Aimee finished making the cup of coffee for her mother. This was her routine every morning. Her parents would either be away or shut themselves in their bedroom, which was outside the main house, in quarters built above the garage, resembling a little tower. A rickety flight of wooden steps led there, one of the reasons her parents stayed in when they were home. It was a good house for the winter that was approaching. The house just about held together when cousins and other extended family were there, in need. Most of them lived close by but when they struggled, the house became a sanctuary.
As she looked for biscuits to serve alongside the coffee, Aimee heard her son call her, the usual, polite ‘Mommy?’ coming from the bathroom, where he would typically be struggling with his tie.
‘Coming, baby!’ she replied, finding half a pack of Marie Biscuits. Showing her mother gratitude, even for the same situation all these years later, was important. She was getting closer to forty and life before this had been a sigh. She had always been in this house. She thought they would leave the house when they got married but Jacob had struggled. Their combined salaries were never enough. Jacob had lived there since they were teenagers. David was born before they were married. Everything and everyone happened to her in that house.
She placed the mug of coffee on the counter on a saucer with three Marie biscuits. The coffee would need to cool. She went to the bathroom and found David over the washbasin with a pair of scissors, which was odd.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I want to cut my hair,’ he replied, uncertainly, looking with a mix of confidence and confusion at the mirror. Although he was getting so tall, curiously, he still stood on the plastic, mini-step he used to perch on when he was smaller. He was neatly dressed in his navy blue school uniform. His hair did not need cutting. It was no longer than usual and still orderly.
‘Why do you want to cut your hair? It’s just right the way it is.’
‘I want to take it off,’ he said, still uncertainly but with a note of conviction. ‘The way Daddy looks.’
That startled her.
Taking a few seconds, she then replied, ‘No, man, you being silly. It’s getting colder now. You always said you liked your hair. Come, Miranda will be here shortly. Did you brush your teeth?’
He nodded, looked down and quietly got off the mini step. He did most things quietly, a serene twelve-year-old who seldom drew attention to himself. Through everything, he had been her greatest relief. His modest, equable nature was so pervasive that she had worried about it for very long but her mother told her to accept the gift of his tranquility.
She sent him to her parents’ quarters with the cup of coffee, an errand he enjoyed.
He ate so little in the mornings lately. His length, she hoped, was not masking a thinness. As he was of age, she gave him all of his privacy and she had not seen his body in a long time. She was not concerned with bruises left by bullies—that kind of thing died in the time before the virus. Nor did she fret over any signs of substance abuse because that was practically impossible, the way things were after the lockdowns, the calamity and the shaky recovery. All she could wonder about was his headspace.
This Wednesday, feeling indistinct from most Wednesdays, was David’s general lessons day. Miranda was one of the new system’s highly recommended young tutors, close to her mid-twenties, and had developed software for a number of successful startups some years earlier. She’d pick him up on Wednesdays and, before he would enter her car, as was the practice, she would hold the mobile scanner to him that would check him for any signs of the virus. There were unlikely to be such signs: as had been predicted, humans had steadily received the adjusted vaccines, after the first rollouts proved ineffective the world over. It took a while and it felt longer for those who were desperate to get back to how their lives were before the virus. Aimee was surprised that in the Western Cape, where so many had died, the regress in infections occurred so quickly. The aftermath, as was evident by the decimated economy, was, unsurprisingly, a return to the old hegemonies: if you had money, or if you were lucky, based on your structural proximity to the class that ran the economy, you could get your child into the new schooling system. Perhaps you could keep finding the secretarial jobs that coloured women did long before the change, and long before the change before that. The school that Aimee had applied to for David was one of the first of the new ones, funded by international corporations that the local government was happy to do business with.
David, being one of relatively few learners who had passed the psychological screening and entrance exams, showed no signs of post-traumatic disorder. He was deemed fit for entry to the education system. Aimee’s job could barely bring enough income to cover his schooling but she was determined to ensure his learning was not disrupted again. The head of the school said that only exceptionally gifted learners were accepted and that David would be a very important figure in the future.
