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August 2013 Issue [Story]

The Way Things Are Going


Gwen was the one who had insisted that Ma and I move to America. Sooner or later, she’d said, it would happen again, it was only a matter of time. And I suppose she was right. But really it was all my fault; I should have known better than to let them in. I did know better. How many times had I read of people tied up, beaten, robbed, raped, or killed by men pretending to be the police? Or by the real police? What was the difference, once they were tying you up? And what stupidity had had me sliding off the door chain if not my infuriating habit of consideration for others?

So if anything were to blame, it was that — the manners we’d been saddled with right from the start. Even on the plane, with the aging pharmacist talking me through the history of the national parks of America, and me nodding — oh yes? oh really? — wishing him struck down right there by a stroke, even then I was thinking, I’ll never be free of this, never.

And now here we were, Ma and I — she settled into Gwen’s guest room, and me with the washing machine and the dryer on the glassed-in upstairs porch, her snoring thundering through the glass door between us.

I pushed my hair off the scar across my forehead, a new habit. It still throbbed when I was tired, a sort of memento mori, or memento stupiditi more like it, because they had told me not to look at them, told me to keep my head down or they’d shoot me right there, and still I’d looked up to ask — well, what? What was there anyone could ask of such people on behalf of one’s own life?

So that’s when the gun had come down across my forehead, slamming my face back to the floor. They’d laughed, and one squatted over me and began fingering under my skirt, considering, no doubt, whether I’d be worth the trouble of a rape. And even so, lying on the cloakroom tiles, the blood pooling under my face, I’d whispered, Please — please don’t!

And then suddenly the fingers were withdrawn and a hand grasped the back of my neck, banged my head hard, once, twice, on the tiles.

“Combeenayshin, beetch! Geev me the combeenayshin or I shoot you now!”

And so I did, hearing the numbers bubble out low and warped into the pool of blood — two left, eight right, six left — as if a giant bell had settled over me as I lay there in the damp echoing darkness of the cloakroom, with the smell of rubber raincoats and the faint barking of the Moffits’ dogs, waiting for death to come.

And only then did I remember Ma. What had they done to her up there? I’d heard the stories, horrible, ugly, monstrous stories of what they did to old women. I could hear them up there now, smashing things, grunting, banging. One was in the dining room, kicking at the liquor cabinet, and I tried to say, The key’s in my bag, because who knew what they’d do if they couldn’t get at the liquor? I did say it, but they seemed to have broken in already, I could hear the bottles clinking. Please, I prayed, please let the Moffits hear them and call the real police before they get so drunk that they rape and kill us both.

How many of them were there? Three? Four? I couldn’t tell. And when one came to stand over me and I saw his policeman’s boot, felt the urine running in a warm, stinking stream through my hair and over the gash, I wondered, in the calm way of the doomed, whether he was the fingerer, and if he was whether he had AIDS. Most of them had AIDS, people said. Most of them were high on drugs as well.

And just then the phone rang, silencing everything for a moment. The answering machine clicked on and Gwen’s voice came through. “Hey, Jo,” she said, “it’s me. You there? Gladys? Gladys, would you pick up the phone please? Hmm. Look, Jo, I’ll try again in ten minutes. If you’re not there, I’ll phone the Moffits.”

That’s when they began to quarrel, hissing and spitting at each other. One threw the phone to the floor, kicked it. They even seemed to have forgotten me as they ran here, then there, dragging things, heaving things, until at last the front door opened, letting in a draft of warm night air. And a car started up. And they were gone.

So, here we were now, drinking tea out of mugs around Gwen’s kitchen table.

“You girls should do what I did,” Ma said brightly. “Take in the odd man of an afternoon.”

Gwen snatched up the scones and held them out. “Here, Ma,” she said. “Sonia made them.”

“Sonia? Who’s Sonia?”

Sonia rolled her eyes. She was a charmless girl, sneering and sarcastic. Gwen said they were all this way, American teenagers, because right from the start they’d been fed a diet of praise and false encouragement. And look what it produced — joylessness, confusion, discontent.

“I just followed the recipe,” Sonia mumbled.

Ma twisted around to take her in. Soon she wasn’t going to be able to see at all, Dr. Slatkin had warned me, nothing to be done about it. “Couldn’t you find a girl who speaks English?” she said.

