Nathan stood at the top of the long driveway watching as the last car bumped its way through the gate and onto the dirt road that led down the avenue of tall pines, out across the farm towards the main road. He pressed the button on the small remote in his hand and, at the bottom of the drive, the electric gate jumped into life, rumbling along its track, shutting with a small metallic clang. For a few seconds he stood still, watching the car’s tail-lights disappearing in the low, dusk light. Stars were already appearing overhead as sunset waned in the western sky, disappearing behind the distant hills and mountains. Even after three days of being back he was still shocked by how quickly it got dark here. It was like someone had suddenly thrown a hood over the world.
He turned then and walked up the driveway towards the house. He could see all the lights already on, and through the big front windows the empty living room waited to be cleared and tidied. He walked into the house and shut the front door behind him, leaning his back against it, his head against the hard surface of it. His suit suddenly felt incredibly tight and restrictive and with a sigh he loosened his tie and undid the top button of his shirt. He ran his hand through his hair, pushing his fringe from his forehead.
From the kitchen he heard the noise of plates being scraped and loaded into the sink to be washed. He hesitated, wondering if he should go and help, but instead he turned into the lounge, picking up a large, empty bin bag lying half-open on the floor. Working his way around the room, he began filling it with the empty beer cans and wine bottles that decorated every surface.
I’d forgotten what vultures those people are, his sister said, walking back into the room carrying an empty tray. She put it down in the space he’d cleared on the coffee table and began stacking used wine glasses on it. She still wore her formal shoes and black dress, but had pulled her long blonde hair back from her face, tying it in a low ponytail. She seemed to focus her words on each glass as she moved it onto the tray saying, Someone dies and they come out of the hills ready to weep at the funeral, then eat all of the food, and drink all of our wine, and complain about local politics to each other as if nothing has happened. Some of them go to one of these every week. It’s like an outing for them.
Like grief vampires, he said and then as he turned round to look at her he saw her sit down suddenly on the couch, her breath leaving her, her hand coming up to her face, covering it as she bent over for a second. He dropped the bag and rushed over to her, crouching down next to her, putting his hand on her knee:
Helen? Helen, are you all right? He said.
She waved him away. She stood up just as suddenly as she had sat down. Just exhausted. I haven’t slept for a week, I think.
If it makes you feel any better I haven’t slept since I got here. That damn room, sleeping in my old bed – it’s too much of a bizarre time travel thing for me to relax.
She looked at him and shook her head and a small, barely perceptible smile creased her lips: No, it doesn’t make me feel better at all, but thank you for trying.
He looked at her face and realised for the first time that she had aged since he last saw her – of course she had, but he’d somehow not noticed in the rush of arriving at the airport and the funeral preparations and then all of the people he hadn’t seen for years arriving to witness their grief. Around her mouth new lines had been drawn, now accentuated by the lack of sleep. He wanted to say something then, to make her feel better, but before he could, she stooped to pick up the loaded tray and walked back out of the room into the corridor that led to the big kitchen at the back of the house.
The funeral had been as dry as expected, no wailing or sobbing, a few quiet sniffles from his nieces and his sister’s eyes looked red-rimmed – as they had been since he’d arrived three days before. He felt, for a moment as they stood singing his father’s favourite hymn, a sudden rising of tears, a strangling in his throat that threatened to overwhelm him just for a second. But, by taking a deep breath and concentrating hard, he had fought it off, and the moment had passed. He was damned if he was going to deliver the hysterics they all expected from him now.
It was only when walking out of the church that he’d seen Katrina, sitting in the last pew with her middle-aged daughter and a woman he didn’t know, weeping openly, bent over with her head resting on the pew in front of her, hands clasped together in prayer over her head, her back heaving with sobs. He wanted to weep then. Wanted to join her on his knees and weep for his father, for her, for himself – but he didn’t. There were people to greet outside, arrangements to be made to get everyone to the house.
Now, throwing cans and used napkins into the bin bag, he worked his way across the room methodically, clearing each surface – the coffee table, each side table, the top of the piano, and then the mantelpiece above the old fireplace. Here he stopped. A framed photograph stood there in amongst the bric-a-brac his father had collected, one of the few photographs on display in a house mostly still hung with watercolours and oils by local artists his mother had admired. But here in full view, slightly yellowed with age, were the five of them together – his father, mother, and the three kids – standing on a beach somewhere looking into the sun. His mother was shading her eyes with her hand, her face covered in shadow. The rest of them stood squinting in their swimming costumes – James tall and big chested, with his arm slung confidently around their father’s shoulders, Helen, only just into puberty, hiding much of her body behind a towel wrapped tightly around her, and then Nathan, significantly younger than the others, skinny and pale, standing with one hand on his hip, dark hair flopping into his face.
Dad loved that picture for some reason, Helen said as she came back into the room to collect the remaining glasses. It’s the only one with mom he left up.
