When I needed a Neighbour were you there?

It was supposed to be a joke.

After so many years I bumped into my best friend from childhood, Kelly in the local launderette.  We greeted each other with a big hug and wished each other a Happy New 2011. She introduced me to her 14 year old daughter Tilly. I couldn’t believe that time had passed by so quickly. We continued chatting about our families and endeavours over the years since we’d lost touch.

“How’s your mum?” Kelly asked.

Maa was sitting at the other end of the launderette chatting to one of our neighbours. They exchanged the usual stories about their ailments, old age, the monster topic in the news ‘Swine Flu’ and last but not least their darling sons and wicked daughter in laws.

“I see my son on Sundays, if I’m lucky” said mum. “They work all week and of course my Bhau Rani has to see her family also”.  My neighbour nodded in agreement.

“I’ve hardly seen my three sons since they got married and they all live in Leicester”.

I decided to go over and lighten the situation.  “Maa remember Kelly, my best friend from primary school?”  Maa smiled an awkward hello, clearly she didn’t remember her.

Kelly and I sat down again.  “I can’t believe that your mum doesn’t remember me, especially after all those yummy chapattis with butter and hot curries that she fed me”.

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much”. I laughed “She’s been feeding nearly half of Leicester since then.”

“Really?” Kelly enquired “Yes, didn’t you know?” I smiled “My mum’s the Mother Teresa of Leicester”.

Little did I know that the woman sitting next to us had tuned into our conversation…

The following day Maa found a huge box on her door step. It was addressed to her, covered in FRAGILE stickers and sticky brown parcel tape, with a little note attached: “You’ll need this soon”.  Maa was excited; she thought her darling son and daughter in law had finally ordered a ‘Prestige’, pressure cooker, all the way from India for her.  I was rather suspicious and decided that we should open it outside.  It was a battle trying to tear off the Sellotape.  Finally our curiosity was appeased and as we forced open the cardboard flaps.

“Oh my goodness” I gasped “Maa it’s a bell”.

“What? Wait let me see, you haven’t been to the opticians in over three years”.  I let her see for herself.  “But, I didn’t order a bell from India; I ordered a pressure cooker, take it inside”. She exclaimed.

I dragged the box inside and left it in the corner of dad’s old room downstairs.  I remembered dad’s bell with the brass handle and the Hindu goddess on it.  It became his dearest companion during his seven yearlong cycle of ill health.  Dad used the bell to his advantage, to get our attention when he needed to and when he’d had enough of us crowding and fussing over him, he would ring it vigorously, to mark the end of visiting time.

The following morning I was startled awake by the sound of a bell ringing. I ran downstairs to see, just then the doorbell rang.  It was Maa’s neighbour, “Please can you ask Maa to take care of my wife, she’s got swine flu and I’m taking little Anu, to stay at my sister’s in London”.  Before I could respond he’d gone.

Maa woke early as usual and was shocked to see me out of bed before 10am.  “It must be written in your stars, that you are going to meet your husband to be today”.  She joked.  I gave her the message.  “That poor woman! I don’t know what her husband does import-export, one minute in Italy, the next in Dubai”.  Then off she went about her daily duties of medicine cocktail, breakfast, and light housework, shower, followed by prayer with offerings of pure ghee divas, fruit and incense.

Then it was mission time and she began to cook.  “What difference does it make? “She asked “I also have to eat”.  “But, Maa” I argued “What if you catch it? Your health is not so good either”.  “Do you think Mother Teresa thought like you when she cared for the lepers and the poor people?  God protected her and God will protect me.”

Every day I awoke to the sound of the bell ringing.  Someone was sick, bereaved; pregnant or divorced please tell Maa.  She had a secret culinary recipe for all of life’s sorrows.

I became Maa’s delivery woman; she said that it would help me to lose weight.  Then, she added “When we get to the end of our life, God will question us, when I needed a neighbour were you there?”

Rekha Pandya was born in Leicester and was raised in a high caste Hindu, Brahmin family. In December 2000, she converted to Catholicism and spent many years volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order, founded by Mother Teresa. After qualifying as a nurse and having worked In a High Dependency Unit, for over two years, in January 2006, she entered a convent in Italy. Whilst discerning a vocation to the religious life, she felt an overwhelming desire to write. She returned to Leicester to start writing again.