Originally published in Penny (September 2017)
Nombulelo watches the darkness. Hours pass before insipid winter sunlight sneaks in between the sheet-metal walls of her shack. Ma’Khumalo said old people don’t need much sleep but if that were the case, why is Nombulelo always so tired? Ma’Khumalo says a lot of stupid things like that. When the two of them went to church together every Sunday Ma’Khumalo buzzed with energy from the moment they met until they parted after dark. The singing didn’t wear her down. The township gossip at tea afterwards didn’t make her ache. It’s her unwavering faith that gives her energy like that. She isn’t old in the same way.
Nombulelo heaves the blankets off her chest and sits up. Cold air stings her skin and loosens her phlegm. She coughs. Her ribs hurt. She hears girls laughing outside on their way to school. Footsteps crunch along the gravel. The general hum grows louder and more indistinct, a peaceful cacophony of the living.
She strikes a match and dirty orange light flickers up from the lamp, turning the darkness into solid, ordinary things: a white mini fridge with a portable electric hot plate on top; an old desk with peeling wood-effect linoleum. At the end of her bed is a lumpy olive- green couch and beside it, on the floor, a plastic washbasin and Thembi’s crate filled with dolls, crayons and the grubby stuffed tiger she loved so much.
There’s maize-meal in the pot which Nombulelo heats, along with a cup of sweet, milky tea to help with the headache. The radio is playing one of her favourite hymns. A month ago the words would have made her angry but now she’s too tired to feel anything. She ignores the words, hums only the melody. It still soars, still has a little magic left in it, almost lets her believe we’re part of something greater.
“Morning Mama,” comes her neighbour Eunice’s voice outside the door. “Is there anything I can get for you in town?”
Nombulelo clicks in irritation. She needs kerosene and a tin of apricot jam, but there’s nothing in her wallet but a crumpled photo of Thembi. “I’m fine,” she shouts back. “Go. You’ll miss your train.”
She sits on the couch and begins massaging her swollen ankles. Her hand bumps against a bottle of brandy that’s sitting on the floor and it teeters back and forth, announcing triumphantly how shameful she is. Pathetic and weak. She grabs hold of the neck. Did Eunice hear it? She’ll tell Ma’Khumalo. Nombulelo wraps the bottle in a plastic bag and hides it under the couch. Drinking is for gangsters and tsotsis with no morals, for those who abandon their families and waste all their money on themselves. She does not drink. She is not this person.
Gary can’t sleep. He rolls away from Mike to shield him from the light of his cellphone and checks Twitter, again. #MandelaDay is trending already. Is that a good thing? People are interested, at least. Gary and his team will be “part of the conversation” this year, just as he promised his boss — his boss who is somehow skeptical of social media even though he’s only thirty-eight. Today is a small sideline thing, barely a drop in the marketing budget, but Gary argued so hard for it and now his idealism feels heavy. Every other bright-eyed millennial brand manager in the country is doing the same thing. How will his good deed be any different?
He extricates himself from Mike and the duvet and makes his way to the kitchen. It’s about emotional engagement, he reminds himself as he puts on the kettle, not exposure. Their customers will love that they’re giving back. Even if they don’t tell their friends about it, they’ll become more loyal to the brand. He stares at the sea for a while. It’s the same dark grey as the granite countertops, as the sky. The kettle flicks off, losing its blue glow as the water comes to rest. He’s overthinking the whole thing.
Gary takes his coffee to the living room and fires up his laptop. Bronwyn and Chantelle have sent him photos of them loading paints and rollers and t-shirts into Bron’s car last night. They’re standing on either side of the open trunk with manic grins and raised thumbs. It’s a great pic. Gary tweets it from the brand account and uploads it to the blog he set up for today.
Mike stumbles in, wiping sleep from his eyes. “Thank God it stopped raining, hey? Would have made your kumbaya Save The World Day a mess.”
“Didn’t you have a meeting to get to?”
Mike grins and kisses Gary on the cheek. He’s infuriatingly pleased with himself. “I’m playing, baby. You’re a legend for making it happen. Can I make you some eggs?”
There’s not much jam left in the tin, so Nombulelo spreads it thin. She has enough bread for five sandwiches. She packs them into a plastic bag and heads for the taxi rank. She’s taking a taxi. She can’t face the walk to school today.