She saw Miranda pull up outside. Miranda smiled at her and waved, and held open the back door of the car for David. It was no longer protocol to ride in the backseat, but David preferred it. Aimee didn’t watch them pull away.
‘It gets dark sometimes, having kids, and still being you,’ her friend Bailey had told her once. Bailey was a free spirit who did as she pleased and didn’t restrict her two teenage children much, but Aimee knew that it was difficult when they were little and Bailey was working through her divorce. She never saw Bailey again after the first lockdowns were lifted. Aimee had memories of some nights when Bailey took her out drinking, which Aimee never did before without him.
Having a routine helped. She cleaned the house for her mother, regularly. She cooked when the others came over, no matter how long they stayed. The cooking was the difficult part, not the condoning of the others. Sometimes, she liked that the house was full and not haunted. Social distancing was not a factor anymore, and it would not have mattered to them. They were in need.
The cooking was a trigger for her. She had never cooked much when she was younger and was not very good at it. He did most of that and he was good at it. As the jobless years went on, he did little else and she somehow became the cook for her little unit in the house: for him, and for David. By then it was too late for so many things. They had been married for years and had still not managed to move out. Before they were married, they had lived there together for more years. That was always at the beginning of the arguments with him. She told him that he was not doing enough to help her in getting them out of the house for good. Those arguments were the start of his drinking episodes and the times he absconded for days, and weeks.
Whether it was the force of tradition, of loyalty and acquiescence, she adhered to what her mother and aunts, and grandmothers before her had done with men like him: she stayed with him. Of course, there was David, but there was the tradition even before David came into the world. They were all like this. Nobody left, except her sister, who divorced her husband shortly after marrying him. The shock of it was palpable, yet nobody had said anything because her sister was strong-willed and had left to take care of herself. They didn’t speak, and she, too, had moved away after the first two years of lockdowns ended.
The year before the virus promised new things. It was so long ago. Aimee’s office had moved to a different location in the heart of the city, which was exciting. Aimee had never spoken much at the office but the atmosphere and the new location changed things. Management had taken initiatives to recognize all employees as persons and not numbers. This was a change for Aimee. She could speak openly and freely at work. Her co-workers told her that she was stunning but she never believed it until she started liking having her picture taken.
Harlan was the one who made deliveries to the office twice a week. She started having chats with him, occasionally over coffee. The other women gave her knowing looks and she grinned them off. She wore her ring but never spoke about her life at home. Sometimes, she had David there and everyone loved him, and that pleased her. On the train journey home, she chatted on her phone to her friends at the office. It felt they were continuing conversations they had during lunch and coffee breaks. Sometimes, she spoke to Harlan, who seemed to know what she was thinking, and made her feel even more recognized. That became another highlight, chatting on the train and wondering where Harlan was as he chatted to her.
With the first lockdown, she felt dreary about being confined. Jacob slipped out when he felt like it even though he was supposed to follow a treatment. She did not ask questions about where he went. He never was caught when he went out during lockdown. Sometimes, Harlan messaged her and she felt excited and guilty, and then she badly wanted some wine, which could not be kept in the house. She couldn’t have Harlan’s messages. He was a treat she had to save for the trips on the train. She resisted the urge to chat from home. Once, with Jacob absent and David watching TV by himself, she permitted herself to stay in the bathtub longer. She masturbated but found herself overly melancholic afterward. She didn’t do it again.
Jacob was popular with people. That was always how troubles started. Others liked having him over and too much drinking would follow. She hoped that the first lockdown and the ban on alcohol would accelerate Jacob’s treatment. She also feared being in the house without respite. He wasn’t threatening but he wasn’t much of anything else anymore.
There were a few messages from her friends at the office during that lockdown. Harlan’s last messages came at the start of it and she didn’t message him again. She held out hope for the return to the office and for things to go back to normal.
