Belville afternoons by Lauren van Vuuren

FICTION: Bellville afternoons

A new short story from Thomas Pringle Award winner Lauren van Vuuren

BY LAUREN VAN VUUREN

Two things are scary. There is this big sign in colours. It is numbers. My mom says it is to wish South Africa happy new year and not to be scared of it why am I scared of a sign. What is the numbers I say to mom and she is getting cross she says always questions. But she tells me they are ‘nineteen eighty five’ which is the new year. I am scared of that big sign it is bigger than our house. It could fall on the car. Then I get scared for the second thing. I shout to my mom.

‘…those bergies are fighting mom…!’

‘You stop sticking your head out the car, do you hear me!’

‘…that one has her bra off. Mom…’

‘Do you want a hiding?’

‘He’s hurting her!’

‘I’m going to hit you! Get back inside the car.’

The hot sun is on me. And on the hot black car seat with the yellow inside stuff sticking out. It is crackly with holes in it. Our car is red. When we go to the petrol station the black man who puts the petrol in always says to my mom can he buy the car and mom says no but tells us when we drive away it is a crock so that man thinks it will be cheap to buy. Now we stop at the red light. My sister is watching me. She is smaller than me. I hate her. She watches me with her mouth open. She is my mom’s pet. I am not my mom’s pet. I poke at the back of my mom’s seat and my heart is beating so that it hurts. I can’t stop thinking. That bergie is really getting it right now while we stand at the red light. Her husband is hurting her. She had her bra off she was shouting. She raised her hands he was bowed down and moving close to her like the rugby tackling men on TV on Saturdays. Why didn’t we stop. I start to ask my mom again but she won’t listen.

‘We can’t help them it is the drink,’ Mom says. She has that sound in her voice that I know will get me a slap if I keep going. I feel like fighting with her. I don’t like that answer it is stupid why can’t we help that woman she is going to get hurt. The hotness in the car makes me itchy. I want to fight with someone. My head is sore. The car goes forward. Down the big road. Stop at the red light start again. Under the bridge where my Grandpa takes us walking when we stay over with him and Granny some weekends. Those are my best days. I wake up in their house. There is a smell of breakfast. Granny comes to say hello and wake up. My sister and I don’t fight because we are scared of Grandpa. Then we eat Weet-Bix and warm milk and then Grandpa takes us walking up to the bridge over the bridge down the other side with all the houses quiet and church bells ringing all in the air that is blue. Then even the park in front of Granny and Grandpa’s house is pretty. That is because it is wet on the grass and there are small flowers everywhere like eyes that look at me. But when the sun comes up the field gets ugly and yellow and you see more the grey walls down one side and the block of flats on the other side. Who lives in those ugly flats I ask my Granny. She says it is not nice to talk like that not everyone is lucky enough to have a house.

I like Granny and Grandpa’s house they have two big trees in front. I climb them both. I sit up there on the branches and there is things like bunches of soft marbles hanging off the branches and I can pick them and throw them at my sister or my dad if he is out front talking to my Grandpa. I don’t throw them at my Grandpa. I always throw them at my mom when she comes and picks us up. She doesn’t see me up there. It makes me laugh to throw it at her. She comes through the gate in the hedge. She looks up to find me but she can’t see me and I’m like the branches of the tree. Dad calls the balls somethingberries I don’t know what and Granny makes me wash my hands when I’ve played with them. She says not to eat them. Sometimes there are bunches of purple flowers on that tree. Dad told me what the tree is called but I forgot that also. Oh now we are passing Granny and Grandpa’s place in our car on the corner with the trees and the hedge. That is my favourite place in the world. Even that ugly block of flats is OK because at the bottom of it is a cafe where we buy bubblegum or chocolate and sometimes my sister and I are allowed to go there alone. Sometimes Granny sends us to buy bread. I try not to look at the ugly building above the cafe. Also to remember what Granny says. That not everyone is lucky enough to have a house. I think everyone up in those flats must be sad and looking down on us going to the cafe and buying sweets because we have a house. Maybe they can’t buy sweets. Not if they can’t buy a house. I don’t want them to look at me. I tell my sister there are ghosts up there and she cries and we run into the cafe. She is a baby. I will get into trouble for scaring her so I give her my liquorice stick. It isn’t my favourite anyway. I prefer chocolate but my sister always likes things like strawberry cooldrink and black liquorice which I think is gross. I prefer Coke. Why drink colours that is also stupid. Colours are for flowers not to drink. I cannot explain this to my sister but also I have to stop her crying or I will get it for sure. I tell her there are no ghosts. That big man that mom calls The Greek is behind the counter and when we pay he stares at me. He stinks of sweat so I take my sister back out quickly and now she stops crying because of the sweets.

Oh now we are driving into Bellville and the bergies are far away. My heart is beating fast again because of the snakes. We are going to OK Bazaars. Mom told me that there is a place there where snakes crawl all the time so I cannot leave her or walk down to the bottom of the building. It is dangerous to go there she says. I start crying remembering the snakes and because mom shouted at me about the bergies. To make me happy mom drives up the ramp to the top parking lot. It is very high and she drives fast and we laugh. The car makes sounds and the windows look like they will fall out.  Mom says it’s it because of the car being a crock. I feel better. Now my heart is slower because we don’t pass that doorway where the snakes are. We go in through the big doors that slide open and closed. OK Bazaars is in a place called Nobel Park. We pass the shop where my mom’s friend works. The one with the spotty skin. I don’t like him because he is so ugly and he talks in a soft voice. We go on without saying hello today because mom says she doesn’t want a fuss.

