She stood there smiling – even though the smile was as fake as the life she lived. She had practised it many times in front of the mirror. So often that sometimes even when she cried, she smiled. She closed her eyes and pictured her back. It must be black and blue, she thought. She made a mental note to remember not to walk awkwardly in front of the kids. She pressed on her ribs with both hands and tried to breathe into the pain to relieve it. She forced another smile and this one seemed real.
It was such a blessing that she had somebody to help her around the house. Lord knows it would be hell if she had to deal with her day-to-day life in this agony.
She made her way downstairs, holding on to the rail as the pain surged through her body. When she got to the last step she let go of her support and put on her golden, happy face. In front of their nanny she had to be a happy mother and wife. She made her way to the kitchen where she found Nikiwe already at work.
“Molo, Nikiwe,” Pam smiled, trying hard not to show the agony in her muscles.
“Hallo, Sisi,” Nikiwe smiled back, looking up from where she was mopping the floor.
“Did the boys give you any hassle this morning? They can be a handful in the mornings.”
“They were quite sweet, didn’t even moan when their transport arrived. I think I’m getting used to them.”
“It’s a pity you’re leaving us,” Pam said as she sat at the breakfast bar. She pulled out a cigarette from her box in the kitchen drawer and lit up.
There was an awkward silence. Pam cleared her throat as if she was about to say something. Nikiwe looked up, wondering if Pamela was about to tell her something personal, about her marriage. But no words came out of her employer’s lips and Nikiwe went on mopping.
This was Nikiwe’s last day at the Ntethe household. She had told them that she was going to the Eastern Cape to take care of her sick aunt. Pamela knew it was a lie, so she didn’t even talk her into staying. Nikiwe was in her early thirties and she had two kids she was raising alone. There was no way she would just leave fertile Cape Town for the dry and rural Eastern Cape.
Nikiwe had even found them the perfect replacement; so as not to inconvenience them as she was leaving at short notice. This girl was young and loyal, she had said. Pamela wondered how much this girl knew about her and her family. How much had Nikiwe said about them?
You can never stop a person from gossiping, even if they had signed a confidentiality agreement. People always talked.
Nikiwe had worked for them for three months now. She was a live-in nanny. She’d seen enough, and she was terrified of Ndumiso. That was the real reason she was quitting her job, Pamela thought.
Zandile ran as fast as she could. She was still a long way from home and she knew that if she didn’t get there in time, she would be in serious trouble. Her nephew arrived from school at 4 o’clock and there was no way Zandile could make it there in 20 minutes. The last thing she needed was her aunt, Nokuzola, shouting at her for neglecting her only child. Her aunt had already blamed her for the broken tap in the toilet outside, as if it was Zandile’s fault that the plumbing was faulty.
Nokuzola was living well in Cape Town. She owned a RDP house in Mfuleni and it was fully furnished. She was working at a guesthouse for an American couple that treated her really well and gave her all their old furniture. It was such a rare thing finding nice, white people as employees, she had often boasted. And she had even talked of finding Zandile a job at the guesthouse – well, that was before Zandile came to Cape Town.
Her aunt hadn’t even spoken of a job since her arrival, let alone the prospect of an opening at the guesthouse. Zandile had to fish for herself. And her aunt was getting impatient, tired of housing a free loader. She made Zandile do all the household chores – and there were many – to pay for her board and food.
“This is Cape Town, ntomb’azana, not Gwili-Gwili. Books don’t help anyone here. Get a job and stop finishing my food and wasting my electricity,” her aunt would yell at her.
She would have to explain that she had lost track of time at the library. Her aunt wouldn’t be impressed. She hated the fact that Zandile spent all her time at the library reading stupid business books. Why stress yourself with business when you can work stress free for someone else, was her aunt’s favourite argument.
Zandile didn’t despise small beginnings – in fact, she admired them. It was the lack of ambition her aunt demonstrated that frustrated her. She just couldn’t picture herself working for a boss all her life. And her aunt hated over-ambitious people who thought they were better than everybody else.
Zandile had contemplated going back home more than once. It seemed like her baking was needed back home. She had been getting calls to make scones and muffins and her heart ached when she had to decline all those orders. Everybody needed scones and muffins because there was always a funeral at some village or the other. She’d be making easy money now, instead of putting up with the misery of living with her aunt.
She dreaded going home to her aunt’s house but she had no other place to go.
As Zandile entered her street at full speed, she silently prayed that her nephew’s transport had broken down somewhere. She turned the corner and stopped running. Her nephew was sitting at the door wailing. Zandile slowed down; there was no point in running. She just needed to brace herself for when her aunt arrived and saw her only son crying.
* * *
Tell us what you think: Why do you think Pam is staying in an abusive marriage? Can the life Zandile lives at her aunt’s be considered abuse?