[Fiction Issue] ‘Letters to a Heart’s Chambers’, a new short story by Jarred Thompson

The JRB presents a new short story by Jarred Thompson. This is the second of his stories to appear in The JRB.


Letters to a Heart’s Chambers

There was always a delicious rush of blood every time the girls and I would do headstands in our dresses against the wall of Newclare Public Swimming Pool. The boys, sitting across the street playing marbles, would turn their heads and stare at our panties: pink with blue flowers, white with gold stars, and black with Tasty written across the front in bold red letters. Some of them would giggle at us just as we would giggle at the cool air blowing across our thighs. This was how I noticed Eddy, from upside down, silent and watching, as if he were calculating the amount of blood in each of his heart’s chambers. 

*

Tomorrow Veronica is moving in with me; says I can’t look after myself anymore, that with my swollen ankles, weak lungs and faulty memory I am a hazard to myself. Isn’t it strange: you spend all your life learning to stand on your own two feet just for those same two feet to betray you, swell up, and refuse to carry you as far as your postbox. 

But today is different. Today I’m getting to that postbox even if it kills me.

*

The afternoon Eddy and his family were kicked out of Newclare I was with Katlego and Nina playing down by the vlei. Leondre and the boys were playing soccer on the veld near us, while we soaked our toes in the water. The water was surprisingly clear that day; usually it had a slimy consistency on account of the dumping that went on around its banks. 

‘It must have been the rains this week, that’s why it’s so clear,’ Katlego said, twisting Nina’s hair into braids. I nodded, envious of the intimacy that Nina and Katlego shared. I once saw the two of them holding pinkies while we stood at Uncle Bishop’s Butcher buying polony for Ouma. Nina saw me scrunching up my face at the sight of their twisted fingers and unwound herself from Katlego before I could say something. 

*

The cream for swollen ankles helps, somewhat, and this oxygen tank helps a whole lot. Old age just seems to be about how many different things, different people, can help you. But nowhere do they tell you when you’re young how much you’ll need other people later in life. 

There’s a pack of smokes in a shoebox in my cupboard that I keep thinking about. They’re French cigarettes. Leondre bought them from a tourist at a bar in Melville, said I should save them for some special occasion. Today seems about right. Veronica is coming tomorrow and then I’ll never be able to enjoy the taste of menthols. 

*

It was Leondre who kicked the soccer ball into the vlei. 

‘Don’t one of you ladies want to get that ball for us? Please man,’ he called from the top of the veld down to where we were sitting. We looked up, bewildered that he’d even ask us. We were pretty popular in the neighbourhood: three of the prettiest ‘Coloured’ girls you’d ever find—even though Katlego was all black on the outside. The police confirmed this when they stopped us in the evenings, searching for ‘contraban’. Our fathers and brothers would get searched too, but not as thoroughly as we were. 

‘Sure, I’ll get it,’ I called back, taking off my sunflower dress and laying it neatly on the grass. I had my swimming costume underneath. It was laundry day at home and there wouldn’t be panties for me to wear till tomorrow morning.

*

I’m passing the bathroom on the way to the kitchen when my bladder decides to talk. So I take a turn to the toilet and plop myself down on the icy seat, warming it up with my flabby heat. The pee drizzles out of me. It gets harder to pee, harder to do a lot of things actually, when your skin has the texture of a prune. When you get to my age you’ll realise the simple drizzling of pee through you is enough release to be the highlight of your day.  

Later, when I’m at the kitchen counter, I forget where I’ve put my pen and paper, and the envelope I was going to put the letter in. After a few moments I remember I placed it under my tissue box the night before. 

It’s ten o’clock and the postman comes by at twelve. Veronica will be coming at four. I have time. 

*

‘Joh, guys, check it out,’ Leondre said as the group of boys gathered, watching me swim back to the bank of the vlei with their soccer ball tucked under my left breast. I spotted Nina rolling her eyes as I reached the edge, no doubt thinking I was just doing it for attention, something she’d never say to my face. I got out the water, confident that my costume was hiding my stretch marks (the ones across the side of my chest from my blooming breasts). 

