Cape Town, 1982
Nobody had liked her uncle’s wife.
Not her kind-hearted granny – who for reasons unknown, didn’t trust her. Nor her sanctimonious aunts and their drunken husbands – who she suspected were jealous of the pretty woman, nor her stern, bible-reading grandfather – who often commented on the woman’s lack of church attendance. When her uncle had married his beloved, a few years before she was born, half the family had refused to attend the festivities. Her grandmother had gone out of respect and concern for what people might say, her grandfather, out of duty, his argument being, “I won’t miss the wedding of my only son.” And her only aunt who attended had gone to spy and come back with plenty of gossip.
Over the years, her uncle’s wife didn’t gain anyone’s favour. Not when she gave birth to two sons and a healthy daughter, not when she knitted the perfect winter jerseys for her family, not when her house was always in perfect, tidy order to receive visitors. Though it was obvious that her uncle was happily married, it was as though his wife’s Stepford perfection made everyone dislike her even more.
“She’s not right, that woman,” people in the family would say, “there’s something not right with her.”
Personally, she had never minded her uncle’s wife. On the rare occasions she’d see her, the woman would smile at her and offer a kindly remark. Once when she’d stayed at her uncle’s for a weekend, she had baked biscuits with her cousin Loretta, and danced in the kitchen with Loretta’s brothers to radio music she’d never heard before. She was having so much fun that she’d hoped the weekend would last forever. Only one thing about it bothered her. Even now. She had woken up in the middle of the night on the Saturday, desperately thirsty, and was making her way to the kitchen when she’d heard her uncle whispering to his wife.
“You can’t tell her…my parents would never speak to you again if you did.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, they barely speak to me now. So, what difference would it make? It’s just not fair, she has the right to know. She’s—”
“Don’t do it. I’m telling you!”
At that point, they became aware of her presence, and her uncle had looked hard at her.
“What did you…erm…why are you up?”
“I’m thirsty uncle,” she’d said.
His wife had turned around, poured some water from a jug, and handed it to her, and she noticed that her uncle’s wife had been crying. She wanted to ask her if she was alright, but the look on her uncle’s face was a wordless warning to say nothing and to return to bed as soon as possible.
When she arrived home on the Sunday afternoon and told her grandparents what had happened, her grandparents looked at her as though seeing her for the first time. For a few seconds nobody moved or spoke before her grandfather tossed his newspaper on the kitchen table and walked away. Her grandmother walked over to her and asked her to repeat the story very slowly before letting out a long sigh and telling her to go and finish her homework for Monday.
That was the first time she understood that in their family, people survived on general obliviousness. Either they didn’t wish to know anything about anything, or they pretended not to know. Take her other cousin Solomon for example. Everybody had been aware, or at least had a slight inkling, of his and his big-breasted girlfriend’s toe-curling, tongue-swirling activities performed behind their outhouse in the back yard. Yet, as soon as his girlfriend’s tummy started swelling up like a rather large watermelon, everybody had genuinely acted surprised. News of the pregnancy had reached them via her aunty, of course. She’d walked into the house with a certain look on her face. A sway of her hips, a tilt of the eyebrow. That look of power. The one that says, “I know something that you don’t.” She had casually informed her mother, that her grandmother status was to be upgraded to that of a great-grandmother. When her grandmother sat at the kitchen table shaking her head in disappointment, her aunty had simply boiled some water for tea and said,
“Relax Ma, his parents will have to deal with the burden.”
Then, with a sucking of her teeth, she pointed a red-nailed finger at her niece.
“Use your head girl and have some respect! Solomon had no respect. Imagine getting up to such shameful behaviour, behind your own toilet no less.”
Her aunty left the kitchen humming to herself leaving her and her grandmother alone at the kitchen table to finish their tea.
“What’s going to happen now, Granny?”
“Now it’s all going to unravel kindtjie. Like a badly knitted scarf. And you, let this be a warning. Keep those legs closed.”
Her grandmother had been right of course, as is seemingly always the case. Shortly after the news broke, and thankfully, before his girlfriend’s water broke, her cousin had quit school and started working on large fishing boats in Cape Town harbour. His parents had refused to offer any help, as his dad stated,
“If you are going to do grown-up things you better start working to be able to afford it.”
Grown-up things, childhood things. It didn’t differ much to her, apart from the fact that the grown-ups very often acted like children, and the children like prematurely aged and wizened creatures from a different planet.
It was too early to get up yet, though the February heat made it hard to stay in bed. Next to her, her grandmother’s breathing came out in jerks and snorts. She used to sleep in the other room with her aunty, but ever since her grandfather had died, she had shared her grandmother’s bed with her.
