What Happened to Us
Little Island Press, 2018
In the fiery environment of an election season, with tensions stoked by an unrelenting heatwave, Danny Walker goes about the business of being a carefree boy. But when a horrific act of violence is visited on his family, his sense of innocence is shattered and his grip on reality slowly begins to fracture. In lean, lyrical prose—reminiscent of the work of J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy—Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding delivers a mesmerizing coming-of-age tale of guilt and responsibility set within the fault-lines of modern Africa.
Praise for What Happened to Us
‘A powerful coming-of-age tale. The deceptively simple storytelling narrates a disturbing and layered tale with admirable grace. The author’s sensory detail, imagery, and strong descriptions build up tension and a textured impressionistic feel of domestic life that is destroyed by a random and traumatic act of violence.’ |THE BOOKBLAST
‘This is a powerful, haunting novel in which setting and culture are key. The heart of it though is a wider perspective on the side effects of conflict and political upheaval. It is a recommended read.’ | JACKIE LAW | NEVERIMITATE
‘Proves hard to put down, with razor sharp prose. The tension builds and builds, tightly held resulting in something quite special. A brutal gut punch of a book. A deeply intimate reading experience. Long lasting. A writer I’ll go back and read, and wait for what comes next.’ | ASHAKODAH BOOKBLOG
‘To read Ian Holding’s What Happened to Us is to be drawn into a state of suspension, to hover with a child, a family and a country on the edge of possible unravelling. Holding has been likened to JM Coetzee, and although similarities in theme and style are evident, the distinctive tenderness of Holding’s first-person voice, which poignantly evokes the vulnerability of boyhood, is very much his own.’ |JAQUELINE LANDEY | REVIEW 31
I THINK WHAT HAPPENED to us started the day I was out playing on the streets of our neighbourhood and accidently pissed on the President’s face. I was a thirteen-year-old kid, skinny, lean-boned, full of shit. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I was home early from school on a scorching early November day. There hadn’t been any rainfall yet to ease the tight, dry heat or settle the dust, and I was out and about amongst it, blood-hot, looking for trouble.
This small convenience shop sat at the edge of a circular field. It was more of a bottle store, at the end of a row of three shop buildings, and it was run down, a bit grubby. We never used it unless Mom ran short of milk or sugar so she’d send Petra down to see if they had any in stock, but it was popular with the domestic workers from around the neighbourhood. Dad said it had become a bit of a shabeen and I shouldn’t hang out there, but that only added to its allure. Sometimes at weekends, at dusk on a Sunday, there was twangy gospel music blaring from a blown speaker, and the mob of people on the stoep jigged about in an aura of sweet-smelling smoke.
During the weekdays it was calm, sedate, low-key. Flat red soil ran along the wide ground in front of it, scattered with small gritty stones, dry tufts of lime-white grass. Upturned fruit slats balanced on bricks had items for sale spread across them, tomatoes, cabbages, charred mealies on the cob. A row of grim nannies oversaw it, their fat arses sat on small stools, looking generally pissed with life. They were my victims, my play things for the afternoon as I glided in, owning a straggled line of them in my crazed vision.
The first thing I did was race the narrow corridor behind them, between their line of stalls and the cracked concrete stoep of the shops, before braking hard, leaning in and turning my handle bars down at an angle I could just control. The effect was great, soil swelling in my wake, rising in a cloud, smoking everyone with a rusty layer of fine dust.
‘Mufana,’ they said. ‘Hey, hey, you go away, go away.’
‘Ha ha,’ I called back, loud and mocking.
This was taken as a threat. One was up and after me, lumbering through the collapsing sheets of dust, her dark arms flapping, her screen-printed T-shirt barely containing her massive boobs and the rest of her bulk wrapped in a skirt of loud zig-zag print fabric. It was those jagged strokes I saw staggering towards me that made me think I was deep to the neck in the crap this time.
But I was too fast. Swift and energised. I was up on my haunches, kicking down at my pedals, cruising the cusp of the crescent in no time, yards and walls and gates streaming soundlessly by, and I’d left her shaking her fists at me, yelling at me in Shona to stay away. This was only a challenge for round two, a second assault. I circled back, laughing my head off.
This usually carried on until I grew tired. There were only so many nannies you could rag and run away from before your legs got stiff, a thirst dried out your throat. Plus on this particular day I needed a short rest and a quick piss. I pedalled round the back of the bottle store, lent the bike against the brickwork and took a slash against the wall, sure this tall flange of dry bush acted as a bit of a screen.
