Madam and her husband lived on Rhodes Avenue in the heart of Parktown West. The servant’s quarter was just about ten yards from the master bedroom. This little apartment was my home for more than three years. Every night, I left the windows of my apartment open to feel the sweet fragrance of night queen that blew with the quiet breeze across the ambience of the atmosphere. This place was unlike home in many ways. Every time the floodgates of heaven opened, the rare moist breeze carried a rotting stench that cleared my mind. That smell of wet wood and rotten Jacaranda flowers on the lawn made me think of the thousands of those small creatures, the combination of red and blue, which are only recognised for their collective beauty when they cover the trees. I believe that those flowers live individual lives in the trees and man will never understand the secrets of such lives because of his obsession with grandiose aspects of existence forgetting that it’s the little things in life that mater.
I can never boast of knowing the nooks of Johannesburg even though the big city has shaped my life in ways you can never imagine. Like most migrant workers, my place was the kitchen. The Paulissens told me that I was free from work on Sundays but with this freedom I could only be allowed as much movement as a dog on a leash. My skin colour already defined a place and character for me and I understood very well the consequences of loitering around a fine neighbourhood without an ID.
The only place I once patronized was the Baker and Massey Anglican Church. I attended church services but nobody asked my name. The church elders always reminded the congregation to honour their monthly pledges and to collect their pledge cards from the deacons of their specific wards. I did not have a pledge card and I could not point out my deacon because, practically, I was not from the neighbourhood. What made it worse was that Madam did not go to any church and Mr. Paulissen attended the Freemason’s hall. This meant that I had nobody to speak on my behalf. Madam always said there were billions of people in the world and God would not miss her if she never attended church. She also told me that when God chooses to ignore your problems, it’s only fair to ignore him as well. The church never seemed to feel my presence in any way. As time went by, I stopped feeling the stares from the congregation. I stopped noticing the empty chairs beside my own or the emptiness of the smiles that met my face. Eventually I could not feel the presence of God and I stopped going to church.
Madam never talked with me. She would only speak to me about work. Any conversation outside work was my initiative. I remember when I asked her why she didn’t have a lot of friends she said, “Eliza, mind your own business”. When I asked her why Mr. was drinking too much and sometimes sleeping in the car she said, “Eliza, if you don’t stay in your place I will send you packing. Do I look like your friend? Know where you belong or I will show it to you the hard way”. She was always calm when she spoke which made her threats sound more sincere and more threatening. Her gaunt face was the colour of pale pink and the sunken cheeks were always peach like when she was angry. She would curl herself on the sofa for several hours, listening to low metallic music and sipping on endless glasses of whisky. The only time she was cheerful was when Madam Ryskamp visited. When she visited, I put my ears quite close to the living room because that was the only time that I heard what was on Madam’s mind.
“Joost hasn’t been sleeping in the bedroom.”
“This time it’s worse. It’s like I don’t exist to him… sometimes he doesn’t even come into the house or when he does he is smelling like a homeless kaffir… I’m tired of all this nonsense Nancy…. He hates me.”
Then Madam would sob uncontrollably. As always, Madam Ryskamp would comfort her with the same old words, “It’s ok Aleen… it’s just a phase. Men do that all the time. He will come around.”
“I just think he is sleeping around Nancy!”
“Don’t torture yourself Aleen… You are eating away.”
“No Nancy I think he sleeps around with those medical school students… That Dr. Van Breda he drinks with is leading him astray… I will deal with that bastard I tell you!” Then she would sob and sob until Madam Ryskamp left the house. Madam never suspected that I heard any of her conversations or if she did she did not care. I just made sure that I remained in my place and that was all it took to secure my job.
Madam and her husband did not seem to get along very well. The noises that came from their fine bungalow in the night were horrible to my ear. In my first year of work, I would lose my sleep every time I heard the smashing noise of breaking glass from the main house. It always started with the sound of Mr. Paulissen’s car, parking in the garage. Then Madam’s incomprehensible stutters would follow minutes later. Mr Paulissen often shouted in anger, “Let me rest Aleen! Let me rest!” Then glasses would be broken and endless screams would follow. I and Dube, the guard, listened in our shared silence of servants.
Once when we were close friends, Dube told me a lot about Mr Paulissen. He said that the boss belonged to a wealthy family that owned a number of goldmines in the country. However, he spent his formative years in America but he was called back home after college to take over the family business. His father wanted a youthful and strong man since he was afraid of losing his property to the black freedom struggles of that period. To the Dutch property owners, opposing apartheid was like questioning their right of holding property in the land. So the young Joost Paulissen promised to come back home with his Harvard degrees and an American wife.
