May sat at the dining table, her eyes lowered as she waited for everybody else to take their seats.
“Mami, where’s my new pair of jeans?” Juliet asked in her native Swiss-German as she walked through the door. “Who’s this?” she asked again, pointing to the young girl who was looking at her with a confused expression on her face. What did she just say to Mrs Buhler?
“Sit down and I’ll tell you,” Mami replied as she looked at the rest of her brood.
When everyone had settled down, Mami reached for May’s hand that was resting on her lap, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Everybody listen, I want you to meet May Wong-Stewart. She is the step-daughter of my cousin, Elsie, who sadly met with an accident with her husband last month.” She spoke in English for May’s benefit. Turning to the young girl sitting quietly beside her, her voice grew heavy with regret, “I wasn’t informed of the funeral or I would’ve gone to see them one last time. I’m so sorry, May.”
May’s eyes watered but she still managed to put on a brave front, although the sympathetic look on the older woman’s face was more than she could bear. For a thirteen-year-old, going on to fourteen, she had handled the deaths of her parents really well.
“Elsie and Douglas had appointed me as May’s guardian until she turns eighteen, so she will be staying with us from now on.” Mami looked around the table to see the reactions on the faces of her children. She could see that they were struggling to digest this bit of information.
“Why you? Haven’t you had enough on your hands taking care of all of us?” Urs, her eldest son asked as he looked at the young girl with steely gaze. May lowered her eyes when she caught his look and Mami could feel her trembling a little as she was still holding the girl’s hand.
“Hush, son! This subject is not up for discussion. Juliet, you will share your room with May. I will add another single bed to your room, and if there is space, another wardrobe. Now, food is getting cold. Let’s say grace.”
Urs lowered his head and held the hands of his siblings seated on both sides of him as he thanked the Lord for putting food on the table. Usually he would have lots of things to tell the Lord, sometimes making his mother and siblings laugh, but tonight he was brief and curt, and May was under no illusion that it was normal even if this was the first time she sat at the table.
Dinner resumed with quiet chatter as the family talked about the day’s activities. May glanced from one member of the family to another but largely avoided looking at Urs Buhler. At twenty-one, he was an imposing figure at the head of the table but she could tell that the head of the household was surely his mother. Mrs Buhler only had to utter some stern words and the squabbling among the siblings would stop. Even though her stepmother had thought her some German, May still found it difficult to grasp what these people were talking about in their native Swiss German.
Juliet, a fifteen-year-old girl with short curly locks, was the only one who tried to engage the new addition to the family in casual conversation. Her other brother, Joshua, was busy relating his day at a part-time job to their mother, the serious-looking eldest brother and his elder sister, Lynette.
“Do you go to school?” Juliet enquired in English laced with Swiss accent as she peered at the girl sitting next to her. What big eyes she has, Juliet thought. They were indeed big, but slanted slightly upwards at the corners, a typical Chinese feature. If not for the straight, pointed nose and the fair complexion, she would’ve looked like a pure Chinese instead of a Eurasian of British-Chinese descent.
“Yes, I study music at the Royal Academy of Music in London,” May replied in a small lilting voice, capturing the attention of the other siblings. It was the first time she spoke since meeting them at the table, and as they stared at her, she lowered her gaze from them wondering if she had just said something stupid or offending.
“May is on a two-month school break but she may go back to school earlier if she wants to. The school has extended the break for her to allow her to adjust to life after…after her parents’ death,” Mami’s voice spotted a break as she tried to find a better explanation without having to mention the tragic event.
“But why make you a guardian when she’s living in London? How are you going to keep an eye on her?” Joshua looked from Mami to May, his mind vaguely registering the long dark tresses framing her small face.
“Because I’m the only one Elsie trusted. Douglas didn’t have any relatives and Elsie wasn’t close to her own siblings. Anyway, to answer your question just now,” she looked at her eldest child and switched to their native tongue, “her education and living expenses have been taken care of. Her parents had set aside a trust fund to take care of that aspect of her life. What she needs is a place she can call home. Do you understand what I mean?”
