Hello? she said, holding her phone to her ear, her other hand gripping at the towel where it had begun to slip. It was an unknown number.
Madam? said a voice crackling slightly on the line. Madam, it is Sara. Madam, she is gone. She died.
The voice, Sara’s voice, was business-like, to the point. Laura sat down on the bed, still holding her towel up, her body still wet from the shower. She realised she had no idea how to feel, but tried to gather her thoughts to speak.
I’m so sorry Sara. I’m sorry to hear that.
An image of this woman, of Sara, as a ten-year-old child flashed into Laura’s mind – the small black girl standing in her kitchen in a pretty pink dress, her hair bunched into two short spikes on top of her head, waiting for her mother to finish work for the day so that they could go back home on the bus together. Hearing her now felt like a visitation from the past.
Do you need anything? Any help? Laura asked.
Some money. For the funeral.
Yes, of course. I can help with that.
And you must come. To the funeral. Ma, she ask for you to come, at the end, before she go.
Again she didn’t know what to say. She felt suddenly aware of the room around her, of her damp body, her shoulder-length hair still wet. A bead of water fell slowly down her back before it met the towel and disappeared.
When is it? The funeral? Laura said.
Next week. Friday.
Okay. I will see what I can do. Hold on.
And, as if Sara could see her, she made a show of going to her dressing table and fishing her diary out of her handbag.
Next Friday, she said, writing down a single word in thick pencil: Gloria. What time? When?
I will tell you, Sara said. When I come to get the money on Tuesday.
Yes, great. Okay.
Thank you for telling me, Sara. Thank you for letting me know.
Yes, Madam. Goodbye.
The line went dead. She stood in her towel, her hair still dripping, looking at the phone in her hand, and she felt strangely as if the breath had been knocked out of her. Around her, the bedroom was filled with light from large windows, and the noise of the birds in the trees outside in the garden. Her hair cooled against her neck and she felt a slight chill as the last of the water from the shower evaporated from her arms.
Gloria had arrived as a woman in her late 20s with two young children and a husband who worked as a construction worker. She was a tall woman, with a severe face and courtly manners instilled in her by a convent primary school education somewhere in the deep rural wastes of Limpopo. She’d been recommended by Laura’s next-door neighbour’s maid, and had come with an excellent reference from the woman she’d previously worked for in White River.
Why did you leave your last job? Laura asked, as Gloria sat bolt upright opposite her on a bench at the kitchen breakfast nook. She wore a neat purple beret to cover her hair, and had a smart Sunday dress on too. Her hands were dead still, holding a worn handbag on her lap as if it was a shield or a weapon.
Gloria said her husband had started a regular job in town and she’d decided to move with him, if she could. The children would stay with their grandmother where they had always been, out somewhere beyond Hazyview, in a township along the road north.
My husband, she said, he is a good man, a quiet man. He can live here?
Yes, of course, Laura said. We have quite a big flat in the garden. He can stay there with you if he is working here in town. I’m sure he’ll want to go back home to see the children when he is not here.
Gloria didn’t respond to this idea of her husband’s parental duties, but simply nodded. A room where they could live as man and wife, as a couple should, was all she needed to confirm.
Laura showed her the house: the TV room with its soft couches, the dining room they hardly ever used, the master bedroom where she slept with her own husband, and the two rooms where her three children slept.
It’s not a difficult house to clean, she said. It looks bigger than it is.
And the laundry, Madam? Gloria asked, ticking off her own mental list.
Yes, I’ll show you. We have a brand new washing machine and a tumble dryer too. You can hang clothes out in the courtyard, and there is a table there if you want to sit and have your lunch outside.
She felt like she needed to sell the house and its amenities to this woman. Felt she had to sell herself too, when really it should have been the other way around. She should be assessing Gloria, because Gloria would live at her house, would know many intimate things about her, would clean her underwear, and scrub her toilet; and she would take a hand in raising Laura’s children. And, as they walked to the laundry room through the large scullery, she wondered if this cold, careful woman was a person she wanted to spend the next ten to twenty years of her life with, in her home.
