The JRB presents a new short story by Jarred Thompson.
Waving and Drowning
after Stevie Smith
The door was barricaded. It had been five hours since the sergeant told his men what was happening: man inside, armed, an old woman taken hostage. The hostage-taker demanded money and a car, things the sergeant wasn’t gonna give. The flat in the corner of Birchmore Block was surrounded. The only way the hostage-taker was getting out was through the policemen, gathered at the door.
The sergeant put through an order for Maneer Snyfies. The patrol waited for the big guy; there was no way anyone was getting through the barricaded door without excessive force.
Snyfies arrived within the hour. Strapped with elbow and knee pads, he meant business. ‘Staan terug, Staan terug. Ek sal die deur in sy moer loop in,’ he said. His hands—big as fly swatters—motioned the other policemen out the way. Snyfies broke the door down on the first go, shoving the furniture behind the door out of the way. Freezing in Snyfies’s shadow, the hostage-taker gave the police all the time they needed to disarm him …
Nurse Patty woke Jerry up at 7 a.m. The dorm room was empty, which meant the others had gone down for breakfast before him. He was dreading going to the dining hall after what had happened with Martha and Lucille.
Getting out of bed required Jerry to make several negotiations with his body. Nurse Patty helped, lifting his torso to ninety degrees with a pillow propped behind him, then shifting his lower body towards the edge of the bed to let his feet descend.
He wiggled his toes until the tingling in his feet went away. His body was an old cruise liner now, he thought, rusty in some places, patched up with used parts from other models that were now decommissioned. But ever since the transplant and bypass surgeries, it worked just fine.
St Jude’s Old Age Home was where Jerry set anchor. Feet in slippers, gown and beanie on. Nurse Patty was patient as she helped him down the corridor towards the dining hall.
‘You sleep okay?’ she asked.
‘Had one of my reservist dreams.’
‘I know how much you love those.’
‘Did I ever tell you about the hostage situation we were in once?’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘Ag, forgetery. Don’t get old, Patty.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Patty, showing Jerry to his table.
He spotted Martha across the hall sitting with Kamo and Beatrice, her mouth flapping like a frantic pigeon’s. Everyone at Martha’s table glanced up at Jerry as Patty seated him next to Donovan.
‘You’re the talk of the town,’ said Patty.
‘Don’t I know it.’ He didn’t mind sitting next to Donovan, in fact he preferred it; Donavan didn’t speak much and when he did it was mumbled garbage anyway.
Jerry started on the plate of soft eggs in front of him, noticing Patty was over by the kitchen chatting to Terrance, the new cook. Jerry’d been observing their cat-and-mouse game for weeks: brief side-glances, inside jokes, exchanges of recipes. Sometimes, late at night, he’d imagine Patty at home in an oversized T-shirt, trying out the recipes Terrance offered her. Banana Bread. Coconut Chicken Curry. Butternut Soup. He wondered what Patty’s face looked like the moment Terrance’s food passed her lips. Would she sigh a little? Would she draw her lips into her mouth and shut her eyes? Sometimes, when Patty was in a charitable mood, she’d let him try some, on the sly. The food was good; Patty spared no luxury—extra butter, salt, cream, garlic. Jerry was grateful for the softness she showed him.
‘Morning,’ said Lucille, plopping herself down beside him, her vanilla perfume tickling his nose with memory (texture of armpit, stretch marks on thighs).
‘You’re okay after yesterday?’
‘It’s not like I expected much. Maybe a heads-up would have been nice.’
‘I am sorry. Things just sort of got away from me. I still like you. That’s not changed.’
‘… And Martha, apparently.’
‘You didn’t have to cause such a scene. Calling me out like that.’
‘Excuse me? Did you want me to go gentle into that good night?’
The retired English teacher taking her place at the blackboard, thought Jerry. Lucille always found a way to reference works of literature, showing others she still had control of her mental faculties. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he liked being read to, especially the way Lucille did it: rolling her words from cheek to cheek, like shiny marbles, before dropping them, lightly, in his lap.
