The end of happily ever after
You’d think my memory of the day my life ended would be vivid, it’s not. I remember parts of the day like the shards of a dream. The familiar smell of the Naidoo’s curry. You could tell time by that smell. It was dhal so it was a Tuesday. It was after one o’clock because the children from Howard Pim were streaming out of school. Still. Perfect. Whole. It should have remained an ordinary day. Except that the world changed in the minutes and hours that followed. A biblical plague descended without warning on the people who had the misfortune to be there at the time. The grey uniformed swarm ravaged everything in its path. No one was granted absolution. Priests and villains, grown men and infants, all were swallowed whole. A little girl hung from the back of her school shirt on a fence. Dazed. The swarm proceeded along its singular duty, leaving devastation in their wake. As people fled, dust clouds danced like lovers in the street. I hid. I knew them. They knew me. They call me laaitie but my name is John. Verwoerd had been assassinated. I didn’t know till later, no one did. My next memory is of a disturbing calm. The reaper that only ever nips at the heels of devastation. It is a curious human ability to be able to take pain and loss and pack it away.
What lay ahead eclipsed what slumbered within. People moved deftly about. Picking up washing that had been ripped from clotheslines. Assorted Remnants. Dark bedfellows in this half-life. Mothers tried to retrieve sugar, mealie meal and flour that had been mixed and scattered about. Hope reduced to lop-sided mine dumps. I eased myself out of the place that had been my shelter, assured that I would not be noticed. I had to get home. They would return soon. Determined. Focused. Knowing who to take. This was just the wink across a dance floor. If they caught me I would enter legend. The ill feted alumni of those stolen at night. Their names carried on the wind. Never to be spoken out loud. I moved through the debris of people’s lives, the way I’d been taught. Blend in. Do nothing that will linger in people’s memory as unusual. The dust settled. Still. Perfect. Whole.
Years later when I trawled through the plankton that becomes a life trying to form a whole day, I couldn’t. The ordinariness of that day bled into the bits that lent themselves to infamy.
My next memory was of early evening. I remember the sky and how Mother Nature had run her crude burnt orange brush across the sky. Red streaks exploded like dried paint hardened on a perfect canvas, ominous. It was the kind of familiar beauty made precious by the knowledge that it would be my last. I contorted my face trying to sear it into my memory.
I was only allowed a small bag, so I filled my mind with smells, sounds and memory. The bag. Nothing personal. Everything in it had to be for sustenance. Nothing that could be traced back to family. Family, the word sent warm sugar water coursing through my veins. I was an orphan and should have felt mocked by the word. Still. Perfect. Whole. I had a family. A man made one. A mother Venus. A father Mickey. They took me in, after I became Laaitie. As I packed, I prayed that they were okay and that they would make it back here before I had to go. On cue Venus entered mimicking a gust of wind.
The air around her crackled and seeped its way into my blood, causing every cell in my body to hum. She had that effect on everyone, men and women. She always had. It drew some people in and repelled others. I sensed it before I saw the silver river that betrayed her bright smile. “ What’s wrong? What happened?” the words losing steam like the last horses out of a stable. I feared the answer more than I needed to ease her pain. “They picked him up Laaitie,” Her words poured out in hoarse sobs, as if even uttering them caused her pain. My father. Her resolve left her. The anguish she had been trying so hard to reign in erupted. “They were looking for you. He wouldn’t tell them anything … he was trying to protect you.” Every word felt like a cut from a blunt knife. Burning. Raw. Pieces of my purpose lay strewn on the floor. Sacrifice. Still. Perfect. Whole. They’ll use your family to get to you. The word that once fortified me now threatened to unravel me. “He knew what he was doing.” It was a statement. She defied the pain that had driven us to our knees. She used her hair to wipe the tears from my face before snapping shut the locks on my suitcase.