Thursday arrived, and Grace was ready. She had told David the night before that she would be meeting friends from the office after work, a development he found odd, but didn’t say much about. Grace was not one for finery, but on this night she wore her most flattering skirt with a fitted blouse buttoned to the throat. And as always, her throat was guarded by Mary’s cross. She found some long-forgotten lipstick in her desk drawer, carefully applied it at the bathroom at work, then wiped it off again with a tissue. She left the office with a mixture of dread and delight running through her veins.
Johnny wasn’t in the pub when she arrived. Grace got a small table and waited with her back deliberately to the door, so that she wouldn’t appear to be desperately scanning each person who entered. For a moment, she prayed that he wouldn’t come – that would solve her secrecy problems and relieve her of a growing sense of unease. She could go home, pretend that none of this had happened, that she hadn’t met him on the train, hadn’t arranged to see him behind David’s back, hadn’t lied to her own husband. She could get up out of her seat at that very moment and still walk away from a situation that would be difficult to explain were David to find her here. She looked up and Johnny was there, smiling, and it was as if he’d never left her side.
Over beer they closed the distance between then and now. They reminisced about how things were, remembering the neighbours, remembering how they used to lounge in the back yard when Johnny took a break from his garden chores to eat the sandwich Mary made him; Mary and how stern she was – funny recollections of being kids in an irretrievable, but still-present place. Johnny reminded her of the fun part of her life then, the innocence of the games they played and their grumblings about chores.
He took her back to a place which was surprisingly sweet, reminding her that there had been more to life than just violence and chaos. He shared details about Mary Grace had forgotten. In that pub he resurrected Mary for a brief but magnificent spell, making Grace see her through eyes she thought she had lost.
“Don’t call me aunty!” He did a bad impersonation that somehow had the right tone.
It was the first time Grace had spoken about Mary, had said the words “my mama” out loud in years.
Johnny teased her about her shyness as a girl, while confessing his awkwardness too, their laughter followed by silence as each one’s memories jogged private recollections.
“Your father was very good to me,” Johnny said. “The only man, besides Tim, who took an interest in me and, you know, guided me.”
His tone was reverent, like a boy remembering a beloved, departed uncle.
Grace’s mood soured.
“And what possible good advice could you have gotten from a murderer?” she said.
Silence fell between them in the space where just minutes before laughter had bubbled. Fury crept up Grace’s throat, but she swallowed it.
After all the years, there was still the instinct to cover up, not to air the family’s dirty laundry.
“He just snapped,” she said. “I never understood how he just snapped like that, Johnny.”
He faced her squarely.
“It’s me, Grace. You don’t have to pretend. I know what happened in your house long before your mother died. Everybody knew.”
“Why didn’t they help us then?”
“Well, it was your parents’ private business. No one has the right to interfere between a man and his wife.” He paused. “But no one thought he had that in him. I mean, if it was so bad, why didn’t your mother just leave him?”
Grace remembered the question from childhood. Ouma, when they met that one time without Patrick’s knowledge at the Wimpy for breakfast: “Why don’t you just leave, my child?”
Mary never had an answer then, and Grace didn’t have one now. She did try to leave, over and again, but see what had happened when she made her final move, once the divorce papers were signed? Grace felt the shame of it all, fresh as if it had happened yesterday, rise to her face.
Johnny ordered another round of drinks and changed the subject. He talked about Tim and Rowena, telling Grace how they’d saved for years and had finally moved out of the crowded garage. He still saw them, though they, like everyone else, were getting on in years.
Grace smiled, grateful for the change in topic. She realised they hadn’t actually talked about his life, about the things that had happened to him during that terrible time when he went missing. She had no idea what Johnny had gone through. She was not the only one who suffered during those years.
“When you disappeared, what happened? What did they do to you, Johnny?”
Johnny’s eyes clouded over. He took a deep gulp of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A low, bitter laugh escaped his lips; his eyes refused to meet hers. Hurt lay shallow there. Grace regretted having asked the question, so soon. They’d only just found each other again. They faced each other wordlessly, the happy reunion now riddled with memories they’d both fought hard to forget. Grace wanted to know, and she didn’t. She also wanted a smoke and Johnny was happy to oblige. They moved outside and both lit up.
