It was already after midnight when Linda Badenhorst was startled by a sharp knock at the door of her one-bedroom apartment in Hillbrow, the densely-populated district with the highest violent crime rate in all of Johannesburg. Half-naked and alone in bed, she was too terrified to even turn on the night lamp.
A friend, who worked as a waitress in an expensive seafood restaurant in Plein Street, was attacked one evening on her way home. Two men followed her for several blocks and, suddenly armed with blunt pangas around her, they demanded her handbag. One of them, a short man with swollen knuckles and bulging bloodshot eyes, pressed himself against her. Flinging her handbag to the ground, the woman fled with a scream. She ran out into the street. A car squealed to a stop, and a big passenger jumped out, holding a golf club, but the thugs had vanished. The very next day, she bought a small pistol at a gun shop, and she went regularly to shooting classes, where she met her present boyfriend, a computer salesman who annually won medals for marksmanship.
But Linda would have never dreamed of owning a weapon. It was against her personality, in the same way that she would never consider keeping a bird in a cage, or losing her temper with petulant children in the school when she qualified as a teacher. She had been studying teaching for one and a half years, since she had moved up from Natal where her father owned a small sugar-cane farm. At first, it had been lonely for her in Johannesburg, but soon, she had become friendly with her classmates at the college. Because Linda was an attractive and likable young student, one or two of the seniors had taken her out to dinner in the first semester, though, of course, she had not been on dates with any men lately.
There was a second knock, slightly bolder.
She drew the bedcovers right over her head, like a child afraid of the night. She could still hear the steady ticking of the luminous alarm clock beside the framed photographs and the writing pad on her cluttered bedside table. Her eyes wide, she was so frightened she could not move. She wondered if she would be able to reach for the telephone, without sitting up in bed, to call the police. If she shouted for help in the crowded high-rise building, no-one would respond. One heard so many stray noises from the street during the night: the clatter of bottles in the charcoal alleyways, the irregular roar of nocturnal traffic, and sometimes, especially on the week-ends, there were fights. In her mind, she pictured how she would resist an intruder. She would kick the man in the groin if he tried to molest her, but she would have to try to keep as much distance as possible between them. Her body was feminine and frail, her skin was smooth and tender.
She wished that someone was there to protect her, as she lay dead still, pretending to be asleep, her thick dark hair webbed over the bulky pillow. She prayed with all her heart that the man at the door would leave.
There was only one man n the entire world she would have welcomed.
And then, happily, in a low purring whisper, she recognized that it was Ricky’s voice, after all, and she leaped out of bed joyfully and ran across the room. All the bedclothes tumbled onto the carpet.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she murmured with delicious excitement, the flimsy whiteness of her underwear shining in the passage light as she unlocked the door.
There was a glimmer of relief in his eyes.
“I missed you,” he admitted sheepishly, sliding into the snug darkness of the room.
She did not turn on the lights. She realized immediately that he was taking a risk.
Like a detective in an old black-and-white feature or a hoodlum, he wore his collar turned up on the oversized khaki coat which covered his uniform, but it only took one swift glance at his spiky blonde hair and his smooth-scraped cheeks, and anyone would know that he was a recent recruit into the army. Quickly, clumsily, he pulled off his tie and flung his coat and jacket into a heap over the armchair before taking her into his arms.
She felt how cold his hands were on her naked back.
“How did you manage to get out?” she asked, turning her face against his chest so she could hear the rumble of his words as he replied.
“Me and Billy Oosthuizen lay down flat in the back of a van,” he explained, leaning against the door, “We went right through the gates and the guards didn’t even bat an eyelid. We had some beers with us in the back. It was great.”
Linda tried to see his face in the dimness. “You look just like a schoolboy,” she teased shyly, “With that hairstyle and that uniform.”
She reached up to undo the buttons on his starched shirt. Struggling not to let go of her, he slid the chain on the door. He took a deep breath, almost a sigh, and he closed his eyes for a moment. She tugged at his trouser belt with one hand, the other inside his shirt, rapidly skimming his broad chest and then out again on his pockets. Ricky opened his eyes and he leaned forward and took another deep breath, slowly inhaling the perfume of her hair and the musky feminine scent of her body. He had thought about holding her all the way from the camp.
Then he asked, “Why didn’t you want to let me in?”
“I thought you were a rapist,” she giggled, playfully tickling her palm on his short army haircut.
He laughed out loud in the dark apartment. “Oh, I am. I am.”
