During their short courtship, he had watched these moody fluctuations with wry amusement, indulging her as one would a spoilt child. Once they were married, he would put his foot down. It would be time for her to grow up. They’d be a family, and he’d be the head. He would be in for a bit of a time breaking her in, but no doubt he would be able to do so within a few months. Once she conformed and settled into the role of wife he would be a good husband to her. He was not his father’s son. He would be the proud head of his family, a protector and provider to Mary and the children they would have together.
Their wedding had been a small affair. Between the two families there was not much money. Mary wore a simple gown, white of course, stitched by his Aunt Patricia. He was dapper in the first and only suit he would own. Standing next to her on their wedding day, his pitch black suit offset her lovely black eyes, which were darker than ever but glinting with a love he could feel when he looked into them. Till death do us part, they both said.
Had he still believed in God then? Thinking back now, he could not remember. But he had meant it when he had promised before God to love, cherish and protect his wife. That promise meant something, if not to God, then to himself, even as Patrick remembered, in that very moment of vow-making, his proclivity towards pleasure. This he would overcome, and in loving his wife would create for himself the life he had always craved.
Patrick had not reckoned on Mary’s shameful confession in their marital bed on their wedding night. In their new closeness, and Sfaced with a similar need to exorcise the past as she stepped into their shared life as husband and wife, Mary had unburdened herself of a deep and heavy secret.
For a few weeks after their marriage, Patrick considered a divorce. But he was a Catholic, and that would be difficult. He wished to heap no more shame on himself by exposing her past. Annulment was an option, but he had dithered too long. It was easier to remain married, but the life he had dreamed of with Mary had been destroyed.
From that day on he could never look into those dark pools of light, which had seemed so beautiful, without seeing there the hardness of Mary’s soul. Every time he looked into her eyes, he remembered what she had done. His love had been sullied. Never again would he look at her and be engulfed by the tender mixture of longing, protectiveness, and love. From then on, he could stand to look at her face for only so long. Then, sickened, he would be forced to turn away. Now those eyes mocked him, pleading with him to love but stirring only disgust.
Mary’s beauty, first a source of pride, turned overnight into a torment. It enraged him. How could someone so beautiful have been capable of the thing she had done? How could her looks be so opposed to what he now knew resided in her heart? He wished he could find her ugly.
But even though her soul repulsed him, her outward appearance now mesmerised him even more. Mary’s physical allure grew stronger in proportion to his growing revulsion. There was an urge to possess her, to own even, her past and somehow erase it. In the physical act of love, he could momentarily do so, but afterwards he would always return to the present, back to Mary and her shamefulness, her hard eyes, and he would push her away. There was no need or desire to protect her, only to possess her. And this Patrick did absolutely.
Mary could leave his sight only to go to work and church. He did not like her working, but had little choice. They had moved, after their marriage, into a new housing scheme for coloureds far outside of the city on the Cape Flats. They were not allowed to buy the property, but as renters their expenses were high and could not be met on his apprentice salary. He allowed Mary to go and work as a shop assistant in a nearby suburb. She was good at her job and soon found a better-paying one at the bank.
Patrick, always struggling with rules and his temper, never finished his apprenticeship as a mechanic, and he drifted from one low-paying job to another. So he allowed his wife to work but beyond that decreed that she be home at all times. He had always been an excellent timekeeper. He knew that a trip to the nearby shops should take fifteen minutes: five to walk there, fifteen to pick out her groceries, five to walk back home. If she exceeded those minutes, he’d be waiting for her, ready with questions. Who had she seen? He would ask her again and again, persisting, hearing and hating how his voice dripped with a mixture of bile and jealousy.
Who have you been with, this time?
It worked: he gained almost full control over her.
For the most part he thought she had settled down, but often she was sullen and only spoke to him when he spoke to her first. In this barren new place, they knew no one. They had neighbours but Mary didn’t concern herself with them. He preferred it that way. He didn’t like the idea of his wife gossiping over a fence. Sometimes when he was between jobs he would watch her walking down Saturn Street coming home from work. She walked with her head up high and her eyes straight ahead of her. If it was cold she would have her hands deep in the pockets of her coat. If there were people about, she did not pause or stop and speak to anyone.
He could see how the neighbours looked at her as she passed, how they fell silent, their eyes appraising her, and the corners of their mouths turned down. And it was true. Mary was standoffish in nature. He had experienced it the days they first met. Some people might have seen her as a snob, with her light complexion, acting white. He could see what they were thinking. Sometimes they scoffed at her within earshot. It was better that way, Patrick thought. He did not want his family’s business being talked about in strangers’ living rooms anyway. For his part, Patrick wondered: what was the use? What was the fucking use of vows and promises and strivings to be good and do right by people? He had been let down.
It was easy to slip back into the old ways, find solace in the shebeens, in the drink and available bodies to be found there. As their six-month wedding anniversary passed, unmarked, he started to follow the path leading to the local shebeen the moment he stepped off the bus from work, delighting there in the distractions from his wife’s beautiful, sour face. Soon he was seldom home earlier than midnight, and never sober. Mary was nearly always asleep when he got home, turned on her side in their bed, away from him.