Urs gave a hint of a nod as he trained his eyes on May, observing her as she took tiny bites of her food. He could tell she was uncomfortable but he had nothing to say to her. He didn’t like her intrusion into his family even though he sympathised with her predicament. God knows how hard it was for Mami to raise her children single-handedly after his father left them when Juliet was only five. Urs felt it was time for Mami to sit back and relax a little, especially since he, Lynette and Joshua all had some kind of job to help supplement the household expenses and their own education.
He continued to scrutinise May out of the corner of his eyes. She was just too skinny to have been living a pampered life, he mused. Perhaps Aunt Elsie didn’t treat her right? But Aunt Elsie did leave her enough for her education, or was it her father who provided for her? His mind kept churning out questions after questions as he resumed eating.
May finally climbed up the huge oak tree with some encouragement from Juliet. They sat on the lowest but biggest hanging branch, their legs dangling freely below them. May had her long hair tied up in a single braid behind her head; some loose strands whipped about her face as the gentle breeze caressed her and ruffled the leaves on the tree. Juliet’s unruly locks stuck out everywhere but she couldn’t have cared less; she just enjoyed being outdoors.
“Thanks for helping me out with my homework,” Juliet turned and smiled at the younger girl.
“You’re welcome,” May blushed. She had never really had a friend; the students in her class were either too snobbish or too serious with their studies. Juliet was different; all she wanted to do was get out in the open and have fun. She could list the names of trees, flowers, shrubs, and insects and basically anything you could find in an open field or the woods.
“If he knew I couldn’t even solve those math problems, he’d be screaming at me and making me do some extra exercises,” Juliet’s face scrunched up in a scowl.
“I think he only wanted you to do well in your studies. Daddy always said that education is very important, and mommy, my stepmother, would let me have extra lessons outside of school, over the weekends.”
May shrugged. She couldn’t remember when was the last time she had some fun since her biological mother passed away just after they celebrated her seventh birthday. Birthdays after that were just quiet dinners at a posh restaurant with her father, and after Elsie came into their lives, with her as well. They would shower her with gifts but it didn’t take away the loneliness she felt. And it looked like birthdays were going to be even quieter now as she sat pondering if she would even get a slice of chocolate cake.
May sat wondering if she should tell Juliet that it was her birthday today but decided against it. What if she told Mami? She didn’t want Mami to go through so much trouble for her, Urs wouldn’t like it. For some reason, that man just didn’t like her around the house so she had taken to staying in her room whenever he was home.
“I don’t know. I miss my daddy and mommy Elsie. Although she was always making me study, I still miss her sometimes.”
“I thought stepmothers are supposed to be mean and ugly, and you’re supposed to hate her. Why do you miss her?”
“Because she was…” May struggled to come up with a description of her stepmother, “she was kind. And she was beautiful too, like your Mami.”
Juliet smiled, “Mami is old now, but I remember she used to be very pretty.”
May almost fell off the tree in fright while Juliet deftly made her way down.
“Come on, May. Better hurry up or he’ll kill us!” Juliet was starting to panic.
“I…I can’t. I don’t know how to get down,” May trembled as thoughts of Juliet’s big brother coming to get them manifested itself in her mind, freezing her completely.
“Juliet! Don’t try my patience, girl!” Urs bellowed into the wind, which, unfortunately was blowing in the girls’ direction and made him seem much nearer to them than he really was.
Juliet looked around helplessly. She knew what May felt because she had felt it before. Her brother was worse than the school disciplinary master and he would have her grounded for weeks if he found her playing and not doing her revision or helping out at home. Her tests were coming up and he was always reminding her to study hard for it.
“May, please, move slowly over here,” Juliet said in a calming voice, hoping to distract the girl from her fear. It seemed to work as May inched her way towards the trunk little by little, but Juliet was at her wits’ end as she knew her brother was close; he knew her favourite spot was on this tree.
“Yes, you’re almost here now, come on,” Juliet clapped her hands encouragingly.
Urs appeared out of nowhere and hollered in his deep powerful voice, “What do you think you’re doing up there?” It scared the little girl out of her skin and she slipped, falling at his feet in a heap. Urs bent to haul her up by the arm roughly.
“Go home now!” he roared into her ear, causing her to wince and put her hand up to protect her ear. He pushed her forward and marched both girls back to the house.
