A Broken Window

Lien Botha
Lien Botha, Die huis met alles daarin waai weg (The house with everything inside blown away), 2003  inkjet print on cotton paper, 15 × 15". Courtesy of The Photographers Gallery Za, Cape Town, South Africa.

In preparation for the visitors the house was being cleaned from top to bottom. Everybody was miserable.

The professor was miserable because it was impossible to concentrate as mattresses were carted onto the patio, beaten with sticks, and abandoned in the sunshine. Since the operation his attention had not fully returned.

After scanning the Lancet in preparation for court—the government was trying to deny his vaccine a clinical trial—his gaze wandered to the front of the house. There was glass on the tiled section of the driveway. Estella had managed to break a window while moving the mattresses onto the veranda.

Estella, the maid, was miserable because of Nafisa, her employer. If one was unhappy then so was the other. In this one way Estella and Nafisa were, people said, like mother and daughter.

Nafisa was miserable because her son Shakeer was about to arrive from San Francisco. He was taking the photographs at his father’s retirement party. It seemed that an entire generation was stepping down.

Nafisa was sensitive to her son’s opinion. Shakeer was her only child. She didn’t want him to arrive when the house was in disorder, even if he did not know the difference. There was only this one morning to straighten up. But neither Estella nor her husband were disposed to cooperate. They were obstacles!

The situation was bad within the four walls of the house. Beyond them it was worse. For some reason her authority had never extended across the property to the garage. Nafisa didn’t understand what happened in the garage. People without names had dumped things in there ever since they moved to the Westville house. Nor could Estella be persuaded to give it a thorough cleaning.

Nafisa was panicky. Her hands shook. It seemed that her hold on circumstances, which had been unsteady in recent years, had been revealed as such. She thought she would fall down.

Normally the state of the garage made no difference. The dog slept in a basket between the cars. Nobody much else went in. But Arif’s retirement party was going to be large, as raucous as such an evening could be. Some of the guests, in search of privacy, were sure to find their way up.

The contrast between the bright morning and the cool inside the door blinded Nafisa at first. She tripped on something. It was the tool bench cluttered with wrenches and spanners. She needed glasses. Shakeer, with his father’s agreement, had been telling her so for five years.

From beneath the bench Nafisa picked up a bicycle chain. It belonged to a bicycle of which she had no recollection. The oil coating the links came off black on her hands. She dropped the chain as if it had scalded her.

But it was hopeless! Nafisa retreated to the door. Things had been allowed to ride for too long. They were out of her control. The house was hopeless!

From the steps she spied further disorder on the veranda. After breaking the window Estella had brought out the beds to air. Something in the spectacle of the four Posturepedic mattresses, piled on the wall to reveal their discolored undersides, made Nafisa’s eyes fill with tears.

The odd thing was that she could not recall crying as a young woman. Other people had a different impression. On her wedding day her husband’s friend Jadwat, Dr. Jadwat, had mentioned her particular expression of sunshine and rain.

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