Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 February 2001
Issue No.520
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Broken ties

By Fayza Hassan

Fayza Hassan Val moved into our neighbourhood with her two boys right after her divorce. She was quite explicit about the fact that her sons had been adversely affected by their parents' separation, especially Grant, the youngest, who, at the age of four, suffered from a severe speech impediment requiring professional attention. Craig, she said, was older and had not been so deeply disturbed. Val, as a result of her assessment, concentrated all her attention on Grant and only made demands on Craig. She seemed to have cast the seven-year-old in the role of the ideal companion that her husband had never been able to fulfil. She expected his support but often forgot to show him her appreciation. Whenever he did not comply with her wishes she either screamed at him to get out of her sight or burst into tears and accused him of being "a brute, exactly like his father."

As I remember him, Craig was a sulky little boy, withdrawn and constantly on the defensive, unwilling to join the other children in play and suspicious of any show of affection. He refused his mother's treats and presents, invariably giving them to his little brother, and would not hear of a family pet, although Val had been told by the therapist that a cat or a dog would go a long way toward helping the boys adjust to their new situation.

There were a great many children on our street, and the mothers formed a closely-knit group, always ready to extend help to those of our number who needed it. In no time, Val's problems became ours, and we took turns assisting her with Grant's speech therapy, instructing our sons and daughters on the right way to communicate with him. We were all proud of the slightest progress and made sure to shower him with compliments whenever he managed to utter a word correctly.

Basking in the little one's minor triumphs, it took us a long time to really notice Craig's behaviour. He seldom left his mother's side for long, and used a thousand strategies to let her perceive that he was miserable. He was extremely polite to strangers, but constantly complained of feeling ill, whined, or was obstinately silent, and made sure that she saw his silent tears whenever he managed to make himself cry. He only seemed relieved when she showed clear signs of worry. Confident that he had upset her, he would go off to play alone, grumpily refusing the various remedies that she extended.

Whenever he wandered away, Craig would hang around our backyard, watching the baby romping with our Chinchilla cat. He usually stood at the edge of the sandbox, casting quick glances towards the kitchen window, from which he knew I kept an eye on my daughter. Whenever he suspected that I was looking, he would put his sad face on, but I caught him several times smiling at the antics of our white ball of fluff, batting at invisible flying insects. "Don't you want a kitten like Honey?" I asked him one day. He shook his head and looked away. "Why not?" I insisted. "He could be all yours and you would have a lot of fun together." Craig's face contorted, but he somehow decided to hold back the tears and face me. "It will go away, like everything else, and my mother will go away too, like my father," he managed to utter in a choked voice before fleeing towards his house.

I told Val that her son needed to see a psychologist, but she shrugged. "He is going to be fine. Grant is the one who has been hurt. Craig is selfish like his father; he craves attention, that's all. Besides, I can't face having two batty boys, courtesy of my ex."

We left Australia the following year and I seldom have news of the families that lived on the little street. Many moved away once their children were grown. Sometimes, on the occasion of a wedding or a graduation, I receive a letter or a postcard and friends who have kept in touch give me each other's news. Val has remarried and moved to another part of town. Grant still lives in the house. He has opened a small business in the shopping centre and is engaged to be married. He still stutters a bit, but on the whole he is a well-adjusted young man.

Craig, on the other hand, has disappeared. After a spell living with his father and a very short and unhappy marriage, he decided to travel. The friend who wrote recently believes that he is at present somewhere in southeast Asia. She says that he left one day, announcing simply that he hated everybody and was off to explore the world. "Don't expect me back," he had told his mother, storming out of his stepfather's house. "Don't be surprised if he turns up in Cairo," the friend warned; "Val gave him your address."

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