A short story by Rebecca Rouillard, first published in MIR11. Rebecca’s story ‘The Window’ is featured in MIR12.
Grace spotted the couple with the young child as they walked into church on Sunday morning. They were new – she would have to be friendly, introduce herself and make conversation. Grace found it tiring to initiate conversation, particularly with the weight of responsibility she bore. It wasn’t easy being the pastor’s wife, even in a fledgling congregation – they’d only started The Lighthouse six months ago and there were not usually more than fifty people at their Sunday meeting.
But as Grace prepared herself for the familiar ordeal, she noticed something interesting. The woman holding the toddler was wearing a dress (they were not the kind of church that required women to wear dresses but it was more comfortable in the dry heat of Joburg summer), but the other one, the taller, sturdier one with short hair, wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts who Grace had taken for the husband, was in fact a woman as well. The child was black but the sight of a white couple with an adopted black baby was hardly unusual in their community. She wondered if the women were friends who’d decided to visit the church together. But this was Melville; it seemed much more likely that they were a couple.
Grace and Jacob had not realised before they moved that Melville was known locally as a “gay area”. When they were looking at houses there seemed to be a lot of photos of naked men stuck on fridges, and bathrooms with no doors, but it was only after they relocated that it all began to make sense. There was even a Melville Mardi Gras – they should have worked it out.
Jacob had always dreamed of starting a church in downtown Joburg – of saving the city. But the city itself, despite continued efforts at urban renewal, was still rather frightening and definitely not a suitable place to raise a family. They had ended up in Melville – a slightly dilapidated area (the estate agent described it as “up-and-coming”), close enough to the city to be called “metropolitan” but much more family-friendly.
Jacob was at the front, going over his preparation notes for the meeting. Grace caught his eye, lifted her eyebrows and nodded in the direction of the door. He looked at the door, looked back at her and shrugged his shoulders.
Grace went up to him, leaned in and whispered, “Our first lesbians!”
Jacob looked towards the door again; he didn’t seem very excited.
Several of the congregation members were already talking animatedly to the women – they didn’t seem awkward or uncomfortable about it either. Grace thought about how members of their old congregation in Krugersdorp might have reacted to lesbians in church and felt slightly smug; people in the suburbs were so closed-minded.
When it had become obvious that they might expect gay visitors to the church, Jacob bought a book about the issue by a well-respected theologian. It was called Connecting but Not Condoning: A Handbook for Integrating Homosexuals into the Body. Grace hadn’t actually read it herself but she was sure she’d got the gist from the title: love the sinner but not the sin – that kind of thing.
They’d had a gay man in the church before, but he was celibate so it hadn’t really been a problem. And then he’d left anyway, to work on a contract in Saudi Arabia. He had thought that living in a place where there was a death penalty for homosexuality might be a good motivation for him to stay straight. They hadn’t heard from him in a while.
“You should go and talk to them,” Jacob said.
He didn’t sound worried, Grace thought. He sounded resolute. He obviously had a strategy. Grace wasn’t sure exactly what the strategy was supposed to be but the book title seemed to suggest that it was about connecting. She could do that, surely. She could be friendly. Jacob would know what to do about everything else.
Grace hauled her two-year-old, Hannah-Rose, from underneath a chair and headed towards the door to meet the new couple.
“Hi, I’m Grace. Welcome to The Lighthouse,” she said, trying to smile in a welcoming way. She wasn’t sure if handshaking was appropriate in this situation; she wasn’t much of a hugger. It helped to have a two-year-old to carry – that usually required two hands.
“I’m Savannah,” said the woman in the dress. “This is Marlene and Naledi.”
Savannah looked in her early thirties. Up close she had a multitude of freckles on her arms and face, and she had fine lines around her eyes that showed when she smiled, but when she smiled she was radiant. Marlene was older.
“Hello, Naledi.” Grace addressed the toddler directly; parents liked that. “This is Hannah-Rose. She’s two. How old are you?”
“You’re two as well, aren’t you?” said Savannah, as the two little girls ignored each other.
“I love how you’ve done her hair.” Grace put out a hand to touch Naledi’s decorative bunches, plaited and laced with colourful ribbons. “I wouldn’t know how to do that.”
“We had to get someone to teach us. It was a nightmare at first – we had a one-year-old with dreadlocks,” Savannah said.
“It’s gorgeous. Are you new to the area?”
“We’ve been here a couple of months. We love Melville,” said Marlene.
“Such a great sense of community,” Grace said. “We have a toddler group on Tuesday afternoons if Naledi might be interested.”
“That sounds good,” said Savannah. “She goes to a playgroup in the mornings but we’re always looking for things in the afternoon. Thanks.”
“Where does she go to playgroup?”
“Little Rainbows, in Parktown.”
“I think I know some people whose kids go there, you might even recognise someone here,” Grace said. “Well, lovely to meet you, you’re very welcome.”
They moved in the direction of the circle of chairs and Grace went to find them a family-resources brochure with details of all the children’s groups that the church offered. It had gone better than she had expected.