In bed, it was as warm as toast but he could feel her trembling as he kissed her all over her shoulders and her neck, loving her tenderly though his muscles were strong and taut from muddy obstacle courses and from weeks of drill. There was nothing like the army to make you love a girl, he thought, by making sure you had so little chance to be with her. She wrote him long letters everyday, even though he was stationed no further away than Pretoria, and they spoke to each other for hours, as often as he could get to the telephones. Sometimes, he would sneak out of the barracks in the middle of the night, and call her, just to see if she was still awake. There was never any question of faithfulness or suspicion for her trusted her more than anything in his life. If it wasn’t for Linda, Ricky thought, he would surely have gone crazy already. There was one young Englishman in the platoon, just out of school, who cried himself to sleep each night. Thirty people in the barracks could hear him sobbing into his pajama top, but no-one ever mentioned it, not even the corporals. In a few months, they would all be on the Angolan border and it was impossible to predict what would happen there. One heard stories in the camp. Sleeping on the hard damp ground with a weapon in your arms every night obviously has a strange effect. Already, there was nothing Ricky knew as intimately as the parts of a rifle.
Linda nibbled on his stomach. He wondered at how soft and full of curves her body was, feeling her fingertips as gently as raindrops tracing on his skin.
“Hey,” Linda exploded into sudden laughter, “I thought they put stuff in your coffee.”
Ricky grinned. “I don’t drink the coffee.”
“I can tell that,” she laughed, sitting up, and then, earnestly, she asked, “Ricky, what happens if they catch you?”
It was so quiet that he could hear the rhythm of the clock beating on the table.
They will never find me here,” he said slowly, pulling her close to him again, “Billy Oosthuizen is the only one who knows where I am, and he is on AWOL too.” Ricky touched her hair, smiling in the darkness. “He has gone to his mother, God knows why.” He kissed her on the mouth, tasting the sweet womanly softness of her lips. “As long as I am back in Pretoria by six, we can have the whole night together,” he promised.
And he put his strong arms around her underneath the blankets and the silky sheets, and he kissed her again and again, loving her with all his hunger.
But there was a tension in the air, as if they were both waiting for something to happen, like impotence, or a sudden tapping, or a trap door bursting open on a gallows.
Elizabeth Modiba had a steel door with a heavy padlock, and a small square room in the servant’s quarters, with a maroon floor which she waxed every day after she had finished cleaning the Royston’s house. Then, spreading out a blanket, she would sit, first, on the sunny lawn and then, later when the afternoon became too hot, under the shade of the big Jacaranda tree in the Royston’s garden. Occasionally, she did a little knitting or sewing beneath the dappled leaves. Around four p.m., she would go back into the house to make tea for Mrs Royston and her visitors.
Elizabeth was a good-natured diligent woman in her early twenties, though she might have passed for younger, even teenage, for she had a rural innocence about her. A few lines had appeared on her forehead, however, and she had large mature breasts and the kind of gleam in her eyes, which results from age, or hardship, or simple faith.
In the evenings, regularly, Cornelius would come. He was some years older than she was, but he had a healthy muscular body and a warm youthful sense of humor. He was growing a beard and she used to tease him about how the bristles prickled her. He offered to shave, but she wanted to see how he would look when it was fully-grown and shaggy. Every night, he would wait in her room, listening to the radio, until she had washed the dinner dishes in the kitchen, and then, they would fall asleep together, sometimes with the township jazz music of Radio Bantu still playing. Cornelius, who worked at piece-jobs at four or five different homes in the neighborhood, would wake early, slip into his overalls and be gone before she had to take Mr Royston his morning coffee with one and a half teaspoonfuls of sugar, and the Rand Daily Mail. But Cornelius would be back again that night, not long after Mr Royston returned from his office in the Carlton Center.
It was not an unpleasant life, she thought, because they loved each other and would be married soon.
One day, sitting beneath the bright lilac flowers of the Jacaranda, she saw two young men strutting down the road. They were well-dressed in trim slacks and jackets and it was obvious that they were not local gardeners or factory workers. They called out to her from a long way up the street, and when they came nearer, one of them leaned over the white picket fence and began to address her.
No doubt he was a charming and attractive man, but he had an oily manner which frightened her. Elizabeth replied to him politely and when he asked her to take a walk with him and his friend, promising to buy her a Spar-Letta cream soda at Costa’s Café and Greengrocer, she was flattered but she said no. After a moment, she explained to him about her relationship with Cornelius, and then he smiled, nodded and returned to his friend who was lingering a few yards away. Though he had obviously found her attractive, it seemed to Elizabeth that there was something grotesque about the way he had smiled.
