Lagos, 1971 (Excerpt from Don’t Mention Her) by Jane Kirwan

In 1970, when Nell qualifies as a doctor, she and her Nigerian boyfriend Jerome decide to leave London and the hostility they’re experiencing as a mixed-race couple. They move to Lagos; Jerome hasn’t been back since the Biafran war started in 1966.     

***

Lagos   1971

Jerome was slouched against the hospital gate near where the mini-bus would swerve to a halt. If they were lucky. Nell made herself look relaxed – thank goodness he still came to meet her.

 Jerome straightened up and they hugged; ‘Was the day ok?’  

  ‘It was ok.’

 Nell backed away as a tiny boy stuck a basket inches from her face. Just before sunset, warm, no breeze, smell of rotting fruit. They’d do the long journey home, repeat it early in the morning. Soon, once Jerome’s job came through, she’d face travelling alone.

   ‘The nurses make it easy.’ Nell smiled at the boy and shook her head. ‘But this time Nneka couldn’t help – a man was staring at me with such venom.’

‘Oh, ignore those idiots,’ said Jerome.

‘It was pure hate, his gaze like ice. Nneka said he was a ‘Been-to’.’

Jerome kissed the top of her head, two small girls giggled.

‘So am I, Nell.’

‘I begged her but Nneka wouldn’t make him leave – she said he’d cause trouble.’

The boy was selling peanuts. Nell found a few kobos, bought a paper twist. The child was in rags – he looked exhausted. Not that they must appear so impressive, Jerome was sweating as much as her in the evening heat. They were both scarecrows; at least at work a white coat covered her shabbiness. Jerome was thinner than in London, his shirt patched, jeans worn out.

‘Did you meet up with Ifechi?’

‘I saw him and his smart new office,’ said Jerome.

Ifechi had come back just after the war ended and, like Jerome’s other contacts from London, proved elusive. When they’d first arrived, people confirmed Jerome’s years in journalism meant finding a job would be easy. He was given appointments for the final paper work – just wait a few days. Slowly, hideously, the offers melted away. Whoever promised it, disappeared; suddenly no one knew anything. At least the hospital had given Nell sessions so they could pay the rent. The flat had been hard to find; they were lucky, but it was miles away on the Kiri Kiri road, the other side of the city.

‘Apparently Ifechi got married as soon as he arrived, has a couple of children.’

Jerome didn’t sound envious, just resigned. Thank god they didn’t have a baby. The boy tilted the basket to show Jerome but Jerome was tougher than Nell, brushed the child away.

They crammed into a space by the door of the packed minibus, its sign In God We Trust; after a while they’d have to change, trust another god. Jerome took her hands. ‘Ifechi wondered if we’d really thought things through?’

‘Oh, great help.’  Nell frowned at the blocked road. Nothing was moving.

Maybe Ifechi had also asked if she might have pressured Jerome to return. She wouldn’t suggest that.

She wriggled herself nearer the door, grabbed Jerome’s arm.

‘Let’s get out, it’ll be quicker.’

The buses were always packed, the other passengers checking her like some pathology specimen. At first, she’d complained, ‘have I got horns?’ but soon stopped bothering. All that mattered was finding a space and for the mini-bus not to get stuck in a jam or change its mind and accelerate off to a more profitable route.

Walking was a crazy idea. There was no path for pedestrians; on one side was a stream with sewage and rubbish, on the other the kamikaze drivers: lorries, buses, vans, revving up to the next jam. Everyone used the centre of the road because the potholes at the edge were lethal. The din as drivers sat on their horns, the screeching brakes and tyres.

Jerome was ahead, almost jogging. A motorcycle missed her by inches as she avoided a couple of emaciated cows being cajoled to the slaughter-house. It was clear from the beginning she should stay this side of the ditch; the shacks, kitchens, and stalls were the same as the miles of living space they’d first witnessed six months ago on the journey from the airport. Not their land, they’d be trespassing; each square foot was accounted for: huts, tea-chests, boxes, tarpaulin hooked over ropes, shells of abandoned cars. Villas for the less affluent – old suitcases, tin cans, marking the boundary of each bathroom, kitchen.

‘Jerome,’ she yelled. ‘Slow down.’

The women standing over stoves had been working since first light. It was mostly children who carried water – tottering miles balancing rusty pails on their heads. One infant, she decided, couldn’t have been more than two, water from a chipped enamel basin spilling on the red dust.

At last Jerome joined her. A couple of boys screamed ‘Oyinbos’. Being called a foreigner infuriated him.

‘Let’s have a treat,’ Nell said. ‘You’ve met up with Ifechi: he might help. Let’s get the bus at the roundabout, go to Kingsway, admire the clothes.’

To her surprise, he agreed.

A blind child was begging outside the department store. A skeletal woman, a toddler swaddled to her back, watched as they kept to the shadow of the buildings.

Nell breathed in the stale, cooled air.

‘It’s quiet as a morgue,’ said Jerome, taking her hand.

‘Did you give them money?’

‘What do you think? I wrote a cheque.’

They wandered through the clothes section: neat rows of shirts, carefully arranged scarves, racks of jackets; everything looked irrelevant and grey compared to the colour and chaos of the street markets. The cool musty air might be comforting after the heat but this was dull compared to Ajegunle where they normally shopped. There, the stalls were packed together: tinned milk next to maize; meat beside plantain then rolls upon rolls of material in vivid colours, an abundance of patterns. On a tiny piece of land by a stall of yams, someone would have set out shoe-laces or a couple of tin plates on a rag. Often the only space to walk was the channels of contaminated water trickling into the ditch.

