by Pamela Tommy
How many blarrie times must I tell you stupid coloureds my name is not Meggie. Look at my mouth, it’s Mag – gie, see, all you have to do is open your mouth wide, give it some exercise and say Maggie, not Meggie! I’m so sick of telling you the same thing over and over again. But you lot never want to learn anything, all you want to do is behave like pigs.
She slouched back against the wall and closed her eyes, no longer wishing to see the drunken no-hope lot scratching in the bins and boxes in the alleyway of the supermarket. Soon that snotty female in her tickey heels and supervisor uniform will come along and sniff around them as if she were smelling some shit. She’d get on to the phone thing and call the security people to move them along. Sometimes, like today when she was in this uppity mood, she had to agree with the cow that they were all just shit and she really didn’t want to be lumped with this filthy lot of nomads.
Oo, Here( Lord), Meggie is again in one of her speaking-for-England kak, now we no longer good for her. But jus’ wait till she want me to give her a drukkie then I’m again good enough. She mus’ maa’ fine her own posh people an’ leave us by ourself. We hev to hear all de time about her gren’ fem’ly. Why don’ s’e jus’ fok orf en leave us, we mos don’ ars’ her to stay, s’e hev to make up her mine where s’e want to be.
He walked away, muttering under his breath and pushed the trolley until he could find a spot where he could lie down and rest his tired body. They had been walking from the shelter of the carpark near the rugby grounds and they were constantly having to dodge the traffic along the Main Road. Those bastards in their flashy cars deliberately tried to run them down as they sped by not minding any speed limits. He shouted after them a lot of the time, wishing they would drive into the nearest wall. Whenever he did pass a motor accident he would spit disdainfully and gloat over their misfortune. Serve de fokkers right for treating him and his friends like dirt.
He had become used to Maggie’s moods but he could not understand any of it and he could never tell when it was going to happen. He thought of her as of a chameleon but at least with a chameleon you knew when it was going to change. With Maggie it wasn’t to do with the places they happened to find themselves in, or was it? He wasn’t sure. And his brain was so fuzzy from all the rubbish they drank and ate that he didn’t remember half the time where they had been. He did know that it was important to this woman that she didn’t lose the part of her that had learned to speak proper English, she was always trying to teach them to say things the right way. No, he was too tired to try to sort out Maggie’s problems, he had more than enough of his own stuff to think about.
Old Willem came to lie down on the patch of ground that he had started to fix up for himself and was irritated that he couldn’t be left alone with his thoughts. He wished he could have a place of his own but when he thought of paying rent and all the other bills that you had when you had a posse of your own he shut out the whole idea. This was the life, no one to worry about, just him alone and no responsibilities. Only it would be nice if he and Maggie could be together like real married people. No, forget that, Maggie was too beneuks, they would probably kill each other. Now, Willem was starting to sing that fokking crazy song at the top of his voice and some of the schoolkids were pointing at him and saying rude things about the two of them. Maggie was putting on her best English and asking them if their parents hadn’t taught them any manners. One or two of them had the decency to look away and separate themselves from the other unruly lot. Willem looked at them and commented on the fact that they were never allowed to be rude to anybody, especially older people: Maar hulle dink ons is mossie mense nie, in his strong Northern Cape accent. The faraway look that came into his eyes must have meant that he was once again back on the farm those many miles away, amid the silence of nature that he often talked about. This was not what he had wanted for himself when he was a young man but all the beatings that he had received at the hands of the farmer and his younger sons had become too unbearable and as soon as he could he made his escape to the MotherCity. Why did they call it the MotherCity when there was nobody to mother you in this cruel city? Thank God, he had found Arrie and Maggie and the others! They had looked after him a lot and taught him all sorts of useful things when you live on the streets.
Now he was starting his song again: I don’ care whut ew ewse to be but I know whut ew aar today.
Willem, no men, a person mus’ hev a res’ frum dis kak you sing all de time.
Maggie chorused her approval and told Willem it reminded her of her father who also used to love this particular song but she did wonder if Willem didn’t know the rest of the words to the song. Willem laughed heartily and showed his sunken toothless gums. No, he didn’t know any of the other words, he just remembered someone singing it, he couldn’t remember who and where any longer and enjoyed singing that line over and over again. He had loved to sing when he was a young boy but the boer always told him to shut up and get on with his work. This is why he loved to sing now because he was free to sing so Arrie must please not tell him to shut up, it made him upset to think about those bad people. He wondered what had happened to all the others since Mandela got out of prison; did that boer still have the farm or did he run away from South Africa because he said he was never going to live under the kaffirs. He had promised Katriena that he would fetch her when he had found a job and a house for them and they could be married but things were too hard and he had trouble finding a decent job and he met all the wrong people who stole all his money and things and used to make him so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing. He was too ashamed to go back and find the rest of his family and friends and Katriena. She must have found another man by now, it was such a long time ago. So he turned over away from Arrie and started to cry softly, he didn’t want Arrie to see him behaving like a woman.
