The wine’s gone to my head, I realize, as I sway into the kitchen to get another bottle. I’m at that perfect stage of tipsy when I feel padded and warm, forgetful. Carla’s belting out her trademark laugh—that Wiccan cackle that’s hearty enough to scare ghosts into corners. And somewhere, softly, tentatively, under Carla’s vital bray, Steph is laughing too, a sound I haven’t heard for weeks. Since.
Trying to ignore the clot of history under the bottom shelf of the narrow pantry, I grab another bag of chips and reverse out into the kitchen again. Carla’s date brought an expensive red wine tonight, telling me as he pressed it into my hand that we shouldn’t drink it this evening, that we should save it for an occasion, but I’m sure it will go down just fine now. I open the chips and cram a handful into my mouth, then reach for the bottle on the overloaded counter, just as the new motion-activated floodlight in the backyard flicks on. Glancing up, I misjudge my grasp, and the bottle skittles down, smashing into a clutter of dirty glasses and sending a shatter of knives and forks wheeling off the plate on top of the pile.
For just a second the racket is too much; as it crescendoes and settles, the shards and cutlery landing on my feet and the floor around me, I’m unable to move my eyes from the window, staring into the light, as if a floodlight will keep the monsters away.
But it’s more than a second, really, a lot more, because when the floodlight finally flicks off after revealing nothing, there’s silence around me until I hear someone shifting in the kitchen doorway behind me.
“Mark?” Steph’s voice. “You okay, honey?”
I shake myself out of it. “Yes. Sorry, I just . . . dropped something.”
Steph approaches me, treading with her bare feet across the hazardous floor.
“Don’t,” I say. “You’ll cut yourself.”
She ignores me, tiptoes to my side, and looks out at the nothing in the dark yard. “Did you see something?” she asks softly. “Someone?”
“It must have been a cat.”
“You sure you’re okay?” she says, squeezing my arm.
“I’m fine,” I say. But I’m embarrassed by my reaction, so I grab the wine and guide Steph between the shards back through to the dining room, as if she needs my guidance. But the truth is, right now, next to this firm, strong young woman, I feel blind and vulnerable. “Let’s drink this while we still can.”
Steph glances at me. “Sounds rather ominous.”
“I meant—while we can still appreciate it.”
“Yes, you should really leave it for a better time.” I’ve forgotten the name of Carla’s latest “friend,” who’s standing at the music dock, putting in his phone and choosing some smooth, cynical track. “You’ll miss that famous chocolate on the palate.”
“Famous chocolate?” Carla says from her place at the table, artfully pretending that she hasn’t heard the disaster in the kitchen. “You mean notorious? That Duiwelsfontein is a tricksy wine for hipster dilettantes. No offense, Damon darling.”
“None taken, Carla pumpkin.”
I sit down and watch Damon as he sidles back to the table, wondering what’s between him and Carla. Does he know he’s the latest in Carla’s long series of toy boys? What does she get from him? What does he get from her? He must be twenty-five years younger than she is, but then—I pull myself up and remember—I’m twenty-three years older than Steph. I forget that every day. I don’t feel forty-seven; I don’t feel middle-aged. I can’t allow myself to imagine how she sees me—paunchy, floppy, pathetic, damaged, failed, washed-up, some sort of freakish fetish.
Steph’s standing behind me, rubbing my shoulders, and now she leans over, and her hair, fragrant from some herbal shampoo and the spice of the supper, falls across my face and saves me from that line of inquiry.
“Just going to run upstairs and check on Hayden,” she says.
“I’m sure she’s fine. The monitor’s right here. We would have heard.”
“Sure. Okay. Thanks.”
“If Carla laughing hasn’t woken her, nothing will,” Damon chips in at Steph’s back, as if he’s ever seen our daughter, as if he knows her. Carla smiles and rolls her eyes. I still don’t get it.
I take a gulp of the wine—it doesn’t taste anything like chocolate—and listen to the lazy drawl of the singer as I concentrate on getting that soft buzz back.
“How’re you doing?” Carla asks me. “I mean, really.”
I shrug and sigh, then glance at Damon.
“Don’t worry, I know,” he says. “And I’m really sorry. Same thing happened to my brother.”
Steph comes back in, tips me a look saying that Hayden’s fine. “Stop it, Damon,” Carla says as Steph sits back down, but Damon blunders on.
“This country’s fucked, I’m telling you. It’s different in other places, you know. People want to steal something, they don’t feel the need to torture and—”
“Look,” I say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But you don’t have to shush him on my account, Carla,” Steph adds. “I’m a big girl.”
“Yes,” I tell Carla. “In fact, Steph’s handling it brilliantly.” Better than I am, I don’t admit as I put my hand on Steph’s thigh under the table and she grips my fingers.
“Ag, I’m sorry,” Damon says huffily. “It’s none of my business.”
