Hilary Whitehorn

Sophie’s room

My mother was so proud of the parquet floor in Sophie’s room – I never understood why.  Her bed had looped iron rounded feet and it stood on bricks – to ward away the tokolosh I had been told. There were newspapers wrapped around the bricks.  There was no hanging space but a waist high wooden cupboard that ran along the wall .  It had the same smell as the African shop I had sometimes been into where you could get a buttermilk sucker – visstok or something funny they called it, for half a cent.  Next door was the gardener’s room but I had never been in there.  Sophie was, like us, scared of my mother.  Petrol is burning she would say and crack her fingers together – we all knew this meant trouble – big trouble.  We could not be caught inactive, that meant trouble.  Anything pleasurable also meant trouble which is why I quickly discovered that climbing up the chestnut tree and hiding behind the conkered bright green leaves meant I was safe.  I could drink my stolen can of condensed milk in the fork of that tree and make a pact with God that I would become a nun if only my mother didn’t find out.  I could also hide under the hedge – no one ever found me under the hedge bordering the road.  Once when I was locked out of the house I came to know the berries on that hedge well and discovered they were not poisonous.

Sophie’s toilet was a walk over the thick kikuyu grass away. It had an adjacent shower with hot and cold water my mom said proudly.  The toilet was off a horribly dark and shadowy passage with a squeaking metal solid gate at the end.  There was a bolt you had to push across, pressing with your full body weight so it scraped noisily and started the Alsatians barking.
The house was on a rise, the driveway uphill and the car lights would sweep across the grass in front of the garages.  The property was too big at night time and full of strange shapes and noises.  Sophie would shield us and treasure us.  Her radio singing strange music with instruments I did not know.  Sometimes I would hear drums in the distance and I would grow frightened.  I had heard the stories about the mission on which my father had worked and about the wives learning to handle a gun during the first uprisings and how nuns had been shot doing the work of God.

The Wanderers was a beautiful place.  The clubhouse grand and intimidating. The gym hall where the girls pulled my panties out the side of my leotard while we waited to vault was large and high.  But the pool by night was different. I hated the swimming. I was not long and leanly able like my second sister Wendy.  Backstroke was the worst. The pool so pretty with the lights reflected in the water. For a moment it looked like a party was going to happen.  But then there was that awful moment when you had to dive in and feel the cold water shock on your warm body and the air choked out on a watery breath and water going up the back of your nose and trying to kick but sinking and gagging and shivering and choking the pretty shining water.  And then I couldn’t hear the clapping or the cheering and all I had to do was get to the other side so I could scramble clumsily out and pull the black speedo away from my body where it clung.  The rubber of my cap pulled my hair and I can still fell the choke of that water in my throat.

They took me home after the gala.  Another lift from another someone.  Always being lifted.  It pained my parents when I asked them to be taken somewhere.  My demands made them sad and tired and only later did I realise how little it was to ask to be taken to a birthday party and that it did not make you bad or wicked or selfish.  And it was wonderfully exciting to carry your party dress to school and to climb onto the bus with it and change in the birthday girl’s bedroom before the pass the parcel and cake cutting fun began.  And happiness hung in the sky like a sunset.

The house was clearly empty. And quietly, shadowly locked.  The lift people had dropped me and gone home to their cosy family house.  The gate bolt scraped, the dogs barked, but the house was empty.  I was scared.  And tired.  And little.  I did the only thing there was to do.  I went to Sophie’s room and knocked on the door.  I fell asleep on that fancy parquet floor next to the newspaper bricks.  I did not know the police had been called.  I did not know that people had walked around the property with torches looking for me.  I only know that when they found me I had never felt so lost.