I kicked the soccer ball up to where the boys stood, waiting. Some of them whistled, others cheered, and I felt strangely powerful that I could get them to react like that. 

‘Leondre, where’s Eddy?’ I shouted. 

‘Oh, him and his family are gonna get kicked outta here. They’re probably packing their stuff right now.’ A pain in my chest began to bud as I imagined never seeing that serious, calculating face again. 

‘What do you think you’re doing, Evelina?’ Aunty Veronica’s voice latched itself round my face; when I turned she was scowling at me with her hands on her hips, sporting one of her many mauve cardigans.  

‘I was just fetching their soccer ball, aunty.’ I heard the soft sniggers of Katlego and Nina in the background. 

‘Imagine your mother saw you, showing your body in public like this. And your hair! All that money your mother spends on salons and you go and mess it up in a bloody vlei! You look like a bushwoman.’ By this time Aunty Veronica had me by the ear and was yanking me home. 

*

‘Veronica?’

‘Ma, can you hear me?’

‘Hello Veronica?’

‘Ma!’

‘Oh yes, I can hear you now.’

‘Why do you sound so out of breath?’

‘Oh, just walked to the bathroom, had to pee.’

‘See, this is why we should get you diapers Ma. You too weak to walk like that.’

‘Veronica, I’m fine. If my body is too weak to get itself to a toilet then maybe it should give up the bloody ghost already.’

‘Ma, don’t speak like that, please.’

‘What time did you say you coming again?’

‘Four, remember I told you.’

‘Ja you know my forgetery man. You must tell old age to go next door.’

‘Ay, Ma … okay I’ll try and get there as soon as work is over. I packed my things in the car this morning to save time.’

‘Okay, see you then.’ 

Save time she said. People always seem to be saving time, chasing it like there’s a perennial shortage. This side of eighty time feels like a whirlpool: sometimes this comes up, sometimes that, sometimes nothing at all. Other times you catch a reflection of yourself in a child playing with her friends in the street and then bam: you staring at a paper and pen again. 

*

As Aunty Veronica dragged me home—my breasts making circular wet patches through my sunflower dress—I saw the police vans outside Eddy’s home. Furniture, cutlery, carpets and even light fixtures: they were taking everything they could. 

‘Where are they moving them, aunty?’

‘I think Meadowlands or Soweto or some other place for the blacks. If you ask me it’s about time too.’ I didn’t know why she said that and I didn’t want to ask on account of aunty’s temper. But before we turned the corner on the way home I saw Eddy stuffing his things in the back of a bakkie. 

‘Eddy!’

‘Hey Evy!’

‘Where you guys going?’

‘They say Meadowlands, I think.’ He shrugged his shoulders and looked around for his parents. When he didn’t see them anywhere he made a dash toward me and kissed me on the cheek. This took Aunty Veronica by surprise and before she could whip her hand across his face he ducked and ran back to where the bakkie stood. 

‘What is wrong with today’s youth? You’re so lucky I have to take this child back to my sister’s before she gets home or else I would have …’ Aunty Veronica’s shrill voice trailed off into the air as I touched my cheek imagining Eddy’s lips right here: on me. I never knew he liked me like that.  We waved goodbye to one another and I hoped I’d get to see him again one day. 

*

It’s hard to keep my lips moist these days, although it’s not like I’m out here having somebody to kiss. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to fall in love again at eighty-six. If we both were too weak to do anything romantic I suspect we’d enjoy just talking and lying with each other. But perhaps one night of the month when the mood was just right, the air cool and malleable, our joint pains forgetting themselves for the moment—perhaps then we’d manage to get things up and have a good go at it. Nirvana is what Leondre called it.