But then, on the other side of the house, the baby woke up and started screaming. They both rushed back to his room, and it was just then, as she handed the pacified child to Gloria, that she first saw in her the transformation that took place around children. Talking to the baby Gloria’s eyes grew wider, her face broke into a smile; as she looked down at the small, white baby in her arms the hard flint seemed to leach from her bones.
It was this, more than anything else, that convinced her to hire Gloria, and it was of the best decisions she’d ever made. The woman had been a constant source of motivation and action; a rod of iron in a home that at times drifted towards chaos. It was Gloria who convinced her youngest son, Michael, to wear his new smart shoes. It was Gloria who maintained a constant cycle of laundry so the kids never left the house in dirty school uniforms. She created a system for keeping the rooms in the house in order, teaching the kids how to keep their own spaces tidy too.
It was Gloria who sometimes had to coax Laura out of bed after the rest of the family had left for the day. She’d bring her a glass of water with her pills and sit on the end of Laura’s bed and watch her take them one at a time.
In return, she had paid Gloria for the extra work she did, and enrolled her in cooking classes – a skill for her next job, they had joked. The cooking sessions gave back a thousand-fold when Gloria began making the family lunch, and the kids’ breakfasts. She paid for Gloria’s house in the township to be extended, so that her sister could move in with her mother too. She paid for the installation of a water tank and plumbing. Like so many others she became both employer and patron, muddying an already complicated relationship – a relationship that became a kind of friendship.
Gloria, so far outside her social circle, became a confidant – someone who could stand in the kitchen with her and laugh as she told her the latest gossip from book club, or the PTA. She was an integral part of their lives, a part of their family in ways they couldn’t have explained. And as the children grew up and left home, as her marriage seemed to drift, Gloria remained a constant, a figure whose value never shifted. Until, one year, she became ill, and suddenly couldn’t quite do the things that needed to be done around the house, slowly retiring to her own family, without officially retiring, without her pay stopping.
And, since then, for the past three years, Laura had seen her maybe once or twice a month, and then even less frequently, until months had passed and Gloria had not returned at all.
It was already eleven in the morning that same day and Laura had only just sat down in the kitchen with a cup of tea and her breakfast – a slice of toast with marmalade. This was late even for her, even on a Sunday. A magazine lay open on the table, but she ignored it.
She still felt a hollow detachment from the phone call only a few hours before. Bewildered by the news about Gloria, she had a sense of loss that didn’t seem to belong to her at all. Gloria’s death seemed like an event that had happened elsewhere, in a house she had never seen, in a town she had never been to and would never visit.
She tapped her fingers on the magazine, staring out through the windows into the back garden. She had spent much of the previous week out there, working to get the beds and the shrubs ready for spring. She knew some women just let their gardeners get on with it, but she liked to get her hands in the soil planting bulbs, liked cutting back winter grasses and staking the new shoots herself – working in the strong sunshine. It was, she thought, the one place she forgot herself. Gloria had disapproved of her being on her hands and knees in the dirt, especially in the front garden where the neighbours could see her. She had also disapproved of the mud and the grass stains she would have to get out of Laura’s clothes too, shaking her head and clicking her tongue in exasperation as she fed them into the washing machine.
Thinking about Gloria made her think of her own children again. Gloria had been fiercely protective of all of them, but it was Michael she had loved the most. He’d been a baby when she’d arrived to work for them, and she’d cuddled him and coddled him, and scolded him lovingly, and marvelled at his schoolwork – and he’d loved her in return. Laura knew she would have to call him and tell him what had happened, but she hadn’t quite built up the courage yet.
Through the window she watched as a ha-di-da picked its way across the back lawn. She watched it probing with its beak, searching for worms and insects. She thought about how sometimes, like today, she felt as if she was standing on the edge of a cliff and a great wind was howling up from the depths below her, almost carrying her away.
She didn’t move for some time. She barely shifted until she recognised the sound of her husband’s car pulling up the driveway, and then the dogs going mad at his return. She listened to his car door slam shut, and to the scrabble of his key in the security gate at the front door. She heard him talking to the dogs, could picture him getting down on his knees to play roughly with them.
He walked into the kitchen in his tennis whites, which contrasted with the colour of his long, tanned legs and arms. His greying hair was still damp with sweat. He held his racket bag in his right hand and he grinned at her, transformed for a moment into the twenty-five-year-old boy who’d seduced her.
