A Civil War

Faraaz Mahomed

A Civil War
Synopsis

A Civil War portrays a family's descent during the dying days of apartheid in South Africa.

The streets around here empty out in December, until there are just the lazy summertime sounds of a few people walking their dogs or hosing their plants. Neighbourhoods are blanketed under a mostly placid silence, but sometimes there’s also a pall that covers those of us that haven’t escaped to the seaside. One by one, we say goodbye to our friends as people leave for Durban or Cape Town, knowing they’ll be back in January with interesting stories to tell, maybe even scars to prove it.

This summer’s different. The pall isn’t just because of the dense clouds in the sky or the damp grass that’s been drenched by last night’s thunderstorm. The adults have been stirring with anxiety, stopping while picking bananas at the supermarket to ask each other what their plans are for the next few months. It’s the first time I understood that adults don’t have all the answers, that the unmistakable fright in Mrs. Barnabas’ eyes is because she feels so completely helpless.

The goodbyes I’ve said this time were different too, because some of my friends aren’t coming back. When my friend Jay moved to Australia, we shared a quick handshake followed by a promise to visit or to come home sometime, if it’s not on fire. On the day he left, two policemen were killed by an angry mob somewhere in the Cape.

We’re at the Norwood Hypermarket now, buying paraffin for the lamps we might need in case there’s a power outage. I walk into the bathroom and close the ugly linoleum stall door, brown with streaks of faded white, behind me. I’ve never been able to use the urinal. The door opens and at least two men walk in. I can tell it’s more than one because the shrill sound of their rubber soles against the floor tiles is different. Their deep voices sound different as they talk too.

‘They’re going to fuck everything up, hey.’

‘Maybe, but not all of them are like that.’

When the words stop, I hear the faint sound of a stream of urine hitting porcelain, and one of the men letting out a groan of relief.

‘You mean Mandela? You think he’s gonna last?’

‘Maybe.’

‘If he’s telling the truth about all this national unity shit, he’s going to die.’

They’re zipping up. The pipes in the wall shake as one of them turns the old tap. My own trousers are still around my ankles, because my bladder is waiting for the men to leave. I just stand there, frozen like a dog playing dead, looking down at the dark tissue of my worm-like penis and listening to a strange conversation that I’ve been hearing pieces of every time two adults are together.

‘So far, it’s working. De Klerk is still holding on.’

‘Maybe, hey. I just think we need Plan Bs in case shit goes down.’

When they leave, I’m startled by the sound of the door banging as it closes. I need a moment to relax, and then feel a thin stream dripping out of me at first until finally it steadies into a ribbon-like spray.

The faint sound of George Michael singing "Last Christmas" is wafting when I come out of the bathroom, and a few customers mill around, looking at sandwich makers or pool cleaners or beach towels. A wrinkled old lady in a sleeveless white and pink dress mumbles to a younger woman in Afrikaans while pushing their trolley. I don’t hear much of their conversation but I hear the words kos and kombuis so I assume they must be talking about Christmas lunch.

I see my father at the other end of an aisle filled with gardening tools. He too is pushing a trolley, carrying paraffin in matted silver tins and a couple of other things: a packet of Marie biscuits, some dishwashing soap and a bag of the pink and white marshmallows he always buys for me whenever we come to the Hypermarket. His thick calves are exposed below the brim of his beige shorts, and he’s wearing the blue and red golf shirt from the Wild Coast’s clubhouse.

‘There you are. I was looking for you.’

‘I wasn’t that long.’

He doesn’t reply, and we carry on walking together towards the bakery. The song’s finished and ads for Standard Bank and then for Sun City come and go as we pace through the store. He has a way of bumping his knees against the back of the trolley as he pushes it, so there’s always a jarring, annoying din of metal shifting back and forth uneasily.

As we approach the bakery, a warm puff of air descends upon us and the smell of freshly baked bread makes my mouth water. The lady behind the cake fridge is slicing bread and shouting in Xhosa at her colleague who’s mopping the floor. It’s a jovial kind of screaming, although it seems like it might turn into anger at any moment. She stops after every two or three loaves to straighten her hairnet and wipe her brow. I watch the jowls of her face bounce and stretch as she laughs while my dad picks up a loaf of wholewheat bread and six white burger buns.

