Simon & Schuster/Key Porter, 2005
At 16, Davey's stuck between becoming the man his father wants him to be, and leaving behind the child he was. Before Davey gets a chance to grow up, however, his placid life is destroyed when his parents are murdered and his family farm “reclaimed.” Neighboring farmers try to care for Davey by engaging him in their community of clubs, church, and boarding school, but one night Davey escapes, embarking on a harrowing trek away from civilization and toward revenge and redemption. Ian Holding’s tense, sparse prose, vivid sense of place, and searing portrait of a boy in a situation almost beyond imagining make this an unforgettable debut.
Praise for Unfeeling
‘One of the season’s best books.’ | NEWSWEEK
‘Sixteen year old Davey Baker’s family has farmed for generations. But one night, while Davey is hiding up in the attic, thugs break in and hack his parents to death. The Baker’s neighbours, Mike and Marsha de Wet, take in the traumatised boy and the family’s farm is ‘reclaimed’. As the de Wets worry about Davey, who returns to boarding school but gradually falls apart, they watch as Edenfields withers. Like the rest of the white farming community they exist on a knife edge, while the black workers are also at the mercy of the gangs ... Fine characterization and sense of place meet tense, spare prose as Davey embarks on a terrifying act of revenge.’ | THE GUARDIAN
‘Much modern fiction is glossy but empty, but Ian Holding comes from another world. He has courage and wide sympathies ... Holding’s description of Davey’s great trek, living the way that most black Zimbabweans do, is riveting.’ | Maggie Gee | THE TIMES
‘Holding shows us one corner of this tragic landscape with a raw intensity that mocks his title ... Unfeeling compels attention for the crackling anguish of its mood and the rustling grace of its scenery.’ | Boyd Tonkin | INDEPENDENT
‘Holding builds up his nightmarish picture with intense detail. His descriptions of the land are haunting, his own love of it poignantly vivid ... his work sings.’ | Rosemary Goring | GLASGOW HERALD
‘An outstandingly gifted writer and a dauntingly brave one too ... Holding’s novel is written with a devastating blend of control and anger.’ | David Robinson | THE SCOTSMAN
‘Remarkable ... the novel’s construction is a tour de force, a kind of narrative corkscrew ... gripping.’ | SUNDAY INDEPENDENT
‘His surefooted prose gives this novel a devastating punch ... a commanding picture of the land and nature as the ultimate power.’ | METRO
‘Controversial and powerful ... Through the eyes of his teenage protagonist Holding charts the horror and fear of those who suffered eviction and watched as the livelihood they had fought for was torn from underneath them.’ | THE BIG ISSUE
‘Riveting’ | TIME OUT
'Delicately and darkly reveals what happens when old colonial white Africa teeters on the brink, and when acts of brutality dehumanise both sides as they struggle for the land and the lives that both believe they were born to inherit' |THE LEEDS GUIDE
‘Unfeeling is a visceral and compelling narrative about murder, racism and vengeance ... The novel has already been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, an award given to ‘the best young writer in the world.’ You can expect to see Holding’s name on future prize and bestseller lists.’ | THE EDMONTON JOURNAL
‘A stunning first novel recommended to me by one of our best booksellers.’ | Heather Reisman |THE GLOBE AND MAIL | Best Books of the Year
‘A wonderful first novel ... The book is so brilliantly constructed and well written that I couldn’t put it down. The story is harrowing, but not without humour, and the descriptions of the countryside are beautiful.’ | Alma Lee |THE GLOBE AND MAIL | Best Books of the Year
‘This is a chilling and suspenseful story with a surprise twist. You will be kept engaged, especially in the shifting time spaces that Ian Holding writes so brilliantly.’ | THE VANCOUVER SUN
‘Holding’s confident and measured prose rarely falters. He is especially strong on interior monologues and natural descriptions ... his narrative jumps around, making the novel seem at once seamless and jarring. This mirrors, in effect, the complex colonial history that Unfeeling examines.’ | THE OBSERVER
‘Searingly powerful ... you’d have to be made of stone for this book to leave you “unfeeling” ...’ | MANAWATU STANDARD
‘A brave and compelling story of brutality and human behaviour ...’ | NORTHERN ADVOCATE
‘Narrated in spare, unfaltering prose, the novel is freighted with a profound sense of foreboding. Structured in rhythmical fragments ... Holding deftly builds a compelling story of a paradise lost.’ | Bron Sibree | THE COURIER MAIL