The night was damp, swirling with a centuries-old Cape Town sorrow. She leaned against Johnny’s car, savouring the fragrant smoke and its calming effect on her body. Johnny paced before her, tracing an invisible line with his feet. He reminded Grace of a dog on a chain being pulled repeatedly back into his allotted space. He was so different and yet so similar to the Johnny she had loved many lifetimes ago. He looked up from his pacing and caught her studying him. They both smiled.
“I’m so happy to see you, Johnny.”
He walked over to her in one giant step, encircled her with his arms and kissed her. Grace didn’t fight it or feign resistance – she wanted this, wanted him. His body against hers, his lips on her skin felt like a homecoming, a sacred entry into a place towards which she had been journeying her whole life.
His embrace unlocked her body and spirit. She opened to the world she had worked all her life to keep at bay; felt the energy of a million stars vibrate and flow through her. A weight flew off her.
They remained locked in an embrace long after the kiss ended. Grace realised that now that she had found Johnny, she didn’t want to let go of him. A lonely car, lights dimmed by fog, crawled past them in the narrow street. Despite the cold Grace’s skin flushed. Finally, she broke the spell.
“I should get home. Please, let’s go.”
They went back inside, where Johnny paid for their drinks. In the light of the pub, Grace couldn’t bear to look at him.
Once outside again, he unlocked the car door and held it open for her. They made the short drive in silence, with Grace speaking only to give him directions. The car stopped outside the house which contained David and Sindi, Grace’s whole life, everything she loved, and Grace felt something tear inside of her.
Can I see you again?” Johnny asked.
“No. No. We are never doing this again.”
Grace jumped out of the car and slammed the door, damp air cutting into her skin. She ran up the steps to the front door, taking them two at a time, not stopping to look back.
In the warmth of the living room, David was crowing at Sindi, who was still awake way past her bedtime, while his mother, Gwen, looked on. Great! This was all she needed – her mother- in-law. Gwen loved lingering conversation, always asked how she was and genuinely listened to the answers. Tonight, Grace just couldn’t. David and Gwen looked up and smiled as Grace entered and Gwen rose from her seat to kiss her.
“Grace! I haven’t seen you in such a long time!”
As she kissed Grace’s cheek, she instantly recoiled. For a few seconds her eyes held Grace’s, filled with bewilderment. She looked Grace up and down until Grace could feel her skin burning under the older woman’s gaze. Was it the cigarette smoke that clung to her, or the smell of another man? Gwen seemed to see through her. Had she guessed what had transpired just a few minutes ago?
“Are you feeling okay, Grace? You’re burning up.”
“No, Ma Gwen. I don’t feel good. I think I’ve caught some bug.”
The two women had always adored one another. After Aunty Joan had died, Gwen was the only mother Grace had known. On the day she and David married she had welcomed her into the family by calling Grace her daughter. The title sat uneasily with Grace, yet the affection between them was heartfelt, in many ways sustaining Grace as she moved from young woman to wife, to mothering. Grace admired the way Gwen had raised her son. David’s steady, calm way was a testament to his mother’s love and discipline. To be caught in such a sordid act by Gwen would plunge Grace into a place beyond shame. But here she was, full of love and concern, draping a tender arm around her daughter-in-law’s shoulder and ushering her into the bedroom. Grace didn’t deserve this.
“You’re burning up, girl! Let’s get you into bed with something to drink.”
David stood in the doorway, uncertain, as Gwen undressed Grace like a baby, folded her clothes and slipped a nightgown over her head. Being fussed over by an indulgent mother was not an altogether unpleasant feeling, but what did her body reveal to Gwen about her encounter with Johnny? Mothers always know.
“David,” Gwen chided, “don’t just stand there – make Grace some tea. With honey.”
David nodded and bounced off to the kitchen and Grace found herself in bed, with Gwen administering a damp cloth to her forehead. When David returned with her cup of tea she tried to smile a thank you at him, but her face was stiff and unwilling. He looked remorseful, as if he’d caused whatever was going on with her. Grace stifled the urge to shout it all out, come clean about the man she had seen that night, about this man’s connection to another: her personal set of Russian dolls – each harbouring a secret that could end life as she knew it.
