The JRB presents a new short story by Barbara Boswell.
The 06:55 train is late again. I groan as the seconds on my watch tick into minutes, panic rising in my throat. By seven o’clock it is inevitable: I will be late again for my nine o’clock tutorial. As the early mornings darkened into winter, I’ve started my pilgrimage from Bellville Station to Rosebank earlier and earlier, en route to the glittering prize of a university on the slopes of Table Mountain. But the more I try to beat the trains, the more determined they seem to be late. I feel like turning around and doing the thirty-minute walk back to Bellville South, this time at a leisurely pace, but I can’t afford to lose a whole day of lectures.
I make peace with the fact I’ll be late for my tut. It will not be the end of the world.
The train pulls in at 07:09, a full fourteen minutes late. Just a quarter of an hour. But time has a strange elasticity when you’re travelling from so far away; one small delay will multiply and trip you up again and again in the space of a morning commute. Your connecting train at Salt River Station will be missed, and you might have to wait there, so close to campus, for an interminable thirty minutes before you can continue.
I board the train, now more overcrowded than usual. It serves me right. I really should have gone to the university just down the road, the one meant for people like me. I would have been able to walk there, even, saving a fistful of money I now spend on weekly train tickets. But I wanted to go to this university. I was the first one from my family to get into university. Why shouldn’t I have gone to my first choice?
I got the letter from my Plan B university first, early in December. My family threw a lunch that doubled as a prayer meeting, to thank the Lord for my good fortune, which ultimately would accrue to all of us.
‘My clever child!’ Granny declared. ‘If anyone in this family was gonna do it, it was you! Thank you Jesus, all my hard work has paid off!’
It was as if she was going to university; Granny, who had only made it to Standard Five.
Then, a few weeks later, when the letter from my first choice arrived, excitement turned to astonishment. This child, this child raised from such difficult circumstances, was going to a white university. She had done better than all the rest at her high school, and look, now, the world was opening up to her. Her future had been secured.
On that day, when the letter came, my granny cried and cried, thanking God so much it sounded more like a lament than a prayer of thanksgiving. She had been vindicated. All her hard work, and now her beloved granddaughter would be going to that posh university on the hill. Who would have thought this was possible?
She hadn’t even known that I’d applied, helped by the guidance counsellor at school. I did it half as a joke. And look at God’s timing, Granny would say in the days that followed. We didn’t even need a special permit, like the doctor’s son down the road a few years ago. It was 1992. A girl like me could now walk freely into any university she wanted, if she had the brains. And that I did.
This morning is one of those days, though, that I regret not going to the university down the road. Why did I choose to go so far above my station? I had been planning to finish the novel we’re discussing today on the train ride. But the train is packed and my body sandwiched against the fleshy parts of strangers. At least they are women, this time. The carriage is so full it’s impossible to get to my backpack and get my book out. I wouldn’t be able to crack it open in this crush anyway.
I hang on to the plastic strap dangling from a rail that runs the length of the carriage ceiling. Women sway around and against me, our bodies heaving as the train jerks to its own staccato beat. Moist, days-old collective sweat rises to the ceiling, mingling with warm breath, fogging the windows. I close my eyes. Waiting for the Barbarians will have to wait. Not only will I be late, but also deficient in my knowledge of how the story ends.
No, not story. Not that. ‘Story’ is a word for children, not a student at the top-ranked university in South Africa. ‘Narrative.’ That’s the word. I don’t know how the narrative ends. I want to cry. I don’t even know the right word for story. This is already a bad day, and I’m not even out of Bellville.
Fifty minutes later, after countless stops along the Bellville line, we pull into Salt River Station. By some miracle I may still make the 08:55 connecting train on the Simon’s Town line. In just two stops, it will deposit me at Rosebank Station, and I might get to my tut in time. But the train doors, stubborn, refuse to open when we finally stop. Restless bodies press towards the double doors; one man has started prying them apart. It feels like long minutes before the doors finally budge and the train belches us out onto the platform.
