Authors: Nadine Gordimer
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Across the seasons was laid the diuturnal one of being without a man; it overlaid sowing and harvesting, rainy summers and dry winters, and at different times, although at roughly the same intervals for all, changed for each for the short season when her man came home. For that season, although she worked and lived among the others as usual, the woman was not within the same stage of the cycle maintained for all by imperatives that outdid the authority of nature. The sun rises, the moon sets; the money must come, the man must go.
His wife had the power of a whingeing obstinacy, shying away and insisting. —No, there in town. Was it the man who told you what you—
It was hardly worth answering. —You know I didn’t make the food. There was the Xhosa woman, the cook.—
—How must I know, I didn’t see her—
—Nomvula. The one they called Nora. You saw her on the photo. One Christmas. You got the photo they took of us. With the children, Gina and the boys. A coloured picture. You’ve got it. Albert brought it with the shoes I sent.—
The old woman completed the description. —The fat woman with a pink cap like this—(She cocked a hand over one eye.)—Looks as if she likes to drink.—
—Was she married?—
—I think her husband died.—
—So she didn’t have a man?—
She watched him for an answer. She saw he was thinking of something else, back there. The backyard photograph, the white man and woman and their children here and now—the concrete knowledge of these was hers but provided too scanty a trail for her to follow him by.
—There’s Bongani. The Zulu, he works as an inspector for the Cleansing Department. Dressed up in a uniform on his bicycle. He stays with Nomvula in her room.—
—They didn’t mind him living in the yard … Mnnn. And what happened to Nomvula? Where did she go now?—
He sat down on the small low bench placed inside the hut against the wall, where male strangers sat when they came to visit. The single source of light, from the doorway, axed the interior diagonally; on the one side, women, the planes of the bay of mud plaster behind them lifted into ginger-gold, richly-moted relief like the texture of their faces, on the other, the man in darkness. His hands were on his knees. They could see his fingernails and his eyes. Perhaps he had shrugged to show he didn’t know. When his wife had assumed he wasn’t going to bother to answer—and she didn’t need an answer, anyway; the Zulu was the answer that satisfied her, her further question was a distraction of others’ attention from that satisfaction—he spoke from his corner. —I don’t know where she is. What happened to her. If she reached her family in …—His voice trailed off, confused, as if he had forgotten a place-name; or could not speak it.
The clay vessels maureen used to collect as ornaments were now her refrigerator and utensils. Vermin, fowls, weak and savage cats who tailed her openly or secretly for their survival, scenting food on her hands, hearing the proximity of food in her footsteps, domestic pigs who followed her in the hope of picking up her excrement, were reinforced in numbers by the birth of a litter to one of the cats. The creature settled itself on the haversack Bam used as a pillow. He tipped her gently off. Gina and Victor brought a plastic-net sack of the kind in which oranges were sold, back there, and substituted it as a nest for the litter. But a man came with the face of aggrieved sullenness that was familiar, the face that had been appearing for generations at the back door, asking for but not expecting to get justice, only the redress of a handout. Maureen knew who he was; she had watched him, passing time for herself in silence with what passed it for him, as he unravelled the synthetic fibre of an orange-sack, smoothed it into lengths and knotted, then plaited these to make a strong, bright rope. The couple made out that he wanted the sack back; the children had stolen it.
Victor’s look went from mother to father like a hand to a holster. —It was lying around! A whole lot of them, just lying around under a tree. We just took it!—
Gina was aghast at the enormity of the accusation as she had been at tale-telling at school. —An old orangebag! Who’s going to steal a bit of rubbish! Anyway,
brought a bag of oranges, didn’t we, ma, didn’t we, one of those old bags is
is our bag, one of them’s
, isn’t it. How can you steal something that’s thrown away?—
—But those orange-sacks are something he uses for his work, Gina—
—What can he use them for? What ‘work’?—
—He makes rope. They’re his material.—
Victor was angry with a white man’s anger, too big for him. —He mustn’t say I stole. I just took stuff that gets thrown away, nobody wants—
But all the parents did was give the man a two-rand note, and Bam patted him on the back with gestures of apology and assumption that adults must make allowances for the actions of children.
