You only count the days if you are waiting to have a baby or you are in prison. I’ve had my child but I’m counting the days since he’s been in this house.
The street delves down between two rows of houses like the abandoned bed of a river that has changed course. The shebeen-keeper who lives opposite has a car that sways and churns its way to her fancy wrought-iron gate. Everyone else, including shebeen customers, walks over the stones, sand and gullies, home from the bus station. It’s too far to bicycle to work in town.
The house provides the sub-economic township planner’s usual two rooms and kitchen with a little yard at the back, into which his maquette figures of the ideal family unit of four fitted neatly. Like most of the houses in the street, it has been arranged inside and out to hold the number of people the ingenuity of necessity provides for. The garage is the home of sub-tenants. (The shebeen-keeper, who knows everything about everybody, might remember how the house came to have a garage — perhaps a taxi owner once lived there.) The front door of the house itself opens into a room that has been subdivided by greenish brocade curtains whose colour had faded and embossed pattern worn off before they were discarded in another kind of house. On one side of the curtains is a living room with just space enough to crate a plastic-covered sofa and two chairs, a coffee table with crocheted cover, vase of dyed feather flowers and oil lamp, and a radio-and-cassette-player combination with home-built speakers. There is a large varnished print of a horse with wild orange mane and flaring nostrils on the wall. The floor is cement, shined with black polish. On the other side of the curtains is a bed, a burglar-proofed window, a small table with candle, bottle of anti-acid tablets and alarm clock. During the day a frilly nylon night-gown is laid out on the blankets. A woman’s clothes are in a box under the bed. In the dry-cleaner’s plastic sheath, a man’s suit hangs from a nail.
A door, never closed, leads from the living room to the kitchen. There is a sink, which is also the bathroom of the house, a coal-burning stove finned with chrome like a 1940s car, a pearly blue formica dresser with glass doors that don’t slide easily, a table and plastic chairs. The smell of cooking never varies: mealie-meal burning, curry overpowering the sweet reek of offal, sour porridge, onions. A small refrigerator, not connected, is used to store margarine, condensed milk, tinned pilchards; there is no electricity.
Another door, with a pebbled glass pane in its upper half, is always kept closed. It opens off the kitchen. Net curtains reinforce the privacy of the pebbled glass; the privacy of the tenant of the house, Samson Moreke, whose room is behind there, shared with his wife and baby and whichever of their older children spends time away from other relatives who take care of them in country villages. When all the children are in their parents’ home at once, the sofa is a bed for two; others sleep on the floor in the kitchen. Sometimes the sofa is not available, since adult relatives who find jobs in the city need somewhere to live. Number 1907 Block C holds — has held — eleven people; how many it could hold is a matter of who else has nowhere to go. This reckoning includes the woman lodger and her respectable succession of lovers behind the green brocade curtain, but not the family lodging in the garage.
In the backyard, Samson Moreke, in whose name tenancy of Number 1907 Block C is registered by the authorities, has put up poles and chicken wire and planted Catawba grapevines that make a pleasant green arbour in summer. Underneath are three metal chairs and matching table, bearing traces of white paint, which — like the green brocade curtains, the picture of the horse with orange mane, the poles, chicken wire and vines — have been discarded by the various employers for whom Moreke works in the city as an itinerant gardener. The arbour is between the garage and the lavatory, which is shared by everyone on the property, both tenants and lodgers.
On Sundays Moreke sits under his grapevine and drinks a bottle of beer brought from the shebeen across the road. Even in winter he sits there; it is warmer out in the midday winter sun than in the house, the shadow of the vine merely a twisted rope — grapes eaten, roof of leaves fallen. Although the yard is behind the house and there is a yellow dog on guard tied to a packing-case shelter, there is not much privacy. A large portion of the space of the family living in the garage is taken up by a paraffin-powered refrigerator filled with soft-drink cans and pots of flavoured yogurt: a useful little business that serves the community and supplements the earnings of the breadwinner, a cleaner at the city slaughterhouse. The sliding metal shutter meant for the egress of a car from the garage is permanently bolted down. All day Sunday children come on errands to buy, knocking at the old kitchen door, salvaged from the city, that Moreke has set into the wall of the garage.
