For today’s Fiction Friday, we are delighted to bring you an exclusive extract from Reneilwe Malatji’s debut short story collection Love Interrupted, published by Modjaji Books this month.
The following excerpt is taken from the short story “Lebo’s Story 1: A Young Girl’s Dream Interrupted”, in which Lebo, the daughter of a domestic worker in Nelspruit, observes the way her mother is treated by her employers and vows to have a very different life.
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The fact that Lebo was born into a poverty-stricken family did not prevent her from having ambitions. She never met her real father. She was conceived when her mother was fifteen years old and raised by her grandparents while her mother worked as a live-in domestic in the suburbs of Nelspruit.
Lebo had always been a dreamer. She’d always believed that she was not meant for a mediocre kind of life. Her mother, the first born, was conceived when Lebo’s grandmother was thirteen. At that time, she was working as a kitchen girl on a farm outside Sabie. Lebo’s mother had also never known her real father and was raised by a step-father from Malawi.
Lebo and her mother lived in a three-roomed shack with her two uncles and aunt. Every day after school she went to her teacher’s home to help with household chores and the baby. She was only eight years old but could handle any task, including cooking. At teacher Mangena’s home she got to enjoy luxuries such as sitting on a real sofa and watching television. She got to eat “Sunday food” every day. It was a surprise to her that people could eat vegetables and meat more than once a week.
For Lebo to enjoy these things she performed every task to perfection. Teacher Mangena acknowledged that Lebo was better and faster than the domestic worker she was paying. When the baby was with Lebo, teacher Mangena would forget that there was a baby in the house, and was only reminded by the occasional giggle. This ability to soothe the baby earned Lebo the privilege of being allowed to sleep over sometimes.
Lebo’s grandmother did not have any problem with this arrangement. In fact she went around boasting to everyone. “Lebo is now teacher Mangena’s child. She is there all the time. My grandchild is living like a white man there. Did you know they eat meat everyday in that house? Maybe they will take her to the big school when she finishes matric.”
At teacher Mangena’s house, Lebo got her first taste of the high life. She marvelled at the toilet and the taps in the bathroom. Using toilet paper instead of newspaper was an unimagined luxury for her. The few times that she went home, the whole family would sit around the fire listening to her.
“The toilet is in the house. You just go, close the door and do your thing,” said Lebo.
“What! In the house! What happens when you do a number two? You are lying … No! Not in the house …
What about the smell?” asked her uncle, who was two years older than her. They all laughed.
“Even number two, you do it in the house. There is a small well inside. You pull a handle and the water comes down and cleans everything out of the toilet. It is not like the pit toilet where everything stays in there and stinks. They even have a perfume in the bathroom in case there is a small smell.”
Most of all Lebo loved sleeping on the soft bed with the smooth shiny sheets and blankets. She could not believe the softness. She was used to sleeping on the ground, on woven mats, with only a thin grey blanket. When the teacher was not home, Lebo would act as if the house were hers and walked around imitating teacher Mangena’s movements and way of speaking, lacing every sentence with an English word.
Most nights Lebo lay awake fantasising about her future. In her vision, her house would have another one on top – like the one in The Bold and the Beautiful – and a swimming pool. She saw herself as a business lady with lots of money, walking around in high heels giving orders. She fell asleep to these fantasies, and at times they crossed over into her dreams. Sometimes she dreamt she was laughing and having lunch with the people she saw on television. Then she would be woken up by a mosquito or her aunt’s leg crossing over hers. She’d lie awake, furious to be wrenched away from the world she felt she belonged to.
When she turned twelve, she visited her mother at her workplace in Nelspruit. The first thing that startled her was the dog house that was next to her mother’s cottage. A dog with a house – that is insane, she thought. The dog’s blanket looked exactly like her grey blanket back home, only it was thicker and newer.
After helping her mother to unpack groceries, Lebo picked up the till slip. She added the money spent on Husky, Whiskas, tinned pet food and Bob Martin tablets. These cost more than her family spent on groceries at home. The big black fridge was unbelievable to her. The first thing I will buy when I get rich is a fridge like this one, she thought. She wondered why the white people were so thin when there was so much food in the house. She asked her mother about this.
“It’s that red wine that they drink with their food. Madam says it eats up all the food and makes them thin,” said Lebo’s mother. Lebo was not impressed. She hated alcohol. She had never known anyone who drank to be responsible.
The house was the type she owned in her fantasies. It was a double-storey with huge windows, but there were no curtains in most of the rooms. They did not have the bridal dress–like voile that Lebo’s teacher had in every room. Instead, they had grass-like panels hanging in the windows. You had to use strings to open them and close them. After a while Lebo learnt how to operate them, and whenever she got a chance she would pull on the strings, fascinated by how they opened and closed.
Her mother was shocked by how much Lebo knew about housework and cooking. She could make all sorts of dishes, from lasagna to Greek salad. The white family was impressed and preferred Lebo’s cooking to her mother’s.
When she was done cleaning, Lebo would run around with a towel and pantyhose, rubbing all the mirrors and shiny surfaces until they gleamed. Her mother made her wear one of her overalls with a matching head scarf. The spinach-coloured uniform hung loose on the young girl. She looked like a tent pole in it.
Lebo had her mother’s peachy complexion but her hair was not as fluffy. Her beautifully crafted braids escaped in places from the scarf and her big round eyes were accentuated by long eyelashes. Even in the ugly, oversized overall her beauty could not be concealed.
The madam once told her that she was pretty. “You are like a white person dipped in chocolate,” she said.
Every time Lebo heard the madam’s car coming, she would run to the garage and sweep the ground. Then she would stand by the car licking her forefinger shyly while she waited for them to get out. With her ready smile, she carried their bags or whatever they had brought with them into the house.
“Oh shame! Maria must stop making you wear that thing,” said the madam. Lebo found it strange that they all called her mother by her first name. In her village it was rare to find adults called by their first names. It was regarded as disrespectful. They would rather call you by your child’s name – like MmaLebo or PapaLebo.
Another thing that bothered her was how the two sons, one her age and the other a year older, never talked to her. They treated her as if she were invisible. One day they will wish they’d been friends with me, she thought. Whenshe cooked meals for them she was sometimes tempted to spit on the food to get revenge. Every now and then they would come to the servants’ quarters after hours and shout from outside.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” her mother said.
“Did you wash my black tackies? I can’t find them in my room.”
Her mother would then hurry back to the main house to look for them. Lebo was surprised at how dependent the boys were. When her mother came back, she said, “Mma, when I am rich my children won’t be like these boys. They don’t even know how to wash their own underwear.”
“Dream on, my girl. Your children will wash underwear because there will be no one to wash them for them. You will never be rich. If it was that easy, we would all be rich. These people did not become rich by themselves. Their grandparents’ grandparents were also rich. And wena, who has ever been rich in your family? You are going to follow the same road as me and your grandmother. You can’t escape it. The sooner you accept that, the better. I am just happy that you are not lazy: you know the white man’s work. Your children won’t die of hunger.”
“Don’t compare me to you! I am not you. I am going to have a business. You will see – I am going to be rich like them.”
“Ha!” her mother laughed, shaking her head. From that day on Lebo stopped sharing her ambitions with her mother. In the evening when they were in the servants’ quarters she would watch television rather than talk. My mother will never see things the way I do – that is why she is poor, Lebo thought.
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- Love Interrupted is published by Modjaji Books
- Love Interrupted by Reneilwe Malatji
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