“Left” by Jayne Bauling

LeftMinor household accidents have begun to trouble her, injuries mostly to her hands. A knuckle burnt removing chicken thighs from the oven. A finger cut slicing carrots. A graze from the cheese grater.

How has she grown so careless?

“I was never clumsy before,” she says, nursing a steam burn from the kettle.

Before.

“You’re post-traumatic.”

Disego offers such phrases as a show of understanding. Finding closure. The grieving process. They are meaningless to Leseli.

Sometimes it is hard not to blame Disego. Harder not to blame herself. It could be that she merits the blisters and bruises.

The chicken thighs, the carrots to be boiled with margarine, brown sugar and mustard added after draining, the grated cheese, today’s mugs of tea. On her own, she rarely brings herself to eat, but the habit of hospitality is strong, and Disego still visits. The neighbours no longer do. The flowers they left at the flat door were wilted, brown and stinking even before the funeral. Their gifts of food have acquired a coating of frost in the freezer. Bobotie, lasagne, bredie stew and some dishes that are strange to her, with so many different cultures represented here. She used to be fascinated by the diversity of her neighbours – now she takes no interest in such things.

When Disego visits, she cooks whatever Disego brings, nearly always chicken pieces.

For a week, two weeks, the neighbours used to knock and ask how she was doing and leave their grateful-it-wasn’t-them offerings. Now if they meet her in the corridor, or on the stairs, they find reasons to hurry away.

As if loss might be catching.

Only the old man from number 14 still stops to engage her. He has given up shaving, she notices. She is returning from walking Disego out to her Corsa parked in the road. The roads in Windsor East are narrow, between lines of two-storey blocks of flats built decades before when Johannesburg began its outward sprawl to the north.

A modest flatland, the dominant resident culture has changed more than once down the years, she has learned. The old man is a relic from an earlier wave of immigrants. They came after those in whose nostalgia or homesickness these streets found their names. The most recent have come from further up the continent, near as Zim, far as Morocco.

“You have had company, Mrs Mtsweni.” Bent over the support of his walking-stick, the old man looks up at her. “This is good.”

“My friend from work,” she says, wondering how long it will be before he sheds his concern, hoping it will be soon as she is shy talking to him.

His accent is strange and rich to her ears. She must strain to understand what he is saying and even then the sense of it sometimes slips past her. His name, she knows from the board at the entrance downstairs, is Szymanski. She has never attempted it, nervous of mispronunciation, although her own name is nearly unrecognisable on his tongue.

She thinks of inviting him to call her by her first name, but suspects he would find it improper. He might even be alarmed, thinking her about to impose, to burden him.

She had never anticipated that loss would make her timid, fearful of oppressing others with her grief.

Her guilt?

“I am concerned, when I think you are alone,” Mr Szymanski says.

“I am used to it,” she replies.

It is true. Or it was true, for a long time. She is not close to her family in Rustenburg, and her divorce was a long time ago.

Then it stopped being true, when her daughter moved back to Windsor East.

“I too,” the old man says, an order of words she has rarely heard. “I too am used to it, as you say. The words, I do not have them. I only say we should not have to outlive our children.”

It is too much, too close to a raw resentment that claws her in between all the other things.

She shakes her head, turning her face away and muttering something, anything, an excuse that probably makes no sense.

She hurries back to her flat. Clearing away the tea mugs, she drops one and it smashes on the kitchen tiles. The broken pieces are large, but still she manages to cut her palm, gathering them up to place in the bin.

Rinsing this latest wound at the kitchen tap, she stares down into the road. Mr Szymanski lets his stick lead him down to the crossroads. He is on his way to the local shops. He has no car, but she doesn’t know if this is due to poverty or because he is too old to drive.

She has watched him from this window many times. Often he will pause and let his stick support him as he bends to retrieve some piece of litter. She supposes he carries it to the  bin around the corner.

Sometimes she fears for him if it is late and the young people are about, especially the children. The local teens are mostly self-absorbed, preoccupied with their own concerns whether good or bad, but the children seem cruel. She has seen them tormenting a small dog that intruded on one of the games they play in the road, or throwing stones at the doves that wander about the patched and potholed tar surface.

Children. Our children. We should not have to outlive our children.

She walks back to the lounge. Her feet feel slow and heavy. She no longer bothers with the pretence of switching on the television before settling on the couch.

She sleeps too much, she knows, at every opportunity during the working day, and through weekends. Hours from now she will wake and stumble from couch to bed, and sleep again, most likely still in her clothes.

Now that the dreams have stopped – and they were never truly nightmares, merely dreams in which it was all a mistake, she had been misled and Emela was still here – now that those have ended, sleep is preferable to everything else.

It’s waking up that is intolerable. The realisation, new and sharply shocking every time. Yes, it’s true. It happened.

Too often she imagines it. Emela, vulnerably asleep when They came in the late afternoon, or just waking, ready to make tea and toast before showering and putting on her uniform for another night at the hospital.

Leseli eases off her sandals before lifting her feet on to the couch. At times she doesn’t even bother doing that.

