(White) Girl 1972

The car is hot, the sticky back seat crowded with the three of us. Two days we have been driving. It might as well be forever. A sign flashes past. Johannesburg. My father says we don’t go that far. Two hundred miles. My mother says we’re nearly there. My father says keep an eye on the electricity pylons, eagles sometimes build nests in them. I fold my arms on the open car window and rest my chin on them. The wind roaring in my ears silences the voices in the car. I count the pylons that march like giants across the veld.

The car bumps off the tar road and onto the gravel. I slit my eyes against the red dust that plumes behind us as my mother counts off the landmarks that signal the last ten miles of this journey. The bend in the road near the dry riverbed. The big stand of blue gum trees where a barn owl nests. The mielie fields. Shabalala’s place. Three silver windmills. The russet Sussex cattle studding the veld. The metal sign points its black finger at the whitewashed gates. j.l. orford, bosworth farm. We turn down the avenue lined with pine trees. The farmhouse is at the end.

Falling out of the hot car and dashing ahead of the others. My grandmother – we’re each other’s favourites, that’s long been agreed – opens her arms wide for me – the oldest – to fly into. Then I hug my grandad, then the dogs, then it’s time to check that nothing has changed in the house.

The fly-screen door slams behind me. It’s cool in the little sitting room. The phone on its table, next to it the upright blue armchair where my grandmother sits, my grandad’s rocking chair, the heads of two lions he shot long ago when he was young and didn’t know better. They fix me with their dusty dead eyes. Greet me with silent yellow-fanged snarls. Francis of Assisi stands on the mantelpiece below them. He has his right hand uplifted and there are doves at his wooden feet. Next to the saint is the horse I covet – fashioned from a piece of golden wood that Grandad swapped for a tin of bully beef in Florence. These are the things he brought back from the war that took him away from the farm for five years. I run illicit fingers over both of them.

And rush on. Past the bathroom with its peeling wallpaper. Past the guest room where my parents sleep. Down the dim passage where the paintings list. Open the door and through the dining room where Christmas things are gathering. Into the nursery where I always sleep. I stop in the middle of the room, breath held, checking that my bed with the headboard is in its corner. My brother’s and sister’s beds – without headboards – are next to each other against the opposite walls. I scan the shelf high above the picture rail. The carved elephant, the tin soldiers, the Russian doll with half her insides missing that have all been here since my father and his brothers shared this room are in the same places. I climb onto the bed and stand on my tiptoes but I still can’t reach them. The relief. I can breathe out. I might be a little taller, I might have gone to a new school, but nothing else has changed.

It’s time to make tea. I follow my grandmother in the kitchen. She puts the kettle on and I check the tea trolley. The servants have gone home – they’ll be back tonight to turn down the beds and serve dinner – but they’ve left biscuits that are laid out on a silver platter. I lick the finger I’ve dipped into the dusting of sugar. Two plastic mugs. One for my brother, one for my sister. I count the teacups. For the first time there are five. Four for the grown-ups and one for me. I set a tiny silver spoon to rest on each saucer.

‘Will you check if Jackson filled the dogs’ water bowls?’ asks my grandmother.

I open the back door and run down the steps. The bowls under the pomegranate tree are brimming and Jackson is trimming the lawn. He looks up at me and smiles and says, ‘Hello, Miss Margie.’ I go over to him. I greet him but I don’t know what to say after I’ve said hello and how are you, so I just stand there. He says my bike’s in the garage. That he checked the tyres. No punctures. ‘Thank you,’ I say, but I don’t know what to say to him after that either. So I just keep standing there, the sun burning my bare shoulders until he turns back to his task. Cutting the grass with an old pair of shears. I kneel beside him and gather the clippings into the sack.

We work together in silence. His sleeves are rolled up and each time he closes the blade in his hand the tendons flex. I know those strong arms. I love them. They carried me when I was as small as my brother is now and, last Christmas, they steadied me on my new bicycle. After everyone else lost patience with my clumsiness and tears, it was Jackson who taught me to ride, loping along beside me, one arm pressed against my back, the other to my side as he held the handlebars of my impossible bicycle, up and down the long driveway. When I found my balance for the first time he cheered me as I took off. Not falling, pedalling faster and faster.

My grandmother is calling teatime, teatime. I dart around the house. She’s already pouring but I’m in time to hand out the biscuits. We drink our tea. My mother says a hot drink cools you but I don’t think so.

‘You children need some water to play in.’ My grandmother turns on the tap.

The sprinkler starts. Slowly at first, but when it goes fast the sun turns the spray into water diamonds and scatters them across the lawn. My mother undresses my brother but my sister and I have already pulled off our sundresses and our panties. We drop them and run through the water. Back and forth, back and forth. They are heaven, these jets of icy water splashing my legs, my belly, my back. We catch the water in our mouths and spit at each other.

The dogs pant in the shade. The grown-ups pour more tea and watch us and smile. The sun glides a little closer to the trees.

A movement in the corner of my eye. Jackson. A sack in one hand, clippers in the other. He’s watching us play. I wave. He waves back before pulling his hat low over his forehead and kneeling to cut the unruly grass on the edge of the drive. Click, click, click.

‘Margie.’

Something’s wrong. My grandmother’s command makes my heart go faster. A cobra slithered out of the rockery once and Jackson cut its head off. One chop with his spade. But nothing’s there but my brother and sister. They stare at me. I’ve done something. I turn the other way. My grandmother is stepping off the shaded verandah, striding towards us. She’s wearing dark glasses. Her hands fasten onto my wet shoulders. ‘Put on a costume.’

