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'The Tablet' - Raihanaty A Jalil

On The Page is a series of writing and poetry submitted to the Centre for Stories as part of the 2019 Centre for Stories Inclusion Matters Hot Desk Fellowship.

Raihanaty A Jalil has been a high school teacher, a trader, hoon, poet, rapper, trainer, and speaker. Rai aspires to be a ‘”master of one”—writing continues to remain an underlying passion that, like water, forever quenching the thirst of her eclectic spirit.

Get to know more about Raihanaty here.


The Tablet by Raihanaty A Jalil

She felt a dull ache in her chest at the sight of the object in her daughter’s hands.

“Mummy, look what I can do on my tablet!” Sakeena said, her voice cooing, her eyes ablaze.

“Oh, let’s see.” She crouched to her daughter’s height, pretending to take a closer look, her cheerful voice a mask. “That’s amazing, baby! So what’s happening now?”

She led Sakeena to their suede two-seater, lifting her up onto her lap as she rattled away about the game she was playing. Her eyes caught sight of the rainbow coloured stains on the armrest that displayed her daughter’s artistic potential—she made a mental note that it may be time for another drive around the affluent suburbs in springtime.

The couch was a lucky find about three years ago, discarded on the roadside during the spring cleaning season. She had learnt that you could get near-new items if you drove to the “nicer” suburbs. It baffled her how anyone could toss away things that were in perfect condition. Yet she was grateful such a world existed—thankful for the free, mismatched pieces that furnished their humble home.

She looked over Sakeena’s shoulders, stroking her curly hair, listening intently to her animated descriptions of the kitten’s adventures to find its lost ball of string and the friends it was making along the way.

All the while, the guilt, the sense of failure persisted. It permeated up to her tightening throat at the sight of Sakeena’s possession—the size of half an A4 page, with its visible dents and punctures dispersed like chickenpox. How passionately she wished she could give her child the very best and provide her with a better life than she had had.

“Oh no, Mummy, my tablet’s stopped working!” Sakeena said, her lips pouting, two brown orbs peering up at her for help.

“Let me take a look, baby…” She took her daughter’s toy and placed it against her ear as if listening to hear what may be wrong. She then pressed her index finger at the top right corner before saying, “It sounds like it’s exhausted, but let’s see if it’s better after a quick rest.”

“Mummy, you fixed it!” Sakeena said, her eyes adoring before she made several taps on the front and returned to her game.

She smiled and gave her daughter a tight squeeze, her heart momentarily filling with peace. They had chosen their daughter’s name well, Sakeena meaning “tranquility”. She needed tranquility in her life, especially now that it was just the two of them.

She and her husband had moved to Australia shortly after getting married. They had come for a better life—a fresh start in a land that at least offered them safety. They came with nothing but the clothes on their back and wide smiles of optimism.

Although they had both completed law degrees in their war-torn homeland, their qualifications were not recognised, so they did what they could to create a happy home. But life became even harder after she lost him in a car accident while he was on his way home from a late night shift at McDonald’s.

She felt a buzz in the pocket of her fading blue denim jeans and pulled out the $30 phone she’d gotten for half price at a grocery store. It was a reminder about playgroup resuming for the term. She pushed hard on the stubborn, often unresponsive display to look at the calendar and realised her daughter would be turning four in a couple of months.

Determination pooled within her, a decision made that she had to get her daughter a new tablet for her birthday—to make up for their bare, shoebox flat that was devoid of the bursts of colour from scattered toys you normally saw in other homes with children.

But how?

The question hung in her mind, suspended between skepticism and faith. She couldn’t work—couldn’t afford daycare and didn’t have the support of family who were dispersed around the world in countries who happened, at the time, to give them asylum.

So her life was at the mercy of God’s Will—she would ask Him for guidance today.

 

“Baby, leave your tablet at home. There’ll be lots of other toys you can play with,” she said to Sakeena, who reluctantly placed her most beloved possession on the couch.

Once again, her words masked a truth her daughter would be too young to understand—the desire to save them from embarrassment.

It was Friday, a day they both looked forward to, a chance to get out of the house to attend a multicultural playgroup that was held at a local community centre. Free entry, free coffee and biscuits, and free play with toys she could never afford to give Sakeena. But she would make up for it this year with a new tablet.

