The Making of Martha

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Katrina was on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when she felt the faintest kick, almost like a flutter in her belly. She sat back on her heels and cupped her wet hands over the spot. There it was again, like butterflies in her stomach…like the butterflies in Namaqualand…in spring…when the flowers were out. That’s the one time of the year a person could say the place was beautiful. After the rains they’d be rewarded with carpets of yellow or purple, for all the months of emptiness. A person could almost ignore the holes gouged out of the earth by men digging for diamonds or copper, as the broken landscape burst into life. She smiled at the memory of running barefoot through fields of flowers, making a daisy chain to crown her baby sister and holding her breath as a butterfly balanced on her shoulder.

Ag, there she went again, wasting time on daydreams, her madam would say. She shook her head as if to get rid of the images and sighed as she picked up the scrubbing brush again. She’d left the vygies and daisies, the aloes and the orchids, behind a long time ago. She couldn’t remember when last she’d spoken to her brothers and sisters. If it wasn’t for the black and white photograph stuck into the mirror in her room, she wondered if she would even remember what they looked like. Bitterfontein. The name said it all, she thought to herself as she got up with another sigh. The bitterness had even seeped into the water. At least here she had a job; there was one less mouth for her father to feed. It didn’t help to worry about things a person could do nothing about.

“Katrina, I’m leaving now,” Mrs Laing shouted down the passage. “Don’t forget to bring in the washing before you go off. It looks like rain. And make sure the gate is locked properly this time.”

“Yes, Madam,” Katrina replied, poking her head round the kitchen door. “See you tomorrow, Madam.”

Katrina had been working for Mrs. Laing, a white lady, in Roeland Street for a year now. Her madam worked her hard but she was grateful to have a job where she could live in. It also paid better than her previous job and she was off on Saturday afternoons. “But no men and no drink allowed,” Mrs. Laing had warned when she started.

Katrina finished up, washed and changed into a pink floral dress, gathered under the bodice with a generous skirt which skimmed over her hips and stomach. She wanted to go see Hajji quickly this afternoon and maybe there would still be time to watch the new James Dean film playing at the Gem. She walked down Drury Lane towards District Six, to Combrinck Street where the dressmaker lived. The rows of semi-detached houses looked a little shabby but most people had made an effort with their front stoeps – they were painted red or green and polished every week, there was a potted delicious monster plant or two, and perhaps a bench to sit on in the evenings when the day’s work was done and a person had a chance to catch up with a neighbour.

Katrina went around the back of the house through the open kitchen door. There was no one there, but smells of onions braising with cardamom and cloves greeted her. She noticed the chopped cabbage, potatoes and mutton knuckles waiting to be added to the pot. Hajji must be making a bredie. She could hear the sound of the sewing machine coming from the back and called out, “It’s me, Katrina,” as she went in. Hajji was sitting behind the Singer which stood in the corner of her sons’ bedroom. Her head, covered with a scarf, was bowed in concentration as she guided the fabric through the threader and pumped the pedal of the black enamel machine. Four identical dresses in powder-blue satin hung on the front of the wardrobe. As a dressmaker Hajji’s beadwork was very popular with Malay and Christian brides, even the Jewish people came to her. The small room did double duty as her workroom by day. Her sons often complained that they had to watch out for pins in the bedspread or that they stepped onto beads on the floor with their bare feet. Hajji, practical as always, had told them to put on shoes and given them a magnet to pick up the pins.

Hajji had four children, and one from her husband’s first marriage, who was working at a butcher in Salt River. All three boys would soon leave school, one by one, to learn a trade. Hajji’s daughter, Fatima, was already apprenticed to a dressmaker in Walmer Estate.

“Salaam Hajji,” Katrina greeted, respectful of Hajji’s religion, even though she herself was Christian. “I see supper is cooking already. Hajji must be going out this evening.”

