'Restitution' - by Liz Dewing
(Winner of the 'People's Choice Award)
Jody’s tears have soaked my T-shirt. It sticks to my chest like a clammy hand. As long as the blanket was wrapped around us both it didn’t feel cold. Now she’s sleeping soundly I’ve slipped her into my sleeping bag and the April air and the night’s events have me chilled to the bone.
“What?” was his first word to me that afternoon last October when they moved in. I’d knocked on the door with a tray of tea and some biscuits thinking they’d welcome a bit of a break after all the unpacking.
“Um. I’m your neighbor… that side,” nodding my head to the right. “I brought some tea to say welcome to the neighbourhood.” He stood in the doorway with his great gut hanging over the waistband of his shorts and a cigarette in the hand holding the door from opening any wider. He frowned and exhaled. The stench of stale tobacco was incredible. I remember taking a step back down onto the pavement.
“Kenny....” Denise appeared in the doorway behind him looking like a child next to his bulk. God she was tiny. How the heck had they ended up together I wondered. Ducking under his arm, and taking the tray from me she tried to smooth over the awkwardness. ”Thanks, man. That’s really kind of you. Kenny, it’s kind hey?”
He just grunted and turned back inside. “Don’t mind him,” she apologized again. “He’s just tired after moving everything. I’ll bring the tray back later, OK?”
“Sure.” Well, I obviously wasn’t getting invited in. Still, if they were private types then maybe I could hope for more peace and quiet than I’d had with Stacey. I was grateful her parents had finally stepped in and taken her off to rehab. They had the good grace to be a bit shamefaced when they told me they’d sold the place to a couple with a baby. “We’re taking Stacey over to a clinic in England. We’ll probably stay.”
That hope had been crushed fast. Within a week it was obvious Kenny was running a chop shop from the back yard. I woke every morning to the smell of cigarettes from his endless chain smoking. It was like he made a point of standing close to the hedge on my side. I had a constant headache – if not from the smoke, then from the screeching of the sander and angle-grinder that started by 08h30 most days.
“Don’t cause trouble. Please.” Denise said when I went round to complain after a fortnight of constant noise.
“I’m not here to cause trouble.”
The child on her hip stared at me with wide eyes and a finger in its mouth. There was snot crusted under its nose and its clothes were filthy but its thick dark hair curled like a cherub.
I reached out to stroke a pink apple cheek and it grabbed hold of my finger with a fierce sticky grip. I grinned in spite of myself and it smiled back with a neat row of perfect white teeth. It was hard to believe it spent so much time crying.
“Boy or girl?”
“Girl – Jody – She’s fifteen months this week.”
“Cute man…….It’s just this is a residential area, Denise. He can’t run a business from here, let alone a Panel beater.”
“Mind your own fucking business.” He’d come up so quietly behind her for such a big man, we both jumped.
“I’m trying to be reasonable Kenny. I work from home and I need peace and quiet - and what you’re doing isn’t legal.”
“You some fancy arsed specialist in the law then are you?”
I’d never dealt with anyone so blatantly aggressive.
“No. I just want to give you a chance to do the right thing.”
“Or what?...Or what, hey? This is my place and I can do what I want,” and with that he hauled Denise and the child inside and slammed the door in my face.
I could almost hear the weariness in the Constable’s voice when I called the local Police Station to complain. “Mrs Harding.” It was like a sigh.
“Mizz.” I could almost see him rolling his eyes.
“Mizz Harding. So what’s the problem now?” I’d lost count of how many times I’d called them out to deal with Stacey.
They came round. They had to. But it made no difference. He just denied it flat. “A bit of work on a friend’s car,” that’s all he’d been doing, and of course they had no proof that the so-called friend’s car had been a green Golf,and a blue Polo and a white Civic – all in the space of a week.
They knocked on my door afterwards. As if he didn’t already know it was me who’d complained.
“Thank you anyway.” I tried to be fair. Constable Ngcube seemed embarrassed. He was relatively new and obviously still trying to do the job properly.
Kenny smirked at me as the Constable got back into the van and drove down the road. That evening the beatings started. Presumably Denise as a substitute for laying into the white bitch next door.
Of course I called the cops again, and Constable Ngcube, poor man, had to come and tell me there was nothing they could do unless Denise was willing to lay charges, and she wasn’t. Over the next two months at least eight times she wasn’t.
In December my mom died and I went up to sort her things out and decide what to do with the place. It’s so peaceful up there, in the Karoo outside Nieu Bethesda. Millions of stars in an inky sky every night, and vast open spaces; unbelievably quiet. With mom gone there was no reason to hold on to it but I couldn’t bring myself to part with the house.
