Per Contra

Summer 2007


Plain Text Version - Fiction

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Postcards From November by Liesl Jobson




The Ďsí at the end of les and cartes and postales is silent, I say, modulating my voice, hoping to conceal my dismay at Kateís terrible pronunciation. My 14-year-oldís French oral exam is tomorrow and I want her to do well. She recently moved in with me after living with her father for six years. He must see I can care for her. I want him to let her stay.


Weíre seated at the dining room table, surrounded by textbooks, a dictionary, her file stuffed with dog-eared handouts. I doodle an Ďsí on the notepad and cross it out, explain again about elision. In Afrikaans you pronounce everything you see. Nothing is hidden. Itís a translucent language.


The paisley table cloth is faded now. My mother bought it travelling in India. She went alone, to celebrate turning 50. She took photographs of the Taj Mahal, the relics at Goa, the cripples


I draw a clock face at three oíclock. My daughter fingers a pimple. I resist the urge to brush her hand away. Quelle heure est-il? I ask.


Trwuz urz, she says, rolling her eyes. I suppress a sigh and say, Nearly right. You pronounce the Ďsí at the end of trois because it connects to the Ďhí of heures, but the next Ďsí is silent. I used to teach music at lí…cole FranÁaise de Johannesbourg. Diplomatsí kids, mostly, and contractorsí. Troubled souls who moved to new cities every few years, never settling anywhere.


I draw a four oíclock.


Ma-ahm, she says, Gimme a break. All her friends have American accents. Itís the fashion, learned on TV. We donít have one, but my daughter mimics her friends. TVís bad for your health, Iíd said, when she asked. It makes you stupid. Still, she came. She said she wanted to live with her mom. She was tired of Jesus in the other house, and fellowship and worship and having faith.


Devons-nous faire une promenade? I say after an hour of conjugating verbs. She looks at me blankly. That means Shall we go for a walk? Letís take a break.


Wecircle the park where small boys play cricket. Lightning flashes on the horizon. My daughter towers over me now, resting her arm on my shoulder momentarily. Sheís tall, like her grandmother. Her father sends her to a private college, a fancy place my parents couldnít have afforded. When I fetch her Iím to stay put in my little car. She doesnít want people noticing my shabby kit. I dressed up when I went to visit her teacher, wearing my crisp linen suit, with mascara applied and a lipstick called sugar plum.


As we walk around the park jacaranda blossoms pop underfoot, pungent explosions that turn to lilac sludge in the rain. Storm clouds have built, high and puffy, the sky black in the south. Iíve forgotten the French word for clouds, for thunder.


She says, Ma, Dadís driving me to Maritzburg this weekend. I want to go to boarding school. Weíre going to look at Epworth, at St Johnís. Good church schools. Je tíenverrai une carte postale. I will send you a postcard.


The sun is low. The light reflecting off the clouds bounces against white security walls, blinding us. I reach out to her, to steady myself.




Kate opens the fruit I bought from the Zimbabwean boy weaving between slow cars during rush hour. My window was down, even though itís a prime hi-jacking spot. The fanís is broken, stuck on hot. Another boy tried selling us a beaded wire cow, big as a boot.


He said, Our mother in Harare, she make the crafty cows to feed hunger children.


We havenít space for clutter, but I pity them. Theyíll sleep next to the river if it doesnít rain, or in the Hillbrow ghetto if it does. Both can swallow a child when theyíre raging.


The boys looked Kateís age. I bought the bag of fruit, even though I knew the apples would be floury and the peaches dented. Theyíll be lucky if the police donít get them. The R20 I paid might keep them out of Lindela, the refugee transit centre thatís like a concentration camp.


At home Kate asks, Can I give my baby a naartjie?


Heíll love it, I say.


Wonít be too acid?


Heíll toss it if it is.


Her baby is a four-month-old Senegal parrot that bleats like a goat. Its eyes are still milky grey; its head round and fluffy. I bought it for her soon after she moved in with me, a device to hold her. Her father keeps cats. If she goes back to him, sheíll have to leave the bird.


The day we returned from the pet shop, she hammered an old teaspoon, pinching the edges to form a spout for its open beak that tugs like a nursing infant. He nibbles the orange peel, sneezing at the citrus vapour.


The phone rings. I freeze at the stove. Kate carries on peeling the naartjie with her long nails painted metallic green. Her father wonít allow makeup. The phone rings a second time. We look at each other. My eyelids stick in a too-wide stare.


Itís probably him, she says, narrowing her eyes.


Let it ring, I say. My skin is too tight, my lungs too small. We donít have caller ID.


Maybe itís an estate agent, she says, pragmatic, controlled.


Iíll get it, I say, but sheís already wiped her hands on her jeans and lifted the phone. Before answering she stares me down, reproaching, You gonna be scared all your days?


She says into the receiver, Itís not a good time, Dad. Weíre making supper.


Kate moves into the passage, soothing him, saying, Donít worry. Itís blown outta proportion. Call you later. Yeah.


After supper she rings him on her autodial. I want to intervene, to stop her, to gesture a warning: be careful what you say. But I know I mustnít. I pretend Iím working on my computer, but Iím clicking keys so she wonít notice Iím listening in.


Sos osss sos ss sssssss sos sos


I didnít want to worry you, she says.


asdfasdf lelelele ffff fuckufuckufuck


She says, We didnít keep you out the loop deliberately, to be spiteful.


llllooloo loo loop pool poopop pop


Last week there was graffiti on the school toilet walls: KATE UPTON IS A BULIMIC SATANIST.


A week ago she swallowed six painkillers, vomited immediately, then told me. I checked her colour, her pulse rate. Through the night I listened to her breathe. I called the psychiatrist in the morning, setting up an appointment. I complained to the head teacher. The school told her father about the graffiti, the overdose. Then he phoned threatening: to take her away, to get a court order, to bring the police.


She says, Iím fine, Dad, itíll be cool. Donít worry.


kkkkk llk llk lkjjkj kkk okok ok


Pi preens a strand of her hair in its beak. She dyed it reddish brown to match mine. I laughed saying sheíd need grey too if she wants to look snap-snap.


Yeah Dad, Thanks Dad, she says, sounding American. The bird grooms her eyelashes. She dyed them too.


r re ref refu refug refuge refugee eee eeeeeee


She laughs, says, We wrote the Technology paper today. I had to design a wire cow, like the ones the Zimbos sell, you know, made of beads and wire. It wasnít great. I hadnít studied too well.


I want to shake her. She shouldnít say that. Heíll blame me. Heíll take you away.


zzz zim zimz babababa wee wee wee



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