Everyone with a job and a place to be is standing in line in the early morning fog. It’s the busiest time of day, draining the township into the city. This was Nombulelo’s life every day until a few months ago when the family she cleaned for moved to Australia. They said they’d find her another job but her age must have counted against her. No one wanted a cleaner who took all morning just to vacuum the house.
A young man shifts to make room for her in a taxi and she thanks him but there’s music in his headphones and it’s so loud no one can hear her speak. Beside him, a woman sits with a small girl on her lap, hiding and revealing herself from behind her hands to squeals of delight. Nombulelo fixes her eyes on the road ahead. When the driver’s music comes on it’s a relief. It rattles the windows and shakes her chest. No small talk, no giggles from the child, no thoughts.
“Thirteen, Gogo,” shouts the collector over the din.
“I’m only going down the road.”
“Fine. Give me three.”
She takes out her wallet and remembers, before she opens it, that there is nothing inside. She holds the wallet in her lap and pretends to count out change as warmth spreads from her neck into her cheeks. The other passengers pass their fare forward. The conductor makes change and passes it back. Perhaps she will be overlooked.
“It’s three rand, Gogo” he says again. He is wearing sunglasses even though the sun is lost behind cloud.
“Can I give you a sandwich?” she says at last.
The driver pulls onto the side of the road and stops. “Get out,” he says. She is barely out of the taxi before the other passengers start gossiping. The young man takes his headphones off and shouts something, but she is not going to listen. Doesn’t he have anything better to do? He doesn’t know her life. Nobody knows her life but all of them have opinions about it. She should go back to church. She should talk to people. She should try to move on. Ma’Khumalo even told her not to spend all her money on city doctors for Thembi. “They do the same thing as the nurses at the clinic” she said, as if she knew what she was talking about, as if the nurses at the clinic hadn’t given Thembi aspirin tablets and sent her home. Aspirin tablets!
The man with the headphones stops her. He has paid the conductor and offers her a twenty rand note, which he won’t take back. She is too tired to fight. “God bless you,” she says. He smiles at her with surprising warmth. “We have to make our own blessings, Gogo.”
Shacks and clotheslines fly past the window, and rows of concrete outhouses and skinny dogs in the gaps between them and nothing ever changes. Even the people look the same as when Nombulelo moved here to the city, though they can’t be the same because she’s grown old and these people are young.
She gets out at the small compound of tooth-colored buildings just short of the freeway. Boys kick a soccer ball around in the yard of one of the new housing projects that flank the freeway. She promised Thembi they would live in one of those developments, with running water and brick walls like white people. “We’ll be kings!” Thembi had said, thrusting her tiger into the air. “You can be the main king, Gogo, but I also get to be one.”
Nombulelo hands sandwiches out at the school gates. No one will take them.
“We have lunch today, Gogo” says one of the girls.
“They brought us food” says another, gesturing to the group of people unpacking the paints.
A third girl takes out some change and offers it to Nombulelo. It’s Ma’Khumalo’s granddaughter. Ma’Khumalo must have told her granddaughter to take pity on her.
“I don’t want your money,” she hisses. She will not get angry. Not today. They are painting the tiger for Thembi. A small piece of her will live on.
“Are you okay, Gogo?” the girl says. Nombulelo rests her hand on the girl’s shoulder and waits for the dizziness to pass. It’s punishment for last night, she knows, but she can’t get dizzy today. She excuses herself and makes her way to the bathrooms in Block C. She closes the cubicle door and takes out a small bottle from her skirt. The first sip singes her tongue, her throat, her stomach. The second sip is gentler. She sits for a moment on the closed toilet seat and breathes. The third sip is warm and forgiving. It soothes the tremors in her hands. A benediction for her tired heart.
It’s great to see another housing project go up. This has three story units, angular lines and earthy tones of orange and brown — a distinctly African aesthetic. Gary’s always telling Mike architects should do more stuff like this, be proud of where they’re from. Mike’s firm designs houses that look like they’re from Scandinavian magazines — all planes of glass and textured wood. What relevance does that have? Gary checks the sign but can’t find the architect credit.
He reads This City Works For You on the project board, then he has to make the turn. He exits the freeway and makes sure his doors are locked.
