‘You’re just – what’s the word now –,’ Father began, about Mother, in that tight exaggeration-of-exasperation manner he developed in itchy moments like this (there are usually no words (enough) for him to describe what Mother is just), then, not finding the ‘word’ he didn’t seem to have looked hard enough for, continued in a different direction, the intended direction of his exasperation – ‘How do you expect the boy to survive in a boarding house – or even in any other house outside this one, ehn?’
(Mother looked unmoved. Not moving the look she was giving the untouched-looking contents of her plate an inch. The looking eyes unmoving. I was impressed by this unmovement of hers – it was like a magic trick unhappening.)
By the way, this boy that was being referred to – “the boy” – was me; yes, me, as if it is not me: the me in the room, at the table with them.
Sometimes I feel as if I am not in the room, at the table with them. And at those same times they must feel it too because that is when they talk about me like that – as if I am not. That is, ‘not’ as in a thing that does not exist: a non-.
(I might not be not; but that does not stop me from feeling as if I am.)
And if I am not (or feel that I am) then I cannot be in the room, can I . . .
Wait, am I?
I am!: because Father, he punctures the air in front of me with his fork – ‘I mean: look at him:’ – without looking at me, ‘take a good long hard look at the boy: Does this look like a thing that would survive a day in a place like that? Have you seen him? Have you seen the state of the rooms, the toilets in that shit-hole of a boarding house?’
How had he seen the state of the toilets in it?
‘I mean: I had to piss one day, went in there, and I didn’t have to piss anymore. I mean: my bladder lost its liver!’
Why had he had to piss one day in the boarding-house toilet?
What had happened to the toilet at home? That he had had to piss and had had to go all the way to the boarding house to piss it. (And then hadn’t.)
Mother looked up then. With a small look – not full – a look which looked as if it must be remaining somewhere.
Father found the remnant of this look and addressed it: ‘Eh-hen? Ehn, I went to look him up.’
Who else were they talking about now as if he was in the room? Who was him?
‘And how is he?’ in a pinch of a voice.
‘That is not the matter here,’ he shut that page in her face.
‘OK. But if the boarding house is good enough for him why is it not good enough for him?’
This second him (yes, highlighted like that by the anger at the bottom of her small throat), yes that second him is me – you’re right. But who is that italicized one, do you know? He is in the room, seated in a corner, corner of Father’s mouth, unspoken about – Father does not want to talk about him. So he shut his mouth on him. (He feels hurt that she has brought him up, like vomit, up from somewhere in her stomach where it is an ulcer.) I felt sorry for him – Father, not him. Because it seemed to be a burden in his mouth, on his shoulders, on the room, the air of it – this absent presence.
‘And how had you formed this smelly idea in your head anyway, of him going to the boarding house?’
‘I didn’t – he did.’
‘Or you mean: you planted it there, and watered it . . .’
‘To get my own son – my frail, breakable son – out of the house away from me abi? And throw him into the jungle of the world to be eaten alive.’
‘No – to get him closer to the boy, and infect him with . . . with whatever it is your son has!’
Then in an out-of-nowhere moment: ‘Your father has a son outside,’ – to me. Not looking at me: I am not – not in the room.
How does a person have a son outside? Outside where?
‘And doesn’t want you to meet him,’ she continues. ‘Why, I don’t know.’
Why? – not why doesn’t he want me to meet him – why does he even have this son outside?
Where is inside? Here? Where I am (not)?
‘Where is inside?’
‘Where is inside?’
‘The inside of the outside where Father has a son.’
Father hadn’t spoken since out of nowhere it had been spoken open like a wound that he had a son outside. He didn’t speak: he rose, like an injured creature, and went outside (to where he had a son).
Mother, she stared at the door until it wasn’t there anymore because darkness came and removed it. Darkness of night. I turned on the light – the door returned; Mother had stopped staring at it sometime during the darkness. The light snapped her back into the room like a switch! ‘I shouldn’t have said it?’ she said. I didn’t say anything in return. I packed up everybody’s uneaten dinners and dumped them in the sink and on the way to the kitchen the fork of Father which had punctured the air in front of me fell; I walked past it and walked past Mother (‘Don’t you think I should have said it?’ she was still saying) and walked past the dark unlived-in living room on the left and the picture of a row of ducks on the right on the wall of the hallway; that is the first thing you see when you walk in through the door and the last thing you see before you walk out of the door, this picture of a row of ducks, them ducks not doing anything, not going anywhere, just in their row, ducks, five, neat, grey, black, blue, nobody ever looking at them but they are there; there, going nowhere, just.
‘Where are you going to?’