Mami saw them approach the house from where she stooped plucking some herbs from her little garden out in the front. She noticed May was limping and by the looks on the faces of both girls, she knew Urs had wielded his big brother power on them.
Mami looked at the young ones with compassion in her eyes. If only Urs didn’t have to shoulder so much responsibility at such a young age, things would have been different. But that was her boy, stepping in to take on the responsibility that his father had abandoned, and without hesitation too the moment he was old enough to understand what went on at home. She couldn’t have managed without his sensibility and maturity.
“Are you alright, May? You’re limping,” Mami stopped the girl from going into the house and looked her over from head to toe. May lowered her head and bit her lip, trying to stop a sob forming in her throat.
“They were climbing the big oak tree, Mami. They could’ve fallen and broken their necks or something,” Urs complained.
“May wouldn’t have fallen if you hadn’t come screaming at us,” Juliet risked her own neck to defend her new friend.
Urs gave her a cold hard stare before telling her in a low, quiet tone, “You’re supposed to be doing your homework and revising, girl. Now go to your room and do what you’re supposed to do.” His eyes bright and his nostrils flared, betraying his emotions amid the soft tone he used.
Juliet stomped her feet and was about to protest when Mami shook her head, a warning that she had gone too far. Turning around sharply to go into the house, Juliet turned back again to grab May’s hand. Together they ran up the stairs as fast as May’s injured ankle could carry her.
Mother and son stood outside the house and stared at the front door where the girls just disappeared into, not knowing what to say. Finally, Mami let out a sigh, “Urs, don’t you think you’re being too harsh on the girls?”
“Mami, Julie has a test coming up next week. Her grades are falling and if she doesn’t buck up, she won’t make it to the next grade.”
“Yes, I know. But you must know by now she loves the outdoor. Shutting her in will only stifle her and make her resent studying.”
“If she loves the outdoor and wants to do something about it when she’s all grown up, I won’t stop her. But she needs a basic education to help her get what she wants,” Urs reasoned.
By now the girls were already up in their room and sitting by the window, they eavesdropped on the conversation that was going on below the window.
“You’re right, son. As usual, I’m amazed at your logical way of thinking. But please bear in mind that your sister is only fifteen, she needs to have some fun, too. And May, she’s even younger. Stop scaring her like that.”
Hearing those words, May’s eyes widened. He was worried about her? How could that be when he was constantly scowling at her and yelling at the top of his lungs when he couldn’t find her? Daddy never yelled at me, she thought with a scowl.
“Relax, son. She’s seems like a sensible girl. Now, I believe you’ve caused her an injured ankle. Please do something about that while I get dinner ready.” With that, Mami went back into the house with the herbs she had collected from her precious garden.
Urs shook his head and muttered, “How can she be sensible when she’s behaving like a monkey climbing trees!”
May caught those words and her face scrunched up in displeasure. Monkey! Did he have to be so mean? Juliet saw the scowl and grinned, only to get a tongue stuck out at her.
Half an hour later there was a knock on the door. May limped as she made her way to open it. Leaning against the door frame was Joshua, an ice-pack in his hand.
“If the swelling doesn’t go down by tomorrow and it hurts like hell, you better let Mami or Urs know because it could mean something’s broken.”
“Big brother really shook you up, didn’t he?” the eighteen year-old smiled, amusement clearly written on his face. May noticed he had the same straight nose as Urs, and the high cheekbones too. Only the eyes were different, not almond-shaped like Urs’s.
When she didn’t reply, he continued, “Don’t let that big mouth fool you, little one. He’s a softie at heart, really.” Before he turned to go off, he asked, “Are you coming down for dinner or would you rather rest up here? Julie can bring you dinner.”
Joshua raised his eyebrows and studied May’s face. Seeing how tired she looked, he decided to let her be.
May closed the door and sighed. If only big brother was like Joshua, life would have been easier for her.
Urs scowled. He didn’t like anyone skipping dinner as it was a time for the family to gather around and bond with each other.
“Right. You’ll bring something up for her then. Did you revise your math like I told you to?”