I’d forgotten how camp I was, Nathan said, looking over his shoulder at her, smiling. I mean…look at me. Poor kid.
Well, she said, stopping for a moment, used wine glass in hand, You were a bit camp. I was fat. We all had our problems.
She was making a joke, but she didn’t smile.
Well, all of us except James, Nathan said, helping her fill the tray with glasses.
Oh, I wouldn’t say that.
She was about to lift the tray again when Nathan said, Hold on, I’ll take it this time.
She made to protest, but then shrugged her shoulders and let him take it from her.
You weren’t fat, by the way, he said, holding the tray.
I was. Or at least I felt fat. You were definitely a little camp though, sorry.
Ha, he said softly. The truth hurts. Go find us some wine so we can all have a drink, finally, before you have to go back to your husband and children.
He left the room carrying the tray, heavy with glasses, and walked down the corridor towards the kitchen, the noise of running water and dishes being cleaned getting louder as he got closer – the sound of voices chatting in Swazi the only other sign of life in the big house.
Here’s the last lot, he said as he walked into the kitchen and through to the scullery where Katrina was up to her elbows in dishes and soapsuds. She had changed out of the formal dress and gloves she’d worn to the funeral and was wearing her work uniform, her hair hidden under a cloth tied at the base of her neck. The young woman he didn’t know, who’d sat with her at the church service was there too, helping her dry and stack the cleaned plates. Again Nathan didn’t recognise her, couldn’t place her. She was beautiful, her skin darker than Katrina’s, her hair uncovered and perfectly set. She still wore the dress she’d had on at the church.
Hello, he said, sticking his hand out, I’m Nathan.
She stared at his hand, then quickly put the plate she was drying down, dried her hands and took his with both of hers.
This is Thobeka, Katrina said, She is Samuel’s wife, you remember? She help me just for today.
Thobeka smiled at him shyly, dropped his hand and returned quickly to her task before the dishes piled up.
Can I help, Nathan said, realising he should have offered sooner.
Katrina glanced at him, made an annoyed clicking sound with her mouth and said, No, go help your sister. Go find your brother. We finish here.
Okay, okay, Nathan said, holding his hands up in apology. Call me if you need anything.
He had wanted to hug her, to tell her he understood that she too grieved as part of this family, but Katrina had never been the sort of woman who tolerated sentiment like that. It was part of why he had loved her so much as a child.
He walked back into the main part of the kitchen and then through the swing door to the dining room. His sister was putting the chairs back in place, tucking each one under the huge dining table.
I thought we were done, that you were going to get wine, he said, watching her move the last chair into place.
Tomorrow we have other things to deal with, she said, looking up at him, But, ja, I think we’re done for now.
Katrina is ploughing through the dishes quickly, he said, nodding his head back in the direction of the kitchen.
I told her she didn’t have to do them, I told her we could get someone else, but she insisted. She’s always been so stubborn.
She stood for a moment, looking around the room as if she’d forgotten something.
I suppose this is her house more than ours now, he said. None of us have lived here for ages. She’s been here longer. You remember what she was like when mom died. She didn’t leave the house for weeks. She slept in the lounge, got up, fed us, dressed us, sent us to school – while dad just lay in his bed grieving.
I remember. Let’s go out onto the veranda, she said, turning to leave the room. I think James retreated there hours ago.
Outside, dusk had given way to night; the sunset long over, the stars burned brightly. The veranda lay in darkness – none of the lights were turned on and the outline of the furniture could only just be seen in the light spilling from the house.
James? Helen asked.
Are you here?
Course I am. He stuck his arms up into the air, and now they could see where he was: a long shadow lounging on a wicker couch on the far side of the veranda. As his eyes adjusted to the low light, Nathan could make out his brother’s shape: a body taking up the entire couch, his now bare feet hanging off the edge, his head on a cushion propped against a wicker arm.
Did you bring me a drink? James asked, lifting his head to look at them.
No. You’ve had enough, Helen said, sitting down and letting out a deep, long sigh. Nathan sat down in the chair next to her, fatigue suddenly overtaking him.
They sat in silence then, the three of them on the veranda of their father’s old house. The night air cooled around them quickly, while the sound of the women finishing up in the kitchen drifted out through the open windows. A breeze rustled the leaves of the great big trees that grew next to the house. In the distance the sound of traffic on the main road could just be heard.
The funeral was nice, sis, James said. Well done.
It was lovely, Nathan said, reaching over and patting her arm. I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner to help.
I’m surprised you came at all, James said, still lying down, speaking directly up towards the ceiling rather than looking at either of them. I mean, the guy was a bit of a shit to you. I wouldn’t have come. Definitely not all the way from London. Shit, I almost didn’t come and I only live in Joburg, and dad used to think the sun shone out my arse.
Nathan said nothing, searching for words, but finding none.
