2019 SA Writers College Short Story Competition Third Place


  'Record Cards' - by Merle Grace



‘You look like him you know.’

She didn’t know. Her father was invisible to her. He went to work. He came home. He seldom laughed. Then he died. And her mum never mentioned him again after the funeral. Nothing. Ever Again. She couldn’t imagine resembling him in any way, even thought she wanted to a bit. Especially now that she was searching for him.

‘I can’t remember what he looked like.’

‘Tea?’ Modise asks, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. He uses a match to switch on the gas, carefully puts a pot filled with water on the ring of fire and then adds the teabags. She doesn’t say that she likes her tea weak. They stand uncomfortably, waiting for the tea to boil. The silence between them grows, like the clouds outside. Modise puts the pot and a faded Kaizer Chiefs mug on the table. It has two chips on the lip. They sit down at the matching yellow melamine table opposite each other. She’d packed up a similar looking one in her mother’s house the week before.

The room feels familiar in a peculiar way. But it also doesn’t. Maybe it’s the smell. Smokey in here. Pipe smoke maybe.

She’d found Modise F. Mopane quite quickly. In fact it was the first name to pop up in the browser when she searched for him. A Jazz enthusiast it said. He’d agreed to meet her. And now, right here, she feels out of her depth. As if she’s doing something she isn’t supposed to be doing. She feels like running. Back to her flat in a so-called white suburb, back to the smells of coffee and freshly cut grass. Trees towering over power lines. The old man’s eyes are muddy. Would he even be able to help her?

She decides to pour the tea, spills a bit.

‘I remember him so well. Sometimes it’s as if he’s around every corner you know. Just like the police. They drive past here, to mess with an old man’s head.’

Anne doesn’t know what to say. She looks at him, and then at the brown leather case at her feet. She’d been so sure that Modise would have all the answers. He had to have all the answers. She needs to show him the contents of the case, but she can’t yet. She takes a sip of tea. It’s too strong.


Anne packs up her mother’s house. She finds nothing that she’s after. She unearths small things like tins of zam-buk, a few curtain hooks, her mother’s driver’s license, a bookmark with a verse from the Bible printed at the bottom. There’s nothing of her father. The drawers must have been cleaned out when he died. Did her mother really keep nothing of him? It’s as if he never lived.

And then she finds it. In a place she never thought of looking. The garage. She never knew there were shelves in there with crates stacked upon them, one on top of the other, almost reaching the ceiling. All marked, and alphabetically labelled. Right at the top, on the extreme left, she spots one labeled André Personal. Her heart beats faster. She gets on a ladder. She struggles to lower the box, but she manages. She carries it off to the empty living room, and starts unpacking the contents.

At first it seems to be filled with newspapers. She checks the dates. All from the eighties. Are they significant? She can’t tell. In her frustration, she’s tempted to swear, but she doesn’t. She holds back.

She remembers her father coming home at exactly 5:30 every day. He was never late. He never talked about his work. It was forbidden. So many things were forbidden. Loud laughter. Yelling. Parties. Asking questions. Her next find is a stack of cards. At first they look blank, but when she takes the elastic off, and starts shuffling through them, she sees they are filled with upright lines crossed through- that look very much like the means by which prisoners count off the days on their cell walls. The cards follow a pattern.

The first inscription reads 9 June 1983. There are seven lines on the card, neatly crossed out. That’s all. She flips the card over, but there’s nothing on the back. She flicks through the cards. Some have dates on them, but no lines at all. Others have the same prison markings on them, mostly seven lines to a card. The last date is 29 September 1987. The day her father died. Coincidence? There are three lines on it, but only two are crossed through. The third is still standing, upright, as if the recording is incomplete.

What the heck Dad? She snaps the elastic back around the pack of cards, and replaces them on top of the newspapers. She finds clothes, neatly folded. Khaki-brown trousers and a shirt of the same colour. Printed in black lettering on the shirt, over the heart, is the surname and initial she shares with her father: STORM A. She brings the shirt to her nose. She can’t make out anything. No detergent, or aftershave, no smell of skin or sweat. Could this be what he wore to work? She can’t remember him in these. Not at all.

She finds a piggy bank. Odd. She shakes it. It’s empty.

At the very bottom of the crate is an old record. The world of Miriam Makeba. She doesn’t know who this is. The woman on the cover is black, and it looks as if an artificial sun is setting behind her. She doesn’t understand. They never listened to music. Music was banned. On the radio, she was permitted to listen to the news and quizzes. When she was alone, she listened to soap operas.

Anne can’t understand how her father comes to possess this record. And where would he have played it? She turns the cover over. There’s some writing on it. Father’s handwriting.

‘Recommended by Modise F. Mopane.’


Anne reaches into the case at her feet and brings out the record. She thrusts it at him. Her hand shakes.

