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Read an extract from Francois Smith's The Camp Whore, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Rock. Above me and around me. I am in a cave, I know that now. On the rockface eland are leaping over me, and between them are little black men with knobkerries in their hands. I also know what that is.

On Bosrand there was a cave with Bushman paintings. Yes, Bosrand. Now things are coming back to me. Pa had shown us. Pa. Ma. Neels. Me.

There was also a face in front of me. I remember now. And the shock. He sat on his haunches next to me, and I saw the grains of sand on his pants and on his hand. Then I saw that the hand was black. I closed my eyes. Shut them. Later on, I again tried to work out where I was but all I could see were these mud clouds and the only thing that existed was this terrible fear.

It’s also him talking now, that face.

It’s like rocks tumbling down a mountain from up high. It is a sound that I know. I understand what he is saying. Kgotso, Mofumahat-sana, he says. That is how they greet one. The good ones, that is their greeting. But he just wants me to believe that he is one of the good ones, what he really wants is a white woman to do with as he pleases.

I can see him clearly now. He sits with his knees pulled up and holds a knobkerrie between his legs. His head is turned away, but I know he is watching from the corner of his eye. Metsi. That is what I need to say. Water. I want water. He must give me water, that is all I want, and then I can die. He must just kill me quickly so that I cannot see or feel what he is doing.

He puts the knobkerrie down and stands up. I’m scared half to death. But all he does is dip his hand into a calabash next to me – I’ve only just noticed it – and brings his hand to my mouth. Cupped.

I stick out my tongue and can at least taste the water. He lets it drip. I try to swallow, but my tongue won’t move. Luckily, more comes, and then more. The water is bitter, tasting of leaves, something like aloe or sage. My whole face is wet, and so are my chin and throat.

There is something wrapped around my head, I can feel that now. Why am I lying here under a blanket? Am I naked? What has the herdsman done to me? What is he going to do to me?

O mang? That is what I should say. Who are you? But the words refuse to come out. I can’t speak. Like Ma, when she tried to pray but couldn’t find the words and stretched her hands out towards me. Lord, watch over us, and let your light shine upon us.

My lips crack when I try to open my mouth. Only prayer will prevent darkness from descending on the land. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, sayeth the Lord. There is a priest sticking his hands up in the air, straight as an arrow up at the clouds and he looks down at me, and I look away from his terrible face, away from his eyes glaring at me like a glowing furnace, seeing only evil and wretchedness. Where is that herdsman who is always sitting here, next to me, where is he? His name is Tiisetso. He doesn’t call me nooi. But then he looks away and says ke sôno. It’s a great pity, he says. He says I must sleep again so that I can become strong again. He says I was hurt badly at Balla Bosiu. With his knobkerrie he pounds the ground between his feet.

Balla Bosiu. The camp. The place where they weep at night, that is what they call it. That I do remember. The camp. That is where I have come from. I know that now. But if I close my eyes and think, then all that comes to mind is the feel of a sheep’s hoof in my hand, how hard the bone is under the skin, and the prickly wool, and the kick that jerks my arm right up my shoulder. Then I see someone pull back the head and swiftly draw a blade across the throat and cut, cut, cut as the blood bubbles and the windpipe bursts, and I cannot look away even though I want to and the man who is slaughtering looks at me, his nose is thin and skew and his lips are dry and the same colour as his skin, not red, and he says something to me, but I cannot hear what he is saying.

Instead, I keep my eyes open. But how did I get here? This man must tell me. What is he going to do with me? If only I could ask. What is he going to do with me?

Book details

Irma Venter's Sondag has been translated into English as Blue Sunday

Human & Rousseau is excited to announce that after the great success and popular appeal of her previous five crime novels (Skoenlapper, Skrapnel, Sondebok, Skarlaken and Sirkus) Irma Venter’s last novel, Sirkus, is being translated into English as Circus and will hit bookshelves late-August. Her latest crime novel Sondag is also appearing as Blue Sunday in September.