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Crystal Warren

The New Neighbour

I lie awake listening to the traffic. No matter what time of day or night, someone is driving past. Where are they going to so late, or rather so early? Anglers embarking on a fishing trip? Travelers leaving town? Revelers returning from parties? I guess I should be glad that the parties in my block of flats do not end so late. Or lovers returning briefly to their own beds. Like the new boyfriend of my neighbour, who leaves most nights between midnight and morning. I hear her door open, the bang of the security door downstairs, footsteps on the stairs. She seems to wait at her door until he disappears down the stairwell, because he always stops and calls back “I love you”. This would be sweet if it weren’t outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night.

I know more about my neighbours than I would like. They live at high volume, coming and going, talking and laughing in the passage, on their balconies. They seem to know each other well, I often see them visiting other flats, or talking together in the parking lot. Sometimes it makes me lonely, and I long to be part of the group. But only sometimes. And not for long. I like my solitary life – no clutter, no complications.  If we meet on the stairs we greet, then go our separate ways. I wonder what they think of me. No loud music, no visitors, no balcony parties or braais in the communal garden which I never use. I have few friends, and my son lives far away.

No, my life is quiet. I do not inflict it on others, forcing the whole block to listen to me. Not like some of them. Not that they are bad, they all seem pleasant enough. Lately there is less loud music late at night, I suspect out of consideration for the family upstairs with their new baby. I just wish the child had the same consideration. I’m not blaming it, or the parents. Babies cry. But this one does it all the time. At night I hear its shrill outraged voice, soothing tones of the mother, footsteps as she walks above me. I remember those long walks, willing a child to stop crying and sleep. But I didn’t live in a flat. I didn’t bother anyone else. I never do.

But now I am tempted. The constant crying is driving me crazy; it has been going on for days. Or rather nights. None of the neighbours sleep. We all lie awake listening, willing it to stop. In the evenings it is masked as people put on their televisions or play music, loud enough to drown out the cries. My flat is right in the middle, so I hear all eight different sets of sounds. I can’t take it much longer. No, it is time to talk to the mother. I am going upstairs now.

“I am sorry to disturb you but … Yes the baby is disturbing me… Please don’t cry … I didn’t come to complain but to see if I could help.  Don’t cry, give it to me. There there, everything will be alright.”

Finally they are both asleep. I had been walking the baby while the mother, barely more than a child herself, told me her story. The husband working shifts, the mother too far to visit often, and the flat too small for her to stay. The baby who doesn’t want to sleep and cries all the time. Her constant tiredness and increasing desperation. Slowly the tears stopped, and then the voice. Now she  is fast asleep on the couch. I don’t want to intrude by wandering the flat looking for the baby’s bed, and besides, if I move she might wake up.

So I sit and listen to the sounds of the flats waking up. The birds have started their morning chorus, the traffic has increased, although it is softer from up here. I can hear geysers groaning as baths are run, early risers are already leaving home, banging doors, revving cars. I should go soon, I like to be at work early, before anyone else gets there. But today I sit in this strange flat listening to the soft breathing of a mother and child.

I had better get used to it. I still can’t believe I offered to babysit. Not all the time, but occasionally when they want to go out together, or when things are bad and she just needs a break. What have I done? All my fiercely protected privacy will now be invaded and at my own invitation. Now I face the prospect of children, conversations, clutter, complications. Of visitors – did I really offer my spare room for her mother to use? What was I thinking? All because of this wretched child, who lies sleeping in my arms. Still. Perfect. Whole. She wakes up, stretches small arms and smiles at me, welcoming the stranger into her life, her community.

Hennette Calitz

We bring our hearts home to be mended

The peppermint smell of the toothpaste nudging her awake, she glances at the mirror and freezes. Her grandmother is staring back at her – her gaze calm despite the fact that she is foaming at the mouth.

And how did YOU deal with it, she asks the mirror. How did you live with yourself, with the knowledge that you had lost – no, even worse – that you had given up the only precious thing you ever had?

Her grandmother says nothing. Just stares back at her – no emotion visible – so that she drops her head and continues brushing her teeth.

