Read time: 16 mins

In the womb

by Peter-Adrian Altini
26 April 2023

Faint purple liquid advanced along the tube towards his mother’s flesh. Her left hand lay stretched out, palm facing upwards, a patchwork of surgical tape securing the needle to her wrist. With her right hand, she paged through the magazine Damon had bought her from the stationery shop below the clinic. Watching her fingers contract and unclench with each drip from the suspended bag, only he was conscious of their silent percussion, as if they were pumping her body with music and light, filling her veins with the strings of a symphony and not turning her blood to lead with their beautiful poisons.

‘Planes are expected to fall from the sky.’ She drew in her breath. ‘Can you imagine? They say power stations will burn to the ground.’

Many things amazed his mother, the threat of the Millennium Bug further evidence of the marvels of technology, like portable CD players or text messaging on her brand-new Motorola.

‘I wouldn’t stress.’ Damon lowered his voice, mindful of the other patients. ‘Fair Lady’s not exactly quality journalism.’

She folded the magazine in half and cleared her throat. I didn’t hear you come home last night.’

You were asleep.’

Were you with Cleo?’

I dont have any other friends.’

You dont have any other friends yet’, his mother corrected him. These things take time.’

The elderly man on his mothers right addressed a nurse in rapid-fire Afrikaans, flinching as she withdrew the IV from his arm. Two other women wearing matching brown wigs completed the horseshoe. They were both in early treatment for breast cancer and looked like frumpy sisters. One stared at a large print of the Brooklyn Bridge, hanging above a playpen filled with soft plastic balls. The other’s attention was concentrated on a paperback titled Beating Cancer with Faith. Watching his mother endure six years of chemo and radiotherapy had systematically eroded Damons own belligerent optimism. He did not envy these women their bloodshot eyes, their sleepless nights, the nausea and the gagging and the pools of vomit that would leave rancid yellow rings in the toilet bowl.

He stood, brushing biscuit crumbs from his lap. One of the nurses had brought in a Tupperware of homemade peppermint crisp shortbread, and he’d begged his mother not to say anything critical.

Im going to nap in the car’, he said, smiling at the other patients.

His good humour felt strained and insincere. Each week their bodies shrunk further into the orange upholstery, faces growing taut and vacant, his own robust health blooming like a splash of spilt paint, bright and obscene. He was certain they pitied his mother, with their constant questioning. Where was her husband? How long had her last remission lasted? Did she believe in God? The nurses who worked with Doctor Chantal Pienaar at Panoramas CancerCare clinic made every effort to instill in their patients a sense of familial belonging. He overheard one say how handsome he was and how her daughter who dispensed manicures in the beauty salon on the ground floor had a crush on him. She mentioned all this knowing he was still within earshot.

He has a girlfriend’, his mother said, and Damon cringed, the electronic door muffling the nurses’ responses as it swung closed behind him.

The car seat was warm. A classical music station played highlights from a festival in Lucerne, which in his imagination sounded like some far-off place ringing with church bells, fairy lights twinkling magically over bridges. He had parked in front of a shop selling gym equipment and fitness supplements. Coffee-flavoured muscle gainer, tubs of glutamine and supersized stacks of testofuel lined the windows. The young man who worked alone paced between the till and a full-length mirror. He would stop occasionally to preen, run his hands through his hair or adjust his underwear. Prone to taking frequent breaks and with an irascible smirk as if he hoped someone would challenge him, he’d position himself against the door frame under a sign that read ‘Xtreme Nutrition’ and chain smoke from a pack of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes.

Damon studied his own reflection in the rearview mirror. A rectangle that sharpened the sunburn on his nose, segmenting his face below stiff dark eyebrows, blue eyes irritated by the dust, a lower lip he had a tendency to suck whenever nervous or afraid. The young man dropped his cigarette and stared out into the car park. He saw Damon watching and glared back at him through the shadows on the windscreen. Tasting the dull tang of rising panic, Damon deflected his gaze to the nurses daughter hunched over an old womans cuticles in the beauty salon next door. The young man returned to serve a customer, and Damon closed his eyes as a solitary refrain washed over him, the spiralling arpeggio plunging him deep inside himself until it felt like the whole world was water, and the only thing left to do was drown.

His mother woke him by slipping into the passenger seat and caressing his scruffy beard with the back of her fingers. He swatted her hand away, rubbed his eyes and yawned.

‘The car was unlocked’, she said. ‘Just because we’re no longer in Joburg doesn’t mean we should become complacent.’

‘Cleos a lesbian.

His mother released a hollow sigh. Who she chooses to be is nobodys business.’

‘You sure you’re feeling up to this?’

‘Not really, but Kathleen will never let me hear the end of it.’

