Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Mistake                                                                                               

 

Thandiwe listened for footsteps, then bolted his door and closed the curtains. He tossed a canvas carryall onto the bright blanket Chipo had sent him, the only color in the dreary room. From a trouser pocket he drew out a handkerchief, cradling it in both hands. He placed the cloth on a small eating table, pulled the overhead light string, and sat down. Using his index finger and thumb, he unfolded the handkerchief one corner at a time. The pearls lay like white stones in blue water. He fingered the jeweled clasp––small pigeon-blood rubies and diamonds set in yellow gold. It was worth three years’ pay. He closed his eyes.

It had been a long day. That morning he was half out the door when a sharp whistle called him back. A second airport fare. Now he’d have to take the VW van to hold all the luggage. Than hated the orange and white devil. The thing handled like a wheelbarrow, and he didn’t trust the rebuilt engine. On the other hand, the possibility of a second tip cheered him. He opened the sunroof to air out the inside.

Twenty minutes later he inched into the driveway of the low-slung house with deep porches. With an old cloth he mopped his creased face and waited to see if the voice on the call-in program would say anything new, but it was just another angry black nyah, nyah, we can give as good as we get rant. Change would take time.

He tucked in his t-shirt and smoothed his slouchy, deep-pocketed trousers. Mandela had won the presidency a few months earlier, and Thandiwe still proudly wore the black shirt with the yellow, green and black flag, the stylized African shield. Most days he wore a buttoned-up short-sleeve shirt and khakis, but today he’d been scheduled for dispatch.  He was bossies when a stayaway had put him back behind the wheel by 9:00.

Than pushed the button beside the gate and waited. He didn’t remember the thick screen of ropy green tendrils on the high iron fence or the Rhodesian ridgeback lolling in the breezeway. It had been several months since he’d had taken Mrs. Koopman anywhere.

On the other side of the gate, a colored maid gave him a narrow-eyed once over. Madame will be right out, she sniffed. Holding her chin high she left him standing there. Thandiwe scratched his jaw and watched the dog. The dog watched back, his head on his paws. Only his eyes moved. Than knew those powerful jaws could rip a man’s leg off in nothing flat.

Two minutes later a bird-like figure in a pale blue dress and dark glasses followed the maid out the door. Mrs. Koopman’s pineapple-colored hair was piled into her usual cocktail curls. A string of pearls rode high on her slack neck. Even in the bush the old Johannesburg money dressed for their 5:00 gin and tonics. They’d sit on the verandas of the lodges, gossip and play cards and act like it was 1950 and they were still in charge.  

“Oh it’s you, Thandiwe! I didn’t recognize you. There are simply too many of you.” She fluttered an age-spotted hand.

“Never mind, Madame.” He wouldn’t take offense. For some time he’d been concerned about Mrs. K’s memory. On one trip she said she’d just talked to a friend that Than knew had been gone for two decades, one of her pals from Londolozi days. And on their last trip she said that Harold MacMillan would help South Africa if we’d just ask. MacMillan hadn’t been prime minister for two decades. He was also dead.

Than helped Mrs. K. into the back seat. Her arm was like a thin stick in her sleeve, her lavender scent familiar. He piled her bags into the front and climbed behind the wheel. “Where are you off to, Madame? Londolozi again? I’d like to go back to Londolozi. Those were good days.” He hummed under his breath. “Comfortable, Madame? I can turn up the aircon. Very hot today.”

“It’s fine, thank you. I’m always a bit cold.” She coughed softly. “I’m going to Mala Mala this year. A change will be good.” She shifted in her seat, then opened and closed her handbag with a loud snap. “Is your family still in Swaziland? How long before you join them?”

Thandiwe said he hoped soon, perhaps a year. Two blocks on he was forced to stop for workers unloading lumber from a truck. “Another fence, I suppose,” Mrs. K. said. “Now everyone puts up walls and stays behind locked gates. South Africa isn’t the same anymore.” Than had heard it all before.  

