The JRB presents new short fiction by Makhosazana Xaba.
I am telling the life story of a blue wedding suit that evaporated into thick Sophiatown air …
As you know, bantwana bami, this high-high is becoming more and more difficult to treat. It refuses to listen. I saw the doctor yesterday and she changed my medicines and gave me what she said is the strongest. That is not a good sign, right? And me, I don’t want food without salt. And also, gardening is the only exercise I want to do. Where should I be walking to? Hhay no, these doctors! Sometimes they give advice that they themselves cannot follow. Have you ever seen our own doctor walking the streets of Meadowlands?
So, you know I don’t have much inheritance money to give to you, only love. And today, I give you a special something-something. But before that, I need you both to remember that I am proud of you. Like your father Terry, you became teachers. Unlike him, you have stuck it out, taught so many African children for a better future. I know the future is bright for the children you raised up through your professional passion. Every time over all these years when I have listened to you talk about your love for educating others, I am amazed. My Girls—My Teachers! You have been teachers to me as well, and for that ngibonge kakhulu. Kwande nalapho nathatha khona. What mother would not be proud of that?
Me, I only ever wanted to be a dancer, but time and circumstances were against me. Now I let my eyes dance for me. I enjoy many secret dances, dances no one else can see. My private world of dances. I have prayed so much about it, over so many years, that it no longer hurts to know that I could have been a dance champion, as my own mama used to say. Your Gogo said my body was created for dance. That I used to dance in her womb when she sang. She had a voice like I don’t know what, not even the angels can sing like her. As a child I used to like dancing whenever your Gogo sang, and she liked singing when she was bending over the black pots outside while frying amagwinya, steaming ujeqe or brewing umqombothi.
You were so right about your father. I was stupid to think that he would come looking for me so we can talk things over, things I am not so proud of. And more. And a lot more. How many decades has it been? He would have found me if he really cared. Why did I even think that he would be man enough to value a conversation on closure? Why did I think he would be man enough to ask for forgiveness? Me, I have prayers to hold on to. What does he have? Anger? Bitterness? Regrets? Shame? Misplaced Pride! Thank the lord for Stompie! He was so different from his brother. So much kinder, funnier, downright better, in many ways. Brothers from the same womb yet so different. Even his tsotsi ways were just that, no evil, just stealing for survival. Look just how he and Doris kept in touch with you both over the years. Stompie and Doris really understood the meaning of family.
Thank you again for cooking up that plan to move me to the short term home and then here. That, mantombazana ami, was the best gift you ever gave me. I am now the GOGO of MEADOWLANDS in capital letters. Yes. Omakhelwane make it their job to look after me, even as they know you visit me and take care of my needs and drive me to your burbs every now and then to see abazukulu. Even the ones who come to steal my vegetables and herbs do so with grace, believing I don’t see them. And me, I just pretend I don’t. There’s enough veggies for me in this garden. Why bother? Their god is watching them.
Talking of gifts, I know your lives are so much better now because you have supported each other and moved away from the miseries of this glorified labour camp called Soweto. Have you ever thought of giving this gift to other women—moving them away from their, philandering, drinking, useless and abusive husbands, as you did me, while they cry and complain as I did? Sometimes as people we just need other people to open our eyes and ears, as you did with me. I listen to so many stories of women who are in the same situation I was, dancing to men’s ever shifting moods, explaining away the psychological abuse they suffer. Even the ones who suffered undeniable physical abuse! Hhay no, life! The two of you could change the world, you know that? And, fighting as you did with my madam Lubesh! I would not be having this pension and freedom if it were not for you. Okay that was my love. And, my gratefulness, mantombazana ami.
And now, the something-something. Sadly, it goes back to your father, but this one makes me feel like a number one winner. So please, be patient as I tell you this story. I know you don’t like him very much. The something-something of a surprise started at a funeral, Matilda’s funeral. Do you remember the story I told you of that Sophiatown woman that people said had killed herself? Remember how I said it was the first time I heard of a woman killing herself? Until then it was just men. Men, men, men! Angry men, disappointed men, unfulfilled men, sinful men, mad men, stupid men, drunken men, defeated men, fragile men, jobless men, lying men, vulgar men, vulnerable men, men owing other men money. And then, Matilda, a respectable married woman. But me, I never believed that story. I think that husband of hers, what was his name? Philemon. I think Philemon killed her when he got tired of making her feed the suit. Even your father thought Philemon was capable of killing because he was downright cruel. Very un-Christian. What kind of man makes his wife feed a suit every day? The cruel and murderous kind.
