by Richard Rive
And still they sang. One by one the voices joined in and the volume rose. Tremulously at first, thin and cloying and then swelling till it filled the tiny dining-room, pulsated into the two bedrooms stacked high with hats and overcoats, and spent itself in the kitchen where housewives were fussing over wreaths.
Jesu, lover of my Soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly. A blubbery woman in the corner nearest the cheap, pine chest of drawers, dabbed her eyes with pink tissues. Above her head hung a cheap reproduction of an English cottage smothered with creepers and flowers and, embossed beneath, What is a Home without a Mother? The woman heaved convulsively as she refused to be placated. Her tears proved infectious and other lips quivered and tissues and handkerchiefs were hurriedly sought.
A small boy in a navy-blue suit shared a stiff Ancient and Modern with his mother. His voice was wispy and completely dominated by the quivering soprano next to him. All sang except Mavis. She sat silent, glassy-eyed, staring down at her rough though delicately carved brown hand. Her eyes were red but tearless with a slightly contemptuous sneer around the closed, cruel mouth. Mavis sat silently staring at her hand, half-noticing that the left thumbnail was scarred and broken at the edge. She did not raise her eyes to look at the coffin or at the hymnbook closed and neglected in her lap. Her mouth was tight-shut, determined not to open, not to say a word. She sat tensely staring at the broken nail. The room did not exist nor the boy in the navy-blue suit nor the fat lady nor any of the people. Although they sang Mavis seemed not to hear.
Other refuge have I none, Hangs my helpless soul on Thee. The fat woman had recovered sufficiently to attempt a tremulous contralto. The boy tried to follow the line without using his finger. Mavis vaguely recognised Rosie, as her sister fussily hurried in with a tray of fresh flowers, passed a brief word with an overdressed woman nearest the door and busily hurried out again. Mavis sensed things happening but saw without seeing and felt without feeling. Nothing seemed to register but she could feel the Old-Woman’s presence, could feel the room becoming her dead mother, becoming full of Ma, crowded with Ma, swirling with Ma. Ma of the swollen hands and frightened eyes who had asked almost petulantly, “Mavis, why do they treat me so? Please, Mavis, why do they treat me so?”
Mavis knew the answer and felt the anger welling up inside her till her mouth felt hot and raw. And she spoke in a tense monotone, “Because you’re black. You’re black, Ma, but you gave birth to white children. It’s all your fault. You gave birth to white children, Ma.”
Mavis felt dimly aware that the room was overcrowded, overbearingly overcrowded, hot, stuffy, crammed to overflowing. With Ma squeezed in and occupying a tiny place in the centre. Pride of place in a coffin of pine-wood bearing the economical legend, Maria Wilhelmina Loupser, R.I.P. Rest in Peace. With people crowding around and sharing seats and cramming the doorway. To see Ma who had been Maria Loupser. Maria Wilhelmina Loupser. Mavis looked up quickly to see if the plaque was still on the coffin, then automatically shifted her gaze to the broken nail. No-one noticed her and the singing continued uninterruptedly.
Other refuge have I none, Hangs my helpless soul on Thee. Flowers. The hot, oppressive smell of flowers. Flowers, death and the people singing. The smell of death in the flowers. A florid, red-faced man in the doorway singing so that the veins stood out purple against the temples. People bustling in and out, struggling through the doorway. Coming to have a look at Ma, a last look. To put a flower in the coffin, then open hymnbooks and sing for poor, deceived Ma of the twisted hands and tragic eyes. Ma who had given birth to white children and Mavis. Now they raised their voices and sang. All except Mavis.
It had been only a month before when Mavis had looked into those bewildered eyes.
“Mavis, why do they treat me so?”
And Mavis had suddenly become angry so that her saliva burned in her mouth.
“Please, Mavis, tell me why do they treat me so?”
And then she had driven the words into the Old-Woman. “Because you are old and ugly and black, and your children want you out of the way.”
What she really wanted to say was, “They want me out of the way too. They treat me like that also, because you made me, you made me black like you. I am also your child. I also belong to you. They want me also to stay in the kitchen and use the back door like you. We must not be seen, Ma. Their friends must not see us. Dadda’s people must not see us because we embarrass them. They hate us, ma. They hate us both because they see themselves in us.” But she had not said so and had only stared cruelly into the eyes of the Old-Woman.