Grace wanted to beg David’s forgiveness and plead with him to help her make sense of all of this, to fix things so they could go back to the life he did not yet know was shattered, but none of the words churning inside of her seemed adequate. She couldn’t find an entry point into her own story; didn’t know how to neatly slice it into beginning, middle and end. What would David think of her? And Gwen? Could they ever forgive her? Would they love her the same as they loved her now?
Her thoughts clung to the air like pockets of mist before a strengthening sun. She looked at David. She could hear his mother clattering around in the kitchen and talking to Sindi. He came over to the bed and kissed her on the top of her head, imploring her to get better soon. Grace wept, which made David fuss over her even more.
She slept fitfully that night and awoke some time before dawn, drenched in sweat, her body on fire. She ripped off the bedclothes to get some relief, dumping them in the space next to her where David usually slept. Her parched throat ached for water, but the glass swam out of reach as she tried to grasp it. The room contracted, spinning before and around her; its walls menacing closer, then jumping further back. A gust of wind out of nowhere and there she was, Mary, next to the bed, looking down at her daughter. Grace tried to call her name, tried to reach out and touch her, but she couldn’t move. Language had been snatched from the hollow of her tongue. There was no sensation in her limbs, just the burning, burning, while her mother wailed: “Talk to me!” Then Mary turned her back, gliding out of the room, gone, again. Grace found her voice: “Come back!” but it was David who appeared through the door. He rushed to her side and sponged her down again after wringing out the cloth in the bowl next to the bed. The night passed with Grace consumed by fever.
When she opened her eyes, they welcomed daylight, not fresh, tinted, new, but wrung-out, middle-of-the morning light. The house held itself in that singular, quiet way that signalled no one home – all she heard was the low hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen. She sat up in bed. Her nightgown was damp and there was a metallic taste in her mouth, but her head was clear. She felt awake, alive. She got out of bed and padded through to the kitchen, where she filled up the kettle and turned it on for tea. Then she jumped under a cold shower while the water boiled. Under the painful thrust of water she scrubbed herself pink as the plug-hole drained the dregs of her secrets. A great deal of dead skin was shed. As she stepped out of the shower, drying her body until it tingled, Grace felt reborn. Once dressed, she threw open the French doors and stepped out into the courtyard.
This was it. A second chance. No more lying, no more secrets. A fresh mountain wind caressed her body, tugging at her wet hair. She sat down on the wooden bench in the yard and took in the magnificence of the mountain – why did she not come out here more often to glory in its shadow? Table Mountain was showing off, just for her, its lush peaks jutting up against the sky. On a crisp winter’s day like this it was dazzlingly beautiful and so close she felt she could reach her hand up and stroke its contours. She closed her eyes and imagined the woolly texture of the mountain against her palm – like touching the face of God.
She retraced the events leading up to her illness and found them light years away, so distant she felt unsure that she had even met Johnny. Perhaps he had been part of her febrile dreams. She felt sick just thinking of what had passed between them – a kiss on a pavement outside a seedy bar in
Cape Town. She shifted the thought aside. This morning was new. Her body had been renewed. She grabbed the bright promise of the day and made a silent vow to herself, with Table Mountain as her witness: no more lies.
Grace sat for a while sipping her tea and savouring the solitude of the courtyard. Soon her stomach called her back to the real world – she starving. By the time David walked through the door with Sindi she had roasted some chicken, along with vegetables and rice fried with onion and tomato. She ran to them and threw her arms around both husband and child, never wanting to let go.
David was delighted. “You’re better! You were down for days!”
That’s how it felt, like she’d been gone for days, and now Grace was back and she didn’t want to leave him or miss one second of their life together. She brushed his cheek with her lips; he smiled his puppy dog smile. They kissed some more, playfully, as they’d done in the early days before marriage vows and Sindi. Her silent promise to herself flashed through her mind. She would tell him the truth – everything. But later. Now she wanted this moment, his grateful smile, his strong arms around her, his hands travelling up and down her back. She would tell David later.
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