It was only when I was shaking dry I realised the entire rear wall of the bottle store had been strung up with these glossy banners in yellow, green and black stripes and they had writing on them, quotes and slogans around this centre picture, and in fact I had been busy sloshing a firm jet of pee at a supersized image of a pair of square glasses, behind which were two distinctive dark eyes, opal black, a rim of red round the pupils, both cased in a stark off-white slip. It was the President’s face. Oh shit. Not good at all. I felt this immediate lung-drained panic of having done something very wrong, very bad. I quickly pulled back and hopped on the bike, racing off round the front again. I didn’t think anyone saw me, it didn’t feel as if anyone did, but you never know and I can never be sure.
For several seconds I kept expecting an angry swarming mob to come charging after me, but no one did. I decided to play it cool, to hang around for a bit, launch a fresh attack as if nothing had happened. I swooped through the passage again before curving off, breaking and grazing my tyres across the loose red soil. Again the sheets of dust furled. But even the nannies had given up chasing me now, resigned to the heat and their quiet fury at this cheeky white boy. Their shouting and cussing, threatening to march off to call a cop, send the war vet militias after me, all came to nothing and they knew it as well as I did that this was their bitch bad lot of a stinking hot afternoon. In the leafy northern suburbs the white kid was king.
In a way I was disappointed my antics hadn’t caused more of a stir. It was a flat anti-climax. I craved the high drama of inciting the locals, longing for their animated histrionics to serve as a counterpoint to my own tame suburban background. It had the promise of being thrillingly entertaining. At the same time an older part of me knew this brand of shit-stirring was bordering on becoming distasteful anyway, a touch pathetic.
I pulled away from the grime and the groans and started to make my way up Alice Smith road, slugging hard at the pedals as I began to climb the hill. Sweat sluiced my baked brow, the nearly hairless hollow of my armpits. I rocked on the bike to build a rhythm but my legs gave in, failing me three-quarters the way up. I stopped, panting. I slid off the saddle and began to wheel the bike next to me. It was hot as hell.
I noticed three men slink into focus behind me. Two were tall, lanky, swaggering. The third was shorter, stockier, strolling with a smug rocking movement as if wired into some hip inner vibe. They wore blue workman’s overalls, the same bog-standard design you saw everywhere about town. They might have been working somewhere in the neighbourhood, installers, contractors or craftsmen, but to me they were just this formless trio loping over my shoulder, an irregular moving mass. They had been at the bottle store, carrying scuds of chibuku in boxed blue and white tubular cartons which they raised to their lips, then steadied with both hands as they drank. Had they seen me pissing on the President? Were they coming after me? I kept thinking I was going to be clapped to hell and dumped in a ditch. When I glanced back, I caught the rhubarb-dark eye of the shorter man and a silent, intense scorn narrowed in towards me. They were getting closer, faster than I was, lazy and spent, pushing a bike up the nape of a hill. They were closing in on me all the time.
I wouldn’t let them pass me. A tug deep within told me I couldn’t, not once I had met that pair of stark angry eyes. I needed to get away. The hot silence between us told me very clearly. When they were just a few feet behind me and I could almost feel their hot beer breaths on the back of my neck, I reached the summit of the hill and in a flash was on my bike again gliding down with glorious triumph, freewheeling at a speed that was so foolhardy a gangly wobble crept into my front tyre. I was home now, with some relief. I applied pressure to the brakes as I arched into our driveway, No. 11 Alice Smith Road.
My arrival disturbed something. There was a moving lump in the thick shrub beside the wall and a strange new fright overcame me as I stared wide-eyed into all that mottled darkness. Something was about to jump out, pounce on me. But deep in the olive brown I traced the outline of a ginger cat, a stray crouched down, its sharp ears erect at my arrival. I considered flushing it from its den, chasing it, but it had already outthought me and was scaling the wall, sliding its fat belly over the ledge into our garden where it cantered away in a heartbeat.
‘Frickin cat,’ I said.
I slipped the blue and grey oval-shaped remote from my pocket, pressed the red button. The gate coasted back on its rollers and I stepped into the yard but before I closed it, I glanced back at the blurred shape of those three men sauntering down the lip of the hill.