Oh be quiet James. I asked him to come, Helen said, letting out a sigh. I asked him and he came because I asked. You’re just angry with dad about the farm and this whole land claim business, and because he didn’t ask your advice.
He bladdie well should have, James said.
Silence again. This time broken only by the surprising sound of a jackal crying somewhere out in the bush that lay beyond the orchards. A shiver ran down Nathan’s spine. Still, even now, even after all this time, there was still a wildness to the place.
The sound of a car pulling up to the back of the house made them all look round.
Samuel. Come to pick up Katrina and his wife, Helen said. I offered to take them, but he insisted.
Dawn. Nathan sat on the veranda, gripping a hot mug of tea in his hands. He blew on it, sending a cloud of steam out into the air. It was cold. Dew hung heavy on the trees, carpeted the lawn, and formed droplets along the wires of the electric security fence that ringed the enormous garden. The sun was just coming up over the hills to the east. The world was, in that moment, almost unbearably quiet.
He remembered sitting here on this couch, with his siblings on either side of him, as their father sat opposite and explained to them that their mother had been in a car accident and wouldn’t be coming home. He was eight, his feet only just touched the floor, scuffing back and forth on the polished, black slate. Helen started crying next to him. James stood up and ran off into the garden. Nathan just sat there, unsure what to do, what to think or feel. He looked at his father’s face, at his hands clasped between his knees, his right thumb rubbing the back of his left hand over and over.
As he’d walked around this house for the past three days he’d encountered vivid, specific memories like this without warning. In the dining room as he sat eating breakfast that morning he had a sudden feeling of being sixteen again, in his school uniform, shovelling food into his mouth as quickly as possible because he was late, desperately wanting to avoid a scene with his father – who would inevitably be waiting for him, the engine already running.
Sleeping in his old bedroom had been the most disconcerting thing. Lying in the narrow single bed, its duvet cover the same pattern as ten years ago, with the light falling through the window, the familiar smell of the house, the silence of the farm leaching through the walls – he felt a rising panic, as if he was being pulled out of his own life and into another, as if he were being drowned in another existence. He had spent a decade making himself into who he was, and here, in this place, all his work could be blown away, washed off of him like a layer of camouflage paint, like mud from a stone washed in a river.
As he sat on the veranda he could feel it all pulling at him again, filling him up again, the air and the sky and the sound of the birds in the trees – trees his grandfather had planted, trees his mother had planted. He could feel the winter sun, as it rose, trying to bleach his bones.
Too many thoughts he had deliberately not thought for years, too many memories he had ignored – the feel of sand between his toes as he ran down the dirt road between the orchards, the heat of a mid-summer sun on his back as he lay by the pool, playing with Samuel in the yard behind the house, swimming in the dam at the bottom of the litchi orchards, the day he left determined to never come back, the day his mother died, the day his father told him how disappointed he was.
It had started before he’d even arrived, as he sat in his seat on the small plane from Johannesburg. Staring out the window he watched the landscape below become the rolling hills and granite domes he knew, huge rocky outcrops emerging from the winter-brown vegetation, looming over the towns and villages scattered between them. Here was a central mystery of modern life: how, only hours before, had he been on the other side of the world and now, after one night’s sleep in a seat, with little sense of actual motion, how was he here? His brain was still trying to catch up, still trying to process what had happened.
From the moment he got off the plane and walked through the arrivals hall of the new airport to be greeted by Helen he had felt like he was in some sort of waking dream, like he had stepped back into another life, into the life of another person entirely. The only feeling he could think of that felt similar to this was the sense of anticipation and dread he felt when he stood in the wings, waiting to step onto stage as a character, to enact his life for an audience.
Two of Helen’s children were running around her, shouting at the top of their lungs, and she was in the middle of shushing them when she saw him. And her face seemed to crumple then, her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she walked quickly over to hug him.
Thank you for coming, she said as she put her arms around him awkwardly, his small backpack getting in the way. Thank you.
And he had suddenly felt the weight of years of delayed guilt in that moment. All of the feelings of responsibility he had long ago forgotten, had long discarded, came back to him.
In the car she talked him through the arrangements. The funeral is in two days, she said stopping at a traffic light and glancing at him for a second, before looking forward again, readying herself to pull off as soon as the light turned green. I’ve booked the big Methodist church and ordered flowers. We’re not having the casket in the church for the service, dad would have hated that and it always gives me the creeps anyway. He’s being cremated after that.
Thank you, Nathan said.
For organising it all, he said.
She clicked her tongue at him and shook her head, Well you couldn’t have done it from London anyway. I’m just the closest. James is coming down from Joburg tomorrow morning. You know him, speeding in and then speeding out again….
How is James? he asked.
Helen didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Behind them, strapped into a car seat each, her young sons were bickering about a TV show – the two girls, older now, were at school.
