Mornings were always a wrench. After a night of fitful sleep, interrupted every two hours by Sindi’s wailing, Grace rose to feed a hungry, whiny, living alarm clock, who renewed her protest as dawn broke. David heard Sindi’s cries, half opened an eye, rolled over and went back to sleep.
Grace had a grudging admiration for her husband’s ability to snooze through it all. To be fair, he had also been woken every two hours, but he always found it easier to get back to sleep. He would have helped were Sindi bottle fed; he’d even begged Grace to switch to formula feeds at least some of the time, so they could alternate the feeds. Grace was the one who insisted on breastfeeding whenever she was not at work. He had stopped trying to change her mind after a while. “This is my baby; it’s the least I can do for her,” Grace insisted.
She held the infant to her breast, allowing her to feed. Sindi was teething and while her disposition was friendly during the day, night times revealed a different little personality. After feeding Sindi, Grace burped her, as David’s mother Gwen had shown her to do. The rhythmic rubbing of her back soothed the child. She settled into quiet gurgling as Grace placed her back in her cot. Finally a few minutes to steal a shower.
“Watch her, David?”
David grunted and, satisfied that he was semi-awake, Grace showered and got dressed, with one eye on the crib. Her beauty regimen consisted of a shower, deodorant, and throwing on whatever clothes were reasonably clean. No blow-dryers or lipsticks or co-ordinated accessories for her.
Ready for the day, she set about packing the baby’s bag, putting in several changes of clothes, nappies, Sindi’s favourite plush stuffed duck, and a small cooler with bottled breast milk.
David stumbled out of bed and into the shower.
Sindi had become clingy over the past few weeks. It was normal at this age, the day-mother, Val, and the baby books had reassured them, but Grace couldn’t help imagining her daughter stuck in a playpen all day at daycare.
Now it was Sindi’s turn to be dressed. Grace changed a soiled nappy, and put a fresh baby-gro on her. Sindi had more outfits than her mother, which was just as well, as the cold required layers of clothing. Grace tried to stuff the child’s arms into a padded jacket – Sindi balled her tiny fists and gave a low, discontented moan, which escalated into a full-blown wail. Her limbs stiffened; Grace could feel the anger in her tiny body. Sindi thrashed from side to side, her protests growing louder and louder.
“It’s okay, baby,” Grace soothed. “I don’t want to leave you either, but you have to be a good girl, okay?”
Sindi vomited her reply. Grace felt like screaming too, but restrained herself, undressed the screaming baby, and started again with a fresh outfit.
As he did every morning, at seven o’clock David took Sindi and all her baby paraphernalia, kissed his wife goodbye, and sped to the day-mother’s house to drop off their daughter.
They were hardly out of the front door when Grace dragged herself out to the courtyard to settle the frayed edges of her nerves with a cigarette. She had failed again. Failed as a mother – her daughter was unhappy – and failed to quit smoking. She could feel the addiction sinking its greedy claws deeper and deeper into her. She despised herself for that grip.
It was freezing outside but she stood in the cold, filled with self-loathing, and inhaled the familiar mix of anger and self-pity along with the comforting smoke. With each inhalation, she catalogued life’s injustices against her – the things that drove her to smoking.
If she still had her mother, life wouldn’t be so difficult. Sindi would have a grandma to look after her, instead of being shipped off to some stranger’s house every morning at the crack of dawn. Her baby was missing so much; she would never know her grandmother. Grace was missing so much too. How do you mother without your mother?
They had been married for less than a year when she became pregnant with Sindi, or as David put, “we” became pregnant. It annoyed Grace, the presumptuous “we”. She had not thought about whether she wanted children, had not planned the pregnancy, but when it happened, she had wanted the baby more than anything. She had wanted this one little thing to herself: the acknowledgement of that hallowed space between mother and unborn child.
It was a miracle: she was growing this baby inside of her, with her own blood and musculature. Something of Mary was going into the child too. She could feel its flutters, its kicks and hiccups that woke her at precisely 4 o’clock each morning. She didn’t say anything to David, allowing him to “we” away, but it grated on her. She longed for the space to just feel something, for once, her way.
By that time, Aunty Joan had died and, being childless, had left everything she owned to Grace. They used this modest inheritance to buy a small house in the formerly grey neighbourhood bordering the city, now increasingly fashionable, overlooking the bay. And just like that, they had it all – the house, careers, the baby on the way. They were a couple on the move, part of the all-important, new black middle class; drivers of the economy of the new nation.
They settled into domestic bliss: married, happy, respectable – thanks to the new South Africa and Aunty Joan’s generosity. They had it all. But was Grace happy? She didn’t know. She observed herself detached, as an outsider would, and felt that this would be what happiness looked like. Did she feel it? She didn’t know. Grace navigated the world with a thick, invisible membrane wrapped around her. Very rarely did anything touch her. She was present, but not there. The old survival tricks of Saturn Street were near impossible to discard.
During pregnancy, Grace nursed silent, brooding fears that had no outlet now that Aunty Joan was gone. It had not been that long ago that she herself was a child, and who would teach her the things about a baby that only a mother could? There was nothing she could remember from Mary that could be used in her own child-rearing of an infant, and Aunty Joan, although loving, had not been particularly maternal. Nor had she prepared Grace for domesticity. Grace could hardly cook when she married David. She fretted and worried throughout the pregnancy about the baby’s health and whether she would be a good mother. What if it died, like her long ago brother who had been stillborn? What if there was something wrong and it needed a lot of medical attention?
Her biggest fear, the thing that gnawed at her in the small hours of the morning, the thing that woke her in a cold sweat, the thing she couldn’t even admit to herself by daylight: what if she didn’t love it? What if it was born perfectly healthy and beautiful, but she felt no connection to it? What was the magical thing that makes a mother instantly fall in love with her baby, and what if Grace didn’t have it? And then, the wound at the centre of it all: what if she was like him? What if she had it in her to hurt her own child, to take its life?
She could not, dared not, share any of these concerns with David, who was happily expecting. Her lies had gone on for too long and stretched too far back. What would he think of her and their marriage if he knew the truth? That his wife was the daughter of a murderer; that she was also a skilled liar.
The prison Patrick had been sent to was on the outskirts of the city. Grace had never visited him, not once. She was not allowed to speak his name to Aunty Joan, or any of the few family members she saw from time to time as the years went by. It was as if Patrick had died too, and in her mind Grace had buried him along with her mother.
The first year after it happened, she had lived with Ouma, Mary’s mother, who deposited her, straight from the funeral, in a tiny room at the back of the house with only a bed in it. It was neatly made and it had a tufted cream bedspread. Ouma had tried, but the room lacked warmth. It was painfully bright, sterile; white walls and no curtain, since the window faced a small courtyard and needed no screening off from prying eyes. Grace lay down on the bed and simply disappeared into it. Even now, as an adult, she recalled very little of those days after the funeral: not the season, not the weather, not the music on the radio that year, not even her mother’s face (that would come back a few years later).
She didn’t remember eating or washing or changing clothes. All she would later remember was the whiteness of those walls. The schools had effectively shut down the last few months of that year, so there was no need to get up in the morning. There was nowhere to go.
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