Saturday, September 13, 2014

SECRETS BY JOLYN PHILLIPS

I knew that if Ma found out about Boeta and me, she would probably lock me up. My mother had never liked the Groenewalds. She always said that they were evil people and that we shouldn’t mix with that sort. ‘Meng jou met die semels en die varke vreet jou op’ — that’s what Ma says about people she thinks are sinful. Boeta used to hand me letters under the desk in Afrikaans class. I never guessed that I would fall in love with ‘Boeta the Mail Boy’. But nou ja, I do not question our stolen times together. It was so secret neither my sisters nor God knew. He told me that he wanted to build houses like his father who had built the klipkerkie in Dempers Street. I liked talking to him and listening to his ideas about life. Sometimes we just went to go and sit at the vlei and talk. No one visited it anymore and it was close to church so I would always have an excuse if Ma asked. For a long time we only held hands. Then, after a few weeks, Boeta let me rest my head on his shoulders or sometimes he lay on my lap and we would talk about all kinds of things. About exams and about life here in Strandtjiesvlei. When Hellie wrote to me about the bright lights in Cape Town, I showed him the letter. In it my sister had included a R5 note and a picture of her and a handsome man. She was wearing a pink dress and sandals and he was wearing high-waist pants and a tucked shirt and sun-glasses. He was a mechanic and he had a car which he drove her around in. Boeta smiled and said he would make an even better life for us. My heart began to beat really fast when our fingers gently crossed into each other’s. When we kissed for the first time, he looked at me smiling. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Do you know our eyes are the same’? I did not know what to say. He rubbed his nose against mine. When I got home, I went straight to my bedroom. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was our secret. There was a knock on my door. It was Ma. ‘I got Mrs Williams at the shop, Father Williams’ wife.’ My eyes went big in my head; immediately I thought, ‘Oh my God she found out!’ Why else would the Pastor’s wife be speaking to her? I could hear my heart beat in my chest. ‘Father Williams wants to see you tomorrow.’ ‘Oh, thank you Ma.’ ‘Just don’t be late, it sounds important.’ I felt relief. My secret about Boeta was still safe. I knew why Father Williams was looking for me. He was helping me apply for the teaching college in Wellington. Father Williams was hoping I would get a bursary, but we both knew it was going to be difficult. This was another secret I was keeping from Ma. I knew she would not have approved. She would have thought I was reaching above my station. Boeta. The bursary. When had I started to keep so much from my mother? I woke up the next morning. I was almost late for my duties at the church. If Ma had not woke me up so violently I would have overslept. ‘What is it with you?’ I was rushing to get dressed and to gather my things together. ‘That shirt is not ironed.’ She scowled. ‘No child of mine walks about in town with a creased shirt. What will the people say? We are gossiped about enough. Het jy muisneste in jou kop?’ ‘No Ma’, I replied fixing my cardigan. When I got to the church and Father Williams’ study I knocked very gently. I was shivering from nerves like a wet dog. ‘Come inside Lieda, have a seat.’ ‘Good morning.’ Father William’s eyes look concerned. We had been waiting for a response for some time now. I took the brown envelope. It had my address on it. ‘Well go on,’ he said, ‘it is not going to open itself.’ I opened the letter, hands shivering. ‘Dear Miss Aploon’ I began to read. The letter made me feel so important. I had never been called a Miss before. ‘I got in and the bursary too.’ ‘Congratulations Lieda. I know you have your concerns but you must tell your mother. I’m sure she will be delighted.’ ‘Maybe if you tell her, Father Williams, she will understand. ’ ‘It is not my place, Lieda. I am very sorry. You will have to tell her yourself.’ ‘How? She will never listen to me. Look what happened to my sisters.’ Ma had stopped talking to my sisters when they moved to Cape Town. ‘Why don’t you write her a letter?’ ‘Letter? I will think about it. Thank you, Father.’ ‘Good luck Lieda.’ As I walked home I tried to think about all that was happening to me. Boeta. Our love. And now Wellington next year if I did well enough in my exams. I knew I would pass them. I had been studying very hard, and I got As for most of my subjects during the year. But I was scared about telling Ma this news. I knew she wanted me to work for Miss Wilkenson. To settle down here and look after her. She always complained about her hands and feet. I didn’t want to be like Ma. I didn’t want to die in Strandjiesfontuin. On the day our exam results were due, all of the Standard 10s got up early to wait for Oom Japie to deliver Die Burger. I knew my name would not be so hard to look for because it’s fifth on the class list. We thought we could buy it from Oom Japie directly, but he said it belonged to the shop. So we had to wait until Mr. Ford came to open up the shop. The newspaper was R1. We clubbed together and bought a newspaper and Hans Olivier read out the names: ‘Cindy Abrahams, Johan Abrahams… Lieda Aploon.’ Boeta was so happy he ran towards me. But realizing what he was about to do, he stopped and walked towards me and shook my hands. We didn’t want the rest of the class to know that we were seeing each other. ‘Congratulations, Lieda.’ Boeta said, trying to hide his smile. ‘See you at youth practice tonight, Boeta.’ My friends Bettie, Sheila and Dawn gathered around to congratulate me. They already found work, working as flower packers like their mothers. They seemed to be excited working as blomme meisies. Later that day, I could not keep my eyes off Boeta at Youth Practice. I watched him laughing with his friends, hands in his white pants’ side pockets and blue tucked-in shirt. Father Williams brought along a camera and we all stood huddled up together trying to get into the picture. The boys were sitting on their knees with big afros, the girls with pastel coloured cardigans and of course Lennie the youth league’s clown, lying on his side, with his tongue sticking out. Everyone was busy playing dominoes and cards when Boeta asked if he could have a word outside. I could see Adam sticking his elbow into Paul’s ribs, but I tried to give them no attention. We went out the back and stood in the corner between the toilets and the big guava tree. It was quiet and the night air was warm and there was not a single cloud in the sky. I was shivering so badly not because I was cold, but because I was so nervous. He gave me his leather jacket. ‘Daarso, just like Michael Jackson’s.’ ‘Boeta?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Do you think we will always recognise each other, like we do now? Even after I go to Wellington?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s just that this, what we have – I don’t even know what to call it –’ ‘Love,’ he interrupted. ‘Yes, love.’ I agreed, half smiling. Suddenly my smile disappeared, ‘Boeta, I don’t want keep this secret anymore. It feels wrong to lie to Ma.’ ‘I agree, so what do we do?’ ‘I don’t know Boeta, really I don’t.’ ‘Well if she chases you away you can stay with us.’ ‘No, that would break Ma’s heart. You know how she feels about your family.’ ‘So keep the secret rather?’ ‘Yes, let’s.’ Two more weeks passed. Boeta and I saw each other whenever we could. Soon it would be time for me to leave for Wellington. I had already packed my suitcase along with my diary, my photo album, Ouma’s brooch and the photo of the youth league. I had pushed it under my bed, out of Ma’s sight. I hadn’t yet found the courage to tell her about the bursary, but I wrote her a letter explaining why I was going. I was checking the suitcase was still out of sight when Ma called me from the back. ‘Would you do the groceries today? The list is on the kitchen table.’ ‘Yes, Ma.’ She went on tending to her asters, stink Afrikaners and daisies. Ma was totally unaware of me and my new life waiting for me and Boeta, I thought as I walked to the shop. We, her three children always knew not to ask questions, just trust and obey, I thought. Ma can keep her secrets I don’t want to know why she doesn’t like the Groenewalds. I looked down at the shopping list. Fish oil, butter, eggs, sugar and some moerkoffie — usual stuff — and of course some Sunlight Soap which was always on the list. Ma washes every day of her life. When I got home, Ma was sitting in the living room with a letter lying on the table. ‘Who is this boy writing to you?’ ‘Where did Ma get that?’ ‘Count your words, girlie. Don’t play around. If you want to screw around, you do that under your own roof, not under my roof. Do you want to end up like your sisters? They put me to shame.’ ‘It’s not like that Ma, I say. We are not… he is a kind person, he makes me happy.’ ‘I want to meet this Boeta. Invite him over for dinner.’ ‘Yes Ma, you will like him, he lives in…’ ‘I am sure he can explain himself to me and also explain why he did not have the decency to ask me for permission.’ I ran out of the house towards Dempers Street number two. When I got to the house, Boeta’s father was standing over the hekkie, smoking tobacco out of his pipe. ‘Good afternoon, Uncle Ouboeta, is Boeta home?’ ‘Sak Sarel,Gedorie, don’t choke on your spit. Boeta is not here, girlie. He went to Hermanus for that building job. He is planning on learning from the boss himself.’ ‘When will he be back, Oom?’ ‘Six or seven I think, yes six or seven.’ ‘Uhm, my Ma invited him to dinner.’ ‘Ne? Julle klogoed van vandag.’ He chuckled. Ma made cabbage bredie, with lamb pieces, rice and beetroot made with a bit of vinegar and sugar. We sat at the kitchen table looking at the candle burning. My mother believed that you never eat without the guest so we just sat here, waiting for Boeta. I didn’t mind — I had a lot on my mind and it seemed Ma did too, sitting across the table. We heard the hekkie go open and Ma got up to answer the door. ‘Oh,’ I heard Ma say in the kitchen, ‘who are you looking for?’ ‘My dad said you invited me.’ It was Boeta’s voice. I got up and went to stand a few steps behind my mother in the kitchen. Boeta was still standing in the doorway. Ma looked from him to me and froze. ‘May I come in?’ He asked, politely. ‘No, never are you allowed to come here, get out of here. Don’t ever come near my daughter, you bastard!’ ‘I don’t understand, Mrs Aploon?’ ‘Did your father put you up to this? He probably did. The bastard!’ ‘Ma what is going on?’ I had never seen my mother behave this way before. ‘You stay out of this, Lieda. Go to your room!’ ‘You and your father are sick people! How could you do this to me and my daughter? Have you no shame. Your father broke my heart, all those years ago and now he wants to do the same, using his children.’ ‘Excuse me ma’am I have no idea what you are talking about. I love your daughter I was going to ask you if I could marry Lieda.’ ‘WHAT?!’ She screams, ‘Sit jy op die paal, mytjie?’ She slammed the door in Boeta face. ‘Huh? No, Ma. No! How can you even ask me that? He would never…’ But Ma was so angry I was scared to approach her. She slumped down at the kitchen table. When she looked up I saw that she was white as a laken. ‘He would, he would, and that’s what his father did. He said we were going to get married.’ Her voice was trembling and so was she. ‘What?’ I asked, ‘Who were you going to marry?’ Ma looked at me, straight into my face. The tears were sliding down her cheeks now. ‘Boeta’s father.’ she whispered. ‘We were, until his cousin told me he was married already. I gave myself for him. He left me to suffer by myself — my husband had died a year ago, and he was my comfort. He left me alone to suffer in 1975. I had three children. And he had the audacity to come live here with his family. It shred me to pieces, but I got a job at missies and raised my children by myself. You. I raised you by myself, without his help. Now that bastard and his son come here and try and mess up my life!’ ‘I’m sure you have the wrong person in mind,’ I say. Boeta’s father… you… we are… that would make Boeta.’ ‘Yes, you are, you are… kyk bietjie, your eyes, they are the same. It’s his… George Groenewald’s eyes.’ I sat with my back against the wall, too shocked to cry. I could see Boeta’s eyes gleaming. Did he know. Did Boeta know. He could not have known. ‘I had to protect you. From them. Now you can see why I told not to mix with them.’ ‘THEY DIDN’T KNOW MA. THEY DIDN’T KNOW. UNCLE OUBOETA DIDN’T KNOW MA, YOU DIDN’T TELL HIM.’ She walked past me, to her room, and prayed loudly. I got up. My whole body ached. My heart was broken. I went to my room and took out my suitcase from under the bed and walked over to Father Williams’ house. I didn’t say anything to Ma. I didn’t tell her where I was going. Mrs Williams welcomed me. ‘May I stay here for the night, it’s probably better as we leaving early tomorrow morning for college.’ ‘Hi kint, have you been crying, is it your mother?’ ‘She doesn’t want you to go?’ I just nodded my head and let Mrs Williams take my suitcase. ‘Ag, she will come by, once she understands. Every mother is scared for her children’s well-being.’

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