Before she reaches for the back door handle to let the world in, she breathes in deeply and with that she inhales the memories that are her daily companions. She is young, beautiful, loved. Then there is an early knock on the door. The children are still asleep. Her hair unbrushed, clutching the dressing gown shut. Her hand reaching for the door she realises it has to be bad news – no-one comes to your door this early. And so, when she opens the door with the sun in her eyes and the two uniformed men on the stoep just blurry outlines, she hardly reacts. Not then, not later. Not in front of the children, not in public. Yet never again did she have an undisturbed night, a night without questions, without wild promises to unknown gods, without tears and anger and hatred.

She turns the key, pushes the handle down. She opens the door to another bright yellow day, blue skies, birds twittering chirruping fluttering in the branches of the karee willows, a new spider’s web spun across the corner of the back stoep and the far-off shouts of farm labourers, a tractor droning away somewhere across the valley.

The spade is where she left it last night, so she continues digging up the potatoes to drop off at her brother’s house when she goes to town for her weekly shopping. Town … the biley taste of anxiety sits in her throat … town is for people who stop talking as she cycles past, people who peer from underneath their upholstered pelmets and then rush to the phone, people like the dominee’s wife who visits the invalids, the poor, the wayward and the stray like an angel of vengeance, sword in hand, ready to battle with whatever demon she may encounter.

She suddenly remembers the wool she had promised to drop off at the old-age home, just to get rid of the angel during her last visit. The cupboards in the spare rooms are stuffed with wool, fabric, buttons, books full of recipes and patterns she does not have enough lifetimes for. The first cupboard she opens is the wrong one – it is packed with awkward remnants of fabric, ghostly templates from which had sprung her children’s clothes – yet she cannot stop her hands moving forward, unpacking shelf after shelf, stroking her children, hearing their laughter, feeling their soft baby bodies harden as they grow.

The whirlwind that followed on that sunlit morning 49 years ago left her with only a few memories – the claustrophobia of well-wishers, the clichés offered on the altar of her pain, and the burning, the longing, the yearning, the great loss – her children’s worrying faces her only anchor. Eventually one thing became certain – she had to go back home, back to where she had grown up, where her parents still lived, returned to the safety of her childhood.

We bring our hearts home to be mended.

The children suffered a second time, yet trusting her, unlike later when they turned on her, firing accusations of not caring of being too hard of not showing emotion not teaching them about love …

That first night at supper her mother, dishing up lamb chops and bean bredie, snapped, ‘I had warned you about his job, how dangerous it is, and you did not listen to me then. How irresponsible it is for a man with small children but you did not listen to me … hard-headed as always!’ The hot tears came, emotion plugging her throat so that she could not speak, her father looking away to avoid the conflict. She stared at the food her mother had lovingly prepared for the homecoming of her firstborn. The embers of pain, damage, hatred, burned steadily on.

The sun sits high, she must get to town. In the bathroom she peels off the sweaty clothes, her grandmother waiting for her, no sign of sweat or tears on her face. She leans forward, letting her head rest against the cool mask staring at her. ‘So HOW did you cope with the loneliness, the hatred?’ she whispers. She gazes into the blue-grey eyes and finds no answers there. Also no accusation, no judgement, no shaming.

She rushes to the phone, leaves a message for the Angel of Vengeance to come by later that afternoon. Naked she walks down the passage, clutching the roll of black bags, towards the cupboards in the spare rooms … towards lightness.

Brenda Durow

Heard in the Dark

She lay quietly in the dark. Listening to her own breathing, to her body telling her she needed to move. Beside her the warm bulk of her sister stretched in deep, dream-enriched sleep. The voices reached her softly, a muted conversation in another room. Words nestling into each other like the soft rustle of dry autumn leaves, an elusive, meaningless murmur in the distance.

Her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, picking up only faint detail in the weak moonlight filtering through the gap in the clumsily drawn curtains. Nature’s nocturnal noises were a gentle reminder that she was far from home. Owls called a warning to unwary rodents scuffling in the barn, their only answer the distant lowing of a cow calling her calf.