‘Did you have a…’ She can’t think of polite words, and holds the record back. She hugs it to her chest. His eyes look longingly at the cover, but Modise sits in silence, waiting for her to speak. ‘Did you have a… sexual relationship with my father?’ She feels heat rush into her cheeks. She’s almost fifty and she can’t think of sex or even worse, gay sex over the colour line, without hearing her mother’s voice reprimanding her about music from hell or communists or instructing her to keep her legs crossed.

Modise laughs. She feels silly. He glances at her, but all his attention is reserved for the record. She gives it to him. He reads the words on it and then sighs, a deep sigh that makes it look as if he might topple and fall off the chair he is sitting on.

‘This wasn’t his favourite you know.’

‘My dad would never’ve listened to this. He didn’t listen to any music, let alone…’ She couldn’t say the words out loud.

‘I want to know how you knew each other.’ She can’t keep the frustration out of her voice.

‘He did listen to this. And many others. It’s what we talked about. Mostly.’

‘But where? I don’t understand.’

‘We met in prison.’

Anne stands up. This man is clearly not the right one. It must have been a different Modise. Her father! In prison! This man has to be unbalanced, not right in the head. She holds out her hand.

‘How’s Anmarie? Still sewing?’

Anne stares at him. ‘How do you know my mother’s name?’

‘Your dad told me about things when it all got too much for him.’

Anne sits down. She gives herself time to breathe. So he is the one. She doesn’t know what to do, or think. But then she reaches for the case again. ‘Okay. There’re a few more things in here. Do you mind looking at them?’

She takes the uniform out first. ‘If this was his prison outfit, then why did he come home every day?’ Modise strokes the nametag. ‘Storm, A…’ He reads it slowly. ‘But we called him Oom Stormie.’

Anne looks at him. She can’t make out his expression. Is it hatred? Is he revolted by this name? She wants to hurry him, but she doesn’t. She pours more tea. It’s lukewarm.

‘Where did you find all this?’ Anne can’t help but hear bitterness in his voice.

‘My mother passed away. I was clearing out her house.’

‘They never told you, did they? What your father did?’

She holds back tears and frustration, shakes her head. ‘There’s one last thing in here, but I don’t think it’s that important.’

She takes out the bundle of record cards, holds it out to him.

He takes the elastic off, squints at the cards. When he gets to the last one, his hands start shaking. He looks at the cards again. Then he starts reciting names, pointing to the crossed out lines.

‘Marcus Motaung, Solomon Mahlangu, Mangena Boesman, Jerry Mosololi…’ He points to a line for every name. She’s never heard of any of them. He doesn’t stop. He keeps on flipping.

‘Your father. He was a prison guard. He kept us alive till the time came for us to be hanged.’

His words are like whip lashes. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Seven at a time they did it. Pulled a lever. And bam! The trapdoor made them fall, all seven of them together.’ Anne’s head is on fire. ‘We all waited for our turn. Waited to die.’

She controls her breathing. She never knew this. The idea sits unevenly on her chest. How did her parents keep her from this?

‘Can you have a look at the last card? Please?’

Modise looks at it. He clears his throat. He holds the card out to her. He waits. As if it’s a trump card.

‘This one here…’ He points with a skeletal finger at the line that hasn’t been crossed out. ‘This one’s me. See. Here I am! Somebody pulled some strings on this day. Excuse the pun. I was released, the other two were hanged. I carry them in my nightmares.’

She puts her finger on the card’s date.

‘André died on this day you know. Heart attack. Late that night.’

It’s as if Modise doesn’t hear her.

‘They told me I was going to the pot you know. Even though they knew I was about to be released. I stumbled and fell when I heard this, knowing that I was going to die. They forced me out of my cell. I saw your dad in the passageway. He looked at me. And then he nodded. The guards didn’t take me to the right. The way to the pot. They took me in the opposite direction, to the exit. And then, after about two hours, I saw daylight. Colour. Sound. My wife.’

‘So my dad…’

‘He must have kept this.’ He points at the record cards.

‘To remember that one person lived.’

‘Or that plenty have died?’ Anne closes her eyes. She imagines her father walking around a prison every day of his life. She shivers.

‘You must’ve hated him.’ She looks at Modise, seeing him, as if for the first time.

He nods. He doesn’t bother to wipe tears off his face.

‘He tried some days. He listened to me. We talked. Music mostly. He said the music I recommended was his only way that he could escape the desperate faces that appeared in his sleep.’

Anne rubs the gooseflesh off her skin.

‘It’s you I had to find. No one wouldn’t have been better.’


She doesn’t want to go home anymore. She wants to stay with Modise. She wants to cry.

‘Do you have a record player?’ she asks instead.



  Merle lives in Johannesburg, where she is regularly seen in coffee shops and petrol stations with free wi-fi. She writes poems, haikus and short stories and can dance up a storm in her own kitchen. She laughs often, doesn’t take life too seriously, and prefers coffee to tea, and wine to whisky. Merle-Grace


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