IT HAD BEEN A CLEAN-HOUSE MARATHON since Rukky woke up that morning, bright, early, hyperactive and with a solemn-faced announcement that they were going to clean up every inch of their house.
And true to his word, no part of the house had been left out – bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen –even the veranda and garage had not been spared. Right now they were in the living room, where they’d been dusting, adjusting, re-dusting and resetting all furniture.
Stella was not only tired but thoroughly exasperated.
“I am tired and I need a break.” She glared at her brother who was dusting for the third time the silver, steel-frame TV stand and all its occupants.
“We can’t take a break until we have finished.” Rukky replied using his finger to check for dust as he’d seen grandma do a couple of times. There were no dust flecks on his finger tips but still he smoothed the off-white napkin over the surface of the TV screen.
“We have finished. We are just repeating ourselves.” Stella retorted wearily, letting the wet napkin in her hand drop to the rug.
“Hey, pick that up.” Rukky cried staring at the wet rag with a horrified expression. “It’s going to wet the rug and make it dirty.”
Stella rolled her eyes. “It can’t make the rug dirty, silly. It’s not even dirty itself.” All the same she bent and picked up the wet napkin, tossed it back into her small bucket of water and lifted the grey coloured plastic bucket. “I’m not dusting anymore, I’m going to the kitchen to get myself a drink.” She headed towards the kitchen. “Besides we are expecting Miss Elizabeth not Queen Elizabeth.”
Rukky gave the TV area one last look over, deciding it was clean enough, he turned and hastened after his sister.
“I don’t know who Queen Elizabeth is, but Miss Elizabeth is very important and she will be here soon.” He responded smartly as he followed her through the kitchen door. “And she likes everywhere spick and span.” He borrowed Miss Elizabeth’s favourite word. It was one she used whenever she instructed them to clean up the classroom.
“Are you guys done with the sitting room at last?” Caleb smirked from the sink where he was washing up the dishes.
He’d left them to do most of the Rukky-assigned chores and busied himself with cleaning up the kitchen and preparing breakfast. A breakfast Rukky had rushed them through with constant cries of, ‘let’s hurry up, we have a lot to do’.
“I am done.” Stella said marching to the family-size refrigerator. “Rukky can continue o, but me, I’m done.” She drew out the pack of orange juice and closed the refrigerator.
“Is that what you are wearing, daddy?”
Caleb dropped the plate he’d just rinsed out into the plate-rack and turned to Rukky. He was staring at him with narrowed, disapproving eyes. He bent his head to look at himself. The lavender Polo-shirt and stone-wash blue jeans were old and a little worn but they didn’t look at that bad… in his opinion.
“What’s wrong with my clothes? They are my usual stay-at-home Saturday wears.” He returned puzzled eyes to him.
Rukky rolled his eyes. “They are old, torn and ripped.” He said the last word with emphasis.
“Ripped?” Caleb looked down again. Yes, there were a few tears but nothing major. “Ripped is nice and en vogue, son.” He flashed a wink.
Rukky masterfully arched his brows, folding his hands across his sky-blue T-shirt. “Ripped is silly, childish and only for mad people – you told us so.”
“That is true – you said so.” Stella affirmed from the slab where she was now sipping her chilled glass of juice.
Caleb muttered something under his breath. Of course he’d told them so when Rukky had suddenly developed an uncanny interest in a pair of ripped jeans they’d seen at a clothing store. He’d had this disturbing image of him coming back home at sixteen staggering and bouncing, dressed up like a rap-crazed delinquent.
Rukky inclined his head, appreciating his sister’s support. “Daddy, the point is you can’t wear those old, ugly clothes today… we are expecting a guest.”
“A very important guest.” Stella chimed in cheerfully.
Caleb snorted out a laugh. “Are you two serious?”
But Rukky wasn’t amused. He was dead serious. This was a very important day and they were both joking about it. “I’m serious, daddy. You always say that we should dress properly and be presentable whenever a visitor is coming.” He argued with a serious voice. “Miss Elizabeth is a visitor.”
“I am properly dressed.” Caleb spluttered tossing up his hands in exasperation.
“You are wearing old, ripped clothes.” Rukky rejoined defiantly.
“This is a clean shirt and a pair of clean trousers. They are proper clothes. And the… rips are not even that noticeable.” Caleb declared.