Her mind still slightly befuddled was slow to process the limited information her senses collected. Then the thoughts started taking form – What time was it? How long had she slept? Where was the bathroom?

Careful not to disturb the gently snoring shape next to her, she slid her bare feet to the cold floor. Her fingers fumbling under the high old fashioned bed, for slippers encountered soft, transient dust bunnies, the dry rasp of rats droppings causing her to recoil in disgust. With a “shush-shush” across the faded blooms on the threadbare carpet, the pale square of mirror her target, she edged towards the dimly seen door.

Frustration and need driving her now, she twisted the solid brass knob round, her small hands slipping on the smooth worn surface. Eventually the click as the latch slipped free, the door swung open a crack and the voices were clearer but still swirling just beyond the reach of recognition. Tantalising her with an odd, almost familiar phrase, then receding again.

The heavy door swung back, the knob slipping from her perspiring palm, re-engaging with a harsh whip-crack in the preternatural stillness of the night.

Her whole body has tensed and the breath is caught in her throat as she strains to hear clearly. With an effort she forces her lungs to relax and release, allowing the air to sigh softly through her parted lips.

No moonlight penetrates this far into the house and with the generators off no artificial light remains. A dim, wavering line of light at the end of the passage hints at the candlelit conversation dimly heard. Her back against the wall to support her shaking knees, she shuffles sideways, her eyes straining to discern some form in the dense, oppressive dark. The voices growing louder at her stealthy approach, the rhythm and cadence rising and falling like the tide. The voices are so familiar, yet still maddeningly unrecognisable. The words vaguely discernable, but making no sense.

Her fingers find a door frame, this door hanging open – flatulence, adenoidal snores and foul sea-weed breath reach out to assault her. Her brothers, never fail to irritate even when comatose. But she is no nearer her goal. Her mind starts racing – If only I could remember which door it was? As her bladder stretches, straining, starting to ache she makes the decision – she needs help – which in the absence of Mom and Dad means Grand Pa.

She walks carefully, more confidently, to the faint strip of light and taps on the door, the voices stop.

“Who’s up this late?” Grand Pa calls.

“It’s me, Grand Pa, Catherine. I can’t find the bathroom.”

“Wait there, Kitty- Cat. I’ll be right with you.”

The creak of the floorboards as his weight is transferred, bare feet on wood as he shuffles to the door. The door swings open, a candle on the dresser throwing a welcome light on her anxious face. A smell of lavender, faint and unexpected, follows him from the room. He finishes hastily tying his robe and picks up the candle. His gnarled, calloused fingers curl gently around her small, tender hand and lead her back down the passage, suddenly shorter and less of a threat with his comforting presence beside her.

“Who were you talking to, Grand Pa?”

“Uhm, it was just the radio, couldn’t sleep. A bit of a problem as one gets older you know.”

He lights a second candle waiting ready on the basin’s enamelled edge, waits patiently outside for her to finish. “Don’t forget to wash your hands.”

The geyser long emptied of warmth spits only icy water onto her shivering hands. He escorts her safely back, and tucks her in warmly to snuggle against her sister. Plants a rough kiss on her forehead with a gruff – “Sleep tight; don’t let the bed-bugs bite.”

The next morning the children gather ravenously around the scarred wooden table, a huge meal of steaming oats, toast, tomatoes and scrambled eggs waiting ready on the wood stove.

The warm, white smile on Nthombi’s shining face welcomes her to the feast, “Sawubona, Nkosasana, did you sleep well?” As she leans closer to serve the porridge the dusky scent of lavender infiltrates the breakfast smells. And Catherine starts. Her dazed memory playing “join the dots”; gives disconcerting significance to the conversation she had heard in the darkness.