The first night, two days after his burial, she’d opened the bed to find her grandfather’s pyjamas still folded under the pillow on his side of the bed. The shirt resting atop the trousers, a neat reminder of the man himself. The sight of it had made her sad, and when her grandmother found her crying, she’d held her, and told her that she could sleep in her grandfather’s shirt, if she wanted. That night she had fallen asleep with the smell of shoe polish, hair cream and aftershave on her skin. And she’d held onto the shirt for weeks. Until her grandmother had confiscated it to be washed, after which, much to her disappointment, only faint remnants of her grandfather’s scent were left behind. Aftershave had been the only luxury her grandfather had ever allowed himself. He didn’t drink and referred to alcohol as ‘the devil’s piss,’ didn’t smoke, and called cigarettes ‘cancer sticks’ and never overindulged in food, calling gluttony in any shape or form, an ‘enormous sin’. When she was little, and she started living with her grandparents, he’d refer to her as his ‘bush baby’. And when she asked her grandmother what a bush baby was, her grandmother had said, “a sweet, furry little animal, with very large eyes, like yours.”
Before she started school in the mornings, her grandfather would make her read out loud, standing in front of him, as he sat at the kitchen table. These readings were always from one of his collection of twelve encyclopaedias he had bought years ago, when he started working at a book binding factory in Cape Town. Whenever she mispronounced a word, he would indicate for her to repeat it by hitting his cane on the floor once. If she made the mistake twice, he would make her start from the very beginning of the paragraph, and if she was unfortunate enough to repeat the error three times, he would not only make her start from the beginning but instruct her to write the word or words out 1000 times. If she was good, he would give her some of her favourite Wilson sweets, or if he thought her pronunciation was exceptional, give her some money for tamaletjies. If she hugged him too long, he would pull free, chuckle and say, “Enough now bush baby, go to school and enjoy your breaks today. I need to rest.”
“She walks with a tokoloshe, that’s why we don’t trust her. She’s filthy.”
That’s what her aunty would say when discussing her Uncle Seth’s wife. Calling someone filthy was a way of saying they interacted with bad spirits or harm-spreading demons.
She didn’t believe it and told her aunt as much.
“Believe it. Nobody is that perfect, she is in conversation with the evil one, I am telling you. I have seen things that would make your hair stand on end, child!”
Her aunty was the only one of her grandparent’s daughters who still lived at home with them. Her mother had also once been one of her grandparent’s daughters, but she had died a long time ago, only a few months after her birth. By the time she’d turned six, she’d lived in three different households. First with her Aunty Rachel, who as a passionate follower of the spare the rod, spoil the child philosophy had managed to turn her four children into silent soldiers. Her tenure there came to an end when she witnessed her eight-year-old cousin crying because his mother had given him a thrashing for not cleaning the dishes properly. Next, her middle aunty, Sara claimed her. Aunty Sara, whose husband would come home drunk and drag her to bed after pinching her bottom and grabbing her breasts in front of the kids. Her tenancy there, which lasted just over a year, ended when her aunty’s family moved to a new township. Thirdly, she was moved in with her Aunty Maria. Aunty Maria was a neurotic cleaner, always walking around with a broom in one hand and a feather duster in the other, while muttering something about cleanliness and godliness. The former caused obsessive compulsions in her children, while the latter drove her husband into the arms of prostitutes and off to another city. She had a bible quotation for every wrong committed and gave her three kids chores upon chores. After she got spanked with a wet tea towel for presumably wetting the bed (though aunty Maria’s youngest was the culprit) it was decided that she’d live with her grandparents.
Sara, Maria, Rachel, Bathsheba, and Seth. Her mother had been named Michelle. She didn’t like the name, mostly because she thought her mother didn’t look like a Michelle –whatever that meant. One day, she had asked her grandmother why she had given her mother that name.
“It was your grandfather. You see when I was expecting your mother, your grandfather was convinced that it would be a son. So, he’d already decided on the name Michael. Michael is the name of one of God’s archangels. But when your mother came, he decided if he could not have his Michael, he would have a Michelle.”
Her grandmother had shown her a small, sepia photograph of her mother at the age of sixteen, and she’d whispered,
“Your mother was my prettiest daughter.”
Her Aunty Bathsheba didn’t agree and was always reminding her that her mother had brought shame on her grandparents’ home.
“She never told us who your father was. I wonder if she even knew. For all we know, it could be the devil himself.”
She never responded to anything her aunty said about her mother. In the beginning, out of shame and fear, and much later, out of reason. What could she say? What was there to say about a woman she never knew?