‘No, that’s not what I wanted. I just thought maybe we could have talked it out privately,’ he said.
‘It’s done now. Cat out the bag and all that. If you ask me, Martha’s more upset about it.’
‘Why you say that?’
‘You’re all she’s blabbering about this morning. We’re too old to be making tell-tale hearts of each other, in my opinion.’
‘You’ll still read to me later then?’
‘I’ll think about it.’ She finished her Rooibos and left the dining hall. Jerry looked over at Martha, talking in hushed tones on the other side. He knew their involvement was one of convenience—maybe even entertainment. What else were they to do at their age but try and get riled up at one another—the last go-round before the final buzzer?
Martha didn’t see it that way, it seemed. Having learnt she was the youngest of four sisters, the only one to not get married, Jerry ventured that maybe, for Martha, he was it: her chance to be with someone.
She was easy on the eye, even at seventy, so he’d assumed she had enjoyed many lovers before. But from the way she was acting now it was clear there was still a twenty-something woman waiting in there, in line for the Ferris Wheel of Love.
On warm days, Jerry enjoyed soaking in the sun. It was good for his joints. Since he didn’t have Martha or Lucille for company, he took Donovan down to the garden, leaning on the big guy’s frame for support. Donovan wasn’t exactly ‘slow’; he understood basic questions and instructions, just sometimes he’d get himself into rambling stupors while trying to express what was on his mind. Nurse Patty told Jerry the proper term for what was wrong, but he didn’t care to remember what it was.
They sat on the bench between the aloe tree and flowering euphorbia. Thanks to Martha, he knew the name of each plant in the garden. She’d been a florist in her day and a very passionate one at that. ‘That one is river indigo. And that one pink basil …’ he said.
‘That one.’ said Donovan, pointing to the magnolias he had planted with Martha a while back. ‘Am I gonna go home today?’
‘You are home, Donnie. This is your home. Remember? You’ve been here for two years,’ he said. Decades ago, he would have never given Donovan a second look. Now, being around the big guy turned his day into a kind of endless time-loop, necessary in a place where the frequent arrival of ambulances woke everyone up at night.
Jerry liked to think Donovan enjoyed his company because, for some reason only Donovan understood, his voice had a calming effect. Especially in the erratic moments when Donovan got himself tangled up in his own head.
As the men sat in silence, the bell from the primary school next door rang. Break time. There was a partial view of the children playing on the jungle gyms from the garden where Jerry sat. He often closed his eyes and listened to the children’s voices whooping and willowing and in those moments he didn’t feel like Jerry—former police reservist turned used-car salesman—but like an eye in the sky, listening to strands of youth getting fed into the ‘great loom of life’, as Lucille called it.
‘It’s a mindfuck to listen to these kids, Donnie,’ he said.
Donovan wasn’t on the bench; he’d spotted a grey go-away-bird perched on a branch nearby. Jerry watched Donovan’s fascination with the creature, before his eyes were drawn beyond Donovan to a commotion happening on the other side of the fence.
‘What you’re gonna do, huh?’ said a bulky boy, shoving another, shorter, boy against a tree trunk. The shorter boy kept his eyes on the ground and his fists clenched. ‘You’re a tough guy now, huh? Don’t play yourself,’ the bigger boy said, holding out his hand for a deposit of coins. He left the smaller boy standing by the tree.
‘Hey!’ called Jerry. When the smaller boy saw it was only an old man his body softened. ‘Wait there.’ Jerry hauled himself up and ambled toward the fence. ‘You know …’ started Jerry, out of breath, ‘you need to stand up for yourself.’
‘It’s not so easy, uncle. Keano is the biggest in the grade.’
‘Big doesn’t mean a thing. What’s your name?’
The name surprised him. The boy didn’t look like a Themba. ‘Okay, Themba. Well, let me tell you, when I was in the police force, we had to stand up to big bullies too. Bullies a lot scarier than Keano. These bullies ran the township, and no one was going to put them in their place, so we had to step up and be brave for ourselves.’ He could tell his words weren’t landing. The boy was struggling to keep eye contact, intermittently looking over to the playground to see if anyone was watching. ‘I can show you something. A quick little thing that will teach Keano not to mess with you. You wanna see it?’
