An Excerpt From a Novel-in-Progress
She woke with the thirst already upon her, still in her clothes, cold from having slept on top of the covers. Two days, three, since she had last changed, the smell of her murky with sweat, fried food, cigarettes. Her underwear’s stink strong enough that it reached her even before moving to squat over an old plastic mixing bowl that lived beside the bed. She steadied her weight on the bedstead with one hand, the other holding onto the seat of a wooden chair that creaked at the pressure as she lowered herself. She didn’t have to put the light on, knew by the burn and smell that the urine was dark, dark as cough syrup, as sickness. There was no toilet paper, so she rose without wiping, pulling the underwear back into place, feeling it dampen a little. Usually she would reach across, open the window, empty the bowl over the rockery that lined that part of the building’s wall. But today she took a t-shirt that was lying on the floor and covered the mouth of the bowl with it, before sitting down on the chair. In sleep, the plate of her top front teeth had come loose, protruding a little now over her lips. Impossible with her dry mouth to push it back into place. She pulled, snagging it on cracked skin, causing her to switch on the bedside-table lamp, to feel for blood with her fingertips. Then she put the plate on the table next to a mug that had long since been empty but for the dry membrane of discarded tea at the bottom.
It was no distance from the chair to the place described as a kitchen, with its bar fridge, sink and counter, microwave. She shifted her leg, lazy to reach for the crutches where she had dropped them the night before. Instead, she took hold of the chairback, the chest of drawers, the TV stand, the various items that she had refused to give up and had crammed into this room, making her way slowly across to the fridge by means of them. She did not bother to move onwards to the sink, knowing without needing to try that the taps would be empty. The clock on the microwave read 5:18. 6am the water came. Nothing until then. Inside the fridge was a packet of discoloured Vienna sausages, opened a week since, half a tub of margarine, a jar of gherkins. She unfastened the lid of the jar, drank down the brine, closing her mouth against its solids, though she felt the grit and slime of them on her lips. She replaced the jar, removed a Vienna from its packaging, ate it at the open door, the spoiled parts of the skin like plastic. She spat out what couldn’t be chewed, ate two more, spat again.
The queue was around the corner, ran three blocks deep. Two armed guards patrolled the outer edges, four more stood near the water truck and collection point. Beyond the truck, a traffic officer had parked his car, lights flashing bright in the morning gloom. He had put out cones too, was guiding cars in the street. Inside, passengers and drivers gazed out at the queue, watching the people with their array of containers, in dressing gowns and slippers, wearing jackets and coats over their work clothes and school uniforms, some wrapped in blankets against the cold. Someone was listening to the news on their cell phone; elsewhere, music was playing on another. Most were using earphones though. Few were interested in talking.
Deidre felt the cold as she approached the building’s front entrance, thought about going back to her room for a jacket, but instead greeted the security guard as he opened the door for her.
“Hey, Winston, here we go again.”
“That’s right, that’s it. Same again.”
“How’s it looking today?”
“Nothing special. No problems so far.”
“Good. Give us a cigarette, hey? I’ll get you back later.”
“When’s later? I’m still waiting from last week, last month, last year.” But he took one from his pocket, lit it, handed it across.
She coughed a little as she exhaled, blowing away from his face. “Ag, man, Winston, one day, okay, one day I’ll bring you a pack of good cigarettes, you’ll see.”
“Ja, let’s see…”
“Bye, darling, let me go get this over and done with.”
She blew him a kiss and adjusted the backpack that she wore slung over one shoulder, an old thing from her daughter’s high school years, tearing a little at the seams. Then crutched her way across the street, outside the margins of the cone markers, heading upwards, parallel to the queue. Cars had to stop for her, five in a row. She kept her eyes on the water truck, did not acknowledge the cars, did not look over at the queue. She went deliberately slowly, pausing every few steps to remove the cigarette from her mouth, exhale, inhale again. Before leaving her room, she had brushed her hair, applied make-up over the grease and smudges of the previous day’s, had sprayed her armpits, crotch and hair, licked toothpaste from her finger, and had reinserted her plate. Her skirt came down to just above mid-thigh, showing the gathered star of her stump, coloured pink by the cold, the veins above it blue. Her T-shirt was of stretchy black lace, showing through to a purple push-up bra, a white stomach, puckered cleavage. She tossed the cigarette end at the gutter, moved towards the trestle table at the front of the queue, where a man and woman were taking turns to fill containers from a tap in the water truck’s side.
“Hey, lady,” someone called. “There’s a line here. Go to the back like everybody else.”
She made no sign that she had heard. Instead, she beckoned to one of the uniformed men, smiled. “A little help, please,” gesturing at her crutches.
“Sure, ma’am.” He was young, early twenties, with an attempt at a beard. His uniform was new, she could see that. The shoes stiff and bright, causing his steps towards her to be heavy, awkward.
“Oh darling,” she shifted the backpack from her shoulder, “just call me Deidre. I’m nobody’s ma’am.”