He’d known Mrs. Koopman half his life. For twenty years he’d worked at Londolozi lodge, driving guests through the bush to see the sunrise, watching for rare leopards at night, escorting them to and from their rondavels. The Koopmans, a lively and popular couple, were generous and adored among the staff. It was a point of honor with Than that they’d always insisted on him as their boy. One year Mr. K. gave him a Brownie box camera and taught him how to use it. And once they brought gifts for his children, painted wooden horses from Stockholm for the little ones and fairy tale books for the older kids. These days he didn’t spend money on film.

Mr. K. was an imposing figure, tall with a beak nose and unruly hair. At first his formal manners frightened Than, but the old man loved to laugh at himself and the other guests, and after a while he and Than laughed together. For decades Mr. K. had hosted a hunt during high season while Madame played bridge with the other ladies. He’d died ten years ago. Not long after that Thandiwe had said goodbye to Londolozi and moved to Johannesburg. It was farther from home, from Swaziland and his family, but he could earn more. He was sad to leave the hot smells of the ironwood trees, the slow red dawns. He knew the lions’ names, the giraffes, the families of baboons. He missed looking for elephants in the dry river beds and the dense, star-filled nights.

Things were terrible when he first moved south. Hordes of hopeless youths roamed the streets, bent on destruction. People stayed inside at night. Everyone was afraid. Now the curfews were less strict and more children went to school. Than sensed hope and a tentative patience in some, but the poverty in the townships held so many down.   

Now he lived alone in a furnished room, allowing himself a single Castle lager at a rundown tavern on Saturdays. He’d sit in a corner, read the leftover newspapers, and watch a flickering television on a shelf above his head. Sometimes the men got loud, arguing about the Springboks and politics. Than listened to the mostly cynical comments about De Klerk and Mandela and the Nobel Peace Prize, but he stayed out of it.

On his way home the prostitutes in their short, tight skirts and high-heels tempted him, but he resisted. Every December he took a three-day bus ride from Johannesburg to Swaziland to see his wives, Kagiso and Chipo, and their nine children. Another year and he’d have enough saved to return for good. Every day he thought about how to get more money so he could go home sooner. He took extra shifts, ate cheap food, and mended his clothes to avoid spending. Every week he sent money to his bank in Swaziland.

A few blocks on Thandiwe slowed the van. “We stop for a minute now, Madame. Another passenger.”

She shook her head. “I hope not. These days it could be anyone.”

He drove under a high arch thick with pink, blooming Diascia and onto a brick-paved courtyard, past khaki-clad armed guards. Pots of red geraniums and white clematis splashed color around the doorways. In a far corner guests in straw hats and light clothing sipped beer under dense Mopani trees. Than envied their ease, their confidence. He hurried inside but was back in a minute.

“No more passengers.” He was disappointed. “Now to the airport.” Another passenger might have diffused Mrs. Koopman’s complaints. And now there wouldn’t be a second tip.

Thandiwe took a street that skirted the congestion and danger of downtown. There were still incidents, and he didn’t want to risk being stopped at a barricade. He’d heard stories of people being robbed while waiting in lines. No one would help. It was too dangerous. He checked his watch. With luck they’d be at the airport in an hour.

On the main road women walked beside traffic carrying lumpy parcels on top of their heads. Their bare feet sent up little pops of powdery orange dust; their high, round hips swayed under flimsy skirts. He missed his wives, especially Chipo, the younger one, who had given him four more children. Lesedi, the fat-cheeked baby, would be a year old soon. He longed to kiss the infant’s head and breathe in her warm, milky smell. He missed tending his cassava, sitting under the trees in the heat of the day, gossiping with his friends. He wondered how his ten-year-old son was doing in school, the child who was his image, the same high, wide cheeks and narrow chin, the same prominent forehead. Balozi. He missed the boy the most. 

Mrs. Koopman lifted one hand and pointed. “Oh, there’s that new development. I read that the Indians have bought up the whole place. They’re all getting rich off us. Look at those houses pushed together like that. They’re turning the place into America, rubbish and AIDS everywhere.” She sniffed. “Do you believe in AIDS, Thandiwe?  I wish the politicians would agree; then things would be better. And now Mandela. Aacch!” She took a sharp breath. “Who knows what will happen?”

