Disgrace - Before they set off

Saturday, 31 December, Year 8 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

Before they set off he needs to have his dressings changed. In the cramped little bathroom Bev Shaw unwinds the bandages. The eyelid is still closed and blisters have risen on his scalp, but the damage is not as bad as it could have been. The most painful part is the flange of his right ear: it is, as the young doctor put it, the only part of him that actually caught fire. With a sterile solution Bev washes the exposed pink underskin of the scalp, then, using tweezers, lays the oily yellow dressing over it. Delicately she anoints the folds of his eyelid and his ear. She does not speak while she works. He recalls the goat in the clinic, wonders whether, submitting to her hands, it felt the same peacefulness.

'There,' she says at last, standing back.
He inspects the image in the mirror, with its neat white cap and blanked-out eye. 'Shipshape,' he remarks, but thinks: Like a mummy. He tries again to raise the subject of the rape. 'Lucy says she saw her GP last night.'
'There's the risk of pregnancy,' he presses on. 'There's the risk of venereal infection. There's the risk of HIV. Shouldn't she see a gynaecologist as well?'
Bev Shaw shifts uncomfortably. 'You must ask Lucy yourself.'
'I have asked. I can't get sense from her.'
'Ask again.'
It is past eleven, but Lucy shows no sign of emerging. Aimlessly he roams about the garden. A grey mood is settling on him. It is not just that he does not know what to do with himself. The events of yesterday have shocked him to the depths. The trembling, the weakness are only the first and most superficial signs of that shock. He has a sense that, inside him, a vital organ has been bruised, abused - perhaps even his heart. For the first time he has a taste of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hopes, without desires, indifferent to the future.

Slumped on a plastic chair amid the stench of chicken feathers and rotting apples, he feels his interest in the world draining from him drop by drop. It may take weeks, it may take months before he is bled dry, but he is bleeding. When that is finished, he will be like a fly-casing in a spiderweb, brittle to the touch, lighter than rice-chaff, ready to float away. He cannot expect help from Lucy. Patiently, silently, Lucy must work her own way back from the darkness to the light. Until she is herself again, the onus is on him to manage their daily life. But it has come too suddenly. It is a burden he is not ready for: the farm, the garden, the kennels. Lucy's future, his future, the future of the land as a whole - it is all a matter of indifference, he wants to say; let it all go to the dogs, I do not care. As for the men who visited them, he wishes them harm, wherever they may be, but otherwise does not want to think about them.

Just an after-effect, he tells himself, an after-effect of the invasion. In a while the organism will repair itself, and I, the ghost within it, will be my old self again. But the truth, he knows, is otherwise. His pleasure in living has been snuffed out, if it ever truly existed. Like a leaf on a stream, like a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float toward his end. He sees it quite clearly, and it fills him with (the word will not go away) despair. The blood of life is leaving his body and despair is taking its place, despair that is like a gas, odourless, tasteless, without nourishment. You breathe it in, your limbs relax, you cease to care, even at the moment when the steel touches your throat.

There is a ring at the doorbell: two young policemen in spruce new uniforms, ready to begin their investigations. Lucy emerges from her room looking haggard, wearing the same clothes as yesterday. She refuses breakfast. With the police following behind in their van, Bev drives them out to the farm. The corpses of the dogs lie in the cage where they fell. The bulldog Katy is still around: they catch a glimpse of her skulking near the stable, keeping her distance. Of Petrus there is no sign.

Indoors, the two policemen take off their caps, tuck them under their arms. He stands back, leaves it to Lucy to take them through the story she has elected to tell. They listen respectfully, taking down her every word, the pen darting nervously across the pages of the notebook. They are of her generation, but edgy of her nevertheless, as if she were a creature polluted and her pollution could leap across to them, soil them. There were three men, she recites, or two men and a boy. They tricked their way into the house, took (she lists the items) money, clothes, a television set, a CD player, a rifle with ammunition. When her father resisted, they assaulted him, poured spirits over him, tried to set him on fire. Then they shot the dogs and drove off in his car. She describes the men and what they were wearing; she describes the car.

All the while she speaks, Lucy looks steadily at him, as though drawing strength from him, or else daring him to contradict her. When one of the officers asks, 'How long did the whole incident take?' she says, 'Twenty minutes, thirty minutes.' An untruth, as he knows, as she knows. It took much longer. How much longer?

As much longer as the men needed to finish off their business with the lady of the house. Nevertheless he does not interrupt. Perhaps a half hour more, or a full hour. Perhaps ninety further minutes. Three bitcents. A matter of indifference: he barely listens as Lucy goes through her story. Words are beginning to take shape that have been hovering since last night at the edges of memory.

Two old ladies locked in the lavatory / They were there from Monday to Saturday / Nobody knew they were there. Locked in the lavatory while his daughter was used. A chant from his childhood come back to point a jeering finger. Oh dear, what can the matter be? Lucy's secret; his disgrace.

Cautiously the policemen move through the house, inspecting. No blood, no overturned furniture. The mess in the kitchen has been cleaned up (by Lucy? when?). Behind the lavatory door, two spent matchsticks, which they do not even notice. In Lucy's room the double bed is stripped bare. The scene of the crime, he thinks to himself; and, as if reading the thought, the policemen avert their eyes, pass on.

