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The Heartbreak of Long Division


I was born in Southern Africa, in a small town near Kimberley, but when I was fourteen, we left that continent on a lavender-hulled steamship called the Stirling Castle and sailed for two weeks over the Atlantic to England. What do I remember most about that journey? Tears and more tears and my mother shuttered in our cabin shrunken by grief, her red hair spoiled with gray and spidery on the pillow. My sister, Agnes, stayed with her, sealed up in the chamber, rubbing our mother's back and coaxing her now and again to sip a cup of weak tea. In the corner of the cabin, our father's parrot, Nuisance, clung to the side of his cage, his scaly eyelids half-cast. He had even stopped squawking; although when the ship pitched down a large wave, he would sometimes rustle his feathers and croak, "Pie," his solitary word in an ocean of language.

Our father was dead. A month before, he had suffered a heart attack on his way to work, had collapsed on the red polished stairs that led up to the mining office. A gardener, hands soiled from planting nasturtiums, had carried him inside and placed him in the shade of the front hall, out of the burning sun, an utterly pointless exercise as he was dead already, the doctor explained. When my mother heard this, she turned her face to the wall as though this act of kindness was too much too bear, but Agnes and I emptied our piggy banks and changed our money into a single pound coin that we presented to the man in the company gardens.

His name was Solomon, and the whites of his eyes were yellow, like the yolk of an egg.

Our father was an accountant, the son of an accountant, bred for the mental gymnastics of numbers and their infinite acrobatics. He was tall, just over six feet, but when standing, he subsided into himself as though his core were made of something yielding. Even his voice was soft. If he were in a room, it was unlikely you would notice him, unless, perhaps he was sitting in your chair. That was his way, to efface himself, and yet when it came to mathematics, he was supremely confident. His greatest trick was mental arithmetic. While other fathers told jokes and stories, built kites and paper boats, or picked up their little girls and swung them in the air so that their feet flew above their heads, ours would sit us on his knee and answer our most devious mathematical conundrums, stating the solutions in his calm voice as though the integers were just floating in the air, ten inches from his nose.

"I see mathematics in colors," he once told us, and I believed him, for when he was working with numbers, his face took on such an expression of wonder; it truly could be assumed that all the colors of the rainbow were exploding before his eyes.

For my father, numbers and their egregious logic was the language most familiar to him, but to his despair, neither my sister nor I could make any sense of it. As young children we walked home from school with our nanny, our brown cardboard school cases banging against our thighs, heads hanging. Other homework was always conquered first: our spelling lists, our grammar, our chapter books, while we waited for our father to come home and make sense of the numeric problems we had been set. That numbers could divide in half, and come together, could be shattered into pieces, could be multiplied against each other, could never end, seemed impossible. Night after night our father persevered with us, and in silence Agnes and I sat there, our pencils wet in our mouths, his words flitting like moths above our heads. Sometimes I would almost grasp something; the waters of the pool would settle as the agitating wind drew back, and I would glimpse with perfect clarity the stones and silt that lay below. But then the wind would rise, the waters would rustle, and all understanding would be gone. In exasperation our father would push back his chair, rise from the table, and head out into the night with his long loose stride.

He gave up on us as we grew older, came to accept our failings, but because we could not communicate with him in his common tongue, our house fell into two halves—his: masculine, numeric, clear-minded, hardworking, organizational; ours: daydreaming, errant, lazy. Our mother had not gone to school, she had been educated by a governess, and badly at that, and so there was no expectation that Agnes, nor I should show any inclination toward schoolwork. We were left to our own devices, and we reveled in it, our freedom, dressing up, putting on plays in the gazebo, digging for diamonds in the veld, climbing trees, and making mud pies in the curve of the river. Sometimes our mother joined in our fancies, sitting with us on the lawn to eat the wild strawberries gathered for a doll's picnic or showing us how she could skip, the rope a gray blur around her body, but more frequently she suffered from migraines and lay in her room, a towel over her eyes.

