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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.

Mask


You open your eyes with a start and peer through the dimness for the thing that woke you. Some kind of greyish, hooded creature – you felt its sleeve brush your cheek. But no-one stirs. A hush hangs over everything. You’re safe. You’re just nodding off again when the man in front begins to snore; a hideous sound – no, more like a sound-turd. And now there’s a long line of them, every stinking one the same; each grunting moistly upwards before pinching itself out in a tiny ssss.

            You’re about to wrench off a shoe and give the moron a slap he’ll never forget, but then you remember why you must not make a scene. Instead, you make a note of the noise. It reminds you of somebody. Could you remember everyone you slept with, just by the way they snored? You could try to list them that way, in your head. An audio ID parade. You have to do something to kill the time before touchdown in Johannesburg or you’ll go mad.

             “Michelle! You’ve woken.” The Brazilian guy on your aisle side is staring at you. “Difficult not to, with this terrible man in the front, eh.” His teeth gleam wetly.

            You’ve lied to him that you are Michelle, an exchange student coming home from a Sao Paulo language school.

             “You know you talk in your sleep, Michelle?”

            Sandro. That’s his name. What did I say? Big, dishevelled, sweating profusely, grey hair slicked back from his temple to the nape of his neck. He said he was a doctor – well, you pity his patients. He’s been dopping back the brandies since he got on the plane, and he’s badly in need of a shave.

             “Is it, eh? I just hope I didn’t disturb you too much, Sandro.”

            His hands are trembling as they rest on the beige pull-out tray. He picks up his drink and sucks in a slow mouthful.

             “Michelle, you were not happy. You were calling somebody some very bad names. In a tone which might, eh, marshal a Boer commando, or put down a mutiny, perhaps. Quite a fearsome performance from such a lovely young lady, especially one in the family way.”

            He checks you out, his small, sharp eyes unblinking. Fokall to do with you, poes.

             “Sorry, Sandro. I’m not used to flying, you know?” You summon a cheerful smile, but suspect it is coming off tight and small.

             “Ah, no – remorse is not necessary, Michelle. But you sounded so sad. I thought to myself: what has this beautiful creature got to be sad about?”

            What is it with this creep?  

             “I noticed, Michelle, that you didn’t understand our stewardess when she asked in Portuguese how you were feeling today. You asked for a translation. Interessante, I thought – but then Sao Paulo has many temptations to keep a young girl away from her language studies, eh!” And he raises his glass to you in a mock toast, the signet ring on his pinkie glittering like the eye of an alligator.

            You stare at him, frozen.

            Get a grip, relax. Just another sad old boykie, heading for the DTs in some failed motel room at the end of the night.

            Draining his drink, Sandro summons a fresh one from a passing trolley.

             “Do you have an opinion, Michelle, on the age people are most open to temptation? When they are very young, and so gloriously in love with themselves they fancy they are heroes; or later, in the middle of that dark wood, when the branches ahead grow evermore to resemble the ones left behind?”

            OK, call someone and ask to be moved away from the mad guy. You twist in your seat, but at the same moment the cabin lurches, the air in the jet engines ringing shrill. The plane starts to struggle with unseen assailants, out there in the dark. An alarm bell rings. As the captain’s voice comes over the intercom, talking cheerily about turbulence, the people around you shift and sigh. Seatbelts clink, a sound like marbles pouring slowly into a sack. A child wails. Wiping your sweaty palms on your jeans, you press your forehead against the window and peer out at the sky.

            Long fingers of rain are stroking the glass. Somewhere down there is the Kalahari; bakgat, what luck! You went all the way to Brazil, but if the plane crashes now, you’ll die in the very same shithole you were born in. You wonder if it’s raining down there on the farm; fat drops bouncing on thirsty red soil, darkening the thornbushes and the springbucks’ striped pelts.

            You were seven when your family left the Kalahari. Skinny and gap-toothed, the only girl in your class with a giant tortoise for a pet. Your grandfather drilled a hole in Skillie’s shell so she could pull the farm babies around on a little sledge. But by the time you outgrew the sledge, the Delports’ farming days were also done. Years of drought had sucked the life out of everything. The fields all smoky with dust. Even the grass by the dam was brown.

            Petrus, the farm manager, helped load up the truck and the old blue Fiat. Watching from the car window, you saw your grandfather raise a hand towards Petrus as if to pat him on the shoulder, but then he dropped it again and just stood there without speaking. Petrus’s brown face was as stiff as your grandfather’s white one. As the family’s convoy crunched down the drive, Petrus got smaller and smaller, until he was only a tiny dot by the windpump. Or perhaps it was you who looked small to him?