“They are old, ugly and… ripped.” Rukky disputed repeating his new favourite word. “You have to change. And you have to change now. She will be here soon.” He pulled his father by the arm. “I checked the clock, the long hand is already on two, that means it’s ten minutes past twelve. So hurry up.”
Caleb refused to bulge. “I’m not going to change just because Miss Elizabeth is coming. She’s here to teach you not carry out a fire-brigade inspection of the house or my dressing for that matter.”
“I hate to do this daddy, but I totally agree with him on this one.” Stella said twirling her glass. “You have to change those clothes. The rips are noticeable – I can even count four just from here.” When her father glared at her, she shrugged. “Besides you don’t want to look like a mad man, do you?”
“They are work-at-home clothes.” Caleb was utterly exasperated now.
“Change them, daddy.” They both said imperiously, pointing to the door.
“I don’t believe this.” Caleb glared at them. “And will you two stop pointing at the door and giving me orders?”
Their hands quickly went down, even as they stifled back giggles. “Sorry, daddy.”
“But still you have to change, please daddy?” Rukky added, puppy-eyed.
“Fine.” Caleb capitulated whooshing out a breath. “I’m going to change but only because we are expecting a guest and not because you two bossy fellows told me to.” He marched towards the door. “You two finish washing the dishes… that’s your punishment for nagging me.”
“Oh no!” Stella let out a weary groan.
Rukky only smiled. “Let’s hurry up, she’ll be here any moment.” He was already striding towards the sink.
A muttering Stella followed him, wishing now she hadn’t supported her brother.
By the time the soft knock came at the door, it was exactly 12:23pm and they were all looking properly dressed and presentable. Rukky was allowed to do the honours of opening the door.
“Good afternoon, Miss Elizabeth.” He greeted with a bright smile stepping back from the door to allow her in.
“Good afternoon, Rukky.” Elizabeth smiled at his usual impeccable manners. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
She stepped into the living room. It wasn’t a large room, but it wasn’t small either. It was tastefully furnished though – chocolate-brown leather settee set, a 32̎ TV on a silver, steel-frame stand with a DVD player underneath, a Persian rung covering the centre part of the room and other exposed parts showed off mosaic marble tiles. There were two portrait artworks on the wall and some framed family pictures on the wall around the TV area.
She stared at the pretty, smiling fair complexioned women sitting beside Caleb, who had a small girl in his hand. She had a baby in her hand – no doubt Rukky. What a pretty woman she had been – having no doubt that was his late wife. Now she knew where Rukky got his soft, almost-girlish-pretty look from.
Her eyes swept from the pictures over the drawn organza drapes to the drooping crystal chandelier and then down to Stella who was smiling shyly at her.
“Good afternoon, Miss Elizabeth.” She greeted.
“Hello Stella, how are you?” She responded with a smile.
“I’m fine, thank you ma’am.” Stella smiled resuming her seat.
Elizabeth turned to the Caleb who’d gotten up from the seat beside Stella.
“Good afternoon, sir.” She greeted softly.
Caleb came towards her, a smile on his lips. She was clad in a sapphire-blue knee-length denim button-down dress which was flared at the mid-riff and shaped by a belt. It was a simple enough dress, yet it looked so spectacular on her, especially as she finished it with a pair of black peep-toe wedge sandals. As usual she had on her natural hair, not weaves and it was packed up in chignon style showing off the flawless, smooth skin of her long neck.
“Hello, Miss Elizabeth.” He greeted hoping his smile was not as shaky as his heartbeat. “You are welcome to our home. I’m so grateful that you can make time to do this.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “It is my duty, sir. I am his teacher after all.” She smoothened her suddenly damp palm over the smooth satiny surface of her handbag. It didn’t help, only felt clammier.
Why did she always have to feel so nervous before this man?
“Err, I suggest we begin immediately if that’s all right with you, sir.” She said, needing to move away and regain her equilibrium. “It’s almost time.”
“But of course.” Caleb nodded. “Rukky, go grab your books and take them outside.”
“They are already in the garage, daddy.” Rukky said moving ahead of them to open the door and step out.
“Ah, a ready student.” Caleb smiled at Elizabeth. “This way please.” He gestured to the door and waited for her to step out before giving Stella a wink and shutting the door.
