The Quiet Days

All anyone sees are two front teeth, missing.

(That’s how I start the story every time I tell it.
I tell it too my colleagues when we’re alone having coffee between shifts and feeling the weight of our vocation on our weary shoulders.
I sip my coffee, and offer the story again, perhaps in the retelling it gives strength where needed.)

She stands in front of me; the nervousness makes her hands shake as she steps forward.
Her smell is terrible; Sweat and cigarette smoke overwhelms carefully applied deodorant. Her grey pants, patched at the knee, hangs from a frayed blue belt barely covered by a dirty red track suit top.
I motion for her to come forward towards the desk.
When she speaks in the manner that she did, with words and inflection that shouldn’t come from a mouth with no front teeth, she speaks words of profound wisdom and sadness.

Age 6/Grade 1
“Veronique! Sit next to Hazel.” The teacher says as she scans the pages in front of her, looking at the 42 mewling kids in her class. “Sit quietly.  No noise!”
Veronique sits quietly next to Hazel. 
Hazel’s green uniform has a patch on the front but Veronique doesn’t say anything.
Saying something always leads to trouble.
Instead she touches the patch on her dress. Hazel’s patch matches the color of her dress, Veronique’s is red.  Hazel takes Veronique’s silence as an invitation to talk.
Veronique says nothing.
She remembers her Saturday:
Her mother woke at 9, went to Wynberg. At 2 she went to Ayah’s around the corner, by the brick house to buy a “pap sak”. She drank it all by 5, slept till 8, waking up hungry. She fried fish fingers which she had with bread, then she went to Freddie and they went to buy another “sak”.
They were still drinking at 10, and then she and Freddie went into her room.

Veronique woke at 8, watching her mother from the doorway to her room. She went to Auntie Klim at 9.30 while her mother was away. Standing on the broken tires in Auntie Klim’s front yard, she watched.
At 1 her mother got back, she ran home. Squatting on the floor she wolfed down the cold pie her mother brought her. She didn’t say anything about how strong it was, that made her mother upset if she wasn’t grateful.
She stayed away until 6,

Silent as a mouse, she crawled into her room listening for her mother.
Veronique fell asleep eventually but woke when she smelled the fish fingers. She went to the kitchen and watched her mother make the fish fingers while the oil bubbled over the sides staining the old stove.
Veronique buttered bread for both of them as her mother parceled out the fingers with her greasy hands.
She sat at the kitchen table, eating slowly, savoring each crispy bite, while her mother spoke about her father.
Her heart pounding in her chest she watched her mother get up to fetch Freddie next door.
Veronique went to her room and moved the small shelf in front of her door.
She finally slept at 12 when she realized there would be no knock on her door, with plaintive requests to come in and see “how big little Veronique is getting.”
And Sunday, was exactly like Saturday.
But her mother had made her open the door.

Veronique sat next to Hazel and didn’t say anything.

Age 12/Grade 7
Veronique sits quietly at her desk. Hazel is talking.  The gauze in her mouth is wadded with blood and saliva.
At noon, Veronique faints in class so they send her home to her mother.

Age13/            Grade 8
Veronique stands by the girls’ toilet during break, by
the section that overlooks the field, just outside the gates that enclose all the entrances into the toilets.
If you didn’t look back, you didn’t see the bars just the green fields with the fence in the distance.
Fiekie and Faizel walk past.
Veronique didn’t see them; otherwise she would’ve gone back to the class room. They were always trying something; the new grade sixes always avoided them.
“Kykie, me and Fiekie reckon you can start in Wynberg or Kenilworth. Sommer this Friday. Huh Fiekie?”
It takes a minute to register what he says before she pushes him away, but Fiekie is behind her grabbing her by the hips and pulling her against his groin saying in her ear:
 “R10 for a blowie.”
He pushes her hard against the wall.
“Voetsek!” she tries to say.
But just as suddenly they’re gone again. Walking away, with the words: “…net soes haar ma….” lingering behind them like a bad smell.
Veronique kneels against the wall and tries not to cry.
 “…just like her mother…..”


Veronique stands in front of the shelves, rows of books look back at her.
She shoo’s  Hazel away and studies the book in front of her: Abortion: The Facts.
 Veronique takes the book to the counter.
The man behind the counter asks for a card but she just shakes her head. 
He says: “If you don’t have a card you can copy it.”
She doesn’t have any money.
He walks away, tears off a page from a pad and says:
“Have your mother fill it in and bring it back with your Birth certificate and her I.D. document. Dan kan jy a ‘karchie kry.”
Veronique just sort of nods, mouth shut she takes the form and leaves.
“What’s that?” asks Hazel.
“A library form for a ‘kaarchie’.”
Hazel laughs, then says quietly a bit later.
“Jou ma gaan jou vrek slat.”
Veronique doesn’t say anything.

Age 15/Grade 9
A teacher swears at Hazel as he throws her work book on the floor in front of his desk. Veronique takes her book up to be marked.
He barely looks at the work, says: “Acceptable” and flings the book back at her.
She had to do the work last night, quickly, between washing up, sweeping the floor and putting her mother to bed. No visitors.