Mrs Royston asked her why she came inside so early that afternoon. It was still another forty-five minutes until tea-time. Elizabeth replied that she thought that it was going to rain, and even though there were, in fact, no rain-clouds gathering, nothing more was said.
That night, she did not bother to tell Cornelius about the suave young man at the fence, but, in the high single bed, when she had turned out the light and the radio was playing soft songs, she held him tightly, loving him more than ever.
They had almost drifted off to sleep, when there was a knock at the door.
“Open up,” a gruff low voice called out in Afrikaans, “Open up this door. It’s the police.”
Hurriedly, they tumbled out of bed. Through the long horizontal panes of the narrow window, a strip of streetlamp light illuminated a patch of the room as Cornelius scrambled for his underpants in the abrupt confusion. Then he sat on the edge of the sheets, his eyes wide in the dimness. Elizabeth, naked, clutching a towel around her body, stumbled to unspring the padlock. The door flew open to reveal two huge policemen in uniform on the threshold.
A sergeant, with short neat gray hair, a long straight nose parallel with his chin, leather skin, and a powerful flashlight in one hand, was the first one into the room. He groped for the light switch, turning off the beam of the flashlight, and his companion, a burly constable with a big red face and a stiff yellow moustache, entered.
Everybody blinked in the sudden brightness.
The sergeant pointed his dull flashlight at Cornelius, gripping it right on the end like a truncheon. “Who is this boy?” he demanded, addressing the maid.
“It’s my lover…” stammered Elizabeth, unable to comprehend why they had come.
“It’s your lover,” the sergeant repeated firmly, his arm still outstretched towards Cornelius. “And who owns these premises?”
She did not know how to reply. Cornelius, as still as stone in his semi-nakedness, tried to maintain some dignity by silence, as if the men were only figures from a bitter imagination.
“This house,” the sergeant said, becoming impatient, “Who owns this house?”
“Mr Royston,” Elizabeth responded quietly, but she was so nervous that the towel around her body slipped a little, and she knew that the intruders were staring at the full cleavage of her breasts.
The constable took a heavy step forwards, crowding the little room with his bulk.
The sergeant said, “Does Mr Royston know that you have a lover on the premises?”
Elizabeth, trying not to be ashamed, gazed uncertainly at the policeman.
“Does your boss know that this boy is here?” the sergeant clarified, his tone growing louder.
Elizabeth tugged the towel about her body. Her mouth was so dry that she could hardly answer. “No, but it is…”
“What is it?” the constable interrupted, taking hold of Cornelius by the arm. She could see how hard the constable was squeezing his biceps.
“Are you aware that this boy is trespassing on Mr Royston’s property?” hissed the sergeant. Then he said to the constable, “Bring him. He’s under arrest. Trespass.”
The constable jerked Cornelius off the bed. They hardly gave him time to take his trousers.
The sergeant, looking directly into Elizabeth’s eyes, announced, “You can pay a twenty-five rand admission of guilt fine at Fairview Police Station, if you want him, if you have the money. Otherwise, he will be appearing in court tomorrow.”
Cornelius tried to tell her where she would be able to raise the sum, but the constable prodded him in the ribs, and pushed him outside into the night. The sergeant turned his back, and followed them.
But, as they marched away with her lover, Elizabeth saw, skulking in the gloom of the yard, in police uniform, the suave young man who had approached her at the fence, watching the consequences of his spite. She heard how the white policemen praised him for the information, which he had given them.
Elizabeth burst into tears for her own sake, and for his, and for the sake of Cornelius who was crouching miserably in the cold metal cage of a patrol van on the way to jail. She lay down on her bed, and cried bitterly, without a wink of sleep, all through the night until at last the dawn came and it was time to take Mr Royston his morning coffee and the newspaper.
There was a small article on page three, concerning two army deserters who had fought violently between themselves after being apprehended by military police in Hillbrow the previous night. The first one, discovered at his parent’s home, had led the MP’s to where his accomplice was caught, in bed with a young woman.
But Mr Royston turned immediately to the Sports section because today was Wednesday, so there would be horseracing at Turffontein, and Hazy Daisy, in the ninth, always ran well after a rest.
Author Stuart Stromin is a South African-born writer and filmmaker, living in Los Angeles. He was educated at Rhodes University, South Africa, the Alliance Francaise de Paris, and UCLA. His work has appeared in Immigrant Report, Dissident Voice, Jalada Africa, The Chaffin Journal, Garfield Lake Review, etc