The first time I heard the child’s crying was on a Tuesday morning at the end of winter. It hadn’t rained for four months, and the dry Johannesburg air sparked with static, my every action accompanied by its own little shock. Doorknob, computer keyboard, kettle, each snapped their objection to my good-morning touch. My lips were painfully split, the skin on my arms and legs as scaly as the leathery skins of the skinks that lived in the fissures of my cracked veranda tiles. I’d woken late and managed to fumble a cup of coffee, still only half-dressed, when the phone rang with a pre-arranged call from a therapist in LA who had sent me two drawings for an opinion. His name, Dr Zane Peridone, brought to mind anti-depressants, but his voice was deep and resonant – I’d seldom heard a voice so deep. I put him on speaker and at the sound, Freddie-the-Fixer, my golden retriever-cross-mutt, rolled onto his back and bared his tummy as if expecting the American to appear and give it a rub.
‘Dr Redding?’ said Peridone.
‘Call me Scott.’ I shivered, wishing I’d pulled a sweater over my t-shirt before answering the call.
‘Sure, Scott thanks for agreeing to take a look,’ he said. ‘I know you get a lot of requests.’
‘Happy to. I have the drawings on the screen in front of me. The young man who drew them is a refugee?’
‘Yes, he’s suffering from traumatic amnesia and can’t remember anything about his old life. Any insights you can share from the drawings could help us re-connect him with his memories and his family.’
The sound of crying crept onto the edges of my awareness like a wind howling on some distant plain. I blocked it out and concentrated on speaking to the American. The first of the two drawings was simply a page split in two, the top half coloured blue, the lower half, brown.
‘The first drawing,’ I said, ‘the one done in coloured pencil, is suggestive to me of a field of some crop (wheat possibly) under clear skies. On the level of colour alone, brown symbolises earth, blue peace. It’s his dreamscape. Perhaps he grew up in the country — a rural setting where he felt anchored, happy. Without further information, it’s speculation of course, but it may give you some avenues to investigate.’
Gradually the crying swelled until my full attention tuned only to its monotonous notes. Not that it grew louder, rather that I let it in. At my feet, Freddie sat up and cocked his head. Dr Peridone was speaking. I tried to focus on his words.
‘… first drawing is peaceful, the second is anything but. The charcoal pencil, the heavy lines of the row of squares. What do they suggest to you?’
I said, ‘They may represent a building, perhaps an apartment block, blown apart. To me the top line suggests order, the partial squares and single lines beneath it, the random angles as if spinning in space, show chaos. It could be a literal building or symbolic of the loss of order and control in his life.’ Freddie went over to the French doors and whined. He returned to my side and pawed at my leg. Dr Peridone thanked me for my help.
‘One more thing worth mentioning,’ I said. ‘A square represents the heart in Islam. It may be relevant if your patient is Muslim — broken squares, broken hearts?’
I ended the call and walked outside, scattering skinks, the warmth of the morning sun welcome after the chill indoors. Even my tears had been desiccated by the dry air; no way to blink away the sand that seemed to film my eyeballs, the simple task of seeing made painful. It was almost September, almost spring, the rains could be a month away, or more. Too long. Once outside I couldn’t hear a thing. No crying. Only the mechanical churring of a crested barbet.
‘Did you hear what I heard, Freddie? Sounded like a kid in trouble. What d’you reckon boy?’ The Fixer looked uninterested and returned inside where he flopped down, sending one of last night’s beer cans clattering across the tiles. Like me, he was sleep-deprived, my lights and restlessness having disturbed him until 3am. I wondered if the crying had been real. Last night when I’d finally fallen asleep, I’d dreamed of my daughter. Perhaps it was her crying I’d remembered so vividly. The thought was a raw wound even after all this time. I pulled on a pair of Levis, stuck my face in a basin of cold water and tried to think about something (anything) else.*
A few days later, I was in my studio with the French doors open when I heard the crying again. It seemed to emanate from a neighbouring house. ‘There it is again, Freddie. Hear that?’ I grabbed my Ray Bans and went into the garden. The Fixer stayed inside and watched, nose in doorway, as I paced the length of my garden wall. A trained therapy dog, he knew the difference between on duty and off. The crying was loudest at the western end of the wall. The sound was high-pitched and melancholy, not signifying need — hunger, boredom, pain — I ran through a list in my mind and crossed these off. Rather it was the lament of some animal snared, hope of rescue abandoned after hours of struggle, a keening, containing a world of helplessness. It was making my head hurt and I needed it to stop.