By the time we reach the tills, the news has started and the sound of President De Klerk’s booming voice reverberates from the speakers just a few feet away. With r’s that roll and a’s that stretch, he talks about the elections coming in April, speaking in political vagaries about progress and promise. When the soundbyte ends, the newsreader reports about a flare-up of violence in Natal between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party. There’s a brief clip that follows, and all I can make out are wailing men, screaming desperate, patternless screams. I pass my father the bottle of dishwashing soap and he mutters to me about how he keeps telling my mom that we need to leave but she won’t listen.

‘It’s not safe,’ he says, the worry making his voice elevate. I’ve witnessed him anxious before, but never this panicked and irascible, not with such a crooked kink in his brow. Everything about this summer is proving to be different.

The soft, powdery dust of the pink and white marshmallows lingers on my lips and my fingertips while we drive out of Norwood. At the intersection before the highway, a man with a wizened face and a thin sheet of whitening hair on his head is begging for money, cupping his hands together, contorting his face so we can see he’s pleading through the windows. His raggedy clothes droop off of him as though he’s a coat hanger, and he seems to drag his left leg along with the rest of him as he walks. My dad is still too upset by what he heard over the radio, so he barely even notices the leathery old face of the man when he comes by our car. The man and I share a brief look, a private glimpse that cries of unfairness as my dad speeds off down the highway. I can tell he’s still jittery by the way he’s clutching at the steering wheel. Over these past few months, it’s become a more regular feature in his manner, along with the choleric scowl that’s usually directed at my mother.

Initially, their fights had been quiet, cerebral even, executed with a certain discipline in the middle of the night, when they thought they couldn’t be heard. Eventually, they stopped hiding their disaffection for each other. The arguments are still civil though, almost comically so, he writing notes for her in the morning about the dangers of the window being left open overnight and she setting an extra place at the table for Tanya as a way of confronting his affair.

I’ve met Tanya once, when my father came to pick me up from school. He needed to go back to the office for a phone call, so I sat in the dull and musty reception with her for an hour. She was an unfriendly person, shy and lacking in graces, who sat Tipp-exing out mistakes in a document she’d typed for about fifteen minutes before leaving me alone to go find a roll of fax paper.

It was about a year later when her name came up again. My mother was carrying a bowl of fruit and dropped it, the grapes rolling to the corners of the kitchen and the slices of pineapple bouncing as they hit the tiled floor. He came to ask if she was okay, and she said she was fine, that Tanya had left a cloistered message for him, something about a meeting on Sunday that my mom delivered knowingly, accusingly. The look of shame and false bravado that tore through his face gave it away. It made Tanya someone more than the curly haired woman with the studded earrings, the long, smooth legs and the sourpuss expression.

Now, in the summer of 1993, kind words have become a rarity between my parents. A handful of times, he’s even packed an overnight bag, although he’s never used it. They’ve started to share their opinions about each other with me. The uncomfortable conversation about my father’s work trip to Cape Town with my mother the other day was the first time I’d heard the word ‘vindictive’, and the first time I understood how much power there was in being scorned.

As we drive, Mandela’s rhythmic voice, with the peaks and valleys that seem to say things he can’t otherwise say, things about fear and doubt and frustration, is appealing for calm over the radio. Clouds, some thick and fulsome and others stringy and bare, are jostling for space in the sky. A mild drizzle has started by the time we reach home. This only irritates my father more, and he grumbles about it. I help him load the tins of paraffin, six in total, into three stacks of two, against the wall of the garage.

A tiny lizard races in between the bricks at the front entrance of our house, scurrying up a wall and then disappearing. My mom hears us walk in and comes out from their bedroom to say hello to me, caressing my chin with the tips of her fingers. She looks pale and a bit worn, and her hair is tied in a single tail behind her head. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like that before. It makes her seem frail, vulnerable, and it makes me feel something more despairing for how little there is I can do. They don’t say anything to each other, until she asks about the paraffin.

‘It’s in the garage.’

‘Do you think we need anything else?’

She’s asking if we need anything to survive in case a war breaks out. We already have months worth of tinned food, tanks of petrol for the cars in case we need to make a run for it, and enough bottled water to fill the school’s pool a few times over. He takes a deep, exasperated breath, and says he’ll think about it, but nothing comes to mind.

They look at each other for a moment, surveying the acrimony of the other’s expression as I stand between them, like I’m made of brittle glass.

‘How did it go?’ he asks her.