“You don’t mind using the garage, do you?” He asked as they walked along the tiled veranda following a humming, excitedly-trotting Rukky. “I parked my car outside to give you ample space.”
“Not at all.” Elizabeth glanced at the navy-blue Ford Edge parked right in front of the top-to-bottom protective steel gate. “Anywhere is totally convenient for me.”
“Even if it’s the restroom?” Caleb joked eyes twinkling.
Elizabeth gave him a sideways glance and saw the twinkling dark eyes. “Anywhere but there.” She smiled back.
They got to the garage which was attached to the side of their own apartment building, acting as a wall fence separating them from the other house. She followed Rukky inside. It was an inter-locked floored room, only large enough to hold one car. There was a whiteboard standing on a tripod at the end of the room and beside it, a plastic chair and table and a smaller set right in front of the board.
The small desk had books, a pencil and a biro on it and Rukky was already sliding behind it to sit on the chair.
“Wow! You seem to have gone to a lot of trouble sir.” She commented impressed with the clean, carefully set up room.
“No trouble at all. Just trying to make sure you two have a comfortable enough learning… and teaching environment.” Caleb smiled. “And you know, I’d feel less ancient if you’ll just call me Caleb… please?”
Elizabeth laughed at his pleading look. “Alright sir… Caleb. And you can call me Elizabeth… Miss Elizabeth is for the kids.”
Though his head was bent over his books, Rukky could hear them clearly and a ripple of pleasure rushed through him, everything seemed to be going well already.
Caleb flashed her a grin. “Well, I guess I’d better live you guys then, Elizabeth. Listen and learn.” He said to his son, waving as he turned and hobbled out.
Elizabeth watched him as he limped out of the garage. He had this way of walking his limp that gave his lean, muscled build a kind of seductive fluid-like flow as he moved. Straight down from his strong, firm neck, to his visible muscled back in that gorgeous body-hugging tan T-shirt and the snugly-fitting chinos trousers that so…
She stopped herself. What was she doing looking at her pupil’s parent for heaven’s sake? Not even bothering to answer her own question, she turned around to find Rukky looking at her with a sunny smile on his face. A quick flush came over her and she cleared her throat and moved forward until she was standing in front of the board.
“Err… I think we are set to begin.” She said doing her best not to let her chagrin show. “And I suggest we begin with maths, what do you think?”
“It’s okay, Miss Elizabeth, we can begin from there.” Rukky grinned at her.
She didn’t know why, but she just had an odd feeling the boy had a secret reason for grinning in that over-cheerful manner.
Nodding her head, she turned to face the board, ordering herself to be calm and sensible and stop thinking about Caleb.
At five minutes past two, they were both walking through the front door again.
“Okay Rukky, I should be on my way now. Why don’t you go tell your daddy that we are through and that I’m all set to go?” She suggested noticing that the living room was empty.
“Daddy is here.” Caleb strode in through the connecting door she supposed led into the kitchen, wiping his hand with a dampish towel. A mouth-watering aroma followed him through the open door.
“So, how was it today, champ? Getting less confused?” He grinned down at his son.
Elizabeth smiled even as Rukky giggled at his father’s light poke on his side. Gosh, he was so easy and free with the kids, what a great father.
“Yes sir.” Rukky responding, then recalling they might think that means lessons will soon be over, he quickly amended. “I mean I’m understanding the lessons more now. I still have a lot of learning to do.”
Caleb pursed his lips. “Hmmm, I guess you do. Meanwhile, have you said thank you to Miss Elizabeth for today?”
“I have.” Rukky nodded smiling. “But I can do it again – thank you, Miss Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth laughed. “You are most welcome, Rukky.” She patted his back before turning to Caleb. “I have to be on my way, sir… err… Caleb.”
“Why don’t you join us for lunch? It’s ready and it’s Semovita and Vegetable soup.” Caleb heard himself say.
He hadn’t planned to and was surprised that he did.
He wasn’t the only one surprised by his spontaneous invitation, Elizabeth was too. She stood there mouth open for a second before she recollected her manners and managed a smile. “Err… I’m sorry…” she searched her mind for a plausible excuse.