Carmel Rickard

The wounded

Something is seriously wrong. It’s that shining in the frosty grass. She tries to make sense of it through her neighbour’s screaming – the woman’s husband drank too much last night and now he can’t get up for work. She hears the man’s laboured breathing within his shack next door; it exactly paces the breath of her own panic as she reaches the little storage hut outside the room where she sleeps with all her family.

A padlock lies at her feet. The very padlock she bought in December from the Factory Shop. Four stars for strength and three stars for unpickability. This is the one that won’t break, Mme. Now it’s lying on the grass. She turns the corner and sees the corrugated iron door hanging open. And there’s nothing inside. Their clothes, the plates, the blankets, the food – everything gone. She hears a noise and goes closer, cautious. It’s a chicken, clucking as it pecks some mealie pits spilled by the thief when he ran off with their supper for tonight.

She sits on a tree stump outside the broken door and sees it all. Tired to the bones, aching in her heart, she turns back to the sleeping room. She winds a red scarf round her head, wraps a towel round her waist. Now she sets out for the mountain where she and her friends go when they need special help. Old Archbishop Sololo, the prophet, always tells them the right day for such a visit, but now she makes the decision for herself.

She starts along the path through the bare thorn trees and comes to the old cemetery. Some gravestones lie smashed; others crouch at crazy angles where the cattle have knocked them over. She skirts the crumbling wall and starts up the steep slope. The path is hard. The stones slip and roll under her feet; the melting frost makes even the roots treacherous.

The cattle have been up here too, with the herdsmen and the hunters. The earth is bare and she must take care not to fall. She sees snares in the fence as she walks next to it. In one, a long dead rabbit, trapped and held by the front leg, its lips drawn back from the teeth.

On either side of the path the ground splits open and she sees into the wound of the earth where the rocks gape. Red soil has washed down the slope as though the mountain weeps bloody tears.

The woman sees all these things and her ache grows stronger.

Near the top she finds the ledge where they always stop to look out over the hills, right across to the Zastron mountains, far away. She can see they are covered with snow at the top today – it seems purple from this distance. She sits, warming herself in the sun as it grows stronger and higher. A pair of bokmakieries duet in the wild olive just behind her. Bok bok bok: Treeeeeee. She feels as though she is becoming part of the mountain, as though she is a rock and the rocks are a woman carrying her.

She sees the buck long before it reaches the ledge. A female mountain reedbuck all on her own. On her left flank a scar from her own thieves in the night. Where are the other ewes? Her young? Why is she here alone?

The reedbuck tiptoes towards the flat place, nibbling what little grass she can find. She seems weary, as though she has come a long way. As though she has even further to go. The woman sits very still. She feels no urge to run away; even less to grab at the animal, despite the hungry bellies down below. She watches closely, with sympathy: another female with others dependent on her. How does she manage in the harsh cold? What does she do for food? What does she find to drink?

Mountain reedbuck need more water than other animals, but as the woman climbed the path she had seen how the cattle had destroyed the drinking places of the buck. Their massive hoofs had churned the ponds holding the last of the winter rain and they had fouled the tiny stream that runs high above the graveyard. Thirsty herself as she climbed the woman had searched for water, but she found nothing – even under mossy stones.

Then the animal’s eyes catch her own. They look steadily at each other. They have so many questions. So much they need to know. So much they have lost.

Later, a lifetime at least, the sun goes down behind the mountain. The buck moves slowly away. And as she starts the long walk home the woman feels the buck and the mountain watching her, waiting.

Belinda Fanner

Firefly

“Where to?” The engine sputters, coughs and smokes.

“I don’t trust myself to tell.” The bus driver pauses, perplexed. He watches odd bumps and grinds crossing her face.

“In this fog you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting there.” He slings the wheel with arms like ropes. Without warning they lurch off.

More uncertain now, she accelerates down the central aisle with jerks and starts, taking the odd involuntary step. The mist is as thick inside the bus as out, small items making monstrous shadows. The vinyl becomes a lizard under her questing fingers, she is safer at the back. Giving over to being driven is a relief. Not long now and she would be truly strapped.

