On returning to his mother’s home in the Bo-Kaap, Nasaar heard that Aisha Booley was visiting from London. He knew that it was not the first time that she’d come home, but since his move to Prince Albert, they had not seen each other in more than ten years. Nasaar was sitting at the kitchen table after a dish of lamb bobotie, when his mother mentioned, and probably not by chance, that the grocer’s daughter had arrived a week ago from England. Hearing her name, he suddenly had no appetite for the slice of sweet melktert his mother set before him. He felt his insides catch alight as if the sparks of his own welder’s torch had sprung his heart from a fine casing of iron.
When he called Aisha’s house after lunch, her mother answered, surprising Nasaar with an agreeability that was unlike her. Is that you, Nasaar? I saw the gate you made for Kashief. We are thinking of putting up a new one ourselves. Security, you understand. But something with taste.
Perhaps I could show you some designs, he said, although he was not convinced of her sincerity.
Yes, do. I’ll get Aisha. Send my greetings to your mother.
The voice that arrived soon enough on the other end was unmistakably Aisha – hesitant when speaking as if the words at her disposal were too many to choose from – and yet she seemed distant, resigned to the formalities so often expected of her in the presence of her father. With the businesslike manner that he used with his clients, Nasaar proposed that they meet. And when she agreed without hesitation to see him that very afternoon at the Tana Baru, he felt the shavings of iron rise and cling to his tongue so that he fell to stammering and ended the conversation.
Later that afternoon, Nasaar changed his clothes, putting on a green shirt, a colour she once liked, and walked up the hill. They’d agreed to meet at five, when the late summer sun would have settled into a dark orange ball quivering as it began its descent into the deep-blue Atlantic.
Tana Baru was deeply soldered in the history of the Cape Malay people. As children, Nasaar and Aisha were allowed to go no further than the Muslim burial ground, beyond which the cobbled stones disappeared beneath the wild bokbaardgras of Signal Hill. They played about the white wall, climbing through the acute-arched window, kicking up the red dust and chasing each other with long strands of grass with little more than fledgling curiosity for the Muslim ancestors buried beneath the mound of red earth on which the wall had been built. Of course, they grew older and their respect for the hallowed ground grew with them, and the wall was changed from a playground to a quieter place, a place where Aisha read the books her brother Kashief gave her – always, he was adamant, to be read in secret – and a place where Nasaar could sketch because the light was good, and his favourite subject was still and as seemingly unaware of his gaze as the Tana Baru itself.
Arriving before her, Nasaar leant against the wall, closed his eyes, and felt good in the warm sun. There had been a time, just months before she was sent to England, when Aisha had been forbidden to see him. Her father was a severe man, and a strict Muslim and he would not have his only daughter hanging around with an apprentice welder, a boy who spent too much time alone and skipped Mosque on Fridays. And it was then, on those afternoons, despite the sun, the allure of the surrounding mountains, the endless ocean, despite the hope that she might still come, that without her, Tana Baru was the coldest, loneliest place in the world.
Have you been here long? she said, her voice coming to him as if raised on the echo of the waves, the lament of seagulls, and the hum of cars strung along the beaches below. He opened his eyes.
She smiled at him and, but for the few tiny wrinkles at the corners of her large green eyes, she was as beautiful as she had been when she was twenty.
He shook his head. You look great, he said. London climes have been good to you.
Nothing like this, she said and turned towards the sea. I miss this city so much, don’t you?
Prince Albert is not far.
And what took you to the middle of nowhere?
He shrugged, and she looked at him, as if contemplating his presence against the wall, perhaps saddened, as he was, that in some way he had outgrown its magic.
Is it the silence that suits you? Are you still so quiet?
You forget the noise I make when I work.
She laughed, hitting him playfully on the chest. You were always a contradiction to yourself. Even as a kid – how could a boy make so much noise and yet say so little? I heard you’re doing well.
I have done a lot in Bo-Kaap, window frames and decorative gates mostly. People are keen to make up for those long years of austerity.