To be honest I’m not really sure how to begin this letter. I haven’t seen Pumla for decades after her dad’s passing …

‘Morning, tannie?’ A knock at the door forces me to get up and peek round the corner of the kitchen. A Jehovah’s Witness stands behind my security gate. ‘Good morning, tannie. I was just wondering if you’d be interested in hearing about our Lord God and Saviour.’

‘No thank you. I’m not in the mood for your crap today. I got important things to do.’ I make my slow way to the door to close it in the man’s face. 

‘But you know we living in the end days, don’t you? Judgement Day is upon us and we must repent and be ready.’ I just about manage to reach the door, out of breath, as he finishes his little speech. 

‘My boy. Look at me. I am living in my end of days. And whoever or whatever is waiting for me on the other side I am quite reconciled with it.’

‘So you’re not concerned about saving your soul?’

‘You wanna know the truth? My soul is already saved. Has been saved since the day I was born.’ I close the door in his face and turn round to face the kitchen again. The walk to the kitchen table, to the pen and paper waiting for me to begin, makes me tired before I can even take my first step. But I can’t give up now. 

*

Leondre and I had our first time in Uncle Muhammad’s toolshed. Leondre’s uncle—formerly known as Nathaniel—converted last year to marry Aunty Reida. People liked to joke that he converted and married Reida because she made the best koeksisters and biryani this side of the train tracks. Her catering business was the biggest in Newclare and anyone who was anyone knew that if she was catering at your funeral or wedding then your guests would go home satisfied with lots of compliments pouring from their mouths. 

‘Wait, my knees are hurting, let me get up quick.’

‘Okay, move quick before I go soft again.’

‘Okay now. Push. No higher. Yes … there.’

Leondre usually reached Nirvana before me and I could tell when it was about to happen because the tools in the shed would begin to rattle above our heads: axes, hammers, spades, pickaxes, screws, nuts and bolts, they all shook in unison as Leondre vibrated inside me. I sometimes imagined them falling from their secured places on the wall and impaling both of us in the gasps of his thrusts. I never told Leondre this. He’d never want to have me in the shed anymore if I did. 

I liked Leondre because even though he always reached Nirvana before me he was sweet enough to do his best to help me get there too. Sometimes, after he’d gone soft—me lying against his chest with his body propped against the shed’s wall—we’d wait in silence until he was ready to go again. Other times he’d use his fingers and mouth to explore me, to find the right spots. I liked to think that I was educating him in the female body just as he was teaching me the ways of men. 

*

The pain in my chest is back with full force. I sit down at the kitchen table and reach between my thighs. When I was much younger I’d make myself wet enough to quell any kind of bodily pain elsewhere. But these days my body isn’t so obedient. These days my body requires a forklift, a crane even, to produce any sign of life between my legs. I’m not sour about it. I just miss the warm glow of sex: that feeling when two people melt into each other and thrash about in a pool of sweat. But enough of that. This letter isn’t going to write itself. 

Dear Pumla

I know you don’t want to hear from me. It’s been years since your father’s death and I still see his chubby cheeks every morning when I wake up. I know that asking for your forgiveness may be a stretch too far; that you still don’t believe the truth about him. If that is the case I hope the words in this letter can make you understand, or if not understand, at least imagine what it was like for me

My hand stops. The words have hidden themselves from me. I had them all thought through earlier this morning while I was doing my crossword but now they’re hiding. I knew I should have written them down the moment they came to me. I need some tea. That always helps to jog my memory. 

*

I had just got back to Leondre and my flat, had just boiled the kettle to make some Rooibos, when the call came. 

‘What? Car Accident? No man, don’t talk kak to me.’ I put the phone down and dialled Leondre’s number. No answer. I didn’t think anything of it: he was a busy plumber and his job had him riding all over. He was earning so well he promised to have us move out of this flat within the year. The phone rang again and I knew it would be people trying to tell me some kak about Leondre. So I kept the phone off the hook and sat outside on the stoep with my Rooibos, waiting for him to come home. 

