Early next morning Thabi was at the house. She unlocked the front door. The stench of blocked drains and sewerage hit her nostrils, and she stepped back. “Today,” she muttered, “we’ll get this sorted out.”

Soon afterward she heard chattering and laughing. The women from the church climbed out of a taxi and came noisily up the garden path, carrying brooms and mops and buckets. One had even brought a kettle. They didn’t seem too upset by the sight of the filthy house.

“We’ll get it cleaned up in no time,” said Mrs Mthembu, the pastor’s wife. “My husband is going to come by with the bakkie at lunchtime. He’ll take a load of rubbish to the dump for you.”

Mrs Mthembu took control, ordering everyone around, and in five minutes they’d set up a system. “We need three piles,” she said. “Throw away, donate and keep. We’ll take everything into the garden. Rubbish on the pavement. Donations on the left hand side. Everything you want to keep on the right hand side. Do you have black bags, Thabi?”

“No, I’ll go the shopping centre and buy some. Tell me what else you need.”

“Bleach,” said Mrs Thafeni, wrinkling her nose at the smell from the toilet. “And Handy Andy. Lots of it.”

“You go to the shops now,” said Mrs Mthembu. “We’ll get started with the boxes and newspapers in the front room. Sheila,” she ordered one of the younger women, “you try and squeeze into the kitchen and see if you can find some cups and plates for our breakfast.”

Thabi set off to the mall with her shopping list. Tea, coffee, milk, sugar, bread, margarine, French polony, cheese, and cleaning products – lots of them. Old Mr Katz wouldn’t have had plates and mugs enough for twenty people, she thought. I’d better buy some paper plates and cups too.

She finished shopping and wheeled the trolley out of Pick n Pay and into the mall. The nearest exit took her right past Mrs Ram’s coffee shop. Her heart began to beat faster and her head filled with anxious thoughts. What if she sees me? What if she comes out and shouts at me? I was so rude to her the other day – I told her she was a mean, selfish old woman, in front of all her customers.

She’d just decided to go the long way round, even though it meant carrying her shopping bags further. Suddenly she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Mrs Ram.

“I see you’re shopping,” the old woman said. “Buying lots of things, are you?” She was smiling, and Thabi relaxed a little. Her ex-boss wasn’t going to shout at her in public, and embarrass her.

“Just a few cleaning products,” Thabi said, pushing the trolley forward. “Goodbye, Mrs Ram.”

Mrs Ram grabbed her arm. “Not so fast, girlie,” she said. “I had a visitor this morning. The old man’s son was here. He wanted to know all about you.”

In spite of herself, she stopped.

“He was very interested to know that you’d been caught stealing from the kitchen. First you help yourself to food, then you help yourself to that poor man’s inheritance. You knew all along that dirty old man was rich, didn’t you? That’s why you sucked up to him. Well, you’ll get your comeuppance, girlie. He’s going to get what’s rightfully his, and you’ll be back in the gutter, where you belong.”

Thabi gasped.

“Once a thief, always a thief,” Mrs Ram yelled as Thabi rushed towards the exit with tears streaming down her cheeks.


Tell us what you think: Why does Mrs Ram hate Thabi so much?