“I’m almost done,” Juliet lied through her teeth. The fact was that she hadn’t even started yet. The whole afternoon before her little adventure with May she had only managed to finish her school work. Thinking about the five pages of math exercises waiting for her, she lost her appetite. But Big Brother wouldn’t let her go without her finishing her dinner so she gulped down her food as quickly as she could and then excused herself. Before she could leave the table, Mami stopped her and filled a plate full of food for her to bring up to May.
“May, you’ve got to help me with the math revision,” Juliet said the moment she was inside her bedroom. May was sitting on the chair next to the window, her legs up against her chest as she held the ice-pack against her swollen ankle.
Seeing her friend’s grimace, Juliet handed her the dinner and took over the ice-pack from her. She gently rubbed it back and forth on her ankle while May tried to eat amid the pain.
“I’m sorry, May. I shouldn’t have made you climb the tree.”
“It’s ok. I had fun. Let’s do your revision now.”
Juliet’s caring touched the younger girl and immediately revitalised her. May had finished her dinner and they were almost to the last page of the exercise when there was a knock on the door. Juliet went to open it.
“Have you finished yet?” Urs directed his question at Julie while his eyes scanned the room. May sat still at the desk, not daring to look into his eyes. “How’s your ankle, May?”
“It’s swollen,” Juliet replied on her behalf, scowling at him. He pushed past her and walked over to May. He stooped and was about to raise her leg to inspect it when she flinched and stood up suddenly, knocking the fork off the plate and onto the floor. She looked terrified at that little accident.
“I’m just trying to see how bad it is,” Urs’s tone softened. The swell on her ankle looked bad and a stab of guilt washed over him. “Let’s go to the hospital and get an x-ray on it, just to make sure nothing is broken.”
May shook her head and whispered, “I’ll be fine in a few days.” The last thing she wanted to do was to trouble him or anybody. “I…I hate hospital.” It wasn’t a lie; she hated it because it reminded her of her mother’s struggle for her last breath.
Urs looked at the young girl and sighed. Did he really scare her so much?
“Alright. Make sure you have a pillow prop up your leg when you sleep. It will help with the blood circulation.” Turning to Juliet, he asked with an outstretched hand, “Your book.”
“I’m not done yet. Three more questions. I’ll bring it to you,” Juliet bit her lip and hoped he didn’t start berating her on being too slow.
Turning to look at May who was now seated at the desk again, he warned Juliet, “Make sure she’s not doing all your work.” Then he left the room, closing the door softly.
“Phew!” Juliet pretended to wipe the sweat off her forehead, “that was close! Though I’m not even sure why I’m so worried. I did most of the questions myself, didn’t I, May?”
May nodded, a small smile escaped from her innocent face. Though there were many questions that Juliet couldn’t solve, she did manage to do them after May had explained to her how to go about breaking up the questions into small parts and tackling them one by one. She taught her friend how to analyse the questions methodically and refreshed her memory on the various formulae. It was something she learnt from her stepmother who placed a lot of emphasis on her education.
When Urs finally got to see his sister’s work, he was impressed. But to be sure she didn’t cheat, he asked her to explain some of the questions and the steps she used to solve the problems. She passed with flying colours.
Juliet rolled her eyes before turning to go back into her room. Urs smiled and winked at Mami who was sitting in the living room chatting with him and Lynette.
May’s first two weeks with the Buhlers went by without any more hitches. Her ankle healed after three days of resting. She spent most of those times reading in her room and listening to music on Juliet’s cd player. When the ache for her parents and stepmother was too hard to bear, she took out her violin and practised.
Lynette, the twenty-year-old daughter of Mami, was home for dinner. She lived in an apartment in the city while studying and working part-time. Just like her two brothers, she held a part-time job to pay for her own studies.
Dinner with the Buhlers had gotten easier for May as she slowly adjusted to their way of living. At times at night she would think of her parents, especially her father who always made an effort to spend quality time with her whenever he was home, which wasn’t very often as his job required him to travel frequently.
She was lucky to have a stepmother who treated her like her own child, and it was her stepmother who recognised her musical talent and enrolled her in the music school. She was now learning to play the violin and studying classical music in school. Her weekends were spent learning to play the piano and taking extra lessons for the academic aspects of her education.