I bolt up the metal stairs from platform two, across the bridge towards platform five, just in time to see the Simon’s Town train pull out of the station. We are all late, every one of us who needed to catch that train. No one at our destinations will understand, or care why. They will just see us arriving late; that’s that.
I saunter on to platform five. Who knows when the next train will come? I pick up my rhythm, striding up and down the platform, as if speeding up my pace will hurry the next train’s arrival. It comes, we pile in; it stops in the middle of nowhere between Salt River and Observatory Station. Eight precious minutes.
We move. There are far fewer people on this train but I’m too agitated even to attempt the last chapter of Waiting for the Barbarians. The author is a lecturer in our department. I’ve walked by his office a few times, but never seen him. Thank God it is not him teaching this lesson I’m about to be late for.
I position myself against the train door so that I can alight first once we reach Rosebank Station. When we get there, the doors open smoothly. I jump, sprint down the subway and up the narrow lane towards the mountain. The clouds give way to a soft drizzle. I cross Main Road and hit Woolsack Drive. Eight-fifty-five. I am not going to make it on time. Still, I run towards campus, thigh muscles straining against the steepening mountain.
Six minutes past nine. I reach the arts block. Rain streams down my face. I feel sweat trickling between my breasts underneath layers of winter clothing. I wait outside the door of my tutorial room for my breath to even, decide I cannot lose a second more; then enter the windowless room where everyone is settled and taking notes as Todd scribbles a word on the board: ‘Allegory’.
Most of the chairs in the classroom are taken, and I am forced to move right to the front of the room and take a seat at a desk that juts up against the tutor’s table.
Todd turns as I’m about to sit. Please don’t say anything, don’t see me, I pray.
‘Miss Jones. You made it. Welcome!’
A small grin plays on his face. It’s hard to tell whether he is mocking me, or genuinely happy that I’ve made it. He waits while I take off my coat, dig books out of my backpack and settle.
‘We’ve just started discussing the relationship between the magistrate and the barbarian girl. She has injuries and disabilities that intrigue him. We are fleshing out the multiple meanings, the signification of her being. Perhaps you could offer a few thoughts … ?’
My first thought is that my surname is Johns, not Jones. But I don’t say this.
I wipe a fat raindrop from my eyebrow, and watch it splash onto my copy of Waiting for the Barbarians.
The words I want to speak fly out of my head like bats from a cave at twilight. I have nothing to offer, not a clue about significations.
‘The girl … she’s a servant …’
‘Yes, that is she is. And … ?’
‘He likes to touch her feet … washing them. Almost like Jesus, how he washed people’s feet.’
Wrong answer. I see it in his face. In an instant, he dismisses me, moves on past my desk.
‘Not quite. Who can help Miss Jones?’
My head spins. I don’t hear the answers, only Todd’s plummy affirmations.
‘Correct! Yes! Excellent!’
What I wouldn’t give to get an ‘excellent’ from Todd.
But here I sit, with a mouth full of teeth, unable to string together a basic thought. What’s more, I don’t understand it. The book, the story, whatever you want to call it—the narrative. Or what is required of me in making sense of it.
I don’t understand why we are reading a book about an old man touching a young girl like that—starting with her feet, and touching her all over in other places, where he shouldn’t. What is the meaning, Todd asks? There is no higher meaning. It’s wrong, just plain wrong. But that is not the right answer.
There is an essay due on this topic next week. Even though I haven’t yet started to write, I already know that my answer will not be the correct one; that it will never be the one to earn an ‘excellent’ from Todd.
I knew this was going to be a bad day.
Todd comes back to the front of the classroom, writes some more on the board. I should take this down in my notebook, but it won’t help. I am more lost than ever.
Todd turns to face the class. He is so close I could touch him, but his gaze extends beyond me towards the back of the room. It’s like I’m not even there. I want to hate him, but I can’t, because he’s Todd.