With her S-series, Irma has drawn the attention of the South African reading public and Deon Meyer has been quoted as calling her work “world class”. As with her S series, the titles in her English series will also follow a pattern, each named after a well-known song (“Circus” by Britney Spears and “Blue Sunday” by The Doors) so you can have a backtrack whilst curling up with your book.

About Blue Sunday:

Sunday. Christmas Eve. There is a break-in at the Stable Estates in Pretoria East. Businessman Lafras van Zyl is left for dead and his family has disappeared without a trace.

After six weeks there are still no clues, and Captain AJ Williams has been summoned to solve the case.

Alex Derksen and Ranna Abramson are on the trail of Martina Buitendag (17), who went missing in Yeoville.

Two crimes. Countless secrets. More questions than answers.

About the author:

Irma Venter is a journalist at a media company in Johannesburg. She has received several accolades, including the Siemens Africa Profile Award for Science and Technology writing in 2012. She received the ATKV award for a suspense novel, for her debut, Skoenlapper. Her subsequent best-selling novels are Skrapnel, Sondebok, Skarlaken and Sirkus.

"Djulle moet wys raak dat hulle force allie tyd hulle valse Afrikaans byrie skool." Lees ’n uittreksel van Jeremy Vearey se Jeremy vannie Elsies

Van laaitie tot politieke kryger, bandiet tot generaal-majoor, ondergrondse operateur tot presidensiële lyfwag…

Van sy kleintyd in Elsiesrivier neem Jeremy Vearey se lewe talle onvoorspelbare wendings.

Sy eiesoortige vertelling sluit die ouere manne van sy jeug in, die ooms by die damstafel, kerkjeugkampe en die Kommuniste-manifes, skoolhou en ondergrondse werk vir MK, en sy aanhouding op Robbeneiland. As Mandela se lyfwag help hy ’n opstand in die Karoo ontlont, voor hy deel word van die nuwe SAPD, waar hy saam met die gewese vyand terrorisme en Kaapse bendes takel.

En onder alles loop ’n donker stroom.

Hier volg ‘n uittreksel van Jeremy se merkwaardige verhaal:

In Junie 1976 het ek begin kwaad word vir die wêreld, maar dit het min met die politieke onstuimigheid van daardie maand te doen gehad. Was dit die ontnugterende sameloop van te veel grond wat te vinnig onder my dertienjarige voete geskuif het? Daar was die skielike trek na ouma Galant se nuwe, eiesoortige huis in ’n eenvormige Uitsig waar die betekenis van die pleknaam niks met ’n vallei van hemel en aarde in gemeen gehad het nie. Miskien was die skielike aanslag van geraas en straatlewe op die Kaapse Vlakte net te veel. Om my onsekerheid te hanteer het ek begin optree op die enigste manier wat die straat my geleer het. Ek het begin baklei.

*

Ek was terug in Elsies, nog net so onvoorspelbaar soos altyd en slaggereed om enige vyand op die strate van Bishop Lavis, Elsiesrivier, Tiervlei en Uitsig te trotseer. My tweede vyand was die steilhaarleier van ’n bende Holy Trinity Laerskool-leerlinge wie byna elke middag wanneer ek en Merle van skool af huis toe loop, my op die Bishop Lavis-Elsiesrivier-brug in Haltweg geteister het. Ek kon seker die sypaadjie aan die teenoorgestelde kant van die pad gebruik maar het ek verkies om direk deur die klomp Holy Trinityleerlinge te stap. Hierdie uitdaging het gewoonlik gepaardgegaan met vuishoue en skoppe van alle kante terwyl ek vergeefs terugveg en vloekend wegloop onder hulle gespot en gelag.

