Authors: Nadine Gordimer
Tags: #Fiction, #General
She went down on her hunkers, resting her backside on one of the car seats. There was no nail-file; often she sat examining her broken nails, taking the rind of dirt from under them, as she did now, with a piece of fine wire, a thorn, whatever presented itself in the dust around her. —I used to think, one day I’d like to see where he lived, to make the trip home with him. I knew it would never come off.—
—No … the sort of thing that sounds fun … it was pretty impossible, then.—
—In that way.—In her pause, he said nothing. —You know. Combining it with a shooting trip for you. In the children’s holidays. Bringing all the camping stuff. The portable fridge. What’d I imagine?—
He wriggled to show he was composing himself for a nap.
—Walking in here with presents for them, all lined up clapping their hands together in greeting. Telling the kids, this is
home, this is how he lives, see how cleverly July builds houses for himself. Telling everybody at home we actually drove him all the way to the bundu, visited him as a friend.—
Bam suddenly remembered, touching the rill of sleep, how they had run in haste and confusion. The malaria pills: —Where’d you get such a supply? Surely we didn’t have them in the bathroom cupboard?—
—I looted. From the pharmacy. After they attacked the shops.—
The last thing he saw before he fell asleep was her face closed to him in the unconscious, matriarchal frown of necessity performed without question, without reasoning; the same frown she had had turned up to her by July’s wife, in the women’s hut—if he had been there to see it. He woke to hear the engine of the vehicle revving. —Maureen, what do you think you’re
—He swayed in shock, sitting upright on the bed.
But she was in the hut with him. He shouted at her. —Who’s playing around? That bloody little Victor! You gave him the keys?—
—I? I haven’t any key.—On a precarious ledge of existence; no room to attack one another. Like the bed. They trembled, tottered, the dimness of the hut broke back and forth against, between them. She ran out.
She ran to where she knew the vehicle was, always, even when she wasn’t looking. It was being driven off, jerkily but with growing confidence and speed as it cleared the deserted ruin and rocked onto a cattle path. She saw the backs of two black heads, driver and passenger. As she came back into the hut, he remembered, told her, told himself: —July’s got the keys. He wanted to lock up something in there. Parts for his bicycle. His wife lets other people walk off with them.—
—Someone else’s driving.—
—But it’s him.—
—I couldn’t see. Just the heads.—
Bam got up and had the menacing aspect of maleness a man has before the superego has gained control of his body, come out of sleep. His penis was swollen under his rumpled trousers. He went off round the huts, from one to another. A few men were sleeping in preparation for going back to the beer-drink. None of the women he encountered could speak his languages. The drums were in his head insistently. His sons had tired of watching the tireless drummers and were playing with skeletal carts, home-made of twisted wire by the black children, they had exchanged for the model cars from Victor’s racing track. The cars had been broken up, the segments kept as objects in themselves by those who had so few that useless possession itself was the treasure. His daughter was eating mealie-meal with her fingers, from a pot shared with two or three other small girls. She called to claim him boastfully before them. —Hey, daddy!—In the group of drinkers he made himself understood; they asked one another questions, argued, and one who could speak a few words not of English but of Afrikaans said July ‘had gone’. Somewhere. With someone. Another added, in English —He did not tell me. We do not know.—
Thought he made himself understood; couldn’t ask them what he was thinking, what he really needed to have denied by them because it was so extraordinary, couldn’t ever happen—like the fact of Bam and Maureen Smales and those three white children, here in this place. One can draw supposition and dread only from what one comes to know, over the years. In Rhodesia, during the war, it was said guerrillas had forced people at torture-point to co-operate with them. The white Selous Scouts had done the same. He couldn’t get an answer out of anyone: had July perhaps been picked up by a passing patrol, or informed on and taken away to be questioned, forced with a gun at his ear to give up the white man’s vehicle?