‘Fine. It was a bit sore. I have to go back next week,’ she tells him, putting her hand on her abdomen.

They think I don’t know that she was pregnant, so they talk sheepishly.

‘Why?’

‘They just said I need to come back because sometimes they have to do a scrape. Depends how far along we…I…was.’

‘Okay,’ he says plainly, ‘I’m going to water the plants in the backyard.’

*

My mother has the perfect face for a therapist. The lack of expression isn’t deliberate. She just naturally has one of those faces that look the same whether they’re jubilant or holding in a shit.

My parents have been arguing about my dad’s job offer in New Zealand for three days now, over tea between bites of Romany Creams, over breakfast as they angrily shove their bran flakes into their mouths, sometimes even in the ad breaks when they’re watching the news. They call a truce when he wants to hear the cricket score or when she wants to know if it’s going to rain, and then they go back to talking like the words have serrated edges.

‘I don’t think I can do it,’ she tells him.

They’re sitting at opposite ends of the dining room table, like two hills with a dry and sunken valley between them.

‘But it’s not just about you, we need to think about what’s best for all of us.’

‘This isn’t about all of us. It’s about you and you. You hear head of marketing and it’s like everything else doesn’t matter.’

‘Everything else like what?’

She has a job, she says. She has family that she wants to be close to, patients that need her, a country that needs its professionals.

‘I’d rather be here to hold it together.’

‘You’re not holding anything together…They just pulled out…No more of this government of national unity shit…It’s getting worse.’

There’s a breathlessness in his words, as though they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere, else. Since the National Party pulled out of the unity government a couple of weeks ago, people have been talking like the war is coming again, even though it never came the first time, not properly anyway. When the adults talk, in the same hushed susurrations that have floated in the air for the past few years, they say that some clandestine enemy wants South Africa to fail, maybe the squads of veterans that claim they have enough weapons to start their own army, maybe the Americans who love talking about freedom, but who don’t really like the ANC that the free people chose.

‘It’s easier to run,’ she tells him, ‘but then there’ll be nothing left.’

She shoots a look at me as I steal glances at them from the adjoining room, where I’m pretending to watch the Olympics. It’s like she’s saying that there’ll be nothing left for me, nothing left of my home. It becomes about me after that. I feel like the rope in a tug of war. She tells him that it would be disruptive for me to have to move to New Zealand and make new friends, especially now being a teenager and being so sensitive. I roll my eyes and let out an exasperated sigh, but I say nothing. I just watch the games in front of me.

The schools are better, he tells her. The weather is better. There isn’t the constant threat of having someone jump out at you when you’re waiting for the gate to your driveway to open, gun in hand. He talks about the story in the Sunday Times, lowering his tenor like it will protect me from what he’s saying. A group of four men were hiding in the bushes outside a mansion in Hyde Park when the lady stopped at the gate. They waited for the gate to open and then ran in behind her. His voice crackles when he reflects on the absurdity of where he read it, telling her that the story of them taking turns to rape her before slitting her throat and driving off with her BMW was in the Metro section, above a coupon for two-for-one massages at the Ferndale Spa and Salon.

‘What kind of future is that?’

‘What will happen to Tanya? Do you want her to come too? Or maybe you’re hoping we don’t go and it will just be the two of you?’

‘That’s ridiculous.’

She gets up from the table. The curtains are half drawn. I can actually see a ray of sunshine descend between them when she stands up. My mom is feigning anger, when actually she’s wounded. If she goes into the bedroom, it will probably be to cry.

My eyes stay locked on the TV screen as she walks by. The Canadians have just won gold in the relay in Atlanta, and they look surprised. The Americans look dejected. She doesn’t say anything as she passes me, and I feel a wave of relief, because, even though I want to offer them comfort or just to tell them to stop, I’m not sure I’d know what to say.

There’s been a creak in their bedroom door for as long as I can remember. I imagine that the sound is similar to a coffin closing, delicate but timbrous. As she shuts the door behind her, my father gets up to leave. I can tell he’s spent by the sound of his heaving breath.

He walks by me. My face is turned away from him in a sort of silent declaration of neutrality as I watch Merlene Ottey warming up for the women’s 100 meters, so he makes no attempt to talk to me. His footsteps grow fainter as he exits until finally, I hear the laboring noise of the garage door slamming shut.

