Nomzamo opened her eyes and sat up slowly, the bed groaned in complaint. Three small bodies shifted, aware that the source of warmth had left. She stood slowly, careful not to wake them. Despite the dark, she quickly located the rusted torch and, holding her breath, turned it on. Relief flooded through her when a dim ray dribbled out casting a pool of light on the cardboard sheets covering the mud-packed floor. Batteries were expensive, a luxury, but torches were preferable to candles inside a shack made of plastic sheeting and wooden planks.
Sliding her feet into her shoes, she groaned remembering the soaking they received from last night’s rain. The rutted path from the bus stop to her shack was a soupy stream by the time she got back to the squatter camp. Her canvas shoes were no match.
But, they were the only shoes she owned and, wet or not, she was putting them on. At least when she arrived at Madam’s house a pair of dry shoes awaited her. Those shoes never left Madam’s house. They remained there with the rest of her uniform and if one day she left, or was fired, they would wait there for the next anonymous body to fill them. She squelched her way to the opening, automatically reaching toward a nail that protruded from the crude wooden frame. A threadbare man’s cardigan hung emptily.
Wrapping it tightly around her middle, in a weak attempt at warmth, her hand brushed against a small envelope tucked in the pocket. Nomzamo swallowed; it felt like she was forcing down a handful of sand. She had forgotten all about it in her rush to get out the rain but now it lurked, peeping through the torn pocket. She swept the thought aside, there was no time to worry about it now.
Outside Nomzamo’s shack the camp was filled with activity. In front of most dwellings fires were already lit, flames slurping at the predawn sky. The wood, having been stored inside the shack, kept dry, off the wet ground, was more precious than some of the children. She nodded to her neighbour, a mere arm’s length away, emerging from her rickety structure.
“Sawubona, good morning my old friend. It’s already gone 4:30 and your fire is not lit. You are late today.”
“Ewe, yes. My Madam, she is gone away on holiday. I can arrive later this morning. The dogs will wait until 7.”
They chuckled, throats raw from the smoke that wrapped around them like worn, grey burial shrouds.
Nomzamo poked at the stywe-pap, porridge. It was last night’s dinner heated up with some water. Her stomach ached for a hot, sweet tea but the water would take too long to boil. Several dogs sloped past, ribs like birdcages, looking for scraps. A few children followed, splashing barefoot through the freezing muck. Nomzamo averted her eyes. These were the unwanted ones. They lived with the dogs under bushes, in storm drains, huddled in heaps for warmth. Barely clothed, they were filthy, starving, begging for food, stealing when they could. Just another thought to push aside.
She woke the three children, coaxing them into the chill air with promises of porridge. Only the youngest was hers, the other two her sister’s, who had long passed from AIDs. Clumsy in the cramped space, they tumbled into mismatched, ill-fitting school uniforms before marching off clutching plastic bags with their books and pen. A friend would keep them at her house until school opened.
The bus was late and the line of men and women grew agitated. Feet were stamped, grumbles rippled along the queue. Employers were not interested in the almost daily actions of the rioters and protesters who placed rocks in the road, slowing traffic to a crawl. They needed the hired bodies to arrive on time and if not, there was an endless supply of eager people willing to step in to a job, any job.
Nomzamo sunk back into the bus seat, her handbag clasped in her arms. The envelope was safely stowed, nestling against the torn lining. Inside, R50, fifty rand, sat crisply folded – money that was not hers to have. Her monthly wages were R650 but yesterday the envelope contained R700! She had counted it over it over, holding her breath, her fingers slippery on the new notes. Had the two R50 notes stuck together? Money straight from the bank did that, didn’t it? Her mind raced with possibilities; should she tell the Madam, should she save it, hide it, spend it?
Eventually, exhausted with choices, she had removed her wages, pushing the notes into her wallet before replacing the extra R50 back in the envelope. The bus jolted to a stop and she again put the thought out of her mind. There was a full day’s work to do, more than enough time to worry about the money.
Madam’s house sprawled greedily over thousands of square meters, soaring columns marking the main entrance. But Nomzamo skirted around past the garages to the side door where she was allowed to enter. Easing off her still damp shoes, she dressed in a freshly laundered uniform – she being the one who had washed and ironed it. With a practiced efficiency, she stepped into the dry shoes while tying her doek, head scarf, and elbowing her way out of the tiny room. The thought of the envelope burned brightly in her mind.
The day passed in the usual haze of chores: washing – clothes, dishes, windows, floors. Ironing, making beds, vacuuming, dusting and finally preparing the family’s dinner. The sun’s rays followed her from room to room, telling her the time without need of a clock. From insipid, early morning strips like faded yellow ribbons, they grew fat and buttery at midday, before slipping into velvety folds in the late afternoon. Fifty rand, fifty rand, fifty rand it drummed in her mind like a frenzied fly hitting against a window.
Finally, the day was done. Nomzamo changed back into her clothes, her movements plodding, delaying the decision. And then, with exquisite care, she lifted the envelope from her bag and walked to the kitchen. The granite counter gleamed brilliantly as she positioned the envelope next to a bowl brimming with fruit.
Nomzamo was ready to sleep away the 2 hour trip back to the squatter camp. Maybe her shoes would be dry by the time she reached home.