Two nuns stood at a counter in animated discussion over a pair of socks. They must be baking in their heavy habits.

‘Let’s share a Coke,’ said Jerome as they went towards the escalator.

‘This place is unreal.’

Jerome took her arm. ‘And you relish it.’

               .***

It was months before there was any contact from Ifechi and it wasn’t news of a job but an invite to go swimming. Ifechi wanted them to join him at the pool in the Federal Palace Hotel. It was glorious, water slapping gently against the blue tiles; Nell shut her eyes. Wafts of jasmine. August. In England it was probably raining. Blissful to be here. A midday African sun hit the reflections and she sheltered under an umbrella.

‘Why not get in, Nell?’ said Ifechi.

Her swimsuit was tatty, and anyway it was heaven to stay in the shade, admire Jerome doing front-crawl, ploughing his way through more relaxed swimmers. Ifechi poured a cola slowly, watching it drip into the spaces between the ice cubes. He offered it to Nell, she shook her head.

‘I don’t swim either,’ Ifechi shuddered. ‘Never have.’

An overweight, unfit, middle-aged man, this old friend from London, from before, was meant to be Jerome’s most important contact. But Ifechi was unsettling. Jerome insisted he had nothing to do with the vanished job but he looked shifty, and he flirted.

‘Are you homesick?’ said a beautiful young woman. She’d arrived with Ifechi and another woman, and a gang of children.

Nell must be coming over as some kind of misery. ‘No, no, really. I love it here.’

The two women were fascinating; chatted easily to each other or to Nell but when addressed by Ifechi, refused to answer. Instead they sat back and mockingly admired him. Ifechi clearly found this infuriating. Better not notice how charmed Jerome seemed. 

‘Ifechi is publishing a few more magazines,’ Jerome had muttered when they arrived. Well, that might be helpful.

A couple of the tiny children splashed out of the pool, landed themselves in Ifechi’s lap. He hauled one up, swung it in the air. One of the women frowned, brushed water from her swimsuit.

‘Are they all his children?’ said Nell.

‘I guess,’ said the younger woman. ‘Ifechi has several.’

‘Really? Which of you is their mum?’

The girl smiled, patted Nell on the leg. ‘She’s not here.’

Nell winced at herself. What an idiot.

Jerome pulled himself out, dived again into the water, a clean and perfect arrow that just missed two men.

‘Foolish boy,’ said Ifechi. ‘Well, that’s good that you feel at home.’ He wiped the moisture from a glass of cold beer and offered it. Nell shook her head.

‘Star beer. Not your American rubbish.’

‘Not my American.’

‘Don’t get cross. I love Jerome, truly I do.’

She must try to be agreeable. ‘I like the Star ads.’

‘Ah, the movies again? I love the movies.’ Ifechi made a gun with his fingers, took pot shots at the sunbathers.

‘This is a film-set.’ Nell gestured to the ornate tubs overflowing with flowers, the poolside bar. ‘Or an advert.’

Going to movies had become a treat, a rare one they couldn’t afford. The films were usually American gangsters but the ads were made locally. Lagos was a set where beautiful couples drank beer, smoked expensive cigarettes, drove sports cars and wore Western or Nigerian clothes. Nell went mainly to see the ads: the roads were empty, the water lapping the shores of the harbour uncontaminated with rubbish, oil, sewage, dead dogs. Colours were extra intense making up a world which could be day-dreamed into, and it was here. The other doctors chatted about nightclubs and Highlife. Theirs was a world she and Jerome couldn’t quite get to. None of it. No sitting drinking beer as the sun went down, the right camera angle, lazy long shot.

Jerome was doing a perfect crawl down the length of the pool. He swam so beautifully. Ifechi caught Nell’s eye. He was going to be no help to Jerome at all.

***

The miles of interweaving lanes were unlit, no moon. Nell and Jerome were lost. They clutched each other, could barely make out the path.

‘I never thought of a torch,’ said Jerome.

They were late for Nneka’s party. They’d been to visit a couple Jerome met through Ifechi; supposedly their house was in the same part of Lagos, but they got lost going there and lost coming here.

Jerome was still uneasy after the visit, the man was Hausa and had been intimidating. He was angry at having to wait for them and quickly took Jerome off to his study for a drink. His German wife, Ilsa, looked exhausted. As she took Nell to admire the house, the irritating children, she seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Nell’s questions about life in Lagos.

‘You will get used to it,’ she said. ‘Jerome will help.’

‘We’ve been here two years and I know no one, except at work.’

‘It takes time,’ said Ilsa. ‘And having children helps.’

Well that wasn’t about to happen soon. ‘Jerome is bored with my moans, wants me to be positive.’

Nell was about to tell Ilsa about the small boy in the clinic that morning. Jerome would have stopped her if he’d overheard. Ilsa interrupted, muttering that she should go and organise coffee, see what her children were doing. Nell waited in the garden, taking in the silence. Silly to think people would want to know. No point confiding in anyone about anything, let alone that patient. No point imagining anything she could have done differently.

He’d been sitting in a corner of the cubicle resting his hand lightly on a woman’s knee, making no demands. He had his back to the room, was probably about three. His head was slightly tilted as if he was tired, soft black curls resting against the creamy skin of his neck.

Nell had wanted to delay everything. She could run her fingers up his spine, tickle his hair, but she made herself crouch in front of the boy, read his notes. His mother’s expression was blank – she was staring at the wall.