“Did you get the message that Sunday classes are starting up again this weekend?” another mother asked her, whose son attended the same prayer hall.

Her eyes still fixed on her daughter singing along to “You can stamp your feet” led by the playgroup facilitator, she shook her head. This action unexpectedly sparked an idea, as if the motion had unscrambled her thoughts. She turned to her friend, her expression hopeful and asked, “Will there be food stalls?”

“Except in winter, pretty sure there should be.”

Samosas, she thought to herself, but aloud said, “Great! Thanks so much for reminding me.”

 

She stood at the checkout of a supermarket, Sakeena sitting patiently in the trolley singing the song she had learnt earlier. She placed the goods she would need on the black conveyor belt. She had sought out unbranded frozen peas, pastry sheets and a bulk bag of potatoes to make the samosas. They would have to be vegetarian to reduce her costs and thus increase her profits.

Unconsciously, she tapped her card on the EFTPOS machine when told the amount due.

“I’m sorry, your card was declined…” The teenage girl behind the counter spoke with hesitation, interrupting her trance-like state.

Her cheeks flushed. “I think I left the right card at home…” she said, exaggerating the inspection of her card’s expiry. “How much did you say it was again?”

“$15.70.”

Beads of sweat formed on her forehead as she checked her purse, remembering that her Centrelink payment wouldn’t be due for a few more days. Amidst cards and old receipts, she finally found a creased ten-dollar bill.

“I’ll leave out the juice boxes,” she said as she handed the lonely blue plastic note. She swallowed back a pool of emotion, the sense of failure as a parent returning with fervour—to have to sacrifice the one treat she liked to give Sakeena.

 

She tucked Sakeena into bed that night and read her a picture book from the library. As expected, her calm and soothing tones lulled her daughter to sleep.

Her preparations could now begin.

She peeled and soaked enough potatoes to make several batches over the weeks ahead, boiling and mashing them into a smooth consistency. She then mixed in the peas, garam masala, turmeric, chilli powder and salt. She placed one spoonful of mash at a time in the centre of the defrosted, pre-cut pastry sheets. It was near midnight before she was done, freezing the stuffed triangles, ready to be fried Sunday morning.

She woke up early that Sunday while Sakeena was still asleep, offering a prayer of thanks prior to the crack of dawn before she got to work. It took over an hour to fry the fifty samosas; she silently prayed they would stay crisp through to noon when the food stalls typically wound down. If she sold them for a dollar each and assuming she sold out each week, it should accumulate to just enough to afford the tablet. Furthermore, she’d discovered people sold new tablets on Gumtree and eBay for cheaper, which further nurtured her sense of hope.

This became her routine each weekend over the next six weeks. The first week had gone extremely smoothly, every samosa finding the happy home of a satisfied tummy. She received praise after praise for their tantalising taste, many customers returning for more.

Although some Sundays were attended by fewer people due to the autumn weather feeling more like winter, things appeared promising when she checked her figures.

She kept records of all her costs and revenues each week in a notepad that was a freebie from an information session on mental health, and she kept her earnings in a money tin that couldn’t be opened except with a can opener. She liked to look at the hundred-dollar note that embellished the otherwise plain aluminium cylinder that she’d found at the two-dollar store—it fuelled her aspirations.

 

It was now two weeks before Sakeena’s fourth birthday. On her way out to playgroup that Friday, she noticed her letterbox stuffed to the brim. She felt an involuntary inkling of stress; she had grown reluctant to open her mail, fearing it may be another overdue notice. She was already on a few payment plans and on the Hardship Utility Grant Scheme. The sight almost felt like an omen, but she pushed her anxiety aside, resolving to address her mail on the way back.

She reversed out of the driveway onto the narrow road of their quiet neighbourhood and cruised at a steady speed. A few minutes into the drive, her ears perked up to the sound of hissing. She hadn’t serviced her car for a while; she knew it was overdue.

But when her sun-damaged, green hatchback began to move unsteadily, concerned about the safety of Sakeena who was strapped in her car-seat in the back, she made a detour to her local mechanic.