Dis nou tot ek eendag met ’n passer en vulpen my weg deur hulle gesteek het. Die volgende dag het van hulle ouers by die skoolhoof meneer Majoos gekla maar hierdie keer was daar ’n les saam met die gewone ses-van-die-bestes. Die trant van sy les was oor hoe die braafste ding wat ’n man kan doen, is om ’n geveg te vermy tot hy ’n ander manier vind om die konflik sonder geweld op te los.

Maar toe kom 16 Junie 1976, en ek leer eerstehands hoe onvanpas daardie les is as jou teenstander nie ook daarin glo nie.

Dit was my oudste neef Louis wie my aan die politiek van 16 Junie voorgestel het. Louis het nooit gewerk nie maar elke dag sy suiwer daggaslowboat gerook. Hy was ’n beginselvaste man wie gereeld ons jonger newe vermaan het om nooit eendag bottelkop of witpyp soos skollies te rook nie want hulle bemors die dagga deur dit met sigarette en buttons te meng.

Eendag in Junie 1976 toe Elsiesrivier en Tiervlei se strate woes aan die brand is onder verlate busse en afleweringstrokke met gebreekte vensters, terwyl polisie se Land Rovers en Ford-vangwaens tevergeefs die onskuldiges probeer vastrek, kom Louis met sakke vol brood by oupa Vearey se djaart in Tiervlei aan. Nadat hy dit aan al die anties en die bure uitgedeel het, kom staan hy om die ghellieblik by ons en rook sy Rizla Blackie-daggaslowboat.

Ná ’n lang, diep trek deur dungeperste lippe hou hy dit eers binne vir omtrent ’n minuut. Toe eers blaas hy dit beheers en egalig uit en verklaar in ’n piepstem, terwyl die daggawolke saam met die woorde uit sy mond seil: “Ôs hette Duens-broodlorrie by Tiekie-stage vedala. Djulle moet gesienit hoe al die voovensters tot daa by die driver se knieë sametime stukkend spat. Vêrre gryp die driver saam met ôs die brood en ôs brand saam die lorrie in sy moer.”

“Vi hoekom?” vra Ricky.

Louis trek nog ’n diep skyf van sy slowboat en antwoord: “Sien djy, djulle sal eendag wys raak dat daai Duens-lorrie behoot aanie Boere ennit gaan oo hulle wat ôs wil force om hulle Afrikaans te praat.”

“Ma ôs praat dan oek Afrikaans! Dêrrie en Ma oek allie pad,” stry ek.

“Issie dieselfde Afrikaans vannie Boere nie. Ôs Afrikaans is original. Djulle moet wys raak dat hulle force allie tyd hulle valse Afrikaans byrie skool,” verduidelik Louis.

Ma het ook ’n soortgelyke trant gevolg in haar pogings om Junie 1976 te verduidelik, met dié verskil dat sy gemeen het Afrikaans is deur die Boere van ons gesteel en in ’n vreemde apartheidstaal verander om ons te forseer om die wêreld deur hulle woorde te verstaan en aanvaar. Sy het ons manier van Afrikaans en Engels praat as ’n vorm van rebellie teen hierdie apartheidsafrikaans beskou. Dis met dié dat ek en ’n groep standerdvyfleerlinge eendag in Julie 1976 geweier het om ná tweede pouse na ons klasse terug te keer.

Nie eens die skoolhoof se pleidooie, bangmaakstories van die mees gevreesde onderwysers oor lyfstraf of dreigemente van polisieoptrede kon ons daai dag stuit nie en die skool het stert tussen die bene verdaag.

Maar die volgende dag, toe bring die skoolhoof hulle geheime wapen. Niemand anders nie as ons ou sub B-onderwyseres miss Biscombe nie. Nog voor die oggendklok kon lui, het sy ons op die skoolterrein toegespreek en verduidelik dat sy dit eens met ons is oor apartheidsopvoeding maar dat dit in die lang termyn oor meer as net die gebeure in Soweto gaan. Ons klasboikot was onvolhoubaar en sou niks in die langtermynvryheidsstryd bereik nie. En só is Junie 1976 se politieke rebellie van die standerdvyfklas by Greenlands Primêr summier gestuit. Miskien is dit ironies dat dit wel meneer Majoos se les was – om ’n geveg te vermy tot ’n vreedsame oplossing gevind kan word – wat ons hier op ’n slinkse wyse gepootjie het.

