Front cover art by Buhle Nkalashe
This story appears in New Contrast, one of the first South African literary journals. New Contrast is devoted to publishing the best of poetry and prose, art, reviews and interviews from both local and international authors. I am thrilled to be keeping company with such outstanding poets, prose writers, artists and photographers in this Autumn 2020 edition. Please go the New Contrast website and support this journal which relies on sales of hard-copy print editions.
I smell meat cooking on the barbeque, innocuous in a typical suburban yard in Blacktown. The warmth of the winter sun penetrates my skin, the grass is cut, the deck needs oil, a scrawny rose bush winds its way too high, clinging to the asbestos wall, clambering up and over into the guttering. My granddaughter, Yasmina, throws a red ball into the blueness of the sky. The smoke twists up through my hair. I close my eyes, listening to the spitting fat.
Insignificant popping sounds, spitting, getting louder. A vehicle speeding so late in the winter dark pulls up, brakes screaming. Tyres graze the gravel outside. It seems my feet are walking the icy tiles before my torso leaves the bed. My hands feel for jeans, one leg in and then the other, I pull the denim up over my thighs, scrunching folds of floral nightdress between the waistband and my skin. The zip bites down hard on the cotton fabric. Beating, clattering, chattering. Giant insects flying frantic against glass, wings flapping.
Running now down the passage into their room. I lift baby warm from her cot curled in blankets and stride skin silent on the floor across to her sister’s bed.
“Boni, Boni, I want you to lie here under the bed. Hold Moratiwa. Don’t let her go. Don’t talk. Whatever happens stay quiet.”
“Yes Mama,” she whispers.
I’m pushing the quilt and a pillow and Boni and Moratiwa under the bed.
Bre-bre-bre-bre-bre … not insects flapping wings … bre-bre-bre- bre … no they are not insects. Ghost men with rounded backs, bent men swarm from a white combi van. They run into our neighbours’ yard, the old colonial house is dark behind the trees, its wide veranda grimacing. The servants’ quarters, submissive and small in front of the house near the road.
Bre-bre-bra-bra, lines of yellow light burst from stumpy machine guns into the blackness, into the brick quarters where two young women live.
Peering from the side of the lounge-room window, through the crack where the curtain doesn’t quite cover the night, the grass quivers, long and colourless under moonlight. The men throw grenades. White light flares up the lounge-room wall. The numbers on the clock flash bright. Short thuds of sound. I drop down, moving on hands and knees across the rug. The sofa and baby’s teddy in the hallway gleam iridescent razor-blade blue, every atom of my body is noise, intense loud limpet, cracking, reverberating circles, flattening my belly to the floor, shuddering walls, shattering windows, pieces of glass falling into my hair.
I crawl up the hallway, into the bedroom, crunch my hipbone cold into the white tiles, clinging to my children, not moving. They are quiet. The dead night is quiet. There are no sirens, no dogs bark. Gaborone is acrid silence.
My son-in-law turns the steaks. The sausages spatter fat at his big-pony Ralph Lauren shirt and he jumps back, his body curves like a letter C. His sneakers are never-been-worn white.
I say, “I like your hair cut Walid. Really smart.”
“Thanks Lena. Got it cut this morning.”
Boni yells from across the yard, “He’s so particular about his hair! He’s been going to the same barber for fifteen years. Won’t let anyone else but Joe cut it.”
“Baby, he’s an expert blender. Not many guys know how to blend.”
“I think he’s got a bit of a bromance going with Joe,” Boni says. She’s wearing a light denim dress that criss-crosses over her back and sticks out like a tent over her pregnant belly, my second grandchild. We already know a boy is on his way.
Walid leaves the meat, comes over and bends his head down in front of me.
“Look here, he cuts with a zero, then a half, then a one, faded high like navy cut with no lines. You know what I mean?”
I nod, “Yeah, I can see.”
“The fade’s the most important part, very difficult to blend from zero to half into one without showing lines. It has to look smooth and crisp. Other hairdressers stop halfway up the back of the head because it’s too hard. Not Joe, he brings the fade right up to the top of the head, seamless. Then he scissor-cuts the top. Strictly scissors. No blade.”
Walid strolls back to the barbeque and starts putting the steaks onto a plate.
“Yeah, he thins out the top so it doesn’t look so thick and the hair sits edgy not flat. That’s the beauty of this cut. I can wear it gelled up like now or I can wear it flattened down to either side, neat like, for work.”
“It’s a smart cut,” I add.
Yasmina runs towards Walid, her arms flailing above her head like a windmill,
“I wanna help Baba,” she says grabbing hold of a steak with her plump little fingers, quickly dropping it in the dirt, looking stunned, about to cry.
“It’s hot Yasmina. Don’t touch anything. Go to Nanna.” He holds their two little white dogs back with his foot as if he’s playing soccer and guides his daughter away from the barbeque.
