A cold cold heart
Sometimes it feels like the wind will never stop. It gusts down the mountain, across the stony scrub, over the back of the church and lifts the roof of our house before it passes and the tin plates fall back into place on the roof beams.
It doesn't really lift the roof. It feels like it, though.
The wind explodes through the gaps under the doors, through the ventilation blocks near the top of the high walls. Everything in the house rattles. The doors don't fit neatly into their frames - the house is hundreds of years old. The lights sway on their Victorian fittings in the long passage.
I hate the wind. It is like the smell of death. It gets everywhere.
From my bedroom window I can see the harbour. In the olden days the sailboats used to come scuttling into this bay like chickens seeking refuge under the wings of a hen. And when the wind blew too hard, and brought with it the winter storms, they tossed against their moorings until sometimes they broke free and pummelled one another, with cracking timbers and ripping sails and the slow leakage of water into damaged hulls.
In those days my ancestor, Daniel McQuarry, first came to the Cape, in a tall ship. He was a lad in Scotland, not much older than me, when he was press-ganged into the navy to fight Napoleon.
I can imagine how he struggled as the men sought him, chasing him down narrow cobbled streets, through murky alleys, as he hid behind barrels and bales of hay, until at last, exhausted, they with their muskets, and orders to capture young men, cornered him and forced him onto the boat. And claimed their bounty - ten shillings plus one penny for every mile travelled.
Was he desperate to escape? Or did part of his heart beat with anticipation at warfare among real men and real enemies?
Fishing was in his blood. Daniel made a natural sailor. And when the war was over and won, and he had served his five years, he could not bear to return to the small village next to the sea.
He joined a merchant ship. He was ambitious. He rose in the ranks until he became Captain. And his ship was a slaver.
And that is how Daniel McQuarry came to the Cape of Good Hope, hoping to settle down and make his fortune. He came as a purveyor of human beings. He bought and sold people and grew rich and fat on the profits.
We moved to this house overlooking the harbour only six months ago, and I hate it. It belongs to the church my father serves. The church looms over everything we do. Our house is attached to it. When I lie in the bath I can hear the people talking in the vestry. But the house is far older than the church. Its history is longer and darker.
The bathroom is a huge room, with a tarnished metal bath standing alone in the middle. Just like in a bathroom in a glossy magazine. But this room has nothing glossy about it. It has a creepy feeling. I feel cold whenever I go into it, even in the middle of the Cape Town summer. It's not cold like you'd feel when you open the fridge. It's more an inner iciness, like tendrils of fog slinking around your heart and starting to squeeze.
But now it's the middle of winter, and every room in this cavernous house is icy cold. The draughts create their own unseen world, slipping under doors and around windows, shuddering down the chimney so the fire we light to cheer us up splutters in the grate.
One evening my mother and I are alone at home. The wind is howling, bending the palm trees that line up against the side of the church. My mother pulls her cardigan closer around her neck and gets up to try and pull the curtains shut in the middle. The sitting room windows reach from ceiling to floor. Outside, darkness envelops the garden. Although we are in the middle of the city, we could be alone. This house is parcelled behind the church. On the other side the walls of a factory loom up.
My mother shudders as she looks out into the cold Cape night. "Those poor souls," she says, "with nowhere to sleep tonight." She is thinking of the bergies who live under the bridge at the end of the road.
"Mom," I say, "do we have to stay here? This house spooks me."
"Shhh," she says. "There's no such thing as spooks. This is a church, and church property. There's nothing to be afraid of. We are protected by the Blood of the Lamb."
I hope she is right. A shiver runs through me and I get up to drop another log on the fire.
"I wish Dad was here," I say.
"Shh, he won't be long." She wants to soothe me, but I sense the fear in her voice.
She is still standing at the window, holding the curtains. She is looking out over the stoep. I see her tense up, as though she is listening.
Then I hear it too, the sound of chanting - Eastern music, like nothing I've ever heard before. It comes on the wind and fades.
Mom pulls the curtains shut, trying vainly to make them meet in the middle. She comes back to the fire and puts on another log. She pokes it with a stick.
"What's that singing?" I ask her. My voice sounds thin in the big room where we are sitting alone in front of the fireplace.
"It's nothing," she says firmly.