Boekbesonderhede

Read an excerpt from Lesego Rampolokeng's Bird-Monk Seding, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Lesego Rampolokeng is a poet, word performer, and the author of 12 books, including two plays and three novels. He has collaborated with visual artists, playwrights, film-makers, theatre and opera producers, and musicians. His no-holds-barred style, radical political aesthetic and instantly recognisable voice have brought him a unique place in South African literature.

The gathered, sweating, angry-to-trembling Afrikaners in the dusty street want it to have been an attempt at rape. An assault on their grasping at white nationhood. The hands are on the guns. The trucks roar, eager to grab whoever it was. Old woman speaking, the one who lives in the house opposite, with her Parkinson’s-diseased geriatric husband who can only hobble a quarter step at a time from the door to the gate, and her divorced, middle-aged, bulimic daughter. She speaks fast, her squeaky vice trying to rise above the deep-throat growls of the trucks and their old-republic-clad occupants. She prattles fast about how i am a good person, i live in that little house behind the trees, i help out… and it is to not have them turn their murder-intent and fire attention on me… Yes, they gathered in, wanting it to have been an attempt at despoiling this white woman.

And the victim… she struts, the attention bringing a little colour, in vain, to her face. She is walking off her soles, bouncing, glad. She looks like crumpled khaki, like brown paper wrapper out in the elements too long. Like she has been through storms, wind, dust then drain-water drenched and cast out in the driving sun. Pink blotched some kind of symmetry across the face. Deep lined, the visage. Trenches cutting in and across. Thin to the bone, you can see the bones sticking out on both shoulders, desperately holding her shirt up. She bathes in the harsh light of her victimhood. For a change because always when she walks past, the boers look at her. Surreptitiously, the grimaces forming, and steal their glances away, never staring.

Ashamed.

She is no boeremeisie to hold up in pride of the Van Riebeeck and oom Paul Kruger old tradition. She hustles all – black, white – for money in the street. The pale skin peeling off her face. She collects and sells scrap metal across the freeway and…you need not be told but you can see the drug-hunger. The craze behind the skinless eyes.

This day her two children, 6 and 8, ran screaming down the dirt-street and cries filled the air. I ran out. And heard through the trees bordering our properties my AWB neighbour furiously saying, loud-voiced – i later learned it was into her telephone – ‘kom gou…kom gou’ and blabbering incoherently, other things. By the time i got to the gate there were three trucks and a couple of cars gathered in the street, guns on show. A police car arrives, and the police are bored, one yawning. It is Monday morning.

They don’t believe this rape story. The AWB neighbour, predatory, like the smell of blood was in the air and the wounded close by, was wafting and floating around, holding centre-court.

Book details

Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Sue Nyathi's The Golddiggers

It’s 2008 and the height of Zimbabwe’s economic demise. A group of passengers is huddled in a Toyota Quantum about to embark on a treacherous expedition to the City of Gold.

Amongst them is Gugulethu, who is hoping to be reconciled with her mother; Dumisani, an ambitious young man who believes he will strike it rich, Chamunorwa and Chenai, twins running from their troubled past; and Portia and Nkosi, a mother and son desperate to be reunited with a husband and father they see once a year.

They have paid a high price for the dangerous passage to what they believe is a better life; an escape from the vicious vagaries of their present life in Bulawayo.

In their minds, the streets of Johannesburg are paved with gold but they will have to dig deep to get close to any gold, dirtying themselves in the process.

Told with brave honesty and bold description, the stories of the individual immigrants are simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming.
 
