The Crown by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.
We feature poet and performance artist Philippa Yaa De Villiers’ award-winning short story. The Crown won second prize in the Arts24/Kwela Books Corona Fiction competition.
Fiona checked over her shoulder and quickly closed the Women’s Ways magazine open on her screen. It felt weird to worry about Van Reenen, her line manager at the workstation Hamish had setup in the spare room. A cloudy light made it past the thick ugly curtains, adding to the surreptitious atmosphere. It felt like the beady eyes of the surveillance cameras at Gordonson Insurance had followed her to Kublai Khan and were staring down at her from the painting of Paris in the rain, above the bed.
“Working from home” used to be shorthand for dodging some inane sector meeting or software training or something. It was never a proper thing, well at least as far as Fiona was concerned. Now it was a proper thing, thank you sweet jesus because Hamish was starting to get on her whatsits. Ouch, and each time she thought that, her tooth started paining, like it was punishing her for even thinking anything bad about him.
The computer had been delivered by courier the Monday after Ramaphosa’s announcement. Its looked bigger than she remembered, and reassuring – or rather, Hamish’s face, finally registering that she did actually go to work, and the impressive size of the machine somehow made it real. Suddenly he was cool with her wanting time on her own, so she could get at least eight hours per day when she was legitimately not focusing on him.
She knew from the two years she’d spent temping, that most people can get through a day’s work in say, four hours. So, after she’d logged on and done a bit of work, she’d give herself a bit of me-time. Because of the slowed-down time, she was really noticing things, like the ex’s taste in furniture. She wished she’d come fetch it.
She went into the spare toilet and looked in the mirror. She was shocked at the person looking back at her: her eyes, which were her best feature, looked dark and haunted, her lips were dry, and her hair had gone so kroes she could hear her mother creaking in her grave as she span. She’d also put on weight like she was a balloon, and someone was blowing her up. Frankly, she didn’t like what she saw, and that was the first sign, her mother always said that something was wrong.
Hamish knocked on the door. She quickly went back to the computer and said, “come in!”
He was balancing a tray laden with food.
“It’s okay love. I’ll come to the table.”
She followed him down the cramped corridor to the dining alcove. She stopped at the kitchen to wash her hands.
She sat down at the dining table and looked across at him. “Where’s yours?”
“I was snacking while I was cooking,” he said, sitting down opposite and opening the newspaper.
“What is this anyway? Looks delicious.”
“It’s pork belly with caramelized onion, red cabbage and wasabi mash,” came the answer from behind the paper.
“Wow sounds like about 5000 calories! And it’s only lunch!”
“Just eat what you can, Bums, you know you always say that, but you always finish.” There was a slight whine of impatience in his voice as he opened up the newspaper.
She didn’t like the way he used the nickname as if they’d known each other for years. But the food was delicious. Increasingly she’s having food fantasies, wondering what new taste he’s going to offer her. Cooking was his hobby, and like everything he did, he did it at a very high level. They’d met at the Kensington Spring fair, a slim eight months ago. He was selling gourmet burgers.
“Fiona! Wow, you’re the first…” he stopped with a confused look on his face.
“The first black Fiona?” she laughed in his face.
“Well, um… whoo – you got me!”
She had her arm in a brace after falling during a Frisbee game at the team-building weekend. It just so happened that every time they saw each other, she had some plaster or crutch or bruise or a finger slice or some minor injury, so he started to call her Bumble. She hated the nickname, but she was getting used to it. It made him feel witty, which made him happy, and increasingly she was finding that if he was happy, home life was more pleasant. He cleared his throat and turned the pages.
“So, how’s the death toll in the land of the free?”
“That’s not funny.” Hamish’s admiration for Trump’s policies was a bit of an issue between them. His eyes bulged at her. Picking her battles, she decided to let this one go.
“Ja, I suppose I’ll be laughing on the other side of my face if the malaria meds work.”
“Damn straight. You think you some kind of expert on corona? Oh, and Zuma’s still blocking the booze.”