But then she started waiting up for him. She was obviously distressed at the state he was in. He could see judgement and disgust on her face. One night she cried and put her arms out to him. She pleaded with Patrick to stop, stop his reckless behaviour. She begged him to come back to her. She wanted her sweet Patrick back, she said, the one she had fallen in love with, the man who had her heart. “Don’t speak to me about love!” he had screamed at her.
And then, one night, it happened. For the first time he had raised his fist, and, with the force of close to a year’s suppressed rage, smacked it against the vulnerable curve of her lip. Mary crumpled to the floor. A wave of remorse instantly swept over him. Patrick knelt down next to her, cradled her sobbing face, whispered over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
Gently, he lifted her from the floor and led her to their bed, where he held her until her sobs subsided and she fell asleep in his arms. The sound of her even breathing comforted him. He was struck by the realisation that the protective swelling in his chest, which had fled that first night, was back. Gone was the pent-up anger he had carried in every muscle for the past months. There, in this unhappy bed, was tenderness again, an unexpected guest. He welcomed it with relief.
For a while after, Patrick took care with his wife. He enveloped her with concern, and showered tenderness upon her. He came straight home from work, abandoning his nightly detours to the shebeen. And when Mary gave him the news that she was pregnant with their first child, he thought they might be a family after all. She became more relaxed, allowing her body and spirit to soften a little into his embrace.
But it didn’t last. It couldn’t. Some or other upset at work, or maybe an absence from home by Mary he deemed longer than necessary – he could not now remember which – and Patrick found himself back at the shebeen, buying rounds for an appreciative crowd. The anger sprouted within him again – its seed had not been eradicated – and, fuelled by liquor, it erupted again, each time with increased intensity.
Patrick hated the way she would drop to the floor at his first contact and roll herself into a ball, holding her arms over her growing belly, shielding herself and his baby from him as if he were a monster. It infuriated him. And when she cried or pleaded, that infuriated him more.
It was better when she was in bed by the time he came home, but he could tell by her breathing when she wasn’t sleeping, all tucked tight, tight with the duvet round her. He saw the swell of her belly rise and fall as she lay there. Before he knew it, his hand would shoot out and he’d see her mouth contort as a lip split. “Liar,” he would whisper. “Whore. You say you care about this child? Liar!”
Soon after their first wedding anniversary Mary gave birth to a perfect baby boy. He had the sweetest face. When Patrick entered the room, where Mary was holding him and gazing down at him, enraptured and overwhelmed with love, it took him a few moments to see her tears. She didn’t look up at him, just kept her eyes on the tiny, unmoving, silent little bundle in her arms. Patrick did not have to move closer to know what he knew, to discover what had been given and taken at the same moment.
He stood motionless by the foot of the bed for what seemed like an eternity. Deep anguish distorted the contours of his face, but he would not allow himself to feel it. His eyes burning, mouth contorted, he looked at Mary, accusing her, hating her more than ever as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Happy?” he said. “You’ve killed another baby.” God had punished both of them for Mary’s sin.
Oh, the boy! Now, so many years later, Patrick could still see his small, serene face. The image would stay with him until he drew his last breath. He took out the precious memory of his son, the one with his nose and the curve of his mouth, almost daily, examining that cursed treasure that he couldn’t let go, could not put to rest.
And now, on the bus, Grace’s face was somehow blurred into the image of the boy’s, so that, for a moment, he could not remember the features of either of his children. My son, my son! He felt the wound again, as he stepped off onto the road, fearing, this time, for Grace.
Patrick made his way through the burning barricades, hurrying straight to the house he had until recently shared with Mary and Grace. There were no cops around, thank goodness, but Patrick clenched his hand around his trusted Okapi all the same. He was not afraid to use it: anyone who thought they could mess with him would find that out.
As he branched off from the main road, entering a maze of tributaries, the crowds thinned and the smell of burning petrol faded. A few metres from his old house he broke into a run. Just one more corner and he’d be there. He wanted to touch her, touch his Grace and feel her forehead, her limbs, make sure each part of her was intact. He rounded the bend and headed straight into a row of parked cars.
They were outside of Tim’s home. Patrick’s heart stopped with fright. Something was happening here. There were too many cars, too many people milling around on a night when it would be safer to remain indoors. Not a light shone from his old home. Please God, he prayed again. Moving up to the front door, he knocked, repeating the previous night’s scene. “Mary, open the door!”
He saw a faint movement behind the dappled glass. Mary was there, sitting alone in the dark again. “Mary! Where’s Grace?”
Mary got up from her seat and briefly moved out of sight. Then her head appeared through a crack in the small window at the side of the house.
“She’s here. She’s okay. And since when did you care anyway?”
“I need to see her. Please, Mary.” “She’s asleep. Go away.”
The window squeezed shut. As quickly as relief washed through Patrick, rage flushed his body. Bitch! How dare she! How dare she keep him away from his child? He wanted to pump the door with his fists, but a commotion was brewing next door.
Distracted by the growing crowd, Patrick went off to hear what was happening. Johnny was missing. That was too bad – Patrick was fond of Johnny. After commiserating with the gathering, he found himself in that habit of old, saying a prayer for the boy. He asked if he could help but no one paid him much attention and, after hanging around for a bit, feeling utterly useless, he walked slowly away into the night.
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