The patient looked at Nell, his huge eyes cautious. She smiled back. His nose was snub and smooth. His lower lip trembled slightly. Where his left cheek should be was nothing, a cavity with no skin or flesh; it exposed the inside of his mouth, his teeth, his pharynx.

The mother knew the loss was irreversible, its progress inevitable, triggered by malnutrition. Nell would give him a pointless injection of penicillin, send him home. The mother would carry him for miles.

How could any woman do that, watch her child die day by day? And so many like this coming to the hospital for a miracle. As Ilsa came into the garden holding out a grizzling baby, Nell knew she’d never have children.

Jerome was as out of place as she was. ‘We’ll be late for Nneka,’ he said.

At last, by following faint traces of music, they found a gate set into a wall. In a large space circled by small huts, people milled around a central pool of light. Nneka looked luminous. Gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets, gold threads studded with gold beads braiding her hair; chains of gold circled her wrists, ankles, neck. She wore a lemon brocade waistcoat over a lemon satin dress, carried a small chest already overflowing with naira. As she greeted each guest, notes were stuffed among the others.

‘You should have warned me about the money.’

‘She’s your friend.’ said Jerome. ‘Is it really only her birthday?’

After handing over their gift – a scarf from Kingsway – shaking hands with numerous strangers, they sat on one of the benches. Young children ran around handing out cold beer and soft drinks. One of the tiny ones stopped, grabbed Nell’s leg. Nell hauled the child up to her lap. How good to feel the girl using her like an armchair, letting herself be cuddled.

‘That toddler suits you,’ said Jerome.

Was that what might happen? She’d end up exhausted and drained, have several rough children, and Jerome away enjoying himself with Ifechi? And if the children got ill? No, the thought was inconceivable.

Oil lamps had been strung along wires between posts. Nneka and her family walked among the guests, in and out of the light. People had started to dance. Reflections spat and shimmered – not just from Nneka’s gold, most people were wearing lavish jewellery.

‘We’re so drab, Jerome.’

Nell kissed the top of the child’s elaborately plaited hair, the girl smelt of rose-water. The women wore expensively designed wrappers and the men, Jerome the  rare exception, were in embroidered agbadas, mostly full length with matching pants. Guests were still arriving, picking their way along the same muddy lanes.

Dishes started to appear, Nneka brought over chicken and rice.

‘You look wonderful, and such a wealth of presents,’ said Nell.

Nneka shooed away the small girl.

‘Oh, no, Nneka, don’t.’ Too late to stop her.

Jerome finished his food quickly, handed Nell the empty plate. ‘How about more? Fast as you can.’

‘And, if I don’t?’ said Nell.

He was showing off in front of Nneka. All of this, the extended family, the party, the glamour, this crowd of people enjoying themselves, was upsetting him. He’d been disturbed by the couple they’d just visited, but Nell could do nothing; she couldn’t conjure up any family, neither apparently could he.

Nneka grabbed her arm. ‘Come, Nell, let’s get the man more chop.’

As they reached the cooking area, Nneka said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to Jerome like that.’

‘He shouldn’t to me.’

Everyone criticising. Why had Nneka sent away that child?

An elderly man joined them, Nneka introducing him as her uncle. ‘Go and dance, Nell. I’ll take the food to Jerome.’

When Nell left the dance-floor, tired but slightly happier, Jerome was gone. He wasn’t at any of the tables where people were slicing cake, carving up chickens, collecting cans of beer. Where could he go? He’d disappeared. He’d been as lost as she had.

There was a dark corner where she could make herself comfortable, watch the entrance and bench where they’d been sitting. Nneka was having a subdued row with a large older woman in red silk; whenever she paused to listen, the woman tugged at an ornate silver necklace. At one point, Nneka reached across, gently touched it.

As the hours passed, people drifted off. A few dancers stayed with the music, a couple giggled in the shadows on the left. Wait till dawn, find her own way home, but the night was never-ending. She must not cry.

Nneka didn’t seem surprised to see Nell appear, didn’t mention the absent Jerome. ‘Come and meet my mother.’

The woman in red was boiling water on a stove in one of the huts; she beamed a welcome. The room smelt  of coffee. Nneka filled a few mugs and her mother added dollops of condensed milk. ‘Mary, give out the cake, I’ll be back,’ and the mother was gone.

‘Mary?’

‘Yes, and what of it?’ Nneka handed Nell a slice of date sponge.

‘She was giving you an earful.’ The coffee was very sweet.

‘She wants me to find a man, have children.’

Nneka had once told her that her mother had left their village during the Biafran war, come with them to Lagos to find Nneka’s father. By the time they’d got here, he was dead. No money. No support. Three young children. ‘The nuns helped us.’

The sweet drink and rich sponge were too much; it was so warm inside the room, some lilac perfume mixed with the smell of coffee. Nell could barely make out Nneka’s face; it would be wonderful to sleep. Then she remembered why she felt terrible – Jerome had vanished.

Nell woke to the sound of muttered voices. It was still dark, Jerome was back, standing under a lantern by the door, talking to Nneka and a lean woman in a blue suit. Should she interrupt them? He looked relaxed, was enjoying himself. 

Two toddlers were lying on her legs. The blanket felt comforting, the children fast asleep and heavy; there was gentle snoring from the far corner.

There was laughter from beyond the entrance. A bright light flashed through the open door, blinding Nell; one of Nneka’s cousins burst in holding a lamp.

‘Oh, I’m beyond tired! Lord save us.’ The cousin tossed her shoe into the corner.