The facts that contradicted this did not bring the reassurance they should have. If this was what had happened, why hadn’t there been a search of the settlement? Why did people go on drinking beer and joking—that was what all the shouts seemed to be about, just laughter and the quarrelsome, obsessive stories of people getting drunk.
There was nowhere to run to. Nothing to get away in. All he could say to Maureen was that it was July. July.
—He’s not around.—
—When did he get the keys?—
—Oh, the other day.—
There was nothing to be remarked or reproached, in that, between them.
had been in charge on the journey, they were on his ground, here. He knew what was best. —It wasn’t only his stuff. He says we ought to keep the vehicle locked because of the tools, too.—July apparently knew his relatives; when the vehicle’s tools had been used to mend the old harrow, there were people who expected to borrow them but July didn’t trust that they would be returned.
She knew only where to place her feet, precariously on the solid ground of footholds. She had steadied from the position where she almost had been knocked off balance. She sat on a car seat picking burrs from a child’s jersey and making them into a careful pile so no bare foot would be hurt, accidentally treading on one.
When July was not about—only the two of them. He felt humbled, towards Maureen, but saw she did not share this—she was frightened into sulks?
But she got up and gathered the burrs and went to throw them in the embers of their cooking-fire outside, making sure, with a strange precision, that they took the flame properly. She was someone handling her being like an electrical applicance she has discovered can fling one apart at a wrong touch. Not fear, but knowledge that the shock, the drop beneath the feet, happens to the self alone, and can be avoided only alone.
He wanted to call the children into the hut but did not know how to explain the necessity he felt, or if she shared it. If she said ‘Why?’, what would he say? He had a gun; he had brought his twelve-bore shot-gun as she had remembered toilet paper. It was hidden thrust up into the thatch, there above their heads as they stood in this hut where there was no room to hide anything from one another. What place was there for a white man’s gun among these people who had taken them in without asking why they should expect to be sheltered, fed, hidden?
If he took it out and killed, could that be a defence against what might come, once outside July’s protection? I am a boy with a pea-shooter; he wanted to say it aloud.
The real little boys wandered back to the hut of their own accord. They were hungry. She went up to Bam and fished, without a word, for the knife with tin-opener attachment he kept in his pocket. He noticed she gave them the last of the pork sausages, coming from the tin like plugs of wet pink cork. They snatched and quarrelled over the sharing-out. Gina was called but paid no attention; finally she walked in with the old woman’s sciatic gait of black children who carry brothers and sisters almost as big as they are. She had a baby on her small back and wore an expression of importance. She sat down with her legs folded sideways under her and hitched at the dirty towel that tied the baby to her, knotted over her breastless rib-cage. She was offered a sausage; shook her head, dumb with dreamy responsibility or make-believe. No doubt his daughter was full of
anyway. He and Maureen were both fascinated by her. Her eyes were crudely blue in the mask of a dirty face. Red earth engraved the joints and knuckle-lines of her little claws and toes and ash furred the invisible white fluff on her blond legs. Dirt didn’t show nearly so badly on black children.
—The baby ought to go back to its mother, now.
—She countered her mother’s careful reasonableness with some of her own. —Why?—
—Because babies don’t like to be away from their mothers too long.—
—Where does he belong? Which hut?—
—Gina, which hut?—
—I don’t know.—
Licking the dirt off their fingers along with the sausage grease, the boys watched the conflict with detached interest. They saw their parents closing in on one of their own kind: their father going with inescapable intention over to their sister. —Come, let’s take him home.—She swivelled, zigzagging elbows out of his reach where he wanted to make her rise. There were yells, raised adult voices, and the baby opened one eye—the other remained stuck fast with sleep a moment—and was not alarmed at being jolted about. Just then a stick-figure danced up to the doorway and stopped dead, uncertain whether to enter. The white child threatened: —There’s Nyiko! There’s Nyiko!—
The black child slipped into the hut and at once the two little girls were giggling behind their hands. The black one undid the towel, threw it over her back, lifted the baby and, thrusting out her own hard bottom like a camel on its knees, saddled herself with him.