By the time Bathsheba turned thirty, it was widely accepted that she would never marry, and end up an old maid. The fact that she was considered the least attractive of the daughters, with a minor learning disability, and was watched like a hawk by her grandparents made her aunty all the less desirable. “Simple Sheba with the bricklayer’s arms” the men would taunt her. For the most part, her aunty wasn’t too bothered until her path crossed with that of Stanley Dhlamini. Stanley and his two brothers were regarded as roguish and handsome by most women in their sorry excuse of a neighbourhood. They ran a smokkelhuis two streets from her grandparents’ home, which they predictably named the Three Brothers. According to the elderly lady living next door, all sorts of “disgraceful” things happened on that “yard”. Sheba clearly didn’t care or mind about the contaminated reputation of the object of her desire, and she would pass by the yard several times a day hoping to get noticed by Stan. While her aunty was desperately trying to capture his attention, she avoided that street like the plague, especially after one of the girls in her class told her that her older sister had gotten pregnant by Stan’s older brother. The girl also told her that taxi queens frequented the premises, and that the middle brother, known as “Dirty Dick”, had a thing for teenage girls.
Next to her, her grandmother was still snoring away, and she remembered the surprised look on the girl’s face when she’d asked her what a taxi queen was. She finally got up when her bladder indicated a desperate need to be relieved, and tiptoeing from the room, she opened the backdoor and sprinted to the outhouse. She sat down with a grateful sigh. Closing her eyes, with a feeling of satisfaction washing over her, she was disturbed by her aunty banging on the door.
“Be quick! I need to number two!”
Opening the door, her aunt’s broad frame loomed over her. Her face looked puffy, and she pushed passed her, sitting herself down on the toilet without saying good morning. The door had barely closed behind her when she heard the strong stream of her aunty’s urine flowing into the toilet. She stood still for a moment looking around her. Nothing grew in the dusty backyard, and the brightness of the sun only sought to highlight the barrenness of everything. Still, it was a nice day, a great one for a wedding. If that was where they were going – but they weren’t. Not today. Moments later, she heard the flush of the toilet and her aunty reappeared looking slightly more friendly. Before her aunty could tell her, she turned on the kettle and got a pot from the cupboard to boil their porridge. Their breakfast was almost ready when her grandmother walked into the kitchen, her “swirlkous” drooping to one side. Re-adjusting it with one hand, she used the other to stifle a big yawn.
“What time is it, Sheba?”
“Six-thirty Ma,” her aunt answered as she scooped the thick, white porridge into three bowls.
“Well, we better eat and get a move on, otherwise we’ll be late.” She turned to her granddaughter. “Are your shoes polished and your dress ironed, kindtjie?” she asked with a smile.
They ate in silence. She wasn’t very hungry but ate because it was better than having to listen to one of her aunty’s long-winded sermons about ungrateful children and waste. By the time she brought the last spoonful to her mouth, her tummy felt knotted. She washed her bowl and added water to a plastic bucket to get washed herself. They had several buckets in the house. A blue one for washing, a yellow one her granny kept in the bedroom in case she needed to pee at night, (her aunty’s was red) and another one, known as the water bucket, reserved for cooking and tea. The communal tap was shared with two other families, their neighbours on either side, and often there would be a short queue.
Looking at herself in her grandmother’s old mirror, she pulled a face. The dress was too large around the chest and hip areas. It looked like a black, rubbish bag on her frame. The shoes she liked. Her grandmother had bought them for her from a store called “Poor man’s Friend,” a few months back. They had a little heel, and a delicate, silver bow on top. After brushing her hair and tying it back neatly, she went to sit down at the kitchen table waiting for her grandmother and aunty to get ready. Shortly after, they locked the door and set off to the train station. Her grandmother carried her old handbag with their hymnals and some mints inside, while her aunty carried keys, lipstick and a bottle of cheap perfume in hers. She carried nothing, and simply walked quietly behind her grandmother, watching her shoes get dusty with the orange gravel the pavements were covered in. The heat was increasing by the second, and she irritably tugged at the long sleeves of her dress. They had to walk across a big, dry field to reach the train station, and before they could reach the field, they had to carefully navigate their way through a grassless, mini desert of at least two kilometres. This was a Sahara of horrible grey sand, which she’d privately christened ‘the path of filth’. All three of them moved gingerly, as though having trouble with their legs, their aim of keeping their shoes as clean as possible proving to be an insurmountable task. What was the point? she wondered for the umpteenth time. What was the point of polishing shoes when living in a place forever determined to bury you beneath dunes of sand? By the time they reached the grassy savanna of the field, her grandmother was muttering under her breath, her aunty’s make-up was melting, and all three were covered in dust. She accepted a tissue from her grandmother and bent down to first wipe her grandmother’s shoes and then her own, while her aunty reapplied her lipstick.