Victor stood giddy with the force of spent emotion, after the man had gone. —Gee, two rands for an old orange-bag. I could buy one of those vintage buggy miniatures for that.
get him some old orange-bags if he’ll pay me two rands.—
His father laid the same calming hand on him, a palm lightly on his head. —If he had two rands to pay for an old orange-bag, he’d be able to buy a rope instead, wouldn’t he.—
Royce made his way patiently round the whole question to approach his brother shyly, confidentially. —You going to buy one of those little buggies, Vic? I mean, if you get two rands?—
—Where can you buy them. Here. They had them in Sandton, at Pick’n Pay. That’s where you get them.—
—Ask July, Vic. Why don’t you ask july? Vic?—
Emotion suddenly came back to the boy; his lids reddened. —Well, one thing—I know one thing, not all Africans are nice like July. Some of them are horrible. Horrible.—
Nyiko, Gina’s friend, who slipped in and out the hut all day as the passing fowls did, had come in and gone straight to Gina in the lover-like seclusion of childhood intimacy. They stood hand-in-hand, looking mildly on at Victor’s suffering. Gina pulled a kitten for each of them from the cat’s teats and the minute creatures were possessed by a tension of claws and mewling as much too great for them as the boy’s anger had been for him.
There came the expected admonition from a parent—the mother. —You must not keep taking them away from the cat. They’re only two days old.—
The father spoke to the mother in the sub-language of hints and private significance foreign to the children. —Maybe Nyiko knows whose cat it is? Perhaps we can give the whole bang-shoot where it belongs.—
She looked at him; token acknowledgement given to someone who speaks from a premise that doesn’t exist.
Through Gina, he questioned Nyiko. The little girl giggled. She crinkled her nose and showed her teeth; and was asked again. Gina waggled the hand in hers. Nyiko giggled and swayed from foot to foot. —Daddy, she doesn’t understand. She says nobody’s got a cat.—
—I see, I see.
has cats, just as cats have fleas.—
The little girl was impatient of his flirtatious fondness. —No
, I told you. Nobody’s got one … she says.—
In the afternoon he went to fish at the river. He and his family couldn’t bring themselves to eat barbel but the other people appreciated them. He left the children down there and came back in time to listen to the four o’clock news.
was lying on the bed; any one of the hut’s occupants who found himself in sole possession for an hour would at once take the opportunity of having the use of the bed. He saw her; saw himself as he was when he sometimes lay there; and thought of the prisoner as he is always visualized in his cell. He himself had become able to sleep at will, since he had been in this place: will himself out of it, away from her, from the children, waiting for him to get them out of it.
No martial music.
They listened to the news. The reception was bad, the reader a stumbling speaker—who was left, at the state broadcasting service’s splendid towers of granite, to do such a job?
Possibly the transmission no longer came from there—the service had always concealed so much, it probably would never announce it had been forced to evacuate and was operating from some temporary hideout. The hard-pressed but stolidly bureaucratic-sounding reports quoting ‘authoritative sources’: was the Brigadier of the Citizen Forces, in whose name an assessment of the success in ‘containing’ Soweto from the Diepkloof Military Base was given, one who had in reality run like anyone else? Was the eye-witness account of the recapture of the Far West Rand mines—so haltingly putting together the description of a rout that didn’t seem to fit the features of a landscape natal to the daughter of My Jim Hetherington—a Bunker fantasy? Such reverses that were incontestably admitted were so ominous; last night the Union Buildings in Pretoria were ‘partially destroyed’. No mention of a rocket attack, this time. The pile must have been blown up from within, they were probably actually fighting with their bodies and hands over Sir Herbert Baker’s colonial grace in pillars and sandstone. Or maybe they had blown it up themselves rather than let blacks move in.
It had become impossible to talk about what was happening, back there. He and his wife listened in silence and he noted subconsciously something trivial that he could remark on when the radio was switched off. —Did you find someone to take the kittens?—They were no longer in the hut.
She got up sluggishly from the bed; she certainly had been taking a nap.
—I drowned them in a bucket of water.—
She used sometimes to answer him outlandishly, out of sarcasm, when he suggested she might do something it was beyond question—by nature and intelligence—for her to have done.