There’s a knot in my stomach and a dryness in my mouth. I get up to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. I have to walk past the dining room to get there, and as I do, I notice their half-eaten cheese sandwiches left on the table, unfinished just like their fight.

I start to think about New Zealand, and about the possibility of a life quite unlike this one. From what I’ve heard, it’s green and quiet, and it rains a lot. The school I’ll go to will probably be much better than where I am now, and we won’t have to think about the country falling apart. They play the same sports. Sometimes we even sound similar.

I wonder to myself if I might be happy there, and picture myself, lying on a beach surrounded by a verdant park where seagulls roam around like jitterbugs. I don’t dwell on it for too long though, because just thinking about it seems like a betrayal, especially now, when my mother’s decided to leave behind her practice and go to work at Coronation Hospital, a decision my dad sometimes calls noble and sometimes refers to as a misguided ‘bleeding-heart’ move.

I have a biology test on Monday that I need to study for, so I enter the corridor where our bedrooms are and then stealthily turn the doorknob to enter my room. This door isn’t creaky, because we had to have it replaced last year after one of the metallic hinges came undone and left a gaping hole in the side that was too deep and too splintered to repair.

My room is always colder than the living room, because it looks out onto the garden and has big windows, garrisoned with thick, black, burglar bars. Thankfully, I have photocopies of my friend Ashwell’s work to study from. This is the first year I’ve had to take biology as a separate subject, and I’m still not sure what exactly they want us to learn from it, but I try to concentrate and not think too much about the argument that they just had, or the arguments that are still to come.

The tightness in my stomach has subsided, and the water’s quenched my thirst, but I still feel uncomfortable as I read about cellular respiration. It’s a slight searing in my chest and legs and abdomen. I ignore it, and try to focus on studying, and on making out Ashwell’s overly expressive handwriting. He uses very big rounded letters that make it difficult to tell the difference between a U and a V, or between an O and a D.

I make slow progress, getting distracted by the thought of either of my parents asking me what I think and by the sound of the two dogs next door barking as they wrestle in the garden.

The afternoon starts to fade and cool, as though the sun’s giving up on this day. I’ve switched from the floor to the bed to my desk and then back to the floor in the hopes that one of these positions might help me to remember the difference between meiosis and mitosis. I roll a tennis ball under the palm of my hand as I repeat formulae, like incontrovertible truths, to myself. The felt has worn from overuse and it feels rough and uneven against my skin.

After a while, I get frustrated so I take the ball into the garden. The clouds are moving fast and the wind is forcing trees to shake like anxious old ladies. I practice my bowling, because I still don’t get enough spin no matter how much I try. I stand at the edge of the grassbed and toss the ball. It’s a graceless toss, like an angry toddler would throw.

Katrina comes to take the laundry down from the washing line at the other end of the yard. The bones of her wrists protrude as she undoes each peg and puts each piece of clothing in the basket between her legs. The sun feels hesitant behind the clouds, and after a while I get goosebumps from the wind. I head inside, wondering if I should sit in the living room or avoid the entire episode and just stay carefully hidden in my room, a proposition that wins out in the end.

The garage door whines as it opens, as if it’s complaining about the effort. As I slide the door that leads to the garden shut, my father’s footsteps resonate against the cold floor. We bump into each other in the corridor and he puts his hand on my shoulder as he walks by me, rushing towards their bedroom as if he’s got something to say that’ll make him burst if he doesn’t.

All I hear is that familiar creaking noise, first as the door opens and then as he closes it behind him.

As I lie on my bed, I toss the tennis ball upward and then catch it, over and over again. They’re in the bedroom for about half an hour before they come out. My father stands for a second in the open doorway of my room, his left leg tucked behind his right. He asks if we can all talk in the living room.

The searing in my stomach has returned. It feels like it’s reaching a steady boil. I feel hot on the inside but the goosebumps are still there as I follow him, staying just a few steps behind.

My mother is already there, clad in her fluffy purple dressing gown, her hair out of shape and her face drooping like a grape that’s halfway to becoming a raisin. The Olympics are still on TV; someone’s about to throw a javelin. My mom takes the remote and turns it off, gesturing for me to sit down.

Each of us sits in a different part of the room. I’m nervous, scared even, because this conversation, with its air of terminality, seems incisive. There isn’t any shouting; there aren’t any accusations being flung passive-aggressively. There’s only the sound of shifting sofa cushions and lives unravelling.

