“A scrap of paper, casually given, lay for some months in a leather handbag.”

Sarah Penny was born in South Africa, and now lives in London, lecturing in Creative Writing at Brunel University. Her novel The Beneficiaries, recounting the search for truth in post-apartheid South Africa, was first published there in 2002, and has become part of the nation’s history in its own right — absorbed by a new generation of secondary school children who studied it as a set-text in 2013/14.

In 2019, the novel was published for the first time in the UK, in a revised edition, by Valley Press. You can read the first few chapters below, and purchase a copy of the new edition here.

This least sought-after of requests concludes:

The thing which I ask I wish for the memory of my child and for my own rest.

uTixo abenawe,
Nomda Qhashane

‘I won’t do it,’ says the recipient quite loudly, although there is no one to hear and, beyond that, no one to say that one ought. Having snatched the post in passing from the mail tray in the house lobby she is out on the street already, and some careless person has burned through the only street bin with hot ash. Fortunately, further along the street there is a big private bin in somebody’s front yard. She backhands the letter surreptitiously into its open mouth, although the black bags have already been gathered for the day by the borough service, so that it remains there until the next collection — a forlorn cream envelope slightly sullied with potato peelings.

Why did she phone? Truth is, she doesn’t know. A scrap of paper, casually given, lay for some months in a leather handbag.

‘Pim,’ she says.

She hears hesitation. Then:

‘Lally?’ Budding into astonishment.

‘Laeticia,’ she says. ‘Hello, Pim.’

‘I go by Edgar,’ he says.

A bus across London. Magnolia trees flaunting their indelicate petals at the asphalt. The sky is a neutral canvas of the chillier shades of blue, across which aeroplanes leave vapour wakes of purpose.

The house is in one of the twisting urban lanes off the Fulham Road. She recognises the area as being fashionable for people who don’t use the word ‘fashionable’. She counts off the numbers as she makes her way along the road. Pim’s has a half-moon of stained glass over the front door — opaque, azure and burgundy. Cacti in the front yard are reluctantly adapting to their waterlogged conditions.

She has her finger on the button. Footsteps echo down a flight of stairs and along a passageway. The door opens awkwardly over a resistant tongue of carpet.

Edgar-who-was-Pim is fatter than one might have remembered, but also sleeker. He ushers Laeticia-who-was­-Lally inside.

‘I was sorry to hear,’ he says formally.

She would be masterful, but is betrayed by her eyebrows.

‘About your father,’ Pim explains.

Ah. Of course, there are social forms.

‘Congratulations,’ she offers. Her slight hands, gesturing at the slick of photographs on the walls, cover all felicities.

They look at each other.

‘It has been a long time,’ he says, like an Englishman.

‘Ruth can transform a potato,’ Ruth’s mother likes to say.

Ruth, who is fond of her mother, thinks it a silly remark nevertheless. But now: ‘Ruth can transform a potato,’ says Pim.

In marriage, words are currency — each one carrying a weight beyond the sum of its parts. In the Ruth/Pim union there are some utterances that belong to Ruth and some to Pim. Ruth doesn’t know why Pim said ‘Ruth can transform a potato’ — a sentence borrowed from his mother-in-law — but she doesn’t like it.

‘I can’t cook a thing,’ says Lally. ‘Actually, I don’t like eating much. Once I didn’t eat at all for weeks and weeks, and eventually I fell over and they put me on a drip.’

‘I remember that,’ says Pim. ‘You were very silly.­’

‘Yes,’ agrees Lally. ‘Yes — I expect I was.’

‘What was in the drip?’ asks Ruth’s elder son.

‘Sugar,’ says Lally vaguely. ‘Something like that.’

‘I had an injection,’ announces the elder son importantly. ‘Didn’t I, Daddy? In my arm, when we went to Africa.’

Ruth gets up and clears the serving dishes away, stacking them next to the sink. They’re eating in the kitchen because Edgar wanted to eat with the children. Ruth isn’t crazy about the direction the conversation is taking. She feels marginalised in her own home.