Hello, love, he said, bending down to kiss her on the top of her head. How was your morning?
Fine, she said. How was your game?
Great. We’re second in the league now. It’s a beautiful morning. You should go outside.
He put his bag down and walked across the kitchen, opened a cupboard and took a glass down. At the small sink he filled the glass with water and gulped it down in three. He grinned at her again and said, Man, it was warm on the court. I should have taken water with me.
She looked at him and said, Nick, Sara phoned when you were out. Gloria died yesterday.
He stood still for a second, and then placed the glass down on the counter and walked over to her, putting his hand on her shoulder briefly.
Ah, he said, I’m sorry love. Was it the same illness?
Yes. I think so. Her heart. Sara didn’t really say. You know, she was only fifty-three. Younger than me.
I know. It’s very sad, he said. He let out a sigh and ran his hand through his hair. I suppose they’ll want some money?
I talked to Sara about it already.
You can take care of that?
Yes, she’s coming round on Tuesday. I’d better tell the kids too.
Great, he said and patted her on the shoulder again. I’m going to get changed. We’ll need to leave in an hour or so if we want to get to the Maritz’s on time. You know what they’re like about people being late for lunch.
He left the room carrying his tennis racket, gently tapping his thigh with it as he walked.
She’d wanted to tell him that Sara had asked her to go to the funeral, but she’d kept it to herself. Sitting in the kitchen, staring out the window at her garden again, she wondered why.
Hello Ma, Michael said, his voice sounding far away. We’re just driving up the coast. The signal might come and go. How are you?
No, I’m fine, she said. Are you driving and talking on the phone? You know you shouldn’t do that.
Oh, no. I’m in the passenger seat. Simon is driving.
Laura held her phone to her ear, standing in the kitchen, leaning back against the counter. She was still in her dressing gown even though it was gone noon. Mondays were often her worst days. After the inevitable round of social engagements that Sunday brought, she usually felt wrung out and unable to even get dressed. Gloria refused to indulge these moods, banging around the house all morning until Laura had to get up and get going.
Michael, she said quietly, Gloria died a couple of days ago.
I didn’t hear that, he said, you cut out for a second.
Gloria died, she said louder than before. Remember I told you she wasn’t well?
Gloria? Jesus, mom, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?
I’m fine, she said. I just wanted to tell you.
And then, not for the first time, she wished that she could quickly pack a bag and drive to the airport and catch the next flight to Cape Town. She could be on her son’s doorstep by supper time and he would welcome her in, she knew, even though he didn’t have that much space in his small rented house. And she could sit up all night talking with him and his boyfriend over a bottle of wine and then fall asleep in his messy spare room, knowing that in the morning the two of them were going to take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain again and then spend the day driving around the city.
The sudden desire to run to him cut through her. She had to pull the phone away to stop him hearing her sharp intake of breath and the small noise of panic that escaped from her throat. But Michael was still speaking and she had to listen again.
Thanks for telling me mom, Michael said. She was such an amazing woman hey. I always thought she could have been so much more if she’d grown up a generation later.
That’s true, she said.
She heard him talking to Simon, saying, Turn left here, I think love.
Where are you driving to? she asked.
What? Oh, we’re going to Hermanus to stay with a friend for a few days. Just a short holiday. Simon starts a new job next week, and I’m handing in my final dissertation soon, so, ja, a small break.
That sounds lovely. Next time I come to visit we’ll have to go on a short trip too. I really want to go up the west coast again.
That sounds like a plan, he said. Hey, mom, I have to go, we’re arriving at the house now. Can I talk to you later?
Yes, of course. Talk later.
Great. And mom, I’m sorry about Gloria. I still miss seeing her every day.
On Tuesday Sara came to the house to collect money for the funeral. Laura hadn’t seen her in at least five years and she had forgotten how much she looked like her mother. It was startling. Laura watched her as she walked up the driveway – her tall, straight-backed frame an echo from the past.
Madam, she said as she got closer.
Hello Sara, Laura said and then walked forward and hugged her awkwardly.
Come in, she said, taking a step back and leading Sara into the house and through to the kitchen. Tea?
She put the kettle on. It was the only thing she could think to do.
No, thank you Madam, I must go.
You should call me Laura, really. I’m not your boss.