“So when are you going back to school, May?” Lynette’s question brought her out of her reverie.
“I’m going back next month,” May replied softly, looking at Mami and hoping that she would approve.
“But May, are you sure you want to go back so soon?” Mami looked concerned.
“If someone didn’t yell at her so often perhaps she’d stay longer,” Joshua gave big brother a side-ways glance, earning a scowl in return.
“No, I…I just miss the music lessons,” May blushed at the attention she was getting from everyone.
“Urs here is an aspiring music teacher, so perhaps he can give you some lessons,” Joshua said, tongue-in-cheek.
The scowl on Urs’ face got darker, “I thought you have a date tonight, Josh? Best get started now.”
“Not time yet, brother,” Josh grinned. “So, what musical instrument do you play, May?”
“Big brother plays the violin, too, you know,” Lynette chipped in, giving Urs a cheeky grin. He chose to ignore her and continued eating.
“Hey, why don’t you play a piece for us? Urs can accompany you on the piano,” Josh’s eyes brightened at the idea he came up with.
“You’re going to be late. Best get going or Rose will have a never-ending story to scream about in your ears,” Urs reached over to remove his brother’s plate and waved for him to leave the table. Mami chuckled quietly at the other end of the table. Joshua grinned and went to kiss her on the cheek before bidding everyone goodbye.
As usual, May helped Mami with the washing while everyone else went to relax in the living room. Although Mami always told her to join the others, the little girl insisted on helping her. So through washing and drying dishes, Mami and May developed a bond. Never mind that the girl was still quiet and shy, they shared an easy silence even when Mami ran out of things to say to her.
May was about to resist when she saw the gentle smile on Mami’s face, and she couldn’t bring herself to say no to her. After retrieving her violin from her room, May counted the steps to still her rising nerves as she walked down the stairs. Would he criticise her skill? Was he really a music teacher? Did he really play the violin? All these questions kept playing on her mind and when she reached the last step, she was ready to run back up to her room if Lynette hadn’t seen her and called out to her.
“What are you going to play for us, May?” the beautiful brunette asked, her tone gentle as she seemed to sense the girl’s unease.
“Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.1 in D major,” May replied, barely audible.
“What? You have to speak up a little louder, girl,” Urs told her, feeling a little annoyed by her timid nature.
May looked briefly at him before repeating what she said, this time a little louder. Why was he doing this to her?
“Urs, please accompany her on the piano,” Mami urged. Lynette and Juliet both clapped their hands in encouragement as Urs got up and walked over to the grand piano sitting in a corner of the room. May went to stand beside the piano and waited for him to start.
I hope he messes up, May thought with defiance on her face, letting her anger take over from the nerves she felt. But she closed her eyes the moment his fingers started moving smoothly over the black and white keys, letting herself be carried away by the beautiful sound that he produced on the piano.
Mami watched as the teenager worked her magic on the violin to the moving accompaniment of her son. Although all her children were musically inclined, Urs was the only one who took it seriously. He was studying to be a music teacher and developing his classical singing technique. She was pleased to see how well he had developed his talent.
As the music came to an end, applause rang out in the modest living room as the audience knew they had witnessed a talent in the making in May. She might just be fourteen, but the skill she possessed far surpassed what could be expected of someone her age. Even Urs was impressed and he showed it with his nod and smile. May heaved a sigh of relief.
A whole month passed by in a flash and May was beginning to regret her decision to go back to school early. However, she knew she had to do it. Without something important to occupy her mind, she would fall victim to depression just thinking about the parents she had lost in those few short years of her life. Sometimes she wondered how her biological mother would feel meeting her stepmother in heaven, or how her father would introduce them, which sometimes brought a smile to her face as she imagined her father squirming at the awkward situation. But mommy would be kind and understanding as daddy had always said she was, May thought. She had always wanted to be the kind of woman her mother was: kind, gentle and understanding.
May had two more days before boarding the flight for London and she was determined to make it a memorable stay. Ever since her performance with Urs, he had largely been pleasant and even softened his tone when he felt a reprimand was needed. Juliet had often screamed ‘not fair’ when she got yelled at while May was only being told off for getting into mischief.