If she had resisted Disego’s urging to go somewhere for coffee after work that day, that day being pay day; if she’d come home at her usual time –

It’s almost like burrowing into sleep, the thing she does to seal herself off.

Still she must wake at some stage. The knockout blow of knowledge never softens.

#

The next time she meets Mr Szymanski in the corridor, he is contrite.

“I intruded, Mrs Mtsweni.” Distress concentrates his accent. “I should not have said … those words to you.”

“It’s all right,” she mumbles, embarrassed. But she really wants to shout, to roar, that intruded was what They did, the men who entered her flat and – and stopped Emela. Ended her.

“I was insensitive. How can I know what you are feeling? I have not outlived my children.”

“Your …?” She has never seen anyone visit him. “Where?”

“They left, my children and grandchildren, all of them. Left the country. Because of the crime, you understand?” He makes a sound of annoyance with himself. “So sorry to remind you.”

As if she might have forgotten for a moment.

Her shrug is a lie.

“It’s the way it is,” she says, suddenly full of words, she doesn’t know why it should happen today, when she has had so little to say for so long. “You’ve got a cell phone, some cash, it doesn’t even have to be something big like a laptop or a television. They’re frightened to ask you, to wait for you to hand over. So they stab or shoot, and take.”

Take my girl.

“And we’re left,” the old man says. “You’re left.”

Initially she doesn’t understand why he first says we’re left when he has just told her he hasn’t outlived his children.

Of the two of them, she is the one who has been left.

Left here, left with the memory, acute as today’s reality, of the smell of blood, the sound of flies congregating, clues granted on arrival, together with the flat door ajar, its lock broken. Emela still warm, and the wail of police car sirens, called by both Mr Szymanski and a downstairs neighbour, hearing a single scream, cut off.

Cut off. Cut.

Were you aware, Emela? Did you know? Did you have time to think, to feel, to hope that death was not inevitable and comfort yourself with the belief that you would wake in hospital?

She wants Emela to have deluded herself, to have been incredulous. Failing that, she wants her to have been too shocked to register the implications of what was happening.

She wants it for Emela, and for herself.

But she will never know.

“I’m left,” she agrees and walks away.

Blood on the walls and floor, thick and darkening. Throat wound like a mindless grin.

She starts to run, thinking she must escape this building where it happened, but then she stops and returns to the flat. It is easier to sleep than to run.

She doesn’t see Mr Szymanski. She doesn’t want to think about him, yet at moments he is in her mind. He has also been left behind, she now understands.

He is at the end of his life, she is not, even if it took her until the age of 38 to get her only child. Two decades on, her joints ache in winter and she must stretch out her arm to read small print. Trivial afflictions, she now knows. The only true pain is that of loss, of being left.

Away from the flat, at work or in the mall, she imagines the rest of her life now that everything has changed. Already she stares at babies. She will not be a grandmother.

He mentioned grandchildren, she remembers. Mr Szymanski. He is so old, she thinks there are probably great-grandchildren.

#

She trips over nothing at work and her ankle gives way, so she has to be driven home and helped up the stairs by Disego. With only two storeys, there is no lift.

“You have had an accident?” Mr Szymanski is about to descend, giving the impression of bracing himself.

“No, it was just me. It was stupid. I was clumsy.”

“Can I do anything to help?” he says, but Disego is urging her on before she can respond.

Another colleague has driven her car back to Windsor and parked it in her allocated bay behind the building. It sits there, empty and alone, like her.

After a day she can walk, and thinks she should be able to drive too. It will be a trial run, ready for returning to work tomorrow, that is all. There is nowhere she needs to go, no shopping to do. The freezer is still full of condolence meals.

A drive is all.

“Mrs Mtsweni? You can manage?” Mr Szymanski catches up with her at the top of the stairs that always smell of cat pee. “You are recovered? I had some fruit, but I did not like to knock and make you walk to the door.”

“It was a kind thought.”

Because it comes to her – to be thought of is something. To be in someone’s thoughts. This old man and Disego, their thoughts are the only ones she can be sure of now that all words of sympathy and support have been spoken, all offerings made.

“But only a thought.”

“Thought is good,” she accepts. “The other day? You spoke of your children? Their mother, your wife?”

“Dead these nine years.” He goes elsewhere for a number of moments, watery eyes looking at some far place or time. “She is in a hole in West Park Cemetery.”

“Then you stay close to her,” she says.

“My wife in her hole, the children in Canada; the distance is the same,” he says in a voice like paper.

“And you are left,” she says, and it is as if a part of her that has been sleeping is rousing to reluctant wakefulness, offended yet accepting.

“Yes,” he says.

She will tell him that her daughter is also buried in West Park Cemetery and offer to give him a lift the next time she goes.

But first she says, “I have a freezer full of meals. Maybe you would like to come and eat supper with me this evening? It will just be us, the ones who are left.”


Jayne Bauling’s YA novels have won a number of literary awards, and two of them have been approved as high school setworks by the DBE. Dreaming of Light was also chosen for the 2014 IBBY Honour List. Her short stories for adults and youth have been published in various anthologies, and have twice been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. A former Johannesburger, she now lives in White River in Mpumalanga Province.

Cover photograph: public domain.

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