Robert was still at work. She had resigned herself to the long hours, days, weeks he worked as a restaurant chef. The baby had been crying for well over ten minutes now, she guessed, the intolerable screeching growing louder and louder with each passing minute. Della had gone into the baby’s room when she heard the first agitating “waaaaah!”
The baby, Alyssa, had her face screwed up as though she had been sucking on a lemon. She picked the child up, awkwardly wrapped her in a soft receiving blanket and held her to her chest. Why, she wondered were they called receiving blankets? Did one “receive” a child much like one receives a Christmas present? Or was it like one received bad news? She paced across the room, bouncing lightly with each step and making a “shush. shush, shush” noise. Alyssa, at all of two months old, did not respond to any of the soothing techniques that those books described. Eyes tightly shut, she just kept bawling belligerently and now seemed to be turning a strange hue of red.
The crying was driving Della crazy. It felt as though hernerves were on the outside of her body and someone was running a sharp grater up and down her it. She returned Alyssa to her cot and left the room, closing the door behind her. She crossed over the dark, open plan lounge-kitchen, flicked on the switch of the kettle and opened the fridge. She could still her the bloody baby crying. Della ground her teeth, an anxious habit she’d developed since the incident. As she warmed the bottle of breast milk in a bowl filled with boiling water, she laughed quietly to herself. The incident. Even she was calling it that now.
She gazed off into the middle distance and got momentarily lost in a past filled with intense and intricate pain. Her present wasn’t looking that sunshiney either. The baby was still screeching and Della was still clueless as to what the fucking thing wanted. She took the bottle out of the water and tested the temperature of the milk by shaking a few droplets onto her forearm. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for the onslaught that would be Alyssa. As she opened the nursery door, the volume escalated ten-fold. Della felt like the top of her skull was going to come right off. She scooped Alyssa up again and cradled her in her left arm. With her right hand, she attempted to insert the nipple of the bottle into Alyssa’s mouth but she spat it out, precious breast milk dribbling from her pink gums. The baby turned her head away from the vile poison on offer. Della tried shushing her again and then attempted to burp her, positioning the floppy baby over her shoulder and rubbing her small back in a circular motion.
Nothing was working.
“Oh, fuck this!” Della said out loud, through gritted teeth. She returned the irate infant, once again, to her crib and left the room, closing the door with a bang. She had stopped caring now. She just wanted it to stop. She was tremoring now, her hands shaking as she sat on couch in the dark lounge. She reached over to the side table and retrieved a cigarette which she lit, inhaling deep, long puffs. Her legs were shaking now too and she placed her feet flat on the floor to try and stop the quivering. She lit another cigarette with the coal of the first cigarette which she then extinguished in the handmade ashtray on the side table. She had made that ashtray at the clinic about two years before. She didn’t like many of the other groups except for Art Therapy. And all she had to show for that admission was a lopsided red ashtray, two psychiatric diagnoses and a deeply dysfunctional relationship with a raging narcissist.
Like mushrooms in the dark, Della’s thoughts began to grow. She knew It was starting. It always started with the shaking and then the feeling like an ominous shadow was being cast over her brain. She knew It would take over, as It always did when she was overwhelmed beyond capacity. Alyssa was still wailing. Della covered her ears with her hands and shook her head violently from side to side.
It, inevitably, did encroach upon her. All sense of time slipped into the cracks of Della’s frazzled mind. She did not know how she got there; It always took her to horrendous and horrific places. This time, she “woke up” standing in the soft yellow nursery. She looked down and saw that she was holding Robert’s very large kitchen knife in her hand. She did not know how she had gotten there or when she had pulled the kitchen knife off of the magnetic strip in the kitchen. She also did not know if she intended to use the knife to stab herself in the stomach or to slice her baby’s throat.
Mia opened her eyes. Her lids, with the long black lashes that her Auntie Patsy said made her look like a “living doll”, were heavy with sleep. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrists in a circular motion and yawned until she heard that little click in her jaw that had existed since that time he had slapped the left side of her face with the full force of his flattened hand because she had “talked back” to him.
