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ISBN 978-0-624-04924-1

matilda.indd 1 3/3/11 12:22:19 PM

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First published in 2011 by Tafelberg, an imprint of NB Publishers,
40 Heerengracht, Cape Town, South Africa
PO Box 879, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa

Copyright © Annelie Botes

English translation © Tafelberg

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or

transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means,
including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage
or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

Editor: Fred Pheiffer

Cover design by Laura Foley
Typography by User Friendly
Set in New Baskerville BT 10 on 13.5 pt
Printed and bound in South Africa by Interpak Books, Pietermaritzburg

ISBN: 978-0-624-04924-1
Wednesday, 27 August 2008

She stands back to study the sign on the gate, rain dripping
from her hair. The sign is green, the capital letters white.



The pliers feel cold in her hand. She’s glad she made the sign
yesterday and painted it. Put it up as soon as she returned from the
funeral in town.
She gathers the cut-off bits of wire and puts them and the pliers
in the pocket of her black funeral pants. Walks through the gate
and pulls it shut behind her. Slips the loop over the hook. Drapes
the chain around the frame and the gate post. She clicks the lock
into place, her eyes fixed on her bony hands. They seem older than
twenty-six years, an old woman’s hands.
Umbrella Tree Farm. Hers and hers alone. No one will come
through the gate without her permission. She wants to be alone.
For the greater part of twenty-six years she was nothing, with no
say over her boundaries. No place was hers alone except for the
stone house she’d built deep in the mountains on the overgrown
southern slope. And the corner table behind the maidenhair fern
in The Copper Kettle, where she and Braham Fourie used to meet
for coffee before she cut him off.
She walks slowly to the house, ignoring the drizzle. Inhales the
scent of the lavender hedge that borders the garden path. Even in
the late winter the garden is lush, flourishing.
It had always been her job to close the gate and keep the

Bonsmara cattle out of her mother’s precious garden. When she
was small her father turned it into a game. He’d let her out at the
gate, then place a peppermint in her hand as he drove through.
She always held out her left hand because her right hand was sticky
and stank of piss and rotten fish.
When she was older getting out at the gate and away from
him was a release. She no longer held out her hand. ‘Take your
peppermint, Gertruidah, it’s your reward for the pleasure along
the way.’ She stood like a pillar of salt. ‘If you don’t take it, we’ll
melt it inside you tonight and then I will be the one eating it. Are
you going to take it …?’
She’d take the peppermint and toss it among the agapanthus
beside the gate.
At eighteen, when she was in grade eleven, she got her licence
and manipulated him into buying her a car. Then she never went
anywhere with him again. On Mondays she drove to boarding
school alone, returned alone to the farm on Fridays.
And she never ate anything tasting like peppermint again.
When she was small it took seventy steps to reach the bottom
stair. Seventy steps of praying: Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look
upon a little child. The steps became fewer as her legs grew longer.
By the time she was seventeen she counted fifty and that’s how it
It’s been fifty steps for nine years now.
The slate stairway fans out gracefully in the distance, a stone
column on either side of the bottom step, each topped with a brown
clay pot with gypsy roses spilling out from it. For the first time in
her life the stairway holds no terror. Because beyond the stairs,
behind the teak front door, there’s no one who can possess her
body or penetrate or destroy it. No one to trample her boundaries
or make her dance naked in the moonlight. The rider who claimed
her for his mare is dead.
Respected Bonsmara farmer. Outrider. Bareback rider. Abel
Strydom. Her father.

Ten steps. Another forty and she’ll be there.

Also gone from behind the teak front door, the woman who could
turn her hand to anything and ought to have known better than to
pretend to be deaf and blind. She’s dead too.
Green-fingered gardener. Stalwart of the Women’s Agricultural
Union. Pillar of the community. Sarah Strydom. Her mother.

Fifteen steps. Another thirty-five and she’ll arrive at the stairs.