The snoring shape grunted; Nneka’s mother lifted her head from the mound of blankets, threw the shoe back. The cousin clutched Nneka, and both shook with laughter. Nneka’s gold-braided hair flashed in the light, some of the strands were coming undone. Their hug turned into a dance, they looked glorious.

Nell managed to push the children away. She stood up and touched Jerome’s arm, tried to sound calm. ‘Where were you?’

‘I went to meet some relatives,’ said Jerome.

He had never mentioned relatives.

Biography

Jane Kirwan has published three poetry collections, Stealing the Eiffel Tower (1997), The Man Who Sold Mirrors (2003), The Goose Woman, (2019) and co-authored Stories & Lies with Pamela Johnson and Jennifer Grigg. She won a Arts Council Writers Award in 2002, published a prose-poem collection Second Exile with Ales Machacek (2010), and Born in the NHS (2013) with Wendy French. In 2016 she published a novel, Don’t Mention Her.

You can find a PDF of this story here:

Off the Voortrekker Road by Barbara Bleiman

Barbara Bleiman’s novel, Off the Voortrekker Road, is set in South Africa in the 1930s and 1940s, a period that saw the rise of apartheid. This fiction draws heavily on stories told to her about her father’s early life in Cape Town, the child of Lithuanian and Russian Jewish refugees.  Her father became staunchly anti-racist and, as a barrister, defended many black and ‘coloured’ people (a term used then), who fell victim to a range of discriminatory laws.

The family moved to London when Bleiman herself was five years old. Though she was ‘altogether elsewhere’ in the UK, through her parents’ story-telling she felt steeped in that past and faraway world.

The two chapters that follow show the childhood of Little Jackie, the novel’s protagonist.  Chapter 2 sets the scene of his father’s hardware store where, through the eyes of a child, we see a society in which the fine gradations of race were an everyday reality.

Chapter 15 recounts a powerful experience for Little Jackie, a moment in his childhood that has a lasting impact on him.

Chapter 2

1939

Pa’s hardware store stood in Parow, at the far end of Main Road, the long thoroughfare stretching east to west across Cape Town that eventually came to be renamed Voortrekker Road, after the rugged, tough-minded Afrikaners who had settled the Cape. Parow, in those days, was quite a distance from the city centre, out beyond Woodstock, Maitland and Goodwood. Property was cheap and rentals easy to come by, so Malays and Jews, Afrikaners and English had started to crowd in, and the suburb was growing by the day.

On one side of the store was Irene’s, the women’s outfitters. It sold corsets and brassieres, blouses, suits and bright cotton frocks, the most glamorous of which appeared on two smiling, painted mannequins in the window. On the other side stood Krapotkin’s butcher’s shop, its large plate-glass window filled with pallid sausages, mounds of worm-like minced beef and lean joints of lamb hanging from silver hooks. A sticky yellow paper in the front of the shop was always black and buzzing with flies. Krapotkin was a large, pink-faced man, with hands as red and raw as the meat he handled and a voice loud enough to wake the cockerel himself. He was in the shop, from early morning till late at night, heaving dripping carcasses and slapping bloody joints of meat onto wooden boards, slicing, chopping, grinding, sawing through flesh and bone, all the while singing, laughing and swearing so loudly that my mother said that Krapotkin and his butcher’s shop would be the death of her.

The hardware store had a sign painted on the front with, “Neuberger’s Handyhouse”, in a clear, unfussy style. It stood a little apart from its neighbours, its whitewashed walls yellowed with age, its sloping tiled roof in some need of repair. On one side of the door stood rolls of carpet, stepladders and brooms. On the other were baskets filled with dishcloths and dusters, bars of waxy household soap and boxes of washing suds. A notice in the window said, “Everything you need, from soap and rice to chicken feed!” and “10% off for bulk bargain buys!” A faded red-and-white striped awning was pulled down every morning to provide shade from the hot midday sun and wound back up every evening when the store was closed.

My father, Sam, had bought the store six years earlier, just before his marriage to my mother and I was born a year later. He worked all hours, either out the front or in the back yard, cutting wood or linoleum, measuring string, counting nails and screws, cutting strips of biltong or weighing biscuits from the big jars that lined the counter. The hired girl, Ada, helped out while my mother moved between the kitchen, the back yard and the shop front, cleaning and cooking, talking to customers, and keeping an occasional eye on me.

 Where could I be found, on a typical day in 1939, four-and-a half years of age and living in the Handyhouse with my ma and pa? Occupying myself with toys? Splashing about in a tin tub of water to keep me cool in the blistering heat of the day? Playing a game of five stones with a little friend, or sharing a tasty slice of homemade melktert? No. I would be sitting in the corner of the store, on my sack of beans. The sack was high enough up for me not to attempt to climb down but not so high that I would do myself serious damage if I did. Little Jackie, aged four, knock-kneed, wide-eyed, dressed in shabby grey shorts and a grubby cotton shirt, stick legs swinging against the rough hessian of the bulging sack, sitting watching and saying nothing.

Ma would tell me stories at bedtime. Sometimes they were fairytales, sometimes family stories but often the two were mixed together, a blend of fact and fiction, magic and mundane, then and now; the biblical, the superstitious, the humorous and the sad, all woven together into a strange and complex fabric.