She had gotten used to working remotely but she did not like it. As part of the redistribution, she was only required to work intermittently. Eventually, when the second vaccine rollout proved the success that the first one was not, the social distancing rules had changed and management had filled up more workspaces with those jostling for employment. As part of the new mandate, experienced team members like her had to work from home and earn less, even though they were fully vaccinated.
On a morning designated for cleaning, like this one, she rigorously committed to it. Nobody asked her to. Her parents seldom made an appearance. Infrequently, they left the house unnoticed from their separate entrance and returned as unobtrusively. They kept to themselves, for all their generosity, although Aimee knew her mother did not mind when she went up to visit.
She’d clean all the rooms along the corridor: the bathroom, her brother’s old room, now David’s room, her room opposite and her sister’s old room at the end of the corridor, with the door always closed, the only room she did not clean. After cleaning, she allowed herself to pine for Bailey and to remember what may have been desire that she felt for Harlan. Then she moved on, either preparing supper or sitting at the dinner table with crossword puzzles delivered to the house once weekly. That was also part of the new directive: to keep those with restricted mobility occupied. Successfully completed crosswords were eligible to be entered monthly for the national lottery. She completed one and then fell asleep, something that happened on the cleaning days.
Her phone rang, which was uncommon, and she saw that it was Miranda. She needed a second to prepare herself for any bad news. She answered as steadily as she could.
‘Aimee!’ came Miranda’s voice. ‘I just wanted to tell you that David’s progress is spectacular! I really have never seen such aptitude and awareness. He’s so clever!’
Aimee’s relief raced through her, almost with violence.
‘He has so much intuition and empathy, and he approaches his tasks with guarded confidence. He knows he can do them but he never underestimates them.’
Aimee hadn’t had many conversations with Miranda, who was bubbly. Miranda represented the kind of education David would have been denied before the virus changed things. The new, regional selections for learners with strong aptitude had no transparency but Aimee could not object to it when David was selected. The Western Cape prided itself on being “different” and “forward-thinking” but she did not know what that meant.
‘He’s getting quite tall, too’, replied Aimee, finally. ‘Did you notice?’
‘Oh, he’s just shooting up!’
‘Even when he sits down at night with his homework, I can see it.’
‘Anyway,’ said Miranda, still enthusiastic and cheerful. ‘I just wanted to call to tell you that. You’re doing a wonderful job with him.’
She thought back to the last days of the second major lockdown, the one before the adjusted vaccines were distributed. Years had turned into months, all of them grueling. Finally, they turned to weeks and days. She had been counting them down. To anticipate returning to the office filled her with eager adventure. The final week indoors had not been terrible. Jacob had stayed in for a surprisingly long time, and had cooked one of the suppers. Briefly, she was reminded of how well he prepared food, and with what care and sophistication. Tasting what he made evoked days when he was young and beautiful to match his popularity, even if she had always been in denial about his fidelity. He cooked a certain way only for her and tasting it made her see some of his loveliness and wit again, not only his charm with different people. He did not make an occasion of it; after serving, he and David returned to the television in the bedroom, and the others who were there finished the rest of the meal. Aimee sat by herself at the dinner table, staring longingly into the plate of food she was finishing. Her mother had told her that she was not to leave him, that it would not be right, that it would not be ordentlik, that only she could help him on his feet again to realize his great potential. Both he and David had great potential, always.
On the last night of that lockdown, Aimee chose an outfit for work that was casual, not trying too hard. She knew her friends liked to see her in some of her more comfortable combinations, with sneakers. Sneakers on a woman in her mid-thirties, Bailey had told her, are youthful, comfortable and somewhat alluring. Everyone should feel alluring when they go somewhere that makes them happy, Bailey had said.
