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Authors: Elleke Boehmer

The Shouting in the Dark

BOOK: The Shouting in the Dark
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Praise for Elleke Bohmer



Screens Against the Sky
(Bloomsbury and Penguin, 1990)

Short-listed David Higham Prize


‘A brilliant handling of an obsessional mother-daughter relationship. . . . Her descriptions are achingly acute.'

Financial Times


‘An astonishing debut . . . swift, deft . . . expertly told . . . With a mordant wit, she shows how discrimination can become as natural as breathing, and as unselfconscious.'

Penny Perrick,
Sunday Times


‘Eloquently expressive'

The Guardian


‘A beautifully authentic insight into a society turned in on itself in the face of black deprivation'

Wendy Woods


‘Elegant, percipient writing'

Zoe Heller,






An Immaculate Figure
(Bloomsbury, 1993)


‘remarkable restraint and subtlety'

West Africa


‘a very clever book indeed. . . . It adopts the aesthetic appropriate to a culture in a politically hopeless age.'

Jenny Turner,
The Guardian



(David Philip, 2000)

Short-listed SANLAM Prize


‘an engrossing and intriguingly told chapter in anti-imperial history'

J.M. Coetzee


‘a postcolonial fantasia . . . an imaginative exploration of the possibilities of connectedness. . . . The skilful tracing of bloodlines through several generations makes of a desperate act of violence a token of regeneration.'

Michiel Heyns,
Sunday Independent


‘a journey into the possible . . . an extremely good read'

Cape Argus


is an engaging and compelling book binding a potent theme and memorable characters into a brisk narrative . . . the writing shows a controlled resonance, the sign of a talent that must not be ignored.'

Times Literary Supplement





Nile Baby
(Ayebia, 2008)


A ‘strange and often unsettling odyssey across England . . . the novel asks us to consider the complex nature of race and belonging in contemporary Britain.'

Patrick Flanery,
Times Literary Supplement


‘Boehmer's eye for domestic detail and ear for the nuances of speech whisk the reader in and out of different ways of being . . . Arnie gradually realizes that life is shaped in unforeseen ways by history.'

Angela Smith,
The Independent


‘Elleke Boehmer's fourth novel is a remarkable change of gear: after the complex weaving of South African historical narratives in
she has given us a focused, mesmerizing, and an occasionally stomach-turning story of two twelve-year-olds. . . . [The novel] grasps the enigmatic depths of human, and continental, relations.'

Derek Attridge


‘a moving portrayal of friendship'

Mariss Stevens,





Sharmilla, and Other Portraits
(Jacana, 2010)


‘Elleke Boehmer brings to her stories two qualities that all too often are mutually exclusive: the lucidity of her intelligence and the passion of her engagement'.

André Brink


‘Perceptive, new stories'.

Caryl Phillips


‘The accurate simplicity is astonishing, especially because it is present in all her portraits'.

Tshepo Tshabalala,
Star Tonight





Elleke Boehmer
is the author of novels including
Screens Against the Sky
(short-listed David Hyam Prize, 1990),
(shortlisted SANLAM prize), and
Nile Baby
(2008), and also the short story collection
Sharmilla, and Other Portraits
(2010). Her edition of Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys was a 2004 summer bestseller. Her acclaimed biography of
Nelson Mandela
(2008) has been translated into Arabic, Malaysian, Thai, Kurdish, Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. She has published several other books including
Stories of Women
(2005), the anthology
Empire Writing
(1998), and
Indian Arrivals: Networks of British Empire
(2015). She is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford. She was born in Durban but now lives in England.





By the same author





Sharmilla, and Other Portraits

Nile Baby


An Immaculate Figure

Screens Against The Sky





Indian Arrivals 1870–1915

Nelson Mandela

Stories of Women

Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial

Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors

Empire Writing: An Anthology 1870–1918






Elleke Boehmer







First published in Great Britain

and the United States of America 2015

Sandstone Press Ltd

Dochcarty Road



IV15 9UG



All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.


© Elleke Boehmer 2015

Editor: Moira Forsyth


The moral right of Elleke Boehmer to be recognised as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patent Act, 1988.


The publisher acknowledges subsidy from Creative Scotland towards publication of this volume.



ISBN: 978-1-910124-29-1

ISBNe: 978-1-910124-30-7


Cover design by Mark Swan

Ebook by Iolaire Typesetting, Newtonmore





For Thomas and Sam


Ella pushes open the heavy wooden door to her mother's apartment block, and the weight presses back on her arm. She feels the hallway's chilly air wrap around her, the marble floor dewy with damp. It rained earlier. There were puddles out on the street. Deep inside the eight-storey building of the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs, though, she wasn't aware of the weather.

The door slams closed and the crash sparks in her memory an echo pattern of noises that has followed her across the day, doors upon doors falling to behind her.

Since nine this morning she has spent her time walking the neon-lit corridors of the Ministry, now on the sixth floor, now in the basement, each corridor blocked at intervals by heavy fire doors. All day she has been putting the flat of her hand to matte grey office doors on strong springs, and the heavy glass doors of waiting rooms, pushing and being pushed back. Today has been her last-ditch attempt to establish her right to residence in her parents' native land, now that a state of emergency in her own country has been declared and she received the tip-off: her after-hours work of hiding activists on the run has been exposed. But her efforts have been to no purpose, none at all.