I call, “Come here Yasmina.”
She walks over, nonchalantly, slightly bow-legged, curly hair dancing in the breeze. Her body is solid in pink and green leggings, a green mouse dances on her tee shirt. Yasmina climbs onto my lap. I hug her, tender skin warm against mine. Boni drags a chair over to where we’re sitting. She’s puffing and as if her tiredness is contagious, I feel deep fatigue, a dark uneasiness.
“Mum, will you come to the delivery again?” “Yes, sure I’d love to.”
“Good, Walid and Moratiwa and you, just like Yasmina’s birth hey?”
“Will they do a caesarean straight away this time?” I ask.
“No, I want to try for a natural birth first. Prefer to avoid caesarean. It’s a pretty major operation.”
My granddaughter sits moist against my body, listening.
“Ok, come and help yourselves to the food,” Walid yells.
Yasmina jumps off my lap and sprints towards him. I half-expect her to fall but she doesn’t.
Going home, Homebush Bay Drive exit, diesel fumes slip through the vents. A mammoth truck next to me, another in front. My car, dark- green, 1998, shabby, gets me from A to B, and I fantasise, if I had money, which car would I buy? Not the Mercedes C200, maybe the black Mazda 3 in front, or the orange Toyota Camry with black mag wheels that roars when it takes off from the traffic lights. Roberts Road. Bunnings looms like a military bunker on my left, a red and yellow Maccas flag flies next to the Australian union jack and stars, my country of exile, the bright lights of a petrol station, Oporto chicken. Cruising through the green light across Juno, right up to Punchbowl Road.
I park, trying not to scrape the fence. The outside lights at Koh I Noor Court stopped working last time it rained. We want to pay to get the electrics sorted but strata fees don’t keep up with all the burst pipes and broken windows. A patchy lawn in front of the apartment block. The geraniums flower orange-pink next to the bay tree. The leaves on the dwarf mandarin curl, white with some kind of fungus. I pass my neighbour’s door, climb the stairs, to the same children’s songs I hear every day and every night… and if one green bottle should accidentally fall, there’d be five green bottles hanging on the wall…
Two and a half years since I first became a grandmother, now another grandchild is about to be, being, humans being. Strip off, shower, let the warm water flow down my arms, my legs. Curled up on the bed, comforted by the towelling of my robe, textured against moist skin. Sleep comes easily but briefly, I drift in the space behind closed eyes assailed by gruesome images, flickering faces, distorted, ugly. Unclench my hands one finger at a time, stretch out my arms, try to relax the muscles in my neck.
My grandchildren will never know their maternal grandfather. I conjure up the face of RraBoni. He rolls a joint, relaxed, laughing, listening to his favourite fusion. Tilting his head back, he blows wispy, white circles of smoke that hover, gently falling apart over the trumpet lines, the congas, the guitar snaking through Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, the bluesy keyboard on Weather Report’s Birdland. My children’s baby faces — Boni, her brown skin, freckled by the sun, a smiling dimple on her left cheek. These images relieve my nightmares. Moratiwa, more petite, darker skin, darker hair that falls in spirals over her shoulders. The one who is loved. My granddaughter, her brown, gold-tipped curls that spring in all directions, her alert eyes observing me. My yet-to-be- born grandson, another gift from the ancestors.
The reflection of my body moves ethereal in the sliding mirror doors of the wardrobe. My existence is enmeshed in history, some parts fluid, some parts rotting, torpid beneath my living. After almost thirty years, I feel an urgent need to tear away the scabs, dig down to the core, the agony. I begin searching, frantic, closed up in my flat. I claw at the skin of apartheid, searching for details of what happened that night. I want to know about the men who planned the killing, the men who murdered, those who justified and covered up the crimes. I trawl the Internet, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission documents, reports, SABC videos. There are so many submissions, so much brutality, over 20,000 statements from victims, nearly 8,000 applications for amnesty from perpetrators of crimes against humanity, a small but somehow representative taste of apartheid from the 1st March 1960 to the 10th May 1994.
Still and stiffened into a monstrously crooked position, I read like an addict craving horror, ripping open and exposing the cruel core of a desperate regime. Under the heading, ‘cross-border military operations’, I find testimonies. On 14 June 1985, twelve people were killed in Operation Plecksy … in Gaborone, Botswana. Eight of the dead were South Africans. The others were a Somali citizen, a Basotho child and two citizens of Botswana. Some of the Security Branch operatives who identified the targets and planned the raid applied for amnesty. I read their names. Their words avoid the truth. Their words are small truths, just enough to get amnesty, no more. Some are obvious lies.
A rooster crows next door, another rooster answers from the darkness across the road. I unbend my body, stand and stretch my arms in the air. I can see the tree in our neighbour’s yard. The half-moon has fallen, pale, from the sky and lies trapped in the tree’s branches. I move from one room to another without purpose, walking in the gloom.
