Slave Labour

by Allan Kolski Horwitz

Piscator leans out over the railing. The flat is three storeys up and he can see the half moon above the building across the road; the Ponte tower’s cell-phone advert is blinking madly because that is its nature, but also because his mind is revved up and jagged. Darkness has not brought relief. He has spent the whole day in a frenzy.

In the morning he had sat with Virginia and the whole story had come out. She had spoken without stop for what seemed an eternity then looked down at her hands. Piscator had sat dumbfounded. How could all this be true? How could this be her life? How could she have been so composed up to now? She had spoken in a torrent then just looked down at her hands.

“And now, what is happening now? Are you still . . . going for walks?”

She had averted her eyes. “They need another four thousand before they let me go.”

“And this work? You said you have other cleaning jobs? Is that a lie?”

She had started to cry. “You are the only man I clean for. This is the truth. You would have told me to leave if you knew the other things.”

“Well . . . don’t judge me too quickly. But these men, do they know about me?”

“They don’t mind if I come here so long as I bring them the money.”

“And you do, right? You give them every cent.”

“I told you, I want to leave them! I want to pay them so I can be free. I hate this life.”

“Maybe you hate it, but you are being a fool. It doesn’t matter what you pay them. They will say they need more. It will never end. Why don’t you just run away?”

“How can I do that? They know my family. They will cause trouble with my family. They will tell them what I have been doing. I will never be able to go home again.”

They had sat silent, Piscator boiling inside. How can they use her like this? These animals! This was bondage and it was going on in front of him. But then another thought had come to infuriate him: if she was living this double life, how could he be certain that she really cared for him? How stupid to think that she, a young and desirable woman, could really be attracted to him!

“So you want four thousand rand. That’s it, and then you’ll be free.”

Virginia had taken his hand. “Of course you are angry, and you are right to be angry. I should have told you this a long time ago but I was scared. You have done so much for me already. I am ashamed.” She had laid her head on his shoulder. “Please forgive me. You are such a good man. You are the best man . . . I just want to work for you and make you happy. I am not a bad person. But . . . my daughter, she must get what she needs. I must bear my cross and provide for her.”

She had nestled against him but, without thinking, he had pushed her away. “Are you crazy? Best man, yes, and you want to come here and sleep with me while you carry on with that business? How can you?” His whole being shuddered at the thought of a random procession of men paying for the chance to play with her body. “Leave them! Leave them now and come and live with me! Come straight here with your child, you can live with me!”

“I can’t. They follow me to see what I am doing. And they will hurt you if I have not paid them.”

Piscator had gotten to his feet. “Why are you so scared? No, you are just a bloody whore come to cheat me. Get out of here! Go!” Then he had covered his face. “You came with your lies three months ago and I believed you. How much have I given you already?”

Virginia had stood in the middle of the room, eyes glistening. “I lied to you. Yes, I did. But I had no choice. How could I expect you to let me work for you if you knew the truth?” She had come closer to him. “But don’t forget you were the one to kiss me. You were the one to take my hand. I didn’t try to take you to bed.”

He had looked at her – her neat, compact figure, her smooth, glowing skin, her firm breasts pushing up from under her jersey (those breasts he loved to cup in his hands), her rounded thighs that yielded so much pleasure. He had stood and looked at her and suddenly

known that he had no choice, he had to give her the money and pray that she was telling the truth, that the malaitas would let her leave, would let her pack up and take her child and move to his flat and let her live a new life with him; he had to believe that this miracle would not be snuffed out so that the alcohol blur of the past two years would not descend again and turn him into a gibbering old man without purpose, without hope, without time that meant something. He had held her face in his hands, searched her eyes. Then he had gone to his bedroom and written out a cash cheque.

“Here, go to the money changers at the market, then pay those thugs. Don’t waste time. Come here with your child. Come tonight.”

She had raised his hand, kissed it. Then she had sought his mouth. At first he had been unresponsive, still too tensed up with anger, but as he felt her soft and wet tongue open his lips, he had fallen again into the delicious zone of her warmth and beauty. Finally, slowly disengaging from his arms, she had said, “I knew you would help me. Truly you are the best man I have ever known. I will never lie to you again. God bless us, may we have many happy days together. I will come as soon as I have paid them. Tonight we will be together. Nothing will part us again.”