Despite being in a rolling, up-and-down kind of suburb, our yard is wide and flat and once inside its walls the distance to the road affords a sense of isolation. Yet no sooner had I stashed my bike against the side of the garage, stripped to my briefs and chucked myself into the glorious chill of the pool, I heard the gate bell. It bellowed out from the house, its sharp pitched ring jutting across the tight ripples of the pool towards my half-submerged face, my ears conch-like and alert, aware this energy originated from the road where I’d just been.
There was no one home except Petra and Ignatius. It was Tuesday so Petra was out in the laundry room labouring over the ironing board. Mom always complained that she never heard what her stubborn old ambuya ears didn’t want to. Ignatius was nowhere to be seen either, the garden just broad and motionless, as if flattened by heat. Even the dogs were out of action, splayed on the cool slatestone of the veranda.
All this inertia seemed to heighten the sound of the gate bell ringing from the house. I treaded the water beneath me, stilling myself, listening, figuring that the area around me was probably amplifying the sound. We were taught this at school and I suddenly couldn’t bear to think that the noise of the gate bell might travel towards me again, a slingshot skimming a flat surface. If it did I knew whoever was on the other side of the gate was calling for me, and no one would come to my defence. Faint guilt chilled through me, my skin tightened in the water.
I waited, tensed, eyes widened, my legs treading silently beneath me. A stinging rush of chlorine rifled up my nose, but there was no sound beyond the gentle lapping of the water against the curvy rim of the pool. I sneezed violently, a volley of slobbered snot jellying the water.
‘Oh gross,’ I said, feeling the need to giggle aloud to kill the tension.
Later Mom and Dad were home. It was around four-thirty. We were all on the wide veranda overlooking the pool. Mom made tea but Dad had an ice-cold beer. Mom had tea despite the heat and I had tea too, but with lots of milk, and fresh butter cookies Petra baked earlier in the day. They crumbled when you ate them and Mom sometimes complained about that, but I liked them.
‘Danny enough now,’ Mom said, after I scoffed three in quick succession.
The garden was as dry as the Sahara and Ignatius was fighting a losing battle standing in his blue overalls and black mud-shat gumboots, hosepipe in hand, water limply tumbling out the spout, scattering loose crystalline arcs across the scrawny flowerbeds. Even from the veranda I could sense the cracked, webby light red soil soften and darken, ooze under the flow of water, that wonderful rich scent of damp earth filling the air. I breathed it in deeply, cooling my lungs, loving how it left the faintest metallic aftertaste, a sprinkling of iron deep from the bowels of the earth.
‘I don’t know why he bothers,’ Dad said, lazily. ‘This bloody heat.’
‘I hope we’re not in for a drought,’ Mom said.
‘Well apparently, according to the papers, the powers that be have already declared there’s another drought on the way.’
‘Now there’s a big surprise,’ Mom said as she glanced over at Ignatius inching closer towards the veranda one desperate dying flowerbed at a time. She looked irritated. ‘I don’t know why he always has to make a sudden miraculous appearance just as we come out to have arvie tea.’
‘Hey,’ said Dad, whistling sharply, ‘go around the back. Go water there. In fact go wash the car.’
Ignatius coiled up the thick hose behind him and tramped out of sight.
‘How many bloody droughts have we supposedly had in the last twelve years ever since the farmers were booted off?’ Dad said.
‘I suppose that’s a rhetorical question,’ Mom replied with a faint hint of bitterness.
‘Muntuland!’ Dad said, shrugging. ‘Nothing ever bloody changes from year to year. You’d think they’d had enough of stuffing everything up. Have you seen the papers today?’
‘What’s in them?’ Mom asked after a short pause. Dad shook his head, blowing air into his cheeks. Then he exhaled.
‘No, it’s just this bloody indigenisation issue. They’re ratcheting up the big deal talk of taking over the businesses again.’
‘It’s probably all hot air,’ Mom said. ‘Don’t even get worked up about it again. Not after all the palaver we went through last time only to have it all peter out.’
‘I don’t know. It seems they’re intent. Even gazetted a new compliance deadline. It’s all part of the election hysteria. Something to sprout to the masses about, their so-called economically deprived, colonially disadvantaged, whatever they like to call it from one week to the next. You know how they work. Same with the farms.’
‘Let’s not worry about it now,’ Mom said.
‘Yeah, we’ll see. Trick is to get ahead of it all before they really clamp down, shift the goal posts yet again.’
‘You never know whether you’re Arthur or Martha in this place.’
‘Anyway I’m working on a plan,’ Dad said.
