Read an Excerpt
A Family In Full
By Vanessa Del Fabbro
Steeple Hill Copyright © 2007 Vanessa Del Fabbro
All right reserved.
“I’ve found the treasure, Monica,” shouted Sipho.
Monica Brunetti’s eleven-year-old adopted son never called her Mom, and she noticed he sometimes wore a wounded expression when his younger brother did. But Mandla had only just turned two when his mother died, and although it might be difficult for Sipho to hear his brother replacing their mother, it was to be expected from a child Mandla’s age. If Monica ever admitted to herself that she would like Sipho to call her Mom, it was only fleetingly, and she always felt a twinge of guilt afterward. Ella Nkhoma, the boys’ mother, had been a close friend.
“I want to go home,” complained Mandla, his breath warm on her neck.
Below they could see Lady Helen, the town that had been home to them for a year. Monica had found the climb up the koppie tiring with four-year-old Mandla on her back, but he had walked for an hour on his own and could go no farther. Sipho had strode ahead, breathing hard, sweating in the midafternoon summer sun, driven by the vision in his head of what he was about to find. Monica was astounded at his stamina; he was small for his age and not athletic. He had his father’s slender build. Before his death from AIDS, Themba Nkhoma had been a member of South Africa’s new military, acombination of the old South African Defense Force and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, a political party that had been banned for many years. Slim and wiry, Themba had always been clean shaven and neat in his pressed silk shirts and dress pants.
Mandla looked more like his mother. Monica first met Ella in the hospital. Ella was being treated for bronchitis—or that was what she told everyone—while Monica was recovering from a bullet wound after a violent carjacking. Ella was a large, muscular woman, with broad shoulders and a laugh that could be heard four wards away. Only later, after both women had been discharged, did Ella confess to Monica the true reason she was losing weight and felt fatigued. Themba had passed his disease on to her. Two years had gone by since Ella’s death, and Mandla had stopped asking about her.
The limp in Monica’s right leg, the result of being shot in the car-jacking, was more pronounced now from carrying Mandla up the steep koppie. Out of breath, she reached the spot where Sipho was crouched at the entrance to a cave and let Mandla slide to the ground.
“No,” moaned the little boy. He was too tired to stand on his own. Then he spied the cave, and Monica had to catch his shirt as he charged past her. “There could be black mambas in there,” said Sipho.
Mandla stopped in his tracks. With a nature expert for a big brother, Mandla knew a drop of poison from one of the world’s dead-liest snakes could kill a grown man.
Monica squatted next to Sipho to examine his find. Although in shadow, the fine lines of the artist’s quill on the rocks were surprisingly clear. The figures held spears, calabashes and the carcasses of dead animals. Steenbok, eland, kudu, giraffe and elephant were easily recognizable in varying shades of red and ochre. This was the first time Monica had seen San paintings in the Western Cape.
“It’s as good as Oscar said,” said Sipho, his eyes shining. From his backpack, he took out a sketchbook and pencil and began to copy the rock art for his history project.
Oscar, the unofficial curator of all the artifacts from the town’s namesake, Lady Helen, was a good new friend to Monica and her family. Oscar had discovered this site on one of his walkabouts to find Lady Helen’s burial site. Some believed that she was murdered by her husband, Lord Gray, for freeing fifty slaves and running away with his horses and supply wagons. But Oscar believed that Lady Helen had stayed on in the small town she’d founded, perhaps with the assistance of the nomadic San tribesmen who roamed the area at that time.
“I’m going to make my class promise not to tell anyone about these,” said Sipho. “Maybe Oscar can build a fence around this cave.”
Fences were Oscar’s passion. He had built one around the statue of Lady Helen in the park next to the ocean, and another, an ornate one topped with curlicues and shields, around the cemetery. It was Oscar’s ambitious goal to discover the identities of the townsfolk buried in the cemetery so that he could replace the piles of rocks at their grave sites with proper tombstones. This would not be an easy feat since the town had been abandoned and reestablished too many times to allow family lines to be traced.
“I want to go home,” moaned Mandla. If he was not allowed to enter the cave, then this outing was no fun at all. Mandla had gone to bed at seven o’clock the previous evening and had slept for thirteen hours, but he was evidently still in need of one of the daily naps he had stopped taking before Christmas.
“I’m almost finished,” said Sipho. “This is going to be my best history project ever.”
Last year, Sipho had taken the end-of-term exams for his grade and the next and he had passed both. The principal of his school— which everybody called Green Block School because of its modern architecture—had decided on a fluid approach to Sipho’s education. This pleased Monica because Sipho had been bored at his school in Johannesburg. He was studious by nature and enthusiastic about his lessons at the new school. His accelerated pace might slow as he reached higher grades, but if it didn’t, he would go to university early and South Africa would have a new young doctor sooner than expected.
There was one weak area in his education, and Monica blamed herself for it. As Themba had lain dying, she had promised him that his sons would continue to speak their native language, Sotho, but it was proving to be difficult. Of all the errors she had made while learning to become a mother to two young boys, this one pained her most, and she had decided that in their second year in Lady Helen she would rectify things by finding friends for Sipho who spoke Sotho and by learning the language herself.
“Okay, I’m finished.” Sipho held out his drawing for her to inspect.
She had offered to take a photograph of the paintings, but he had insisted on copying them himself. Like Sipho, some people in Lady Helen often seemed to make choices that were unnecessarily labor-intensive, but the slower pace of life was one of the attractions the town held for Monica.
The discovery of the San paintings would make an interesting story for her newspaper, the Lady Helen Herald, but Oscar had told Sipho first, and Monica had decided to allow him to break the news to his classmates before she ran the story. She would never have allowed this delay when she was a reporter in Johannesburg, but life in Lady Helen was different. And so was she. She was a parent now.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
Mandla reached out his arms and she picked him up. Sipho put his sketchbook in his backpack and took the lead down the koppie.
