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Friday, 22 July 2016 17:45

Welcome to Heartland Territory

By  Robyn Porteous
The morning was damp, cool and grey. Olivia walked across a field that changed haphazardly from the gold of dry grass to the black charred remains of a veld fire. She put her parcels down for a moment, reached up with gloved hands and removed her scarf, tucking it between the handles of the handbag that hung from her left shoulder. Her cheeks were flushed. She picked up the parcels again and resumed her journey.

Beneath her feet, small clouds of black dust puffed up when she walked across patches of burnt grass. She could see the faint mist of her breath condensing in the cold air and she kept her eyes facing forwards, scanning the horizon of the little hill she was walking up. Attracted suddenly by movement out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of someone to her right. She was not startled to discover the presence of another living being. Her mind instead drifted to how much she liked the colour of the beanie that the person was wearing. It reminded her of a dress her mother had made a long time ago for one of her special porcelain dolls. She wondered now where the doll might be.

As she reached the middle of the field, in line with the sign that read “Welcome to Heartland Territory”, she set the parcels on the ground again. They were heavy, filled with the odds and ends she’d had to collect. Things that had previously been scattered around the room in the hospital where her mother no longer lay. The nurses had been kind enough to leave the room as it was for a couple of days. Until the arrival of a new patient meant that the bed – her mother’s bed – was to be filled. The nurses had called Olivia, causing her to surface from her mourning for a moment, and asked her to come and collect everything.

Her mother had been in the hospital for so long that Olivia had grown to think of it as her room. Now, she carried what had been left behind in the Pick ‘n Pay packets she held in either hand. She’d taken everything: the meaningless little trinkets that had lived on the bedside table and could be bought for R5 from the pharmacy on the ground floor. The tatty old clothes and hole-filled stockings that her mother hadn’t even worn, because it’d been too painful for her to get out of bed every morning and change. Even the half-empty toiletries that had gone untouched towards the end and simply cluttered up the little cupboard alongside her mother’s bed.

Olivia took her time straightening up, relishing the stretch she felt along her spine. She flexed her fingers in and out, in and out, in and out. Then, crossing her arms over in front of her, she picked up the parcels and set off on her way again.

As she came over a slight rise in the field, she saw the person with the blue beanie. It was a woman, who stood still with her back to Olivia. She could see that the woman’s pants were ripped, exposing dry, dark skin in the patches where the material had been torn away. The blue beanie on her head was in a sorry state. It was dirty and the wool of its knit unravelled in several places around the woman’s head. The top she wore, which looked as if it been white a very long time ago, covered what seemed to be a slightly crooked spine.

Olivia’s slow steps along the natural path in the field brought her steadily nearer to the woman. In her own ears, the crunching of her feet on the black dust of the dry, grassy field seemed incredibly loud and she cringed with every step. But the woman did not seem to hear her and remained facing the other way.

Olivia eventually drew level with the woman. As she did so, the woman turned her head to face her. The red eyes looked tired and unsurprised at the arrival of another human being. Her gaze passed over Olivia in a similar fashion to the cows that one sometimes encountered in this very field, who stood and lazily surveyed the landscape between mouthfuls of grass.

As Olivia walked on, she realised she had been holding her breath and let it out with a quick sigh. She didn’t know why she’d been holding her breath – had she been frightened? If she was, she couldn’t understand why. Especially because the woman hadn’t shown a fraction of interest in her. Whatever she might have feared, it was all in her imagination, and in the echo of horror-filled news stories that her father watched on the news at night with the television turned down to a whisper.

The nervous pounding of her heart subsided was replaced by the heavy thudding of footsteps behind her. The sound was coming closer and a tendril of fear wound its way down her spine. She was tempted to turn around, but decided instead to quicken her pace. The decision came too late, however, and the woman in the blue beanie was in front of her after only a couple of big, quick steps. She stopped in the middle of a burnt patch of grass and turned to face Olivia.

For a second time, she found herself watched by the bloodshot eyes. This time, however, there was no nonchalance about the way she was surveyed. She took note of the lines deeply etched into the woman’s skin. Her lips were cracked and a pink tongue darted out now and then in an attempt to moisten them. The white shirt bore a tear in its front that framed the frantic in and out heaving of the skeletal stomach. Olivia was immediately overwhelmed by the mixed stench of sweat and sour breath that invaded the air. She wanted to gag, but feared offending the woman. The two stood in a stalemate in the middle of a patch of black, burnt grass. A couple of seconds passed as she watched the woman, who watched her in return. Olivia felt fear and curiosity.

Having caught her breath, the woman took a single step forwards. This sudden advancement caused Olivia to let out a squeak of surprise. They were roughly the same size – although she was certainly not as skinny as the woman whose ribs were visible through the rip in her shirt – but despite this equal matching, she felt her hands break into a hot sweat. The parcels she held seemed to grow heavier, as the surface of the fingers that held them became suddenly moist.

She felt the urge to throw the parcels at the woman and run. As she made up her mind to do so, the woman reached her hand out towards her. Olivia froze. The woman grabbed her coat and clenched the fabric tightly. Olivia began an awkward struggle with the woman. The parcels swung from side to side as they scuffled. Olivia grew more frantic, desperate to be free, while trying not to choke on the sharp scent of sweat and sour breath.

As the dust from the ash at their feet was sent up into the air, she felt the woman tug hard at her arm. This sudden force caused her to lose her balance and she fell towards the woman who fell backwards. They crumpled to the ground. Olivia’s hands flew open and outwards in an effort to break her fall. The parcels fell free and landed on either side of them. The woman shot up with surprising agility and turned her attention to the parcels on the ground. She fell upon them and the air was filled with the rustling sounds of the two plastic packets as the woman searched them.

Olivia was about to reach out and fight to get the packets back, but realised that she was no longer the focus of the woman’s attention. Her coat was no longer trapped in the grip of the woman’s hands. Instead of relief, she felt torn. She wanted to run and find someone she could tell what had happened, who would call the police. But she also felt attached to the odds and ends in the packets. She wondered if she should tell the woman that there was actually nothing of any value to be found in them. That it was just the remnants of her mother’s long and painful stay in the cancer ward. But instead of saying something, she took off in a run, leaving a trail of faint mist from her shallow breaths as she went.

After a minute, she reached the edge of the field and stopped. She turned to look back. The woman in the blue beanie was nowhere to be seen and neither were the two parcels. Suddenly remembering her handbag, she reached up to her left shoulder and was surprised to find it still hung there, no worse for wear. She looked down at her coat, which was covered in a faint black dust. Her hands were still sweating and, as she reached up with both hands to smooth down her hair, she could feel her forehead was wet as well.

She fought the urge to go back and search for some small memento. There would be nothing left. And even if there was, it wouldn’t bring her mother back. She turned her back on the Heartland Territory and scampered up an embankment to the roadside. Walking along it, she reached a row of houses. An old woman was perched upon the front steps of one of them. Olivia thought about walking up to the woman and telling her what had happened. But she knew there was nothing to say. She wasn’t hurt. She was okay. And she hadn’t really lost anything important in those parcels.

She walked past the house and the old woman. She wondered why she had nearly fought the woman in the blue beanie for the parcels. What had she been fighting for? It would have been far easier – and less dusty – for them both, if she had simply given her the parcels and let her go.

She turned towards home. As she walked, she brushed the ashes of the burnt grass from her coat.

 

 

 

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