She was known as the lady with the sweet hand, the lady who could make the best fudge and sugarcake in the whole of Cedar Village. Everyone lovingly called her Tantie Mona. The students of Cedar Village Primary School gathered around her every morning, recess and lunchtime to purchase her homemade sweets. Even Miss Jennifer, the standard one teacher could not resist.
“You should make and sell these outside of school so everybody could enjoy them, they’re so delicious!” said Miss Jennifer, sinking her teeth into the grated coconut delicacy. “When I tried your recipe, my sugarcakes didn’t turn out anything like this and my husband made fun of me. He said our kids could use them to play cricket or skooch.”
“Just keep trying until you get it right and he go stop laughing. You think I learn just so? Is plenty times I try before they come out good, and is years and years now I making them.”
Tantie Mona noticed the young girl from Miss Jennifer’s class. She had bought five cents’ worth of mango amchar earlier to have with her quarter sada roti for lunch. She stopped by the other vendor and bought a pack of candy cigarettes. Three boys followed behind her, the one holding the cricket bat tugged at the white ribbons adorning her two ponytails on either side of her head, giggling as they ran off. The bell rang just then to signal the end of the lunch break. Girls in their blue pleated skirts and white shirts abandoned their games of hopscotch and moral, while boys with their dirt-stained shirts and khaki pants ran from the playing field towards their classrooms.
“Once you keep making them, I wouldn’t have to try again.” Miss Jennifer laughed, turning her attention to the young girl who had now stopped at Tantie Mona’s table. “Hurry up Annie, time for class.”
Tantie Mona wrapped the last sugarcake in a piece of brown paper, after shaking the glass jar to ensure she got all the extra bits and pieces. The girl sneezed and Tantie Mona handed her a napkin to wipe her nose. Annie sneezed again as she gave Tantie Mona her coin, her face lighting up as she slipped the sugarcake into her side pocket and hurried off.
Now that everyone had returned to their classrooms, Tantie Mona attended to the items on her small wooden table which was covered with a piece of white plastic printed with bouquets of red roses. She removed the remaining biscuits and confectionery from the glass display case and wiped the two inside shelves with a damp cloth. She noticed some stains on the outer top corner and rubbed the area in a circular motion until they disappeared. She tightened all the lids and wiped the glass jars which held favourites like preserved mangoes, salt prunes, lollipops and tamarind balls. She wrapped a few tamarind seeds in a piece of paper to give to a student who was saving them to make a bean bag to play with her friends. She then draped a white mosquito net she had altered to cover everything on the table until the sound of the next bell signaled the end of the school day. That’s when she would make her final day’s sales and return home.
Tantie Mona took the plastic container out of the brown paper bag she kept nearby and moved her wooden stool closer to the building to rest her back against the wall. She felt Mrs. Jankie’s stare piercing through her while she ate her lunch. Only two vendors were permitted on the school’s compound, one on each end of the side wall closer to the main entrance. Tantie Mona had been vending at Cedar Village Primary School for the past twelve years after losing her husband. They were going to Metro cinema at Harris Promenade on their twenty-first anniversary to see a new Indian movie starring Dharmendra and Hema Malini, and were knocked down by an oncoming vehicle that ran off the road and onto the pavement. She had suffered a broken leg, but he never made it.
Mrs. Jankie started vending only a year ago after the previous vendor died of a sudden heart attack. Tantie Mona had become very good friends with Mrs. Foster since they had met on that first day of the school term over a decade ago. Mrs. Foster was only seven years older and never complained about any kind of illness before. Tantie Mona was very sad when she heard that she had passed away at the tender age of fifty-eight.
“I see you had a busy day as usual,” remarked Mrs. Jankie, lifting her voice while refilling a jar with candy cigarettes.
“It wasn’t too bad,” replied Tantie Mona, “and for you too I sure,”
“Nah, them children and them only like to buy from you,” was her reply.
Tantie Mona never grew as close to Mrs. Jankie as she had been with Mrs. Foster. All she knew from their brief conversations was that she was forty-nine years old with six children, and belonged to the far end of the village. Her husband dropped her to school in a blue Cortina and returned for her at the end of the school day. Mrs. Jankie always asked where she bought her sweets and how much she paid for them. When she told her that she made most of them, she asked if she could taste her hand, reaching into her jars without waiting for permission.
