Ballet for Grace: A Short Story
‘En vyf, ses, sewe, agt,’ counts the Madam’s sharp voice from the studio, over the prancing piano. ‘Point those toes, Rienie. Ja, harder. And tuck in your bottom, Johanna, you look like a little meid like that.’
I sit up in a tangle of ribbons and ballet slippers, rub the sleep from my eyes. Shadows and half-light, the piano tickling my ears. Ugly and thin, this music. Music for ballet, says Marie. Not like when we sing in church back in QwaQwa, when Mme Thandie’s voice and Ausi’s voice and Ntate Mkhulu’s voice and my voice and everyone’s voices and even Mme Anna’s croaky voice all jump and rise and come together in one big song.
Mother, Mme, has the best voice, better than anyone else. She used to sing the same koiyetsa‑bana to me and Ausi every night, before she left QwaQwa to come to Johannesburg to work for the white family in the big house. Mme blows out the candle, because we must not waste it, and, stroking our hair in the dark, she sings of a lonely girl who always sat on a rock and wept.
Go ne go le ngwanyana
A dutse letlapeng
A ntse a lela
Ka nako tsotlhe
I am always sad to think about the girl who is alone. But then the song changes, and the girl stands up and wipes away her tears. She rejoices because she goes with the one she loves.
Tlhopha yo mo ratang
O tshegetshege nae
Tlhopha yo mo ratang
O iturnele nae
Before she left, Mme said me and Ausi must be like the girl in the lullaby. We must rejoice because we have each other. My name, Itumeleng, means joy, Mme reminded me, and I must not forget this.
At the moment it is the school holidays and I am visiting Mme in Johannesburg – the Madam gave Mme special permission – and we sleep in the back room behind the white family’s house and we can sing all of our songs. Ausi wanted to come too but Mme could only afford for one of us to come.
Mme’s room has electricity so we can keep the light on all night, and Mme says it is not like a candle or a paraffin lamp that will run out. It will stay on forever!
Sometimes Mme has friends who come to visit at night. Mme says she gets lonely, being away from her family, so the uncles keep her company.
They are always friendly, and they bring me little presents, like niggerballs or other sweets, but they have to stay very quiet when they come in so the Baas and the Madam don’t hear or see them. And they always leave the next morning before the sun comes up. Mme says it’s because of the bad man Vorster’s rules that they are not allowed outside after nine at night, and they will get into trouble if they are found. Whenever there is the sound of a siren from somewhere far away, Mme and the uncles get very frightened, and Mme makes them hide under the bed or in the closet. She’s propped up the bed on bricks to make more space to store things, and, she says with a wink, so the fat uncles can fit under there.
One of the uncles is called Malume Moses. He always wears a purple hat and he always brings something for me. I like the sweets the best, but sometimes he brings a flower.
He says, ‘Those stupid umlungu think it’s because we’re scared of the tokoloshe that we prop up the bed. They think we are superstitious fools. White bastards!’ He laughs. ‘They don’t realise it’s because we’re hiding under there! Right under their noses. Nine o’ clock curfew… humph!’
‘Shhh, Oubuti Moses,’ Mme scolds him.
Most of Mme’s friends are uncles, but women who are also domestics like Mme sometimes visit too. They are allowed to visit during the day, if it is Mme’s time off. One of them is a fat lady called Mme Mary. Mme Mary tells very funny stories about her Madam. Her Madam is always playing piano music, like the ballet music, on the gramophone while Mme Mary has to dust and polish.
‘And then all her friends come over to play bridge, and I have to say “Yes, Missus Klara, yes Missus Annamarie, yes Missus Patricia” when they ask for “More tea, please Mary, more sugar, please Mary, more milk tart, please Mary”. They say to Madam, “Your girl’s Afrikaans is so pretty, Diane”. And all the time I want to say to them, in my pretty Afrikaans, jou moer, I’m a woman not a girl.’