It’s a short conversation, the kind that doesn’t allow for much interjection or any meaningful contribution. No one is happy by the end of it, my father least of all. Even as he talks about declining the job offer and staying in South Africa, he resents it. I feel as though I’m watching a surrender. My mother, meanwhile, sits cross-legged, staring at the ground.

I feel neither relieved nor comforted by this announcement, but I can see that they think they’ve been mature and parental by sitting me down in this way. They’ve given me closure, I think is what my mom would say.

Katrina sets the table for dinner, not uttering a word. Her long legs saunter in and out of the dining room as she goes into the kitchen to fetch something or other. She lays down the plates and then the silverware and then finally the cups and saucers, each accompanied by a shimmering teaspoon.

After a few silent minutes, they disperse, retreating into separate corners. My mum goes into the bedroom and my dad goes to his study. I stay in the living room and watch the bronze medal soccer match. Apathetic players are running around an almost empty stadium, because nobody cares about third place.

I drift into a brief and restless sleep, woken by the sensation of dribble travelling down my chin. When I open my eyes, my dad is sitting across from me again, biting into an apple. Each time he does, the sound of his teeth jabbing into it gets louder and more aggressive. My mouth is dry and mealy, like it’s had a blanket shoved inside it.

We watch the game in silence, up until the ninety-third minute. As the juice around his lips dries and the Portuguese congratulate the Brazilians, he asks me how I am.

‘I’m okay,’ I lie.

‘It’s going to be fine,’ he tells me, like he’s telling himself.

*

My dad has been moving out in little spurts for a few weeks now. Each time he comes, he leaves with a suitcase full of shirts and ties or a box full of golfing stuff. The house has been gradually shedding any sign of his presence. Soon, only the garish site of the discolored tiles in the lounge where his grey leather recliner used to be will remind us that he used to live here.

When they bump into each other as he carries his briefcase, there isn’t enmity or distaste. There’s just a look of wistfulness on his face as he watches my mother walk away, like he’s watching a well dry up, each layer of affection evaporating since she told him to take the job in Auckland.

As I sit at the dining room table doing my geometry homework, I watch their silly play unfold and wait for an awkward exchange to materialize. He runs back and forth with handfuls of paper, the picture frame holding his degree certificate and various CDs and floppy disks. The house keys are in his pocket and they make a grating noise when he walks. Each time he goes outside, he unlocks the door, and then locks it as he crosses the street to go to Tanya’s car. Tanya’s sitting in there with her hands carefully perched on the steering wheel like she’s about to speed away. I don’t know if she’s more afraid of a criminal or of my mother.

His footsteps becomes slower and more staccato each time he returns. Even though he looks worn, there’s a light glow that hasn’t been there since before he knew he was leaving. Over the past few years, the skin of his face had started to droop with fear and worry, but it’s looking lustrous now.

I’m calculating the circumference of a ring around Jupiter when his hand rests on my shoulder. He does it casually, but he becomes uneasy when I flinch.

‘How are you?’ he asks me. I can feel the supplication in his voice.

‘I’m fine,’ I tell him. I’ve gotten used to just saying I’m fine.

He starts to explain himself, in an even-handed, contemplative, chain of words.

‘I understand why you’re leaving,’ I tell him. My voice has started to deepen, in ill-timed paroxysms that don’t last long before reverting to a boylike pitch. It happens mid-sentence, undoing the tension between us.

‘You do?’

I think I do, even though sometimes I hate him for doing what he’s done. Some people call Cape Town ‘rape town’ now, others say South Africa’s in a ‘death spiral’ because there are so many murders. Half my friends have already left, and others say they’re going to. Meanwhile the seasons just keep changing as we go on about our gated lives, while the Reconstruction and Development Programme plies through tracts of land to build thousands of ramshackle houses, while Bafana Bafana win the Cup of Nations, while people become increasingly impatient for what they were promised.

‘I understand, but I also understand why we’re staying.’

‘I wish you were coming with me,’ he says, probably sincerely.

A car alarm starts to blare and he gets up, telling me he’ll be right back. I concentrate on the picture of a crystalline ring around Jupiter in my textbook, but my mum steps into the dining room, draping her handbag on her shoulder. She looks flustered, like she’d forgotten to be somewhere.

‘I need to go to work for a few hours,’ she says, fixing her eyes on the books in front of me, ‘you’ll be okay, won’t you?’