Arrie took out his old mouth-organ and started to play the same tune that Willem had sung a few minutes ago, the damned thing was sticking to their brains and before anything else came out it was that song that annoyed both him and Maggie so much.
Willem, blerrie yell, nou speel ek die strond wat djy sing piere! Maggie, (he was sure to open his mouth wide to pronounce her name the way she wanted it), come here, my swierraat, you hear I say your name egzeckly like you like it. Whut you want me to play for you? Willem’s kak don’ wanna go out from my head.
Play Tennessee Waltz! That’s my favourite number. That was their number; he learned to dance to it with her brother-in-law teaching him so that they could go to the New Year’s Eve Ball in the RondeboschTown Hall. What a wonderful night that was, their very first ball, the music, balloons, the poppers and don’t forget all the champagne and huge platters of food of every description. The guys were drunk, but just merry; those days she knew nothing about drinking, she did not want to touch the stuff ever. She remembered with the utmost clarity the white chiffon and net dress she wore, the silver sandals, little white lace gloves and the white beaded clutch bag. Her hair had been straightened and she had become so on-edge sitting in that hairdresser in Darling Street for hours, the crowded salon with all the girls and women participating in an air of New Year expectancy. It was worth waiting as her hair was so beautifully flicked.
He arrived on time and although she smelled the alcohol on his breath she didn’t mind too much as he was so handsome and he looked like a movie star in his suit and tie to match the pocket handkerchief. Her mother brought the lace mantilla to cover her coiffed hair as she did not want her daughter’s hair to ‘go home’ as the local saying went. Last-minute touches completed they were ready to make their way to the station. She was mad with pride as her parents stood on the front stoep waving them off and wishing them a wonderful night. Cinderella must have felt this way, she was on her way to the ball with her prince. They too had to watch the time to catch the last train back. Fortunately, trains were running past midnight to give them the opportunity at least to see the New Year in with all the revellers. She would never be able to explain the sensations that washed over her that midnight when the countdown to the New Year started and Auld Lang Syne was sung lustily by the merrymakers. When he lifted her off her feet and kissed her long and sensuously her whole world was fulfilled. They talked all the way back to her home about their plans together. Her parents were still up when they got in and New Year’s greetings with all the family started all over again. He kept looking at his watch and insisted on walking back home despite her parents’ offer for him to sleep there. No, it was a family tradition, he said, that they were at home for New Year’s morning breakfast. Her parents thought it was a lovely tradition and would not dream of changing his mind.
It had been a long, thrilling night and she was too wound up to fall asleep and lay tossing in bed, her mind swirling around all of their conversation and happiness of the ball. When the loud knocking shocked her out of her imaginings she jumped up and rushed to the door, believing that it might be her darling boyfriend at the same time thinking that he had never knocked so rudely, he was so much the gentleman. The two policemen apologised for disturbing the family but it was an urgent matter that could not wait.
Who is this blarrie will making such a racket early in the morning? We only just fell asleep and now all this noise. What the hell’s going on? And then her father saw the policemen and immediately calmed down. What can we do for you, Officer? He was now more than a little put out because his son had not yet come home.
Sir, we are terribly sorry to bring you bad news on this happy day. Now her mother and two sisters had joined them in the lounge, every face contorted with anxiety. Which one of you is Margaret, Maggie? the big policeman enquired, turning to the three girls. Her mind had now become blurry and her legs were shaking violently. It could only have to do with her Bobby; what did this have to do with her if it didn’t have something to do with him. Her mother folded her to her bosom as the cruel words were pronounced: We are terribly sorry to tell you that he was murdered a short while ago.
Where, when, how? they were chorusing simultaneously.
Right on his doorstep, stabbed to death. She was hearing words spoken that somehow did not belong to anyone she knew, words that had nothing to do with her and Bobby. It was a foreign language and she refused to acknowledge that her Bobby with whom she had spent the most perfect of times would never lift her off her feet again and love her the way he had done in that ballroom last night; nobody had the right to steal that from her. Who would want to perform such a dastardly act on this gentle man, this man who would not harm a living creature? It could not possibly be an act against him personally, it had to be one of mistaken identity or just random madness. Nobody who knew Bobby had a bad word to say against him. She heard nothing further about the conversation, she knew people were bustling around her but she had locked herself far away inside her mind’s world. Her mother helped her back to the bedroom and tucked her in. She came back with a strong drink, brandy she learned later.
