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Melissa De Villiers
Melissa De Villiers

Melissa de Villiers grew up in Grahamstown in South Africa's Eastern Cape. She now lives between London and Singapore, where she works as an editor. Her debut collection of short stories is forthcoming in January 2014.

Dry Run

It was a disaster, the ruin of any girl’s hopes. Thandiwe’s cousin had jumped off a bridge for a dare, never dreaming of the consequences. She did some private damage to herself, Thandiwe told Joanne, but in the most public way. Trickles of blood had clouded the waters of the Kowie River and the back of her white swimsuit as she splashed, sobbing, to the shore. The other school kids who’d seen her jump spread the story around and that’s when the trouble began. Thandiwe’s cousin had endured months of taunts about being los and gagging for it, and now she’d been put on an antidepressant pill.

          “Listen, I feel so bad for her. Really, I do,¸ Thandiwe said. Her plump mouth opened wide to admit a glistening forkful of the roasted sheep’s head she was scooping from a newsprint wrap. The animal’s lips were shriveled and scorched, yet it looked like they were smiling – trapped, it seemed to Joanne, in the echo of some grisly joke.

          “And she’s only fourteen, same as us. But, you know, if you were a guy that was even halfway cool, would you want to hook up with a chick who’d popped her cherry in front of the entire world?¸

          Thandiwe had been talking for ages, all the time it had taken the girls to walk from the school gates in Rhodes Place down the hill to the bus station. You could hear the buses long before you saw them, snorting and roaring, Joanne thought, goaded beyond endurance by the flies and the dust, and the rich stink of offal and roasting mielie-cobs rising from smoky braziers, and the press of township commuters impatient to be home. It was a bright blue afternoon in November, with only a few days to go before the long summer break.

          “Who cares about a few dumb bitch gossips, eh?¸ Thandiwe was stabbing at the sheep’s lolling purple tongue with her plastic fork. “But the whole thing has given my dad these, eh, thoughts about me. Boys and me. The proper way to behave – all that. He’s so uptight. If he had his way, I wouldn’t go out with a guy for, like, fifty years. Know what I mean?¸

          Etienne was a stickler for proper behaviour, too. At first, Joanne had not found this strange: he was 38. He was a grown-up. Although that description wasn’t really quite right. Maybe a month ago she would have called him that, but now, caught off-balance as she was by the strange current swirling between them, the term no longer seemed to fit.

          “Twenty minutes,¸ he had said yesterday, looking sideways at her as he scooped up his shoulder-holster from the car’s footwell. “We said we’d meet here at eighteen hundred hours. We agreed on the time, but now here you come twenty minutes late. You trying to pick a fight with me, Joanne?¸

          When Joanne – aghast, tearful, and, she knew, unflatteringly brick-red from running all the way to their secret place behind the Botanical Gardens – had begun to tell him about the principal keeping the whole form back, he took his pistol out of its holster and tapped her playfully on the head.

          “Keep your tits on,¸ he had said.

          Etienne had a gun because he was a sergeant in the police service. His silver car was part of the package, although he also owned a pick-up truck. He had told her these things the day they first met, the day they had talked for nearly fifty minutes, when, instead of dropping her at home, he had driven them up to a viewpoint he knew on Mountain Drive. Afterwards, when he finally said goodbye and she stood at her gate and watched his car streak away, back to Stone’s Hill where he lived with his wife, Joanne had heard the sound of gunfire blaring from the house across the road. The old couple who lived there always had their TV turned up too loud. Etienne fought crime in that dark world of danger, she thought, yet only ten minutes ago he had been kissing her hand and asking her if she knew she looked like a young Shania Twain.