“Alaykum Salaam, Katrina,” said Hajji, taking the pins out of her mouth. “Yes, I’m very busy. I have to finish this dress tonight. That Van der Ross girl is getting married tomorrow. She lost weight again. I have to take the dress in. Poor child is already so thin.”

Hajji always did the final fitting the day before the wedding. She said it was bad luck to finish the dress too long before the time. So she made sure to put in the last stitches late at night, her fingers flying over the silk and satin. She delivered the beaded creation herself on the morning of the wedding. Hajji also dressed the bride in petticoats, underskirts of stiff netting, and finally the gown. She was skilled at shaping the gilded medora into a headdress. Sometimes she would be asked to prepare the bruidskamer for the Muslim brides as well, making drapes, cushions and quilted bedspreads with satin and lace.

When Hajji wasn’t busy with a wedding she made outfits for Eid or other special occasions and simple frocks with fabric she bought on the Grand Parade. Katrina and her friends bought these dresses on lay-bye, paying off a small amount every month. Hajji recognized the dress Katrina was wearing today as one she’d made last year.

“Can I make Hajji some tea?”

Ag, Katrina, I don’t have time for tea now. Is there something you wanted?”

Ja, Hajji, I have to talk to you about a problem. Hajji can mos see what’s going on with me.”

Katrina turned to the side in front of the mirror, and, placing one hand under her breasts, she smoothed the dress over her stomach with the other. There was no mistaking the curve of her belly when you looked at her profile. Her breasts were also fuller and Hajji realized she was glowing. She recalled that Katrina had mentioned the last dress she made for her was too tight but she hadn’t brought it to be altered yet.

Ag man, Katrina, you’re pregnant aren’t you? I warned you.” Hajji clicked her tongue. “It’s that Ginger, isn’t it? And where’s he now? You let a white man take advantage of you. I told you, they don’t marry you. The man can pull up his pants and walk away. And then you sit with the problem.”

“Hajji, please don’t be cross with me,” Katrina said sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. “I’m so scared my madam is going to send me away when she finds out that I’m pregnant. What am I going to do? I can’t go home. My Pa will beat me. What about my Ma? She’ll be so ashamed that her daughter is pregnant. What will the people say at church? In any case, what will we live on? There’s no job, not enough food. I think Pa was only too happy when I said I was coming to Cape Town. How can I go home with another mouth to feed?”

“I suppose Mrs. Laing hasn’t noticed what you are hiding behind that big overall and apron she makes you wear. Mind you, it won’t be too long before she does. What if she throws you out? Then what are you going to do? Ooh, Katrina, where are you going to find another good job like this one?”

Hajji had a soft spot for Katrina. Before Hajji and her husband had gone to Mecca the year before, Katrina had come to help with all the visitors even though it was her afternoon off. She’d set the table with plates of biscuits and tarts (all made by Hajji), bowls of dried fruit and nuts bought from Wellington Fruit Growers in Darling Street, and Hajji’s best tea set with the gold teaspoons. Katrina was honest and worked hard, she deserved a chance. She was just attracted to the wrong men, always thinking this would be the one to take her away from it all.

Hajji had known that this Ginger would be trouble. From what she heard from Amiena, whose husband had the corner café, he was charming but unreliable. He didn’t seem to have a fixed job but always had money. Katrina was flattered that he took an interest in her, loved the status of having a white boyfriend. The other girls looked up to her when they saw the two of them together at the bioscope on a Saturday afternoon. They thought she was one of the lucky ones, maybe she could even “pass”, or maybe she and Ginger could go to Botswana or Swaziland to get married.

“Katrina, look, I don’t mind,” Hajji said, “I can look after the baby for a bit, to help you out. But only for a little bit, ok? Maybe your madam needs time to get used to the idea and then she’ll let you keep the baby there. Your madam thinks we’re stupid but everybody knows her daughter’s baby came six months after the wedding. She must think we don’t know how long a baby takes. Premature, my foot.”