 
SUE NYATHI was born and raised in Bulawayo and resides in Johannesburg. An investment analyst by day and a storyteller to her son at night, she writes to escape the reality of financial markets and economic shop talk. She made her screenwriting debut on the award-winning e.tv series Matatiele. Her first novel, The Polygamist, was published in 2012 and readers can look forward to its film adaptation in 2019.

Chapter Nineteen:

Every morning Portia paraded down Pritchard Street to the offices where she worked on the corner of Market Street and Von Brandis Street. Even though her shoes squashed her corns and made her feet swell she bit down the pain and soldiered on. She practiced walking in her heels diligently in her apartment. Many times before she had fallen flat on her face leaving her son reeling with laughter. However, Portia was determined to master the art of walking in high heels like her work colleagues at Hulisani, Hirsch, Hlomani and Associates.

They occupied the seventh floor which they shared with some accountants and consulting engineers. Portia sat in the reception greeting clients with a sunny smile and answering telephones with practiced efficacy. She had not always been in the foreground. Instead she had lingered in the background; cleaning toilets, making tea and sweeping the office floors. Beyond these chores she was often sent to run the personal errands of her bosses.

Advocate Hirsch loved a particular brand of Colombian coffee, which she bought at a café at the corner of De Korte and Juta Streets. Advocate Hulisani often sent her to pick up his dry cleaning from a laundromat on Eloff Street. When lunch time came, she would go and buy Advocate Hlomani his chesa nyama lunch on Commissioner Street. He thrived on his staple of pap and braaied meat and never deviated from the set menu. Sometimes when the messenger was out running errands and there was an urgent delivery to be made they sent Portia.

It was for this reason that Portia had made a habit of memorising street names. Kotze. Loveday. Kerk. Plein. She had a map of the CBD etched in her head. It was the only way she could navigate the city of Johannesburg without getting lost. Even if she got lost, which she had on many occasions, if she could find a familiar street name she would easily find her bearings once again. With the passage of time Johannesburg had become less intimidating and more accommodating.

She had no idea how the city actually came to be christened ‘Johannesburg’, which to her seemed like an odd name. The origins of the name ‘Johannesburg’ were contentious but most accounts seemed to allude to the fact that the city was named after Johannes Joubert and Johannes Rissik, men who had both been responsible for land surveying and mapping of the town. The combination of their first names let to the coining of ‘Johannes-burg’. The suffix being an Afrikaans word meaning ‘town’. But whatever you wanted to call her. Egoli. Joni. Jozi. Joburg. Johannesburg was undeniably one of Africa’s economic powerhouses and it is for this reason that she was able to lure people from all over the continent. All of them were gold-diggers seeking fame or fortune. Or both.

Portia had found her gold nestled amongst the overgrown grass in Joubert Park. For the first few weeks in the city she and Nkosi had slept on the vacant seats in the busy transit terminal. They slept in good company with other passengers who were transiting from one city to another. Every morning they showered in the public ablutions. When they were clean they would spend the day roaming the city with Portia knocking on doors for a job. Any job. Doors were slammed in her face. Exhausted and dejected they’d spend the rest of the afternoon at Joubert Park. Nkosi had even made friends with children who had finished school. Portia would watch him from the park bench, trying not to feel sorry for herself. Her optimism was wearing thin and so was their money. She spent her every penny sparingly but two months of sleeping on the streets was enough to get her worried. She contemplated catching a taxi back to Plumtree with the little money they had left.

Her husband had been right; Johannesburg was no place for a woman. But then Nkosi had kicked a soccer ball under the park bench where Portia was seated. When she bent over to retrieve it she stumbled across a handbag which looked like it had been thrown hurriedly under the bench. Curiosity got the better of her. The bag had already been ransacked, it seemed. However, the real treasure was the green ID booklet. She took possession of it and threw the bag aside. She quickly shoved the booklet into her bra. The next day Portia assumed her new identity as Phakama Hlophe. After a visit to Harrison Street she was able to get a password-sized picture which she superimposed on Phakama’s picture. Armed with her new ID, Portia went about trying to enrol Nkosi into a crèche. Little Angels Daycare Centre was happy to take him. She paid the enrolment fee and left him there as she went about her job-hunt. By the end of the week she had landed herself a position as a cleaner with Hulisani, Hirsch, Hlomani and Associates.

