Rows of identical houses whizzed past them as they drove through the township. The car was a warm cocoon insulating them from the dogs and running children, a bubble protecting Grace from the stares of strangers. Johnny and Grace had driven all the way in silence, cutting across the Cape Flats on the N2 highway. Her mood, already sombre, dipped some more as they left the pleasantness of the suburbs close to the city. At first the drive seemed interminable, and then, once they arrived at the area bordering the airport, it was over too quickly. For the first time since that day, the day everything changed, Grace was back in the neighbourhood where she’d spent her childhood living in that yellow house on Saturn Street.
“Why did you let him in?” she could still hear the voice, clear as a bell. The ringing had never stopped.
Here she was, several lifetimes later, winding down roads that were much narrower than she remembered: convoluted, labyrinthine. They felt claustrophobic. Nausea pushed up inside her as they slithered this way and that, circling narrow bends. Everything she remembered had faded. Paint peeled off walls, gutters sighed under the weight of years, fences had sagged and rusted. There was the shop Grace had once walked to every day for bread and milk and, when there was money, a small chocolate bar. It was still the same, just grimier. There was the shebeen Patrick had patronised. Here was the rent office, where the Casspirs had congregated in that terrible month leading up to her mother’s death.
What would have happened had Mary lived? Would she still be here, proud Mary, with her nose higher than everyone else’s? How would she have carried herself against the indignity of the fading walls, the plastic bags flowering everywhere like sores? And what about Johnny? Would he have been her only love? She would not have had Sindi. But she didn’t have Sindi now anyway, and she would not have known the pain of being denied her own flesh and blood. So many what ifs.
Memories flowed thick, like blood from freshly punctured flesh. That night when he came to the window, he’d wanted to see her. He had scared Grace witless, but she understood now the desire to see one’s child, and how it could make you crazy. Had she not almost smashed a window of her own when David turned her out, and kicked and hammered at the front door with her fists?
The car slowed and they came to a halt next to a curb. They had arrived at Patrick’s place.
“You feeling okay?” Johnny asked.
She nodded. They were barely speaking, but he’d felt it important enough to bring her here to see Patrick. It would bring a sense of closure, might heal the thing that now lay between them too, he’d said.
Closure? Grace wanted to spit a mean laugh at that word. What the hell did Johnny know about anything? Maybe this meeting would make him feel better about himself, make him feel like the hero in orchestrating a reunion between estranged father and daughter. Maybe he needed to think of himself in those terms, as saviour to both Patrick and Grace, since he was turning out to be one hell of a disappointment as a mere man.
“Wait here. Don’t get out of the car,” grunted Johnny.
He left, stepped through the gate of a forlorn green house that had long ago given up the battle of trying to look presentable. An overgrown garden loomed up front, threatening to spill through the mesh fence out onto the pavement; the gate almost fell off its hinges as Johnny passed through. Johnny walked up the path but didn’t stop at the front door. Instead, he turned right and went around the house, out of sight. So Patrick was a back yard dweller. What had Grace expected? A mansion? He was never going to come out of prison and own a proper house. A knot tightened in her stomach. In a few moments she’d be coming face to face with her father, the man who had murdered her mother.
There were still a few seconds of grace in which to duck out of the car and run to the nearest taxi rank. Yet her blood had turned to lead: she couldn’t move; couldn’t even summon the energy to roll down the car window. She focused on the gate. It would take maybe two screws to reattach the loose hinge and make it stand upright again, but with the decrepitude of this place, what difference would a functioning gate make? Where would one start anyway, on this house, so badly in need of repair?
Grace heard two soft voices and saw two figures come around the house. Johnny reappeared first on the narrow path, walking back to the gate, with a smaller figure following him. He walked slowly, pausing several times to turn back as if to check on a distracted child. While Johnny’s confident steps fell on the path, the other man made a shuffling sound as he walked, as if he was dragging something behind him. Then they were out the gate and Johnny stepped aside. There, right in front of Grace, stood her father.
Mouth dry, heart pounding, she took in the remnants of the monster who had terrorised her and her mother for so many years. He was withered, emaciated; thinner even than the kids running around on the pavement. He leaned on a walking stick, clutched with a gnarled hand. Johnny opened the passenger side of the door and gestured for Grace to get out.
She moved slowly, as if weighted down by an invisible hand, until she was standing face to face with him, this man. Another shockwave passed through her body as she realised that she was taller than him.
He craned his neck to look up at her, and there were those eyes, liquid-brown, moist and pleading. Pathetic. Look at you, Grace thought. How pathetic you’ve become. And how pathetic that this, this shadow of a man was the one who lived so vividly in her imagination, inspiring so much dread. To her mind he’d been a giant, a larger-than-life boogeyman who had taken away the one she loved most, and had robbed her of a childhood.
