“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 re-enter his kingdom. And just when Grace, cozily ensconced inside the house with her mother Mary, thought he could go no lower in this self-abasement, the voice rose again, soft and pliant: “Mary, Mary…I am begging you …”

In the warmth of the living room the two of them sat quietly. Grace looked back and forth from her mother’s face – clenched jaw, flared nostrils – to the front door. The end of the day silhouetted her father in slanting rays of light as he paced the tiny front stoep just outside the door. Through the speckled glass his shape shifted, diffused and distorted, his body a blur, at odds with the pleading voice rising through the keyhole. Through the frosted glass panes of the door, he was somehow insubstantial – more apparition than man. Grace shivered as she took in his form.

The divorce was made final yesterday. He hadn’t been living with them for a while but, just as Mama had predicted, the end of everything had sparked a new fight in him. Until yesterday, Patrick had 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, 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 him 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. Mary would believe him with a fervour that surpassed anything they’d seen in the evangelical tents that mushroomed around the place – the churches where Patrick had sought salvation and sobriety – 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, and had gotten a divorce. And now here was Grace, fourteen, listening to her father begging outside. She willed her mother to keep her nerve and not reopen that door.

“Mary, I love you, let’s talk, please.”

Grace wished he would shut up. Then an unexpected sympathy settled 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 warm glow across the furniture. In this light, the living room seemed cozy and comfortable, not threadbare. She started to feel 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 settled. She tried not to move, to minimise attention to herself.

Across the room, Mary stubbed out a half-smoked cigarette in an overflowing ashtray and reached for another. Her movements were sparse, just the minimum effort required   to pull 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. Her body remained motionless, her head angled towards the door. Every fibre in her calibrated itself to the   task of anticipating Patrick’s next move. Mary always had an intuitive feel for when he was about to go crazy, but tonight Grace couldn’t  read  her.  Unnerved by this new  paralysis  in her mother, Grace closed her eyes and cloaked herself in a protective mantra. Don’t open the door, don’t open the door.

“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 quiet.

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 murder would be unforgivable.

Outside Patrick started pacing again, tracing an 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!”


Tell us: Why do you think Mary’s mother always took her husband back before they were divorced?