Portia and her son continued to sleep at Park Station. They ate the leftovers that she cleaned off the plates from the staff at work. She would walk Nkosi to crèche every morning before racing off to work. She was the first person in the office but never the last to leave. The advocates were always in the office. Sometimes when she arrived in the morning she would find Advocate Hulisani still in his office looking ruffled and exhausted with bloodshot eyes. Of all the advocates he was the most vocal and often succumbed to fits of rage. It was not unusual to see interns or legal assistants running out of his office followed by law journals and anything else he could throw at them. Often after such incidents Advocate Hirsch would go into his office to calm him down.

Clifford, the messenger, had told Portia countless times that Advocate Hulisani was good at his job, which is why his name appeared first. His reasoning however could not be substantiated and Portia never questioned it. Clifford maintained that Advocate Hulisani insisted that the practice would die if he ever left. Portia was fearful of him and tiptoed around him lest he unleash his rage on her.

When month-end came Portia was excited to receive her first salary. That night she and Nkosi did not eat leftovers but instead from one of the fast-food restaurants at Park Station. When they went to sleep on one of the benches Portia assured hr son they would be doing it for the last time. The following day they went hunting for a place to live. They managed to find a one-bedroomed apartment on Edith Cavell Street. It was a threadbare apartment with the cupboards almost coming off the hinges. The landlord said that was the reason he only wanted R1 000 for it. They slept on the parquet floor on their sponge mattresses which they had purchased for R600. Portia assured her son that things would be better.

“Next month I will buy you a new bed.”

Nkosi threw his tiny arms around her and hugged her.

“I know you will, Mama.”

At night Portia dreamt of all the things she would do once she got her second pay cheque. The new stove. The new sofa. The new television set. She fell asleep dreaming about the new bed.

One afternoon at work, as she was washing cups in the kitchen, she heard Advocate Hulisani shout that he needed some documents typed. Portia went to the front to hear what the commotion was about.

“Where is everyone?” he screamed. “Where are the interns?”

“At court,” replied Portia.

“Kopano? Where is she?”

“Still at lunch,” replied Portia.

Hulisani kicked the plant in the reception knocking it over. Portia quickly rushed to catch it but it was too late.

“I need this document typed now!” he screamed.

“I will call her,” replied Portia shrinking away and heading towards the switchboard. At times she did hold the fort for Kopano when she wanted to take an extended lunch. Kopano’s phone just rang. Portia hung up feeling disconcerted.

“I can’t get hold of her,” she replied. “But I can type.”

He eyed her circumspectly. “Are you sure?”

Portia had taken a typing course at school. She could type 80 words a minute so when her fingers hit the keyboard she was not in totally unfamiliar territory. The computer keyboard was much softer than the typewriter and her fingers slid across the keys. She typed whilst Advocate Hulisani paced the room as he dictated to her. He often came round to look over her shoulder to see if she was actually typing.

By the time Kopano came back Portia was editing the document, checking it for errors. Advocate Hulisani was so impressed with Portia that Advocate Hirsch and Advocate Hlomani soon got wind of it. They started saying her talent was being underutilised in the kitchen as a cleaner and that was how Portia got promoted to front office. She now sat with Kopano and helped with other office duties. Her promotion came with a pay increase which Portia welcomed.

The following month she and Nkosi moved from the grimy apartment to a beautiful high-rise apartment on Kerk Street in the heart of the Johannesburg CBD. It was clean and secure with controlled access. She could sleep at night without fear in her heart. She could now afford to shop at the department stores like Edgars, Foschini, Spitz and Truworths. She had brought her furniture from Russells and Morkels. For the first time she felt like she was living the life she deserved. A life she was determined to live to the fullest.

