She adjusted the lapels of his uniform as he prepared to leave. Kissing her briefly, he walked into the garage and started the white Mercedes-Benz. She stood and waved until his car disappeared from view, then closed the garage door. In the kitchen, her hands trembled slightly as she made her lunch. Mishka began to stir in her cot and she rushed over to pick her up. Soothing the baby as she picked out her clothes for work, she realised just how late she was running. Breakfast would have to take a rain check.
She opened the bedroom curtain and the memory of the previous day washed over her at the same time as the morning sun.
“I’ll fucking kill you, you worthless bitch. Take one step out of that door and see what happens to you. They won’t even find your bones.” The blows rained down on her as she tried to scramble under a table for shelter. Mishka’s cries of distress echoed through the lounge as she tried to shield her mother from the onslaught. The buckle of the leather belt he was lashing out with landed squarely on her tiny face and Mishka’s screams of anger turned to howls of agony.
Yumna enveloped Mishka in her arms and tried to shield her from the blows until they stopped and Farouk’s breathing deepened into hollow sobs of remorse. For some time, the house rang with the echoes of three distinctly different cries.
Dinner was a tense affair. Eyes red-rimmed and her face swollen, she tried to concentrate on cooking but she managed to make the meat too dry and the rice too soggy. She could not meet Farouk’s gaze over the dinner table. She cleared the half-empty plates away without a word, feeling her own incompetence weighing heavily on her shoulders.
She gave Mishka a warm bath and winced as her child cried out when the soapy water touched the welt on her face.
“Sshh, baby. Mummy’s sorry, so sorry. Don’t make a sound my darling,” she pleaded. Mishka’s large brown eyes looked up at her mother, as if weighing up her options. Whimpering softly, she allowed Yumna to finish bathing her. Gently, she laid Mishka down on the bed and held her close until she fell asleep.
Putting Mishka in her cot for the night, she went into the shower, the hard streams of hot water beating down upon the welts and cuts on her back and face, old and new, without so much as a wince. Feeling dead inside could be an advantage at times.
“Are you coming to bed, love?” The call came from the next room. Farouk always spoke so sweetly after one of his episodes.
Clutching her towel, Yumna shivered on the bathroom mat, lost momentarily for words.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” she eventually managed.
Pushing bruised and aching limbs into nightclothes took an extraordinary amount of effort. As she passed by the mirror in the hallway, her eyes fell to the polished tiles, as they did always. Yumna knew every detail, every hairline crack in those tiles in the passage.
Slipping between the sheets, Yumna focused on the blue glare of the television. What she was watching, she couldn’t have said, but it prevented her from looking at her husband lying next to her. Farouk reached over to her and pulled himself on top of her. Yumna dreaded this part. When his grunting had finally ceased, he rolled over and fell asleep on his back, snoring occasionally.
Finally alone with her thoughts, Yumna lay completely still and silent next to Farouk on the bed they had shared for three years. The only indication of the turmoil that raged within her was the single tear that emanated silently from her swollen right eye.
The doorbell rang. Yumna opened the door for her domestic worker. She heard the sharp intake of breath as Gladys saw her battered face, and she remembered that she must look frightful. Gladys told herself she should be used to seeing her employer’s face in all colours of the rainbow from time to time, but it always took her aback.
Shaking her head, Gladys stepped inside from the rain and looked for a place to put her dripping umbrella. Calling to Mishka as she went inside, she stopped short at the sight of Mishka’s face. A young mother herself, Gladys felt tears well up in her eyes.
“Haai, no, baby. Haai, look what he has done to you,” desperately, she turned to Yumna. “Please Yumna, report him. Don’t let him do this to your child.” Her beseeching eyes met Yumna’s momentarily before the latter shook her head and walked away uncertainly towards the main bedroom.
Gladys knew better than to argue with Yumna. She knew that Farouk was a policeman. Not just any policeman, but he was a “big boss”. He was a dangerous man. She also knew that Yumna’s family hadn’t spoken to her since she eloped with him three years before. “She is all alone in life,” thought Gladys to herself, clicking her tongue at the thought of Farouk beating the toddler.
