Mrs. Marilele was watching her helper picking mangoes from the trees at the back of the house. She was hoping to earn a good sum from the harvest, which would be sold on the streets of Dzumeri. Soon her paw paws would be ripe and these would go out on the streets as well. She looked up into the avocados trees, bordering the mealie patch, but the fruit looked too small to pick just yet. She was quite dependent on the earnings from her garden. After the death of her husband, the Minister of Education in the old homeland, things had become very tight without his income. As the widow of the late Minister, people thought she was rich and expected her to maintain her former lifestyle in the big house in the affluent section of the township with a garden that flourished all year round despite water restrictions and frequent cuts. But she was a keen gardener and tended her plants with great care.
And she had practically replicated this garden at her school in Komanani Village. She became principal there after her husband was made Minister and knew what everyone thought, so she had had to prove that she had earned this promotion. On her first day at her dilapidated school, she had realised that her responsibilities would have to reach beyond, into the destitute village. And she took up the challenge immediately. She turned a large part of the school grounds into a garden and soon began supplying the villagers with fruit and vegetables. She also distributed second hand clothing that she collected, provided washing powder for children’s clothes and used her bakkie to transport sick children to the clinic in the township. She did it all independently of everyone, including her husband, the Minister of Education.
She sighed as she turned to survey her five bed-roomed house. This big house was a cold and indifferent place, different from Komanani, where all the villagers knew and loved her. The sun was beginning to set, so she left her helper to put away the mangoes and went into the kitchen. Twenty years before, when her husband had taken up his post as Minister of Education, they had bought this plot and built a house that reflected his new status in the community. At the time, she had been a lecturer in Home Economics at the local tech, with a head full of ideas of her dream house. So she had put together the plan for their new home.
As she put the kettle on to boil, she looked around the kitchen. It was spacious and well-equipped with plenty of working surfaces. The wide counter that projected from the wall next to the electric stove, served as a sideboard when it was not being used for preparation of food. together to help prepare the meal and serve all those who had attended the obsequies. Funerals were very costly events and the Christian Women’s Association, under her leadership, always provided solid support.
Perhaps it was because she was such a good organiser and everything she did was first rate, that people resented her. Her school for example, was well run and the envy of other schools in the area. So there were those who attributed her successes to her husband’s influence and position and now that he was gone, wanted to see her fail.
As she sipped her tea, she suddenly went cold. She could feel that presence in the room again. Why did she keep coming in here? She had to get out. She would drive off in the bakkie and visit someone, anyone. But she couldn’t move. A dark form was lurching toward her in a drunken stupor. As it loomed over her and reached out, she started out of her chair and choked back a scream. Why was he here? Why did he keep coming back? She tried to pick up her Bible and fling it at him but her hands were paralysed.
“What’s wrong, Ma? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She stared for a long moment. “Are you all right, Ma?” Jonah’s face came into focus; he was the image of his father, just as Marilele had been when they were newly married. She quickly pulled herself together.
“Yes, I’m fine. What do you want?”
“Nyeleti is back and wants to see me. May I use your bakkie?”
She picked up her handbag from the floor next to her chair, scratched in it for a moment and then handed him the keys. “Make sure you lock up properly when you get in.” She resented giving him the keys. She resented his presence in the house, this living image of her dead husband. He was her only son and her only failure. All the girls were doing exceptionally well. The oldest daughter was studying law, the second, graphic design, and her youngest, drama. She had already appeared in several TV advertisements and was being considered for a role in a soap opera.
But Jonah! He was a cross she was forced to bear. At university, he had got into bad company, started smoking dagga, became a heavy drinker and joined in all the boycotts of lectures, demands of “pass one, pass all” and money for bashes. He was a bright lad but he had failed all his courses and after two years had been excluded from the university. Now he was nearly thirty, without prospects, and had made no effort to find a job. He was a disgrace and she was ashamed of him. All he did was eat, sleep and watch television.
He was the son of the late Minister of Education and she wanted to kick him out. She gave a cursory glance at the portrait. She had tried, in many subtle ways. She had arranged for uncles to introduce him to prospective employers, had organised interviews for him, pointed out ads in the papers but nothing had worked. She had even begged her daughter, Tintswalo, to get him into television. After all he was a very handsome young man and what more did they need for TV? Tintswalo had tried but Jonah wasn’t interested. He preferred to sit around doing nothing, sleeping away the days, drinking away the nights and in between drugging himself with television. She didn’t know how to get rid of him.