He had been stupid drunk then. He was, she guessed, drunk now too. It had been the reckless, clumsy banging of the front door that had awoken her again. The walls of their tenement block of flats were paper-thin so she could easily hear her Ma skelling him out.null
“Jacob Hendricks!”, she reprimanded him in a hushed, hoarse whisper. “What time is this to come home? And during Lockdown, past curfew? Never mind the state of you! Do you want to get arrested?”
Mia sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the top bed of the double-bunk she shared with her older sister, Stacey. Mia used to sleep in the bottom bed but now that Stacey was pregnant, her belly growing rounder and heavier on her skinny 16-year-old frame by the day, they had to swop beds. Mia had stuck silver and gold star stickers, like the ones Grade R teachers plak on the foreheads of snotty little learners, on the low ceiling above her bed. And a picture of Shawn Mendes that she had torn out of her Ma’s YOU magazine. She loved her cosmic haven and she was mos 11 now and not a baby anymore.null
Mia climbed down the pine ladder attached to the bed and tiptoed across the small room to the door. She pushed the handle down slowly and cracked the door open a little. She had a clear shot of the kitchen from her room. Her father, dressed in his baggy, faded denim jeans, camouflage print jacket and steel-toe workmen’s boots, was hunched over and swaying slightly.
“My bokkie,” he responded, slurring his words. “What ish a man to do, hey? I’ve losht my job, this Corona virus is going to kill usss all dead. I jusht wanted to let off a little s-s-s-steam.” He shrugged his shoulders, feigning innocence.
Like a professional ballerina performing the perfect pirouette, Mia’s mother spun around swiftly. Standing on tiptoes in her worn house slippers and modest peach nightie, she extended her arm, retrieving the Ricoffy can which lived behind the tomato sauce, Mrs. Ball’s Chutney and some other canned food.
Mia held her breathe.
He had taken it.
“You took it.”
“Yesss, I took it.”
Mercia let out a soft, heavy sigh. She made the sign of the cross over her body as she stood, in their second floor low-income flat at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. She shook her head slowly.
“That was the last money we had.” The anger had left her voice, replaced by an unmistakable tone of defeat. Mia knew that her Ma didn’t want to provoke him; that she knew the level of vicious violence he was capable of.
She took two steps across the brown and beige linoleum floor towards her inebriated husband. Placing two fingers under his chin, she lifted his face up so that his eyes could meet hers.
“I will pray to our Heavenly Father to help us find an answer but we know what this means.” Mia’s father labored to keep his wife’s gaze.
“It’s alright, bokkie,” he reassured her, planting a kiss on her forehead. “It won’t be like the last times. Promise.”
A cold chill passed through Mia’s body. She knew it would be exactly like the last few times: by sunrise, her father would get The Sickness again.
As the bleeding sky slowly illuminated the Cape Flats, Mia stood in the kitchen, chewing on the last piece of the slightly burnt slice of toast she had prepared for herself. Food was in short supply too so she only ate when she absolutely had to. The sound of her stomach rumbling and growling became familiar and comforting. It meant that she was not being a burden to her parents. Stacey’s pregnancy had bought, her Ma had said, “shame to the family”. Mia wondered if her Ma was grateful for Lockdown because it meant Stacey could stay closeted away indoors and Ma didn’t have to explain “the dirty secret” to the gossiping neighbours or her fellow prying parishioners at St. Joseph’s Baptist Church.
An uneventful morning melded into an unexciting afternoon. Mia couldn’t even chat to her friends on WhatsApp or watch Tik Tok videos on her sister’s phone. Stacey, whose boyfriend sent her data every time Her Majesty requested it, had the phone practically glued to her palm. Mia wished her Ma didn’t take Lockdown so blerrie seriously. She treated it like The Plague had descended upon them while other people acted like nothing had changed.
She watched a bit of TV with Stacey, who only emerged from their bedroom to grace them with her royal presence at about one o’ clock. The screen of the small plasma TV had a spider web crack on its surface from when her Pa had thrown an ashtray at Stacey the day she had told them that she was knocked up. Mercia went about the busy business of dusting, praying, polishing, wiping, praying, sweeping, praying, vacuuming, mopping every other corner of the flat, except her own bedroom. And all three of them ignored the high-pitched moaning and throaty groaning that came from that room. All three of them ignored the sound of vomiting and spitting. All three of them tried their best to pretend The Sickness hadn’t come to rest in their home again.