It’s good to see the houses are being painted again. Some garishly bright, but to each his own. I’ve seen some of your furniture, too.
Do you remember making an ornate iron table with a glass top?
Yes, Asad ordered that, said it was a gift for his friend.
My father and Asad are old buddies. It’s in my parents’ kitchen. They would send me back to London tonight if they knew I’d told you. Anyway, I’m proud of you, Nasaar.
He looked down at his feet while the iron inside him split a thousand times in to tiny particles that bristled electric in the pores of his skin. Thank you, Aisha, he said. But look at you, a doctor, in London. Reading all those books did you good after all.
I am not exactly a doctor, she said.
You help sick people, don’t you?
I’m a speech therapist.
Details, remove those, and you’re a doctor.
But I like those details, she said. We want to be specific about who we are, don’t we? What about you? You fuse metals, but that doesn’t mean you’re just a welder, Nasaar. It’s the details that make you.
I guess you’re right.
Really? You’re not just conceding the argument? You were always good at that.
I’ve changed. I am made of harder stuff these days.
You had to be, she said. We all did. She hung her head, and wrapped her arms around herself. Then, she stood beside him, and leant against the wall. Then in silence, they both looked out towards the sea where the sun began to unravel a broad path of pale yellow light out towards the shore.
Without looking at him she said, Nasaar, I didn’t want to leave. You understand that.
I didn’t at first. I blamed your father, and even your brother.
Crazy, right? I thought if the police hadn’t raided your home that night, then just maybe your father wouldn’t have sent you away.
It was just a matter of time.
I know that now, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand then.
Despite the past, Kashief admires you.
When he returned from Robben Island he came to visit me. I was ashamed, after all he did, all he’d been through, I felt like a coward for not doing more.
Kashief was always the rebel, Nasaar. He was born fighting. This world needs people like him, and people like you.
People like me?
The dreamers, so when the war is won there is someone to build on the rubble.
You sound like your brother.
He taught me a lot, she says.
I remember those books he used to give you. It was not until after he was imprisoned that I realized they were banned. I was so oblivious, and then realized that there was a whole other side to you. But by then, you were gone.
Those books, at the time at least, did nothing but set me up for a fall.
What do you mean?
I thought it would be different in London, I thought that I’d go there and my skin wouldn’t matter.
And did it?
It always matters, Nasaar. Perhaps not as much as it did here at the time, but it matters. I was able to get an education, but it wasn’t easy. And these days being Muslim, doesn’t help either. The looks I get from people in the street, the feeling you’re not wanted there.
That’s not something that happens here. Not in Prince Albert anyway.
It just seems that we’re always going to be up against something.
Nasaar reached for her hand. And you’re always going to be up for the fight.
She looked at him, and she was crying.
Funny, isn’t it? she said, brushing her eyes with her palm. Here we are, back were we started, Tana Baru, on the graves of ancestors who died two-hundred years ago fighting for the same reasons. I guess some things never change.
Nasaar was quiet. The sinking sun cast Aisha’s face in a warm orange light. He squeezed her hand. Come with me, he said. I have something I want to show you.
Come, quickly, before the sun sets.
They ran down the hill towards his house.
Inside, it was quiet, and he led her to his room. But for a soft light that came from behind a drawn curtain, the room was dark. He closed the door behind them and let go of her hand.
Nasaar, what are you doing?
He stood by the window, and slowly drew the curtain.
Set in the window frame, crafted out of the finest lines of iron, was Aisha’s portrait. The sun coming through the window just at that moment imbued the dark lined features with a purple hued light and a second image was depicted in shadows on the white wall behind her. Aisha raised her hands against her chest, and tears glimmered in her eyes.
I drew you so often over the years, he said. And continued to do so even though you were gone. I worked on it constantly, kept fighting to do the impossible – to shape my dreams with iron, when iron has a will of its own. Do you understand?
Still standing in the place he’d left her, she said, Nasaar, it’s beautiful.
You’re right, he said, coming to her, wiping the tears from her eyes. Some things don’t change.