‘Yeah. We’ll see, but it has to be done, sooner or later.’
‘Hey Mom,’ I said, sitting forward in the wicker chair.
‘What’s a rhetorical question?’
A short while later I heard Dad’s stern voice round the front of the house, telling Ignatius off. There was no mistaking it, I could tell from the crude simple language and a totally abandoned caution he was putting Ignatius firmly in his place. Mom and I exchanged a short glance, neither approving nor disapproving, and Mom carried on thumbing through the latest edition of YOU Magazine, while I sauntered round the edge of the veranda, then the front of the house where the garages and bricked driveway came into view. Dad was standing by the side of his silver Toyota Hilux V-100 twin-cab, beer in hand, pointing down to an area on the side of the driver’s door. Ignatius was down on his knees, rubbing at the shiny pewter greyness, nodding at Dad’s instructions. Dad pointed to another area, this time on the bonnet.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘No, gently, like this.’
He mimicked the circular motion of the polishing action and Ignatius again nodded, eager to obey. I looked at the impressive figure of the muscular Hilux, shimmering in the late afternoon sun and the thought of its gruff roar fuelled pleasure in me. I was thinking of one of those car adverts on TV, the rugged outdoor life, health, vitality, family, the bounding shaggy dog, unpoliced speed, sunshine eternal, emerald green hills and an upbeat soundtrack which said everything was right with the world. Dad had bought into the Toyota Hilux ideal of that life for us too, if only the bloody government hoods wouldn’t steal all our tax bucks from the country’s coffers, he said, make the whole place destitute.
I went back to the veranda. He came through the house a few minutes later.
‘I’ve just given that bloody Ignatius a blast,’ he said.
‘Why now?’ Mom asked.
‘Doesn’t listen to instructions. Uses the dirty rags to polish with instead of the roll of new mutton-cloth. I keep telling him all he’s doing is spreading the dirt around, but do you think I can get him to realise that?’
‘You have to tell him things repeatedly, make it clear,’ she said. ‘Remember his English isn’t all that great.’
Dad didn’t respond but he looked mildly incensed at something more offensive than a mere oily smudge on the side of his pride-and-joy car.
Being home for once in the afternoon, or due to the oozy elastic nature of the heat, the day was stretching more aimlessly than most. When Mom trailed through to the kitchen at around five to oversee preparations for dinner, and Dad followed her to fish another beer from the freezer, I took the opportunity to slip off the veranda and sneak to the boundary of our property where I quietly climbed up the spindly trunk of the coffee shade tree. It forked out into our neighbour’s yard, our old friends the Whitakers. The grey rough-cast concrete wall separating us was no more than two metres high and this quick shimmy up the branches gave me a clear-sighted view of their prefab garages across the bank of a shrub-dotted rockery, some dry lawn, a tar-laid driveway. I could see that both lazy-man doors of their garage were open, no cars visible. It was a sneaky way of telling whether Amy was home from school yet, making me seem less keen in the process, more chilled than having to message her to find out. I did a quick mental check. Tuesday. Probably had flute band practice. It didn’t usually end until after dark. That explained it.
When I jumped off the tree and peeled myself out of the bushes to come back to the veranda, I saw that Dad hadn’t returned from the kitchen. He never lingered in that domain very long, not with Mom and Petra fussing over dinner. Because I’d normally only be back from school around this time, we’d usually have a few minutes by ourselves, ‘just the boys’ as Mom called us. He’d ask me about school and sport and because I was beat I’d always just say it was fine, or okay. He was also tired too after a long day at work so this satisfied him, his duty seen to. Then we’d talk a bit of harmless horse-crap or play chess or cards or sometimes French cricket on the lawn with the dogs if either of us had energy. In winter we’d be in doors and then it was an easy excuse not to talk but to turn the TV on, watch the day’s sports highlights on the sports catch-up channel.
I took a few steps into the lounge, then up the passage to see if I could gauge his whereabouts. A part of me hoped he was just on the loo, or checking emails on the family computer. I was disconcerted about his mood, that he was more than usually uptight, weighed down with all these hassles which hadn’t slipped off him nearly as quickly as they normally did once he was home and relaxing with a beer, the family, the dogs.
He wasn’t in the loo but in the kitchen. I could hear him there, talking to Mom. As I hovered in the passage I could only see through to the figure of Petra in her pale blue and small pink-flowered maid’s outfit standing by the sink in the scullery with a peeler in her hands and a colander of potatoes. She seemed detached from the low-grade intensity of the drama that was airing just a few feet away from her, but I could detect it in an instant.
