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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