“Listen!” says the teacher. “Mr Savahl is going to talk to you about next year and whether you’re leaving or studying further.”
The teacher leaves, everyone starts talking to each other.
Hazel wants to own her own taxi one day then Enver, her boyfriend, will always have a job.
Veronique keeps quiet and wonders what job she’s going to have. She might have to leave and go work, her mother said so.

6 months later:
Hazel shifts uneasily, as her baby kicks.
“Ronnie, give me that bottle in my bag.”
Veronique pulls out the water bottle, hands it to Hazel, then she goes back to her book.
The clinic is full and it’s hot.
Hazel is 6 months pregnant and irritable; she’s been taking out her bad mood on Veronique whole day.
Yesterday at school they had received their forms for Grade 10. The ones where you choose your subjects to take until Grade 12.
The subjects that would help you get a job, or God forbid, she couldn’t even think about it, into University or College.
All of this sits in her head like an unsolvable puzzle.
She can’t see herself beyond the here and now.
“What you reading?” Hazel takes the book away.
“Really Ronnie, can’t you find anything better?”  Hazel looks away, then, ”What you going to do about school. You going to stay?”
Veronique shrugs.
“Ronnie!  Maak jou mond oep aaniste gooi ek die boek weg.”
Veronique grabs the book back, suddenly angry but she doesn’t say anything, instead focusing on the words in front of her hoping that they would wash away the anger.
Hazel stops a grimace of pain on her face.
“Fokken kind. As‘itie vir die grant wassie sal ek lankal die kind laat reg maak. Fokken kind.”
It stills the air becoming the only sound reverberating for miles, ringing in both their ears.
Veronique’s hand is warm and shaking.
Hazels surprise is nothing compared to Veronique’s anger, a coiled fire slowly unfurling.
“This is YOUR fault. Not that child. She didn’t ASK to be born!
Using this child for a grant makes you no better than all the people we hate.
But that’s okay. Because this is NOT your fault, this is Enver’s fault or your mommy’s fault or mine.
And you know what I will gladly let it be my fault just so that it won’t be that child’s fault when she’s born. So that you don’t look at her everyday and punish her for YOUR MISTAKES!!!”
Veronique turns away. “Sorry Ronnie.” Hazel says quietly.
Hazel takes a hold of her and hugs her.
The two girls leave, crossing the green fields towards the grey squat building that was school.
Veronique holds the forms in her hand.
They’re creased despite her best efforts to keep them neat and tidy. “Ronnie!!”, her mother calls.
She sighs, and walks into the front room. Her mother is lying on the broken old blue couch.
“Gaan haal cigarettes bydie winkel.”
She nods. “Ja, ma.”
She goes into the kitchen and finds the last of the money her father sent.
“Was’die?” say her mother behind her. Looking at forms she had been trying to save.
“Is niks, net vorms vir die skool.”
“Volgende jaar se klasse”
Her mother looks at it.
“Jy gaanie.” And throws the papers on the floor and walks away into the front room again.
Veronique sighs, and says noth-…
Veronique says: “No.”

Three Years Ago:
Veronique shouts:” Nee mammie, nee. Ek willie!”
They push her down into a chair in the kitchen.
Freddie holds her down, pushing her head sideways on the table, leaning on her with his full weight.
Her mother leans in front of her, her wine sodden stench overwhelming Veronique’s senses.
And then the pain starts as she feels metal grate against her two front teeth.
Then it stops, as she goes numb and faints.

She walks into the front room.
 “Ma. Ek will volgende jaar gaan”
“Wat…Djy gaan vir Mr Mills werk, innie Sout Rivier.”
“Nee ma. Ek gaan skool toe”
Veronique moenie kak nou praat nie. Ek sê djy moet gaan, en djy gaan.
Her mother looks up at her, daring her to say anything else.
“Maar ma..”
Her mother moves quickly, her arm moves through the air. Veronique see the calloused, burnt and pitted hand but doesn’t move.
The slap turns her head violently, light explodes behind her eyes for a couple of seconds.
Her mother looks at her, no expression on the gnarled beaten face.
“Sê weer,” says her mother. Say it again.
That coiled anger in her stomach unfurls blazing, Veronique says:
“ Ek SAL sê. Ek sal nee, sê.”  NO! I say NO!
I’m going to school next year, and you are going to sign this papers or I will call child welfare explaining to them how a mother can sell her daughter to the next door neighbor for a packet of cigarettes and a half a bottle of beer, MA!”
Her mother’s eyes widen, centuries pass when finally:
“Djy sê niks, jou tief.”, she spits at her daughter. “Waar’sie papier.”
Veronique fetches the papers, and watches her mother sign it.
A survivor does what is necessary to survive she remembers reading, this is her surviving.

(She’s in Grade 12 now, doing better than anyone expected. They eventually sent a social worker to investigate “instances of rampant abuse against a minor” but that day she got something back, as clichéd as that sounds.  My colleagues look at me perplexed, asking how did my lowly librarian self allow this child to do what she did. I just smile, show them the book in my hand.
 She couldn’t finish it, they say.
I smile.
She read it all, and came back for more.
In fact, whenever she had a chance she read it again, word for word, because on the day that she started and finished it, those were always the quiet days. And nothing bad ever happened on a quiet days.)

‘“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands”   Anne Frank

No comments: