NOTE: I’m releasing the first chapter of CHARM on a Friday because it’s the first of May. From next week it will be released every Wednesday. I hope you enjoy the read.
Escaping the Witch House
A handful of hair drops to the ground and lands in a dark tangle against the bathroom tiles. I stop. The pair of scissors trembles in my hand. Perhaps this isn’t my greatest idea. Not that I’ve ever exactly been known for great ideas. Irene Kerry; the Girl of Failed Good Intentions. I force my head up so I can stop looking at the mess of fallen hair, but the mirror isn’t much of an improvement.
My reflection snarls, grabs another fistful of curls, and snips. I think I’m supposed to feel relieved but instead my heart pounds like it’s trying get out before I do anything stupid. Stupider I keep hacking away. With each snick of the blades my stomach drops further and further, and depression settles over me in a fine ashy coating. This isn’t freeing in any way, it’s just a great big mess, and oh-god-I-am-an-idiot. There’s a reason hairdressers charge people for this, and the reason is staring at me in growing horror.
The last wisps fall. They’re everywhere—scattered around the basin, lying discarded on the white tiles. The bathroom light fizzes, the fluorescents bouncing off the cold antiseptic gleam of the tiny room. All I can see is hair.
My skin itches. Right now I can’t tell if it’s my eczema or if I’m having one of the weird stress-reactions I sometimes get, and I grab the edge of the basin. After a few deep breaths, it passes. I can do this. I snip desultorily at a few longer strands, and pretend that this is the look I was going for.
Everything will be better now. With my hair cut short and the curl flattened, I look a little like a boy. A scrawny, girlish boy, sure, but that’s better than nothing. I open the medicine cabinet to change the angle of the little mirror, and turn my head to the right so that the raw red prickle of my latest rash breakout is hidden. From this perspective I don’t look terrible-terrible. Maybe I can walk around like this for the rest of my life. Paper bags are great fashion accessories. So very in this season.
Not that I’m doing this to look good. It’s about carving myself anew identity, one that I dictate for myself. Or, if we’re being honest, maybe it’s because this way, just for once, Rain will really see me.
I almost laugh out loud. The day that happens is the day I know something has gone tremendously wrong with the world. I’ve long since learned to settle for friendship. I sweep up the hair and throw it in the cheap waste-basket lined with an old SPAR packet. The mass of black curls fills the bottom of the bag. It’s too much of a reminder of the girl I have decided to stop being, and I knot it closed.
A fast shower to sluice away the itch and already the weirdness of my new haircut is growing on me. It feels softer like this, like playing with a puppy and I keep touching it, running my fingers through the shortened curls. My head seems lighter, and I let my feeling of loss swirl away down the shower plug. I’m ready to face my life.
The bachelor flat I’m currently renting is the tiniest, most cramped little thing you’ve ever seen. It’s probably also the cheapest, and since I’ve just left school and all I have to my name is a crappy waitress job and a motley collection of oil paints and brushes, I’m certainly not in the running for anything bigger. Plus my dad had to put down the deposit, so I’m also paying him back for that. Technically I could have stayed at home while I decided what I wanted to do with my life, but my dad and I are…. we don’t hate each other or anything, we’re just two people who probably shouldn’t live together.
In the main room that doubles as bedroom and lounge—and if we’re being honest; giant laundry basket—I slip on a pair of faded men’s jeans that hang on my hips and a button-down long-sleeve shirt; black, naturally. Rain says I have been going through a goth-phase since we met in kindergarten, which is hilarious, coming from him. I tuck my mother’s evil-eye pendant under my shirt where no-one can see it and the cool stone settles against my breast-bone. She died when I was eight and it’s been ten years since I stole the pendant from where it hung on her bedroom wall, above her writing desk where she kept her leather-bound book of fairy tales. My father never missed it. Or if he did, he never said a thing to me. Not overly unusual in the Kerry household, really.
The necklace is the only item of jewellery I can wear that doesn’t set off my eczema. No earrings or rings or chokers for this girl, I’m afraid. I put it down to some blessing of my mother’s that I can even wear this. I keep it to remind myself. Of what, sometimes I’m not even that sure. Maybe that I’m not insane. I’ve inherited my looks from my dead mother—including a unibrow to make Frida Kahlo jealous—but that’s not all I got from her. She was weird. Not a good hey my mom’s a bit kooky but she’s okay weird. Proper weird.