‘Ian Holding has a sure feel for narrative ... this novel touches many bases with skill and assurance.’ | Nicholas Reid | SUNDAY STAR TIMES
‘Only fiction could give us an account of Zimbabwe’s current struggles as searing as this ... a depiction that is as convincing as it is tragic. The breakdown of society is painted with such garish colours of fury which non-fiction could not manage or get away with. A novel of such raw power ... where On the Road meets Gothic Horror burns an indelible impression of 21st-century rural Africa on the reader’s mind.’ |Mike Crean | THE PRESS
‘An authentic, accomplished literary debut in which a boy’s dreams of eventually taking over the family farm are shattered when his parents are murdered. Sent to boarding school young Davey escapes and begins a harrowing journey across Africa. In a word: timely.’ | WEEKEND GOLD COAST BULLETIN
‘This searingly powerful novel of loss and revenge in contemporary Zimbabwe introduces a new voice of real accomplishment.’ | GOOD READING MAGAZINE
‘So powerfully does Zimbabwean-born author Ian Holding’s debut novel Unfeeling connect with his country’s recent history that he is being rightly lauded for his writing ability and his courage.’ | SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST
‘Brilliantly written ... This journey is told in harrowing fashion ... I found the savage beauty of the prose and the narrative compelling.’ | Jennifer Crocker
‘Deftly humanist in its moral vision ... it’s a fine work, its composition intricate. It describes, without trying to solve, a complex ethical and political dilemma. The novel rails against violent effects of unfeeling, and finds its solution in an ethics of care. Holding’s achievement is to affirm this view without melodrama.’ | Prof. Michael Titlestad, | SUNDAY TIMES SOUTH AFRICA
‘The rhythm of the taut and angry language takes on a life of its own that grips the reader to the very last word.’ |Brian Joss | TATLER
‘Unfeeling goes where other novels will not tread. Holding attempts to lend greater understanding to Zimbabwe and a world of postcolonial disaster through his novel in a way that the evening news simply has not.’ | PEAK
‘Unfeeling is not a problem in this harrowing novel ... it’s a book I couldn’t put down until the last screaming detail and whiplash surprise. It’s ridiculously well-written, and such a complete, double-sided vision of Africa it practically sings its passionate love while documenting horrors I hope I can forget someday. For a reader who wants to understand Africa, the real, complex Africa, this book has it all. And that’s just one of its pluses – as a first novel, this is a terrifying joy.’ |NOVELWORLD
THE BOY WITH emerald eyes everyone calls Davey sits on the veranda of Aunt Marsha’s farmhouse, hugging his knees in the searing morning sun. He is shaking, his mind restless, thinking of Edenfields – the Cape Dutch house clutching the hill, just above the cathedral-like tobacco barns and the cluttered chemical smelling sheds, then down to the brown Broadlands Dam lying beneath the hill, and the fields rutted and rugged, spreading beyond. From the hill’s summit at Eden’s View he could stand squinting and know that everything he could see belonged to Edenfields Farm.
Aunt Marsha’s veranda is a smooth stretch of glazed red granite. The rich stench of floor polish makes the boy queasy as he stares at his reflection, still on the stone floor. Looking up to steady the spinning in his head he is lost in a blurred haze of khaki: branches, twigs, leaves, moss. The landscape won’t settle, something in the air seems to reject him, the sudden wild squall of a bird perched high in a dry tree.
Up, out and beyond, he can feel the heavy silence, the flustered settling of the wild.
But in his head strange noises trouble him, grating and scratching about like the snorting of a pig. His hands, stiff and skeletal, shake continually. Sporadically, he claws at his skin with filthy nails, scraping grooves through days of dirt and grime. His body is battered and bruised. His guts shift and stir – he leans forward, grips his stomach, throws up on the steps below.
From the deep shadows of the veranda, Aunt Marsha rises from her wicker chair and moves forward to put a cool hand to his shoulder.
‘There, there,’ she whispers.
Nothing brings him relief. He cannot focus on a thought, hold an image still long enough to recognize what it is or means. Sudden snatches of memory swim across his vision, cancelling out the blotted garden. Sitting back against the cream pillar, his teeth chattering, his hands shaking, he is aware that Aunt Marsha stands, mutters something, withdraws. It feels like the removal of a gag.