And it doesn’t matter, because him not seeing me allows me to look at him at leisure. For months now I have taken him in, slyly. The slight curl outwards of his too-long brown hair. The green eyes, flecked with gold, framed by simple steel-rimmed glasses that make him look like what I know he is, a guy who loves books. Like me—that is what brought me here—my love of books.
I adore reading, was the best reader in my high school, devouring books way beyond my grade. And I love to write. Got the highest marks for all my essays, both English and Afrikaans, in my whole school for two years running. 80, 85, 90 per cent, every time. And then I get to this fancy university and my first assignment comes back to me—58 per cent.
I thought they’d made a mistake. I waited after lectures and queried the lecturer.
She took my paper, looked it over in less than thirty seconds, then laughed. Not a mean laugh, but a pitying one. A laugh that, if Granny were to do it, would be followed by ‘Ag shame!’
There was no mistake, the lecturer informed me, but if I wanted to improve my marks, I should go and speak to the tutor who graded the work. Tutors did all the marking anyway—she would not be able to help me with this.
This was the first time I spoke, alone, to Todd. He invited me into his office. I had never been that close to him, so close I could see stubble dotting his face.
He read through my essay.
I watched him, his long fingers tracing the page, nails neatly filed. Hands that were clean. You could see he didn’t work outside or with machines, like Uncle Keith, or the boys on the corners of Bellville South. I wondered how his hand would feel against mine—if he held my fingers gently, and lifted them against his lips. I let my thoughts rest there while he read. And then felt ashamed, dirty.
He read with attention and care.
‘Ah, yes. It’s common for first-year students to get a bit of a shock when we mark your essays for the first time. This is not like high school. We do a different kind of writing. It’s more analysis than storytelling, which is what most of you do at school.’
Where did that leave me, I wondered.
‘So how can I make my writing better?’
‘It’s really just practice. Did you read my comments in the margins? Do you have questions about them?’
I didn’t. Shame sucked the air out of my lungs. I should at least have come prepared with some sort of question, not waste his time.
‘The best thing to do is to keep working at your writing. And here, let me give you some examples of good writing. We keep some model essays from past years for students like you.’
He walked over to a filing cabinet, extracted a few pages, and handed them to me.
‘Read these, and you will get a feel for the style and type of deep reading and analysis you need to do.’
Deep reading. Now what was that? The question remained unasked.
‘Any other questions?’
No, none. I couldn’t think straight in Todd’s presence anyway. The questions would come fifteen minutes later, when I was gone from his office, or on the train home.
‘Don’t worry too much. You’re a bright student. Keep at it and you’ll get the hang of it.’
He gestured towards the door. It was time to leave.
I stared at him. He was smiling. A slight cleft split his chin.
I wanted to hug him, but just said, ‘Thank you, thank you very much,’ and left.
So I was bright. Todd thought I was bright. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for at least the next hour.
That was months ago. My marks crept up into the sixties, but never over 65 per cent. Maybe that was the best a student like me could expect to do.
Todd looked at me sympathetically at first, and then right through me. I had failed to live up to my potential, my brightness refusing to rise to brilliance.
And now I had said just about the dumbest thing you could on this campus, bringing Jesus into an argument.
It served me right—I should have just gone where people like me belong.
I drift through the rest of the day from one lecture hall to another, one tutorial room to the next. I eat my sandwiches on Jammie Steps, looking out over the vastness of the Cape Flats. From the ivy-covered walls, I try to pinpoint places I’ve been on the living map at my feet. I can never find Bellville.
Then it’s on to the next tut. Wednesdays are my heaviest day. I’ve stacked my courses to spend a few mornings of the week on campus, with a packed day on Wednesday, leaving Thursdays free.
Thursday looms, threatening, over me—I try to push it to the back of my mind, but it crowds through as my day draws to a close. On the train home, I find the mercy of an empty seat, switch myself off, and doze all the way to Bellville.