When I was only five I didn’t know what a gramophone was. Mme told me it was a singing box and you could listen to all kinds of music on it but I thought that couldn’t be right because how did the singing people or the piano disappear inside the box? Mme Thandie says you can only have a gramophone if you have electricity, and we aren’t ever getting electricity. But now we have a radio and it also sings lots of songs but not the piano kind for ballet.
We also listen to other things on the radio like that time when Verwoerd was assassinated. I had to ask what assassinate means and Mme said someone killed him on purpose and I asked why. She said, because he is a bad man who is oppressing our people. Ntate Sam and the other people in the village were very happy and got very drunk when they heard the news. But Mme was angry because she said it would only bring more trouble and it didn’t change anything.
Now I am playing with the white girl, Marie. The Madam is a ballet teacher and Marie is going to be a famous ballerina, Marie says. Marie is curled up next to me in a nest of old leotards and tutus. The tips of her toes touch my knees. Her yellow hair falls over her face. She looks as tiny and still as the baby mossie in the nest we found under the big tree next to the swimming pool, except that the mossie was dead and Marie is only sleeping.
But when we picked it up to take it inside for Marie’s dolls Ntate Samson came over from where he was cutting the grass and said, ‘Nee, put it down, Miss Marie. The Madam will be very kwaai if you take it inside.’ And he took it away to the compost heap, though Marie cried and told him not to. That was the first day. The day I saw the glittering dam and couldn’t believe water could be so clear and blue. But when I crouched down and scooped some of it into my mouth, it was bitter and made me cough.
‘Dissie om te drink nie, Grace,’ Marie said, ‘it’s for swimming.’
Marie and the Madam call me Grace. This is my English name. It’s what they call me at school, too. And when I arrived in Johannesburg Mme said this is what everyone here will call me, because they cannot say Itumeleng. But I like Grace. It sounds beautiful, like a girl from Johannesburg who could be a ballerina.
This afternoon Marie and I fell asleep in the storeroom again, in the middle of playing ballerinas. Marie is always Phyllis Spira, who is the greatest ballerina in South Africa, she says. Ballerinas dance on the very tip of their toes. Marie showed me a picture of the most famous ballerina in the world, Margot Fonteyn, who is so beautiful she does not seem real. She looks like she is floating, above the ground, like a bird or a butterfly.
Carefully, because I don’t want her to wake up too soon, I reach over and put a finger on the sole of Marie’s foot – brown and grimy from playing outside all day, like mine – and tickle softly, scraping at the dirt with my fingernail. She opens her eyes, squeaking like a mouse but also laughing at the same time. She kicks out, jumps up and tickles me in the ribs. I scream and she laughs and I take a white skirt and pull it over Marie’s head. We’re laughing but the music stops all of a sudden and then the Madam puts her head around the storeroom door and says, ‘Shhh, meisies. I’m trying to teach.’
The Madam told me to call her Elisabet but Mme says this is wrong, that she must always be called Madam.
Marie pulls off the skirt.
‘Go play outside,’ says the Madam. ‘Kom, Marie, Grace. Buite.’
‘Ek’s jammer, Madam,’ I whisper. I am still uncertain of my Afrikaans. But Mme says white people don’t speak Sesotho, so I must learn Afrikaans. It will be useful one day, she says. I think she means when I also work in a white family’s house.
‘Ja, Mamma,’ Marie says.
‘I don’t want you two playing in here, hoor julle?’ the Madam says. But she smiles and says, ‘Later, when you’re done playing, Sara will give you lunch, all right?’
Sara is what Marie and the Madam call Mme.
‘Kom, Grace,’ says Marie. I take her hand and we run away.
We run through the studio, where a row of girls stand next to the wall. They all look at us as we go past. The woman playing the piano looks at us with a frown over her crooked nose.
We run out of the studio and into the garden behind the house.