 ‘Once upon a time, long ago and far away, ’ my mother said, ‘there lived a man named Solomon, who was a cobbler. He was born into a Jewish family in a shtetl far away in Russia, a poor peasant, but clever and practical and full of hopes and dreams, a storyteller, a joker, the centre of attention at every wedding, barmitzvah, festival day or village party. He built a small wooden house for himself, he married a decent Jewish girl, he fought for the Czar, he saw his house burned and his synogogue razed to the ground, he felt hunger and he felt fear, and, finally he took his destiny into his hands and fled with his lovely wife across the wide seas, the swelling oceans to Cape Town, where he settled and had a family, a gaggle of girls, who, one by one married and left home themselves. One of his daughters was called Sarah. That’s me, Jackie, your own mother, your ma. Solomon is Oupa, your very own grandfather. ’ She kissed me on the head and then she carried on.

 ‘And then it came to pass that Sarah married Samuel. And they lived in a store and they called it the Handyhouse. And soon they had a child of their own, a little boy with many names: Jacob, Jack, Jankele, Little Jackie, son of Samuel and Sarah, grandson of Solomon, the shtetl cobbler, the man with a stout heart, a steel will and a voice that told an endless river of tales.

Your curly black hair comes from your grandfather, Jackie, your skin as dark as an Eastern prince’s, your black, black eyes, like the ‘ten a tickie’ buttons your father sells in the shop. Your looks you got from Oupa, that’s for sure. Maybe you got his cleverness too, with your serious eyes that always seem lost in your thoughts. But what happened to your voice, Jankele? Where oh where has it gone? Who knows? Perhaps it’s been locked up by an ogre, in a great big iron box in his castle? Maybe, like a little bird, it’s flown away over the seas to find its way home to its nest in Russia? It’s waiting there, collecting up all its stories, getting itself ready to fly back again to Parow, and tell them, when the right moment comes?

Four-and-a-half years old; too young to start school, too old to be carried around on Ma’s hip or wrap my legs round her waist and hang my arms from her neck, too big to sit in the highchair in the back room, sucking on rusks and pieces of salty biltong, while Ma, Pa and Ada bustled around me. So all day long, I sat on my sack of beans in the store, the Handyhouse, or in the sawdust on the floor, where someone could keep an eye on me. I watched the customers coming in and out, the bell tinkling as they stepped on the mat, carrying their parcels of dried peas or biscuits, candles or string.

 Here was Mr van der Merwe, with his flat nose and sunburnt face, his strong, hairy legs spread wide. He had patches of damp sweat under his armpits and down the back of his khaki shirt. He scratched himself inside his trousers, like Ma told me not to. ‘It’s rude in public,’ she said.

‘Ooh yirrah! That sun’s a bugger today.’ His Afrikaner voice was hard like gravelly stones and each word seems to trip up his tongue on its sounds.

‘I’ve brought you something,’ he said to Pa, dropping his voice down low, till it was almost a whisper. He handed over a small brown paper envelope. ‘It’s not the whole lot. But it’s the best we can do.’

Pa stared at him, stony-faced. ‘We’ve been waiting for well over two weeks now. Your wife promised to pay up days ago.’

‘Times are hard,’ said Mr van der Merwe, shaking his head. ‘It’s not easy.’

‘For us too,’ said Pa. ‘I’ll expect the rest next week.’

He turned abruptly to Millicent, the Shapiro family’s maid, to serve her. Mr van der Merwe cleared his throat, raised his hand awkwardly in a half-hearted farewell and left the shop.

With her yellow-brown skin, her hair plaited and knotted in tight rows on her head, Millicent was usually the last to be served, even when Mrs Shapiro had asked her to fetch back the family’s groceries in a hurry. I was dark-skinned, like Millicent, taking after my mother’s peasant father, as she had so often told me; not pale like Pa, or peachy-pink like some of the little English girls who came into the store, or red in the face like Mr Krapotkin, the butcher, not black-black like the boys who swept the road outside the store, or the labourers who climbed out of the truck every morning to work on the new shop across the road.

And here was Millicent, saying ‘Yessir’ to Pa and waiting to be served, as usual.

‘Tell your madam that I don’t have the crystallised fruit. I’m expecting an order.’

‘Yessir.’

‘And tell her the snoek is fresh from the smokery. Best quality fish. That’s why it’s a bit more pricy than usual.’

‘Yessir.’

‘And make sure you don’t throw away the bill by mistake when you unpack. It’s tucked inside the big paper bag.’

‘Yessir.’

‘At least you can rely on the Shapiro family to pay up,’ Pa said when Millicent had left and the shop had gone quiet. ‘A good Yiddishe family.’

‘Times are hard,’ Ma said. ‘With all this talk of Smuts taking us into the war, people are nervous – they don’t want to spend money.’

‘Times are hard, times are hard. That’s all I hear.’ Pa sighed. ‘Of course they’re nervous. Aren’t we all? But I’ve got a living to make,’ and he went out the back to the yard, slamming the door behind him.

Ada was cleaning the counter, slopping soapy water onto a cloth and wiping it vigorously, her thin arms stretching as far as she could reach, in great sweeping movements. She paused to wipe her forehead.

‘How’s your mother, Ada?’ Ma asked. ‘Any better?’

I felt sorry for Ada. My mother always said, ‘Poor whites are almost worse off than Cape coloureds. They have nothing.’ I liked Ada. She patted my head and kissed me on the cheek. She made me bread and butter when Ma was upstairs lying on her bed with her door shut. She told me silly jokes and sometimes, if the coast was clear and there was no risk of Pa appearing, she came up close and dropped a little chewy caramel into my hand. It was a shame if Ada had nothing.

‘My ma? She’s so-so,’ Ada said.

‘Would you like a little bit of time off to go and see her?’

