He had rolled in like overnight fog off the bay. Johnny was thirteen years old when he first appeared next door, conjured like a magician’s trick. Grace was eleven. He had moved in with Tim and Rowena, a couple who lived in the neighbour’s garage because there was nowhere else to find safe, decent housing. They had just had a baby and then, one day, Johnny too.
His arrival was not heralded, nor a happy occasion; he came and slotted right into their lives in the tiny converted structure that housed kitchen, bedroom and living room for four. To Grace’s eleven-year-old self Johnny might as well have been thirty, so much older did he seem. His eyes had a look of having seen too much, in too short a time; his body seemed stronger and more weathered than other boys his age. There were lots of other children living in the main house and the proliferation of back yard shacks next door. Johnny was unlike them. He never ran, played, laughed or teased. He had a seriousness about him that was beyond his years. He seemed to prefer to keep to himself.
Johnny’s story spread across the fences of the township faster than a bushfire, gathering momentum and embellishment as it moved. Despite their proximity to his new home, Grace’s was the last house on which the story settled.
Johnny had been orphaned a few years earlier, left with only two older brothers who were already making their way in the world. The oldest had taken him in and, in his first misguided act of guardianship, had plucked Johnny out of school, setting him to work at a fruit and vegetable stand by the side of a slip-road off the highway.
The boy would sit there, peddling his wares, from sunup to sunset, and was paid 25 cents per day for his labour. At home he was treated worse than the dog. His brother’s wife despised him and grudgingly fed this extra mouth the family’s leftover scraps. During the summer he slept on a mattress underneath the fruit and vegetable shelter in the back yard, partly to guard the wares, but mostly because his presence was unwanted in the main house.
After one particularly vicious beating from his brother, Johnny ran away and drifted through the homes of a succession of distant relatives. After a few months of this, he ended up next door with Tim and Rowena. When he arrived his only possessions were a pair of shorts and the stained, yellowing shirt already on his back.
The first thing Tim and Rowena did for him was provide two new shirts and a fresh pair of trousers. The second was to enrol him in school. Although he hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom for years, it was soon apparent that he had a good head on him and a curiosity which enabled him to learn fast.
Johnny loved school. He loved the order of the day broken up with two lunch breaks; loved his uniform; loved his dirty old satchel and the meagre books that were passed on to him. He did so well that he was allowed to skip a standard and before very long had almost caught up to where he should have been. And now he was gone, snatched from the place he loved by God knew who.
Sleepless in bed that night, Grace’s mind was a frantic, caged animal as she searched the possibilities of where he could be, the state he might be in. She conjured his arrival in their lives, as if summoning him in that way would make him reappear in the flesh.
He was one of the few children in their neighborhood who had ventured over the fence into their yard. Mary, just home from work, was exhaling the day along with her cigarette smoke. Patrick was not yet home when they heard the timid knock on the back door. Mary, unaccustomed to guests, bristled with surprise and gestured to Grace with a sweep of the hand and a flash of panicked eyes to get the door.
“Good afternoon,” said Johnny politely, staring at some point above Grace’s head. “Is your mother home?”
His English was broken, not fluid, like hers. Mary had made sure she spoke only English in the house so as not to be mistaken for one of those common coloureds.
“She’s not here,” Grace replied.
For the first time, after weeks of peering at him through their lace curtains, Grace was able to study him up close. The hair, thick and wavy,clung in stubborn curls close to his scalp. A smattering of freckles danced across sunburned cheeks. Guarded eyes refused to meet hers, leaving Grace to contemplate thick, long lashes. An awkward silence looped between them, crackling the air. Emboldened by his shyness, his shuffling from one foot to the other, Grace felt powerful; the gatekeeper between him and what he wanted.
“Then I’ll come again later,” he mumbled, turning to shuffle away on cracked and dusty heels.
“What is it?”
Unbeknown to her, Mary had appeared behind Grace and she addressed the boy sharply.
“Middag, Auntie. Auntie, can I do a little bit of work for you in the yard, pull out some plants or maybe sweep?”
Grace suppressed a laugh. Had this fool actually seen the state of their yard, the overgrown grass, sagging fence and the dog shit just left, deposited by strays who had as little respect for their property as everyone else? Yet she was surprised by the boy’s boldness in her mother’s presence – his voice was much clearer and more direct speaking now to Mary than when he’d spoken to her. Usually, her mother had the opposite effect on people. They’d look away, or stare for just a moment too long while finding the words to speak to her. Grace knew that she possessed no such mesmeric beauty.
Mary considered his request for a moment. Grace could almost count the myriad concerns scuttling across her mother’s mind. Then, despite herself, Mary gave a cheerful answer.
“Okay. Yes. Pull out those weeds in the front over there. Just don’t tramp on my plants. And when you’re done with that, sweep the back stoep. The yard broom is behind the house.
He nodded. “Okay, Auntie.”
For a moment, Grace expected a smile but his features remained sombre.
“And Johnny,” Mary added haughtily.
“I am not your auntie. Mrs de Leeuw will do.”
Grace found her mother’s boldness uncharacteristic. Her excitement about having the boy in their yard was tempered by a fear of what could happen when Patrick returned home. For Mary to even have spoken to the boy came as a surprise. She knew her mother thought of the people next door as low class, not worthy of association. Shortly after Johnny’s arrival, Grace had heard her complain to Patrick.
“It’s not enough for them to breed like rats any more. Now they have to take in other people’s throwaways? Where did the boy come from? What has he already seen in life? He has a dark look about him, that one. He’ll be a bad influence on the others.”
Patrick had ignored her.
Grace watched Johnny sweep the back yard, careful not to disturb the delicate fall of the lace curtain lest he notice her interest. When Mary found her at her vantage point she snapped at her.
“What do you think you’re doing? Come away from that window. What if he sees you? What will he think?”
Grace wandered off to her bedroom. With her homework done, there was nothing to do except listen to the radio. She turned up the volume of Springbok Radio’s request hour just enough so that the sound filled her room without drifting through the rest of the house, and along with George Michael, lamented the careless whispers of good friends. Mary hated loud music blaring from the house – it gave a bad impression, she said.
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