Alone, his body exhales. A convulsion follows, the breaking of a fresh sweat and a coldness creeping on him, a bone chill.
Only when he finds himself clutching a cold glass and glimpses again the haze of Aunt Marsha above him does he surface to feel the dull throb of pain at his temple, the roller coaster wobble of nausea. He lifts the rim of the glass to his soured mouth. He tastes the sweetness of the Coke, then the rush of rum and throws up again. He sits back, clutching his tender stomach, hearing the bird complain at him invisible in its tree, and then, a moment later, the sun’s heat escalates.
He had taken a bottle of Captain Morgan’s as he left Edenfields, the shotgun tucked under his arm. He’d planned to retrieve the gun from its hiding place, kick down the living-room door, blow away everyone who moved. Instead, he’d inched down the passage, utterly exhausted, battling to hold the heavy gun steady, the barrel constantly bearing towards the floor.
Being back in the house had done nothing to appease him. Its life force had gone: he felt no slow pulse rise from its foundations, no current move through the sunken pipes and trusses. There was nothing to suggest what it had been. He’d thought the house would have spurred him on, that being there inside its walls, under its roof, would have filled him with family memories, steeped him in the essence of what he’d lost, if just for a moment. Instead, the place seemed sterile, or, worse, indifferent to him. She had spread her terminal gloom to it. The evening was still, the air warm and stale and hard on his lungs as he moved deeper inside – to his left a crescent-shaped table bearing the brass bulldogs he’d once given Ma for a birthday present, on his right a series of teak-framed lion photographs he remembered her hanging on the wall. Ahead: the bedroom, drawing him in like a vortex, for the next act. But in the end he took no delight in pulling the trigger.
Thinking about it now, he realizes he should have expected this anticlimax. He had long ago learnt that death is a strangely quiet thing, even for people. On that night a couple of months before, as he reeled against the cupboard in his parents’ bedroom, the bed red and soaked, a pool of blood edging towards him along the beige carpet like a snake across stone, it had been pure silence pounding in his ears.
Being back in the house disturbed him in other ways he didn’t anticipate. The memories that he had cherished since that night soured and after a while he withdrew as quietly as he’d come, taking only the bottle of rum from the bar counter in the lounge.
Purposeless now, he wandered down the hill, through the cream-pillared gate, and didn’t look back at the tight grip of the house, fort-like on the kopje, betraying him with its stubborn stillness.
Even though the woman was now dead, Edenfields didn’t seem cleansed or redeemed. Nothing had been restored, nothing replaced. He wanted to get far away.
He walked over the red soil, along the dusty road that cut through the scorched fields. The sky darkened; shrill insects seemed to berate him. The wind shifted every now and then, washing him in the evening’s coolness. There was not another soul about, but in any case, the last couple of days had left him far beyond caring whether he was seen or not. He walked steadily through the quick fall of night, climbed to the peak of the high kopje, to the sacred place his great-grandfather had named Eden’s View – a place he knew the fat woman would never have invaded – and there he leant against a rock face, exhausted, delirious, drained of will or reason.
With darkness blurring the edges of the tobacco barns, swallowing up the blue hills, there was nothing between him and the murderers.
The militia had appeared from nowhere, caught them unawares, permeated the farmhouse like vapours. And now they were beginning to come again, this time through his ears, his eyes, the soles of his feet, the hardness of the rocks, from out of Edenfields itself, a shroud of killers, a shimmer of raised pangas, just when he should have defeated them.
Then the haunting sound of a boar rose again, sticking hard in his skull like a razor-edged arrow splintering the bone, slicing cleanly into his brain. In pain, he drove his body hard against the boulder, bruising his spine, cutting his shoulder blades on stone shards sharp as glass. The blood welled through his skin, dampening the grime on his shirt.
But there was no boar. Insects buzzed in his ears, nestled in the dampness of his sweaty arms. Below him the land stretched black and boundless, fold upon fold, dale upon dale, burnt and barren.
When the wind blew, he pictured ash rising in a great grey gust across the vast wastelands of the farm, his Edenfields.
So in fact he hadn’t taken the farm back, hadn’t achieved what he wanted to. He couldn’t raise the dead after all.
