by Alex La Guma
The street couldn’t have changed much in four months. The same two rows of houses were there, with their fenced stoops and verandas; the same Indian grocery shop, and the back of the warehouse that had a big sign painted across the whole expanse of wall. There were the same grey pavements, cracked in places. Perhaps the paint and colour-wash on the houses had faded and peeled somewhat during the four months, and there were wide streaks down the wall of the warehouse, damaging the big black lettering.
And the people were there, too. The little knots of twos and threes at the gates of some of the houses, the row of idle men against the warehouse wall, and the children playing in the gutters. Nothing had really changed in the street.
She stared straight ahead as she came into the street, but sensed the wave of interest that stirred the people. Recognition tapped them on the shoulder, and she felt the faces turning toward her. There was a little flurry among the group at one gate, or at a fence, and then it ran on quickly and mysteriously to the next, and the next, down the street, so that the women peered slyly at first, murmuring among themselves, watching her approach, and then breaking into loud chatter when she had passed.
‘That is she . . . that’s she . . .'
‘Got four months, mos’, for immorality . . .’
‘Come home again, hey? We don’t want damn whores on this street.’
And the needle-sharp eyes followed her all the way, suspicious, angry, and secretly happy, too, that there was another victim for the altars of their gossiping.
With the men it was different. They watched her come, some openly, some from under the rims of their lowered eyelids, watching her and smiling gently at the thought of her conquest. Who the hell cared if it had been a white boy ? He had been lucky enough, hadn’t he? A man didn’t begrudge another that kind of victory, even if it had been across the line. A man was a man, and a girl a girl. She was still around, anyway, so maybe there was a chance for one of them.
They were amused at the stupid malice of the womenfolk, and they showed their defiance by saying, ‘Hullo, Myra. How you, Myra? Nice to see you again, Myra. How you keeping, Myra?’ And they felt the stares of the women, too, and grinned at the girl to show that it was okay with them.
She smiled gently, hearing their voices, but kept her head up and her eyes forward. But she felt the bitterness inside her like a new part of her being. She had finished with crying, and crying had left the bitterness behind like the layer of salt found in a pan after the water had evaporated. So that even as she smiled there was a scornful twist to her mouth.
She was tall and brown and good-looking, with the fullness of lips, the width of cheekbone, the straight nose and firm chin, and the blue eyes that she had inherited from the intermarriage of her ancestors generations past. Her body was firm, a little hardened from hard work for four months, but still beautiful; the breasts full and wide at the bases, the belly flat and the thighs and legs long and shapely.
She reached the house at last and climbed the steps onto the veranda. When she opened the front door the smell of cooking came to her from the kitchen at the end of the passageway. The old smell of frying onions and oil.
She walked down the passage and there was the elderly woman, her mother, standing over the pots on the black iron stove, short and stout, with thinning hair tied in a knot at the back of her head.
Myra leaned against the jamb of the kitchen door, a small panic struggling suddenly inside her. But she fought it off and said, casually, ‘Hullo, Ma.’
Her mother looked around with a jerk, a big stirring-spoon, poised over a saucepan, in the thick, scrubbed hand that shook a little. Myra looked into the decaying, middle-aged eyes and saw the surprise replaced slowly by hardness, the twist of the elderly mouth, the deep lines in the throat and neck, and the network of wrinkles.
‘Oh. So you’re back. Back with your shame and disgrace, hey?’
‘I’m back, Ma,’ Myra said.
‘You brought disgrace on us,’ her mother said harshly, the spoon waving in the girl’s face. ‘We all good and decent people, but you brought us shame.’ The face crumbled suddenly and tears seeped out of the eyes. ‘You brought us shame. You couldn’t go and pick a boy of your own kind, but you had to go sleep with some white loafer. You brought us shame, after how I worked and slaved to bring you up. Nobody ever been to jail in our family, and you a girl, too. It’s enough to give an old woman a stroke, that’s what it is.’
Myra gazed at her mother and pity edged its way forward at the sight of a work-heavy body, the ruined face, the tears, but something else thrust pity aside and she said steadily, ‘It wasn’t any disgrace, Ma. It’s no disgrace to love a man, no matter what colour he is or where he comes from. He was nice and he wasn’t what you call a white loafer. He would have married me if he could. He always said so.’
‘What’s the matter with your own kind of people? What’s the matter with a nice coloured boy?’ The quavering voice sobbed and hiccoughed and the girl felt a pang of revulsion.
‘There’s nothing wrong with coloured boys,’ she said, more in irritation than anger. ‘Nobody said there was anything wrong with coloured boys. I happened to fall for a white boy, that’s all.’
‘It’s no better than being a whore,’ the old woman sobbed. ‘No better than that.’
‘All right,’ the girl said bitterly. ‘I’m no better than a whore. All right. Leave it like that. I’m a whore and I brought you disgrace. Now then.’
‘Don’t you talk to your own ma like that!’ The old woman began to shout angrily, waving the spoon about. ‘You got a cheek to talk to your poor ma like that, after all I done for you. You haven’t got respek, that’s what. Got no respek for your betters. There’s your sister Adie getting married soon. To a nice boy of her own kind. Not like you. Getting married and a fine example you are for her. You. You. Yes, you.’