She used to tell me when things were going to happen before they did, and when I asked her how she knew, she said it was nothing more than an art. Which was fine as an answer when I was three, but it got pretty stale fast. She also used to see things that weren’t there, and hide me from monsters she said were coming to find me. When I was little, I remember crouching breathless in her old kist, heart hammering in the dark and small space, waiting for monsters that never came while she drew chalk rings on the walls and floor, and put broken mirrors on the windowsills. Eventually I just stopped, refused to go on with her stupid crazy ideas. That’s when she got into her staying—up all night muttering to herself stage, which was harder to hide from than monsters, really. So yeah, weird-weird mother. The day she died, she saw her death coming and she sat me down on her bed and held my hands in hers and told me.
I think it messed me up a little. Who does that to their kid? Not that I really think she saw the future. It doesn’t take prophecy to predict your death when you kill yourself.
So now I get all stressed out when anything out of the ordinary happens because I wonder if I’m going mental like she was, and does insanity run in families and it’s not like I could ask my dad. “Hey, so remember how mom was like, a little, you know, off her freaking rocker before she died? Do you think I’ve got her…mad gene or something?” That should go down well.
Madness and horrible disfiguring skin diseases. Hooray for family, right? I press a warm cloth over the worst of my eczema, then dab my cream over the patch that runs from the corner of my nose all down to my chin, and hope that it fades a little. I can’t even cover it up with make-up because that’s just asking to end up looking like some kind of medical encyclopaedia illustration. Eyeliner and shadow are full sum of my makeup collection, until the eczema decides to eat my eyelids, I suppose. There are more patches in the crooks of my elbows, and one persistent area just at my left armpit. There’s a reason I was never going to be Miss Bikini Queen of the Highveld.
It’s time to go pick up the love of my life.
Rain promised that he’d go out with me tonight, and I don’t care whether we go through to the crap-fest that is Zeplins on a Saturday night, full of rugby-playing Pretoria meat-heads, or if we hit one of the trendier-than-thou bars in Melville, but I’m determined to get him out of that house. Being around his mother for any length of time is enough to drive anyone off the deep end, and with Rain, well, there’s no-one who can quite fuck him up as much as Lily can. I’ve long since stopped being scared of her, but if it wasn’t for me rushing in and dragging Rain out into the sunshine every so often, I swear he’d just wither up and let his mother completely destroy him. It’s probably why we’re friends. Mutual mommy-issues.
“Right,” I say to the empty room. “That’s me done, then.” The stranger blinking back at me from the mirror no longer looks like my mother—I should have cut my hair off years ago. I glance at the boxy white alarm clock on my bed-side table. Knowing Rain, he’s probably counting every second until I get there. Somehow, I’m always running late.
I slam the cheap plywood door on the little white cubicle of my life and let the heat from the Joburg sun blast me.
Rain lives in Orange Grove, in one of those ancient face-brick houses that have “potential” in estate agent-speak. It’s poky and dark and the tiny garden is a mess, and one day some rich person is going to snap it up and gut it and re-invent it. Well, no. I lie. Because Orange Grove is not Norwood. Instead the place is just going to decay and inside it Lily and Rain are going to decay too. God, how depressing.
Lily opens the scarred door before I even knock, which means she’s been watching me come up the road. Lovely
“Hi, Lily.” I’ve always called Rain’s mom by her name—she insisted. I think it makes her feel younger or something. She blinks at me, and her expression flows easily from suspicion to surprise. “Your hair looks nice, Irene.”
“Thanks.” I twist my thumbs in the loops of my jeans, and wait for permission to enter. Of course, Lily thinks everything is nice, so it was pretty much a non-comment. She’s blocking the open doorway, smiling her perpetually vacant smile, and wearing one of her hand-embroidered peasant shirts. Her long hair is greying, and it’s always loose. For Lily, the seventies never really ended. She’s still smoking her way through bankies of weed and pretending everything is groovy. And she’s also still blocking my way in. I hitch my canvas army bag back up on my shoulder. “Is Rain in?” It’s a stupid question. Rain is always in.
