CHARM 4/22

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Reinvent Yourself

Despite tranking myself up with meds, I get barely any sleep—I’m too wired and nervous to do more than cat-nap in little fits and starts. When the time rolls around for my afternoon shift, I’m almost grateful to be going to work, to do anything that feels vaguely normal and doesn’t involve waking nightmares of bent-back boys with black wings and sharpened teeth. Or dead mothers lying on sheets soaked crimson.

Work is busy, the changeover chaos as usual. The cash-up is short, so the day-shift bar tenders are in a foul mood. Sport on the TV, no music. The women perched on their red metal barstools all look tarted up and hostile, the men swill down Castle Draft and boast about when they used to play rugby. I hate this place; the neon makes my head buzz and the clientèle are nightmarish suburban socialite wannabes.

Memory gives me a look like I crawled out of a rubbish tip. “What’s with you, girl?” he says, all Joburg drawl. “Seems like you were a little busy-busy last night, ne?”

I roll my eyes. “Zeps. Rain.” That’s enough information for anyone, really.

Memory has this thing he does with his eyebrows; they have an entire vocabulary programmed into them, like drum beats. He can speak whole novels without opening his mouth. The current angle and shift is enough to let me know he thinks I’m an idiot, and that I deserve everything I get. He knows Rain from school too, from friends of friends who have drifted through our little circle of two. “You need to let that go,” Memory says finally, and he could mean anything.

Shut up,” I say because he’s right, and I’m so tired it’s as though all the me-ness has drained out of me. I can’t even argue. I hand him the drink he’s been waiting for.

You have the old man’s wagon?” Memory sits the trick onto his round rubber-coated tray, and nods toward the parking lot, which can’t be seen from the bar anyway, but it’s obvious he saw me pull in with it.

For the moment.” My dad hasn’t called about it yet, which is something of a relief, but it also might mean he is saving up his ranting for a colossal blow-out. I shudder.

Memory clicks his tongue. “Cool cool, just lemme know when you need a lift again.”

I manage a weak smile before I go deal with the fatheaded dick on the other end of the bar, waving his fist of money at me. Memory is good people. It’s not that he hates Rain, it’s just that he wants better for me. I can’t get angry about that. Not when I spend half my time beating myself up for the same thing. I turn to the annoying customer and feel the world tip and spin as I do. Hold it together, I tell myself as I catch onto the prep counter edge and send a tray of pre-sliced lemons careening to the ground. The crash bounces through the restaurant, and my manager glares at me from where he’s manning the front tills.

By the time my shift ends, the only thing holding me together is my sheer determination not to pass out in front of my co-workers. I grit my teeth and imagine toothpicks in my eyes. That’s pretty much what it feels like, anyway. Today’s tips are well below average. I blame the hair—the men probably think I’m into girls, the women don’t even see me. And my mother’s stupid pendant hasn’t warmed up since whatever the hell that thing was last night. That completely imaginary thing that you did not see, Irene Kerry.

I slip out the back door before Memory can lecture me again, or my manager can look up from cash-ups and deal with me. I already know all the shit he’s going to say. This isn’t the first time I’ve come to work after a night out. He acts like it’s the worst thing anyone could do, like this job is more important than life. Idiot. It’s a shitty job in a shitty franchise.

The muggy weather has turned completely crap by now, and I have to drive my dad’s Beetle home in the rain. The storm has broken and a deluge of fat drops smashes down onto the tarred roads. A dry winter’s worth of petrol and oil rises, giving the tar a rainbow sheen. The summer rain is also the subliminal indicator for everyone in Gauteng to turn into Michael Schumacher, so I get to sit in traffic while ambulances and gawkers block the roads. The Beetle feels like it’s about to airlift off the road with every gust of wind, and one of the windscreen wipers gives up the ghost about a minute after I leave the parking lot.