So she had left, and the long wait had started, the agony of hope stretching across the minutes and hours. At first he had sat without moving, covered his face with his hands and prayed to St Francis, prayed that this new life would not fall apart. He had sat, hunched in an old armchair and tried to steady himself, tried to ignore the bottle that was open on the table just an arms length away. He had sworn to drown his mind in other concerns, prepared to devour the Sunday papers,books, magazines, anything to avoid thinking about Virginia. But nothing had helped – only the story of the latest pyramid scheme debacle coming out of New York had briefly held his attention. Damn, the century was still so young but already experts were saying such a scam could not be repeated, it had been so audacious, of such magnitude, suckered the smartest of international investors for almost twenty years.

After reading one other section, the European soccer results, he had gone for a stroll round the block, and then to the park to feed the pigeons. Since he was a child, St Francis has been his favourite saint. But when he held out bread near the swings, watching the kids tumble about while discreetly eyeing their buxom mothers sprawled on the grass, the birds ignored him, only showing interest in the dry crumbs as they hit the ground. Then he had headed back to the flat and dozed off – perhaps sleep would deaden his anxiety; in any case an afternoon nap is always a good thing, especially at his age. And since his retirement a nap has become not just an occasional siesta but a firm part of his routine. Two years without purpose, alone since Rosa had died, too demoralised to look for another job despite the financial strain,some days he didn’t bother getting up as cobwebs began to thicken in corners and the fridge took on the smell of half rotting vegetables; indeed, sleep had become an easy way to kill time.

Now standing on the balcony in his bathrobe, whiskey glass in hand (by noon, whenshe had not come, his resolution had crumbled, and he’d already downed four shots, and his shots are always doubles), he regards the half moon. Suspended like a lop-sided mouth, it reminds him of the woman next door. Lucretia, a fifty-something from Kwa Mashu, is usually in a bad mood. Most days she swings her mpundus at any man in sight. And, yes, they often present a tempting roll, though at the end of the month, being broke, the sway resembles an oil tanker lurching in a mid-ocean storm.

He goes back into the living-room, checks his phone. Still no call from her. Why hasn’t she come? Are they holding her? Are they mistreating her now that they know she wants to leave? He thinks back to the day Virginia had come knocking, trying to find work; any sort of work. When he had opened the door, and looked through the security gate bars, and she had smiled engagingly, and spoken in quiet but persuasive tones, the deep blacknessof her skin shining with a polished smoothness. He had invited her in, and they had sat in the living room where he had offered her tea, and she had accepted, and he had asked her all the basic questions one asks in such a situation, and her replies were clear and good humoured. And when he had found himself agreeing to her coming to clean the flat and doing his ironing, he was shocked to realise that he wished for her to already stay; to already make herself at home and take over all aspects of running it – he, who was too poor to afford a maid, was now committing himself to pay her a hundred rand a day and throw in a meal for a job which would take three or four hours. And when she had pressed his hand and gushingly thanked him, he had almost blushed because her look was so grateful and trusting. So she had come to clean the flat, and after the third week he had praised all the benign powers of the universe when she had allowed him to kiss her; and then after the fifth week he had bowed to an old photograph of the pope when she had allowed him to caress her; and after the eighth week he had sworn to give charity to a boys orphanage when she had allowed him to remove her bra and fondle her breasts. And after the twelfth week, when she had finally allowed him to lead her to the bedroom and they had made love, he had rattled off the names of a hundred saints and martyrs and blessed them all without distinction. How natural that later that day as she was about to leave, when she had asked if she could have a loan of five hundred, (the loan was for her family in Bulawayo – they were starving), he had gladly agreed. Of course, more long termshe owed it to them to bring them, one by one, to Jo’burg; yes, life was a struggle here but compared to Zim it was still bearable. Ah, Virginia, his new love; his first woman since Rosa had died – that was four years back already; four unbearable years of trying to adapt.