As much as possible Portia tried to emulate the ladies at work. She looked at the way they dressed and would improvise slightly and come up with her own look. She listened to how Kopano and the other ladies spoke and would imitate them. She would practice religiously at night, imitating the intonation and mannerisms. Gradually the old Portia began to disappear, making way for Phakama.

Portia always enjoyed the brisk walk to work through the CBD.

The town was always full of life and joie de vivre. The only time it took a sojourn was on Sundays. On those days she went to church at the Methodist Church on Delvers Street. She could easily have attended the central Methodist Church on the corner of Small and Pritchard but it was overflowing with Zimbabwean refugees who poured into Johannesburg like heavy rain. The church sheltered thousands who slept on its floors. Portia preferred to distance herself from her kith and kin. Phakama had no place being there. She felt no allegiance to or kindred spirit with them. She had a new life now. A new beginning.

Book details

"Barbetje had helped me with the first two births - the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire." Read an excerpt from Maxine Case's Barry Ronge Prize shortlisted novel, Softness of the Lime

Published in the Sunday Times

Barbetje cleared her throat again.

“Just say what you want to say,” I told her, addressing her in English this time. My English was better than hers by then.

Barbetje ignored me and instead bustled about the kitchen while I watched her with defiant expectation. She took out two cups and saucers: not the good stuff the family used, but not the worst. She placed the sugar and a jug of milk next to them and then poured the tea that had been warming on the stove all morning into the cups. She stirred them briskly, then passed me one.

“Hot, sweet tea always makes me feel better,” she explained. I could believe it; she drank several cups a day.

“Why don’t we sit?” she suggested, pulling out a chair at the table. We seldom sat there; the table had always been reserved for the family, even once the misses left. When we worked we stood, but Barbetje was having none of that.

“My legs are sore.”

I sat down, since I knew that no one would actually tell me that I could not. Anyway, it was usually Barbetje who watched me, to make sure that I didn’t overstep my bounds, and if she told me to sit then I would sit. We sipped our tea in silence. I decided that I would not goad her to talk. Maybe I was afraid of what she’d say.

“His father was exactly the same,” Barbetje said, once I had nearly finished my tea.

I stirred the bottom of my cup, thinking that the words alone must have tasted like sugar on her tongue, but she had surprised me with the tea. Such a sweet irony, I thought, that Barbetje should be to one to show me how I too had been deluded enough to believe that a man like that would keep his word: “I will marry you one day; I will give our children my name”. That’s what he used to say on the nights he wanted to talk.

I was glad that Barbetje hadn’t required me to confirm the news of his marriage; she probably already knew, perhaps she was privy to the details. I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I let her speak.

“Always promising one thing but doing another,” Barbetje said.

I wanted to ask her about the children she’d borne; I wanted to know what had happened to them, whether she’d thought they’d make a difference. I wanted to ask whether the old man had been able to sell his own flesh and blood. If his son was exactly like his father, I needed to know that.

Barbetje had helped me with the first two births – the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire. Not to be hurtful, but it had never been my plan. The hopeful among us saw children as negotiating instruments, a tool when we had so little with which to bargain. Others bore children to punish, a constant reminder of the sins of the fathers. All those fathers sinning so unconscionably, ardently, what was another child when compared to able hands, strong arms, feet? A baby for some was gold, and if not gold, then silver.

A baby is not a bird…

I remembered the words from Rakota’s tale; had always wondered what it meant. Those words were the first thing that came to mind when I saw the child, the first one, a girl. Birdlike bones and damp feathers of hair like a newly hatched chick.

A baby is not a bird…

Barbetje’s words disturbed my thoughts. “‘n Stywe lat het geen konsensie nie,” she said, placing a hand on my shoulder.

It was true what she said. A stiff rod had no conscience.

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