Now don’t let slip to Parkinson I don’t intend to go to the meeting because I’ve no intention of voting, mmh.—Oh I’ve already had a good chat with Sandra about it, just to be sure he’ll get to hear.
This kind of repartee belonged to the deviousness natural to suburban life. In the master bedroom, sometimes it ended in brief coldness and irritation, sometimes in teasing, kisses, and love-making of a variety suggested by the opportunities of the room and its rituals—a hand between her legs while she was cleaning her teeth, the butting of his penis, seeking her from behind while she bent over the bath to swish a mixture of hot and cold water.
She was lean, rough-looking—the hair on her calves, that had always been kept shaved smooth, was growing back in an uneven nap after so many years of depilation. That she had said ‘in a bucket’: he understood that as it was meant, a piece of concrete evidence of an action duly performed.
—Oh my god.—His lips turned out in disgust, distaste, on her behalf.
She scratched efficiently at her ribs, working the shrunken T-shirt against the bones just below her shallow breasts.
—Oh my poor thing.—
She pulled the shirt over her head and shook it. To lie down was to become a trampoline for fleas. —What’re you making a fuss about.—The baring of breasts was not an intimacy but a castration of his sexuality and hers; she stood like a man stripped in a factory shower or a woman in the ablution block of an institution. —I used to take them to be spayed.—
—Well of course you took them to be spayed.—
—Obsessed with the reduction of suffering. It was all right, I suppose…. Not how to accept it, the way people do here.—
—I should damn well hope not.—
Her neck was weathered red and over-printed with dark freckles down to a half-circle bisected by a V, the limits of the T-shirt and cotton blouse which were her wardrobe. He would never have believed that pale hot neck under long hair when she was young could become her father’s neck that he remembered in a Sunday morning bowling shirt.
The tight T-shirt dragged back down her features, distorting eyes, nose and mouth. It was as if she grimaced at him, ugly; and yet she was his ‘poor thing’, dishevelled by living like this, obliged to turn her hand to all sorts of unpleasant things. —Why didn’t you get one of them to do it?—
At first the women in the fields ignored her, or greeted her with the squinting unfocused smile of those who have their attention fixed on the ground. One or two—the younger ones—perhaps remarked on her to each other as they would of someone come to remark upon them—a photographer, an overseer (at certain seasons they had used to hire themselves out as weeders on white farms, being fetched by the truckload from many miles distant). She followed along, watching what it was they selected, picked and dug up—July’s mother, in particular, seemed to have a nose for where her pointed digging-stick would discover certain roots. She herself could not expect to acquire that degree of discernment but could recognize wild spinach and one or two other kinds of leaves she saw the women bend for and put in their baskets. When her hands were full, she dropped what she had garnered into one of these. Then she found herself an old plastic bag that had once contained fertilizer—people brought home whatever could be scavenged when they went to the dorp or worked on the farms—and tied it with a bit of string to hang from her shoulder, as those who did not have baskets did.
The sun brought the steamy smell of urine-wet cloth from the bundles of baby on the mothers’ backs. The women hitched up their skirts in vleis and their feet spread, ooze coming up between the toes, like the claws of marsh-birds; walking on firm ground, the coating of mud dried matt in the sun and shod them to mid-calf. She rolled her jeans high, yellow bruises and fine, purple-red ruptured blood-vessels of her thighs, blue varicose ropes behind her knees, coarse hair of her calves against the white skin showed as if she had somehow forgotten her thirty-nine years and scars of childbearing and got into the brief shorts worn by the adolescent dancer on mine property. July’s unsmiling wife was laughing; looking straight at those white legs: she did not turn away when Maureen caught her at it. Laughing: why shouldn’t she? July’s wife with those great hams outbalancing the rest of her—Maureen laughed back at her, at her small pretty tight-drawn face whose blackness was a closed quality acting upon it from within rather than a matter of pigment. Why should the white woman be ashamed to be seen in her weaknesses, blemishes, as she saw the other woman’s? For a while they worked along a donga like a team, unspokenly together, now side by side, now passing and repassing each other, closely; then July’s wife was hailed by somebody a little way off, and moved on about her business, as every woman did, individually, yet keeping the pattern of a flock of egrets, that rises and settles now here, now there, where the pickings are best.