‘I’m glad Adie’s getting married,’ Myra said with forced dryness. ‘I hope to God her husband takes her away to go and live on their own.’
‘You haven’t got no respek, talking to your mother that way. Just shows what kind you are. Adie at least been supporting me while you been in that disgrace, in that jail for four months. And now you just come to bring bad luck into the house. You bad luck, that’s what you are.’
Myra smiled a little scornfully and said, ‘All right, I’m a whore and a disgrace and bad luck. All right, Ma. But don’t worry. You won’t starve with me around.’
‘If you get a job,’ the mother snapped. ‘And if I was a boss I wouldn’t give no damn whore a job.’
‘Oh, stop it, Ma. You’ll make yourself sick.’
‘Ja. And whose fault will that be?’
Myra looked at the hysterical old woman for a second and then turned away. She felt like crying, but she was determined not to. She’d had enough of crying. She left the old woman and turned into the room off the passageway.
It was still the same room, with the wardrobe against one wall and the dressing table between the two single beds where she and her sister Ada slept. She lay down on her bed in her clothes and stared at the ceiling.
Ada getting married. She was genuinely glad about that. She and Ada had always been very close. She thought, no Mixed Marriages Act and no Immorality Act and maybe I’d be getting married, too, but you got four months in jail instead of a wedding. Poor old Tommy.
She began to wonder whether Tommy really had been serious about loving her. No, he must have been. He really had been. He had loved her, but it must have proved too much for him. But what did he have to go and do that for? If he had loved her that bad he would have stuck it out, no matter what. Maybe Tommy just couldn’t see any other way. So that night when the police had come in on them he’d gone from the bedroom into the living room and to his desk, and before they knew anything about it he had the little automatic pistol out of the drawer and had shot himself.
So that was that. Poor Tommy. Maybe he thought it was a disgrace, too. Maybe he thought that, in spite of all his love. But she didn’t care any more.
She lay on the bed and tried not to think about it. She thought about Ada instead. She would like to give Ada a nice wedding present. She wouldn’t go to the wedding ceremony, of course. She’d save the dear old family the embarrassment. But she’d have to give Ada a nice wedding present.
And then in the middle of her thoughts the front door banged, feet hurried along the passageway, and the door opened and there was Ada.
‘Myra. Myra, ou pal. You’re back.’
Her younger sister was there, flinging bag and jacket aside, and hugging her. ‘I heard those damn old hens up the street cackling about my sister, and I just ran all the way.’
‘Hullo, Adie. Good to see you again. Give me a kiss. Yes, I think they’ll be cackling a long time still.’ She added bitterly, ‘The old woman feels the same.’
‘Don’t you worry, bokkie. Hell, I’m glad you’re back for the wedding.’
‘How’s the boy friend ?’
‘Okay.’ Ada grinned at her sister. ‘He doesn’t give a damn. His family had things to say, of course. But I’ve got him like that.’ She showed a fist, laughing. ‘He’ll listen to Adie, family or no family.’
‘You got everything ready?’
‘Oh, yes. The wedding dress will be ready the end of the week, on time for Saturday. I managed to save and bought some stuff for the house. Joe put in for one of those Council cottages and they said we can move in.’
‘I’ll miss you.’
‘Garn. You can mos’ come and visit us any time. Listen, if you like I could talk to Joe about you coming to stay with us. What do you say?’
‘No. You go off on your own and be happy. I’ll stay on here. Me and Ma will maybe fight all the time, but I’ll manage.’
‘What you going to do, Myra?’
‘Don’t know,’ Myra told her. ‘The old lady will need looking after. Say, have you really got everything?’
‘Oh, yes. Except maybe the frock to change into next Saturday night. I’ll have to wear the wedding dress right through the whole business. I did see the damn nicest party frock at the Paris Fashions, but I suppose I’ll have to do without a change on Saturday night. It’s so lousy having to wear the wedding dress at the party, too. Things and stuff might spill onto it. The bride ought to change for the evening celebrations. We’re having a party at Joe’s place. I thought it’d be grand to have a dress to change into, though. But I worked out every penny, so I won’t be able to afford eight guineas. Such nice darn slipper satin, too. Real smart.’
Ada got up from the edge of the bed and started removing her work clothes. ‘Tell me, Myra, was it bad up there ?’
‘Not too bad. I did washing most of the time. But I don’t want to talk about it, man.’
‘We won’t,’ Ada smiled, struggling into black stovepipe jeans. ‘That’s all finished and done with. Now you just take it easy and I’ll call you when supper’s ready. You like some tea?’
Ada grinned and ducked out of the room, leaving Myra alone again on the single bedstead. Dear old Ada, with a whore for a sister. The old woman would probably say it would be bad luck to have me coming visiting them. She felt sorry for her mother, for Ada, for all those women up the street, for Tommy. Poor old Tommy. Tommy couldn’t stand up to it. Him and his love. Him and his I love you. She had died, too, she thought, the instant Tommy pulled the trigger. Poor old Tommy. She felt sorry for all of them.
She thought, Adie is going to be happy. She wanted Adie to be happy and she told herself that Adie would have that slipper satin dress she wanted, as a present from her. She could earn eight guineas easily.