He broke the gold bottle-top seal with a quick turn of his hand and lifted the liquor to his lips. He left the gun by his side, waiting. Then the night condensed into a black shadow, surrounded by sunlight, and the shadow took his head on to its shoulder. It was Aunt Marsha: a featureless angel etched in gold, her words distant, incomprehensible, but calm and caring. She moved forward, peered into him. He saw there – he can’t remember – something soft, motherly in the spark of her eyes, a connection.
Then she shook, spun away. A shatter of glass as the emptied rum bottle smashed against rock, a shudder within him, a fall again into darkness.
At Summerville Farm, Marsha is troubled. She sits at her desk in the office, clutching a pencil, poised over a notepad. Someone once told her that she should plan what to say when confronting people, write down what angle to take. She’s never had to try it before – she never has cause to disagree with Mike, never did with Leigh either – but she knows she will need to be prepared when Davey finally shows up. She jots down a few points, tearing the lines out of herself.
1) You know we’re always here for you Davey.
2) Blaming yourself or anyone else isn’t going to help
3) We understand your hurt, the pain you’re going through.
Then she stops. She may as well be fighting a fire with a cake of soap. Who wrote these words? she wonders. Looking down at the paper with its silly little point-form platitudes, she is overcome with a new wave of apprehension. She screws the paper up, discards it.
She’s been anxious for two days, ever since the headmaster called to announce that Davey was missing. The call brought it all out into the open again, forcing her again to confront these dreadful past few months, months in which innocence was lost, lives were taken, everything snatched away in the night. Months in which they’ve all, each and every one of them, been afflicted, but somehow, with the boy neatly tucked away and out of sight, they’ve been able to cover it up, pretend it was all okay.
But, to be honest, she’s been expecting it. She’s had an inkling something like this was going to happen. It is their fault; it is her fault. The simple truth is that poor Davey Baker was forced back into the living, working, breathing world far too quickly after the whole awful ordeal. At the time the community gathered round him, told him that putting his best foot forward was the one way to overcome his grief. They said, ‘Be strong and tough young man, be brave, they’d have wanted you to.’
And however sincere this advice had been, Marsha wonders how many of those giving it knew the truth, that it was said merely to remove the source of their own shock and pain, to bury the evidence. Seeing him off back to boarding school with their tearful faces, their gifts of fudge and koeksusters, had been an act of cowardice.
My God, she thinks, angered by this sudden bitter truth, the poor kid was shipped off at the beginning of the new term, just three weeks after his parents were hacked and bludgeoned to death, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. She could almost hear the community exhale for the first time in weeks. But what gave them the right? And what cruelty: their thin solace was at the expense of the person meant to matter most – the victim, the orphan. Underneath that tough farm boy tan he’s really always been a sensitive child. Surely she should have realized he would have been this vulnerable, this fragile? She had done everything for herself: they all had. They’d let him down.
The guilt hits her and with it her opportunity to atone, when he makes his appearance, as he certainly will. She has felt the signs all along: her prickling fingertips, a sudden shudder in the night, and now that she thinks about it she realizes that he’d even tried to tell them what he was going to do. There can be no denying what crisis, what dark storm has been brewing.
When Davey first went back to school, Marsha moved in with old friends in town and went to see him every day. She stayed a week, arriving at the school at lunchtimes and in the early evening after he’d finished cricket practice, and he’d come to the car or they’d sit silently on a bench beside a brick-lined path that ran through the plush lawns. She tried to comfort him, cheer him up, but knew that her grief was plain to see. So she addressed herself to his stomach, plying him with chocolates, pizzas, chips. He ate slowly and silently and neither of them cried.
One afternoon she took him shopping. He’d lost everything, literally – she bought him a whole new wardrobe, new school uniforms, a new cricket bat and kit – and while she was writing out the cheque in Sportsman’s Paradise, it struck Marsha that 5000 hectares of prime farming land and all the carefree promise in the world were now reduced to this chunk of willow and the torment of desolation. For a minute her hand trembled, her breath quickened, she couldn’t remember whether the word ‘million’ had one ‘l’ or two. A couple of days later she decided she had done what she could.
