When Anulka came back from the shops carrying Tom harnessed on her back, Don was out. There was note saying that he’d gone down to the gym. Written on a page torn from an exercise book, it concluded, ‘back in time for lunch. Love, Don.”
Could she possibly be ‘Love Don’ to him now? Certainly to her he had become Don; but love didn’t necessarily mean ‘love’, not in the love sense. She may have wished it did, but she didn’t think that Don was telling her that he loved her: He was just saying that he was comfortable around her – just as she, too, was comfortable around him.
Not that Don needed that much to make him feel comfortable. Living their lives together in Friesland, each day seemed to have become just a little bit sunnier than the last.
There was a lot of laughter: It would burst out suddenly, like blossom did. They laughed at themselves, at each other and at the world outside; and sometimes, when they couldn’t even remember what they were laughing about, they laughed even more at that. Ever since the day that Don made that stupid remark about feeling uncomfortable had they to drive away from Ochatingi with her with nothing on, she had found herself at ease with him; and they seemed to be at ease with each other.
But, ‘Love, Don’?
True, they were both becoming less haunted by memories of the mine and what had happened down there. Don’s leg, too, was mending fast – so that now you had to watch closely to catch a hint of what had once been a pronounced limp. He was boxing. He was taking himself down to the gym: “Trying to salvage,” he would tell her, “whatever remains of a one-time amateur heavyweight champion.”
It was a strange relationship, theirs – if relationship was the right word for it. He paid her wages and in return cooking was what she was supposed to do for him. Cooking for him made her happy and she gave it her all; and if she did lots of other things that she wasn’t paid to do – keeping his house clean, keeping his clothes neat and nagging him when he needed to be nagged, she did it because fussing over him made her happy; and even when she was nagging him he never seemed to mind. That seemed to make him happy too.
Of course there were barriers. There were always the barriers: There might be none inside the house; but once outside the barriers were there. You couldn’t see them but you could sense them all round you and you never forgot that they existed.
So you contrived to be careful: To be careful not to be seen too conspicuously close to one another in the street. Careful not to be heard laughing together too loudly or be taking too much delight in some little shared intimacy.
Outside, she made certain that she didn’t walk directly alongside him but, deferentially, a small half step behind and to one side of him – as if she were a donkey being led by him. And when they went into any place where the law allowed them in together, Don would march through the door ahead of her, leaving it to swing shut behind him, shut in her face almost, as if she wasn’t there. Then she would have to catch hold of it and push it open to follow him. He didn’t mean it, any discourtesy to her: They were just being careful, remaining inconspicuous and avoiding presenting themselves as something that could possibly be interpreted as being an item.
Because it was an item forbidden by the law of South Africa; and she knew he wished to avoid humiliation being brought down on her by vicious tongues or the zeal of the police. He was being careful that people should not notice them together too often or be seen to be too close in each other’s company.
It wouldn’t have mattered a jot to him, humiliation. But he would have thumped anyone who tried to bring shame down on her, private citizen or policeman. She dreaded the thought of it ever being a policeman: He would thump him just the same; and then they would take him away and throw him into prison. After which they would turn their hate on her…
So, outside Friesland, that was how that they went about things. But inside it was different. She found his courtesy touched her – although it was the sort of thing that an ordinary black girl used a life of subjection would find difficult to understand: If she was carrying Tom – or the washing, or the groceries, or some other burden – he would get up and cross the room, holding the door open for her with a smile and a barely perceptible nod of the head. And when she arrived home and entered the room, then he would get up for her. It was as if being able to offer her such little courtesies made him happy too.
But ‘Love, Don’? What was in his mind as he wrote that? Was he telling her something – or was he, in the way that Don always did, just throwing formalities out of the window?
If Don believed in good manners, he certainly never believed in formalities; and everything he ever did was done in a uniquely unconventional Don way. He had recently taken to addressing her as ‘Tiger’ which she thought was both astute and remarkably telling. He had never, ever – as far as she was aware – seen any more of her body than her face, her arms and her legs. But on the occasions that she looked at her herself in the mirror in the privacy of her room, studied her body’s shades and contours, she did sometimes wonder if there wasn’t a few generations back a white man who had managed to put some young black girl into the pudding club: who had impregnated her with his sperm and his genes – who had been responsible, even after generations, for the lights and the shades, the vague impression of stripes that ran over her body. They were like the stripes of a tiger, especially when the sunlight, diffused by the shutters, spilled in the window over her nakedness.
Of course they did it all the time in those days – screwed their slaves and put them into the pudding club: No one sent them to prison for doing it. Not like today.