In the garden Marie says we must play wegkruipertjie. I hide behind the shed but Marie finds me. Then it is my turn to look for her, and it is easy because she is behind the rose bushes. We are tired of the same old hiding places. We have been playing wegkruipertjie every day since I have been here.
It rained yesterday so there is mud and we decide to bake some mudcakes.
‘Mmm-mmm,’ I say, scooping a handful of mud from the ground and patting it into shape.
‘Ruik hoe lekker,’ says Marie, smelling her mudcake. ‘Now I’m sommer hungry.’ She pats her tummy.
‘Mine is bigger than yours,’ I say.
She adds more mud to hers. ‘Nee, mine is bigger.’
We each add more and more mud to our mudcakes until they are too big to hold in our hands and they ooze through our fingers.
‘Let’s stick in the mud,’ I say. We squelch our toes into the mud and pretend to get stuck.
‘The prince will save us,’ Marie says.
We hold on to each other and shout, ‘Help! Please! Help us!’
Marie likes playing in the mud but when it starts drying between her toes she hates it.
‘Urgh,’ she says, ‘Look at our feet, so brown.’
‘Your feet are brown like mine,’ I say, and we laugh because it’s true and Marie wiggles her brown toes.
‘Let’s go show Sara,’ she says, and takes my hand. We walk like that to the house and I think it feels like when Ausi and me are playing and not fighting and her arm is against mine. Our hands are covered in mud so they stick together. We go to the kitchen door and Mme is washing dishes inside.
‘Sara, Sara. Look at our feet! My feet are brown like Grace’s!’ Marie tells her.
‘Ja, Marie,’ says Mme, without looking up. But then she sees our muddy feet and hands and her mouth pops open in a big round O. She looks at me, frowning. ‘Wetsang? Why are you so dirty?’
I don’t know what to say. ‘We’ve been playing in the mud, Mme,’ I say quietly, in Sesotho.
Marie frowns. ‘What are you saying, Sara? I don’t understand,’ she says.
‘You cannot come into the house like this,’ Mme says to me. ‘What will the Madam say if she sees you? O tlo tsasa seretse mo fatsi!’
‘Stop speaking Sesotho,’ Marie wails, her face twisted up and ugly, like when Ntate Samson said she couldn’t take the dead mossie.
Mme pauses, looks at Marie. ‘Sara – Sara just doesn’t want – doesn’t want Grace making the floor dirty, Marie. Your feet are very muddy.’
‘That’s why we’re taking a bath. Kom, Grace,’ Marie says, taking my hand again. I don’t want to go but Marie tugs on my hand and I have no choice.
At home in QwaQwa we wash outside in a skottel with water we have to fetch from the far‑away tap. We used to wash in the river, though lately it is too dirty and Mme Thandie worries that we will get sick.
Marie and I go to the bathroom and she fills up a big bath and says we must both climb inside. The floor and the walls are shiny and smooth like glass except they are green with brown flowers on them and I think it is the prettiest room I have ever seen.
Mme already told me that every room in the house is for something different, after the first day when I asked her why the white people’s house has so many rooms.
We take off our clothes and I check to make sure that Marie looks the same as me and she does and then we get in. The water is warm and Marie opens a bottle and squirts something pink into the water and says it’s so we can make bubbles.
I hear Mme calling our names from the kitchen. It’s time for Marie’s lunch, she says. When Marie doesn’t answer, Mme comes to the bathroom and when she sees us in the tub she screams.
‘What are you doing?’ she hisses at me in Sesotho, lifting me out of the bath. ‘You can’t take a bath with Marie. Ha ho lumelehi hore o hlape le ene! I could be fired for this!’
‘Look at the bubbles, Sara. Grace and I are making bubbles,’ says Marie to Mme. ‘We aren’t done yet.’
‘No, no. Marie, you mustn’t do this. Grace cannot take a bath with you. The Madam will be very kwaai. Come, it’s time for lunch now. Come, Itumeleng – apara hona jwale!’ Mme hands me my muddy clothes.
