As the years stretched by, stories of Mary became less sad and more celebratory. They remembered the best in her: her humour, her wit, her great beauty. The other things were locked in a room of Grace’s heart that she never examined.
During the last months of her pregnancy Grace worried about this fractured knowledge of an absent mother. Would it be enough for her to find her way as a mother? She ached for both Mary and Joan, and felt freshly bereft.
Her worst fears dissipated with the first breath her daughter drew. Grace fell absolutely, unequivocally in love the instant she laid eyes on Sindi. Never in her life had she seen anything more perfect than the puffy pink face or felt love’s tug more insistently than when the baby’s chubby hand curled tightly around her little finger. Sindi was perfect. Perfect. She brought a flood of love into Grace’s life.
Sindi was the current that pulled her further along into safety, further away from that day. Grace’s experience with love was that it always came with a price – you gave up a little of yourself, always, in order to get the love you wanted from people. Not so with Sindi. No part of her was diminished or relinquished by loving the child.
Grace felt she could give and give and give again of herself without feeling used or depleted. Sindi brought peace, a feeling that she could live in this world, with each breath a gift, as long as her daughter was in it. With Sindi nestled against her, each moment was complete unto itself, needing nothing more than two pairs of eyes gazing into each other. The rhythm of her baby’s breath, the seasons of her sleeping and waking, became the metric by which Grace structured her days.
When Sindi was five months old, Grace reluctantly returned to work and life took on a different cast. Already tired from waking every two hours to feed at night, she found being away from her daughter for nine-hour stretches excruciating.
She began to retreat deeply into herself, but when venting her anger and grief was unavoidable, she found a convenient target in David, who rapidly learned the art of tiptoeing around a sorrow he couldn’t understand. Outbursts he could deal with. It was the unrelenting, moody silence, the irritated flash of an eye, the sullen turning away from him that left him floundering, babbling, following Grace around like a dog seeking a kind word from its master.
What she would give to have one more day with her mother; one more hour with her daughter and mother, together.
She nipped the thought along with her cigarette. Better not to go there. She still had to put in a full day’s work. After straightening the kitchen and liberally spraying herself with perfume, she set off for work in the city centre.
As she waited on Main Road for a taxi, it became clear after a few minutes that no taxis were running. A fellow commuter explained that the taxi drivers were on strike and said that their best option for getting into the city would be the train. The train station was another fifteen-minute walk away but with no other options presenting themselves, Grace joined a group of taxi-less workers trudging down to Station Road. Soon she found herself jammed in the middle of a carriage, swaying along to the sounds of the morning commute’s symphony with a host of unfamiliar warm bodies on their way to work. Within minutes the train had unloaded its bustling cargo in the heart of the city.
Grace disembarked and wove her way through throngs of commuters, scuttling like ants, in and out of Cape Town station. She flowed with the mix of people exiting the station concourse and came out into Strand Street, which was alive with bodies and cars intent on getting where they needed to be with maximum speed. She still had time for a quick coffee, which she bought at a stall on the Parade. She had a quick smoke too.
The energy of the city lifted her gloom. Some days she still couldn’t quite believe that they had won, had voted, had overcome. With the dark days of Casspirs, teargas and bullets behind them, the city belonged to her now. Grace felt part of its lifeblood, flowing along its arteries, bonded to the army of workers that made it run smoothly. She loved it, and it loved her back.
As she walked along Darling Street, the city opened up to her. It throbbed with life, flirting with her, welcoming her – a muscular lover, energetically wooing her.
At work she took her accustomed seat behind the huge glass desk with three different phones. She made notes on her desk calendar of everything she’d have to do by noon in order for her manager, Mr de Vries, to have a successful shareholder meeting in the afternoon and depart to the airport for an overnight trip to Johannesburg. Catering was confirmed; reports had been copied and collated; the driver for the trip to the airport had been confirmed. She made sure of his reservation at his favourite hotel and booked a late dinner for two at a new steakhouse he’d been wanting to try. His wife wasn’t accompanying him on this trip. Grace tried not to think about his dinner companion. She had set up no dinner date with any business associates.
Mr de Vries was already in his office with a partner. He was a wonderful boss – demanding but always courteous, often playful, and adored by all the women in the large company. He started his work day at 7am, but after her return from maternity leave, insisted that Grace only start work at nine. Maintaining a strong bond with her baby was crucial, especially in the first years, he had told her. Grace was to stick strictly to her working hours – he could manage on his own early in the morning, especially since he used that time to get uninterrupted work done.
Grace could have cried when he’d sat her down to tell her this. She had been expecting some kind of complaint about the quality of her work. She tried not to let it show, but her work – her very life – was suffering from lack of sleep. They had settled into a new routine after this conversation, Grace with renewed gratitude and adoration for the man.
