Misha trailed slowly up to the door of her house. The paint was peeling off the faded green door. She put her hand on the handle, drew a breath, and quietly opened the door. She could smell the smoke – he was home. She put her head down and walked quickly past the kitchen. Too late. She was caught.
“Misha, don’t you come and find your father?” Her father’s crystal blue eyes were flecked with red. She felt he could see right through her, into her heart, seeing her fear and loathing. His skin had made her frightened of white men. She wished he was brown like her mother. “So Misha, my darling, what clever things did you learn at school today?” He leaned back from the table, looking across at Jack, his friend, across the empty brandy bottle, his friend, wanting him to smile, to join in the fun. When Misha didn’t answer him he said it louder, “Misha, tell Jack what you learned at your clever school today.”
Misha thought back to the dark cloud of school. “Um, we learned about electricity.”
“Good stuff, Misha,” her father responded. ‘And can you now put a new plug on the kettle for me?” He turned to Jack for affirmation, and repeated himself expansively “You know about electricity, but can you change the plug for me?”
“We don’t need a new plug on the kettle, the old one’s fine,” said Misha defiantly, and then immediately regretted it. She saw her father’s face flash, and spittle exploded out of his mouth as he pulled her towards him.
“That’s not the point, though, is it, Misha. The point is you sit at that shitty school all day and learn crap that has nothing to do with the real world.” He pushed her away, and grabbed his glass, taking a big swig. She backed out of the kitchen, he was no longer aware of her, she was free for the moment.
In her room she took out her art book and paged through the pictures, hearing soft weeping. Distantly she heard the sound of her mother returning. Her mother’s tired tones, her father’s ranting. Misha used to feel sorry for her mother. Like her, she came home tentatively, with a taut look on her face. By that time of the afternoon Misha would know if her father would embrace her mother lovingly and lead her to the kitchen table and even make her tea, or whether he would explode with anger because she was late, or there was no sugar in the house. Misha almost preferred the explosions. The loving father was scary, for any minute there might be a spark to ignite him, and it was always worse hearing his rage after he had been gentle and kind. It was easier when he was permanently frothing, a constantly erupting volcano. At least then the danger was clear.
Her father’s voice subsided. Her mother tapped on her door. “Misha, you’re home.”Misha pulled her artbook towards her.
“I’m studying, Mom.” Her mother pushed the door open. Misha could picture her tired face, her hesitant smile, but she didn’t look at her, didn’t meet her sad brown eyes. She felt her mother’s presence but ignored her till her mother slipped out of the room again. She’s a ghost in her own house, thought Misha, as she put down her book and gazed outside at the darkening sky. She imagined the lights going on in other homes, the curtains being drawn, the children doing their homework as they smelled their supper being cooked. In those light cosy lounges mothers sang and fathers laughed.
The sound of her door at night, that short squeak, was the sound that immediately squeezed and sickened her body. Her father, usually so loud, so careless with his body, now was furtive, careful… He did not speak to her as he tiptoed to her inert form on the bed. Sometimes as he climbed in and started touching her she thought that maybe he didn’t even know it was her. Only the next morning he wouldn’t get up before she left for school, or if he did, he would ignore her. It was the only time she felt safe from him, but she could hardly relax with it, for the deadness inside her took a long time to seep out of her pores.
After he left her in the night she would like rigid for a while, then put on her light and pick up a book, though she hardly read the words. When it first started, she had wept silently for hours afterwards. Now she didn’t cry anymore, though sometimes she would wake to a wet pillow.
Sometimes there were special days when she could forget, and pictures remained silent. Like on a sunny Sunday when she helped her friend Nasleen work at Muizenberg Market, selling donuts and samoosas. The sky was a crisp blue, and seagulls were wheeling around the sky, cawing loudly for leftovers. She enjoyed being busy, slipping the samoosas into a packet with a deft flick of her wrist. “Misha, you’re so helpful, what would we do without you,” Antie Saartjie would say during a lull. And the men’s faces were brown and friendly as they pointed out the pies and handed over their money. Some even called her ‘darling’ and she didn’t even mind – she was protected by her apron and the counter between them.
Later she and Nasleen sat on the beach behind a dune, licking the sugar off their fingers. Nasleen talked about the boys at school and Misha nodded every now and then to appear interested. She leaned back and closed her eyes under the warm sun. “You’re not even listening” screeched Nasleen, and Misha’s eyes popped open anxiously. But Nasleen was laughing and shaking her head. “You don’t like boys much, do you,” she said, and Misha giggled with her. This, thought Misha, is what it feels to have a friend.
But on the Monday, grey and dull, came from a different world. Nasleen was talking to Shereen and didn’t see her come into the classroom. Misha went over to say hello. “O hi,” said Nasleen awkwardly, her eyes flicking back to Shereen, who didn’t even bother to look up. Misha moved away, hearing murmurs from the posters on the classroom wall, though they were not loud enough to drown the snatches of Sherren.
“Why’s SHE so friendly?” Misha strained her ears, but couldn’t hear Nasleen’s response. The burst of laughter from both of them crunched her stomach in as she slumped into her desk. She opened her History book. There was a picture of workers on a field, a man with a whip behind them. One woman looked out of the picture, tiredly. “I come from a different place in Africa,” she said to Misha. “So I don’t speak the other people’s language. I am all alone.” Misha felt the tears spring to her eyes.