A short story by ELIZABETH PIENAAR
I stepped over the rubble and walked down the stairs. I can’t remember why. I think it was to check the location of a down-pipe. Her voice came from behind me, clear and firm – “Will you hold my hand?”
At first I couldn’t see anyone, but when she spoke again, I realized her voice came from the lushly-planted flowerbeds, from just beneath the tree-fern, in fact. She emerged, hand held out. Her eyes were pale blue, her hair was straggly blonde.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Three.” It would be a tall three, a word-capable three, who must be closer to four, I thought, running instant comparisons to my own nearly-three year old. “Will you come with me?” She slipped her hand into mine and began pulling me down the path. Just through the doorway, door off its hinges, back up the stair, (stripped to concrete), and over the rubble, stood the builder, the electrician, and the clients.
I knelt down to her eye level. “What’s your name, baby?”
“Emily. Come. Come now!”
“I have to work, Emily,” I nodded at the doorway. Her face crumpled up.
There was not another soul in sight. Not a gardener, not a nanny. No Granny. No Mommy. She yanked at my arm again. “Got to find my brother, I’m looking for my brother.”
And so the builder and the electrician and the client stood waiting and I followed her, what else could I do, down the little path to the main tarred road of the complex, which led to the guards, the guardhouse and the gate. And beyond that, to one of the city’s busiest roads. She led me on, confidently, across the tar, to the grass, rolling expanses there-of, newly green, always framed by extensive flowerbeds.
“Where’s your brother?’ She didn’t respond. We kept walking. “Emily?”
“Where’s your brother?”
“Just here, he’s just over there.” She waved at the empty lawn.
We walked until we saw a jungle gym. She let go my hand and ran for the swing. I grew angry. I had my clients standing waiting. But there was not another living being to be seen. “Emily,” I said firmly, lifting her from the swing, “I have to work. Where’s your mommy?” Her lips set. “Where do you live?”
“So, not here?”
She ignored me, grabbed my arm and pulled again. “Come, we have to find my brother.” She tugged me through the garbage yard, a paved area where all the bins stood, overflowing. We slipped between the bins. On the other side of the yard we found a vegetable garden: straggly rows of tomato and spinach run to seed on either side of a concrete rain culvert. Emily jumped in. The culvert ran through the rickety fence dividing these grounds from the next property. At the fence lay a dead rat. I stepped into the culvert to lift her back out. Then she grabbed my hand again and we trudged through the droopy tomato bushes, up the hill. I noticed a smashed bottle of gin in the soil.
I tried to direct her back towards my job. She pulled me in the opposite direction, to the curving toad. “His name is Paul.”
“My brother. Come.”
“Are you visiting someone here?”
“Granny. For a long time.”
“Mommy too. And Paul.”
“Can you remember Granny’s house? Is it this one?” I walked towards the closest unit. She shook her head. “Or this one?” I tried the next house. She shook her head. “Well, do you know where you’re staying?”
“Here.” She stamped her foot. “I’m staying here. Come, we have to find my brother.” We were halfway up the hill, by now, near the end of a row of units. The road forked, cutting back parallel with the main road to the entrance gate, and also continuing on up the hill. This was not a small complex, three face-brick rows of six units each lined the road on either side, three more stood at the crest of the hill, two more rows beyond that. I was tired. And my clients were waiting. I prayed the builder would keep them talking, but by now, I was sure they’d all be wondering what had happened to me.
Emily darted behind a concrete panel wall at the end of the garages: “Maybe Paul’s here.” It was just more dustbins. Emily ran into a thicket of trees, yelling “Or here.” She crawled out of the trees and leapt onto a retaining wall. “Or here.” I caught her by her t’shirt, faded pink, as she galloped down the hill again towards a small pond, “Or….”
“Where?” I held her face in my hands. “Where, Emily?” I was sure her brother didn’t exist.
“Have to, have to find him,” she became instantly teary. “We were only playing now he’s gone. Have to find him.”
I took her hand and marched up to the nearest door, a pale wood with horizontal inlays. “Is Paul here?” She shook her head. The next door was black. It had a security gate set close to it. “Do you live here?” She shook her head. A white truck pulled up beside us, slowly, the only sign of life I’d seen since I’d left my project apartment half demolished. “Are you looking for her?” I asked the driver hopefully.
“No Ma’am,” he frowned. “Just dropping off, at number twenty-three.”
“Do you live up here Emily?” This door was also set with horizontal inlays, but it had been stained mahogany. “Can you show me where you live?”
“Have to find my brother. We were playing.”
“Can we find your mom and dad?”
“My dad is in Iraaaaaq.” Punctuated with a jump.
I gripped her hand so tightly my nails dug into my palm. I marched her house to house, up the hill. “Tell me if you see your house.” I commanded. She smiled. She skipped. She seemed to relax. She seemed to think this was a new game. Every door we went up to, she shook her head.
Another white car, a small sedan, crawled by and stopped. “Can I help you?” the woman asked. “Are you visiting?”