I waited and I waited. I watched the school kids play hopscotch and touchers and hide and seek. I watched the resident gangsters blare their music from out the backs of their box BMWs. I watched teenage girls walk in their miniskirts past boys who stood at the corner shop smoking. I watched mothers call their children home for supper as the streetlights burned a dusty orange in the street.  All the voices of Newclare mingled in the air, but none of them were Leondre’s. I finished five cups of Rooibos before Ma, in her pink nightie, appeared from out her flat alongside mine. 

‘Evy, did you hear?’

‘What Ma?’

‘Leondre …’

‘It isn’t true Ma. You know people are jealous. They just like saying things.’

‘Evelina.’  

At the sound of my full name I broke down. Ma came over to where I was sitting and held me till the gnats and moths and mosquitoes formed wispy orgies around every streetlight. 

*

That’s it! That’s what I wanna say. I return to the kitchen counter before the thought darts back into its hovel. 

Pumla, I’ve not always had an easy life. I don’t know if your father told you this but I lost my first husband tragically from a car accident. And I never believed I’d find a man who would give as much of himself as my first husband did. You see that’s how funny life is. It’s never done with you until it’s done with you. 

It’s 11 a.m. My window of opportunity is closing and the pain in my chest and ankles isn’t subsiding. That bloody Jehovah’s Witness really took it out of me. I know Veronica won’t approve of me sending this letter, probably because I’ve been banned from communicating with that family: restraining order is the proper name for it, I think. 

But such things are for people who have their lives ahead of them. When you feel that faint tug of blind forever at the back of your head that’s when you know you have one shot—a couple of hours—to tie up the loose threads that matter. 

*

Leondre was smart enough to secure life insurance for me before he died. This allowed me to stay in the flat quite comfortably and not have the pressure of returning to teach at Newclare Primary for at least two years. Those two years I spent sitting on the stoep, drinking Rooibos and observing the comings and goings of Newclare. It was an all-Coloured area by that time. Katlego had moved away with her fiancé to Soweto just before I moved in with Leondre. The more I sat on the stoep watching people struggle to pull their lives together, the more I saw Coloured women and men bow like dogs to white policemen in the streets, the more I watched the news about what was happening all over the country, the more I started to feel that I had to use these two years to bring about some sort of change.

I suppose losing Leondre made me quite intimate with pain, and this intimacy propelled me towards my first PAC meeting. They were banned at the time but I knew who the activists in the community were, the ones you’d see running every now and again from flashing blue lights. It just so happened that Nina’s cousin Saul was one of them and I convinced him—mainly through begging—to take me to the next underground meeting. 

On a Wednesday night Saul and I drove to the outskirts of the city near the Vaal River. On the banks of the Vaal was a facebrick house which could have held no more than four people. When we entered it was packed with a rainbow of faces. ‘Comrades. Tonight is a special night. We’ve managed to smuggle some of our fighters from across the border. And some of them are here with us. Please let us welcome them warmly,’ a man with a black beret announced as the meeting began. I sat in the corner with Saul, who was getting cosy with another woman next to him.  I looked around and my eyes fell on three men standing at the far end of the room. They were dressed in black and wore very serious expressions. But it was a look from one of them that caused my heart to twitch as I realised who he was. 

*

I never thought I’d see your father after all those years. The times were getting rougher and the coming of liberation felt so far away, yet so close. It was your father’s brutal strength and stoic resolve that inspired me to take politics more seriously. I can’t begin to describe to you the feeling of being given another chance to fall in love. You almost feel unworthy of it. But I’m sure you know all about the terrors of taboo love.

Pumla may see that last sentence as inappropriate. She may see it as me assuming too much and talking about things I know nothing about. But I haven’t the luxury of second guessing myself now. 

Pumla’s mother died from cancer of the bone. She was six. I attended her funeral with a slight smile stretching across my insides at the prospect that Eddy would now be a widow, just like me. It was a sweltering forty degrees that day and everyone at the reception chose to eat their chicken curry outside in the shade on account of the hall being too humid and stuffy. I was sitting some distance away from Eddy, trying to figure out how I’d make my presence felt amid the many mourners and admirers—both men and women—pressing in to embrace him. He had assumed a substantial role in the Struggle and there was talk that when it was all over he’d be on the fast track to a top government position. 