            You are shaken with a grief for Skillie you had thought was long gone.

             “Anything wrong, Michelle?” Sandro leans his big face towards you again. The collar of his shirt is stained with food. You can smell his yellow breath. 

            You shrink away, and close your eyes. Your tongue finds the scab on your lip and worries at it.

            You are still worrying at it two hours later, as the plane bumps down onto South African soil. Across the terminal’s façade, distorted in the plane’s convex window, you can see the airport’s name. Three letters are gone, the dilapidation a crumb of comfort – slack is part of the way things work round here. You watch as a baggage truck, lights blinking, speeds to the spot where your plane is heading to park. Behind it, two yellow vehicles. Police. Looking for illegal immigrants. Terrorists, even.

            Or a girl with a stomach stuffed with cocaine.

 

The first shock was that the promised beachfront hotel never materialised. But the big house they brought you to instead was so beautiful, you didn’t care. Zé, tall in his steel-tipped cowboy boots, picked you up from the airport and gave you a glimpse of your first foreign city, patches of colour flying past like hallucinations. A neon-winking Christ on a giant billboard, arms outstretched. Jacarandas, plumbago and hibiscus everywhere, just like home. Police with big guns. Even a sprawling township, right near the rich neighbourhood where the villa was.

            After the first thrill of being there drained away, each day began to feel like part of the one before, only connected to the rest by your complicated dreams. You spent your time by the pool, eating prego rolls and staring up at the clear January sky. Ringing for take-out, whatever you wanted: pizza with steak toppings, stir-fry or chicken stew. Your biggest decision was how to blow the money they gave you upfront, because they wouldn’t let you go near the tall electronic gates. In the end, you told Zé what you wanted and he bought it: a leather jacket from a big department store, something you’d seen in Vogue Brasil. Champagne coloured, like your hair. With the buttons done up, you could hardly see your bump.

            Would he miss you at all? Zé, with his woolly knitted cap and eyes like licked caramels. You saw how he checked you out as you walked around your sunlounger, more aware than ever of how the soft swell of your belly made your hips sway. You are pleased the bump has stayed so small, even now, with 29 weeks gone. At night, he stuck around to watch the soaps with you, laughing at the telenovela he liked best, at the complicated things that happened to Tiao, the rodeo cowboy, and Creuza, the lustful woman who pretended to be shy. Despite not knowing the language, you understood everything that went on between them. With Zé, it’s a different story. You both know that he likes you, but he’s never so much as touched your hand.

            The second shock came on the fifth day, yesterday, when Zé turned up with a laptop and a woman called Giselle. Big breasted, hard faced, in your bedroom she chopped out lines on the dog-eared TV guide, looking faintly surprised when you refused. She spread the contents of the laptop case onto your pink floral sheet: the pill so you couldn’t go to the toilet on the plane; the Chloraseptic spray, to loosen up your throat; finally, the cocaine – half a kilo in 28 condom-wrapped pellets, each the size of your thumb. “Swallow, no chew, see?” Giselle explained, throwing her head back and demonstrating, her throat supple and brown against the whiteness of her t-shirt. “Two, yes? Every twenty minutes. Take your time, easy, nice.”

            Even now, thinking of your baby floating in its warm, clean sac with all that stuff so near it makes you feel sick and faint. You stammered that there’d been a mistake – a big one. That Femi told you you’d bring the package home in the lining of a bag. There was a nasty moment of silence. Zé stopped shifting the match he’d been chewing from one side of his mouth to the other, his face suddenly very still. Finally, Giselle forced a smile. “Mama pequena, little momma,” she cooed in a voice bright as a broken bottle, “no-one will suspect a pregnant woman! Much safer than inside a suitcase.” When you cried she slapped your face, her gold rings beading your lip with blood. “OK, so we keep you here and you never go home,” she said. “You want your money, white girl? Then work for it. Does anyone at your house even know where the fuck you are?”

            They sat with you for the next five hours, while you swallowed. Feeding you sips of water from a toothbrush glass. About half-way through, when your dry-retching wouldn’t stop, Giselle rummaged in her bag for a half-full bottle of massage oil; you shut your eyes and pretended it was medicine. They explained again how the rest of it would work. How when you got to Jo’burg, someone would be waiting for you at the airport. You’d go to another hotel, take another pill, wait for it all to come out. It could take a couple of days, they said. After that, you’d get paid.