Sara looked at her then with a blank face and Laura saw the painful truth that she meant far less to this woman than she had assumed. Sara had her own life and this white woman standing in front of her was merely a connection to the past, someone with an obligation to fulfil.
You are working today? Laura said, gesturing at the nurse’s uniform Sara wore.
Yes, Madam, only today and then I am off work for the funeral. There is a lot to do.
I’m sure there is. I’ll just go and get the money then.
And she left her standing in the kitchen while she went upstairs. On her dressing table was the envelope with Sara’s name written on it. What a small thing, she thought, with which to end a relationship of decades. What a bare and flimsy package to hand over.
In the kitchen, Sara took the sealed envelope and tucked it into her handbag.
Thank you, she said. Ma would be happy.
Laura hesitated and then said, The funeral, Sara. I don’t know…
Yes, it is on Friday, here…
And she handed Laura a small square of paper with a date, a time, and an address written on it neatly in blue pen.
You know where is our house?
Yes. I went there once to drop your mom off.
It is just after that. The big church.
She got up to leave, and for a few moments they stood facing each other, neither speaking. Sara’s eyes looked around the big kitchen that had been remodelled again since her last visit, until finally her eyes came to rest on Laura and with a tight smile and a nod she said she had to go to work.
Laura found herself alone in the house once more. Her new maid only came three times a week – there was no need for more now that it was just her and Nick, since the children had all left.
The road that cut through the rows of small houses was newly tarred, dark and not yet marked with lines. On either side the red dust from patchy front gardens already drifted over its new edges. The dryness of winter was far more obvious here than in the suburbs closer to town, where clipped green lawn covered front yards, hidden behind high walls, and hugged the verges along the street. In the distance she could see the granite-domed hills of the Lowveld turned brown and yellow – the surrounding bush brittle and dry.
She drove slowly, looking out for street names, for the turn-off she had been told would lead her to the big church on the other side of the township. Her white Mercedes crawled the street as she scanned from left to right.
Finally a dilapidated sign painted with a cross pointed down a side road and she carefully took a left turn. After twenty metres the new tar road ended abruptly and she was driving on dirt again, the tyres of her car grinding over the hard-packed surface. She thought about how she would have to have the car washed again when she got home.
Up ahead, after another ten minutes of slow driving, she saw cars parked in the dusty yard of a large hall. It was a single story building, squat and wide, made of white-painted breezeblocks and a corrugated tin roof. To one side a tall cross, made from old railway sleepers, stood planted in the dust.
As she parked her own car, she saw a small crowd had gathered in front of the building. Around her, more people were getting out of cars and taxis, some in suits and black dresses, and others in more traditional clothes. Some men wore their everyday work clothes – perhaps with a jacket thrown over them. Laura sat in her parked car for a minute, her hands holding the steering wheel, clenching and unclenching. She could see she was the only white person there. She’d expected this, but it was somehow different to be confronted with the fact. She should have asked someone to come with her, but then, who could she ask?
She pulled the sun visor down, and adjusted her lipstick in the small mirror. Finally, taking a deep breath she got out of the car and crossed the road. She stood on her own, trying to look friendly, as if she belonged. Sara greeted her briefly as she went into the church, and the rest of the small crowd followed her.
Inside, rows of black chairs – metal legs, plastic seats – were lined up on the polished concrete floor. The whitewashed brick walls and large windows made it seem brighter than the two single rows of fluorescent tubes should have. Laura found a seat towards the back and, with her handbag on her lap, sat waiting nervously as the hall filled with all the people who had known Gloria.
She suddenly thought of the couple of family gatherings she had invited Gloria to. How had she felt at those, she wondered? She thought about how, at her daughter Tanya’s wedding, Gloria had sat much like this, near the back of the congregation, one of the few black people in the crowd. Sara came with her that time, and after the ceremony the two women had rushed up to Tanya outside the church and, ululating and beaming with pride, had hugged her and told her how beautiful she was.
And she had been beautiful, her daughter. And young, so young to be getting married at only twenty-three, and now divorced at twenty-nine with a young child. But she was an adult, Laura knew, making her own decisions on the other side of the world in America, seemingly divorced from her old life back home too.