While deciding how I’d get Eddy to notice me I spotted Pumla sitting alone, watching the other kids play. On one side of her were a group of boys playing marbles and on the other side were a group of girls sitting demurely and eating their curry. Pumla’s head swung between the two groups like a pendulum trying to decide the time. There was something different in her: that reserved expression reminded me of Eddy’s seriousness. When she eventually chose to play marbles with the boys I didn’t know at the time what it meant.

*

‘Eddy?’

‘No way! Evy, is that really you?’

‘You’ve changed a lot.’

‘So have you I see. Happy to see you here without that aunt of yours pulling you away. She still alive?’

‘Oh yeah, I guess you could say she’s kinda alive, kinda not. Dementia.’

‘Can’t say I’m beat up about that.’ We laughed as people began leaving the meeting.

‘Must be a dangerous life you’re living: being smuggled across borders and such.’

‘Yeah, it’s no thrill let me tell you. Luckily I got my family to think about. They get me through the dark days.’

‘Oh, your family. That’s great to hear.’

‘I heard about Leondre. My deepest condolences.’

‘Thanks Eddy. That means a lot. Listen, this meeting has really inspired me. I hope I can help in some way.’

‘Well as you heard we need eyes and ears on the ground to help catch informants in the townships. They the real scourge that need to be taken out. So if you hear about anyone in Newclare, pass their names on.’

In the twilight Eddy’s eyes were gaping holes in his face. I could tell that he’d suffered a lot, it had hardened him. He was hungry for liberation and seeing that hunger made me hungry for him.

*

… There were things I knew about your father, things he had covered up. It would have tarnished the family’s reputation forever. I would never sell out your family’s reputation like that. Your father thought differently. He became suspicious in his older years and you pulling away from him didn’t make it any easier on him. 

I suspect Pumla will stop reading at this point. She might think I’m putting part of the blame on her. 

The first time your father hit me was round the time I moved in. You must remember that because I distinctly remember your surly face at the sight of my luggage entering your house. It was a volatile time then, what with the transition happening and the movement having to demilitarise. I underestimated the effect it could have had on your father.

My left wrist aches from the writing but I have to finish this.  

*

There were loud voices coming from Eddy’s study. These days the house was like a train station for the movement: people in and out at all hours, others sleeping on couches for the night because they had nowhere else to go. I hated Eddy’s dedication to his comrades, hated how he’d shelter any of them without a second question. Lately, I’d become just a body that brought the men their coffee and biscuits. And to tell the truth he wasn’t even touching me that much anymore, said he had too much on his mind when I tried to get him going for me. 

‘You guys were caught doing what?’ Eddy’s voice boomed from the study.

‘Eish, brother Eddy. It was a wild night. A bunch of the men arrived from out of town and we were drinking.’

‘That gives you guys no excuses. You’re my nephew! Imagine if this got out.’

‘We didn’t mean to, uncle.’

‘Don’t use that bullshit on me. We trying to start a real country here and you guys are busy harassing women like that … you know what will happen if the media gets hold of this? God forbid the international media! You know what it could do to this family? To me?’

I listened for a few more minutes then headed upstairs to check on Pumla. She was doing homework with her best friend Rebecca, their bodies splayed out on the carpet of her bedroom. I said goodnight to them, noticing their feet resting on each other’s: it reminded me of how close Nina and Katlego had been. 

*

11.30 a.m.

Four missed calls from Veronica. My darling daughter hasn’t even moved in yet and she’s already suffocating me. It’s only around midday that I really come into my body and my mind begins to feel like a clear pane of glass. I have to get this letter done, who knows how long it may take me to reach the postbox. 

