Gravestone by Bronwyn Douman

FICTION: Gravestone

A mother remembers her son in this new short story by Bronwyn Douman

BY BRONWYN DOUMAN

My grief is like a stone weighing heavy in my pocket. It’s what I have in place of a son. It never goes away.

The house is so quiet now. Sometimes I forget that he’s dead and I walk into his room thinking he’s going to jump out of the cupboard or behind the door and surprise me. I want him to make me laugh again. I miss him most when I am happy.

It’s been 15 years and I can still remember what he smelt like. I remember how he loved bananas on his bread, thick butter, coke mixed with his ice-cream. He ate funny stuff. Even ants and snails and beetles when him and his friends played survivor-survivor. He liked me to put honey in his tea and I would call him a “little old man” and he would call me a “little old lady”. Even when I look at his photo’s now he comes alive. I remember him telling me,

Mummy I want this… mummy I’m hungry… mummy I don’t want to wash my socks and shirt out, I want to go play outside… mummy I don’t want to go to school.

My son is in the ground. I have nothing now. Ek loop rond, ek swêrf. That is my lot. Many a time I sit at the foot of his grave and we spend hours sharing the silence. We are in an everlasting silent conversation. My love for him is everlasting. My-everlasting-lovefits-like-a-glove… I should have been returned to the soil before him, I should be the one resting in the grave, not him, not my baby. Maar die Here het hom weg gevat. God said “It is his time to go,” and changed nature’s course, so I had to put him in a coffin. Ma-aai-dai’s-maar hoe-die-lewe-is.

I went to go visit him on his birthday last week. I threw out the stale water that smelled like rotten eggs. I filled the glass pots with fresh water, like I do every week, so I could put in fresh flowers. This week I put the carnations in to bloom. I would tidy up around his head and feet so it looks nice. He was a neat and tidy boy, my son; he would want me to take care of things. I missed him a lot that day. I missed him and I missed my mother. I lost them both around the same time. I spent my time between the trees, lying on the carpet of leaves and pine needles. I walked around looking at the gravestones and dusting off crosses of wood with tissues I carry in my purse. I sit and read the names of those just like my son, who have gone too soon and many forgotten.

I stayed there deep into the night. Lying on my back on an old granite gravestone of Luke Engelbrecht, born 17 August 1989 and died 19 June 1997. He was eight-years-old. Still a baby. Two years younger than my baby when he died. Borrowing his resting place, I fell asleep crying for him and his mother, and for my child.

I woke up with a headache. The graveyard caretaker stood over me with a torch pointed at my face. I could only see his shadow. The light blinded me. He asked me to leave.

Is jy al weer hier? Lukas slurred, smelling like Old Brown Sherry. You can’t sleep here, you must go home. Waar is jou mense?

I got up, dragging my rheumatic legs. I put a R20 note in his hand and asked him to look after my son until I returned.

When I go visit Modderdam graveryard I feel at home. My son is there. He is my home.

I promised I would never leave him. A few weeks before he died there was shooting outside of our house in Ravensmead. The local gangs were shooting all night and David was so scared. David, me and my other child, Peter, were lying with our heads rested on the ground. Our cheeks were cold and it started to stick to the ceramic tiles. David asked,

How long, Mummy?

Not for long my boy, don’t worry, it’s going to be OK, it-will-pass-it-doesn’t-last-it-will pass… I made up rhymes to keep him calm, to make him laugh.

Why do they always shoot here by us, Mummy? My friend from school who lives in Old Belhar say they don’t shoot there by him so much, why do the gangsters shoot so much here by us?

Because this is not a good place to live David; we live between all these stupid gangsters who think they are big and strong because they have weapons to threaten and kill people, forget about them, you don’t get involved, you stay away.

I told him to forget the sound. Forget about knowing what it is and pretend it’s something else, like a car backfiring or the sound of a loud, powerful firecracker going off. He loves firecrackers. On Guy Fawkes I was always scared to buy him klappertjies firecrackers but he went so on about it I gave in… The shots stopped for a while. And just when we thought it was over, we would hear another one and get a fright and nervously laugh it off.

When, Mummy, when?

