AN ALARM goes off in a dimly lit room, curtains drawn. Bapoto, 28, stirs in the bed. Her cornrows are a dishevelled mess. The alarm blasts out again.
Bapoto groans. She rubs her eyes, gropes for the alarm clock on a bedside table. The alarm goes off again. Disturbance, like her name. Bapoto—it means noise. What was wrong with Blessing? Or Bohlale—it means wisdom. Why did she have to get a name full of turbulence? The story of her life.
‘So what that I can’t afford another one?’ She hurls the squealing device to silence on the ground. She leaps out of bed. Retrieves the clock, restores it on her dresser. Reaches to flick on the bathroom lights as she shrugs out of African print pyjama pants, a snake goddess slithering in the Savannah, neck to heel.
Bapoto enters the living room, rubs her hair briskly with a towel. She is wearing an ebony t-shirt and a wrap skirt. No makeup. She wraps the towel around her head, sits by the computer. Turns the power on.
‘Come on, come on!’
She logs into her email account.
Nothing from the recruitment agency.
‘These guys for real?’
She logs into online banking, accounts view. $17.50 sits between her and poverty. She looks at a pile of unpaid bills under the dining table. Gasps as she remembers Lochie’s music class invoice.
A framed portrait sits on the wall next to Bapoto. She is wearing a blissful face and a graduation gown. A scholarship—her legs from the motherland to this world. Now she’s on a masters course.
* * *
Bapoto opens the door to Lochie’s room from the corridor.
‘Lochie!’ she says louder. Peers into the room. A diminutive bump beneath the bed cover betrays her son’s presence.
Bapoto strides into the room, yanks away the covers from his bed. ‘Lochland Boitumelo Piers.’
‘I don’t like Boitumelo.’ His voice is muffled, full of sleep.
‘It means joy. Where you come from is important. Lochie. Lochie?’
‘Lochie, are you dead?’
He’s lying face down; the back of his head a riot of curls. Not as tight as Bapoto’s kinky hair unwoven. His is the elastic hair of mixed race.
‘We’ll be late for school, darling. You need to wake up now.’ Lochie doesn’t stir. ‘I said NOW.’
Lochie, seven years old, turns, big chocolate eyes looking at Bapoto. ‘Are you cross, Mamma?’
‘Not yet. But I will be if you don’t hurry.’ She ruffles his curls as he slips out of bed. He is fragile looking. Bapoto follows closely behind, as he heads for the bathroom.
‘Mamma!’ He shuts the door against her face.
‘Don’t forget to brush your new teeth—remember what the dentist said.’ Bapoto talks to him across the door. ‘You don’t want those pulled out because they’re rotting.’
‘They won’t rot.’ Mouth busy with brushing.
‘You’ve got music today?’
Lochie grunts acknowledgement. ‘Teacher said we’ve got to pay the invoice.’
Bapoto’s face falls. ‘Pay today?’
‘Or no music class.’
* * *
Bapoto turns on the kettle. A gentle purr as water begins to boil. She sits the teabag in her moonlight mug.
She pulls a plastic tin of leftover mash and chicken schnitzel from the fridge. Prises open the container’s lid and drops it in the sink. She puts the tin in the microwave, slams the door shut and presses the Dish Warmer button.
The kettle’s hum is louder. Now it begins to shake and will soon turn itself off. The water has boiled. She makes her tea as she likes it—lots of milk, then one minute in the microwave to add heat.
She packs Lochie’s food in the lunchbox, trimly arranges in a separate container an apple, yoghurt (the squeeze-me kind), one fruit bar, one cereal bar and an umbrella lolly. Cherry flavour. He likes that. He doesn’t know the lusciousness of fresh mango plucked from a tree. The aroma of durian miles out.
She glances at the kitchen door.
‘You coming out of the bathroom, buddy, or what?’ Silence. ‘Lochie! Are you done?’
‘I’m done, Mamma.’ He answers from somewhere.
‘Put your clothes on now. Quick.’
He enters the kitchen in his school uniform.
‘Why do you always have to say quick, Mamma?’
‘Because you need to hurry. Did you wash sleep from your eyes?’