They died four days ago on their way to the Communion service.
An accident on the farm road – Abel was never a man to take his
time. Judging by the wreck they’d hit the kudu at full speed, its horn
piercing Sarah’s heart and pinning her to the back of her seat.
Abel broke his neck.
When police brought the news she pretended to cry.
This morning she buried them in the town cemetery. She’d
refused to have their corpses on her land. ‘Bury them in town,’
she told the undertaker after she identified their bodies on Sunday
‘Gertruidah, your grandmother and brother are both in the
family graveyard …’
‘I will decide where they’re buried.’ He raised his hand in protest
but she silenced him. ‘I want to finalise the arrangements right
now – it’ll be at eleven on Wednesday morning.’
She was dying to get back to the farm. To be on her own, to feel
joy, to cry over twenty-two broken years. To reach back into the
safety she remembered from when she was a little girl who still
believed in fairies and the tooth mouse, before she’d begun to fear
the turning of the doorknob at night. ‘Do anything you like, just
as long as everything goes smoothly. Tea, cake, ribbons, wreaths,
caskets, anything.’
‘At least choose the caskets.’
‘Choose them yourself.’
‘But, Gertruidah, the different styles and prices …’
‘You heard me, you choose.’
A large crowd turned up for the service. She knew what they were
whispering to each other: So tragic that the Lord called them so

soon. Still only in their fifties, with so much to offer the community.
The big question now was who would farm on Umbrella Tree Farm
and keep an eye on Gertruidah?
She watched dry-eyed as the caskets were lowered into the
ground. All she could think of was the chain and lock she’d buy
at the co-op before driving back to the farm. Stop at the store for
some food. Don’t forget cough medicine for Mama Thandeka.
Sugar and jelly babies for Johnnie.

Twenty steps. Only thirty remain.

At the funeral no one but she knew the truth about Abel and Sarah
Strydom. Then she looked up and saw Braham Fourie in the crowd
on the far side of the grave, his eyes fixed on her. So there were two
people present who knew the truth.
She pretended she hadn’t seen him. Once, in her grade eleven
year, she’d allowed him to glance inside her secret room – now, like
countless times since then, she regretted it.

Twenty-five steps. The halfway mark.

The funeral-goers scattered flowers onto the caskets. But when

the basket with light pink wild chestnut flowers reached her, she
demurred. She would not offer them a flower. She locked her
fingers behind her back, kept her hands away from the grave.
Hands that had been too close to Abel Strydom too many times.
‘Go on, Gertruidah,’ the minister’s wife whispered, ‘take a little
flower …’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Now come on, Gertruidah …’
They all thought she was stupid. They used to whisper that
lightning struck beside Sarah’s right foot the day before she was
born. That it had made her slow. After a while they grew tired of
the lightning story. Then they said she’d never recovered from her
brother Anthony’s death. Later still the story went round that she’d
been born with a bladder defect.

Covering up, that was all it was. Let the minister’s wife believe
what she liked.
‘Maybe a little flower later on, when everyone’s gone …’
‘I won’t want to.’
The woman sighed and moved on with the basket.

Forty steps. Rain drifts down gently onto the slate stairs.

Looking around her she decided it was best if they believed she was
stupid. Better stupid than a slut who shared a bed with her father.
Who’d believe her if she told them he’d raped and sodomised her
for twenty-two years? There she goes again, they’d say, Gertruidah
making up silly stories. Because if there was ever a man of
impeccable integrity, a man who’d never do that to his daughter,
Abel Strydom was that man.
Then she felt someone behind her pressing something into her
hands. A wild chestnut flower. When she looked around Braham
stood behind her. She dropped the flower, crushed it under her foot.
‘I’ll wait in The Copper Kettle until two.’
She said nothing, looked at him coldly.
‘Let me know if you need me, Gertruidah.’

Fifty steps.

