I drove home via the most circuitous route I could think of, checking obsessively in my mirrors. When I arrived at the complex, I stopped at the guardhouse for a word with Paul, the guard on duty. ‘Has anyone come here asking about me?’ I asked.
‘Don’t let anyone in who you don’t know, or tell anyone that I live here if they ask. This is important. Please tell the next guard who comes on duty.’
‘Yes, sir. What about Miss Harlow?’ I had wondered how Harlow came and went without the guards ever calling me on the phone. She had obviously charmed them thoroughly.
‘She’s alright, you can let her in,’ I said. Harlow Coates was the least of my worries. I would take Queen aside and remind her to keep all doors firmly locked and a panic button around her neck at all times. I kept going over how Faure could have suddenly appeared outside the window of the art supplies store. It made no sense.
I arrived home to find Harlow Coates’ car blocking the garage. It was the third time in a week that she had turned up unannounced. On each of the previous occasions she had asked for Ash’s birth certificate. The woman was relentless and I was powerless to avoid her. I was annoyed, forgetting that moments earlier I had dismissed her as a threat. I parked under the Jacaranda tree at the top of the driveway. When I returned, my vehicle would be scattered with more flowers than an Indian Prime Minister but it was better than turning it into a burning hot tin can. The summer heat had settled on Johannesburg like water seeping into a sinking ship, filling up the empty spaces, driving out the air. I stepped out of the car onto a carpet of slimy, blue flowers and was stung on the calf by a bee. I swore. I knew to scrape the sting out, not to squeeze. I needed a knife.
Harlow was in the kitchen with Ash. They were pouring cornflakes into a pot of melted chocolate, stirring it and chattering away to each other. ‘Where’s Queen? How long have you been here?’ I addressed Harlow, kissed the top of Ash’s curls, and rummaged in a drawer for a knife.
‘Upstairs and about an hour. Ash and I are making chocolate cornflake cookies. What are you doing to your leg?’
‘Got stung by a bee, I’m getting the sting out.’
Ash stopped stirring and came over to me, kissed my leg near the bee sting. I swallowed. Harlow had left the room.
I scooped Ash up onto my lap. ‘You are the sweetest girl in Africa,’ I whispered.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Yes. But I can handle it.’
Ash nodded. ‘Maybe you should draw a picture.’
I smiled. ‘That’s a great idea, I’ll do that later.’
Harlow had returned – as was her annoying habit.
‘Ash, come and spoon the cookies into the cases while I put something on your Dad’s leg’
‘Where did you get the first aid kit?’ I asked.
Of course. Harlow produced some camomile cream from the kit. I watched her suspiciously as she sat next to me and soothed some ointment onto the sting.
‘Could you stop looking at me as though I’m about to eat your young just for one moment,’ she said quietly.
‘Aren’t you?’ my tone was equally low. I had a headache. Harlow was an enemy, seeing Faure had not changed that fact. And yet those olive-green eyes, her perfect breasts brushing against my arm.
‘What do you want me to do?’ asked Harlow.
Oh God if only you knew. ‘I want you to go away and leave us alone.’ I could see I had scored a hit. She recoiled as though struck, and moved away from me, pushing the ointment back into the first aid pouch and zipping it closed viciously.
‘So you want me not to do my job?’
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
‘Something is broken here. Something’s off.’
‘We’re mending, Harlow, without your help or intervention.’
‘Harlow, come and see,’ Ash interrupted our low exchange.
‘Let me know when you leave,’ I said, then louder, ‘Ash, I’ll be in the studio if you need me.’
‘Draw a nice picture,’ said Ash.
I didn’t like leaving Ash alone with Harlow, but as she came and went as she pleased, and had already been with Ash an hour, I supposed there was no point in hovering. The woman aroused my intense need to protect Ash. She aroused me full stop and I hated that. Hard on the heels of seeing Faure, my feelings were overwhelming and I didn’t trust myself around her.
I set up a canvas, reflecting on the depth of Ash’s insight and the threats that still cast a shadow over her safety and happiness. I thought I’d paint something dark and angry. But my creative force came from somewhere deeper than thought and the colours I reached for were yellow, white and silver. I painted bright rays of light slanting in from all sides and corners of the canvas. In the centre of the field of light, I painted Ash. Tumbles of amber curls that seemed to grow out of the light itself. I painted her turned away from me, just the side of her cheek in view. On her shoulder I painted a bee, in tiny perfect detail. Just sitting there.
‘Because at the centre of everything is Ash’. I said out loud as I looked at the painting. A shaft of late afternoon sunlight streamed in through the window, onto the painting like a benediction. Light to light. Oh God, was Harlow still there? It was getting late.
As though I’d conjured her, the studio door opened and Ash and Freddie exploded into the room followed by Harlow. I’d forgotten to lock the door. What an idiot. The cursed Coates woman had finally breached my sanctuary. She was staring at the painting of Ash and the sunlight, her mouth open.
‘So you really are an artist.’
I just looked at her.
‘It’s a really beautiful painting.’
‘Is that me? There’s a bee on my shoulder.’ Ash was considering the painting with her usual serious expression. ‘Is it a friendly bee or is it going to sting me?’ she asked.
‘I think it’s friendly’, I said. ‘It’s resting on your shoulder while it looks for some flowers where it can get some nectar for honey-making.’ Ash looked relieved. She liked honey.
‘Freddie wants to swim. Can we swim?’
‘Of course, sweetie, go and get changed and I’ll come out and watch you.’ I turned back to Harlow. She was looking a painting done by a very disturbed child I was treating. It was a painting of ugly monsters with human faces, and quite unsettling. I needed to get her out of my studio.
‘Don’t you have any other clients to harass?’ I asked.
‘Actually its Saturday, so technically I’m not working. This was a catch – up visit as I ran out of time yesterday.’
‘Then why are you still here?’
‘Queen had a headache so I sent her home. And Ash and I were having fun.’ She blushed.
I wondered if she was embarrassed that she had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than hang out with a child she was not related to at a home where she was not wanted.