Mary entered the bedroom where her daughter lay in bed. She put a steaming cup of tea on the bench beside her.
She was already dressed for work, her face sharp and fresh from the colours painted there, but not even her most expensive potion could mask the circles under her eyes. The false cheer grated on Grace.
“Is Johnny back?”
“No, my baby. I’ve heard nothing.”
She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. No words were spoken about what had happened the night before – that was not Mary’s way. Mary had been frantic in her rush to get into the bedroom after Grace’s screams and the breaking window woke her.
Protective like a lioness, she’d grabbed Grace out of bed in one furious swoop and had locked them both in the main bedroom, shoving an ineffectual chair against the door for good measure. That was a well-worn routine: on nights before when Patrick’s seething threatened quick fruition, they often locked themselves in the nearest room that had held onto its door. Some nights he would leave them alone and go to sleep; some nights he broke through the cheap chipboard with one or two jabs of his fists.
As a result, the doors in the house on Saturn Street had a lot of holes in them, which Mary patched up with pretty floral wallpaper that she kept for this purpose. But if a door was assaulted one time too many, it became useless and had to be removed. You could only patch a holey door so many times with wallpaper. If a bedroom door was removed, Patrick would transfer an unscathed door from a less private part of the house to the bedroom – there was never money to buy new doors.
By the time he left, Mary and Grace had just about run out of functional doors. And though he wasn’t even in the house the night before, Mary’s old instinct had kicked in and before they knew what was happening, she was locked safely with Grace behind her bedroom door. There they remained, silent, breathless, listening hard at the comforting voices of men from next door trying to coax Patrick away from the house.
When they were sure Patrick was gone from outside Grace’s bedroom, they ventured back in there to survey the damage. Glass shards littered Grace’s bed. Mary gave the bedding a quick tug, shaking bits of glass down the back of the bed.
“Just don’t put your hand down there,” she warned Grace, while sweeping up the remaining shards into the middle of the room with a hand broom.
Next Mary examined the damage to the window. The southeaster was strong, threatening to rip the remaining, splintered edges out of the frame. That was the last thing they needed. Mary went to fetch her roll of wallpaper and her pot of wallpaper glue. She cut off a suitably sized rectangle and went to work.
“Just until we can fix it properly, okay?”
Grace glared at her, anger leeching through her eyes. Yes, of course. They’d fix it later, just like the rest of this broken down place would be magically fixed.
“Get back into bed now, Grace.”
“But the glass!”
“It’s okay, I took it all away.”
Her mother could be so stupid sometimes, Grace thought, as she crept into the bed, which felt defiled. Why couldn’t she just let her sleep next to her in the big bed?
When Grace woke, the morning sun revealed a blacked- out window – a rotten tooth in an otherwise glistening smile. Fresh rage built in Grace as she wiped the sleep out of her eyes. Revulsion churned inside her, for the house, her father, even Mary; the ugliness of it all. And there was Mary now, with her tea and her stinking cigarettes, pretending that nothing had happened. Grace felt like hitting her.
“Now listen, Grace, I want you to pay attention to what I’m going to say.”
Another match struck the tinder against the Lion box; another cigarette glowed to life as Mary sucked on it, eyes closed with pleasure.
“I have to go to work today. I wish I could stay but I can’t. Don’t go to school. You hear me? Don’t. I don’t want you to set a foot outside of this house today. Understand?”
Grace nodded. She used to love school. It was the one place where she understood the rules, where, if she followed them, results were consistent and predictable. That was before the damned State of Emergency.
“Stay away from the windows. If you hear shooting, any noise, I want you to drop on the floor, no matter where you are. Stay away from the windows, you hear? Don’t open the door for anyone: not your friends, not the neighbours, not Johnny, not police. And especially not for your father. Do you understand me, Grace?” The gold cross bobbed up and down at Mary’s throat as she became more adamant, more animated, in her instructions to Grace.
“Yes, Mama,” Grace assented, while inside her a voice screamed, Bitch! What kind of woman leaves her child when there are evil men roaming around, lurking outside the windows, shooting? Her father was right about Mary: heartless. Mary leaned forward to kiss her, but Grace pulled away.
Mary, with wounded eyes, turned and left for work without another word. Smoke trailed in her wake. Grace heard the grind of her key in the security gate and then there was silence.
“Bye, Mama!” she shouted, too late. Mary was already gone.
