My mother is dead, only two months after we buried my father. As I walk along the same route to work that my mother walked for ten years, I hold my coat tight around myself, it is summer but there is a cold breeze coming in from the sea. I fight back tears as I remember the last conversation that I had with my mother before she died in my arms, cradled at the nook of my elbow. She had relayed to me all that I had always wondered, all that I had never understood about our family, our relatives and above all my father. My father who had been abusive, traditional and bull-headed.
Why had she never explained all that before, why had she kept everything so secretive. I had always thought my mother to be pious, dutiful, loyal almost to a fault, never standing up to my father and his people. Now, however, I understand that she had bravely tried to change the circumstances of her children's lives, myself and my sister Naomi. She had tried to re-imagine a better life for us, to move us away from the stifling traditions of my father's family. To educate us and to raise us in the Christian faith. She had tried. But I am not educated, I left school early and now I am doing what she fought so hard for me not to become, a maid like herself.
My father came from a long line of polygamous men. His grandfather had six wives and twenty-four children. My father was of Kwa Dlamini and his father had three wives. The first wife had been feisty and cruel and led the households with an iron fist. The younger sister-wives feared her and did not dare complain to their husband about the mistreatment - as would have been the custom. My grandfather had favoured the first wife, she was 'yellow bone' (lighter skinned), tall and beautiful, unlike her sister-wives who could not compare to her beauty. My mother said it had been a chaotic and unhappy childhood for my father. He was the only child of the third wife, Kwanele who was eighteen when she had my father. His birth was difficult, and it created a problem for Kwanele because she was not able to bare any more children. She was ignored and criticized by the other wives. The second wife always agreeing with the first in her treatment of Kwanele for fear that the mistreatment would follow her as well.
My father grew up mistreated and looked down on by his sisters and brothers - children will imitate adults my mother had commented. My father was not especially bright and did not do well in school, he only completed his grade nine. It was at this time in his life -grade nine - that my grandfather died. The household structure broke apart. There was bickering among the sister-wives for my grandfather's estate. Kwanele did not get much, apart from her kraal. Where she remained, impoverished. When my father was seventeen, he moved away looking for piece jobs.
He met my mother, Sheila, here in Munster, while doing a stop from his long-distance trucking job. Every time he was in town, he would look her up. He would travel down to Munster in the township where my mother lived with her sister Gladys. He was so sincere about his feelings for her and he respected her decision to wait for marriage. Which my mother said was a rare quality.
They married two years later in my mother's church. My aunt Gladys moved out of the family home their parents had left them and she married a man from Johannesburg, and moved to Soweto. Aunt Gladys had wanted her to keep the house because she wanted to live in a big city, she had said.
My mother said that in those first few years it had been a good marriage, my father adored her. Even though my father was away for long periods at a time, he never cheated or strayed, as far as she knew, and she trusted him. He did not drink, or smoke and he spent most of his time with her, at home.
They had Naomi first and I was born two years later. After my birth, my father's uncles began to visit. They had found out through relatives where my father had moved to. My grandfather, they said, only had five sons and the other four had already started having sons and taking on second wives. They were growing my grandfather’s homestead and they wanted my father to do the same. What if my mother could only bear daughters? They reasoned.
Sheila, my mother, had grown up in a Christian home. Her parents had not wanted anything to do with ancestor worship, polygamy and muti. They would never have agreed to my father introducing a second wife to his household. My mother begged my father to refuse, after all why the sudden interest in how he should live his life. Where had they been when his mother was abandoned and left to fend for herself and her child.
My uncles' constant bullying and my father's background on the matter - how he was raised and probably it was ingrained in him - became a sore spot in my parent's marriage. Sheila did not stand up to my father often but in this matter, she stood her ground. Her refusal to accept a second wife made my father angry, he wanted to impress his uncles and perhaps gain respect in his extended family. The stress of it pushed my father to begin drinking and womanising.