At 9:15 sharp, Grace entered Mr de Vries’s office with a freshly brewed pot of coffee and a stack of messages she’d retrieved from his answering machine.
“Morning, Grace,” he nodded cheerfully.
He had a visitor with him this morning. The man looked at her and gave her a brief nod, eager to get back to the business at hand.
She left the office, pausing just outside the door to pick up a note that she’d dropped.
“Not much to look at,” she heard Mr de Vries’s visitor mumble.
And then the reply: “Dull as dishwater, I’m afraid. But it’s just as well. Removes all temptation – wouldn’t want it right under my nose.”
The two men chuckled. Grace moved away from the door as quietly as possible. She only allowed the tears to come in the safety of the bathroom, after she had wiped and packed away the tray on which she had served their coffee. Dull as dishwater. That’s what wonderful, kind Mr de Vries thought of her.
Through her tears she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She had struggled with the baby weight and her slim waist had not returned after Sindi’s birth. Her skirt, which she noticed was faded, was coming undone at the hem; her cardigan was creased. To her horror she spotted a stain Sindi’s bout of vomiting had left on her cardigan. How had she forgotten to wipe that off, or change into an altogether new outfit? The biggest mess in this ensemble of ungainliness was her hair.
Before Sindi’s birth, she had gone once a week, just like Mary had done, to the hairdresser for a roller set and blow-dry. David liked to joke that you could tell the day of the week by the state of her blow-dry: from Monday’s loose buoyant curls which by Wednesday had lost some of their bounce, to limp, Friday strands best bunched into a ponytail.
On the weekend the hair cycle would start all over again. God help David if he suggested anything that interfered with her time at the hairdresser’s. After Sindi, this luxury had fallen away, though, along with money for new clothes. They were middle class, yes, but only just. Sindi’s birth had swung them precariously to the lower end of middle class, so even their once a week nights became a fond memory.
Grace took in the full calamity that was her hair. It hadn’t been cut in months, hadn’t felt the soothing warmth of a blow- dryer in weeks. She had smoothed it over with some pink oil, but it was winter and the morning mist had “activated” her hair like noting in a bottle could. Her curl coiled up from her head in an unruly, frizzy mess. For the millionth time, she cursed her father for having inherited his hair instead of Mary’s smooth locks, which withstood every type of weather. What a curse Patrick was, even now. No wonder everyone found her ugly. She was his child, after all.
Her thoughts turned back to the letter that was still unopened in her bag. Was it from Patrick? Well, fuck him, if it was. And fuck Mr de Vries too. If only he knew how easy it would be for her to accidently mix up receipts for his wife’s and various girlfriends’ gifts. Cheating swine.
She cried again for a little while, then composed herself and went back to her desk. The rest of the day passed in a coffee- fuelled blur, for which she was grateful. Before she knew it she was back at Cape Town station deciding which train to catch home. Three main arteries ran from the station to the different, sprawling suburbs of the city – the southern line to the affluent southern suburbs and south peninsula, the northern line to the Afrikaans-speaking north, right up to the Boland; and in the middle, the line that transported the working class to the Cape Flats. It didn’t matter which line she took – all the trains passed her destination station before they branched off and snaked their way across the metropole to deliver their cargoes to vastly different lives.
Grace looked at the board – the next train leaving was on the Cape Flats line, and she sped to the designated platform. A rushed, unfriendly guard clipped her ticket at the turnstile. She had exactly one minute before the train’s departure. She broke into a jog to get to the third-class section on time. She jumped into an overcrowded carriage just in time, pushed through the mass of people and sank down onto the bright orange seat.
A wave of exhaustion crashed over her. Please, God, let Sindi sleep through tonight, just this once. She tried to empty her mind, but her thoughts kept gathering around the letter at the bottom of her brown bag. Like a loose tooth, it worried her. What was she to do? Burn it? Shred it? Open it? She sighed as the train rolled out of the station and closed her eyes, mindful of staying awake for the short journey to the next station, where she would disembark.
As the train gained speed, a blind man shuffled through the carriage to the rhythm of “Guide Me Oh Thy Great Redeemer”, which he sang while banging a tambourine. His sidekick, a boy no older than twelve, followed in his wake, stretching out an inverted hat. Grace pretended to be asleep as they passed her, but the hymn had a calming effect and she kept her eyes closed, giving herself over to the rhythmic movement of the train.
Grace could tell by the jerking movements of the carriage that they were nearing her station. As the train slowed to its final halt, she forced her reluctant eyes open, and there he was, right in front of her: Johnny.
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