Thandiwe wanted to tell her how much he admired Mandela, but he kept his mouth shut, relieved she hadn’t noticed his shirt. He slid further down in his seat as if she could see through it. 

On the street ahead, a knot of men stood behind a jack-knifed truck. The trailer was at a sharp angle to the cab blocking the whole road. Magtig! He sat up straight, hoping Mrs. K. hadn’t noticed, weighing his options.  

Mrs. Koopman leaned forward. “Look there! It must be an accident. Oh, dear. We’ll be delayed, and I may miss my plane, and there isn’t another until tomorrow. Oh, dear dear dear.”

Than had one chance to get off the street before being trapped in a line of traffic with no place to turn around. “Never mind, Madame. I know a short cut. It’ll be okay.” The van groaned and tilted in protest as he made an abrupt left turn. He rubbed the back of his neck. It might be a rough and unpleasant detour, but it would be better than waiting for an accident to clear, which might take all day.

The street narrowed into a lane thick with dust and potholes. Shabby, tin-roofed buildings perched close to the road. Children playing in the noonday heat thronged the streets. Men leaned in the doorways of rundown shacks, avoiding the sun, their tattered shirts exposing shiny dark flesh. Wary eyes met Than’s.

On one corner shrieking adolescents gathered around an oversized radio propped on the hood of a beat-up car. A head-scarfed youth darted from a shop and kicked the van. Mrs. Koopman cried out, then rustled in her bag. For a moment Than wondered if she was armed. He’d heard stories of ancient whites carrying loaded pistols. “We’ll be through in no time, Madame,” he reassured her.

For blocks Thandiwe drove past shabby spazas with CDs, bright hair ornaments, and bags of crisps hanging from wires. Dusty cases of Fanta and Sparletta stood behind the makeshift windows. Between the spazas old women sat under umbrellas selling fat melons and radishes.  

A mile into the township Than saw people milling around as if waiting to be told what to do. He was afraid it was a demonstration. Mrs. Koopman saw it too. She slapped her seat. “Look there! It’s a protest. Is it too late to turn back? Do turn back!” Her voice quavered, and she inhaled sharply. “Do you hear me, Thandiwe? Turn back!”  

“We cannot turn around now, Madame. No place.” He clenched the wheel, trying to stay calm. He wanted to tell her to be quiet, that she wasn’t helping. Mrs. K. moaned and sank back into her seat.   

By then they were close enough to see a mob of perhaps a hundred people gathered around a man standing in the back of an old pickup. A straw hat perched on top of his dreadlocks. His movements were quick and fierce. Something about the man’s hat was familiar; then Than recognized him. “It’s that Dube fellow from TV, that Tswana guy the kids all like. He knows Mandela.” He tapped out a little rhythm on the steering wheel. “They listen to him; he’s good for them. He tells them they’ll vote soon.” Relief made him weak, a little giddy. He chuckled to himself.

Mrs. Koopman snorted. “That communist left-wing lot, calling everyone comrade. Comrade indeed. I can’t sort it all out. The ANC, the DAP, the AIWC. Who can make sense of anything anymore? How are these people going to know how to vote? They aren’t matriculated!”

For an instant Than felt new and brave. He wanted to get out and listen, to be young again and participate in what some said would be a new South Africa. Maybe there would be changes in Swaziland too. It was a corrupt, backward place, but he wasn’t too old to hope.

Gabbling youths spilled into the road behind them as they passed. Than slowed, hoping the crowd would part to let them through. The van was a few yards from the pickup now. Skinny, slobbering brak darted around the wheels. The speaker waved a wad of papers, his other hand punched the air. 

“We all need a hero, Madam.” Than swore he’d say no more. He was certain that Mrs. K. had never actually talked to a black African. Her only comments to her maid, or houseboy or to him were orders or whining complaints. He wanted to go listen to the Dube man, leave her in the van.   

 The speaker held up both fists, his mouth wide, his head thrown back. He touched the brim of his hat with two fingers, bowed slightly, and hopped down into the street. The throng clapped and raised their hands in a great whoop of joy, then surrounded the van like a many-legged creature. A big-haired boy jumped on the front bumper of the moving van and pressed his face to the windshield. Than stopped and yanked on the emergency brake. In a frenzy of energy and excitement, the crowd rocked the van and slapped the sides, hooting and yelling. Several cupped their eyes with their hands and looked inside.

