Definitive and strong: that was the father Grace knew. Through the glass his head was held high and proud. Mary must respond – a love as strong as the one he’d just declared could not go unrequited.
But in the armchair her mother remained motionless. Short puffs of smoke billowed out around her head like a halo. Her eyes were alive with a look Grace had never seen before. She was not going to answer. For the first time in her life, Mary was bowing out from her part in the choreography of his destruction. Silence settled on the room like an eternal night.
“Well, fuck you, then, Mary! Fuck you!”
The door-frame shuddered under his boot as he unleashed his fury against it, each kick punctuating the fucks flying around. A familiar knot of fear tightened Grace’s stomach. “Don’t think this is the last of me. Don’t you dare fucking think that!”
And then he stopped. Mother and daughter exhaled. At least the door had held. Grace watched the grainy figure as he bowed down and plopped his head into his hands.
“Oh God, Mary, I’m so sorry. See what you made me do?”
The shift – the inevitable blame– fell to Mary with reassuring familiarity.
“I don’t want to be like this anymore, Mary. Why didn’t you just open the door?”
Tormented sobs escaped his body. Mary and Grace remained motionless throughout, frozen in fear, long past caring what the neighbours may have heard or what they might think. Grace looked at her mother with a steady gaze, willing her to stay put. For Grace, the act of contrition was always the most dangerous part of this dance. This was the moment her mother would crumble. Mary stared, unblinking, as her left hand delved for another cigarette in the little white box. She lit it, inhaled deeply, and exhaled the smoke in a sharp arrow. Her eyes lingered on Grace but looked right through her.
The sun’s rays, which had allowed them to track Patrick’s movements, slowly died and gave way to night. Darkness brooded around the house, pressing its face up against the big front windows where the curtains were not yet drawn. Grace could no longer see Patrick through the glass, but soft sobs confirmed his presence on the stoep. They dared not move, not yet.
After minutes that seemed like hours, the sobs faded to nothing. Yet another eternity passed before they heard the short, scraping noises of his footfall receding into the night. Mary and Grace sat together in silence for a while longer in the dark living room. When they were sure he’d left, Mary released a long sigh and crushed the empty cigarette box with her hands. She lifted herself out of the old white chair and briskly drew the curtains. After shuffling down the long, wooden-floored passage, she turned once to look at her daughter as if to say something, but then retreated into her bedroom.
Grace stood in the dark hallway, wondering if her mother would reappear to at least say goodnight. Seconds later, the shard of light underneath Mary’s bedroom door died down. Grace stood for a while, a cavernous loneliness spreading through her chest. She wanted to feel her mother’s arms around her. Instead, she went into the kitchen and made a peanut butter sandwich, which she ate over the sink.
In the quiet house, she padded on her white socks to the bathroom and brushed her teeth, checked that all the lights were out and all the windows closed, and crawled into bed, still wearing her blue school uniform with the red piping. Next to her, a little bedside lamp stayed on through the night to keep some of the house’s darkness at bay.
Tell us: What do you think Mary’s father will do now?