Themba’s face rippled with interest. ‘Yes, please.’
‘Donnie, come here quick.’ He positioned his feet in the earth. ‘I want you to come at me like this, get up real close and try to push me to the ground,’ he said.
It took several, varied explanations, but eventually Donovan got it right, jolting at him and attempting to push him to the ground. Jerry, with a vitality he thought he’d lost, performed his favourite hand-to-hand strike: the thrust and lock.
‘See boy … you thrust with your palm up toward his face and then use his arms against him like this.’ He could barely put Donovan in a chokehold, but his demonstration would have to do.
‘I’ll see if I can try that next time,’ said Themba timidly.
‘Call me Jerry.’ He held his wrinkled hand out through the fence, persuading Themba to unclench his fist and shake it. ‘You let me know how it goes.’
Themba pulled his hand away and disappeared into the haze of children lining up to go back to class.
‘Kids, hey. Mean little fuckers, but sometimes you get the good apples. Sweet ones, right to the core. It’s the sweet ones who get lost sometimes,’ he said.
‘Can we play crazy eight?’ asked Donovan, pulling a deck of cards from his pocket.
‘We’ll go play on the patio, okay? Lucille won’t mind playing, I’m sure.’
As they left, he couldn’t shake the feeling he’d met Themba before. There was a sensitivity to the boy, reminiscent of a boy he missed. Well, not so much a boy as a man, now.
Jerry started going down to the garden almost every day after that, even when the sun wasn’t out, taking Donovan with him for support. Some days he spotted Themba on the playground and other days he didn’t. But when he did, he made sure to call the boy over, just for a few minutes, to find out how he was. Over time, Themba and Jerry grew comfortable with each other. Themba enjoyed the old man’s stories, amazed that the eighty-year-old on the other side of the fence was involved in car chases, hostage situations, and shootouts. Jerry often used Donovan as a supporting actor (or prop) in his re-enactments: sometimes Donovan was a door used as cover for bullet fire, other times he played the policeman in the passenger seat next to Jerry, radioing for backup.
Themba not only revelled in the stories but often went home to re-enact them too. In those moments, he often pictured himself as a femme fatale—the kind of characters he felt inexplicably drawn to. Catwoman. Tomb Raider. Black Widow. It felt good, right even, to imagine himself inside those characters, beating up anyone who stood in his way.
‘Hey, did you ever get to try my move on Keano?’ Jerry asked at the fence one day.
‘No. I told my dads about what happened and Kevin got into trouble.’
‘They said if anyone at school bothers with me I must come to them.’
It took a moment for Jerry to bring himself back to the world he now lived in. ‘Your dads are right. You should always go to them for whatever problems come your way. But just in case that bugger tries anything, don’t forget what I showed you.’
‘I won’t. Promise.’
That night, Jerry stood out on the patio, smoking a cigarette. Squinting hard at the bright screen in his hand, he scrolled for Caleb’s number.
‘Hello boy,’ he said.
‘Hey dad. How’ve you been?’
‘Ag, can’t complain hey. Same old soreness everywhere. What about you? Haven’t heard from you in a while.’
‘Sorry man, things have just been crazy. Remember Siyanda and I are moving into a new townhouse and that’s just been stressing us out. And I have my show starting at the Market in two weeks and I’m freaking out a bit.’
‘I remember you told me about the move. That’s great, my boy. And a new show too? You must come visit and tell me about it.’
‘I’ll try. Things can get so hectic, I wish I could see you more.’
‘Don’t worry. What did Jesus say? “Leave the dead to bury the dead.” He tried laughing, but it came out sounding like a bag of potatoes falling on a beanbag.
‘Dad … don’t say that. I’ll come. How’s tomorrow?’