She removes the pliers and bits of wire from her pocket and sits
down on the glistening stairs. She hasn’t been inside the house
since she came back from the undertaker on Sunday. She didn’t
want to feel the lingering breaths of the dead on her skin, or smell
their unwashed clothes. She preferred to sleep in the stone house,
although the walk there was long and cold and wet.
The sound of frogs in the distance reminds her that before it’s
dark she must go tell the river that the graves have been covered
and twenty-two years of torture have ended.

She’d ignored Braham Fourie on purpose. She didn’t need his

help, doesn’t need any man’s help. Not now, not ever.

She lies down on the bottom step, feels the drizzle carried by the
southeaster spray her face. It is cold but healing.
It’s been a while since it rained.
The first drops started to fall just as the minister was crumbling
a clod of soil over the caskets. By the time the closing hymn was
sung it was pouring. ‘Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee …’
If she’d hated Sarah and Abel less she might have cried. But she
couldn’t cry any more. For twenty-two years she steeled herself
against feeling. Feeling hurts, and she’s been hurt enough.
It hurts when your father shoves a tin canister up inside you. It
hurts when the children at school mock you and say you stink. It
hurts giving birth to a child of shame under a full moon. It hurts
when Braham Fourie goes to a school function with another woman.
After a while you stop hurting. It’s as if you’ve grown scales on
your skin and inside your heart.
She rolls onto her side and supports herself on one elbow, licks
the rain from her lips. Her pants cling to her legs, icy cold.
She’s never felt this fearless. Or this directionless at the same time.
Her head is swirling, like feeling carsick on a dirt road in summer.
Muddled thoughts are all she knows. Being told off for being
forgetful or for slipping away into her own world – that is normal.

She was in grade one and Miss Robin was calling to her softly.
‘Gertruidah? Look at me, Gertruidah …’
She didn’t want to be brought back to the classroom where she
had to colour in and listen and stand in line. Far better to imagine
she was on Umbrella Tree Farm playing among the reeds on the
river bank with Bamba. Bamba barked and gulped at the water
and chased after the Egyptian geese. She picked a reed and drew
a house in the sand. The sand room that was her bedroom had no
door. No bed, either. She called Bamba to her and they sat in the
sand-house bedroom eating crackers. Dry, because butter turned to
snot in her mouth.
‘It’s your turn to read, Gertruidah. Go on,’ Miss Robin said and
placed a finger on the first word.
‘I’ll read later.’

The other children laughed. They pinched their noses and with
their lips formed silent words so Miss Robin wouldn’t see or hear
them. Taunts. She stank, they said, and she was stupid. She wanted
to kill them.
‘No, Gertruidah, we’re reading now.’
She dropped her head onto her arms, shut her eyes. She
wouldn’t read because she knew the book off by heart. She wanted
to go back to the river and her sand-house bedroom. Besides, it felt
good when Miss Robin talked to her that way. It made her feel that
Miss Robin loved her more than the other grade ones. When she
listened, or read when it was her turn, Miss Robin didn’t sit down
beside her or rub her back or talk to her in a nice quiet voice. But
when she refused to read Miss Robin pleaded with her.
At the end of the year when her report arrived her mother stood
in the kitchen and cried so her tears fell into the chocolate cake
batter. Because she’d failed.
‘I didn’t fail! I’m clever, Miss Robin said so!’ she tried to argue.
‘We just have to go over the reading books again. Andrea, too, Miss
Robin says …’
‘I’m ashamed of you, Gertruidah! You’re a naughty girl! Even
Matron complains that you pull your nose up at the hostel food
and you wet your bed. You’re a big girl, now, but you behave just
like a baby who …’
‘It isn’t true! It’s because there’s a leguan who walks down the
corridors at night, I saw him myself, he kills children with his tail
and eats them.’
‘Nonsense, Gertruidah! There you go making up stories again! I
swear, the next time Matron complains I’m going to buy disposable
nappies she can put on you at night …’
She plugged her ears with her fingers and ran out of the house
so she wouldn’t hear any more. To the river. She would tell no one
about the leguan who left the farm at night to walk to town and
enter the hostel. Lying quiet as a mouse in her bed, she could hear
his guttural sounds outside the room. Matron said it was the hot
water pipes, but Matron lied. She would tell no one she was glad
she’d failed because it meant she wouldn’t be with the children who