Marie stands up in the bath. The water drips off of her and spots of bubbles cling to her legs and tummy.
‘Nee. Sara, we are still playing.’ Her hands are on her hips and she looks at Mme. I cannot believe she is talking in this way to Mme but Mme doesn’t say anything or slap her. Mme looks scared and I don’t know why.
‘Do you still want to play, Grace?’ Marie says, looking at me. I don’t do anything. ‘Sara. We will eat when we are done playing.’
Mme lets me go. Marie sits down in the water again, smiling.
‘We will call you when we are done,’ Marie says to Mme.
We make so many bubbles that they reach to our faces. Marie gives a big puff and a cloud of foam goes into my face. I laugh and splash her.
‘You are my beste maatjie since Estelle moved to Bloemfontein, Grace,’ Marie said. ‘You are not allowed to go back home ever again.’
I don’t know what beste maatjie means, but I smile.
When we have finished our bath Marie calls Mme again and she brings Marie a dress to wear. I put on my muddy dress.
‘That’s too dirty,’ says Marie. ‘And it has holes in it. Sara, let Grace borrow my blue dress.’
But Mme says no, the Madam won’t like that.
‘She has to give it back, she can’t keep it,’ says Marie. ‘So it’s all right.’
But Mme looks angry and says no, my own dress is fine.
Marie’s place is laid at the dining-room table. Mme and I go to the kitchen. Marie’s food – rice, potatoes, lamb, carrots – is taken to her on a big white plate. She asks to have her dolly with her when she eats and Mme goes and fetches it for her.
From under the sink Mme takes a cracked brown plate. We don’t get the same food as Marie and Mme has made our food in a different pot on the stove. Mme and I share it, sitting outside on the kitchen steps. It is better than the pap we are always eating back home. Sometimes there is nothing but mealie pap for a whole week.
‘I like it here, Mme,’ I say. ‘We see the uncles. And I play ballerinas with Marie. Marie says I am her… her beste maatjie. What does that mean?’
Mme says nothing. She brushes the cracked and drying mud from my dress, squinting into the sunlight, and I cannot tell what she is thinking.
‘It means best friend,’ she says finally. ‘But, you know, ngwan’aka, she can’t really…’
Mme trails off.
‘Can’t really what?’
‘Nothing, it is nothing.’ She smiles at me.
Even though it is not night, I ask Mme if we can sing one of our songs. I feel happy, so I want to sing.
‘Not now, ngwan’aka. I need to get back to work.’
I spin and spin and spin. My plain white dress is a glittering tutu and I am on a big stage with the lights shining on me. Everyone is clapping, clapping, clapping for me. I spin faster and faster and then I spin into Grace. She catches hold of me before I fall over, and we giggle, but softly. I am dizzy so I need to sit down or I will fall. It is the big girls’ class and Mamma said Grace and I can watch from the back of the studio if we promise to be quiet. Tannie Sannie who plays the piano glares at us with her ostrich face. Her face reminds me so much of the ostriches that we saw that time we went to visit Oom Karel and Tannie Ansie in the Karoo that I call her Tannie Volstruis in my head. I want to stick my tongue out at her but Mamma would scold me, even though I know secretly she agrees with me because when I told her about Tannie Sannie looking like an ostrich she didn’t stop laughing for five whole minutes.
The big girls wear black leotards. I don’t want a black leotard anymore. I did when I first saw the big girls wearing them. Mamma says when I’m in the grade four ballet class in a few years I can have a black leotard too but it doesn’t matter because I like pink better anyway. My leotard is pink and pink is for princesses.
I like to dance to the music, but Grace always sits and watches. She gets very still and I have learned that that means she is thinking very hard because after she a while she will look at me and say something clever that I have never thought of. Like the first time she saw the big girls dance, she did not say anything for the whole class, but at the end she said the lines they make with their arms and legs are flowing like the branches of a willow tree in the wind. I asked her who had told her this but she said no one, that she had just thought of it. Grace is very clever, even if she goes to a poor school in the homeland where the teachers never even finished matric. Mamma says the schools in the homelands are sub-standard and that it is tragic.