A quiet house on a winter morning, no more, no less. 'A detective will come and take fingerprints,' they say as they leave. 'Try not to touch things. If you remember anything else they took, give us a call at the station.'
Barely have they departed when the telephone repairmen arrive, then old Ettinger. Of the absent Petrus, Ettinger remarks darkly, 'Not one of them you can trust.' He will send a boy, he says, to fix the kombi.
In the past he has seen Lucy fly into a rage at the use of the word boy. Now she does not react. He walks Ettinger to the door. 'Poor Lucy,' remarks Ettinger. 'It must have been bad for her. Still, it could have been worse.'
'Indeed? How?'
'They could have taken her away with them.'
That brings him up short. No fool, Ettinger. Why didn't they ?

At last he and Lucy are alone. 'I will bury the dogs if you show me where,' he offers. 'What are you going to tell the owners?'
'I'll tell them the truth.'
'Will your insurance cover it?'
'I don't know. I don't know whether insurance policies cover massacres. I will have to find out.'
A pause. 'Why aren't you telling the whole story, Lucy?'
'I have told the whole story. The whole story is what I have told.'
He shakes his head dubiously. 'I am sure you have your reasons, but in a wider context are you sure this is the best course?'
She does not reply. He is suddenly struck with deja-vu. How he despised Desmond for his meek attempts to help as best he could. Does she despise him ? In the same terms, cowardly, lache, entirely inadequate to the general task of living ? He does not press her, but his thoughts go to the three intruders, the three invaders, men he will probably never lay eyes on again, yet forever part of his life now, and of his daughter's. The men will watch the newspapers, listen to the gossip. They will read that they are being sought for robbery and assault and nothing else. It will dawn on them that over the body of the woman silence is being drawn like a blanket. Too ashamed, they will say to each other, too ashamed to tell, and they will chuckle luxuriously, recollecting their exploit. Is Lucy prepared to concede them that victory?

He digs the hole where Lucy tells him, close to the boundary line. A grave for six full-grown dogs: even in the recently ploughed earth it takes him the best part of an hour, and by the time he has finished his back is sore, his arms are sore, his wrist aches again. He trundles the corpses over in a wheelbarrow. The dog with the hole in its throat still bares its bloody teeth. Like shooting fish in a barrel, he thinks. Contemptible, yet exhilarating, probably, in a country where dogs are bred to snarl at the mere smell of a black man. A satisfying afternoon's work, heady, like all revenge. One by one he tumbles the dogs into the hole, then fills it in.

He returns to find Lucy installing a camp-bed in the musty little pantry that she uses for storage.
'For whom is this?' he asks.
'For myself '
'What about the spare room?'
'The ceiling-boards have gone.'
'And the big room at the back?'
'The freezer makes too much noise.'
Not true. The freezer in the back room barely purrs. It is because of what the freezer holds that Lucy will not sleep there: offal, bones, butcher's meat for dogs that no longer have need of it.

'Take over my room,' he says. 'I'll sleep here.' And at once he sets about clearing out his things. But does he really want to move into this cell, with its boxes of empty preserve jars piled in a corner and its single tiny south-facing window? If the ghosts of Lucy's violators still hover in her bedroom, then surely they ought to be chased out, not allowed to take it over as their sanctum. It's what she said to him, isn't it ? Yet he does not dare say it back to her, instead he moves his belongings into Lucy's room.

Evening falls. They are not hungry, but they eat. Eating is a ritual, and rituals make things easier. As gently as he can, he offers his question again. 'Lucy, my dearest, why don't you want to tell? It was a crime. There is no shame in being the object of a crime. You did not choose to be the object. You are an innocent party.'
Sitting across the table from him, Lucy draws a deep breath, gathers herself, then breathes out again and shakes her head.
'Can I guess?' he says. 'Are you trying to remind me of something?'
'Am I trying to remind you of what?'
'Of what women undergo at the hands of men.'
'Nothing could be further from my thoughts. This has nothing to do with you, David. You want to know why I have not laid a particular charge with the police. I will tell you, as long as you agree not to raise the subject again. The reason is that, as far as I am concerned, what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.'
'This place being what?'
'This place being South Africa.'

'I don't agree. I don't agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened here was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make the plague pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.'
'Stop it, David! I don't want to hear this talk of plagues and fires. I am not just trying to save my skin. If that is what you think, you miss the point entirely.'
'Then help me. Is it some form of private salvation you are trying to work out? Do you hope you can expiate crimes of the past by suffering in the present? What do you even need to expiate!'
'No. You keep misreading me. Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don't act in terms of abstractions. Until you make an effort to see that, I can't help you.'
The life of the mind, he thinks. It holds entirely no sway on her, its snares powerless on this earthen woman half his age. It took him fifty years to escape, she can't at all be caught. He is shaken, and while he agrees with her he still can't reconcile his own mind.

A new day is upon them. Ettinger telephones, offering to lend them a gun 'for the meanwhile'. 'Thank you,' he replies. 'We'll think about it.' He gets out Lucy's tools and repairs the kitchen door as well as he is able. They ought to install bars, security gates, a perimeter fence, as Ettinger has done. They ought to turn the farmhouse into a fortress. Helicopters, aircraft carriers, landmines. Chastity belts, why not, with a little inscription engraved, "This is a time-lock ; the wearer does not have the key." Hopefully the next set knows how to read.

There will be a next set, he is somehow sure of this. He can feel it. Her refusal to file charges is not simply an omission, it is an invitation. She ought to buy a pistol and a two-way radio, and take shooting lessons. She will never do that. She is here because she loves the land and the old, ländliche way of life. If that way of life is doomed, what is left for her to love?

On to the next chapter, "Katy is coaxed..."

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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