On the day of Matilda’s funeral, I was sitting on the second to the last bench, right at the back end of the church; I was a little late, you know me. Guess who sat behind me? Gladys. Gladys, the woman who taught at the same school as your father. She tapped me on my shoulder as the whole church stood up to sing the first hymn. Then she leaned very close to my left ear and said, ‘I need to see you after the service, please wait for me on the street, I have something for you.’ I used to like Gladys because she was known as a good teacher. Remember the Women’s Club I once told you about? I used to hear stories about how the children liked her so much because she was always so encouraging. She even started a choir at the school. Terry used to tell me that the children loved being part of that choir.
So, I did as Gladys suggested, waited for her just outside the gate of the church yard. We were all dressed in black, but I noticed as she approached that she had a thick white beaded necklace around her neck and big round white earrings, not the hanging ones, the ones that cover the bottom end of an ear. It was so beautiful, this contrast. It was so different from all of us in our pitch black clothes, pitch black everything. If tears could choose a colour, it would be black. We were very black, everyone in that church. Whoever came up with this idea I don’t know. Death is life, just the tail end of it. Why the blackness? Yes, I know, another reminder you are so tired of hearing: you two are not wearing black at my funeral! Tell everyone I said Jesus never said anything about wearing black at funerals.
It was only when Gladys stood still that my eyes fell on the parcel under her left arm, wrapped in a brown paper. She stood in front of me, came so close I took two steps back. You know me, I like my space. Then, I was a little bit embarrassed, because I realised when she started talking that she just wanted to be close so she wouldn’t have to speak too loudly. She was efficient with her voice, in a teacher-like style. ‘I thought you might like to reclaim your husband’s suit. It will make you lots of money in future, millions even. Keep it safe and dry. Hide it, Terence should never see it.’
‘Angizwanga? What do you mean? How did you get it?’ Then her eyes told me to lower my voice.
‘I have my ways. I went and threatened Philemon using facts about him he did not want revealed. So, he gave it to me.’
‘Facts? What facts? I am confused.’
I was very, very confused. I knew Gladys as a nice teacher. In that moment she stopped being a teacher and became a big question. I was thinking, so how do I ask a human-question, questions? And one so large! She had a way of looking taller than she was when standing, there was something about the way she held her shoulders. And her head was often straight up as if it had a disrespect for bending. I had noticed this on the very first day she came to the Women’s Club.
‘Do you want my facts, or do you want your future riches?’
As you know I am well practised in imitating people but those are not our exact words. That’s just how I remember our inappropriate conversation. Can you believe it? Gladys was talking to me about money, millions of moneys, during a funeral! I felt as if I was sinning in that moment. It was completely the wrong moment to commit an unmistakable sin like that. And then very quickly she positioned the parcel on the palms of her hands and straightened her elbows in a slow deliberate manner as she handed it to me. Then her white bangles, one on each wrist, showed themselves. Yes, she is a teacher, I thought. Then she used her pen, which she took with one swift movement from the pocket on her jersey, to remove the sticky tape, revealed the suit and then said. ‘This is it, right?’ My eyes were still fixed on her black jersey with pockets over her breasts. That’s an unusual jersey, I thought. Then her silence reminded me to take a glance at the suit. And there it was, the blue suit of our wedding day! Before I could say anything and although my eyes were now fixed on the blueness of the suit, I noticed Gladys turn around and leave.
In that moment of unreal confusion, which took me back to the crazy days of your father’s cheating, I reminded myself we were at a funeral. I held the parcel against my chest and put my arms over it and started mixing with the crowd, although it was hard to pay attention to the goings on. I don’t remember ever before feeling feelings I didn’t have words for, as I did in that moment, on that day, as I watched Gladys mix with the people in black and then disappear.
