This was the first short story I ever wrote, and revolves around a sexual assault. It is close to home for me, although the characters and events are fictional. It was a finalist in the first-ever Short Sharp Stories competition, and was included in the award's anthology, Bloody Satisfied. Although I have written a great deal since this story, it remains one of the purest messages I have put out into the world with my writing. I have always hoped that women (or men) who have gone through similar experiences would read this story and find a voice for the complicated feelings that follow such attacks, and how sometimes those feelings aren't as scripted/predictable as the rest of the world expects.
You can read the story below, and can buy the incredible Bloody Satisfied Anthology here. Thank you to Joanne Hichens and Maire Fischer for the thoughtful editing, which resulted in this final version.
The First Case of the Year
Something like scales of white light fall from her eyes as she brings her surroundings into focus. Her hands feel around her and stop at the partitions of the toilet stall. She lowers her head between her legs, still dizzy. White spots still smudging her vision, and prickling in her fingertips. Focus. On one thing. That’s what she must do.
White underwear on the floor. Good God, why are some parts red. Flecked with dry grass. She picks the offending item up and carefully rolls it neatly into a stained scroll. Must get rid of this. No. It’s evidence. She unrolls it, rolls it. She unrolls it, starts again.
Loud knocking – from right outside the door or somewhere close by – interrupts her thinking. She should get up, they’re waiting for her.
Her feet falter and shake, hot with pain. She examines one of them: more than 20 lacerations of varying depth, swollen and raging with dirt. She holds the wall for support as she limps into his office.
“Congratulations,” mumbles the officer in a thick Afrikaans accent.
The TV shows are wrong when they portray police stations as dim places, lit by a lone swinging light bulb. There is, in fact, too much light here. It shines through her halterneck top. It exposes the shadows under her eyes. It highlights the grime coating her body, and the filthy scroll of underwear she clutches white-knuckled in her hand.
“Congratulations, you are the first case of the year,” he qualifies.
1 January 01:50am.
Looks like the guy waiting next in line, the one nursing a bloodied wound to the skull, has to settle for a close second. She's first. First case of the New Year. She's a winner. And she always did like winning. Her pounding head won't let her think any further. That and a blackening tar feeling of guilt.
“Please don’t call my parents,” she begs in a jagged whisper, “just drop me off at my friend’s house.” She imagines washing herself clean there, going to bed, and forgetting this ever happened. Waking in the morning, wishing her parents a happy New Year. If only she remembered where her friend stayed. She can visualise the street in her head for a second, then it merges with streets from her childhood, her dreams, streets from movies. White scales edge into her vision again, ears ringing.
Already the details of how she arrived here seem unrelated. She remembers an animal-like scream that may or may not have come from her. Searing pain through her feet. The musty interior of a police car. A thin ribbon of road spooling in the headlights. The desolate streets of Humansdorp, and finally Humansdorp Police Station, a dull beacon in the small town’s guileless, shrimp-coloured landscape.
“We’ve already spoken to your dad,” the officer grunts.
Her dad. Vomit seeps onto her tongue from the back of her throat.
Giving her testimony seems to take hours, but really, each part of her account is only a few seconds’ long, snatches of memory.
She remembers meeting a boy at the New Year’s Eve party in St Francis Bay.
Was he white or black? White.
Description: tall, thin, brown hair, expensive brand T-shirt.
(Why had she even gone near him, wearing that show-off brand? She hates that brand).
Yes, she had been drinking. Yes, she kissed him. Yes, she accepted a drink from him and went somewhere quiet. (She wanted more attention, but didn’t know what she wanted, really.)
But she knows she would have never wanted that particular type of affection. Never. And not ever from a guy she did not know, wearing that ridiculous T-shirt.
Bright light searing her eyes, she wishes the officer would show some expression beneath his luxuriant black snor. Perhaps a flicker of sympathy in his brown eyes to affirm she is not guilty. No such luck. He writes peacefully in a child-like scrawl. She imagines him thinking, condemning, slutty student got too drunk, things went too far, so she screamed…
Rape (The least clear part of her account; the drugs they gave her must have kicked in then.)
