Part 1: 1985
“Mary, please open the door.”
His voice echoed from behind the locked front door, plaintive, lost – the voice of a man adrift. “Please, my darling, just open the door, one more time. Let me in for five minutes. I just want to talk.”
He sounded close to breaking. His careless confidence had deserted him. Gone was the aura of certainty that came with the knowledge that as he had ordained it, so it would be; that here, in his personal universe, he was king. All of that God-ness in him just gone. Here he was, locked out of his own home, reduced to begging to reenter his erstwhile kingdom.
And just when Grace and Mama, cozily ensconced inside the house, thought he could go no lower in this self-abasement, the voice rose again, soft and pliant: “Mary, Mary…I am begging you …” then faded into silence.
In the warmth of the living room the two of them sat quietly. Grace looked back and forth from her mother, Mary’s face – clenched jaw, flared nostrils – to the front door’s frosted panes. Just outside of it, the ending day threw slanting rays of light against Patrick, her father. Through the speckled glass his shape shifted, diffused and distorted, his body an indistinct blur powerfully at odds with the pleading voice rising through the keyhole. Through the frosted door panes he seemed bigger than he should be, but somehow insubstantial – more apparition than man. Grace shivered as she took in his form.
The divorce had become final yesterday. He hadn’t been living with them for a while but, just as Mama had predicted, the ending of everything had sparked a new fight in him. Right until yesterday, Patrick believed Mary would take him back, as she always did after he’d performed a suitable penance. A lengthy act of contrition followed by a persistent, though not overly enthusiastic re-wooing of his wife: these were the well-rehearsed steps in the dance that was their marriage. Grace had seen it many times before.
Mary had always followed where Patrick steered, leaving when she could take no more, then missing him; wavering between leaving him for good and giving hhim the ubiquitous last chance; basking in his renewed attention and finally succumbing to his promises. He would stop drinking, hold down a job, bring home his money on Fridays instead of spending it at the shebeen. He would go to church with them and take care of them, and they’d be the family they were meant to be. She would believe him with a faith that surpassed anything they’d seen in the evangelical tents mushrooming around the township, until he lost his temper or got drunk or both, and hit her again.
But Mary, weary, had finally opted out of the dance. She had gone through with it, taken all the steps needed to conclude a divorce, and here was Grace, fourteen, listening to her father begging outside, and willing her mother to keep her nerve and not reopen that door.
“Mary, I love you, let’s talk, please.”
First Grace wished he would shut up; then sympathy settled unexpectedly over her. If she could see him on the other side of the door, could he see them through the blurred glass? Was it cruel for her to be sitting there right across from the door, where her fuzzy outline must be visible? The red lampshade behind her cast a warming glow across the furniture. In this light, the living room seemed cozy and comfortable, not threadbare. She started to feel really bad – for the warm circle of lamplight from which he had been cast but could surely see from outside, where the wind was picking up as night encroached. She tried not to move, to minimize attention to herself.
Across the room, Mary stubbed out a half-smoked cigarette in a cluttered ashtray and mechanically reached for another. Her movements were sparse, just the minimum effort required to retrieve a fresh cigarette from its box, lift it to her lips with one hand, and light it with the other. Around her neck a gold cross glittered while the rest of her body remained motionless, her head slightly angled towards the door. Every fibre in her body calibrated itself to the task of anticipating Patrick’s next move. Mary usually had an intuitive feel for when he was about to go crazy, but tonight Grace couldn’t read her. She felt unnerved by this new paralysis in her mother. Don’t open the door, don’t open the door. Grace closed her eyes and cloaked herself in this protective mantra.
“Mama, why doesn’t he just go?” she whispered.
Mary didn’t answer. They both knew that Patrick did what he wanted, when he wanted.
“Can’t we phone someone to come and make him go away?”
Mary remained still, head cocked at that funny angle.
