BY HILDA ANDREWS
Nombulelo sits up on her mattress as she sees the candle burn itself out. She must get dressed today, Friday. She cringes, rubs her rough hands along her shins and moves her limbs so as to lift herself off the floor. Her green and yellow doek is tied over one ear and behind another. She tries to straighten it but her eyes fail to reach the mirror ahead of her. Her shoulders are slumped and she wrinkles her nose as she rises, out of breath by the time she stands upright. Mr Pieterse and Ma will come today. She feels certain nodding her head spontaneously. It has been two months since they brought her Ellis Brown, 2kg of Tastic Rice and some Joko tea. Ma knows what she likes.
She doesn’t have a lot of time. Her body is aching. Her head is sore. She reaches one hand to her back and one to her head, leaning her shoulder against the cupboard.
She went many times to see Dr Khota in New Crossroads. She had to pay each time. Sometimes her brother helped her with the money. She could not eat.
— Mama, there’s bronchitis. Just take this medicine for the cough.
The doctor said the same thing each time. She walked for a long time like that, taking the medicine but it didn’t get better. Mr Pieterse gave her Borstel to drink. Aargh, that stuff is bitter, she shakes her head as her face scrunches up with the memory. She went back to the doctor again and again, each time tying her skirt tighter around her waist. She clicks her tongue against the back of the roof of her mouth. The doctor sent her away again with the same message.
— Don’t do the washing and the ironing on the same day, Mama.
For 15 years she took the train from Ntubeni Road to Cape Town to Wynberg and then the taxi to Grassy Park. This year she was sweating and tired by the time she got to work. She couldn’t eat. She just had black tea and, later, some bread. The train was always crowded and she stood the whole journey. In the early years, Nolukholo, Phuti and her travelled together to Grassy Park, where the Coloureds lived. They would meet at the station in the morning and then walk down together from where the taxi dropped them, across Klip Road and through the veld. When they saw the police vans, they knew to split up quickly and walk through the back lane between the houses. But that was before ’94, before Mandela. Jirre, how they used to run fearing the police would be searching for the dompas.
She will borrow the chairs from Noni, her neighbour, today so that they don’t have to sit on the crates. Noni made the porridge. Nombulelo knows she must try to get some down today. She is so tired. Siphonathi brought her some black tea before he left for school. Hayi, he left his bedding still in the kitchen she sees as she peers through the open door frame. I must go roll it up before Mr Pieterse comes, 15 years I worked for him, what will he think if he finds my house so untidy? I don’t have much time. She hears Buti’s voice the time she told him that the firstborn, aged two, took the matches. She was polishing the window catches with Brasso – the madam liked them to shine. Hoo, the flames jumped quickly. The bottom of the bed was burnt. Madam came from the bath just in time.
There was a big argument when Mr Pieterse came home. “Because you always sitting with your head in a book!” he shouted at Madam that time. Nombulelo went to iron the shirts and sheets in the back room until the shouting stopped. That little one was naughty. Now he is in high school, brown belt karate. She washed his gi each week to keep it nice and white. Sometimes he would forget where he left the belt.
He would shout from the bed.
— Where’s my belt?
She smiles and shakes her head. Her brother gave her a tongue lashing that time.
— How can you leave matches around? Where are your eyes, my sister?
Come on, Nombulelo, lift your bones, this day will not wait for you. She moves slowly around the bedroom.
After the trouble with the police, Madam left. That was the time when the high school children ran across the veld into Capricorn Road. Mr Pieterse was working in the garden that day. He ran into the street and showed with his hands for them to run to him and to keep quiet. They hid in the back room. Nombulelo’s heart beat quickens as she recalls how the police stormed through the gate. The boere demanded to see her pass. It was 1985.
— Yes, Master.
Even Mr Pieterse said that and smiled at them. They rushed off towards the high school in the next road, looking for the children. When they left, she saw the children had left UDF pamphlets behind, for the rally about the police holding some of their leaders under Section 29. Mr Pieterse told them to be careful.
The new wife was young, very young. Nombulelo used to stand behind the kitchen door watching them down the passage.
— Eunice. Mr Pieterse would call when she visited him in the middle of the day. Doesn’t she work, Nombulelo wondered?
— Make some tea, nice tea, hey.
As if she didn’t know how to make a cup of tea. She took it inside on the tray.
— Where’s the saucers, Eunice?
How was she to know that when visitors come you put saucers when he drinks his tea straight from the cup the whole year that Madam was gone!
She reaches for her dress and jersey. It takes all her effort to stand upright. Her head spins. By the time she is dressed, she has to lie down again. She wakes with a start to the sound of dogs barking. They will come today she is certain. I must get up. They gave her R2000 last year.
— Finish your house in Eastern Cape, Eunice.
Mr Pieterse was on early retirement.
— We can’t afford to keep you on anymore, Eunice.
She was so tired from that journey every day. The last-born was three. She loved to be carried on the back that one. Nombulelo did the washing and the ironing with the little one on her back.
What were her children doing during that time? She is too tired to think now. Buti was a father to them when her husband died. She didn’t have much time to care for them. Only in December when the family gathered in Eastern Cape, when everyone came home for Christmas. Then they would slaughter a goat and have lots of meat. It would be cooked over the fire in the big black pots. The smell of Tembi’s baked bread would bring the neighbours knocking. They would celebrate her birthday and the birth of Tembi, her firstborn, as well as Simphiwe, who is no more. They were all on the same day. They celebrated with praise songs, danced and drank umqomboti. There was amasi and rhabe and plenty of umngqusho. Her mouth and eyes water and she feels bilious. The bucket is nearby. It has been like this since she stopped working six months ago.
They will come today. It has been too long. Her legs feel weak as she shuffles about the tiny kitchen. She rolls up Sipho’s bedding. Hayi, that boy.
— Bye, Mama.
He called to her as he shoved the door closed this morning. He loves numbers and painting and will reach grade four soon. His mother left him with her. Tembi thinks the schools in the Eastern Cape are not as good.
— Ma, you can watch him that side.
She knew that he would be a help to her mother too since Simphiwe’s sudden passing. Nombulelo was so pleased when he found a job with Bosmans. The long drives out of town taking things up the N2 were good for him. It kept him away from those bad boys standing on the corner of Stock Road. The truck accident was just God’s will. How could they know he would be taken so soon? The tyre burst and the driver lost control. Simphiwe was standing at the back. It was a bad time for them. Nkosi, you knew best, she prays silently.
It is night. Sipho plays marbles in the sand outside the door with Kwezi. Nombulelo sits on her mattress in the kitchen surrounded by the Methodist women’s group. The sun has gone down. She is tired. Her heart is heavy. She is shrouded in the praise and worship of the women. She pulls the blue check blanket tighter around her shoulders and shivers, it is so cold. There is hot black tea in her hands. She slips back onto the pillows propped between her and the cardboard lining of the shack wall. Maybe they will come tomorrow. They will come, she sighs. As the day has crept by, Nombulelo has sunk deeper into her pillows convening with the lingering pain. She is lulled by the praises and the loving voices rise higher. She just needs to close her eyes for a few minutes. Nkosi, you are my shepherd – why did they not come? She joins the women in prayer Uthixo guThixo Wam as her eyes close once more.