After the invasion, while Home was stuck between traitorous Magyar idiots and murderous Russians (no this, no that, no nothing except ‘Da, Kamerad Commissar’), staying on in Budapest was impossible. He and Rosa had come to Jo’burg separately but the Hungarian club had brought them together. The clubs had made all the difference for it was tough not knowing anyone. Apart from trying to find you a job, the network had promised to look after your social life as well as organising an apartment. Fortunately getting a job was easy. They needed diesel mechanics and he was good. Finding a flat in Hillbrow was also no problem. And yet, those first few months had been depressing. The Afrikaners were arrogant and stiff. Theyseemed not to forgive foreigners for not knowing their language even though you were helping to build their country. And the English were snobbish – who were these East Europeans with dirty collars and slobbering accents? As for the Blacks, they were, if not invisible, too scared to look a white man in the eye. But after that first contract, a second one, fixing boilers at the high security coal to oil plant in Vereeniging, offered even better money. And after that, there was another contract, and another. And they’d moved back to Jo’burg and for thirty years he hadn’t stopped working, and the country, with its uneven mixture of Europe and Africa, had slowly became a second familiar home, its crude customs taking on a more natural, acceptable face, and that first small flat off Claim Streethad long since been surpassed by a much bigger one in Yeoville.

Rosa . . . what a woman! Silver hair waved and stacked up, sequin dresses for the annual dances, high heels and tight skirts for the everyday. Their romance had gone on for years. But they’d had no kids even though numerous specialists had taken tests and prescribed different drugs and she was pretty miserable about that, but they kind of made up for the lack of kids by going out as much as possible. As for work, Rosa was a good bar lady (not too flirtatious!) but they caught her short several times, so that first job had gone up in smoke, and they’d caught her short at the next one as well, and the next, till eventually he couldn’t believe she was innocent. It just didn’t make sense that all these hotels and pubs were victimising her – not every damn one of them. So he’d had to accept that she had this thing about taking money, was getting some kind of thrill from filching because it was never big amounts but just enough to get her into trouble. And she had refused to speak about it unless he insisted, just kept saying they were narrow minded idiots who didn’t like her accent though the customers found it charming, or that she was too popular and the other bar ladies were jealous; and finally that the missing amounts were almost certainly taken by the Black cleaners who were all stealing left, right and centre.

The end result of all these dismissals was that she’d stopped working after their fifth year together (the last incident turned very nasty and the police were brought in), and he’d insisted she stay at home while he worked for the two of them. A suggestion that she go to a psychologist for therapy was shot down in a fury, the resulting scene traumatic enough for him to never raise that again. Indeed, he loved her too much to let her go despite the financial squeeze, and as long as this illness didn’t affect him directly she could carry on without treatment. And then, after a while, it was quite natural for her to be a housewife because she cooked and cleaned expertly and made him feel good at night; made him feel like a king in bed. Hell, whatever he’d wanted she’d been ready to give! So they’d gotten by, he working overtime for extra money and taking private jobs on the weekends, and she ready to show how much she loved and needed him. They’d bought the flat in Yeoville and for twenty years life ticked on without incident. Then, when Rosa had suddenly died, he’d been unbearably lonely, had even gone back to Hungary for a few weeks only to find his old school and neighbourhood friends were like strangers and his family quite distant. The few people he still saw from the early Hillbrow days were pleasant enough but the link wasn’t as strong as it had been (many of the old crowd had also passed on). Maybe they’d always just liked Rosa, and her death was reason enough to sidestep his phone calls. Adding to his isolation was the growing exodus of White families and other Europeans from the building. One by one, the flats were sold to Blacks – the Nigerians paying cash to old Berovsky, the locals securing special bonds. Soon he was the only one left; even the caretaker changed. And, then, when he was at his lowest, had come the miracle of Virginia – a chance to again feel the warmth of a woman’s attention, a chance to celebrate each morning. And what a woman! One who kept the flat spotless and was as clean and careful as Rosa, also refusing to let him touch her when her periods started,and one who had swornthat she had no other lovers,that he could stop using condoms, and when he had done so, no terrible disease had followed.

Yes, life had certainly changed with Virginia. So when she’d told him she needed athousand rand to get official residence papers from the department of home affairs (part bribe, part fee), he had been more than accommodating. How could he jeopardise her attention and care? Then a few days later, when she had asked him if he wanted her to give up her other cleaning jobs and spend more time with him, he had been filled with a sharp and luxurious joy; and the following week when she had requested a one month advance of another thousand to help her with rent, he had popped up without qualms.Who cared if she was black and his old friends would feel uncomfortable with her? She showed him love – that was all that counted. Only two days afterwards she had requested another five hundred for groceries for her brothers’ family who had just arrived in Jo’burg, and he was also obliging. But this time, instead of hugs of gratitude, she had been cool to him. And when he had tried to embrace her at the ironing board, she had ignored him.