Tall thin brown-haired guy. Who transforms into a shorter blond curly-haired guy.
They cover her mouth during the New Year countdown: five, four, three, two…
One leads her away, supporting her by the arm as if in a new relationship. She is dizzy, weak, drunk and nauseous. She is confused. But she senses, knows there is something wrong. Desperately wrong. She feels a bizarre gratitude to the thin, brown-haired stranger next to her, pushing from her mind the events a few moments before, they have already blurred. (“You’re an angel,” she hears herself whine pathetically, “thank you for helping me.”)
Her shoes and belt are gone. (She really liked those shoes. Blue Puma takkies she had got for Christmas. She had wanted that suede belt for ages and was going to wear it on her first day back at University.) She lets out a cry for what she has lost. The sorrow and loss run deeper than expected. The cry is loud, a wild howl, and the stranger’s supportive grip on her arm clenches into a bruise. They have strayed far away from the crowd now. They are in a clearing strewn with barbed wire, discarded from the construction of a fence surrounding the festival. (The organisers had taken every precaution to keep the riffraff out). He pushes her against a nearby tree and reminds her where she recognises his face from. She blacks out then, and wakes tangled in a bed of barbed wire. She attempts to walk out. She cries out as the rusted edges pierce her feet. She stumbles into a clearing where a police car is parked.
This brings her to the police station to accept the accolade of ‘first case of the year.’ There is no compensation for this honour; only a signed and stamped case file that occupies the number one position on the shelf.
She longs to ask the officer as he files her case away, ‘So honestly, what did you think? Have you seen a case like this before?’ He wrote considerably more than what she said. Was he observing her? Did he think she was lying? Instead, she asks to stand outside and smoke a cigarette while she waits for her father. Although asthmatic, she craves the luxury smokers have to be excused from a situation. She stands alone for a few moments, gulping solitude deep into her lungs.
The dark grey gravel of the parking lot rests cool against her torn feet. She smells different, metallic. Her desire to be clean borders on frantic. Tears will not come. Aside from the occasional whine of a mosquito against her ear, she is alone in the dark with her guilt.
There is little distraction. She scans the empty street, the harsh steeple of the Dutch Reformed Church piercing the night sky. The air is surprisingly humid and cloying and carries traces of salt from the seaside town nearby.
Who comes here, she wonders, besides holiday-makers from St Francis Bay gathering supplies from the local Spar? Has she, a privileged Jo’burg girl, brought the town the most excitement it’ll see for the year? Will they judge her and call it God’s punishment for her festive excess, or will they pray for her healing in their pointy church?
“What you here for?” a sharply accented voice pierces her reverie. The guy from inside, the one in line behind her with the wound to the head is crouched in a darkened corner of the parking lot, sucking his cigarette with a seasoned urgency. His other hand picks at the sore crusting across his forehead, flicking shards of dried blood to the ground.
He is small, shadowy and quick. His skin is caramel and he moves with the compact, agitated gait of a boxer. He’s probably from this area, maybe Cape Malay, she classifies him, a small town bully bar-fighting again. Maybe the date-rape drugs haven’t worn off yet, or the handful of anti-retrovirals she was force fed have started to kick in, but either way she is not scared.
“Rape,” she answers bluntly. The word doesn’t feel part of her yet. In a way she doesn’t believe it is. Maybe she did want it, maybe she did do something to ask for it and this is all just a very dramatic, humiliating misunderstanding.
“Fuckers,” he barks. “Did they hurt you bad?”
“The district surgeon says there is a lot of bruising and there are scratches across my butt. There are also cuts, all along the underside of my feet from when I walked over some barbed wire.” She shocks herself with her candid words, but it feels good to say them. It makes this feeling closer to being real.
“That’s SICK man, fucking disgusting!” He leaps off his haunches, stubs out his cigarette and begins pacing back and forth. His outrage is strangely comforting. The rage she should feel has settled into his grave face.
Something really terrible happened tonight.
“Anyway, I’d rather not go into the details of it all. Why are you here?”