It’s dark when I enter our maisonette. I mop up with bread the pea-soup granny dishes; in this house, we each eat alone, at whatever time of the evening we return. Uncle Keith arrives an hour later, and I do the dishes after he finishes his supper.
I should read, or work on my assignment, but the chatter from the TV rings through the house. I must wait for Uncle Keith to turn it off, after him and Granny climb the stairs to their bedrooms, before I can make my bed on the couch. I sit at the kitchen table, listening as Uncle Keith’s breath hardens into gentle snoring in front of the TV. Irritation rises in me—he does this every night. Why doesn’t he just go to sleep in his room, so that I can get on with some work?
Granny is upstairs, already in bed. I go up to her to say goodnight, and for a moment, want to be that small girl again who crawls in and falls asleep behind her back. But I’m grown now, a young lady, as she likes to call me. I kiss her on her forehead, and whisper goodnight.
Uncle Keith comes up and I hear him in the bathroom. A soft ‘night’ floats into Granny’s bedroom as he passes, closing the door after he enters his room.
Downstairs, the sitting room is finally all mine. I luxuriate in the darkness, the solitude; fantasise about putting on some jazz and pouring a glass of wine. Perhaps a boy like Todd sitting next to me, as we talk about fine things, cultured things.
I laugh at myself, cut the fantasy short, and settle in for the night. I should read but am too tired and tomorrow will bring an extra early start. Best to rest.
Thursday morning, four-thirty, and Granny is standing over me, tapping my shoulder.
‘Morning Granny,’ is all I can muster.
We get ready in silence, shuffling through our well-rehearsed predawn routine.
By five-thirty-five we are on the usual platform at Bellville Station. This morning, the train is on time. We find seats next to each other, can stretch our legs. Once the train starts its slow motion out of the station, Granny reaches into her bag and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. The address she shows me is in Claremont.
A vice grip clamps my heart. This is far too close to my usual life. Our normal Thursday job is at a flat in Sea Point. Granny neglected to tell me that we’d be going somewhere new today.
‘What happened to the Golds in Sea Point, Granny?’
‘They went on holiday. And asked me to do some casual work at Mrs Gold’s friend’s house. It’s just for two weeks while their maid is away.’
A few months ago, just as I started university, granny’s arthritis worsened. There is no such thing as retirement for a cleaner, and even though I’d secured a bursary to cover the cost of my first year, many unforeseen expenses came with university life: travel, text books, food, stationery.
A school uniform was no longer required, but of course I needed decent clothes. Who wants to turn up looking like you come from the bush? These expenses added up quickly. Granny was nowhere near being able to afford taking it easy. She couldn’t lose her job, and so on Thursdays I went with her to Dr and Mrs Gold’s flat to help with some of the heavier domestic chores. The Golds knew me and didn’t mind. I had practically grown up in front of them, they liked to remind us, and they trusted Granny and me. The arrangement worked well enough for all involved.
But now we were branching out into Claremont. Just three stations away from Rosebank. Three stations away from my university. We would have to take the same route I take to get to campus, transferring at Salt River Station and moving on to the Simon’s Town line. It would take a miracle not to be seen on the train. What if someone came up to me and started to ask questions?
And that’s not the only problem. Many students live in Claremont. What if I’m seen there by someone who knows me in my overalls?
I talk myself out of the panic. We will be inside someone’s house. Probably no one will be home, like at the Gold’s flat. In Sea Point, the groundsman who lives at the back of the block of flats lets us in and out again at the end of the day. Most likely the same will happen in Claremont. It will be alright, no one will see me.
We transfer at Salt River Station and board the train to Claremont. I send up a silent prayer that none of the students in my tuts or who I hang out with during breaks will be on the train. It’s too early for them to be here, anyway.
Granny takes the only seat available, while I latch on to the plastic strap suspended from the ceiling. I close my eyes on the off-chance that anyone I know is in this carriage; if I don’t see them, perhaps they will leave me alone.