Now, now. I held him tight and started singing, Smile-a-while-and-give-your-face-a…

But then we heard a shot just outside of our house. Valerie. Shouting hysterically. Nigel, I thought, he must have been shot. I told the children to stay down and indoors while I ran outside. “Say on the ground. Peter, hold your brother. Stay in the house.”

I didn’t know what I would find but the danger was gone. I walked in on Nigel’s bloody body. Lying outside on the pavement. A wound from his neck and chest streaming with blood. He was on his back choking and crying. His mother screaming, “I love you, I love you! Nigel! Oh God! Please God!” Valerie cried and begged, clutching his body. Her pink nightie was covered in his blood.

I didn’t realise it but David was standing behind me, seeing all of this. I felt him pulling on my skirt. “Mummy, is Nigel going to die?” I chased him back inside without saying anything. But he stayed. I went to comfort Valerie but Nigel had left us. His eyes were wide open, facing the night sky. I looked at Valerie and her bloody clothes; they were worse than a butcher’s uniform. Even her blue slippers were drenched in blood. Her hands dripping with it. The next day I would come over to mop the floors, put her clothes in a black bag and throw it away. But in that moment, I turned to David and closed his eyes with my hands. I held him tight, crying with Valerie. Everybody from the back neighbours to the street behind us was there, just staring. Staring at Nigel, at Valerie, at the scene of the crime. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, made a circle around the young man with bloodshot eyes. I looked around at everyone’s facial expression – pity. David’s lower lip was shivering; I knew he wanted to cry, not because he felt for Nigel but because he could see how much it affected me. Valerie coughed out a cry. Elderly men took off their hats, shook their heads and said: Not another one. Not another one. I remember taking David inside and giving him sugar water for the shock.

Is Nigel dead now, Mummy? he asked with tears in his eyes.

Yes David, he’s dead, I grab him and start crying again, feeling so heartsore for Valerie and thinking that it could have been my son; thinking that today it wasn’t.

Mummy please don’t leave me, please don’t die like Nigel.

I promise you David, I will never leave you, I said as I held his face in my hands.

What happened to Nigel was a mistake.

I lied. Nigel was involved in gangs and knew that if you live by the gun, you die by the gun. But my David didn’t need to know the truth; as his mother I needed to protect him from it.

A few weeks after I watched Nigel’s body go into the ground, I would bury my son.

*

I was in the kitchen peeling potatoes for the hot chips and fried fish I was preparing for supper, when David’s older brother Peter came into the kitchen crying,

“Mummy, die trok het oor Dawie. Mummy, Dawie is dood.

I put the knife down, stared at Peter and slapped him across the face.

Peter dis lelik om so iets te sê. You don’t joke about death, Peter, die Here gaan jou straf. Go call your brother. Go call your brother! I said with a lump in my throat.

Peter shouted at me between sobs,

David is dead! Mummy, hoor Mummy, he’s dead!

Then he told me what happened, the whole story. I sat and listened as I continued to peel the potatoes.

After school on that windy afternoon in August 1993, David and his friends hung onto the back of the truck that brought oranges, milk and bread as they always did in winter for the primary school children. The truck driver picked up speed. The children hanging on started to panic and jumped off one by one, but David held on, wanting to show off. Then as the truck came to the gravel road he jumped off but couldn’t get away. His school pants, torn and ruffled, got caught in the tire and wrapped around it like a plastic bag. The wheels went over him. The middle wheel, the double wheel, went over his body. Then the rear wheel went over his chest and his head. He was no more.

I got up from the table, and put the very thin sliced potatoes into the hot pan and watched it float in the oil while I spoke to Peter.

Go call him, Peter.

But, Mummy –

Go call David and tell him to come here, I want to see him. Tell him I didn’t make the slapchips so thick, I made the slices nice and thin, just like he likes it. I think he is by his friend Nathan’s house. Run quickly till there and go fetch him. Tell him he must come home. Tell him we going to eat now and he must come home. Tell him I made his favourite. Homemade fish and chips. He will come home if you tell him that. Go fetch him for me, Peter. I want to see my baby. Gaan haal my kind.

A week later we sat in church. I was wearing a black dress and a veil. I greeted everyone as they walked in. I received compassionate smiles and embraces, and gentle hand squeezes, soft and lingering. That’s how they said they felt sorry for me. That’s how I knew my son was dead.

