An Angel’s Demise
Pan Macmillan South Africa, 2022
The other side of midnight
Midnight was almost upon them when they pulled up to the hospital, which felt like a deserted outpost. The lighting from the hospital signalled life and movement within. As they made their way onto the sterile premises, their nostrils were assaulted by the cloying smell of disinfectant. Upon presentation, Simphiwe was moribund and dehydrated. Douglas was holding her hand, her pulse wavering, but a flicker of hope still burning in her eyes. A black nurse was manning the nurse’s station. It was a peculiar sight because it was uncommon in those days to have black nurses working in white hospitals. They had started recruiting them in the early seventies to relieve the pressure on their European counterparts.
‘We can’t treat her here,’ she said. ‘You know the rules.’
Paul ran his hands through his hair in abject frustration. He knew the rules intimately; he was not one to break them either, but what choice did they have?
‘She is at death’s door. If we drive to Gwelo, she won’t make it.’
A 30-kilometre drive would definitely make the difference between life and death. He could tell the nurse was torn between breaking the law and saving the life of a black sister.
‘I can’t admit her,’ replied the nurse, resolute in her stance, while staring down at her feet in shame.
‘Nosipho, please,’ pleaded Douglas, who had seen her name on her badge.
It was at that moment that a European doctor arrived, demanding to know what was going on.
‘We have a situation here,’ said Paul, trying to launch into an explanation, but the doctor immediately cut him off and demanded that Nurse Nosipho get a stretcher for the patient. She called out to a male orderly to assist. They wheeled a prostrate Simphiwe down the corridors as life and death wrestled each other, fighting for supremacy.
They sat in silence, watching the clock on the wall as each minute stretched painfully past. A quarter-past his growing unease. Half-past disquiet without an inkling of news. A quarter-to confusion as Douglas paced the room restlessly, unable to sit still. Tick tock. Tick tock. The clock’s hands moved slowly, further stretching his apprehension. Eventually, Paul succumbed to sleep in his chair, snoring noisily, breaking the peaceful silence of the night. Two torturous hours later, the doctor finally emerged to brief them on Simphiwe’s status. Douglas exhaled noisily when the doctor indicated that she had been stabilised. He gave them sound assurances that she would be fine. Paul thanked the doctor profusely for being so accommodating. It was then that the doctor enunciated the condition for black patients who were admitted to the private hospital: they had to pay cash upfront. Paul was aghast at the significantly higher tariffs, but he still paid. As they headed back to the car, Douglas expressed his profound gratitude. Paul nodded curtly, ‘I will dock it from your wages. I don’t want you thinking you can make your problems mine.’
Still Douglas thanked him because, even in his reluctance, Paul had been instrumental in saving the lives of Simphiwe and his newborn child.
They drove through the receding darkness as it was overtaken by the light of a new day. Douglas sat on the back of the bakkie on his own, the blustery winds flapping against him as Paul stepped on the accelerator. He had not invited him to sit in the front. Douglas felt the discomfort now that he did not have Simphiwe to distract him. He hugged himself to stave off the early-morning chill. He might have used the towels for warmth had they not been soaked with blood. The stench stayed with him, a rancid reminder of the events of the night. The rising sun lit up the sky and he found it comforting. He was used to being up at this hour and it always calmed him to watch the stars fade into the dawn of a new day.
The Belle Acres signpost, on an arch above the gate, signalled their arrival at the farm. The ‘e’ had long since fallen off and had not been replaced, but it hardly seemed to matter in the grand scheme of things. Turning off the main road, they had to travel another 6 kilometres on a gravel road. Paul didn’t reduce his speed, oblivious to Douglas bouncing up and down as he went careening over bumps. Driving through the farm, the road was flanked by sweet veld grass that grew everywhere uncultivated. Paul drove straight to the milking yard where the cows were milling around, munching on hay while waiting their turn to be milked. The farm workers were already marshalling the cows as part of the first milking shift, which ran from 3am to 7am. They would return for the second shift from 3pm to 7pm. There were two teams of labourers at Belle Acres: the ones who milked and the ones who ran the general farm operations. Douglas belonged to the former. Until his death a few years ago, his father had been a labourer too. It was how Douglas had been initiated into the life.
While milking was a laborious process, it was something he could do in his sleep. They first had to inspect each cow and clean the udders so that the milk would not be contaminated and then each cow was milked manually. The cows would be distracted, feeding on the concentrate used to stimulate milk production. The smell of fresh cow dung infused the air but he was immune to it. It took him on average ten minutes to milk one cow. Any longer and Paul would have certainly whipped him. The milk was collected in stainless steel buckets, which were then pooled into a large refrigerated steel bowser. The milk remained there until the Dairibord trucks came to collect it. As he milked, Douglas considered the plight of his newborn child, who would be unable to breastfeed while Simphiwe was in hospital. His heart constricted in pain as he worried about the baby’s sustenance. Instinctively, he knew he had to set aside an urn of milk for his daughter. He thought nothing of his actions until he was stopped by the foreman, Tyrone, and quizzed about it. Their exchange was overheard by Paul, who was immediately drawn to the altercation.
‘I just took a few litres of milk for my daughter,’ explained Douglas.
Paul eyed him warily. ‘A few litres? You think I am running a fucking charity shop here?’
‘No, Baas,’ quaked Douglas.
‘This is theft!’ pronounced Tyrone.
All the workers who had been washing up after the first shift stopped what they were doing to see what the hullabaloo was about. To their horror, they watched the scene unfold before them as Paul wrestled the urn from Douglas’s hands and it fell to the ground. The white liquid splashed onto the dark red soil, spreading like the tributaries of a river.
‘See what you have done?’ growled Paul. ‘This will not go unpunished. Let this be a warning to all of you!’
Harsh disciplinary action followed as Paul whipped Douglas with a sjambok in front of the other workers. The whip sliced through the air before landing on Douglas’s back. Paul flogged him mercilessly till he cut through Douglas’s T-shirt. Collectively, the workers felt Douglas’s pain. Flinching as the whip landed on his back, lash after lash, they were helpless to stand up to Paul. He was only one man against them all, yet he held sway over their destiny. The foreman finally interceded on Douglas’s behalf, insisting it was enough. Douglas could barely straighten his back as he limped his way to the compound.
- Sue Nyathi was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and lives in Johannesburg. She has previously published three bestselling novels to much reader and critical acclaim: The Polygamist (2012),The Golddiggers (2018) and The Family Affair (2020).
An Angel’s Demise is an epic saga that explores a contested legacy and the heartrending destiny of a family. The year is 1977 and the story begins on a farm in Somabhula with the birth of Angel.
The farm is run by Paul Williams, an outwardly harsh and bigoted man who holds the livelihoods of many in his hands. When Angel’s parents join the liberation struggle, she is left in the care of her grandmothers, who have been in service to the Williams family for generations.
Angel grows up on the farm over three momentous decades that see a convoluted past and inheritance unfold into an equally complicated present. Through her, we see a woman’s quest to unearth her identity and assert her independence. In the process of self-discovery, Angel realises that sometimes you need to be uprooted before you can grow.
An Angel’s Demise, Sue Nyathi’s fourth novel, is a gripping tale infused with spirituality. It recounts an explosive story of love, war, bloody massacre and betrayal that encompasses a harrowing history, the cruel caprice of politics, gender-based violence and what happens when ordinary people get caught up in lies.