I think about Theresa and Meghan, my hard-won varsity buddies. It took so long to make friends, being the only one from my high school to come to this university. The other students had ready-made groups to slot into.
Theresa with her Doc Martens, her Levi’s and new car, an eighteenth birthday present. What would she think were she to rummage through the contents of my Thursday backpack, and find the maid’s overalls and doek there? Girls from Heathfield and Fairways didn’t take too well to girls from Bellville, which was practically the bush. I worked hard for them to like me, and I’m not even sure that they really do. They allow me to sit with them sometimes, that is really it. Imagine the shame, if they saw this—Granny looking like the domestic worker she is, and me her sidekick—and figured out my secret life.
At Claremont we disembark and join the throng of pedestrians. Granny has been to this address before with Mrs Gold, and in a few minutes we are there. A two-metre wall hides the house’s façade. If Granny is nervous about meeting new white people, it doesn’t show. She presses the button at the gate. A woman’s voice chirps hello over the intercom.
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s Nellie Johns,’ replies Granny.
The gate buzzes open and we enter, making our way to the front door on a pebbled path cut through the manicured lawn. A breeze ripples the calm of an enormous swimming pool. I could sit by that pool all day with a good book. Just stepping into this garden with its welcoming trees and lush flower beds, makes your soul expand a little.
A woman with long hair is silhouetted in the open front door. We walk up, me staying close behind Granny, whose spine has lengthened in an attempt to make a good first impression. You can never change what people think of you when they first see you, she’s warned me many times.
‘Good morning Mrs Wessels,’ my grandmother sounds prim, energetic.
‘Hello, Nellie,’ the woman replies.
Up close I see that she is blonde, hair framing a beautiful face with green eyes. Tall and graceful, her body is draped in a long, flowing garment, which softens the angles that become apparent when she moves. Her physique is a study in contrasts: the skin around her eyes and lips crisscrossed with fine wrinkles, while her body has the litheness of someone years younger. Soft down sprouts from her cheeks, reminding me of the chicks in our neighbours’ backyard. Like them, she seems fragile.
She smiles a tight smile.
‘Who is this?’ she nods in my direction.
‘This is my granddaughter, madam. I thought Mrs Gold told you … she always comes with me. Old age, you know,’ Granny laughs, trying to make light of my presence.
The blonde woman nods, but doesn’t laugh back.
‘Come inside. You can change in the guest bathroom and leave your things on the patio outside. When you’re done, come into the kitchen and I’ll tell you what needs to be done.’
We obey her instructions and regroup in the kitchen in matching pink overalls, me with a doek disciplining unruly, shoulder-length hair. Mrs Wessels leans against a countertop, sipping on a cup of black coffee. She offers us none. Usually we have a cup of milky tea with two sugars each and biscuits on arrival at the Golds’ flat, sourced from a special stash of provisions left for us. Here, there is no such luxury.
‘Please start with the kitchen, and make your way through the dining area and living room.’ She gestures with her free hand towards the cavernous living room, filled with plush white couches.
‘I need the kitchen floor scrubbed, not mopped—there is the bucket. And dust and polish everything; then vacuum. When you’re done down here, you can go upstairs and dust and vacuum the bedrooms. Leave all the bathrooms for last. There are three. And then the guest bathroom. If you need the toilet, there is one outside, just off the patio. There’s a half an hour lunch break at twelve. Are we clear?’
‘Yes madam,’ we sing in unison.
Mrs Wessels nods approvingly, then glides off into the formal living room, fragrant coffee steaming in her wake.
There is a mountain of dishes piled in the kitchen sink, and Granny starts there. I know her method: wash the dishes first, dry and pack them away. Wipe all surfaces, then sweep and mop the floor.
We work wordlessly—me drying as fast as she deposits the clean, wet dishes in the drying rack. We want to get out of here as quickly as possible; no words are necessary for us to understand that the other feels that way too.