I’m slick as an otter so I wriggle free and do another cartwheel.

‘You can’t be bare.’

That stops me in my tracks. ‘Why not?’

‘Because the boys are working in the garden and you’re a big girl now.’ Her hands are back on my shoulders. I can’t move. Anger rises in my throat as hot and sudden as vomit. I’ve seen girls just a few years older than I am – knowing looks in their eyes, their lips pursed – sitting with their idle mothers on verandahs. I don’t want to be like them.

‘I won’t.’

‘Don’t be silly. You’re a big girl now.’ She does not raise her voice but her thumbs press into my collarbone and her fingers with their long orange nails reach all the way down my back to my wing bones. Everyone on the stoep is watching. It’s as if her hands on my shoulders are speaking to my skin on behalf of all of them. This separation – me from them – is frightening. It’s exciting too. I persist. ‘Why?’

‘Because Jackson’s here,’ she says, ‘and it’s not fair on him.’

Not fair. To Jackson. I turn my head. He’s still there of course, kneeling in the dust, edging the lawn. How am I unfair to him? I am afraid of the answer so I swallow the question. ‘I don’t want to,’ I say.

‘Wearing a costume will do no harm.’ There is the scrape of steel in her voice.

Harm. I did harm. I did not know it. Everyone knows it. Everyone except me. What is it that I do not know? I search my grandmother’s face for an answer but her eyes are hidden by her dark glasses and all I find is myself reflected tiny and doubled. Naked. Nipples like two bullseyes on the target of my chest, hands creeping up to cover the cleft between my legs. This burning girl that I am with skin stretched white hot across unfair flesh. Harmflesh.

Click, click, click go the shears in the hot afternoon air.

‘Jackson.’ My grandmother’s sharp voice stops the cutting.

‘Yes, madam.’ He stands up, the shears in his hand.

Her hard hands on my shoulders shield him from me. ‘That’s enough for today,’ she says. ‘Go home.’

‘Yes, madam.’ Jackson picks up his bag of cuttings and disappears around the house. I put on the costume my grandmother hands me.

‘That looks lovely, darling,’ says my mother. I don’t like how it feels.

My sister squats down next to me but I don’t talk. ‘Come play with us,’ she says, but I shake my head. My brother calls her and she runs back into the water.

I slink onto the verandah. I sit where no one can touch me but I’m given a special-occasion Coca-Cola. My parents and grandparents sip gin and tonic. They say it’s hard to know with the natives these days. They talk about the drought and what it’s done to the price of cattle. They say they hope 1973 will be better but what with the petrol going up, food prices too. They say we’ll do the tree tomorrow or the next day.

I listen, my chest tight, to the ice cubes tinkle.

(Black) Boy 1973

Two days after New Year and we’re in the car before the sun is up. The gravel road is deserted. My parents’ voices go back and forth across the front of the car.

‘No rain yet,’ says my father. ‘Look how dry the veld is.’

‘The river will be too low for waterskiing,’ says my mother.

‘They’ve started farming pigs,’ says my father. ‘A tough business.’

‘They’ve done well,’ says my mother.

We stop for breakfast. A concrete table under a tree beside the road. Cheese sandwiches and oranges. Leftover Christmas cake. My task is to throw away the peels. There are bullet holes in the drum that’s filled with the waste of those who picnicked before us.

Back in the car. My mother says we’ve visited here before but I don’t remember.

We get to the farm at eleven. The gate is closed but as we slow down three boys in dirty white shirts race over to open it. My father gives me coins to give them. Ten cents. Five cents. For sweets. I open the window. The boy who is the same size as me holds out his hand. I place the money in his open palm. It is hard to the touch.

We drive in past a treeless huddle of huts where children play with cars made from twists of wire. They watch us skirt the milking sheds and the outbuildings where the tractors are parked.

Ghost gums spread their pale shade over the stables. Behind them, a man in overalls faded to the colour of the sky rests on a bench. He jumps up when he sees us, dips his brush into his bucket and paints creosote onto the wooden fence. Our car makes the turn towards the river and there’s a grey mare and her foal standing in the dappled light.

There’s the farmhouse surrounded by oak trees. A red roof, whitewashed walls, columns guarding the front of the deep verandah. A man and a thin woman, three girls and a boy my age wait for us on the lawn.

We get out of the car. The girls all wear matching dresses. The boy has a graze on his cheek. The woman hugs me. She’s my mother’s friend from before any of us were born, from before my father even. I’m saying hello and shaking the man’s hand. He is big and red. Bigger and redder than my father. He bellows. Someone’s name. I hook my arm around my father’s solid leg. A maid dressed in a starched black-and-white uniform appears and takes our bags.

We go into the house. The interior is as cool and silent as a museum. There’s not a speck of dust. The mother of the house says that the flowers are all from the garden. They stand to attention as if they have been stabbed into the cut-glass vases.

There is cold beer for my father and the man. The mothers disappear to catch up. It’s been years. The boy vanishes. The daughters don’t want to play but there’s time for a swim before lunch.

I put on my swimming costume. It’s red with a white ruffle that goes over my bottom and dips down in the front like a stiff little skirt.

The pool is a rectangle of blue, as if a piece of sky had been cut out and stuck into the earth. I know how to slip in without splashing. How to swim dolphin-silent below the surface. I know I won’t drown but it’s forbidden to go in if there are no grown-ups. I sit by the water and wait for one.

No one comes.

The water glitters when I swirl my feet in it.

I don’t hear the boy until he’s right next to me.


Populism and Humour
In Ballard