The service began with a prayer from the preacher. It was only as they all stood up that she noticed the congregants at the front dressed in blue and white robes. It was these people who led the singing and the chanting of the prayers. She could just see Sara and the rest of Gloria’s family in the front row, could just see Sara’s face, stricken, looking up at the altar as the women around her sang loudly.
The room was filled to the roof with the voices of the women of the congregation. Their voices rose in well-practised rhythm, rising up and filling the space, blooming out through the windows and the thin walls of the church, flooding the world outside with their singing. And for a moment Laura was carried on that tide. She could feel the music and the singing, the hand clapping and the building cadences, taking a hold of her heart. She didn’t know the words, she didn’t know the songs, though she recognised a tune here and there from her own Sunday School days, but she felt the music coursing through her, connecting her to the people around her and to the earth beneath her and the huge blue sky she knew stretched overhead – the vast African sky she knew by heart, that filled her dreams even as she slept under it. And she sang along as best she could.
She found herself sitting with a small child on her lap, on an old sofa she recognised as something she had given to Gloria several years before. This child, Gloria’s grandchild, dressed in a lovely summer party dress, held her hand and rubbed her small thumb up and down Laura’s fingers.
Laura had tried to refuse the invitation to the house after the funeral – she would be intruding, she wasn’t really family – but Sara had insisted and there had been no polite way to refuse. Now she sat in the small living room with some of the older women, drinking tea, while outside in the yard the younger women prepared a feast in three enormous stainless steel pots arranged over gas burners. Half the neighbourhood would arrive for food and drink at some point over the next few hours, she had been told, dropping in as and when they could. The women around her spoke in rapid-fire Swazi and Shangaan. Laura could pick out maybe every tenth word, but what they were saying was lost on her. Not for the first time she sat in a room feeling like a stranger in her own country, knowing it was her own fault for speaking only two white languages when even this child she held could probably already speak three or four in total, including English.
She looked around the room. She knew that the wages she’d paid Gloria for almost thirty years, and the loans she had extended to her, had built the house in which she was now sitting. She knew that the running water and the relatively steady electricity supply had been paid for with years, decades of Gloria’s labour in her own home. And yet, what right did she have to be here? What right did she have to claim some responsibility for the things Gloria had worked her whole life to build? Even as she drank tea in her house, as she sat with her family and friends, she felt less certain than ever of what her place in the life of this woman had been.
Aish, said an older lady as she sat down next to her on the sofa, It is hot today for August.
She was wearing a smart black dress, and a neat black jacket, more formal than many of the other women there. She unfolded a small fan she had in her hand and used it to cool herself.
It is hot, Laura said, hearing her own clipped English for the first time in what seemed like hours.
I know you, the woman said to Laura. I used to work across the road from your house, for Mrs Van Rensburg. Do you remember?
Maria? Laura said, unsure she had her name right.
Yes. It is nice to see you again Madam.
Call me Laura, she said and smiled at the woman as easily as she could.
Ah, Laura, Maria said laughing. Laura, it is good to see you here. Gloria would have been very happy that you came.
Sara insisted I come, she said. And she shrugged and let a small smile cross her lips.
Eh, Maria laughed. That girl, she is more scary than her mother.
She really is, Laura said, and laughed too.
The child on her lap decided she needed to be elsewhere and slipped off and wandered towards the door that led out onto the yard where the women were cooking.
How is Mrs Van Rensburg? Maria asked. I was last there two years ago. She was looking very old.
She’s in an old age home now. She lost her marbles a bit and had to be put away. Her children have sold the house.
Shame, Maria said and clicked her tongue in sympathy and disgust.
I know. It is sad.
Maria shook her head, one older woman thinking about the fate of another.
Across the room another woman she recognised leaned forward and said, I also worked near you, Mississ. Where is your little boy, the one that played with my son?
Michael? The smallest one?
Yes, that one.
He is finishing university in Cape Town now. He’s a big man.
Ah, Cape Town, the woman said her eyes widening. That is so far away from you.
It is, Laura said. It is.
And she knew that none of these women would have been to Cape Town. Their lives so restricted by lack of money, tied down by compound obligations. To them Cape Town might as well have been the moon.
And you Maria, how are you? she asked.
