I’ve been unable to write anything new for months. I tried a few whimsical ones for this prompt, then decided to rework on old CNF draft (started in a previous BG workshop). I’ve worked apartheid into it, inspired by the redacted/censorship concept in the prompt. Along with any comments/suggestions on this as a story, I’d appreciate a sensitivity reading. As a white person growing up in SA, I’m not sure how this comes across, and if I’m even in a position to write it. I’d also appreciate knowing if it’s too long, if entire sections can be cut out. Anything, really, would help. I have so little confidence in my ability to judge my own writing these days.

*****

I’m home from school with a cage of eight rats my teacher won gambling.

My mother’s on a call, drinking gin and tonic, making hmmms and ohhhs to our rotary dial phone. Her entire body hunches over her friend’s high-pitched voice on the other end.

When Dad gets home at six as always, his silhouette tall as a god in the doorframe, Mom’s still on her call in the front entrance hall. I’m bringing her a third drink. Two fingers of gin. But three if it’s my fingers. Dad kisses her cheek. She flinches.

He puts his briefcase in his office, humming a few lines from Unchained Melody, “Are you still mine?” Hands me a copy of The Johannesburg Star–– its black censorship lines striking out dozens of words in the front page article on the banned African National Congress. Dad stoops to look at the rats. Old Spice floods my nose. With his baritone voice and familiar scent, my jaw muscles unclench. Through the rungs, the biggest rat goes eye-to-eye with Dad. The others cluster in a corner. A sleek white blanket of fur in the sawdust.

“Miss Woodburn didn’t want them, so I offered.”

“Those are some beautiful creatures, my girl. Did you name them yet?”

“Big one’s Whiskey. I think he’s a boy.”

We retreat to the family room. Set the cage on a table by Dad’s half-built trainset.

Dad changes from his suit into jeans, a t-shirt and a spotless work apron. He towers over the trains and the rats. I finger the buttons on my stained and faded yellow schooldress. It doesn’t bother me and Mom doesn’t seem to care about how I look at school. Dad starts rearranging the furniture to give us more room to build out the trainset. He grunts, forehead shining, as he pushes the couch closer to our new, tiny black and white TV. We move the beanbag chairs into the garage.

I select my paint colours. Brown. Green. Red.

Dad tears the copy of The Johannesburg Star into strips over a bucket for the papier-mâché. The thick dark censorship lines in the newsprint melt into gray blurs.

From the garden, Vincent puts down the wheelbarrow handles to wave through the window.

“Sawubona, Master. Sawubona, Miss Lisa,” he calls, smiling.

“Sawubona, Vincent!” I yell through the glass pane.

He pushes his nose to the window. His eyes widen when he sees the rats. He picks up the wheelbarrow and heads towards our pool to rake the blue gum leaves that fell in yesterday’s hailstorm.

Standing in the cut-out centre of the trainset, I paint a conductor’s eyes deep brown. Force the corners of his lips to point up.

“Dad? How come there’s no Black kids at school?”

“It’s the law, my girl. Terrible thing. Since the ‘40s. Our government allocates where people live, what school they go to, by race. Black people can’t live in this area.”

I think about my older sister, Julie, last Saturday at the outdoor flea market. How she’d pulled me into the multi-racial crowd to dance to the live band. The throng pulsing together like a single animal. Women ululating, babies wrapped to their chests. The air wild with freedom. The lead singer shouting, “Amandla!” Power. All of us responding, hands punching the blue sky, “Nowethu!” To the people.

After, we’d snuck into a lowlit, smoke-filled shebeen. Every part of my body on fire with joy. Knowing my parents would disapprove. We’d squeezed into a booth with the band. The lead singer held Julie’s face gently between his palms. Her long blonde hair hiding them as she’d pressed her lips to his.

“Dad, are Black and White people allowed to kiss?”

“I’m afraid it’s illegal for them to date or marry.”

“You sure? We just had South African History. Miss Edmund didn’t mention that. Also – how come Evi and Vinnie are allowed to live here in Joburg with us?”

I maneouvre my thin paintbrush into a feathery sway of left and right and left to green the leaves of a model tree. Through the open window, a lourie bird calls, “Go Away. Go Away.”

