard,” he remarked.

After a while, the woman and her husband retired to their bedroom. The young man remained in front of the fire, his long legs thrust out before him, his head resting on his arms crossed behind his neck. The teacher lingered, sitting quietly, half drowsy in the warmth around her. The young man suddenly stood up and scooped more handfuls of the dried mealie husks from the bin into the stove. Again, the great roaring sound filled the kitchen as the renewed fire leapt inside. How soothing was the sound she thought. She looked towards the young man. She saw that he was watching her. She felt embarrassed and got up to leave.

“You’re a strange creature,” he said, his voice muffled by the sounds from the stove. “Like a recluse, shutting yourself away. You should join us in the evenings. Who was he who forced you to live like this? I can’t understand why you have to do this.”

Now there was a tenderness and a kindness in his voice which she had not expected. Filled with astonishment at his concern for her, she began to tell him brokenly of what had happened. She had heard nothing from her husband for the past two months. She’d had no news from him.

He was listening to her, not looking at her, for he knew that she was weeping behind her thick glasses. He felt guilty and did not know what else to say.

When she had finished telling him, he turned to look at her. She saw his eyes, like great shadowed pools, filled with pity in the dim light.

The old woman called loudly from her room. “Don’t forget to blow out the lamp!” That meant they knew, that they had been in the kitchen long enough.

In her room that night the teacher slept badly and her dreams were strange. Again and again, she saw great shadowed pools in which his eyes, lighted with kindness, shone back at her.

It was strange how the woman seemed to sense that the sad and lonely little teacher had found a friend in her daughter’s young man. But there must be no threat to her daughter’s happiness. She had to act quickly.

The dominee received a message that the old woman was ill and could no longer accommodate the teacher. The school term was drawing to a close. At the end of it the teacher and the child must leave.

So the days went by and after she’d heard the news, the teacher withdrew into herself even more. She was no longer invited into the kitchen, but in her thoughts she was often comforted by the pity of the young man. But she was afraid that he should see the look in her eyes which would betray her feelings for him.

No one could understand why the teacher had to leave, especially the children at the school. The dominee was as much at a loss for an explanation as was everyone else. Later they heard that her husband had come to fetch her and the child and that they were living in Mafikeng where he’d gone to find work.

The young woman was teaching at a school again. There was no more news.

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