It felt like she was seeing the city for the first time: the day undressing itself, throwing off the garment of the blazing sun, the silhouetted mountain readying itself for sleep, the night sky glowing a soft orange. How many times had she stood at this window, dazed, mind churning, seeing nothing at all? Now she suspended herself in time at that magical moment between night and day, taking in everything – the darkening sky, the mountain bidding the sun goodnight, cars hustling the beams of their headlights down the highway. De Waal Drive, all lit up, sparkled like a diamond necklace flung around the mountain’s neck.
Grace felt the city pulse through her veins. She was alive. She felt the temporality of all things. Instead of scaring her, it evoked a tenderness which nestled around the heart’s cavities, filling the hollow places with peace. After tonight, this singular view of the city would never again be available to her. She would never see the mountain from this particular angle again, leaning over her like a protective aunt. She was leaving this place, leaving Johnny and never coming back.
Turning around, she took in the detritus of their life together: the kitchen, dotted with mismatched cups and plates, the threadbare loveseat hidden under a throw. In the next room the bed dominated the tiny apartment – so fitting. Now that compulsion and lust had slackened their hold, it seemed oversized, grotesque. The sight of it filled her with shame. Therein lay the cinders of her great love. Yes, she had loved him, still loved Johnny, but the curse of her father had seeped into their lives, obliterating every good thing between them. Barring the violence, they’d had a good thing. Love. The memory of that far-off place they’d both inhabited – their past. The ghost of her mother, compelling Grace to cling to him because once, aeons ago, he’d existed in the same time and space with her, and Grace had loved them both at the same time. An intricate love bound with place and time, a love which gave her a history. But now it was time to go.
Mary. Grace thought of her in that ugly yellow house on Saturn Street. Mary would never escape those walls; she would never again move in the world beyond those confines. We all have our crosses to bear. Death was Mary’s. Grace had tasted that freedom denied her mother but, unaccustomed to it, had constructed a familiar prison of her own in this dingy old apartment. She stroked the gold cross around her neck. If only she could reach back twenty years, take her mother by the hand and pull her through time, clear from that dark house as she walked out of her own prison.
It was too late for Mary, but today Grace was ready to fulfil an unspoken promise to herself, made on the day of her daughter’s second visit to the home she shared with Johnny.
He had come in just after David had left, handing over a fussing Sindi. Grace and Johnny were in the middle of a cold war, the bruise around her eye giving just enough of a hint of what had happened between them the previous weekend.
Grace had spread a blanket on the floor and settled there with Sindi, some pillows, and the child’s wooden blocks. They stacked the blocks, until nearly all of them were piled on top of one another to form a perilously leaning tower, which came crashing down. Sindi screamed and fell into a fit of sobs. Grace tried to comfort her, but Sindi’s wails grew louder and louder.
“Make her stop,” Johnny had seethed.
“I’m trying. Shouting will only make it worse.”
Grace cooed and comforted. She scooped her daughter up into her arms and patted her back. Something was unsettling her so badly that nothing Grace did could console her.
Hungover from a night of drinking, Johnny lost hispatience.
In two quick stride she was next tothem, andbefore Grace knew what was happening, he lifted Sindi roughly underneath her arms, plucked her from Grace, and took her into the bedroom. He plopped her down on the floor, shut the bedroom door behind him, and came back into the living room.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Sindi had never been treated like that. From behind the bedroom door her cries were building into full hysteria.
“She’s spoilt, Grace. Never seen a child go on and on like that. You know, back at home kids don’t even try it. They know they’ll get the shit beaten out of them. You with your baby books. You with your airs and graces.”
“But she’s a baby. A baby!”
Grace rushed to the bedroom door. Johnny blocked her. “No, Grace. Let her cry!”
She couldn’t calculate whether to take the risk. She left it, while behind the door Sindi heaved with heartrending sobs.
After a few minutes, Johnny could take no more. “This is not how I saw myself.”
“What did you think? You knew about her, said you wanted her. I made it clear that Sindi came with me. Did you think she’d just be quiet and placid all day long? Babies cry, you know.”
“Not like this. You’ve spoiled her. I can’t, Grace. I can’t see myself with this kind of a spoiled, pampered brat.”
He marched to the front door, slamming it behind him as he left. As soon as he’d gone Grace rushed to the bedroom and picked up her daughter. After a few minutes of soothing and then giving her a bottle, Sindi settled and fell fast asleep. The crying had exhausted her.
And then David’s knock on the door; it was time for her to go. Grace had relinquished her daughter without saying a word.
“God, Grace, are you all right?” David had asked. She’d said yes, and shooed him away, embarrassed by the unkempt flat and her dishevelled appearance. She hadn’t even changed Sindi.
And that was that. She knew it in her bones. Grace could not walk away from Johnny for herself, but she had to do it for her daughter. It took another few days to plan her leaving without him knowing; to figure out the right time to pack her stuff and leave. To get a little room with a toilet and a hot plate at the back of someone’s house. That would do nicely for now, just for her. Let the dead bury their dead, Aunty Joan used to say. That day, a week ago, when he had touched her daughter, Johnny became dead to her. No man would do to Sindi what had been done to her, no matter how much Grace loved him. She loved her daughter more.
It was time to bury Mary too, for good, leave her in the past, and uncouple her life from her mother’s. It was time to forego the dance her parents had started decades ago, the dance whose familiar rhythm always beckoned and seduced. He loves you so. He loves you so much that he can’t control his emotions. He loves you and so he hurts you to demonstrate just how much. He loves you and closes the gaping need of his love with his fists. He doesn’t mean it when he hits you – that’s the power of his love.
Patrick had looked at Grace that day at the beach and when he saw her face after the sunglasses came off, she knew he had recognised her beaten mother in her. He had stared for a long time at the bruise around Grace’s eye, his eyes filling with tears as the realisation of his inheritance to his only child sank in. He took her hands in his, the only time she’d let him touch her, and said: “Promise me one thing. Promise a dying man just one thing.”
She had refused to promise, refused to give Patrick that.
“A man who does this will never change,” Patrick said. “Takes one to know one. He’s never going to change, Mary.”
His memory was playing tricks. Grace said nothing. “Whatever’s eating him, that devil riding him, is coming from deep inside him. That devil will lash you until he sorts it out for himself, within himself. Don’t repeat our mistakes. Promise me that you’ll leave.”
She hadn’t promised. She had had no words for her father and no desire to give him that as absolution. Let him find another way to ease his conscience. She hadn’t given him forgiveness either – that was for another time, when her own wounds had been tended. It wasn’t hers to give, and when she thought about it, he hadn’t even asked for it.
From the window, Grace took in the mountain one more time. She had no parents, no family, no God. No ground to stand on; no one to lean on. Nobody to blame anymore. Only herself, responsible for herself. There were only the words of her Aunty Joan, resonant as the day she first heard them: “Never forget what you did today. You created something. Don’t you ever forget that you have this inside you: the ability to create an entire universe out of nothing.” Grace hadn’t started yet, but ending this old life with Johnny was the first step to building one that was completely new. She finally got what Aunty Joan was trying to say that day on the living room floor, surrounded by paper and paint. There were still things to build, universes to make. She still had the most precious things of all: her life, and her daughter. She would steer both onto a different course.
For the first time, Grace was not afraid of life. She breathed in that mountain, and in it, caught a glimpse of what she could be like: towering, rooted and strong. Then she grasped her packed suitcase and, without looking back, walked away from that apartment and her old life. When the door slammed shut behind her, she knew she was free.
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