A few weeks back, when her aunty had been out, presumably strutting down a certain street hoping to catch a certain someone’s eye, she had tested the lipstick on herself. When her grandmother suddenly appeared behind her, she waited for the admonishment she thought was coming, but her granny had only looked at her with a broken smile.
“You look just like her…your mother. Although I am hoping that you…”
The sentence was left hanging, and her grandmother diverted her eyes, not looking at her. Pulling one of her many floral handkerchiefs from her apron pocket, she walked over to her, grabbed her chin, and with an almost violent wipe, smeared the colour across her jaw.
“Clean your face, kindtjie. Cleanse yourself.”
“Wipe it off. You don’t know. You don’t see…”
She took the handkerchief from her grandmother’s hand and looked at her, not sure what to do.
Before walking out of the room, her grandmother turned to look at her again, her eyes shiny, the type of shiny that spoke of unshed tears and defeats she didn’t understand.
“Please don’t grow up too fast.”
The words had left her feeling confused. She wanted to grow up. She wanted to visit places and go to all the libraries in the world, she wanted to dance to radio music like her cousin Loretta, she wanted to smoke cigarettes like the glamorous women on the old magazine covers at home, she wanted to work and earn money, wanted to go to fancy restaurants …perhaps one day. Sometimes, when her aunty was nice to her, she would page through the old magazines showing her things and saying, “If only we could have lives like these people.” After her grandfather died, nobody bought newspapers anymore. Her grandmother had said that what is called ‘the news’ in South Africa depended on who wrote it, and that it depressed her, while her aunty stated that it angered her. She wasn’t surprised by that. Often in the past she would wonder why her grandfather would read the newspaper when all it seemed to do was put him in a beastly mood. Once or twice, he would even curse.
“This fucking country! Look at this! More students arrested!”
He would fume at her grandmother, who would put her hands on his shoulders and tell him to calm down. After she brought her report card home at the end of year eight, and proudly showed her grandfather her row of six As, he had hugged her so tightly she could barely breathe, and when she pulled back eventually, he had tears in his eyes. It was the first time she had ever seen a man cry. He had handed her a few coins and told her to go and get herself a treat from the corner shop and a newspaper for himself. Throughout their evening meal of soup and bread she had caught his eyes on her with a look of apprehension on his face.
“He’s afraid for you, that’s all. He is scared that your brilliance will be crushed in this country, and that you will be robbed of opportunity just because we are what we are.”
Over the years she would hear those words many times, and whenever she set to do something, whether it was writing an exam or weave fantasies about an unknown future those words would burn like a curse. She would be fifteen soon, she thought, as they neared the station. Her body left her puzzled. How was it possible to have such skinny legs, and such tiny breasts with such funny big feet? It didn’t fit. The rest of the girls in her class all seemed well-proportioned and shapely in all the right places, she, on the other hand, was built like a boy. It’s not that she thought she was ugly, in fact she knew she wasn’t, even her aunty would admit to her being pretty, but it was just that all her pieces didn’t seem to fit together. She thought she was an awkward mishmash. Lately, she had started thinking of herself as a cross between a boy, a girl, and a horse.
The train was moving at a snail’s pace and was too full. Since there were no available seats, they stood between the two rows of occupied seats. A man opposite her was reading a newspaper, and for a moment, she almost imagined that he was her grandfather, sitting at the kitchen table, his face hidden from view. On the front cover, was a huge black and white photograph of a white woman seated on a single bed, in a drab looking room. To her chest, she held a framed photograph of a dismal young man. The woman appeared to almost blend in with the bleak surroundings of the background. Her light hair, blonde or grey, almost covering the entire left side of her face. Between dark slender fingers holding the paper she read the headline: Conscription Killed my Boy.
It was Saturday, so the packed train didn’t surprise her, and on top of that it had been the end of January two days before. The longest, driest, hottest, most painfully, financially exhausting month for most people, after the novelty of Christmas wore off. Not that Christmas was ever a novelty in their house. It felt like a normal Sunday, except they would have more meat on the table than usual. For years, she had begged for a plastic Christmas tree, but was told each time that they couldn’t afford it. After being told the same thing again three Christmases ago, she had stopped asking. The one thing her grandmother did make more effort than usual with was the food. She would save money throughout the year for the best meats, vegetables, snacks, and would even make desert. She would travel into the Cape Town centre to visit the best butchers and would start cooking very early in the morning on Christmas day. After church, they would put the finishing touches on the meal and her grandmother would lay the kitchen table using what she called her ‘special plates’. Her grandfather’s last Christmas with them had been two years ago, and she remembered that he kept falling asleep during the meal as her grandmother had fed him. She remembers the difficulty he’d had breathing and how he had made her grandmother shave him that morning for his last mass. He died six days later, on New Year’s Eve. Two hours before the start of a new year with new possibilities, new challenges, new tears, and new laughter for the living.