Everyone seemed to have a calling, a smalling, a happy-with-that hat.

She looks around for hers. Two are squatting down on the seat, blinking at her: painting-hat-writing-hat-writing-hat-painting-hat. She wonders if it is possible to have the same continuous thought all the way through, from light to dark and back again. There are just so many shades of grey, and moss.

Moss grows everywhere.

She picks up one hat, then the other, watching them dance and twine. She smoothes them over her hair, one hat spooning the other.

The bus driver comes to sit next to her, the bus still moving.

She is past questioning anything. Only the cold smells real.

“What will it be?” he says, smiling lasciviously to the shadow she leaves as change in her bid to get away.

She hangs off the back of a chair, grabs a strap as they swing around a corner, and stands swaying as a response.

“Are you ready?” His eyes are the darkest pools on the bus, shadows making shadows deep inside.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Her eyes sweep the floor, charting the dust, wiping him out.

He looks at her in a considered way, absent-mindedly lifting her shirt with his eyes.

“It’s irrelevant, you know – any hat will do – you are the transport.”

“Thank you. Dr Seuss.”

She looks up sarcastic, meets his eye, her teeth finding her lip and feels Cross flowering behind her breastbone. Scared and Run are hiding close by.

He senses her orphan, puts back his great head and howls with laughter, filling her ears with his sorry perfume. She backs and swings away, next stop, any stop. Fuck the fog, fuck feeling lost, she couldn’t see a damn thing anyway. Time to move. His laughter chases her like a big black dog. Feet sure, steady on, ready when that old door opens.

“Go on, jump with both feet, no matter what.”

Holding onto the railing feels good, almost fun. Tempo change as the bus slows.

“Last stop, everybody off the bus, please,” calls the bus driver from the back seat.

The door swings open with a clatter. She pauses with one foot on the step and turns to see who is driving – an old black dog with a greyed muzzle – then jumps hard for the pavement. The thing roars off without a backward glance as she gets her teeth and her spine back.

She remembers her bag as it crashes into her side and takes out a pair of chopsticks.

The fog looks good enough to eat. She starts catching it, like sword fighting candy floss. She dumps and fends great gobs of it into a brown paper packet that has materialized in her hand. When it is quite full, she squeezes the chopsticks down the side, rolls the top into a neat handle, and starts half skipping down the road.

It’s so quiet she has to make her own music.

“I don’t believe this.”

A deep rumble as the bus comes into view again, almost reassuring. She slows her steps and stops.

So red, so smoky, so loud, it trickles towards her, the great old door yawning.

“All aboard, all aboard.”

The bus driver is hanging by a foot and a hand over the abyss. The old dog behind the wheel stares straight ahead, still wearing his hat.

“I don’t think so, thanks, I’ve found something else.” She holds out her bag from which a wisp of fog is escaping.

“What have you found?” He looks almost wistful and stops swinging.

“I’ve lost the unexpected, found it in unlikely places. I’ve found single socks, lost words and the shine of me.” She smiles and hands him the smoking bag. “Here, you try.”

She steps back from his frown, holds onto her hats with two hands for luck, eyes wide shut.

At first, only a faint glimmer, then brighter. Brighter.

She stands, a candle making a cave. In a blink she is gone.

Winked out, like a firefly.

The door snaps shut, wheels turn.

So quiet.

Annemarie Hendrikz

Biology

Strange words she muses – loss – lost – lose. Something not being where it should be – no longer in the right place; and then there’s ‘should’ and ‘right’.   Yet, the loss of mother, fortune, keys, virginity are not at all the same condition, even if they were all to happen to the same person at the same moment.

Lost virginity.  Now there’s a thing.  Biologically it involves breaking the hymen.  Horse riding is alleged to be able to do this, however, so there is clearly more to virginity than the state of a vaginal membrane.