I don’t remember getting dressed that morning, but I remember ironing my clothes and Peter’s clothes and speaking to my sister about cakes, pies and samoosas, and ordering orange juice from Mr Harris. My sister, Sunita, made all the arrangements. She called the funeral home, went to the Catholic Church in Belhar to ask Father Henry to bury him and informed all the relatives. All I did was see the body.

My son was blue from the cold. Lying in a freezer. I couldn’t believe he was there. His wounds still fresh. His face crushed, skull cracked.

He broke his neck, said the coroner. That’s how he died.

Oh, I see.

I covered his face again with the cloth and dried my tears. I left with the burden of loss.

It was a closed casket. My eyes fell on the bereaved. I listened to the squeaky voices singing, Free-fully-free and A-mazing-Grace-how-sweet-the-sound… and humming between sobs. I couldn’t cry. Everyone cried for David and I felt like I should give him more than just tears. I should be strong for him, and for Peter.

We left the church and went to the gravesite. I laid him to rest at Modderdam graveyard between believers and non-believers, gangsters and teachers, doctors and lawyers, liars and crooks. We are all sinners but in death we are all equal.

I looked at the grave, threw the sand on him and said,

I will miss him very much. He was my baby.

That was the first time I spoke about David like he wasn’t there anymore.

I covered his casket with sand and roses as it went down. I looked around and listened to more singing. More shaking and crying. More downturned smiles. Tissues and handkerchiefs taken out to dry the eyes and blow the nose. I offered tissues that I carried tucked away in my bra, and handed them to my cousins, sister and friends. I tried to smile but I felt my face pull tight. I felt older.

Later when everyone came over to my house for cake and tea, I watched them chatting about the priest’s sermon, David’s beautiful casket my and brother Denver’s eulogy:

David was a good boy. The cleverest in his class at school. He liked to read and his brother was always teasing him about reading so many books. But I said to him, Lees Dawie, because nobody can take jou geleerhenteid, your schooling, away from you. David kept him like a child. He was always playing outside with his friend’s hide-and-seek or with the soccer ball until late in the night, when his mother must come outside to call him to eat. Sometimes he didn’t even eat and just played on. He really enjoyed playing games. He was a good boy, our David. He was a good boy…

Denver’s eulogy was nice. But none of it mattered to me. Friends and relatives would come over to ask if I’m OK and I remember thinking, what a stupid question, but I had to be nice and say, “I’m OK”, with a frown that was meant to be a smile. I had to be OK even if it was a lie. But in that moment I didn’t feel anything. It was like my ears had popped the way it does when you drive up a mountain. I fell silent for the rest of the day and listened to distant voices offering condolences and prayers. I nodded my head and made my rounds, working through every room like a machine, making everyone feel better. At the end of the day I was tired and hungry. I didn’t feel like eating, but Sunita insisted I have a plate of food.

I can’t eat, Sunita.

Please, Dorothy, you must, you must look after yourself. Peter needs you.

I will make some chips.

No its fine, let me. She got the oil out of the cupboard.

I’m not sick or disabled, Sunita, let me do it for myself.

I took the oil from her. I lit a match and ignited the gas stove.

I didn’t see you cry.

And?

And you don’t have to be strong, you lost your child, Dorothy, it’s OK to be sad about it

Don’t.

But-

No.

But I’m just trying-

No. Stop it. I don’t need that from you right now.

Sunita fell silent and left the room a few minutes later.

I was cutting the hot chips as thin as a pencil when the knife slipped and I cut myself. The blood came streaming from my finger. Peter walked in and saw my bleeding hand.

Not to worry, Peter, it’s just a small cut, I said, and asked him to get me a plaster.

When he left I looked down at my hand and started to cry. I sat down thinking I was going to throw away that bladdy old knife and get a better one. A knife that can slice the potatoes stick thin. By the time he came back I was lying on the floor short of breath. Peter came over to me and went down on his knees.

Mummy, only David liked the potatoes like that.

Then I cried so loud it scared him. Peter stood over me, crying. Surita ran in.

David! David, kom huistoe! Come home my boy, come home.

I sobbed as Sunita held me.

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