I probably deserve this, I think, as I watch the water sluice in arcs across my vision. I wrench the steering wheel and turn off the highway—somehow managing to survive a traffic snarl at the M1—and head back to my flat. Lightning turns the tree tops into temporary silhouette sculptures. The branches are tentacles in the wind. Finally, I park the Beetle in someone’s reserved parking bay that they never actually use and dash for the glass doors to my apartment lobby, fat drops pelting me the whole way.

An itchy prickle runs up my spine as I open the lobby doors.

Someone is watching me.

Or maybe it’s just paranoia

Or lack of sleep.

Or idiocy, Irene.

Whatever. I take the stairs two at a time, and double-bolt my apartment door.

Huge rain drops slam against the windows, leaving tadpole silver smears against the darkness. Just as I go to pull my curtains closed, something moves downstairs, and a tall dark figure slips off into the shadows of the trees. I freeze. It was human—no sign of hunched wings folded across its back. Even so I can’t bring myself to take my hand from the curtains, I have to keep watching, to make myself believe it was just a man. Just a man, walking along the grass, heading home in the rain. A gardener finishing work, someone rushing back from the corner café. Normal.

Thunder rumbles in the distance, and the flicker of lightning lights up the skyline. I should be grateful for the rain; washing away the stink of the rubbish, sluicing the gutters clean. Instead it just makes me feel closed-in and trapped.

Carefully, I put one hand against the pendant, feeling the small lump of it under my sweaty uniform. It’s still cool next to my skin but there’s been no other change, no new sudden drop in temperature. The damn thing creeps me out. I should probably just take it off and throw it away. I’ve tried before but I can’t make myself do it. Except for when the clasp broke a few weeks back and I left it off until I bought a replacement chain, I’ve worn it for ten years. I’m not even sure if I keep it to hold onto my mother’s memories or to ward them off. The truth is, even if I keep trying to pretend I’m not really my mother’s child, I still can’t get rid of her pendant. I sigh, tapping my fingers against the glass, as if I could guide the raindrops rolling down the glass, make them follow the music of my drumming fingers. I really should go and get those boxes from my dad’s house and see what’s in them. I can’t move on until I’ve faced my fears.

Because my memories of my mother are all tinted by the magic of childhood and somehow I’ve built her up in my head to be something she was not. I didn’t know her, not really. I knew her the way a child knows a parent, and that’s barely knowing someone at all. I knew her stories, and her strangeness, and her dark hair that smelled of thyme. I knew her hand cold on the bed, skin feeling like not-skin. And what if I look in those boxes and I discover there really is more to her than a stupid pendant that changes temperature when the freaks come out to play.

What then, Irene Kerry?

The steady beat of the rain changes and gives way to the pop and click of hail on glass. Under the glow of the street lights, tiny dots of white gather like jumping puffballs, mushrooming.

No-one. There’s no-one out there. I drop my hand and take a deep shuddering breath. I’m imagining things, and that’s all there is to it. An over-active imagination spurred on by the whispers of a dead woman. My bed is calling me, and I leave my uniform in a crumpled mess on the bathroom floor before I crawl under the sheets. The faint imprinted smell of the Oriental Plaza-incense and dyed cotton-accompanies me into dreams of black knotted hair and round blue eyes.

#

Some time in the early morning when the grey light filters through my curtain, I wake from a nightmare. Rats, screaming children, and a man’s face, blank and empty. I can hear pipe music, long and trilling, and then it fades and I wonder if it was also part of my dream.