Well, that was fine – Hamish had a wine cellar in the spare room wardrobe, and there were still three cartons of cigarettes. He was what her mother would call “a provider”, the kind of man that every woman in Bez Valley hoped to meet.
“The economy’s at junk status – again.” He gave a bitter snort and put the paper to one side so he could look at her directly. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Zimbabwe here we come.”
Her tooth spasmed again. She started thinking the tooth was actually Hamish’s evil twin. Now she had two of him, inside and out. She put her hand up to her jaw and pushed the plate away. Hamish was convinced, and whenever they tried to talk about politics, it became personal in the nastiest possible way.
“I don’t know why you’re always defending them, Bums. First of all, you’re coloured.”
“You’re being offensive.”
“I’m sorry dude, but you and me had the same upbringing, same references. You’re basically white Fiona. Can you even speak a black language!”
Ouch. That twinge again, the molar upstairs in the middle of her left jaw. But besides the ache, he always got her on the language thing. Her Durbanite mother never learnt Afrikaans, besides a few stammered phrases. Although she was fair enough to pass for white, she fell for Fiona’s Mozambican father, who died before she was born. She hated going to her grandparents because of the snide comments about “die hare” – the only Afrikaans word they ever used.
“How many dead?”
“We’re still under a thousand. Jeez, America. Coming up to 80 000.”
“Shame, we must be doing something right.”
She took her plate to the kitchen sink. Hamish junior throbbed away in the dark corner of her upper jaw. She still had three cases to investigate, and she had to get online. One thing she didn’t need was to lose her job. Never break up during lockdown – the words flashed by her eyes. Lockdown. Lockdown! Was that even a word before 21 March? Now everyone in the world knew what it was. Since then, nothing was the same as before, hours felt like days, days like weeks. Time felt like bubble gum, long and tasteless, but you can’t spit it out because there’s no bin and it’s not healthy to swallow it. Once upon a time, it was sweet and juicy. She dried the plate and put it away. I guess this is what living through history feels like.
She pulled out her cellphone. The icon depicting the Wi-Fi network gleamed. Now how come all the info on her old phone wasn’t transferring. It kept asking for an IP address.
The sound of jangling keys interrupted her. “Let’s go get that sorted out before your appointment,” he stood in the doorway. She nodded, quickly splashed water over her face and swopped her tracksuit pants for jeans, her crocs for sneakers.
The four-by-four bakkie was idling in the garage as she locked the back door behind her.
“Those jeans are looking a bit tight, hey,” he said, grabbing the right cheek of her bottom as she swung herself into the cab. Since her little fender bender in December, Hamish drove her everywhere, even though her car was actually fine.
“No ways,” said Hamish when she protested. “You’re a danger to yourself.” She had to admit he had a point, but really “I can’t risk losing my other half”? “Really?”
She wasn’t sure how she felt about being the other half of Hamish since she didn’t even know the ups and downs, the T’s and C’s of the first half. He was sweet, though, not too romantic, but there’s more to life, and the cooking was awesome. His support of Trump was weird, though. He seemed relatively intelligent, but everyone’s got their blind spots. He said she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He had broken up with his fiancée a year before they met. Women’s way suggested a two-year intimacy holiday to recover from a relationship, but he said, “if it feels right, don’t let go of a good thing.” And it made sense, since corona.
Hamish swung into the main road leading to the mall. A young man gestured to his mouth, a desperate look in his eyes. She fished for change and handed over a five rand. The scene repeated itself at every robot on the way there. The third one, she shrugged. No change. The fourth was a woman with a baby on her back and a toddler.
At the freshly reopened mall, everyone was masked and subdued, self-conscious with big eyes over multi-coloured masks, and wild hair. Fiona remembered her cousin Manuela coming back from the hospital with the new baby, wrapped like an egg in a yellow cloud.
Hamish suddenly guffawed. Fiona looked at him. He whispered in her ear; “they shouldn’t have let people make their own masks. They look like panties on their faces. Face panties!” and he laughed again. She snorted; glad the mask was hiding her mouth. The queue moved forward, and a consultant with a Perspex visor held a thermometer to his forehead. Fiona thought it looked like a gun. Twinge. Hamish junior gave a karate kick, backflipped and double punched. The consultant sanitized both of their hands.
