GET LOST IN JOBURG: TEN WAYS
1) Killer Heels
One week after turning eighteen, I pack my bassoon, my beige Lady Di courts that make me look tall and, maybe, thin. I fold into the suitcase the peasant dresses in floral prints I have sewed myself. I travel to Johannesburg with my fiancé in the 1976 tan Escort in which he has been teaching me to drive. He wants to make the 1000-mile trip from Cape Town in a day, so we leave at 4 a.m. Wearing Wrangler jeans and Grasshoppers he studies the map, calculates our arrival for 8 p.m. Latest.
I take the wheel on the straight section that resembles a lunar landscape between Laingsburg and Beaufort West. Because I am a learner driver, I don't realise that something is wrong with the car. This road is known as the death stretch and I hesitate to overtake the articulated trucks, opting to trail them. The car goes slower and slower. The fuel gauge drops steadily. My fiancé startles awake just before Leeuw Gamka and waves me into the petrol station, shocked at the consumption. The tank is almost empty.
The car stalls at the pump. The carburettor has burnt out. We wait some hours for a new filter to arrive from the neighbouring town, while we pick at chicken pieces and coleslaw in the cooler box. The raisins are bloated and the peanuts soggy. we arrive at his parents' house in River Club, Johannesburg, fourteen hours later. Long after midnight I'm still burping bitter cabbage.
The next day I register for a Bachelor of Music degree at Wits, where the school of music is housed in a skyscraper that sways and creaks in the wind. On the 18th floor I practise my bassoon in paper-walled cubicles next to competing pianists who toss off Liszt études and Brahms sonatas as easily as tying their laces.
One floor up is the split-level restaurant where the stripper, Glenda Kemp, once twirled a feather boa and dandled a python. Above that is a circular construction made of grey-green plate glass that perches on top of the building like a flying saucer that alighted temporarily on its way to somewhere better. Professor Mony had showed me around the department, pointing out how the tables were anchored on a revolving strip that once offered diners a 360-degree view of the city.
My fiancé works down south at the research laboratories of the mining giant, Anglo American. His current work is safety project in the gold mines. I stay in Sunnyside, the woman's residence with the wide verandahs looking over a quaint garden. I wear heels to lectures, but the bassoon is heavy and my knees hurt. Although I quit wearing the heels, the pain worsens. The surgery I had some years earlier has failed. The doctor says both kneecaps must come out. There's no other way. When I tell Professor Mony this, he says, "You need a recapitulation," beaming at his musical pun. Because I like him I force a little laugh.
The deep vibrations of police helicopters circling the school of music form a dark counterpoint to a throng of students chanting freedom songs. Jorrisen Street is blocked with Caspirs and police vans. Officers in riot gear set their dogs on the students. I watch, paralysed, until the tear gas hits and burns. I cannot remove the image of a girl my age from my mind. Her eyes are closed, her head is pulled back, her mouth open in a scream while she is struck repeatedly with a baton by a man twice her size.
I take to my bed, curled in a ball and sleep for a week. When I wake my bed is juddering and bouncing. The walls are pounding as if a giant lorry is racing past my door. I phone my fiancé from the tickeybox, thinking an earthquake has struck. "Disused mine shafts," he says, "below the city collapse. The subsidence causes earth tremors. It happens all the time. No biggie."
A week later I catch the train to Cape Town, home to my mother.
2) First Movement
My bassoon teacher lives near the Frans Smit Park where leafless jacarandas are about to bud. On a bench I memorise the concerto I'm polishing for my National Orchestra audition. The notes scurry like jittery insects across the score. My chest tightens; my belly liquefies.
I pick at a star-shaped flake of paint on the wooden slat, noodling at it until it slices into my nail bed. I stare at the empty tennis court, sucking a droplet of blood, awaiting my lesson.
In Scheherazade I fumble the flourishes. He says, "Hold the pulse steady."
At home it was perfect. The passage ran fluid and clean. But now, sitting before him, my hands turn clammy, my fingers contract. He draws his chair closer, removes a leaf from my hair. I close my eyes. He touches my temple, lifts my chin, forcing me to meet his gaze.
"You are clenching again, Baby," he whispers. "Don't do that. It's too obvious." He pushes his chair back, turns to the next excerpt.