mocked her with their silent words. And if she didn’t want to read
Miss Robin would sit down beside her and ask her nicely, please
won’t you read. She liked Miss Robin.
One Monday in her second year in grade one she had to go
to the school library where a man she’d never seen before asked
her to draw pictures and build puzzles and make sums. Miss Robin
called him the school psychologist, Mr Noman. She’d never heard
of a name like that. How could a man be Noman?
She wasn’t scared that Mr Noman would push his finger up
inside her because her mother was there all the time. On the way
to town her mother had told her not to say anything about the bed-
wetting and the nightmares. ‘You should never talk about things
like that, Gertruidah. Not even to your best friend.’
‘I don’t have a best friend. I don’t have any friends at all.’
She often asked her parents if she could invite a classmate home
for the weekend. Maybe then at least someone at her school would
like her. But her father always said no. If she asked her mother, she
said, listen to your father, he’s the head of the house and he knows
At night, when she said it hurt, her dad said the same thing, that
it was all for her own sake.
She enjoyed her time with the psychology man. She wished Miss
Robin could hear how well she read or the way she knew the answer
to every sum, straightaway. She wanted to show him how quickly
she could build a puzzle but every time he got up from his chair
she could see the zipper in his pants, the library smelt of sardines
and she’d hear someone rattling the doorknob. Then she couldn’t
count or colour in. She lay down on her arms until he sat down
again. It was Anthony’s death that had made her this way, her
mother told the psychology man.
That was a lie.
She didn’t understand everything her mom told the man but it
sounded as if she was on her side. Her mother talked about wanting
to protect her child from digging up things unnecessarily, about
time healing everything and not wanting her child to become a

Target? Was someone trying to shoot at her? And her mother was
protecting her – she felt relieved.
They had guests for lunch that Sunday. She sat in the dark
beneath the tablecloth in the breakfast nook. Unseen, she could
listen to the grown-ups talk. Her mother was sitting at the kitchen
table with Andrea’s mom, grating carrots and cutting pineapples
into cubes. Her mother was saying the psychologist had said
Anthony’s death was the problem.
That was a lie, the man never said that.
Her mother was telling Andrea’s mom a bunch of lies about
what the man had said. But she knew he never said it. Never said
she shouldn’t drink green or red cooldrink because it would keep
her awake at night. Never talked about a bladder infection or her
imagination running away with her. And her mother wasn’t saying
a word about how well she’d read or that she’d never once coloured
outside the lines.
‘Yes, Sarah,’ Andrea’s mom sighed. ‘We’ll never understand
how Anthony’s death affected her. She worshipped him. Andrea’s
problems are because of a difficult birth. Forceps delivery. Too little
oxygen. She was a ten-pound baby, you know.’
She loved words and saved the difficult ones inside her head.
Oxygen. Forceps delivery. Ten-pound baby. There were even
bigger words she didn’t understand. Allergic, therapy, genetic,
trauma, masturbation. It didn’t matter as long as she saved them.
At times she took them out, repeated them silently, so only her
tongue moved inside her mouth. At night while ugly things were
happening inside her bedroom, she said them over and over.
Then she forgot a little about the hurt and the sardine smell, she
disappeared from her body and turned into someone else.
It felt good to be someone else. Then she wasn’t like Mr Noman
who was no one. When she was Allergic Strydom she had transparent
wings and could fly right up to the clouds. Therapy Strydom made
a little red-and-yellow wooden boat and oars and rowed right past
the crocodiles and river monsters all the way to the sea. Genetic
Strydom was Goldilocks’s best friend. Together they picked
poisonous mushrooms in the forest and fed them to Snow White’s

stepmother. Trauma Strydom was a chambermaid who brushed
Sleeping Beauty’s hair while she dreamed. Masturbation Strydom
always wanted to be the boss. She didn’t like Masturbation Strydom
because he hurt her.

