Later on her way to the living room, Grace passed the kitchen, where she found her mother, to the left of the window, transfixed, as she watched Johnny work. Grace glided by, not daring to disturb whatever was happening in Mary’s mind.
By the time Patrick returned from work, Johnny was already back next door. He didn’t notice the neater yard, so Mary waited until suppertime until she broached the subject.
“Patrick,” she started out in a confident tone, “that boy next door, you know, the new one, Johnny, came to knock here this afternoon. Asked if we had any work for him. I liked that, you know, trying to better himself. Trying to work. So I made him clean the yard, gave him fifty cents. He did quite a good job… surprisingly.”
Across the blue kitchen table Patrick stared at his wife. Grace held her breath. In those few brief sentences lay a world of potential hurt, a number of triggers to a range of explosions. He could be mad that she’d employed someone, spending his money, without asking. The mask of suspicion could settle over his face and he could accuse her of something with the boy. He could twist her words about trying to get a job into a slight, directed at his last, six-month stint of unemployment, now thankfully over. He could take it as a dig at him for not doing the man’s work of cleaning the yard.
Grace looked down into her chicken curry, her appetite gone. She scraped bits of meat around in the rich, fragrant sauce, praying for this cup to pass.
When they came Patrick’s words were low, filled with a building malice. “I thought he was dirty, one of the rats. Not to be trusted.”
Mary wilted. She had contradicted herself and Patrick was seizing the gap between her stated stance and her actions today. More grievously, she had made a decision concerning the house and their lives without consulting him. Grace started silently to curse her mother. She should really know better by now than to do such things.
“Well, I thought it would be good, Patrick ….” “You thought, Mary?”
A crooked sneer contorted his face. Mary stiffened and placed her fork on her plate. His words were a direct challenge, a test of his dominion which she would have to pass in order for any of them to have the long, looming night be a peaceful one. Grace’s silent prayers turned into a chant. Let it go, Mama, just let it go.
“I’m sorry, Patrick. I should have waited for you. I just thought, better than being idle…. The devil finds work….” Her voice trailed off.
Grace fixated on her plate, sliding rice onto her fork without making any scraping noises. She had gotten a hiding for that before. Relief washed over her. Thank God Mary was making an effort to sound contrite.
“I’m really sorry, Patrick .…” Her voice was tinged with desperation.
It struck the right note. Patrick sighed, nodded knowingly and continued to eat his curry. The rest of the meal passed in silence.
After Grace cleared the supper dishes, Patrick went outside the back door to inspect Johnny’s handiwork. He stayed out there for a long time and when he returned, he leaned over the bottom half of the split back door, sun-kissed and smiling.
“The boy did a good job, Mary. We should let him come again.”
Mary turned from the sink, smiled and nodded. She had won his approval, had done something good. And there he was smiling at her now, the light of love in his eyes reserved just for her. She had done something right and he’d seen it, acknowledged it. Mary blushed.
Grace rolled her eyes. Her mother was too easy sometimes. Leaning across the door with a cigarette dangling from his lips, Patrick bantered and flirted with Mary as she and her mother finished the dishes.
Buoyed by his mood, mother and daughter relaxed. The walls around them expanded a little, the house let out a sigh; the evening became lighter and soon jokes were flying while Patrick, glowing, made the embers of the dying sun linger for a touch longer than usual. He called them his girls. This was the father Grace loved, the husband Mary adored. This Patrick was why she could not leave.
As he leaned over the bottom half of the door, it struck Grace again how handsome her father was when he smiled like this, how much she loved looking at the dark, smooth skin, the even features and the strong jaw sprouting day-old stubble. He came inside, strode over to Mary and scooped her into a firm embrace as she giggled coyly.
On evenings like that, when the tensions between them ebbed away, life tasted sweet like the overripe peaches hanging from the tree in their back yard.
Johnny worked his way into the De Leeuws’ lives, quickly becoming a fixture.
At first he appeared once a week with his bare, cracked feet and downcast look, waiting patiently for Mary to issue instructions. Then he’d set to work, methodically making his way through the back yard, pruning, weeding, and watering in silent concentration.
He never asked for anything. He was content to do his work, shuffle to their back door when it was done and, always keeping his eyes to the floor, stretch out his palms to receive his fifty cents. So much like a beggar, Mary had mused aloud. She wondered if Johnny felt her mother’s disdain.
As the weeks gave way to months, his visits to their house became more frequent. Grace watched her mother soften towards the boy.
“He’s not like all the others next door,” Grace overheard her saying down the line to Aunty Joan. “His clothes are always clean; his mouth too. He doesn’t swear or talk back, and he knows his place. Works hard.”
This tenderness bemused Grace. It wasn’t done for people like hers, the De Leeuws, to mix with people like them: country bumpkins, coloureds from the farms who didn’t speak English, who didn’t even own shoes. Mary had always prided herself on the shoes they all owned and maintained, despite the scarcity of money. You judge a man by his shoes, she was fond of saying.