My reed on my lips; the swooning Bolero. I play for him, wanting. He unhooks my instrument from my neck strap with one hand. The other circles my wrist. I follow him to the wall where he places my bassoon in the corner. He stands me beside it, pressing me against the cold surface. He raises my skirt, reaches inside me.
He leads me to a stinking alley behind the restaurant adjoining his house. I don't know where we're going. I want him. When he removes his clothing, I'm horrified by how he looks. I've never seen an uncircumcised man.
"Here?" I ask as he removes my panties. "In the alley?"
"Not in the house," he says.
The concrete is rough. He is heavy. It hurts dirty. My spine grates against cold concrete. I calculate our age difference. I'm 23. He's 48. That's 25 years. He's older than my father. Thinking doesn't stop the pain.
"My girlfriend," he grunts, "might come home."
Four years married; I've never been unfaithful. My back is grazed. How will I hide it from my husband? Will he know from my eyes? How will I go home?
Back in his studio I take up my bassoon. Dazed, I tongue my still moist reed.
He opens The Bartered Bride. He points and says, "Play."
At Constantiaberg Clinic on a rainy morning I hold my baby to my breast for the first time since her birth five weeks earlier. I've been using a hand pump that slurps and sputters, decanting my bluish milk into hospital bottles for the nursery freezer coated in rime. The nurse points out that my baby turns towards the source of stimulation when her cheek is tickled. She says, "Your daughter is rooting. It is time." She shows me how to tease my baby's lips, to aim my nipple at her palate. As she latches the nurse says, "Move in to meet her. She's got it. Now breathe. And let go."
My husband has organised a mercy flight in the company jet, although it is no emergency. We were on holiday when our daughter arrived twelve weeks early. I hadn't even been to Lamaze classes. I feel my tender belly, flabby now. It should be a tight bump. If it were, she'd be still suspended inside me.
I said I didn't want to fly back just yet. Could my mother not look after me? My husband insisted. Everything was sorted. Arrangements were in place. He ignored my reluctance, saying, "Time to come home." Home? I wondered, feeling like an exile. Joburg's another country where I've never quite settled.
The airport is far. It's cold in the plane. The paediatrician watching her vitals keeps using masculine pronouns. He says, "His colour is good; he's a right fighter." What other mistakes does the doctor make? After transferring to Morningside Clinic a blood transfusion is prescribed. We want our daughter to receive our blood. We can't risk AIDS; we're all O rhesus; there should be a good match. In the reception of the Hillbrow Blood Centre a tramp with sour socks and glazed eyes reads a scuffed copy of Lewis Hyde's The Gift. He waves the book, saying to nobody in particular, "Some things can't be bought." Then he cosies up to the counter for another cookie and mug of hot chocolate. The cold on the street is fierce. The sugary biscuit rewards his private donation.
Back at the neonatal unit, the infant in the next incubator has a greyish hue. The Canadian nurse in a pastel pink theatre gown holds a mask to the baby's face and pulsates a blue bag. Her lips move, marking time. The monitor spits out numbers in ticking green figures. The nurse stands for hours. An alarm sounds every few minutes. However I do the sums, the equation looks grim.
When the nurse taps my shoulder and nods at the door, it's the signal to leave. We've been forewarned: this unit receives cardiac babies from all over Africa. When emergency procedures require it, all visitors must depart. My breast tingles with the let down reflex. It's time for a feed. Instead of nursing my daughter, I pump into a funnel under a neon light.
The neonatal waiting room is a half-world in a landscape of waiting.
4) High Stones and Stick Fences
My three-year-old cries herself to sleep every night. I read Marina Petropoulos and Miriam Stoppard. I read Winnicott and Klein. The nanny is the only one that makes sense.
"She call from the other side… the sister in the grave," she says. "That baby you lost… is singing her name."When I tell my mother this she tells me that primitive cultures' myths have contemporary anthropological relevance. She says, "We need a new semantic paradigm to understand what at first glance seems opaque."
My daughter wakes at 2 a.m., wet and fretful. I change her and give her a bottle then carry her into our bed where my husband dreams of eigon values and vectors. He wants to register for his PhD. We need a doctor in the house.