They were continuing their earlier discussion about the situation with the company, talking quietly, in low deadpan voices, some distaste in what they were saying. I wasn’t interested in all this business and politics crap, the various ramifications of it. I just caught something disarming in their hardened, angular way of speaking, almost a kind of flat despondency, a weakened resolve, and then the gravelled uneasy mood that followed it out into the passageway where I’d stood, snooping on them. I moved off to my bedroom but it was something I couldn’t easily shake off.
Sitting for a few moments on the end of my bed, I was oddly nervous, remnants of that quick panic from earlier in the afternoon. I wondered whether I had crossed a line this time, breached a tipping point, and if the uneasy begrudging peace we always lived with had now been somehow threatened. But it was my failure to define or understand these bigger consequences, and how to draw the lines between the dots, that really confounded me. I was always just aware of this vague, brooding fragility around everything we said and did, the way we lived even. A short but intense feeling of non-specific guilt clouded in on me, just lasting a few seconds, a cold shudder from within.
I shrugged it off as an overreaction, a hot muddle. I was sure no one had seen me round the back of the bottle store anyway. I was certain if they had it would’ve provoked an instant backlash, especially in the fiery environment of an election season where tensions were stacked about like bundles of dry tinder. It was just a mistake, it could be explained, surely? Of course it could. I scooped up my cell phone from a small pine desk and absently punched in my pin number. There was only one Facebook notification, a stupid clip one of my friends had posted of some drunk guy slipping off the end of a diving board and smacking onto the concrete surrounds of a pool while all around his rowdy pals howled with laughter, beer cans in hand. It was lame, I hardly even chuckled. Then there was a message posted to the WhatsApp group I belonged to called ‘cricket xi’. ‘Check this wicked shit out,’ the message said from one of the guys. A video clip followed which I clicked on to begin downloading more as a matter of habit than urgent desire. The circle started spinning, then moved slowly clockwise. My expectations were entirely dispassionate by now, but I played it all the same. It was a ten second clip of an averagely hot naked woman with impressive boobs, long ashen-streaked blonde hair, looking and pouting seductively at the camera, deep in the throes of pleasure while rubbing a large white oiled dildo against the folds of her moistened, shaven vagina. I made sure to have the speakers on my phone turned off, but by the tunnelled sucking movements of her mouth she was obviously making the appropriate groaning and moaning noises. The clip didn’t do anything to excite me, not then, but I replied with a thumbs-up sign anyway to signal my cool approval. I put my phone face down again on my desk and went out of my stuffy room to see if I could salvage anything of the open air.
Not even by six was the temperature falling. The blazing sun dimmed slightly at an angle in the domed glass blue sky and eventually began to mellow to a fierce, melting red. When the light finally fell it went quickly enough, leaving just this hot levitation of air. There were no insects. Not even mosquitoes. The dogs were cooling the underbelly of their necks on the veranda tiles where we had all congregated again.
There was no talk of business or politics now and that was a relief. The topic seemed to have slid away, though I keep observing Dad, with the impression he was deep in thought, leaving his outer features entirely blank. Mom encouraged him to go for a dip with her and afterwards he seemed different, fresher, calmer. Mom sat in her cozie with a light gauzy blue and silver screen-printed wrap pinned round her midriff. She nursed her glass of chilled white wine with oversized stubs of ice. Dad had his swim trunks on now, old faded black boxer shorts and he sat bare chested and I sat bare chested next to him while he helped me with my maths homework, sipping at the long iced neck of a frothy beer bottle. We snacked on raisins, salted peanuts.
‘No, remember the long division rules,’ Dad said. ‘Come, try again.’
‘Oh right,’ I said, rubbing out my mistake with the inverted end of a pencil.
Mom got up, had a turn around the pool, the dogs trailing behind her, their tongues slackened, these flighty pink scarfs trailing from their slobbery mouths. She commented from afar on the pool needing a double dose of chlorine.
‘It’s this damn heat,’ she said, ‘zaps the chlorine from the pool in no time.’
Dad and I weren’t really listening to her as she walked through to the kitchen to check on dinner.
‘Let’s eat out here, love,’ Dad called after her.