Later, standing in front of the open fridge, summoning food that would never appear, Mia saw her Ma take a blister pack of tablets out of the kitchen cupboard where they kept the Vicks Acta Plus and Panado. She held the three small yellow pills in her outstretched palm then closed her fingers over them tightly. She exited the kitchen, bound for the bedroom. Mia knew those were the pills that would make her Pa sleep through the night.
As Mia lay looking up at her starry sky, planning her celebrity wedding to Shawn, she could hear her Pa snoring. She could hear Ma settling down to sleep on the couch. Stacey was tick-ticking away on her cellphone. Secrets could not survive in her flat, in the blokke. She pulled her thin pillow up on both sides to try and muffle the noise of the snoring, the ticking, everything that sounded like a moerse rubbish truck riding around inside her head.
Day One: done.
Tomorrow, The Sickness would grow larger. Mia shut her eyes. In the darkness behind her closed lids, she could already see the torture that tomorrow would bring.
“Mia!” she heard her Pa summon her, his voice croaky, shaky. Mia had a horrendous night’s sleep, slipping in and out of terrifying, lucid nightmares and aggravating insomnia. She jumped when she heard her name. Her Ma, who was frying an egg for her husband which she knew he wouldn’t eat, muttered something about “Jesus”, “sin” and “forgiveness”. Mia knew exactly what her father wanted and knots of rebellious anxiety started forming in her stomach.
As she entered her parents’ bedroom, the repulsive stench of stale alcohol pervaded the boxy space, making her want to retch. The yellowing lace netting curtains over the small windows of which only one could open, her Ma’s gleaming oak trousseau chest, the ornately carved dressing table with its sparkling mirror that had belonged to her grandmother and that Mia pretended to model in front of, the worn, green plastic bucket next to the bed for to catch her Pa’s vomit, and her father lying in a pool of his own perspiration and pain: all familiar to Mia. She stood looking down at an alcoholic mass of skin and bones. His eyes were shut and so she stood in one spot on the brown-grey carpet, in almost reverential silence. She interlinked her fingers and twisted them, a nervous habit she had developed since the Corona virus had begun infesting the country.
Her Pa, Jacob “Jakes” Hendricks, lay curled up on his bed under the floral bedspread, a folded up damp facecloth on his forehead, sweating from every conceivable pore and twitching involuntarily every so often. Mia loved her father. He had been tall and strong, able to pick his youngest daughter up in his arms once. He was funny, charming and loved to tell stories. She knew he was the eldest son of a large and suffocating orthodox Christian family. Mia also knew that her father had left school after Standard 8 to go work “on the Docks” to support his family, or try to get away from them, she wasn’t quite sure. He still worked on the ships in the Dockyard and often he would have one or two of his co-workers over for a drink to watch the cricket or rugby. Mia had overheard one of the appies comment that he looked up to Jakes because he was one of the manne and that he wanted to be just like him; that Jakes wasn’t a moffie and could hold his liquor. Jakes, laughing heartily, showed his approval by pouring another round.
Jakes took a fancy to Rum and Coke, and occasionally a nice cold beer. The increase of his drinking was slow, insidious but undeniable. Each day was ended off with a night cap at the local shebeen in Myrtle Road and every morning he would prepare a tall blue and black coffee thermos – which very definitely did not contain so much as a drop of coffee – to take to work. Now, with the ban of the sale of alcohol imposed by the government during Lockdown, it was becoming more and more difficult to obtain dop and Jakes succumbed to The Sickness more often.
Mia shifted her weight from one foot to another, waiting, waiting. Jacob finally, and as though in slow motion, opened his eyes. He blinked a few times, trying to focus on his youngest daughter.
“Stacey,” he whispered, “come closer.”
“Its me, Mia,” she replied, standing her ground.
“Oh, oh, of course,” he stretched out his tremoring hand, which looked skeletal. “Mia, my liefie, come closer. Please.”
She took one small step forward but made sure she was not within his reach. “What is it, Pa?”