“Vincent and Evelyn have special passes to live here because they work for us. That’s why the police were at the gate again last week. They show up sometimes to check on them.”

“But Evi can’t be with her own kids. Doesn’t that bother you?”

Dad stands, swearing when he knocks over the bucket of newspaper and glue, spilling grey sludge on the white-washed stone tiles.

“Keep painting. I’ll get Vincent in to clean up this mess.”

A few weeks after I bring home the rats, the females drop babies. Hairless twitching blobs, some of which Whiskey eats. The young that escape being devoured by their parent squeeze through the cage rungs. Run down the vertical folds of the curtain blocking out the African sun. One morning we find small pink rats climbing our fake mountains. Scratching our glue waterfalls with their claws. They grow into sleek teen-rats, thrumming through the tunnels like red-eyed ghosts, chased by electric trains. Dad and I clean up after them.

The white rats expand their family. Take over the whole trainset. Mom doesn’t seem to notice when Evelyn starts setting the table for dinner in the kitchen instead of the family room.

The next school year, I’m sent to boarding school in another province, coming home twice a year. For the first time, I learn with students of other races. For the first time, I am taught about the Group Areas Act. My English teacher reads us poetry about Black men being arrested without cause and detained without reason.

When I come home for Christmas that year, Evelyn has been replaced by Grace. And in the July break, by Hazel. The white rats are still spreading through the trainset, out of control, eating everything in their way. My parents don’t talk about any of it.

We move to Canada six years later, leaving Julie behind in medical school and our younger brother in high school. The last time I see Vincent, he’s helping my Dad dismantle the trainset. In our new house in Toronto, we put it back together, carrying the pieces down the narrow staircase of our new house, into the basement. Heavy snow falls, hiding the abandoned, overgrown garden outside. It’s the first time I’ve been in an underground room. The first time I’ve known the lull of a snowstorm. The way it creates a new page.

Julie moves to Zululand for her internship at Baragwanath hospital. She writes to me, her pen tearing the page in anger, about the brutal conditions of the mines where her patients work. About treating patients with gunshots and stab wounds. How the interns deliver babies because there are only two doctors in a hospital that services thousands. Half of her patients are HIV positive. In her untidy cursive, she tells me she cut herself while treating a patient, and was being treated with AZT. “Don’t tell Mom,” she writes. “She won’t want to know what it’s really like.”

Years later, after Dad’s funeral, we prepare our Toronto house for sale. I descend the barely used staircase to look at the trainset. In the half-light it looks grey. The waterfalls shimmer by the soft glow of my phone. The must and damp in the room make it hard to breathe. I turn off the power in the rails. Crush the veneer of rivers and rocks with a hammer while Mom sips gin in the kitchen with her newest church friends. Rip out the papier-mâché mountains, cutting my bare hands on the sharp edges, and toss the broken tracks in a garbage can. Scrub away the dirt and blood. Leave the new owners of the house a clean and empty room. Tiny rodent bones in the shadow-corners.

3 Comments

  1. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Lisa, welcome back! So thrilled that you have another piece here for us to ABSORB! I found this fascinating, it reads like CNF or memoir, as you’d mentioned. I don’t sense any issues here with it not being “your story to tell.” You lived through apartheid, just as many in America lived through (and continue to) blatant racism, and race riots. If it is honest truth-telling, I don’t sense any agenda. The issue is when writers soapbox or try to woo a reader to “their POV.” You have done none of that. In fact, I find this all fascinating and really tight. Love the details like Old Spice and the mom’s drinking and not noticing changes in the dinner locations. And the rats, are such an intriguing element. It feels like it could be longer. The transition to Toronto seems like it moved too quickly for me. But I know you wanted to get a portion up today and I am so grateful you did. TRUST YOUR GUTS, Lisa. You are meant to write! Please, for all of our sakes, continue to do so.

  2. Len Kuntz

    Hi Lisa.

    That first sentence is a grabber and so intriguing.
    As this piece unspools, there’s so much to absorb, the tenderness, tension and nostalgia. Your dialogue is sharp and pops on the page. (“Big one’s Whiskey. I think he’s a boy.”) And all of the details you paint create such clear pictures that it’s like the reader is living in the setting. And that last sentence, wow, just terrific.

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