Her virginity was a portal to the right society, the right man, the right life; a matter of principle. So her mother (who was not then dead) had said.  She knew, from this same conversation, that there was likely to be blood.  So there was, but she, like most young women of nineteen, was used to loss of blood.  That was not the issue.

The young man was handsome by any criteria.  He had the most graceful back she had ever seen, a smooth brown chest with a gentle dusting of hair down the middle to his navel and below it too, long strong legs, a head of curly black hair and fine shiny black hairs on the top of his wrists and the first phalange of each finger and each toe on his slender feet. His eyes were brown, his black lashes long, his broad smile filled with white teeth and he was a passable dancer.  He owned a magnificent motorbike – which she considered the next best thing to a horse – enjoyed reading and gardening and was soft-spoken and well mannered.    So it seemed the right time to consider embracing the principle and opening the portal.

The moon was soft through the muslin curtain of her room.  She could see, but not too much.  She could feel however, far too much. He had grown another limb and it lacked his otherwise gentle good manners.  He was slippery with sweat and strange sounds.  Surely this enormous body part was not going to be able to find its way into a part of her that struggled to accommodate a regular sized tampon. (She learned later – with children – that she owned an incredibly flexible body part, but that night her own slender brown legs balked at the expectations and it really all became quite difficult).

Still, it happened.  She lost her virginity.  Felt it thrust up under her heart. (For a while she wondered what happened to her hymen.  Did it shred and fall in pieces on the bed mixed in the blood – no semen, he contained that – or did the hanging shreds attach themselves to her vaginal wall like little tags of cling seal, fretting forever at the loss of unity?)

That night when it was all over, and he lay soft next to her with grateful eyes and his gentle smile, she fell headlong into the jaws of relief – and thus, she was initiated and entered the expected society of her mother’s dreams, thinking them her own too, with principles more or less intact.

Many years later, happy years sustained by loving her children and by her studies and the practice of law and entertaining and homebuilding and wife-ing, it dawned on her that she might actually be lost.  Thinking it might help, and having made no fortune to lose and having by then lost her mother and many sets of keys, she decided to search for her virginity.  She began to explore all the nooks and crannies of her busy life.

One day, quite unexpectedly, she looked more deeply and more softly into the eyes of a woman she had thought of as her best friend until that moment.  When the woman’s hand reached out, slowly stroked her check, her neck, her collarbone, the breast above her heart, she felt her virginity stir and she knew with certainty – her principles in uneven motion – that she had not lost it at all.

Jacinda de Freitas

Road Block

February 1988. Separated from the oppressive Zambian heat by the dusty car window. We are foreigners to the country and the heat. Our old car is temperamental and my father is afraid to stop.

Ahead in the distance, three soldiers step into the road and hold up their hands. Brakes. Mumbles between my parents. Now what? We’ve been through the border. Windows roll down. The heat invades the car.  Red dust swirls   around and clings to the soldiers’ boots. The semi-automatic weapons motion for us to exit the old green car (a gift for the brave missionaries). “Passports.” Sneers. “Open the boot.” Three suitcases, three kit bags, one cooler box on the pot-holed road. “Open.” Obligingly, my father opens each bag. The weapons search and expose our neatly packed lives. My red, lock-up diary is ignored. We stand there, helpless in the merciless sun. Clothes lie carelessly on the tarmac and the soldiers walk around them disdainfully. When all our belongings have been offered for scrutiny, the soldiers and their semi-automatic weapons take refuge in a grass hut.

They watch as we quickly gather our lives and pack them back into the old car. We packed our entire lives so that they could be strewn unceremoniously on a national road for entertainment. Before we drive off my father smiles and says, “Thank you, have a nice day”. We get into the car and follow the black snaking road to a city we don’t know to spread a spark of Divine.

Sandy Scott

Bringing Our Hearts Home

I don’t know how I know.  No-one has sat me down and told me.  Perhaps I just pick up snippets of whispered warnings. Perhaps I just sense it in the ethers as children do. It’s about my father’s heart.