He’s fine, she said. I think. He came home for Christmas this year with his new girlfriend. She was, um, interesting…
Nathan looked at her and raised his eyebrows, Interesting? How interesting?
You’re still such a gossip, she says, tutting, seeming to regret saying anything. She used to be a model, but she was lovely.
Now, sat on the veranda with his tea, Nathan went over this conversation again, thinking about the journey to this house, seeing it again after so many years. He took a sip of tea, but his mind was elsewhere when a voice by his shoulder said, Hey.
Nathan jumped, spilling tea from his mug onto the dark slate tiles of the veranda. Shit. It slopped over his hand, dripped down his arm. Shit, you fucking scared the shit out of me, he said.
James laughed as he sat down, a mug of coffee in his hand. You were always so easy to scare.
He sat in the big armchair next to Nathan with his legs swung over the arm, lying back as far as he could while still being able to sip at his coffee. It was still cold, but he wore nothing but a tiny pair of boxer shorts. His long legs were covered in blonde hair, while on his chest the thick, thatch-coloured hair was beginning to grey.
You should be wearing more clothes, Nathan said.
This is nothing, James says. You should feel what it’s like in Joburg in winter. My bedroom is like minus three in the morning. No central heating here like you wimps have overseas.
I wasn’t talking about the cold. When are you going back? To Joburg I mean?
Tomorrow, James said. Got some work to do and my friend is having a big birthday so…
James sat up then, swinging his legs round and planting his feet firmly on the cold floor. Around them the day was brightening, ha-di-da birds chanted in the trees below the tennis court.
Don’t play that card, James said. You don’t have to be the goody goody youngest son anymore.
Anyway, he said, cutting Nathan off, Why would you care? You haven’t been home in ten years. You barely spoke to the old man after you fucked off to varsity.
I thought I was the goody two shoes suck up? Nathan said angrily, I can’t be the bad son too.
James said nothing, staring into his coffee, then out at the lawn that stretched from the veranda to the swimming pool, and then to the electric fence and the farm beyond.
I hate that fence, Nathan said.
Necessary, James said. Friend of dad’s was murdered in his own home just before you left, remember? Just down the road. Gang broke in, he went for his shot gun, stupidly, and they filled him with bullets.
With that he stood up and said, I’m going to go say hi to Samuel after breakfast, if you want to come. He’s probably going to be running the place soon anyway, might as well pay our fucking respects.
The road was a hard packed, single-track dirt road. On either side avocado trees loomed through the tall, yellowed grass. It was turning into a clear and bright winter’s day. The windows of James’s Land Rover were open and the cool air flowed around them through the car.
Do you remember, James said, changing into third gear, how dad used to talk to the avo trees, like they were his children, like he could get more fruit from them if he knew them all?
You’re making that up.
I’m not, he said, glancing at Nathan, I swear. I walked through the orchards with him a lot when I was a kid, before mom died. He’d fondle the leaves, talking to them, telling them they were going to have record fruit that year.
The car’s engine revved as James dropped a gear, the road climbing over a low ridge. Nathan stuck his hand out the window, feeling the air pull at it. The smell of the farm – of dust and earth and grass and trees and cold, hard air – rose as the sun grew warmer.
Didn’t you want to take over the farm then…as a kid, I mean?
Me? James said, accelerating as they crested the hill and descended the other side. Suddenly rows and rows of trees, blocks and blocks of orchard, were laid out in front of them, stretching down to the dried riverbed hidden in a tangle of thorn bush and trees.
James shakes his head, No. I mean, yes, I thought that at the time maybe, but that was just what I thought I had to think. You know, it was what dad talked about all the fucking time – when you’re in charge, when you’re the farmer here…It was never real to me really. I mean. I also wanted to be an astronaut, right?
I guess we all disappointed dad in our own ways.
True. But sometimes I think the fact that she stayed, that she looked after him, was a bit disappointing to him.
James didn’t respond, but focused on the road as he slowed down to take a right turn. Silence stretched out between them, as the road stretched out ahead of them, filled with the noise of the engine and of the air rushing through the windows.
Finally James said, You know dad saw you in something once?
What? You’re joking.
No. It was when you were still at university and you were in some play that was on in Joburg. He drove up and went to see it. He only told Helen like two years ago.
The old farm manager’s house stood surrounded by trees in a large field at the top of an orchard. It was small, single story, painted white, with an old fashioned, corrugated steel roof shining in the bright sunlight. Two tractors and an old pick up truck were parked in the wide yard. As James parked the car Nathan could see Samuel working with two labourers, loading compost into the back of the pick up, heaving the bags up, two at a time.
As they walked towards him he turned and nodded at them, his face grave, serious. He was being sensitive to the fact there had been a funeral the day before, but Nathan wanted to grin at him. Wanted to run up to him and clap him on both shoulders and say:
Right, so, here you are then.
Instead he had to make do with a handshake, Samuel wiping his hand on his trousers before taking his, clasping his hand with his strong, calloused fingers.
