The sky turned from gloomy grey to dark blue as Grace hurried along the pavement. She reached a gate and mounted a steep staircase leading to the front door of her home, barely stopping to scoop the contents out of the wooden letter-box attached to the gate. Bills, bills, flyers for a new restaurant down the road, the weekly specials at Checkers. She rummaged through the mail as she lumbered up the stairs to the bright green front door. Before she entered the house, Grace turned and paused to take in the twinkling lights of the harbour. Welcome home, they seemed to blink in a silent language only she understood. Grace never tired or reaching the top of the steps and taking in the view as night threw its veil across the sea.
As Grace exhaled the day, she fingered the gold cross in the hollow of her throat. She was exhausted. With a swift crunch of her key she unlocked the front door and stepped into the freshly painted hallway. “Almond Butter” was the colour she’d settled on. David had laughed indulgently at her vacillations between different shades of yellow.
“Grace!” he shouted from the next room.
“Hello, love,” she replied, absentmindedly.
She flung her coat onto the bench beside the door. Then she dumped the clutter of papers she’d retrieved from the letter-box on a polished table. A plain white envelope she hadn’t noticed before peeped from underneath the pile of junk mail. She picked it up.
Grace de Leeuw.
The envelope was addressed to her – in her maiden name – the handwriting unfamiliar.
No one had addressed her by that name in the two years since she’d married. Heat rose into her cheeks.
The envelope bore the stamp of the only post office in the place where she’d grown up. The heat spread across her chest. She didn’t know anyone there any more – hadn’t been back since the day she’d left, after her mother’s funeral. She turned it over. No sender’s name, no address.
“Hey, Gracie!” David called again.
Grace stuffed the envelope deep into her brown bag, the one she wore to work each day, and left it on the bench. She’d deal with the letter later. She took a deep breath, composed herself, and strode down the long hallway, peeling off more layers of winter clothing as she went. By the time she reached the living room, she felt as if she’d shed her skin. Crouching down on her haunches, she scooped up the baby from the blanket on the floor.
She cooed and cuddled and kissed, inhaling the fragrant folds of her daughter’s neck, nuzzling her chubby cheeks, grazing the infant’s curls with her lips and planting kisses on the palms of her tiny, fat hands. She felt anchored. She was home. Sindi was growing daily, visibly; every new day brought a new skill, a new small facet of her personality.
The baby gurgled in her arms, smiled, and promptly threw up.
“Let me help you.” David, who had been watching the daily reunion, laughed. With a few swift movements he was up from his seat at the dining room table, brandishing a cloth with which to wipe the vomit from both mother and child. He pecked Grace’s cheek.
In the large kitchen, which flowed into a living room, he had already lit a fire, and a pot of stew simmered away on the stove.
Good old David. Always ready to help, always cleaning up after her. He was always happy to see her, always cheerful in his welcome and always efficient in balancing Grace’s moods with the growing responsibilities of fatherhood.
“Have a good day?”
Grace nodded, although her husband didn’t wait for much more of a reply from her before launching into the details of his own day. She listened absentmindedly as she got back down onto the floor with Sindi. “… been marking since I got home from school. I’m very worried about the Matrics this year…”
David had this way of making his day sound like it had happened at the centre of the universe. Grace made sure to look up and smile at appropriate moments as he narrated it all – the threatening rain in the morning, picking Sindi up from daycare, the conversation with the day-mother about her teething, what he’d decided on for dinner, the school prep he needed to finish by tomorrow.
Sindi babbled along with her father.
“Sit with her, Grace, while I make us some tea. And I think she needs a nappy change ….”
Grace let the words slide off the invisible bubble she had constructed around her and her baby daughter. When she was at work, Sindi’s absence was a physical ache – all day she longed to stroke the brown curls, nuzzle that pudgy neck and inhale her child’s sweet baby breath. By midday her breasts were painfully engorged. Pumping them took an entire lunch-break, a wasted hour that could have been better spent with her child instead.
She loved work,but resented the time away from her daughter. She held Sindi tightly against her body, trying to create a private world for just the two of them. Sindi’s cheek against her neck was a relief; the balm she had been craving all day. At the sink in the kitchen, David chattered happily about his day.
They had married two years earlier after a courtship spanning their student lives.
Grace had laid eyes on David on their first day at the university – that venerable intellectual home of the left – as they stood in a snaking line around the registration building to sign up for their courses. The line reminded her of one she’d stood in for hours the year before, to cast her vote for the first time. She had turned eighteen a few years before, yes, but this was the first time she could vote; it was also the first time Aunty Joan and Ouma got to make their crosses.
Grace felt a similar excitement lining up to register, although it was a much more mundane line. Nevertheless, it was a line that would stake out the future of each person standing in it. It was the beginning of the rest of their lives. For the first time in its history, students at this institution were lining up to register as free citizens in a democratic country.
They were free, liberated by Nelson Mandela and the ANC. The promise of a university education, on top of the vote, inflated even their most extravagant hopes. There was nothing they couldn’t accomplish now, no limit to the imaginings of what they could be. They were free. Free! The very air around them was nectar, sticky with expectation, almost too sweet to breathe.
Grace fell in with a group of girls and was laughing with them when she noticed David, and noticed him notice her. She tried to avoid his eyes – she couldn’t bear to be looked at by men. Or anyone really. To function in her world, Grace needed to fade, not stand out nor attract attention. Things were safer that way. Nobody seemed to notice or care about a shy girl who didn’t say anything. No one expected her to have much to say anyway.
But David didn’t stop looking, and as the hours wore on and the line barely moved, he seized the opportunity to shuffle up a few spots in the queue until he was next to her.
Blocking her off from the group in which she’d tried to blend, he introduced himself with the confidence of one who had always been listened to, and launched into a conversation that felt like it had been left off the day before. She liked him immediately. His voice was warm and strong, and they fell into an easy conversational rhythm – he talking, she listening, and interjecting every now and then.
His strength and surety warmed a strength inside her that she hadn’t known she possessed. She had been anxious about starting this new part of her life. Her biggest fear was that someone from her old life would recognise her. The university bordered the township, which seemed to Grace, through the bus window, as depressed as ever. By the looks of it, democracy was yet to arrive on those streets. If any of her former neighbours had made it here, she’d rather not know them.
She worried about not making friends, about sinking further into that well of loneliness with which she was far too intimately acquainted. Her high school teachers had prepared them for university, stressing that it was nothing like school. One needed to have opinions, to make oneself heard, sometimes in a lecture hall of hundreds. Here it was ideas that counted, not learning things by rote. Grace knew how to study and memorise things – words, dates and passages – but she didn’t know what she thought about things. She had been feeling hopelessly inadequate even before entering the university gates.
But the excitement in the line and the carefree laughter and chatter had loosened her. She didn’t trip over her words when David spoke to her, and was immensely grateful that he chose her to sidle up to. Emboldened, she sparkled at him.
David put her at ease. He asked questions, but none of them too probing, and freely gave information about his life and family. She envied this freedom, but carefully concealed her envy. Together on that first day they had explored the campus, discussed class options and compared their rosters, which conveniently overlapped at more than a few points.
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