June 16th

On the morning of the 16th of June, Miriam is preparing to go to work. Her son, Isaac, is already up, already bathed and ready for school. It is at the door, when he is about to go out, that she stops him.

“The sun is not even out, and you are already dressed and leaving. Where are you going, do you have a girlfriend that you have to meet? Not so long ago you were telling me that you don’t want to go to school anymore. Now you wake up early as if you are going to work. Don’t tell me that is what you’ve been doing. That you have quit school and gone to work, and you’re  only wearing your uniform because you think I am blind and I won’t see what you’re doing.” says Miriam

“Ma please relax.” says Isaac.

Its a phrase that he utters often in the presence of his mother, telling her to relax, to not worry herself so much, to not be in a constant state of anxiety, fearing that their world is constantly crushing down on them, that the electricity would be cut off because they don’t have enough money to pay for it, that they would soon be thrown out of their house because they have not paid the rent, that at any moment a police man would walk in and tell them that her husband’s body had been found. Ever since he disappeared a year earlier this has been her daily worry. Although she chooses to believe that her husband has run away with another woman, which is what he actually did. Every once in a while someone would come to report that they sported her husband in town walking with this other woman and a small boy child, a child who looked exactly like him. But she was still her husband, and running off to start a family with another woman would not prevent him from dying, and if ever that were to happen, the police would come to her as the woman who is still his wife, and inform her of his death.

“Relax Ma, I am preparing for a test so I have to attend this morning class, its no big deal.”

“Morning class, afternoon class, night class, you seem to have a lot of those lately…”

“Education Ma, I have to take it seriously if I want to take us out of this dump, especially seeing that the old timer has bailed on us. Don’t worry so much, relax. I will see you later okay.”

Before he leaves he gives her a kiss on the cheek. His lips are cold, and she feels a slight chill as she watched him leave. She has a strange feeling, a ridiculous premonition, that this might be the last time in a very long while that she will ever see her first born son.

This feeling lingers throughout the rest of the day. At work it lingers through her morning routine as she washes the dishes and pots from the night before, as  she wipes down the entire kitchen and dusts the huge glass displays in the sitting room, with Mrs Koekemoer chattering tirelessly while sitting on the sofa still in her night gown watching her work. On this morning she cannot follow her monologue and Mrs Koekemoer notices the absence of her familiar sounds of exclamations.

“Miriam dear, are you alright, I feel like I have been talking to my self the whole morning. You look so far away.”

“I am okay Madam, don’t worry about it, Just Rel…I mean don’t worry I’m okay”

“You don’t look okay. Is that husband of yours giving you trouble again? Men are such a handful aren’t they. Such clueless creatures. Anyway, be a dear and make me another cup of tea would you Miriam. And don’t forget to feed the dog when you are done.”

“Yes Madam.”

She thinks back to her morning, when she was rushing to catch the bus. The street filled with loitering school children, and her heart skips a beat. The kind of feeling you get in a moment of a loved ones death.

Later on in the afternoon, while she looks absently out of the kitchen window, one of her friends comes rushing up to the gate, not wearing her uniform, holding her bag in her hand as if she has already knocked off.

“They are shooting the children.”she says “They are shooting the children!”

And then she runs off again, without saying anything more, leaving Miriam to ponder the enigma of her sudden appearance and disappearance. She stands by that window for a long time, until the figure on the gate begins to seem like a distant apparition, something that belonged to a dream, and has no corporeal existence. And then she goes back to work and tries to forget all about it.

“There’s trouble in SOWETO” says Mrs Koekemoer “I think you need to stay the night Miriam, we don’t know if its safe to be going back.”

Never before has Mrs Koekemoer asked her to stay the night.

“I have to go back to my children Madam, I’m sorry but I cant stay.”

“If you absolutely have to dear, but be safe okay.” she says.

It doesn’t feel like she means it. She understands though that Mrs Koekemoer doesn’t really care about her, she cares about loosing a worker. Not that Miriam is irreplaceable, but training a new domestic to do things the way she likes them is oh so inconvenient.

The bus is full, like always. Miriam sits at the back, and next to her is the biggest man she has ever seen. He towers over her, talking loudly and stopping every once in a while to catch his breath, wheezing like a he is about to die. He has foaming saliva coming out of the corners of his mouth. Miriam tries hard not to look at him but she can’t help it, she just stares at him in disbelief that such a person actually exists.