“Got into an argument with some motherfucker. He took a swing at my head with his beer. Beat him to the ground then stood on his face. Crushed his jaw right into the pavement – like this…”
He slams his scuffed Converse takkie into the gravel. They watch silently as he grinds it back and forth, side to side.
“Shouldn’t you be inside then, in a cell?”
“Nah, the guys know me here. I got off on a warning,” he smirks, revealing jagged, rat-like teeth. She finds their yellowed, worn-down quality strangely endearing. They are teeth that have been through shit, been punched in and smashed up and smoke-stained. Yet they remain.
“So are you pressing charges against these fuckers or what?” he asks.
“No. Definitely not.” She has never been more certain of anything in her life. “Besides, maybe I wanted it. Maybe I was just too drunk… I don’t remember… I mean, look at me, I can’t even cry.”
His small angular face softens. “Fuck, I wish I could mess these guys up for you, they’ve really got to you.”
“No, no, everything’s fine. I’ll be OK. I’m just dreading seeing my parents, that’s going to be the worst seeing them upset. I can carry my own issues just fine. I just wish I could get my belt and shoes back,” she jokes.
“You’re an amazing chick, you know that. You’ve been through hell but there’s still, like, a light that shines out of you. You don’t deserve this bullshit.”
“Nobody does, really…”
Her dad speeds into the parking lot, shattering the post-traumatic calm.
He is a tall, foreboding man. Unnaturally long limbs lend him a pervading clumsiness which is amplified under the influence of alcohol and in times of crisis. He gracelessly hurtles across the parking lot to compress her in an embrace. She wants to scream as she feels him shake a little and his breathing stagger.
‘Get in the car my angel, Daddy’s here…’ he utters red-eyed.
She waves goodbye limp-fingered as she disappears into the air-conditioned chamber of the SUV.
“You don’t deserve this bullshit,” she hears him call as she and her father drive away.
The station is cool and quiet, blue and calm as the town of Humansdorp gathers itself to greet the first morning of the New Year.The few policemen on duty are huddled in the station’s narrow kitchen, mixing Ricoffy in enamel mugs. The radio plays the latest song by Theuns Jordaan.
It is not difficult for him to find the only two cases of this year, angled against the framework of the shelf. Hers is the first. The statement and the photos of her splayed on the district surgeon’s table – gashes across her rump –make him feel ill. Blood-stained bikini panties lie tangled in a sealed bag. It’s all too much, he feels like he is intruding. But he has what he needs. A location in St Francis Bay – a 10 minute drive away – and two vague descriptions.
He calls a group of his boys, MMA fighters. Good, solid guys still buzzing with booze from the New Year’s party and keen for a fight. They pick him up in a rusty Opel, hear the story, agree that the guys will probably go back to the scene to get rid of any evidence they left behind. No doubt about it.
What if they’ve got the stuff already? No, to the left of the large litter strewn clearing, about ten metres away from the mess of barbed wire is a pathetic bundle of possessions matching the list in the girl’s statement. Blue Puma takkies. A soiled suede belt. They touch nothing and wait behind a nearby tree.
They pass a few hours with the help of a hip flask filled with brandy. The guys are getting impatient. They have wives and girlfriends who’ll be stressing about their whereabouts. It’s been a long night already, what if the dudes just decided to run.
“Just five more minutes!” he pleads.
When they come, they almost miss them. They’ve shaved their heads, so close to the skin that the colour is no longer visible. One shrugs a hoodie over his head like an amateur. The other dashes straight for the pile of things.
He and the boys know what to do. One, two, three, four of them have the two skinheads surrounded. Grab them before they can scream, lock each in a chokehold. One passes out pretty quickly while the other takes a bit longer, struggling and grappling. They get both on the ground, and begin to punch each back to consciousness. Strong, consistent blows aimed at the eyes, mouth and ears. Hit where it’s soft, hit till the blood comes. He is in the zone now. He sees nothing, only an image behind his eyelids of a barefoot, anxious girl trying hard to seem tough. He hears nothing but her thin voice saying it’s my fault.
