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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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Her eyelashes fluttered and she shuddered a little as she turned around and unbuttoned her tunic: it was always winter in the men’s bathroom. She shrugged her top down, wincing as the stiff muscles stretched. There were baby freckles on her shoulders and her bra was very white, washed by the knowing hands of the other women in the house, the ones who must have seen the bloodstains.

That Tuesday there were only two black bruises spreading on her spine, a bubonic butterfly the size of my open hands. I remember that she had been sitting very straight in her desk so that there would be no contact between her backbone and the wood.

I took the photographs. For a moment I couldn’t remember how: her camera was a foreign object in my hands: I was as confused by it as // Kabbo had been when the Lloyds first stood him against the wall with the other translating prisoners, before he learned to pose.

But our hands have their own memories. I focused on her naked back. I pressed the greasy button under my thumb. It was done. She struggled back into her dress and buttoned it up again. There was nothing on the outside to show what lay beneath the blue nylon.

I wondered what the people at the Kodak shop thought when the pictures emerged from the machine in their endlessly perforated strip, ready to be cut into squares, packaged in envelopes, labelled with my name and the order number. Did they nudge one another and wave the photographs around their room that smelled of chemicals? It kept me awake: not even my lovely book was a comfort.

I went to collect the photographs. I kept them at home for Childline. Then I gave the girl the negatives in a plain brown envelope, the same kind that the school uses for their quarterly reports. I told her that I would help her when she was ready to testify.

She was never ready. She wrote her preliminary exams. Her results were good. Finals came and went, and I have no doubt that her good marks allowed her to escape the small prison of her household, with its endless treadmill. The jailer must have been sick to see her go.

There were other girls with bruises. At the beginning of the next year – with its textbooks and assemblies and new uniform checks – another envelope came for me. It was addressed via the school and miraculously intact.

Inside it were the negatives, close-ups of an unknown girl’s back, the studs of her spine and the bruises overlaid on it, the edge of a uniform that would be the colour of the sky when it was properly developed but for now was only brown. On the back of one photograph was round, childish writing:
I am at Stellenbosch. I even understand the lectures! Thank you for everything you did.
She had dotted the ‘i’s with little hearts.

I thought about keeping the photographs, but the idea of preserving that hurt bothered me. I ripped the images up into tiny violent pieces, and then I burrowed them deep into the dustbin outside. I don’t want to remember her. I want to remember // Kabbo, the dead translator of his dead race, and I want to remember Lucy Lloyd, the white lady who survived to publish the transcriptions, who gave them flesh and sent them out into the world.

But what I want to remember most is that it’s not the evidence that counts, after all. It’s the living with it.

You teachers. You have such nice lives. All those school holidays.

The Boy Who Opened Doors

H
E COULD TELL HOW LATE IT WAS BY THE SOUND OF THE TRAFFIC
. The cars outside on the highway pressed on relentlessly, then vanished. There was no sleep.

He could feel her watching him from the doorway; in a minute her eyelashes would crawl over his cheek as she kissed him goodnight. She had made the same movements on five thousand, eight hundred and thirty-nine days so far. And nights. She would never stop checking on him. He wanted to sleep naked; God, he just wanted to be able to
sleep
. He turned sixteen tomorrow, on the spring equinox, and had nothing to show for it but the precise kisses his mother gave him when she thought he was dreaming.

She approached and bent down. He endured her dry lips on his skin. The molecules passed between them. She inhaled him, satisfied with his scent, keeping him with her. What would she do when he left home?

The light halved, slivered, was pulled back under the door. She turned up the passage and he heard her lonely slippers – left, right, left, right – in retreat, like the sun.

Christian turned over in his sheets and sighed; his armpits itched; a mosquito wheeled against the luminescent stars on the ceiling. How long had it taken him to arrange them in their exact constellations? The palms of his hands felt empty. He wanted to hold the cans of spray paint hidden in his cupboard, their cool, mechanical lengths, inhale their smell of outer space. He would make something big and clear this time, before he went, something unequivocal. He would sign it properly with his full name so that anyone who got up close would know him for the creator. Tagging was childish, the sort of thing for fence-sitters, not world-straddlers. And it should be somewhere his mother would see every day on her way to her shift at the hospital. She would see it and think that it was beautiful: his parting gift.

