On the other side of the thicket, she stumbled out onto a grassy clearing. Here the grass was shorter and soft, inviting her to lie down and stretch, fully, in the sun. For the thousandth time, she marvelled at this spot, this place that seemed to have been cleared especially for her, a space where she could just be.
Wildflowers blossomed everywhere among the few low shrubs. Clumps of reeds dotted the periphery of the clearing, their brown fuzzy heads floating from pencil-thin stalks. A stately eucalyptus tree watched over it all, its branches throwing protective shade cross her little patch of heaven.
The clearing was anchored by a large rock, smooth at the base but jagged at the crown. This was Grace’s personal throne, a couple of fat, lazy lizards her only companions. She touched her hand to the rock, relishing its texture, and flopped down beside it.
Then she leaned her back against the smooth edge, arms stretched, legs out in front of her, with her bare toes splayed against the tree trunk. No one could see her, tell her to sit up straight or close her legs and act like a lady. Here Grace was in charge of her own queendom.
She was aware of the drone of distant traffic and then the sound of a plane coming in to land, thundering low across her spot. Once its noise receded into the distance, her ears picked out the hum of cicadas, the gentle swishing of reeds in the breeze.
The first time she’d come here, years ago, she’d lost all concept of time, got home when the sun was dropping behind the mountain. Patrick had been pacing the front stoep like a caged animal, while her mother sighed in the living room with cigarette in hand. Where have you been? Worried sick! But not even a beating could force her to give up this place.
Today it was the perfect escape from the clucking, sympathetic tongues around Rowena, the stench of burning tires, broken windows and the sounds of guns. Johnny might even appear: this had become their special place. About a year after he had started coming to their house she brought him here. She had never shown it to anyone before then, and in his quiet way Johnny belonged here too.
He was not like other boys who recklessly pitted themselves against nature, climbing and conquering trees or throwing stones at lizards. He had a respect for nature that mirrored hers. They’d spent hours at this very rock, laughing, talking or just sitting together in silence. It was here that Johnny leaned over one day as they lay in the grass together and planted a gentle kiss on her lips.
“Why did you do that?” Grace had blurted out.
He’d looked down at the ground then, the way he used when they were still shy around each other. Embarrassment crept across her cheeks; embarrassment for herself, for reacting in such a childish, uncool way, coupled with a compounding shyness on his behalf, for his obvious, squirming discomfort.
“Well, you’re a girl, I’m a boy,” he’d said, as if that was all it really took for one person to start kissing another in the middle of nowhere. “And… I like you.” His eyebrows rose into a question mark.
Grace had felt the heat rush to her face and in her chest strange sensations bubbled, as if she hadn’t eaten for days and had suddenly realised she was ravenous. The hunger spread across her chest. Johnny liked her? Not in the friend or family way, but like that, like a man liked a woman? No one had ever told her that they liked her; she had never even thought it possible that in a universe of bold, outspoken, pretty girls with straight hair and wide hips, a boy could possibly be interested in her.
When Grace dreamed about the future – when she was able to see a future – she was grown up with a husband who loved and took care of her. But in her imaginings the man who loved her always appeared in adulthood, after she had grown up and out of this unloveable skin; after she had shrugged off Patrick and the ugly house; after she had reinvented herself as a beautiful successful woman who looked like Mary; after she had cast off this ugly shell that was only temporarily Grace, and the ugly things that had happened to her.
Her life would begin after she grew up. This here, now, was not really her life. It was just a period of waiting – waiting for her father to leave or die, for Mandela to come out of prison, for her mother to be happy and free. This was not anything really, this waiting. When it was over, that was when her life would really start. Then. Then there would be men who loved, when she could step away from this and love herself. She blushed in dazed awe that anyone could find something loveable in her, and knew, immediately, that she loved Johnny back. She would always love him. She knew this on the day he kissed her. Her Johnny.
A plane took off, its orange tailfin glistening in the sun. Grace looked up, tracking its journey across the sky and prayed, harder than she’d ever prayed before: bring him back! She begged God, the plane, the trees, the grass, the distant mountain, the infinite blue sky – which, stretching as it did around the world, surely must see him. Bring him back!
She got onto her knees beside the rock and prayed, until prayer rose up from every molecule in her body, until she became the very breath of God, until she was nothing but spirit, soaring up to the heavens, whispering in His ear: bring Johnny back!
When she was done the sun hung low in the sky, ready to dip behind the unmoved face of Table Mountain. Calm settled over her. Leaves glowed in this magical light, knitting into Grace’s bones the quiet surety that Johnny was alive and would be found. He would be found and would come back, and everything would go back to how it was before – no, better than before, with her father at a safe, bearable distance.
She got up from the clearing and pushed her way back through the branches and bushes to the tarred road that divided the bushy expanse from the township. It had grown late and people were coming back from work.
Streams of cars were winding their way home on the old, too narrow arterial road. She waited too long, losing her nerve several times, before dodging between cars and getting halfway. Then she spent too long hopping about in the middle of the road on the white line where she shouldn’t have been. Finally, safely on the other side, things were quiet.
There was no sign of the armoured vultures. Outside Johnny’s home, people were still milling about, some with bowls of food covered in dishcloths. She could see Tim waving his arms, his gesticulation stirring a group of men into action. It looked like they were ready to depart on another search. Johnny was still not home.
Grace had just reached her house and was about to walk through the low front gate when on the corner a familiar figure came into view. The swagger in his gait revealed what Grace instinctively felt – that he’d had a few drinks – no, more than a few.