Not long after that day I started hearing stories that Gladys had left the school and Sophiatown. I didn’t want to believe it because I was still planning to talk to her about how exactly she threatened Philemon. Typical me, I took too long, delaying, delaying, delaying, as usual, and being a little fearful even, when there is no need. I don’t know what it was, I liked Gladys, but I feared her just a little. In fact, she reminded me of my standard six teacher. There was something about the way Gladys spoke that brought Miss Shoro’s voice back to my ears.
That Mistress, Miss Shoro, was strict, and she liked causing us to panic. Even when she told us stories in class, she only told scary-scary stories of white people killing black people all over the countries of Africa. Killing them and cutting off their hands and heads and sending them back to Europe as evidence. And she said it was history, the kind of history that the government of the white people did not want us to learn. Those types of stories used to make some of us cry. And she would laugh at those of us who really cried. What kind of teacher laughs when her students cry? When she was the reason for our tears? And then she would say: You can cry today, tomorrow when you find out I am not just scaring you, you will wake up to the reality of history and the reality of teachers who are not afraid of the truth. Ja, that was Mistress Shoro.
Pity Gladys left Sophiatown when you were too young to start school. I think you may have also liked her as a teacher. When I asked your father to confirm the rumours he seemed uninterested and just told me Gladys had found another job where she could teach music, full time. He called her ‘that one’ as if he didn’t care that she had left their school.
When I arrived back home on that funeral day, I hid the parcel under our mattress, I knew that Terence would never lift it. Although of course I could be wrong, your father may have searched under a mattress for a bottle of beer. I had no one to talk to about this news-making suit. In the trouser pockets were his passbook, his brown wallet and his set of keys to our home. I didn’t even want to count the money in the wallet, not that there were many notes, I just didn’t care then. I just put everything back. What could be more humiliating? That sin and shame of a parcel lived under that mattress until that day you came to move me. Am I grateful you warned me by giving me one week to pack! I think I would have forgotten about it had you just arrived and made me pack as you waited.
When you moved me to the temporary home I decided to keep Terence’s suit at the bottom of my suitcase, for a while, as I settled as a free-free woman without your father. And then I really thought it needed some cleansing and air and so I took it to a dry cleaner in town on my way to the Smith’s home, my workplace of that time. A week later when I had the suit back from the cleaners I went and bought a briefcase that reminded me of your father. I wanted to hide the suit just as Gladys had said I should. I wrapped it with brown paper before putting it in the briefcase and it lived in my wardrobe until we started the vegetable garden that is now the pride of my life and an envy of omakhelwane.
Remember how you two made me start this herb garden and how you said the patch of mint and lavender should be directly opposite the kitchen window, so I could breathe them in each morning? So one day I had the idea that I should bury the briefcase under the mint and lavender patch, in case this house caught on fire. Yes, remember those times of fires?
I had such fun burying the suit. I planned it carefully, every step. I measured the briefcase, dug a slightly bigger rectangular hole, cemented all the four sides and the bottom and placed the briefcase in it, then over it put enough soil for the mint and lavender to thrive. Before doing that, I used my old raincoat and wrapped the briefcase completely, many, many layers. Gladys had said I must make sure the suit is dry. I felt so smart when I had that raincoat idea. Once that was done, I forgot about the suit. I think I also forgot about your father. The power of my praying! It works when it wants to.
I only started thinking SERIOUSLY about what Gladys had said about the millions after you two got me the job working for the Lebush family. That’s when I started hearing stories. Stories about money. Stories about making money pregnant so it can give birth to other money. Stories about building money. They called it ‘making money’, but that doesn’t make sense to me, building money is a much better way of saying it. Don’t even try to correct me on this one, TEACHERS! Stories of money that can be shared and moved on from one generation to the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, just like a family name. That Lebush family was very different from those Smith people, am I glad I only worked for five years with them! It was a strange thing to me, nursing a blind and deaf old person, whose daughter and son-in-law treat you so badly.