Standing next to Granny I look down on the crown of her head and the zigzagging path through her unstraightened hair. I fight an urge to kiss the top of her head, as she did when I was the smaller one.
A man, suited and tied, descends the stairway at the back of the kitchen and passes by without looking at us. It’s as if we are invisible. He walks over to Mrs Wessels, touches her shoulder, and asks, with a slight nod in our direction: ‘What’s this?’
‘The char brought some child with her. I didn’t know. Sue didn’t say anything about the girl.’
‘A child? That is not a child. What if she’s a thief? Trust you to not know anything about who’s coming into our house. Didn’t you do some kind of background check?’
Don’t they realise how close we are? Don’t they know that we can hear every word between them?
I look over at Granny. She shoots me a stern glance, a warning not to react. Not that I would. I am too much of a good girl for that, too scared of these people who could do anything they wanted with us, with me. The conversation in the living room continues.
‘But Sue said … she’s been with them for years!’
‘God, you’re so naïve!’
Granny continues to wash while I dry. In my mind, a veil lifts. I am gut-punched by the knowledge that in this house, and places like it, we will never be seen. We are functional. Like the shelves that hold their ornaments, or the cabinets containing their wine, we are here to do a job. We exist for the purpose of making their lives easy, of bringing order to their disarray. To them we are as unhearing as the bowls that hold their car keys, as invisible as the tiles beneath their feet.
With her back still to us, the woman watches her husband leave in his car. She continues to sip her coffee in her graceful way. She seems unperturbed. Part of me wants to see her expression; another part is grateful that I don’t have to look into her face at this particular moment.
I fill the bucket with warm water, add some liquid soap, and whip up a lather. I pretend I’m making the seepsop I loved to play with as a child. If I can make this into a game, maybe time will go faster.
I get down on all fours, my knees cushioned by a raggedy towel, and dip the scrubbing brush into the lather. My mind settles as I start scrubbing the floor with tight, circular movements.
And that is when I hear his voice. It ricochets down the stairwell moments before he comes bouncing down, shirtless.
‘Mom! My grey polo neck?’
It’s too late to look away. His voice has startled me and reflexively I look up, square into the eyes of Todd.
We both freeze. He slows his run and walks gingerly down the last few stairs, holding my gaze.
Then it happens, that well-practised manoeuvre from the tut room. He looks right through and beyond me.
‘I can’t find it anywhere! I really wanted to wear that polo neck today to my presentation.’
‘Perhaps you shouldn’t have left it on the floor then?’
‘Moooom!’ His strong, even voice bends into a whine. He sounds like a toddler on the verge of a tantrum.
I bow my head and get on with scrubbing. Nausea travels up my throat, filling my mouth with salty saliva. I swallow it down and continue scrubbing.
If he has recognised me, he gives no indication. Or perhaps he has pretended not to know me as an act of kindness?
Whatever lies behind this non-recognition, I am grateful for it. Imagine having to explain to him what I’m doing here, scrubbing his floor, and that the charlady is my grandmother. Imagine Granny’s hurt witnessing the inevitable humiliation that would shroud me during such a conversation.
After fighting with his mother, Todd bounds back up the stairs. By the time he comes down a few minutes later, I have already wiped half the suds away. His rubber soles leave a funky geometric imprint on my newly washed floor. I remain on hands and knees and crawl behind the path his footprints leave, wiping all traces of them away with my cloth.
After the kitchen we move into the living room, which Mrs Wessels vacates as we enter. It is quick work; the house has a regular cleaner and the dusting, polishing and vacuuming takes less than half an hour.
We are led upstairs, and Granny says we must split up to do the bedrooms. I’m assigned Todd’s. I want to protest and ask Granny to swap, but how do I explain without giving away my secret?
