Dale’s in the car with my dad, sitting in the passenger seat and staring blankly out the side window. I clamber into the back of the dark grey Audi and the smell of new car leather and wintergreen air freshener envelops me. My brother looks back over the car seat at me and frowns when I explain that Rain is missing.
My dad has this grim expression that he only gets when he’s really upset. He has a bit of a soft spot for Rain. “Do you know where he is?” he asks. Nothing about the Beetle.
“Possibly. He’s in a squat with some guy.” I hope.
My father’s reflection in the rear view mirror thins his mouth. Luckily Dad doesn’t ask me why I left Rain alone with some guy in a squat, just drives me back to my flat. “You’re going to go get him,” he says. It’s not an order, he just knows us. Me. “Do you want me to come with you?” he asks as he pulls up at the small apartment block.
My dad has a throw ’em in the deep end and see if they swim policy with us, so him offering to help means he’s really worried. I shake my head. “I’ll be cool. Thanks though.”
He doesn’t pull off, just stares at me, frowning as he thinks. I can practically see the inner battle he’s having. Since Mom died he’s brought us up to be independent and take care of ourselves, but he’s also not overly keen on anything really bad happening to us. “Take Dale with,” he says.
Dale hops out the car. I’m outvoted before I get a chance to say anything.
We go upstairs to get the keys for the Beetle, which is still parked in the visitors’ parking. There’s another nasty note under the wiper. I throw this one on back seat as we climb in.
“You still need to get Mom’s stuff,” Dale says.
“Yeah.” He shrugs. “Just saying.”
I ignore him and try to remember where it is exactly Caleb’s squat was. Somewhere out past Edenvale, toward Germiston. The East Rand is not an area I’m overly familiar with, but Dale plays navigator and hauls out my dad’s ancient out-of-date map book. Luckily, I don’t get lost. My hands are sweaty on the steering wheel, but I drive with determination, ticking off landmarks in my head. I might have driven this route drunk as a skunk but I’m sweat-cold and sober now, and I recall every bush and house with a terrible frightened clarity.
There’s the BP garage, there’s the mine dump, the bridge.
Dale has his window rolled down and the map book open on his lap. He never speaks when he’s in a car, just drifts off to a place in his head, or sleeps.
I swing left, down a road littered with old houses, their windows boarded. Gardens are tangled and overgrown. Banana trees drop tiny rotten fruit onto the cracked tar paving. Bougainvillea wind up the telephone poles, spraying paper petals like red scabs. Funny that it looks more menacing in the daylight. Empty Amasi cartons, crisp packets, silver pie tins, and plastic bags gather in drifts under the trees, caught in the long brown grass and the blackjacks. Morning glories seem to be the only thing flourishing in the heat, their trumpet flowers a splash of pink and purple against the Vibracrete walls. We pass a woman balancing a huge sack of flour on her head. Even though this back road feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s crowded with people walking.
There it is. About five hundred meters around the corner from an abandoned petrol station. The finned, horned low-rider sits in the driveway. Cold sweat beads my forehead as the car judders to a stop.
“This the right place?” Dale asks, a note of concern under his usual lazy tones.
My head nods, mechanically, like someone else pulls the strings.
“Right.” Dale gets out and slams his door shut and walks around to my side. He’s stocky and wiry at the same time, and I feel a little safer knowing that he’s got my back. Something silver glitters in his palm.
“What the hell is that?”
“A butterfly knife. Check this.” He flicks it around a few times, snapping it open and closed.
“For god’s sake, put it away,” I hiss. Does he think this is a rerun of some dodgy kung fu movie?
Dale scowls, but slips the offending item into his pocket and we walk together up to the front door. It looks rotten and lonely like an old man’s last tooth. The door is unlocked, and I push it open to reveal a dusty unlit front hall. There’s a passage, and if I remember correctly, Caleb was using the room on the last door to the right. The house is ominously silent. Motes swirl in the thin slats of light coming from the boarded windows.
The floor is uncovered concrete, rough, with traces of under-felt still here and there. We walk down the passage, footfalls silent. The door to Caleb’s room is closed. I’m still deciding whether to knock or just barge in when the door swings open.