          She’d met him three weeks ago, in the high street. She was dawdling her way home, exam revision work making a dreary boulder of her schoolbag. Flicking through the magazines at the Central News Agency, she found a story about a famous London model whose passion for a drug-addicted rock star was hurtling her towards career suicide. Later, she stopped in front of Lily’s Larger Ladies’ Fashions, where a headless dummy sported a party dress that looked like a rotting peach. London was the world’s most stylish capital and so huge you never even saw a horizon. Here, even in the middle of town, you could see bushveld clutching at the valley rim, beyond the Methodist church and the Record Ranch and the two banks and the estate agent’s office and, always, a couple of donkey-carts clopping by.

          “Three more years, my girl, and the world’s your oyster,¸ her father had said. “You’ve got the brains for it, so get the grades and you can take your pick of any college you want.¸ Three more years of suffocation in back-of-beyond hell, then she and her dumb-ass life might finally go somewhere. Or, even, begin.

          That day, still dreaming of London, she’d stopped short in the middle of the road. Out of nowhere a skinny kid on a bicycle had sliced past, swerving to avoid her and then powering away, yelling insults as he went. She’d been shocked almost to tears, like a child. Exam papers, books, a half-open pencil-case – they’d all slithered traitorously from her schoolbag as she lunged for the kerb.

          In front of her, a man was loading a crate of beer-bottles into the boot of a silver car. He was about Joanne’s height, but powerfully built, green-eyed like a cat, olive-skinned, with slightly curling black hair. He closed the boot and smiled at her. He wore a grey suit with a waistcoat, cut in an Edwardian style. His manners were old-fashioned, too. “You OK, Miss?¸ he’d said, very gently and softly. “You look like you got a fright. You need a hand?¸

          Just then the boy on the bike swooped back, spoiling for a second round. “Watch where you’re walking next time, shit-for-brains!¸ he was shouting.

          Astonishingly, the beautiful man sprang out into the road and grabbed the boy around the neck. “That’s enough!¸ he barked. “Get out of here before I shove your head up your ass and carry you around like a suitcase!¸ And he tossed the boy and his bike aside with a clatter.

          Joanne didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t think of anything to say. All she knew was that she wanted the beautiful man to keep looking at her that way. She stared dumbly at his waistcoat buttons, pearly as milk teeth.

          “Thank you,¸ she said eventually.

          The man nodded, opening his wallet and taking out a badge.           “I’m a police officer,¸ he had said. “That’s why I’m allowed to tell moegoes like that where to go. Need a lift somewhere?¸

          Joanne shook her head. But something in her flickered and sparked. Then it spoke to her, privately. “Poor baby!¸ it jeered. “Too shy? Too fucked up to cope?¸

          If she turned her head just slightly, Joanne could see her reflection in the window of the man’s car. She didn’t look like a baby. She was tall for her age, with the makings of a summer tan from lying for hours in the garden last weekend. The wind was tugging her hair from its fastenings and fanning it about her face. The tears in her eyes would probably be making them sparkle. Her cheeks felt hot.

          The man was peering sideways at the car window too, quickly pushing out his chest so he stood a little taller.

          The boy picked up his bicycle and began pedalling unsteadily away. “Fascist pig!¸ he called, not so loudly this time, as he wobbled back around the corner.

          Joanne stooped to gather her spilled pencils, but the man was quicker than she was. “You have a very interesting surname,¸ he said, straightening up and turning her denim pencil-case around in his fingers. He was studying the letters she’d stitched on last year, in that dumb curly script. “It sounds French, like my name – Etienne. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were related?¸

          And with that, the secret thing within her seemed to smile, to swell vastly. Come on then! she told it.

          Never taking his eyes from her face, Etienne said, still softly but quite firmly, “Shall we go?¸

          Stepping into the car, a shiver ran through her whole body, like she was tumbling headlong into deep water.

In the beginning, she didn’t give the rights and wrongs of what they were doing a thought. Etienne bought Joanne a cellphone so that she could contact him whenever she wanted. He sent her messages every morning, because, he said, he wanted her to think of him the moment she opened her eyes. “Pretty woman¸, his texts ran. “I want to kiss u again and again. Missing u ;) ;) ;)¸. And he met Joanne almost every evening, as soon as he could get away from work. She explained that her father phoned around nine-thirty to say good-night; in the run-up to Christmas the hospital kept him working late. And so Etienne dropped her at the end of her road on the dot of nine, and she’d run down the pavement to her own front door, almost fainting from the glory of it all.