“What’s wrong, my darling? I’ve just given you a big present for your family. Aren’t you pleased?” He had tried again, but once more she’d evaded him. “Just a kiss, my darling! What have I done wrong? Tell me, I’m not a wall or something …”

She had taken his hand and begun crying. He had pleaded with her to take him into her confidence, but she had told him it was too difficult to talk about, and left with swollen eyes. Later that evening he had received an sms:  Tings aren’t wat they seem. We ar 3. They

 

brought us from zim. Work 4 them until I buy mi freedom. Itz not yo fault. He had sat at the kitchen table reading and rereading the sms. What was going on? Was she being held prisoner? Who was ‘they’?  What did it mean that ‘we are 3’? Were these other members of her family? But most disturbing was the phrase stating that she was working for these mysterious ‘them’ until her freedom could be bought. Bought? For how much?

Piscator had poured himself a stiff shot, and phoned her but she didn’t pick up. He’d tried again, finally sent an sms: I don’t understand. But if u r in truble I wil help. I wil surely help. Come see me. I love u. Mi home is yours. There had been no reply that night, but early the next morning his phone had rung, and he had wheezed down the stairs to open the main gate. She, too, was breathless. They had embraced then sat together on the sofa in the living room, her hand in his.

“The malaitas are men who bring you across the border. They know the ways past the soldiers. They come to the villages and make their promises – work, a place to live. They say you can pay them back little by little, they don’t need money right off. And they don’t mind if you bring one child with you. They are rich men, with kombis, trucks. They know what to do with the soldiers. They bring many, many people across. You know how hungry we are.” She had stopped. “We are three women, from the same village. We are neighbours there. When we come across the border the soldiers stop us. The malaitas have to pay them extra money.

But we cross. We arrive here in Yeoville. They bring us to a flat in Page Street. They lock us in then they go away. We sit not knowing what to do. After three days we break the door and go out into the street. We stop the people, first only the ones we think are from home. We tell them what has happened but they laugh. They say we are fools to have trusted these thieves.

Now we must pray and wait for them to come back.” She had shaken her head. “Then we stop the South African people. They say they don’t know of these things, we must sort out our own problems. We go back to the flat. Praise God the man next door has mercy on us. He brings bread and a tin of fish. And next day the malaitas come back. They say we are lucky. They say they got held by police, it took them three days to find enough money. We do not know whether to believe them, but they give us food and washing powder for our clothes. Then they tell us we must get ready for work next day. The big man, his name is Daniel, he says work in restaurants is now hard to find, it is also hard to find house work or gardening. He says they want to stop bringing people from home because the people can’t find work here just like at home. And if they can’t work, how can they pay them what they owe? One of my sisters starts crying. She begs him to find her work. Then this Daniel says maybe there is a way to make everything alright. He knows a lady who makes big money. She has been here in good times and bad, but always she makes enough money to send home to her mother, and her children are at the best school inBulawayo, learning English, and they get food every month without missing a month. Then he laughs, he says she makes herself pretty and goes for a walk. And then, at the end of the day, she always comes back with at least five hundred rand. We look at him and he tells us the other man with him will take us out for the walk, he will look after us, see the tsotsis don’t come. He says we must put on our best clothes and be ready to leave at ten o’clock the next morning, he will find someone to look after the children.”

She had told him this story with tears in her eyes, clutching his hand as she recalled the terror of being stuck in the flat in a strange city far from her village, her daughter crying for food, unable to understand what was happening to them. And now, many hours later, he looks down from the balcony recalling those tears, her entreaties; recalling his joy at the change she had brought into his life. Damn, where is she now? What has gone wrong? He looks down at the streets full of black people either hurrying to or returning from church, their costumes creating the impression of a multitude of ancient Hebrews – white, blue, green robes, staffs in hand, turbaned heads, young children similarly clothed, all striding along with great holy purpose under the Vodacom sign crowning Ponte as it relentlessly flashes: be in touch, connect, communicate – all the copywriting slogans the cell-phone industry has devised to bombard the sleeping and waking masses.