The extraordinary potatoes — white clouds streaked with cheesy infusions — steam gently on the quintet of plates. Pim has taken the spoon away from his younger son and is levering the pulp into the child’s mouth. The boy protests, struggling for possession of his spoon. He knows exactly what to do with it. But Pim is being vigorous about his role as husband and father tonight.

‘Our grandpa’s got a farm in Africa,’ offers the elder son.

‘Yes, I know — I used to visit there when I was your age.’

‘You don’t know how old I am!’

She doesn’t dispute this, but she doesn’t give him the spur he’s waiting for either.

‘I’m seven,’ announces the elder son indignantly. ‘Did you visit when you were seven?’

Was she seven? Yes — five to seventeen; all the years she lived institutionally. All the exeats, the short holidays. Her own farm; poorer, dustier, too far distant to make the journey.

‘Do you have a farm?’ prompts the boy. He is at an age where he likes to hero-worship, and Lally is under consider­ation for the evening.

Are children always this indefatigable? ‘Yes,’ says Lally.

‘Is it goats, like Grandpa’s?’

‘No,’ says Lally. ‘Ostriches.’

The boy’s cherry mouth forms a circle. He can see them now — fiercely-feathered oblongs hurtling at briar fences on garden-rake legs. Lally has hit a home-run as an unwilling contender in the hero stakes.

She has not, in fact, visited her farm in over five years. Her farm is an envelope of figures which she receives each month from the manager because her widowed mother (since re-established in town) is now too elderly and blighted to take an interest. Lally isn’t interested either, but the manager is a man of duty.

‘How is Pim?’ says Lally to Pim, by way of changing the subject. Every first-born male in Pim’s family has been called Pim since the first Pim acquired the nickname on the ship on the way out. Reasons lost in the fog of coasts hugged or times gone past. There are seven Pims — one in London (alive), one on the farm (alive), four on the farm (dead), one in a forgotten field of France (dead). Lally means the live, farm-bound Pim — father of Pim the Londoner.

‘He’s fine.’ Pim gives up on his force-feeding scheme. ‘There was a lot of stock theft. Michael’s helping him.’

Pim’s face is expressionless. Michael is Pim’s younger brother. Pim is not unconscious of the heavy weight of history — the contravention of first principles that occurs when a Pim-destined farm is managed by a Michael.

‘I’m a Pim,’ says the elder son, unexpectedly. ‘No, you aren’t,’ interrupts Ruth. ‘And it’s bed­time.’

‘I am a Pim,’ repeats the boy. He will not be prevented from claiming the romanticism of his birthright.

Ruth shepherds the children upstairs to clean their teeth. The aspirant Pim ravages at a bloodied pit that has lately appeared, while Ruth prods apart the milkier gums of the younger boy. Downstairs she can hear Edgar chatting to his peculiar friend.

‘Mum!’ grizzles the child, batting at the toothbrush with protesting hands. She realises she has hurt him. She crouches to put her arms around him, seeing in the mirror how the round arc of her chin fits into the pale curve of his shoulder, how her soft hair spills against the fresh skin of his back. I’m still a young woman. She’s not quite thirty — five years younger than Lally; ten years younger than Pim. In the further reaches of the mirror, her first son has imagined himself into an ostrich, his dressing gown deputising for feathers, toothbrush beak pecking grubs from the grout in the bathroom tiling.

Lally leans on the points of her elbows on the window sill, watching the hadedas feed on the hockey field below. They like to settle on the pitch after practice, when the drumming heels of the children have brought out scores of blindly deluded earthworms, puckering mucous mouths at the thought of rain. The hadedas are a dull pea-green, but at this distance they look black — or as if they are pretending to be not entirely black, like so many raffish undertakers. Two of the larger birds are scrapping, lifting in bursts of flight on flapping wings, their coarse belligerent shrieking scraping at the more dulcet harmonies of a country afternoon. Ugly birds. At home she picks them out of the sky with her pellet gun, watching their suddenly arrested flight; their last journey down to the veld and the grinning, sportive jaws of dogs.

