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Excerpt: The Tragic Catalyst in Esther’s House by Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

Esther's House'n Huis vir Ester Read an excerpt from Esther’s House by Carol Campbell.

Esther’s House, which is available in Afrikaans as ‘n Huis vir Ester, is the story of two women who, fed up with waiting for housing from the government, take matters into their own hands.

In this excerpt, the tragic catalyst for their decision occurs:

* * * * *

It was the snapping that made Katjie look up. Her eyes were watering and she wiped a hand over her face, lifting her spectacles and dropping them again on to her nose like she always did when she was uncertain. Her feet were in a towel on a hot-water bottle and she shuffled them around to find her slippers. She stabbed the needle into the half-stitched head of the ragdoll and, holding on to the table, stood up. “Nee, nee, nee, nee,” she muttered, snatching at the cup on the table and pushing her false teeth into her mouth.
         Bessie, her youngest granddaughter, was on the bed, playing with the doll’s body, her thumb in her mouth. Criszenda, the older one, was sleeping, curled in a tight pink ball at her sister’s feet. Shireen was on the other side of the curtain, on the floor, snoring softly. She had come in an hour ago and woken Katjie and Bessie, falling against the table and laughing, making the shack smell of drink and sex. Katjie had steered her behind the curtain and promised her coffee to keep quiet. But straight away she was asleep on the newspaper laid out for her and her mother covered her with a grey blanket.
         Now Katjie scuttled across the yard to the back door and knocked.
         “Hello, hello!” she called. “Oom Krisjan, maak oop, maak oop … the electricity is shorting!”
         The house was silent and she knocked harder, stopping to put her ear to the door to hear if anyone was coming. The last time she had run into the house and switched off the mains herself but Oom Krisjan had shouted at her so now she was afraid.
         The unhurried scraping of slippers as Oom Krisjan came to the door made Katjie rub her hands and bounce on the step. The old man was dressed in his brown winter pyjamas and blue slippers and, before he could swear, she said, “Vinnig, quick, switch off the mains, the electricity is shorting.”
         “You blerrie people,” he said, turning slowly. “This is the last time, today I am cutting the wires.”
         When she was sure he was going to the mains she ran back to see if the sparking had stopped. As she opened the door the smell hit her and, through the smoke, she saw a flame crawling along the nylon curtain-divider.
         “Liewe Jesus! Shireen, Shireen, get up! The curtain is burning!”
         Bessie was coughing and the old lady grabbed the child’s arm and pulled her out.
         “Kom, Criszenda, Shireen!” she shouted. “Come, come out!”
         Criszenda uncurled and crawled across the bed. Katjie pushed her out and she fell into the yard, gasping in the cold morning air.
         “Shireen, Shireen!”
         The fire dropped like slime on to the grey blanket and still Shireen did not stir.
         “Mammie is drunk!” Criszenda shouted. Bessie yelped like a puppy and her young voice made those sleeping in the neighbouring shacks open their eyes. The children stood in the corner of the yard watching, their bodies shaking with cold and terror.
         The fire was everywhere now and black smoke swelled and surged into the dawn. Katjie could hear Shireen coughing, but when she went back inside the flames came at her like a man with a sjambok and she stepped back.
         “Kom, Shireen, kom, the hok is burning! O Liewe Jesus, help us.”
         With a slow creaking, the corrugated-iron walls folded. Katjie grabbed at the collapsing structure, trying to keep it upright as the red-hot walls seared off the skin on her hands.
         “Shireen, Shireen! Help her!” Hands grabbed Katjie and pulled her frail body away from the heat.
         Dust and smoke swirled across the yard and flames leaped into the sky. Bare-chested men in boxers ran with buckets of water, throwing them on to the fire, and women, their hair in stockings and their gowns pulled tight over their breasts, shouted at the children to keep back. Neighbours from the shacks nearby carried their own furniture and clothes into the street. If one place went, then next door could go too. Keeping the fire in one yard was the big job now.
         “Shireen, Shireen.”

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