“It’s okay. It’s just that, you know . . .”
“I’m just trying to say that I understand,” he says. “This sort of shit happens to so many people here. It’s just wrong.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Now, Damon darling, if you could kindly shut your empathetic trap for a moment while my friend speaks.”
“I’ll go outside for a smoke. Help me keep my mouth closed.” He stands up and heads to the front door while I repress the urge to tell him not to go out, to leave us all safely locked inside. From her place at the head of the table, Carla nudges her bare toes into my shin, then runs them down to my ankle. I’m not sure what it means. I have to presume it’s in lieu of a small hug or a pat on the shoulder that she doesn’t feel like getting up for. I have to presume that, because Carla and I haven’t been physical since forever. At my side, Steph’s noticed nothing.
“Does he mind you talking to him like that?” I ask Carla.
She shrugs. “He’ll survive. He should learn some manners.”
“I don’t get you,” I say.
She ignores this. “Are you seeing a therapist at least?”
“Me?” I say.
“Both of you. All of you. This sort of trauma lodges in little ones too. You could send Hayden for art therapy.”
“We couldn’t afford it,” Steph says, “even if we thought it would help.”
“But the police offered some trauma counseling, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” I say. Yes, they did. The day after the attack we dutifully showered and got into the cheap new clothes I’d bought for us at the supermarket and headed to the Woodstock police station. The cops were surprisingly polite and sympathetic, despite the fact that we stood out like aliens in the middle of that miserable mass of broken-headed men and ripped women who cluttered the reception area waiting for attention. We were shown through to a small office down a long corridor. Out of the window and across a courtyard I could see the holding cells, the slatted windows draped with fragments of torn cloth, the walls peeling and cracking like the very building was boiling with spite, being reduced to toxic sludge from the inside. The station’s trauma counselor was lovely and warm and enthusiastic, one of those people who just won’t be worn down by the onslaught of horrible reality, giving us all the time we wanted. While Hayden piled blocks on the carpet, I wished I’d brought hand sanitizer, and while the counselor talked Steph through a meditative energy-clearing visualization technique, I stared into the dingy little shower cubicle and at the plastic caddy of toys and dolls ready for the next case. I couldn’t pull my eyes away, despite how the image sent a cold sweat prickling over my forehead. “I got the feeling they had worse traumas to worry about than some middle-class family being burgled.”
“Jesus, Mark. You need to value yourself more.”
“Value myself? Why?”
Steph says nothing, turning the stem of her wineglass with those restless fingers. Now Carla leans across me, jangling showily, and places her hand on Steph’s arm. “You two should get away. Go somewhere for a break. It will make things better—I know it will.”
“Where to?” Steph says.
“Somewhere exotic. Bali. Thailand. Or romantic. Barcelona, the Greek islands . . . Paris.”
“Ooh, Paris!” Steph just about squeals. “God, Mark, wouldn’t that be brilliant?”
“With a two-year-old? Super-romantic.”
Carla looks down at the table. “I could offer to . . . Nah, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to inflict my nonexistent maternal instincts on the child.”
“We couldn’t afford it anyway. Christ, we can’t even afford to repair Steph’s car.”
Steph sighs and nods. “I suppose,” she says, and that momentary flicker of light going out in her eyes kills a little bit of me. She deserves what she wants. She deserves better . . . than me, than what I can provide. Which is basically nothing. Everything I briefly had is spent.
“We’ll come up with a plan,” Carla says. “It has to happen. You two need—”
When the screaming starts, I’m up and halfway across the room before I even register what it is I’m hearing. It’s a car alarm outside, just a car alarm, but my muscles have bypassed my thinking brain, and before I can talk myself down, I’ve whipped open the front door, eyes wide and scanning the half dark of the street, ears tuned for any scuffle. It’s Damon’s cigarette smoke that finally brings me back to myself.
“Jeez, Mark. Are you okay?”
“I . . . yes, just checking on that alarm.” Which has bleeped off already, the guy from number 17 starting up and driving away. I shout something reassuring through to Steph.
“You’re on edge, hey?” Damon says, holding out his cigarette pack.
I take one, knowing it will probably just wire me even more. I don’t smoke; it makes me feel sick, but maybe nausea would help me concentrate on something other than the goddamn invisible monsters.
He holds up his lighter and I get the cigarette started, then blow out into the wind, feeling the hot breeze from the mountain in my hair and behind my ears. “Has it ever happened
“No, thank God, but I guess I’m just waiting my turn. It’s happened to so many people I know. It messes you up, hey?”
I nod, exhaling slowly. The counselor at the police station recommended replacing negative energy trapped inside with healing air, breathing the toxic fear out. I’m scared to let go of my fear; it has a purpose: it keeps me ready.