Hello, Nathan said.
Samuel, James said, shaking his hand next. How are things today?
As they talked, as Samuel indulged James, pretending this city boy knew anything about the running of the farm, that he had any real right to ask questions, Nathan studied him. Here he was, all grown up. He seemed bigger in every way in real life – his arms thicker, his shoulders wider. His face somehow stronger than when they were in their early twenties, the last time he’d seen him, harder, less open – the dark skin on his face more tightly drawn. Gone too was the rebellious Afro, his hair now neatly trimmed. Nathan wanted to embrace him as his friend, wanted to talk, wanted to somehow explain why he had not been home. But this man seemed a stranger really. How could he be the same skinny black kid who had swum in the farm dam with him almost every day of the summer school holidays? The kid he’d shot birds with using a catapult, the kid who’d hid with him in the avo orchard to ambush farm workers. The kid who’d seemed so much a part of the family, but wasn’t really allowed to be.
You must come inside, Samuel was saying to them both. Ma, she would like to see you.
Through the screen door to the kitchen behind Samuel, Nathan could see Katrina standing watching them speak to her grandson. The screen made the expression on her face difficult to read. Just then, Thobeka walked around the corner of the house. She was dressed smartly, like an office worker, her handbag slung over her shoulder, her feet in pointed high heel shoes. She stopped when she saw them, her eyes fixing on Nathan again and he felt himself squirm under her quiet scrutiny. He noticed then how violently red her nails were painted, how striking she was. Not as shy as he had first thought, obviously.
No, that’s fine, we can’t come in, thank you, James said to Samuel. We need to go. I’m going back to Joburg tomorrow, and we have to start clearing the house.
Nathan wanted to stay and talk, he wanted to go in and talk to Katrina – talk to her about his father, about Samuel, and to share her grief too. He wanted to tell her about his life now, what he did, who he was. But his brother had already turned back to the car and Nathan had to follow him. He nodded at Samuel, shook his hand once more, and said, I’ll try and come visit again before I go.
In the car James was silent. He accelerated too quickly down the road from the house, the car throwing up a cloud of dust into the air. In the passenger seat, Nathan was preoccupied with his own thoughts. He didn’t notice how quickly they were driving until he looked up to see they were rushing towards a T-junction, a tall row of pines suddenly confronting them.
James! He shouted. James, what the fuck are you doing?
He grabbed his brother’s arm and James slammed on the brakes. The heavy car skidded on the loose dirt road, coming to a grinding stop. Breathing heavily, James slammed his hand into the steering wheel and shouted – a sort of guttural animal noise. He leant slowly forward until his forehead came to rest on his hands that clutched at the top of the steering wheel, his back heaved with deep, ragged sobbing.
James, he said, hesitating, reaching out to touch his brother’s back. James, are you…
But James pulled away, opened the car door and quickly got out, almost falling out of the car, crouching down on the road next to the vehicle.
After a minute or two, unsure of what to do, still in shock, Nathan got out of the car and walked around the back of the pickup to find his brother sitting on the road, his back against the car, his head leaning back his eyes wide open as he looked up at the blue winter sky.
James, Nathan said, still standing, still looking down at his older brother.
James said nothing, didn’t even look at him. Slowly, carefully, Nathan lowered himself to the ground next to him until he sat with his back against the car, his elbows resting on his raised up knees, their shoulders almost touching. He thought of things he should say, questions he should ask, but kept quiet, waiting. It was like when you were on stage and you knew the other actor in your scene had the next line and you had to wait for them to deliver it, had to wait out his pause, not leap in and interrupt them.
You know the stupidest thing? James said, finally.
I never even wanted this place, this farm, this life, but now that it might be taken away I’m desperate for it. I’m a forty-one-year-old man who has only just realised what he’s lost. Fucking idiot.
You don’t really want it. It’s only because dad just died that you think you do.
James looked at him then, turning his head to the side and looking him in the eye. You know when everything really changed, he said. It wasn’t when mom died. I mean, that sucked, and dad disappeared for like two months, but then we just carried on. You know when things actually changed, like the family stopped being a family at all?
James let out a deep sigh. He picked at the dirt of the road between his legs, drawing a circle with his fingertip. It was when you finally, properly left to go to London, to go to drama school after university. Dad sort of gave up on us then, you and me, I think.
I had to go, you know that.
I know. Jesus. I mean, he threw you out the house, right? But I think that was when he realised you weren’t going to step in and take my place and that was why he decided Samuel was the only way to keep the farm in the family, in a way. That was why, when the land claim came, he started thinking that even if he sold it, Samuel could get the lease to run it, keep it together.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know you could do that.
Nope. Neither did I until two months ago. I was going through dad’s papers when he was in hospital and I found the contract. I’m not even sure if Samuel knew before I told him.