My baby boy nuzzles my breast, but only the right one gets fat and round. The let down reflex arrives with a tingle. The left breast produces only a feeble dribble. When my baby unlatches I lower him into a crib on the floor. I have stopped sleeping. It has been a couple of nights now. The long hours of pacing are wearing me down.
In the morning while my man showers I bang my head on the wall, trying to feel something, wanting to wake up. I tell myself I'm acting crazy. But if I can't stop doing it, then is it an act?
We are building a flatlet adjacent to the garage, to improve the property, to provide space for an elderly parent in years to come. The nanny looks after the children so I try napping by day. But the builders saw wood and slap bricks. They joke with each other while they lay pipes. They flirt with the maid. They raise walls and drill holes, laughing and jeering. They talk about me in their language. What they say isn't complimentary.
When the nanny leaves at five I bathe the children by myself. How tiny they are in the tub, how deep the water. I attend therapy three times a week but language locks on my tongue. The sessions are frozen tracts of silence.
The gun safe has been removed from its place in our bedroom and is being relocated to the new section of the house. The gun is in my husband's cupboard, cold and heavy with a latticed pattern on the handle. I examine it at three a.m. and again at four.
I will phone the priest in the morning and ask him to drive me to the Kenridge Hospital. While I wait for him I push my daughter in the swing fitted with a sliding bar to keep her safe. Her father hung it in the acacia tree with yellow flowers. The twine knotted around the thick branch is expertly tied. She sails into the air over the rockery below.
"We must hurry," I tell the priest. Soon my husband will be home. If I tell him my plans he will stop me. He will say I'm over-reacting. At the exit of our suburb, the priest stalls his engine. He can't enter the solid traffic on Republic Road. It is rush hour. His car smells hot. He is nervous. He stalls again at the robot.
My baby is with me; my daughter with a friend. Or a neighbour. Or maybe with the nanny. I'm confused. We arrive at the hospital but nobody in reception is expecting me. The doctor has not booked a bed. They're confused too. Do I have the right day? Am I at the right hospital?
Nobody knows where I am. Not my doctor; not my therapist; not even my mother. Only the priest who brought me. And the baby. I say, "She is safe, my daughter." I say, "I didn't hurt her."
I wait on a bench overlooking roses blooming in raised beds. Their petals are the shades of the smocks I've embroidered for my daughter: lilac, amber, lemon and crimson. An elderly Italian nun plucks beetles off their leaves. Her arthritic hands mimic the gnarled knobs and stalks. Or is it the other way around, the plant copying her? She has planted freesias and daffodils, sweet peas too. My baby's hands smell like mashed banana. I jiggle his pram while the nun talks to God in Latin.
5) Mourning Pages
My new guy, Tim, lives on a main road. His house is a square box between a feng shui consultancy and a print shop. His roof is the reddish brown of a sweet potato. Inside, the plumbing drips, but the sprung wooden floor is reinforced with steel girders to support the Steinway and the Bechstein. It should be solid enough for my barrel of woes.
In the high-walled courtyard below a leaded glass window, a camellia, long dead in its pot, shakes in the September wind and weeds muscle up through the paving. I clear the beds and plant mint and basil, cooking with dried herbs until the spring seedlings come through.
In the weeks after I leave my husband the children are permitted only afternoon visits. "They may not sleep over," says their father, "while their mother is committing adultery." I read Mom's House, Dad's House and The Good Divorce, but they've been written by inhabitants of no planet I know.
The Artist's Way talks of a woman who survives a Hollywood divorce and goes sober. I try the daily written meditation she prescribes as a remedy for grief. My pen flows, the rage cones and spills, the anguish flattens enough so that I don't cry when the children come over after school. We plant out dahlias and salvia under the lemon tree and arrange the walkway stones in a curved pattern. When I bring out the bag of uprooted irises, my daughter looks quizzical, asks if they're stolen. I tell her how they flew over the wall in charmed arcs where a neighbour was renovating. One-by-one they landed, still blooming, on a pile of rubble.
By day, there's no parking for the singers and recorder players who arrive for rehearsals. The whole street has gone business. The print shop owner chases Tim's clients off if they park on his lot, so I park around the corner under an African Celtis and walk. By night, the unearthly quiet creeps me out. No neighbourly intrusions of slammed doors or barking dogs penetrate the evening; no wafting incense or steamed haddock imply communion. In my nightmares, no child breathes in the house. What bone-chilling silence is this? Sweet Jesus, save me.
