Bitter tea

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Mrs Ferra unlocked the door of her shop and elbowed it open. She plunked her tea basket on the counter, grabbed the broom and started sweeping. Just then, the school bus bumped past on the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust that sifted down inside the shop.

“Fool,” she muttered. “The school is right here. Couldn’t you slow down?” She swept vehemently, as if also to sweep away the gossip she overheard. People at the post office were whispering about deplorable goings-on between a blonde man and a Pretorius girl.

They had had a shop boy for a while who helped around the shop. One day, she caught him giving their little girl, Elsa, a look that sent shivers down her spine. Frank had hired the poor simpleton out of sympathy, but he had to be fired. Consequently, all the tasks rested on her shoulders, and Frank took on the grocery deliveries.

This morning, Frank had taken Elsa to a dental appointment in Johannesburg.

Shiss-shiss, she swept. She couldn’t control her suspicions about Frank and the Pretoriuses. Nella forced the memory of her privileged life on a sheep farm to fade. But the memory that would haunt her forevermore was the disappointment on her parents’ faces when she told them that she had married Frank and that they were moving north to the gold mines of Johannesburg. Though her parents had warned her against Frank, she believed in his dreams. He had enticed her with plans for a shop that would quickly multiply into many branches with unbelievable profits from the pockets of the throngs at the gold mines.

She wondered whether they would stop at the Pretorius home after the appointment under some pretext or another. Surely Frank wouldn’t be so blatant as to take his eight-year-old there. The Pretoriuses never ordered from Nella, yet the talk was that people saw Frank’s car at their house.

She yawned. For months, she had been sleepless and anxious in the bed next to Frank. Lately, the void between them had grown much wider.

She slung the broom back into the corner and took the duster. She flicked the duster at the condiments, canned fruits and preserves. She dusted the counters, the notions case and the grimy mirror. Her reflection stared back at her with angry blue eyes. Missus Ferra, as her customers called her – but she was simply Nella. She, Nella, a farm girl who had grown up with servants, had become a servant herself. She worked tirelessly in her home and shop.

When the shop wasn’t busy, which was more frequently than she would have liked to admit, she would stand on the stoop and look longingly at the tennis players skipping about on the tennis court across the road. She called them the “can women”. They were the kind who would open a few cans to feed their families. She refused to be like them.

“Common, low class,” her mother would have said, not knowing how her daughter had been degraded to this miserable life as a small-town shopkeeper’s wife. Nella had a vegetable garden and a few fruit trees behind their house. She kept these and a few chickens and a milk cow alive with the grace of God and buckets of water she hauled from their well. They worked relentlessly to build their clientele and tried to start a family.

“Relax. You’ve got to relax,” the doctor had said. Miscarriage followed miscarriage. Nella instinctively knew that the miscarriages were harbingers of things to come. When the new main road was built, it bypassed the town 12 miles to the east. The community declined and soon comprised blue-collar workers and welfare recipients. She knew there was little hope for profits, and she would never give birth to a child of her own.

They adopted Elsa, believing she would stimulate the old pep back into their marriage, but pep and financial success eluded them like rain in the Kalahari.

She dusted her sewing machine. She would sew in the shop on quiet afternoons. She had sewn everything for the house out of the white flour sacks she saved. Thrifty as she was, she would never take fabric from the bolts on the shelves. She had made dish towels, tablecloths, napkins and Elsa’s small underwear. She wouldn’t even take any of the expensive dry goods from the shop. She finished dusting, wiped her face with her apron and sat down on her stool behind the counter.

With an aching heart, she took the writing pad from her basket. She wanted to finish the letter she had started the previous night.

“Dear Mother and Father, I hope you are well,” she read. “Things are going the same here as always. Our little Elsa is growing up, and she gets smarter every day. She knows all and tells all. Someone told me Frank …” She struck out the last sentence.

“It seems Frank is having an aff–” She ripped the page out, balled it up and threw it into the wastebasket. A wheezing made her look up. There, in front of the shop on the stoop, stood Mrs Botha.

Nella wished she could quickly close the doors. But her family was dependent on every penny from their customers.

Mrs Botha entered the shop on her thick legs. Some called Mrs Botha the “whistle woman”. When Mrs Botha was a child, she had an accident that damaged her windpipe. The doctor performed a tracheotomy, cutting a breathing vent in her throat. Implanted in the vent was a metal disc with a hole in the middle, through which Mrs Botha breathed. Her slimy breathing was unnerving to hear. Nella wished Frank were here to wait on Mrs Botha instead.

“Good morning,” said Nella, straining a smile. “How are you today?”

Mrs Botha struggled to collect herself. “Fine,” she gasped and leaned her enormous forearms on the counter. “Shu, it’s hot so early,” she gurgled through the hole.

She took her straw hat off and waved it in front of her. A noxious odour wafted from her as she put her hat back on.

“Can I help you?” asked Nella.