I saw Gwen stiffen. “Let it go,” I whispered. “She’s just enjoying herself.”

But Gwen could never let a thing go, certainly not when it came to Sonia. She might have theories about American teenagers, send the girl to her father’s when she’d had enough of her rudeness, because really she was just like him, she said, vicious, unprincipled, aggressive — she might long for the day when the girl would be out of her hair and away at college — but when it came to Ma, all she wanted was to have Sonia properly loved.

“That’s Sonia, Ma!” she said, starting the whole rigmarole again. “And we don’t have a ‘girl’ here, only a cleaning woman, who, as a matter of fact, doesn’t speak a word of English. This ‘girl’ is your granddaughter. And she certainly speaks English! American English! Because she’s an American!”

Ma shrugged. “Well, whoever she is, there’s no reason even an American can’t make use of her afternoons. Mark my words, my dear, it would go a long way toward helping with the petty cash.”

Sonia launched herself from her chair and stamped out of the kitchen. Hers was a different world from ours, Gwen had explained, and there was nothing you could do to bring such teenagers around to the sort of compunctions under which we ourselves would have had to labor if an aunt and a grandmother suddenly descended into our lives.

“Oh, Ma!” Gwen said. “She’s only fifteen, for God’s sake!”

But Ma just gave her a cagey look. “Fifteen? You could always try marrying her off, you know. If she’d stand up straight and do something with that hair, some man might find it in him to take her off your hands.”

Somehow, Gwen said, the whole thing must have got through to Ma, even subliminally, didn’t I think so? All this business about belles de jour and so forth?

I shrugged. As far as anyone could tell, they’d overlooked Ma completely. Pure luck, people said, that phone call. And maybe Gladys was the one who’d tipped them off. Why else would she have come back so late from church? And then gone into such an aria of shrieks before she’d even seen me on the cloakroom floor?

Still, it was her shrieking that had alerted the Moffits, John Moffit who had untied me, and Aileen who had run upstairs to find Ma. And, yes, there she was, fast asleep and snoring.

“I mean, she must have heard you talking about it,” Gwen said, “not to mention giving evidence to the police and so forth.”

We had always thought in different directions, Gwen and I, but I could never quite bring myself to point this out to her. So if she wanted to believe that Ma fancied herself a belle de jour because one of the intruders had considered raping me, or that Ma loved me best because I had never had a chance, as Gwen put it, “to threaten her primacy” with my father — if it comforted her to think life ran in those directions, fine with me.

“Perhaps I should look into some sort of therapist for her,” Gwen said, “someone versed in this sort of delusion.” She took out her notebook and jotted something down.

Next to my bed was a plastic folder full of her notes, all printed up, with headings and page numbers. This was how to use the washing machine, that the alarm system, and to set it every time I went out, regardless, and if I did happen to set it off by mistake, to phone this number within three minutes or the police would come and there’d be a hefty charge.

The gash on my forehead began to throb. We’d been at Gwen’s for thirteen days, and even before we’d landed I’d been considering a polite way to free myself. But when I suggested a little flat of my own somewhere, even a room, she just reminded me that we were living on rands here, Ma and I, not dollars, and did I realize how far rands would go in a place like California? Surely it would be more sensible for us all just to bung in together? Share the burden? Didn’t I agree?

And so, of course, I did agree. But every night I lay awake, feeling myself slide down so far into what I always became when I was with Gwen that soon there would be nothing to grasp onto to pull myself back up. And if I went on agreeing with her like this, one day I’d forget how to know what I thought or felt, and would find myself heaping scorn on the sort of people I’d always loved, people she considered “full of nonsense,” because I’d have forgotten how full of nonsense I was myself, so bewitched would I be back into childhood, with Gwen wielding all the authority of the ten years between us.

I switched on the bedside light. 11:57. At home it would be Sunday morning already, hadadas on the lawn and the sea silver in the morning light. That Sunday morning, as I’d driven down to the beach, hill after hill, I’d been thinking of Ma waking to the thought of another day without a future to look forward to. She’d be asking for me, I thought, and Gladys will have to remind her that it’s Sunday, my day for the beach. And then, feeling forsaken, she’d start casting about, looking for someone to blame.

And that would be Gwen, never mind that she lived on the other side of the world. I’d tried to explain to Gwen that Ma was rudderless without her sight, couldn’t even see herself in the mirror anymore or read without some sort of headgear that she refused to wear. If I were going blind like this, I’d say, if I’d lost my looks and the life that went with them, I’d also be full of blame.