“You see, you’re no longer useful to scrub and wash and cook. You’re a nuisance, a bloody nuisance. You might come out of your kitchen and shock the white scum they bring here. You’re a bloody black nuisance, Ma.”
The Old-Woman could not understand and looked helplessly at Mavis, shutting her eyes with her swollen hands.
“But I don’t want to go into the dining-room. It’s true, Mavis, I don’t want to go into the dining-room.” And as she spoke the tears squeezed through her fingers and ran over her thick knuckles. She whimpered like a child.
“It’s my dining-room, Mavis, it’s true. I also worked for it. It’s my dining room.”
And Mavis felt a dark and hideous pleasure overwhelming her so that she shouted at the Old-Woman. “Don’t you understand that you are black and your bloody children are white! Jim and Rosie and Sonny are white! And you made me like you. You made me black!”
Then Mavis broke down exhausted at her self-revelation and cried with the Old-Woman.
“Ma, why did you make me black?”
And then only had a vague understanding strayed into those milky eyes, and Ma had taken her youngest into her arms and rocked and soothed her, crooning to her in a cracked, broken voice the songs she had sung years before she had come to Cape Town. Slaap, my kindjie, slaap sag, Onder engele vannag. And the voice of the Old-Woman had become stronger and more perceptive and her dull eyes saw her childhood and the stream running through Wolfgat and the solidly built church, and the moon rising rich and yellow in the direction of Solitaire.
And Ma had vaguely understood and rocked Mavis in her arms as in years before. And now she was back in the dining-room as shadows crept across the wall. Fast falls the eventide. Creeping across the wall ever greyer. The darkness deepens. Filtering across the drawn blind. Rosie, tight-lipped and officious. Sonny. Jim who had left his fair-skinned wife at home. Pointedly ignoring Mavis. Speaking in hushed tones to a florid man in the doorway. Mavis, a small inconspicuous brown figure in the corner. The only other brown face in the crowded room besides Ma. And even the Old-Woman was paler in death.
Ma’s friends in the kitchen. A huddled, frightened group sitting out of the way of the wreath-makers. Warming themselves at the stove.
“Mavis, why do they tell my friends not to visit me?”
And Mavis had shrugged her shoulders indifferently.
“Please, Mavis, why do they tell my friends not to visit me?”
And Mavis had turned on her, appalled at her naivete.
“Do you want Soufie to sit in the dining-room? Or Ou-Kaar? Or Eva or Leuntjie? Do you want Sonny’s wife to have tea with them? Or the white dirt Rosie brings home? Do you want to shame your children? Humiliate them? Show their friends who their mother really is?”
And the Old-Woman had blubbered, “I only want my friends to visit me. They can sit with me in the kitchen.”
And Mavis had sighed helplessly at the simplicity of the doddering Old-Woman and had felt like saying, “And what of my friends? Must they also sit in the kitchen?” And tears had shot into the milky eyes and the Old-Woman had looked even older. “Mavis, I want my friends to visit me, even if they sit in the kitchen. Please, Mavis, they’re all I got left.”
And now they sat in the kitchen, a cowed, timid group speaking the raw, guttural Afrikaans of the Caledon district. They spoke of Ma and their childhood together. Ou-Kaar and Leuntjie and Eva and Ma. Of the Caledon district cut off from surging Cape Town. Where the Moravian church stood solidly and sweet water ran past Wolfgat and past Karwyderskraal and lost itself near Grootkop. And the moon rose rich and yellow from the hills behind Solitaire. And now they sat frightened and huddled around the stove speaking of Ma. Tant Soufie in a new kopdoek and Ou-Kaar conspicuous in yellow velskoene sizes too big, and Leuntjie and Eva.
And in the dining-room sat Dadda’s relations and friends singing. Dadda’s relations and friends who had ignored Ma while she had lived. Dadda’s fair friends and relations. And a Mavis who scratched meaninglessly at her broken thumbnail she did not see.
And now the singing rose in volume as still more people filed in. When other helpers fail and comfort flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me. Mavis could have helped Ma, could have given her the understanding she needed, could have protected her and stopped the petty tyranny. But she had never tried to reason with them, explained to them that the Old-Woman was dying. Her own hurt ate into her, gnawed at her. So she preferred to play a shadow, seen but never heard. A vague entity, part of the furniture. If only they knew of the feelings bottled up inside her. She was afraid that if they did they might say, “Why don’t you both clear out and leave us in peace, you bloody black bastards?” She could then have cleared out, should then have cleared out, sought a room in Woodstock or Salt River and forgotten her frustrations. But there was Ma. There was always the Old-Woman. Mavis never spoke to them, only to Ma.
