Turning to go into the house, I spot the remaining chard, still waiting to be planted. I rush over, kneeling down beside their wee leaves with red and yellow stems. Footsteps come up behind me. ‘Ma’am, I would be happy to do that as well, if you wish.’
I glance over my shoulder. ‘No, I’m fine. Thank you, but no. It will only take me a moment.’
His expression is unreadable, but I am sure I must sound barking mad. How to explain? I can’t. As the headmistress at my boarding school used to say, ‘Discretion is a virtue too often overlooked.’ I say nothing. Thankfully he does not press the point and, without further comment, returns to the lawnmower.
The moment leaves me exhausted, sad. A desire to quit beckons. My eyes sting, willing me to give in. Pressing my teeth firmly down on my tongue I mentally begin stacking the bricks, focusing on this day’s plans: Kamala this morning, the meeting at noon, Luxolo at three. I repeat the mantra over and over again, stacking the bricks higher. My heartbeat slows. A deep breath and then another. At last the final chard is planted without incident. Each one receives a gentle pat with the edge of my fingertips before I dash indoors.
For a moment the location of my camera eludes me. It has been so long. There was a time when it lived around my neck. I wanted to hold every moment. Show everyone how the world looks through my eyes. Beauty was everywhere, even in the wrinkle of flesh or a can abandoned in the gutter. I wanted to treasure all of it as the lens pulled me through each day, providing an avenue through which to interact with South Africa.
Returning to South Africa was an assault on the senses. I had spent so many years in England, first in boarding school and then university. It was like being thrown a surprise party by hundreds upon hundreds of people who all rushed to greet me at once while a band played, obscuring the voices. Cape Town has so much sun, so much wind, so many conversations, so much hooting, so much poverty, so much garish display of wealth. It is vast, yet congested; I could spread my arms and twirl without hitting anyone, then the next moment be crushed.
It was the camera that held the onslaught at bay so that I could tease out the individuals. The camera made sense of the crisscross patterns between motorist and pedestrian on the city streets. The camera gave me a reason to say hello. But since Kai died, my life has been frozen. A single, still image.
Today, however, demands my rather out-of-date photographic machine. I should have done this last night when I unearthed the battery pack from my desk. What if it no longer works? Kamala will be so disappointed. She may think I’ve done this on purpose.
A memory tugs, blooming into frame. It is so clear and perfect there is no need to search. Of course I put it there.
Gently I open the door, peeping in like a mother checking on her slumbering baby. There is no one waiting for me on the other side. This is now the guest room for the visitors who have never arrived. The walls remain the same pale yellow with green trim. But the curtains with the surfboard print are long gone, replaced with drapes in striped panels of greens and pinks. On the plain pine double bed is a white duvet with dark green vines that bear gold flowers, tinged with pinks. The three little pine shelves on the windowless wall still hold a wooden airplane and three antique tin cars. Gone is the general debris that comes with child rearing. That has been swept away to decompose far from here.
I open the wardrobe, taking care not to glance down. I know they remain. I cannot forget. The series of tiny hand prints running along the door’s bottom border is imprinted on my brain. Each one is dated, the last when Kai turned eighteen-months. I was waiting for his second birthday to do the next set. I worried that if done too often, we would run out of space.
Sucking in my gut, I reach up and grasp the camera case. ‘What are you doing?’
I spin around, as if I’ve been caught making mischief. There is Bart, wobbly, but alert. It seems unfathomable that he devoted so much energy to seek me out. My mouth fills with words, too many words, making it impossible to enunciate a single syllable.
He steps forward and slowly reaches behind me. The wardrobe door swings shut with a hush. His hands place themselves around mine, which are cupping the camera. His hands are soft. When did they shed their callused protection?
‘Are you working today?’ he asks.
‘A wedding,’ I say, so fast the lie leaves a breeze in its wake.
He nods in a careful, considered manner. ‘Friday…an unusual day to get married.’
I swallow as my heart bears down with such strength that myabdominal muscles weep. He knows the day of the week. The same man who said, ‘Who gives a flying f**k?’ the last time I told him the date. But today he has decided that it matters. He knows it is Friday.
All on his own. This is significant. My fingers spasm in reflex, but my poor camera cannot capture this moment in any tangible sense.
His hands give mine a squeeze as his lips brush against my forehead. My eyes shut and my breath ceases, as if exhaling would blow him into the hallway, shatter his bones.
‘Enjoy,’ he says, stepping back.
I open my eyes. ‘Thanks.’
He turns, unsteadily, to leave.
‘Um, and I’ll see you a bit later?’ I say, trying to keep the desperate edge from my voice. ‘Thought we’d leave at 11:45?’
He shrugs. ‘Maybe.’ Then his fragile limbs propel him forward, head carefully balanced in the manner of a child first learning to walk.
My stomach hurts.
Perhaps I should stay.
No. The camera is operable. The wicker baskets are brimming.
Dylan is outside. Bart wouldn’t. Not with someone here. He’ll be fine.
This Day by Tiah Beautement is published by Modjaji Books.