She’d never been called a woman before. Etienne was the first to do that, and tell her he couldn’t stop thinking about her, and present her with a bunch of flowers, long-tongued and tender in their pink tissue-paper cloak. He was the first to daub their initials on a steamed-up car windscreen and then, with those same fingers, moisten the outline of her lips. He was the first to kiss her in a way that made her weak, his tongue first lazy, then thuggish – a skill she supposed, with a protesting clench of the heart, was down to long experience. And unlike the boys she’d gone to school parties with, he was interested in everything she said. She told him about her classmates, the name of her teacher, Beth Dougmore. (“Death Bugmore. Imagine that being your nickname for generations?¸). She told him that she had a poem about a pregnant Iraqi woman shot dead by US marines published in the school magazine – not a very good one, but then they had probably been relieved to get anything that wasn’t about breaking up or ponies.

          “So why did you write it?¸

          “Oh, you know. Just something I was thinking about at the time.¸

          He’d pressed her hand and gazed at her, shaking his head slowly from side to side. He said she was unbelievable, to think so deeply about what was going on in the outside world, and at that moment she felt, in a rush of gratitude, that he knew – that he’d pierced right through to the heart of her. That he understood how difficult it all was. How life wrongfooted her the whole time. How she couldn’t just think or do what she wanted, now she was no longer a child. Instead, there was always this horror of revealing that she didn’t fit in, of it being obvious to everyone. Not to mention the hideousness, the humiliation of being left stranded without a boyfriend, a freakish man-scarer, too clever by half and fit for nothing but passing exams.

          Right from the start, Joanne longed to have a picture of Etienne on her new cellphone, like the one Thandiwe had of Sipho Sibiside and her at the Sunday School social. But she didn’t tell anyone about him. After everything he’d said about it being their secret, and theirs alone, she didn’t dare. Yet part of her was desperate to tell Thandiwe, if only to brag. She imagined how she would break the news, how Thandiwe would stop in her tracks and stare at her, eyes widening in envy and surprise.

          “Jirre, get away, you’re joking me, man! Are you serious?¸

          “It’s all true, Thandiwe. Very soon¸ – here she would pause for a second or two – “I shall be his mistress.¸

          But Thandiwe was preoccupied these days, cranky, even, flying off the handle when Joanne reminded her that she wanted to borrow Thandiwe’s glittery purple nail polish. “I haven’t brought it!¸ Thandiwe snapped. “I haven’t got time to remember stuff like that.¸ Or she’d be mouthing off at poor old Miss Dougmore, talking back in class, slamming out the door the second the bell began to ring. “Ja, look, Miss, you’re right – I’m sorry,¸ Joanne heard her apologize, as she passed the two of them in the corridor. “Exam pressure, or something. Taking a bit of strain.¸

Joanne wasn’t suffering from exam pressure. She and Etienne held hands and kissed on a tucked-away bench in the Botanical Gardens. They sipped Cokes in the deserted lounge of the Stone Crescent Motel under the melancholy gaze of a mounted springbok head, a cigarette stuffed between its jaws. They drove the thirty kilometres out to wild and windy Kasouga Beach, avoiding the big summer colony at Port Alfred, where the world and his wife, Etienne said, would be out catching a tan. And they ate takeaway chips with curry sauce in the car on Mountain Drive – each taking a swig from Etienne’s bottle of beer and watching the sun go down behind the town.

          When it was time to go he turned on the car radio and started humming along to the song, looking at her sideways with that little smile he had. “Riding along in my automobile … my baby beside me at the wheel …¸ he sang, and as the silver car streaked through the warm dark back to town, she wished she could stay inside this moment forever. She closed her eyes and imagined once again how it would be with the two of them naked, his clean fingertips on her skin, whispering that she was special, that he knew it ever since the first day he saw her, that everything was going to be alright. His arms would fold her into him and because they were in love, she would feel safe. He would whisper that it was their secret, that what had happened was not her fault. He would call her his queen.

