Plain Text Version - Fiction
I click off the phone and pull over, just before Jesus Loves You. I slump over the wheel, sobbing.
I fill up at the Blyde River fuel station, the same place I stopped at three days ago when I went to interview Andries, the excavator operator up at Mariepskop. The pungent odour of petrol is a jolt. It reminds me of my father, teaching me to drive, instructing me to pull up on the same side as the gas tank. Thereís only a bottle store here, the plant hire place and a kafee.
I ask after Upside-down Thomas whoíd filled my tank earlier in the week. The attendant shrugs. Iím relieved, just making small talk. Upside-down Thomas had told me he was studying Public Relations through correspondence. He asked me to give him a job, asked me to help him. Gee, I said feeling like a culprit. I wish I could. Jobs are hard to find.
Iíd printed the cheque with my fountain pen. Thomas had admired the pen, but it felt like an accusation. When I blew on the wet ink, he narrowed his eyes below his black and blue peak. I figured his studies were a fiction. He held my cheque, looking long and hard at my name, pulling on the paper, stroking it between his fingers.
Iíd said, Keep up the studies, Thomas. I hope you get lucky soon. On the job front, I added, blushing.
Iíll try my level best, heíd answered, licking his lips.
I buy bottled water at the kafee and walk back, swinging my packet, singing, happy to be going home. Iíd spent the week on assignments for the magazine, interviewing vehicle operators for the transport issue, talking to local business owners. Iíve missed my daughter.
There were monkeys, a hornbill, an eagle and lots of different buck. I saw the large holes dug by warthog undermining the electric fences and the spoor of big cats. I saw a snake that left no trail in the gravel, so that after it had gone I doubted Iíd seen it. It was hot at the campsite and the river had dried up. The tap water had tasted soapy.
I feel dehydrated, glad of the sparkling mineral water I like so much. I unscrew the lid, loving the hiss, anticipating the first sharp mouthful.
The garage owner in Kamogelo told me he used to have two excellent mechanics, but one just up and died. The one I interviewed didnít look too good either. He was thin with yellowed eyes and lesions on his skull. The mechanic has to train somebody new soon, but the problem with that, heíd said, is that the new guy is going to up and die on you too. Itís tricky.
The owner of the plant hire company rents out earth moving equipment to farmers building dams. He canít employ his men over weekends, canít keep his equipment operating enough hours in the month to pay off his bank loan. He has to let them go Saturdays, for funerals. Every week, another funeral. Theyíre croaking like frogs, heíd said. You know the end is near when they start sleeping every tea break and lunch hour, napping on the ground if thereís a 20 minute wait.
While Iím waiting for the cash slip, a man at the next pump greets me like he knows me. I donít remember him. Thomas? I ask, tentative. No, he says, Goodenough.
Good to see you, Goodenough, I say, confused. Perhaps I interviewed his colleague, the mechanic, or the forklift driver. Was he a friend of the excavator operator? I canít place him.
You go where?
Home, I say, Jozi, taking just a sip from the water bottle, but wanting to guzzle.
Joziís a big city, he says, watching my throat. I donít know anyone there.
Itís a big city, I say, dabbing my lips.
A man needs a friend in Jozi, he says, still staring at my throat. My knees turn to paste. Perhaps you give me your number, he says.
Perhaps I donít, I say, looking at the gravel that yields no footprints.
My daughter lies on her stomach on the wooden floor. Her legs are under my bed. She points my camera at her baby parrot holding a grape in its bandaged foot. I bought grapes and mangoes and avocado pears at a wooden stall near the Blyde River yesterday.
Whyís Pi eating in my room? I ask, staring at the beard of pulp around his beak. He shakes his head and the mush disperses across the parquet tiles.
He likes the dťcor, says Kate.
You mean he can see the floor in here, I say, wiping up grape particles with a tissue.
Whaddevah, she says. A flash. Light bounces off the walls, my wardrobe. Gotcha!
Weíve been apart for five days, me in the bush, her looking at boarding schools with her father. Her pet had stayed at the vet because it needed antibiotics. We left Karma, the other bird, the one that had ripped out Piís claw, with a friend.
Clean up after him when youíre done, I say. I donít want to tread in sticky stuff.
She ignores me.
She had constructed a toy for his cage, looping together old keys, a dead tin opener, a plastic toy, and the silver ring I gave her last birthday. Sheíd worried about him being fretful. The toy will distract him, sheíd said.
Donít let him chew the electrics, I say.
You hear that, Pi? No wires for nibblies. Donít want a Fried Pi. No burned beak. What would the vet say? Abusive parents, neglectful mothers. Pass a tissue, Ma.
I hand her the box. She wipes the birdís face. It struggles. Stop fussing, Pi Baby.
Take one of me and Pi, Mom. I click. We laugh. She reviews the images, showing them to the bird on her shoulder. Look, thatís you, Pi. Youíre cute. And photogenic. She holds the image out to me. He says itís a bad pic. The angleís not right. Heís looking away.
Take another, Mom. Iíll need good photos of me and Pi. For my wall. At boarding school.
Iím ten minutes early at the psychologistís rooms where the mediation is being held. Kateís father is there already, talking to his lawyer, whose mascara is punishing. I hold out my hand. Her fingers are sticks, her hand-shake pointed, hurting.
I wear my black work skirt, ironed, the mauve silk jacket I bought at a second-hand shop for its good label. The heels do it, make me look competent, perhaps even pretty.
Her father returns to his car, retrieving a folder from the boot. The last jacaranda blossoms fall on the roof. I say to the lawyer, Did he tell you today was the day? She scrutinises me as if sheís hearing-disordered. Itís too late to quit the story. I say, Twenty-one years ago today, we got married.
She says, No. He didnít tell me that. I feel an idiot. But Iím not finished. I say, I was 19.
He returns and rings the doorbell. While we wait, a woman in the street answers her cell phone. She talks loudly, saying, That wasnít the deal; I canít possibly agree. Sheís big, with cropped hair, wearing quilted salmon. From the way she opens her car door, I know sheís unafraid.
I carry my lap-top in a brief case. Moral support Ė that self Iím still proud of: photographer, writer, those digital codes more real than paper, than court orders.
Inside is dark and cool. A dragonfly hovers above a decorative Koi pond at the entrance. This is going to be an expensive two hours. Iíll pay the child psychologist; heíll pay the lawyer.