Arrie started to play the song Maggie had requested and she swayed gently from side to side to the waltz, her hands over her bowed head. He wondered what this song meant to Maggie but you could forget about trying to worm it out of her, she refused vehemently to discuss her past life. Who was Maggie? He did not even know what her other name was, he did not know if she had ever married or if she had any children. A complete mystery. But any fool who listened to her speaking and who cared to look closely at her would realise that she was from a good English-speaking background and that once she must have been a very lovely-looking woman. He wished he had the power to solve the mystery. He wished he could return her to the kind of person she once was and to turn her into the lady she really was.
She got up slowly when the tune was ended and wiped off the dirt and dust that had attached itself to her clothes. She walked across to him and Willem and thanked him for the beautiful music: Yes, Arrie, you know how to play that thing. That’s my favourite song.
Why, Maggie? Does it bring back memories?
Mind your own damned business! I don’t ask you out, so don’t you stick your nose in my affairs.
O.K., O.K. Maggie, I was just trying to be friendly. He watched her putting some more cardboard into her trolley and was saddened that she did not think he was a good enough friend to confide her life story to. He knew she buried a great deal of pain inside her heart but there was so little he could do to soften that sadness. In a way she was right because what good was he anyway, another homeless lost soul who was in no position to help anyone when he couldn’t even sort out his own problems.
Maggie felt annoyed with herself for being so unkind to Arrie, after all, he was right, he was trying to be friendly and merely wanting to help. She prayed for the time she could say goodbye to Bobby, it was such a long time ago, she was only just out of her teens when he was murdered and now she was an old woman. She had tried so hard in the earlier days to carry on with her life and listened to everyone telling her that time would heal the wound but nothing she tried relieved her of the heartache. She had begun to neglect her appearance, she had stopped going out with her sisters and friends and one by one friends and acquaintances dropped her from their invitations. Her sisters had married and families were expanding but she remained a prisoner to Bobby’s murderer or murderers who had never been arrested. All sorts of rumours surrounded his death; the gossipmongers had implicated her, she had had other men who had acted out of revenge and that his death was a crime of passion. It was such a pack of slanderous lies because there had never been anyone apart from Bobby, he really was her first and only boyfriend and love. She was inconsolable when she first heard the rumour from her sister and she no longer went with the family to church, feeling that every member of the congregation was pointing an accusatory finger at her. She was drinking more and more, hiding the bottles of brandy and pretending to have a migraine headache. It came as a major shock to the family when they did discover that she was drunk most of the time. But, while her parents were still around she was protected from the wrath of her sisters and brother who could not handle her moods and antisocial behaviour, they did not want their decent friends to witness a sister of theirs in her drunken state. More and more fabrications were created about her status. It was an enormous weight off their shoulders when their parents died; first their father, quite suddenly, a couple of years after Bobby’s murder and then several years later, their mother after a long and lingering illness. That was the only time that Maggie had long periods of sobriety but when her mother died she knew it was the last bond to her family and the heavy drinking began afresh.
Her brother forcefully threw her out with her bag of meagre belongings. Where was she going, she was so drunk at the time it had not dawned on her that she no longer had a home to go to, no family to turn to. It was only when she found herself sitting around a fire with this man, Arrie, that she realised the enormity of her loss. She had sobered up for a bit and had talked to him about life on the street. She did not want to hear his woeful tale because she had no desire to pass on details of who she was and why she was in these narrow straits and so the years evaporated for the two of them until poor old Willem joined their tiny band. From time to time another waif or stray would be added to their group but their trio would only allow such intrusion temporarily. She knew Arrie wanted more from her but she was never going to betray Bobby’s memory, never.
Come on, you two fools, are you going to stay here all day or must I go on by myself. Her legs were feeling stiff and sore from sitting on that hard ground and she needed to exercise them. She looked up to see the young woman with the tickey heels once again wanting to rid the place of them. As she stopped in front of her she noticed the shiny gilded name badge pinned to the lapel of her smart uniform jacket: their surname, an unusual one and the girl’s first name, hers – Margaret; it had to be her niece, her brother’s daughter. Thank goodness, there was no way this girl would tie her to her own family, no way that she would realise that her father had named her after this drunk. Why had he done that? Guilt for having chucked her out. Or love, remembered, for the one they had shared all those happy early years ago.