By: Michal Reiben
A young Finnish woman wakes us up in the morning and supervises over us as we get dressed; she swiftly endeavors to tie my tangly hair back in a band but doesn’t succeed.
“I don’t have time to deal with your hair,” she complains.
Little Pat who sleeps in an adjacent bunk to me ‘pipes up,’
“You’d better come with me to my Mum’s room to have your hair properly brushed.”
“Alright, I’ll come.”
As we stroll off together, I am feeling pleased with this unanticipated invitation.
Upon entering her mum’s room, it’s obvious she isn’t at all pleased to see me. Her room is in an awful mess; with clothes flung all over the place, leaving hardly any space left for one to stand. I’d sometimes seen Little Pat’s mum when she was cleaning the school. She’d always had a sour expression on her face which had made me suppose she disliked her job.
She finishes brushing and plaiting her daughter’s hair and beckons to me reluctantly:
“Come, Anna, it’s your turn.”
While she is brushing my hair Little Pat plonks herself down on an enormous pile of clothes on the bed.
“Where’s your father?” I ask her.
“He’s in heaven.”
“There’s no such thing as heaven he must be dead,” I say without malice.
At five years old I don’t realize I’m hurting her feelings.
Little Pat’s face drops, her eyes well up with tears and she looks around wildly. Her mother is furious at me and in revenge, she hits my head with the brush as she brushes my hair. Finally, she plaits my hair roughly and tugs on my plaits to cause me pain.
With tidy hair, Little Pat and I wade through the clothes on the floor out of her Mum’s room.
“My mum doesn’t want you to come to our room ever again,” says Little Pat flinging the words at me.
I shrug; I’m not bothered, I’d realized I’d been a nuisance to her mother and her approval doesn’t hold any significance for me.
Amanda, the school Matron, must have heard about the incident because the next day she approaches me.
“Anna, you are welcome to come to my room in the mornings to have your hair brushed and plaited.”
I nod and am delighted at her unexpected kindness. I idolize Matron. She has a cozy figure, radiates a calm presence, and seldom speaks. Her long, brown hair is plaited and wound around on top of her head. She always wears full-length skirts and walks barefoot, so that the soles of her feet are encrusted in thick cracked skin. Amanda doesn’t believe in marriage and no one except herself knows who fathered her three children? Much of her busy days are spent in the large kitchen, which is warmed by an enormous aga. There she cooks school meals and bakes all the bread. Also, she goes all the laundry by hand. (In those days washing machines didn’t exist)
The next morning as soon as I’m dressed I scurry off to Matron’s room. While I wait for her to arrive, since she has already risen to begin her hectic day, I inspect her room. It is the tiniest room I’ve ever seen in my entire life and is meagerly furnished with just the bare necessities.
After a while, Amanda arrives.
“Do you have a comb or brush?” she asks.
“Never mind I’ll use mine.”
She sets about gently brushing and then plaiting my hair into two plaits without saying a word. When she has finished she hastens away back to her work in the kitchen. Left alone in her room my inquisitiveness gets the better of me. I snoop around through her draws searching for a clue as to who her children’s father might be? I’m hoping I might find a relevant photo. When I do eventually find a photo of a youngish rather stocky man with a beard I feel thrilled. I turn the photo over but to my disappointment, there is nothing written on the back.
“Maybe this is her children’s father?” I wonder to myself.