Leaning on her elbow she sees smoke curl out of the chimney
at Mama Thandeka’s house across the river at the foot of the
mountain. They and Johnnie and poor slow-witted Littlejohn are
the last people left on Umbrella Tree Farm: the other labourers’
cottages have stood empty for years. Abel always said the new
laws made it impossible to employ permanent workers. But Mama
Thandeka and Mabel and Johnnie and Littlejohn have life interest,
so they’ve stayed.
Johnnie helps in the yard with Sarah’s flowers and the vegetable
garden, the chickens and the evening milking. But he’s old and
nearing the end of his life. Littlejohn is already in his late forties
and the only things he’s good at are eating jelly babies and singing.
What would become of him after Johnnie died used to be Abel’s
problem. Now it’s hers. Johnnie mustn’t die. He’s more a father to
her than Abel ever was. When she was small she’d go with him to
fetch eggs every evening. At milking time she’d carry her little mug
to the kraal and he’d fill it with warm milk – although later on milk
made her stomach turn.
She must take him to the doctor for a check-up, and Mama
Thandeka too.
The other labourers who came to the farm were all contract
workers. Fencers, pruners, cattle workers, dam-scrapers, soil-
diggers. Abel shipped them in as he needed them. Aside from
Johnnie it was she who’d been Abel’s right-hand man. There was
nothing she couldn’t do. Irrigating, milking, placing salt licks,
checking fences, setting traps for the genets. Slaughtering sheep
before Abel sold them all. He was being robbed blind and it was
cheaper to buy meat at the butcher, he said.
Abel taught her well.
‘We have to keep her busy somehow,’ she’d hear him tell visitors.
‘Seeing as she’s not independent enough to go to university or get

a job overseas. But Sarah and I don’t mind, we love her from the
bottom of our hearts.’
No one would believe her if she told them how well he’d taught
her another kind of manual and physical labour.
Only Mama Thandeka and Mabel knew who Abel and Sarah
really were. But no one would believe them either.
At least Mama Thandeka and Mabel had each other and unlike
her and Sarah, who were locked in endless battle, they loved each
other. She’d be alone in the house from now on. But not lonely. For
the greatest part of twenty-six years she’d longed to be alone. To
never hear a floorboard creak or a doorknob turn. Maybe the kudu
saved her from a prison sentence because she’d been nearing the
stage where she would shoot them both in their sleep.
She hears the phone ring inside the house. Let it ring. She
doesn’t want to talk to anyone.
She hears the marsh frogs, hears her stomach rumble. She hasn’t
eaten anything all day. Not even a cup of tea after the funeral.
She’d kept trying to evade the pitying hands rubbing and stroking
her upper arms. People touching her made her shudder.
In her haste to put up the sign and lock the gate, she pulled the
truck into the shed and left the shopping bag with bread, tomatoes,
bully beef, oranges and Tennis biscuits on the front seat. Mama
Thandeka’s medicine and Johnnie’s sugar and jelly babies too.
She’ll fetch it later.
She wants her own food. The food in the house is dirty. Maybe
she should go ask Mama Thandeka for a griddle cake.

