I left, one day, my studio at noon, and walked under the dim trees, across to the garden room. The heater Josias had brought was next to the door. I went to the door, that door that now inhabited my dreams, and knocked. It was such a thin knock in the silence of the garden, a glade, it was. I heard the knock, so small, like a child’s. And I felt like a child. A timid, frightened child.
I heard the scrape of a chair, something like that, inside, and, instantly, the door opened, and he was there, standing there, and he saw me. Me. It was me.
Jacqueline, he said. How nice to see you. Is everything alright? He looked into my face. Oh yes, yes, everything’s fine, I said. I think my voice was small, tight in my throat. Come in, come in, Jacqueline, he said, and he opened his door, and stepped aside, and gestured me in.
All those months, four months, and I’d not seen him, or come into his room.
I’d imagined it, how I’d imagined it, that space. There were more books than I’d imagined, a pile, many high. More papers, many papers, but in an orderly pile on the table, and several other piles, all over the room, some on the concrete floor. A briefcase, next to his table. My table, an old table I’d hauled from the garage. His chair, my chair, a wooden chair, pushed back, he must’ve been sitting in it, right before.
And his bed. A narrow bed, like a prisoner’s. Or like Josias’s bed, I’d seen Josias’s, in his small concrete room. But Joseph’s bed was neatly made. Immaculate. The white sheets I’d put there, the pillow, the wool blanket, blue. And a chill in the room, the weather had turned, as I said.
In the corner, some of our white dishes, two or three, and a cup, were stacked—dirty dishes, Emily would pick them up that afternoon, I knew. And next to them, on the floor, plugged into the outlet, was our old kettle, its dusty, worn silver that I remembered. And there was the small, white fridge.
That’s all there was. I think that’s all.
The lone light bulb on the ceiling cast a thin, yellow light, and filtered sunlight came through the two small windows, as I’d imagined, so many times. The windows, I saw now, were not clean (how could they be clean?), they needed washing. More light would come then, more light. I thought I would ask Josias to wash them, inside and out. No, Emily. Josias mustn’t come in here, I remembered. Josias had never been in here.
Before I stepped in I said, Joseph, I’m here to bring you a heater, it’s winter soon, it must be cold in here. I had to give him a reason for my being there.
I turned and gestured outside to the heater. This is wonderful, he said. Thank you. And then he moved outside, and bent down, lifting the heater with both hands, it wasn’t heavy, a small portable thing it was, and carried it over the threshold, past me, into the room.
I stepped in. I didn’t close the door behind me, that felt wrong. Jacqueline, he said, I must close the door. There’s no one down here, I said. I know, he said. But I must. And he walked past me and pushed the door shut. It scraped on its frame as he pushed.
And then we were together in that small space. So still. I looked at him, looked at him properly, then.
He looked more groomed than I imagined. His dark beard was thick but trimmed, and his hair was not long, it must have been recently cut. By whom? I thought then of his nights, those many nights, with colleagues in Soweto, in other safe houses, and the help, the support he got. Someone to cut his hair. Suddenly, I wanted to cut his hair.
His glasses were clean, his eyes dark behind them. I’m so sorry for all this, Jacqueline, he said. So sorry. I’m so grateful to you and Howard. Our work is proceeding. We work on, you know. I know, I said. I couldn’t think what else to say. We’d better plug your heater in, I said.
He carried the heater to the plug where the kettle and fridge were, the only outlet in the room, and I said, you’ll just have to unplug the kettle when the heater’s on, and he laughed. Of course, it’s no problem, he said. He plugged it in and right away there was the smell of burning dust, so long unused, that heater.
D’you have enough to eat, I said. Emily can bring you anything you want, you know, you have simply to ask her. I know, he said. I’m fine. I eat very well at night, my friends feed me. They know they must feed me, I’m very important to them, he said, and he laughed. I felt terrible then. I felt close to tears.
He turned away, he was quite amused by what he’d said. His frame was so thin, thinner perhaps than before, his long dark pants, his leather belt, his white buttoned shirt. And I see it now, the shirt unbuttoned at his neck, his pale throat. A pallor, no doubt about it: a pallor. I would lay my head on that white shirt, that shoulder, his thin frame beneath it. I imagined it. I felt a stab of anguish. I must go now, I said, and I turned to the door, pulled it open, and left. So quickly, so gracelessly, I see it now.
Excerpt from Wan by Dawn Promislow, forthcoming from Freehand Books in May 2022. © Dawn Promislow 2022. Reprinted with permission from Freehand Books.
To purchase Wan in Canada:
Your local independent bookstore: https://shoplocal.bookmanager.com/isbn/9781988298993
From the publisher: http://www.freehand-books.com/product/wan
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories (Mawenzi House, 2010) was critically acclaimed, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and named one of the eight best debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. Dawn has published short stories, poems, and essays, in literary journals in Canada, the US, and the UK, where they have been short-listed for awards.
Wan is her first novel. It has received stellar advance reviews, and will be out on May 1st.
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