I felt like hell when I got back, stressing over the decision to pack up and move. It seemed so final. Then one Sunday morning in February something woke me up at six and somehow, the decision was made. It was already hot as hell so I decided to make the best of it and do something useful.
As I stood with the hose in my hand trained on the bougainvillea thinking about which Estate Agent to use, a sort of snuffle behind made me turn. I realized sound was coming from Jody. She stood on the street outside my fence holding herself up with two grubby little hands clenched round two of the poles. As I registered she was there one of the morons from the end of the road came hurtling past at about 80 in his absurdly tricked out Corolla. As he drew level with the house Jody let go, bumped down onto her saggy bottom and rolled backwards onto the tarmac. My heart practically stopped.
I tore out of the gate and scooped her up giving her more of a fright than the car did I’m sure. She stared up at me with those huge dark eyes and her bottom lip pushed out while she decided whether or not to cry.
“Oh baby! I thought you were a gonner.” I held her up at arm’s length in front of me as I realized just how soaked she was down below – and just how bad she smelled. “You need a bath! You like water?” She made up her mind and beamed at me like life was all one big adventure.
I plonked her down on the grass after closing my gate firmly. “What on earth were you doing out there precious?” I trickled water over her knees and she giggled and smacked at it with open hands, squinching her eyes shut as the drops flew up into them. “You like that? Let’s get you out of that horrible nappy shall we?” I pulled the stinking nappy off and sprayed her down with the hose as she beamed and crawled around. The T-shirt she was wearing obviously belonged to an older child – it was way too long and the sleeves were rolled up several times to make them short enough for her chunky little arms.
“Jody…..Jody.” Denise’s voice – frantic but still a sort of whisper….then, “Oh thank God, you’ve got her.” I could see her shaking as she stood on the other side of the fence.
“Yes. Thank God. She was in the bloody road Denise. What the hell were you doing?” My voice wasn’t so quiet.
“Shhhh…..Please shhhhh. Don’t wake him.” She was crying. “Please – we were in the kitchen. I locked the door. I fell asleep. She got out through the dog flap. It won’t happen again. Please. Please give her here.”
“Why, Denise? Why should I? She was in the goddamned road.”
“I know,” tears ran down her face. ”I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry….Give her to me. Please give her here.”
“Why are you staying with him Denise? He’s going to kill you.”
“You don’t understand. He’s not like that all the time. It’s only when he’s had bad luck.”
“Well he seems to have a crap load of bad luck!”
“Denise!” Kenny’s bellow cut through the conversation. I wrapped Jody in the kikoi I’d tied over my costume and handed her back over the top of the fence before he could get outside. Denise threw me a muffled thanks, buried her face in Jody’s neck and fled around to their back yard.
The house sold within a fortnight.
I wasn’t supposed to even be here tonight. Transfer finally went through and I’m headed off at five to the farm. Permanently. The agent already has one set of keys. I did the big clean yesterday and I’m dropping these through the box in the morning on my way out, but at the last minute I decided not to crash with Cath. I wanted to spend one last night here. I was happy here once: Before Kenny and Denise, before Stacey, when Daniel and I bought the place to start with. God it seems like forever ago.
The screaming started around ten. I decided not to call the police. Again. What the hell was the point. Banging against the walls. Things smashing. After the months of destruction I couldn’t believe there was anything left to break. I lay on the mat in the lounge in my sleeping bag listening as it went on and on and on. Then at about midnight, abruptly, silence. I was almost asleep about twenty minutes later when I heard a sort of scuffling out back.
I opened the door and tried the light switch but the bulb must’ve blown so I made my way forward in the dark a step at a time listening for the direction of the sound. As I reached where I thought it was coming from I tripped over something on the ground and went down hard on my knees……Groping in front of me as my eyes adjusted, my fingers found Denise’s arm protruding from under the hedge. I picked it up and even without feeling her wrist I knew.
Jody sat a few feet further into my yard shivering. In the moonlight she looked wrong somehow. She was wrapped in my kikoi which was covered in blood. Not her own, thank God, although her nose was bleeding and she was a mess of scratches. I wiped her off with the kikoi and held her close against my chest until she calmed down. I’ve put her in the back seat of the car now, in the sleeping bag.
I pulled Denise through under the hedge and propped her up against the gap in the back fence with the kikoi Jody bled on in her arms. The rain is really coming down now. The lake behind the estate is rising as it falls. By the time they find her all the tracks will be mud. I wonder how Kenny will explain his way out of a dead wife and a missing child. After all, if I was here, Constable Ngcube will swear I would have called.