Susan Ziehl

The Day the Ground Shifted

She was motorbiking that Friday night. She was coming back from a party where there had been dagga on offer. Sarah heard about that afterwards, the pipe that lay on the entrance table of the house on Spanish Farm. They must have been sozzled when they left, Derek holding the handle bars, Jane on the back, a crappy old 2nd world war helmet on her head. They came down Paarl Valley Road that should be called an avenue, for all the bluegums that line it. There was no pavement and a woman walked into the road just as they were on their way to Juanita’s house where Jane had told her parents she would be all night.

Sarah did not see it happen. She knew how it happened because of the newspaper article that got their surname wrong.  God, couldn’t they have gotten it right just once? It wasn’t like their name was in the paper every day. This time they could’ve got it right. But they didn’t and Sarah hated her name for that. A difficult name. One you had to repeat and spell and spell again slowly.

She also did not hear the phone ring. But it must have. A man on the other end told them what had happened, that Jane was in Hottentots Holland Hospital. Sarah did not see her parent leave. In fact, she didn’t remember much about that night except that she wanted to respond when her mother said, ‘Paarl Valley Road? Why was she there?’

She knew the lie but she was not going to tell. It was not like anyone asked her personally, Sarah do you know why Jane was there? No, it was just a generalized confused comment. Why was she there? Not anything that required, or even expected an answer.

What Sarah did remember clearly was the phone call the next day – early Saturday morning. Jane was being moved to Groote Schuur.  The four of them bundled into the Cortina and followed the ambulance sirenning its way along the N2. Sarah remembered thinking that her father was driving too fast – well over the speed limit. But no cop was going to stop a man following an ambulance with his daughter inside, was he?

They were not stopped and arrived safely at the hospital behind the ambulance. Then her father took a left and parked the Cortina on a parking bay overlooking, the cemetery and the Cape Flats. Sarah opened the car door to get out.
‘No, stay,’ her father growled, ‘you two wait for us here.’
Sarah did as she was instructed, seething all the while. She was thirteen years old for god sake. Why couldn’t she go and see her sister? It was her sister after all. But while she dared not disobey her father, nothing could stop her hating him for his command, for making her feel left out, like a little child when, for four years already, she was a fully grown – periods, boobs and all.

Sarah also remembered returning home that night. Something had altered forever. They each went their own way, avoiding each other, scared to stop to ask questions and hear answers. Silence reigned. An emptiness, a shift was palpable.

But that was nothing compared to the next day when they sat down for lunch. Only four places were laid. Usually Sarah and Jane shared one side of the table, Katie opposite them. Now, there was an awkward symmetry that irked and itched at Sarah like a scratchy blanket.

It was close to 12 o’ clock. Early for lunch in their house but that was what happened that day. The phone rang. Her father went to answer it in his study, adjacent to the dining room.  All he said was ‘Jesus Christ’ and banged the phone down angrily. He returned to the table and took up his seat at the head. Her mother burst into tears. She sat for many minutes before they all got up, one by one, and went their separate ways. A room for each. Each to their own room.


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