First Word | Mehreen Ahmed

People say that the wheel of fortune revolves in two directions. That it slips backwards and sometimes moves forwards. After about three decades, old Brown’s fate was about to change today. And it happened mysteriously enough. There was no logic as to why or how things occurred; they just did, without any rhyme or reason. Circumstance lent itself favourably, leading to his success on this fateful, foggy winter of 1875.

A sound of fury distracted them; none other but the wind lashed across. The horses swerved a bit off course, but Brown’s young apprentice Peter handled it skilfully. Brown took his wallet out of his shirt pocket and looked at a picture. This was the picture of a little girl in a polka dot frock. He put his wallet away. Peter had been here before. They were on their way to the Carpenter abode. After about an hour’s ride, they could see their house. It sat on a vast land which was now in view. Their cart drew closer to the house; the horse trotted gently down the gravel path and stopped under the porch, at a pull of Peter’s reins. With a sigh, they looked at one another. Peter and Brown disembarked

Someone flung the front door open. Lydia and Jim Carpenter came out and greeted them, but not Rose. Slow trepidation pumped in as their heart-rates went up.

“Hello, how’s it going?” Jim beamed cordially.

“Good, pretty good,” Peter managed a nervous smile.

“And how about you, Brown? Doing okay?”

“Yes, yes, not too bad.”

Peter could smell the aromas of butter from here. Some drifted across in the winds to tickle his nostrils amiably.

“Is Rose not here?” Brown asked.

“Of course she is. She’s toiling away in the kitchen cooking up a storm for you two.”

“Oh, I thought it was just a meeting, no food involved,” Peter interjected.

Look, I don’t know. I just carried out the instructions that Jim gave me,” Lydia smiled.

“Well, typically, it would be lunch time by the time you got here. So, why not?” Jim said.

“Sure, sure, why not?” Brown mumbled.

As they all approached the door together, Peter saw Rose through the fly-screen. She was leaning over a hot stove in the sunlight filtered through the kitchen windows. Her green eyes glimmering, and partly covered with golden curls hanging over her brows, she looked up sheepishly and smiled. Peter smiled back and shrugged. Rose held a hot plate of burned drumsticks in her hand.

“Oh dear. Don’t worry, just leave them out here,” Lydia remarked.

“I’ll eat them!” Peter offered graciously.

Rose laughed at that and then turned to Brown. They walked towards the next room. Peter lingered in her presence slightly before he joined them. They sat down in a bright floral sofa. Peter looked around and thought it was quite a charming room with many stuffed animals displayed on the mantel shelf. However, as he observed Brown, Peter found him absorbed in thoughts. These thoughts took old Brown back to little Rosie. As a toddler, her first word for food was ‘nun’ for ‘yum’ which had emerged when Brown had given her a piece of cheese to taste. From then onwards, everything from water to pudding was ‘nun’, ‘nun’ and yet, more ‘nun’ until she learnt, ‘yum’ a few months later. A smile coined around the corners of his lips. It was quite obvious that his mind wasn’t on socialising this afternoon. Sitting on the far end, he felt edgy as he gripped the cushioned handle of the sofa. He wanted to get to business straightaway. He asked Jim Carpenter if he could take a walk with him on the farm. Lydia, guessed just as much and looked at Peter searchingly. Peter avoided making eye-contact. He continued to gaze at the animal posters on the walls. She sat quietly for a moment and then rose mumbling that she needed to help Rose in the kitchen. Peter nodded, feeling a tensed moment.

From this angle where Peter was sitting, he could see Rose tinkering with pots and pans and burnt drumsticks. She had her back towards him. Her wiry arms moved fast and her rounded hips swung inadvertently when she shifted her posture. Peter felt like being closer to her. He felt like touching those arms. He gazed at her until she turned around with a jolt and caught him dreaming. She suppressed a smile and waited for him to come over. Rose was accustomed to men drooling over her. But Peter did just the opposite. He got up from his chair hurriedly and walked out. Rose put down the metal pot on a wooden table placed beside the stove and ran after him feeling slighted. She always had the upper hand where her men were concerned. She was the one who turned them down, not the other way round.

Finding Peter was easy. He was sitting under a desolate apple tree. On this wintry morning, the apple tree looked as though the sunless Hades cast a colourless shadow on its skeletal branches. The ones reaching out like dendrites of the neural system. She stood calmly before him. Peter looked up.

“Why have you come?” she asked.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. I’m asking you.”

“If I said, I heard about you from Farmer Brown and wanted to meet you, would you believe me?”

“That would amuse me. It’s flattering, but I’m also used to that but…”

“But what?”

“I don’t know.”

“As much as I want to Rose…”

“I don’t understand. What is it then?”

“I don’t know.”

Both Rose and Peter remained quiet after that. They knew not what to do next. Peter glanced at Rose and smiled. A lock of her curls had tumbled over her forehead in the wind. Peter took a sharp breath and said,

“Gosh, Rose. You’re pretty.”

He put a hand out and tried to play with her curls on her forehead. He twirled them around his fingers. She did nothing to stop it. Rose extended her hand towards Peter; her long fingers touched the tip of his. Peter enclosed her fingers into his masculine idle palm.