“He told me you’ll be coming to visit.” She hasn’t budged. Lily gives me the creeps like just about no-one else does. Around her, it always feels like my skin is about to itch right off.
Finally, content that some kind of dominance game has been played out, Lily shuffles back a bit and I squeeze past her as politely as I can, trying my best not to actually touch her. She waves to someone across the road and then turns in, shutting the door. The place smells like curry and lentils and incense—an explosion of nag champa. Overhead an ancient fan stirs the muggy air around, swishing all the smells together.
In the windows, beaded things twirl, catching the sunlight. Lily has glued tiny mirrored tiles onto them and they wink out at the street. Her lounge is cluttered with knick-knacks and tchotchke of the kind you buy at the flea market for a hundred rand or less. The walls are crowded with paintings gone so dark that I have to squint to see what they’re actually of. Gathering dust in the corner of the dining room is an old upright piano long since appropriated as a shelf for Lily’s bead trays.
“He’s in his room,” Lily calls out after me as I stomp down the passage way. On the edges of the once-pink carpet the hardwood floor is almost grey. Cobwebby. Housecleaning and the general care of anything have never been Lily’s strong points. Even her house-plants are dead.
Of course Rain is in his room. Where else would he be? Damn boy never leaves the house unless I drag him out.
“Who won?” he asks when I slam open the door. “The lawnmower or you?” His voice has an English drawl—something he’s cultivated by watching way too many Brit-coms.
I dump my bag on his bed and flop down next to it. “Hilarious, I’m sure.”
Rain shuts the door and stands with his back pressed against it, as if he’s trying to stop something strange and terrible from coming in. Probably Lily. His arms are crossed in front of him, and he cocks his head so that his bleached hair falls over his eyes, and he grins. “I’m kidding. It suits you. Kinda.”
Well gee thanks, sweet talker. it’s about as close to a compliment as I’m going to get from the boy, so I settle in, digging through my bag for my cigs and a lighter.
Two years ago Rain tried to paint his room black and got bored half-way through, so he covered the last unfinished wall with band posters and comps and flyers. There’s a ratty couch against the wall—the crash couch—where everything gets dumped. Somewhere under all his junk is an Indian throw I bought for him at the Oriental Plaza. If there’s one thing that Rain has in common with his mother, it’s an aversion to cleaning anything.
“Are you going out like that?” I ask in a not too-subtle attempt to find out where’s he at, mentally. I light my cig and toss him the pack.
He catches it easily, lighting his own from one of the candles burning on his table.
“Every time you do that a sailor dies,” I tell him.
“So you’ve said. You know we’re nowhere near the sea, right?”Rain’s wearing scruffy black jeans that probably haven’t been washed since he bought them, and a pair of cheap canvas trainers, the rubber soles already cracked. The laces are loose, trailing like dirty little shed snake skins. In head to toe black, he looks like a coffin kid genetically spliced with an underfed surfer. He’s still wearing that damn jersey I gave him for his sixteenth birthday. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not wear it—it’s like a second skin and by now it’s so thin that the elbows have worn away and the white of his tee shirt shines through the stitches. For all I know, he thinks it adds to his waifish charm. I refuse to admit that he’s right.
“Doesn’t matter,” I say stubbornly. “You still shouldn’t light a cig from a candle. It’s bad luck or something.”
“Or something. You sound like lLily.”
My mouth thins. “Out. Where are we headed tonight?”
“I’m not going out.” He scuffs at the once—blue carpet with the toe of his shoe. Smoke plumes around his fingers, and on the table the candles gutter.
Okay, now I want to strangle him. If he’s going to be like this then I might as well have stayed home to paint. “You said—”
“I know what I said.” Rain shuffles over to the bed, arms still hugging his chest, and sits down next to me. Our smoke meets, tangles. I like to think they’re our ghost-selves. “Come on, Irene. Let’s just chill here.” He’s pulling the plaintive Rain voice, to which I have developed an immunity.
“Don’t get bitchy. There’s nothing to do if we go out, except drink—we can do that here.”
I resist the urge to beat him to death with a pillow; just grit my teeth and lie on the bed with my legs over the edge and stare up at the pressed ceiling gone yellow with cigarette smoke. “I’m not being bitchy,” I say. “You can’t sit in this room forever, you know.”