‘Ag yes, missus. That’d be nice, lekker. But if you need me here, with it coming so soon and everything, then I’ll stay. My friend Maisie’s visiting Ma for me sometimes. I’m paying her a few tickies to go by the hospital and check on her. But it’s not the same as me going myself. It’s not long now, the doctors say. Her time’s coming.’

‘You’re a good girl, Ada, and you don’t usually ask for these things. And you’re a hard worker as well. Even Sam thinks so. I’ll talk to him and maybe you can go early this evening and come back on Thursday. Give you time to see your Ma.’

‘Thank you missus. You’re good to me.’

Ma went over and patted her on the shoulder. ‘And now I think I’ll go find Sam and speak to him.‘

Ada came and picked me up from the floor. She brushed the sawdust from my shorts and kissed me heartily on the cheek.

‘You don’t know what’s coming little man!’ she said. ‘You don’t know what’s gonna hit you, when your ma’s time comes.’ She laughed heartily, but I didn’t know what was so funny. Ada’s mother’s time was coming; Ma’s time was coming. Ma’s time kept coming and coming but it never seemed to arrive. And when it did, I couldn’t think what it was going to bring.

Chapter 15

1944

One day, a good few months after our return from Bloubergstrand, Mrs Mostert came into the shop with Terence. He was smiling at me and tugging at his mother’s arm.

‘Ask,’ he said. ‘Please mama, ask.’

He flapped his arms up and down wildly. Mrs Mostert laughed. ‘You look like you’ve just eaten a hot babotie Terence! Calm yourself down.’

She turned to Ma. ‘Would Jackie like to come for a day out at the beach, at Hout Bay?’ she said. ‘It’ll be a long day, but he can sleep over at the garage so we don’t disturb you coming back late. It’ll be a chance for you to have a bit of a rest. It’d do you good, I’m sure – you must be in need of a break, with the baby on the way.’ She paused. Sauly was looking up at her with big open eyes. ‘ And Saul can come too if you like.’

Ma placed one hand on her growing belly. She smiled.

‘Both boys off my hands for a day… and no Sauly waking me up first thing in the morning. Boy, that’d be something!’

But then she saw my crestfallen face. Sauly was a nuisance; he cried and whined and wanted to join in all my games. If I refused, he went running to Ma to complain. If I let him play, he invariably spoiled things by ignoring the rules. It always ended up in arguments and tears and Pa or Ma would step in, crossly reminding me of my duties as an older brother and the expectation of greater maturity that rested on my shoulders. In one way or another, Sauly always managed to make trouble. And what’s more, he was clearly becoming Pa’s favourite, usurping the position that I had once held and now lost, seemingly forever. Sauly was quick with his fingers, keen to help when Pa constructed paper aeroplanes or little balsa wood boats. He loved weighing and measuring, playing with all the little implements that Pa had made for me when I was small and in which I had failed to show any real interest. Sauly was not my favourite person.

Ma looked at me hard, then sighed. ‘ Let Jackie go on his own. It’ll be a nice outing for him. He deserves something good for a change.’

Terence and I shared a conspiratorial smile.

Ma packed up a small little bag with a towel and my grey woollen swimming trunks, a pair of pyjamas and a toothbrush, Sauly all the while howling in the background, ‘ Me toooooo, me toooooooo.’ I suddenly felt sorry for him and a bit ashamed at the delight I felt at leaving him behind. Should I tell Ma that I wouldn’t mind if he came along? No. It was too good an opportunity to be free of him and the rest of my family as well. I didn’t say anything.

Ma moved heavily over to the jars of biscuits on the counter. She unscrewed the lids and filled a big paper bag with a good mix of the best biscuits. ‘For the journey,’ she said. My eyes were focused on the door, watching in case Pa came back in at any moment and caught her at it and said something embarrassing in front of Terence and Mrs Mostert, or worse still, found some reason why I could not go to Hout Bay after all. But Ma managed to hurriedly scoop up some extra fig rolls and drop them quickly into the paper bag and collect everything together for my trip to the seaside before Pa had returned from his errands.

Mrs Mostert gave Ma a quick squeeze on the arm.

‘I’ll bring him back safe and sound, tomorrow evening,’ she said, ‘I promise you.’

*****

Walter is driving the Chevy. Mrs Mostert is sitting beside him. Walter is singing at the top of his voice, a jazzy tune that makes him sound like he’s laughing as he sings.

Pack up all my cares and woe

Here I go, singin’ low

Bye, bye, blackbird.

Where somebody waits for me

Sugar’s sweet, so is she

Bye, bye, blackbird.

From time to time, Mrs Mostert and Terence join in. I sing along, but only in my head, not out loud and the words I sing are a little different. Bye-bye, Cape Town. Bye-bye, the store. Bye-bye, Ada. Bye-bye Ma, Bye-bye Sauly. Bye-bye Pa.

On the back seat, we sit surrounded by bags, beach balls and striped towels. I look out the window as the houses of Parow and Cape Town flash by. Table Mountain looms up, a thin layer of cloud hanging low above it, like white marshmallow, and beneath it the gardens of Kirstenbosch lush and green, with the rhododendrons in full bloom. Soon the buildings and houses thin out and are replaced by countryside: fig and loquat trees; orange groves, grassland, rocky boulders; shacks with corrugated iron rooves and dusty yards with petrol cans, old tyres, goats and donkeys; clumps of thin pine trees; an open, empty road; a black man and woman, carrying cases on their heads, walking slowly from somewhere to somewhere, with the morning sun beating down on them; a single candyfloss cloud; the dust of an open-back lorry filled with African labourers, who smile and wave as they go by; a man sitting under a fig tree with a small pile of over-ripe mangoes for sale; a large bird swooping down to catch a lizard in its beak; the wild squawk of seagulls. And then at last – at last! Flashes of bleached white sand and foamy turquoise sea.

