PWG International Writing Competition 2016 highly commended Gwenda Major
My name is Victor. My day starts later than most as I try to sleep until five o’clock in the afternoon if I can. This is not easy because of the noises outside. I have learned to ignore the music from radios, the chatter of my neighbours and the barking of the dogs. Otherwise I would not sleep and then I could not do my job properly. My mother tries to move about the room quietly. She says she did the same when I was a baby so it is no hardship for her.
When I wake I eat a bowl of maize porridge and some mealie bread straightaway for I have a long night ahead. Then I wash and put on jeans and a shirt. My mother always has my uniform carefully folded in a bag ready for me. She knows it is important for me to look smart. She is proud of my work and boasts to our neighbours about what I do. Next I bring my trainers down from the roof where I keep them in a plastic bag. Also my bicycle. It is necessary to be careful where I live.
At six o’clock I leave Imizamo Yethu which is near Hout Bay along the coast from Capetown. I cycle through the township, past the spazas and the little school and church and out on to the main road. Already the shebeen is full of men. Our sorghum beer is very popular. Near the road I leave my bicycle with my friend David who will look after it until my return in the morning. If I am lucky I catch the bus up the coast without a long wait. I get off at the stop outside Camp’s Bay and cross the road to the gates of Bay House. When I arrive I must press the button and speak my name so that they can open the security gate. It rolls very slowly and very quietly aside, allowing me to walk up the long curved driveway to the house.
The gardens of Bay House are very beautiful. When I describe them to my mother she cannot believe what I am saying. She says paradise must be like this. The palm trees sway when the strong wind blows. We call the wind the Cape Doctor. This is because it blows all the pollution away from Capetown and makes the air fresh and sweet. Here and there in the garden are ponds where koi carp swim. Some of them are orange, some black, some pale and pink – a rainbow nation, just like South Africa.
Bay House has balconies facing the ocean so that the guests can sit and watch the view and the sunset over the Atlantic. In front there is a pool surrounded by sunbeds which are covered in white towels. It is Joseph’s job to clean the pool every morning. I have often watched the way he sweeps the surface with his net to remove any flies or leaves that have fallen in during the night. Joseph always moves slowly. He is never in a hurry.
Beyond the pool is the dining room where the guests eat breakfast and lunch. Maureen is in charge of the kitchen. She is very proud of her food and smiles when the guests compliment her on her smoked chicken salads. Maureen also lives in Imizamo Yethu but she goes home as I arrive because Bay House does not serve evening meals, only lunches. In the evenings the guests walk or drive into Camp’s Bay where there are many restaurants serving all manner of food. If they walk there Mr Reiter advises them not to walk back but to take a taxi. It is best to be cautious he tells them.
My work really starts at seven o’clock when Mr & Mrs Reiter lock up the reception area and go up the slope to their own house behind the guest house. This house is large and white and behind it are the Twelve Apostles mountains. When I arrive at Bay House I change into my uniform of smart grey trousers and a starched white shirt with epaulettes. I have a badge which says ‘VICTOR / Security’ so that people know who I am. My first task is to remove all the towels from the sunbeds and put them in a big basket ready for the maids in the morning. Then I take the mattresses off the sunbeds and lock them away in the storeroom beside the pool. I walk all around the garden every half hour to check that everything is in order.
Some of the guests like to talk to me as I make my rounds. They like to know my name and where I live and ask me what it is like there. Some of them have been on a township tour and tell me how friendly everyone was and how much they admire the people who live there. I smile and thank them. They say how wonderful it is that the township shacks are being replaced by brick and concrete houses. They tell me what a beautiful country South Africa is and how lucky I am to live here. They tell me about their trip up Table Mountain in the revolving cable car and about the wonderful views down the Cape peninsula from the top. They tell me about their ride across to Robben Island on the ferry and how sad they feel about what was done to political prisoners there. They say they admire Mr Mandela because he had dignity and did not seek revenge. I nod and tell them that yes, we are very proud of Mr Mandela.
