Now I know how all those people in America feel when they report UFO sightings.
Every time I read about some tannie in Texas or wherever who was driving along a lonely road at night, only to spot some strange lights in the sky, and one of the lights turned into a flying saucer and landed right next to her, and little green men got out, I can’t help thinking that she should either give up the vodka, or else check herself into rehab for a nice, long holiday.
Only now I’m the loony tannie from Texas whose story no one believes.
And when I say no one, I mean Lael, because I haven’t been stupid enough to try to tell my story to anyone else. At least, not the part about Zach being choked by an invisible person. That bit I’m keeping between Lael and me.
When I first told her what had happened, she didn’t even seem to hear the part about the invisible person. All she cared about was that Zach had attacked me, and knocked me over, and that he was about to hit me in the face when something happened to interrupt him.
This is the kind of thing that sends Lael into a feminist frenzy. I know the signs because my mom reacts in exactly the same way.
I have never seen Lael so angry, and at the same time so coldly determined. Without fussing over me, she takes photos of the red marks on my chest and the bruises on my back where I landed against the grate of
the fireplace. Then she takes photos of the grate to show how they match up. She makes me go to Matron and tell her exactly what Zach did to me, and she insists that the school doctor be called in to examine me and write a report of his findings.
She makes me type the whole story out on my laptop, print it out, and sign it with today’s date. We give one copy to Dr Hussein, one copy to Matron, and we keep one copy ourselves. Then she goes with Matron and me to the Sandton Police Station to open a docket of assault against Zach.
Eventually I lose track of how many times I tell my story, and how many people poke and prod at me.
After a couple of days, a horrible tiredness has come over me, and I find myself wishing that the whole thing would just go away.
Lael lets me know that Zach is telling everyone who will listen that I tripped over the fireplace by accident, and that I’ve made up this whole story to discredit him because he was trying to break up with me.
When I think of trying to prove my word against his, I just want to crawl into bed and sleep for a million years. Now that the worst of my shock is over, I wish my life could go back to normal. I hate all the stares and whispers that follow me around school.
A lot of people think I’ve snapped. They look at Zach and they look at me, and they have no trouble in deciding who to believe. Because he’s the handsome sports hero, isn’t he? He’s the golden boy that the school managed to poach for its postmatric programme.
I’m the ditzy rich girl who scrapes through school on a combination of luck and her family name. Most people couldn’t believe Zach was going out with me in the first
place. Of course they think I would go ballistic if he ever broke up with me. Obviously I’d try to smear him with some made-up story about physical abuse.
There are times when the urge to let the whole thing drop is like a physical ache.
But here’s the thing – I’m not going to.
First, there’s Lael telling me I owe it to girls everywhere to show boys that they can’t get away with this kind of behaviour. Then there’s my friend – the one I thought was James Ellison. He told me not to let it go. And I kind of made a promise to him in my head that I wouldn’t.
A week later, the pressure is mounting.
“I’ve been called to an internal hearing,” I tell Lael, trying not to wring my hands. “Zach and his parents are going to be there.”
“Good.” Lael’s smile is as sharp as a knife-blade. “They’re probably deciding whether to expel him. You just stick to the truth, and there’ll be nothing they can say to shake you.”
I wander over to the dorm window to look out over the school grounds. I can see right over to Illovo from here.
All the trees are wearing their autumn colours, a sea of yellow and orange. I can’t believe it’s April already. Term is ending in a few days. My parents will be back, and we’re all going to our house in Cape Town for a few weeks. They wanted to cut their trip short and come home early after what happened to me, but I persuaded them not to.
It’ll be great to see them again, even though I’m really going to miss living in Sisulu House. When I remember how grumpy I was about it at the beginning of the year, I can hardly believe it.
I turn away from the window and back to Lael. “Have you heard the rumours about Zach’s ex-girlfriends?”
She nods. “You mean the ones who have come forward and said that he did the same things to them?”
“Ja, Matron told me about it this morning. She is totally and completely on your side about everything, by the way.”
I smile. “I know.” Having Matron in my corner has made the hugest difference to how I’m coping with everything.
“But have you heard the other part of the rumour?” Lael goes on. “The part about Sophie?”
“No,” I say, intrigued. “What about her?”
“Okay, listen to this. Apparently these two ex-girlfriends of Zach’s both live in KZN, right? He dated them while he was still at Hilton.”
I nod. This part I know.
“The one comes from Pietermaritizburg, and the other one from Howick, which is where Sophie’s family have their holiday home. So according to Yasmin, who also comes from KZN, Sophie knew all about how Zach treated those two girls, and that’s why she was so keen for you to go out with him. She kept encouraging it, remember?”
