Grace removed the last traces of Elegant Ivory from her face and glanced at her mother’s bedside clock – it was only nine. The day stretched before her like a nightmare. She had library books to read, but didn’t feel like reading, and there was nothing else to do between these walls. Where was Johnny? Was he hurt, in pain? Had he even woken up this morning? She would go next door for a quick visit, despite Mary’s warnings, and find out the latest. He might even be back.
The sun had come out from behind the clouds and was straining through the bedroom curtains. Grace wanted to go, but was scared of disobeying orders, even though Patrick was no longer around to enforce his particular brand of discipline.
There was also the matter of the soldiers. It was hard to tell what was going on in their corner of the Cape Flats this morning: there could be rioting and shooting just a few blocks away, but because their house lay on the outskirts of the township, Grace wouldn’t know that until the chaos spilled onto their street. Springbok Radio revealed nothing but Esmé Euvrard gurgling a cheerful request for an Aunty Liesbet. She would go, just for five minutes. What could happen in five short minutes?
Grace opened the front door, pausing for a moment before unlocking the security gate, the final barrier between the public and private. Save for the howl of the wind, everything was quiet. Fresh air rushed into the living room, forcing out the stale smell of cigarette smoke. She inhaled deeply. The air was good, so clean. Spring was here.
Outside the southeaster was blowing madly, chasing wisps of streaky white cloud across a blue sky. It lifted her spirits. She stepped onto the path and headed next door to Johnny’s place.
Grace had never before been inside the garage that housed Johnny and his family, even though it was only a few metres away from her back door. Rowena was sitting at an old wooden table, surrounded by women. Grace hesitated in the doorway, unnoticed, behind some women from around the neighbourhood. One woman Grace didn’t recognise had her arm around Rowena and was stroking her shoulders while making soft clucking noises. Rowena’s face, red and swollen, told her all she needed to know – Johnny was not home.
“… all the hospitals, and the police stations… nothing.”
The words drifted up at Grace, who was touched by the depth of Rowena’s concern. Johnny was not her child, not even her own blood, but her distress was real, maternal. She had obviously not slept. Tim was going out of his mind, she heard Rowena say; she was worried he could snap at any moment and cause more trouble with the police.
From the door, Grace took in the details of Rowena, Tim and Johnny’s tiny home. The garage was divided into two rooms, separated by a row of dark cupboards. A wooden table anchored itself in the kitchen – clearly the hub around which this household revolved.
Down a side wall stood a large green couch, now crammed with women whose bodies didn’t quite hide its holes and the errant springs poking out underneath it. There was no kitchen sink, no taps for running water. A giant plastic tub stood on a bright orange cabinet – this was the sink in which they washed dishes, prepared food, and bathed. Next to it was a bucket used for fetching water from the outside tap that served all the tenants living in the neighbours’ back yard. There was not much to see of the bedroom: a double bed covered with a velvety red bedspread peeked from behind the cupboards partitioning the space.
For the first time, Grace wondered where Johnny slept. She could see no bed or space that would belong to him. She thought about her own room, the one she’d despised this very morning with its freshly broken window, and shame settled around her shoulders. At least she had a bed, warm blankets, could close the door when she wanted to be alone. At least she could imagine another time, another place, being grown up; in the privacy her room afforded she could imagine a different life.
Shame dug in even deeper around her throat as she realised she had been close to Johnny for all these years, and now, for the first time, was taking in his home, without him there, without the women even noticing her. She felt like she was spying on Johnny’s private world. It dawned on Grace why he spent so much time with them, even sitting in the kitchen having cups of tea with her parents on occasion; why she was never invited to his place. There really was no space that was his own, nowhere to sit and think, nowhere to dream.
More women arrived, their bodies pushing Grace inside the garage. Rowena started to sob quietly, and the weight of the bodies pressing against her became too much for Grace. She began to feel faint. Quietly, she worked her way back through the crush of bodies and out the door. She needed air, space.
And then she was running, as fast as her legs would carry her. She ran and ran, down Saturn Street, across an open field, past the last humble row of houses in the township, past the garbage dump that was always smouldering and belching its stench at them, across the busy arterial road leading to the winelands, and into the dense green bushes – uncluttered, uncultivated – the undeveloped, completely wild buffer zone left by developers to shield DF Malan airport from the masses who lived just beyond it.
From their back and front yards, Grace and others like her could see the planes take off like giant birds, hear their deafening roar when they came in to land, watch them glide and slice the sky on perfect, blue-sky Cape Town days. Only two miles away but, for most residents of the township, inaccessible as a dream forgotten upon waking. Why would they go there? What business could they possibly have at an airport, besides perhaps cleaning toilets or sweeping floors?
Gravel crunching under her feet, hair flying, Grace knew she shouldn’t be heading towards the dense bush that buffered the airport from her people, but the soft promise of green set off against a flawless blue sky, the knowledge of spring flowers turning their throats to the sun, the soft tranquillity of the air, proved irresistible. They pulled at her feet and her heart.
She could already smell it, the air on that side of the road, infused with the scent of green leaves opening to sunlight, untouched by the smell of cooking, standing water, dog shit. She paused before dashing across the big road to the other side, the wild untrammelled place.
Once she was across, where the road’s black tar receded, small yellow flowers dotted the gravel and sand. They were a constellation of beaming suns lifting their heads in greeting towards her. Behind them stretched a lush expanse of green. Low, crouching clusters of shrubs, spilling leaves, and roots spreading like rivulets across the brown earth. Grass followed: green, red and yellow grass, not clipped and disciplined like lawn but free, flowing and whispering in the wind. More yellow suns, and blue flowers too, swayed with the grass. Long grass brushed against her ankles.
Grace stopped running and relaxed. She moved forward, deeper into the thicket, until her feet found the path that had been worn there by the two of them – she and Johnny. She moved onward until she felt the familiar dip in the sand and the leaves and branches suddenly danced against her chest.
The bush enveloped her completely; the shrubs which seemed so small and lush from the other side of the road became a mess of sticks and prickly leaves. Grace walked on, through a tangle of gnarled and twisted branches until her head dipped beneath the canopy of leaves. Sunlight glinted, diamond like, through the roof of leaves above her.
She went down on her hands and knees for some more space to move, and crawling, with sand granules filtering through her fingers like brown sugar, she entered into a new, magical world. Slowly she made her way through the jungle, twisting and contorting her frame into whatever shape would allow her to negotiate the narrow gaps between the trunks. Her body found its rhythm against the thick foliage, and she moved, swayed along with it – a sigh in the breath of the bush as it whispered a prayer to the sun.
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