After she had put out her clothes, Aimee took a bath. She was excited but wanted to be sleepy, the way David used to be the nights before his birthdays. She took her time. When she emerged from the bathroom, Jacob was gone. She sighed and went to check on David, who was sitting with homework. She asked him what it was. He replied that it was an entrance test to the new school, an exercise focused on future leadership in the region. There was a question about the right to maintain ownership of land, even after national commissions had enforced updated, high priority redistribution policies. She knew it was odd that a child his age should be tested on that. But it was a good school and they were interested in him. She told him that she was going to bed early. He said that perhaps he would still be up when Jacob returned. Aimee did not miss the note of optimism in his voice; he never stopped idolizing his father.
Not long after midnight, Aimee was awakened by message alerts from her phone. She sat up, checked the time and went out the bedroom to check on David. He was not in his room. She found him asleep at the table, where he had been working and waiting on Jacob. She checked the messages on her phone. It was from one of her cousins. She had sent a number of messages, some of them with video.
The first message told Aimee that an incident had occurred outside a nearby liquor store. It was a typical incident: liquor stores, only allowed three trading hours per day, suffered regular break-ins. There had been petitions to remove them from most neighborhoods.
The second message suggested that the store had been looted for food, not alcohol; food stock amounted only to packets of chips and sealed packs of biltong.
The third message told her that a group of young boys had been caught at the scene; it was not clear whether they were the perpetrators but they were manhandled by the police.
The next message was a video showing a crowd of people emerging, some of them berating the police, some of them berating the boys. The video was poorly lit, loud and jerky, making the unfolding situation seem more frantic than it may have been. The next message was a link to a community news page. The link opened more videos, and the voice of a local reporter describing the scenes. Among the gathering crowd, some were agitating the police, protesting their treatment of the boys. The situation escalated to a riot. One man allegedly began chanting. When police went over to subdue him, he beat one of them, sparking a mass altercation. Reinforcements arrived on both sides. Shots had been fired as well as teargas canisters.
The man who had been chanting was seen in the one clip to summon more people into his chant, and he was successful. His white hooded top allowed him to stand out on the poor quality video footage. The next message was a voice note; Aimee could hear the reporter’s voice in the background, but mostly, the noise of the skirmish was overwhelming. She looked at David, still asleep, and lowered the volume. The reporter’s voice could be heard saying that the man in the white hoodie had been stunned with a Taser, but it did not stop his apparent leadership of the incensed crowd. The reporter mentioned that those in the crowd seemed to know the man. One or two mentioned that he was drunk. Aimee opened the final message. It showed the man in the white hoodie lying face down on a pavement, a crimson pool flowing out of the hoodie.
Her cousin’s text asked, ‘Isn’t this your husband?’ Aimee stood still for moments. She felt fear, relief and guilt at the same time.
Another text came: ‘He was shot in the ear by a rubber bullet. It went right through.’
Aimee was flooded by memories of each time Jacob had been in trouble before. There had been loud, drunken scenes at parties and braais. There had been times he had run away and was spotted by others who also sent her video clips or photos. Of Jacob on a child’s bicycle, cheered on by his friends, a bottle of beer balanced on his head. Of him with other women on his lap. Of him being admired by others in the photos or videos with him. Times he had been held at police stations for disturbing the peace. She did not know why all those memories rushed over her in that moment, bringing with them a mixture of anger and pity.
It didn’t matter that the hard lockdown ended after that, or that the adjusted vaccines finally brought relief. She would never leave this place, she thought. She had to stay behind and look after the potential of others—those who would grow and those who would grow no more.
By the time Miranda was outside to drop David off, Aimee had cleaned all of her part of the house, except the room at the end of the corridor. David bolted in and made straight for the table, unpacking his homework and immediately attending to it. He always did that when he had had a good day, a Miranda day. Aimee usually stood at the door to wave goodbye to her, and Miranda would usually wave back and drive off but this time she did not. She got out of the car, leaned against the open door and spoke to Aimee in a light and effervescent manner.
‘How was your day?’ asked Miranda.
‘I didn’t do much,’ said Aimee. ‘Some cleaning.’
