© 2014 by Nerine Dorman. Originally published in the collection Lost Children. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“It’s a dead dog, for Christ’s sake, Thulani. I don’t know why –”
Thulani brings the car to a halt far too fast for the gravel road, and we slew sideways as we come to a standstill. I can tell he’s being stubborn from the way he juts out his chin. Mulish, I’ve called him, but I know better than to try engage him when he’s got his mind set on something.
With a sigh I follow him out of the car. I’ll get into worse shit if I don’t at least show that I’m making an effort to be supportive. And, ugh, I don’t want to handle a dead anything. I’ve seen enough road kill at close quarters during the two years I’ve been dating Thulani. Every bloody time he encounters some unfortunate next to the side of any road, he insists we do the honourable thing and move the creature to the side so the cars don’t drive over it repeatedly.
You can tell a lot about people from how they treat their dead.
How about having some concern for the living first? I’ve retorted, only to be met by a scowl.
But in a way I have to admit he’s right. That dead cat or dog must’ve been someone’s cherished pet that would be missed.
The sun’s just past noon and beats down on us on this dirt road branching off the N1. Pienaarsvlakte is halfway between Hanover and Beaufort West, about sixty kilometres into the Great Karoo, and this time of day nothing living wants to venture out from the shade. The life has been bleached from what scrub remains.
No sheep in sight, though. Only this dog Thulani’s examining. What the hell is a dog doing out here? This couldn’t possibly be someone’s pet.
“It’s still alive,” Thulani says.
A sick feeling wriggles in my stomach and I allow myself to look closer.
It’s a typical hound, a township special, all long limbs, pointed muzzle and short tan coat. The creature’s lying on its side, one eye socket pecked clean and teeth pulled back in silent snarl. But it’s twitching, the ribcage shuddering with sporadic breaths. As my shadow slides over it, the dog emits a faint growl.
“What the fuck?” I step back.
Thulani crouches, reaching out.
“Don’t touch it!” I tell him.
He’s already resting his big hand on the animal’s head. The compassion in his gaze undoes me. Every time. He mutters some benediction in Zulu and carefully picks up the dog. I can’t help but notice how its hindquarters seem curiously detached as the body flops. Thulani places the animal down in the shadow of a small thorn bush and remains crouched next to it.
“We can’t leave it like this,” he says.
“It’s dying anyway.” Already I can feel my too-pale skin reddening in the glare. My lips are parched and even a mouthful of the tepid spring water I’ve left in the bottle in the car won’t do much to remove the traces of dust from the back of my throat. I bat helplessly at the flies that buzz around my head. There are always flies out here that tickle over lips or obscure vision.
When Thulani reaches for a rock the size of his fist, I know immediately what he means to do – a coup de grâce. Left hand on the animal’s flank, he raises his makeshift weapon in his right, and I hide my face in my hands and half-turn away. This is not the first time he’s had to offer mercy by dashing out some unfortunate critter’s brains; I know what to expect. But the sickening thud of stone on flesh doesn’t come.
The dog growls, Thulani swears, and I dare to peek between my fingers.
He’s jumped back, the rock discarded as he clutches his left hand to his stomach. Bright blood blossoms on his white t-shirt.
“What happened?” I ask though I know it’s not necessary.
“Damn bastard’s bit me.”
Thulani glares at the dog, but the thing lies completely still, as if this last action on its part pushed it past its limits. Not even the slightest movement of the ribs betrays life. Odd that no flies are buzzing around it – I’d have thought that they’d find the dog far tastier than me.
Now’s not the time to worry about that. Thulani’s been hurt and all the determination to do the right thing has left him; he allows me to lead him back to the car where I dig in my bag for a plaster.
“Ma’ll have antiseptic,” I tell him, but I don’t like the look of the wound. A canine sank into the soft flesh of the ball of this thumb. Not quite a case for stitches, but he’ll definitely have to go for a rabies shot. And soon. I want to groan and curse, but bite my tongue. There’s no way we’re going to find a doctor open in Pienaarsvlakte on a Saturday afternoon. That’s if they even still have a doctor I can drag away from the rugby on TV. I don’t even know if the neighbouring township has a clinic.
“I honestly didn’t expect it had the strength to bite me.” Thulani glances warily over my shoulder at the still dog.
“Leave it now,” I warn him. I don’t want to remind him of the half dozen other times he’s been bitten before. Thulani has a simple faith that it won’t happen again, that he’ll be fast enough the next time he plays Good Samaritan.
He doesn’t argue with me and, miracles of miracles, allows me to drive the last ten kilometres to the town.
I never wanted to do this – return to my roots. Ma en Pa – I can’t call them anything else but that, in Afrikaans – decided to retire in the Karoo dorpie where Pa grew up and his father once owned a general store.
They know about me and Thulani. It doesn’t mean they approve, but I’d hoped to keep my past separate from my future.
They can’t keep hankering after the fleshpots of the previous regime, Thulani has said many times. Are you ashamed of me? I took you to meet my parents. Surely yours can welcome me as a son.
Are you ashamed of me? That’s the crux of the matter. I love this man truly, madly and deeply, with all the clichés all rolled into one. I can’t explain it. When I was younger I always imagined I’d date some blond surfer-boy ideal, but Thulani with his quiet dignity caught me by surprise. Love will meet you where you least expect it.
While the rest of the country has moved on, Pienaarsvlakte stubbornly clings to a bygone era. Most of the redbrick houses are squat, blockish structures that follow the curve of the railway line. Pa grew up with the metallic shudders of the trains shunting in the wee hours and the lonely, piercing horn of the locomotives resonating through the emptiness.
Now most cargo is freighted by road, and the railway is abandoned, but the people are tenacious, like the Karoo vegetation, and their roots run deep. Like the parched century plants they endure the extremes.