The meeting started with a drumming circle. They had about ten proper djembes and the rest of the congregation joined in on shakers or just clapped and stamped their feet. The kids ran around shrieking, rattling bells and maracas. Jacob shouted encouragements into the microphone over the noise of the drums.
When they’d finished the worship session they had a discussion about the true meaning of community, based on Acts 4:32–37. The congregation split up into groups, each with a flipchart to record their ideas. They chatted for twenty minutes and then came back together for feedback time. Jacob wrapped up and everyone went outside for coffee.
“That was unusual, but I enjoyed it,” Savannah told Grace. “Are your meetings always like that?”
Grace had followed them out to make sure they got some cake. Savannah was breaking off bite-sized chunks of hers for Naledi and the little girl was jumping up and down with her mouth open.
“We didn’t want to do church in the traditional way – people have got bored of that,” said Grace.
Hannah-Rose was pulling on Grace’s dress and pointing at the cake she was holding.
“I know what you mean.” Savannah was nodding but Marlene frowned.
“Mommy,” Hannah-Rose whined.
Grace tried to break off a piece of her cake but it disintegrated into crumbs. She gave up and handed Hannah-Rose the whole slice.
“We want The Lighthouse to be about creativity and community and authenticity.” She wasn’t sure she was explaining very well.
“It’s good to do things differently,” said Marlene.
“Yes, it is.” Grace was relieved.
It was all on the website – their vision and values. She just wasn’t very good at communicating it. It was a good website, most people really liked it. Jacob had designed it himself. He was good at that sort of thing. They made a good team, she often thought. Jacob led the meetings and she did the catering.
Toddler Group was on a Tuesday afternoon in the community centre. Grace was looking out for Savannah and Naledi. She was hoping they would come but she was also worried about what she would say to Savannah. The difficulty would be to get the tone right – welcoming but not affirming. She imagined a conversation of omissions – awkward gaps to be papered over. They could always speak about Naledi, at least.
But when she saw Savannah it was easy to find something to say. “I’m so glad you came.”
“Well, I wasn’t keen but Naledi was just dying to see Hannah-Rose again.”
Grace laughed as the two little girls sized each other up without a hint of friendliness. Hannah-Rose had recently taken to biting; Grace hoped she wouldn’t bite Naledi.
“Have you had Naledi since she was a baby?” Grace asked as they walked into the community centre, lowering her voice in case Savannah minded her asking in front of Naledi.
“We got her when she was five months,” Savannah replied, apparently not concerned about Naledi hearing.
“What does her name mean?”
“It means star – it’s Sesoto.”
“We thought it was important to give her an African name. We want her to know where she came from.”
“That’s so important.”
The singing was about to start so Grace left Savannah and Naledi to sit down and went to fetch Hannah-Rose who was terrorising a small boy with a bell stick.
They sang the usual songs, including Hannah-Rose’s favourite, Five Little Ladybirds, and then they made ladybirds with red paper plates, black stickers and pipe cleaners for antennae. Towards the end of the session Hannah-Rose scratched Grace on the cheek with the sharp end of a pipe cleaner and she had to take her for a timeout.
She looked for Savannah and Naledi when she came back. Naledi was digging in the sandpit and Savannah was sitting alone on the grass watching her; the sun was glinting off the highlights in her auburn hair. Grace wasn’t sure if Savannah would be sick of her by now but no one else was talking to her so she walked over and sat down beside her. Hannah-Rose headed for the sandpit as well.
“Naledi must keep you busy, but do you work?” Grace asked Savannah.
“Yes, I’m an artist.”
“That’s amazing. I always thought there were loads of artists in Melville – it seems like such an arty area – but you’re the first proper artist I’ve actually met.”
“Have you met many improper artists?”
“You have no idea. There’s Bill who paints really bad wildlife and Sheena who does scrapbooking. But no one who does proper art.”
“How do you know I ‘do proper art’ – perhaps I paint bad wildlife, too?”
“You don’t, do you? I’d love to see your work. I used to paint when I was younger, but I haven’t done anything for years.”
“You should come to my studio.”
“I’d really like that.”
“How old are you, Grace?” Savannah asked, after a pause.
“I’m twenty-six. Why?”
“You seem older, and younger.”
Grace didn’t really know what she meant; she was used to people telling her that she seemed older, that she was an “old soul”. Sometime she wished she was thirty. People didn’t take you seriously until you were thirty.
In the sandpit Grace saw Hannah-Rose empty a bucket of sand over Naledi’s head.
“Oh no.” She started to get up, expecting Naledi to cry, but the other little girl gave Hannah-Rose a shove and she fell backwards onto her bottom. Hannah-Rose was surprised but she didn’t cry either. Then the two little girls began to laugh.
“I think they’ll be all right,” Savannah said.
Grace sat back down again.
When Grace waved Savannah off at the end of the afternoon she realised she had not thought about her being a lesbian once in the last few hours. Without Marlene there it had been easy to forget that Savannah wasn’t just the same as any other mom.
“By the way,” Jacob said to Grace the following night, as they were getting ready for bed, “the lesbians are coming round to see us on Saturday.”
“Did you speak to Savannah? You didn’t tell me.” She felt annoyed, she wasn’t sure why.
“No, the other one, Marlene. She phoned me yesterday.”