“No,” I said and I’m sure my anxiety showed, “This little girl is lost she can’t seem to find where she lives.”
“I’m on the body corporate,” the woman said. “I know everyone here and there’s no-one who has a child this young. She must be visiting. Go and ask the guards, they know everything that goes on.”
And so I turned around and marched Emily down the hill between the rather staid mid-eighties buildings, artfully decorated by elaborate vegetation. Down past the pond back towards the apartment with the door off its hinges, yes and the clients waiting upstairs, on toward the main road, the gate, and the guards. And…“I do do do know where I’m staying,” she announced. “With Granny, Mommy too. And Paul. But we were playing.”
One last time, I stopped. Eye to eye, I asked. “Do you know which house is Granny’s?”
She dropped her eyes. She shook her head. I looked around. But again, there was no-one else in sight.
I turned back. I took her through the open doorway, up the concrete stair and lifted her over the rubble. The builder and the electrician and the clients stared. Emily careened toward an exposed steel strut. “Careful her head,” yelled Mrs X.
“She’s lost,” I explained to Mr X’s posed questioning lips and irritated frown.
“I see,” he said. He raised his eyebrows.
“What’s your name, sweetheart,” asked Mrs X, bending down and straightening her bedraggled pink skirt.
“Emily Skye.” She wrapped herself into my skirt.
“She’s all alone. She says she’s looking for her brother but I don’t believe… well, there was certainly no-one else in sight. Anywhere. In this whole complex.” I sighed. “I’m sorry to keep you all waiting.”
“And the mother?” My builder scowled. My builder is six foot three, balding and of a solid girth.
He shook his head. “Well, well. I tell you now, I would not, never ever, let my grandchild play alone. And if I caught my daughter being so neglectful…” He thumped a fist against the wall. The plaster that remained, crumbled. “These days,” again he shook his head, “These days, you just don’t know.”
I raised my eyebrows. I sighed. And set my lips.
We cut the meeting short and I led her back over the rubble, down the raw stairs, to find the guards. As we neared the gate, she pulled my arm, straining towards an overgrown pathway along the front row of units. “Here, maybe, I think Paul is here.”
I decided to play along a last time, stopping at each door and asking “Here? Here?” About midway, we came to a particularly well-refurbished unit. The door had been set back, an expensive Cambodian pot stood in the travertine covered portico, three framed ebony figurines hung on the wall. Emily stopped. “Here?” She shook her head so vehemently, I knew I’d finally found home.
I reached for the doorbell and the child began to cry, “No, no, Nanna says no, not allowed to ring the bell!” She stomped her foot and waggled her finger ominously at me. Then she slithered away in to the foliage.
I rang anyway. There was a long silence before the front door inched open. A tall woman in a silver grey sweater eyed me coldly. I reached for Emily, held onto her shirt. “I found your daughter, she was lost.” All my anxiety and anger welled up now, “She was all alone. We’ve searched this place from one end to the other – we had no way to find an adult.” The woman didn’t blink. I saw her fingernails reach for a hidden buzzer. The wrought iron security door protecting the expensive pot from me swung loose, Emily slid through and clicked it shut. Red talons gripped her shoulder.
“She was just playing,” said the woman and slammed the door shut.
When I returned for my next meeting, Emily Skye topped the agenda. The builder couldn’t stop mumbling “In this day and age… a little girl alone… in this day and age…” The clients weren’t local so perhaps they didn’t understand my outrage or the old man rambling. But it was odd, they both agreed, to let such a small child out of sight out for hours on end.
Out of sight. Not a soul in sight. Not a nanny. Not a Granny, not a Mommy. No-one to notice if a door opened and closed quickly, a hand grabbed a small person in. No-one to notice if a small shrill voice screamed then went muffled.
If she was there. Or not.
It was a large complex. Wandering the units with Emily, peering up at the dropped blinds, drawn curtains, closed windows, it was clearly a complex patronized by rich people with lock-ups, business or bushveld stop-offs, retained but infrequently used. Looking in at the sleek glassware and collectible sculpture displayed on the sills and in the picture windows, it was clearly a grown-up working person’s complex, alive only after the sun set. Looking through the fewer frilly lace curtains at shining silverware and bulging antiques, it was clearly an older person’s complex, sunning the days away behind firmly closed doors. There may have been a jungle gym, but it was certainly not often used.
On my whole walk with Emily that morning, there had been only one unit with a window open. It looked shabbier than the rest, and therefore out of place. I noticed it at once because my eye is always drawn to a good potential renovation. It was, I remembered now, where the van was delivering, number twenty-three. I remembered and my hand began to shake and my tears splattered the newspaper till I could no longer see the straggly pale hair, the sweet smile and the big blue eyes gazing out of the front page.
How Can This Happen? shouted the headlines of the afternoon paper. What sort of world do we live in? intoned the editorial of the leading Sunday paper. Both newspapers quoted her mother. “She was only out playing,” she said.
Elizabeth Pienaar is an award-winning South African writer.