My father rushes back in, presumably to finish our conversation, stopping abruptly when he notices the two of us. He lingers at the boundary between the entrance hall and the dining room, skulking like he’s been told not to come in.

‘I’ll be okay. I’ll just be working on this,’ I say, pointing to Jupiter and the computations about its girth.

She turns to my father and asks how long he’ll be.

‘I don’t think I’ll be much longer. You going out?’

‘I have to go to the hospital for a meeting.’

With the mixture of their antagonism and their grief, the words are hard and inflexible, but also sorrowful. As they gaze at each other, Katrina shuffles past us clumsily with a bucket and a mop. There’s a splashing sound as she struggles to hold them both. Her spindly arms aren’t really strong enough, and her delicate hands would be put to better use as a seamstress than a maid.

My mum turns to her and tells her to do the ironing once she’s done mopping. Katrina’s torn white sneakers without laces make unseemly farting noises as she walks away and my parents go back to exchanging small, stilted words.

‘Do you need to come back again?’ she asks my dad.

‘I think I’ll have everything packed today, but I’m not leaving until Sunday, so I’ll probably come say goodbye on Saturday.’

‘Okay.’

‘But if you need the keys today I can…’

‘No, it’s okay. There’s no rush.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Are you almost ready to go?’ she asks as he inches closer towards us. I’d turned on the light at the entrance of the dining room so I could study, and he stands under it. It reminds me of a picture I saw the other day of Elvis, looking lost under the glow of the sun.

‘In a manner of speaking... We have a flat not far from my office and Tanya’s visa just came through.’

‘Just? But we filed the papers three months ago.’

They got divorced quickly so he could get engaged to Tanya and apply for a fiancé visa. It was a very mature and unemotional ending, neither of them trying to humiliate each other or be spiteful. He told her to keep the house and is paying child support.

‘It took a while because of her police clearance…but it worked out in the end.’

Those last few words seem to pierce into her.

‘That’s good I guess. Everybody’s happy.’

He scoffs, moving even closer than before. I turn the page of my textbook, trying to distract myself. There’s a diagram of a cylinder, and someone has cleverly added a pair of testicles, replete with curly hairs, and a glans that looks like an army helmet. I turn the page again, pretending to focus on the colourful diagram of a prism.

‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ he says, forceful and blunt.

‘I know. It was me.’

‘It couldn’t have been you. You’re just the martyr.’

Each colour radiates out of the prism like the spikes on a celestial crown. My eyelids wrinkle as I read the words, trying to act like nothing’s happening.

A prism is a polyhedron, of which two faces are parallel

I hear pieces of their conversation, like when they refer to me as if wielding a weapon or when they’re talking about my dad’s old colleague, Arno, who was hijacked at gunpoint along with his two children near Gordon Road.

‘On a Saturday morning, coming back from cricket. He was so scared he pissed his pants in front of his children.’

He holds two fingers up against his temple and motions to shoot, gawking at her like he knows he’s right and she won’t admit it. She frowns disapprovingly, as if to say that he shouldn’t talk about that in front of me. Actually what he’s talking about is mild compared to all the stories we heard on our school trip to watch the TRC hearings last week. They found six bodies at a death camp in KwaZulu-Natal, most with their fingers and their toes missing. The squadron that killed them said they didn’t know their names, so people shouted threats and admonishments, calling them liars and murderers. I don’t know why they call it the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when so much of it is shrouded under a tapestry of lies. Even though they weren’t sure, some people were sobbing anyway, because maybe they were their lost children, because they needed somewhere to put their grief.

Her arms folded, I can see my mother start to fashion a vengeful response to my father, but then she looks at me and stops before saying anything. As she’s leaving, she edges close to him and says that she wishes things could have been different. It’s almost blameless, the way she speaks.

‘But they weren’t,’ she says, telling herself as much as she’s telling him, and maybe me.

‘I do too, but I hope you’re right, and everything will actually just be fine.’

Sensing the doubt in his voice, she says that maybe South Africa will descend into an ugly, chaotic mess, and that I might decide one day to follow him.

‘I don’t think I can though.’

‘I know…that’s why I stopped asking.’

The light shimmers behind his head, illuminating a cloud of dust that sways around him. He still looks like Elvis, but having moved a little into the shadowy edges of the room, it’s the look of a more haggard Elvis, Elvis without the gall of his youth.