Tantie Mona always liked to try something new much to the children’s delight, and Mrs. Jankie always followed. One Friday she made coconut ice-block and Mrs. Jankie did the same, when she sold the lollipops with chewing gum in the center she also did the same, and when Tantie Mona started selling Wonder Bags with a surprise toy inside, so did she. Tantie Mona planned on bringing a jar of pickled green plums the next day as a Friday treat. She had monitored the plums in her back yard until they were just right and had picked them herself two days ago with a bamboo rod.
Her pickled green plums were a hit the next day. The children had spread the word by recess and all were sold out. She promised the other kids that she would bring another jar the next week as well as a jar of pickled green pommecythere which she knew they would enjoy just as much.
Shortly after the lunch break while classes were in session, Tantie Mona caught a glimpse of Miss Jennifer helping little Annie into her Datsun 120Y and driving out of the school compound in a hurry. She wondered whether Annie was okay because she was holding her tummy.
Mrs. Jankie appeared in front of her. “I hear Annie was feeling sick since she eat your plums this morning. I wonder if she get gastro.”
“My plums? Gastro?” Tantie Mona was confused. “You sure? Because I don’t understand. I does take extra care when I making anything to sell and does always keep everything clean.”
“Well I just saying what I hear because that is a serious thing, so I don’t know what the principal go do about it.”
“But plenty children buy plums today, and how come nobody else get sick?”
Mrs. Jankie paused, then replied, “Just because we didn’t hear nothing don’t mean that nobody else get sick. But I did hear some children saying how two boys was vomiting in the back of the school so you never know what go happen by later.”
Tantie Mona lowered her head and pressed her fingers to her eyes, her vision blurred by a fine mist of tears. “I selling here for so long and nothing like this ever happen. I could never live with myself if any of them children get sick because of me.”
“Me mehself, that is why I don’t make all kinda thing and bring from home because I don’t want nobody children to get sick. But don’t worry, we go just have to wait and find out what happen.”
Tantie Mona thought about it some more and a weak smile began on the corners of her lips. She rose from her stool and asked Mrs. Jankie to keep an eye on her table.
“Where…where you going? What you going and do?” she threw after her, but Tantie Mona did not look back.
She proceeded to the front of the building, gripping the rails as she climbed the flight of stairs one step at a time, pausing at regular intervals to rest her legs and catch her breath. She eventually reached the top and looked around for the principal’s office, suddenly realizing it was the first time she had ever climbed those stairs. The secretary met her at the doorway and informed her that the principal had left to attend a meeting and would not be back for the rest of the day, but she could meet her on Monday. A disappointed Tantie Mona thanked her and navigated her way to the bottom of the stairs. All the while she was engulfed with a deep feeling of guilt and confusion over what had happened to Annie.
The final bell rang and within minutes children were pouring out of their classrooms, but there was still no sign of Miss Jennifer or Annie by the time she had packed up to leave. No one else seemed to know anything.
Tantie Mona did not return to school on Monday. The next evening, she walked through the village to meet Mrs. Foster’s grandson so she could inquire about Annie, but since they were not in the same class, all he could say was that he saw her in school that day and she seemed okay. It was enough to bring some relief to Tantie Mona but after careful thought, she decided it was best not to continue vending at the school.
Three weeks had gone by when Tantie Mona heard the sound of a car horn just after noon and looked through her kitchen window to see a car pulling into her dirt yard. She recognized Miss Jennifer’s Datsun and saw that the principal was also exiting from the passenger’s seat. Several thoughts danced around in her mind. Was Annie really okay? Had any other children fallen ill? Were they now investigating her? Tantie Mona prepared for the worst. The two women were now approaching her front door so she put on a brave face. She greeted them still wearing her apron and head tie, accompanied with a warm smile.
“We are so glad to find you home.” Miss Jennifer looked her up and down. “Are we disturbing you from something?”
“All yuh always welcome by me.” She held the door open, inviting them in with a sweep of her hand. “But excuse the place eh, it real messy. All yuh sit down here and I coming back just now, I going and take off the stove.”