There are times when a body knows, just knows, before the brain catches up, that it’s in mortal danger. For Grace, that time was now. Heart pounding, she ran up to the security gate, and with fingers turning numb, fumbled to unlock it. A few quick prods at the lock and the key took on a leaden weight of its own and gave up the fight against gravity. Dropped. She turned and he was there, behind her, upon her, his body blocking out the sun and Grace from any passerby’s view.
“Hello, Grace! How’s my girl?”
Smiling. Drunk. Eyes aglow with a brewing storm. “Daddy…. ” she nodded.
“Where have you been, Gracie?”
“Whoring around like your mother?”
Grace stopped struggling with the key, defeated. She wanted to hit him in his belly and see him cry with pain, but there she was, trapped between him and the security door with no chance to inflict an equivalent wound on him, no chance to get away.
“Pick up the key.” His voice was low, almost a whisper, chilling to her ear.
Grace obeyed the command. “Now unlock the door.”
The dutiful daughter obeyed. Mama’s words – “Whatever you do, don’t let him in!” – screamed through her as the rest of her went numb. From the corner of her eye she saw a convoy of cars, led by Tim’s yellow Mazda, pass by. All the men from next door were gone.
The gate swung open. Impatiently, Patrick grabbed the keys from her and unlocked the front door. She was never quick enough.
His hand closed like a vice on her upper arm, and in one powerful, practised movement, he launched her unresisting body across the threshold and into the dark living room with its curtains all drawn.
Grace picked herself up from her landing spot on the floor and sank into the dirty white couch, tightly wrapping her arms around her body. She kept her eyes on the floor, taking in the minutiae of today’s sand arrangement on the carpet. No matter how she tried to clean it (Mary had long ago given up) the sand had a way of creeping back into the house, reclaiming its lost kingdom. Steel-toed work boots came and went across the still-life of the floor, carrying the upturned cuffs of dark blue jeans, resting neatly above laced shoe-tongues.
Grace focused hard on the brown laces, moving slowly in and out of focus, in and out of her tableau of carpet and uncontrollable sand. She heard the click of the front door being locked. The boots finally came to rest right in front of her, toe-to-toe with her own takkied feet.
“Look at me!”
She knew she had to, but she couldn’t. Her shoulders were two blocks of ice, solid, pressing the rest of her body down into the couch.
“I said, look at me!”
A blow landed on Grace’s left cheek, forcing movement from her stubborn head. She tried to hold back prickly tears, but they rolled down her cheeks as she tilted her head upwards, slid off her chin and plopped onto the tops of her hands. Anger, pain and shame coloured the contours of her face.
“Okay! I’m looking at you now! Happy?” The voice came from some unknown place, someone she didn’t know. Her mouth was moving, contorting furiously, but it wasn’t Grace screaming, it wasn’t her voice escaping at a feverish pitch. “Are you happy now? Bastard!”
Grace wanted this voice to stop, knowing that it put her in grave danger, but she couldn’t will it back into silence. It snaked from her throat, lashing him, cursing him. Spitting upon him. “Fuck you, bastard! Pig! You destroy everything!”
Another open hand slap against her face. Tears, snot and saliva gushed from her until she felt her head grabbed and her words smothered by his strong hands. Grace screamed, a sound swallowed by his callused palm. She tried to bite the inside of Patrick’s hand, but he only clenched tighter, until all breath escaped her.
“Shush, shush, Grace.” His voice dropped to a mere whisper. “Quiet, girl.”
Gradually, her convulsive sobs subsided. There was a strange look in his eyes as her body slackened under his grip. It was as if he saw her for the first time, the real Grace. He released her and sat down on a chair across from the couch.
“Be quiet, okay?”
They contemplated each other, each summing the other up.
It struck Patrick for the first time: his daughter was growing up. Her limbs were long and lean, her face angular, not round and sweet any more like the little girl of yesterday. Small breast buds pushed against her shirt, hardly visible, but there when you looked. And now this manner of Mary’s, this defiance.
A few metres across from her father, Grace thought of ways to kill him. Her bare hands would clearly not suffice, given the showdown of the previous minutes. What would it take to get one of those soldiers to plant a bullet between his eyes? She seethed, quietly.
She had to get away! Mary, his true target, would be home soon and Grace, having made the acquaintance of his fists for the first time, knew that in this new father of hers – a man who had newly stooped to throwing her across the room – lay an unbridled appetite for violence. If she ran she’d have to get away cleanly, and there was no sign of the key near the door. The security gate, that stoic soldier guarding the front door, offering a further level of protection from the evil world outside, now trapped her with the unaccounted for evil that lurked on the inside; that wildcard – a father; the threat from within, not factored into the metrics of safety for a home. She turned the word around in her head, and for a moment wanted to stretch her hands out towards him, say “Daddy,” and fold into his embrace like she did as a little child.
Patrick’s eyes looked back at her and when she searched them for cracks of love, they glinted like granite.
Footsteps up the garden path. Grace tried to lurch to her feet, but in a second Patrick had grabbed hold of her.
His voice was a sliver of a whisper. “Move again, and I’ll hit you so hard you won’t know your own name.”
She sat down like an obedient dog. A deadly silence spun around them. They could hear Mary on the garden path, humming a tune. The clock on the kitchen wall ticked through the seconds, each one bringing Mary closer to the door.
“That’s my girl,” said Patrick. And he smiled at her.
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