Ma and Pa live on the outskirts of the town. There isn’t much of a garden – the borehole water’s too brackish for that – but the two giant Peruvian peppers weep their green boughs over the porch in the front. The curtains are drawn. They’re always drawn, so far as I can remember. My parents dwell in a murky twilight.
“Doesn’t look too welcoming,” I say to Thulani.
He shrugs. “I’m sure you’re just making things worse by having a negative attitude. C’mon.”
He gets out the car and quickly changes into a clean t-shirt, but I sit for a few heartbeats, clenching the steering wheel while I try to pinpoint the source of my discomfort. I’d rather be anywhere than here. Mercifully we’re only staying one night – I’ve booked a room in the local hotel. I didn’t presume to ask whether Thulani and I could spend the night in the parental home.
The front door remains obstinately closed and I gather my bag and get out. What, was I expecting my father to stand there with a shotgun to run daardie kaffir off his doorstep? Ugly words, as taboo as saying nigger.
Thulani gives no appearance that he’s even the least bit aware of my misgivings. Instead he offers me a smile and squeezes my hand with his uninjured one, and we make our way to the front door.
The squeak of the aluminium gate swinging shut behind us feels like a gunshot.
Pa opens the door just as I’m about to knock the second time.
“Pa!” I say. “How are you?”
His smile is tight and the hug and kiss he gives me is perfunctory.
Thulani holds out his hand. “Meneer Coetzee.” His Afrikaans is flawless. Very few of the older generation expect that when he opens his mouth.
Pa eyes Thulani but doesn’t accept his hand. “Come inside,” he says in Afrikaans.
We follow his shuffling form into the lounge. How is it that in the three years since I was last here he’s grown so stooped, shrunken in on himself? Ma bustles out of the kitchen as we come in and there is much hugging and kissing.
While Pa is aloof, Ma’s at least trying with Thulani. She takes his hand, gingerly, but it’s a start.
And Thulani is full of compliments for the lovely mother of such a beautiful daughter. Ma eats the words up like chocolate drops while Pa glowers from his armchair. He’s a troll king, gripping the armrests while he watches us with angry eyes.
Thulani winces slightly as he takes his seat, and I recall the bite.
“Ma, Thulani got bitten by a dog on the way here. Do you have any bandages and antiseptic?”
What a way to start an already tense first meeting. Pa stays in his chair while Ma flutters ahead of us down the passageway, her hands quick like flicking sparrow wings as she jabbers away. Thulani makes her nervous. This is probably the first time a black man has entered her home, as a guest, and she’s too polite to say as much.
Framed black-and-white photos of long-deceased family members glare down at us from the walls. I can’t even imagine what they’d think of our arrival in their midst. Thulani sits on the edge of the bath while Ma reaches into the cabinet under the sink for the first aid kit. I don’t like the way he clutches his left hand, and a thin film of sweat beads his upper lip.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
He nods. “Just my phobia of medical stuff.” He manages a small laugh.
“This will only hurt a little,” Ma says but then she pauses, her expression growing unreadable as she looks at Thulani. She thrusts the box into my hands. “Here, Marietjie, you do it. Then come help me in the kitchen with the tea things when you’re done.”
She all but dashes out of the room.
“Well, that was weird,” I comment.
“My ma’s normally the first to dive in and take control when anyone’s gotten hurt. Wonder what –”
“She probably doesn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable,” he answers.
“No, that’s not it.” I don’t want to tell him that I think she didn’t want to touch him.
The skin around the bite wound is swollen to twice its normal size and Thulani hisses when I dab at it with mercurochrome.
“I don’t like the look of that,” I tell him as I apply further antiseptic on the wound. “We really need to see a doctor.”
“I’m sure we can hold out until Monday.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“We can stop by the medi-clinic’s emergency unit when we get back tomorrow afternoon,” he tells me.
“That’d be for the best.” I wrap the wound with fresh dressing, and help myself to enough supplies to last for tonight and tomorrow morning. I’m sure Ma won’t mind.
He declines a painkiller, but I’m satisfied that I’ve done the best I can under circumstances. Thulani goes to the lounge to speak with Pa, and I join Ma in the kitchen.
“Did you clean up properly after you were done?” she asks me, almost angrily.
“Of course, Ma.” I try not to roll my eyes. I’m not twelve anymore. Amazing how my ma will save a completely different face to show in the inner sanctum of her kitchen.
She approaches me and takes hold of my shoulders, her gaze stormy grey. “Has he been tested?” she whispers.
“What?” Okay, now she’s confusing me.
“For AIDs. You know how they like to sleep around.”
“Ma!” I almost shout and the word comes out all choked.
“You can’t be sure enough in this day and age.”
I pull away from her. “You can’t make generalisations like that anymore. Thulani is not some tsotsi off the street. I’m more worried that he’s going to get rabies from that dog bite.”
“I hope you understand that it is very difficult for Schalk and me to accept your decision. I’m sure he’s a nice boy otherwise you wouldn’t have…” Ma evidently can’t find the right words.
“I love him. Is that not enough? And he’s good for me.”
“What about Adrian? He was studying to be a doctor,” Ma asks.
“Adrian cheated on me. He went on behind my back.” No matter how often I’ve told Ma that my ex had been a shit, she always brings up the fact that Adrian was going to have a Dr and not a Mr in front of his name. Not that it made him a better person than the next.
Ma evidently has more concerns to raise, but I am grateful that she keeps her mouth shut and instead orders me about the kitchen. It is almost like old days. Everything has to be just so: a tray with a crocheted cloth; the good coffee cups; milk in a jug; and a little doily on the sugar pot. Even staid milk tart. I can’t help but notice that a chipped tin mug and plate set still stands among the crockery. Ma must still give the gardener his meals using those utensils.
By the time we bring the tea things into the lounge, the old man has even unbent enough to not sit like the troll king anymore. In fact he leans forward, his hands loose in his lap and some of the grimness fled from his expression. Thulani relates a little about the work he does for an NGO that aids the city in facilitating the allocation of RDP houses in the townships.