“Yes please, Miss Elizabeth, join us.” Rukky urged before she could find one, looking up at her with beseeching eyes. “Daddy is a really great cook and the vegetable soup is so delicious, he made it yesterday.”
Elizabeth turned from him and looked at Caleb helplessly, he only shrugged.
“I don’t know about great cook but we’d like you to join us please.” He smiled engagingly.
“It’s true, daddy is a great cook and the soup is very, very delicious.” Stella said from the kitchen. “And I’m already bringing out a plate for you.” She added.
True enough the sound of breakable plate followed her announcement.
Caleb chuckled, shaking his head at her. “She has brought out a plate for you – you can’t say no now. The kids will be really disappointed and I will take it personal – every great cook wants their food appreciated not rejected.”
Elizabeth angled her head. “I thought you weren’t sure if you were a great cook.”
He lifted his brows innocently. “Well, I got two people saying I am… who am I to doubt their judgement?”
She laughed, shaking her head. She’d been cornered and there was no polite way to get out of it. “Well, I’d hate to disappoint the kids and have you hold something personally against me…” Caleb chuckled. “So, I accept your invitation, thank you.”
“Yes.” Rukky cried out with a gleeful jump, dropping his bag on the sofa and rushing off into the kitchen.
Caleb and Elizabeth laughed and she followed his lead by dropping her handbag on the sofa and smiling at a waiting Caleb as she went past him into the kitchen.
The kitchen was rather large, larger than the living room but like the living room it was tastefully furnished. Which told Elizabeth that either the late wife was a lover of tasteful furnishing or Caleb was, either way, the kitchen was a sight to behold. Terrazzo tiles on the floor, a granite surface-tiled slab just by the kitchen, cherry-red oak finished cabinets on the wall, a large silver steel plate rack on the slab adjoining the sink. And at the other end, a ash-coloured massive refrigerator and then just a few feet away, a six-person seating dark oak dining table set.
It was a lovely kitchen… one she would enjoy to cook in.
She walked towards the table where Stella was setting up plates and Rukky was pulling out a chair. “Well done.” She smiled gently at the girl.
“Thank you.” Stella smiled back.
Caleb marched to the granite slab and grabbed the two large dishes on it.
“Oh, let me help you with those.” Elizabeth offered coming forward.
“Absolutely not.” Caleb shook his head sweeping past her. “Just come over and take a seat, you are a guest and we will serve you.”
“You can sit down here, Miss Elizabeth.” Rukky said offering up his usual seat beside his father and sliding into the next chair.
Elizabeth smiled at him and slid into the chair. “Thank you, Rukky. And you too, Stella.”
The girl had taken the seat to her father’s left.
Caleb did the honours of serving everyone their food before he took his seat at the head of the table. “Rukky, could you please say the grace?”
All at once he linked his hand with Stella’s and extended the right to Elizabeth, she slipped hers into it and tried not to dwell on the warm firmness of his palm as Rukky linked their own and all bowed their heads in a prayerful pose.
“Bless this food, O Lord for Christ’s sake.” Rukky prayed in a solemn composed voice.
“Amen.” They all chorused.
Caleb passed her one of the washing bowls, she washed her hands and passed it back to him with a quiet, ‘thank you’.
Bending her head over her plates, she moulded a lump of Semovita, rolling it in the soup, she raised her hand to her mouth and swallowed, savouring the taste of the soup as she did.
“Hmm, this is truly delicious. I can now join the other two to confirm that you are indeed a great cook, Caleb.” She raised her head to smile at him.
“Well, thank you Elizabeth.” Caleb smiled trying not to notice his rush of pleasure at her compliment.
“We told you he was, Miss Elizabeth.” Rukky beamed dropping a small mound of Semovita rolled up in vegetable into his mouth.
“Shhh, no talking while eating or you might choke.” Stella admonished.
Elizabeth and Caleb exchanged a glance and she felt a light tug just under her belly button when he winked at her. Feeling the tingling pull, she quickly adjusted her gaze and bent her head to focus on the amazingly delicious meal.
Caleb turned to his own food, telling himself he wasn’t trying to flirt with Miss Elizabeth… he couldn’t do that, not in front of his kids… besides he wasn’t even interested in her… or in any other woman alive for that matter.
And if the flickering sensations he always got whenever she smiled called him a liar, he chose to ignore it.