Mabel was in a hurry when she came to the yard this morning
carrying the laundry basket with wild chestnut flowers. She had to
get home, she said, she had dough rising.
‘Is your mother’s chest better, Mabel?’
‘No. Must be rain on the way. Mama started wheezing last night.
I was up half the night, rubbing Vicks into her back. You must
remember the chest drops, please, there’s less than a quarter bottle
left. Raw linseed oil and Turlington too. And Johnnie wants sugar
and jelly babies. He says since Littlejohn ran out of sweets the day

before yesterday he hasn’t stopped singing “This little light of
mine”, not even in his sleep. Says it’s driving him to drink.’
‘Won’t you change your mind about coming to the funeral,
Mabel? I’m only leaving at ten, so there’s plenty of time to …’
‘Forget it, Gertruidah. You won’t catch me in the house of our
Lord crying false tears for a man I don’t respect. I’m glad I won’t
have to put on the face you’ll have to wear today.’
‘Please come.’
‘No. I must fetch wood before the rain starts. I just wanted to
pick the flowers to scatter on the coffins, and only because I loved
your mother. She taught me a lot.’
‘You’re lucky, Mabel. She never took the trouble to teach me …’
‘That’s a lie, Gertruidah. She gave up because you kept pushing
her away. You never wanted to learn anything from her. She taught
me,’ and Mabel nudged the basket with her foot, ‘that where too
many wild chestnuts bloom you’ll find nothing but false riches.
Fat wallets and lean hearts. Your mother was a good woman,
Gertruidah, but your father …’
‘At least he had it in him to give you and your mother life interest
in your house, and he …’
‘Life interest? Yes, Gertruidah, he did give me life. When Mama
was already on the wrong side of forty and he a whipper-snapper of
twenty-six. He owes us that life interest, Mama and me. I’m going
now. Don’t forget the chest drops and the sugar and jelly babies.’
‘I need a favour, Mabel. Will you go inside the house and bring
me my black pants and my white long-sleeved blouse? My black
‘Heavens, Gertruidah, can’t you fetch your own clothes?’
‘I don’t want to go inside the house.’
‘So where’ve you been sleeping the last three nights if you didn’t
sleep in the house?’
‘You who’s always spying on everyone, you know perfectly well
I’ve been sleeping in the stone house. Bring a clean bra and panties
too. And my hairbrush.’
‘Heavens, Gertruidah, do you imagine the house is haunted?’
‘No, it isn’t haunted, it stinks.’

‘I cleaned last Friday, what can it stink of already?’
‘It stinks of Abel and Sarah. Won’t you fetch my things for me
Mabel had brought her things. ‘You must wash your hair,
Gertruidah. You can’t go to the funeral with it all greasy. I’m going
now. You must be strong today.’
At the far end of the lavender hedge Gertruidah caught up with
her. ‘Thank you, Mabel. For the flowers. And for …’
Then Mabel reached out her arms. The scent of bruised lavender
wrapped itself around them where they stood, half-sisters from the
seed of the same man.
‘Drop a bloody big rock on his coffin, Gertruidah, and tell him I
say thank you for the life interest.’

She sits upright. Her hands are blue from the cold, her wet pants
draw a black outline for her thin body.
Down by the river the frogs have become a massed choir. For years
now the river has been her church. After she discovered the Quaker
book in the town library she stopped going to church or Sunday
school. On Sundays when it was time to leave she’d run away. Then
Abel would chase her, catch her and bundle her into the car. On the
way there she’d be sick on his best suit. During the service she’d kick
and kick against the pew in front of them until Sarah gave her leg
a sharp rap. Then she’d cry blue murder while the minister recited
the Ten Commandments. Or she’d deliberately pick her nose. Insist
on going to the toilet during every service. Cling to the pew in front
of her when it was time to split into groups for Sunday school.
She didn’t want to. She wouldn’t. She hated both the church and
God. He left her alone in the dark, even if she prayed all night
long. He allowed her father to sit in the elders’ pew and made her
mother an important woman in the parish. Why didn’t He punish
them if He was so clever and could see everything? What was the
use of wedging the toe of a shoe underneath her door and asking
God to keep it shut? What was the use of telling her mother about
the ugly things if Sarah just slapped her shoulder and told her to
stop making up stories?