The decision settled the boy. He pictured the stern concrete wall on the left hand of the freeway near his house. It banked the tarmac, winding smoothly into the city, but it had had to be joined in sections, like a puzzle, and now it was half-covered in weeds. The seams of the cement leaked darker than the surrounding walls, contour lines for the other path beside the highway.

Christian waited for the familiar routines. He heard his mother’s sounds: the toilet flushing, the clicking of her tweezers, the sighing as she lay back at last in the empty bed that stubbornly retained its impression of two bodies. The solitary light in the house flicked off and he was left staring at the hooded dressing gown grown too small for him, abandoned on the back of the door, tented, ominous, as mouldy as if it belonged to an old man.

He turned again and lay on his back, the pillow cool through the stubble at his nape. He was tired of it, the fear of next year, of everything that was coming towards him, unavoidable. He didn’t know what he liked doing except the painting, and no one would hire him to do that. He wondered if failure smelled like the dressing gown.

That stink came off people too. In the last season even his own sweat had begun to bother him. The classroom itself was unbearable. Thinking that he might be trapped there for another year filled him with a thick, black panic. He felt the same way when he navigated night rooms when Eskom blew out the lights and the nippled switches flicked only to OFF and OFF in a bankrupt binary.

It amazed him that so many people made it to adulthood – the hundred things they sidestepped blithely, every day, hurt his mind. All the crossed paths of all the people in the universe! He imagined their tracks glowing, the bright, invisible intersections that only dogs could see.

Christian exhaled and sat all the way up, listening for the faint clinking of the cans in the cupboard. He rubbed his flat chest and picked his jeans off the floor. His mother had stopped trying to tidy up when he had said that he knew what she was doing. If she wanted to know if he was on drugs, why didn’t she just ask?

He added a dark hoodie and his faded trainers with the skulls Tipp-Exed on them. They were the exact shape of his feet; they made him feel like he wore wings. He ended up taking only two cans from the cupboard and his wedge-nibbed koki pen. His backpack clanked but his mother slept on in her far-away room.

Outside the night was unwinding. When he looked down across the city the lights were off at the astronomers’ dome; the Taiwanese ships in the harbour waited for a berth in the dry dock; the full moon was a blood orange. Christian sucked in the night air and felt his lungs expanding, their inverted tree reaching down towards his ankles, up towards his skull.

He made his way above the highways and train tracks, the cans in their bag a cool comfort against his back. Pinelands, Observatory, Mowbray. Things were easier on foot, without traffic lights and other drivers: Christian saw his path laid out before him as if it was a dotted white line. There was the sangoma in his hessian, digging for roots. There was the obese homeless man, lying dismal and still at the robots. The dew soaked the boy’s feet, turning his grey trainers black again. Where he walked there were footprints in the grass, but he had no reason to look back.

Christian stopped to catch his breath. He held onto the railings above the highway, light-headed, looking for the spot he had imagined. He felt like a man about to throw himself off a bridge.

It was obvious. Down below on the concrete siding there was a clearing among the weeds that trailed down on either side. The boy bent closer under the streetlights. What he had thought were weeds was ivy. Songololos twisted away from his hands as he disturbed them.

Christian walked a few metres to the thin, oil-slick bridge over the motorway itself. He crawled over the side and hung his weight from the railings, panting. He swung across, hand over hand, until he could jump down onto the narrow strip of tarmac. The cans clattered, Gothic in the stillness. To shush them, he settled his bag on the pavement.

He looked around but there was only the silence of office blocks. Somewhere up at Rhodes Mem. the animals were gathered; qagga nuzzled each others’ flanks.

Christian felt inside the bag for a can. In the light they were achromatic. He shook them to make sure they worked: the widgets inside rattled like pebbles. He began.