Tim wakes me, promising that the children's heads rest safe on their pillows. Across town. In their father's house. With the swing in the garden. My eyes trace the whorls of the pressed steel ceilings glinting by streetlight. I circle the coils of moon shadow, while he breathes back into sleep.
My therapist of eleven years dies the week of the divorce. I breathe through wool, a sleepwalker, an exile to Mars.
6) Flagrant Immorality
The discussion with the Baha'i elder takes a raw turn. The most holy book forbids sexual relations outside of marriage. The elder opens the Kitab-i-Aqdas, with its verdigris cover and archaic phrases, and in her mild Canadian accent explains how my flagrant violation of the laws shames the community.
"But," I try to explain, "my survival is at stake." I'm unemployed, leaking money; I've lost custody of my children, my home. My therapist is dead. My parents are in Cape Town. I'm withering from grief. I say, "I am safe with that man. Why would I leave him?"
I am shocked when she explains that I’m forbidden from attending Feasts but if I marry Tim with my parents' consent I may return to the fold. But I’m just four months divorced. I’m about to splutter, "Marry? Now?" but I think my ears have deceived me. It’s time to leave. Tim, at the tea table is eating poppy seed cake. He doesn’t see me pointing at my watch and lifts a fork to his mouth. The door bursts open. Six men, moving too fast, enter the house. Their body language is tight and jerky. As I call to Karen: "We have company..." they raise their guns. Cocked. Pointed. The leader says, "Yes, you have company. Everybody down. Face down. On the floor. Give us your jewels. Your watches. Or we kill."
I drop my bag to the floor. Kick it under the sofa. Slip my rings in my mouth as I go down. All the diamonds from a fifteen-year marriage. Remade into two rings. One for each child when they get married.
I guide Karen down beside me, wanting to soothe her. She's on the edge. It's the third attack in two weeks. There's still a circular scab over a bruise on her forehead from the last time when the barrel of the gun slammed into her face. If she cracks there'll be a bloodbath. She presses the panic button wedged in her pocket, but is seen. A man vaults the sofa. Boots in my back. Pistol-whipping Karen's head. He screams, "Why'd you do that?" He screams, "Kill them all."
Breathe in. Breathe out. How hard can that be? If hit by a bullet I must stay calm. Lower my blood pressure. Slow the bleeding. Soothe my pulse. Breathe. And if an artery goes? Methodical under duress, I will reach into my own flesh to pinch the severed ends with each hand. For my children. I will survive.
But then we're bound hand and foot. If shot, assume a flesh wound. Breathe. Just keep breathing. Play dead. It's worked before. Is this divine retribution? Should I return to my husband? If I throw in a promise to return to church, would the God of my childhood strike a deal?
Prostrate on the ground, such clarity emerges: there's no going back. God can wait.
A tired baby cries. "Silence that child," says the gang leader, "or I'll silence it myself." Terror rolls in waves. Breathe. At least my children are safe. How long can this last? It feels like an hour. Feels like two. The rings sour in my mouth. Karen's been taken. Are they raping her? Am I next?
I watch our guard's heels from under the couch and try to hide my violent unstoppable shaking. This shaking I must hide. The tiles are ice against my breasts. I can't stop shivering. My clothes are thin. I need to pee. But the man who took my watch had warm hands. Yoga breathing. Warm myself up. The one who tied me, his fingers were warm. Dry, were almost gentle. Breathe. Quietly. But I am so mad at the shaking. I want my fear concealed. Not exposed. I'm so proud. So tired.
How can I play dead if I'm shuddering visibly? This is the shame. Breathe. The rage and the shame.
7) Lockup Song
There's no shortcut to Lenasia. Just 20 minutes of freeway from the Diepkloof band room and I'm jammed between Maloka and Mazibuko in the van packed with percussion and brass. The sergeants tell preposterous tales of jumping fences as they capture criminals, zigzagging unscathed through bullets. I suspect they're probing my gullibility. Maybe flirting. In Soweto, who can tell?
The houses we pass are painted in the colours of confectionary: mint, strawberry, toffee, banana; temples and mosques are filigree and gold. Posters adorning lampposts advertise the Hare Krishna summer festival and a wizened guru beams quiet enlightenment.
