PLAYTIME

by Gary Cummiskey

 


 

We arrive at your house in the late afternoon. It looks more like a typical farmhouse in England than an Old Dutch homestead in the eastern Free State. You come out into the yard dressed in a faded, worn dress and muddy boots. Your short blonde curls look flat and apathetic. You tell us that Andre is still at the office and will be home late.

I don't see the children around and ask where they are.

"I've shut them up in their cages," you reply.

Paula looks at me in horror. I'm sure you're joking but you aren't: as we carry our suitcases towards the narrow entranceway of the house, I look towards the barn and there outside, in their cages, side by side, are Louise sitting staring mindlessly up towards the dying sun with her mouth wide open, while Tobey lays face down in the dirt, either asleep or unconscious.

*

Paula had said that she'd worked with you several years ago, that you had met up again at a photographic exhibition, and so you invited us down to your home for the weekend. But now she is no longer sure where she knows you from.

"Well, I don't know her," I tell her, "so you must know her from somewhere."

We unpack our suitcases in the guestroom. You tell us to take our time, to relax, take a shower. You like quiet and inactivity around this time of day. Things will liven up towards supper time, you assure us, laughing.

Paula and I shower. I am drying my body and she is on the bed using her hairdryer. We don't know how it starts, it could be a faulty plug socket, but the bed catches fire. I jump up and try to beat out the flames with the pillows but Paula is screaming that the pillows are already on fire and I am just whirling flames around.

Then you burst into the room, wearing your pyjamas, and start beating furiously at the flames with a wet bath towel. But while you succeed in putting the fire on the bed out, some small flames that had spilled to the floor set your pyjama bottoms on fire. I grab you and throw you to the floor and beat my hands up and down your legs and inside your thighs, trying to put the flames out.

Paula starts hitting me on my back with her fists, yelling: "Stop trying to fuck her!" and I yell back at her: "I'm not! I'm trying to save her from burning to death!"

She looks stupefied and embarrassed.

*

You say that as a reward for saving your life you will cut my toenails; they are far too long, you had noticed. So the three of us sit on the huge rug in the lounge and you start to snip at my toenails with nail clippers.

We listen to you telling us about your past, about your childhood, about university, about travelling overseas, and now your marriage and children. I can tell by the expression on Paula's face that it is now starkly clear to her that you are not the person she had thought you were. And now we are the guests of a stranger.

"I had to work hard at varsity," you say. "My parents were not rich, so I had to work in the evenings as a waitress for pocket money. Sometimes I did other things for money, favours for friends."

"Such as?" Paula asks cautiously.

"I used to do phone sex with a priest," you reply, straight-faced. "I never met him, just had sex with him on the phone, and he paid well. We called it 'playtime'."

Paula gets up and calls me aside. I join her and she grabs me by the sleeve and says: "I want to leave. I want to leave now."

"But we can't," I tell her, "we are her guests and we really should stay at least for the night. Besides, we left the car in Johannesburg, so how on earth could we leave just now? As it is, we would have to ask them to give us a lift to the train station."

"Is she really your sister?" Paula asks me.

"No, she isn't!" I almost shout. "What on earth gave you that idea?"

"She told me earlier you were her brother."

"That's nonsense!"

"That's what she said!"

"Well she is lying!" I yell. We both look towards you still sitting on the rug, silently, holding the nail clippers, waiting to continue.

At that moment, the front door open and Andre enters. "Hello, sorry I'm late," he says cheerfully. "A bit of drama at work and then traffic lights out in town." His calm, bouncy presence is like a breath of fresh air, of sanity. He is quite older than you, closer to my age.

"I was busy clipping Gary's toenails," you say, as you get up to kiss him. "He really doesn't take care of his feet."

"Oh really?"Andre asks, peering over the top of his glasses. "Well don't let me keep you! Beautiful sunset outside, you know. Dunno why you people are sitting indoors. Look at those clouds it's like a painting by Dali."

"We have to cut our visit short," Paula interrupts. "There is a problem at home that we need to attend to."

"But why so soon?" you ask.

"Hell, well you can't leave now, not this evening," says Andre, looking concerned. "You'll have to stay the night, surely? You need to eat, I'll make a huge pasta dish and we'll have some red wine! You can't travel all this way down here, then return home a few hours later."

Andre's warm, friendly words reassure us and we agree to stay overnight, but we must return in the morning.

"First class!" Andre exclaims. "How about we crack open a bottle right now?"

*

In the morning I ask Paula if she has changed her mind, whether now she would like to stay on just another day, another night, and then return. The supper and the rest of the evening had gone well.

"No," she says. "Andre is okay, but there is definitely something wrong with her."

I agree, though part of me wants to stay the whole weekend. I keep thinking about how soft and warm your thighs felt. But Paula is insistent.

We pack our suitcases and make our way downstairs as you stand in the kitchen making coffee. You are wearing an expensive business outfit.

"Off somewhere special?" I ask.

"A few business appointments," you tell us. "I have to sort out a family farm in Northern Cape, and then I must sign the papers for a house we inherited from some friends."

"Where is the house? What friends?" Paula asks, suddenly curious.

Before you have time to respond Andre comes down the stairs and says, "Hey folks, I've arranged some transport for you back to Joburg. Just had a quick chat with an old army buddy of mine, he is still in the defence force. He and some younger troopies are driving up there this morning, so I asked if he could swing past here and help you out and he said yes! They should be here shortly."

We've thankful of the lift he's organised us and even as we are saying our farewells the army truck pulls into the yard.

The soldiers help us lift our suitcases into the back of the truck. The sky is slightly overcast. Louise and Tobey are running around chasing the dog and yelling.

"They'll have you back in Joburg in no time!" Andre says with a wave. You say nothing, you do not even say goodbye to us. You just stand silently by his side as the truck turns off onto the dirt road.

Paula is sitting huddled up against me as we watch the house recede. The khaki-clad soldiers sit around us, silently, squinting at the distance. I scrutinise them closely and can see that they are not as young as it first seems, they are a lot older, closer to my age or Andre's. They've clearly been around in the Angolan days, probably Special Ops, slightly bosbefok and psychopathic.

I don't know what they have in mind, whether they'll gas us and burn our bodies or simply put a bullet in the back of our heads at the side of the road. Either way, it's all on Andre's orders; he's the one who has organised our deaths. I hold Paula closer to me.


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