When we stub out in the dead planter and go back inside, Steph’s saying, “I’ve always wanted to see the Musée d’Orsay, but we don’t have enough money. Simple as that.”
“For what?” Damon asks, catching the tail end of the conversation.
“Carla thinks it’s a good idea for us to go on an overseas holiday, that it will heal our trauma,” I say. “But we’ve got
“What about a house swap?” he says. “My mates and I
did it last year. There’s a website. You go to someone’s house and they come to yours. We went to this great house in Boston and they came to our place—they loved it. You don’t pay a cent for accommodation. You can eat cheaply if you try, so it costs you nothing.”
“But having strangers in your house?” I say. “What if they trash the place, steal all your stuff?”
“The people on the site are all registered and there’s feedback and testimonials. Like, the American couple who came here have done eight house swaps before and all the previous owners rated them as guests. They have a track record, so you know you can trust them.”
Steph smiles. “Hmm, sounds interesting. Hey, Mark?” And it’s then that I can see her hopes getting raised by this guy. The kindest thing I can do is nip it in the bud.
“We won’t pay a cent,” I say. “Apart from the small matter of airfares and visas and transport and entry fees and hundred-rand coffees and God knows what else we’d have to cough up for in Paris.” I watch in dismay as Steph’s face registers her punctured enthusiasm. It’s something I do well—dull the eagerness of young people—I do it every day at the college; it’s one of my few marketable skills. She nods in deflated agreement and I wish I hadn’t said anything. I always underestimate the full force of my depressive cynicism. I forget that she’s young, that she has some spirit in her. I should be more careful with her.
“But it does sound interesting,” I add lamely. “The most feasible idea we’ve heard so far.” I try to raise that smile again, but it’s all too late.
Later, I wake up standing in the hallway, my heart hammering in my throat and my left leg jittering, my phone clutched in my hand. The time on the green display of the alarm console reads 2:18. The Alsatian next door is barking and I swear I hear a thump—another thump?—on our side of the dividing wall between the properties.
I should look out of the study window to check if there’s anything—anyone—in the alley, but the alarm is armed, the passive transponder scanning that room. I don’t want to disarm the system—they may be waiting for me to do just that—so I’m stuck standing in the hallway in the middle of the house, turning slowly so the floorboards don’t creak too much and wake Hayden, listening and staring around me, as if I’ve got supersonic hearing, as if I’m Superman with X-ray vision. I’m not; I’m immobile and impotent.
If there is someone down the side alley, the beams will set off the alarm, I tell myself. We’re okay, I tell myself.
The dog settles down, and I don’t hear anything else, the outside beams don’t trip, so I finally go back up to bed. Steph’s lying on her back, staring at the ceiling in a resigned way.
I remain standing on the carpet next to the bed. “I should really bypass the study, but it’d be easy for them to get in there through the leaded window.”
“Yes, better leave it armed.”
“But then I can’t see outside.”
“The beams would pick up anything.”
“I suppose.” I put my phone back on the nightstand. “You’ve got to love our midnight conversations. Our sweet nothings.” She doesn’t say anything, certainly doesn’t laugh, but why should she? I glance at the red numbers on our bedside clock. “Try to get some sleep. It’s too early to give up.”
“What about you?”
I don’t tell her that I think one of us should always stay awake, in case they come back, that I shouldn’t have fallen asleep in the first place. That wouldn’t be helpful. “I’ll just decompress a bit, join you in a little while.”
“I hate this place sometimes, you know.”
“Can’t you even consider the trip? Don’t you think it would be nice?”
“It just doesn’t seem possible. It’s a luxury we can’t afford.”
Steph sits up, her pillows rubbing against the headboard, making a low groan. “I’m thinking it’s not a luxury; I’m thinking that it’s a necessity. I think it would help. You particularly.”
“Yes, you.” Now she laughs, but it’s a dry laugh. “I reckon getting away would give you some perspective, some peace. Who knows? It might even make you happy.”
I’m not comfortable getting into this discussion while I stand above her like some authority, so I sit at the foot of the bed, facing away from her, looking at a piece of her through the dresser mirror. “Even if we could pay for it, I wouldn’t want it to be because you think I’m ailing. I don’t want to be some hospital case, forcing you to make sacrifices, spending money we don’t have just so that I feel better, so that I don’t have a mental breakdown. I’m not going to. I’m fine. I’m managing.”
Steph doesn’t even bother to agree or disagree with my self-diagnosis; she knows me too well. “I’ve been thinking a lot and I’m sure Hayden would be fine. She’s been sleeping much better. Carla says you can rent pushchairs and everything. Kids in Paris all go around in prams. Imagine strolling through the parks like a French family.”
I know it would never work, but I watch her dreamy, unguarded smile in the mirror and remember this time not to burst her bubble. The trip’s not going to happen—it’s just a fantasy, one that’s getting her to smile again—so I may as well indulge her.