“I need you to do your Pa a favour, Mia-tjie,” he whispered, conspiratorially. He had maneuvered himself up onto his elbow but was still trembling and jerking. Mia felt scared and sick. She bit hard on her bottom lip and twisted her fingers into painful knots. No, she thought. Anything but that. I just can’t.
”I need you,” he continued, trying to regain control of his disobedient limbs, “to go to Boeta Gamiet and get your Pa some of his special cooldrink.”
Mia nearly laughed out loud. Clearly he thought she was still a naïve child, calling it “special cooldrink”. She inhaled deeply, then immediately regretted it as her lungs filled with the fumes of sour alcohol and old vomit, then responded, “I can’t. Its Lockdown and Ma won’t let me outside and we don’t have any money to buy you boo…. er…. cooldrink.”
Propelled by frustration and fury, Jacob suddenly sat up from where he had laid prostrate, and grabbed Mia’s left wrist, wrapping his thumb and index finger around her thin fragile bones, twisting and squeezing them. Mia instinctively pulled her arm away but it only caused him to apply more painful pressure.
“I don’t care,” he growled. “You get your fokken gat to Boeta Gamiet NOW! Buy a bottle of Rum ‘oppie boekie’. He knows I’m good for it.”
“You’re hurting me,” she whimpered. Tears were welling up behind Mia’s eyes, her wrist throbbing with agonizing pain, but she knew better than to show weakness.
“Okay, Pa,” she agreed. Jacob released his grip on her wrist and collapsed back onto the bed. He mopped his forehead with the threadbare face cloth, rolled back over onto his side and coughed uncontrollably. Mia was sure he was going to throw up so made her way out of the room, passing her Ma who was taking the fried egg on toast to her husband. No more than a minute later, Mia heard the sound of vomiting.
In her room, she quietly slid her feet into her takkies and pulled Stacey’s black hoodie over her head. Stacey was still sleeping soundly which was the only reason Mia could get away with wearing her clothes. She tied her hair up in a ponytail and grabbed one of the blue masks that Stacey had gotten at her visit to the day hospital to check on the baby.
Mia walked quietly passed the kitchen, where her Ma was washing the dishes. She knew her mother would disapprove of her mission but if she didn’t do it then her Pa would get even more sick, like last time. He would start seeing and hearing things and talking to people that weren’t even there. And if it got really bad, by tomorrow he would possibly have those seizures which Ma said made him “look possessed like Satan himself was shaking his soul”.
She opened the front door quietly and slipped out, shutting it just as softly behind her. She put the baby blue mask on. The weather had turned and the sky was in a despondent mood, dark clouds glowering and casting a miserable monotone over Mia’s neighbourhood. Mia ran down the concrete steps of her block of flats, and jogged down the narrow lane that ran down the side of the fragmented flats. She hated the lane because it felt suffocating, like it would collapse in on her at any second. The mask felt like it was suffocating her too; she felt like she was underwater, under dirty, murky, slimy water.
Mia exited the lane and crossed the sandy, dusty park that formed the centre of the eight tenement blokke. Mia had a vague memory of the park’s apparatus being freshly painted in a rainbow of colours. She recalled the wind streaming through her hair as she clung on for dear life onto the metal bar of the blue roundabout. But no young children played in the park anymore. There were no more shrieks of delight from any youthful voices. Now, it was where the teenagers hung out until late doing what Ma called “unspeakable acts of sin” and where drug dealers and gangsters, stood around the gellieblik, warming their hands against the chill of the night air while plotting sinister ploys against rival gangs or just hanging gat and talking shit. It was 11 o’ clock in the morning and the park was, thankfully, deserted.
The weather was considering its next move. So was Mia. She pulled the hood over her head and pulled the drawstring to cover as much of her face as possible. She was practically running now; only two blocks to Boeta Gamiet. She passed the babbie shop where usually she spent her money on airtime and Spookies.