‘Cleaned your teeth the…’
‘The way the dentist said, yes!’
‘Don’t speak to me that way.’
‘Just dress up and eat your breakfast.’
Bapoto sips her tea. ‘Remember you gave me this mug last Mother’s Day?’
‘Course you, silly. From the school stall.’
‘What’s for breakfast?’ he asks.
Bapoto nods at the table. ‘You know what’s for breakfast.’
‘I don’t like baked beans on toast.’
‘Since when?’ Her voice is distracted. She reaches, straightens his shirt collar.
‘Don’t be silly—that doesn’t hurt.’ She combs out his curls with her fingers.
‘Stop wriggling, Lochie. I said STOP. That doesn’t hurt either.’
‘Let me do it to you and you see if it doesn’t hurt.’
‘Stop being silly! I mean it.’
‘You’re being silly.’
Her strike on his cheek is not vicious, just enough to silence. He looks at her, bewildered. She has never hit him before. His hand slowly rises to the cheek.
Bapoto stares at her son. Then she stares at the palm that struck him. They stand like that, frozen a moment. Bapoto’s hand flies to her mouth, too late to stop a wretched sob.
She reaches and cradles Lochie’s head to her bosom. But he pulls away. She tries again: ‘My honey.’
Lochie backs out of reach.
Bapoto lurches towards the bathroom. With another sob, she locks herself in. Her shoulders shake, her chest is heaving. A migrant alone in this world, far from her clan. But they rely on her, she sends money when she can, to support the rest. She feels overwhelmed. She puts a hand to her throat, strangles sound from reaching her lips.
She runs the tap to muffle the sounds of her crying. Now she is ransacking the medicine cabinet. Small plastic bottles and boxlets of medicine crash to the floor. She finds a bottle of tablets, empties the pills onto her palm.
‘Useless. Useless. I’m good for nothing.’
She lifts the pills towards her mouth. Her hand trembles.
A scratch on the door.
Bapoto’s hand lowers. She faces the bathroom door.
‘Lochie?’ softly. Silence. ‘Honey, is that you?’ Silence.
She leans down to look, sees a shadow moving on the other side of the door.
‘Lochie,’ even softer. ‘I know you’re there…’
She goes on all fours, looks underneath the doorway but Lochie is gone. With a cry, Bapoto hurls the pills and empty bottle to the floor, and sobs into her hands.
* * *
She pulls herself together. Opens the door. Lochie is standing, dust pan and broom in hand. Together, silently, they tidy the mess—scattered pills and broken glass.
Bapoto turns on the kettle in the kitchen. Lochie butters their toast. His quiet warmth patches her fragility.
‘Eat your breakfast.’ She doesn’t know what else to say. She watches as he gobbles his toast. He is seeking to please her. He catches her gaze and smiles. It is a hesitant, pleading reassurance. She ruffles his curls, sweeps him into a hug. ‘I love you kiddo.’
‘Love you too, Mamma.’
‘Sorry I was cross before. Got things on my mind.’
They race to catch the train.
Lochie is doing a cowboy stride as they approach the school gate. ‘Look, Mamma,’ he says, strutting. He puts a hand to the waistband of his shorts, yanks out an invisible gun. ‘Boom! Boom!’ His other hand cracks an equally invisible whip to the ground. ‘Phew! Phew!’
‘You make a cool warrior.
‘It’s Indiana Jones. I get cranky pants too.’
‘When I’m hungry.’
‘Then I’m glad you ate your toast.’
A little boy in the schoolyard is bouncing a big red ball on the basketball court. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. He aims at the net, his arms and body bobbing to a silent countdown: three, two, one. He goes for the shot. Misses.
‘Isn’t that Josh? Go play with him, Lochie. I’ll watch you until the bell rings.’
He dumps his school bag at her feet and races off full throttle.
Her reaction with Lochie this morning, and that stint in the bathroom, deeply troubles. ‘Not losing it, I hope,’ she says to herself.
* * *
Back home, she slips off the crochet wrap top and plaid skirt she wore to drop Lochie, anything to look like a decent mum. Back to the t-shirt and wrap skirt. Without a job and a padlock on her mood swings, she doesn’t feel decent. Or a good mum. What she is, is a stranger.