#

In the dim light, my room is lined with hazy figures, shadows on shadows that flicker and move with the breeze coming from a window I must have left open. I shake off the cold-sweat of terror and pad to the bathroom, piss, wash hands, run cold water over my face and scrub at my skin. With hands still trembling, I jerk the tiny high window closed. My reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror is a death’s head in the darkness, skull-shadowed. I try remember the dream. Something about rats dancing hand in hand, and a man, playing music that led them to their deaths. Children, who ran after. Bright screams of delight turning to shrieks. I turn the tap on again, the sound of the water overly loud in the empty little room. It’s as though the dream has passed around me, swallowed and excreted me, left me covered in some slick goo that I cannot see but I can feel. My heart is racing, my skin itching and itching and itching. I want to slough it off and peel myself free. Of my mother. Of Rain. I make myself look into the mirror. “You’re going to stop this,” I tell myself. “You’re going to keep your head down and your nose clean and behave. You are not going to call Rain and chase after him like a loser, not any more.”

My reflection snarls.

What is it you really want, anyway?” I ask this ugly stranger. “Art? You want that? Then take it.”

Finally, my reflection agrees. A small nod. Nothing more.

#

After my nightmare-fuelled decision, the rest of the week speeds past, mainly because I’ve picked up a couple of double-shifts to make up the money I spent at Zeps. And when I’m not working I’m painting. Somehow guilt always manages to spur on a new burst of creativity. I work on a still-life for my portfolio—green apples in a blue glass bowl. I mix river sand into the paint on my palette, and the picture forms in grainy clumps like sand caught halfway to glass. I like the effect.

The resiny smell of oils and the reek of turpentine are a soporific. I stop thinking so much about my mother and about the thing from the club, and put it down to being hyped-up and over-drunk and over-tired. I manage to not think about Rain for whole hours at a time. Peace fills me, and I remember why I’m working myself like a dog, why I put up with the idiots at the Pit where I work. It’s so I can do this, so I can make art.

My one off-day, instead of visiting Rain as usual, I spend stretching and priming new canvases. I love this part of a painting—making a foundation. The edges sharp and the inner planes bevelled, the white canvas taut between the little black tacks. Sweet pine, white glue. Even the plastic smell of pva—it all makes me think of potentiality. Of promise.

One of the canvases is tall and thin, and I have this image in my head of a man with a low hat pulled over his eyes, so that all I can see is a jagged moon-sliver of cheek and a curl of lip. I can’t wait to get started on it, and as soon as the primer dries, I sketch in the lean figure with thinned blue oil paint. I work quickly, brushing the watery lines in. When I’m done, it looks like the man is just stepping onto the snowy canvas, leaving almost three quarters of it blank.

It’s the walking dead man. Caleb.

With some paintings it almost feels like the eyes are tracking you across the room. I never quite get that right, but now with nothing but the under-painting down, I have that feeling. It’s eerie. I pace across the bachelor flat to get a better look from another angle, and Caleb’s blank blue pupils watch me. It even looks like he’s sneering at me. I don’t want to work on it any more. The air seems closer, and my chest aches. When I shove the small kitchenette window open to clear my head, the smell of rot and cut wet grass drifts up. It’s not much of an improvement. I can barely breathe.

The sharp ring of my cellphone breaks the moment and I’m pulled back to my room. Linseed, turps, decay. The sun is shining, it’s over thirty degrees and the rubbish is still sitting out for collection. Everything’s normal.

“Ja?” I say, quick and curt, because I want to get some more canvases prepped before the day is out.

The voice on the other side is shaky and distorted. “Hey you.”

Rain. Damn. He never phones. And I’ve been ignoring him, in my own way. I’m immediately on edge, hackles up. “You okay?”

“Um.”

Meaning no. It has to be Lily. She’s done something again and I think of all the ways his mother has broken him in the past, little things, and larger. She’s more subtle these days, but those scars run deeper even though they don’t show on the skin. “I’ll be right over.” I scrub the paint from my hands and change into something that looks less like the cast-offs of a mad person, while images flash through my head. Rain, always a pale and sickly child. Always off school so that he could go to the doctor. And then that day when Lily finally went too far and broke his fucking arm so that he had a new reason to go to the hospital. Another reason for her to play normal—the concerned parent act. And Rain, who will never tell the truth about her to anyone.

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