Hajji had been sewing for Mrs. Laing for years; that’s how she and Katrina had met. She’d made the wedding dress for Mrs. Laing’s daughter, Sarah, and had pleated the layers of chiffon to drape over the beginnings of a bump, although no one had said a word.

An extract from a story published in The New Contrast 178 Vol 45 Winter 2017

The Burden of the Bullfight

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When Rafael woke up at three that morning he was dripping with sweat. It took him a moment to realise that he was back in his childhood room. He had been dreaming about plunging the banderilla into the back of the bull’s neck. The accusation in the bull’s eyes as it lowered its head for the final blow haunted him.

They had all gone to the bar the previous night to celebrate his return. Posters were plastered on the walls outside and inside. They proclaimed that he was the grandson of el famoso, Jose Fernando Martinez, and the nephew of Luis Fernando Martinez.

It was his fate to be related to two of the most famous matadors Spain had ever seen. The nation had mourned after his grandfather had been gored to death in the bullring and a statue had been erected in Madrid at the entrance to the arena. His uncle had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and his cousin, Jose Fernando, another great bullfighter in the making, had been carrying on the family tradition until he was killed in the car accident. He was from a family of bullfighters and he had been raised on its glory. Not for the first time, the burden of tradition weighed heavily.

He had never bought into the blood and gore, the displays of machismo. He could appreciate the beauty of the intricate dance and the skill of the matador. But was it necessary to kill the bull in such a cruel way, taunting the animal until it charged desperately to its end? The roar of the crowd reminded him of spectators at a gladiator show except here defenceless animals were slaughtered. The bullring even resembled a Roman amphitheatre.

Of course he had done the training, gone to bullfighting school for years, if only to keep the peace at home. In truth, he was happiest sitting with a book in the shade of the olive trees, breathing in the aroma released by the rows of lavender bushes, or sitting under the bougainvillea in the courtyard, the fountain creating cool sounds while he painted.

“Your mother does not want you to be a man! What is all this drawing and painting you do?”

It had been with great relief that he accepted the offer of a place at the art school in Barcelona. His father had thought it was a waste of time, and there had been a terrible fight with his mother. Getting the scholarship had made it easier to leave. Before he had left, his mother had taken him aside.

“Try to understand your father, Rafael. It has been hard for him to lose his father, then Luis and now, Jose too.”

“But I cannot be all those people for him. And why do you let him speak to you like that? Sometimes it is he who reminds me of a bull, raging around the ring!”

“Tranquilo, mi hijo. Your father has worked hard to give us a good life. I will be fine, don’t worry.”

But he had worried about leaving his mother. What was it that made his father so angry all the time? Perhaps it was tradition that weighed him down too. Everyone close to him had died and the Martinez name would no longer be heard around the arena. There had been many passionate debates around the dinner table till late into the night when everyone had had far too much red wine.

“It is not about the bull, not about the killing,” his father maintained. “It is art. Los toros needs grace and style…and bravery.”

Dios mio! In other parts of Spain the bull fight has been banned!”

“We should never have sent you to Barcelona to study. Those Catalans do not even want to be part of Spain! Now that Europe is one you will forget what it is that makes you Spanish.”

“This display is for tourists who think they are seeing the real Spain.”

“Do not speak to me of drunken tourists who run with bulls in Pamplona. They complain when someone gets hurt.  Stupid Americans, think they know it all from an old book. For hundreds of years, Spain has had bullfights. You young people want to change everything.”

“Spain has art and books, music and beautiful buildings, too. What of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali?”

He didn’t understand it. Surely Spain had moved away from all this? After the bloody civil war many people had had little appetite for the cruelty of bullfighting, even less so after Franco’s death.  Bullfighting did not make sense in this century. He and Jose had been close.  His mother had been as devastated by his death as if he were her own son. The flamboyant decorations glinting in the moonlight where the suit hung on the front of the cupboard, seemed to mock him.  It had been made for Jose. It symbolised everything that he was not.