‘Would you like to go for a drink tonight?’ asked Miranda. ‘I have a mobility permit and night passes. Night passes for days.’ She smiled. The Western Cape issued movement restrictions on those not yet vaccinated in an attempt to police those coming in from outside the province. It was going to become its own republic, with borders.
Aimee was surprised. She had not been much outside the house beyond going to the corner shops. She had seldom socialized with people like Miranda. Compared to Miranda’s cheerfulness, Aimee regarded herself as boring.
Uncertain, Aimee held a hand to shield her eyes from the setting sun, which was behind Miranda. She winced and said, ‘Okay. Sure.’
‘Great!’ Miranda’s bubbliness never missed its cue. ‘Pick you up at eight?’
‘Sure,’ replied Aimee. Miranda waved, and drove off.
Aimee dished food for David. She did not eat. She served up two more plates, put them on a tray and asked David to take them up to her parents. Aimee showered instead of taking a bath. She had not used the bath since the night before the last, major lockdown ended. She had never made it back to the city office after that.
She tried not to concentrate on what she was going to wear. She slipped into some comfortable jeans, put on a simple blouse with a jacket over it and, remembering Bailey, put on her sneakers. With David at his grandparents’, she went into the kitchen to dish one more plate of food. She did so with more care than usual. She took the plate to the room at the end of the corridor, gently opening the door.
Jacob was sitting up. He was staring at a TV screen, reading the subtitles. The screen reflected off his bald, heavy head and the almost vacant stare of his eyes. He never looked at her when she came in to feed him. He did not have his ear patches in. They never spoke. He was mostly immobile but the doctors had not diagnosed that. He kept himself confined. He allowed her to feed him. That was a ritual, and the only time they saw one another. David had insisted on doing the rest. He took care of his father.
After he ate, she left the room with the plate in her hand, closing the door as gently as she had opened it. In the kitchen, she washed the plate and packed it away. There was nothing left to do. She slipped the wedding ring off her finger and placed it on the kitchen counter. She went outside just as Miranda pulled up. She looked elegant without effort, her youth doing all the rest. She was pretty, sexy and easily graceful. As Aimee approached the car, Miranda held the door open for her from the inside.
‘You look light and breezy,’ said Miranda over the music that was playing, which Aimee did not recognize. ‘And so dishy. I’ll have to watch over you.’
‘Thanks,’ said Aimee as she got in and took the front seat. ‘You look great.’
‘Your hair is so incredibly long,’ said Miranda, looking longingly at Aimee. ‘I could never pull that off.’ She touched at her big, golden brown curls. As they pulled away, Miranda lowered the music.
‘I cannot say it enough,’ Miranda began, looking ahead. ‘Davey is doing extraordinarily well. I’ve never seen anything like it. He can be anything he wants to be.’
Aimee was struck by “Davie”. The intimacy of it was no longer hers alone. She decided that it was okay for Miranda to call him “Davie”.
‘Yes,’ replied Aimee. ‘He’s taken really well to—everything.’
He would take well to Miranda, Aimee thought. He would do well after his schooling, with positions on his path secured and the province’s borders eliminating competition for livelihood. If she disappeared, David would be fine.
‘And he is getting so tall!’ Miranda exclaimed the way a proud mother or sister would. David would remain in good hands with her, Aimee thought.
‘Can you get me out of here?’ she asked Miranda.
‘Yes,’ Miranda replied quickly, as if she knew all along that the question would come.
Out of the Province, out of everywhere, Aimee thought.
‘David will be fine,’ said Miranda. ‘Although I wish you’d stay with me. It could be just us, and him.’
‘Just me,’ said Aimee, firmly, although she offered a soft look to Miranda.
She looked into the rearview mirror, the first time she had done so in years. She was looking to see the house. It occurred to Aimee that the house looked exactly like the other houses, and its one distinguishing feature, the little tower where her parents lived, could not be seen at all. She quickly lost the house, unable to make it out as Miranda sped up along the street. She did not look back again.