As we grew older, the gulf between our father and us widened. Perhaps it was our changing bodies that alienated him, our inevitable evolution. He would pass our bedroom door with his head turned away and his eyes almost shut, as though he had no wish to see the chaos within. And chaos it was. Clothes lay jumbled on the floor, washed stockings and other intimates hung from the shower rail, and our dressing table was crammed with pins and hairbrushes and curlers and bottles of old hairspray we had stolen from our mother. It was around this time that he bought Nuisance, an African Grey parrot, whose real name was Colonel Bird but was quickly renamed by my mother who found his incessant squawking unbearable.

In the evening around the dinner table, our father ate in thoughtful silence, his body bent over his food, while our mother and Agnes prattled about the day. We respected his position; we understood that we could not be there if he was not, and yet somehow, we could not gather him in, make him part of us. Now I sometimes wonder if he ever thought of a son, a boy with a mind as a calculating as his, who might have sat at his end of the dining room away from the candelabrum and the silver vase from which blowsy roses discarded their petals on the polished depths of the table.

After our father died, it was decided that our mother, Agnes, Nuisance, and I would return to Scotland to live with our grandmother. There was a reason for this, for only days after the funeral, it transpired that our beautiful house, Number 25 Long Street, with its teak front door and bougainvillea-draped veranda did not actually belong to us at all, but to the mine for which my father worked. We were given a month to pack up, for already a new accountant had been appointed in Scotland and was heading over the sea to take our place. My mother, weakened by the loss of her husband and the further discovery that she had no home, took to her bed.

Agnes and I wandered about the house, uncertain of what to do. We had never applied ourselves; we were utterly unaware of how the world worked. Instead of clearing cupboards and donating furniture and sorting through the clutter that filled the attic, we took refuge in the garden, Agnes on a rug in the small orchard, and me on the swing. Fat wasps delved into the flesh of the fruit; we tread warily in our bare feet for the ground was littered with decaying plums. We ate mulberries until our mouths and fingers were stained almost black and the day had dissolved into evening, the pale ice cream sky melting above us. We waited until bats had begun to swoop and dive and we could smell the night-flowering jasmine commingling in the air with the scent of apples. At last, cold in our thin dresses, we would go inside to find the kitchen empty and Nuisance hissing in his cage; for even our maids had disappeared when our father had died. Agnes proved more practical than I. She cracked eggs into a bowl and scrambled them up with milk and butter and served them on bread she had toasted beneath the grill, but I could do nothing because I had never even opened a tin before and could not make any sense of the can opener and its bewildering mechanics.

Grief struck us all differently. My mother, as to be expected, just gave up. And Agnes, despite being the younger sister, began to step forward. Not obviously to be sure, but as the days passed, her proficiency became apparent. In all decisions, it was she we deferred to. I would stand there helpless, as Agnes mulled something over, her crammed teeth chewing her bottom lip.

And what of me?

At our father's funeral, I did not cry (for how can you grieve for something you think you have barely known?) but even as his coffin disappeared under a layer of crumbling red earth, it began. The counting. At first it helped me sleep, that slow ascension of numbers, but as the days passed, I found myself counting other things too, putting order in the world. Five opalescent flies lay dead on the bathroom windowsill. There were thirty steps to the front gate. Two bottles of milk were delivered each morning to the porch. One box of ladyfingers lay in the larder with twenty biscuits inside. Nuisance ate fourteen sunflower seeds in four minutes. I was 5,206 days old. It had been three-and-a-half days since our mother had spoken a word.

The Mine organized a removal company to pack us up, and when the men arrived, they moved through our home like locusts, wrapping everything from old chutney bottles in the larder to my christening spoon. At first Agnes and I followed them around, trying to help but the men seemed not to see us. Moreover, they moved with ferocity we were unused to, an intent, which frightened us and sent us out into the garden again.