The CancerCare clinic receptionist had recommended Kathleen when they first moved to Cape Town. Despite a tendency towards excessive small talk and an aversion to hard work, she was a reliable housekeeper who had grown especially fond of his mother over the last six months. For some weeks, she had spoken of this woman who was known in her community as a spiritual healer, how those whom she treated were fanatical in their praise. Broken marriages, impotence, barren newlyweds, sufferers of chronic disease and depression, this womans power, Kathleen insisted, did not discriminate.

Damon turned the keys in the ignition, his mouth creased in a wry smile. ‘Can’t we arrange this voodoo for another day?’

‘It wouldn’t be fair to cancel’, his mother tutted sharply, reaching for the AA Road Atlas from the cubbyhole above her knees. ‘Kathleen has her hopes set so high.’

The hope of others was strange and almost joyful. When ones own hope had been eaten away, the hope of others was a fuel that burned the brightest of all.

*   *   *

He parked outside a house with peeling lime-green paint and rusted gutters. Weeds grew and flowered from the roof tiles like the ruined plumage of a tropical bird. The drive into Mitchells Plain had taken longer than expected, a Putco bus having stalled along a busy intersection, passengers piling out into the afternoon heat. Damon had been forced to take the coastal road via Muizenburg in order to avoid the bottleneck of minibus drivers scrambling to scavenge the extra fare. Herbert Baker-designed houses along Beach Road gave way to a series of compact, single-storey homes with tiny, functional gardens, each one surrounded by thin concrete walls or wire fences. He found the lack of burglar proofing in the township unsettling as if they had stumbled into a crime-free parallel world.

His mothers shoulders tensed as he cut the engine, her hands clasped as if in prayer. Kathleen had been waiting for them at the corner of Ajax and Parow in a brightly patterned ruffle dress.

‘Madam’, she said, squeezing forward from the back seat. ‘You wont regret this.’

‘We’re a bit on the late side’; his mother turned her head slightly. ‘So we’d best go in.’

A child of about ten received them at the door. She was barefoot and wearing a pink tracksuit. Kathleen asked her in Afrikaans if they could wait inside. The girl glared at them and nodded, her unkempt fringe flopping about on her forehead. The house was cool and smelled of last nights fried fish dinner. There were photographs of Princess Diana in the entranceway, from Rooi Rose and YOU magazines, front pages and articles that had been taped to the walls. The door to the kitchen swung open, and a little mongrel terrier darted forth, performing acrobatic feats as it sprung into the girls arms. Two teenage boys followed after. They kept their heads low and mumbled Goeiedag’ as they passed, leaning just outside the front door to share a cigarette. They were still in their uniforms, green- and gold-striped blazers, khaki shirts and trousers.

Damon was reminded of his own school uniform and the day his mother had picked him up at the end of his matric year. Arriving late and in a fluster, she had been too distracted to notice his flour-bombed trousers or the dried egg yolk on his shoes. She certainly didn’t comment on the words his classmates had scribbled in black board marker across his white dress shirt—homo, faggot, moffie, bum chum, girl. They returned to the family GP with the results from a routine mammogram and watched as he cut open the manila envelope and glanced at it quickly, his face constricting as if slapped. Damon had understood then that something very bad had just happened, and the consequences of this bad thing would take years to play out.

The little girl led them to a sofa that had caved in under the weight of repeated visitors. They sat and passed the next few minutes in silence. Even Kathleen, who usually found it hard not to voice her every thought, had nothing to say. A car stereo boomed an indiscriminate beat. An ambulance wailed towards some unacknowledged tragedy. Damon couldn’t stop his mind filling with gruesome images. The aftermath of an accident they had seen last week on the N1, a Mercedes overturned and smouldering in the median strip. Or the CCTV image of a truck plowing through a red traffic light that had made the evening news, spraying body parts the way a tractor discharges weedkiller across a field. There were so few possibilities to live an extraordinary life, yet so many ways to die.

A woman’s scream emerged from some darker recess of the house. They all jumped, startled by the sharp, distressed nature of her cry. Only the little girl seemed unfazed. The terrier barked, and the woman screamed again, followed by the commands and cries of another voice, this second one almost encouraging the other. His mothers face turned the same off-white colour of the wall behind her. After a moments hesitation, Damon stood and offered her his hand.

‘Come. We’ve wasted enough time already.’

Marina, don’t go’, Kathleens eyes bulged. ‘Margaret will help you. I know she will.’

‘How?’ Damon’s challenge was directed at Kathleen. ‘By screaming the cancer into remission?’

For six years his mother had used every available means to treat her illness, submitting to surgery, cytotoxic drugs and high-dose radiation. She had experimented with shark-fin extract, hydrogen peroxide and coffee enemas. Damon could even recall one difficult morning while she wrestled with a glass of her own urine.