Back at Summerville she took to calling Davey up regularly. At first these conversations were no easier than sitting on the path bench. Marsha was astonished at how difficult she found it to say anything beyond bland, pointless pleasantries. She desperately wanted to find the phrase that would lance his grief, that would release him to tell her what was going on inside, and therefore be free of it. But each time she thought she might try, she felt herself pushing him away, and stopped.
‘How are you Davey?’
‘How’s school coming along?’
‘Is there anything you need?’
She turned over his monosyllables like crossword clues. At first he spoke with a neutral gravity that implied he was treading lightly in his new being, behaving well, but falsely. But after a few weeks he began to assert the rights of his pain, and Marsha was relieved, though torn, when the phone would ring in the middle of the week and Davey would say, ‘Aunt Marsha, I’m not well – it’s a bug going round.’ She was delighted he wanted to come to her, but then she’d have to fob him off: they couldn’t leave the farm, or petrol was a problem. It was heartbreaking. But that’s what they had decided.
‘Perhaps it is sensible for him not to have to see the unfortunate situation developing out there,’ his headmaster had advised. ‘Instead, I’ve taken the liberty of telephoning one of his friend’s parents who reside here in the city and they’re more than happy to have him for the weekends, look after him and all. I assure you, Mrs De Wet, it’s for the best.’
Mike agreed. ‘It’s better he learns to stick it out at school. There’re far too many disturbing things around here for him now.’
Initially Marsha resented the idea. It was such a typically male thing to suggest. This tough farmer stoicism wasn’t going to help the boy one bit – he needed motherly care, a sympathizer, someone to grieve with. And, of course, Leigh would never have left him in need; she’d have been there in an instant, she’d have travelled through the night if she thought her son was unwell and needed care. But in the end Marsha resigned herself to hardening her heart, because she saw their point. She’d been forced to acknowledge what she couldn’t have conceived of when she first came to Summerville – that farms were no longer places for children, that the horrors he’d witnessed weren’t one-off, random acts, that an organized system of violence had been instigated, and they had to find a way of living with it. Perhaps her days of being what Mike called, affectionately, an eternal idealist were not eternal after all. Although she ached for the sight of Davey, the comfort she’d bring him and the comfort he’d give her as his mother’s son, she had to be realistic.
But a few weeks later, the headmaster made the first of what became regular phone calls. He’d start off, ‘I don’t want to alarm you Mrs De Wet’, and she would know at once that David had been up to something: smoking, fighting, swearing. ‘Of course,’ he would say, ‘we do appreciate he’s going through a bad time and we all sympathize with him deeply, but I must warn you that although these incidents may be relatively trivial within themselves, we don’t want him becoming something that he really isn’t – a thoroughly nasty young man.’
‘Yes, I see,’ she’d replied curtly, wounded. The words ‘thoroughly nasty’ seemed brutal, cruel – as though they were directed at her. She understood what the head meant to suggest, of course she did, but a part of her was angered by this crude branding, herding Davey in with other normal, naughty schoolboys.
‘Perhaps he needs special care?’
‘Quite honestly, Mrs De Wet, the worst thing for him is to be treated differently.’
‘But he is different. He needs some guidance and understanding surely?’
For a while they found themselves in polite deadlock, until eventually they agreed in principle on a revised strategy: he was to go for counselling with the school chaplain. As soon as she’d put the phone down, she knew he would hate it – all that well-meaning obfuscation. She knew he was far too much a farm boy to go in for that nonsense, for talking like a woman, getting in touch with his inner self; he’s far too proud to show emotion, sentiment. Still, what could be done?
And then the half term break began to approach, Davey would have to come back. Marsha dreaded it more and more, longed for it more and more. She didn’t know what to expect from him, how he’d cope returning to the district, how he’d assuage this wild, erratic rage of his, yet at the same time she needed him to come, she needed to bask in his survival. She made up a room for him, removed all the flowered vases, embroidered pillows, and put in a study lamp, an ethnic print duvet, newly made curtains, and a few posters of flashy sports cars and pouting girls in swimsuits on the cupboard doors.
He seemed excited to be coming, almost manic. The whole way back in the car he talked about everything, nothing. At the farm he tore around, ate ferociously, ran amok with the dogs, kicked about in the pool.
‘The kid’s looking much better,’ said Mike. ‘Let him do what he wants, whatever makes him happy. He’s only a boy after all.’