Her whole life, he’d had this incredible power over her. He was the one she feared coming to get her; he was the shadow that haunted her nightmares. And he was this? Hardly human. The man who had beaten her mother was now a pathetic shell, wearing the haunted look of an abandoned child. She could push him to the ground with one hand. She could crush his windpipe under her thumbs without breaking a sweat. This was the monster she’d spent her life running from? This pathetic thing?
“Grace.” His voice was soft and raspy, struggling to make itself heard. “Grace, my Gracie. Is it really you?” Tears pooled in his eyes.
Oh God, not this. Not a tearful sobbing mess in the middle of the street.
He shuffled closer, eyes moist. The navy blue shirt he wore was new – she could tell by the stiff collar that chafed against his neck. It gave him the odd look of a tortoise that might retract his head into the shell of the shirt which hung limply around him. He was missing the entire row of his top teeth. Silver strands of saliva hung like moist cobwebs from baby pink gums, glistening as his slack mouth broke into a smile.
“Thank you for coming. Thank you. Thank you.”
He bowed his head with each thank you, solidifying his gratitude. Grace allowed him to clasp her folded hands into his as his cane dropped to the ground.
“It is really you, Grace. Look at you, so beautiful.”
Finally, the approval she had craved all her young life from him, coming now, decades too late.
“Thank you for coming. I’ve waited so long for this day.”
Grace nodded, but didn’t trust her voice to welcome this new father, the frail, infinitely human man, into her life.
“How are you, Grace?” She nodded again.
“Please take off your glasses. I want to see you.”
Grace pulled away and back into herself. Patrick stopped, waited. He had said something wrong. Johnny bent down to retrieve the cane and put it back into his hand.
“Thank you for coming.” Patrick returned to his gratitude mantra, as if he did not know what else to say.
Johnny intervened. “Is there a place where you can sit down, be alone, Uncle Patrick?”
“Yes, we must talk alone,” the older man replied. “But it’s not good inside, not in there. Too much comings and goings. Too many ears and eyes.”
“Let’s go for a drive somewhere then,” Johnny decided. Yes, he was in full saviour mode.
Father and daughter nodded and climbed into the car. Grace, in the passenger seat, couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Uncle Patrick. She hadn’t missed the affectionate form of address. Her father and Johnny were close, closer than she had known. Perhaps this was what made Johnny think he could hit her. If this was his role model….
“Where do we want to go today?”
The false cheer in his voice sickened Grace. What was she doing here, with these two? She felt like smacking Johnny for encouraging this, for acting as if the occasion was a happy reunion. She reached into her bag for her trusty friends, and soon a soothing numbness washed over her and cigarette smoke filled the car’s cramped interior.
“Can you spare me one, please?” Patrick piped up from the back seat.
“You have cancer and you want a cigarette?”
Grace regretted the words as soon as they’d left her mouth. There she was, cutting to the quick, making his devastating predicament clear. She had planned to wait for him to bring up the topic of cancer, and here she was, not even five minutes in, blundering around his grave. God, this was a terrible idea.
“It’s okay,” he responded cheerfully. “What’s it gonna do to me? Kill me?” He chuckled, seeming pleased at his wisecrack.
Grace passed him a cigarette without turning round and the smoke soon loosened his tongue.
“Johnny, there’s one place I’d die to go, if you’d excuse the pun.” Another chuckle. “Swartklip beach. Do you remember it, Grace? We used to go there sometimes, you and me and your mummy. Do you remember?” His voice had turned high pitched and whiny with excitement, like a child clamouring for parental affirmation.
Anger closed Grace’s throat. How dare he? How dare he speak her existence with his toothless beak. To bring up fond memories like this, like it had all be a lovely, gossamer dream, those years. How easily he spoke of her, without a trace of guilt. How unhampered the memories of her rolled off his tongue.
“Yes, I remember,” Grace replied.
She turned her face away from him, but she was there again, thirteen years old, back on a day where the three of them had visited that beach. A year before it happened. Patrick and Mary had broken up for the hundredth time, or so it seemed to Grace, for real this time, but were trying to be friendly as a separated couple, for the sake of the child, you know. Of course Patrick’s motive had been to woo Mary back. They had arrived at the beach, one, Grace remembered, Mary hadn’t liked at all, but Patrick loved. The wind whipped sand into their faces, while clusters of small, jagged rocks, leaning into the sea at a sharp angle, assaulted the soles of their feet.
There was hardly any beach; getting into the water required pitter-pattering across the sharp, cutting rock edges. The waves beat against the rocks, stirring up dirty brown foam that flew up at them. Little droplets of spray clung to the air, lingering there and diffusing light. They were only going for a walk, a talk, like today, but Patrick, ever the water baby, could never resist the sight of the ocean and had to dip in for a swim. He stripped down to a pair of shorts, made his way through the jagged rocks and like an arrow leaving its bow, plunged into the churning ocean. Mary and Grace sat on the beach watching his strong back recede towards the horizon, secure in the knowledge of his superior strength. His muscled back rose and fell, rose and fell into a steady beat, slicing the waves.
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