When I was five he tried to introduce her, with his uncles present, to a young seventeen-year-old girl from our neighbouring street. A young girl, my mother knew well, whom she could not believe would do such a thing. My father told my mother that he was in love with her and he was going to marry her. She refused and would not accept. She became a 'difficult' woman in my father's clan. How could a woman rule in her household, my father argued? The man was the head of the house and he decided. But my mother would not budge and said she would rather get a divorce. My father loved her deeply, she said, and she felt assured of this. He accepted defeat, however moped and beat my mother on occasion after this. His frustration at not being man enough for his family was taken out on her. He loved and hated my mother at the same time, she never complained. When I grew older I would witness my father drinking and mercilessly beating my mother mercilessly, she never complained, she never left. She would wake up the next morning cheerful and make his breakfast with a bruised lip. He started spending his paycheck on drinking and on the young woman he was still seeing, and my mother had to take up a cleaning job at the madam's house to keep us in school.
Why did she stay? She had said it was because she felt guilt, guilt at having denied my father his birthright, his respect in his extended family. Should she have caved in? Perhaps, but how could she accept polygamy when she was a Christian. The church she was respected in would not have condoned it and perhaps would have excommunicated her. His later failure as a husband, she had said, was justified and so she took the beatings and womanising.
Last week as I relayed this information to Naomi, when she came for the funeral processions, she told me she knew all about it. Aunty Gladys had told her when she had gone over to visit her in Soweto. I was surprised and hurt, why had she not told me? Naomi had just shrugged and said she was going to tell me but never got around to it. Naomi knew the young woman and would often see our father in her yard playing with a small girl who, Naomi was sure, was our half-sister. Our father had been a lying, cheating, bastard, Naomi had said, and she resented him and had not shown up at the funeral. I do understand why now, but that day of the burial, I had been so mad at her. At her lack of sympathy and her selfishness. Since she left home Naomi did not come for visits, she did not come to help me with Sheila when she got so sick and could not go to work. I love my sister, but God help her, her anger was not worth the disrespect she showed.
My mother had worked for the madam up until four months ago when she deteriorated and could hardly walk. When my father became ill, I had to leave school. None of the extended family were sympathetic to our plight, AIDS they said was brought upon by himself. He had ignored the ancestors' wishes and now calamity was brought upon the family. At the time I did not understand what they meant. I could not go to school and leave my father lying in bed with TB and my mother working to make ends meet. I had to nurse my father and later my mother. They must have been living with the virus for some time. To my knowledge, they had not been on ARVs. Naomi later told me that my mother had only known her status for about a year.
With my mother at home, I asked the madam for her job, she agreed and said it was 'better-the-devil-you- knew'. I worked and cared for my mother, I was exhausted, angry. But I took the pain, that is what my mother would have done. That is what God would want me to do.
I cross the intersection from the township towards the main road in the little village of Munster, the section where the whites live. The road leading to the madam's street is wide, flanked by huge birch trees. Succulent banana trees spill over giving the place an exotic feel and smell. The lush vegetation in the area attracts baboons, buck and little monkeys, I encounter them on occasion. On the roadside, to my right, I pass the fruit and flowers seller, Thabo. He is busy setting up. I wave but he does not see me.
The missus lives one road down from the main street. The house is not very big compared to the houses around her, it is whitewashed and has pretty flowers of all colours in the garden and beautiful wicker chairs on the front stoep. I open the side gate and walk up to the house. I am to always use the kitchen entrance, the front door is reserved for her visitors.
"Dorcas! Is that you?"
"Yes madam, it's me, I reply.
She says this every morning, repeating the same phrase like a parrot. I am never late, I smile and answer.
"You have to do the sheets today. The white ones,” she shouts.
I hear her cane banging furiously on the wooden floors as she walks towards the kitchen. She comes in with her face beet-red and leaning heavily on the cane. She has a bad knee, she fell and twisted it a few years back and it has not been the same since. My mother told me this, it had been quite a thing.
The madam is a wrinkled old woman, white hair almost shining like the silver moon on a winter's night. She is so thin that I can see her purple veins in the arms and hands. Her face is bony, and she has a small twitch, her face almost looks like it is lopsided, her mouth hangs heavy on one side. I think she has had a stroke, the way her mouth hangs. My mother never mentioned one, but she looks to me to have had one.