“Do you ever think of getting married, Peter?”

“Hmm, interesting question.”

Peter smiled at her small inquisitive face and caressed her rosy cheeks touching it with his index finger. He put a protective arm around Rose and thought of big ocean waves lapping on the shore.

“What’re you thinking, Peter?”

“Nothing. How ‘bout you Rose? Do you think about marriage?”

“Yeah, I think about it but I’m afraid of long-term commitment?”

“Afraid? Why?”

“That’s just how I’m.”

Peter frowned lightly. And looking away, he saw Brown and Jim walking towards them down the gravel path. They both looked anxious and agitated. Grim face, stiff lips, deep frowns. Now that they were within view, Rose and Peter both stood up and waited for them. As they came closer, Peter saw Brown looking at Rose; extending an arm, he suddenly broke down. Hundred years of ice seemed to have melted down in a rivulet. Rose was flustered.

“What? What is it?” she stammered.

Words froze. Brown couldn’t talk. Rose shied away from his open embrace; he sat down on the bench. A tired old man who lost so much and found her again never to let go again, but he felt she had fallen, and slipped in quick sand.

Jim asked Rose to come inside with him, but invited neither Brown nor Peter. Leaving them out, he took Rose by the shoulder and stalked inside. Rose’s skirt swayed swiftly on the gravel path. It didn’t occur to him that Rose was an adult now and she could choose a life she pleased.

Indeed, the picture in old Brown’s wallet came handy; the picture of a small girl wearing a polka dot dress was the same dress Rose also had among her possessions when the Carpenters adopted her from the orphanage. In fact, that was her only belonging. This dress. Near match photographs were there in Jim’s album too that posed a striking similarity to the little girl’s picture in Brown’s wallet wearing the same dress. There were no doubts in Brown’s or Jim’s mind that this was the same girl… Rose, Brown’s little Rosie; no mistaken identity. Oh! Rosie was alive after all these years and well. Thirty years, those thirty long years, when Rose was abducted at five and sold to a stranger who bought her to the orphanage for care. Her mother, Emma, Emma must be contacted at once! It was now up to Peter to collect the broken pieces. For Brown was completely devastated and beyond anyone’s note-worthy reproach or approval. Grief and joy; sympathy and admonitions were tied up in one huge confusing emotion.

Brown put a hand on Peter’s arm and Peter slowly led him to the cart. This house of welcome seemed cold. Those doors now firmly locked. They returned to the buggy and Peter drove them out of the Carpenter’s premises. The long journey back gave Brown sufficient time to settle down.

“Now that I’ve finally found her, I want Rosie to come home to live with us, Peter. I must write to Emma at once.”

“Tell me, please, how did it all happen?”

“How did it happen?”

“Yes, Farmer Brown, how did it happen?”

“Well, I took Jim for a walk as you already know.”

“Hmm.”

“Then after a bit of chat-chat about the weather and our farms generally, I broached the subject. I took my wallet out and simply showed him Rosie’s picture. He didn’t say anything for a very long time and then he said, ‘who’re you? How did you get hold of this picture in that dress?’ I said, because this is my Rosie and I believe your Rose and my Rosie are the same people.’ ‘I need to sit down,’ he said, ‘Oh God, give me some breathing space.’ So he sat down and I, beside him until he found his bearings back. ‘Yes, yes, we brought her home in that dress. She had grown out of that dress by then but it still fitted her, a tight fit that is; even after three years. Rose was eight at the time. They don’t feed them much in that orphanage you know?’ He said and I said, ‘I know, I know all about Badgerys’ Creek orphanage.’ ‘You do? Hey, you do, right?’ He said. ‘Then you must also know that Rose is ours now. No power in this world can take her from us. We adopted her legally from the orphanage.’ ‘Is that a threat?’ I asked. By now, I started to panic, trying to get Rosie back from him. ‘You do know that Rosie was stolen from us.’ I said.’ Stolen? No, no I don’t. They never told us anything about her past,’ he said. ‘Well, one day when we are both a little calmer, I shall tell you all about it. For now let’s just go back to Rosie,’ I said. ’Lydia, Lydia would still have that dress in the closet somewhere.’ He was panicking too, you see. ‘I don’t need to see it. I only want to know if this is my Rosie.’ Farmer Brown paused and Peter looked at him through the corner of his eyes. He nodded and kept nodding reinforcing his belief.

“I had only one thing on my mind, Peter. To find out for sure, if indeed that was my little girl.”

The evening had mellowed by now. Night falling gradually over the shadow of the distant mist. Peter had a strange thought that had nothing do with these worldly affairs. He thought what if every life on earth stopped giving birth. He envisaged a world where the old would die and ‘Time’ would still continue to rule but, a subjectless state—an empty planet; a ghastly, empty, blue planet, just like the red or the frozen, the dwarf or any of the other planets in the universe, without a speck of life. What sort of a world would that be? Seeing Peter engrossed in thoughts, Brown said nothing.

“Now that you’ve found Rose, are you any wiser?” asked Peter suddenly.