            And now there are police at the airport, before the plane has even stopped. What made you too stupid to understand that Zé and Giselle would lie? For sure there’d be another girl in the villa this week, wide-eyed and wondering at the easy luxury, at the satellite TV and the surround-sound stereo system. Were you being punished for getting upset? Did Zé call the cops? Maybe your arrest would cause a handy commotion, so that some other chick with a bigger stash could slip by unseen. Ag, what a fucking loser you are, so pathetic and paranoid.

            Ma. You have a sudden, desperate longing to see your mother’s face. The night before you left, you’d met at the flat in Vanderbijlpark. Bertus had been giving her a hard time, she told you – drinking, ranting about respect, grabbing Ma’s greying plait, pushing that big face of his with its starbursts of broken blood vessels up close to Ma’s worn one. But she smiled at you, her suikerbos. She stroked your hair. You smiled back, but you hadn’t been able to look Ma in the eye. You couldn’t face the intensity of that frightened, watery gaze, those eyes diluted with a sadness that seeped into your very bones.

            You and Ma, you knew, would not meet again for a long while, not after this. Ma, clinging to the old days, recognizing nothing in the politicians’ ‘rainbow nation’, would never understand how far you had fallen, or how much you had to hide. That there was nothing you would not now do to lift yourself beyond the limits of Vanderbijlpark and seize a stake in the larger world, and that included begging a black man for help. She would never understand how hard it was. How inside you were aching and hot and always empty. A farm overrun by the forest. Your fields on fire. The air all filled with smoke, and Ma never seemed to see.

            Fool, blerrie fool. But Charnay, you are something special, Zé had said. You look like an angel; you are carrying a child. They will check out your passport, they will see – eh, she’s only seventeen. You are not what the cops look out for; no way. No problem at all for you to go into that airport and come out the other side.

            He was probably smiling at you as he said it, but you could not take your eyes from the bed. Some massage oil had puddled on the laptop case, and it was giving off such dazzling, tantalising reflections.

 

“Let us in, man! We’re good South Africans. We like rugby and we all drink beer.” A big guy in sunglasses and a green dashiki shirt is joking with the official at the immigration booth up ahead. A public sector strike is in full swing and the airport has only a skeleton staff. Extra police have been drafted in, a hoarse voice announces over the tannoy, so that security “will not be compromised”. But everything is moving at an agonisingly slow pace.

             “Just be patient, sir, and we’ll try and get this sorted for you as quickly as we can.” At the head of your queue, a woman in a long gown and a scarf wrapped turban-style around her head is arguing over a piece of paper. Soon it will be your turn. It has taken almost an hour, and finally you are approaching the front of the line. Yet before the queue had even moved a step, you felt it – a pang of heat darting through your body, the upwelling of a small, red pain.

            You are trying to ignore it. Zé told you these were good-quality condoms – the best – but you need to treat them with respect. Don’t eat or drink on the plane. And you must stay cool. Acid from an angry stomach can melt the plastic and then … he’d shaken his head. Big trouble. Someone he’d known once, a Rio woman, had got an overdose after a condom burst in her stomach while she was flying back from Lima. She’d drunk a ginger beer, then fallen down, saying she was all on fire. They rushed her to hospital, he said, as soon as the plane landed, but it was too late. It had taken her six days to die.

            Your turn. Stepping forward, you feel the new bad feeling again, only now it is worse. 

             “Goeie môre, meneer. How are you?” Your voice is steady, but you can feel sweat burning on your forehead and the backs of your knees. The heat from your gut envelopes you, then slowly sinks away.

            A policeman with a sniffer dog is idly circling the queue. You have practised this part a thousand times. You will not give yourself away by any change of expression or sudden movement. On your face there is a perfectly even smile. After telling the official what he wants to know, you will continue walking at a steady pace; past the dog that is waiting to sniff at you, waiting to get at the smell of your betrayal. You’ll stroll into the arrivals hall, alive with the warmth of families, their bundles and exclaiming relatives. Then you’ll be home.

             “Sawubona, welcome to Jozi. And where have you come from this morning?”

            You give him an even bigger smile. That’s an easy one. You begin to answer, but find you can’t remember the words. Instead, the pain is back again, the pain that is forcing itself open in your stomach and clutching at your throat. And your heart is pounding loudly, making you feel dizzy and faint. You lick your lips, conscious of the officer with the dog coming up behind you on the left-hand side. Everything seems to have gone still.