A street where there is a shebeen, a house opposite a shebeen cannot be private, anyway. All weekend drunks wander over the ruts that make the gait even of the sober seem drunken. The children playing in the street take no notice of men fuddled between song and argument, who talk to people who are not there.
As well as friends and relatives, acquaintances of Moreke — who have got to know where he lives through travelling with him on the buses to work — walk over from the shebeen and appear in the yard. Moreke is a man who always puts aside money to buy the Sunday newspaper; he has to fold away the paper and talk instead. The guests usually bring a cold quart or two with them (the shebeen, too, has a paraffin refrigerator, restaurant-size). Talk and laughter make the dog bark. Someone plays a transistor radio. The chairs are filled, and some comers stretch on the bit of tough grass. Most of the Sunday visitors are men but there are women, particularly young ones, who have gone with them to the shebeen or taken up with them there; these women are polite and deferent to Moreke’s wife, Nanike, when she has time to join the gathering. Often they will hold her latest — fifth living — baby while she goes back into the kitchen to cook or hangs her washing on the fence. She takes a beer or two herself, but although she is in her early thirties and knows she is still pretty — except for a missing front tooth — she does not giggle or get flirtatious. She is content to sit with the new baby on her lap, in the sun, among men and women like herself, while her husband tells anecdotes which make them laugh or challenge him. He learns a lot from the newspapers.
Nanike was sitting in the yard with him and his friends the Sunday a cousin arrived with a couple of hangers-on. They didn’t bring beer, but were given some. There were greetings, but who really hears names? One of the hangers-on fell asleep on the grass, a boy with a body like a baggy suit. The other had a yellow face, lighter than anyone else present, narrow as a trowel, and the irregular pockmarks of the pitted skin were flocked, round the area where men grow hair, with sparse tufts of black. She noticed he wore a gold earring in one ear. He had nothing to say but later took up a guitar belonging to someone else and played to himself. One of the people living in the garage, crossing the path of the group under the arbour on his way to the lavatory with his roll of toilet paper, paused to look or listen, but everyone else was talking too loudly to hear the soft plang-plang, and the after-buzz when the player’s palm stilled the instrument’s vibration.
Moreke went off with his friends when they left, and came back, not late. His wife had gone to bed. She was sleepy, feeding the baby. Because he stood there, at the foot of the bed, did not begin to undress, she understood someone must be with him.
‘Mtembu’s friend.’ Her husband’s head indicated the other side of the glass-paned door.
‘What does he want here now?’
‘I brought him. Mtembu asked.’
Moreke sat down on the bed. He spoke softly, mouthing at her face. ‘He needs somewhere to stay.’
‘Where was he before, then?’
Moreke lifted and dropped his elbows limply at a question not to be asked.
The baby lost the nipple and nuzzled furiously at air. She guided its mouth. ‘Why can’t he stay with Mtembu? You could have told Mtembu no.’
‘He’s your cousin.’
‘Well, I will tell him no. If Mtembu needs somewhere to stay, I have to take him. But not anyone he brings from the street.’
Her husband yawned, straining every muscle in his face. Suddenly he stopped and began putting together the sheets of his Sunday paper that were scattered on the floor. He folded them more or less in order, slapping and smoothing the creases.
He said nothing, walked out. She heard the voices in the kitchen, but not what was being said.
He opened their door again and shut it behind him. ‘It’s not a business of cousins. This one is in trouble. You don’t read the papers…the blowing up of that police station…you know, last month? They didn’t catch them all…. It isn’t safe for Mtembu to keep him any longer. He must keep moving.’
Her soft jowls stiffened.
Her husband assured her awkwardly. ‘A few days. Only for a couple of days. Then’ — a gesture — ‘out of the country.’
He never takes off the gold earring, even when he sleeps. He sleeps on the sofa. He didn’t bring a blanket, a towel, nothing — uses our things. I don’t know what the earring means; when I was a child there were men who came to work on the mines who had earrings, but in both ears — country people. He’s a town person; another one who reads newspapers. He tidies away the blankets I gave him and then he reads newspapers the whole day. He can’t go out.
The others at Number 1907 Block C were told the man was Nanike Moreke’s cousin, had come to look for work, and had nowhere to stay. There are people in that position in every house. No one with a roof over his head can say ‘no’ to one of the same blood — everyone knows that; Moreke’s wife had not denied that. But she wanted to know what to say if someone asked the man’s name. He himself answered at once, his strong thin hand twisting the gold hoop in his ear like a girl. ‘Shisonka. Tell them Shisonka.’
‘And the other name?’
Her husband answered. ‘That name is enough.’
Moreke and his wife didn’t use the name among themselves. They referred to the man as ‘he’ and ‘him’. Moreke addressed him as ‘Mfo’, brother; she called him simply ‘you’. Moreke answered questions nobody asked. He said to his wife, in front of the man, ‘What is the same blood? Here in this place? If you are not white, you are all the same blood, here.’ She looked at her husband respectfully, as she did when he read to her out of his newspaper.
The woman lodger worked in the kitchen at a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop in the city, and like Moreke was out at work all day; at weekends she slept at her mother’s place, where her children lived, so she did not know the man Shisonka never left the house to look for work or for any other reason. Her lover came to her room only to share the bed, creeping late past whatever sleeping form might be on the sofa, and leaving before first light to get to a factory in the white industrial area. The only problem was the family who lived in the garage. The man had to cross the yard to use the lavatory. The slaughterhouse cleaner’s mother and wife would notice he was there, in the house; that he never went out. It was Moreke’s wife who thought of this, and told the woman in the garage her cousin was sick; he had just been discharged from hospital. And indeed, they took care of him as if he had been — Moreke and his wife, Nanike. They did not have the money to eat meat often but on Tuesday Moreke bought a pluck from the butchery near the bus station in the city; the man sat down to eat with them. Moreke brought cigarettes home — the man paid him — it was clear he must have cigarettes, needed cigarettes more than food. And don’t let him go out, don’t ever let him go to the shop for cigarettes, or over to Ma Radebe for drink, Moreke told his wife; you go, if he needs anything, you just leave everything, shut the house — go.
I wash his clothes with our things. His shirt and pullover have labels in another language, come from some other country. Even the letters are different. I give him food in the middle of the day. I myself eat in the yard, with the baby. I told him he should play the music, in there, if he wants to. He listens to Samson’s tapes. How could I keep my own sister out of the house? When she saw him I said he was a friend of Samson — a new friend. She likes light-skinned. But it means people notice you. It must be very hard to hide. He doesn’t say so. He doesn’t look afraid. The beard will hide him; but how long does it take for a beard to grow, how long, how long before he goes away?
Every night that week the two men talked. Not in the room with the sofa and radio-and-cassette-player, if the woman lodger was at home on the other side of the curtains, but in the room where the Morekes slept. The man had a kitchen chair Moreke brought in; there was just room for it between the big bed and the wardrobe. Moreke lay on the bed with a pillow stuffed under his nape. Sometimes his wife stayed in the kitchen, at other times she came in and sat with the baby on the bed. She could see Moreke’s face and the back of the man’s head in the panel mirror of the wardrobe while they talked. The shape of the head swelled up from the thin neck, a puffball of black kapok. Deep in, there was a small patch without hair, a skin infection or a healed wound. His front aspect—a narrow yellow face keenly attentive, cigarette wagging like a finger from the corner of his lips, loop of gold round the lobe of one of the alert pointed ears — seemed unaware of the blemish, something that attacked him unnoticed from behind.
They talked about the things that interested Moreke; the political meetings disguised as church services of which he read reports but did not attend. The man laughed, and argued with Moreke patiently. ‘What’s the use, man? If you don’t stand there? Stand with your feet as well as agree with your head…. Yes, go and get that head knocked if the dogs and the kerries come. Since ’76, the kids’ve shown you how…. You know now.’
Moreke wanted to tell the man what he thought of the Urban Councils the authorities wanted to set up, and the Committees people themselves had formed in opposition. As, when he found himself in the company of a sports promoter, he wanted to give his opinion of the state of soccer today. ‘Those Council men are nothing to me. You understand? They only want big jobs and smart cars for themselves. I’m a poor man, I’ll never have a car. But they say they’re going to make this place like a white Jo’burg. Maybe the government listens to them…. They say they can do it. The Committees — eh? — they say like I do, those Council men are nothing — but they themselves, what can they do? They know everything is no good here. They talk; they tell us about it; they go to jail. So what’s the use? What can you do?’