The hockey field is flanked by the rugby field, the cricket pitch, the swimming pool and tennis courts. Seen from above, the squares in different colours resemble a disordered stretch of parquet flooring. Lally is on the third floor of the squat cement, brick and stone structure of the girls’ division. Opposite — across the fields — is the mirrored functionalism of the boys’ division. Between, giving on to the fields, is the red brick massif of the school block. Fifty years ago, there was only the school block, but the school has grown in popularity and the school block has been restricted to pedagogical purposes only. Lally’s school, though not a private establishment, so nearly approximates one that its inmates don’t mind revealing where they were schooled in their afterlives as alumni. It has history, in the colonial sense, and several endowments for the more deserving of its men to proceed to international education.

Lally shifts on the sill and draws a breath, the flares of her burgundy hockey skirt fluttering in a drift of wind. On certain sunny afternoons, like this one, heated pockets of air move lazily across the valley, conveying the ripe aromas of the farms that terrace the low hills and lead into the plains — the confident fragrance of oranges on trees, the hot waft of lucerne. It is that part of the recreational hour between practice and prep devoted to the distribution of tea. While the other children are out on the veranda with mugs of Ceylon and jam sandwiches, she prefers to be here in the unlikely silence of the briefly deserted room. In any case, she is one of those troublemakers down in matron’s register as a difficult eater — to be weighed on Saturdays, and regularly apprised of the situation of children in Africa who have nothing to eat in the first place. At night, she likes to press a penlight torch to her own limbs under the covers — seeing the red glare of her illuminated flesh, the darker shaft of bone.

The east-facing room where Lally is escaping from tea is the Standard Eight dormitory. Each child has brought from home a bedspread in a personal colour, a selection of shorts and jeans and tee-shirts to wear as mufti between chapel and dinner on Sunday, and family photographs to pin to the noticeboards above the bunks. Lally has in her hand a letter from her parents — or, more precisely, her mother — who writes for both. Her mother’s letters arrive reliably each week and always fall into three paragraphs: news of the farm, news of the district and a response to whatever communications have been recently forwarded by Lally with attendant injunctions. I was pleased to hear of your progress in history and mathematics, and will send a postal order for stockings, as yours are all worn through. Lally reads the letter through twice and puts it back inside its envelope, and then inside a shoe box on a ledge at the top of her locker. She will take it out again at prep in order to write in return with reference to the key events of the letter. Lally will put her letter in the collection box at the back of the prep hall (which is also the dining hall), where it will wait with the other children’s mail until the hostel mistress collects the box in the morning and delivers it to the post office. In the shoe box, there is a small hoard of envelopes which Lally’s mother stamps and addresses to herself in order to facilitate the regularity of Lally’s correspondence.

The ascendant stamping of the other children’s feet can now be heard on the wooden stairs, and in twos and threes they arrive in the doorway, sticky with sweat and jam, and throw themselves chattering on to the beds. She smiles and moves away from the window. Because she is apart from the other children, her apprehension of them is imagistic — a blonde ponytail, a sunbrowned shank, a pair of spectacles, a grin of wired teeth. A jumble of parts, she sees them not as this one or that one, but as a moving current of intention in whose slipstream she will follow. She isn’t, in fact, unpopular, or not noticeably unpopular, which is where the danger lies. And she knows how to behave. She keeps her bunk and locker immaculate and stays out of the way of the prefects. So that if you asked the other children, the worst they might say of her was that she was dull. And the boys leave her alone, not pretty enough to solicit, but not ugly enough to taunt. Any­way, she’s been there as long as anyone, and longer than some.

She is, it appears, one of those children of whom one says years later: ‘Oh, you’ll never guess who I saw at such­-and-such a place … don’t you remember — she had a bunk next to yours. Heavens, now — what was her name?’

This is an extract from The Beneficiaries by Sarah Penny, first published in 2002 by Penguin South Africa, second edition published 2019 by Valley Press.

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