They sat in silence. The winter sun warming them, the stillness of the day letting the warmth build on their skins and on the hard-packed sand of the road.
You have to tell me now, Helen said. If you want anything from the house you have to tell me before you leave.
I don’t want anything, James said. I told you.
No. Zip. You can have it all, James said. The three of them were sat around the dining room table, their plates from lunch still in front of them. Nathan could see Helen calming herself, could she her taking a careful breath, just like she had when they were children and James was trying her patience.
Fine, she said. That means I’ll have to find homes for most of the furniture. I’ll take what I want and Nate can take anything he’d like. I can always keep stuff for you, she said turning to him, until we can ship some of it to you maybe.
Thanks, he said, though he couldn’t imagine wanting anything from the house. My flat won’t fit any more furniture, but some smaller things maybe.
We’ll start clearing the house next week then, she said getting up and collecting their plates. You’re still leaving this afternoon? she asked James.
Yes. Meeting tomorrow at the office I can’t miss.
You’ll be alone in the house tonight then Nate. I’ll show you how to set the alarm system, she said, and walked out of the room, through the swing door into the kitchen.
James looked at him across the table and said, She’s pissed off at me. Again. Ah well. I’ve got to pack.
Later than afternoon Nathan sat with Helen on the veranda, watching as the sun moved slowly westwards again.
I should go soon, she said, but didn’t move.
Thanks again for everything, Hellie. You know, for looking after dad and, you know, the funeral and everything.
She threw her arms up in the air and shouted: Oh, for fuck’s sake! Will everyone stop fucking thanking me.
It is just exhausting, man.
It’s fine, but please don’t imagine I was here looking after him feeling sorry for myself, hating you for your glamorous life in London while I had to watch him become a child and then a scarecrow. You’re fucking wrong. I felt privileged to be here.
It’s not a glamorous life…not really.
Bullshit. I’ve seen your fancy boyfriend.
Fancy? he said, almost laughing.
She pulled a face at him and said, I am just tired of people pitying me because I’m not James, a big successful banker, and I’m not you doing Shakespeare plays in London. I chose this life. I chose to get married, have children, to live in my hometown and stay friends with my high school friends and stay near dad too.
Of course, you were his favourite, she said. It wasn’t James, despite his all the cricket and rugby he played.
I was not.
You were. You won’t remember her much, but you looked the most like mom. You have the same eyes, the same hair flopping into your face all the time.
He felt genuinely angry when she said this and said, I bloody well never felt like the favourite, that’s for sure.
Helen sighed, shifted in her armchair, sinking lower into the seat, taking a long sip from her wine glass. Sometimes, she said, I think he couldn’t even look at you because you reminded him of her so much.
She looked at him then suddenly and said, Do you remember that big fire on the farm? You were fourteen I think. It was during the Christmas holidays so you were back from boarding school.
I think so…
Yes, hold on, let me think. It was really dry that year, the rains hadn’t come yet and the bush around the farm was brown and dry, the pine plantations in the mountains were so dry too. And the fire came from the mountains and came straight for the farm, and we all rushed out on the bakkies with fire beaters and the water truck came from the Van Rensbergs next door.
I remember, he said.
And you got lost in the fire. One minute you were there and then you had disappeared behind a wall of smoke. Everyone was rushing around beating out the fires starting in the grass and they hadn’t noticed you were gone. I just remember dad’s face when he realised. The panic. I’d never seen him look like that.
I remember. When they found me, he looked fucking terrified. At least until he started shouting at me for being such a fucking idiot, Nathan said.
See, Helen said. I know he didn’t react very well when you told him you were gay…
Nathan cut her off: He told me to leave the house and never come back. He threw me out Helen. He sent me money to cover some of my expenses at drama school a couple of times, but that was it. Over.
I know. I know. But, she said, I think…I don’t know what I think actually. James never forgave him, you know. For what dad did to you.
So he decided to sell the farm as revenge?
Christ no! That became inevitable once the land claim was held up by the court. Dad didn’t have the will to fight it, and I’m not sure he even thought that he should. He always talked about how at some stage there would have to be a reckoning over land in this country, and it hadn’t happened yet.
He had just got out the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist as he walked down the corridor to his bedroom, when a shout came from the back of the house. He heard the kitchen door open and then suddenly Samuel was standing in front of him, his hands on his hips, grinning at him.
You, he said, come on, I’ll show you the farm before you leave again.
I just need to get dressed, Nathan said, indicating his own near nakedness.
Hurry, hurry! Samuel said, clapping his hands at him like he was a farm animal.
Dickhead, Nathan said, laughing.
He dressed quickly, throwing on a pair of shorts and an old t-shirt he had found in his wardrobe – he couldn’t have worn it since he was seventeen, it felt used, well-washed, and soft. He sat in the passenger seat of the bakkie and tried to listen as Samuel told him about the work he had been doing for the past year to improve the top macadamia plantations.