The man did not tell what he had done. ‘The police station’ was there, ready in their minds, ready to their tongues; not spoken.
The man was smiling at Moreke, at something he had heard many times before and might be leaving behind for good, now. ‘Your Council. Those dummies. You see this donga called a street, outside? This place without even electric light in the rooms? You dig beautiful gardens, the flowers smell nice…and how many people must shit in that stinking hovel in your yard? How much do you get for digging the ground white people own? You told me what you get. “Top wages”: ten rand a day. Just enough for the rent in this place, and not even the shit-house belongs to you, not even the mud you bring in from the yard on your shoes….’
Moreke became released, excited. ‘The bus fares went up last week. They say the rent is going up….’
‘Those dummies, that’s what they do for you. You see? But the Committee tells you they don’t pay the rent, because you aren’t paid enough to live in the “beautiful city” the dummies promise you. Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t the truth what you know? Don’t you listen to the ones who speak the truth?’
Moreke’s wife had had, for a few minutes, the expression of one waiting to interrupt. ‘I’ll go to Radebe and get a bottle of beer, if you want.’
The two men gave a flitting nod to one another in approval.
Moreke counted out the money. ‘Don’t let anybody come back with you.’
His wife took the coins without looking up. ‘I’m not a fool.’ The baby was asleep on the bed. She closed the door quietly behind her. The two men lost the thread of their talk for a moment; Moreke filled it: ‘A good woman.’
We are alone together. The baby likes him. I don’t give the breast every time, now; yesterday when I was fetching the coal he fed the bottle to her. I ask him what children he has? He only smiles, shakes his head. I don’t know if this means it was silly to ask, because everyone has children.
Perhaps it meant he doesn’t know, pretends he doesn’t know — thinks a lot of himself, smart young man with a gold ring in his ear has plenty of girlfriends to get babies with him.
The police station was never mentioned, but one of the nights the man spent describing to the Moreke couple foreign places he had been to — that must have been before the police station happened. He told about the oldest city on the African continent, so old it had a city of the dead as well as a city of the living — a whole city of tombs like houses. The religion there was the same as the religion of the Indian shopkeepers, here at home. Then he had lived in another kind of country, where there was snow for half the year or more. It was dark until ten in the morning and again from three o’clock in the afternoon. He described the clothes he had been given to protect him against the cold. ‘Such people, I can tell you. You can’t believe such white people exist. If our people turn up there…you get everything you need, they just give it…. And there’s a museum — it’s out in the country — they have ships there their people sailed all over the world more than 2,000 years ago. They may even have come here…. This pullover is still from them…full of holes now….’
‘Look at that, hai!’ Moreke admired the intricately worked bands of coloured wools in a design based upon natural features he did not recognize — dark frozen forms of fir forests and the molecular pattern of snow crystals. ‘She’ll mend it for you.’
His wife was willing but apprehensive. ‘I’ll try and get the same colours. I don’t know if I can find them here.’
The man smiled at the kindness of his own people. ‘She shouldn’t take a lot of trouble. I won’t need it, anyway.’
No one asked where it was that the pullover wouldn’t be needed; what kind of place, what continent he would be going to when he got away.
After the man had retired to his sofa that night Moreke read the morning paper he had brought from an employer’s kitchen in the city. He kept lowering the sheets slowly and looking around at the room, then returning to his reading. The baby was restless; but it was not that he commented on.
‘It’s better not to know too much about him.’
His wife turned the child on to its belly. ‘Why?’
Her face was innocently before his like a mirror he didn’t want to look into. He had kept encouraging the man to go on with his talk of living in foreign places.
The shadows thrown by the candle capered through the room, bending furniture and bodies, flying over the ceiling, quieting the baby with wonder. ‘Because then…if they question us, we won’t have anything to tell.’
He did bring something. A gun.
He comes into the kitchen, now, and helps me when I’m washing up. He came in, this morning, and put his hands in the soapy water, didn’t say anything, started cleaning up. Our hands were in the grease and soap. I couldn’t see his fingers but sometimes I felt them when they bumped mine. He scraped the pot and dried everything. I didn’t say thanks. To say thank you to a man – it’s not man’s work, he might feel ashamed.
