Published in the Sunday Times
Boy on the Wire
Alastair Bruce (Umuzi)
The idea surfaced soon after I had finished Wall of Days. That novel examined how a nation could reimagine and reinvent a past it might not want. I found myself wondering how a person would cope, trying to make sense out of a traumatic event in childhood: how his recollection of events could change over time and, unfettered by outside influence, how a truth could grow out of a lie or at least, the lie of omission.
Having recently had a child, and with another born during the writing of this book, I was also remembering my own childhood. The house in the story is described from my memory of the house I grew up in. It was a magical space in many ways: a big house, a big garden outside the city with bush or scrubland at the back. But also, and here I suppose it might be a metaphor for South Africa in that period, it was a space isolated from the rest of the world, a space where unspeakable events took place perhaps partly because of that isolation.
The plot is unrecognisable from my first draft. What drove the novel was my desire to tell a story about a person, torn apart by guilt, but where that guilt may well be the ultimate measure of his own humanity.
I draw the bolt back. I can hear only my own breathing now. The voice has not come back. My breathing is quick. I push the door open. The room is dark, blacker than I remember.
“Hello?” My voice sounds strange, unreal. I think for a moment it has come not from me but from the blackness in the corners of the space that I cannot see. I wait for my eyes to adjust. There is no answer. A slight echo perhaps. I step towards the door and freeze. The song again, but from outside this time. I run to the window which looks out to the side of the property. I cannot see anything at first, but I open the window and stick my head out. Peering round towards the back of the house, I see something then. There, standing in the middle of the lawn, a boy. He is looking away from the house, towards the bush. He is too far away to see clearly and the window is at the wrong angle. I have to lean far out of the window and strain my neck to see him. The boy stands there. He is too far away to have made that noise, but I know it comes from him. Though it seems to start in my head, I know it is from that boy. I know the tune, though I cannot place it. The boy is still, his back to me.
I feel myself grow cold. I remember the open door behind me. I picture something emerging from it. Something dark, emerging into the light of the room, tiptoeing up to me crouched at the window.
Not just something. Peter. A sight more terrifying than anything I could imagine.
I turn. There is nothing. Still the cold.
I look out of the window again. The boy is gone. But then I look down and there he is, standing at the side of the house, pressed against the bricks. I pulled my head inside for less than a second. Or was it longer? It might have been longer. Have I been standing here for minutes, lost in a dream, before waking again?
I watch the boy and slowly he turns his head, turns towards me and looks up and meets my gaze. His eyes are black. The blackest things I have seen. The sun, perhaps, is in my eyes, and has burnt a patch in my vision so when I look at this child I see only blackness.
I pull my head inside and lean against the wall. It is cold in here. I edge along the wall, my face to it, so I cannot see behind me. I do not want to look.
The boy’s face. The face from the photograph.
I can still hear the nursery rhyme. Fly away, Peter.
Once out of the room, I run down the stairs and through the front door and round the corner of the house where I saw the boy, but he has gone. I circle the house and turn around and search the other way but it is all light here, no shadows, and I cannot see him.
The front door has closed behind me. I drop the keys as I take them out of my pocket, and when I bend down to pick them up, I see him again. Right next to me. I can see his feet, his calves, his knees. Just that. If I move quickly, lunge at him, I could catch him. I do not move. The legs do not move either. On his right knee there is a cut. It is healing, but it is deep. When it was cut, I could see bone.
He is barefoot. I stay bent to the ground, next to him, my skin tingling, expecting a touch. The boy’s feet have the brown skin of a child who spends all day in the sun. The nails are bitten. He moves a toe. No, he is trembling. He cannot help it. He is afraid. Scared to death – of what I do not know. It is I who should be fearful. I dare not look at him, dare not move at all.