‘Well, my schedule is kinda packed. I might be able to fit you in between lunch and nap time.’
‘Very funny. Okay cool. We’ll come after lunch.’
‘I’ll be ready for you.’
‘See you then.’
The call dropped just before he could say “I love you”. Better said in person anyway, he thought.
Caleb and Siyanda arrived at the old age home just after lunch. Most of the residents were taking their afternoon nap, but he’d convinced Lucille to be with him when Caleb came round. She could make conversation out of the phone book. By mid afternoon, the four of them were sitting in the sun, having tennis biscuits and tea.
‘So, the skelm was running through Westbury. You know, the alleyways and houses are so close together. Ja. So, he’s running and we chasing him, it’s me, and this other ou Levon. Skinny guy who thinks he knows everything. Ja, you know the type. Anyway, so we chasing this guy who mugged someone. And clearly he’s guilty because, why are you running from us if you’re innocent, you know? Now we don’t know the area so lekker but we on his tail and if you know anything about chasing criminals you know they want to get away from you a lot more than you want to catch them. Now we jumping over walls and running through people’s yards and eventually we come to this kak high wall. Levon doesn’t want to climb the wall because he says we can’t know what’s on the other side, waiting for us. So I tell him he’s being a coward. Proper bang gat. I run past him and scale the wall. The next thing I know I’m screaming my lungs out while falling from a ten-foot drop. That’s when I wake up,’ said Jerry, out of breath.
‘Jesus. Did all that really happen?’ asked Siyanda.
‘Oh it happened. Levon never let me hear the end of it. Bloody naai.’
‘But you were okay, right?’ asked Caleb, looking from Lucille to his father. Lucille had heard this story several times, but she didn’t want to steal Jerry’s spotlight.
‘A broken ankle and fractured bones in the arm. Nothing fatal.’
‘You ever catch the guy you were chasing?’ asked Siyanda.
‘I don’t remember. Enough about me though, I saw it was that Gay Pride thing yesterday. You two go?’ The couple looked at one another before Caleb spoke.
‘Yeah, we went. It was fun. It’s more of a party than anything else.’
‘Which is a shame because it used to actually mean something,’ said Siyanda.
‘What did it mean?’ asked Lucille.
‘I guess it was more about tackling the issues facing the community. The real uncomfortable stuff. Corrective rape, race, toxic masculinity, sex and drug culture etcetera …’
As Siyanda spoke Lucille watched him intently. This was right up her alley, thought Jerry. Just the mention of anything remotely related to what she called ‘social politics’ perked her up. It was like an old analogue clock being hooked up to an internet server.
Lucille shifted in her seat before speaking. ‘It’s so interesting to hear about the issues in the LGBTQ community. Did I say that right? Oh good. You know, I had a couple of gay friends in the past, but they never really got involved in politics. In fact, I always found them quite vapid. But it’s good to hear that people have their ears to the ground. Come, let’s go for a smoke,’ she got up, taking Siyanda by the arm and leading him away from Caleb and his father.
‘So, what’s your show about?’ asked Jerry. He had had enough experience with asking this question to know that what was going to come out of Caleb’s mouth would go right over his head. Nevertheless, he still wanted to hear it.
‘Well, it’s sort of a critique on post-apartheid whiteness through dance. I’m trying to think about how the spatial history of apartheid still shapes the surfaces of everyday life and how it’s impacted class relations amongst white people and between white and black people. I’m really excited about it.’
‘Wow … sounds complicated. No wonder you’re stressed.’
‘It’s slowly coming together.’
‘You’ve always been brilliant at these artsy things. Speaking of, I met someone who reminds me of you. This boy Themba. There by the primary school. Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve sort of struck up a friendship. He’s a really sweet boy. Gentle too. Has two dads—like you and Siyanda.’
‘It’s nice to see you’re making friends your own age, dad.’
Jerry laughed. ‘You and Siyanda ever talk about kids?’
‘I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re still getting used to living together.’
‘And on the health side? Things …’
‘They’re good. You don’t always have to ask. I take care of myself. We both do.’