The boys saw their mother, magnanimously peace-making, was going to offer the black child one of their sausages as she left.
Maureen held it out on the point of the penknife. Before she took the food the child brought her hands together as if to pray, then opened them and cupped the palms in an attitude of receiving grace.
Maureen gave her husband back his knife without wiping it. —If only ours’d pick up the good manners along with the habits of blowing their noses in their fingers and relieving themselves where they feel like it.—
He pocketed the remark along with the knife as a sign that hostility was suspended.
The three children were locked in an endless game of tormenting one another. Because Gina lay down on the car-seat bed they shared, the boys left their contest of floating chicken feathers on currents of air and came to edge her off onto the dirt floor. The man and woman were unable to attend to the noise and appeals to their authority from both sides—there was no distraction, even in the slum propinquity of the hut they were crowded into, from their preoccupation. It grew and battened on the racket. He lay on the bed. She sat on the stool in the doorway. Now and then she came and stood beside the bed. They looked at each other.
—Want to lie down?—
But that was a
, like the tea she made from their precious store, pumping the Primus they’d been lent.
There was no reason why July should be expected back within any limit of time that could be fixed. She went out and gazed away over at the particular roofless hut hidden by invading trees as at the lair of some animal that has disappeared. The place looked just as it had when the vehicle had still been in there. On the bed the man kept glancing at his watch but she knew hers was a useless thing, here; yet with the deep and livid light that came flowing upon the bush from a setting sun under an inky storm-ceiling, she could not stifle a feeling of agonizing alertness. The day ending. She watched the bush; her scale pathetic, a cat at a mouse-hole, before that immensity.
When he closed his eyes he saw the hut door-opening as the white-heat shape from a blow-torch. He could have opened his eyes on snow, snow and the safe clumsiness of figures well-insulated in bright clothing: Canada. After five years, they would have been established there by now. Muscle by muscle, his whole big body and limbs tightened upon him in a strangle-hold. If it had not been for her; he couldn’t remember what he really felt he had wanted to do, stay or go, but she had a will that had twisted itself around him, he was split and at the same time held together by it as the wild fig-trees out there in the bush crack and bind rocks. He snatched up the radio and turned the knob through hellish furies of crackling, jungles of roaring, the high-pitched keening of monsters in the sizzling depths of an ocean. —For Christ sake!—She was back standing over him.
He reduced the volume and continued to play up and down the length of the band.
You’re only wasting the battery.—
He swirled suddenly to a crescendo, by mistake or in malice—her head flew up—before he put the thing aside.
—Why is it the whites who speak their languages are never people like us, they’re always the ones who have no doubt that whites are superior? If we could talk—She had the slow, tight murmur of Gina when resentful.
—There’s nothing significant there—don’t go fishing. Not at this stage—please. I couldn’t take it now. Whites in the pass offices and labour bureaux who used to have to deal with blacks all the time across the counter—speaking an African language was simply a qualification, so far as they were concerned, that’s all. Something you had to have to get the job.—
—What are you lecturing about?—But he hadn’t noticed he had spoken of back there in the past tense.
—I just don’t want to go into a whole spiel, whether we’ve been deluding ourselves … If it’s been lies, it’s been lies.—
—Pragmatism not ‘significance’: that’s what I’m talking about.
would have made more sense than ballet.—
The shift boss Jim spoke the bastard black
of the mines, whose vocabulary was limited to orders given by whites and responses made by blacks. An old story that she had been ashamed—when she married her liberal young husband—of a father who had talked to his ‘boys’ in a dialect educated blacks who’d never been down a shaft in their lives regarded as an insult to their culture; now he, the husband, was to be submitted to her being ashamed of
shame. —If we’d gone five years ago, you’d have told me we’d run away. We’ve stayed and lived the best we could. We stuck it out—He was slowly rotating his head on his neck, as if stiffness were a noose: god knows, look at us now …