That night you had that fight with your father was the worst night of my life. After you left I tried to reason with him, to help him see things from your side too. But he wasn’t having any of it. A woman was not going to tell him anything in his house.

When he said that I lost composure and told him what I heard in the study. That’s when I saw real fear in his eyes. I think he thought I was threatening to go to the media with what I knew, that I’d blackmail him even. But really all I wanted was for him to understand that I was in this with him, that I wanted peace in the home and in the country. 

I guess all those years in Mozambique and Botswana, all that running, hiding, and guerrilla warfare makes you see everyone as a possible enemy.  

It seems late for me to be writing this after so many years, doesn’t it? I don’t want your forgiveness. What can forgiveness give me at this point in my life? I just want to say sorry in the most plain and simple of ways. And hope to heaven and back that you can feel my remorse through this letter. 

I really did love your father. 

Sincerely,

    Evelina

*

‘Why don’t you dress like a proper woman, Pumla?’

‘Dad, this is how I like to dress, okay? Why can’t you let me live my own life?’

‘Hey, don’t speak to me like that. How are you going to find yourself a man when you dress like one?’

‘You just don’t get me at all!’

‘You’re my daughter, of course I get you.’

‘That’s not what I mean. Dad you need to know …’

‘Know what?’

‘Never mind … I’m sleeping over by Aunty Ruth tonight.’

‘Are you telling me or asking me?’

‘Dad … please.’

‘Just go. We’ll talk about it later.’

The front door slammed and I heard a car pull away. I came downstairs to see Eddy nursing a glass of whiskey. 

‘Baby, you have to understand that Pumla is different.’

‘What you mean different?’

‘Come on, stop denying what’s in front of you.’

‘My daughter is not that, Evy.’

‘Baby.’

‘No! Stop this. All I’m trying to do is bring change to this country, real change. Now I must answer to women in my own house? Haibo.’

‘Excuse me? Listen to me, Eddy Skosana, I’ve been in your life for years now and never have I heard you say anything as ridiculous as that. What’s going on with you, huh? Is it this thing with your nephew?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re changing, Eddy. I don’t know if it’s the politics outside or the politics that goes on behind there, but something is happening.’ I pointed to his study doors and his face changed. 

‘You heard, didn’t you?’

‘I heard it, yes. Every filthy detail. Are you going to report him or does this get to be pushed under the rug like the countless other things women have had to endure for the sake of liberation?’

‘Since when did you become such a fucken feminist?’

‘Since I realised the man I’m living with is a misogynist!’

His eyes widened, becoming two unfilled graves, both with my name on them. He got up from his chair and flung his glass at my head, barely missing it. I ran into the kitchen towards the back door but he caught up with me before I could get outside. He grabbed me by the wrist, twisted it, and hurled me to the kitchen floor. My left wrist broke like Sunday roast crackling and I cradled it in my right hand. 

‘Ah, baby, I’m so sorry. Are you okay? You know my temper gets the better of me sometimes. I just go into this zone where I can’t see or think straight and my body just reacts. Here, let me help you up.’ He lowered his hands and pulled me up from the floor. I turned away from him towards the kitchen sink and poured cold water over my wrist to stop the swelling. 

‘Here’s some ice.’ He said, placing a big chunk on my wrist and kissing me on the neck. I couldn’t face him, I couldn’t speak to him, but I watched his face in the reflection of the kitchen window. His body was pressed up against mine, his eyes were closed, and he began kissing me, harder and faster, up and down the length of my neck. The pain from my wrist reverberated through my body and I wanted to cry but even my tear ducts were unsure of what to make of the moment. 

‘I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry, baby,’ he kept saying as the bulge in his pants grew. I felt Eddy manoeuvre it so it was positioned right between my legs. 

‘No Eddy,’ I said. 

‘Yes baby.’