Walter parks the car and we carry everything out over the hot sand which burns my bare feet and makes me hop and skitter down towards the cooler wet sand near the sea. He sets up the big green umbrella, the towels, the picnic blanket and the hamper in a quiet spot, not too close to other bathers. There are coloured families sitting on the sand, making sandcastles and swimming in the sea, and there are white families, sitting in a different part, making sand castles, and swimming in the sea. We sit on our own, neither with the coloureds nor with the whites, in a strip of no-man’s-land dividing the two. Mrs Mostert splashes sun oil on Terence’s nose and shoulders but not on mine. ‘You don’t need it, Jackie, with your nice olive brown skin, like a little Arabian prince.’

 Terence and I fight our way out of our clothes, flinging them down any old where, forcing our legs into tight woollen swimming trunks, poking them in the wrong way, getting our toes stuck in our hurry to get down to the sea. We race out for our first swim of the day, plunging into the shallow waters and splashing wildly, as the waves crash in and suck noisily back out again.

At midday Walter takes our lunch out of the hamper, which has been packed with ice to keep the food cold, and puts the dripping containers down on the large picnic blanket. He lays the sandwiches out on the plates and, with a sharp knife, slices up a large watermelon. It splashes pink juice and pips onto the white linen cloth that the sandwiches have been wrapped in. He opens cold bottles of fizzy drink, which hiss as he pulls off the lids with his teeth. My drink tips up in the sand and it bubbles and trickles away before anyone can right it. The tears are coming but Walter only laughs and reaches into the hamper for another. Terence giggles. I smile shyly and take a big gulp of soda that explodes in my mouth, like the froth of a sugary sea.

Walter sits down on the big picnic blanket and opens a bottle of beer for himself. I watch him. He helps himself to sandwiches. He is in his swimming trunks, legs stretched out, toes in the sand. He is sturdy, though not especially tall. His arms are strong and muscular, his skin hairless and brown. The hair on his head is short. It is springy and black, with just a fleck of grey here and there. His mouth seems to take up most of his face, his teeth a little crooked but white against his dark skin.

I look at Mrs Mostert. She too is watching Walter, with a little thoughtful little smile on her face. She is plump and pale, soft and large as a cream bun, rolls of fat appearing at the top of her bright-blue swimming costume. Her hair is unpinned from its usual knot, and tangled from the salt and the wind. Without her usual dusting of face powder, her nose and cheeks are spattered with freckles. She’s not the same Mrs Mostert who collects me from the Handyhouse in her tidy skirts and dresses, or the business-like woman who serves customers at the garage. Everything about her has loosened, expanded, softened.

After lunch, Terence and I build sand castles and dig ditches, then run back into the sea, splashing in the shallows, while Walter and Mrs Mostert lie back on their towels and doze, close to each other, sheltered by the big green umbrella. The warm seawater rises up and washes over me. I wonder what Sauly is up to at home and am glad that he hasn’t come too. No Sauly, no Handyhouse, no Pa.

Terence finds a large piece of driftwood, gnarled and knotted and bleached white by the salt of the sea. He wants to show it to Walter, to ask if Walter can carve something out of it with his knife. We run back along the beach, scanning the umbrellas for the big green one that signals our place on the sand.

As we get close to the umbrella, I see that Walter and Mrs Mostert are not alone. They are both sitting up straight and two men, fully dressed in short-sleeved shirts and cotton trousers, are standing in front of them.

‘Stay in the sea,’ shouts Mrs Mostert but we are already out of the water and running up the beach to see what is going on.

‘Stay away boys,’ calls Walter and then, more sternly, ‘Don’t come closer.’

Terence and I hold back. We stand where we are, watching, unable to go either backwards or forwards. Now Walter gets up from his towel and places himself in front of Mrs Mostert, standing between her and the men. There is shouting. There are bad words.

‘Pasop. Watch out you blerry kaffir-lover,’ one man is yelling at Mrs Mostert. ‘We’re gonna donner you and that coloured bastard of yours.’ This man is tall and thin, with an angular face and a long jaw. His face is red with fury.

The other man, smaller and fatter, with large sweat stains on his shirt, is yelling too. He’s holding a big stick that he is swinging towards Walter, only narrowly missing him each time, like he’s playing a game with him. Walter looks about to see if anyone will come and help them. On towels, stretched out, or under their umbrellas, people are reading their books or sunning themselves. Children are playing ball or digging in the sand. Everyone sitting close by has turned away, facing the sea, or looking towards the ice-cream kiosk and the café in the distance. No one acknowledges that anything is wrong.

Terence is trailing the large piece of driftwood behind him. I wonder if I should grab it and run and hit the men with it. I could bash them on the legs, whack them as hard as I can, hit them and hit them till they run away. But I don’t move. I just stand on the sand watching. The tears are coming and I can’t hold them back.