Dad used to handle PR for one of the country’s big construction companies. Thulani’s talking a language he understands. I try not to let my relief show too much while I help dole out tea and slices of milk tart.
Occasionally Ma drops a few clunkers like “you people” when referring to black South Africans. I cringe, but Thulani’s all smiles and smooth words, and I relax for now. He might have a few choice comments for my ears only later. This entire afternoon could have gone much, much worse. Thank goodness my brother isn’t here to use the K-word. He still won’t talk to me since I took up with Thulani. And he sure as hell won’t let me see my nieces.
I’m comfortable enough to hold Thulani’s hand, and he squeezes my fingers gently while telling of the time he rescued an abandoned baby out of a stormwater drain. I don’t like how cold and clammy his skin is, but when I glance at his face I don’t see anything untoward in his expression to betray that he is unwell. Is that a slight tremor I feel? I’m not sure.
The inevitable happens. We run out of words. Ma and Pa’s world has shrunk. They know only what they read in the papers and glean from the radio and television. Cellphone reception let alone internet access here in Pienaarsvlakte is patchy at best. Ma goes to her bible study each Thursday and attends church. Pa occasionally goes on hunting trips with his retired friends. They speak of the world outside their town in terms of a country that has become hostile to them, and the farthest they’ve travelled recently has been to Beaufort West so Pa could go have some tests done at the hospital.
We leave shortly before supper. I’d hoped that they’d invite us to stay, but they don’t; Ma complains that she’s got a headache coming on. I don’t know if she’s faking it and I don’t want to confront her. I’m still annoyed with what she’d said in the kitchen.
“That went better than I expected,” says Thulani once we’re in the car. He puffs out a deep breath and sags into the driver’s seat.
I place a hand on his shoulder and feel a tremor pass through the muscle. “Are you okay?”
“Throat’s a bit sore.”
I look back at the front door, but neither Ma nor Pa stands there. The message is clear: You’ve visited. Now you can go.
I sigh and bite my lip. Yes, this was a lot for them to take in over one afternoon. Maybe there’ll be a next time. Meanwhile Thulani’s not feeling too hot and we’re in the middle of bloody nowhere.
“Let me drive. We can go back to Cape Town tonight. I’ll stop at the service station and stock up on strong coffee. I’ll be fine.”
I don’t want to talk about this afternoon, at least not yet.
He shakes his head and flashes me that disarming smile. “We’ve been on the road all day, sweets. Let’s get some rest at the hotel then leave first thing, okay? I’m sure my hand won’t fall off overnight.”
“How is your hand?” I try to reach for the injured limb, but he pulls away.
“It’s okay. A bit numb. But I’ll be fine.” He turns the key in the ignition, a clear sign that he won’t brook any argument from me on the matter, though I can’t help but notice that he winces when he handles the steering wheel.
Every Karoo town has a Royal Hotel, it would seem, and Pienaarsvlakte is no exception. The building’s walls are sheathed in slasto and several trucks are parked outside. From what I can tell, this is the only bar in town too – unless one ventures into the township to visit one of the shebeens. But there’s no way in hell any of the local whites would do that.
We grab our overnight bags, lock the car and make our way into the reception area. More slasto. The walls are painted a pale mint green straight out of the 1970s, and the orange frosted glass panels in the doors are equally retro. A fern that’s lost most of its withered leaves crouches in a corner and a moth-eaten buffalo head grimaces at us from above the front desk.
The noise from the bar room at the other end of the foyer tells me there’s a bunch of men enjoying the beery interior and, from the sound of a televised commentator’s tinny voice, there’s still a rugby match on. A sudden, drunken cheer reverberates through the building. No one’s manning the desk, however, so we end up standing like fools for a bit.
Presently Thulani slumps into one of the aluminium-and-vinyl chairs. “This is like something out of the Twilight Zone,” he says.
“I’ll go into the bar and find out if there’s someone who can help us,” I offer.
“You do that.” He grimaces and pinches the bridge of his nose, and I make a mental note to ask the manager if they’ve got some painkillers. Thulani’s not going to win the argument about taking medicine this time, and he’s doing a shit job of pretending that everything’s okay.
The bar room is filled with a thick miasma of smoke and stale beer, and the dozen or so bleary-eyed men are focused on the television screen over the counter. I’m a woman in their territory, and they ignore me. The barman’s just as engrossed in the game as his mates.
“Excuse me, sir,” I say at least three times before he deigns to notice me.
“Can I help you?” He doesn’t sound as if he’d want to.
“Um, do you know where the manager is?”
“You can talk to me.”
I swallow hard, unaccountably nervous. “Um, I made a booking under the name Coetzee. There’s two of us.”
“Oh. Right.” He stubs his cigarette out and walks out from behind the counter.
Gee, could he be any more enthusiastic? I bite back the smart retort that plays on the tip of my tongue and trot after the man. Oh, how I’d love to say something. All I want right now is for us to get into our room and have a bath so that I can check up on Thulani’s hand.
The barman comes to a dead stop when he sees Thulani in the foyer. “Can I help you?” The hostility in his tone is obvious.
Thulani rises with a tired smile. “I’m with this lady here.” He gestures to me.
“Oh.” The barman’s hands twitch then he grunts and goes behind the desk where he flips open a diary and makes a show of reading the cramped scrawl noted under today’s date.
The man squints up at me. “I don’t see any booking under Coetzee.”
“Um, but I confirmed with a deposit.”
“I’m sorry.” He doesn’t sound sorry at all. “And we’ve no vacancies.”
“This is bullshit!” I yell and lean across the counter. There, barely legible, I can read my surname. “My name.” I point at the word.
He slams the book shut. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Thulani holds up his hands. “Now I’m sure there’s a perfectly –”
“I suggest you both leave,” the barman says. “We don’t want your sort here. Go now, before I call the cops.”