There was a police van parked outside, the boere smokkeling cartons of entjies with the owner. Mia slowed down so as not to draw attention to herself in the middle of the day but picked up speed as she rounded Myrtle Street. She knew it was the blue house, third from the corner on the right. She lifted the hook off the rusty gate, pushed it open and closed it behind her. The walk up to the front door seemed endless. Mia climbed the two steps where the maroon paint had peeled off in places. She took a deep breath, knocked on the door secured with a security gate then stuffed her hands into the pockets of the hoodie. She heard shuffling inside. Someone opened the door a few centimetres. Droopy eyed and with a pronounced lisp, Mia could tell that he wasn’t sober.
“Fokkof,” came the intoxicated response. “We arrren evens open, lightie.”
He began closing the door. Mia stuck her foot in between the security bars, preventing the door from closing.
“My Pa knows Boeta Gamiet. Just ask him. Jakes. He comes here every night almos’. Please, just ask. She wiped the few tears that had begun to roll down her cheek fiercely with the sleeve of the hoodie.
I’m not a baby anymore. I can do this. Stop blerrie crying!
The boy’tjie wiped his nose with the back of his hand and, having opened the door wider, sized Mia up and down.
“You think you’re brave, nuh? Wait here.”
The wind had started whipping up around Mia’s ankles. She shivered and looked up and down the street. There was no one around. She felt the fear like a box of rocks in her stomach; the bile rising up in her throat.
“Boeta says it’s alright. You can come in.”
Mia took a step back, “No, thank you. It’s orrait. I’ll wait here.”
He was insistent and had begun unlocking the padlock on the security gate, “Come in, girlie. You can come get some dop for your Pa inside.”
Mia wanted to run back down the pathway. As the gate swung open with a creak, a familiar numbness came over her and she forced herself to walk across the threshold of the shebeen. She knew that her Pa’s credit had not been accepted at Boeta Gamiet’s for a long time now. He didn’t know that but she very painfully did.
The last five times Mia had come to get booze for her father during Lockdown, she had been his credit.
They are my refuge; they are my panacea. They are the antidote to the poison that runs through every artery and vein of the anatomy of my childhood. Long before the hastily inhaled cigarettes that burned my throat during second break, half-hiding in between the crumbling headstones of the long-forgotten brides of Jesus up at the small convent cemetery. Long before the bottles of Bioplus mixed in cups of too-strong coffee that kept my heavy eyelids from drooping while I poured over mind-numbing high-school calculus equations and heady historical facts about dead people and disremembered places. Long before the back-end of the toothbrush connected with my epiglottis forcing the acidic, bilious contents of my stomach to lurch out of my mouth and leave telltale splatters across the toilet bowl. Long before the shiny blister packs of slimming tablets that would make my heart race and jaw tremble and makes me rub my hungry, concave belly with reticent glee. Long before that first sip of cheap, red wine ran into my parched veins and quenched every thirsty cell of my body until it felt like I had come home at last. Long before I submerged myself in the unbearable heat of that scorching bathwater over and over again to relieve the unbearable pain of what lay trapped within. Long before the codeine daydreams and the benzo comas. Long before the endless stream of men and women that filled my mouth, my cunt, that filled any void that existed. Long before LSD made my unconscious bleed all over my reality. Long before the dizzying nights of delirious dancing spurred on by the piles of cocaine I snorted up my raw nostrils and even before the chemical hazy halcyon Ecstasy-laced weekends where I fell in love with everything and everyone except myself; and long before the crack pipe burned my bottom lip and pinned me up against the wall, scrambling for an exit route; and yes, long before the needle pricked my flesh and sent that noxious, precious elixir straight to my orphaned soul and cradled it and made it whole. Long before all of that, there were words.
I remember smuggling a book into the toilet on a Sunday afternoon during my designated naptime when I was four years old. I already had problems sleeping when I was supposed to. I was teaching myself to read, having stolen my older brother’s Kathy and Mark readers from his brown boxy school case. Kathy has a bright red dress and milky white skin framed by hair cut in a severe brown bob that never moves no matter how much she was urged by Mark to: “Run, Kathy, run!” Mark also runs a lot, in his short blue shorts and knee-high socks accompanied everywhere by their dog, Spot. They run everywhere, they frequently sit on the mat, they ride on the bus to the City with their Mum who wears a smart green hat and a coat, and once they drive in the car with their Dad who also wears a hat which he takes off every evening when he comes home from work.