My mother looks at her watch and says that she needs to go.

‘If I don’t see you, have a safe journey.’

‘Thanks, I hope everything works out for you.’

They brush against each other as she leaves, tenderly, like the unkind exchanges of the last few months are being unremembered. As she passes him, they share a look that’s become increasingly rare between them. I used to see it when we would go for drives to the Emmarentia Dam, me sitting in the back seat while they laughed about Kitkat, the neighbor’s dog that repeatedly fell in the pool while chasing after pigeons, or when we went to see my grandfather in the hospital just before he died and my mum held my dad’s hand as he said goodbye. I act like I’m not looking, but I catch a glimpse of their exchange, and then see her walk away out of the corner of my eye. It makes my throat sear with the knowledge of what it used to be like before it all collapsed.

When he sits back down in front of me, he rubs his hands against his cheeks like he’s trying to wake up. He talks just above a whisper.

‘I wish this fucking country would just burn to the ground already. Then she’d have no choice….We really didn’t want this to happen…’

The phone rings from the other room, and I get up to answer it, leaving him mid-sentence as he talks about the better future he knows is coming in New Zealand and telling me that I’ll always have a home there.

It rings a few more times, and I can’t find it, so I run down the hallway where my mother’s bedroom is, thinking that maybe I’ll get to the main receiver. I’m halfway down the hall, enveloped in Katrina’s liberal use of bleach when the ringing stops. I stand still and feel the soft rug rubbing against my socks. The edges have worn out, the cotton unwinding into ragged strands with a few knots, but where I’m standing, it’s still thick and comfortable.

A muffled noise is coming from behind my mother’s bedroom door. I thought she’d left, but she’s in there, and there’s a sound of agonized confidences being shared. She seems frightened, and I freeze when it becomes clear that she’s crying.

I can make out a few of the things she’s saying, asking in a stupor what she’s going to do and wilting when the initial burst of emotion has been exhausted, eventually descending into more muted sentences. I stand still and listen as she asks if she’s made a mistake and feel my body weaken with sadness when she worries about me and whether I’m safe in South Africa.

She tells whoever’s on the phone that she has to go back to work. I try to rush back to the dining room before she notices me, but she catches me midstride when she opens the door, still wiping the tears from her face.

‘I heard the phone ring,’ I say, turning back towards her now that I’ve been caught.

She looks at me knowingly, and tells me that it was her friend Chantal.

‘She just needed the number of the plumber.’

I don’t really know what to say, so I stand there watching her compose herself, painting a veneer over her pain with each step down the corridor until we’re face to face.

‘I’m going to be late,’ she tells me. I’m almost as tall as she is, and I can see the greying roots on her forehead and the lengthening lines around her eyes.

‘Let’s order pizza for supper when I come back.’

‘Okay,’ I say. I think if I try to say anything else, I might burst into inconsolable tears.

My dad is already in the entrance hall when we walk back.

‘I need to go. Tanya has to go see her sister.’

My mum rushes past him towards the garage and tells me to lock up after my dad leaves.

He gives me a long and impassioned hug, like it might be the last, but then says that he’ll be back before he leaves.

‘Okay.’

I lock the gate and watch them drive away. Now that it’s just the two of us, I can hear Katrina’s low humming as she irons. There are a few long and deep notes in between whimsically short bursts of almost random noise. After a while, it becomes clear that she’s trying to hum the tune of "Shosholoza," that she’s trying to conjure up the feeling of jubilance it elicits in its metronomic, rousing way. But she does it like she does everything else, quietly, like there’s not much volume in her voice, like the jubilance itself is finite.

I sit back down at the dining room table and concentrate on the colours bursting out of the prism on one side. On the other, there’s just a thick solid stream of white light. My throat scratches as I read to myself. Distracted by everything that’s happened, I sit back in the chair and stare at the rainbow of light, each colour blending into the next and making new ones as they mix. An iridescent sliver of purple shines between the rich, dark red and the flamboyantly bright blue, gushing outward, occupying the tiny space between them.

About the Author

Faraaz Mahomed

Faraaz Mahomed is a writer and human rights researcher from South Africa and based in New York. His writing has appeared in Granta, adda and the Sunday Times. In 2016, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the African Region for his story, The Pigeon, and in 2020, he was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Inaugural Toyin Falola Prize. He is currently working on a novel.