“Life?” Gwen cried, full of blame herself. “What life? Anyway, you’re blind already! Can’t you see what you’re doing? Won’t you at least promise that you’ll consider your own future?”

And so, of course, I did promise. But walking out along the pier that morning, I thought that the future was, perhaps, the whole point of a married man. Without a future, there was just this — the pier, the sea, the beach, and him sitting, as usual, among the Indian fishermen, quite unaware that his presence there might spoil their morning’s fishing. He was selfish in this way, greedy for what pleased him. Standing behind him, with the sun on my skin, the sting of the salt, the bucket of dying fish, I realized quite suddenly that this had been part of it all along — his selfishness, his greed. And that even as I stood there, longing for him to turn, and for the smell of his sweat, the taste of his skin, it was as if a cloud, cool and sweet, had been passing over us all the years we had known each other, and when it passed, as it was passing already, everything would be different, exposed in a glare of light.

You’re early, he said, not turning around. It was a trick of his, knowing I was there while pretending not to. He was glossy, like the fish he’d just caught, and, for once, I was glad it was Gladys’s Sunday off and I couldn’t go up the coast with him for the afternoon.

Gladys would be waiting for me to come home, dressed already in her severe Sunday clothes. She was a sour, taciturn woman, with a way of clicking her tongue when she was displeased that had always unsettled me. If Ma upbraided her for this or for anything else, she just stood there, sullen, silent, until she’d been given the usual warning and sent back to the kitchen.

When I began to take over the running of the house, I thought that at last I’d be able to replace her with someone more tractable. But it was too late. Ma would consider no one but Gladys to help her out of the bath, or to know how she liked her eggs, or which dress she meant when she couldn’t find the words to describe it.

And so we were stuck, Gladys and I, with our mutual dislike. We both knew that the ease Ma and I enjoyed was due in large part to her. I knew too that in the long history of leisurely societies ours was young and fragile, and would not last. And if I didn’t know this already, there were the Moffits to remind me. One need only consider the way things are going in the country these days, James had said that morning, handing me the blueprints for a new security wall, new gates. And before you balk at the price, he’d added, just consider Aileen — voting for all the right things all these years, and now, three afternoons a week, learning to use a gun.

John and Aileen lived in the other half of what had once been her grandfather’s house. It was they who had divided the old place into two maisonettes, each with its own garden, they who had sold our half to my father a few months before he died. He’d wanted somewhere up on the ridge to lodge his pregnant mistress and her daughter. And Ma was proud of having been the mistress, proud of what he’d done for the three of us, for Gwen too, who wasn’t his, and who’d never uttered a civil word to him, not even on his deathbed.

Ma had always understood by what means she’d risen to that life of orders given, orders taken, and a bell in every room to summon the servants. Every now and then she’d reminded us of this, Gwen and me, and if Gwen didn’t want to hear it, well who did she think she was, Ma said. Her father was a Scottish soldier Ma had married during the war. Or thought she’d married. Only after he’d got himself killed did she find out that the real widow lived in Glasgow and had a Gwen of her own, both of them named after his sainted mother, also living in Glasgow.

Still, Gwen couldn’t help herself. At the mention of my father, she would draw her lips into a tight line, which had the same effect on me as Gladys’s tongue clicking. I longed to tell her that if she couldn’t change her attitude she could start looking for another job. I did tell her this, but she didn’t find it funny.

I was thinking all this as I settled myself onto the couch that evening with John Moffit’s blueprints. Gwen was lonely with the future she’d made for herself in America, I thought, lonelier than she’d been in the life she’d left behind her. And just as I was considering whether to tell her this when she phoned, to say that Ma, too, was lonely without her old roué and the life that went with him — just as it occurred to me that once you have been happy, it is hard not to expect to be happy always — just then the doorbell shrilled, and I walked through to the hall and peered through the jeweled glass of the front door.

A black policeman was standing there, maybe two or three more just out of the light. “Police,” he said softly, respectfully. And thinking something must have gone wrong in the servants’ quarters — thinking that to question him through a locked door might seem like an affront, the way things were these days — I said, Just a minute, please, and slid off the chain to find out what the matter was.

’s memoir “Keeping Watch” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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