2. Baked Casserole
A doorbell clanged in Elle’s dream, although she stood in the most emerald of all emerald rainforests. She ignored the intrusion and continued walking down a dirt path, bedazzled by the beauty of the place.
The clang of symbols sounded again, louder and she felt the forest shake around her.
“Mummy! Mummy!” Maya’s voice broke through the dense canopy of leaves. “Someone’s at the door!” The shaking became stronger.
Gasping as if she’d broken through the surface of water, Elle woke up shaken awake by Maya.
“Somebody’s at the door,” Maya said again.
The doorbell dinged again. Elle scrambled out of bed. “Coming! Hold on!” she yelled, fluttering around the room in search of something, anything, to put on over the white oversized shirt. Blake’s shirt.
“Maya, go open the door and see who it is, will you? Mummy just needs to find a pair of pants.”
Maya nodded and bounced off the bed.
“Pants, pants…”Elle chanted to self, dropping on all four over a suitcase.
“Oh, hello, dear!” she could hear a woman’s voice greeting Maya with surprise. “Your mummy or daddy home?”
“Mummy is trying to find pants,” Maya informed her, and Elle could feel her cheeks flush like a teenager’s.
“Oh, oh, my! Well, will you go tell her your neighbour is here, dear.”
Embarrassed, Elle pulled on a pair of well-worn trackies and walked to the front door.
“Sorry about that, I was just…” Elle cleared her throat, trying to look gracious and failing miserably.
The woman in her late thirties, eyed Elle’s clothes and smiled politely. She had kind eyes, Elle thought.
“Morning” the woman said, “I’m your neighbour from next door. Noticed you moved in yesterday and thought to come by and welcome you to the neighbourhood.” She handed over a wicker basket full of oranges. “It’s just something little from my own garden.”
Elle took the basket and smiled. “Thank you. They are one of Maya’s favourite fruits.”
Anna offered a hand. “I’m Anna Pauls.”
Elle dropped the basket beside the door and shook Anna’s hand. “Ellenor Grace and this is my little girl, Maya.”
“How do you do, Maya?”
Maya gave her hand and shook Anna’s, then suddenly turned shy and dug her big toe into the carpet.
“She’s a charmer!”
“Yes, yes she is!” Elle said, opening the door wider. “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea and breakfast?”
Anna chuckled. “My dear, its midday already,” and walked in.
Embarrassed once more, Elle closed the door. “Excuse the mess. I was up quite late unpacking.”
“Moving is such a big task,” Anna said, following Elle into the kitchen, where the sight of cardboard boxes and scrunched newspaper greeted her. “Oh my, you do have your work cut out!”
Elle laughed. “Yes, I guess. Tea?”
Anna nodded, rolling up her sleeves. “Yes, please,” and began gathering newspaper off the floor, dropping it into a cardboard box.
“Oh, please, you shouldn’t!” Elle hesitated.
“Ellenor, when one needs help, one should always ask,” Anna laughed. “And when one gets help without asking, then one should just smile and go about making tea.”
Elle laughed too and put on a pot of water to boil.
“It’s awfully nice of you!” she crouched next to Anna and started clearing the floor.
“I got nothing better to do. In fact, I think I came to the right place at the right time. I can do with company.” Anna rose to tie up her long, auburn hair. “Now, come on, Maya, honey. Help Aunty Anna while mummy makes lunch.”
“But we haven’t had breakfast,” Maya interjected.
Elle laughed. “Go on, honey, go brush your teeth and wash up.”
“She’s a sweet kid,” Anna said. “Who does she take after? You? Or your husband?”
Straining tea into cups, Elle was glad Anna couldn’t see her face. She fought the knot tying her throat.
“Her father, she’s very much like him. Same hair, same eyes,” she finally managed, handing over a cup of tea.
After a couple of hours, the kitchen was perfectly clean and in order.
“Well, that’s the most important room in the house done,” Anna proclaimed, dusting off her palms. “Mother always used to say a tidy, well to do kitchen meant a happy, fed family.”
Elle wiped perspiration from her brow. “I’d probably still be at it if you hadn’t come along as my saviour.”
Anna looked at her watch. “I better go, dear. Get dinner going.”
Elle nodded and walked her to the door. “Thank you so much for the help and the oranges.”
Anna nodded, peering over Elle’s shoulder. “She’s quiet as a mouse.”
Anna walked out the door. “Get some rest, have some tea, freshen up and a casserole at my place for dinner. Come around six.”
Elle hesitated. “I couldn’t impose. You’ve already done so much for us.”
“Nonsense! It’s not an imposition, dear. I’ll expect you and Maya over at six. See you then.”
Elle watched Anna cross the lawn then closed the door. She walked over to the sofa and dropped. She was exhausted. A casserole and some wine and some nice neighbours to unwind with sounded brilliant. With that thought, she dozed off.
When she woke up, the clock was ticking towards six.
“Maya?” Elle called out, worried. Where was Maya the last time she saw her? Elle jumped off the sofa and scurried down the hallway. “Maya? Honey! Where are you?”
Maya was nowhere to be seen. Elle checked every room and the bathroom, the kitchen and toilet. “Maya?” she screamed, running down the corridor, throwing open the front door after finding it unlocked.