“How can I help?”
“My wife is having difficulty getting online with her new phone.”
The consultant looked at Fiona and gestured to an empty cubicle. She sat down numbly.
“You okay, Bums? I’ll go do the shopping, meet you back here. Don’t forget your appointment is at 15:00.”
The consultant looked at him, incredulous, as he left. She turned large brown eyes on Fiona and that look which is not a look, that invisible sign passed between the two women like an electric charge. And the certainty that in a time of crisis, one tolerates.
It took less than ten minutes to get the phone working, so Fiona stood up and ambled around the shops near the mall entrance. Three of them had closed down – always a bit touch and go, the Asian electronics shop, a dry-cleaner and a bookshop, if she remembered correctly. She wondered what they were up to now. If they had a backup plan.
Hamish was just insanely protective. He was raised by a single mom, and he had to be the man of the family from the age of eight – actually earlier, because of his father’s drinking. She had moved in after the accident because he made such a thing of it. But also, she was curious.
She jumped at the feeling of a hand on her shoulder, and Hamish put a double cappuccino in her hand.
“How long since you’ve had one of those, hey?”
Shame, he really liked spoiling her. She tried not to focus on the niggles and made the best of things. That was what her mother had done – and if she hadn’t, where would Fiona be today?
“Jeez, Bums, you brought us to Congo, hey?” he said, pulling up at the Bez Valley Medical Centre.
“They say we should try not to go far from home, so…”
“Unbelievable. I grew up here. Not a white face on the street.”
“See you in an hour or so.”
After filling out her new patient form in the waiting room, a man in Levi’s and a white shirt and tie appeared in front of her. Fiona’s rigid smile pulled her up to a standing position as Celestin offered his elbow in greeting.
“No, it’s Ms, and my name’s I mean Fiona,” she said, offering her elbow.
“Thank you, Fiona, I am Celestin,” he said, “and this is my assistant, Busisiwe”.
A young woman came out of the consulting room, sanitizing her hands with a sky-blue wipe.
“She’s my public protector,” he said, and the receptionist laughed and rolled her eyes. He seemed very popular with his staff, Fiona thought.
As the numbness spread throughout her jaw, Fiona began to relax. Celestin had shown her the problem tooth on the x-ray and had explained that he preferred people to keep their teeth, and for that reason, he was recommending a crown. The pale-yellow walls of the consultation room began to blur, as Celestin’s pointy thing began to dig in earnest. Busisiwe wielded the suction tube, as Fiona’s saliva flew in all directions. Oh my god, she thought, I hope I’m not contagious.
Celestin kept chatting to Busisiwe as she prepared the adhesive with deft movements.
“Have they finished with the renovations on the cottage?” he asked.
“Yes, but now to find a tenant during lockdown…” she sighed.
Thick goggles clamped his handsome face like a WW1 fighter pilot. His chin was exactly the same shape as Superman’s.
He worked quickly and surely, filing and adjusting the temporary crown.
“How does that feel?”
“Hine, it heels hine,” said Fiona. She couldn’t remember the last time a man asked her how something he did felt to her.
She was feeling slightly woozy, and it didn’t help when he said, “make another appointment with Linda, we’ll fit the crown next week. Take care!”
Hamish pulled up at the dentist and switched off the car. If anyone had told him even six months ago that you would have to wear a face pantie as some kind of uniform, he’d have said they’ve got a great imagination, or they’re crazy. Fiona’s small face appeared at the passenger window, and Hamish disarmed the locks.
“Sorted?” he asked as they pulled off.
“I’ve hot a hemp’ry hrown. I have ho ho hack hek heek.”
“Jesus,” said Hamish.
George Floyd cried out.
“I can’t believe what I’m looking at,” said Fiona.
Fiona pressed her shoes into the corners of the suitcase.
“When you coming back?”
She turned around to face him. After a long moment; “I don’t know. I mean, he’s just going to put the crown in. The permanent one.”
She hadn’t really decided. Times were uncertain.
She just wondered what it would be like to live alone again, that’s all.