Marsha wasn’t so sure, but tried to ignore this nagging, useless doubt. They indulged him. Mike took him fishing. Marsha baked his favourite carrot cake and milk tart. They went to the sports club to play tennis and socialize, although the club gatherings lacked their old zest. They’d all been so depressed, so down. Now, though, it was halfterm, all the kids were back, and they tried to make it like old times even if they all knew that the old times were fast becoming incomprehensible, like an era before their birth.
Davey seemed at easy around the community, even if the community wasn’t entirely at ease around him. Marsha felt the smiling discomfort, the accepting hostility. How dare they, she thought, how dare they be so damn cruel? Don’t they know it must be obvious to him, must scream out at him even as they chat blandly away? Men asked him about sport, women about school – only the other kids seemed to retain a bit of honesty, not really knowing what to do, awkward in their affection. She tried to ignore what she felt beneath the surface, and in the teeth of everyone’s anxiety to remain calm (to the point of paralysis) she took charge of arranging the mixed doubles and drinks orders herself. The tennis was ordinary, the drinks muzzled the panic.
But it was to no avail. By the time they came back from the club Davey’s mood had changed entirely. He dropped the fake normality (Marsha was partly relieved – the front had been as much a drain on her energy as him) and retreated to a hard moodiness. Marsha soldiered on through carelessly made comments, pregnant silences, the terrible wrench at realizing how Davey might have taken something, and her own desperate, repeated prayer to avoid anything risky or sensitive.
In this state Davey generated a power of his own. Perhaps this was what he was like at school. Marsha never thought a boy would throw her composure, skittle her nerve so easily, especially sweet Davey. There were moments when she positively shook from the inside, sitting across from him in the lounge, not knowing what to say other than offering him yet another ginger biscuit. It was almost like first love – young, unknowing love. And when she made herself dig down beneath his tanned crust, when she pressed into his supple skin, or when she entered through his emerald eyes, it was him – it was Davey – and his being there meant that for a day or two she could be the person she longed for and missed. She could be Aunt Marsha again.
But the next day at church matters came to a head. The three of them were sitting near the back while Pastor Fellows gave his usual pithy sermon. Over the years he’d learnt to make it short if he wanted any kind of attendance. The day’s theme: forgiveness. Marsha stopped breathing when he announced it.
‘We must never underestimate the blessing of forgiveness, the one true gift of the Lord to mankind.’
She sat as still as the pew, sensing the tension rising in David, feeling it steal over her. She looked across to see him clenching his hands, flexing his jaw, his cheeks flushed. Jesus, she thought, please make him stop. But no: Pastor Fellows ploughed on, driving home his point. ‘Forgiveness is a powerful tool indeed in the hands of mankind.’ At each intoned phrase Davey inhaled more audibly; drawing his face into a pained, angular tightness until Marsha saw a vein surface and bulge in his temple.
As she reached out to put a comforting hand on his knee, he snapped. Swearing loudly, he rose to his feet. Marsha tried to pacify him, clutching at his knee, but to no avail. The congregation gasped, spinning round on their pews. ‘David,’ she whispered sternly, trying to pull him down, but he struggled free. He stumbled his way through the sea of knees and then stormed out, muttering angry threats she couldn’t understand.
Shock froze the congregation. A few elderly ladies had raised their hands to their mouths to contain their disbelief, and signal their disapproval. Pastor Fellows quickly announced the next hymn and the thumped opening chords of ‘Praise My Soul’ sounded.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said afterwards, outside, bursting into tears. ‘I’m sorry, he’s just not himself. He doesn’t mean it. He’s just not over it yet.’
Everyone consoled her, said how they sympathized. ‘It’s tough, we know it’s tough.’ But, of course, it remained shocking: it left the impression of violence in people’s minds, stirred their own nervousness. Poor Davey, she thought, was a walking, talking, breathing nightmare for them all, an icy plunge into that deep level where trauma and dread and violence are kept locked away. He stripped back layers of their own blindness to show what the future might hold, the plight of the survivor. Floating between the tea tables outside the church, occasionally snagged by people she’d thought she knew, Marsha glimpsed a dark secret: the unspoken acknowledgement that it would have been better if Davey had perished with his mother and father, so that Edenfields and the Bakers just didn’t exist any more. Total obliteration would have been tidier, less of a hassle to deal with. That was really what these churchgoers were saying to one another when they carefully talked about some subject other than Davey.
