The Smales family is in their hut. Gina and Victor use a plastic sack to store litter for the stray cat and kittens they’ve brought home. Maureen recognizes the sack as the kind that people sell oranges in, “back there.” Just then, a sullen-looking man appears at the door. Maureen and Bam intuit that the children have stolen the man’s sack. The children insist that they thought the bag was garbage. Furthermore, suggests Gina, they’d brought a sack of oranges into the village, so one of the sacks is rightfully theirs. Being accused of theft causes Victor to become “angry with a white man’s anger.” Bam hands the man a two-rand note as a peace-offering. The man leaves, and the parents calmly explain to the children that the man uses the sacks to make rope. Victor starts whimpering about how “horrible” some of the Black villagers are compared to July.
Once more, Maureen evokes “back there,” the phrase she and Bam have created as shorthand for their old life in Johannesburg. The children’s argument about which property is rightfully theirs shows that even they have been corrupted by their exposure to the apartheid system. Thus far, the book has seemed to emphasize how readily the children assimilate to life in the village as compared to their parents, suggesting that children aren’t born prejudiced but learn to be so as they grow older. Here, we see how early prejudicial attitudes can be absorbed. Although Victor is a young child, he’s already honed a sense of entitlement and learned to be “angry with a white man’s anger.” He’s also learned to scapegoat people who are different than him, deeming many of the Black villagers “horrible” to deflect the embarrassment he feels at being called out for stealing the orange sack.
Later, Bam goes to fish in the river. He and his family won’t eat barbel, but he knows the other villagers will appreciate it. When Bam returns to the hut to catch the 4:00 news, he finds Maureen asleep on the bed. Bam watches his sleeping wife and envisions himself as a prisoner. He hasn’t been able to sleep for days, too occupied with thoughts of getting out of this place and away from his family.
Barbel is a carp-like freshwater fish. Bam’s revelation that he is a prisoner reflects the claustrophobic, defamiliarizing sensation of cultural displacement. Bam doesn’t know how to make sense of his family without the framework of a familiar social structure to guide him.
Bam and Maureen turn on the radio, but the reception is too poor to hear anything. It’s become too difficult to talk about the fighting going on “back there,” so they resort to superficial small talk instead. Bam asks Maureen what happened to the kittens. Maureen tells him that she drowned them in a bucket of water. Bam is horrified and disgusted when he realizes that Maureen isn’t joking. He investigates his wife’s body, noting the hairs sprouted across the once-smooth calves. When Maureen removes her shirt so scratch at her ribs, “the baring of breasts [is] not an intimacy but a castration of his sexuality and hers.” Although his wife disgusts him, Bam calls her “poor thing” and asks why she couldn’t just “get one of them to” drown the kittens.
Little by little, Bam and Maureen have lost their connection to their old way of life. First, July took control of the bakkie, symbolically robbing them of the freedom of mobility and leisure. The dysfunctional radio deals another blow, cutting off their communication with the outside world. Bam’s response to Maureen’s gruesome admission offers another glimpse into his latent racism. Calling Maureen his “poor thing,” he expresses remorse that she has to commit a gruesome act that is so unnatural to someone as delicate and gentle as her. He sees Maureen as fundamentally different than the village people. This is why he asks why she couldn’t “get one of them to” drown the kittens: he implies Maureen is too refined for the ugly elements of life. Finally, Bam’s disgust at seeing Maureen’s naked body reinforces their increasingly distant relationship.