She returned to the living room a few minutes later with a glass of mauby in each hand, minus her apron. “It homemade.” She placed the glasses on the center table before sinking into the seat opposite them. “I surprise to see all yuh here, everything okay?”
“We came to see if you were okay because we haven’t seen you for a while. We even dropped by last week and you weren’t home so we were worried.”
Tantie Mona lowered her eyes. “I feeI real bad after what happen to Annie so I say it was better if I don’t go back.”
“Annie? What happened?” Miss Jennifer’s eyes darted from Tantie Mona to the principal, wearing a look of concern.
“I thought that is what all yuh come for.”
“No, so you’ll have to explain,” said Miss Jennifer.
“You can’t remember the last Friday when I was in school and Annie get sick when she eat the plums I did bring to sell?”
The principal leaned closer. “It’s the first time we’re hearing this. But, is that why you didn’t come back? The secretary said you came to the office to see me that day and she told you to come back on Monday, but you never came.”
“Well I see when Miss Jennifer was taking Annie to the health center and...”
Miss Jennifer held up both palms in front of her. “Okay, you need to start at the beginning so we could make some sense of this.”
Tantie Mona explained everything that happened that day and how devastated she was. She confessed that she didn’t go back because she was worried about what they would think of her after she had been selling at the school for so many years.
Miss Jennifer rose and sat next to her, extending an arm around her shoulder. She went on to explain that Annie started vomiting so she had to rush her home, but it had nothing to do with her plums. Annie’s mother told her that she wanted to keep her from school that day because she was coming down with the flu, but she didn’t want to miss the art and craft project they were doing in class. She guessed that Mrs. Jankie must have used the opportunity to her advantage knowing what a kind and trusting woman she was.
“We’re sorry you went through all of this without telling us anything,” said the principal.
“I even asked Mrs. Jankie if you had mentioned anything to her and she said you had some personal stuff to take care of,” added Miss Jennifer.
Tantie Mona was crushed that Mrs. Jankie had misled her so easily and could not imagine why she would have done so. She had even offered her a lift home that afternoon when her husband had come to pick her up.
“Now that we’ve cleared all this up, we hope you’ll come back because we’re not the only ones who miss you and your sweets,” said Miss Jennifer. “My entire class demanded that we bring you back, so it might cause a riot if you don’t.”
Tantie Mona went on to explain that she just started selling her sweets at the weekend market, and a few parlour and shop owners in the area have also offered to sell them. She was surprised to receive some repeat orders which is what she was preparing in her kitchen. Her granddaughter has been helping her after school to parcel the fudge, sugarcake and nuts cake and stick on the Tantie Mona’s Sweet Hand labels on them. “She say it go look more official,” she gave a toothy grin. “But is Miss Jennifer I have to thank for that idea.”
“I told you they were the best!” Miss Jennifer was pleased.
“We’re happy for you, but we really would like you to come back.” The principal gave a supportive smile. “The final decision is yours, so you could think about it if you like.”
Tantie Mona didn’t have to give it much further thought after reading the disappointment in their faces. “You know what? I go have plenty time to make my sweets after school and still sell in the market on weekends, so I go come back from the week after this one when I buy up a few things.”
Their relief was evident.
She returned to school early that Monday morning to the exact spot where she had spent the
last twelve years. She cleaned and packed her display case and filled her glass jars with homemade sweets and a variety of snacks. She could hardly wait to see the excitement in the children's faces when they saw the new Bubblegum Trading Cards with pictures of their favourite stars. She save three for Annie with Bionic Woman, Charlie's Angels and The Patridge Family, because she was always talking about those TV shows. A short distance from her was a woman who appeared to be her own age and she was setting up a vending table and display case filled with goodies. The woman waved to her with a warm, welcoming smile; a smile which reminded Tantie Mona of a very dear friend.
Vashti Bowlah is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago and a participant of The 2008 UWI/Cropper Foundation Creative Writers’ Residential Workshop. Her short stories and articles have appeared in various publications including St. Petersburg Review, The Caribbean Writer, Poui, WomanSpeak Journal, Signifyin’ Guyana (Caribbean Women Writers Series), Tongues of the Ocean and St. Somewhere Journal.