BY J.L. SERFONTEIN
“I also know that we must go and work in the garden.”
John’s anticipation turns dull and dutiful as he pulls up to the heavy black wrought iron gate. Whitewashed pillars on either side arch down to the wall that is too high to see over, barbed wire spirals along the top. He has to hang half out of the car window to reach the intercom button, and is about to push it again when Elize answers, faint and crackly.
“Hi, Mum, it’s me.”
“Who is it?”
Sticking his head out of the window, John raises his voice to make himself heard.
“Johnny! Why are you shouting?”
John rolls the car down the long driveway, wheels crunching deliberately on the gravel. The symmetrical rows of topiary are shaggy, the lawn mangy with irregular bare and yellow patches. Skeletons of rose bushes are evenly spaced along the walls, and the geometrical flower beds are empty except for some wilted weeds. It is hard to reconcile this neglect with the meticulously manicured garden of his childhood – Petrus forever tending to it.
The house has not changed; it is the same ornate gable, the same thatched roof and whitewashed walls, but it seems smaller, more remote. Only one of the green wooden window shutters is ajar, the rest are closed. The black iron bars over the windows look like they have latched onto the house.
Elize is waiting inside the threshold, shading her eyes with one hand.
“The prodigal son returns!”
They smile and hug, happy to see each other.
“It’s good to see you, Mum.”
“Such a lovely surprise! Why don’t you stay the night?”
It takes a while for John’s eyes to get used to the low light inside the house. He notices the faint smell of fresh paint in the hallway.
“I wish I could. Next time.”
The living room is newly renovated, glossy, like the pages of an interior decorating magazine: mahogany furniture with gently curved legs flaring to scrolled feet, crest rails decorated with ornate carvings of roses; the lounge chairs and couch newly upholstered with ivory velvet; wooden floors, with a plush morning blue rug to match the curtains; white pottery decorated with blue English countryside scenes on the coffee and end tables; fresh red roses in one of the vases; walls cluttered with paintings with intricately moulded golden frames.
John walks over to the front window and opens the shutters. The sunlight that reflects off the varnished wooden floor makes Elize squint.
“Not too wide, I can’t stand the heat.”
Elize looks John up and down, a half-joking inspection.
“Look how pale you are, it’s not healthy. When are you coming home?”
John looks out the window with a small stiff smile.
“The garden’s seen better days.”
He remembers taking Petrus’s lunch out to him: thick slices of white bread with peanut butter and jam, and coffee, in Bettie’s tin plates and cups. Sometimes Petrus would tell him a story while he was eating, always the same story, about a poor man and his wife that decided to work in their garden. They dug the whole day, but during the night a bird came and whistled, undoing all of their work. At a loss to explain the uncultivated garden the next morning, all they could do was dig some more. When they found no trace of their work the next day, the man decided to hide in the garden to see what happens to their work every night. He caught the bird and was about to kill it, but the bird pleaded with the man, promising to make milk for him if he spared its life. It was good milk, so the man took the bird home and kept it in a cage; his family grew fat, while their neighbours were as thin as always. The man warned his children not to tell anyone about the bird, but one day the neighbours’ children begged them to reveal their secret. As soon as they took the bird out of the cage to show the other children, it flew away. The children tried to catch the bird, but it flew further away every time they approached. That night, when the man got home from work, he found the neighbours calling out for their children, and in his house, the cage was empty. He was sorry because he knew that he had lost his food, and his children forever.
“What can I get you?”
“Some water, please.”
“Don’t you want some coffee? Tea? There’s beer. Let me get you something to eat.”
“Just some water, thanks.”
Elize gets up, calls down the hallway.
Sitting down, John notices a painting on the far wall, a family portrait, recognisable as one of his mother’s paintings from the deliberate idealism. In it, his mother is seated on a chair, him as a toddler standing in front and to the left of her. He is holding on to her arm and shoulder, looking up at her sweetly, expectantly. She is looking back down at him with the serenity of unconditional love. The lighting is centred on mother and son, his father standing behind them and to the right, where it is darker. He is looking down at his wife and son, resting his cheek on his fist, with an inscrutable expression.
Bettie’s wrinkled face is beaming. John’s delight at seeing her is easy; he gets up and they hug tightly. Standing back, Bettie holds him by the shoulders, studying his face intently.
“My boy, it is still you.”
“I’ve missed you, Bettie, how are you?”
“I don’t complain.”
“John would like some water, Bettie, and could you make me a pot of tea?”
Her gait slowed by age, Bettie walks out into the hall without saying more.
“I’ll go help her.”
“She’ll manage – she hardly does anything to earn her keep these days. Are you still in that cold, dark flat?”
“I like it there. London’s a good base for my work.”
“I don’t know how you can do that job. It can’t be good for you, taking pictures of other people’s suffering all the time.”
“Someone’s got to do it.”
“But why do you have to do it? It just feels like sticking your nose in other people’s business to me. And your photos are always so depressing.”