Dale stumbles back in shock and I’m frozen in place, my hand half raised in a loose fist.
Caleb smirks. Behind him, Rain is getting dressed, pulling on his tattered jersey. “Shit,” Rain says when he sees me. “I forgot to phone.”
“I’ll kill you.” My voice is back. “Your mother called me at work, freaking out.”
“About me?” He looks happily surprised as he slides one arm around Caleb’s waist and peers out from behind him.
Anger makes me nasty. “Well, no. She was somewhat more concerned that you’d stolen her cash.”
His face falls, and I feel like a shit. “So why are you here then? Come to take me back?”
“I was—” Worried. Can’t really say that in front of Caleb. He catches my eyes though, and shows me his teeth. Yeah, we understand each other. The bastard.
Now that I’m no longer terrified, I take a good look at Rain. He seems happy, calm. Even the thing about Lily hasn’t really upset him. It’s not quite normal, him taking it so easily. I squint, hoping to pick up some trace of the golden magic I saw at the Red Room, some proof that this happiness is unnatural. Nothing. Actually, he just looks well-shagged.
“So everything’s okay?” Dale says. “Rain?”
“Huh? Yeah.” He shuffles.
“Okay. Well, we might as well give you a lift back then.”
“Oh,” says Rain. “I’m not going back.”
“You’re crazy,” I say. “Rain, you don’t even know this guy.” I glance at Caleb. “No offence.” Which is a lie, of course. “You can’t just stay here, I mean, there’s not even a working toilet.”
Rain pales, holds Caleb tighter. “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. Jesus, Irene, you sound like Lily.”
God, he always knows the worst things to say to me. “Fuck you.”
Rain seems to remember last night with a sudden shock, because he hangs his head and shifts so that he’s hidden behind Caleb. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “I am staying though.”
“So what do I tell her?” I’ve lost him. Unexpectedly.
“Anything you want.”
It was supposed to be me who saved Rain.
Without Rain, I’m lost.
The painting of Caleb stares at me.
It’s been two weeks since I left Rain in the squat. Two weeks of filling my time with work and the painting and now it’s finally complete. It’s eerily accurate, and the only thing that stops me from destroying it is the simple fact that its the best thing I’ve ever done.
Making good art is painful. It sucks you up. I can feel how I’ve dried up inside, like a prune or a raisin, withered before my time. It makes me feel old and invisible. The tip of my brush kisses the canvas, adds a final fleck of Windsor blue to the shadows of Caleb’s face. The painting is life-size and it looks as if he’s searching for something, staring across the frozen wastes of his empty canvas. There should be another, a diptych. If I don’t paint it, then this one will be eternally unfinished. All the reasons I give myself not to do this second painting are squashed by the thought that this just might be the only way that I can keep a piece of Rain for myself. That second canvas is a taunt, and a promise of benediction. I need to do it.
Mind made up, I throw myself into painting so that I won’t think. Which never actually works because good art dredges up all the things that lurk at the bottom of your soul—the terrible pale deep water fish—and dissecting them. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never painted Rain before. It felt stupid, like tearing out a chunk of my own misery and putting it up for everyone to look at. I just couldn’t do it; say, “this is me, this is how I see you.” That kind of love-sick shit is for bad movies. And now I’m doing it anyway, even though there’s no-one left to see. It will be the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted, catching Rain in oil, but I have to at least try. I work on a rough sketch to plan Rain’s portrait. I’ve finally gotten the planes and angles of Rain’s face right when my phone rings.
It’s Dale. “Dad wants you to come over for a braai.”
“What? Has the old man finally lost it?” I step back from the painting as I talk. Even with just the rough outline down, it’s easy to see who I’m drawing. I’m never letting Rain see this. Not in a million years, so help me god.
“Nah, He’s on some family bonding mission.”
I sigh. It won’t be too bad; I’ll get out of my flat, and I’ll get a decent meal. I’ll escape the two people I want to run from but can’t. “Cool. I’ll be there in a few.”