He stretches out next to me, his breath fluttering. A small noise in the cramped room. We lie like that, side by side, our ghost-selves polluting the ceiling a little more, while outside the neighbourhood dogs bark, and the faint noise of the Louis Botha traffic drones.
The bed springs creak. He’s up, across the room, lighting a stick of incense. The sicksweet smell coils through the muggy air as he sifts through his collection of LPs. Plastic rustles. A button clicks, and the needle drops. The record hisses as the needle bounces along the grooves. If he puts on Nick Cave, I’m going to scream. The lid snicks into place. Rain is the only person I know who actually owns a record player. I think it used to be Lily’s.
A bass lead thunders the crappy speakers, making them buzz. Fucking Joy Division.
“Want a drink?”
I lift my head so that I can see him across the dusky room. He’s fiddling behind the burnt—out speakers that he uses as an incense table and hiding place for his stash.
It’s not vodka today though. Cooking sherry, which means he’s been too scared to leave the house for days now.
“Why are you drinking this shit? It’s like, 38 degrees outside. The bloody roads are melting and you’re drinking sherry? You know who drinks sherry? Old ladies who have no pets and buy tins of dog food and hair nets. And dye their hair blue.”
Rain is smiling despite my ranting. “So you don’t want any then?”
“Ah, whatever. Just pour me one.” If I’m going to be stuck in Rain’s house on a Saturday afternoon, I might as well get pissed. He’s right. There’s nothing else to do. We have no car, we have no money, and we live in Joburg. That’s a death-sentence right there. Not in the way you’re thinking. I know everyone seems to believe that if you live in Joburg and you take one step out of your house you’re going to get gunned down, and then crazy hordes will rape your corpse while mutilating your remains for muti. It’s really not like that. But, Joburg is huge. It sprawls. And it runs on cash and flash. If you don’t have any, then you might as well not matter. You’re screwed.
I sit up and take my drink. The sherry is sticky sweet, enough to make my stomach turn. But I sip at it anyway.
By the time the late afternoon sun turns the curtains into a backlit post—modern artwork, we’ve finished the bottle of sherry. I’m feeling sick, my stomach protesting. We’ve worked our way through Joy Division and The Doors. Now we’re on the Velvet Underground. Rain is the most retro person I know. He categorically refuses to listen to anything that wasn’t recorded before the year Kurt Cobain ate shotgun. He says it’s the day the music died. I’ve given up arguing with him about how he was nine at the time and I remember he still thought Wet Wet Wet were the greatest and he had posters of Marti Pellow torn out of Top 40 and stuck up all over his room, so no, pseudo retro-boy, I don’t think so. His whole shtick is just meaningless.
“I’m going to go stir-crazy in this house,” I say. “Out,”I moan, clutching at my chest. “Must. Get. Out.”
Rain is sitting cross-legged on the floor against the bed, mumbling along to the music. He cranes his neck so that he can look up at me. “No.” He pauses, and cocks his head like he’s at least thinking about it. “Where?”
“I dunno. Doors, Zeplins. Anywhere.” I chuck a hippy-velvet scatter cushion at him. “Any place but here. Besides,” I wave my glass at him, “We need more booze.” I put on my best Richard E. Grant voice. “I demand some booze!” But I know I’ll go where ever Rain wants, because I like to make Rain happy.
God, I know it’s stupid. No-one has to tell me that. And I’m self-aware enough to know that he’s never going to like me that way, and he’s fucked-up and selfish and stupid and not worth my time, but it’s not like I chose this. I hate that he’s in my head like a cancer and I can’t cut him out.
Memory, who is the only person who still speaks to me now that school is over, told me that I need to get Rain out of my system by having sex with him. Because he’s bound to be so utterly crap that I’ll be embarrassed to have ever had a crush on him in the first place. When I explained to Memory that this would be slightly difficult to achieve, seeing as how Rain is gayer than a freaking camp-ground, Memory said I should just get him completely shit-faced and talk in a really deep voice. And make sure the seduction happens in a dark room.
Yeah, no. Memory needs to never become an advice columnist or anything, because that way lies insanity.
“Okay,” Rain says, finally.
And I grin, because we’re at least getting out of Lily’s witch-house.