“They should just go ahead and change it to Janu-worry, because God knows, it’s a rubbish month,” she’d heard some women joke at the taxi rank a few days before. One of the women had laughed even harder when she saw that their joke had been overheard and caught the attention of the accidental eavesdropper. They didn’t know that the eavesdropper had cried later that day, as she remembered her grandfather’s funeral that same month. And now they were off to the funeral of another – an unlikely friend to join her grandfather in whatever place he was. When the train came to a jerking halt at their destination, she lost her footing and hit a man who had just boarded the train, face first in the chest. She mumbled an apology and was relieved to get off, wiping her sweaty face with her palms.
By the time they arrived at the church, the coffin had already been brought in, carried by family members, and placed in front of the altar, as was custom. A large bouquet of proteas and a photo of her uncle’s wife rested on it. The woman’s large black eyes seemed to look right at her, and she suddenly remembered the last time she had seen her, seen those eyes. It was at her grandfather’s funeral. The woman had stared at her throughout the ceremony with a look on her face she could not fathom. The first three rows were as usual reserved for family, and she, her grandmother, and aunt managed to squeeze in next to Solomon, his girlfriend and their sixteen-month-old who was drooling and chewing his way through his mother’s shoulder pads. Her uncle and his children were seated in the very first row, heads bowed low, except for Loretta who was staring at the coffin with unblinking eyes. She studied her cousin’s well-chiselled profile, which at that moment reminded her of a bust of Nefertiti she’d seen in her grandfather’s encyclopaedias. A tear crawled over a sharp cheekbone, and she looked away hurriedly, afraid that Loretta might feel her eyes on her.
The sound of the organ brought her to her senses, and she got to her feet automatically, looking at the words in her hymnal without singing them. Next to her, her aunty’s familiar alto dragged the words out and became part of the sea of drawn-out voices around her. After the singing died down, the evangelist took to the pulpit, talking about God’s love for man, the mercy of death, and being free of pain and suffering. This was followed by a brief eulogy on the deceased, at which point, her uncle’s body started shaking so violently, she felt her throat tightening. She felt the burn of that all-familiar lump increasing and was ready to catch the first tears in open palms when they came.
Years later, when thinking back to that day, she would remember all the parts separately. Flashing, switching, blurry, going back and forth. Images on a faulty projector. At her uncle’s house there was food, dishes whose aromas and colours she would remember but not recall tasting. She would remember her cousin Loretta crying and being consoled by a friend, a friend she had felt jealous of because she wanted to be the one comforting her cousin. People. Whispers. The house was, as always, neat and spotless, but that day it reeked of death. Her uncle’s face looked drawn, the complexion ashen, and when their eyes met, the stark bare pain reflected in them made her heart pound so hard she struggled to catch her breath. She wanted to run away yet was rooted to her seat.
Aunty Sheba was eating with the desperation of someone who’d gone hungry for days, and she felt ill just looking at her. Her grandmother had disappeared, and even strangers seemed to have their eyes on her. An overwhelming panic took hold of her, and she eventually got to her feet and exited the room into the kitchen. It was when standing in front of the sink, watching water pour form the rusty tap that she remembered the conversation between her uncle and his wife years before. She watched the water come out brown, then slight cloudy, until finally clear. Turning around slowly, she wasn’t surprised when she found her uncle standing behind her.
“You remember, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered, licking her lips, a trembling fear touching her spine.
“When you get home, ask your grandmother about your father. My darling wife was right. It’s time they told you the whole story. You need to know the truth.”
She’d agreed without knowing what she was agreeing to. She would remember that year of 1982 as being the worst of her life. A year that revealed truths she wasn’t yet ready for but was eager to hear. A year in which life decided to teach her, in the cruellest way, that just because we are granted only one chance, we are not spared, nor pardoned when life decides to slay.
Kindtjie – An endearing term meaning little one, or sweet child.
Smokkelhuis – Literally, “Smuggle House”, usually specializing in the selling of alcohol.
Swirlkous – A part of a pair tights or stocking used to wrap on head, to keep hair straight overnight.
Tokoloshe/Tikoloshe – A dwarf-like spirit, considered mischievous or evil. Popular in South African folklore.
Tameletjie – A homemade sweet or toffee, native to South Africa.