Then it sinks in and I’d have lurched forward to grab the man’s t-shirt in both hands and shake him if it weren’t for Thulani, who snakes his arm around my waist.
“I understand how it is then,” he tells the man with so much scorn in his smile I’m surprised the barman doesn’t wither on the spot.
“Thulani!” I protest.
“Hush, baby cheeks.”
How is it that he’s so calm? Tears burn at the corners of my eyes and I struggle once, half-heartedly, then allow Thulani to steer me back to our bags.
“What are we going to do?” I can feel how my face is aflame with both anger and embarrassment at our treatment. “We can’t just let this man be like this. It’s not right.”
“I don’t want trouble.” Thulani winces as he hefts his bag but he keeps a firm hold on my wrist and guides me out the door.
“You can’t just let him walk all over us like this.”
“Relax,” he murmurs. “Let’s just go.”
My tears do start but I’m in no mood to argue with him. Thulani’s always the voice of reason in these situations. I’ve learnt to trust his judgment and we get in the car.
He lies back in his seat for a few minutes, his breathing slow and deep then he gathers himself and starts the car.
“On Monday,” he begins, “I’ll talk to Ziyanda. This sort of story is right up her alley. I’m sure she and Chris will be absolutely delighted to do a little stirring of their own and run a story in their paper. And it’ll explode all over social media too. So don’t you worry.”
“Oh,” I say, and feel the first stirrings of glee. I wipe away my tears. “But that still doesn’t help our situation now. What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to take a drive out to the township. I’m sure someone will be able to direct us to a home where we may spend the night.”
“But we don’t know anyone here.”
“Don’t worry. My people are your people too now, don’t you forget that.”
The township is on the outskirts of Pienaarsvlakte, across the road. No pepper trees grow here and the streetlights cast everything in a garish orange glow so it’s never really dark after sunset. Row upon row of cinderblock houses march in the grid pattern; many have attendant tin shacks clustering in their small yards.
While the neighbouring Pienaarsvlakte appears deserted already, Zingisa township is overflowing with activity. Children run around playing games while adults walk about. Lights blaze from old shipping containers that have been converted into spaza shops.
Our smart little green Toyota Yaris draws stares, but Thulani drives slowly, rolls down the window and soon he’s engaging a group of young men outside one of the houses.
I understand only one in every ten words, but the gist of the conversation is clear. Thulani’s summed up our entire experience at the hotel in the matter of a few sentences – much to the general amusement of his rapt audience – and they are equally quick to give directions to a home a few blocks down where we can inquire by a lady named Nosipho Dladla, who might have a room to spare.
“You don’t have to worry, my dear little umlungu,” he tells me as we drive to our destination. “You’ll have a warm welcome.”
Nosipho turns out to be an older lady deep in her seventies, and she’s only too happy to take Thulani’s money and get her brood of grandchildren to share her bed for the night. We wait in the cramped space that is their lounge, dining room and kitchen, all rolled into one, while much activity ensues.
The interior of the home smells of floor polish, and belying the home’s humble exterior, a large flat-screen TV dominates a wall. As always, I’m struck by how these small houses always look bigger on the inside. The children, whose names I don’t quite catch, appear quite taken with me, and their curious fingers often stray to my hair which they play with until Nosipho shouts at them to leave me alone.
Only once we are in the room, does Thulani collapse with a stifled groan. “I feel like hell,” he mumbles into the linen.
I sit next to him on the narrow bed we’re going to share and stroke his shoulder. His t-shirt is soaked through with sweat and he’s shaking.
“Maybe we should drive to Cape Town tonight.”
“No. I can’t face another moment in that car. Let me rest, woman. Tomorrow is another day.”
“You’re sick,” I tell him. “I don’t particularly fancy spending the night in a strange place while you’re obviously not well.”
I get no response. Thulani’s fallen into fitful slumber and I do what I can to arrange his limbs on the bed so he’s comfortable. He takes up most of the space, and he’s so warm I can’t bear to touch him. The interior is muggy and I can’t get the window to open – it’s been welded shut. The family go about their preparations for the night, and I toy briefly with the idea of asking Nosipho for water, but the language barrier is too daunting.
Here we are, strangers in their home, and on top of things, I’ve brought a sick man with me. Once things settle down, Nosipho does knock on the door to check in on us.
I murmur in my broken Xhosa that Thulani’s sleeping already, and thank her before turning out the bedside light.
So I sit in the worn armchair, wide-eyed and unable to sleep, while Thulani twists and turns on the bed. There’s a shebeen a few houses down that’s playing kwaito. Men talk and laugh while they walk down the road. A dog begins howling, only to have its vocalisations taken up by canines nearby until an almost unholy chorus tears at my soul. The ululating shrieks make me shiver, and I can’t help but recall a quotation from Dracula, about the children of the night and what beautiful music they make. Not quite music to my ears, that’s for sure.
Then a man shouts and a lull descends, punctuated only by the throb of two competing sound systems. How do people sleep through this? Or is it only on weekends? I’m all too aware of the incidental noises from the family in the room next to ours. The partition does little to insulate sound.
Thulani moans quietly. His injured hand rests on top of the covers and I turn on the bedside light briefly so I can examine the dressing. A greyish liquid stains the gauze and a distinctly rotten-meat odour hangs about the affected limb. Oh god I hope this isn’t gangrene. He didn’t give me a chance to change the bandage and clean the wound before he passed out, and I don’t want to disturb him now while he’s resting.
Though I should.
But then he’ll wake, and he’ll wake the Dladlas.
I swear under my breath. I should have insisted on taking Thulani straight to Cape Town without allowing him to overrule my decision. Should have, but didn’t. And now I am in this predicament.
I can hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head, It’s not right for you to put your hosts in this spot. You don’t make your problems strangers’ problems. That’s not how I raised you.