I recall sitting on that cold tiled toilet floor, the avocado green and white-patterned tiles – tracing the words with my index finger and matching them to the garishly coloured illustrations of a smug, dawdling tortoise and an arrogant, reckless hare. I remember my frustration at not being able to decipher some of the words. I wanted to know them. I needed to know what happened. I remember the look on my mother’s face as it appeared at the crack of the open door: surprise, then anger and disappointment. I felt ashamed, found out. I instinctively hid my book behind my back. I hid my words. Like I would hide everything else that would come after.
And later I would achieve small literary victories: having stared for what seemed like an eternity at a large ornate framed black-and-white photograph of my mother on her wedding day that rested on the white melamine TV unit – trying and failing to make sense of the words printed beneath the photo – one day the phonetically pieced together “VAN KALKER P-A-H-O-T-A-G-R-A-P-E-E-H-Y-A-H” suddenly and magically made sense and I yelled at the top of my childish voice, much as I imagined Archimedes proclaimed, “Eureka!”, “PHOTOGRAPHY!” I marched triumphantly around the house repeating the newly discovered word over and over again, “Photography! Photography! PHOTOGRAPHY!” This made no sense to any of my family members, but I didn’t care to explain it. The word, the unearthed treasure, the reconstructed jewel, was mine.
When my brother was in Standard One and I was in Sub A (which would later come to be known as Grade 3 and Grade 1 respectively), he would climb into the car after school bemoaning the fact that he had to learn a four stanza poem about seashells on the sandy seashore by the end of that week. I had it memorized and could recite it by the end of the 20 minute drive home.
Once I could read confidently, I consumed books, in fact, all reading matter I could get my hands on. I inhaled words, chewing and digesting them greedily at any given opportunity. Blurry-eyed and bent over my runny porridge, during car rides despite my stomach swirling and my head pounding from carsickness, propped up in my bed long after the 8 o’ clock TV news jingle had signaled that it was time for my brother and I to go to sleep, during school holidays where I would scour over prescribed set work books and finish them long before the academic year even began, anywhere and everywhere, I wrapped words around me like a steely suit of armour.
I would write too. I started my first “Secret Diary” at age 9, inspired by The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and I would journal well into my late twenties and again in my thirties. I would religiously scribble my one-dimensional observations and fickle feelings down onto paper in my oft-criticized, untidy script. I would use the diaries as a tool of self-expression, but also as a tool of blatant manipulation, leaving them open on certain pages in strategically placed locales for my prying mother to find if I wanted to communicate something that I was too afraid to do directly. Like asking for my first bra.
Words became my guaranteed escape from the lies and the secrets, from the trauma and the terror. I found solace in the fantastical worlds that books offered and the inviting landscapes that my imagination conjured from the dry, sweet-scented pages.
Later I found refuge in the words of annotated scripts and dense screenplays. Words that had a transformative effect on my domain, and even more so on my identity. In drama class at school, at the theatre school that I secretly auditioned for and gained acceptance into, I could morph into anything, anyone. Just, please dear God, anyone that wasn’t me. I could take myself away from my reality and slip into any space and time, just by uttering a few appropriated lines or manipulating my larynx and changing my accent. I hid behind the safety of others’ words because mine always seemed insufficient or often entirely absent.
Words held unimaginable power. Words, when pieced together in a certain manner, exerted great influence. I became adept at weaving stories, a mixture of fabrications and quasi-truths, to cover up the reality of how utterly ruined I felt inside. I learnt early on that I was a remarkably convincing liar and that deception slipped off my forked tongue easily and without reason or apparent provocation. I lived in a constant state of semi-realism, blending fantasy with reality and spinning it around myself like a comforting cocoon. I used anything, any form of control, to not feel the excruciating pain of the truth.
But I am done with deceit. Lies hold no more allure for me. Laurie Penny, feminist commentator and author wrote, “All I’ve ever wanted to do with writing is to move the world in small ways with words,” and that is the sum total of my most humble hope. That I find my words again and that they form my truth and that truth is steadfast and undeniable.
That my words connect with another and move them to tell their truth.
And that words will, somehow, begin to heal what has been broken.