On the second evening of the removal, we came inside to discover that the kitchen had been packed up, and we had no plates or forks or even pots. Every cupboard was bare and dusty and smelled already like a house that had been left untouched for a long time. We opened all the doors and stared into those dark spaces, examining with care all the things we never knew about our house—the bricks beneath the sink were soft with moss. Mice had evidently shared our home with us for little droppings lay scattered like crumbs all over the cupboard floors. That night we scoured the pantry and made a feast of raisins and biscuits, of old chocolates still in their wrappers but now gone pale with age. We opened a jar of jam and peeled off the wax and scooped the fruit out with our fingers. We closed our mouths around the cool of the tap and drank the water like that. Afterward we crept through the rooms where the furniture had been wrapped in rugs and wooden crates stood stacked ready to be shipped.

"Are we ghosts?" Agnes whispered, and I nodded but I could not explain to her: soon we would be gone from this house, and it would no longer recall us; we would become part of the past, just as our father had become, and no one who moved into these rooms in the future would know of us. Bits of us would stay behind, the dust of our skin and our fingerprints, but in all other ways we would be forgotten.

Upstairs, our mother was still in bed, her body a narrow curve beneath the sheets. Agnes fetched her water in her toothbrush mug, and I polished a plum until it gleamed but our mother pulled the pillow over her head and would not speak. So Agnes and I went to sleep too, top and tailing in her single bed, my shivering feet pressing against the warmth of her back.

The next morning the packers were back. Again they worked with violence, sweeping from room to room. It was only as they began on the bedrooms that Agnes and I suddenly realized our mistake: We had packed no clothes! We had packed nothing! What on earth would we wear on the boat?

We raced up the stairs two at a time and, opening a trunk, began to throw items into it in a frenzy. Already half our wardrobes lay sealed in crates. We grabbed what we could from what was left on the hangers and shelves, stuffing things down with our arms. Cotton knickers and sheepskin slippers and a merino sweater, a cheesecloth skirt, flannel pajamas, a single walking boot, anything we could lay our hands on.

Next door we heard our mother groaning. Agnes glanced at me, then spun on her heels, her red hair streaming around her neck. The packers had invaded our mother's room. They were opening her cupboards and clearing her dressing table, her perfume bottles, her silver-backed brush, her photograph of our father. Mummy sat upright in bed. Her nightgown had fallen open at the neck, and I could see the bones of her chest, as though her skin had been chiseled away.

Agnes stood in the middle of the room and stamped her foot. "Get out," she screamed. "Get out! Get out!" And to my amazement, the men nodded their heads to her and left. Agnes began to pack the remainder of our mother's clothes into the wicker laundry basket since we could not find our other trunk.

Our mother stared around in dismay, then lay back down again and shut her blue-backed eyes.

When the packers left that afternoon, leaping into the open back of their truck, their heads wet with sweat, Agnes and I sat on the porch steps and pulled the petals off the agapanthus that curved toward us. Everything around us seemed blue, an agapanthus sky arcing above Agnes's pale angry eyes.

"We must do something," Agnes declared, and so together we went upstairs and opened the trunk and the laundry basket and dressed ourselves in our finest attire. Agnes wore our mother's silver high heels and her jade necklace and her fur stole and even sat at her dressing table and applied some powders to her face. I put on my confirmation dress and a beaded cap of Mother's and a fringed shawl embroidered with parrots.

We both kept on our black mourning stockings as to take them off seemed disrespectful.

It was early evening when we set out, and the town was quiet, all the shops shuttered up. We walked slowly because Agnes's feet only filled half the shoes, taking in the light and the hibiscus hedge and the sudden silence as all the mining machines ground to a halt for the night. We walked down Digger and Hoog, seeing no one but a white dog with three legs that barked at us skittishly, then disappeared under a bush when Agnes bent for a stone. At the doctor's house we hesitated on the steps; then holding hands, we marched up to the door and pulled the bell. A maid let us in, then led us down the yellowwood-floored hall to the dining room, where the doctor and his wife, Mrs. van Buren, were having dinner.

"Twee meisies vir u," the maid announced in Dutch.