Of course there’s nothing I can do about it right now.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I switch off the light, close my eyes. Breathe. Try a few visualisation exercises in the vain hope that I can get to sleep. My bladder is uncomfortably full. Shit. I should have gone to the bathroom before I settled in the room with Thulani. Of course I didn’t.
All these should haves.
My cellphone informs me that it’s five to twelve. Fuck. At least another six hours before I can politely stir and get my show on the road. I am so not going to manage to pinch for six whole hours. I need to pee. I’m also thirsty.
Thank goodness these RDP homes have a small inside bathroom. Because if I had to go outside now to use a long drop… As it is, I have to summon all my courage to get up from the armchair and press myself past the bed so I can get to the door. I stand there for what feels like half a century, just listening, but I hear only Nosipho’s soft snores and the tick-tick-tick of the wall-mounted clock in the lounge.
The bathroom is across the passageway. The door is ajar and I cringe when it shrieks in protest as I push it open. So I halt, waiting, but apart from Thulani noisily turning over, no one gives the appearance of being disturbed by my visit to the bathroom.
I flip the switch for the light and close the door behind me.
The room has space only for the bath, basin and a toilet. Children’s toys line the side of the bath – dolls with missing limbs, as well as brightly coloured plastic balls and rings.
After I’ve relieved myself, I fill the basin with warm water, take off my jersey, and soak part of the garment so I can use it as a makeshift washcloth. I might not be one hundred percent fresh tomorrow when I leave but I want to at least get the worst of the day’s sweat and grime off my face and from under my arms.
The warm water goes a long way to making me feel that little bit better, as though I could wash away the stilted agony of tea with my folks and the nasty turn of events at the hotel. The face that stares back at me from the mirror is drawn, and my cheeks are flushed as if I in some way sympathetically experience Thulani’s fever.
No. I’m imagining things. I’m not the one who was bitten.
It’s when I pull the plug out and water gurgles down the drain that I hear the front door rattle then slam open. Sudden fear has me freeze. Has someone broken in?
I straighten my clothes and pause, undecided. I hate this. Hate not knowing how to behave and what to say. My pulse hammers in my throat and I try to draw a steadying breath. If only I could blink and make all of this just some bad dream. I could puke right now but I gulp in air.
“Who’s there?” Nosipho calls.
“I’m in the bathroom,” I respond.
Muttering follows and I can hear Nosipho moving about in her room. Children complain. We both end up in the passageway at the same time, trading wary glances. The front door gapes open yet there’s no intruder.
“Hayibo! I thought I locked up tight,” Nosipho says even as she stumps to the door.
I watch and wait while she peers outside then pulls the door shut and double-checks the lock.
“That is strange,” I say.
“The key was still on the inside,” Nosipho says, shaking her head.
That’s when it hits me hard. “Thulani!” His name is a choked cry as I spin around to the spare room.
The bedding is all churned up and Thulani’s gone. I stand motionless, unbelieving. What the hell? What’s possessed him to run out like this? Dogs bark like crazy in the distance. A woman starts yelling at someone.
“Maybe he’s gone to a shebeen?” Nosipho asks.
“At this time of the night?” I ask, incredulous. I want to add that Thulani barely drinks at all, but keep my mouth shut.
She shrugs then returns to her room, leaving me to the now-empty bed. This entire situation is wrong on so many counts. Why would he just get up and walk out the door when he was half-dead with exhaustion and sickness earlier? He’s never left me in the dwang before.
By all rights I should be pulling on a jacket and shoes and go looking for him but yikes… Me alone. In a township. In the wee hours of Sunday morning when there are guaranteed to be folks still out and about who might be inebriated?
Nosipho is no help whatsoever and, besides, what can I expect her to do? I briefly envision the two of us wandering between the houses calling after Thulani. Ridiculous.
I grab fistfuls of my top and scrunch it hard while I rock from side to side on the bed. What the hell am I to do now? I can’t exactly call the cops. They’ll laugh at me. I can hear them now, talking to each other, about “that crazy white woman with a black boyfriend”.
Yet he’s out there. No doubt delirious.
“Fuck,” I mutter then start packing, my mind made up. I might not be able to walk between the houses, but I can sure as hell take the car.
When I find him he’s not going to argue with me. We are getting the hell out of this place and driving straight through to Cape Town.
It’s no use. The sky to the east has gone pale like a dove’s wing and roosters have been crowing for an hour already. Thulani remains missing. Twice I’ve driven past police patrol vans, their blue lights painting the surroundings in a flood of sapphire. I don’t even want to know what they’ve been investigating.
Perhaps a domestic disturbance or a murder. Or both. What if Thulani is involved? My fear rises in me like choking mist and keeps me from approaching the cops. Paralysis. I am a ghost skirting the edges.
Silly white woman, what are you doing here in this place?
I can’t go on like this. At six, when the sun is just nibbling over the eastern horizon, I give up this venture and plan my next move. I go home. To my parents.
This was never my true home, but I visited often enough over the years that Ma set up the spare room with fresh bedding in case I should drop by. The place is familiar: the same grandfather clock ticking in the lounge; the Oriental carpets I recall from the old house in Sea Point grace the dining room. So it is home or the closest approximation thereof that I can find in this wasteland.
Pa is surprised to see me. He’s sweeping imaginary leaves from the front garden – his particular morning meditation to get out of the house – and halts his labours immediately when I pull up outside the gate.
He hurries to the fence. “What’s going on?”
Here things become hazy. Up until now I’ve done such a good job holding things together, waiting and watching, dry-eyed. Now the tears come as I babble my story.
Pa, in a rare display of affection, pulls me close to him and lets me cry. His clothes smell faintly of naphthalene mothballs, but mostly of him, and it’s like I’m five again and fallen off my bike. By this time Ma has come outside and she hurries us into the kitchen where she gets me to sip sweet tea.
I relay my story for a second time, slower now.
Ma shakes her head. “You should have come to us. You should never have gone crawling into that place. They gang-raped a teenager there last month.”