Yumna slowly approached the mirror in the hall, as though she feared it too would attack her. Raising her eyes, she forced herself to take in the sight before her. Her right eye was almost completely swollen shut, and her jaw bore a nasty cut from the buckle of the belt that had struck Mishka.
“I can’t go to work like this,” she sighed. She picked up the phone to call the school.
“Morning, Annelise... Not too good. I’m not feeling very well, I’m afraid. Uh, I have a very high fever. No, I will go to the doctor, but right now I just need to sleep. Will you be able to get a substitute for my class? I’m not sure for how many days, but I’ll call you tomorrow and tell you how I’m feeling. No, I’ll be fine, I just need to rest. Yes, I’m sure. Ok, thanks. See you.”
Gladys stood in the hall, waiting for Yumna to put the phone down. “I will give Mishka her breakfast, don’t worry. Just go to sleep.”
“Thank you Gladys. I think I will.”
Locking her bedroom door, she slid down to the floor, eyes staring glassily at nothing. When the clamour in her head threatened to split her skull, she crawled over to the side table. Her hands shook so badly she needed both to lift up the medicine container. Eventually, they managed to get out three painkillers and she devoured the pills hungrily with the help of the glass of water by her bedside.
Sitting on the floor next to the bed, she clutched her wrists and rubbed them against her thighs, muttering to herself under her breath. She felt underneath the mattress and found the knife. It was a knife that she had confiscated from one of her pupils in class about a year ago. She found an odd sense of fascination in the knife, a potential comfort that seemed final and seductive. It was her secret and her refuge from fear. Just looking at it, feeling its reassuring heaviness in her frail hand, made her feel stronger.
As she stared at the shining brightness of the blade, she felt a wave of uncontrollable emotion hit her. She began to cry and her breathing quickened as her hysteria grew. Neon lights flashed behind her eyes and blackness enveloped her.
When Yumna regained consciousness it was with the slow realisation that she was lying awkwardly on the tiles next to her bed. Her head was wedged between the side table and the bed and she slowly became aware of the stinging pain from her arms. She tried to extricate herself from the corner and failed, knocking her muggy head on the corner of the table. The blow seemed to come through layers of thick cotton wool. Everything seemed so sticky and her arms were aching dully but stinging with every movement.
Moving slowly, she managed to wriggle out sideways and saw with horror that her arms and wrists were slashed open and that her own congealed blood lay all around her. The sticky redness was on her clothes, over the floor and in her hair. Moaning with shock, she tried to call Gladys. Then came the realisation that she did not want Mishka to see her like this.
It must have taken a long time for Yumna to drag herself to the en-suite bathroom, how long, she did not know. Her feeble efforts at crawling prompted a wave of fresh blood from her wrists. Shakily, painfully, wincing as every move rent her wounds further, she inched laboriously towards the bathroom.
The door banged. Farouk’s voice seeped through the crack under the door, “Yumna! Open the door baby.” There was a silence, punctuated only by the sound of Mishka playing in the lounge and Yumna’s ragged breathing.
“Yumna! Open the door! Can you hear me? Open the fucking door!”
Lying on the floor, halfway to the bathroom, Yumna felt the will to live drain from her. The coldness of the tiles pervaded through her bones as Farouk began to break the door down.
Yumna woke up some time later in her bed. She saw that her arms were wrapped in bandages and she was in a clean pair of pyjamas. The door hung awkwardly off its hinges and there was a vase of slightly battered-looking red roses on the dresser.
Sinking back into the soft pillows, she stared at the ceiling listening to the sounds of Mishka playing with her father in the lounge. Gladys bustled into the room with the ironing, noticed she was awake and sat down on the side of the bed, her face drawn with worry.
Yumna gingerly touched Gladys’ hand lying next to her own. “Is Mishka all right?” she asked hoarsely.
“Yes, she is fine. She was playing with her toys in the kitchen while I was ironing.” In a low whisper, she said “Yumna, why don’t you just leave him? You can’t carry on like this.”