Then, suddenly, I was there with Leondre in Uncle Muhammad’s shed again. There was Leondre behind me, rattling the whole universe so that Nirvana would fall off its ledge and smash us into pieces. There was I looking at the tools dancing on the walls of the shed—celebrating or mourning—I never was able to decide. There was I watching the tools fall off the walls and impale us both. There was I taking the knife on the kitchen counter and driving it into Eddy’s chest. 

*

I gather up what remaining strength I have left and begin my journey to the front gate. It’s just past twelve but the postman hasn’t come yet. It takes me fifteen minutes from the kitchen to the gate. For a teenager it would take less than two. But I plod along, hauling the parts of me that don’t want to move with the parts still able to clench and pull. 

Eventually I get there, envelope in hand, my lungs singing that old worn out tune. But that postman hasn’t come yet. I don’t see him in our street even. I wait. And I wait. Taking the time to soak in the sun. Where the fuck is he? 

A car pulls up onto the grass outside and before I can recognise who it belongs to Veronica pops her head out the window. 

‘Ma? What are you doing outside? You know you supposed to be on your oxygen the whole day!’

‘Ag, relax, I feel fine. I thought you said you coming later?’ I hide the letter behind my back. 

‘Ja, my boss let us head home early. What’s that you got there?’ She gets out the car and walks into the yard, spotting the envelope. 

‘Ma. We spoke about this.’

‘You don’t understand, Veronica. I need to send this!’

‘Okay Ma. Calm down. Give it to me and I’ll send it.’

I don’t know whether I can trust her, even though she’s my daughter. But her face is soft in the sunlight when she looks at me. For the first time in a long time I feel like her mother and not her child.

‘Fine.’ I give her the letter and head back with the left and right side of me feeling like tectonic plates shifting against each other. I could sleep for the rest of the day. 

I lower myself on the couch in the lounge as Veronica comes in behind me. I watch her bring in her luggage and with each suitcase I feel the shiver of another pound of earth thrown on my corpse. 

I really am just waiting to die, aren’t I?

After she’s moved her luggage from the car Veronica does a strange thing. She heads toward one of my old chest of drawers, one that I never open, and pulls out a shoebox I’ve never seen. ‘What’s that?’ I ask, but she turns away from me so that I can’t see what she’s doing. 

‘Nothing, don’t worry about it Ma.’

Later in the night when I’m sure Veronica is asleep I yank my body from bed and creep toward the chest of drawers in the lounge, my oxygen tank rolling behind me. With careful, shaking hands I pull the one drawer open. In the shoebox I find letters, written in my handwriting, all addressed to Pumla. 

I don’t understand. There’s this grinding in my head that won’t stop, like my brain is trying to pop a pocket of air lodged in its labyrinth. I shut the box and head to my cupboard, taking out the pack of French cigarettes I was saving and lighting one on the back stoep where Veronica won’t smell it. 

I smoke and smoke with my oxygen tank next to me, trying to figure out where all those letters to Pumla came from. But it’s all one eddying pool and by the time I’ve finished four cigarettes I don’t remember what had me so perturbed in the first place.

The smell of menthol in the air brings something back. 

Eddy’s friends—the leaders of the movement—sit across from me as I smoke. They’re telling me to keep quiet about what I heard in Eddy’s study and in exchange they’ll make sure I’m taken care of. 

I can’t place the moment exactly, can’t picture the faces of the people sitting across from me. I know it happened though, I’m sure of it.  I head to bed not too long after, the nicotine short-circuiting my nerves.

Tomorrow I should write a letter to Pumla. Yes, I’ll apologise for what I did and get her to understand the true story. Or maybe I’ll just do my crosswords and watch the Isidingo omnibus. We’ll see in the morning. 


  • Jarred Thompson is a twenty-six-year-old, queer, male, Johannesburg-based, South African writer whose fiction publications include The Johannesburg Review of Books, ImageOutWrite (2018), and The Heart of The Matter (2019), among others. His short story ‘Changing I’s’ was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and his poetry and fiction have been shortlisted for the 2019 Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology (2019). He has just completed his Masters in English at the University of Johannesburg.

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