My sister, Becca, finally arrived home from her dance class just as the last of the dusk light finally dissolved into night. It was nearing seven, the darkness moping just beyond the spread of outside lights. Mom had left the front door open for Becca since six, knowing she was always loaded down with a store of bags after a day’s slog at school, then an evening of dance.
‘Be nice and go and help your sister,’ Mom said to me, patting me on the shoulder, edging me forward off the couch where I had migrated to watch Two and a Half Men.
‘Mom, I’m watching.’
‘Danny, be a gentleman,’ she said.
I traipsed out the front door and turned towards the garages where she had parked her little strawberry-pink Fiat Uno. She was bent over, pooling bags from the boot. She was tired, I could see the heaviness and heat of the day slant right through her supple dancer’s body, weighing down her slight shoulders. I ran over, scooped up the outline of a satchel from the tarmac. It weighed a tonne, stoned down with thick text books the likes of which, soon to be strewn over the dining room table until midnight, always sent something of a dreadful shiver through me. I didn’t want to grow up, face the grind of all that.
‘Hi Beccs,’ I said
‘Hi Danny. Thanks a mil.’
I took another two bags, leaving only her dance kit bag, the one I knew was the lightest, and her cream-white school blazer she draped over her shoulder on a hanger. Weighed down like a bellhop I trudged towards the front door.
‘Sorry Mom,’ she said, ‘we ending up reworking a whole routine from scratch.’
‘Not to worry, love.’
No sooner had Becca walked in the front door, the power went off. It came as no surprise, but still the sudden plummet into darkness was always followed by a sharp collective Walker family exclamation, not so much because of the inconvenience of it, but as our own way of mocking the general state of affairs, as if to say, well done bloody government, you can’t even keep the bloody lights on!
‘Danny, your turn,’ Dad called.
I used the torch we hung up on a hook in the kitchen, flicked off the geyser switch on the DCB board in the kitchen, then rotated the turn-over lever to the label marked genny. I went out into the kitchen courtyard where the 5.5 KVA yellow-and-black Kipor generator sat boxed under a makeshift plywood awning. I turned the key in the ignition and waited to hear the cylinders begin to clank into action as the diesel engine started up, immediately billowing gusts of thick black smoke out the spiral of its exhaust. I let it settle down to a purr and then flicked the switch on the amp gauge. Immediately the engine dipped under the strain of the load. The house lit up.
We ate on our laps on the veranda. Within five minutes of Becca’s return here we were, our family, supping away. I was famished, shovelling crumbed pork fillet, mash, carrots and beans nicely juiced in thick gravy.
‘Crikey Dan, no one’s going to take it away from you,’ Mom said.
‘Eat properly,’ Dad added.
I slowed down a bit, feeling scorned and embarrassed.
Becca picked at hers.
‘Not much of an appetite,’ she said, grimacing and patting her flat stone-like belly.
‘Me too,’ Mom said. ‘This heat.’
Then the gate bell rang. I froze, my fork midway to my mouth. I had almost been expecting this to happen, at least I felt this the second it sounded.
‘Who the hell could that be?’ Dad said, getting up.
He went through to the hallway, lifted the receiver.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Hello.’
Outside we were semi-frozen. It was the odd timing of the whole thing that instantly threw up this edgy, fraught possibility. Had there been an accident out on the road? Had something happened? Then again, there was the dreadful hope hovering between us that this wasn’t just a dull anti-climax either, a false alarm, someone off the streets asking for one of the servants or as they usually did in the afternoons, begging for food, for money.
‘Hello,’ Dad said again.
He came back outside, picked up his plate, sat down.
‘Who was it?’ Mom asked.
He shrugged. ‘Dunno. No answer.’
A brief, hard bewildered glance ricocheted off us all, but in an instant it dissipated, and then the whole incident felt like nothing at all.
‘Why was the front door left wide open?’ Dad asked.
‘Oh sorry,’ said Becca, ‘that was me.’
We carried on eating.
It happened one more time that night. An hour or so later. Becca was lumped over the dining room table, headphones on, doing her homework. Mom and Dad had finally moved inside, though the French doors from the lounge to the veranda remained open, our only passage of respite. They had the overhead fan on turned up to max but all it did was whoop the stale air in laboured revolutions, churning the heat a couple of feet about the room. And at that speed it made a din, rattling so much that I couldn’t really make out what the hell was happening on CSI Miami.
‘I know, I know, my boy,’ Dad said, ‘it’s bloody annoying. We’ll have to see if we can fix it this weekend, okay, but until then it’s better than nothing.’