He stays in the kitchen – we stay in the kitchen with the baby most of the day. He doesn’t sit in there, anymore, listening to the tapes. I go in and turn on the machine loud enough for us to hear it well in the kitchen.
By Thursday the tufts of beard were thickening and knitting together on the man’s face. Samson Moreke tried to find Mtembu to hear what plans had been made but Mtembu did not come in response to messages and was not anywhere Moreke looked for him. Moreke took the opportunity, while the woman in whose garden he worked on Thursdays was out, to telephone Mtembu’s place of work from her house, but was told that workshop employees were not allowed to receive calls.
He brought home chicken feet for soup and a piece of beef shank. Figs had ripened in the Thursday garden and he’d been given some in a newspaper poke. He asked, ‘When do you expect to hear from Mtembu?’
The man was reading the sheet of paper stained with milky sap from the stems of figs. Samson Moreke had never really been in jail himself – only the usual short-term stays for pass offences – but he knew from people who had been inside a long time that there was this need to read every scrap of paper that might come your way from the outside world.
‘ – Well, it doesn’t matter. You’re all right here. We can just carry on. I suppose Mtembu will turn up this weekend.’
As if he heard in this resignation Moreke’s anticipation of the usual Sunday beer in the yard, the man suddenly took charge of Moreke and his wife, crumpling the dirty newspaper and rubbing his palms together to rid them of stickiness. His narrow yellow face was set clear-cut in black hair all round now, like the framed face of the king in Moreke’s pack of worn cards. The black eyes and earring were the same liquid-bright. The perfectly-ironed shirt he wore was open at the breast in the manner of all attractive young men of his age. ‘Look, nobody must come here. Saturday, Sunday. None of your friends. You must shut up this place. Keep them all away. Nobody walking into the yard from the shebeen. That’s out.’
Moreke looked from the man to his wife; back to the man again. Moreke half-coughed, half-laughed. ‘But how do I do that, man? How do I stop them? I can’t put bars on my gate. There’re the other people, in the garage. They sell things.’
‘You stay inside. Here in this house, with the doors locked. There are too many people around at the weekend. Let them think you’ve gone away.’ Moreke still smiled, amazed, helpless. ‘And the one in there, with her boy-friend? What’s she going to think?’
Moreke’s wife spoke swiftly. ‘She’ll be at her mother’s house.’
And now the plan of action fell efficiently into place; each knew his part within it. ‘Oh yes. Thank the Lord for that. Maybe I’ll go over to Radebe’s tonight and just say I’m hot going to be here Sunday. And Saturday I’ll say I’m going to the soccer.’
His wife shook her head. ‘Not the soccer. Your friends will want to come and talk about it afterwards.’
‘Hai, mama! All right, a funeral, far away….’ Moreke laughed, and stopped himself with an embarrassed drawing of mucus back through the nose.
While I’m ironing, he cleans the gun.
I saw he needed another rag and I gave it to him.
He asked for oil, and I took cooking oil out of the cupboard, but then I saw in his face that was not what he wanted. I went to the garage and borrowed Three-in-One from Nchaba’s wife.
He never takes out the gun when Samson’s here. He knows only he and I know about it.
I said, what happened there, on your head at the back–that sore? His hand went to it, under the hair, he doesn’t think it shows. I’ll get him something for it, some ointment. If he’s still here on Monday.
Perhaps he is cross because I spoke about it.
Then when I came back with the oil, he sat at the kitchen table laughing at me, smiling, as if I was a young girl. I forgot–I felt I was a girl. But I don’t really like that kind of face, his face–light-skinned. You can never forget a face like that. If you are questioned, you can never say you don’t remember what someone like that looks like.
He picks up the baby as if it belongs to him. To him as well, while we are in the kitchen together.