At the school, Bronwyn and Chantelle are distributing t-shirts — green and white to match the brand colours. Gary snaps a few pics of the kids pulling them on, then wanders around the classrooms taking before-shots. The walls are cracked and peeling and filthy. A great contrast for the blog.
“We’d like to give a warm welcome to our sponsors and thank them from the bottom of our hearts,” the headmaster says when Gary gets back to the quad. “We know there are many communities in need and we appreciate that you chose to work with us.” The students cheer and clap and Gary gets a great shot of some of the younger students raising their hands in the air like they’re at church.
When Gary first called the headmaster he said he wanted to do something playful for the young kids. They agreed all the buildings would be green and white to keep Gary’s boss happy – brand recognition and visibility – but the nursery school block would get a giant mural of a jungle. The jungle’s already been sketched on the wall and it looks fantastic. Childlike and naive but not too simplistic or ugly. Properly authentic.
Gary sets up his laptop in one of the classrooms. The kids outside start singing Rihanna and he hears Chantelle and Brad and Siya join in. He leans back against the wall and tries to live in the moment, to be truly present for this. No fussing over social media analytics and the perfect headline. This is what makes it all worth doing.
When he gets outside there’s an old woman painting with the kids. She’s not wearing the t-shirt and she looks kind of homeless.
“Her granddaughter died,” says the headmaster, reading his eyes. “She was in the nursery school so we thought it would be nice to include her. I’ll ask her to leave.”
“Don’t do that,” Gary says. She probably should be part of it. He finds it weird but that’s a cultural chasm he’s working on bridging. Life in the townships is messy.
“Smile!” he says, and snaps a few action shots.
“Hey you,” he says at the old woman, “Can you smile please?”
She does not smile. She glares at him with eyes full of hatred. It’s as if he’s been punched in the chest. He goes for a walk to resuscitate his excitement. He videos some of the kids, applauds the completion of Block B. When he gets back to the nursery school the old woman is slopping orange paint all over the place.
“Everyone! Everyone! Stop for a second, please. Thanks. So our brand is about being Southern Africa experts so we’ve gotta make sure the picture is of African animals. Okay? We’re in Africa, guys. Let’s celebrate it!” His voice lets him down. It makes him sound like every patronising old white guy he grew up hating. God this is awful. “Lions, giraffes, rhinos,” he continues, “no tigers, okay?”
The old woman shouts something but the students distract her. “I’m so sorry, Gary,” the headmaster says, “I didn’t think! Of course, we all know your tagline. I should have thought. We’ll make it a lion. Let’s give this jungle a king!”
The painting resumes and the woman slops more orange paint against the wall. She sways from side to side. A student near her tries to take her brush away but she won’t let it go. She pushes him against the wall and gets paint all over his t-shirt. Why does there have to be a scene, for fuck’s sake? Is it such a big deal to paint a fucking lion?
The headmaster whispers something in her ear and she screams something in Xhosa. The headmaster’s eyes are wide with panic or embarrassment or both. She starts to sing. It sounds like a hymn but she’s forgotten all the words. She’s clearly drunk. The headmaster reaches for her shoulder but she shakes him off, stumbles backwards and falls onto the ground, sending mini brandy bottles tumbling out of her skirt and knocking over a tin of paint which spills all over her legs and feet. He lifts her by the armpits and drags her to the gates. She fights and shouts and the older children try not to watch.
Once locked out, the woman sings from the side of the road. Gary can’t make sense of the words through her drunken slurring but her voice is almost beautiful. It soars and retreats, masterful and impassioned and dignified, like it’s forgotten to whom it belongs, like she is not this crumpled, broken woman.
The headmaster approaches Gary, nervous. “I hope this little mishap isn’t all that you take from today,” he says, “and that you come back again in the future.” Gary smiles at the headmaster and tries to remember why he’s here. The kids get a more beautiful school. The marketing team gets to do something meaningful. It’s all good, surely?
He picks up a paint brush and helps with the baobab tree. The lion starts to take shape. The woman’s singing gets softer and stops. She gets up off the ground and shuffles down the street, leaving a lopsided trail of orange paint in the dirt.
Gary checks the ground for any mini brandy bottles that fell from her skirt, but someone has tidied them away already. Those don’t need to be in the pictures.
Copyright © Alistair Charles Mackay, 2017