She heard the bakkie returning. He was coming back with Nyeleti. Mrs Marilele couldn’t understand how a nice girl like Nyeleti could get involved with a useless fellow like her son. Nyeleti was smart and had a good job in Pretoria. Why did she keep coming back here to this good-for-nothing? Were looks all that mattered to the girl? Although, Mrs Marilele referred to Nyeleti as his wife, she and Jonah were not married. Mrs Marilele had spoken to the girl many times about her relationship, trying to get her to end it. She couldn’t see why Nyeleti should ruin her life being attached to a man like Jonah. And she looked up at the portrait. My God! What was that black blob clinging to the frame over his head? It was that bat again.
She had asked her cousin, Samson Ngobeni, who was building a garage to protect her bakkie from car thieves, to get rid of the plague of bats in her ceiling. He had come the night before when the bats were out feeding. She had ordered Jonah to assist Ngobeni and they had closed up all the holes and spaces under the eaves and the openings between the roof and ceiling so that the bats would not be able to get in again. In the process, a couple of ceiling boards in the passage were damaged. She blamed Jonah for that. That afternoon, when she was coming through the passage, a bat that had been trapped in the ceiling, fell through one of the broken panels, almost on top of her. She had screamed. Jonah had tried to catch it but it had flown off and he hadn’t been able to find it. Now it was clinging, like an evil omen, to the frame of Mr Marilele’s portrait.
When she heard Jonah and Nyeleti coming through the kitchen, she called out, “Jonah, that bat, it’s back. It’s sitting on your father’s portrait.”
She heard Nyeleti, “Bat! There’s a bat in the passage? I’m going into your room until you get rid of it.” She heard the door slam and then saw Jonah coming down the passage. He threw a cloth over the bat but the animal flew off before he could catch it and Jonah went scurrying up the passage after it. She waited and then called out. “Did you get it?”
“No, Ma, I can’t see where it went.”
She sighed. Then she heard Nyeleti. “You didn’t get it?”
“No, it’s hiding in the dark somewhere. Don’t worry it won’t come out now. Come on, let’s watch Generations.”
That was their favourite soapie. Mrs Marilele couldn’t understand how they could watch such trash. She never watched anything but the news. Just as she picked up her bag to go to her room, she heard a yell and the sound of running, followed by Nyeleti’s screech of laughter. Then Nyeleti came into the lounge and collapsed on the sofa. She was laughing so hard she could hardly get the words out. “It’s that bat. It was hanging there on the curtain and when Jonah tried to catch it, it fell behind the cabinet so Jonah left it there, said he would get it at the end of the programme. We sat down to watch again when Jonah suddenly jumped up, clutching his trousers high on the right thigh. He said, ‘It’s the bat. It’s climbed up my trouser leg,’ and dashed off to remove his pants.” Nyeleti doubled up with laughter again. “The bat was only looking for a nice dark place to hide.” Then Jonah, in a pair of shorts, clutching the trousers with the bat imprisoned inside, came to call Nyeleti. They went out to release the bat and Mrs Marilele went off to bed.
The next day, when she got home from school, her neighbour came over with an invitation to a party. She was surprised. She didn’t go to parties and had not been to one in the five years after her husband’s death. She immediately started to think of excuses but her neighbour wouldn’t take no for an answer and left. She toyed with the invitation for a while. It was only her neighbour. Where was the harm in it? Really, her neighbour - how could anyone accuse her of being improper? She decided she would go - just for a little while. But that night she had a dream. She was at the party - it was a braai and all the men were in shorts. She was helping with the salads and cutting up bread. Then she walked over to the braai stand and was chatting happily when her husband suddenly appeared in front of her, cutting her off from the men around the braai. He stood there, eyes flashing with rage, not uttering a word. He took a step towards her and she put her hands up to defend herself but he was gone as suddenly as he had appeared. She woke up and sat there shaking in the dark. She couldn’t go to that party.