 “Do it this one time, for Jose,” his mother had appealed. He had come home to pay tribute to Jose but he wasn’t sure that he would be able to go through with it. He’d never be able to return home again if he shamed his father in front of all those people.

Of course he was proud to be Spanish. But enough with the fighting!  He remembered seeing Picasso’s Guernica for the first time. He had gone back to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid many times to sit in front of the painting, to try to understand its message. To him, the bull in the haunting black and white painting was a symbol of hope, showing the continuity of the Spanish nation after the civil war.  The bull seemed to be protecting the mother.  That’s why he was doing this, to protect his mother from his father’s anger for the son she had raised.

This was a Creative Writing/Fiction exercise that we worked on over a few sessions with novelist, Consuelo Roland, who presented us with this picture of a bullfighter and cautioned us not to search for it on the internet before writing. I since discovered that it was not all it was made out to be. Read more here

Divine Visions

My neighbour goes to the supermarket pretty regularly, because it’s there she sometimes sees the face of God…

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…or so she swears. She has been known to have moments of Divine visitation. Like the time that she heard angels singing in the attic of our house and kept finding excuses to come round. It took a while to figure out why we were suddenly on the receiving end of the many trays of foil-wrapped lasagnas and chicken a la kings accumulating in the fridge, as if some family member had died and we needed consoling. She was the only one who could hear the singing though.

I am never quite sure what to make of these sightings. She comes back from the encounters glowing, words tripping over each other as she describes her latest vision. The first time it happened I remember clearly that I was trimming the hedge which divides our properties. “You’ll never guess what happened,” she shouted through her car window, not even waiting until she had parked and gotten out.

That time she was convinced that the bergie who helped her wheel her trolley of groceries to the car had had a special aura, perhaps some modern-day prophet who might reveal himself to the first person who treated him well.

“She means well,” says my wife. “No harm done. Wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we all saw the face of God occasionally. The last bit aimed at Mr Harris who lives opposite and who wouldn’t give any of us the time of day.

It’s not all good though. There was the time that she was convinced that the student who had answered the advert for the single bed that she had for sale was channeling angel Gabriel. That didn’t turn out so well when she offered him board and lodging and he disappeared with all her jewellery one Wednesday evening while she was at a fundraising meeting for the SPCA…

This is another Creative Writing/fiction exercise given to us by Christopher Hope:  we were given the first line and had to write 350 words. 

Roger’s affairs

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There were 97 New York advertising men in the hotel, and the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.  She had been using the time well. She had packed her bag, sweeping the hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles into her vanity bag (she had paid for it, after all) and had made up her side of the bed.

There had been the inconvenient bit of blood on the pillow but she had popped it down the laundry chute which happened to be just outside her door.  Luckily there had been a spare on the top shelf of the cupboard and she had put it on the bed. She had washed and dried the glass she had used and placed it on the tray on top of the little fridge. She had even checked the little bin in the bathroom to make sure that there was nothing of hers in there.

Before that she had put her hair up into a few curlers to set while she took a bath. She had made her face up carefully and brushed out her hair. She was now wearing the pale blue skirt suit that Mother had made her pack. Her white hat and gloves were on the chair at the door next to her handbag and little suitcase. As soon as the call was made she would be on her way.

When the phone rang she decided to take it in the bathroom and, clearing her throat, perched on the edge of the bath. Her mother’s voice boomed down the line.

Gloria! We have been worried sick about you. Your father has a bad heart, you know. We haven’t heard from you since you left on Sunday. You did say you would call as soon as you arrived.

Mother, the hotel is packed…some sort of a convention…I told you that it may be a day or two before I had a chance to call.

How is Roger behaving? We can’t believe that you still agreed to go away with him after Muriel told you about the affair he’s been having, and with your best friend at that. I must tell you that nothing good will come of this. Once he has strayed it will just be a matter of time before he runs after the next skirt that catches his fancy. You know I only want what is best for you.