Grace’s eyes follow the big girls’ movements. Her toes wiggle with the music. And when Mamma tells the big girls to pull in their tummies and stretch all the way to the ceiling, I see Grace, her legs crossed, sitting upright as straight as she can. She looks very much like a ballerina. I sit next to her and cross my legs and sit as straight as I can too.
We look at each other in the mirror, on the other side of the studio.
Hallo – I wave at her in the mirror. She waves back, laughs, takes my hand. We sit like ballerinas and watch the big girls dance.
‘Maybe one day we can both be ballerinas,’ I say, though I remember that Mamma told me that there are no black ballerinas in South Africa. ‘We’ll go to America,’ I say, ‘and be ballerinas together.’
Grace doesn’t say anything, and I wonder if she didn’t hear me or if she didn’t understand. When she first came her Afrikaans was bad but now it’s better.
Her hand slips out of mine.
That night at the table, Pappa tells us to hold hands and close our eyes while he says the prayer.
‘Onse Hemelse Vader,’ he begins, ‘Seën ons en hierdie gawes wat ons vanuit U goedheid gaan ontvang…’
Pappa says the same prayer every night. I already know it off by heart so I open my eyes just a little, to see what Mamma and Pappa are doing. They have their eyes squeezed tightly shut, and Pappa is looking very serious. But Pappa always looks serious, except sometimes on Sundays after church, when Oom Andries and Tannie Betsie come to visit us and they all sit outside around the braai.
When Pappa has finished praying I tell them about how Grace and I played ballerina and made mudcakes but Pappa frowns and says, ‘Don’t talk when your mouth is full, Marie. He looks at Mamma. ‘Is she playing with Sara’s girl all day?’
‘It’s harmless,’ says Mamma. ‘Don’t worry, Marius. They’re still very young.’
Pappa frowns. ‘Elbows off the table, Marie.’
‘Grace and I are going to be ballerinas when we’re big,’ I say.
Mamma squeezes my hand. ‘Eat your food before it gets cold.’
‘I don’t want my daughter playing with a meid the whole day, Elisabet.’ Pappa says, putting down his fork. I can see that he is angry. ‘And I’m not paying Sara so that her child can live here. I’m not a bloody charity.’
Mamma fidgets with her hands in her lap, and I know she wants a cigarette, but Pappa hates smoking at the table. ‘She’ll leave soon, Marius. The holidays are almost over.’
I am proud because I don’t cry. Pappa can’t stand it when women start bawling, he says.
The next day it’s raining and I want to play outside but Sara says I can’t because I’ll get sick. ‘Read me a story, please, Sara,’ I ask.
‘Sara can’t read, Marie, you know that,’ Sara says.
‘Of course you can. All grown-ups can read, Sara!’
‘I’m sorry, Marie. Sara can’t. I’m not so clever,’ she says.
Later, I ask Mamma why Sara pretends she cannot read but Mamma says it is true. Sara could not go to school when she was younger because she had to stay at home to take care of her little brothers and sisters.
‘Where were her mother and father?’
‘They had to work, Marie.’ I still don’t understand, but Mamma says, ‘Why don’t you fetch Grace? You can play ballerinas again, I’ll put on some music.’
I go to Sara’s room. I like how it is not just a bedroom but has a stove and chairs and table. It is like a whole house in one room. When I open the door, Grace is standing next to the table. It looks like she is doing the ballet steps we saw the big girls do at the barre.
Inside the house, Mamma puts a record on the gramophone player. It is the music of Swan Lake and it is beautiful.
‘Let’s make our own dances,’ I say, and begin to jump and twirl around the furniture.