It is dark brown everywhere on the floor and on the roof and very quiet. I don’t like it there because once I lost my mom when I was there and then a lady told me to stop touching the toys she said not to touch just to look at them so I ran out and only later did my mom find me. A coloured lady came and took me back inside and sat with me on her lap until my mom came to find me. I like coloured ladies they are always nice to me. I don’t like black ladies so much. One called Sanna worked for us and she hit me with the vacuum cleaner pipe. I heard my mom say that I probably deserved it but Dad made Sanna go away. I like Ursula who works for us now. She is a coloured lady and she sleeps out in the back room.  My mom says she’s to be trusted and lets me go sit in her room with her. But sometime Ursula shouts at me and says ‘jou blerrie kind’ and then I tell mom but she doesn’t do anything. I think it is because she trusts coloured ladies. The one that helped me at OK Bazaars smelt like cardboard boxes. I held onto her and we waited and she said not to worry it will be OK. Then mom came walking fast and said thank you so much can I give you something thank you so much please take this but the coloured lady got cross and said it was not for money just to look after me because I was scared and then she walked off and said angry things and my mom said I will be the death of her. Then I cried and then mom grabbed my hand hard but then she let me ride on the horse at the entrance where you put the money into the slot and the horse goes up and down and up and down. It is next to the plastic girl with her leg in a funny thing. You put money in her head. Mom says for children not as fortunate as me. I wonder who they are. Maybe like that bergie. Her children must be sad if she is swinging her bra in the street and getting hurt by her husband.

Now we are shopping and I am pretending that my sister is a bad guy. She is walking with mom. She is always sucking up to Mom and hanging onto her. I take an orange gun off the shelf and point it at my sister. She screams loudly. A lady in a uniform comes and takes the gun from me. The lady says that girls should not play with guns. I like guns. They are fun. But I am never allowed to play with them Mom also says no I can’t ladies don’t play with guns. Only with dolls which are stupid. Mom says sorry to the lady in the uniform and smacks me on the shoulder. My sister screams more. My mom says she will take me home before we go to Punkies. I say sorry straight away. At Punkies Mom always buys us a sweet or something. Once I got some Smurfs there. Once she even took us upstairs after shopping and we went to the Spur and ate hamburgers. Hamburgers are my favourite. On Friday evenings my dad always takes us to the Spur for Hamburgers. I have a coke and my sister has a green cooldrink.

Now we go to Bellville library. It is my favourite. But I am also scared because it is at the train station and there are so many black people. My mom always says here are the masses. And she says be careful stay close to her. The library is a white building. Inside there are no black people. Then my mom lets me go on my own and I love it. There are just books. I cannot read them yet but mom says next year I will read when I go to school. Now I just open them up and sit with them and look at the writing that are like ants on the pages. My sister is so stupid she goes to the kid’s part and looks at the picture books. I am bigger than her. I don’t look at pictures. The lady at the kid’s part says my sister is so cute and sits with her. I think that is stupid.

Then my mom takes her books and calls me and my sister. My mom always has new books. I like to hold her books and think about all the ants on the pages inside. I think what they mean. I pretend I know. I tell my sister I know and she doesn’t. Then she cries. She is always crying and getting me into trouble. Except when we play ‘Bear’ at the park with our neighbour Debbie. ‘Bear’ is something I made up. Mom and Dad gave me a pram for Christmas. I didn’t like it because they wanted me to put a doll in it. I put Bear in it. Then I ran around pushing the pram very hard because Bear liked it. Then I got Debbie and my sister to try and catch me and Bear. That is the game called ‘Bear’. It is fun.  Then my sister is OK. But once we were playing ‘Bear’ and she ran away and into the traffic on Durban Road. All the cars stopped and she was standing there in her nappie. Debbie went to call my mom and Mom came running and she screamed and screamed and got my sister off the road. The whole road was hooting. All the cars were stopped. My mom ran with my sister right past the roundabout and the swings and right past me. I was left at the park. I had to take Bear back in the pram alone because Debbie had gone to tell her mom what my sister had done. My mom was cross with me for letting my sister go in Durban road. But I was running away with Bear. I didn’t see.

After the library we go to Punkies. That is higher up in Bellville. It is by the sports grounds and DF Malan High School where the big children go. Also near our church. It is pretty there and it is away from the station and all the black people. So I don’t think we have to be so careful. Punkies is fun to play in because the toy section is two rows long. There is a black man there called Samuel who always lets me play with the guns. He thinks it is OK for girls to play with guns. My mom leaves me there with him. He helped me choose my Smurfs that day when my mom bought them for me. Sometimes he can’t play with me because he has to put things on the shelves.  Mom says don’t bother him he is working. Then I play alone with the guns until mom comes to fetch me and I can choose a treat. Then we walk out and it is always the afternoon and the fields opposite are green. There is the sports fields of the school and all the big boys are playing rugby and the girls are watching in their school uniforms. My mom says I will have a uniform next year when I go to school. It will be a green uniform. There is also the Danie Uys park where my mom met my dad. My dad was looking after children at the church fete and my mom saw him and said he was the handsomest. She always says this when we go near the park. She smiles. I like that place where mom met dad. But then when we drive away I see more bergies. It isn’t the same ones as earlier but my mom says if I start about the bergies again she will smack me.

The sun is going away now so I don’t feel so hot anymore. I am tired. My sister pushes me in the backseat but I don’t care. I think about that bergie lady without the bra. Where is she now and what will she eat. I have my treat in my hand. It is a chocolate bar. I tell my mom I will give it to the bergies.  She says I am a good girl but not now when we go to church we can pray for them instead. But that is what she says about me that she will pray for me. Maybe I am a bergie. I open the chocolate and start to eat it. It tastes good. Already the trees are around the car so I know we are almost home. Then there is the street where I see Riaan and Debbie in the road. Then the driveways. The cars are neat and parked. We come to our house. My dad is home! I am so happy. My mom drives in and turns the car off. It is the evening now.

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