If she didn’t cut her mother short now she would drone on and on.

Mother, you know I can take care of my own problems. Roger will be no trouble from now on. See you soon. Goodbye.

She put the phone down, picked up her bags and gloves and looked around the room one last time.  Roger looked like he was sleeping peacefully. She had crossed his arms over his body on top of the bedspread. She opened the door and hung the “Do not disturb” sign up outside.

Roger would not be having anymore affairs. She closed the door and hurried towards the elevator.

This was a Creative Writing/fiction exercise we were given in a workshop by author Christopher Hope: We were given the first sentence and had to write a short story. 

Rendezvous

She was almost running, dragging the child by the hand behind her – through the Old City, past the castle – no time to watch the changing of the Royal Guard – and over the bridge, towards the square in the centre of Stockholm’s fashion district.  He’d be waiting in front of the Nobis Hotel. It couldn’t be more than five minutes now. She wished that she hadn’t worn these shoes – high heels and cobblestones didn’t go well together.  If there was one thing that she had learned in her time with him it was that he was a stickler for punctuality; he considered it an insult to be kept waiting. Nothing upset him more.

They waited for the tram to pass and crossed into the square. There were people milling around but she spotted him bending over to put something into his briefcase. As he straightened up, she saw that he was dressed, as always, in a dark suit and tie, white shirt. He checked his watch and scanned the square, squinting in the sun before he noticed her. With his case on the ground between his feet, he waited for them to approach him. Though she wasn’t late, she had to swallow the urge to apologise.

“Hello, Maria.” He folded her in a bear hug, almost lifting her off her feet. Before she would have taken it for affection, now she detected the underlying aggression. He was showing how much stronger he was than she. He turned and picked up the child, planting a kiss on his forehead. The little boy squirmed as he tried to get out of the grip and ran to stand behind his mother, grabbing onto her leg.

“Still a little mummy’s boy, I see,” he smirked. “You have something for me?”

She nodded as she took the flat brown-paper parcel out of her bag. She wondered what it contained. It was obviously something that they could not trust to the postal or courier service. When she had told Erik that she would not be coming to Stockholm again for a while and that she wanted to resign, he had told her that there was something that he needed her to do before she left.  “Deliver this parcel to Marcus and we’ll be even.” Marcus was one of the reasons she was leaving but she suspected that Erik would not release her from her contract so easily if she said no.

“Coffee?” Marcus asked, gesturing to the café in the middle of the square. He seemed to relax now that the parcel was in his briefcase. He started walking without waiting for her to answer. She found herself following in spite of her intention to keep the meeting as brief as possible. He ordered an espresso for himself and a cappuccino for her as they walked in and then elbowed his way to an empty table near the window.

“You’re looking well. When did you arrive?”

“Thank you. Yesterday at 9. How have you been since the accident?”

She noticed that he was still squinting. He was also wearing his hair longer than the usual brush cut he favoured. There had been talk about a trip to Syria last year…a car bomb, being airlifted out. He had denied it. Said it was a skiing accident, something about going off-piste and hitting his head. She was more inclined to believe the bomb-in-Syria story. She knew that he was an excellent skier.

 The coffees arrived. He leaned across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair and knocked her cup over into her lap. “Damn!” She jumped up pushing the chair over as the hot liquid seeped through her skirt.

“I’m so sorry. Here let me help.” He offered his napkin.

“It’s all right. The bathroom’s around the corner. I won’t be a moment.”

Holding her skirt away from her body, she pushed open the heavy door with her shoulder. That’s when she realized that she had left the boy with Marcus. Before she saw the empty table she knew. She grabbed onto the bar as her legs gave way.

This example of Flash Fiction was published in The New Contrast Volume 41, Number 4. 2013. Flash, or sudden, fiction has an upper word limit of 1000 words, that still offers character and plot development.