Father had a lot of friends. And our apartment had an extra room. The combination meant that father was often tempted to invite a friend, or a friend’s friend, to stay with us for a while.
We had an Iraqi scholar, a Japanese researcher and an American basketball wizard stay with us for weeks. For me, the most memorable guest was Willard, whom we called Will.
Though father brought the guests in, it frequently fell to the family to look after them. Mother would cook for them, and I did the occasional chore.
Will, a British student in his teens from Malaysia, had been recommended by one of dad’s overseas friends. He would stay with us a few weeks before returning home. He arrived with a large backpack and a broad smile. We liked him at once.
His greatest curiosity was reserved for mother. He was perpetually in the kitchen, asking details of whatever she did, occasionally helping her to chop a vegetable or stir a soup. He wanted to know where she grew up, about her father and mother, and what she loved doing when she was a student.
He swiftly became an accepted member of our family. It was difficult to imagine that he was not one of us. Mother particularly liked that he devoured instantly whatever she placed on his plate and said her desserts were the best he had ever tasted. He proudly sported to visitors a shirt she had bought him.
Sometimes father took Will to his office to introduce him to his friends and visitors. He normally described his young guest as a charming boy, adventurous enough to live in Malaysia and visit India.
Weeks passed, and I had to return to school at the end of summer vacation. Will was still with us. Father arranged for Will to attend the school too, as a visiting student. It wasn’t the practice in the school, but dad served on the school board and he persuaded the board members that it would be a good experience for the regular students as well as for Will.
I recall overhearing conversation between my parents after some months that had an undertone of anxiety. They hadn’t heard from Will’s father in a long while.
At the end of six months, a tall, elderly English businessman arrived from Kuala Lumpur. Apparently, he was a distant cousin of Will’s father and he was to escort Will to a boarding school in Salisbury, where Will had been granted admission. What about Will’s father, we wondered and were quite confused.
The cousin then reluctantly explained that Will’s father was the black sheep of the family and had fallen afoul of the law in England. That is why he had found a job for him in Malaysia and settled the family in Kuala Lumpur. But Will’s father had left the job after a while and started trading in drugs. He was caught and would be in prison for a long time. His wife had left him and, in discussion with her, it was decided to place Will in a boarding school.
For me, and for our entire family, the news was like a thunderbolt. Salisbury! Will had an uncle in Bath, miles from Salisbury, and he had met him only twice. The idea of a distant, cold boarding school filled us with foreboding for Will. Father even broached the idea of Will continuing to stay with us for some more months and attending the local school. That idea was anathema for Will’s family. We were told there would be legal issues.
I expostulated that Will was perfectly happy with us. Didn’t that amount to anything? Clearly not. It was my first lesson in how adults tend to decide what is good for their children.
After angrily raising with father the foolhardy idea of adopting Will, mother calmed down and bought a suitcase for him, in addition to his backpack. She filled it with new clothes, gifts and packages of Indian delicacies Will had enjoyed.
The following week Will left for England with his uncle. He wasn’t smiling any longer and had the look of a lamb being led to slaughter. I went with father to the airport. Mother said she couldn’t bear the sight.
At the last second, Will hugged mother for a long time, then held my hand and said, “I will come again.”
We were to know otherwise.