Athol Williams

Visit at tea time

I killed a man, she says, her memories hanging
heavy, like long thick black braids from her head
hung low. Her demons have sunk their claws
into her cheeks, her sins trapped in dark bags of pain
hanging beneath her eyes, eyes that look as though
they once knew how to smile.

What are you in for? I’d asked the eighteen-year-old
drowning in her torment and oversized blue uniform
sitting in a Pollsmoor prison cell, her small frame
drawn as tightly into itself as her horror will allow.

My wife was not happy for me to come here, visiting
a murderer. She fired a barrage of fearful questions:
bars, will there be bars or glass between you and her?
Will a guard be present? What if something goes wrong?
Why can’t someone else go? It’s just for a cup of tea
and a prayer, I assured her. There is no safety barrier,
I am sitting face to face with a killer, someone who
has taken a life, broken commandments while
the rest of us broke promises. She doesn’t look like
a murderer, but what face does a murderer wear?

Thou shalt not kill, I remind myself, the words roll
around my mind as I roll the pen around in my pocket,
my weapon of defence in case I need one.
There is never a reason to kill, my morality whispers,
we have given her the justice she deserves.

I stabbed him in the neck, she continues, unprompted,
snapping me back from my righteousness. Her spirit
seems to recoil as she pukes the words; she looks
shocked, as though hearing of her crime anew, like
a young soldier just awaking to her role in an unjust war.
I reported every time, every time I was raped, she sobs.
Everyone knows, she says, with a sadness that makes
my body quake, cold. It happens to all the girls
in the township; even if we report it, even if we scream,
no one helps. When it happened the seventh time,
I killed him, I killed the man who did it.

The seventh time! I scream in silence.

I don’t want to go free, she says softly, after a pause;
someone has to pay for our sins, her hard eyes fixed
intensely on mine. When you’re born in the shadows
you never find light, she says. Who makes the shadows?
her voice tails off. Who makes the shadows? I repeat.

I know who makes the shadows.

Like a hammer to my forehead, chaos explodes. I hear
loud echoes all around, heavy steel smashing against
heavy steel, doors banging, anguished screams, barking
guards. I hear eerie chatter like tree leaves fist-fighting
in the wind, tongues reciting sins. I can’t find comfort
anywhere in my chair. Where’s the tea? It is tea time
dammit, but I’ve got no tea, where’s the fucking tea!

I leave in a hurry,
no time for prayer,
just glad to be outside.
I rush off to find some tea,
or maybe something stronger.

“Visit at tea time” received the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award for 2016

Athol Williams is a South African poet and social philosopher who has published 4 collections of poems, an autobiography ‘Pushing Boulders’ and 4 children’s books.  His poetry awards include the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award (which he won twice), the Parallel Universe Poetry Competition (Oxford University) and runner-up for the South African Literary Award for Poetry.  He holds degrees from Harvard, MIT, LSE, London Business School, Wits and is currently a student of political philosophy at Oxford University.