The next evening, she stayed put in the dark lounge gazing at the portrait. The face had changed. The smile was gone and the eyes, crazed with rage, blazed down on her. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the visage but that only made things worse. She could feel him enter the room and she cried out in fear.
“Why have you come back? I am not going to the party. Get out. Leave me alone.”
“Ma? Sorry, Ma, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
She stared hard. “ Jonah?” She pulled herself together. “What do you want?”
“Are you all right, Ma?” She didn’t respond. “Ma...”
“What do you want?”
“Nyeleti has come for me, but if you’re not well...”
“You don’t usually ask for my permission.”
“We don’t have to go out. If you’re not well...”
“Don’t pretend you’re worried about me. Get out! Leave me alone.” He hesitated. “Get out!”
After he had gone, she became very restless. She reached for her bag and keys and went out through the kitchen. She hadn’t visited her mother for two days; she would pop in there. She got into her bakkie and drove down to the main road. When she came to the stop, before she knew what was happening, her window was smashed in, her door opened and she was being pushed to the passenger’s side. Suddenly, she found herself, wedged between two men in balaclavas, racing off down the main street and into the road leading to Komanani village.
She was frozen stiff. She said not a word. She knew she would soon be dead. When they got to a dirt road leading to Bambeni, the first village on the way to her school, they brought the vehicle to a stop. The hijacker with the gun opened the passenger door, jumped out, pulled her down and kicked her to the side of the road. She waited for the attack but the man jumped back into the bakkie and it disappeared into the night. Mrs Marilele alone in this dark, isolated place was dreadfully calm. She hadn’t been raped. Thank God, for that. She could see dim lights from candles and gas lamps ahead and began to make her way towards them. But then she heard a car behind her. Her heart began to pound and she ran screaming toward the lights of the village, but the car pulled up alongside and in panic she hurtled forward, stumbled and fell. Kneeling there in the dirt, she waited again for the attack and prayed that the end would be quick. Then she heard someone calling out.
“Mrs Marilele, is that you? What are you doing out here alone?” The voice was familiar. It was Mr Risimati, chairperson of her School Governing Body. He got out of the car and helped her up. “Are you all right? What happened?”
She whispered hoarsely, “Hijackers.”
Mr Risimati put her in the car and drove her back to Dzumeri. After she made her report at the police station, he took her home. His knocking woke Jonah and when he told him what had happened, Jonah looked shocked and very concerned. He quickly put the kettle on to make tea for her. Then he knelt next to her chair and put his arm around her. “Ma, I am so sorry.” Involuntarily, she dropped her head on his shoulder and accepted his comforting presence. And for a moment she felt safe. But she jumped up suddenly.
“Don’t pretend. You know exactly what happened. The hijackers are your friends. You planned this, didn’t you?” She was glad to see pain in his eyes. “You wanted to punish me. But I did nothing wrong. I didn’t go to that party.”
Jonah looked shocked. “Ma, I think you should go to bed. You have been through a terrible experience. We’ll talk in the morning.” He tried to put his arm around her again to lead her to her room but she pulled away.
“Don’t touch me, you drunken lout. Why do you keep coming here? You killed yourself and nearly killed me too. Dead drunk but you insisted on driving. I tried to stop you. Everyone thought the taxi driver caused the accident. But it was you, you, the big shot Minister. Go away. Get out. Don’t keep coming back.”
“Mother, please go to bed.”
“Go to bed? Go to bed? To be groped by a drunken lout. No more! No more!”
“Mother . . .”
“Get out. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again.” She burst into tears, ran off to her bedroom and locked herself in.
After a restless night, she finally fell asleep and stayed in bed until late the next morning. When she went into the kitchen, she found a letter from Jonah. She made a cup of tea and went to the lounge to read it. He had been in touch with the insurance company and given them all the necessary information. They were faxing forms for her to fill out and would replace her vehicle very shortly. He was sorry about what had happened to her and had finally realised that he could not continue to be a burden on her. Nyeleti was giving him a lift to Johannesburg where there were more opportunities and he was sure to find a job.
She dropped the letter and painful sobs constricted her chest. “He’s gone. My husband. He’s gone.” When the spasms were over, she looked up at the portrait and all she saw was a vain man in ministerial robes. She stood up, pulled open the drapes and let the sunshine into the lounge.