From an early age, I learned how to bargain with my fears. I was 11 years old, and lying alone in our three quarter bed of our council flat waiting in the half-dark with the paraffin lamp turned low for my mother to come back from work. At the time, she was working at a nylon factory, shortly after she left her work as a domestic. I liked that bed — it had a deep indentation in the middle, shaped by years of lying pressed tightly against my mother’s back. Often, she would say, “Ruby, jy gaan my versmoor!” (Ruby, you are going to smother me!). But I would ignore her, because her shift work kept her away from me at odd hours of the day and night, so I needed that warm embrace, to feel that she was there and fully present with me. But for now, I was alone. If I lay on the edge of the bed, it would tilt me into that deep, safe ditch in the middle where no tokoloshes could reach me.
At the time, we lived at Gladstone Street, Matroosfontein, as backyard dwellers with three other families. And everyday, I would wake up early to walk to Bishop Lavis Primary School, past Pikki-baai’s shop, where I used to buy my favorite Wilson’s toffee, then walk across the unguarded railway line, past Waltons supermarket until I reached the small school building. That walk took me about 45 minutes. Our tiny one-room shack contained a bed and a cupboard bought on lay-by from Ellerines, with a curtain separating the bed from the make-shift kitchen — a table with a Primus stove, plates and a salvaged round plastic container to store bread. That plastic container was one of many recycled from the Christmas hamper that my mother saved for by buying weekly Christmas stamps for the festive season. That Christmas hamper was the highlight of my year — biscuits with red jam in the middle, mebos, slangetjies, spekenam canned ham for New Year’s Day. The embossed painting on the plastic bin was faded now, but you could still the red horse and carriage going round and round in an endless circle.
The shack scared me. We used recycled corrugated sheets to build the structure, and it was filled with holes through which unseen eyes could look at us while we were eating, or bathing in the big zinc bath, or sleeping. Dangers lurked everywhere. I had to make sure that my daily task of fetching water from the far corner of the yard was done before nightfall, or I would have to walk there alone, fearfully peering into the shadows while holding the large plastic bucket as close as I could to the broken tap that spouted water in different directions so that I could get most of the water into the bucket. But it got heavier as it filled up, and I would be forced to lower it to the ground, and so water would pool and sink into the sandy black muddiness around my bare feet. Then the effort of carrying it to the shack, water slopping against my bare legs, plastic handles cutting into my hands leaving the same deep, red welts as the heavy OK Bazaar shopping bags my mother and I shared after our weekly shopping trip. But my reward at the end would be waiting for me to enjoy-a pink snowball covered with white coconut with red jam. But carrying water? No reward, just a chore that led to washing dishes later.
Sometimes, when I was scared, I would plot my escape should one come in the form of a man that wanted to do unimaginably dark things to me when my mother was not home yet from night shift. My plan was to slip down the side of the bed against the wall quietly, until I reached the cool floor, and there I would remain until the unnamed he left, safe in the dark shadow between the bed and the wall. Or I could stuff the pillows into the bed so that he would think there’s someone lying there, and then, bam! I would be out of the room like a rocket.
And so I was lying in bed with the scratchy blanket pulled up to my eyes, peering fearfully at the shadows. The cupboard with its sulky, sullen shape squatting in the corner did not look friendly. The pics from magazines that I pasted on the wall looked ominous, even my hero Bruce Lee looked scary and the bloody scratches on his tummy looked like a warning. Pas op, meisie! (Beware, little girl!) But of what? And from whom? I’ve had my share of scary men already – uncles whose tickling went just that side of awkward, and a night when the male boarder from the big house called me inside on the pretext that he needed help with an undefined something. I followed him into the dark house. He sat down, pulled me between his legs, and asked me softly to put some Vaseline on my hands. Vaseline, such a household familiar! But then he took out his angry looking penis that looked like a fat pink worm with one eye, and asked me to stroke it. I looked up at him, bewildered and confused. Just stroke it, he said in a low voice, stroke it now. Don’t be scared. I replied in a shaky voice, “my mum will be home soon from work. It’s almost 11pm. She will be looking for me.” Luckily for me, this was true, because my mother’s shift ended at 11pm, and she would be home by 11.15pm. And he let me leave, scared and shivering and confused.
So when my mother came home that night, I was already in bed and half asleep. I heard her unlocking the door, but this time I also heard a man’s voice. I strained to recognize the voice, and then I relaxed, it was Uncle A, an old family friend whose wife and children I knew well. I heard her thank him for walking home with her, and told him goodnight. He said he wanted to come in for a few minutes because he was tired. She said my daughter is already asleep and I don’t want her to wake up, she’s got school tomorrow. He replied, don’t worry, I will be quiet.
I was listening to them in that relaxed state between sleep and wakefulness, fully at ease because two people I knew were in the room that now made me feel safe, and its shadows were not scary anymore. Then I heard a scuffle. She asked, “A, wat doen jy? (A, what are you doing?)”
He responded, “Ek wil naai‘ (I want to have sex).”
“Nee,” she responded “gaan huis toe na jou vrou!” (No, go back to your wife!) And then a shout, because he toppled her over onto the floor next to our bed where she fell with a soft woosh!
Alarmed. I opened my eyes slightly to peer down and see what was going on. He was lying on top of her. She said, softly, urgently, “A, moenie! (A, don’t!’)”
He responded, “hou jou mond, dis of jy of dis jou kind!’ (Shut your mouth! It’s either you or your child!)
After this she went quiet. I heard him pull at her clothes. Counted thirteen thumps until he stopped with a grunt. Peered down at her where he was lying slumped on her body, with her panty and stockings bunched around her ankles. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes, held her finger to her lips so that I could understand to stay quiet. I closed my eyes tightly to make it all disappear. It didn’t. Just scary, menacing shadows of dark fears dancing through my head like so many monsters that I couldn’t name. After what seemed like a long time, he got up, pulled up his zip. Left.
My mother locked the door, poured water into a plastic water jug, squatted on it, washed, got into her night dress, crawled into bed, pushed me away when I tried to spoon her. We both lay quietly on the outer edges of the bed. Our safe space in the middle where we used to spoon until we slept a chasm between us that could not be crossed. Eventually, I fell into an uneasy sleep. Something had changed and shifted within me and between us. I was too young to understand what that shift was. Got up the next morning. Went to school. And we didn’t speak about it again for thirty years, when we were able to.