Late this afternoon, a steel-haired official spelled it out in a nasal haute-Hague voice.
, there is no record of your birth in the
. Her pale blue eyes looked straight into Ella's, her manicured nail tapped the spot. See, beneath your parents' names? There is no name, no date, no details. I'm very sorry, but . . . you cannot be granted citizenship. We must ask you to leave the Netherlands as planned.

Ella has a hand on the banister, a foot arrested on the first step of the hallway stairs. Take another step, she pushes herself, up to the second floor, her mother's apartment. She hasn't yet learned to think of the place as her own, the handsome one-bedroom apartment with the picture windows looking out onto the stately park over the road. A piece of property she must now leave behind, almost as soon as inherited. She takes another slow step, another. The blank she hit today, that white space in the Register, it's a towering wall. She's good at setting obstacles behind her, she's done it since she was a girl – but she has no idea how to get beyond this one. Her own father, as if from beyond the grave, put his hand to the door of this land that might have been her haven, and slammed it in her face.

Ella walks the length of her mother's living room, tidying and straightening things as she goes, as if readying the place for her departure. But, face it, there is no
as if
to the matter, she
readying the place. She should think about dust sheets and turning off the mains. It could be a year or more before she's here again, however long it takes to mount a fresh appeal for citizenship. She should try to think clearly, work out what to do next. She can't spend the whole time that is left pacing. She'll need her energy for later, the journey back to Africa, to Durban. From her bag she takes the sheets of paper that the steel-haired official handed her, the photocopy and the Department's formal letter imprinted with dents where her damp fingers have clenched it.

She sits in her mother's favourite armchair, still in its old position in the living room. It faces the large life-sized portrait of her aunt Ella, after whom she is named. The slanting late-afternoon light warms the pale bluish skin tones of the portrait.

You – you knew him better than anyone, she says quietly to the picture, then drops her eyes, can't hold its gaze. She looks again at the letter in her hand. Her bid for Dutch citizenship on the basis of ancestry has failed for ‘one insurmountable reason': the place where her name should appear is blank. She, Ella, is not her father's child – not on paper, at least. And therefore, so the patrilineal logic of the
runs, she is also not officially recognized as her mother's child. We regret to inform you . . . Her life now lies elsewhere.

How he must have despised her, she thinks, more so than even she suspected. He has annulled her existence, or no – it's more final even than that. To be annulled, an existence must first be acknowledged, which he refused to do. He could have taken steps, couldn't he? Popped down to the Dutch consulate in Durban to register her?

She gets up, walks to the nearest window, lays the letter on the sill. The sun has set behind the apartment building and the beech trees in the park make a deep green mass against the darkening sky. How well she knows those trees, that park. She could follow the network of its pathways with her eyes closed, draw out the sharp angles of the Second World War bunkers, overgrown now with rhododendron bushes, hunkering amongst the trees.

He hated me? He hated me not? – she gazes out. Her bookkeeper father who prided himself on his forward planning, his omission was an oversight? Not possible. There were simply other things on his mind than his daughter.

Once, years ago in Canada, she thought something was vouchsafed her about him, during the meeting with the Royal Navy veteran. He told her a story that seemed to explain her father's embittered fury. For a time it helped. She found the courage to change direction, stop running away. Her mistake. He might have forgotten about her but she could not be allowed to forget about him.

She turns, walks to the linen cupboard in the hallway, takes a single white cotton sheet from the pile there, the sheet tightly folded, still holding its starch though it hasn't been used in years. In front of the portrait of her aunt she shakes the sheet open, the thick cotton crackling as it concertinas loose. It's an unexpected convenience. The folds stay printed in the thick cotton like a grid of furrows and make the hanging easier. The topmost furrow lets her hook the sheet snugly over the portrait. She stands back from her handiwork, pats down a fold of the sheet. ‘Take a rest, Ella,' she whispers, ‘Just for tonight. Let me think this through.'

She's used to keeping watch at night, after all, staying awake though lying ramrod still, the fugitives' breathing under her bed telling the seconds. Before dawn she rouses them as agreed with a gentle shoulder-grip, a slice of buttered bread, then sends them on their way.

She goes back to the window, squints into the shadows between the dark green beeches. She makes believe she sees it, the big concrete sandpit she knows lies just beyond the trees, beside the duckpond. She pictures herself, years ago, a tall girl with a built-up shoe standing beside a sandpit in a Dutch park, huddled together with a group of other children watching something. A man and his talking puppet in a harlequin suit. The man's mouth silently opening and closing as the puppet chatters.

She swivels her mother's armchair towards the window, sits. She can see the reflection of her head in the black rectangle of the darkened window. She leans back, stretches, folds her arms; the reflection elongates and bunches also. She remembers her white-haired father holding a pair of binoculars, looking out to sea. She sees him sitting in a rattan chair on the verandah, chain-smoking and slapping at mosquitoes, shouting at the night air. ‘Hold your tongue,
. Keep on, just keep on!'

She sees herself peeping through the curtains, her eyes just reaching over her bedroom's windowsill. How she practised for hours at being a ventriloquist, mouthing her lips in synch with his. He talked more than anyone else she knew – about the war, his ships, the East, his friends. She remembers imagining an empty space in her middle, an echoey hollow through which to direct the flow of his speech.

Her fury is so strong it is almost exciting. It shakes her skull. She had so much reason to hate him, all those years – it's marvellous. Beyond the reflection in the black glass she sees a man with his mouth wide open. She closes her eyes. A girl runs past Ella's portrait swathed in shadow, out into the glittering garden.

BOOK: The Shouting in the Dark
7.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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