She’s looking at me looking at the picture; and looks at it too.
‘Nowhere.’ (Like ducks in a picture.)
And we stand there looking; until the ducks leave us there. And morning meets us there. And memories. Memories that begin with a sweet ‘Remember when –,’ and taste sour at the end, after all the remembering has been sucked out of them; good warm memories have sawdusty, plywooden aftertastes, don’t they.
We are seated on the floor in front of the door remembering these memories, recollecting these pieces of scattered yesterdays; gathering them together and holding them in our mouths for as long as we can manage and warming our hearts with them for as long as they can stay warm and.
With morning the rowed-ducks return and are back in their pictured going-nowhere and Mother, she is holding her frail, breakable son to the centre of her chest – the headquarters of maternal love, where a mother’s heart operates from: her heart, soft tender woolen heart is beating inside my head in this position; no, a thing that gentle, that feathery, does not beat – it whispers; her heart whispers inside my head, whispers a song, whispers more memories, and I remember this space on her body that I filled as a child – a ball of soft love in her pocket.
‘I love you,’ her heart whispers in my ear. And I start to cry. But I am not crying from the eyes out – the tears are moving in reverse, going back from my eyes down into my throat, tickling the back of it, and filling my chest, filling my chest!, filling it with water – I can feel it – tears in the chest, in the stomach, in the bladder, groin, I wet myself, with tears, shorts heavy with tears, warm with tears, in my Mother’s sweet loving arms, pee on myself, pee my tears, just like a child, just as when I was a child. Memories, they travel backwards. Tears unshed are urinated and love unrequited is refunded – I am back in my Mother’s pocket, reimbursed.
I can hear the scratch-scratch-scratch of Father shaving; the hm-hmm-hmmm of him humming. I greet him Good Morning sir; he does not greet me anything in return. (Yes, I am not.)
I don’t know what day it is but I know what the day is. It is a sweet day. A good day for driving. A good sweet day for driving because the tyres hiss along the wet road – ssss-ssss-ssss – yes, it rained throughout the night and thundered and lightninged; now all that is left of it is tears, cried silently, in tired drops, wetting the road, wetting the roofs, wetting our walk, wetting the backs of our necks as we walk to the hospital – the hospital is walking distance away – Father walks; I skip to keep up. Don’t you wish we had driven? Especially as it is a good day for it. A sweet day. The smell of hospital is sweet. The curve of the nurse’s smile is sweet. Mother’s face, oh so sweet. Sugar melts when she sees us, me. Hugs me into a press upon her breasts. It is still crying outside. I can hear the teardrops on the roof (even though the sky is beginning to smile open); I can hear those teardrops’ irregular beats on the roof behind the fluffy beat of Mother’s heart. I can hear Father breathing impatience,
‘Where is the child?’
‘In the nursery.’
Was I in a nursery when I was born? I can’t remember. There are some things you can’t remember that you should – like, whether you were born? Or.
‘What is it?’
‘Boy? Or girl?’
I hear him breathe a fraction of satisfaction.
‘Is it . . . normal?’
‘Go and see for yourself . . .’
. . . Things you can’t remember (that you should), like whether you were . . . normal.
‘Was I normal?’
‘You are special, my love.’
‘Is this child normal I asked?’ he asked it again.
‘He is not abnormal.’
‘What is that?’
‘That is why I asked you to go and see for yourself biko.’
‘Can I go and see for myself too?’
‘No, my love, stay with me.’
‘Do you know why your mother won’t have proper children?’ he said, on our way home, halfway there.
‘Because she doesn’t deserve them.’
‘Why doesn’t she deserve them?’
‘Because she is a great witch.’
‘Why is she a great witch?’
‘Because she killed her children inside her when she was young.’
‘But she didn’t kill me?’
‘She should have,’ under the breath.
‘What did you say?’
‘Wait for me here.’
I am still waiting. Forty dead years later. Old. Many years old (how many, I don’t know – waiting has eaten my knowing up). Waiting. Like a child. For Father.
For you to tell me what happened.
Was I born? Or did I happen, like a bad thing.
Memories still travel backwards, to when I was unborn, and the picture, yes that one, of a row of ducks, was a present from Father to Mother, while she waited.
Until: me; waiting broken; hearts open, bleeding; faces closing, unrevealing . . . Father, tired of the cross that afternoon, set it down, and continued up his road, until his back was a dot, in the distance, a memory, unremembered.
It has occurred to me!: the ducks in that row weren’t not going anywhere; they were waiting! For?
We had been halfway on our way home that forty-years-ago afternoon.
I am not on my way anywhere anymore – I wait. A picture of.