I have never seen a smile suffuse a person so radiantly as Leonie’s does.
The first time I met Leonie, I had been in Aishalton for about three weeks. We were still living in the Village Guesthouse (Mosquito Optimum Breeding Biohazard Zone of the Western Hemisphere). I was two weeks into fulltime secondary school teaching, jumping straight in with no preparation a month into term. It was hot- PLEEENTY plenty hot. I was sweaty, stressy and smelly. I had not smiled, myself, for some days.
I was invited along to observe the women’s sewing and leadership training. Twelve women were learning to use Singer 974s, Leonie among them. Back then I struggled to distinguish faces. Every woman is a similar height, all have dark brown eyes, all have long black hair, almost always worn up. Most are between 4ft 7 and 5ft, and most women over thirty are comfortably girthed with huggable rolls. Distinguishing features are subtle, compounded by the fact that everyone over sixty relinquishes their name to the ubiquitous, affectionate ‘ko’oko’- ‘Granny’.
They were learning about empowerment and the Johari window that day (that’s a self-analysis tool invented, I’m sorry to say, by two Americans called Joe and Harry who thought “Johari” sounded classier). Intending only to observe, I was startled to be called up to the blackboard and asked (told!) to “present something”. Now that I know how inured Aishaltoners are to outsiders coming in to talk, and never to listen, I can understand the reasoning behind this. At the time I was caught unprepared. So I said something about different kinds of power, gave some examples, and then set them a task to do in pairs. I can look back and freeze-frame their faces in my memory’s eye: Alison looking terrified, Gloria shellshocked, Anastasia shutter-faced. How lovely it would be to replay that scene now, friends and neighbours! How much laughter and banter there would be. I think some confidences shared, too.
Anyway, nervous and tense, I looked round and round again, seeking a chink in the armadillo armour separating me from these women. I can be an intimidating person, I know it to my cost, and worst of all when I’m nervous. I looked for a way in, for a break in the clouds, for a pair I could call upon to speak first. And I caught Leonie’s eye, and she smiled all over her round, pretty, well-used face, and her eyes gleamed like water catching sunlight. She quenched everything else in the room. I completely forgot to be nervous, she and her partner kicked us off and the rest was plain sailing.
Leonie bakes for a living. She runs a little mud booth called ‘Fingers’, where on Sundays (and Wednesdays and Fridays if you’re lucky) you can buy fresh bread, salara (kind of bread-swiss-roll stuffed with sweet dyed coconut), burgers, buns, and sometimes meat-and-farine or a portion of curry. On Fingers days she is usually up by 3am cooking in her homemade wood-fired oven. She is also a seamstress and makes uniforms and other clothes, mainly for family. She farms on her small plot, a few hour’s walk away, several days each week. Her youngest child is now 11, and I suspect she has been bringing up children for about twenty-five years.
I try to introduce a little grit to my description- I search for a moment in our eighteen-month acquaintance which shows Leonie in a less sunny light. She talks little. Fingers is not always open when she says it will be. That is all the grit I can find. Fairy godmothers are all very well: Leonie is the real thing. SHE makes the dress, then prepares the wonderful meal, creates the carriage and dazzles the handsome prince into being in the right place at the right time. She smiles like the sun coming up, and lo and behold, it does.
It is Leonie’s birthday next week. I know this because, last year, we arrived at the shop unbeknownst and were given a free meal because it was her birthday. I expostulated ineffectually with my mouth full- and later asked did she ALWAYS make her own birthday cake? She smiled her amazing smile and said yes, of course, as if the question was a joke. I asked further, has she NEVER been given a birthday cake? No. One of my saddest specific regrets about leaving early was being foiled in my plan of arriving at Leonie’s on 18th September with a home-baked cake and a balloon. But the cake, of course, would be very temporary. The smile is perennial.