He shuffles into the living room, picks up his phone. But there is no answer – the phone is dead, not even a voicemail facility operating. Her phone has been like this since he first tried to find out how things are going, if the Liberian money changers have accepted the cheque, if the malaitas have agreed she can leave. Sweet Jesus, make her to be telling the truth! Make her an honest woman who is not fooling me, who is truly ready to share her life! He phones someone else to check if the fault is not with him – but the ring tone is normal and the person answers. It is unbearable, this hoping against hope, this praying she will somehow stop being the seller of favours, the whore on the corner blowing kisses, shifting her thighs as men drive pass, as they turn their heads, respond with their loins, their fantasies. Then he laughs at himself. How can he believe she will arrive at his flat clutching a suitcase, holding a small child by the hand as she mounts the stairs to become his live-in servant, his saviour? How can she renounce her own people even though she is a prisoner of their own cruel, unscrupulous, desperate attempts to survive?

Piscator slumps into a sagging armchair, switches on the television. The night is very dark outside despite the streetlights. He doesn’t bother pouring, just swigs from the bottle.

*

In the early hours of the morning the buzzer rings. At first he does not hear it; the whisky has sent him into a deep sleep. But the ringing persists and eventually he wakes. Half conscious, he asks who it is. He hears her voice. At last, she has come! Still fuzzy, he buzzes her in, runs to open the front door. He sees her coming up the stairs, but with her is another man, a tall black man with a shaven head in a leather jacket. Before he has time to react, the man pushes him aside, and they both enter the flat.

“Ah, so you’re the lucky one, the one feasting. You have had it good, old man. You have done well with our woman. You have done well. Now listen to me. Keep quiet and listen.” The black man had poked him in the chest.” Listen carefully and do as |I say and no one will get hurt. She has told me she wants to leave us and live with you. Maybe that is good – good for you, maybe even good for her. But the money she brought is not enough, not at all.We have talked to her and she understands. We have spent much on her and her child. We have given them food and paid for their clothes, their medicines, their taxi fares, for many, many things. The money is not enough. If you want this woman, then you must pay us another two thousand. Yes, another two thousand. That is what we need. And then, my friend, we will let her be, let the two of you love each other forever.” The snigger hangs in the air.

“Isn’t that a good way to do things? Just pay me now and she can fetch her child and her things and live with you for as long as you like.”

Piscator stands unable to speak, barely able to breathe. Will the man hit him? Will he be struck down or shot? How is he to manage this? He is so taken aback that he is barely aware of Virginia who stands apart from the man, hardly looking at him, also paralyzed by fear. Eyes swollen, she holds her one arm as if it has been badly hurt.

The man barks at him. “Hurry up! Fetch the money.”

“I don’t have two thousand rand.”

“What do you mean? Get it now before there is really trouble.”

“I don’t have money here, in the flat.”

Virginia suddenly lurches forward. “Please give it to him. He will hurt you. He beats all of us.” For the first time Piscator sees that the side of her face is bruised, and that she is breathing heavily. “Please, for all our sakes!”

“I can only give him a cheque. I don’t keep so much cash here.”

The man says, “Give me a cheque – a cash cheque. I can change anything. You stay here in this flat until tomorrow afternoon. You stay here and no phoning. Otherwise – trouble, big trouble, my friend. You understand?”

Piscator feels his legs collapse but Virginia runs forward and catches him. “Oh, my God!” She helps him stagger to the bedroom. “Where is your cheque book? Please, just give him what he wants. I will come straight back with my daughter. Please, he mustn’t kill you!”

“In the drawer. Over there.”

She brings him the cheque book. “Here, sign. I will fill in everything else.”

Piscator signs. Virginia starts crying and gives the cheque to the man who grabs her by the arm and pushes her towards the door.

“Old man, stay where you are and no funny business. You hear? You want her to be  alright?”

*

Weeks later, while walking in Raleigh Street on his way back from the supermarket he sees them – Virginia and the black man. They are talking together, laughing with a young girl, who skipping between them, is undeniably their daughter.

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