“It’s the news, Mum.”
John walks back to the window and looks out to the boundary wall on the right. It had not been built yet, the day they arrived home to find Petrus standing in the neighbours’ driveway. Mr Botha, red in the face, was loudly berating him for intruding on his property. Petrus kept quiet, somehow stoic and defiant at the same time. Tabitha, the Bothas’ domestic worker, was standing on the porch, crying.
“The garden needs some work.”
“Seriously darling, when are you coming back?”
Only half listening, John tries to find the connection between the house he grew up in, and this one with the shaggy garden and glossy living room. The link is flimsy, it keeps slipping out of his grasp, leaving him to feel detached, like an intruder.
From his mother’s intonation, he recognises a question.
“You remember Ina Meyer?”
A pause as John registers what his mother is asking.
“You know, Barbara Meyer’s mother, Barbara was a couple of years ahead of you at school.”
“Sure you do, you’ll know them when you see them. Ina’s brother has a game lodge near Sun City, beautiful place, five-star. Anyway, a couple of months ago all of his Land Cruisers, the ones they use for game drives, got stolen. Turns out that his workers were in on it. Most of them have worked there for years, he built houses for them and everything.”
Shaking his head slightly and pursing his lips, John gazes out the window again. The three-tiered marble fountain in the middle of the garden is dry. There is a crack in the bottom with a clump of brown grass sticking through it. The fountain was bubbling away as always that day, but its reassuring murmur was no match for Mr Botha’s anger. With a stern voice, John’s father told him not to stare as he took his mother by the arm and firmly steered her towards the front door. Flustered, hurrying to keep up with his parents, John heard something like the crack of a whip. He looked around and saw Petrus bending down to pick up his cap. Petrus stood upright, turned around, and walked out through the gate, unhurriedly, his shoulders straight.
“You’ll have to do something about the garden.”
Elize studies the man looking out the window, tries to see her son in him.
“You really have to come home.”
Bettie returns with the drinks, John hurries over to help.
“That’s heavy, let me take it.”
Bettie’s look of reproach stops him in his tracks.
“Let me decide what I can carry.”
Deflated, John thanks, Bettie. She puts down the tray, turns around and walks towards the door. John wants to ask her to sit down, to have a cup of tea with them, but now he hesitates and she disappears down the hallway. He remembers the way Bettie looked at him on that day when Petrus walked down the street without looking back. Tabitha used to come over to visit Bettie most days, but she must have left on the same day as Petrus; he never saw either of them again.
“See what I have to put up with – you’d think it’s her house.”
John busies himself with pouring water from the bottle of Evian into a glass. He pours a cup of Earl Grey tea, hands it to Elize.
“Did you get good photos of the protest?”
“Yeah, got a few shots I can use. I was hoping to get some of the cyclists going past, but the race was cancelled.”
“I know, uncle Chris flew down from Jo’burg for it, had to pay to fly his bike down too. Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for those people, but getting the Argus cancelled, there has to be a better way to do these things.”
“So you’re sympathetic as long as it doesn’t interfere with a recreational cycle race for middle-class white people wearing lycra.”
Elize is hurt by the quick hostility in his reply. John notices, regrets his reaction, but it is too late to take it back.
“That’s not what I mean. Don’t put words in my mouth.”
John looks around the room, something to do in the uneasy silence, notices the family portrait again. A beautiful painting that covers over the barbed wire and the burglar bars, like all of his mother’s paintings.
“I like the family portrait, is it new?”
They fill the rest of the afternoon with pleasantries, placid and oppressive, until it is time for John to get ready for his flight back to London. After taking a shower, he finds Elize in the study.
“I’ve got something for you — found some of your old photos clearing out the house, and thought you might want to keep them.”
The heavy maroon velvet curtains in the study are drawn, the desk lamp providing the only light. Two of the walls are fitted with bookshelves, but they are mostly empty. There are a few books on one of the shelves near the door, a Bible, and some old Bible study books: “Feminine Appeal: the Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother,” and “Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely.” Picking up a shoebox from the mahogany desk, Elize knocks over a stack of papers. John drops to his knees to pick them up—letters, handwritten on paper yellowed by age. Thick black lines block out sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. A red stamp across the first page of each letter: OSHAKATI. He recognises his father’s handwriting, but it takes a moment for him to realise what they are. He looks up at his mother, but her face is outside the light, he can’t make out her expression. John gets up and hands the letters to his mother. He wants to say something, but Elize speaks before he can find the words.
“Look at the time. Better get going if you want to catch your flight.”
Out on the porch, John takes another look at the garden, this time without saying anything.
“When are you coming home?”
They hug goodbye.
“Well, at least don’t wait another year before you come and visit your mother.”
“I won’t, Mum. Take care of yourself.”
Driving through the gate, he glances up at the rear-view mirror. His mother is shielding her eyes with one arm, waving with the other. Her expression is inscrutable, her shoulders straight as she turns around and walks back into the house.