That night the two men didn’t talk. They seemed to have nothing to say. Like prisoners who get their last mealie-pap of the day before being locked up for the night, Moreke’s wife gave them their meal before dark. Then all three went from the kitchen to the Morekes’ room, where any light that might shine from behind the curtains and give away a presence was directed only towards a blind: a high corrugated tin fence in a lane full of breast-high khakiweed. Moreke shared his newspaper. When the man had read it, he tossed through the third-hand adventure comics and sales promotion pamphlets given away in city super-markets Nanike Moreke kept; he read the manual ‘Teach Yourself How to Sell Insurance’ in which, at some stage, ‘Samson Moreke’ had been carefully written on the fly-leaf.
There was no beer. Moreke’s wife knew her way about her kitchen in the dark; she fetched the litre bottle of coke that was on the kitchen table and poured herself a glass. Her husband stayed the offer with a raised hand; the other man’s inertia over the manual was overcome just enough to move his head in refusal. She had taken up again the cover for the bed she had begun when she had had some free time, waiting for this fifth child to be born. Crocheted roses, each caught in a squared web of a looser pattern, were worked separately and then joined to the whole they slowly extended. The tiny flash of her steel hook and the hair-thin gold in his ear signalled in candle-light. At about ten o’clock there was a knock at the front door. The internal walls of these houses are planned at minimum specification for cheapness and a blow on any part of the house reverberates through every room. The black-framed, bone-yellow face raised and held, absolutely still, above the manual. Moreke opened his mouth and, swinging his legs over the side, lifted himself from the bed. But his wife’s hand on his shoulder made him subside again; only the bed creaked slightly. The slenderness of her body from the waist up was merely rooted in heavy maternal hips and thighs; with a movement soft as the breath she expelled, she leant and blew out the candles.
A sensible precaution; someone might follow round the walls of the house looking for some sign of life. They sat in the dark. There was no bark from the dog in the yard. The knocking stopped. Moreke thought he heard laughter, and the gate twang. But the shebeen is noisy on a Friday; the sounds could have come from anywhere. ‘Just someone who’s had a few drinks. It often happens. Sometimes we don’t even wake up, I suppose, ay, Nanike.’ Moreke’s hoarse whisper, strangely, woke the baby, who let out the thin wail that meets the spectre in a bad dream, breaks through into consciousness a response to a threat that can’t be defeated in the conscious world. In the dark, they all went to bed.
A city of the dead, a city of the living. It was better when Samson got him to talk about things like that. Things far away can’t do any harm. We’ll never have a car, like the Councillors, and we’ll never have to run away to those far places, like him. Lucky to have this house; many, many people are jealous of that. I never knew, until this house was so quiet, how much noise people make at the weekend, I didn’t hear the laughing, the talking in the street, Radebe’s music going, the terrible screams of people fighting.
On Saturday Moreke took his blue ruled pad and an envelope to the kitchen table. But his wife was peeling pumpkin and slicing onions; there was no space, so he went back to the room where the sofa was, and his radio-and-cassette player. First he addressed the envelope to their twelve-year-old boy at mission school. It took him the whole morning to write a letter, although he could read so well. Once or twice he asked the man how to spell a word in English.
He lay smoking on his bed, the sofa. ‘Why in English?’
‘Rapula knows English very well…. It helps him to get letters….’
‘You shouldn’t send him away from here, baba. You think it’s safer, but you are wrong. It’s like you and the meetings. The more you try to be safe, the worse it will be for your children.’ He stared quietly at Moreke. ‘And look, now I’m here.’
‘And you look after me.’
‘And you’re not afraid.’
‘Yes, we’re afraid…but of many things …. When I come home with money…three times tsotsis have hit me, taken everything. You see here where I was cut on the cheek. This arm was broken. I couldn’t work. Not even push the lawn-mower. I had to pay some young one to hold my jobs for me.’
The man smoked and smiled. ‘I don’t understand you. You see? I don’t understand you. Bring your children home, man. We’re shut up in the ghetto to kill each other. That’s what they want, in their white city. So you send the children away; that’s what they want, too. To get rid of us. We must all stick together. That’s the only way to fight our way out.’
That night he asked if Moreke had a chess set.
Moreke giggled, gave clucks of embarrassment. ‘That board with the little dolls? I’m not an educated man! I don’t know those games!’