I drive through to Norwood, and Dale opens the door even as I pull the Beetle into the driveway. He’s wearing the skankiest trousers I have ever seen, and he’s carrying a new Zildjan cymbal in the one hand. He tings it against the wall.
“Hi.” I slip past him into the passage way, and Dale follows me as I duck into his room. Posters of bands even I’ve never heard of leer down at me from the wall. A tree just beyond the window sill flutters its narrow leaves in the breeze. I flop down on the unmade bed and Dale drops down next to me. He flicks one finger along the brass of the cymbal.
A brand new drum kit has pride of place in the one corner, stuffed with pillows. Of the old, much-battered kit he started on, there’s no sign. “Dad must love this hobby of yours,” I say. “Where is he?”
“Out back, playing with fire. Come on, old man’s waiting.”
My dad has a little coal braai set up in the small back garden, in the space he can eke out between the plants
Dale, whose secret passion is horticulture, is responsible for the mini rain-forest exploding from pots and well-mulched beds. His friends probably don’t know about the gardening habit, although I remember when I still lived here, how he’d creep out early in the morning to water and fertilize them. Of course, he’s managed to sneak a few ragged-leafed dagga plants into the mix. My dad just turns a blind eye.
“Looking good,” I say. There’s a delicious monster under a bottlebrush that looks ready to eat someone. We have to fight our way past the huge leaves in order to reach the braai area. Someone, presumably my dad, started the fire earlier, and the flames have burnt down to coal and ash. The air above the grill is shimmery with heat.
There’s beer to drink while the meat sizzles on the grill. The dry taste of Windhoek complements the smoky flavour rising on the air. Fat sizzles, making the coals spit. I smoke and stare at nothing. Fleetwood Mac plays on the lounge stereo, Stevie Nicks singing about loss. My mom used to love this album; she played it non-stop. Never Dad though. He never played this. I feel sad and small inside, thinking about how much he must miss her.
He looks up from brushing more marinade on the chicken, one eyebrow raised.
“You remember Mom.” It’s a stupid start, and I know it. Of course he remembers Mom. He did marry her, after all. “I mean, really remember her, because I don’t—” Liar.
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
“What’s this about?”
I clasp my hands together in my lap. “Did she, was she—” I breathe deep, smell the smoky comfort of the braai. “Was she okay? I mean, did she ever, you know….” Was she okay? Seriously, Irene, she killed herself, she was not okay, She was as far from fucking okay as it is possible to get.
Wow, this is not going to go well, I can already see it in his face. I blurt out the last part. “Did she ever see things that weren’t there?”
“Little green men?” he says, and his tone is jovial, but his eyes aren’t.
“No, I mean—never mind. It was nothing. I’m being stupid.”
“Ah.” My dad turns his attention back to the collection of meat sizzling on the grill. “Heard from Rain?” he asks as he flips the boerewors over.
I shake my head.
“Hmm.” He changes the subject. “How’s your art coming along?”
There’s silence, broken only by the spit of dripping fat and the rustle of mousebirds in the loquat tree.
“I’ll get Dale to pack those boxes in the car for you,” he says and perhaps he does know something about my mother that I don’t understand. After all, there are things in those boxes I want to see. I’ve been putting it off for as long as I can, trying not to think about my her or the stories she would tell me when I was little. Stories about people who stole magic.
My mother was small and wild, with her hair loose, fey-tangled. She had sloe-dark eyes and a wide, frowning mouth. Thick eyebrows accentuated the intensity of her gaze. She used to read to me from her special book, and every time she opened it, it told a new story. As a child I thought that was normal.
I need to find that book, to see if what I remember is real.
The afternoon darkens as the clouds gather, and my dad burns the meat. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and lightning flickers across the blue-black sky. “It’s going to rain,” my dad says, blinking up at the sky. “I’ll give Dale a hand with those boxes and give you a lift home.” His way of saying: I want the car back. Ah well, it was good to have, but at least this way I won’t be worrying about it getting stolen or smashed.