A little later other guests start to return from their evening out. They pass their key fob over the sensor and the big gate slides silently across so that they can drive in. As they walk to their rooms they greet me and tell me what they have eaten and which wines they have drunk. They clap me on the back as they go to bed. “Good night Victor” they call. When they are ready to leave many of them give me money, ten or twenty Rand which they press into my hand as if it was a secret between them and me. I smile and thank them. I think they like me because I am polite. They also like my clean, smart uniform which makes them feel safe. They sleep better in their soft wide beds because I am here, awake in the garden.
The guests like to know about my life but I do not tell them the truth because I do not believe they want to hear it. I do not tell them that my Xhosa name is Sizwe which means nation. I do not tell them that there are six of us living in one room at Imizamo Yethu. I do not tell them we came from the Transkei in the Eastern Cape when I was eight because my father needed to find work but that now he is dead and my mother has to look after all of us on her own. I do not tell them that we have to fetch water from a pump that must serve many families in our area. I do not mention that the sewage system cannot cope. Too many people have come to find work in Capetown since the Pass Laws were repealed. I do not tell them that my oldest brother has Aids and can no longer work nor that my other two brothers have no jobs but hang about the shebeen all day with their gang. There are many gangs in the township. When a boy reaches twelve or thirteen he must choose which one he will join. The gang gives us a feeling of belonging and teaches us to look after each other before all others. It is easy to get guns in South Africa.
The guests are right. New houses are being built in our township but only three hundred concrete houses so far. Most are like ours, built of corrugated panels held together with scraps of wood and tarpaulin. From the distance our township looks quite pretty, especially at night. There are walls painted in bright colours. The tangle of electricity wires hangs like a spider’s web overhead. But when you get closer you see it in a different way. You see that the shacks lean against each other, holding each other up like drunkards. You see that there are piles of rubbish all around, old tyres, bits of cars and other junk where the children must play. You see the clinic where people go for treatment against Aids and the church where they go at the end when there is no more hope.
There are worse townships than ours. More and more people come to the city to seek work. There is not enough to go round. I am one of the lucky ones but I am not like Joseph and Maureen and the other maids. Joseph moves through his days in a dream, tending his garden, skimming the blue water of the swimming pool, feeding the koi carp. Mr and Mrs Reiter call him ‘the garden boy’ although he is more than fifty years old, but Joseph does not seem to mind. Maureen loves talking to the guests from all over the world and her smile is bright when they stop to chat to her. She wishes them a good day and off they go for their trips to the winelands, their bus tours to see the penguins at Boulders Beach and their shopping trips to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. They show me the necklaces and carved giraffes they have bought and boast of how they bartered for a good price. They say there is nowhere like Capetown and that everyone should come here.
The premier of our Western Cape province tells us that we must welcome the tourists because our economy needs them. We must smile and make them feel at home so that they will tell their friends to come. Our Xhosa culture also tells us to welcome visitors. It is right to do so. Our premier promises us improvements but none come. Now she has said they will erect a tall fence around the shanty shacks near the airport because the tourists do not like to see them when they first arrive. And she says that people must stop selling in the streets and at traffic lights because it makes the visitors feel ill at ease. But if there are no jobs what should people do? Hungry men are angry men my father told me. But then he died so now it is up to me.
Soon all the guests will be asleep. Perhaps they will discuss what they might do tomorrow, a lazy day or a trip to the Kirstenbosch gardens? Then they will lock their doors and turn off the lights and listen to the sounds of the night before they fall asleep. That is when I will press the button to make the big keepmeout security gate slide silently open to let my friends in. I have told them where the paths are and they know how to move without sound. I am one of the lucky ones but it is not enough for me to be lucky. I must look after my brothers too. That is our way. They will be here in a very short time from now. Then they will do what they must.