My mother never looked at the beggars. They appeared every time traffic slowed to a stop on President’s Road, imploring with lips whose words we couldn't hear through the glass of the car's tinted windows. If you didn’t know her you would think she could not see them there. But each time they came her fists would tighten around the steering wheel as she stared straight ahead; that was the thing that gave her away. And when they moved on, finally convinced that the glass would not descend for them – or when the moving traffic forced them to scurry away – she would let her breath out in a hiss.
Me, I always looked at the beggars. I wanted to ask them about their lives, but I knew mother would sooner twist my lips with her fingers than let that happen. So I made do with tracing the lines on their faces with my mind’s hands, imagining what had etched them. In the few seconds that they stood there, I would give them a name, carve them a history, spin them a tragedy and, if I happened to like them, paint them a fairytale ending. Mother always said I was a strange one.
It was always the same when mother beggars came, sad-faced children clutched by the hand or nestled in their ashy bosoms. I would weave them a story of class and romance and conspiracy. She was always dirt poor; she always fell in love with a young prince; his family always stood in their way, separating them by some demonically clever means, and she was always pregnant by the time this happened, and he always never knew. It didn’t matter if the beggar was light or dark-skinned, fat or thin, old or young. And the story always ended with the prince finding them, like now in traffic, and taking them home, where they would defy his family and all the odds and end up happy ever after.
This one carried her baby on her back, fastened with a length of brown cloth. She had a handwritten sign pinned to her blouse and I squinted as I read: DEF AND DUMP WITH CHILD NO FATHER. I created my fantasy while mother strangled the steering wheel. Satisfied that the occupants of our car were indeed heartless and would give no money, the beggar turned to leave. As she started to walk to the car in front of ours a power bike roared up from behind, speeding between the rows of cars, heading toward her. She acted fast, flattening herself against the hood of mother’s car as the bike sped past. Mother scrunched up her nose as the beggar’s body touched her car. The beggar woman spread her fingers at the rider’s back – waka, God punish you – as he and his bike faded into the distance.
Mother’s eyes followed the beggar woman as she walked on. I watched mother watch the woman because, well, mother never looked at the beggars. My regular story for mother beggars would not be enough now. This woman had made mother look, so she had to be special. She deserved a different story. I smiled at my own generosity. The beggar would never know or appreciate it, but that didn’t matter. Her special, different story would exist. I just needed to decide what it would be.
Mother rushed out of the car just as the traffic lights turned green, darting between vehicles to chase after the beggar woman who was hurrying out of the way. The drivers stuck behind mother’s car were leaning on their horns.
Wait, did mother know the beggar?
A minute or so later mother emerged from the side street she had disappeared into in her pursuit. Mother is like a book of codes and symbols; if you know where and how to look you can read her. I have learnt all the faces of mother. As she hurried back to the car she was wearing the face she always had when she was forced to be wrong because someone else was right.
Mother got into the car, ignoring the glares from passing drivers. She sped off with her tires squealing on the asphalt, as though to make up for the time spent chasing the beggar. I stared ahead and did not ask what she was wrong about this time. If I did she would never tell. I pretended not to see her glance at me from the corner of her eye.
‘I thought the baby with that woman was your sister,’ she said. ‘She looked exactly like your sister.’
It was safe to look at mother now, so I did. She had on the face she used to defend herself when she fought with dad.
‘Don’t look at me like that,’ mother said. ‘Strange things happen in this country, don’t you know? One woman left her baby at home with her nanny one day, only to find the baby at a Mama Put at Mile 12 Market with some woman she didn't know...'
I put on my listening face for mother and let her voice fade into the background. I made up stories and mother saw things. We were not so different after all.