There was no one to call and they knew it. Even if there had been a police station in the area, the police were more interested in enforcing the latest State of Emergency and locking up schoolkids. Not that they’d want him locked up, not by this police. Even though Grace had heard Mary threaten to call them countless times, she knew her mother would never do it. To send Patrick straight into the hands of those who were unafraid to openly murder would be to hand him a death sentence. She would never forgive herself.
Outside Patrick started pacing again, tracing some invisible, tightly wrought path on the small front stoep.
Again he tried. “I love you, and I’ll always love you. That’s all I want to say. I’ll never give up on us!”
Definitive and strong: that was the father Grace knew. Through the glass his head was held high and proud. Mary must respond – a love as strong as the one he’d just declared could not go unrequited.
But in the armchair her mother remained motionless, expelling short puffs of smoke that billowed out around her head like a halo. Her eyes glazed over with a look Grace had never seen before. She was not going to answer. For the first time in her life, she was bowing out from her part in the choreography of his destruction. Silence settled on the room like an eternal night.
“Well fuck you, then, Mary! Fuck you!”
The frame shuddered under his boot as he unleashed his fury against the door, each kick timed to explode with the first fulsome “f’ of the expletive. A familiar knot of fear tightened Grace’s stomach.
“Don’t think this is the last of me. Don’t you dare fucking think that!”
And then he stopped. Mother and daughter exhaled. At least the door had held. Outside, the grainy figure’s tide of emotions turned as he bowed down and plopped his head into his hands.
“Oh God, Mary, I’m so sorry. See what you made me do?”
This shift in the dance and the inevitable blame fell to Mary with a reassuring familiarity.
“I don’t want to be like this anymore, Mary. Why didn’t you just open the door?”
Tormented sobs escaped his body. Mary and Grace remained motionless throughout, frozen in fear, long past caring what the neighbours may have heard or what they might think. Grace looked at Mary with a steady gaze, willing her to stay put. For Grace, the act of contrition was always the most dangerous part of this script. It was the moment she has witnessed her mother crumble innumerable times. Mary locked her eyes on the child, unblinking, as her left hand delved for another cigarette in the little white box. She lit it, inhaled deeply, and exhaled the smoke in a sharp arrow. Her eyes lingered on Grace but looked right through her.
The sun rays, which had allowed them to track Patrick’s movements, died and gave way to night. Darkness brooded around the house, pressing its face up against the big front windows where the curtains hung, still undrawn. Grace could no longer see Patrick through the glass, but soft sobs confirmed his presence on the stoep. They dared not move, not yet.
After minutes that seemed like hours, the sobs faded to nothingness. Yet another eternity passed before they heard the short, scraping noises of his footfall receding into the night. Mary and Grace sat quietly together for a while longer in that shabby living room which, to this day, invades Grace’s dreams. When they were sure he’d left, Mary released a long sigh and crushed the empty cigarette box with her hands. She lifted herself out of the old white chair and briskly drew the curtains. After shuffling robotically down the long, wooden-floored passage, she turned once to look at her daughter as if to say something, but thought better of it, retreating into her bedroom instead. Grace stood hollowly in the dark hallway, wondering if her mother would reappear to at least say goodnight. Seconds later, the shard of light underneath Mary’s bedroom door died down – as much of a greeting as the girl would get on this night. Grace stood for a while, a cavernous loneliness spreading through her chest. She wanted to eat something or hold something soft against her skin, but didn’t know what. Instead, she padded on her white socks to the bathroom and brushed her teeth. She checked that the lights in the rest of the house were out and all the windows closed. Then she padded to her room and crawled into bed, still wearing her blue school uniform with the red piping. Next to her bed, the little bed lamp meant for a child much younger, stayed on to keep some of the darkness at bay.
Born in Cape Town, Barbara Boswell teaches English Literary Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she specialises in Black and African women’s literature. She has published a number of articles on Black women’s writing and is currently writing a history of Black South African women’ s literature during and after apartheid. Barbara has a PhD in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, and and has taught Gender Studies and African women’s literature at the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in the USA, as well as the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and the Western Cape (UWC). She believes in writing as a feminist and spiritual practice and is interested in the ways art can heal trauma.
2017, Modjaji Books