by Tamara Podella
|part 2 of 3|
The supper of our first school night in Cape Town fell on one of Dad’s quiet days. He sipped my mother’s freshly drawn blood from his favourite teacup, while Mom spooned her chicken soup and listened to Harry talk about his day. My brother was so enthusiastic that he drew several smiles and she even stopped squinting at the dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights in her lap.
“Oh, and you know what else?” he said with his mouth full of bangers and mash. “My class is going on a trip next Friday to Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned! I’m going to need 20 Rand for expenses.”
“Of course, Paul darling. Which reminds me, it’s pocket money time, isn’t it?”
“Yes!” Harry cheered. “ They’ve got Chitos at the school tuck shop!”
Mom went to fetch her purse and I furtively signalled Harry to keep it down a bit. It wouldn’t be the first time that the obtrusive sound of his voice made Dad forget he was having a quiet day. But I was glad Harry seemed to love Cape Town as much as I did and to show him my goodwill I pushed my still untouched chocolate mousse his way. His round eyes lit up and he became silent as a mouse.
Mom came back with 100 Rand for me and 50 Rand for Harry. When she saw us all brotherly and beaming it brought tears of joy to her eyes but she didn’t say anything. We sat there quietly, keeping our cheer inside. Pretending.
Grunting, Dad suddenly lurched from his chair. Harry clutched my leg under the table. Mom’s chin dropped to her chest and she shut her eyes in that way of hers that made her look like a sleeping bird. Before the kitchen door slammed shut, Kurt Sheldon burped — a thunderous, long-drawn growl. It was not the first time I thought I heard the word “liars” in that sound. It was the first time I felt the truth of his accusation and it filled me with a crippling sense of dread.
* * *
The next day my father sat in the kitchen reading the Cape Times. “Good morning sons,” he announced, thick little reading glasses careening precariously on the tip of his hairy hawk nose. Egg yolk stained his black tie and a thin stream of blood trailed down a corner of his mouth.
Mom leaned against the sink, pressing a wad of cotton to the crook of her arm. “Your father would like to drive you to school this morning,” she said. Big beads of sweat gleamed on her forehead. Seeing her like that always filled me with loathing. How could she be so weak? But the next moment I was burning with guilt and trying to let her know by a half-hearted smile that I still loved her.
Harry acted cheery and sat down at table as if life were wonderful. “Thanks Dad,” he said. He knew from movies how perfectly normal sons were supposed to act around perfectly normal fathers.
I ripped open a new box of cereal and coughed explosively. It was the only safe way of venting anger. One of the Sheldon Family Rules was that Dad wouldn’t show himself in daylight, but of course he could break them any time he liked. When he drank too much of Mom’s blood he always got stupid ideas. And when he got stupid ideas it was usually a sign that we would be moving soon. For once the thought of that scared me more than my father.
He drove at a nerve-racking constant speed of 50. Parking the car near the school gate he switched off the engine and growled as we pulled our bikes out of the boot. I just knew he was going to stare after us until we were out of sight.
We fixed our bikes to the rusty stand and Harry obediently waved goodbye, then trotted up the school hill. I walked away slowly without waving, loath to act along. Already my breakfast had turned to acid in my stomach and Dad’s stare was boring a hole between my shoulder blades.
I knew that voice. Pretending I hadn’t heard, I walked faster, nearly breaking into a run, but Ramona caught up with me a few metres short of the entrance.
“Hey, deaf boy! Since we don’t have any classes together I thought I’d—”
Yanking her around and shoving her towards the entrance, I tried to keep her in front of me and away from my father’s eyes. I didn’t need to turn around to know he was still watching.
“Hey, what’s with you!” she said, ice in her eyes. Then she must have caught the look in mine. “Geez, Mathew, you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
A herd of noisy students was pushing us down the hall. “Uh — I’m not a morning person, okay?” I said, the best thing I could come up with, and escaped into the boys’ lavatory.
There in the comforting gloom I splashed some water in my face, calmed myself by breathing in a pattern and waited for the bell that would ensure a quiet walk to my classroom.
But when I pushed open the door Ramona was leaning against the wall, scowling. “That wasn’t very nice of you,” she said.
“I never said I was a nice guy.”
“You’re weird. Here, I thought you’d want to borrow that.”
It was Nightmare Jack: Monster’s Son. It was also the perfect opportunity to get rid of her forever. But I couldn’t do it. “Thanks.”