Mrs. van Buren's face went pale, and she pushed her plate away with a sudden gesture. My mouth rushed with water; the van Burens were eating lamb chops that glistened with grease and baby carrots and rice and potatoes, and on the sideboard I spotted a trifle, the ruby jelly glinting between layers of custard.

Agnes explained our predicament. Our mother, the packers, how Nuisance would not be quiet, how we had no food, and the doctor's wife kept exclaiming, "Shame, you poor girls!" Then, she said she would pack us some food and take us home in the car, but first she picked up her linen napkin and, dipping a twisted end in her water glass, she wiped the rouge and lipstick off Agnes's face.

And so, a week later, we found ourselves on a train to Cape Town. The doctor had organized everything; he had sent a telegram to Scotland and given our mother a compound that calmed her, although it could not seem to assuage her grief. The doctor's wife sorted through our trunk with her mouth clenched like a fish and then took us to Garlick's to buy us each a cotton dress, a jersey, buckled shoes, and three pairs of cotton knickers that she instructed us to wash in the bath each night so we might always have a fresh pair. At the station she helped us onto the train, overseeing the porters who lifted our trunk, Mother's laundry basket (now well tied up with twine), and Nuisance's gilt cage, and before we left she pressed a kiss against each of our foreheads with her furry lips and gave us each a gift. We waved goodbye from our carriage window, but our mother stared at the wall with her hat askew and eyes closed.

The doctor's wife had embroidered us each a handkerchief: A for Agnes, E for Edith. Mine was so pretty, I could not ever imagine using it.

But how wrong I was. As I said before, ours was a voyage of tears. My mother wept in her cabin, and Agnes wept with her, until her handkerchief was dripping with brine. And me, I wept for another death, for an old man whose corpse I saw sewn with sixty stitches into a shroud early one morning and who, as the sun came up, was cast into the fiery waters. Of course now you might say I was crying for my father and not for a stranger whose funeral was so beautiful, it affected even the stone heart of a 5,221-day-old girl, but I think I was crying for even more than that. I was crying for what I was and what I would no longer be. All our lives we had lived a myth, that we were foreigners in the land we had been born in, and yet, as we drew out of Cape Town harbor, and the great flat mountain slipped beneath the horizon, I held up my hands in the light and counted my fingers, ten in all, but fingers nonetheless that were no longer familiar to my eyes. Somewhere along our journey, I had changed, become divided. All I knew and loved was now buried behind that distant indigo curve of the earth, and by extension, I was now fragmented. The ship rolled and dipped, the glare off the sea blinding. I shut my eyes. At Number 25 Long Street, another multiple of me sat on the swing, rose, then fell from the sky.

It was raining in Edinburgh. Agnes and I pressed our faces against the glass and examined the gray buildings, the eerie castle on its hill. The train clattered into the station and, with a piercing screech, lumbered into a stop. Our mother, suddenly animate, picked up her carpetbag.

"Come on, girls," she commanded briskly. Agnes and I hurried after her, the parrot cage swinging between us. The air was clammy and rain seemed to be blowing in sideways from down the track. A single gull, pewter-eyed, stood one-legged on a post and glared at us. The wool of my jersey itched my skin. And then, while we were not looking, our mother stopped, and we both bumped into her.

"Girls," said our mother, and we looked up and there stood a man, no, not just a man, our father, or a man just like our father, stoop-shouldered and thin-haired and pale-eyed, with the soft long mouth and hands dug deep into his pockets.

"It is your father's brother," my mother said softly, "his twin. Uncle Jock," and behind her back, Agnes and I clutched hands, and I felt the crescent of my sister's nail curve into my palm. I knew what she was thinking, Agnes, for haven't I always known her thoughts? She was thinking how bewildering it all was to be separated and reunited, to be multiplied and copied, and she gripped my hand even tighter, so it was left to me to take charge, to drag her toward our uncle, who seemed to be more than our uncle, and who, in that colorless northern afternoon appeared to cast a light, an almost immoderate light, over our little family.