Grace is shy, standing still, just listening to the music. She starts to move a little, slowly at first, but then more quickly. She looks like she has forgotten that anyone else is even here. I wonder what clever thing she is thinking this time.
I jump as high as I can, leaping around the room like I am Odette the swan princess. Or Sleeping Beauty. Or the Sugar-Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Mamma says her dance is the most beautiful of all the dances.
‘Kyk hier, Mamma,’ I yell, ‘kyk hier!’
All this time Mamma has been standing by the gramophone, watching Grace. She is frowning, but not like when she is kwaai, like when she is concentrating very hard. She doesn’t look at me. A cigarette burns in her hand but she has forgotten it, I think, because the ash piles up and tips onto the carpet. Her eyes follow Grace.
‘Grace,’ she says suddenly. ‘Come here.’ Grace stops dancing. She looks at Mamma, not understanding. ‘Come over here.’ Mamma beckons to her and Grace walks over, slowly. ‘Point your toe for me, Grace.’
But Grace doesn’t know what to do. ‘Jammer, Madam. Sorry, Madam.’ She looks scared.
Mamma gestures down at her own feet. They are touching at the heels, the toes pointing outwards. ‘Do this,’ she says.
Grace copies Mamma’s position. Mamma reaches down and takes first Grace’s right foot, then the left, turning them out even more.
‘First position,’ she says. ‘It has to be a triangle. Remember that.’
Grace looks down at her feet. I can see she is trying hard to keep them that way.
‘I can also do it, look,’ I say, and put my heels together. But I lose my balance and nearly fall over. Mamma doesn’t look at me.
‘Now, point your toe.’ Mamma stretches out one leg in front of her on the carpet.
Again, Grace copies her movement. Mamma is looking at her very strangely. ‘Tummy in,’ she says to Grace. ‘Stand up straight. Shoulders down. Bottom tucked in. Chin up.’
I ask, ‘Mamma, can I also point my toe? Look, I can also point, Mamma.’
‘Now take your leg to the back, into an arabesque.’
Mamma guides Grace’s leg to the back.
‘Mamma? Mamma?’ I say.
But she just looks at Grace, with the same peculiar frown. ‘Let’s find you some old ballet slippers, Grace.’
Mamma says from now on Grace will come to ballet lessons every day and we cannot play all the time.
I ask Mamma why Grace can go to ballet lessons if she said that blacks can’t be ballerinas, and Mamma says, ‘Well, she can be a ballerina in America or somewhere else, Marie. And Grace is talented. You can’t let talent go to waste.’
‘But – but – am I also talented?’ I ask.
‘Of course you are, my poppie,’ she says, ruffling my hair. But I am not allowed to go to Grace’s special ballet lessons. They are just for Grace. ‘Grace has never had ballet lessons before,’ she says, ‘so she needs the extra practice to catch up.’
Every day Grace comes to the studio. Mamma lets Grace wear one of my old leotards. Grace is a year older than me, but she is smaller. I give her my old ballet shoes too, though they are too small for her and Mamma buys Grace a new pair that fits her perfectly.
We still play in the garden every day, but Grace spends more and more time in the studio. I hear the piano music coming from the studio, and Mamma’s voice telling Grace what to do. I try playing ballerinas on my own, but it is not the same.
When Grace’s lesson is finished I want to play wegkruipertjie, but Grace just wants to dance.
‘I’m sick of playing ballerinas,’ I say. ‘Can’t we play something else?’
Grace nods. ‘Jammer, Marie.’
It’s a sunny day so we look for fairies in the garden. We hold hands and scour the entire garden, looking under all the bushes and shrubs, in all the trees.
One evening, I am playing with my dolls before bedtime. I have just fed Mollie her bottle and dressed her in favourite pink dress. I put her in her pram. Pappa is in the sitting-room, listening to the radio and smoking his pipe. It is his grown-up time and I am not allowed to interrupt. The telephone rings and I hear Mamma’s heels down the hallway as she goes to the bedroom.