I've just been appointed to the South African Police Services military band, sweltering in my a lined wool skirt and brass-buttoned jacket. Hard leather shoes punish my toes. We set up the music stands in a courtyard littered with cigarette butts between the charge office and holding cells. Captain Skhosana raises his baton. We tune. Sort of. The trumpets are sharp; the tuba, flat.
The clarinet begins Abide With Me while we wait for the widow. The heat emanating from the tarmac builds under the aluminium cover. My flute against my chin slips with perspiration. Buzzing flies alight on my face.
A prostitute drying out in the prisoner's yard hollers between the hymns: "My children need me." She bangs on the metal door. "My children, my children," she wails.
Another prisoner screams, "Shurrup cunt." Amazing Grace. From the charge office, a constable strides over to the cells. He rattles a large bunch of keys, demanding respect for the dead.
Since my appointment to the band Ive been unable to collect my children punctually every day. If our performance runs late they go to aftercare. Their father, who has custody, told the social worker my lateness distresses them. I hadn't noticed. I said they were always glad to see me. They liked it best when I came to fetch them in uniform. They'd salute me and I'd salute them back. He said they needed routine. I said, "They need their mother." My access is cut to weekends, and Wednesday night supper. The Lord's My Shepherd.
The prostitute starts chanting: "My children need me." Jerusalem, Jerusalem! "My children are alone." She weeps. An hour passes while we wait. Be Still and Know.
Maloka explains the family's lateness, telling me that since they are rural people, they must make a long journey from Qwaqwa on the Lesotho border. Transport is a problem The women arrive cloaked in heavy tartan blankets. A small boy wearing new clothes whimpers on his mother's lap. The policeman who is to be buried shot himself in front of his son. The congregation rises to sing Rea Oboka Morena unaccompanied. The reverend begins.
Afterwards we stand together, folding the buckled music stands, using force. Maloka says, "You mustn't take this life so seriously."
Tears again, the unwelcome response to kindness. Maloka, who will yet discharge a bullet into his own temple when he realises he will not recover from the illness that has already claimed his newborn son, pats my shoulder and says, "Easy, girl."
The prostitute, finally, falls silent.
8) The Function Argument
The chapel smells of waxed wood and the milky breath of four hundred children, shuffling along the pews. In my first week as the primary school music teacher I'm still adjusting from the Police Band, resisting the urge to stand at attention for authority figures. I play Make Me a Channel of Your Peace as the students settle down for Mass.
A man swoops toward the piano, startling me with his vigorous eye contact as if issuing instructions. I play on, bewildered, trying to ignore him as he scours the music over my shoulder.
My hands prickle. I smile a tight acknowledgement. He nods effusively, when I whisper, "Later." He shifts fitfully, too close. I lose my place in the hymnbook and flounder, missing the cadence that intersects with the priest's entry.
Afterwards he introduces himself and accompanies me to my classroom, speaking fast. "Did you know the Mesopotamians studied the mathematical principles of sound, yet it was the Pythagoreans who discovered the numerical ratios in the musical scales?"
I quicken my pace. Outside my classroom the boys kick puffballs in parabolas across the quad. Soon I'll be sneezing. The girls in their yellow dresses flutter like sunbirds. I gesture to the grade threes, hoping he will go.
"Particularly the ratios of small integers."
"Could we discuss this later?" I ask.
"All nature consists of harmony arising from numbers. Please," he says, oblivious to the children, "this must be taught."
I promise I will.
"One more thing…" His daughter, Vaneshree, needs a piano teacher.
I give him Tim's number.
He says, "One, two, three, four – the small numbers are the source of all perfection."
A week later his daughter arrives. Her tiny fingers seem as hollow-boned as a bird's. She pecks at the keyboard, playing rickety scales. She swings her legs with a bumpy counter-rhythm. Her feet don't reach the floor.
Ramesh will not hear that she is too young for an hour; that she battles to concentrate. "She must apply her mind," he says when a shorter lesson is proposed. "She needs discipline."
As the year proceeds, his phone calls lengthn. "Why can't she play the National Anthem yet? What about exams? Trinity College or Royal Schools? Maybe UNISA…" Long memos in her homework book query the methodology, advise sonatas. Tim's face falls when the mobile rings late at night. When school reopens I ask if he wants another teacher for his daughter.