Mom was fanning herself with a magazine, her legs up on the tan and white calf-skin foot stool.
‘Danny,’ she said, ‘do us a favour love and take the ice cream out the freezer.’
I scooted up and dashed into the kitchen. The tub was wedged solid in a thick block of white frosted ice. Mom had all the fridges and freezers turned up full throttle. Almost everything was iced over, even the milk, but it was safer this way she said. I pulled a knife from the knife set and began to hack away, instantly loving the muted tinny sound of the blade stabbing at the chinks that splintered off, shooting onto my hand, up my arm, beginning to dissolve almost at once against my warm flesh. Finally the tub broke free and the moment it did the gate bell sounded again. I stood still, tub outstretched before me, the freezer door ajar, spilling flows of silvered mist.
General exaggerated sighs were issued from the lounge. Not again, they were thinking. Once an evening was fraught with tingling possibility, twice was just a plain nuisance.
But it was not to me. This was the third time for me now. Three suddenly became this suspicious, dangerous number.
‘Danny, you’re closest,’ Mom shouted, ‘please just see who that is.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
I walked stiffly to the intercom, pacing myself, though I still reached it from the kitchen, across the passage, in just a few shallow steps. I picked up the white receiver, placed it to my ear. A loud static thrum buzzed out, a currency of sound ushered from the roadside, though it seemed from another world altogether. All that separated us was a solid wall, a solid gate and a horrid feeling pitted in me of sensing someone there, stooping down to the speaker, breathing soundlessly close by it, or else even a small cluster of individuals gathered round the intercom post hushing themselves, listening for me as I listened for them. I was not going to say a word. I heard a soft metallic clicking, as if someone were tapping the metal box of the intercom post with a pin, a spike or even the sharp point of a fingernail which amplified and broadcast it to me. It was rhythmic and began to muddle my senses so I started to think it may just be some mechanical glitch interfering with the transmitter, that an electrical fault could be responsible for the gate bell’s phantom ringing. There was no one there, I decided, even against the full rush of my better instincts.
I hung the receiver up, standing stock still for a few seconds. My breathing was a touch heavy, as if I had been holding air in my lungs all the while and it had seeped inwards, tensing my joints, my muscles.
‘Who is it?’ Dad called.
‘It’s no one again.’
‘Just some damn pecky playing games,’ he said, then added the phrase he often used in those situations, ‘bloody munts.’
That night I didn’t sleep much. The power remained out, the genny had been turned off so my stand fan didn’t work. I stripped away my covers and lay on my bed bare-chested under a thin sheet but it was soon discarded, dumped like a rumpled rope of cotton beside me. Then I got up, opening all the windows as wide as I could. I even pulled the curtains away from the sides of the walls so the open space was fully exposed, a pointless attempt to allow more air in. There wasn’t even the faintest midnight breeze. I lay on my side staring out at the darkness, the moonless black beyond the window frames, thinking about the expanses of infinity, and listening for sounds from outside. But there was silence. The only noises were those the house made, its routines, the rolling of water through the pipes, gravity filling cisterns, filling geysers, a creak in the rafters, the scatter of a rat. Or the dim slumbering moans through the walls that my miserable, hotly exasperated family were making. I tossed and turned in sympathy with them, then peeled off my silken briefs so I was lying naked. The freedom from all clothing was pleasurable, the sensation of being undressed against smooth Egyptian cotton forming a half-erotic image that skirted my mind, bringing some measure of imagined relief. I felt that first flush of arousal filter through me, my penis slowly distending, unhindered, away from my stomach, my hand already outstretched in automatic response, lowering itself towards my thin jutting shaft. I wondered whether I should chance my luck and message Amy, see if she was up, hot and bored too in her bedroom not thirty metres from mine. I could coax my late night mind to think on her, imagining her as I’d begun to that year. Or if I should flick on my phone and quickly bring myself off to one of those many steamy clips stored there, just a click away. Then my body began to heat through again, my skin grew clammy and I was beginning to sweat. The sheet beneath me dampened. Stuff it. I couldn’t be bothered to do anything remotely heat-making, no matter how pleasurable. I thought over the day again, my shenanigans at the bottle store, my steamy arcs of piss sloshing down the President’s face, those three men trailing up the hill behind me, eying me on their way down. I lay listening again in that now waning silence for the sounds that may drift to me from the street.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020