On the last day of school before the holidays, Thandiwe told Joanne that her father was having an affair with an intern from the ANC office, where he was the MP. “She’s the daughter of one of his comrades from the Island,¸ Thandiwe said as they walked down the hill to the bus station. “She used to babysit me, for God’s sake.¸ Joanne waited as Thandiwe blew her nose wetly on a crumpled tissue. “He’s moved out of our house into this crummy flat above the Public Library,¸ Thandiwe said, her voice loud and harsh. “He told my mother he needs time to think things through.¸ She stared at her fingernails then turned to Joanne. “She’s only two years older than me. He says they’re in love.¸

          Joanne looked down at her feet. Etienne’s wife was going on a trip to visit her family in Port Elizabeth. That morning, Etienne had called Joanne to say he’d decided to drive her there and spend the night. When he got back on Sunday afternoon – and here he had paused– they could meet. It was a good chance to be alone together. If she felt for him like she said she did. He didn’t know how much more waiting he could take.

          “But what if they really are in love?¸ she ventured.

          “Joanne, sometimes it’s like you’re from another planet.¸ Thandiwe’s mouth was twisted and her eyes glistened. “For her, it’s like a career move. She knows she’s breaking up a family and she doesn’t care. She’s a filthy little whore, and now the whole world knows it.¸

Biting her lip, Joanne withdrew all her birthday money from the ATM, then squashed the notes into her purse and snapped it shut. Saturday had started out unsettled – sultry, but with an ominous build-up of cloud – and now there was a wash of rain on the bank’s tall windows. People coming in to queue at the tills were already soaked, so she lingered in the lobby in case the weather cleared, but it did not.

          She hoped, as she pressed the catch on her blue umbrella, that the rain would rinse away her stupid fears and stiffness, so by the time she and Etienne met tomorrow she would be ready, equal to anything, and he would like the look of her, love it, even, and nothing would spoil his feast. Shivering from the touch of a stray drop at the nape of her neck, she walked to Birch’s department store.

          “Do you have this in a small?¸ she asked the saleslady, pointing to a black basque with stiffly pointed bra cups.

          She had no clear idea of the kind of things a mistress might wear, but she pretended to examine the lingerie section with a professional disdain. Playsuits, thongs and something called a shaping suspender. Many of these items had been torn open then crammed back into their boxes in the heaped display bin. The better stuff floated from a rack ranged beside the fitting room. Silk kimonos. Seamed stockings. Slips in ice-cream-coloured tulle, trimmed with little feathers like puffs of baby’s breath.

          She was stroking a ruffle between her fingers when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She snatched her hand away from the rack as if she’d been stung. In his bulky yellow raincoat with zipped pockets and his brown checked trousers Doctor Gordon loomed over her, a curious smile hovering above his graying beard. Years ago, when she’d still needed babysitting, he’d been one of a handful of family friends who’d often helped out; Uncle Gordon, she’d called him then.

          “Well, now, Joanne,¸ the doctor said. “Christmas shopping, eh?¸

          “That’s right,¸ she agreed. But then she added, recklessly, “Shopping for me, actually. A few little numbers for my collection!¸

          After that, all she could do was hurtle on.

          “Right now it’s a toss-up between this Paula ‘skirtini’ set, or a ‘Shirley of Hollywood’ basque. Anything you’d recommend?¸

          He told her a joke involving a woman wearing a pair of foam rubber falsies that accidentally caught fire in an ashtray. He never would have come out with that kind of thing before.

          She laughed, but felt her face and neck flush.

          “Now you have a happy Christmas, doctor, if Dad and I don’t see you before,¸ she said, much too loudly, still in the new, shrilly flirtatious tone. But the only answer he made was to turn and cast her a look before hurrying on past towards the street.