“You sent them to a white school. You were proud of your brats and hated me, didn’t you, Ma?”
And the mother had stared at her with ox-like dumbness.
“You encouraged them to bring their friends to the house, to your house, and stayed in the kitchen yourself and told me to stay there too. You hated me, Ma, hated me, because I was yourself. There’s no-one to blame but you. You caused all this. You encouraged all this.”
And she had tormented the Old-Woman, who could not retaliate, who could not understand. Now she sat tortured with memories as they sang hymns for Ma. I need Thy presence every passing hour, sang Dadda’s eldest brother, who sat with eyes tightly shut near the head of the coffin. He had bitterly resented Dadda’s marriage to a Bushman from God-knows-where in the country. A bloody disgrace. A Loupser married to a coloured. He had refused to greet Ma socially while she lived, and attended the funeral only because his late brother’s wife had died. It was the decent thing to do. This was the second time he had been in the dining-room. The first was at Dadda’s funeral. And now this. A coloured girl, his niece he believed, sitting completely out of place and saying nothing. Most annoying and embarrassing.
The boy in the navy-blue suit continued to sing weakly. His mother had not quite recovered from the shock that that nice Mr Loupser who always used to visit them in Observatory, was married to a coloured woman. All sang except Mavis.
“I am going to die, Mavis,” the milky eyes had told her a week before. “I think I am going to die.”
“Ask your white brats to bury you. You slaved enough for them.”
“They are my children but they do not treat me right.”
“Do you know why? Because they are ashamed of you. Afraid of you. Afraid the world might find out about you.”
“But I did my best for them.”
“You did more than your best, you encouraged them. But you were ashamed of me, weren’t you? So now we share a room at the back where we can’t be seen. And you are going to die and your children will thank God that you’re out of the way.”
“I am your mother, my girl, I raised you.”
“Yes, you raised me and taught me my place. You took me to the Mission with you because you felt we were too black to go to St John’s. Let them see Pastor Josephs for a change. Let them enter our Mission and see our God.”
And Ma had not understood and said whiningly, “Please, Mavis, let Pastor Josephs bury me.”
So now the priest from Dadda’s church stood at the head of her coffin, sharp and thin, clutching his cassock with the left hand while his right held an open prayerbook.
I said I will take heed to my ways: that I offend not in my tongue. I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle while the ungodly is in my sight.
Mavis felt the full irony of the words.
I held my tongue and spake nothing. I kept silent, yea even from good words, but it was pain and grief to me.
The fat lady stroked her son’s head and sniffed loudly.
My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled, and at the last I spake with my tongue.
Mavis now stared entranced at her broken fingernail. The words seared and burnt through her.
It was true. Rosie had consulted her about going to the Mission and asking Pastor Josephs but Mavis had turned on her heel without a word and walked out into the street and walked and walked. Through the cobbled streets of older Cape Town, up beyond the Mosque in the Malay Quarter on the slopes of Signal Hill. Thinking of the dead woman. A mother dying in a backroom. Walking the streets, the Old-Woman with her, followed by the Old-Woman’s eyes. Let them go to the Mission and see our God. Meet Pastor Josephs. But they had gone to Dadda’s priest, who now prayed at the coffin of a woman he had never seen before.
I heard a voice from heaven, Saying unto me, Write. From henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: Even so saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labours.
Lord, take Thy servant, Maria Wilhelmina Loupser into Thy eternal care. Grant her Thy eternal peace and understanding. Thou art our refuge and our rock. Look kindly upon her children gathered here who even in their hour of trial and suffering look up to Thee for solace. Send Thy eternal blessing upon them, for they have heeded Thy commandment which is to honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long.
Mavis felt hot, strangely, unbearably hot. The room was filled with her mother’s presence, her mother’s eyes, body. Flowing into her, filling every pore, becoming one with her. She knew she had to control herself or she would scream out blasphemies, invectives, the truth. Slowly she stood up and, without looking at the coffin or anyone around her, left the room.