It was May and I’d spent the day cutting Pineapple Lilies to ground level and covering them with a deep mulch to protect them from frosts. I was no gardener and I was proud of my squirrelly preparations for winter. Johannesburg looked beautiful – the African Tulips flushed vermilion in the Highveld sun, and the Maidenhair trees were as gold as the mineral that runs rich and deep through the reef below the city. Fading memories of rain dissipated in the dry autumn air – the rains would not return until spring.
I was as mellow as the season. I was sunk into the sofa with my feet in Jake’s lap. They felt boneless as he worked my pressure points. The air was cold, and a small fire murmured in the log burner. The living room of the little house in Orange Grove that we had occupied for just three weeks was furnished simply with bright kilim rugs and other fruits of our expeditions to thrift shops. Jack stopped kneading my feet and I gave him a small kick.
‘Harlow,’ his voice carried a low threat.
‘Don’t kick the hand that massages you.’ I kicked him again and he dug his nails into my foot.
When the back door crashed open, I started with such force that I ricked my neck. Four men swarmed into the room, three of them scarcely more than boys, but nothing toy-like about the Saturday night specials they brandished, proud little cocks showing off their cox-combs.
‘Hey Bitches,’ the leader strutted across the living room, gangster-handsome, dressed-for-success in Armani. He was calm as a winter’s night, cold as a concrete block.
‘Guns, cash, phones, right now, you have thirty seconds, let’s move, Bitches.’ He addressed himself to Jake, who had shrunk into the sofa, seemed swallowed by it. The leader looked at me, his lip curled. ‘Then we’ll taste your woman.’
‘We have no guns or money, please, take whatever you want. The TV, phones, here,’ Jake half rose, held out his iPhone 5, his prized possession, grabbed my twin phone. His and hers with the matching covers – mine a storm, his sunny skies, bought in jest but containing the truth of why we worked. His calm to my storms, his B to my A, yin and yang.
‘You’ve feng-shuied me,’ he’d say and kiss my lips.
The leader flicked a glance to one of the youths who he leaped forward, pocketed the phones and pistol-whipped Jake across the side of the head. Jake melted down onto the edge of the sofa, slid onto the floor, an exhaled breath.
‘You won’t be that stupid, will you, Bitch,’ the leader said, and I pointed to my handbag on the teak coffee table I had found in an antique store and bought with my first pay-check.
‘In my bag – my gun, cash, that’s all there is,’ wanted to add, ‘don’t hurt us please,’ but what was the point. Jake was already hurt; I knew what was in store for me. Knew it the minute the door was kicked open. The leader’s eyes held mockery, hatred, amusement. I was his possession, his bounty. I met his eyes with defiance, would not show weakness, look away. He held my gaze while the others swarmed around the house returning with items they wanted and throwing them into a black bin-bag. There wasn’t much worth taking, some clothes, jewellery, an old laptop.
‘Get naked, Bitch.’ The three young sidekicks giggled, aimed some pelvic thrusts in my direction, one grabbed his crotch, rubbed furiously. I did as I was told, felt four pairs of eyes assault me. Jake stirred and met my gaze from where he lay, the storm in his eyes now.
‘Don’t watch,’ I said, but he seemed not to hear, his pupils fixed points of pain fastened on mine as I was raped. I tried to dissociate like I did at the dentist, tried to imagine a beach, warm sun, water lapping, as the leader hammered away at me, the kilim rough beneath my back. He licked my face like a dog, his acrid breath foul on my face.
‘This too will pass,’ I told myself, tried not to react, not to cry out, knew he got off on my pain. I hoped a lack of reaction would get it over quicker. ‘Please only one please only one,’ writhed like a brain worm round and round in my mind. Then he choked me, hands around my throat, tighter and tighter and I knew he was snuffing me out like a paraffin lamp, and I let go, floated above my kicking struggling self and away into the comforting darkness.
I regained consciousness to pain that lay beyond the crying of it, a slashing blade that gave me simultaneously air and agony. My throat cut, my crotch aflame, Jake’s unflinching gaze like a blind pulled down, opaque.
‘Now die, Bitch,’ a final kick aimed at my groin, connected with the soft flesh of my thigh. I was surprised it hurt so much amid the other, greater hurts. I heard them leave; the broken back door banged repetitively against the kitchen bench. The chilly outside air had long since snatched away our domestic warmth. Cold. I needed to move, fetch help; I felt my head roll back. My cut throat had severed supporting ligaments, must have missed major vessels or I’d be dead. I grabbed my hair, held my head in position with one hand, clutched my sweater to cover myself with the other, best I could. I couldn’t speak, I tapped Jake with a bloodied foot, tried to set him in motion but he was unresponsive. I staggered outside, knew they would be there waiting, heard voices. Indecision hobbled me. To go towards the voices or go the other way? I staggered towards, heard a shout. Still unsure whether salvation or death, I fell to my knees unable to take another step either way, heard a flood of expletives. I felt supporting hands on my arms, a jacket wrapped around me.