The screams finally reach him. He hasn’t had enough yet. She didn’t deserve any of it, the barbed wire and the bruising. The wounds that bleed and the deeper ones that don’t. He pauses while his boys continue. He reaches for his cellphone, a brand new iPhone he got for Christmas. Fancy shit. He flicks a grime-caked finger across the screen, selects the video icon. Taps twice to film.
“Say you’re sorry!” he shouts into their swollen faces. “Say her fucking name. Say ‘Sorry Chloe, it was NOT your fault.’”
Their cracked voices falter but the apology is there.
He is spent and satisfied. He walks away from the two beaten bodies slumped next to their pile of evidence. The police will be here soon to investigate the scene. His boys look frayed as the first splinters of sun jut into the new day. They slump into the Opel and drive back to Humansdorp, stopping momentarily as the cleanest of them quickly runs into the service station to pick up some Wimpy coffees. Squashed between his two friends on the stickybackseat he opens the case fileand finds the girl’s cellphone number written in an uneven script. He selects the video clip on the new iPhone. Presses send. For the first time the wound at his head begins to throb.
In St Francis Bay the girl lies wide awake in a soft, white, double bed. She wakes up and runs to vomit, a side effect of the anti-retrovirals combined with the morning-after pill. She showers and counts the blue tiles beneath her tender feet. The lukewarm water feels glorious against her swollen body and stings the scratches across her buttocks clean. Clean.
She takes her time towelling every millimetre of herself dry–her feet, over her legs, chest and back down again. She still smells different. As soon as she opens the door she will have to face her mother sitting on the couch, crimson-eyed, blotchy-skinned and nursing coagulating tea. She will have to be hugged again by her father after he has finished his quivering phone conversation with their Minister back home.
Stepping out as raped would have been a lot easier without an audience. God, she wishes now that nobody had found her. She didn’t need to go to the police. She could have gone to her friend’s house, woken up and wished everyone a happy New Year. Apart from the nausea and some surface wounds she feels OK.
Each question about the night before, however deftly posed, causes the guilt behind her eyes to ache.
Do they think she had asked for it? Do they think she’s lying?
Her father’s attempts at a smile twist into a grimace. Her mother, exhausted, stares at her.
‘Can I go for a walk on the beach?’ she asks them.
‘Sure, of course, anything,’ they reply. ‘Do you want anyone to come with you?’
‘No, no it’s OK.’
‘Please, let me come with you...’ says her mother.
‘I’ll take my phone in case you need to get hold of me.’
She makes her way down to the beach. The coastline is no different from yesterday, it is unchanged and eternal. Each wave rears and rages, frothing and slamming itself against the sand, then retreating once more.
Her steps fall into a soothing rhythm. The salt water seeps into the soles of feet, making every cut tingle. She presses deeper into the wet sand with each step.
She comes upon a cluster of rock pools and entertains herself by bending down and sticking her finger into sea anemones, pleased when her foreign presence causes them to recoil. She sits on a rock, on the outskirts of the largest pool, watching the rise and fall of the waves.
It is time to switch on her phone. Oh God, 27 unread messages.
They begin from the night before: Where are you? Find us at the bar closest to the stage and progress to Listen, we’re seriously worried, why aren’t you answering your phone!
Her chest tightens and the nausea is back. She can’t do this. All the calls and the texts and the people who don’t know what to say but feel they need to say something anyway. Is it too much to ask to just be left alone for a little while? To be spared the kind gestures and understanding glances and to go about her everyday life unseen?
As if in defiance of her plea, her phone vibrates as it receives another message. News must be spreading fast now. Her friends will have told her other friends and her parents told other parents. She will have to give her statement in different forms over and over again – the first case of the year – editing out how drunk she was before, and how sexy she looked in her halterneck top.
She can’t do it, no, not yet.
The phone rings now, shrill and unrelenting. She lets out a small, strangled cry and flings it into the waves. Her parents are going to be mad she guesses, but not for very long. She will explain it away somehow and they will buy her a new one along with some new takkies and a suede belt. New skin will grow over her wounds and she will walk proudly through campus in the new semester and show everybody that she is fine. She turns away from the breaking waves, crouches down, and watchesanother sea anemone close, tentacle by tentacle, over her index finger, until its centre is no longer visible.