The boy painted four doors on the cement, taller than his head. He had to stretch; the next morning he would think he’d gone numb along his right-hand side. But the doors. The doors led nowhere and the doors led everywhere. Tennis courts could not be simpler: they were only outlines.

He had meant to make three doors and render them differently, so that people could choose the one that seemed the most inviting. But in the end he found that he had painted three outlines – and an open door.

The last one had a handle painted on it, a white knob. And this door was ajar. The boy had painted the darkness visible in the angle between the front of the door and what lay behind it until the cans were hissing, empty. With the koki pen, he wrote his name in tiny letters along the bottom. His full, unwieldy name.

Christian wiped his prints off the cans. He would dump them in the bins at Hartleyvale Stadium on the way back. He could go home to sleep in his own bed: he found himself unafraid of the dressing gown behind his bedroom door.

He didn’t hear the police van until it was almost upon him, its ghostly riders twinned under the windshield. Christian shrank back against the wall. There was only time to grab the backpack. He leaped; his feet seemed to propel him from the tarmac into the air. He grabbed at the ivy and pulled himself up the concrete, his trainers scuffing at the artwork.

On the bridge, Christian ran. Here was the sangoma; here was the bergie. They ignored the running boy.

Back in his old room, Christian regarded his hands. The fingernails were rimmed with black. His trainers were worse: they would never be the same. His mother would cluck over having to replace them – as if he had had a choice. Christian undressed, leaving his jeans in a warm puddle on the floor. He fell backwards onto the bed, bouncing on the mattress.

He slept. The paint dried on the side of the highway. The doors were clear, three shut, one swinging open so that it seemed to move a little on its false hinges.

The next morning some of the drivers on their way to work – not all of them, only the ones who looked – saw those doors. They thought of the doors they had been through, or not been through, and also the doors that they still had to open. Some of them thought about scrubbing off the paint with bleach and Handy Andy. Some of them thought about their children.

The boy’s mother also drove down that highway to get to the hospital. She drove as she always drove in her second-hand
BMW
carefully. Her hands moved on the wheel, steering her automatically into the lane changes, moving her away from the cars that were too fast or too slow. She twiddled the tuner on the radio to find the weather report on
FMR
.

When she looked up the bus ground into the door on the driver’s side. She sped up instinctively, trying to avoid the thing that had already happened. The bus driver hadn’t noticed that she was there, as if an invisible door had suddenly opened into another world, and taken her.

The
BMW
spun and leaped in front of the bus, where it was caught and pushed forwards by the bumper. Her hooting and screaming meant nothing. She lifted her hands from the wheel and banged furiously on the windscreen. She knew that the driver was so much higher than she was that she would only be saved if he looked down. Some of the passengers were swivelling their heads like birds, attracted by the far-away shrieking of tyres and the smell of burning as the bus driver slowly changed lanes. He looked blankly ahead of him. Later the forensics team would measure the skid marks her tyres had made: two hundred and eighty six metres. More than ten times the distance of the corridor between the boy’s room and hers.

The bus pushed her car closer to the concrete siding. The boy’s mother knew that if it travelled another few centimetres she would be smashed into the wall. A ribbon of pleas wound through her head, a tape unwinding from a cassette and spilling out on the ground, twinkling uselessly in the sun.
Don’t let me die this way. I’m not ready. I’m not ready.
She counted the goodnight kisses she was still owed.

The glass of her window shattered slowly over her right arm, tinkling like bells and falling like stars, and it didn’t hurt at all, spiralling outward with a dreadful crunching. Calm fell on her; she stopped straining away from the driver’s door. She concentrated instead on the women inside the bus. They were staring at her, mesmerised; some held their hands over their mouths. Each woman wore a silver star on a piece of green felt pinned to her massive chest, like a sheriff’s badge. The stars winked out at her, strange in the daylight. She turned her head away from the bus and the shocked faces of its occupants. Why would no one help her? She thought, All this time I thought I was safe. And I have never been safe at all. She looked instead at the concrete, and what she saw was the four doors that had been painted there.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
3.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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