Was this another vision? She’d been seeing Mary a lot since Sindi’s birth. Was Johnny up to the same ghostly tricks as her mother? Was this a conspiracy of ghosts to pull her to the brink of sanity? No, no. This Johnny was flesh, breathing before her and staring at Grace in that quiet, intent way she remembered well. He was not the Johnny she had summoned a thousand times to her mind; time had clearly left her hand on him. The eyes were deeper set, with fine lines feathering the skin around them; his skin darker, but still freckled in that boyish way. They sat there, frozen, staring at each other without any movement between. The train shuddered to a halt, and Grace rose, gathering her bags, without taking her eyes off him.
She saw him mouthing the word without a sound escaping his lips.
This time he spoke her name into the air filled with the warmth of strangers’ bodies. The train stopped, the doors slid open and the crowd rearranged itself as more passengers entered. Grace started towards the door, then turned to give him one more look. He was getting to his feet. She moved on and stepped out of the train, onto the platform, where it was already getting dark. She turned again, and there he was behind her. She faced him as tears gathered in her eyes. They stood motionless, each probing the other’s eyes, until the train pulled off and disappeared around a bend. Johnny was here, in front of her. Real. Grace’s head spun as she grasped fruitlessly for words.
“Is it you?”
An unnecessary question, but one she felt compelled to ask. “Is it you?” she implored again.
“Grace! Oh my God! Yes, it’s me,” he laughed.
The sound of her name in his mouth dislodged decades of holding it all in, keeping it all together. Grief and relief flooded her body, rushed to the surface of her skin and poured out in an incoherent jumble of words and tears. Reserve snapped. Words clattered across the concrete of the station platform.
“What happened…where were you? Why? Why didn’t you find me?”
Johnny. Johnny. Johnny.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Johnny was laughing and crying too.
“You are alive!”
As she uttered these words an awareness grew that at that very moment, she, too, felt alive, maybe more than she’d ever felt before. His name was that first breath you take after holding your head under water for a long time; the first shard of daylight after a dark, horrible nightmare.
After ages, he replied simply: “Yes, it’s me. I’m alive, Grace.”
Words bubbled from her: how she thought he was dead, that they’d killed him. How she couldn’t bear it after her mother.
His hands moved onto her shoulders, steadying her shivering body.
“No, I didn’t die, as you can see. They kept me for a while – I came out of detention after three months.”
“What did they do to you, Johnny?”
He shook his head slowly while smiling his sweet, gentle smile.
“It doesn’t matter now, Grace. It doesn’t matter. That was a lifetime ago.”
“But why? Why didn’t you let me know? You must have known I was worried, that I cared…”
Her words pierced the air; her whole body had become one big question, greedy for answers. “Didn’t you know that I cared?”
“By the time I came out you were gone, Grace.”
“Why didn’t you look for me? Why didn’t you find me?”
Grace thought of the years she had spent at Aunty Joan’s apartment, long days of obsessive trips to windows; looking out, scanning the streets, waiting to see him walk up to the front door. Or days when she’d be walking down a busy street or strolling on the beach – how she would endlessly scan the crowds. And then the sudden flicker of hope at the sight of a boy with a familiar build, a certain height, a certain type of curl at the nape of a brown neck.
Once she had followed a boy through the city on a Saturday morning, trying not to be noticed but desperately keeping him in sight until she could see his face. Grace had looked for Johnny everywhere, seen him everywhere and nowhere, until all hope forsook her and she gave up wanting him back. But she had never quite shaken the reflex of scanning a crowd. It became like breathing, this scanning of men a certain age. And here, on a day when she hadn’t been looking, he’d appeared.
“I was right here, Johnny, all these years. Waiting, praying. I waited for you every day. Why didn’t you find me?”
The question had hardened into reproach. She knew it was unreasonable – they had both been children when he had disappeared, and nothing bound him to her.
“I thought about it Grace, God knows. But when I came back home you were gone. I wanted to look but nobody knew where you were. They said your grandmother had taken you away. And anyway, I didn’t know if you wanted to see me.”
“Of course I wanted to see you!” Grace was crying again.
He gently clasped her arm and led her to a bench on the platform. A soft evening fog enveloped them as they sat, Grace trying to steady her breath, Johnny thoughtfully rubbing his hand, as if rehearsing an important speech in his mind.
“I thought about you every day,” he finally declared. “I wondered about you, wondered how to go about finding you. I heard about your mother. And I wanted to see if you were okay. I know how close you were ….”
Grace felt the fog around them seep into her head, swirling there in a murky despair. He knew about her mother. Of course he knew; they were right next door.
“But honestly, Grace, I was in a bad way when I came out.
It was hard to find myself again, let alone someone else. Those were not good years.”
Her heart, so used to breaking, broke again at these words. They had both been broken, in very different ways: Grace by the man of their house, Johnny by men heading a different order; but all of them, men who needed ruthlessly to control, to snuff out rebellion, to keep the putrid peace in their respective regimes. Men who didn’t brook dissent. Men who had been revealed as fearful cowards after the protective armour of violence had been stripped from them.
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