Something always begets something
Updated: Jul 16, 2022
The wheels slide along the metal in a deep thunder; an intermittent interval from the quiet and distant hum of traffic. The security gate clangs shut in exclamation that the guards are doing their job. A hot and heavy and motionless silence ensues in the small sun-trap of a garden. A faint swooshing sound, gentle and repetitive, gets louder as it debouches from the cool of the house onto the garden’s deck.
The sun is suffocating for James, who is sprawled on the deck sofa. He would be inside under the fan, but that tan he so wants before he returns to the UK calls for it. Once back in London, the South African swelter that will continue to scorch will be useless to him. Best to make the most of it now. Each stroke of the straw-bundle brush gets louder as Nokutenda nears the end of her morning’s work. She has to leave the sweeping until last; a final touch before hanging up her hefty, navy pinafore. It wouldn’t be so hard working in the stifling heat without such an impractical uniform, but such is the job.
“Sawubona, Nokutenda!” Sawubona is hello in Zulu, which isn’t her language, but he knows it’s close enough to Ndebele not to bother learning it. “It’s too hot, eh?”, says James, languidly. He doesn’t look up, eyes shut behind the lenses of his sunglasses, but he knows Nokutenda is smiling when she responds. “Haibo, Jamu! It’s too hot!”
The pink and purple clusters of spring have long fallen from the branches of the jacaranda trees to be trampled by the thrum of taxis and cars; the vibrance of their colour forgotten on the streets of a Johannesburg in the full, clammy clasp of summer.
James is her boss’s stepson who has been coming and going over the past four months, using the house as a base for his various holidays and a chance to see friends in the city. She likes having him around; he provides some company for her days of work; makes them go faster.
Though there is only a ten-year age difference between them, their lives are vastly different. James has never had a proper job before. While for Nokutenda, sweeping the floor of her boss’s second home is one item on a long list of responsibilities that Nokutenda has to get done.
Nokutenda has been a domestic worker in Johannesburg since she had to leave her home in Zimbabwe 13 years ago, when she was younger than James. Each month, she sends home supplies to her ageing father and ailing mother, as well as some cousins. Without the income from her two brothers, who both died within a week of each other at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and her husband, who was furloughed soon after the first South African lockdown began, she has become the sole provider for both of her families.
There is no reason for James to know any of this, but he never asks much about her life. They mostly speak about how difficult it has been for James to find a job in this climate and about the hot and sporadically stormy weather. Nokutenda listens, patiently and tenderly, for no reason other than that she is kind.
“Sometimes in life, you just face some challenges”, she said one day, in stoic sincerity of James’s comparatively meagre problems. Although she probably thought that his job-searching methods seemed less proactive than she was used to, she provided nothing but comfort to him.
James remembers his days in Joburg with Nokutenda fondly. It wasn’t until later, months after he had heard the sliding security gates clang their final confirmation that the guards were doing their job, that he became aware of Nokutenda’s personal difficulties. Her stoicism amazed him and he felt guilty for telling her about his problems when her suffering was far greater. But it was her kindness in listening that stayed with him.
Perhaps Nokutenda hopes, in the same overfamiliar way that violence begets violence, kindness is similarly infectious.