Mrs. K. made cat-like noises. “Thandiwe! Thandiwe!” A slight child, younger than the rest and quick as a silverfish, darted to her window. Bracing himself against the door,  he swung off the handle like a lemur, grinning and staring in.

Mrs. Koopman’s shoulders folded, her hands at her throat. “Shall I give him money?” Her voice was tiny. She clutched her purse to her chest.

“Don’t give him anything. He’s just a boy.”

The child was about Balozi’s age, shirtless and skinny. With a pang of loneliness Than watched him. He guessed the child had never seen yellow hair, or a white person up close. He may be fresh from the country. He may never have been in a car. Than waggled his index finger at the child, but he didn’t move.

Mrs. K.’s hands trembled as she fingered her pearl necklace. The big-haired boy rapped sharply on the windshield. When Than turned back to Mrs. K., she had lowered the window just enough to drop the necklace into the boy’s hand.

“Madame! No!” Than shouted. “Don’t do that!”

He was too late. An older girl grabbed the shirtless boy under his arms and dragged him away. The child looked back as if sorry to leave. Than debated giving chase, but he’d never catch them, and he couldn’t leave Mrs. K. alone.

He twirled the crank that folded back the canvas sunroof. Using the steering wheel for balance, he climbed onto the seat, hoping the crowd would respond to reason. The noise subsided as his tight, grey curls popped through the roof. He knew it was a risk, showing his face. He could be hit by a piece of fruit or a rock.

Below him the crowd was a pulsing smear of color and movement and noise. The heat made him lightheaded. He raised both hands in supplication. “Let us pass, please! Please, we mean no harm. Please!”

A boy below pointed to Than’s t-shirt. Another nodded. A few others stepped back. Murmurs of “Mandiba” and “ANC” floated among them. Several shuffled to the side of the street as if disappointed to lose the attraction. The boy on the bumper yelled across their heads. “Go on!” He flapped one hand at them. “Get on with you!” He jumped down and with a limp gesture to the others ambled off. In less than a minute the crowd had lost interest in the van.

Than slid back down behind the wheel, his knees aching from the unaccustomed strain. Just as he ground the engine to life, an older youth with a clipboard and a whistle tapped on Than’s window.

He hesitated, then rolled it down halfway.

Ubaba, may we have a word, please? Our speaker wishes to apologize.”

Something in Than sat up with the respectful greeting. He wasn’t afraid.

“Don’t get out, Thandiwe!” Mrs. Koopman begged. “They’ll take you away! Don’t leave me!”

“It will be okay, Madame.” He climbed out and stood unsteadily by the vehicle. A few of the curious pulled close again. The Twsana man with the straw hat appeared. Up close he looked older, the wiry intensity punctuated by hard eyes, a mocking mouth, but when he took both Than’s hands, his features softened.

“Everything okay, Ubaba? I’m sorry for the delay. The comrades are just excited.”  

Than stood taller, proud to be in the famous man’s presence. “It’s no trouble, boet. Good luck to you.” He nodded once. “Good luck.”

The Tswana man stepped back, lowered his head, and lifted one hand in farewell. Than climbed back into the van and started the engine. He crept forward until the crowd was safely behind him. When they were dots in his rearview mirror, he pulled to the side. “I’m very sorry for the trouble, Madame. Do you prefer to go home?” Mrs. Koopman put her hand to her throat where the pearls had been. She closed her purse over and over. Than wanted to give her a sound klap, tell her she was making him crazy. “Perhaps go to Mala Mala tomorrow?”

“Just get me to the airport,” she snapped. For a while they rode in silence. “Will you make a report?” Mrs. K.’s voice held a challenge. The law required that all incidents involving violence or crowds be reported to the police immediately. There was a fine and possible jail time for not complying. Than could lose his job.  

“Yes, Madame. Later today.” Than thought about skipping it. There’d been no harm done after all. He wished he could have talked to the Tswana guy. He wanted to know what the ANC would do next, what was planned. What could the young expect? They’d waited so long. There’d been so much bloodshed, so little hope.