The man with the stick prods Walter, stabs at his feet, as if poking at a crab to make it close up tight inside its shell or scuttle away in fright. Walter stands his ground but makes no move to stop him. I don’t understand why. Why doesn’t he just grab the watermelon knife from where it’s lying on the cloth and use it to defend himself. The man grips the stick more firmly. He grunts as he takes a bigger, faster swing which arcs towards Walter, whipping his legs so that he flinches. And now the other one, the thin one who up until now has just stood and shouted, joins in, punching Walter in the face so that he falls back heavily onto the picnic blanket. He falls into the plates and left over sandwiches and overturns the hamper. Mrs Mostert screams. At the sound of her voice, the two men casually turn away and stroll off down the beach, as if enjoying the nice weather and a relaxing day at the seaside. One whistles as he walks. The other laughs.

Mrs Mostert is weeping and now faces from nearby are turned towards us, watching. But no one moves from their places under their umbrellas. They just sit and stare.

‘Don’t worry, May. It’s OK. I’m all right,’ says Walter, dabbing at his mouth, testing the damage. He spits out a single, bloody shard of broken tooth and holds it out on his hand. Mrs Mostert passes him the white linen cloth that the sandwiches have been wrapped in and he presses it to his face to stop the bleeding.

He looks anxiously towards Terence and me, to see if we’re OK.

‘Let’s pack up, boys. It’s time to go home.’

Slowly we collect everything together and put down the umbrella. Walter carries most of the bags but we help with the buckets and spades and beach ball, which we hand to Walter to put in the boot of the Chevrolet. He takes out the little plastic plug and squeezes the ball, allowing the air to slowly exhale, till the ball is a flat, flabby circle, hardly recognisable any more.

In the car, Mrs Mostert is sniffing into her handkerchief. Walter pats her knee gently.

‘We’re OK,’ he says. ‘No real harm done. We’ll be fine when we get back to Parow.’

Terence, who has been sitting quietly next to me, asks, ‘Who were those two men?’ and his mother says, ‘Just nasty men, silly men. Don’t worry, we won’t see them ever again.’

 ‘Your face is all puffed up,’ Mrs Mostert says to Walter. ‘Does it hurt a lot?’

‘It’s OK,’ Walter replies. ‘A pity all the ice melted. It would have been good as a little icepack to keep the swelling down.’

‘You want to go back home Jackie, instead of coming to stay the night with us?’ asks Mrs Mostert kindly, twisting in her seat to look at me. ‘You upset by what’s happened and want to be with your Ma?’

I shake my head. ‘I want to stay the night with Terence and you,’ I say.

‘Good boy,’ says Mrs Mostert. She turns back to face forwards again. There is a little pause. Her voice is light, breezy but I sense something important is being said. ‘Perhaps don’t tell your Ma and Pa about what happened, then, eh? No need to worry them with nonsense like that. Better for them not to know. We’re all fine aren’t we? All done with now. I’ll make a nice chicken pie for supper when we get back and it’ll all be forgotten.’

I nod my head. All will be forgotten. All will be forgotten. Nothing will be said.

*****

When I got back to the store the next morning, Ma asked me how the trip went.

‘Was it fun?’

I nodded.

‘Did you swim a lot?’

I nodded.

‘Did you eat a nice picnic?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did Mrs Mostert drive you there?’

‘No.’

‘Oh,’ said Ma, surprised. ‘So who drove you all that way out to Hout Bay? Not Mr. Mostert, I suppose. He’s still sick in the sanatorium with tuberculosis from what I’ve heard. Been there for months now.’

‘Walter.’

‘Walter?’ said Ma. Her face flushed red. ‘I didn’t know Walter was going with you to Hout Bay.’ There was a moment of hesitation and then, ‘Does Walter often go on trips like this with May Mostert?’

I shrugged.

‘Is he around with you a lot, when you go to visit Terence at the garage?’

I said nothing.

‘Does he sit and eat with you at the table, for instance.’

I nodded. Was that the right thing to do?

‘And come and go in the house as he pleases?’

I looked at her and said nothing. Why did this matter? Why was Ma asking all these questions?

‘How friendly is he with her? With Terence?’

I shrugged.

‘What on earth is going on between May Mostert and Walter?’ Ma said under her breath.

‘Ma, is Walter Mrs Mostert’s other husband?’ I asked. It was a question I had often wanted to ask and it didn’t seem to me to be a dangerous one. I didn’t think Ma would mind and since I couldn’t ask May or Walter or Terence, Ma seemed like my best bet. She would know.

Ma frowned. ‘What sort of question is that?’

I went on, undeterred. ‘Is Walter Terence’s pa?’

‘Of course not, silly boy. What put that into your head? Walter’s coloured. He’s the paid boy at the garage. How could he be Terence’s father? Terence is white and Walter’s a kaffir. And anyway it’s none of your business. That’s something for you to think about when you’re a big boy, not now.’

There was a little pause.

‘Was everything nice at the beach Jackie? No problems or anything?’

I nodded vigorously in response to her first question and shook my head firmly to her second.

Mrs Mostert had told me not to say a word. I had followed her instructions. Whatever trouble she wanted me to deny, whatever revelations she was concerned to prevent, I felt sure that I had succeeded in doing as she said. I’d not given anything away. As far as I was concerned, Ma was none the wiser and I had done my job of staying silent. Ma’s frowns and questions didn’t worry me too much. May Mostert had asked me to keep a secret and I was pleased that I had managed to achieve that.

Barbara Bleiman is an education consultant and writer at the English and Media Centre (EMC). Off the Voortrekker Road is her first novel, published in 2015. It was followed by Accidents of Love in 2017 and a collection of short stories, Kremlinology of Kisses, which was published by Blue Door Press in October 2012. She has also written a book about English in secondary education, What Matters in English Teaching, (April 2021). She blogs and writes for EMC and on her own website http://www.barbarableiman.com.

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