Mrs Hilda Phahle addresses the Human Rights Violations Hearing in Alexandra. Our children fled this oppression of this country … the land of their birth, the land of their forefathers. They were tortured beyond reason and fled. The enemy followed them and brutally massacred them … the SADF arrived swearing and behaving like people well-drugged and drunk, ordering George to open the door. The door was blown open … the piano fell against Levi’s bed under which he was hiding. God spared him to tell the story. He watched from under the bed as they pumped bullets into his brother and his wife, bullets penetrating them simultaneously. They turned them over face upwards and one asked, “Is hulle dood?” (“Are they dead?”). “Morsdood” (“stone dead”) was their reply.
My eyes are scratchy in their sockets, my limbs creak like heavy machinery in need of oil. My head, an abandoned factory, echoing the vicious cruelty. Someone walks around the flat below, a door closes, a toilet flushes.
Mrs Phahle wears large, metallic pink-rimmed glasses. A woollen green and red scarf protects her neck from the winter cold. She wraps a Basotho blanket around her shoulders. Her voice has the timbre of mother love, woven loosely with threads of grief and anger. I hear her weariness. Her face is light-skinned, gentle. She says to a television camera,
As Christians we’ve got to accept what has come our way, more so that we cannot repair the damage. The only thing is for us to accept and we pray that such a thing never happens again. That’s all.
I lay on mounds of blanket twisted in sheet. Sleep rises up in the blackness and falls like a small boat on large waves. So many of the living are suffering. I’m fearful the waves will break, and the boat will smash into many pieces.
An insistent electronic pulse draws me from sleep. My fingers fumble with my phone, sliding across the small screen. Turn the alarm off. There is wind blowing outside. A branch of the bay tree scrapes against my bedroom window. I call work. My voice deliberately weak,
“Hi Maureen, I’m so sorry I won’t be coming in today. I’ve got a really bad migraine.”
The broken windows allow the frosty morning to creep into the lounge room, over the shattered glass, up the hallway into the bedroom. A bird dares to twitter. I hear the front door open. RraBoni has come home with two friends. They’re holding multi-pronged, metal spikes.
“Look what they threw on the roads. Eeesh, everyone has flat tyres.” My husband is a big man, wide shoulders hunched now. He puts his arm around me and I lean further into the balminess of his body, alcohol and sweat. His face is red from a night of drinking.
“Are the girls alright?”
“They’re fine. Sleeping in our bed.”
“Anyone like a coffee?” I ask.
“I’d love one thanks Lena,” the smaller man says. He is hunched over, shivering.
I turn on the kettle, go to the bedroom and lift the quilt from Boni’s bed.
“Here Motusi.” He wraps it around his shoulders, pastel green, pink, brown squares, elephant, crocodile, monkey and lion.
“Still no sign of the police,” says RraBoni
I’m careful not to cut myself, fingers like tweezers, picking up the bigger pieces of glass and putting them in a bucket. Sweep the kitchen floor and the hallway.
A BDF army jeep pulls up. We file outside. The grass sways yellow in winter. Everything is sepia, the trees, the gravel, the rusting wire fence. A tabby cat follows us, mewing. Confusing, smoky-meat odour clings to my skin, sweet like almonds. Pieces of the young women’s bodies grasp the fence, the grass, hang from the syringa trees. People come slowly from the flats, from the surrounding houses. Two soldiers throw a long metal box on the ground. We collect a shoe, a bloodied bra, a hand. We collect burnt chunks of flesh. No one speaks. No one cries. We gather the remains of our neighbours into the metal box.
It is suburban quiet. Children with shiny skin and bright white socks pass my window on their way to school. My kitchen, fake marble benches, white cupboards, is small but filled with light. I chop apple and banana into a bowl, drink green tea. I will not go to work. Bare feet, hair unbrushed, hunching over the laptop, four days and nights melt into a blistered mass of knobbled ash and grit. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, searching for detail. Gentle people murdered in their beds, intellectuals, artists and writers, musicians and teachers. Seven of the twelve associated with the ANC. The killers shot open the front door of Tami Mnyele’s home and machine-gunned the artist as he ran across the backyard. They joked, kicked his corpse and took trophy photographs. Blasted his artwork, splintering his easels and paintbrushes, splattering paint.
Swallow painkillers, stretch my neck, bend my back, my hands dangling at my feet. I fall onto my bed again and stare at the ceiling. The Scottish woman who lives in number nine is talking to our neighbour about his fruit trees. I close my bedroom window and pull the blind.