She used to be a beauty in her younger years. I have seen the photos. She has always been slender and there is a particular picture in the lounge I like, she is standing on the beach with her wide-brimmed hat, that looks like it is about to blow away and she is wearing a beautiful floral summer dress that bellows from a strong gush of wind revealing her long legs. She looks happy in that photo. So different to the woman she is now before me. Sullen.
Her bun of grey hair is knotted tight on her head. Not a hair out of place. The night nurse must do it. She bangs her cane at me. That's the thing, she uses that cane for more than just getting around, she bangs it when she shouts at me. She bangs it when she wants a drink and well, she has used it to whack my arm once when she was very drunk, and I brought her the wrong drink. I hate that cane. But I keep my mind steady, I must not hate and bear resentment. At least I should try.
"My guests will be here in two weeks and this place is nowhere near ready, your mother knew how we did things around here. I miss that woman. Hard worker. Sheila knew the value of work,” she says. She calls her children who are coming to visit 'guests'.
I give her a tight smile. She mentions my mother, but she does not ask me how the funeral went. If she had valued her that much, she could have made an appearance or sent condolences. I turn around to begin the dishes. I do not want her to see how upset I am. She constantly has to mention my mother, the hard worker. She constantly compares me to her. I mind it, what she says, but I try not to let her get the better of me. I say a quiet prayer to God for strength for today.
She bangs her cane again, I jump at the sound. I thought she had left. "Dorcas! I swear I think you are deaf sometimes. Did you see that I bought the vanish? Those sheets better be a proper white when they are done. There is nothing worse than unevenly white sheets. I do not want that, you hear?"
"Where is Badnoch? Why can't you people keep the time?" I stare at her.
"You're looking at me like that because?"
"Nothing madam. Badnoch will be here soon."
"Your uniform does not look very clean,” she says abruptly. It is clean, she makes me wear white to work as though I was a nurse.
"It's time for my breakfast, once you get that going I want you to fix me a drink,” she says.
Just a tiny little strand of saliva slithers down her cheek. My heart melts, all my anger disappears. She is just a poor sick woman with no one. I take her elbow, it is just bone. She resists a little but then relentless and lets me lead her to the lounge. I sit her on the chair she likes. She puts her cane to the side and sighs as she lowers down.
I go back to the kitchen. The madam starts drinking at breakfast until she passes out after lunch. She will not go to her bed for a nap. She prefers to lie down inclined on the couch chair in the study as she listens to talk radio. She is frail and at times scatterbrained, but she never lets anything past her. She inspects everything after one of her naps and that cane will go banging around the house if things are not to her satisfaction. I dread the afternoon inspection. I do not understand, her obsession with order and cleanliness. She is here alone in this big house. She never has visitors, none that I have seen since I have worked here these past couple of weeks, except for her friend who delivers her groceries. But yet the house has to be pristine. Well, what do I know about crazy old white people?
I hear a whistle at the gate. Badnoch. I go around to the side gate and motion for him to hurry on in. Badnoch gives me a toothy grin as he walks up to the kitchen door. He has that sour smell of aged beer on the breath. His eyes are glazed, and he looks as if he has not slept in days.
No one knows where Badnoch is from, he just suddenly appeared in the township one day. He keeps to himself in a shack made of corrugated iron at the outskirts, near the banana farm. When he walks in the streets of the township, children follow him around calling him names, but he always hands them sweets. But we do not see him often and because of his raggedy look and mild manner, people leave him alone. Just another bum, old and decrepit.
I smile at him as he leans in the door. He told me when I started working here, that he was a true Scotsman because of his name, a black Scott. I had laughed at that, wondering who named him. He is fun to work with, makes my days bearable.
"Dorcas, you look more beautiful every day. When will you marry me huh?"
"Badnoch, suka!" I giggle. "You are too old for me," I reply, like I reply every day he asks.
"Aaaah ah!" He laughs.
"The madam is in a mood today. I have to take her breakfast through. Hurry, do not let her hear you until you start to work."
"When is she never not in a mood. But OK thanks." He smiles and winks at me. He walks gingerly away to the back house where the gardening tools are kept, he walks as though he is in great pain.
"God in heaven, please have mercy on these your children, who's ways are lost. Who find solace in drink. They do not know what they do, Oh Lord. Forgive them their sin and deliver them from evil. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for the salvation they will receive.