She hoped that at least that her ancestor, this putative father, had at least looked to the welfare of the unfortunate maid and not just abandoned her to work things out for herself, as Piet had done…
And then there was the time when he had addressed her as ‘Honey’:
“No!” she had protested, “You can’t call a black girl ‘Honey’. It doesn’t sound right: It conjures up images of Marilyn Monroe or some other empty headed blonde bimbo. Don’t kid yourself, I am a black. I’m not, thank God, blonde; and I hope that I’m not an empty headed bimbo either.”
“Then perhaps ‘Molasses’ might be more factually correct,” Dan had teased her. “But you’re pretty; and I can’t say that ‘Molasses’ sounds an attractive way to be addressing a pretty girl.”
“Pfft!” she said, suddenly all serious. “I’m not pretty. Besides, I’m black – and in many peoples’ eyes that makes me ugly.”
“There’s no such thing as an ugly woman,” Don looking unusually intent told her, “There’s only an ugly mind.”
Reflecting, he had added, “Believe me, I’m an expert: I used to have an ugly mind once, you know. I’m glad all that’s in the past now...
“And if I tell you you’re a pretty girl then believe me, you’re pretty!”
That made her blush; and she was grateful that, as much as it was possible for a black person to blush, the colour the infusion of blood brought to the cheeks didn’t show quite as much as it did in a white person…
So Don had gone to the gym to train...
She had been to the gym with him once. She wasn’t allowed to, but the trainer fixed it.
Don’s trainer was a hugely powerful Zulu called Manqoba – ‘One who conquers great odds’. Strictly, Manqoba wasn’t allowed in the gym either – not as a boxing coach, although it was okay for him to be there to sweep up and wash and press the kit. So this is what he did to get round it: Notionally the sweeper, he delegated that task to some lesser person whilst he trained his school.
With eyes that glowed like a prowling jungle cat, he had the ability to spot every boxer’s strengths and weaknesses as he watched over them and nurtured them. And when a fight was in the offing, he watched over the opposition, too – spying on them at fights in other townships and in other people’s gyms, all with the same all-seeing eyes; and they would see a cunning gleam in his eye when he returned and they knew his head was full of strategy and guile. Under Manqoba’s watchful eye, his gym, Don told her, had gained a reputation for spawning champions – even if he acknowledged (or perhaps Manqoba had hinted) there was a long way to go before Don became anything like a champion again.
Anulka, inspired at his enthusiasm for trying to regain some of his old skill, had mentioned that she would like to be able to see him box; and Don let that drop to the coach.
“Your friend really wants to come and watch you getting splattered all over the canvass?” the Zulu asked. “Sure, she can come.”
“But she’s a black,” Don explained.
“No problem. Tell her to bring some soap powder and laundry pegs with her and to be prepared to start washing out the gym kit for me if the police drops in.”
She had watched him box a three round bout that Manqoba had fixed against Ravi, a Cape Coloured from a gym in Soweto. Ravi was considerably the lighter of the two but Manqoba knew that he was fast enough to keep out of harm’s way over three rounds, yet give Don a taste of what to expect if he couldn’t sharpen his footwork up.
Manqoba had never had to bring back a one time champion boxer who was in decline, and he hinted to Anulka that he doubted it could be done. When the two men came out at the bell, Anulka wondered how this could be anything short of a rout, given Don’s height and weight advantage. But Manqoba was right – Ravi had danced rings around the bigger man. Although none of his punches gave Don much trouble, she couldn’t dissent when the bell went or the end of the final round and the referee awarded a convincing points verdict in favour of the smaller coloured guy.
Watching, Manqoba had shaken his head; and he told her, “He may have been a champion once, but perhaps the time has come for someone to persuade him to hang up his gloves. He’s let himself go for sure; and that leg may look mended but it doesn’t help any. I wonder if the time has come for him to quit.”
“No!” she had pleaded. “Please don’t tell him that – because it will shatter his dreams. He just thinks he has mended faster than he really has. Please encourage him to keep at it. He’ll get quicker, I’m sure of it!”
The coach thought about that before he said, “Look – may be you can help him. If I show you how to work on that leg and make it stronger, are you prepared to put the effort into it? And would you be able to bully him if he lets up?”
“Oh, I can bully him whenever he needs to be bullied,” she assured him.
So Manqoba had shown her the manipulations she should do and the exercises that she should make sure that Don did every day. Now she was not only his companion, his housekeeper and his cook: She was his physiotherapist as well...
But would she, she wondered, ever become his lover?
Anulka went to check on the lunch she had on the go. In the light of the oven she saw the skin of the big plump chook she was roasting was glowing a healthy looking brown and offering promise. The vegetables were in salted water, ready to be committed to the boil as soon as Don came home. She just had time to go and feed Tom before Don would be noisily announcing his return at the open front door.
Then the telephone rang. It was Evan Cameron. “Can I speak to Don?” he asked, his voice agitated and patently indicating the matter was one of urgency.