He nodded, smiled, removed the empty two-litre Coke bottle from the bag. “Well, Deidre, can I have your ID please?”
She put her hand in her pocket, pulling the skirt downwards in order to draw attention to her waist, withdrew the card. “Here you go, darling, but don’t look at it. That photo is a bad one.”
“Come on, you look great. Really. It’s a good picture, I’m telling you.” Then, “Hold on a sec, I’ll be right back with your water, okay?”
“Sure, sure, take your time.”
She waited, thinking how much better it would be if she had another cigarette, wondered if it was worth asking someone. Then glanced down at the little stream of water coming from the collection point. Either the man or the woman had dropped a container. Both appeared to be under some strain, were snapping at one another, their bellies and thighs splashed from their labour. The water trickled past her foot, dragging past her dirty trainer with its wornsole. It was time for a new one. She’d see next month maybe, or try the second-hand shops if she could get someone to take her. That was the thing. Finding someone.
Then the boy was back, handing over her ID, smiling again. “I took another peek. I know I said it before, but really, you look great. I mean, I’d never have guessed your age. I mean, you’re, like, sexy, you know.”
She put her hand on his forearm. “Well, you are making my day, you know that. A strong handsome thing like you. I could eat you up.”
The boy blushed, eyed her bra, her stomach. “Can I carry this back for you? Do you live far?”
There was the temptation to say yes, to invite him to her room. But there was the urine in the bowl to remember, the smell of her underwear. “Thanks darling, but I can manage it this time. Next time though, okay?”
“Yes, sure. I look forward to it.” He moved behind her, helped to put the bottle into the backpack and place it on her shoulders. “See you soon, Deidre.”
“See you, darling.”
Behind them a man called out, “Hey boytjie, put your dick away and do your fucking job.”
She boiled a quarter of the water. One cup of tea; the rest was poured into an empty five-litre ice-cream container that she had taken some months before, from the building’s waste disposal area. She added a little water from the Coke bottle to temper the heat. It wasn’t possible to carry the container to the bathroom, so she left it on the counter, locked the door of her room and leaned against it. She removed her skirt, underwear, top and bra, throwing them on the floor. Then she pulled a stool out from under the counter, sat down, and unlaced her trainer, adding it to the pile. From a drawer she withdrew a dishcloth, put it in the water to soak. It came out hot, burned her fingers, but felt good on her skin, left her with goose bumps as she rubbed herself damp. She had forgotten about soap, reached instead for a sticky bottle of green dishwashing liquid on the sink. She poured some on the cloth, dipped it in the water again, and began to scrub. The liquid foamed under her arms, made the air hard with the scent of something akin to lemon. She felt the long hair in her armpits, thought that she ought to shave, her leg too, the hair visible against her skin. But it was too far to the bathroom, too far when she was uncertain whether she even had a razor. She moved on to her neck, her face, ears, standing eventually with her hand on the counter, to wash her privates last. She rang the cloth out into the container, the suds grey, and plunged it in, shivering at the heat of the water. Then she brought the cloth out again, went over her body once more, and another time, until she had had enough.
She leaned down, picked up the bra and panty, pushed them into the ice-cream container, splashed dishwashing liquid over them, began to rub them, to dunk, releasing a strangely fishy smell that lingered despite the addition of more soap. After a while she brought the panty up to her nose, sniffed the crotch. The smell was okay. She squeezed out the excess, shook out the suds and hung the bra and panty over the kitchen tap.
Finally, she immersed her head in the water, came back up, poured dishwashing liquid into the palm of one hand and worked it through her hair whilst sitting. She rinsed it as best she could, though the water was largely suds now and they clung to her hair, gave it a heavy texture. She pulled it together at the side of her neck, pressed the water out into the container. She had no towels at hand.
The floor was wet, soapy, and she made her way with care across to the bed, water cooling as it ran down her neck and back. She climbed in under the covers, smelled the earthiness of them, months since they had been washed, the pillow worst of all, made still worse by her wet hair. She pulled the duvet up to her chin, turning her head a little to get away from the smell of it. As she dried, her skin tightened, began to itch. She reached down, scratched her calf, her thighs. Her scalp, too, seemed to be acrawl with living things. She closed her eyes, breathed through her mouth, listened to the sound of her underwear dripping into the basin. . . .
This is an excerpt from a novel in-progress by the South African writer, Karen Jennings. Find out about Deidre and what became of her when Crooked Seeds is published – follow Karen on Facebook to keep up: www.facebook.com/KarenPaccez
*Karen Jennings is a South African author. She holds Masters degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, as well as a PhD in English Literature from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek was published in 2012 by Holland Park Press (UK) and was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. In 2014 her short story collection, Away from the Dead, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story competition. Her memoir, Travels with my Father, was published in November 2016 and in mid-2018 her poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes will appear. Karen is currently working on post-doctoral research at the Federal University of Goiania, Brazil.
Featured image credit: Creative Commons