She turns up the TV and we watch a murder investigation underway. The detective is tall and good-looking and has a slight stammer. He can find the clues that everyone else has missed.
But my concentration is patchy. I keep listening for the chanting, for the sound of my father's key in the door.
Then I hear footsteps in the wooden passage. I am so relieved.
"Dad!" I shout, and get up to open the door for him.
A strange man is striding down the passage. He is short and burly, with red hair and a big red nose, like someone who drinks too much. He's wearing fancy dress.
Oh Jeez, I think. Another one of the damn parishioners who think they can just walk into the Rectory without knocking. But the man doesn't even see me. He walks right past the doorway where I am standing and flings open the front door.
The wind howls down the passage and blows sand into my eyes.
"Shut the door, Robin!" my mother calls.
The man bellows something out of the door and turns back inside. He looks right through me. A woman comes in, stamping her feet on the doormat. I realise, although I don't really register it, that things look different. The passage is painted dark red. Our passage is cream. Candles are spluttering in sconces on the wall. Our passage has long light fittings that dangle in the wind. I shudder.
"Mom!" I call. I turn back inside, but our lounge has gone. The room is the same, a fire burns in the same grate, but instead of our comfortable, shabby old sofa, there's a table with a big leather-bound book opened up to show blank pages lined across. A captain's chair.
I clutch the doorframe. The man stalks down the passage. The door is open to the garden, and the sound of singing is louder. The chant fills the room, brought in by the wind.
I lean back as the man swirls past me into the room, followed by the woman. She is dark-skinned, and her head is covered with a shawl. He bellows at her, and she cowers. She is afraid, I can see that. The man swells up as he shouts. He is a bully. I'm scared stiff of him, and he can't even see me.
The woman is pleading now, kneeling at his feet, pulling at his boots. She is desperate about something, but I can't understand what she is saying. I can barely understand him. He is speaking a funny, old-fashioned English, with a broad accent.
He kicks her away. She gets up and, half bent, scuttles from the room.
Then a boy comes in. He's about my age, but short. He looks Eastern, like the woman. I can hear her crying in the passage. The man turns him around and measures him. He is checking to see how strong and healthy he is.
There's a door at the end of the lounge, and I realise it opens into our bathroom. But the bath is gone. Inside the room stands a line of people, shackled together with chains at their ankles and wrists. They look miserable and scared.
The man bellows, and they shuffle forward. They call out their names and he writes them in his book. They look broken.
Except for the boy. He is defiant and angry. The woman is still weeping, and I see what is happening. He is her son, and he is being sold and sent away.
His fists are clenched.
It seems to me, watching unseen from the doorway, that the room is filled with wind. Not the wind that sweeps down the mountain, but the wind that sweeps from these people's hearts and whirls around this room. The hard indifference of the burly man, the sorrow of the mother losing her son, the misery of the shackled slaves, and the defiance of this boy, whose eyes burn with resentment - these feelings beat around the room. I can hardly bear it.
Suddenly, the boy darts forward. He seizes a burning log from the grate and hits the man on the back of the head.
The smell of singed flesh tingles in my nose. The man's jacket is alight, and he tries to pull it off. He screams for help. The woman's eyes dart from him to her son, whose hands are charred by the log. The boy looks terrified and elated all at once. His mother indicates the door with a toss of her head.
The slaves shuffle their feet and their chains clink. The man's screams are horrible, but no one can help him.
Finally he rips off his jacket and stamps out the flames. He is burnt, but more than that, he is angry. The boy has slipped away, through the open door, into the dark night.
I hope he gets away. But I fear for the woman. The man's eyes are murderous.
"Robin." My mother's voice breaks across the picture in my mind. She is shaking my shoulder. "What's wrong? You look terrible."
I swallow. Where am I? Our lounge looks the same again. The sofa still needs a new cover, the curtains still don't meet in the middle. Through the door in the far wall I can see the bathroom, and the edge of the metal bath. But the cold has changed.
The iciness has crept out of the bathroom and filled this room too. It's not the cold of the Cape winter. It's not the cold of an old house with high ceilings and poor insulation.
It's the cold of broken people and burnt flesh.
Of the heart of a man who was press-ganged. Who lost the warmth that made him human.
A cold cold heart.
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