On Sunday afternoons my father always lies down for a nap after the family dinner of roast meat and gravy, crispy roast potatoes and vegetables.  I sit in my room down the passage and do my homework.  Every so often I tiptoe to his door and quietly peek in to see if his chest is still rising and falling.  My own chest ceases to move as I watch and wait. Confirmation of life sends me scuttling away with relief.  But the panic of possibilities propels me down the passage over and over again.

My father is not a man for the church.  He says he doesn’t believe in the devil. That it is fanciful. The messages of his eternal damnation shoot down from the pulpit and lodge in my heart.

At Sunday School we are told:  the Communists are on their way. Are we prepared to be tortured for Christ?  Is our faith strong enough?  My twelve-year-old self knows that I will denounce Christianity in the blink of an eye if anyone threatens to hurt me or those I love.  My faith is found wanting.

Years pass. My father still breathes …my mother laughs …the family gathers.

“We’re going to David’s after the consulting rooms close on Saturday,” my mother says.

My father’s driving terrifies me. The thought of travelling at high speeds on bumpy dirt roads to the Mission Hospital in Zululand, where my brother works, is too much for me. I figure staying at the pastor’s house might protect me from the demons.

On Saturday, everything is a rush. I grab my overnight bag and dash out the door. My mother drops me off at the manse.

“Mom, please tell Dad I say good-bye.  I forgot.”

I sit up in bed with a thudding in my chest. Torn from sleep by some internal sense of catastrophe, it takes minutes to orientate myself in a strange bedroom.  The outside light shines through the gap between the curtains.  I lie down terrified. I want to weep, but no tears fall.  Black hours pass.

The knock on the front door comes at 5am. I hear the footsteps coming down the passage, closer and closer to where I lie waiting. My pastor stands at the door and calls his daughter out of the room. I wait. He comes in and sits on my bed. His lips move and words come out in broken bits.
“So sorry …Father dead …Mother … Door …Take you home … So sorry… Pray.”

‘Do not hide thy face from me in the day of my distress.’

I arrive at the door fully dressed.  My brother drives through the silent streets towards our home. Phone calls are made.  News spreads. The phone rings incessantly. Repetition hammers it home.

“Charles is gone …Heart attack …Middle of the night …Just fifty-four …Thank you.”

‘Thou hast taken me up and thrown me away.’

The town wakes up to the death of one of their doctors.  The doorbell rings. People pour in offering condolences. Flowers crowd the mantelpiece.  Plates of eats mount up in the kitchen.

I am given a tranquillizer before the funeral and it passes in a blur.

‘My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?”

To survive on this ghastly sea of grief, I sever my ties with the church. I am adrift. The Bible collects dust in the bookcase. Sundays lie fallow and echo with the guilt of unsung hymns, unuttered prayers.  The drama of loss imprints itself in my cells.

My life slowly darkens. On the surface I cope, underneath the blackness builds. I run away to England to a cold, grey November.

I stand at the window, arms spread out, ready to fall forward. The milky sky casts a gloom over the city.  Rain runs down the pane and collects in a puddle on the ledge. A few cars are parked below, carefully positioned to avoid the potholes. The paint on the merry-go-round has peeled away in so many places that it is now mostly a dirty brown.

From across the courtyard a song of exquisite beauty drifts into the room. It is in a language I don’t know or recognize. The notes lift and soar and then dip again carrying with them the warmth of the African sun, the smell of the parched earth after rain, a vision of the big blue African skies. The melody moves through me, down into the dark, hard place of loss where it rests, a lullaby for the living.

‘What do you need to say to those behind you?’

The dramatherapist’s gentle voice brings me back into the room. Behind me the other members of the group remain as I have placed them, in a tableau of my life.

In a voice which carries so much certainty and truth that I hardly recognize it as my own, I proclaim: ‘We need to bring our hearts home to be mended.’