Moron. Slut. Child. In Birch’s washroom, Joanne pressed her face against the rust-spotted mirror and squeezed her eyes closed.

          A few little numbers for my collection.

          She knew the dreadful shyness she felt about her body often drove her into contortions. She often longed to be less prudish, more relaxed – more like almost every other girl she knew. But she always got shy, way ahead of any reason to get shy. Maybe she was thinking about sex too much; maybe that was why she felt such unease. But when men stared at her breasts that way it seemed that they were helping themselves to a taste of her most private self; that self which, until Etienne, she had preferred to keep out of reach.

          Even with Etienne she felt the same anxiety, although at first he hadn’t cared that she would not let him touch. “We will go at your pace, my baby,¸ was what he had said. That made her long for him even more, but behind the longing lurked suspicion, and Joanne knew she had oceans of that. More and more frequently now, she was tormented by thoughts of his wife, always there in the background like a dreadful Christmas tree, aglow with gimcrack seductiveness and charm. To make matters worse, Etienne, who was mentioning quite frequently now that he needed more sex from his wife than she was willing to give, had an unpredictable side. Oh, yes, he could be moody; impatient, even; darkening suddenly to an air of only temporary goodwill as if he were waiting for a chance to catch her out.

          Ja, no, fine, he said, when she explained she needed good grades to become a doctor like her dad, but the simple truth was that there was work men did better than females and work females did better than others and to think differently was mist in the sun. Young people nowadays were often spoiled, he told her, when he heard about her plans to study abroad. They had everything handed to them on a plate. He hadn’t had anything handed to him on a plate. His father’s word had been law, and he had not thought it necessary to give Etienne the opportunity to be educationally advanced.

          “And with these bloody mamparas running the government now, we can only sit by while everything is stripped from us. You think it’s going to be any better for you, Joanne? You and that hotnot best friend of yours; you think you’re going to have a wonderful future together in the new South Africa and it’s all going to turn out fine?¸ He’d turn to face her, his mouth working slightly. He wore a smooth, cheerful expression, but at these moments he looked as if something heavy and hard was rising up inside him, a blunt wedge of bafflement and rage.

          But the desire he’d taught her. Again that new, tiger-fanged delight leaped through her, striping her with its shocking force. She craved that feeling, she trusted it; the guilty truth was she thought about little else. It was as if, before Etienne, she had been dreaming, or perhaps now she had leapfrogged the world with him into the shaky madness of a dream.

          And suddenly she wasn’t worried any more and all her bad feelings fled. She combed her fringe over the place on her forehead where pimples sprouted, she applied lipgloss with the press of his mouth in mind. Crossing the washroom to where the new pink silk camisole waited in its Birch’s carrier bag, Joanne pictured Etienne looking at her in that way he had, as if he owned her, and congratulated herself again on how fast she was moving forward with her life. How childish of her that it should feel so close to fear.

On Sunday morning, Joanne woke at first light. She scrubbed herself in the shower and rubbed her limbs with cream. She tweezed blonde stubble from her calves and thighs. She crouched on the toilet and then, gripped by a fear that her body stank, went back beneath the shower again. She couldn’t relax. The night had passed in a restless dream, the faces of her school friends, of Etienne, the shape of her own sweaty bed in the dark, the sour recesses of her skin, the sound of the clock ticking a torment to her. In a few hours, nothing would be the same.

          She had thought she could drag out the rest of the time by reading, but she could not concentrate. Her father called her to the kitchen table for a bacon sandwich but she could not look at him, or eat. The sun was out, but whenever she went into the garden the light hurt her buzzing head. In desperation she walked up the road to Thandiwe’s house and knocked on the door.

          A housemaid led her into the big white living room with its glass-topped coffee table and expensive-looking chandeliers. Thandiwe and her mother were still at church, the woman said, but they wouldn’t be long. She offered Joanne a Coke, which she accepted with shaking hands.