I wrinkle my nose. “No ways,” I say. “I don’t believe it. Not even Sophie would be that evil. Yasmin’s a sweetheart, but you know what a gossip she is. You have to take everything she says with a pinch of salt.”
“No, but listen, Trinity. Think about it. Even Nosipho believes this, and she’s not a gossip at all. She told me that Sophie was actually boasting about it.”
For a moment I’m too dumbstruck to speak. “Is this for real?” I say at last.
“Apparently. The story goes that one of the ex-girlfriends got so depressed from the way Zach treated her that she had to go on medication and missed three months of school.”
“And Sophie knew that?”
“Absolutely. It was common knowledge in Howick.”
I am speechless. I keep remembering how Sophie lent me clothes to go on dates with Zach. How she even did my makeup that one night. And how she was the one who told me about his cage-fighting obsession so that I could pretend to be interested in it as well. That’s how I got him to notice me that very first time.
“Are you okay?” Lael asks, seeing the look on my face.
“Not really, no.” I sit down on my bed. “I can’t get my head around this. Does Sophie really hate me that much?”
“Apparently she thought it would be good for you to have your confidence knocked. You know, taken down a peg. I don’t know whether she knew that he might actually hurt you physically.”
This is what has been bothering me most of all. Not the way he pushed me into the fireplace. Not the bruises, or the fact that half the school thinks I’m a liar. What gets me most is how he managed to destroy all my confidence in myself.
I rub my hands hard across my face.
“How did he do it, Lael?”
“How did he do what?”
“How did he break me down like that? By the end, I was completely terrified of him. I would have done anything to please him – literally anything. He wanted me to stop being friends with you, and I was ready to go along with it. He wanted me to give up trying to get the shield, and I agreed to that, too. I can’t believe how much he changed me. There must be something wrong with me for him to have been able to do that. I always thought I was quite a strong person, but obviously I’m not.”
Lael makes me sit down on the bed next to her and gives me a huge hug. “You are a strong person, Trinity. You are. But you’ve never had to deal with anyone like him before. None of us has. When someone you think you’re in love with starts telling you you’re not good enough, it’s very hard to shrug that off.”
“I should have been able to see through him.”
“You were dazzled by him. You thought you were the luckiest girl in the world to be going out with him. We all did.”
“Well, we did for a while. Then you started coming back from dates and accusing yourself of being too quiet or too talkative or too clever or too stupid. Nothing you did was ever good enough. Nothing you wore was ever right. He made you believe you didn’t know how to behave in public. You! Who’ve been hanging out with cabinet ministers and CEOs practically since you were born. If it weren’t so ridiculous, it would actually be funny.”
“He did do that, didn’t he?” I say, remembering. “I still can’t get over the feeling that I embarrassed him in public.
Lael gives me a little shake. “Stop it! Stop thinking like that. None of it was real. It was all him messing around with your mind. What do they call it – gaslighting.”
“Gaslighting?” I say, puzzled.
“It’s from that old movie where this guy makes his wife think she’s going crazy by dimming the lights all the time. So when she’s like, ‘what’s wrong with the lights, why are they going dim?’ he’s all, ‘there’s nothing wrong with the lights, they’re not going dim, you’re just crazy.’ That’s exactly what Zach did to you.”
“Well, I bet he’s sorry now,” Lael says, with another one of those razor-sharp smiles. “Word is something has spooked him badly. Apparently, he’s having nightmares, screaming in his sleep, nearly jumping out of his skin if anyone comes up behind him. The other postmatric boys say he’s acting like he’s seen a ghost.”
I stare at her. I’ve tried to talk to her about what happened in the common room that day, but she probably thought I was too traumatised to know what I was talking about.
Lael cocks her head to one side. “What’s up, Trinity?”
Maybe I should try again. Maybe I should sit her down and make her listen seriously to what I have to say. But I know she won’t believe me. Why should she? I wouldn’t believe myself.
In the last few days even I’ve started wondering whether my mind was playing tricks on me. I was hurt and upset. I was terrified. Zach had just pulled his fist back to hit me. Of course I wasn’t thinking clearly. And
this was after months of his mind-games. Honestly, it’s a wonder I could still remember my own name at that point.
No, I wouldn’t believe myself anymore than I’d believe Darleen from Texas who said she’d just been abducted by aliens.
“Nothing,” I say, shaking my head and forcing a smile. “Nothing’s up.”