“Do you know what for?”
“I imagine they want to join the church.”
“But that’s all right, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Of course. They’re welcome to join the church.” He emphasised the word “join” as though they wouldn’t qualify for anything more than entry-level membership. “The important thing right now is that we make them feel welcome.” The way he said it didn’t sound very welcoming, though.
“Savannah’s really nice,” Grace put in.
“I’m sure she is,” he said. “That doesn’t make a difference.” He folded his clothes and put them on the chair in the corner of the room. “But everything else can come later when they know us better. We have to build a bridge of relationship strong enough to withstand the weight of hard truth.”
She wasn’t sure exactly what the “hard truth” was but it didn’t sound pleasant.
“I’ll make some banana bread,” she suggested.
That night Grace dreamed about Savannah. They were sitting on the grass together, talking. Savannah threw back her head and laughed and her neck was like the stem of a calla lily – it seemed the most natural thing in the world to lean forward and kiss it.
“Grace, what are you doing?” Jacob asked her in the dream. His face was screwed up in repulsion.
“I don’t know.” She was confused, disorientated.
Savannah was gone; it was just Jacob, looking at her with accusing eyes.
Grace woke up with the feel of Savannah’s skin still vividly present on her lips. It was 2 a.m. Jacob snored next to her.
When Grace was eleven she’d become aware of what it meant to be gay, and that it was bad. And because she was eleven and had never kissed a boy, or had a boyfriend, or even held a boy’s hand, she worried that she might be a lesbian. Boys were a foreign land – what if she never learned to interpret their signs and bridge the divide? What if she was trapped in the territory of women for ever? She had always felt that she was different; perhaps this was the thing that would finally mark her and separate her. She cried herself to sleep for many nights until she found other things to worry about. And then, over the next few years, she started to realise that the boys would find their way to her – she didn’t need to go anywhere. She started dating Jacob when she was seventeen and they were married by the time she was twenty. By then she knew that relationships and marriage were about making a commitment to someone based on common values and shared beliefs – she knew that love was a decision, not just a feeling.
It was just a silly dream – it didn’t mean anything, she decided.
Marlene, Savannah and Naledi arrived at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
“Hannah-Rose, why don’t you show Naledi your toys?” Grace said.
She had put out some of Hannah-Rose’s toys in the study in hope that the little girls would occupy themselves for a while – give the adults a chance to talk. Hannah-Rose took Naledi by the hand and pulled her away.
“We really like the church. Everyone’s been really friendly and welcoming. We’ve tried a few churches in the area and that’s not always the case,” said Marlene.
They were sitting in the lounge, drinking their coffee. Grace had baked a banana loaf and they had been very complimentary about it. She was hoping that one of them would take another slice – she’d cut too many. She wondered if she should take the plate away.
“I’m sorry about that,” Jacob said.
“You didn’t go to The Ark, did you?” Grace couldn’t resist asking.
The Ark was the local Pentecostal church; they were always preaching on street corners about hell and damnation. She wouldn’t want anyone to associate them with that kind of judgementalism.
“We’re not suckers for punishment,” Savannah replied.
“The reason we came here today,” Marlene continued, “is because, as I’m sure you know, the law has changed – it’s been a huge milestone victory for our community.”
For a moment Grace was confused; she thought Marlene was talking about the church community and she couldn’t think of any recent milestone victories.
Savannah was looking down but Marlene looked straight at Jacob. “What we’re actually looking for is someone to marry us.”
And then Grace realised which community Marlene was talking about. Somehow they’d skipped a step in Jacob’s strategic plan. Perhaps it was her fault. She’d got the tone wrong – she’d obviously been too welcoming. It was supposed to be “connecting but not condoning”. But how can you be welcoming and disapproving at the same time? Was it even possible? She looked at Jacob. How would he handle this? She hadn’t read the book, it was his book.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to disappoint you,” Jacob said. “You are very welcome at our church but we won’t marry you. We love you but we don’t condone your lifestyle choice.”
Grace cringed at the “we love you”, shifted in her seat and braced herself for their anger. But they didn’t say anything. Savannah studied one of the pictures on the wall with intense concentration.
“We looked on the website,” Marlene said, “but there was nothing about it there. Perhaps you should put it on the website.”
“Yes, you’re right, we should put it on the website. Sorry,” said Jacob.
Grace had nothing to do with the website; it was his website.
“Where are those girls?” she said. “They’re very quiet – that usually means trouble.”
She got up and walked towards the study and Savannah stood to follow her.
A sea of toys lay abandoned on the rug and the two-year-olds were standing on the far side of the room. As Grace came in they turned to face her, black permanent-marker pens grasped in their hands.
“Look, Mommy, it’s you,” Hannah-Rose said, indicating the wall.
Savannah gasped. The girls had drawn two giant faces; spiky hair sprouting on top, arms protruding from the sides of their heads, legs from their chins. The faces had toothy grins and huge protruding, bulbous eyes.
Hannah-Rose was beaming but Grace hardly saw her. Behind her, Savannah was apologising repeatedly, but Grace wasn’t listening. All she was aware of was the eyes – those unblinking, accusing eyes.