At two o’clock Tuesday morning, I sit crunched over the laptop. The men in combi vans murdered Duke Mashobane. His six-year-old nephew, Peter Mofoka, fled screaming from the bedroom, wearing flannel pyjamas. They pumped bullets into his small body, continuing at close range long after the boy was dead. Dick Mtsweni, ‘Mkhulu’, was shot and his house set alight. His body burnt to nothing. Michael Hamlyn was executed as he knelt on the floor at the end of his bed, looking up at the attackers, his red hair tousled from sleeping. He was a conscientious objector, who refused to serve in the South African Defence Force. They murdered Somali refugee and Dutch national, Ahmed Geer. His wife, Roeli, eight months pregnant, escaped with bullet wounds to her legs.
Most of those who took responsibility for planning the attack were granted amnesty from human rights abuses. The names of the 5 Recce SADF commandos and the Barnacle operatives from Special Forces are not listed. Those men who drove across the border to take the lives of twelve people didn’t apply for amnesty. I can’t find anything to say they were ever charged for their crimes. One working as a mercenary in Iraq was killed in Al Kut in 2004. His mutilated body was hung up for public display.
My phone rings. “Hi Lena.”
“Walid, what’s happening?”
“Everything is fine. We are at Westmead. Boni’s waters broke about an hour ago. Can you come?”
“I’m on my way. See you soon.”
Travelling through the early morning is like watching a film on the plane without headphones, everything is hushed, just the sound of my car’s engine as I drive the M4 to Westmead.
I’m at the hospital, walking into the birthing room. The lights are dull and Boni is moaning. She’s hooked up to monitors.
Walid smiles, “She’s doing well Lena.”
The nurse says, “Yes, she’s doing very well. She’s dilated to seven centimetres. The cervix has softened. I think it will be a vaginal birth this time.”
I place my hand on Boni’s forehead. Her hair sticks to her skin. She’s groaning and her lips are dry. I offer her some lip moisturiser. She digs some out of the small pot, her finger shakes. Smears it greasy over her mouth.
“Is Yasmina with your sister?” I ask Walid.
“Yes, she’s sleeping. Anisa’s at home with her.”
Boni moans and yells, “I can’t stand this pain.” She breathes out, grabs the gas and sucks on it.
“I’ll just be waiting outside.” I stroke Boni’s arm, then leave the room, walking across the shiny floor into the corridor. Sitting on a hospital chair, dread filters through my pores like grimy smog.
The passageway is empty, no sound other than the groans and she-wolf howls of women giving birth. I take a pen from my bag, bend down and scratch hard into the vinyl floor. Gladys Kelope Kesupile and Eugenia Kakale Kobole. A man pads around the corner wearing a surgical gown. I pretend I’m picking up the pen from the ground. He doesn’t look at me. Bending again I write, We have not forgotten. I scratch the words over and over, so they are etched deep and black into the beige vinyl. Gladys and Eugenia came to Gaborone for work, one a typist, the other a domestic worker, not even twenty years old. That night they walked home from a prayer meeting. The killers came as they lay sleeping in their beds.
In the corridor under neon lights, I unlatch my consciousness, trying hard not to sink into pools of unarticulated fear. I sit waiting for my second grandchild, waiting for everything to be all right.
J.D. Salinger’s daughter quotes her father as saying he never really got the smell of burning flesh out of his nose entirely. No matter how long you live, that smell remains. I remember our neighbours, the two young women blown apart that indignant night. The fragrance of their lives is as fluid and volatile as the corpuscles in my blood.
In this issue of New Contrast:
- An Interview with Buhle Nkalashe by David Griessel
- Kobus Moolman, Henry and June / The Earth is Flat / I Am Made
- Juanita Louw, Homogeen / Love Machine
- Rizwan Akhtar, Last Year / Now We Will Say “Happy New Year”
- Steve Lambert, Unbecoming / Ars Poetica
- Fiona Zerbst, Closer to Light / On the Edge of Darkness / Portrait of Three Lions
- Bibhu Padhi, Another Need / The Address
- Warren Jeremy Rourke, Washing Up / Double Rainbow
- Johann Lodewyk Marais, Die stasiewa / Die eerste wens
- Stuart Payne, The Planet
- Justin Fox, Building Wall
- Stephanie Williams, Mother / Let’s Talk
- Alessio Zanelli, Hiker and Lines / Dear Old Beloved Padan Fog
- Sarah Frost, Gold
- Ian Salvaña, This Town We Left To Miss, You Said, Is Home / The Birthing of a Poem
- Tom Paine, Seeds / Kamikaze Bees / That’s All
- Gaele Sobott, Grandmother
- Melissa Gow, One of Us Is Bleeding
- Jonathan Tager, Guidestar
- Rémy Ngamije, Black, Coloured And Blue (or, The Gangster’s Girlfriend)
- Jono Dry, In My Silence / Restrained I Unravel / Wrapped in Tradition / Separation
To purchase this issue (R120) email the business manager at firstname.lastname@example.org