She started to turn. “Well then...”
“Wait. Meet me in the woods for big break?”
She inspected a fingernail, feigning boredom. “Could be,” she said and sauntered off.
* * *
We settled down in a leafy nest among the roots of an oak tree. Just Ramona and me and the summer sounds in the woods.
“Sorry about this morning, I think I was still half asleep.”
“Do you shove people around in your sleep a lot?”
I should have just shut up, so I did now, hoping it wasn’t too late.
She huffed. “And to think I went to detention because of you yesterday.”
“For skipping that lesson? Why didn’t you say you were sick or something?”
“Not because of that, schmuck. Billy van der Westhuisen who has Maths with you said the new guy’s a sissy for not liking rugby, and Fanny Theron said Ja, he probably plays with dolls and I told them to shut their effing faces and so on, you know? Unfortunately Miss Brown walked in right there and heard me swearing.”
She said it with a strange kind of pride in her voice that made me chuckle. I breathed in the musky smell of the woods and relaxed, realising that I felt more at ease with Ramona than I had ever felt with anyone, even before my grandparents died and Dad turned into a monster.
I took off my shirt and stuffed it behind my head, leaning against a moss-covered root and closing my eyes. Birds chirped, a woodpecker picked a song somewhere south and my hand prickled as an ant tried to climb it. “Thanks... Ramona.” And saying her name I watched blue lights dancing on the insides of my eyes.
“No problem.” She wriggled, stirring up the smell of earth and rustling some dry leaves.
Suddenly I got a frightening thought: what if she’d taken off her blouse as well and was waiting for me to make a move? What would I do if I opened my eyes now and she was really lying there topless?
Easy. Send her right back to her classmates to say they were right: Mathew Jones was a sissy and greener than Creme effing Soda.
But when I sneaked a look through my lashes she was still fully dressed in the dark blue skirt and baby blue blouse the girls had to wear, sunlight and the shadow of leaves playing on her shut eyelids.
After a while she said, “I dreamt about you last night.”
“It was weird.” She pulled herself up onto her elbow and peered down at me with a frown. “I can’t remember exactly what happened, but it was scary.”
Better not to say anything to that.
“So why d’you dye your hair? Isn’t that kind of unusual for a guy?”
I shot to my feet.
“Hey, don’t worry. You can’t really see it until...” Her cheeks coloured.
I fumbled my shirt back on and forced out a laugh. “Oh, that. My aunt uses this bleaching cream for her facial hairs and some friends dared me to die my armpits with it.”
Ramona put a hand over her mouth.
I kicked up a pinecone and swore. How could I have been so bloody stupid?
“God, I didn’t think you were one of those obsessive types,” she said, getting to her feet. “I mean, who cares if your hair’s really black like Nightmare Jack’s?” She rolled her eyes and started trudging back along the path our school shoes had made in the grass.
She turned around. Her eyes could be as cold as death.
“I know this sounds ridiculous,” I said, “but you have to promise me you won’t tell anybody my hair’s not really black. Please.”
She looked me up and down and slowly the coldness left her eyes. She came closer and put a hand on my arm. “Mathew, are you all right? You look like a corpse. I won’t tell anybody, okay?” She put her hand over her heart. “I swear.”
I felt weak with relief.
“Will you tell me why it’s so important no one know?”
“Has it got something to do with this morning?”
I shook my head.
“Where did you stay before you moved to Cape Town?”
“Really. But on your Nightmare Jack it said ‘imported’.”
I ran my hands through my hair, racking my brain for a way out. And suddenly I wondered how I had managed not to get myself into a similar situation before, tongue-tied and slow-witted as I was. Okay, true enough, I had never met anyone like Ramona. Dammit, Jack, pull yourself together, use your brain!
Until she shook her head, smiling. “Don’t worry. Just make sure to shave your armpits, I guess. And don’t talk to any other girls.”
“Why would I want to talk to other girls when I can talk to you?” I said, relief making me bold. I reached for a strand of her hair and held it there between my fingers like a beautiful petal. I was too retarded to say anything else though.
“Mine is real,” she said.
It took me a while to figure out she was talking about her hair colour. “I know. Everything about you is real.” The only reality I cared to know.
But Ramona rolled her eyes and the moment was gone and I wanted to kick myself for being the greatest klutz that ever attempted to butter up a girl.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Tamara Podella