(Please note the content and language may be explicit for some readers)
The Women In The Bathroom
Shardha squeezed the Colgate toothpaste on the toothbrush, and hoped that Nandha wouldn’t moan that it wasn’t Aquafresh like they used at home. In her haste to pack their school uniforms and books, she didn’t think about packing toothpaste.
“Nandha, we are going to be late. Hurry up.” She tried to whisper across the passage from the bathroom to the bedroom where her brother and her had slept last night. He was always dragging his feet but she knew after what happened last night, it would be harder for him to get going today.
She could hear her aunty Raksha in the kitchen. Her aunty was newly married to their maternal uncle Mitchell but Shardha and Nandha felt as if they knew her forever. Shardha was grateful that aunty Raksha had the sense to suggest that Nandha and her stay at their home last night.
The night before seemed in one part like a distant memory yet in another part she could remember every word yelled between her parents; when every punch and kick happened and she could still see the madness in her fathers’ eyes as he pounded her mother.
Nandha and her were also yelling and crying; begging him to stop but he just hit their mother harder. Their screams were heard by their neighbours who like so many times before, knew to phone their uncle Mitchell.
Shardha was a pro at calming down her brother enough so that atleast he didn’t make a noise when he cried. Her mother staggered to the bathroom, ignoring the whimpers of her children. Or maybe she was deaf after all the yelling? Shardha found that easier to believe. When uncle Mitchell and aunty Raksha arrived, their father was gone. Shardha opened the door and then the big gate. Her mother was still in the bathroom.
Every time he did this, her father left for a while. Sometimes it was just a few hours. Other times it was weeks before he returned. Then when he came back, it was like nothing happened. Mum and dad would be happy again until the next time she spoke out of turn or forgot to ask his permission before she bought something or who knows what silly things she did to make him angry.
Shardha’s thoughts were interrupted by Nandha. He came into the bathroom, his eyes puffy from crying himself to sleep; and the same terrified look he had the night before. Shardha, handed him his toothbrush and whispered to him to please try to hurry up. Then, quite unexpectedly the bathroom door flung open causing both children to jump with fright. Aunty Raksha stumbled in. She looked away from the children while she leaned over the bath tub and opened the tap.
Shardha thought she saw red on her aunty’s hand but her mind resisted the allusion to what it might be and she tried to dismiss it. But she couldn’t unsee the deep red stream flowing from her aunty’s face, mingling with the water as it cascaded down the drain. She knew, she knew that her aunty was silently crying and a scary idea entered her mind.
Did her father come here and do this to her aunty ? Was he cross that she had taken them with her? Was he in the flat right now? Shardha’s mind was racing as she tried to understand why her aunty was also a woman in the bathroom like her mother.
Just as her confusion was becoming panic, her aunty stood up with a towel over her mouth and nose and said “Shardha go get your lunches from the kitchen. I’ll take Nandha down to the car. Go get your bag, Nandha.” Shardha knew better to ask her aunty anything now. She went to the door, opened it and listened. She couldn’t hear her fathers’ voice. She could only hear her uncle getting ready in his bedroom.
She slipped out of the bathroom and walked slowly down the passage to the kitchen. There were the lunches. She grabbed them and turned back hoping to catch aunty Raksha and Nandha and to walk down with them. As she turned back into the passage, she could hear her uncle talking to his friend from next door. They were on the balcony off the lounge.
Uncle Mitchell sounded so angry. “Bloody bitch. She thinks she is too smart.”
Uncle Mervin asked him “What? Raksha? What happened bru? She wasn’t looking right when I saw her on the stairway now. She having a problem with your sissies kids being here?”
“No f&*%! Not problem with the kids. No, no she likes them. She wanted to bring them last night. My sister and my swaer got into it again. So we brought the children here while they cool off. But this bitch, thinks because we took the children, she can talk about my sissie. This morning she was chuning me that my sissie must think about the children. She said my sissie can’t keep letting the children see this. What the f&*%? She thinks she knows better than my sissie?
Shardha drew a deep breath. Her eyes widened in horror. She knew why aunty Raksha had a bloody nose and mouth. The tears filled her eyes and her throat felt dry and painful.
“I clouted her a solid one. Bloody sh**.”
Uncle Mervin “ Hey bru, sometimes you have to show these things their place. Your wife, you know with her education and all, she needs to be brought down a bit. Good you showed her quickly how to shut the f&*% up. “
Shardha tip toed down the passage, not wanting to see her uncle and not wanting to hear anymore. She was just six years old when she understood that nowhere was safe if you were a woman.
Twelve years later, that memory came back to her as clear as day. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear a baby crying. It took her a few seconds to realize that it was her baby that was crying.
Her eyelids felt so heavy as she tried to open it. She became aware of the cold tiles against her cheeks. Then she remembered. He was angry because she left the hotel room to buy food for the baby. She didn’t wait for him to come back.
How could she? The baby was hungry and he was already an hour later than he said he would be. So she raced like a mad woman to buy mash and gravy from Kentucky Fried Chicken. But she was wrong to leave. She knew, she knew it as soon as she opened the hotel room door and saw him glaring at her.
As it all came back to her, she also felt the stabbing ache in her jaw and the burning sensation running through her arms as if it was on fire.
“You bitch. Who did you go to meet?” He fisted her jaw. She went down, landing on the beautiful Italian tiled floor.
“You want other men to look at you? F&*%*#@* whore! Just like your father. You want to sleep around.” Kick to her face but her arms were up trying to block him. She blacked out.
As Shardha remembered what just happened to her, and her baby’s cries became more frantic; she lifted herself onto her elbows, then onto her haunches. She stood up and steadied herself on the wash basin as her head spun.She finally managed to fully open her eyes. She saw herself in the mirror; bloodied and wretched.
Her heart ripped itself in two as it called out to her “When did you become the woman in the bathroom?”
Shock turned to focus. Her baby’s cry sobered her fully as the realisation of the weight of her life came crashing down on her. Her daughter was not going to be like her. Not ever.
She went to her baby. She knew what she had to do. Run.
Glossary: South African Indian slang particular to Indians who moved from Durban to Johannesburg in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Bru: Close mate or friend