They gang-rape teenagers everywhere, I want to say, but instead I respond, “We didn’t want to be any trouble.” Besides, I know how you and Pa feel about blacks.
“Well, this is a big mess now,” Pa says.
“What are we going to do, Schalk?” Ma asks.
He shakes his head. “We can’t really go to the police. I’ll call Bertus and see if he can’t get his garden boy to ask around. I don’t want any of us to go into that place.”
That place has a name, I want to say. Zingisa.
So we wait. Pa makes phone calls, but then they get ready for church, and Ma gives me something to help me sleep once I’ve had a bath.
“Get some rest. Pa will sort everything out.”
I believe her, and swallow that little white pill that softens my world’s jagged edges. Sleep, when it comes, is sweet bliss. Everything will be better once I’ve had some rest.
My parents’ muted discussion rouses me and I sit up slowly. Sirens ululate in the distance. For a moment I can’t quite figure out how and why I’m here, in the spare bedroom, but then every horrible event over the past twenty-four hours comes crashing down so hard I can barely breathe.
I rush through to the lounge where my folks are standing by the window, the heavy curtains parted slightly so they can peer out.
“How are you feeling, my dear?” Ma turns and asks; she’s all sugar and sweetness while she guides me to the couch.
“I’m okay. Have you heard anything about Thulani yet?” I want to look out the window, but my head’s all muggy from the pill. It’s easier to let Ma take charge.
Pa drops the drape and shakes his head. “Looks bad.”
The wail of sirens is barely audible, but it’s there, and the sound ices my veins with the stark reminder that all is not as it should be, and Thulani’s out there, somewhere, hurt and possibly dying.
“Zingisa township’s burning,” Pa says, matter of fact.
“There’s been a lot of unrest today,” Ma adds. “It’s the youth league, I tell you. They’re protesting because of that whole thing with the clinic. Ungrateful people. Things were never like this in the old days.”
It’s not protests. Can’t be. The mood was so normal, ordinary when I left. People there just want to get on with their lives. I make my way to the window where the thick pall of black smoke drifting to the sky confirms that the worst has indeed happened. We’re not so far away that we can’t hear the periodic explosion of gas canisters.
Those are homes going up in flames.
“But you said you’d phone Bertus,” I say.
“Bertus tried to get hold of Jaco, but says no one answered.”
Oh hell. That does so not sound good.
A police van with its blue lights flashing cruises slowly up the road, and we watch in silent trepidation as it passes.
Then we go outside. This is no doubt more excitement Pienaarsvlakte’s seen in months, though definitely not the kind that I’d wish to be privy to. Oh please God let Thulani be all right.
We watch as two police officers make their way up the road, one on each side. They knock on the doors of every house to have subdued conversations with whoever’s home.
“Go inside, both of you,” Pa tells us.
“I want to hear what the man says,” I tell him.
Ma tugs on my wrist. “Come, Marietjie. Listen to Pa.”
For a moment I want to resist, but realise that if I complain about not being treated like an adult, I am indeed behaving like a child, so I give in and play the role of obedient daughter.
My ears are burning, and I contrive to be in the lounge when the policeman arrives. I can’t make out much of the conversation, but the man’s twitchy expression, and the way his hand keeps straying to his holster are enough to tell me something has gone more than seriously wrong.
“What did he say?” I ask Pa the moment he steps back inside the house.
“Big problems. Very big problems.” He slams shut the security gate with such a violent clang that the whole house shudders.
Ma comes down the passage. “What’s going on?”
“There’s unrest in the township. They’ve called for reinforcements from Beaufort West,” Pa says then wavers, as though further words and actions fail him.
“What now?” I ask.
“We’re going to sit tight until then,” Pa tells us after he’s had a few moments to consider our situation. “We’re not to go outside for any reason until we’re told it’s all right.” He marches past us and vanishes into the bedroom.
Ma and I stare at each other with wide eyes as we hear him unlock the safe. When we investigate, we’re just in time to see Pa sight down the barrel of his shotgun.
“This should stop any kaffirs that come here looking for trouble,” Pa says.
“You can’t say that word!” I tell him.
The scowl he casts in my direction is so ugly I immediately wish I’d bitten my tongue. “This is my house and I’ll say anything I please. Don’t you think coming here with your citified kaffir-loving ways is going to change the truth of the matter.”
“Schalk!” Ma says.
“Go check that the garage door is bolted, woman.”
Ma wilts out of the room and I elect to do the same.
Cold now, I go back to my room and pull on my jacket then return to the TV lounge. At least I can see whether there’s anything about this being televised. Nothing. I flip through the meagre channels available out here. My folks don’t believe in DStv and whatever SABC stations we pick up are so snow-filled I wonder why my parents even bother.
Desperate, I try my cellphone’s internet browser, but can’t pick up a strong enough signal for Google to be my friend. Communication blackout. The not-knowing is in a way worse. I’m trapped in this house while the world goes to shit outside. A fresh wail of sirens, closer now, has me pause.
Pa comes in to check the windows, but barely glances in my direction as he goes through the motions. Like a shotgun’s going to do any good against a determined mob. I’ve seen protests get ugly in Cape Town. I’ve been there. You can’t do anything when a seething mass of angry people pours through the streets, but make sure you’re not in their way.
Night falls. Ma calls me to the kitchen and I draw some comfort from helping her prepare supper: toast, cheese, defrosted vegetable soup – the tastes of home that I associate with any other normal Sunday evening with the folks.
Only it’s not a normal night, and Thulani’s absence is a gaping black hole in my chest sucking out all my joy. Pa sets the shotgun down on the kitchen counter behind him. The weapon gleams a dull, oily black, and I can’t help but think of a mamba, ready to strike. Pa’s jersey is hiked up slightly to reveal the pistol holstered at his hip. He’s ready for any trouble. I should feel safe.
Why don’t I?
We’ve barely said grace when a muted crash of broken glass has all three of us jerk and cast nervous glances toward the window.