At the taverns there was talk of a commission. Some said the victims would be asked to tell what happened to them, the stories of disappearances, murder, and imprisonment. One man said he’d heard the testimonies might be open to the public. Some of the men jeered when they heard that, said it would never work, that people would be afraid to talk.  

At the airport terminal building, Than put Mrs. K.’s luggage on a rickety cart, then helped her out of the van. On other trips he’d accompanied her inside and waited, but today he signaled for a bellman. 

Mrs. Koopman handed him a thick envelope. “Do take care, Thandiwe.” For years his airport tip had amounted to a day’s pay, and always in small bills, safer than large denominations. Tomorrow he’d send the money home.

He slipped the envelope into a deep trouser pocket. Glad to be alone again he turned the van toward Johannesburg and the police station. The report would take hours. It exhausted him to think about it. He was too old for this sort of thing.

When the exit sign for Soweto appeared, without thinking, he put on his turn signal. Driving down the same block where they’d been delayed an hour earlier, he saw the pickup truck. It hadn’t moved. He parked nearby and got out, squinting in the sun, looking for the remnants of the crowd and the Tswana man. A few feet from him an old woman was packing up her vegetables. “Ubuntu, is the Tswana man still here?” 

Her gums were pink, her cloudy eyes lost in wrinkles. “There!” She lifted one arm and pointed. “Down there the kids are.”

Than went in that direction, looking around corners, listening for voices. He heard the laughter before he saw them gathered in an alley between two spazas, clustered on a few wooden benches under rusty overhangs. The Tswana man sat on one end of a rough wooden table, holding a beer. A dozen or so faces were turned to him, hanging on his words, taking in his optimism and vision.  

The Tswana paused and cocked his head when he saw Than, then motioned for him to come in. Than found a seat near the entry. A woman with breasts the size of cantaloupes slipped him a Castle lager. He nodded and reached for his pocket, but the woman shook her head and smiled. He lifted the bottle in thanks, pleased with his decision to stop, plotting how he might stay there the rest of the day.

Than listened to the crowd’s questions. He thought the Tswana man was clever, the way he navigated a tricky path between realism and hope. Twenty minutes later the man looked at his watch, pushed back his hat, and stood up. Dodging more questions he made his way to the street. When he got to Than, he bent his head. “Come to my truck in five minutes.” He pointed. “Down the street there.”

Than was startled, then proud. He drained his bottle and got to his feet, letting his old bones settle. He got to the truck first. In the shelter of an awning, he watched the small procession make its way toward him.

The Tswana man sent the others away and gestured for Than to get in the truck. For a minute they sat in the stifling heat. “Ubaba, I have something for you.” The Tswana man reached into a shirt pocket. “Here.” He dropped Mrs. K.’s pearls into Than’s hand. “I believe these belong to your passenger. That old woman made a mistake.” His voice was rough with anger. “The boy was just curious. His sister saw the whole thing and gave the necklace to me.” He took a deep breath. “What if she’d gotten caught with that?” He shook his head. “No one would have believed her story. I don’t know if I would have believed her.” He hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand.

Than hadn’t thought about that. He’d been dismayed when Mrs. K. gave the pearls to the child, but he’d been more concerned about getting through the crowd and on to the airport. Mrs. K. was addled, senile. Her moegoe move wasn’t his problem.

Than wrapped the necklace in his blue handkerchief. “Mrs. K. is old and easily confused these days.”

The Tswana man nodded. “You’ll do the right thing.” Than thanked him and got out. He’d forgotten his questions, the hopes he wanted to share. The man eased the truck into the street and disappeared. Than put the handkerchief into his trouser pocket.

He dropped off the keys to the taxi and took the rickety bus home. An old man on the corner lifted one hand as Than unlocked his door. He wanted to be alone. He couldn’t face the police today. He’d make the report tomorrow. No one would know.

 

 

 

Jean Hart’s career in high technology took her to dozens of countries. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Puget Sound and a graduate degree in business from Santa Clara University. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in the rural south, the daughter of a man who wanted to sing like Hank Williams. Jean lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.