We’re reclaiming a bunch of ground from lantana that’s gone crazy, weeding out all the exotics. They suck up all our water, man…
Nathan let the words wash over him, Samuel’s voice deep and pleasant. It was one of those bizarrely warm days in what should have been near mid-winter. The sun had seemed to gain strength overnight. They turned a corner and he saw a team of workers up ahead, clustered around a number of tall macadamia trees. Samuel brought the bakkie to a stop by the side of the road and got out. Nathan watched as he walked up to the men – all dressed in brown, farm overalls and gumboots. Two of the men wore safety helmets and casually held chainsaws in their hands. Samuel shook the hand of each of the five men and waved to the two who were up in the branches of the tree. He turned then and motioned for Nathan to get out and come over.
The gravel of the road crunched under his trainers as he walked over to them, feeling the eyes of the workmen on him, feeling them assessing him from behind hidden, well-practiced faces of passive indifference. As he approached, he heard Samuel talking to them in Swazi. He heard his name and the men all looked at him, looks of slight recognition on their faces as they shook his hand. He got the first handshake entirely wrong, forgetting the second grasping move of the hands, but after that he had it right.
I told them you’ve come from a long way to see the farm, to say hello to them. I told them you came from England, Samuel said.
Hello, Nathan said. He turned to Samuel, looked back at the men and attempted a greeting, and the men smiled at each other, at him, and turned and went back to work.
As Nathan stood there, feeling the sun begin to warm the back of his exposed neck and legs in the rising heat of the day, Samuel went up to the tree currently being worked on, talking to the foreman the whole way, pointing out branches that could be cut. As he stood there, Nathan felt whatever tension had been binding his gut, whatever feeling of panic he had been feeling all week, clamped around the muscles of this chest, begin to loosen, to evaporate in the warming air.
Come on, Sam said to him as he walked back up towards him. Did you know we have cows now?
Some scheme of your dad’s to make compost, kraal manure, for the trees. But really I think he just liked cows.
At one of the top fields where the cows were now kept, two men were trying to drive ten moody animals towards a shed. Before he knew what was happening, Nathan was standing in the muddy field, up to his ankles in cow shit, shoving a recalcitrant calf through a narrow gate, his hands planted firmly on its bony behind. As the animal finally bolted into the new field he slipped, was going down into the mud, when Samuel stopped his fall, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him up.
Getting back into the car, his muscles aching a little, his shin throbbing from where he had been kicked, his legs splattered with mud and shit, Nathan started laughing. This is ridiculous, he said. Why do you even have cows?
Samuel just shrugged, started the engine, and then said, There’s a place, you remember…we can get clean.
They drove then in companionable silence. Samuel turned on the radio and an Afrikaans station popped up on the dial. His father must have set it the last time he was in the car.
It’s broken, Samuel said. I can’t change the station and he laughed as an Afrikaans country song began playing. After a minute Nathan leant his head towards the speaker and said, What is she singing? He reached over and turned the volume up. He struggled with the words, trying to hear their meaning, waiting for his brain to translate as best it could after all these years.
Everybody has something, Sam said, listening. Everyone had somebody…or something…
Ha. Nathan said, leaning back in his seat, looking back out the window as the rows and rows of deep green trees sped by and fell out behind them. Overhead, the sky was a sharp bright blue, free of cloud. He turned his head and looked at Samuel and said, Where are we going?
To get clean man, you stink.
The water in the dam was a rich red-brown colour, pregnant with the fine clay soil that washed down from the orchards up the hill. Nathan stood next to the car, looking down at the water. Behind him, Samuel was getting something out of the open back of the bakkie.
What’s that? Nathan asked as Sam walked up to stand beside him.
Lunch, Sam said, showing him the small coolbox he held in his right hand.
You packed a lunch?
Ja, man, of course. Be prepared and all that English people shit you people say. But first we swim.
With that he began to strip, pulling his work shirt over his head, his dark brown skin and even darker nipples suddenly exposed to the sun. Nathan looked away as his head emerged from the shirt, looked at the water in the dam again. Isn’t it too cold? he said. The water I mean.
No, it isn’t.
Nathan looked at him then, as he pulled his shorts down to reveal a pair of striped boxers, as he turned and neatly folded his clothes on the grass. He glanced up at Nathan who was still debating whether to also strip down to his underwear. You know, he said, When I was a small kid I used to wonder if white people were white all over, all the way down…you know…?
Nathan laughed, What? What do you mean…?
You know, all the way, everywhere…Until I saw your naked white bum, then I knew.
Oh, really? And was it a disappointment?
Not really, he laughed.
With that, he pulled his boxers down, stepped out of them, and ran at the water at full tilt, crashing into it and, when it was up to his knees, diving in and disappearing beneath the surface. Quickly, before he could change his mind, Nathan pulled off his t-shirt, shorts and the white briefs he wore underneath. Now naked, he ran to the water. His pale torso and legs flashed as he ran into the dam, as Sam, treading water a little way out, watched him run, watched him throw himself into the water and then come up with a whoop as the cold took hold of him.