She checks her mobile phone. No text message from Bill.
‘Billy-Be-Childish,’ she says out loud and laughs to herself. Bill is surplus work. Her new flame after the divorce. Last time they went out, he got so drunk he puked. She held his head as he retched his guts into a sober toilet that gurgled. Gurgle, gurgle. Despite her help, he couldn’t aim straight. Showers of orange all over the floor resembled salmon roe. It was a goo-soaked head that lifted from the bowl.
She checks her email. No news from the job agency on results of the interview with Ingram Insurance. She has gently been probing on email and would like a definite response: Yes or no. Who cares? Darn it, she cares. They would phone, not email, if she got the job. But no one from the agency has phoned since the interview. Aren’t there any more jobs in the city? Or perhaps the agency has given up on her.
A wave of despondency engulfs her. Yesterday, Lochie told her about his friend Nick who cried all through music class.
‘Why did he cry?’ she asked.
‘Because he couldn’t play his guitar.’
‘Doesn’t he know how to play?’
‘He does but the teacher wouldn’t let him.’
‘Why not? It was music class.’
‘His dad was going to pay but he forgot. So the teacher said Nick had to leave music class.’
‘Did you feel bad for Nick?’
And Bapoto knew she would pay Lochie’s music invoice if it killed her.
* * *
Bill phones early afternoon.
‘Hello you. What’s going on?’
‘Work’s going on. I’m busy.’
‘Want to do dinner?’
‘Have you got a baby sitter for Lochie Locks?’
‘He hates it when you call him that.’
‘So have you got a sitter?’
‘You know I can’t afford one. Come have dinner with us.’
‘Not tonight babes.’
‘Any time soon?’
‘Don’t know babes. Maybe Friday. I’ve got this client proposal. Got to finish it and clinch the deal, you know.’
‘Yes,’ she says. But she doesn’t know.
‘I’d better get back to work, babes.’
She throws a tie front cardigan over the t-shirt, grabs the house keys and goes for a walk. A quiet calm surrounds the botanical gardens. She walks briskly between trees and the shadows they cast, looking for spots of sun and the feel of its rays on her skin. The sun is coy. Like an elusive lover, she comes and goes.
Bapoto sits on a grass-green bench by a pond and watches silver swans glide on the soiled water. If only her life were half as graceful… She imagines herself wearing a leopard leotard, moving in a slow dance to a soaring melody in a room full of mirrors. She is happy, ever so happy in that image.
Why is her life so full of clouds now? The last two weeks have been the worst. After two job interviews with the bank, and seven psychometric tests (seven!), the agency phoned to say it was close. Close? she thinks angrily. Who wants to be runner-up in an interview if it doesn’t get you the job?
She talked to Bill about it, asked what he thought about Bapoto calling the bank for results of the psychometric tests.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were strapped to explosives,’ Bill said.
‘What if the explosives were of a miniature kind and strapped to your gonads?’ snapped Bapoto.
The human resources girl at the bank was far more heartening than Bill. She didn’t sound like the man at the interview, the one with a face of a warthog. Bapoto recalls that man very clearly, how he sat at the panel, looking at her as if she wore two heads.
‘In the language reasoning test,’ the human resources girl said, ‘you scored 37, where the average percentile is 31. Results show that you are a good communicator, articulate and with sound vocabulary.
‘In the numeric reasoning test, you scored 34, where the average percentile is also 31. Results show 100 percent accuracy in the questions you attempted, with strong computational and analytical ability.
‘In the abstract reasoning test, you scored 36, where the average percentile is again 31…’
A strategic thinker, honest and fair, emotionally calm… Overall, thought Bapoto, she was perfect for the stupid bank.
* * *
Lochie surges into her arms. He is chatty all the way nonstop, always like this after school.
‘Teacher was okay about music class.’
‘Kyle brought a tadpole, got sent to the Principal’s office.’
‘Nick says a man in Crichton was eaten by his lizards.’
‘He had hundreds of lizards as pets. Hundreds!’