‘He’s right’, his mother said in a soft voice, trying to ease the tension. ‘We’d better go. I’ll leave something for her, of course.’

She rummaged through her purse and froze when Kathleen leaned across to hug her.

‘Madam, please stay’, she said, her gaze moist and a little wary.

He wanted to shake them both, insist again on leaving, but there was something about the way Margaret’s daughter stared at the unfolding scene. He returned to the sofa and fiddled with a torn strip of the faux leather.

‘Whats with the photographs of Lady Diana?’ he asked after a long pause.

Kathleens eyebrows peaked in appreciation, gratified she could answer his question with some authority.

Margaret dreamt of Dianas death a week before her tragic accident. She even wrote a letter to warn her.’

That seems a little far-fetched’, his mother said.

The little girl moved towards them, the dog twitching in her arms. She smiled for the first time and sat down, rubbing her bottom between the cushions as if trying to neutralise an itch.

Its the honest truth’, Kathleen said. ‘Margaret showed me the letter. It was sent back, unopened. She knew about the car accident. The tunnel. She said it would happen near a famous tower.’

‘I’m surprised we didn’t read about it in Fair Lady.’ Damon winked at his mother. He remembered the drive to university that previous September. Every streetlamp and traffic light advertising The Star’s early morning headline Death of a Princess.

Two women emerged from the bedroom. They were laughing and chatting as if their screams had been nothing more than the casual histrionics of a daytime television soap. The older woman placed a twenty-rand note in the healers palm. When she smiled, Damon noticed that her two front teeth were missing. His mother stood stiffly as Kathleen introduced them. Margaret grasped her hand and shook it. She gestured for Damon to join and led them down a corridor towards the master bedroom. A painting of two dolphins frolicking in an aquamarine sea had been hung above a neatly made double bed. Three matching chairs lined the wall opposite. Damon sat and crossed his legs, his right foot bouncing over his left. He stared at the lurid seascape until his eyes hurt.

Margaret observed his mother. We can start when youre ready.’

She spoke English with a strong local accent. It was the accent of cleaners and caretakers, of supermarket cashiers and entry-level civil servants. It certainly wasnt the accent that usually accompanied his mothers illness, the accent of oncologists and their staff of politely spoken nurses.

His mother nodded, her forehead creased in thought.

‘Words are not their things’, Margaret began. ‘A map is not a landscape, and an atlas is not the world. Last week I saw a man get shot in the street. As he lay on the ground and we waited for the ambulance to arrive, small birds escaped from the wound on his chest.’

She drew back her shoulders and extended her arms, as if to invoke a supernatural force.

‘Should I close my eyes?’ his mother asked, a thin line of sweat sparkling on her forehead.

Margaret nodded, mumbling quietly.

‘History is written in the womb’, she said. ‘We are going to have to heal your soul before we can heal your body.’

She placed her palms on either side of his mother’s head and took a deep breath. With pointed fingers sharp as thorns, Margaret thrust them into his mother’s skull.

‘You are a tree whose roots are stunted because they cannot penetrate the ground. Its blocking your path to healing. Its stopping you from burning the cancer from your body! Burning it with Jesus’s love, using Jesus’s light and Jesus’s wonder to burn this cancer from your body and spirit!’

He thought his mother would wince at this pious reference, but she remained a model of faith-healing propriety. It was as if she had chosen to act out a part, like the blind man astounded he can cast away his cane or the deaf woman able to detect voices in the vacuum around her.

‘You can stand up and open your eyes now,’ Margaret gripped his mothers hands in her own, unlikely dance partners. ‘You have so much worry, so much sadness. You got hurt because you didn’t believe you deserved better.

Damon watched them sway in smooth, circular motions. An almost perfect waltz. His vision blurred, the dolphins on the wall behind them morphing into monstrous creatures. His mother shook herself, trying to break free. Margaret made a sound that started in the pit of her stomach, a primitive growl ascending with such violence the final cry when it left her lips was sharp enough to induce a muffled ringing in his ears. She pulled down hard, and his mother cried out like an animal caught in a trap, before releasing a long, wavering, high-pitched ululation. They wailed together, deep, painful sobs, the healer’s body pressed against hers, massaging her chest with her forehead. He felt a queasy tightness in his stomach, this woman rubbing herself against his mother’s hips like a dog in heat. The healer turned and fixed her gaze on Damon, broken blood vessels in the whites of her eyes. All of a sudden it was over. Her face softened, and her nose began to run, a thin line of mucus trailing the curl of her upper lip.

Your son will look after you’, she said. ‘Not all the men in your life will abandon you.’