"Why on earth?" he asks, bewildered.
Aiming for tact, I mention his apparent dissatisfaction with Tim's approach. He insists he is well pleased; he wants no change. "If a child receives conflicting instructions the learning process is compromised," I say, trying to sound firm and respectful. Is it too late to reconfigure the boundaries?
He sags against the wall, blinking at the reproach. I leave swiftly, certain that he is trying desperately not to weep.
On the morning of his funeral, the slow traffic along Louis Botha's decrepit facade is a wretched cortege. Paganini's first violin concerto plays on the car radio. The piercing tones are the lament of the singing dead: horse hair and gut, maple and ebony.
I want to subtract a week from the clock to return to his hospital bed. I want to take Aristotle to his ward, to take him this recording, implore him to redo the algebra, to shake out the logical fallacy. Re-check the variables in the fibrillating vibrato. Find the transcendental numbers in the downstroke of the pizzicato. Calculate the curve of the falling bassoon. Listen to the two-four, the heart of the beat, the truth of small numbers.
The taxis hoot a strident fugue. My face is wet with regret. I want to subtract another week and to pluck back my words. I want to ask him to tell me – one more time – about the harmony of small numbers.
9) The Long Way Home
Tim and I buy a pretty house from a Portuguese widower with a stumpy tailed pit bull terrier and an armful of racist jokes. When I don't laugh, the dog curls its lips, revealing a scissors bite. I force a choked giggle. Its tail jerks, rod-like.
We're lured by the expanse of lawn, the lushly scented duftwolke roses, and the wild birds alighting in the red-leafed prunus. There's space for a vegetable garden and a hibiscus growing up to the roof offers enormous blooms of the palest pink.
Their darkly veined petals, pellucid as my daughter's skin at birth, remind me how I saw right through her. Awestruck, I had looked away, unable to gaze at the deep well of her being.
On our first day in the house, we walk around Denise Circle at dusk where kiewiets will lay eggs in the spring. New parents push strollers and kids dribble soccer balls. It all seems friendly. We tell ourselves we'll like it here. When we return to our street, policemen crouch in bulletproof vests, holding up weapons. Our throughway is blocked.
The house is near the children's school and my daughter, now old enough, chooses to live with us. I'll be a real mommy again, packing lunches and ironing her uniform with camellia-scented spray. We'll paint her room lavender and buy her a parrot. I'll make milo in the mornings and berry smoothies after school. This house is a fresh start, a place to make good.
We hang the ancestors in the entrance hall, giving thanks. A forbidding pair in severe Victorian attire, we don't expect Great-grandmother to fly off the wall. Her antique frame splits. My hair prickles in my neck. Along with the screaming that brought the police to our street, this is not a good omen. Not on the first day.
Soon the plumbing objects and the water pressure falters. The burglar alarm shorts and the washing machine turns weird. One evening Tim senses somebody peering over his shoulder at the piano, reading the music, breathing in his ear. He mentions it to me, wondering if it could be his mother. I say it couldn't. She was never a snoop.
I invite the old man to lunch. The table is set with mismatched spoons and I explain this oddness in light of vanishing items.
He raises his head and addresses the ceiling: "Hey! Just you leave these people alone." Our forks freeze midway to our mouths. The children's eyes widen. He wags a finger like he did for his dog, saying, "Get lost now; you had your day."
I want to touch my children across the table, but I'm rigid. I should clap my hands over their ears to protect them from what's coming. Which child to protect? I have only two hands.
The widower continues, almost blithe, "She tried to commit suicide many times."
"Oh. How awful. What a…" How do I respond?
He gestures down the hallway, "Finally, she succeeded. Gassed herself in the garage. She outwitted us all."
I want to hold faith in something beyond ghosts. Nothing scares me unless I allow it. There's a rational explanation. Some dark cause and effect. I'm less sanguine when I'm alone and someone is rifling through my CD collection. Maggots appear in my scrupulously clean kitchen. Food jumps from my plate. Crockery breaks.
The paranormal investigator I call in looks like she's done jail time. Her camera won't work inside the house. Outside, she places crystals at the four points of the compass, sprinkling salt along the perimeter wall. It makes no difference. I consult a psychic who explains that the souls of suicides hover because they don't know they're dead. She performs a "soul rescue" from her townhouse in Robindale.