There is a subdued  air about this afternoon bus ride. Its too quiet. There is no preacher shouting over the passengers, no singing by the church women. There is uneasy talk that the police are firing live bullet at school children. Some even say that the children themselves are armed. Enacting the long awaited revolution after the massacre in Sharpville, taking action in the face of the inaction of their elders. It feels like an indictment. A finger of shame pointed to them. But no one knows what’s happening. That the kids had been planning this for so long. Taking a stand against the oppression inherent in language. A simple gesture that could ripple through all areas of society. Who knows what these kids are thinking. And yet, ignoring a teenager is a grave error, there is no creature more dangerous. With the potential to either mend or destroy the world. Just as they pass the Mzimhlope hostel, a Molotov cocktail crashes on the front window, and the driver swerves. For a long moment the bus only moves on two wheels. It lands back heavily into an uneasy equilibrium, leaving everyone in a panic. They all want to get out, and they climb over each other trying to get to the door. Miriam wishes she hadn’t decided to sit in a back seat. Some people are kicking at the windows trying to escape through them. Some give way, and people throw themselves outside, scratched and bleeding, slightly shocked that they are even there at all, a bit numbed by the adrenaline, feeling like aliens in a parallel world. Miriam lunges forward and finds herself on the floor of the bus. The incredibly fat man is behind her, just before he steps on her leg and jumps over her, moving quickly, surprisingly agile. The pain in her leg, from being stepped on by this giant man, invades the rest of her body. She screams. From the pain and to summon the will to move, like an injured warrior running away from death. No one hears her, no one sees her lying helplessly on the bus floor. Everyone seems to have fled. From one of the broken window flies in another Molotov cocktail. It lands on her back. Hard and wet and then spreading fire through the rest of her. It is the horror of what is happening that gets her body moving. She doesn’t know how she does it, but she manages to take of all her clothes, running towards the exit on her injured and mangled leg. By the time she reaches the bus door she is completely naked, and she throws herself on the ground, rolling frantically. She continues to roll even through she is not on fire anymore, she still feels the fire licking painfully at her skin. It is the sight of another Molotov cocktail that gets her to stop. It is held in the hand of a young man in uniform. He is looking directly at her, looking paralysed. It takes her a while to realise that she knows the face that is looking at her. It is the face of her son. Isaac drops the Molotov and it crashes at his feet. The vicious flames lick up slowly at him, like the elongated tongue of the devil.

The morning finds her pacing back and forth in her bedroom, her hands wrapped around herself. Her husband looks up her from the bed, his eyes full of sleep.

“Is it the dream again?” he says, yawning.

“Yes, but this time it seemed so real though. I can still feel the flames on my back. I had to take a cold shower just to cool off.” she says.

“It’s still just a dream though babe. Come back to bed.”

“I am not so sure anymore. It feels more like an old memory. Except that memories fade with time right? And it sometimes feels like those things never happened at all, like you made it up in your head. And if the past was particularly painful you will sit with uncomfortable emotions for a while, or a hollowness within you, a constant dread and fear that you never truly escape anything. Your past becomes a phantom haunting you all of your life. And I think this phantom of a past life has risen from the dead to haunt me. And its not a regular phantom, its not light, transparent, immaterial; its heavy, solid like a brick, I can touch it and feel the rough texture on the edge of my fingers.” she says, holding up her fingers for inspection. “I’m rambling again. I’m sorry. I wish you could listen to what I am telling you.”

She sits down on the edge of the bed, sighing heavily, and feeling exhausted. Her husband comes up behind him, kisses her neck, runs his hands along her back, massaging gently.

“Maybe you should talk to someone.” he says

“I’m talking to you.”

“I meant a professional. One of your colleagues  maybe. Lie down on your stomach, let me give you a massage. Help you to relax. I think you are over-thinking this whole thing. The more you think about it the more real it becomes, you know. don’t worry too much about it, just relax okay babe, relax…” 

 The feeling of his hands on her skin always managed to calm her down. She wonders why he had so much patience with her, with her many eccentricities, throughout her constant neurotic behaviours, he remained calm, assuring her that everything will be okay, just like Isaac used to do. She began to get drowsy, those hands felt so good on her skin, massaging slowly, like a silent lullaby. It was a good thing they didn’t have to go to work. It was June the 16th .

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