          Joanne avoided looking at the giant colour photograph on the wall. She knew that it was Thandiwe’s mother and father, posing stiffly in their Xhosa wedding robes. Instead, she stared out of the window, where a gardener with a long-handled cleaning net rippled lines across the forehead of a smooth blue pool.

          As she gazed, she imagined the arguments Thandiwe must have overheard in this room. “After all we’ve been through?¸ her mother would have wept. “What have I done to deserve this?¸

          Her father’s replies would have been embarrassed, gruff. He’d have been trying to calm her down.

          “You cheat!¸ Thandiwe’s mother would have raged at him. “Have you no shame? She’s our daughter’s age!¸ And then, screaming, “How could you have sex with a child?¸

          Joanne, too, felt like screaming. For a crazy instant, she saw herself on the ground, clasping Thandiwe’s mum by the ankles and sobbing out an excuse. She tried to deaden her mind, but she knew the image of the wedding photograph wouldn’t go away. It made her feel how she once felt when she’d shoplifted a Vogue magazine and the store owner had seen her do it. She remembered the look on her father’s face when he’d come to pick her up, like he’d been punched in the gut.

          She got up quickly and let herself out.

Joanne had thought that Etienne might take her to his place as his wife was away, but to her surprise he did not. He headed for Mountain Drive, where he removed his trousers and, without looking at her, scraped deep between her thighs with a rapid, grunting twist.

          It was all over very quickly, and so different from their usual sessions on the mountainside. Before, he’d talked and she’d listened, and then they would start to kiss and to stroke, her fierce, guilty struggle between panic and glutting euphoria rising and falling there on the front car seat.

          This time, Etienne let out a long, hissing sigh.

          “Hell’s bells, man¸ he said. “You just never can tell with women, eh?¸

          Hell’s bells. He loves me now, she thought confusedly, smoothing down her camisole. The knee that was nearest to Etienne touched some part of his thigh as she shifted closer towards him again.

          “But, like, you never put me in the picture, Joanne. When you said about how you’d never had a boyfriend and stuff like that, I must’ve misunderstood.¸

          Joanne noticed she had goosebumps on her arms and chest. Her father was planning on buying her a pink leather jacket for Christmas. She’d checked the computer and seen he’d looked at it in an online store. Should she hint to him about wanting an iPod instead, or wait till her exam results came in?

          Etienne was still speaking, baring his teeth in an odd, jerky movement that made him look like he was telling a joke. With an effort, she concentrated. He was saying that he knew he shouldn’t have done it, but that he just couldn’t help himself.

          It’s OK, she said, trying to sound normal again. Doesn’t have to change us, does it? She laughed, like everything was fine.

          “I’m crazy about you, my girl,¸ Uncle Derek used to whisper, the afternoons when he was babysitting and he’d wake her up from her nap. His little treasure, he’d breathe, saying too that he was old enough to be her father but that he had just got carried away. Over and over again he would say he was sorry.

          He’d had quite a few doubts about going this far, Etienne was saying. But for what, eh? Because he couldn’t help feeling now he’d been misled.

          It was Uncle Derek who said she was special, his secret, his and his alone, and then said the world would know what a dirty little cunt she was if she ever told.

          Joanne wanted Etienne to turn towards her in the silence that had come, to reach out and put a hand on her arm. But when he kept his eyes away, she tilted her head back against the passenger door so she could see the sky.

          It was almost sunset, she noticed – that strange moment when the veld drains to the dead colour of a cold roast, just before the pinks and reds come streaking in. Through the windscreen, she glimpsed the dark tops of the bitter aloes and the stinkwood trees. Lamps would be coming on in the streets below. She felt strangely weightless; if she concentrated hard enough, she might simply float out of the window and away. Yes, she could do that; she would hover near the silver car in the warm air above the mountainside, a quick, hopeful, pulsing bead of light. And then she’d be gone, flying off to where his eyes could not follow her, across the wide night sky that was spread over the town.



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