On nights Patrick wasn’t home, Mary drew the night around them like a soft, velvet cloak. Huddled together under the covers of her queen-size bed, she plucked stars out of the sky and spread them before Grace in a glittering private feast: the daintiest chocolate squares squirreled away for such occasions; candied oranges dipped in chocolate; toast triangles, crusts removed, topped with slivered avocado; sweet milky tea in fine china cups, warmed milk frothing against dainty rims. Decadent treats, hidden from him during the days and nights he was present, brought out on lace-covered trays on nights he forgot about Grace and Mary and found the lure of drink and women stronger than the need to be home.
It was part of the warped economy of the house. They could not afford to paint the outside, but locked away inside was the best china Mary’s money could buy. No one had money to fix the sagging gutters or broken bathroom window, which was papered over with plastic, and yet on Friday when she got her pay packet, Mary brought home tinned oysters and fine chocolate.
On nights she laid out these feasts they gorged on treats while Mary threw her own, personal handfuls of stars – her stories – back into the breathless sky. There was something about the dark intimacy of night, the drawing of curtains and the warmth of a bedside light that made Mary come alive. Her voice became low and seductive, her eyes sparkled, her pinned hair came cascading down her shoulders, free, as she regaled Grace with tales of her childhood.
“Did I tell you about that time, I was about your age…?”
“No, Mama, you didn’t,” Grace would lie. “Tell me now.”
“Well, I had already discovered boys. I wasn’t shy like you. Now one boy in particular had his eye on my friend, or so we thought. But all the time, it was really me he was after. And one day, there he was, standing outside our door early one morning, waiting for me, with a bunch of flowers in his hands, picked from the neighbours’ gardens. Can you imagine the sight? Lovelorn, he was, completely silly eyed!” The pleasure of recollection brought a smile to her face. She smiled coquettishly, as if flirting with Grace.
Stories like these made Grace feel inadequate, like a colourless, watered down copy of her mother. Suitors were not exactly lining up outside their door for her. There were other stories, too, not of Mary’s legendary beauty or the folly it inspired. These were about the priceless trove of oil paints that had been bequeathed to Mary by the white madam of a neighbour, how each fat tube had contained an entire universe of colour.
Mary had sat with them for hours at first, just taking them in, getting to know them. Then she had worked up the nerve to shoplift a set of brushes at an art supply shop in the city and scavenged some leftover rolls of paper outside a paper warehouse.
All by herself, she had learned the properties of the oils applied in different strokes, with different sized brushes, and had moved on to mixing them to form new colours. With her paints and brushes Mary had created entire worlds, private worlds of delight born out of nothing but her imagination.
“What happened to your paintings?” Grace asked one night.
“He threw them out, my father. Told me to stop wasting time with such silly nonsense.”
“He wanted me to learn something useful, something that would make a good job until I found a husband.”
They’d giggle at the mention of said husband. Things hadn’t worked out the way Mary’s father had planned.
“Why don’t we do that now? Paint?” Grace tried.
And Mary would exhale the wordless sigh of a woman who had surrendered her dreams to the world too soon.
On Patrick’s absent nights, Mary’s stories could entertain Grace for only so long. On these nights, there would come the inevitable hour when silence dropped over the house and they pricked their ears for his footstep long before his key turned in the front door lock.
When stories dried up and treats were gobbled, Grace would be dispatched to bed, lights out. Mary would wait in the bedroom, not yet asleep, since that, too, could trigger his fury no matter how neat the house or how warm the supper.
Sometimes their pre-emptive measures were enough, and he would fall asleep after wolfing down some food. At other times, seeking an outlet for his rage, Patrick would stumble into Grace’s room, wake her on the pretext of her not having completed this or that chore, and scold her: for being lazy, for being careless, for being awake, for being alive, for daring to live when his precious firstborn son could not. As if her coming was something she had planned, as if it had taken up the very air her dead brother was meant to breathe.
On those nights, Grace was the valve Patrick needed to let off the bitter steam of grief and rage. And once he had awoken his fury, he would take it into the next room and vent it upon Mary.
He apologised the next day, every time, blaming his violence on drink. But sober, too, he could be violent, though in a much more controlled way. Grace learned to stay out of his way then as well, perfecting the calculus of being present in a room without having that presence felt, of speaking without being heard, of living without interrupting the threadbare cloak of respectability Mary stitched out of nothing to hang around her family.
Father and daughter became strangers. Grace stayed out of his way; hated him. And yet, she yearned for him and the love he had once shown and that still lingered in her memory. She longed for him to pick her up and embrace her, even though she was too big for all of that now. She wished for the times when he would hold her hand when they crossed a street. She longed for another extravagant story. She wanted him to lean into her when he spoke, the way she now saw him leaning in towards Johnny as she watched them through the window as the light faded.
Patrick rested his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and something ripped inside of her. In that instant, she hated Johnny; wanted him to get away from her family and out of her life. Why had they ever let him in? They had been fine, just the three of them, even with their problems. At least her parents had been hers and hers only. Grace went to bed nursing horrible thoughts, hating both Johnny and her father, who seemed especially cheerful when he finally came inside that night.
She could never hold a grudge against Johnny for too long, though. The next time she saw him, he smiled as he held out a peach out to her, the best one from the tree. His shy smile melted her and soon she was laughing and teasing. Johnny pulled her braids, pretending to sweep her feet with the yard broom.
They sat down under the plum tree, and looking at his open lovely face, still childish but revealing the features of the man he’d become, Grace forgave her father for loving Johnny. Who wouldn’t love him, this Johnny? She realised then, with an unfamiliar tremble, that what she felt for him was love; that she thought of him as hers. Her Johnny, now gone.
It was well after midnight and people were still coming and going next door. Johnny must not be home yet. The smell of petrol clung to the air and the night sky held an unnatural orange glow, which meant the fires the students had lit earlier in the day were still burning.
Grace was looking at the troubled sky when a figure took shape outside her bedroom window. Petrified, she froze, unable to scream. A man was creeping towards her. A soldier –coming to finish the work of today. One of those who were at the school and who had taken Johnny away, had teargassed them and shot everyone.
Grace felt certain she was about to die, in her bed, the one place that was supposed to be safe. The figure grew larger as it came closer. A hand reached out. Grace found her voice and unleashed a siren-like, unearthly scream at the same time as the features of the shadow figure came into focus. It was her father.
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