“Two of your tyres need replacing,” he said, tracing his finger along the worn out grooves of the right front wheel. “See how the tread’s almost gone? The other one’s dangerously bald,” he said, a hint of warning in his voice, circling her car to the rear and pointing at the tyre on the left.

Although his words were routine and matter-of-fact, the effect of them was like a stab to her heart. Tears welled in her eyes, threatening to overflow.

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

Grief overcame her embarrassment; she allowed the pools in her eyes to create rivers down her cheeks. “How much?” she managed to ask through a faltering voice.

“Uh, depends on the quality. Normally at least a couple hundred each… But next door, they sell second-hand ones, so…” He averted his uncomfortable gaze from her tear-streaked face, staring into space, appearing to do some mental calculations in his head. “You could get both for only $200,” he said, his expression consoling.

Only $200… Six weeks and countless hours of preparation, hours standing outside of the prayer hall where Sakeena learnt the Arabic alphabet and heard stories of the Prophets of God. Six weeks of effort without fail, irrespective of the weather conditions, a bright and inviting expression plastered on her face, all amounting to just over $200. How careless people were with their words sometimes, but she didn’t blame them, because how could they know what her life was like?

She nodded and tried to compose herself, finally saying, “I’ll be back with the cash.”

 

“What’s wrong, Mummy?” Sakeena asked when they returned home.

“Mummy’s just sad that the car’s broken so we’re going to miss playgroup.”

“That’s okay, Mummy. It’s more fun playing on my tablet with you,” her daughter said, not realising her words were twisting the knife buried deep in her heart.

For the sake of Sakeena, she dried her eyes and wore a brave face as she cut open the money tin with trembling hands. In an attempt to save face after her breakdown, she made a stop at the bank to exchange the coins for notes.

She didn’t make samosas that weekend. But she continued going to Sunday classes and playgroup, clutching onto the semblance of normality for the sake of her mental well-being. She wondered sometimes if the other mums would notice that the light in her eyes had dimmed, but she supposed everyone was preoccupied with their own quiet tribulations.

It was the playgroup just before Sakeena’s big day that she decided to stay a little while longer and help the facilitator pack up—to distract herself from her own thoughts that would likely pull her into a depressed mood.

“Thanks so much for your help. It’s really not necessary,” the bubbly young woman said.

“I don’t mind at all. It gives Sakeena a bit more time with the toys,” she said with a smile and motioned to her daughter, who was having a lively conversation with a large, fluffy bunny-rabbit.

“Oh, that reminds me. I’ve been meaning to speak to you but it’s such a rush keeping the kids entertained and then packing up. I don’t know what you do at home with Sakeena…”

Her eyes widened in anticipation, worry creeping into her mind that something may be wrong with her daughter.

“…but she is far ahead of her years. She speaks like a five-year-old! And her imagination is incredible, it blows me away and always makes me smile. Whatever it is, I just wanted to say, you’re doing an amazing job. These years are so important for her future development.”

Her eyes welled up as she thanked the facilitator for her kind words that meant so much, in a time she needed to hear them the most.

As she drove home that noon, the puzzle of what it was that she did differently to other parents occupied her mind. She read Sakeena bedtime stories, but she was sure many parents did the same. And then the penny dropped.

Her daughter’s tablet.

It had been the year before that Sakeena had heard about tablets through one of the other kids at playgroup.

“Mummy, can I have a tablet?” she asked her one day, her innocent eyes imploring.

They were behind on rent at the time, so getting a tablet was an impossibility. It was by chance that she came across an abandoned, empty white box during her routine visit to an electronics store where she checked her emails on a Sunday when the library was closed. She took the box home and carefully cut out the picture of the white tablet that adorned the front. She presented it to her daughter, explaining that this tablet was more special than all the others because it could do whatever Sakeena wanted it to do, without any limits.

When they arrived home that day from playgroup, her lips trembled with emotion as she watched Sakeena’s spirited expressions and heard her bursts of delight, her head engrossed over the thick piece of cardboard she held in her hands. For the first time, she realised what she had given her daughter all this time—her time, her undivided attention and the opportunity to nourish her creativity and imagination.

That weekend, she made and sold another batch of samosas, and with the forty odd dollars she earned, she did end up getting Sakeena a tablet for her birthday—at least, it was a specially-made cake in the shape of one.

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