On the way home he sat silently on the back seat. She didn’t know what to say to him. The pressure weighed like stone on her shoulders, almost unbearable. In the last couple of months she felt she’d become the community’s flagship, the one they all checked to see was still sailing, still ignoring what the dismal future held in store, and therefore somehow holding together the pieces of a quickly disintegrating flotilla. Or maybe it was Davey they were looking to, and she was just the link: people measured their own sense of wellbeing, their own ability to cope on how he held up. If he cracked, they would crack. And she was responsible for him, wrapped around him, protecting, insulating.
And perhaps Davey just needed the opposite. Perhaps he had done what he needed – shock them – and now that he had reminded them of his pain, he could concentrate on dealing with it properly. Outwardly they all hoped it was so. At church the next week, when Davey was back at school, she made up an announcement on his behalf. ‘He wishes to apologize to everyone for his outburst. He knows it wasn’t the time or, certainly, the place. But he’s truly sorry and wants me to tell you all that he’s now much better and more at peace. He’s much more his old self.’
The community, in his absence, patted him on the back, pleased to see him doing his bit, calming their own fears and anxieties. But it was cosmetic, for all of them a lie. She knew. He wasn’t calm. Wasn’t at ease. He hadn’t got over anything at all.
And then three nights ago Davey called them up late. He sounded agitated, excited, spoke at a rate of knots, saying the same thing over and over.
‘I know what I’m going to do, I know how to deal with these people. I’ve got the solution. It’s all okay now, it’ll be all okay.’
She didn’t know what he was talking about, but tried to calm him. ‘Now just try to get a good night’s sleep.’ Eventually she got him to agree to go to bed and think things through in the morning, but she knew it was a reprieve, not a victory. She told Mike.
‘Just ignore it, the kid’s having a bad time that’s all. He’s probably homesick, been in a punch-up or something.’
Marsha knew that wasn’t it. There was something horribly determined in his voice, something steadfast, resolved. She felt another layer of denial slip away, and spent the whole night restless and unsettled, thinking over and over what he’d said, how hard she’d needed to work to get him to breathe, to talk slowly, to remember that she was there on the other end of the line. And really she knew what he meant to do, and wondered how she could talk him out of it. It wasn’t going to be easy, especially when, with the mounting anger in her heart, she’d like nothing better than to do the same herself. But she knew it was her duty to try to pacify him, help him accept what had happened.
And now he’s run away. She tries to pull herself together. Sitting in the office, tapping a pencil against a screwed-up ball of paper isn’t going to make him appear with an innocent explanation. She’s been stupefied by inaction: all these mounting worries – this anger she has inside her against something she’s powerless to overcome – have weakened her, made her ineffectual. She tosses the pencil aside, throws the paper into the wastepaper basket, taps her twitchy fingers on the desk calendar, stops. She closes her eyes for a moment, to marshal her thoughts, to try to see what to do now. She knows he must be coming back, somehow, travelling back towards her, towards Leigh, towards Edenfields. On the back of her eyelids, in the blackness, she sees him, a shape in the distance, a figure struggling, labouring along the hot surface of a weltering track, a shape broken up by the haze of the heat, into a head, a body, for a moment a limb. Marsha feels the heat, a blast from a furnace. Her breath quickens, her cheeks burn, and then the figure is gone, in the yellow sun.
She opens her eyes, and sits for a while. She goes through to put the kettle on for tea, allowing her mind to settle. She wanders round the kitchen, hacks a chicken from the depths of the deepfreeze and leaves it on a plate to thaw for supper. Waiting for the water to boil, she knows that he needs her – not just in a protective, motherly way, but physically needs her. She doesn’t know why or how, but nevertheless he does. She flicks the kettle off. The bubbling water comes to quick rest. She walks through to the passage, picks the keys to the truck off the key rack.
A few minutes later she’s on her way to Edenfields, to Eden’s View, ignoring the dangers, the armed militia who have fortified the farm. She drives, pulled towards the base of the hill. No one stops her. She parks the truck slightly in the bushes to conceal it from the homestead and begins picking her way through the tall unruly vlei so that she can climb the hill (thankful she’s at least wearing track shoes) to find the boy who’s spent the whole night there, waiting for her. The boy who ran away three days ago to come and do what needed to be done.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020