Ah, Maria said, shifting in her seat, still fanning herself, I am not well. I have a pain in my leg, it won’t go. I am old.
I know what you mean, Laura said, recognising the prepared complaint of a woman her age.
My daughter, Maria said, She works in a nice shop in Joburg. She has a child, but I never see them.
I have the same, Laura said. Or almost the same. I never see my daughter and her child. She is five now already.
I remember your daughter is married. She has a child? You must be so happy.
As they talked, Laura felt a subtle shift around the room as more of the women began to listen, as more of the conversation around her switched into English.
But you are fine, Laura, in the house by yourself…?
And she trailed off, and Laura wondered what Gloria had told her friends. She wondered if she had told them about her illness, her neglect of the children, or if she had mentioned the fact that ten years ago Laura had caught her husband in a brief affair with his pretty, blonde tax accountant. Before she could answer in much detail, a cry went up from outside in the yard and the older women got up from the chairs and sofas – the food was ready, and they were first in line.
Outside in the yard, Laura sat at a small plastic table, eating her pap and stew. The gossip and talk around her had escalated to a new level, and she felt herself giving in to it, listening in when she could, answering questions when the group’s attention turned to her.
Finally, making her excuses, she stood to go, determined to get home before it got dark, before her husband got home and she had to explain where she had been. She said goodbye to Sara, and to the other women and walked out to where she had parked some way down the street. In the hot and silent interior of her car she looked at herself in the visor mirror again, studying the face that looked back at her.
It was half an hour or so later, somewhere on the highway from White River, that she had to stop by the side of the road in a sheltered spot. She pulled up the handbrake, put on the hazard lights and then let the tears come. She had to search blindly for tissues in the cubbyhole, and dab frantically at her eyes. But, as much as she tried to staunch the flow they kept on coming. Like a burst dam, like a hydrant flooding a street, she could not stop. And silent tears built into successive waves of body-shaking sobs.
And she was ashamed, so ashamed, because she knew that these tears were not for Gloria, or for Sara. They weren’t even for the old women she had sat with all afternoon – those women who had spent their lives cleaning houses while they scraped together enough money to feed, clothe, and send to school an endlessly extended family. No, she wasn’t crying for any of those people, she was crying for herself – tears and sobs wracked her body and she felt herself falling.
She remembered that awful time after Michael had come out – he was seventeen, so young – when days later she had sat in the kitchen in front of him sobbing like this.
Stop crying, he’d screamed at her, standing across the room. You’re making this all about you. This isn’t about you.
And here I am again, she said now to herself. Making it all about me.
And she laughed, chuckling at the pathetic figure she must seem right then – an old woman crying in her car by the side of the road. She thought about what Gloria might have said. She took several deep and shuddering breaths. She looked up through the windscreen of her car at the bright sky, calming herself. Finally, she reached over into the footwell of the passenger seat and dug into her handbag for her phone. Steadying her nerve, she called Michael.
He picked up on the third ring, and, before he could say anything she said, her voice surprisingly even, Listen sweetie, can I come and stay with you for a little while. I don’t know how long, but…can I?
Mom? Of course you can. What’s wrong? Are you okay?
She didn’t know what to say. She so seldom did. She took a deep breath, and then she said, I’m fine. Just feel like seeing you. So I can come and stay? Next week?
Yes, of course. It will be lovely. I’ll have a bit more time from Tuesday once I’ve handed this project in, and then we can see the city, get a bit drunk, maybe go up the coast to see the wildflowers…
That would be great. I’m looking forward to it.
Me too, mom.
Goodbye mom, chat soon.
She looked at the now silent phone in her hand, and then she put it back in her handbag. She wiped her eyes one last time, before she carefully pulled back onto the highway.
Five minutes later she came over the final hill before home, looking down at the city spread out in the valley before her. And it was as she flew down that hill, freewheeling with her foot off the pedal, that she began to hear the singing in the church rising all around her once more. She felt again the sense of the wide and endless sky overhead.
As she fell down the hill towards home she thought of Gloria in that church on Sundays. She thought of Gloria with her own family, standing in her own kitchen. She thought of Gloria the last time she had seen her, frail, but still the same woman.
And, as she reached the bottom of the hill she looked up, and she thought of the sky again, the sky overhead, the sky and Gloria.