Now it was just Grace, alone in ugly old number 21, which now had another scar, as it sighed under the assault of the southeaster. Grace hated the place: the walls weeping pieces of paint like oversized dandruff flakes; the cobwebs merrily suspended from the ceiling like forgotten Christmas decorations; the curtains, faded and encrusted with dust and dried coffee from the time when Patrick threw a full cup at Mary.
She got up reluctantly and wandered into her parents’ bedroom, finding it in a state of complete disarray. The bed was unmade and Mary’s clothes were piled high up on the threadbare armchair in the corner, their colours and textures in stark contrast to the drabness of the rest of the room. On Mary’s nightstand an overflowing ashtray stood on top of an Agatha Christie thriller. Her empty teacup had lost its matching saucer, etching yet another ring into the surface of the nightstand.
Grace turned to face her mother’s huge mahogany dresser with its winged, three-part mirror. She ran her fingers across the surface of the wood, gathering dust at their tips, and stared for a long time at her reflection. A pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes returned her gaze. An ordinary face – nothing to distinguish it from any other face you might see around here. Who would she become? More than anything, Grace wanted to be a beauty, the kind of beauty her mother was, the kind that turned heads, eliciting widened eyes and deferential bows. She wanted the kind of beauty that left men begging outside your door for one last chance to see your face.
She fumbled with a few tiny bottles on the dresser, then unscrewed one of them and poured a dab of its contents into her palm. Elegant Ivory concealer. She warmed the contents in the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other as she’d watched her mother do a million times, and dabbed it on her face with series of light, swift pats. The concealer sat on top of her dark skin like chalk on a board, refusing to blend – she looked painted like a clown, not elegant like her mother, whose skin tone was a perfect match to the bottle’s contents. Maybe some blush would settle it, she thought. With broad brushstrokes she painted on the peachy-pink, glittery powder her mother used. She followed it with a generous application of fuchsia lipstick. Maybe this would be the magic wand that transformed her into Mary.
Her work done, Grace stood back, looking at her reflection from all angles, and sighed. She might as well accept that she looked like him. Had her nose been a little less flat, and her hair just a bit straighter, she would have been a pretty girl.
Sometimes, when she stared long enough at herself in the mirror, she could see the transformation of sharper, sleeker features take place. She had Mary’s eyes, which was a good start, but Grace’s kroes hair and darker skin always made her feel like a cheap knock-off of her mother. Mary could have passed for white had she not married Patrick, Ouma loved to say.
Enough of this, Grace decided, whipping a tissue out of a box on the dresser with which to wipe the Elegant Ivory sludge from her face. Mary had bought it a few months ago after a particularly brutal fight. She couldn’t stay away from work again with yet another blue eye and, heavy with guilt, Patrick had given her R10 to spend on whatever she needed to get her face fit for public.
Grace was with her when she walked up to the make-up counter at Greatermans, where she waited, eyes down, for all the other women at the counter to be served first .
“Well, somebody got a good hiding,” the woman behind the counter sneered at Mary.
Never before had Grace seen her mother bow her head like that in public, not even around white people. Grace clung a little closer to her, tightening her grip on Mary’s arm. The woman behind the shiny glass counter brought down a bottle of Elegant Ivory from a mirrored shelf, but refused to let Mary try a sample, as other women had been doing.
“You want it, you buy it. I can’t have a coloured use the same sample I use for the other ladies.”
Mary slid her R10 note across the counter, slipped the packaged bottle into her handbag and, head still bowed, left the department store without waiting for her change.
She had grabbed Grace’s hand as they moved through the swishing doors that magically parted before them. Grace had never seen Mary cower to white people: her mother didn’t care for them, didn’t respect them, was indifferent to them outside of what she needed to do for them at work.
But that day she had been shamed in front of them by Patrick’s hand, her proud head bowed by his public humiliation. And there he was, waiting for them outside the fancy shop, eyes glistening with shame and puppy-dog love.
He moved towards them and tried to slip an arm around Mary’s shoulder. Grace fought the urge to kick his shins, scream at him to leave her mother the hell alone. She wanted to shout it in front of the whole world, in the middle of the milling Saturday morning shoppers, what a fuck- up he was, how she wished he would die. Mary had shrugged off Patrick’s gesture. Good, Grace thought, as she shot him a smug little smile. She doesn’t need you. People were staring at them as they moved this shame-inflected dance through the parking lot.
Tell us: What do you think of the story?