It feels like I am trespassing, setting foot in a sacred space that should be completely off limits. Several pairs of boxer shorts, a wet towel and socks litter the carpeted floor. The double bed is unmade, sheets damp with a sticky substance I discover when I pull back the covers. I should change the sheets, at least, but fresh bedding has not been provided, so I remake the bed as best I can after blotting the sheets with paper towels.
I gather the assorted undergarments and deposit them into a wicker basket. I pause to look at his bookshelf—well stocked, with all the classics. There is an impressive alphabetised section of South African literature.
On the desk I find an assortment of writing pads, pens and piles of books. A dog-eared copy of Waiting for the Barbarians lies open, face down. Like a forensic detective I take great care in turning it over, noting the exact page at which Todd saw fit to pause his reading. Page 114.
Almost all the lines on the two facing pages are marked with different coloured highlighters. I try to make sense of the different colours used for different paragraphs, or even single words, but the pages reveal nothing. There’s no pattern to be discerned here, and his scribbled notes in the book margins are illegible. If there is some deeper insight for me into this novel, I will not find it here.
I take everything off the desk, wipe it down, dry it off, and replace all the objects I’ve removed in straightened out piles. The book I replace, face down, open on page 114, as I found it. Tonight I will go to that exact page in my own copy, without any margin notes or highlighting, so that I can sell it at the end of the semester, and look for more entryways to understanding. (I will find none.)
Around two-thirty we are done with all the housework. We change back into our normal clothes, and I free my hair from the doek. Please God, do not let Todd come home while we are leaving. Intercessions have become my waking thoughts.
My prayer is answered. Granny walks away with four crisp twenty-rand notes, happy with the day’s takings. When we leave, we are told that our return won’t be necessary. I fake disappointment to my co-worker.
‘Don’t worry, Granny, we will pick up something else. You always say everything happens for a reason. Maybe we should trust the reason for this.’
‘You’re right, my child,’ she replies. ‘That was not a happy home. And it’s sometimes difficult to work in such a place. They take things out on you.’
We tend to our own thoughts on the train journey home. By the time we arrive back in Bellville, granny’s mood has lifted. She treats us to fish and chips for supper, which we sit and eat together.
On Monday the train gods smile down on me and I am already on campus at eight-thirty. For this I am glad; I’ll need extra composure to face Todd. Will he be different? Will there be some sort of twitch or look in his eye that gives away our secret? Do we even have a secret, or is it only mine to bear?
My composure is aided by the assignment in my backpack. On Friday and Saturday, my charlady duties done, I visited the Bellville Library, where I usually go to study when home gets too crowded. This time I did more than just use the tables and chairs. I asked for help and read what others had written about Waiting for the Barbarians, made notes from books about crafting an argument, and reread the model essays provided by Todd. When I left at one o’clock on Saturday, when the library closed for the weekend, I had a draft that satisfied me. I went home and wrote late into the night at the kitchen table, until my essay was done. I titled it: ‘A servant’s view: the young woman’s perspective in Waiting for the Barbarians‘.
I am already seated when Todd walks into the classroom and drops a pile of notes and a copy of the novel on his table. He doesn’t greet or make eye contact, but walks up to the chalkboard and jots down a series of bullet points.
At nine exactly he turns, wipes his chalk-dusted hands on his pants, and bids us a good morning.
‘Let’s continue today with the idea of allegory in Coetzee’s seminal novel.’
He looks in my direction. Our eyes meet.
I wait for that delicious tug at my solar plexus that inevitably arrives when I look at him, but it doesn’t come. I feel … nothing.
He smiles at me.
‘Miss Jones …’
I’m deliberate as an arrow as I enunciate every word. Sure and supple, my voice surprises even me:
‘It’s Johns, Todd.
- Barbara Boswell is a feminist literary scholar and Associate Professor of English at the University of Cape Town. She is the author of And Wrote My Story Anyway: Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism (Wits University Press, 2020) and Grace: A Novel (Modjaji Books, 2017), winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize for South African Writing.