Little S’fundo was sad. He had barely put his weary head on his pillow when he was startled by something. With widely opened eyes he had suspiciously searched the darkness of his room.
Just the swaying of the worn out leaves braving a late night breeze could be heard outside. Many images filled his befuddled mind. He imagined a brown owl perched on the solitary flamboyant tree in his backyard, piercing the silence with a hauntingly familiar call every now and then.
Then – there it was again! An all too familiar sound seeping through the cold cement wall.
S’fundo knew fully well that the muffles that escaped the wall were his mum’s. His tiny shoulders were heavily burdened by his mum’s unhappiness. No matter how much Refilwe assured S’fundo, he knew that they were different from the others. He had watched the other township children closely at Tshelabantu Primary School – children who flaunted neatly packed cheese sandwiches in their lunchboxes. They wore neatly pressed clothes and smelled of the soap that he was allowed to bath with only on Christmas Day.
Refilwe wore a pained expression throughout that evening. Her countless unsuccessful attempts at gaining permanent employment had left her a woman of few words, but S’fundo nevertheless, took comfort in her presence. The little that she put out on the table was barely enough for her and S’fundo, but she clung desperately to her belief that each day brought renewed hope.
Refilwe was a domestic worker for Mrs Naidoo for some years now and she knew the ins and outs of the Naidoo household fairly well. Every evening, a song would fill Refilwe’s mind when the square clock on the wooden mantelpiece signalled the end to yet another extremely hard day at work – filled with toil and mental anguish. A new escape would be borne – a world where she wasn’t answerable for the quality of the washing or the new chip on Mr Naidoo’s favourite saucer.
Returning home, she would be consumed by the loving embrace of S’fundo, the sound of the bamboo chimes on the veranda, the sound of the village preparing to settle down for the night. She would lower all her resistance and allow her weary nerves to be pacified by the familiar sights and sounds of her home.
It was the 29th day of January 2008. Refilwe was busy filling up the white plastic buckets with water. She carried these heavy buckets firmly with her hardened hands to the front veranda and desperately tried to wash out the embedded bird dropping stains. Her hoarse voice loathed in contempt, at her futile attempts.
“Refilwe!”screamed Mrs Naidoo. “Where are you? Where is the ironing? ”
Refilwe felt panic consume her as she realised her incomplete tasks were as the result of her late arrival earlier that week when she had to drop off her application at Siza Primary School. Her brown dusty feet carried her swiftly to the porch where she could offer an explanation.
A navy, silky shirt that boasted heavy white glossy buttons was thrust into her hands. After an intense glare Mrs Naidoo’s stilettos swiftly carried her into the gloominess of the interior, leaving Refilwe gaping after her. She clutched the silk firmly and hurriedly made her way to complete her chore. The old steam iron started off with a blast of steam as it set out to straighten Mrs Naidoo’s shirt. The Kashmiri fabric stuck to the metal leaving the shirt in ruins.
Everything else went by quickly. Too quickly.
“Sorry ma’am! I so sorry! This is big mistake but…”
Refilwe’s apology was in vain. Mrs Naidoo was firm in her decision. Refilwe was given R50 extra to avoid any unwanted issues. She was to leave immediately. Refilwe was bent-double with the emotion she carried, but she knew that it was safer if she left quickly.
The afternoon sun beat mercilessly on Refilwe’s weary shoulders. Her gaze fixated on the ground as she squeezed out the fine grains of sand that playfully caressed her toes. She watched her wrinkled feet set home aimlessly that afternoon. The dried out tears left miniscule shapes at the corner of her eyes. She knew fully well that there should be no evidence left for S’fundo to find. She needed him to grow up with as little distraction as possible.
His pear shaped eyes strongly resembled Mandla’s. They were deeply set in his chiselled face and bore deep holes into her broken body every evening as he would look to her – as if to mend him. Holes that questioned the gaping age difference that existed between them; holes that questioned why he didn’t have a dad and holes that questioned his meaningless existence in her world. If only Mandla was around today, things would have been different. S’fundo would have been just like the other boys at Tshelabantu Primary. He would have had shoes to keep his feet warm and most importantly he would have learnt English. Someday S’fundo would be able to work in the big city and she would be taken care of.
If only Mandla was still around!
Refilwe felt despair encapsulate her.
Her life seemed meaningless and empty. There had been too much turbulence in her life ever since Mandla had contracted tuberculosis. He could not face a single day sober and became more and more reliant on the burning taste of home brewed beer to ease the pain. Refilwe had recognised all the signs as they approached. She wept bitterly as she knew that Mandla wasn’t open to reason. His face gradually withered and he began to resemble the caricature of a broken man. Mandla grew tired of her nagging and there used to be constant beating sessions every night. She would drag her sore body to the blanket on the floor and wipe the oozing blood with the corner of her patched dress muttering in anger. Her heaving breathe would eventually stagnate into a lull of much needed sleep.
This continued until Mandla passed on quietly.
In the early winter months she gave birth to S’fundo who gave her a new reason to live each day.
That afternoon, there were no bread packets in her hands with the supper remains from the Naidoo household. No crusted pie or leftover curries. Just Refilwe and her bare hands. She wept silently, her contorted mouth open, unable to release any sound. She knew that nobody would require the services of a 41 year old arthritic woman.
How would she make ends meet?
In the distance, S’fundo’s heart heaved with happiness as the sun slowly slipped away. He was out on the corrugated roads near the township with his cousins. Every evening, the half naked boys would emerge from the different households and meet on the roads. Chores would be done for the day and their mums would be busy tending to the meals on the outside fires. They would laugh and talk about their day and frolic in the sunshine – innocent and free.
Every now and then S’fundo would look up to see the little growing figure emerging on the hill. In his hands he held a brown envelope from “Siza Primary School”. He hurried on to meet Refilwe, his heart brimming with nervous anticipation.