            The official is looking at you expectantly, ballpoint pen poised. A queer sense of calm courses through you as you lower your head to your hands, resting your forehead against the booth’s dusty glass. You are drifting away, feeling firm hands warm on your shoulders, the fragment of a bad dream – a greyish, hooded creature scraping the seeds from a swollen sunflower – finally fading. This is the real tempo of life, you realise, as with an almost unbearable slowness every second stretches out until it almost stops, and all movement turns to stone. In the heat and the clamour, a whistle blows, someone shouts, a dog whines. But your grandfather is pulling you towards him, stroking your forehead and holding you fast against his chest, and at last you are able to sleep.

 

You are rich with Friday-night wages and there are swallows dipping and soaring in the mild October sun. The street where Mr Femi lives is lined with pawn shops and Greek restaurants, peepshows and poolrooms. Hillbrow is buzzing, even this early in the day – muscled men leaning on barstools at the strip club doors, talking to the beautiful girls in their high-heeled boots, smoking cigarettes and waiting. Out on the pavement, vegetable hawkers guard their stocks of butternuts and roasted chicken feet. You have to dodge out of the path of a Shangaan maize-seller carrying on her head a brazierful of coals. Black smoke clouds your face, filling your nostrils.

            You are still coughing when you step into Bismillah’s. Inside, at a window table, Abdoulaye is waiting with Mr Femi. They’ve been sipping tins of Black Label beer, into each of which, Abdoulaye tells you later, the Nigerian has dropped two hits of speed.

            Mr Femi seems delighted to see you. He towers over you, tall as a preacher in his beautiful grey suit, his sunglasses reflecting your uncertain smile. He orders chicken and rice with a wave of a wrist adorned with a silver Tag Heuer watch. Then, in between mouthfuls, he explains. A week’s paid holiday at a luxury resort, cash for clothing and toiletries before departure, spending money in Sao Paulo, then R30,000 when you get home. Or rather, a year’s worth of rent on a bedsit – a place for you and Abdoulaye and the child, when it comes. Light and air seems to push up between his words, like tiny blessings.

            Sipping your Coke, you consider the risks. What you have to remember, Mr Femi keeps saying, is that you are the last kind of person the police will watch for – someone so young, pregnant, and white. Perhaps this is true. The blacker you are, always the more suspect; this is the South African way. When the cops raided Abdoulaye’s flats looking for illegals, they’d called them makwerekwere – cockroaches. Anyone whose skin was dark-dark they questioned, and if their victim couldn’t count to ten in Afrikaans, they threw him in the back of their van. Abdoulaye pulled off the masquerade perfectly, singing them the words of the song you taught him: Ja, een ding kan jy seker weet, jy gaan jou brood verdien in jou gesig se sweet. One thing’s for sure, in this life you earn your dough by the sweat of your brow.

            Later, the deal sealed, Mr Femi waves you goodbye with more expansive smiles and you spin back onto the street to find a bus back to Berea. Up in his room, Abdoulaye shields the two of you from prying eyes by propping open the wardrobe beside his bed – a sign to the other men living there not to come near. He plays you a song in French on his guitar. It is about you, he says, your beauty and courage and bravery, and when he gets back to Senegal it will go straight to the top of the hit parade and make you both rich. Diiyaa niyo, diiyaa niyo, he whispers to you, and you do it from behind so as not to hurt the baby, and you fall asleep with the smell of the squeezed sap from your bodies on your hands. His or yours, so what – you couldn’t care.

 

You wake to the sound of a siren. Tubes dangle from the shiny white ceiling, swaying as you turn a corner. Your lips, underneath what you realise is an oxygen mask, feel cracked. Your first thought is that you’re back on the plane, but then it dawns on you. An ambulance. You’re clear of the airport, jirre, you’ve bloody done it. A man wearing a blue paper mask and blue protective clothing sits on the grey seat beside you. He is reading, with hands that tremble ever so slightly, a TAP inflight magazine.

            Sandro.

            There is something very important you have to tell him. Your hands flutter to pull away the mask, but by now he’s noticed that your eyes are open and he moves towards you with soothing gestures. 

             “Michelle, princesa,” he is saying, stroking a tangle of blond hair from your face. “Michelle, you’ve gone into labour, but you’re going to be fine. You’re dilating very nicely and …”

            Your voice, forced out with enormous effort, is hoarse. It sounds like somebody else’s. “Asseblief tog, please. I don’t want it any more, get it out of me. I don’t want it to hurt …. baby.”

            But the man is soothing you, telling you in a calm voice not to worry. “Breathe in deeply, now, Michelle, and relax,” he says. “After all, you’ve got something very precious inside you, eh? Something you really don’t want to lose.” And bending over you with loving care, he begins fitting the mask back onto your face.

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