“Tell me where I can go that he wouldn’t find me, Gladys.”
“Come and stay with me then.”
Yumna laughed ruefully. “That would probably be the first place he would look since you are my only friend.”
“Can’t you go back to your parents then? I’m sure they would take you back.”
“My father told me I must come home in my coffin rather than come home divorced. They won’t even answer my calls. They said I made my bed and now I must lie in it.”
Gladys gave her a deeply troubled look, tears coming to her eyes. “But what about the little one?”
“He didn’t mean to hurt her, Gladys. He’d never hurt her on purpose. She just got in the way, that’s all. He loves her.”
“And you? Does he love you when he does these things to you?”
“He’s a jealous man, Gladys. He imagines I’m having an affair with the principal at school, with the neighbour next door or with the manager of the supermarket down the road. He is paranoid that I’m going to run away and leave him. I try so hard but I can’t ever make him happy with me.”
"Why should you be the one trying? He is the one who—"
“Gladys! Why didn’t you tell me my wife was awake?” Farouk said as he approached the bedroom. “Go and see to Mishka, please. I think she needs to go down for her nap.”
Gladys stood up, a strangled expression on her face. Without a word, she left the room.
Yumna winced as Farouk sat down heavily beside her on the bed, almost on top of one of her bandaged arms. Lighting a cigarette, he exhaled the smoke into her face and studied her. He lifted her chin, trying to make her meet his gaze, but her eyes remained downcast. When she began to resist, he wrapped his hand around her neck. Panicking, she looked up at him as he constricted her airway.
“What the fuck do you think you’re playing at, huh?” He hissed in her ear. “You think you’re going to get anyone’s sympathy by acting like a retard?”
Gasping for breath, Yumna shook her head desperately. The grip tightened and he brought his glowing cigarette closer to her face. “Should I teach you a lesson, Miss Teacher? Should I give you some scars to really kill yourself over? Mess up that holier-than-thou ice queen expression for good?”
“No! Please!” gasped Yumna, her fingernails clawing at his arm.
“It’s too late to beg me. You are worth nothing to me. Maybe I will take a second wife. But first I’ll make sure no man will ever want you.”
Yumna closed her eyes, unable to watch as the cigarette drew closer to her cheek. Waiting for the inevitable, she felt her heartbeat reverberate through her entire body as he choked her. Then, just as her vision began to turn black, she heard a loud bang and felt a jolt. The pressure on her throat eased and Farouk’s body slowly slumped over her own. A warm liquid began to seep through her nightclothes. She opened her eyes and saw Gladys standing over her with her husband’s service pistol, eyes as round as saucers and paralysed with shock.
The gun dropped from her trembling hands and clanged on the tiles. She took a faltering step backwards and then, unable to say a word, ran from the room in terror. Yumna heard Gladys begin to howl and gibber in bewilderment. Then she heard keys jangling and the front door slamming shut. Gladys was gone.
Yumna lay in the bed, her dead husband’s body crumpled over hers, pinning her down and soaking her with blood quickly turning cold.
Although the dropped cigarette was slowly burning a hole in the bedding, Yumna felt unable to move her hands to pick it up. She stared at it numbly for some time until flames rose from the duvet and played around her. By the time they caught the bandages covering her mutilated arms and Farouk’s hair, she decided it was really too late to protest.
Trapped was written by Hajira Amla.
Copyright © Hajira Amla 2010.
Hajira Amla lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has had all sorts of interesting job titles; including musician, journalist, newspaper sub-editor, radio news anchor, and PRO. Born in England, she spent two years in the Seychelles before moving to South Africa in 1993.
Her own colourful past is a constant reminder to her that truth is stranger than fiction. She is afraid that if she ever published her memoirs, the Universe may suddenly collapse into a black hole. However, she has decided she is rather fond of chocolate and small furry animals, so the Earth is safe - for now.
Her writing often reflects the stark realities of life in a changing nation and throws a harsh spotlight on the widespread abuse of women and children in South Africa.