They played together the game that everybody knows, that is, played on the pavements outside shops and in factory yards, with the board drawn on concrete or in dust, and bottle-tops for counters. This time a handful of dried beans from the kitchen served, and a board drawn by Moreke on a box-lid. He won game after game from the man. His wife had the Primus stove in the room, now, and she made tea. The game was not resumed. She had added three completed squares to her bed-cover in two nights; after the tea, she did not take it up again. They sat listening to Saturday night, all round them, pressing in upon the hollow cement units of which the house was built. Often trampling steps seemed just about to halt at the front or back door. The splintering of wood under a truncheon or the shatter of the window-panes, thin ice under the weight of the roving dark outside, waited upon every second. The woman’s eyelids slid down, fragile and faintly greasy, outlining intimately the aspect of the orbs beneath, in sleep. Her face became unguarded as the baby’s. Every now and then she would start, come to herself again. But her husband and the man made no move to go to bed. The man picked up and ran the fine head of her crochet hook under the rind of each fingernail, again and again, until the tool had done the cleaning job to satisfaction.
When the man went to bed at last, by the light of the cigarette lighter he shielded in his hand to see his way to the sofa, he found she had put a plastic chamber-pot on the floor. Probably the husband had thought of it.
All Sunday morning the two men worked together on a fault in Moreke’s tape player, though they were unable to test it with the volume switched on. Moreke could not afford to take the player to a repair shop. The man seemed to think the fault a simple matter; like any other city youngster, he had grown up with such machines. Moreke’s wife cooked mealie-rice and made a curry gravy for the Sunday meal. ‘Should I go to Radebe and get beer?’ She had followed her husband into their room to ask him alone.
‘You want to advertise we are here? You know what he said.’
‘Ask him if it matters, if I go – a woman.’
‘I’m not going to ask. Did he say he wants beer? Did I?’
But in the afternoon she did ask something. She went straight to the man, not Moreke. ‘I have to go out to the shop.’ It was very hot in the closed house; the smell of curry mixed with the smell of the baby in the fug of its own warmth and wrappings. He wrinkled his face, exposed clenched teeth in a suppressed yawn; what shops–had she forgotten it was Sunday? She understood his reaction. But there were corner shops that sold essentials even on Sundays; he must know that. ‘I have to get milk. Milk for the baby.’
She stood there, in her over-trodden slippers, her old skirt and cheap blouse–a woman not to be noticed among every other woman in the streets. He didn’t refuse her. No need. Not after all this past week. Not for the baby. She was not like her husband, big-mouth, friendly with everyone. He nodded; it was a humble errand that wouldn’t concern him.
She went out of the house just as she was, her money in her hand. Moreke and the baby were asleep in their room. The street looked new, bright, refreshing, after the dim house. A small boy with a toy machine-gun covered her in his fire, chattering his little white teeth with rat-a-tat-tttt. Ma Radebe, the shebeen-keeper, her hair plaited with blue and red beads, her beautiful long red nails resting on the steering wheel, was backing her car out of her gateway. She braked to let her neighbour pass and leaned from the car window. ‘My dear’ – in English – ‘I was supposed to be gone from this place two hours ago. I’m due at a big wedding that will already be over…. How are you? Didn’t see your husband for a few days… nothing wrong across the road?’
Moreke’s wife stood and shook her head. Radebe was not one who expected or waited for answers when she greeted anyone. When the car had driven off Moreke’s wife went on down the street and down the next one, past the shop where young boys were gathered scuffling and dancing to the shop-keeper’s radio, and on to the purplish brick building with the security fence round it and a flag flying. One of her own people was on guard outside leaning on a hand machine-gun. She went up the steps and into the office, where there were more of her own people in uniform, but one of them in charge. She spoke in her own language to her own kind, but they seemed disbelieving. They repeated the name of that other police station, that was blown up, and asked her if she was sure? She said she was quite sure. Then they took her to the white officer and she told in English – ‘There, in my house, 1907 Block C. He has been there a week. He has a gun.’
I don’t know why I did it. I get ready to say that to anyone who is going to ask me, but nobody in this house asks. The baby laughs at me while I wash him, stares up while we’re alone in the house and he’s feeding at the breast, and to him I say out loud: I don’t know why.
A week after the man was taken away that Sunday by the security police, Ma Radebe again met Moreke’s wife in their street. The shebeen-keeper gazed at her for a moment, and spat.