Today, she and Juliet decided to have a picnic out in the open, below the oak tree that they often climbed. May had mastered the skill of climbing trees and when they got up there, Juliet teased her, “Urs was right, you’re like a monkey.” That started a mini fight and they ended up giving each other the cold shoulder, but only for three minutes.
“I’m sorry,” May apologised first. She didn’t know why she had let Juliet’s teasing get the better of her and she felt awful for treating her best friend the way she did. They had climbed down the tree by then, both afraid that they might fall off if they continued their fight up there.
“It’s ok. I shouldn’t have teased you. Here, have a sandwich. Mami’s sandwich is the best.” Juliet handled May a chicken and Swiss cheese sandwich.
They ate in silence, Juliet musing about life without May. She had come to depend on May to help her cope with her school work and they had become fast friends in just a few days of meeting each other. Urs had been pleased with her test results and it was thanks in no small part to May’s coaching. Not just in Math, but in English and Literature as well. Juliet was convinced that her friend was a genius trapped in a little girl’s body.
She stole a look at the younger girl again. Those eyes, as big as she first noticed during the dinner when they first met, held so much understanding and wisdom. Juliet wondered if the fact that she had undergone life-changing situations had made her wise beyond her age. Things that she herself hadn’t thought of or considered, May would think of it first. It sometimes annoyed Juliet as it made her look or feel stupid, being outsmarted by a younger girl, but she was mature enough to appreciate that quality in her friend.
As usual, May ate in silence, never the one to start the ball rolling by talking first. It was as if she had been told not to speak unless spoken to. Not just with big brother Urs, but with everyone in the household, she would keep quiet until spoken to.
“Are you looking forward to going back to London?” Juliet asked, hoping secretly that the answer was negative. She didn’t want to be the only one to feel sad about May’s departure.
“I do miss class, especially the violin lessons, but I like it here too. I don’t have many friends in school. You’re my first real friend and I think I’m going to miss you,” May looked shyly at her friend, hoping against hope that her tears would not fall, but they did.
Juliet threw her sandwich down and hugged May tightly, “I’m going to miss you too. Promise me you’ll write.” She felt May nod her head against her shoulder and she continued to hold her, willing her tears not to fall. Only when she had collected herself did she let go of May.
“Good, ‘cause Christmas in Switzerland is the most beautiful sight you’ll ever see,” Juliet smiled excitedly. She loved Christmas, because Big Brother would always make an effort to give her and everybody else a break by being extra nice and she always got the gifts that she wished for. She had often wondered why, but she wondered no more when one day she just woke up with the realisation that because her wish list was written on a piece of paper and placed in a box on the fireplace mantle, supposedly meant for Santa Claus, her wish was always granted. She had stopped believing in Santa Claus when she was eight, but continued writing down what she wanted for Christmas just the same; Mami and Big Brother never failed to disappoint.
Christmas was different for May though. Yes, she celebrated it with her father and stepmother; she had lots of presents from them, twelve in fact, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. What were missing were the laughter and the noise. It was too quiet to make it any different from other normal days of their lives.
As they reminisced about their Christmases, they heard Joshua calling them in the distance. Time to go home. They quickly gobbled up their sandwiches and downed their fruit juice, packed up and walked down the well-trodden path to home, meeting Josh half-way. He walked between them, resting his arms on their shoulders.
“Good news. Big Brother won’t be home for dinner tonight,” he winked at May. She blushed. She always dreaded dinner at the big dining table. Was it so obvious that she felt uncomfortable when Urs was around?
“Why is he not coming back?” Juliet asked.
“He has a performance at the pub tonight,” Joshua explained.
“Performance?” May looked puzzled. Wasn’t Urs still studying as a music teacher?
“Big Brother is the lead singer in a rock band, May,” Juliet explained. She had forgotten that May still didn’t know Urs’s involvement in the rock band during his spare time and that the band performed at the local clubs and pubs on some nights. It was his way to make some extra cash. He used to do odd-jobs like carpentry before he joined the band as their lead singer.
“Can we go watch him perform?” May asked excitedly.
“Yes, can we, Josh?” Juliet looked at Joshua hopefully.
“Nope. You’re too young to go to the pub,” Joshua said before ushering them into the house.