“That was from next door, at Stevie’s,” Pa says.
Ma says nothing, but her lips are slightly parted. I wonder if my eyes are as round as hers.
He rises and shoves his chair back so hard so it grates on the linoleum. “I’m going to go take a look.”
“Don’t!” Ma says. “The police…”
“The police are worse than useless, and you know that,” he retorts.
I follow him as he strides down the passage, the gun held at the ready, like the enemy’s already on the doorstep.
I remember all the times when I was little and I’d watched him take his pistol out of the safe each night. He’d always slept with the gun within reach by the bed. In case there was a break-in. I don’t think I’d ever seen him handle the shotgun indoors, until now, and the sight alarms me more than I can say.
“Stay with your mother,” he tells me when I follow him outside. “Lock the door behind me and don’t open it for anyone. Do not –” He pauses meaningfully. “Do not under any circumstances come outside. No matter what you hear. Do you understand?”
I can only nod, and my heart feels like it’s beating so hard it’s going to explode.
Pa has so much determination about him, but he’s old. I can see that now. When I was little, he used to carry me on his shoulders, but now I’m almost as tall as him.
The last glimpse I catch of him is when he flips on the torch he must’ve had in his pocket all along, and the wobbly beam of light frames his silhouette as he opens the front gate and vanishes towards the neighbour’s house.
I dare to stand a few moments longer than I should, listening, straining my senses to try garner some idea of what’s going on out there in the inky night. The stench of burning plastic rides the air and the hellish glow from Zingisa scares me on a much deeper level.
Oh god let Thulani be all right.
Reason tells me there’s a more than fair chance that he’s anything but all right.
I don’t want to listen to that voice. So long as I don’t know the truth, I can pretend otherwise.
A dog three houses away starts yammering like it’s the end of the world, so I slam the security gate, shut the door and make damned sure the key is turned in the lock.
Then the lights go out, and Ma screams from the kitchen.
“Ma!” I yell as I start running down the passage. I slam into a wall as I take the corner into the kitchen too fast and all the breath is knocked from me.
“The power!” Ma sobs.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. Just a power failure. Are you up to date with your electricity credits?”
“We got on Friday,” she says.
“It’s probably just a temporary thing.” I take out my cellphone and use the flashlight app to see whether any switches have tripped on the board. Everything’s fine. “Must be at the substation, Ma. We’ll have to be patient.”
“I don’t like this,” she says.
“Neither do I. But let’s get the candles, okay?” I don’t want to admit that I absolutely hate the choking dark that feels like it’s going to crawl down my throat and press me to the floor with its heaviness.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths, Marietjie.
My hands shake when I strike the match and that brief flare of fire is a welcome sight. Shadows leap from the candle and our faces are painted in ghoulish contours.
“I hope your father’s all right,” Ma says.
“I’m sure he’s fine. He’s got the shotgun.”
The pressure of silence in the house is so apparent, I realise how much I miss the constant purr of the fridge. The only other sign of activity is from the grandfather clock that will tick in perpetuity so long as someone is there to wind it.
Ma wants to go to the lounge so we can keep watch outside the window. I put the candleholder down on the mantelpiece and help Ma pull back the curtain. It takes my vision about five heartbeats to adjust to the darkness outside. The entire block’s electricity appears to be shut off.
That’s when I notice the movement in the road. Five figures lurch along drunkenly, and I dash over to the candle so I can extinguish it. I don’t quite know what impulse has me do this, but there’s something not right about the way those people move.
“Why did you blow out the candle?” Ma asks.
“Shhh.” I gesture out the window. “There are people there. I don’t like this.”
Ma doesn’t say another word, and I’m grateful for her solid presence pressed against me as we continue standing by the window, even if she’s shaking as much as I am.
The explosion of a shotgun right next door causes us to jerk.
Ma gives a small squeak, and I pull her to me and hug her tightly. “It will be all right,” I whisper into her hair. “Everything will be all right.” I’m glad she can’t see the tears that wet my cheeks.
A man rages incoherently, but we can’t hear his exact words through the walls. Glass breaks. Another shot goes off.
Those shambling figures in the road veer from their course and make toward our neighbour’s home, where Pa’s gone. Where it sounds as if he’s shot someone. I make as if to move to the front door, but Ma holds onto me.
“Don’t,” she says. “You know your father wants you to stay safe.”
“But Stevie? Pa? What’s happening there?” I ask. “I need to go look.”
Ma squeezes me painfully. “Don’t. Stay here with me.”
“I’ve got to do something!” I say.
“Then call the police.”
“They’re probably too busy,” I reply even as I make my way to the study where the landline is.
Bless Ma and Pa for keeping all the important numbers written on a piece of cardboard right next to the phone. I check my cell – enough battery power, thank fuck.
But there’s no signal.
Whatever knocked out the electricity has done the same to the phone lines.
“What the hell?” I murmur. Panic claws at me, and a thin whine tears out of my throat. I don’t want to stay here in the house with nowhere to go, but I don’t want to go out there either. Those shambling, dark figures…
I stand for I don’t know how long, the dead receiver clutched in one hand, concentrating only on breathing. I don’t know what to do. I really don’t. Whenever something went horribly wrong in the past, be it a flat tyre or someone getting hurt, Pa would sort it out. Pa always knows what to do. Now he’s not here. I don’t feel much better knowing that all this time that I’ve been with Thulani, I’ve been leaning on him too.
The candlelight wobbles down the passage and Ma’s shadow leaps and prances as she approaches. “Did you come right?”
“Line’s…” I read Ma’s horrified expression. “Dead.”
“What are we going to do now? We need to find out if Schalk is okay.”
“I know, Ma.” I slam the phone down in its cradle and drag my fingers through my hair. Maybe the pain can distract me; it certainly doesn’t help my predicament.