His mother, her face drawn and makeup smudged, appeared visibly worn out. They retraced their steps into the living room where Kathleen sat stroking the terrier, her expression impassive, like a child who pretends they havent heard their parents argue. The little girl was playing on the carpet by her feet, a rainbow spread of crayons encircling a book of half-coloured Disney Princesses. His mother placed a fifty-rand note in the healers palm.

Damon offered Margaret a tissue for the snot that had hardened like a faint moustache. He felt her reach for his hands, thinking she might say something about his mother—the usual caring platitudes of those she had conscripted into helping her fight her cancer. How he had to look after and support her, love and cherish the time he had left with her. As if he would somehow forget to be the good son.

Youre in grave danger’, she said, her fingers turning to stone. ‘You’re in grave danger of finding yourself.’

She smiled then as if she had said something clever. He felt his throat constrict, afraid she would peel away one too many layers and reveal something he was not ready for the world to hear.

‘You were born whole, but now you are split in two.’ She leaned closer, her voice almost a whisper. ‘And the distance inside you is growing wider.’

*   *   *

Kathleen lived nearby and said she would walk. That the sea breeze and sun in her face would do her good. His mother wanted to delay returning home, so they drove up the Ou Kaapse Weg towards Silvermine, parked and walked along a narrow path towards a viewpoint. A bushfire had destroyed the forests bordering the dark mineral waters of a mountain reservoir. It had raged for several days last Christmas, filling the sky with red smoke and flames as tall as buildings. The sky now was a vapid blue, the landscape barren, granite boulders against scorched earth, pine trees razed in a jagged silhouette.

‘I was watching your face’, his mother said. ‘Did she say something to upset you?’

That womans a joke. All that snot and hysteria.’ Upon registering his mothers disappointment, Damon felt immediately contrite. She said something about me being two people.’

‘Is that how you feel?’

He could tell it was a difficult question for her to ask. He wondered if his admission would torch everything between them, eradicate all in its path. He drew his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, mindful of the pain that sometimes radiated from her lower spine with unpredictable violence. Resting her head against his, the shifting roles of parent and child were upturned like a trickling hourglass.

She made me remember something I’d forgotten’, she said. ‘That time at the convent when the nuns were teaching us how to swim.’

Damon knew the story well. She had told him when he was little, and he had never forgotten it, a lingering dark seed of anger as if what had befallen her had happened to him as well.

‘I was right back there, Sister Rose and Sister Greta sitting under the shade of a giant Mompane tree. Ten of us in the pool, laughing, splashing each other. A bigger girl locks her legs around my neck and shoulders, pushing me under. At first, I think she’s only playing, trying to scare me a little.’

Damon felt his stomach roil, hands squeezed into fists. ‘You told me this.’

‘I swear the world went red. Not white, like in the movies. I open my mouth, but you need air to scream, and there was only water. Fifty rand, and that’s what she made me remember. The nuns said it was my fault. They forced me to sit with them week after week, stinking in those thick clothes they hardly washed and swatting away flies.’

Streaks of cloud formed and dissolved in the wind above them. After a long silence, his mother continued.

‘I want you to have those paintings we bought in Zimbabwe. Your sister doesnt really care for them.’

I don’t want to talk about this.’

Dont you think we should?

‘You’re going to be fine. You’ve fought so hard to beat this.’

Living with the expectation of her death for so long, it seemed strange to think they would soon have to get down to the business of dying itself.

I won’t get to meet my grandchildren.’ She clasped her hands to stop herself from trembling. ‘You know you can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous to start a family in South Africa.’

He felt himself jolted forward. What sort of joys would his children carry? Would their cries at play be any different from the voices of other children as they chased each other and scuffed their knees?

How can you be sure we want the same things?’

His mother frowned. Did she genuinely not see him for who he was, split in two and drifting endlessly apart? Did she not know about the schoolboy crushes, the names they called him? Words the other boys had been too polite to write upon his shirt? The wind picked up, and he shifted around her, using his body as shelter.

Youre always trying to protect me’, she said.

An overwhelming sadness blotted his vision. He knew even in this he would fail. But his love for her. This was perfect. And when you loved someone with such complete authority, when the love itself was a buoyant and living thing, what right did you have to cut it open, to reveal an ugly truth? They sat pinioned, pressed against the weight of two oceans.

Damon counted out the measure of his mother’s breath. Every inhale and exhale. Filling her body with music and light.

About the Author

Peter-Adrian Altini

Peter-Adrian Altini is a South African novelist, screenwriter and university lecturer based in Paris, whose short stories have been published in the Fish Anthology (2019), Iron Horse Literary Review (2021) and Storgy Magazine (2021). His short story ‘Hanna. With 2 Ns’ will appear in the upcoming South African anthology, Short, Sharp, Stories (2023). Gentleboys, his […]