Brown was pensive for a while and then replied quietly.

“Well, I should’ve thought of the orphanage. I don’t know why I didn’t at the time. I relied on the police to find her and just happy in the thought that Rose’s body wasn’t found. To me, it meant she was alive. What more could I had asked for? What a fool, I have been!”

“Yeah, I just hope it’s not too late to bring Rose home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Rose has a home. A safe house that has protected her all those years. Why would she leave it?

“Because, I’m her biological father.”

“And they raised her with all the love they could muster; a choice between infinite love and kinship? What’s it going to be?”

“Blood’s always thicker, no matter what happens.”

“Orphanage is not a safe-haven. You should’ve done better and looked for her there. The Carpenters saved Rose from their atrocities.”

Brown remained quiet.

“We need to get home. I am drained,” Brown said.

“So am I.”

***

Dusk had fallen over the gum-trees along the side-road. The horse rode through dirt and pebbles over the uneven tract. The drive was lonely and dark. Brown struck a match in the dark and bent over to light a small lantern, hanging by the carriage.

“Do you think Rose knows by now?” Brown asked twiddling his thumb somewhat.

“I really don’t know,” Peter said honestly.

Brown kept up his gaze as the horses darted down the dirt road. He speculated that Rosie must be thrilled to hear about the existence of her biological father.

“We must make another trip tomorrow to Emma’s parents’ house.”

“Is that where she is?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“You don’t know that. You haven’t been in touch since she left you.”

“We’ll send a telegram before we go. I have their address somewhere.”

“Are your parents-in-law still alive?”

“Don’t know. Doesn’t seem like it. It has been a long thirty years, now.”

“When Emma left, you were still young. Why did you not take another wife?”

“Another wife? Emma’s the only one for me; my love of life.”

Peter felt foolish. Love was something he hadn’t factored in.

“How does one feel when in love?”

“You’ll know. You feel anything for Rose?”

“She’s a beauty,” Peter smiled.

“She looks like Emma when I first met her, an angel in the garden of Eden. I was smitten and I still am,” Brown nodded.

They were home. Peter drove in through the gates of the farm and parked the cart up at the door. He jumped off as did Brown and both of them dismantled the horse and walked it inside the stable by the barn. Then they entered through the kitchen door, as the farm slept in silence. Through the kitchen, they plodded up the staircase; Brown in the lead and Peter right behind.

***

The next morning Brown woke up with smile on his face. Much work needed to be done today. First and foremost was to get in touch with Emma. He sat down to write a letter and found Emma’s parents’ address. His loyalty for Emma was unquestionable; he wrote several drafts and crunched them up in paper balls. At last he wrote:

Dear Emma,

I know it has been a long thirty years since you left me. You were angry with me because I couldnt find little Rosie. Well! I have news. Good news. I hope this will find you in good health. Oh! Emma, Emma Brown. Guess what? I found Rose. I found her for you, my darling little bird. She is well. She has grown into a beautiful, confident lady.

Yours forever,

Brown

PS: Please write back to me as soon as you receive this.

Brown sat with the note in his hand for a while thinking of mailing it in the afternoon post. In the unlikely event of Jim not passing on this vital information to Rose, it would have a harrowing effect in all families. To avoid this, something else needed to be planned. This time around, Brown must do it right. Then he thought of Peter. What if Peter could be persuaded into a relationship with Rose? Cupid’s bow must cast a stiff bull’s eye. He went downstairs to search for Peter. Peter was in the sty mixing fodder for the pigs. Bent deep over the hog trough, his arms stirred the corn and the soybean meal. He realised much later that Brown had entered.

“What’s up?” he asked looking up at Brown.

“I’m sending a letter to Emma.”

“Good.”

By now Peter stood straight up.

“Something needs to be done. Rose must see her mum.”

“Of course she must.”

“I got a plan.”

“Well?”

“Marry Rose.”

“Are you crazy? She’ll never have me this way.”

“Why not? Can you think of another plan?”

“One day, I’ll start a business and you’ll be a part of it.”

“Sounds good. What about Rose?”

“Let me handle this. Now, you go inside and make yourself a nice cuppa. By the looks of it, you didn’t get any sleep last night, did ye’ now?”

Brown scratched his stubble slovenly and looked at Peter’s honest to goodness face.

“Trust me,” Peter whispered.

“I trust you, Peter, you’re the best thing that’s happened to me after Rose and Emma.”

Brown left after that and Peter sat down beside the wallowing pigs. The first thing that came to his mind was to make money. He had heard about the gold-rush and people’s mad punting over it in New South Wales. He decided to join them in search for gold before he proposed to marry Rose Brown. At the moment, she was Rose Carpenter but soon to be wedded to Peter Baxter, becoming Rose Baxter. Whats in a name?

 


Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning, internationally published and critically acclaimed author. She has written Novels, Novella, Short Stories, Creative Nonfiction, Flash Fiction, Academic, Prose Poetry, Memoirs, Essays and Journalistic Write-Ups. Her works have been translated in German, Greek and Bengali. She was born and raised in Bangladesh. At the moment, she lives in Australia.

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