These Lebush people, they spoke about their family matters in front of me. I think they thought I wouldn’t understand. Yoh, but I am so happy they helped me finally understand FULLY what Gladys really meant. Isn’t it interesting; the Smith people treated me with cruelty, hated me, but wanted my nursing skills. The Lebush people needed my professional labour, treated me well, but believed I was too stupid to understand anything else. That’s the funny thing with white people, knowing as they did that I am a nurse, in private practice, they still thought I am stupid. I was smart enough to nurse their son with spina bifida for all those years but too stupid to understand … unless they wanted me to hear all those stories. What if they did? What then?
I know so much about their family, I know about many sins and secrets, sins and sorrows, sins and scandals, sins and stories about other people’s sins and stories. I haven’t stopped praying that I will never be forced to talk about all that I know.
‘People and things that make news turn into money as time moves ahead.’ Now that is exactly what Gladys said. A direct quote. She looked straight into my eyes when she said that. I have never forgotten it. But my problem was this: how do I, me, a Christian of God, Mary and Jesus, build money from such a sad and sinful newsmaker, your father, Terrence’s suit? Terry’s suit for our wedding. Yes! No! But? So, I started praying about it.
Auction. That’s what you must do mantombazana ami. When I die, go dig under the mint and lavender patch, take out the suit, find people who do these auctions and they will pay you millions of rands. Gladys was right. Just imagine that wallet with money from those years when we used pennies, shillings, farthings and pounds, and those house keys! I know this for sure now. Millions! And you, my children, will become millionaires, just like Gladys said. Auctions and evidence go hand in hand. And you two are smart, you will know when it’s the right time, maybe you need to wait until you are around my age. By then the suit will be even more famous, all over the world even, and that way your children will be rich and never have to suffer as we did. Oh, I am so glad you each had one child. Imagine all those riches just between the two of them!
‘Do you want to be rich or not?’ Oh yes, I have never forgotten those words as well. That is another Gladys quote. It is exactly what Gladys said: Do you want to be rich or not? And she paused after each word. Oh, Gladys!
Why did I write this down, in my Johannesburg English, instead of telling it to your faces, in our language, here, in this kitchen, tomorrow, when you visit? Well, I now know that these auction people always want to see evidence on a piece of paper. And they say many of these auction people speak international English. One thing I know very well now in my old age is that we live in a world where the written word is believed more than spoken words, even when the writers lie. The story of Terry’s suit is a true story that you just have to read about and there it is, everywhere. So, me, I am just adding details to the truth. I am telling the life story of a blue wedding suit that evaporated into thick Sophiatown air. The blue suit was lost to the world, captured by Gladys and kept safe by me over decades. And you, my girls, will reintroduce the suit to the world, at an auction of your choosing. Malibongwe igama lika Gladys, it is because of her that it will be rediscovered by the world! And I wanted to do this before this high-high reaches and grabs my heart and takes me away from you two.
So, after you give the auction people this letter and they read it, they will go read about that journalist—what was his name, by the way?—the one who told the world about your father’s suit. And then they will know you are not lying. See? I still have the wedding photographs that we took in that studio. They will prove it all. I didn’t think about it then, but I should have put our wedding photos in the pockets of the suit. Hmm. I will have to get my album out tomorrow and you can take a look. But if they haven’t changed the lock on our former home on Edith Street, they just have to use the keys, and that will be proof enough. The more I think about it, the more excited I become. I suspect even the wallet will be worth some money. Imagine, wallets of that period in history. Oh, I know for sure that the passbook will sell, maybe even faster than the suit. The auction people will know the types of people, history lovers, who will want to buy Terrence’s passbook. You will never need anything, mantombazana ami.
Basil, cheese and red pepper muffins, it is time to bake for our teatime tomorrow. This recipe tastes much better on the day after when the three ingredients have come together and rested. This is one recipe that all three of us love, so, that’s it.
- Makhosazana Xaba is a Patron. She is the author, most recently, of the collections of poems The Art of Waiting for Tales (Lukhanyo Publishers, 2022) and The Alkalinity of Bottled Water (Botsotso, 2019) and the editor of Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, 2000–2018 (UKZN Press, 2019). She is currently a Research Associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), working towards a biography of Noni Jabavu.