‘I’m just … you know your mother made me promise we’d bury her before either of us.’
‘We kept that promise.’
‘But still, can’t hurt for me to make sure you’re looked after. Her birthday’s coming up. Maybe we could go see her together?’
‘That’d be nice.’ Caleb sensed the crack in his father’s voice. Jerry had a habit of sucking his bottom lip in when things got too emotional, like a fish with an overbite. It was a sign for Caleb to change the topic. Thankfully, Siyanda and Lucille had returned, bringing enough conversation for everyone to pass around till visiting time was over.
That evening, when Jerry and Lucille were alone, he asked her what she thought of Siyanda.
‘He’s got a good head on his shoulders. And a soft heart. That’s about as much as anyone could ask for,’ she said.
Lucille had a way of saying things that put him at ease; the world in her mouth felt transformed. It was partly why he thought that if they’d met at a younger age he’d have scaled many walls for her. Probably have broken a few bones doing it, too.
The principal of Little People Primary School arrived to see the head matron of St Jude’s Old Age Home on a Thursday afternoon.
‘What does a pupil’s bleeding nose have to do with us?’ asked the matron, popping peanuts into her mouth.
‘One of your residents, a man named Jerry, showed a pupil how to seriously injure another boy. Now, we’re aware that the other boy is a known bully, and have already taken the necessary steps to stop any further bullying from taking place.’
‘Clearly your anti-bullying policy isn’t enough, is it?’ said the matron. She liked Jerry. He was always a great help when it came to Donovan.
‘Besides that, we just don’t feel that it’s appropriate for this man to be speaking to the children. He’s clearly had a violent history and …’
‘If Jerry Steeneveldt was giving advice to a pupil, it’s probably because he saw a child in need. Something your school needs to be better at. Jerry was a police reservist, trying to keep crime out the township, back when the government didn’t care if people like us lived or died. I think he deserves a little respect, don’t you?’
The principal straightened her spine, shifting from buttock to buttock. ‘I understand that, but if it’s all the same to you I’d like to have a little chat with him.’
‘That won’t be possible.’
‘He’s no longer with us. Jerry passed on Monday. Cardiac embolism.’
‘If that’s all, I’d like to get back to caring for the frail.’
‘Fine then. You have a good day.’ The principal left the matron’s office, planning to plant more trees on her side of the fence.
Though an amicable agreement had been reached between all parents involved, Themba’s dads felt their son would be happier at a different school. They hadn’t told Themba about Jerry’s passing, hoping he’d forget about the old man.
On his last day, Themba returned to the spot at the fence where he first met Jerry. It hadn’t been completely blocked off yet—the principal’s saplings were still finding their feet in the soil.
‘Jerry. Hey, Jerry!’ Themba called to the man sitting on the bench.
‘He can’t hear you,’ said Donovan, who was busy planting a cactus next to the magnolias. ‘He’s getting ready to go home.’
‘I wanted to say goodbye. I’m changing schools soon.’
Donovan pulled out a handkerchief and planted it with the cactus.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Themba.
‘He’ll always be here.’
‘But he’s right there.’ Themba pointed to the man on the bench, who’d got up and was walking towards the purple dahlias.
‘Don’t look!’ Donovan rushed to the fence to block Themba’s view.
‘Hey! I wanna see,’ shouted Themba, moving along the fence.
The pair watched Jerry walk past the dahlias, through the fence and across the parking lot of St Jude’s, until the landscape enveloped him. He moved like a smudge of pastel rubbed smooth and flat and mute against a widening canvas, until he wasn’t a solid colour but a hue. A suggestion. Jerry walked on as the world transformed before him into a labyrinth of open windows, waving on their hinges.
- Jarred Thompson is an educator and literary studies researcher whose poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been published in various journals, notably the Gerald Kraak Anthology Vol 3, Racebait, Lolwe, Doek! and Fiyah. He was the winner the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Award and the runner-up in the 2021 Dream Foundry Short Story Prize. Follow him on Twitter.