The memories came to him in a dazzling flood, almost sweeping him off his feet. He was standing there, at a staircase he had first seen as a child of three. The steps seemed less far apart. From what he remembered, it used to take three footsteps to complete each landing. Had they shrunk?
He tried descending the steps, watching his feet all the while. One of his strides covered two steps with ease. The hedge that enclosed the compound seemed shorter. A hedge that at the height of his youth, he had effortfully hurdled over.
Everything seemed smaller, almost shrunken.
He was back at his Nursery School.
After the steps there was a corridor. It had once been long. At least through his eyes, at a much younger age, it had seemed long. He pictured his short stocky former self running its entire length.
How he would start panting halfway through, his calves smarting, his collar hot. How he would push himself with an intent that only comes when one sees the shore; the end of one’s labours. How at the end, his friends would lock him into a momentary tight embrace and almost immediately shift focus onto the next approaching runner, cheering him or her on with equal zeal.
Standing at the middle of the corridor now, it didn’t seem much longer than his driveway.
Why was everything so small?
“Good afternoon Sir.”
He heard a voice from behind him say.
He turned and was met by a familiar face.
“I’m fine Madam. Do you remember me?”
She squinted her eyes.
Was it because of the cataracts that were beginning to form on them or was the squint a show of effort in her trying to revisit faces stored away in her memory?
He couldn’t quite tell.
“Nooot really…But you must have been a student here, no?”
“Yes. 1957 to 1959.”
“Wow! I must have been fresh out of university that time. I’m sorry. I was young and unsettled. I don’t quite remember anyone I taught then. I’m really sorry.”
“No worries. Could you show me the scene?”
She cringed. Her face, wrinkled and oily with age. Looking at it, he remembered the time when he would sit in class to learn the alphabet. The pictures of apples and oranges hung on the wall. Her face had been smooth like the backside of a baby. Like his backside…at the time at least.
“It’s… so sad,” she mumbled as she motioned to him to follow her lead.
She led him through classrooms. He couldn’t hide his fascination at how tiny the chairs and tables were. He managed to sneak a peek into one of the washrooms along the way. The toilet bowl could almost only fit his knee. What a sight!
Out on the field was a crowd gathered. People, all wearing sad faces.
He followed her, not daring to ask questions. He was used to this; the sadness of people around him as he worked. He had never quite gotten used to the grief that hung in the air though.
Surprisingly, the teacher’s gait had suffered only slightly from the ravages of time. She looked fit. This made him wonder how anyone would have the heart to wake up most days in a year, for close to sixty years, and listen to playful, rowdy toddlers. Toddlers who one was required to teach the ways of man, their language and common practice; like how to sit on a toilet or tie their shoelaces.
He did not think he had the patience for it.
They were now at the edge of the crowd. In a smooth solid motion, the crowd parted, giving them way. There was silence and only the sounds of the teacher’s and his feet on the wet grass.
There she lay. Her uniform drenched, her body limp. Her face pale, her skin pallid. Her chest raised, almost like she was inhaling. It was water, filled to the brim in her lungs and overflowed into her chest cavity.
Thankfully this time, the eyes were closed.
“The groundsman found her body floating, face down, in the water tank,” the teacher whispered to him as he bent down to examine the little girl’s body.
“How?” he painfully asked.
“One of the pupils had walked in with him in the morning, narrating their previous day’s escapades. The groundsman quoted to us what the child had said: ‘Santana was wrestling with water yesterday; I think she chose to sleep there.’”
He took pictures of the girl, the tank, the ladder leading to its top and pictures of the little chairs and toilets in the classrooms. Later in the day when he spoke with the boy who had earlier been quoted, the boy, with both his parents by his side had asked:
“Teacher told us Santana is dead. When will she be back from the hospital?”
That was the first day a tear wet his blue uniform.