Joost’s life changed forever on the day of his arrival from the United States. His family never imagined as to how much influence the American life could have on their son. He grew up in an environment more different from the then South Africa and his tastes were liberal. His American wife disembarked from a Virgin Airlines flight skin stark-black under the sunlight of Johannesburg. She was as black as the dead of night. Joost put his arm around her sable shoulders as he ran with her towards his family for a joyful reunion. The couple got the worst welcome they could never have imagined. His was a forbidden act of miscegenation and theirs the dread of contamination. The family made it clear that they would not allow nigger blood to run in their heritage. The so called wife had to go. Young Joost protested the family’s decision but the pressure was too much for him to bear. He decided to go back to America but the powerful Paulissens made sure that that did not happen. In a few days, the American wife, the love of his life, disappeared. A wedding was quickly arranged and the fair Aleen became Mrs. Paulissen.
All these stories sounded remote to me. It was none of my business anyway. But my life changed when, on one calm summer night, a man visited my bedroom. That first night I saw the masculine figure against the faint darkness of my room, was the day that Dube detached himself from my affairs. The next morning I realised that we were never close friends again and he would only greet me indifferently afterwards. That man touched me fondly, I was afraid so I pushed him back. He crawled towards me again, this time uncovering my naked body with passionate force, pushing the cheap blanket onto the cold floor. I wanted to scream but I could not. I was afraid. The man did not smell like Dube. I bit my dry lips as he pushed himself into my limp body. He satisfied his body’s desire and loosened his grip, jerking like a dying chicken. Then drops of warm water dripped from his face marking my sweaty cheek. I listened as he tried to hush his sobs in the darkness. I remained silent.
The third time that he entered my room he did not struggle. I powerlessly gave way to his masculinity and he did like he had done the other two times that he visited. This time around there was no sobbing. When he came back the fourth time, he hesitated. He stroked my kinky hair then pressed his wet mouth against my cracked lips. I could not tell what it was but I think he kissed me. A fog of thoughts clouded my mind. I could not clearly figure out his ways. I settled on one thought which I felt made more sense in the darkness: he was not violent but maybe he just did not know how to ask for love. He kissed me again and I dawdled then wrapped my arms around him. I felt loved and I loved it. This man saw me in my darkness and loved me. I could not ask for more. Days turned into months and this forbidden love in the darkness became my poison.
It was on a quiet Saturday night that I heard violent screams from my boss’ bedroom. This time around it was different. My violated ears could make out the tone of insanity in Madam’s screaming. Mr Paulissen blasted his wife and there was frightening silence. The atmosphere was wet with unspeakable hatred and I felt the tension. Then suddenly I heard the deafening sound of a gun go off about four times in quick succession. I trembled with fear and leaped from my bed. I wrapped myself in a cloth and rushed out of the house. Dube stood close to the bungalow. Our terrified eyes met in the darkness. The alarm was triggered and it went off amidst Mr. Paulissen’s cries for help. I did not move. Dube rushed to the back door of the main house and Mr. Paulissen appeared from the door carrying his wife in both arms. Purple blood oozed from the lifeless body like sap from a poisonous tree. I shuddered.
When the police came, they asked Mr. Paulissen a few questions and then turned to the neighbours, asking them what they had heard. Most of these neighbours lived close enough, maybe a hundred metres away, and they narrated all they could make out of what they heard from such close ranges. All the while, I was standing with Dube on the lawn, witnessing the proceedings. The Jacaranda trees around the compound made hushing sounds that comforted us in silence. The purple flowers kept falling down, the end of life. When Mr. Paulissen was being escorted to the police van, he halted to speak to me.
“What did you see?”
“I saw nothing.”
“What did you hear?”
“I heard nothing.”
“What do you want?”
I said, “I want to go home.” then I started sobbing uncontrollably. He fondled my wet cheek and lifted my face by the chin. It was a familiar touch. He looked me dead in the eyes then he proceeded to the police van. That was the last time that I ever saw Mr. Paulissen in person.
The next morning the family driver came and advised me to arrange my belongings which were carefully packed in new suitcases. I left the crime scene, on my way to Park Station. I followed the proceedings of the trial on local radio stations back home in Malawi. Witnesses were paraded to make their confessions on what they heard on that fateful day. I followed the trial silently. On the day I heard the news that Mr. Paulissen was acquitted of the murder of his wife Aleen, the new life in my womb jumped for the first time. I will name him Peace.