The street lamps were already on and the last daylight was fast being eaten up by the clouds. Elle slipped across the lawn, out onto the road. “Maya?” she whispered, almost too scared to yell her daughter’s name. What had she done? How could she fall asleep without once thinking about her only daughter?
The soft giggles of children floated in the air and Elle froze. Anxiously she walked towards her neighbour’s driveway and put her head over the high fence. There, in the corner of the lawn, under an orange tree, was Maya with two boys around her age. Playing.
Elle walked towards the trio. “Maya?”
Maya turned around calmly. “Look, Mummy! I’m making friends.”
Elle smiled at the little boys. “You had me worried, honey!”
“I’m only playing, Mummy.”
“Yes, I know,” Elle reached out to her daughter. “You have to tell me when you leave the house, baby. If mummy doesn’t know where you are, mummy gets worried.”
“I tried to tell you, Mummy, but you were asleep” Maya said, on brink of tears.
Elle wondered how could she have fallen asleep so easily? What if Maya wasn’t just in the neighbour’s yard, but lost? She shuddered at the thought.
“Next time mummy does something stupid like that, wake me up, okay?”
Maya nodded and took Elle’s hand. “Am I in trouble?”
“No honey, of course not”
The front porch light came on as Anna appeared. “I’m afraid it was my doing, Ellenor,” she said. “Go in and wash up, boys. Dinner won’t be too long now.”
“You can sit next to us at dinner, Maya” said Nathan Pauls, the older of the twin boys.
“I’m afraid, when I came back over your place to ask if you were vegetarian, I found your door unlocked…”Anna said apologetically.
Elle bit her lip. She was turning out to be a reckless mother. Until today, she’d never had to worry much about Maya’s whereabouts since her parents were never too far away from their grandchild.
“You were tuckered out and Maya told me you eat chicken…” Anna smiled, “I’m guessing she was telling me she likes chicken. I couldn’t leave her there and I didn’t have the heart to wake you up. In fact, I was just coming over now to tell you dinner won’t be much longer.”
“Thank you and sorry,” Elle sighed, “I don’t even know when I dozed off. I guess I’m still not used to looking after Maya all by myself. My parents were always there after…”
“If you ever need me to look after Maya, I offer my help. My boys are the same age and will be great playmates for her.”
Elle nodded. “We better run off and make ourselves presentable.”
“I’ll have some wine ready. You could do with some” Anna said.
Elle laughed and tugged Maya along.
Showered, combed and dressed decently, Elle watched Maya as she straightened her dress.
“We’re going to be late, Mummy. Chop, chop!” Maya grabbed her hand and pulled her out the front door, impatiently waiting while Elle locked the door.
“Calm, baby! We’re not late yet.”
Maya took a deep breath.
“Now, breathe out,” Elle whispered and kissed her cheek, “best behaviour for the both of us, deal?”
Maya nodded. “Deal”
Her heart hammering, Elle waited for the Pauls’ warm welcome into their loving home. This was the first engagement of any kind she had allowed herself to attend since Blake’s passing. As the light flickered on in the hallway, a figure loomed in the doorway, and she wondered if she was ready to mingle with the living.
Too late! The door was opening. This was it. A friendly smile on a friendly face.
“You must be the Graces” Harold Pauls greeted them in a cheery voice, “Come in, come in!”
Elle handed him a bottle of red she’d been saving for such a dinner party in her own home, which she never got around to hosting. “Thank you for having us over.”
“The more the merrier, aye,” Harold laughed, closing the door. “I’m afraid Anna’s already started on the wine-O”.
As the two were led through the warm, colourful lounge into the dining room, Harold’s voice rolled loudly in the aromatic air. “Come on everybody, our guests are here!”
The boys came hurtling to greet them.
“Maya!” Neil Pauls, sliding to a halt near Harold’s feet.
“Careful!” Harold said.
Maya peeked at Elle and tugged her hand. It was her way of asking for permission to drop the ladylike act.
“Go ahead,” Elle nudged.
Maya curtsied to Harold and joined her friends, who led her away down the hall.
“What an intriguing little one,” Harold said, leading Elle into the kitchen.
“Hope you’re hungry,” Anna said, handing her an almost overflowing glass of red.
“Starved, actually!” Elle smiled, taking a generous sip.
Harold excused himself from the kitchen, leaving the two women. An awkward silence rolled over Elle, who suddenly realised she might not be as ready to socialize as she’d thought.
Anna watched Elle as she finished her glass. “So, what made you move to this little neighbourhood?”
Elle watched the kids come and sit down one by one. She smiled at Maya. “I needed change, somewhere to raise Maya safely.”
Safely? Ha! Elle thought to self. She wouldn’t call having left the door unlocked, falling asleep on the sofa, and letting a three-year old fend for herself, safe. With that thought, she drained her glass.
Harold laughed. “How about a top up?” he asked pouring more wine into her glass. “Serve us up, Ann. It sure smells delicious.”
It was almost eleven when Elle left the Pauls’ place, Maya sleeping soundly in her arms. As she walked the few meters to her new home, she felt the calmest she had in a long, long while. Moving might have been stressful but, with hearty and helpful neighbours like the Pauls’, she couldn’t be more happy.
For the first time in almost a year, Elle walked through a dark house with a smile on her face.
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