Cropping angles

2010-03-22 00:00

THE early winter sunshine curled like smoke into the room where she stood hunched over the table. She moved the cropping angle one inch in, covering his ear. She pulled a face. She wasn’t happy with the crop but it was the only way to fit the photograph on the cover. At the rattle of teacups in the doorway, Ellen looked up. Ghita carried in a tray. “Not a moment too soon,” she said and flicked the switch on the light box.

“And so, how did the pics for our medical feature come out?”

“Not bad. I think we’ve got something,” replied Ellen slowly, taking her tea and perching on the desk in the sunlight. As she lifted her cup, the grass bracelets slipped down her arms. She hadn’t been thinking much about the feature.

Not since that morning when Gladys had stood at her door clutching her old black umbrella with both hands. And as the door had opened, she’d grinned back uncertainly. The Jack Russell had leapt and yipped with recognition at Gladys’s skirt. And she’d tried to pat her and missed.

“Gladys, where have you been? It’s been two months now,” Ellen had said, irritated. Gladys had said nothing. Stepping inside, she sat down gingerly, smoothing her skirt with her fingers.

With effort, Ellen resurfaced in the conversation. Peering closely at her muffin, she said: “Do you think this blue colourant is bad for you?”

Ghita shrugged. “What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Just to change tack slightly, we’ve still got to get permission from the traffic department to close off the street for Friday night’s party. I’m going to do that at lunch time if you want a lift to town.”

It was nice that they worked so well together, and even nicer that they split spring bulb orders, shared Nina Bawden novels, and an interest in transitional art. Right now they were in the throes of arranging a street party for the lane in which they both lived (Ghita kept calling it a lane). They’d been planning it for weeks and had invited all their neighbours: among them were the Telkom family; the shy Seventh Day Adventists; the Zaïrian theology student; the woman from Public Works and her partner; the biochemist, who’d recently returned from Australia; and the policeman and his wife, who made noisy love and had even noisier fights. Rain permitting, Friday night would find them all outside enjoying the New South Africa. Although they weren’t crass enough to put it into quite those words.

They’d arranged a sheep on a spit and a local violinist who could fiddle up a storm. Someone had offered to make a fireball out of tightly bundled hessian, soaked in petrol. Once it was lit everyone set upon it, and kicked it up the street. It sounded a bit dangerous to Ellen though. She was still wondering about this when Ghita asked her if Gladys could help with the salads on Friday morning, and then there wouldn’t be very much more to do other than set up the PA system in the afternoon.

“Gladys? Well, until this morning I hadn’t heard from her in two months.”

“Two months?”

“Yes. She’s done this before but never for this long. She lives out at the mountain and there has been a lot of trouble there,” she offered. Then she shrugged: “But you just don’t know.”

Ghita nodded sympathetically.

Beyond the window, across the university lawns, her gaze skipped to the hazy midlands. She thought of the narrow, red path Gladys’s boys had been walking along. It was late and the wedding party had been good. With a bellyful of beer and meat, both Jabulani and his younger cousin were looking forward to bed. As he walked behind Themba, he smiled at the thought of Sibongile. She’d definitely given him the look, he thought sleepily. And she was a nurse. He was still smiling when Themba froze. And then he saw them too. A group of five men running noiselessly towards them. Jabulani leapt to the side of the path into an adjacent mielie field with Themba just behind him. Both cousins ran blindly, stumbling over the ploughed clods, blundering through the plants with leaves blue as blades. In their wake, spurts of maize blossom stood askew in the moonlight.

At first the boys’ breathing was just ragged. But when they began to realise they could not outrun these men, it changed and became guttural and high pitched. Like a buck in that last sprint, Jabulani realised, and began to unbutton his shirt as he ran, screaming back to his cousin to do the same. Then he ripped it from his torso and threw it to the side in a tight ball. It opened over the mielie plants like a table cloth as he slipped away. He was still running when he heard his cousin’s scream.

In the early hours of that morning, Jabulani brought his mother to the field to look for her eldest sister’s child. She came with two elderly neighbours. As soon as he had pulled the tall plants to one side and pointed, Jabulani turned on his heel and left. Gladys wasn’t to hear from her son for many months until someone said they’d seen him. He was at Jozini, training to become a policeman.

She found Themba lying face down in the field, still wearing his smart white shirt. Although it wasn’t white anymore. There was a gash down his left shoulder blade and his neck was jagged. Gladys cupped one hand around his shoulder and turned him over. Her sister’s child. She’d been there when he was born, and now she couldn’t even recognise him. No one said anything as Gladys knelt beside him. Her gingham doek had slipped off and her hair floated around her head like black coral. A low keening came out of her throat as she held his hand and rocked backwards and forwards in the patchy light. Themba had no ears, no nose, no lips, no eyes, and no genitals.

Gladys and the two old men sat there with him until the sun came up and the police eventually arrived. She heard their radio crackling from the other side of the mielie field: “I think we’ve got something here,” said the young one with the soft voice. Then Gladys stood up with her red, red knees and went home to pack some of her things.

It hadn’t been a surprise she said. A few weeks earlier Gladys had come home one evening to find her house empty, the door open and her twins hiding in the veld. When she called they came back slowly. While she held their small shaking bodies, neighbours came out of their houses to say that some men had come looking for the older boys, Jabulani and Themba. They wanted to know why they had not been attending the meetings.

“Since then we have been sleeping outside, out there in the veld. Every time it’s getting night I take my babies, my girls, and my husband and me sleep there to the trees. She put up two fingers. “For two month now, we living like this. Every night. That other lady I’m knowing, they putting petrol and burn her in her house where she sleep.” Gladys shook her head, clucking her tongue. “With these people you don’t know, you just don’t know.”

When Gladys had finished her story she grinned. Ellen could not think of a thing to say. She sat there smoothing her thoughts, plucking at a Lifeline counselling course she’d done years ago. And something about post traumatic stress syndrome. She could ask her if she was having bad dreams, she supposed. Bad dreams? The ghost of a grin played at the corners of her mouth too. Instead she put her hand over Gladys’s hand and said nothing.

The next evening wreaths of smoke hovered above the street. Above the drone of voices, clinking cutlery and the sizzle of marinade being brushed onto the side of a sheep. And in the middle of the road stood a long line of variously sized tables with smart white table cloths. Down the one side, a fireball leapt into the air. Someone whooped. It moved slowly in its velvet trajectory before landing softly, shaking sparks off it like a wet dog before the next person kicked it back up into the air. It is dangerous thought Ellen, as she stood watching from the upstairs window. Behind her the walls trembled with pink light and she thought of Gladys. And how you just don’t know.




TANIA Spencer lived in Oxford Street many years ago when it was such a vibrant and multicultural neighbourhood that a street party was inevitable.

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