Even from where we are standing in one of the front rooms, the sudden shaking of the back door is so loud it sounds as if someone’s trying to yank the door off the hinges. The handle is jiggled roughly, like an impatient child trying to enter.
Ma shrieks and almost drops the candle.
“Maybe it’s Pa,” I say, but I don’t believe myself. Why would he come round the back and frighten us out of our wits like that?
Whoever it is starts thumping at the door just as I enter the kitchen, and I’m grateful for the fact that the door is solid wood.
“Who is it?” I call.
A drawn-out moan is all response before the slapping starts again. I can hear nails scoring into the wood, gouging splinters. Or at least so my imagination informs me.
Ma stands in the kitchen, the candle held skew so that she drips wax on the floor. “Who is that?”
“I don’t think it’s Pa.” I swallow hard and blink back tears. I can barely breathe. We’re trapped.
Dead. Dead. We’re going to wind up dead.
“Let me in…” The voice is raspy and dry, like old newspapers being crumpled.
“That’s not Pa!” Every instinct tells me to step away to go lock myself in the bathroom, but to what end?
Shaking, I approach the sink, part the curtain and shine the cellphone’s torch light out the window. But I can’t see much more than my own reflection in the glow.
A hand thumps against the glass hard, and a face is pressed against the pane. Skin sloughs off the cheek and the eyes are completely opaque – like fish eyes left out in the sun too long. Bloody saliva leaves a snail trail.
I stagger backward into the table, and upset a chair in the process. My scream has Ma drop her candle. Luckily I keep hold of my phone.
A fist crashes through the glass and sends shards skittering all over the floor. Then a long, arm, dark with gore and missing two fingers, snakes over the sill groping, feeling along. Almost the way someone would pat for his reading glasses.
“We must get out of here, Ma. It’s not safe.” I want to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, but only sobs escape. I just can’t. None of this is actually happening. Please oh god let none of this be happening.
Ma’s crouched by the door, arms flung over her head as she wails, the cry that of an animal in pain. “Schalk, oh my Schalk where are you? I’m so scared.”
But Pa’s not here. And neither is Thulani. Whatever madness has descended on the town, we can’t stay here and wait for someone to rescue us.
Dead. Thulani’s dead. You know it’s the truth, my dark half whispers.
Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.
Then I do start laughing.
I get up and try my best to ignore that arm trying to drag its body past the burglar bars. If Pa’s done anything right, it’s the attention to detail he’s lavished on security measures. This is Africa, after all.
I’ve always joked and said they’d trap themselves inside so thoroughly they wouldn’t be able to get out if there’s a fire, but now I’m perversely glad.
“Let me in…” the madman wheezes. “So hungry…”
“Leave us alone!” I yell. Then, in as calm a voice as possible, I say to Ma. “Come. We need to go.”
She won’t respond, keeps repeating Pa’s name over and over again.
More than ever I realise my urgency; I must get into my car and go. We can’t stay in this house. We can’t wait for someone else to keep doing things on our behalf. So I leave Ma for now and go get my things. I don’t bother packing neatly; just stuff things in. Bag over shoulder, check. Keys. Cellphone. I go grab Ma’s handbag, a jacket for her.
I try to ignore the fingers spidering over the big window in Ma and Pa’s bedroom. It means there’s a person – let me not think it’s another one – along the side of the house. We don’t have much time. What’s wrong with these people? Skin sloughing off like that? Goose flesh rises at the mere thought.
I try to breathe, but my chest hurts. It’s dark out there. I won’t be able to see anyone coming. Hands can snag my clothing, drag at me. I can’t help but recall Pa talking about Uhuru – The Night of the Long Knives – when all the black people will rise to murder the white oppressors once and for all once Madiba’s gone. No. That’s just stupid. Even though Pa’s been preparing for it his entire life, with his guns and his talk of shooting those people. I won’t say the K-word.
And I can’t help but think of that long, black arm that’s trying to find a way to bring its owner into the house.
I get our things together in the passageway then go back for Ma, get her to pull on her jacket. She’s like a small child, crying and trying to bury her head in my arms. Why must I be the strong one? I’m just as scared. My fingers are shaking so much I can barely pull up the zip of Ma’s jacket.
It’s as we stand by the door that we hear the first dragging step on the front porch.
“Shit,” I murmur. The car key almost cuts into the soft meat of my palm. I kill the cellphone torch and we stand absolutely still. I hardly dare to breathe and Ma’s crushing me to her.
I don’t have to see to know someone’s standing there outside. Waiting. Aware that we’re here, alone in the house wanting to leave.
Ma gives a small whimper and I hush her; squeeze her back. “It’s going to be okay, just be quiet. I’m here.”
Tears run down my cheeks and wet Ma’s hair as we hold each other in the dark.
“Let me in.” It’s Pa, but his voice sounds wrong.
He sounds changed.
I can’t help but think of those shambling figures I saw out in the road before the lights went out.
The body outside throws itself against the door with a meaty thud. Ma and I both shriek and jerk at the same time.
“Go away!” I shout. “You’re not my father! What have you done with my father?”
A futile gesture. I know. But I have to say something.
“Let me in.” The words slop out with a wet gurgle. “There’s nowhere for you to go.”
“No.” I try not to sob out that one small syllable, but I can feel my entire world contracting to this one point.
“Why not? Are you ashamed of me?”
Ma goes limp in my arms and I clutch at her. Ma cannot help me.
No one can.
Nerine Dorman is a Cape Town-based creative, who specialises in design, editing and writing. She has been involved in the media industry for more than a decade, with a background in magazine and newspaper publishing, commercial fiction, independent filmmaking, print production management and advertising. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Tor Books, Apex Publications, Fox Spirit and Immanion Press, among others, and she even has a few novels to her name. In addition, she is the curator of the South African HorrorFest’s annual short story competition, anthology, and literary event – Bloody Parchment – and is a founder member of Skolion, a SFF authors’ co-operative. She can be found lurking on Twitter @nerinedorman.