It is one of my games to try and tell who Mamma is talking to on the telephone. It is really difficult most of the time because she mostly just says, ‘Ja, ja. Nee, nee. Really? Really?’
This time it is easy, because she says, ‘Naand, Aletta.’ So I know it is Tannie Aletta, Mamma’s sister. I push Mollie around in her pram to get her to fall asleep so I stop listening to Mamma until I hear the word Grace.
‘…Ja, ja,’ Mamma is saying. ‘Just extremely talented… Never seen anything like it, Aletta. Nee, no formal training at all… Very special. Of course, her background makes it difficult… Hmmm.’
I push Mollie’s pram out into the hallway to hear the conversation better.
‘…could go far, professional even. Ja, ja, I know. But the Royal Ballet in London… No, no. Marie won’t ever be a dancer. I’ll teach her until she’s older, but, you know…’
My heart starts beating very quickly. Mamma is talking about Grace going to London and the Royal Ballet without me.
I give Mollie’s pram a hard push so it falls over and Mollie goes flying across the carpet but I don’t care. I run to the kitchen. I am not allowed to go outside at night but I know where the backdoor’s key is.
It is cold outside, and dark. The garden looks different. I can’t see the pretty pink of the flowers. The rosebushes look like big dogs, looming out of the dark.
I walk towards Sara’s room, where a light is glowing. I can hear Grace and Sara singing. I don’t understand the words but I think it is the most beautiful song I have ever heard. I knock on the door, and the singing stops. Sara opens the door.
‘I – I want to talk to Grace, Sara,’ I say. I look into the room, past Sara, and start when I see a strange man wearing a purple hat sitting by the table. He looks me up and down in a way I don’t like.
‘It is Grace’s bedtime, Marie.’
‘Um… I just want to tell her…’ I don’t know what I want to tell her. ‘I want to tell her that Mamma says she can be a ballerina because she is so talented.’
The man in the purple hat laughs when I say this. His bright white teeth flashing in the light scare me. Sara says nothing, but she looks unhappy.
‘Good night, little girl,’ says the man. I turn around and run back to the house. I want to cry because of the strange man and because I could not tell Grace and because Mamma says I will not be a ballerina.
When I am back in the kitchen it is quiet.
‘Marie?’ Pappa says, suddenly. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I – I just said good night to Grace, Pappa,’ I say. ‘And I wanted to tell Grace that she is very talented and she will be a ballerina, but Sara said it’s Grace’s bedtime and the man in the purple hat said good night and he scared me and –’
‘What man?’ said Pappa, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘Marie?’
‘I don’t know, Pappa,’ I say.
Pa frowns. ‘There’s a man in Sara’s room?’
Pa sighs and says, bitterly, ‘They’re all the same, these kaffirs. Can’t do anything for them without them taking advantage of it.’ He looks very angry. ‘Go to bed, Marie.’
‘Is Sara in trouble, Pappa?’
‘Go to bed.’
I fall asleep hugging Mollie to my chest, thinking about Grace and London and Margot Fonteyn.
Next morning, I eat my breakfast in the kitchen. Pappa is already at work, and Mamma is smoking. She makes toast but she does it all wrong and it is too dark, not like Sara does it. Sara makes it just right.
‘Where is Sara, Mamma? I need her to make my toast.’
But Mamma doesn’t answer. She looks out of the kitchen window and lights another cigarette. She takes a deep drag and closes her eyes for a moment.
‘Mamma? Can I come with Grace to her special ballet class today? I have been practising very hard. And we can both be ballerinas.’
Mamma stubs out the cigarette and turns to me. ‘Grace isn’t coming to ballet classes anymore, Marie. Sara and Grace have gone back home.’ She takes something from the kitchen counter and I see it is Grace’s ballet shoes, the special ones Mamma bought for her. Mamma throws the shoes in the bin. ‘Can’t use them anymore now a kaffir’s worn them.’