Fuck! He shouted. You fucking bastard. It’s fucking freezing.
Samuel laughed and then started swimming back to shore, but Nathan stayed where he was, feeling the cold from the water grip his body, letting himself get used to it, submit to it and embrace it.
As he lay on his back, staring up at the sky, he remembered that this was the dam in which he’d sought refuge during the fire. This was where his dad had found him, up to his shoulders in the water, sheltering from the raging fire that cracked and roared through the dry grass and bushes that surrounded them. He’d refused to come out when they called him, even though the fire had gone by then, even though the danger was over. It had taken half-an-hour to coax him, shivering, crying, from the water.
He remembered the heat and the smoke of the fire, wandering through the orchards between litchi trees that caught on fire one by one, the fruit on the branches exploding, popping in the heat. He had never been so afraid in his whole life. He felt for certain he would die that day, that the smoke clawing at his throat would stop him breathing, that it would kill him before the flames even reached him. Now, floating in the dam, he shut his eyes and sank below the surface once more.
Walking slowly out of the water he watched Samuel, still naked, openly watching him again. Watched as the other man trailed his eyes over his body, with its skin red from the cold, exposed to the sun and the air that stung as he dried. He sat down next to him on his own spread out t-shirt, bending his knees, resting his elbows on them.
That was great, thanks, he said.
There was a pause, a moment during which a pair of Egyptian Geese made themselves known, landing on the water together, calling to the sky. The sun warmed their cold skin as the cold water dripped from them. Finally after a few minutes, Samuel said: You should come home more often.
Nathan sighed and said, I know. I mean. I’d forgotten I could. Your English has…changed…
Sam grinned at him and said, So has yours.
God, don’t even say it, Nathan said, chuckling. No one knows where I’m from when I speak.
When your dad sent me to the Agricultural College, Sam said, You know, just after you left for England, I got this teacher who gave us more and more books to read and I was with all these white guys, mostly Afrikaans, and I just started talking like them, like the English guys too. It was easier.
I know what you mean.
The old lady, my gogo, Katrina, makes fun of me sometimes, but it’s useful.
I remember when you tried to teach me Swazi. I was fucking useless. What does Thobeka think of your fancy English?
She has only known me like this. Plus her dad is a big man in the local government, so she’s fancier than me. Gogo was upset she was Zulu instead of Swazi, but she likes her now.
Where did you meet her?
In town, in a bar – I used to go there with my friends. You know, young and mad. And she was always so calm in the corner, so fine, so well dressed. I can’t believe she even looked at me, a farm boy, but she did.
And Nathan looked at him, at how handsome he was, at how the muscles in his arms and legs tensed and relaxed as he basked in the sun.
She seems nice, he said.
She is. What about you? Samuel said. What’s his name again…?
Yes. The tall blonde guy…?
Yeah, he’s Danish. You know what Helen said to me when I first arrived? She said, Don’t assume everyone knows about you, or everyone is okay with it. Keep it to yourself for now, especially around the servants…
Yeah, Nathan said. He turned his head to the side like his sister did and slipped into a well-practised imitation of her voice: Black people don’t know gay people, not here. It’s not part of their culture, you know. Samuel probably has no idea…
Samuel sat looking straight ahead at the dam for a few moments then shook his head and, picking his phone up from his pile of clothes and waving it at Nathan, laughed and said I guess she doesn’t know we are friends on Facebook.
No, I don’t think it even crossed her mind, Nathan said. And suddenly he couldn’t stop laughing, his head between his knees, his shoulders shaking, he can’t stop laughing until, at some point, without realising it, he was crying. Hot tears fell from his eyes onto the grass; his shoulders shuddered as he drew breath. He was crying and he couldn’t stop, no matter how hard he tried to draw breath, to still himself. And then Samuel lent over, had his arms around him, had turned him towards him and pulled him into an embrace, Nathan’s head resting on his shoulder.
There. Shame. Shame, he said in sympathy, in condolence, in understanding. Here, he said, holding him. I am here.
And Nathan felt the sobbing subside as he became aware of the warmth of Sam’s body, of his smell and his voice in his ear. He pulled away a little and looked at his face, wiping the tears from his eyes.
And Samuel leaned forward then and kissed him. Softly, but insistently he pushed their lips together and Nathan held his breath before pushing back. And for those moments he felt sixteen again, the blood pounding in his head, his entire being suddenly concentrated on the feeling, on the smell, on the taste of Samuel. And for a second he forgot who and where he was.
And he knew that soon it would end, that they would leave this behind, would step back into their own lives and would not speak of it again – but for those few seconds at least, the rush of feeling felt like an anchor, like a lifeline bringing him home.