Monica remembered the first day she had driven down the steep road that was Lady Helen’s main entrance from the outside world. She and her cameraman had stopped at the top of the koppie, just a little higher than they were now, and climbed out of the car to look at the view. She had felt as though she were in a glass-bottomed boat looking down at a brightly colored coral reef. Cerise, burnt orange, brilliant pink and sunshine-yellow bougainvillea billowed over walls, scaled fences, crept under the eaves of houses and along the gutters. The sun, reflecting off the green, blue and deep red tin roofs, gave the whole town a bright glow. Monica had been entranced.
As she looked down on the little town now, she was not any less impressed than the first time. The cerise bougainvillea she had planted alongside her carport was too small to add to the spectacle, but it would one day. On the western edge of the town, a pile of rocks separated the land and the cold Atlantic Ocean. Perilously balanced, these were evidence that the ocean was not always this calm. Less than a few hundred yards off the coast lay many wrecks, covered in seaweed. North of the town, a lagoon stretched inland in the shape of a horizontal question mark. The tide was out, and the mudflats surrounding it glistened in the sun.
A small boat bobbed around in the water two hundred yards from shore, and Monica knew that if she looked through binoculars, she would see the red-and-white flag of scuba divers. Lady Helen, the small but respected art town, had become a popular location for divers, especially those who wanted a glimpse of the ocean’s fiercest predator—the great white shark. In the distant past, the men of the town had gone out in boats to fish for their living, but now dive boat operators took tourists out to see snoek, tuna and hake from under the water—the great white from the safety of a steel cage.
Monica did not draw attention to the presence of the boat for fear of upsetting Sipho. He said that this new sport, shark diving, made sharks associate people with food.
The sun glinted off two rows of cars parked up and down Main Street. Since it was Saturday, these likely belonged to people who had made the ninety-minute drive from Cape Town to browse the art galleries and enjoy a cup of coffee at Mama Dlamini’s Eating Establishment.
Main Street ended in a park that ran along the beachfront for about a quarter of a mile, palm trees forming a natural break between the lawn and the white sand. In the middle was a grass amphitheater with a stage at its lowest level, and behind it a rock garden with flowers indigenous to the region: poker-red aloes, pink pincushion proteas and red African heather. On summer evenings the amphitheater hosted concerts, usually by visiting musicians, and the townsfolk turned out with their picnic blankets, baskets and excited children. This was one of Mandla’s favorite activities in the world, but unlike other children who ran among the blankets chasing each other, Mandla got as close as he could to the stage to dance and, if Monica’s attention was diverted, join the performers onstage.
From Monica’s vantage point on the koppie, it was easy to see what some called a lack of zoning restrictions in the town and what she called perfect planning. Interspersed between the single-family homes were small farms with pastureland and fields stretching out behind them to the foot of the koppies. Mandla loved to watch the milking at Peg’s Dairy Farm. Children, who would normally not have known where their food came from, saw it firsthand in Lady Helen.
The hospital and cemetery,too,were surrounded by family homes. The hospital was Sipho’s favorite place to visit. When his mother fell ill, he’d decided that he wanted to become a doctor. In his rare spare moments, the hospital’s doctor, Zak Niemand, took Sipho on guided tours. The boy was not intimidated by the sight of injuries, burns, illness, needles or blood. Monica, too, was secretly pleased with any excuse that took her to the hospital. Now that Zak’s divorce had been finalized, she didn’t feel as though she had to keep her distance from him.
They’d met when she reported on the new burn unit at the hospital for In-Depth, a television program for which she had filled in for a staffer on maternity leave. He hadn’t been able to give her an interview because he’d been delivering twins, but she had been intrigued to learn that he’d washed and dressed the babies afterward. One day his wife would regret her decision. How could a woman leave a man who did that? A very attractive man… Zak was six foot three with dark hair that looked as though it might curl if he allowed it to grow a little, and he wore small rectangular glasses that made him seem more serious than he really was. Monica wondered if Jacqueline Niemand had left Zak for a wealthy man. Zak was employed by the government. His salary was not near to what it would be if he had his own practice.
Zak had once joked that his last name fit like a glove. Niemand meant nobody in the Afrikaans language. But Zak was far from that. Many people in Lady Helen owed their lives to him. Zak would not think of this, though, not even as he drifted off to sleep at night. His dreams, Monica was sure, would not be of patients he had helped but of those he had failed—or of new ways to get around bureaucratic red tape so he could purchase more equipment or supplies.
A breeze had begun to blow in from the ocean, and Monica could feel Mandla perking up on her back. January was supposed to be the hottest month in Lady Helen, but March seemed intent on topping it. Still, they were comfortable with only ceiling fans to cool their bedrooms at night. The climate of Lady Helen was close to perfect, with breezes to cool the hot, dry summer days and a natural drop in temperature at dusk. Unlike the rest of South Africa, where it rained during summer, the Western Cape received its rain in winter. Monica missed the quick afternoon thunderstorms that cooled the hot summer afternoons in Johannesburg and filled the air with the smell of wet soil and crushed flowers. The winters were mild, and if they experienced biting-cold days with driving rain, it was pleasant to sit indoors and watch the wind whipping the waves into a white froth. Best of all was the light, which was bright and clear and always made the landscape look as though it were begging to be painted.
Sipho had slowed down, and Monica knew that she would have to motivate him for the rest of the journey home. Though he was tired, the fresh air and exercise were good for him. The promise of activities such as this was another of the reasons Monica had been lured from Johannesburg.
Excerpted from A Family In Full by Vanessa Del Fabbro Copyright © 2007 by Vanessa Del Fabbro. Excerpted by permission.
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