‘Do you know what lizards do, Mamma? They’re like snakes.’
‘But they have legs. How are they like snakes?’
‘First they poison you. And when you die or get subsconscious…’
‘When you die or are unconscious, they eat you.’
‘They ate up all his face, Mamma.’
‘I’ve got a story too. This guy in the US had 56 wild pets.’
‘Lions, cougars, pumas… 56, can you believe it? Was he nuts or what?’
‘Is he dead like the man with the lizards?’
‘Did the animals kill and eat him up?’
‘No, doctors found a bullet wound.’
‘The animals didn’t shoot him.’
‘No, honey, they didn’t. He put a colt 45 to his head…’ she illustrates with two pointy fingers to Lochie’s temple. ‘And fired.’
‘Why would anyone do that?’
‘He…’ she stops. Her throat is suddenly tight. ‘Um… well… He owed money.’
‘To a lot of people?’
‘I, I think… yes.’
* * *
Dinner is chicken schnitzel and mash again. Bapoto thinks of corn meal and spiced peanut sauce. Charcoal grilled tilapia, all skin head to tail. You eat it from the head down, never from the tail up. Lochie wolfs down his plate like a famished jackal. They play chess and he whops her—she’s bad at it and he knows. It’s the only thing Bapoto is not good at. Well, that and getting employment.
‘Snooze time, super champ,’ she says.
‘Not yet…’ he grumbles. She gives him a little tickle on his toes.
‘Yes yet… off you go.’
‘Do I have to?’
‘You need the sleep of a thousand men.’
‘So you can grow.’
‘You’re just making that up, Mamma.’
‘Never. All right, then buster,’ she puts on a sing-song voice. ‘Goodnight.’ She unfolds his hands from her waist.
‘Ab-so-lutely. Love you honey.’
‘I love you too, Mamma.’
Despite the lightness of her tone, she is exhausted. It feels like the end of the longest imaginable day. Her head sinks into her hands. It’s heavy, as if filled with dark grey clouds cascading and churning and threatening to explode everything about her. How long is her financial situation going to stay this rough?
Her phone hums with a text message from Bill: ‘Headache. Shit. I’m fucked. Had a shit-arsed day.’
‘Sorry to hear that,’ she texts back. ‘What are you doing now?’
He phones. ‘I’m watching a doco on satellite telly.’
‘What’s the documentary about?’
‘Share market stuff. Fuck’s wrong with this remote?’
‘Bill, I don’t know what’s wrong with your remote.’
‘What the hell…?!’
She imagines him planted in front of the television like a vegetable, his coarse hands fluffing about with the television remote. Soon he’ll begin to sprout.
She wonders what she sees in him. At first his rustic charm and quirkiness were cute. Different from the city knob-heads she was dating. Lochie’s father was not her first wretched spell. She’s never been lucky with men.
She realises Bill is saying something on the other end of the line.
‘What was that again, hun?’ she asks.
‘Said I can’t do Friday.’
Billy-Be-Childish. Bapoto refuses to think about him after she hangs up. It wasn’t that hard after all, breaking up with a lump of clay.
She turns on the laptop and logs into her online university course. The computer hums, freezes twice, and she has to restart it. Her eyes are close to tears as the machine reboots. She can’t afford to replace the darn thing.
Back online, she navigates to the higher education bulletin board. She sees the unit convenor’s announcement—results of the last unit are out. She clicks the My Grades toolkit and mentally works out her score: 28 out of 30 in coursework, 66.5 out of 70 in the final assignment… She blinks, blinks again and belts out a hoot. 94.5 percent! That’s a high distinction. ‘Your contributions were incisive and thoughtful,’ her tutor says in the comments.
‘Tell that to the job market,’ Bapoto says wryly.
Lochie’s snoring, more like purrs, in the adjacent room climb and fall like ocean waves. Such softness for such strength. That boy is her metal. The silver in her clouds. Suddenly, she feels rejuvenated.
Before she logs off the computer, she checks her mailbox. A new email from the job agency titled ‘FW: Your recent application for position of (Ref. no: 002VWP)’ has an attachment.
Bapoto clicks the email to open it.