But Johnny loosened something in her, and Grace watched with amazement as Mary’s rigid rules about who was fit company for whom relaxed. On days when she arrived home early enough, she made the boy sandwiches while cooking supper. For Mary, this was a generous gesture, bold even. Although he was only a boy of thirteen, it still wasn’t appropriate for him to come inside the house, so it fell to Grace to serve her mother’s culinary gifts to Johnny in the back yard.
At first he’d say thank you and leave the food untouched until Grace went back inside, but as weeks passed, Grace began to linger in silence, sitting somewhere close to him but never making eye contact, tracing figures in the sand under some tree, or reacquainting soft fingers with steely blades of grass.
At first Johnny ignored her, but one day, overcome with hunger, he could no longer play the game. He picked up the plate of sandwiches, moved under the shade of the apple tree, and crouched down on his haunches as he bit into the cheese and tomato snack. Grace watched him slyly. He closed his eyes for a few brief seconds after the first bite, then slowly devoured the food in giant bites, not once pausing to look up or around. Nothing else existed in the few seconds it took Johnny to eat the sandwich.
When he was done, not a crumb was left. He got up and offered Grace the empty plate with a muted thank you. Grace stayed outside longer and longer on these errands to take Johnny his late lunch. Careful not to interrupt his culinary reverie – his pleasure in food seemed almost holy – Grace waited and waited until one day she was brave enough to ask him a question. Did he like school? His answer was curt, but once the ice had been broken their chats lengthened, becoming a ritual to which they both looked forward. By now, Johnny was doing yard work three times a week; for Grace, they were the best days of the week.
Patrick took a shine to Johnny too. He got into the habit of stopping to chat with the boy when he arrived home from work, demonstrating this technique for pruning a bush, or that way of softening a hard patch of earth.
Some nights he lingered for up to half an hour before stepping inside to take off his work overalls, smoking one cigarette after the other as he talked to the boy. On these nights, Grace brooded behind the lace curtains, watching with an odd mix of repulsion and delight, as the man and boy unfolded towards each other.
They were similar in stature. Both were muscular, but where Patrick was compact, Johnny had a leanness that belied his physical strength. At thirteen, Johnny was nudging past Patrick in height. Both had deep brown skin, polished to a high gloss.
Johnny’s manner remained deferential; most often his eyes stayed on the ground as a sign of respect to the older man. In turn, Patrick’s stiff, pent-up manner relaxed with each encounter. Each time they spoke, he moved a little closer, gestured a bit larger, stayed outside a bit later with Johnny.
From her spot behind the lace curtain Grace watched them, thrilled at first by their closeness and witnessing the firm affection she’d develop for Johnny transfer to her father.
Until Johnny, Grace and Patrick had had few things in common. She stayed out of his way, speaking only when spoken to, waiting for him to talk to her, ask her about school, her friends.
When she was younger he’d tell her stories – wonderful, phantasmagorical tales of animals who talked and commandeered their own ships out at sea; his swims as a young man out to Seal Island; his encounters with great white sharks.
There were walks in the green swathe of land between the airport and their house where they picked flowers, examined chameleons, pulled out long reeds and sucked on their sweet, white ends.
But as she grew older, Grace could not hold her father’s attention. Whatever demons lived in him started turning on her too, with increasing venom, and she slipped from his affection and he from hers. She could tell when he was drunk, at first by smelling his breath, later on by mere sight of the eerie, veiled glow that enlivened his eyes when he’d had too much. She had come to anticipate the inevitable violence that would follow most bouts of drinking. She learned to steer clear, become invisible. In that state, the very sight of her could set Patrick off.
“You!” he would scream. “Why you? Why not my son?”
This rant, unfathomable to Grace, was often the trigger to violence. Grace was an occasional target for beatings, but the full might of his blows was reserved for Mary. Grace never witnessed them. Even in supreme states of drunkenness, Patrick made sure that no one saw, not even Grace, who followed Mary around like a puppy, and who found the bouts of violence all the more terrifying for hearing but not being able to see them.
The sounds of her father’s fists landing on Mary paralysed Grace, while Mary’s screams were an agony ripping through her chest. What was he doing to her? Where was he hitting? She heard every note of this warped symphony play out in grotesque detail.
First Mary’s plea – “Please no, please don’t” – his voice raised, his fist striking flesh. A fresh cry from Mary, another and yet another blow. Violent, electrifying. Charging the air. A thud. Her head against the cupboard, or his body against the door? A crash. Perhaps a table falling or a chair hitting the floor after imprinting itself onto Mary’s body?
Silence. Then a series of pathetic sobs, the sound of a soul breaking, and after that a fading into nothingness. Snoring. Her mother venturing to move, creeping out of the room. Water running in the bathroom. Mary’s footsteps at Grace’s bedroom door; her body slipping gingerly in beside Grace’s rigid one. Grace regulating her breathing, pretending to be asleep, pretending not to have heard.
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