“Sure. Mind if I drive though?” My dad has this habit of driving at seventy no matter what the speed limit is—completely freaks me out.
With the back of the Beetle loaded down with my mother’s stuff we rattle down the road, and the first rain drops spatter the dust on the windscreen. The lone wiper screeches. It doesn’t really wipe the rain away, only makes a pie-shaped smear that’s just barely clear enough to see through. Although it’s not much more than a ten minute drive to my flat, the rain is getting heavier, and I have to go slow. The Beetle is a death trap in rain and wind, as my father has said for as long as I can remember.
Something flashes across my line of vision, a large dark shape like a leaping buck. I slam the brakes and jerk forward in my seat, winded by the unyielding nylon strap of my seat belt. It feels like a horse kicked my chest.
It’s hard to make out much in the slanting rain, but there’s a hunch-backed shape, too familiar for comfort. The outline of the wings is obvious. God—I’ve had maybe two beers the whole afternoon, not enough to blame this on.
“I thought I paid for driving lessons,” my dad says.
“Did you see that?”
“Hmm?” My dad peers through the rain-pebbled windows, as if he can see anything through the sluicing water. “See what?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Someone’s dog is loose, or something.” I take a long route back home, driving through a network of streets until I’m sure I’ve lost the thing. There is no thing. I tell myself this, and in my head, my mother smiles at me, her face hard with some knowledge I don’t have, her hands full of stories. I need to exorcise her from my life. Sort out her things, keep what I want, burn the rest. I press my hand to the little hidden charm. That too. I’m driving myself mad.
My dad walks me up to my flat, carrying boxes, then leaves. I watch the yellow car pull away through the grey sheets of rain. The road is empty, not a soul in sight. My heart is hammering against my ribs and I’m wired.
There’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep now, so I work on stretching Rain’s canvas instead, and drink a thousand cups of coffee while I wait for the coats of acrylic to dry. The wind tears through the treetops, and I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eyes, things that turn out to be nothing more than the waving shadows of branches. It’s almost midnight before I start sketching. Bad to work under electric light, I know, but I have this feeling that I won’t sleep unless I’ve at least managed to get the basic shape of him down. Give Caleb something else to look at while I sleep. Between the painting and the boxes, I’ve penned myself in. There’s a saying about being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. I’m not sure which is which. Is my mother the devil? Caleb? Rain.
Maybe I’m the devil.
In the end, I scrub out the sketch again and again, washing the blue oil paint away with turps. The room stinks, giving me a headache, and finally I crawl into bed half-high on fumes. On the empty canvas there’s just a pale stain of blue where Rain’s face has been obliterated, over and over.
I toss under the covers, waiting for sleep to come. I keep thinking about that thing in the road. The wings on its back. Finally, I sit up and drop my head into my hands. “Irene,” I tell myself “Please stop it.” I throw the covers off and pad across the industrial grey carpet. This is what it’s all about anyway. Not stupid things I imagine seeing, but about facing my other and her life, and her death. My mother’s boxes are sealed with that brown tape that basically takes the strength of seven bulls and a very sharp knife to get through but I’ve nothing better to do with my time—it’s start sorting through this lot or lie down and dream about satanic things hunting me.
The tape finally gives. Inside are a stack of ancient children’s encyclopaedias that I last looked at it when I was about five. Damn. My dad packed everything. I don’t even know where I’m going to put all this crap.
Under the encyclopaedias is a small book that I haven’t seen for a very long time. An invisible spark jumps from the cover to my fingers as I brush it, and I swallow hard before pulling it out of the box, dust falling from its edges. Cold races into my belly and I lean back on my heels, the leather-bound book in my hands. This is what I wanted to find.
It’s filled with fairy tales, I know. Old ones, full of blood and mayhem and people getting what they deserve. I flick the book open to the first illustration plate. It’s the Pied Piper. Red and yellow blur under my fingers and I slam the book closed. I hold it against my chest for a moment. Part of me wants to just throw it back in the box and never look at it again. Instead, I slip it into my shoulder bag. This can wait for morning, I’m going to sleep.
I’ll take bad dreams over bad memories any day.