Finally, a priest comes to the house. In the garage, he recites from The Book of Common Prayer, committing her soul to eternal rest in the Saviour.
In our pretty new house, I'm shaken. The ghost seems to have gone. But will it ever feel like home?
10) A Fraction of a Millimetre
The last two years in Joburg are like the end days of my first marriage. I am hyper-alert, watching for the gap. Looking over my shoulder becomes a tic; the pepper spray at my waist is a nervous pendulum offering a vague notion of protection. I check the yard before hanging laundry and inspect the street before exiting the garage.
I brush up on my defensive driving techniques, studying the advanced motoring manual. Yet it hardly relieves the constant dread with each horrific accident I avoid by fractions. At traffic lights I sense concealed weapons behind the Homeless Talk. In restaurants I sit, back to the wall, scanning the door.
We install movement sensors around the house but the siren splits open the night when a cat disturbs the beam. Mornings I wake, friable and exhausted, battling to concentrate. I pencil in my diary the monthly alarm check, check the batteries and the panic buttons. When the internal demons strike, they don't even murmur a warning.
After my daughter slashes down to her artery I walk around the park unseeing, blundering into traffic. My beloved holds me, shushes my sobbing. He steers me home, saying, "Be gentle on yourself." He drives me to poetry readings. He takes me to movies and tells me stories.
On parents' evening I fix my eyes on the teacher's hands, watching her twist her rings mechanically, unable to meet her gaze. Nameless accusations and whiffs of rumours are loaded springs. Other parents step around us in case our affliction is contagious. I sweat through that frosty May but the relentless questions drive a furnace of shame: Why couldn't I stop her? What didn't I notice? What have I done?
By December I've begun a tormented dance with prickly Canadian beaurocrats, who don't answer the phone or return emails. The teeth-grating interviews with po-faced child psychologists and attorneys bleed my wallet. Anxiety torques. Our ghost may have gone but her vindictive spirit lingers.
Walter Mony has promised to help us resettle. He says he'll sponsor us. I tell him that it doesn't work like that. He'll find us jobs; he offers us his basement apartment. He is ebullient about our coming, assured that we will blend right in. He says, "You won't regret it for a minute."
While his confidence is seductive, his health is failing. I drive to Pretoria weekly: immigration medicals, interviews, new documentation, repeat transcripts from the university. Always paying, paying, paying. And praying, to the red maple leaf raised on the High Commission's guarded perimeter.
My ex promises to sign consent, but then refuses. The process is entangled and the lawyer sends bills. We miss the start of the fall semester at the University of Victoria, where I've been accepted and instead of going into autumn, September offers up a brittle spring. The final interview at the High Commission is an hour and a half of interrogation. The officer dismisses my assurance that I plan to return to South Africa on completion of my PhD. She sneers openly, accusing me of dual intent. She reminds me I don't have custody. When she demands a second letter of consent from the children's father I suspect his intervention.
On Skype, I tell Walter things aren't good on our side. I tell him about the vicious clockwork of parent conferences with the family therapist, but I do not tell him that my daughter got expelled and is fragmenting. I don't tell of my son, just thirteen, who bade goodbye to his friends and took an overdose on the same morning I hugged him and told him I loved him.
Walter says it could be better on his side too. He tunes the strings of the instrument on his lap and says, "Listen." He plays the bright giga from a Bach partita. Resonant and vibrant, it pierces the ether and electrons of the fragile internet connection. He strokes the last note just before the router fizzes and the power dips. His laughter blends with static. He says, "It's always too soon to panic."
A hoopoe pecks desultorily on the winter-hard ground while I relinquish dreams of Canada and pay, pay, pay the bills. In the hibiscus the call of the coucal falls and rises, promising rain. I weigh the possibilities: Mauritius, Botswana or Namibia? Two dark hadedas swoop down to the pool, shimmering in the late afternoon light. I decide on Cape Town. It's time to go home. One bird drinks while the other looks out for its mate.
A year later I ask my daughter what she misses about Joburg. She strikes a match like an old woman, inhaling without urgency. "Not a lot," she says, looking at the bleached sky. She blows out the match. "Not a lot, but the song of the birds."