“I’m after blue butter for head lice,” she whispered.

“Don’t know if we have any.” Nella hurried to the opposite counter and knelt behind it for a while, pretending to look for some. She wished that God would send other customers into the store to hurry Mrs Botha along with her shopping. But Monday mornings were always quiet.

“I don’t see any blue butter,” said Nella. “Sorry, I will order some.” Nella rose stiffly and ambled back to Mrs Botha.

“I’ve already been to the chemist, and he’s out, too,” Mrs Botha sighed. Her enormous stomach pushed against the counter as she looked at the shelves. “Oh, lice – they are a pest! My children got them from their nursemaid. I’ll need 10 pounds of bread flour and two cakes of yeast and five pounds of sugar and, let’s see, I need lard, and fig jam maybe this time – let me see – maybe – no, I do not want the figs; let me try the plum jam. I like that new brand, Golden Pot. It’s really good. Have you tried it yet?”

“No.”

Mrs Botha continued: “Two pounds Rose’s tea and 10 pounds coffee beans.”

Nella wrote on, as Mrs Botha swayed from one leg to the other in her black sandals, out of which her toes bulged like bread dough. She moved her huge body in the pink floral skirt into the storeroom. Nella heard Mrs Botha opening and closing the bin lids. Fearing some of Mrs Botha’s spittle might drip into one of the bins, she rushed exasperated into the storeroom.

“Why don’t you tell me what you need, and I’ll get it for you?”

Mrs Botha proceeded to open the sugar bin. “I want to look at the sugar,” whistled Mrs Botha. “Last time, I ordered white sugar, and it looked all dirty, like it was mixed with cheap brown sugar – and I wanted white sugar.”

These welfare people have no sense of frugality, thought Nella. Brown sugar is much cheaper.

“I’ll get you an extra pound of white this time,” said Nella and nudged Mrs Botha back into the shop.

“Have I asked for soap, yet?” asked Mrs Botha.

“No, I don’t see it,” said Nella, tapping her pencil on her note pad.

“Well, two bricks of the yellow laundry soap and two of the blue ones – and, of course, I need a packet of razor blades, please. Make it two packets. I’ll have to shave everyone’s head, including the nursemaid, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so,” said Nella.

She shuddered at the thought of cutting Elsa’s beautiful, brown braids because of lice. She’d make sure to watch carefully for any signs. She’d check Frank’s blonde hair, too. She couldn’t envision a nursemaid, or any maid, at the Bothas’ shabby home.

She recalled her mother’s words: “You need a maid. Men don’t appreciate a wife who is always exhausted from work.”

“Do you have unbleached muslin?” asked Mrs Botha.

“Yes, how much do you need?”

“Well, now, let me see. I want to make new aprons for my maids, and maybe even new caps. I’ll ask Mrs Reed to make them – poor Mrs Reed. It must be hard to be the breadwinner, and with only one leg! Those two boys of hers, they’re good for nothing. Neither of them can keep a job, and now I hear that – well, which is the one with the blonde hair? Well, the blondie got one of the Pretorius girls pregnant. I don’t know why the welfare woman can’t do something about those loose Pretorius girls.”

The name Pretorius sent a shock of frigidity into Nella’s heart. She shuddered.

She thought of her blonde husband and what she had heard about a blonde man with the Pretorius girl. A headache was starting. She pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, willing herself to focus on the unrolling of the muslin she took from the shelf.

Mrs Botha thought as she wheezed, holding her dirty handkerchief in front of her throat hole. “What do you think?” she whispered. “I would like to have two aprons and two caps, so that would be six yards, wouldn’t you say?”

“Depending on their sizes,” Nella said and glanced at her watch. Soon, it would be teatime. She had brought her thermos, which held just enough for two cups of tea, one for teatime and one later with her sandwich for lunch. If she didn’t hurry Mrs Botha along, she would still be there at teatime and she’d have to offer her tea. What would she do if the tea spilled through the throat hole? Her scalp crawled.

“If I were you,” Nella urged. “I’d take the unbleached muslin to Mrs Reed’s straight away. Let me cut it for you now; then, I won’t have to send it out with the rest of your order later. You can take it to her on your way home.”

Nella wiped at the sweat-dampened curls on her neck. Lately, she had noticed more grey in her black hair, deeper lines around her mouth and varicose veins on her legs. If she took more time for herself, perhaps then Frank wouldn’t have …

“Would you like six yards?”

“Maybe.” She took the measuring tape and draped it around her enormous stomach.

“One of my maids is about my size, and then there is …” The lint of the fabric began getting into Mrs Botha’s throat hole. She began to cough. Her whole body trembled. Phlegm leaked out. Nella averted her eyes.

Mrs Botha talked as she coughed. “How hmm, hmm, hmm, wide, hmm, hmm, is the muslin?” she wheezed.

“It’s 36 inches.”

“Oh, excuse me,” Mrs Botha hacked. “Oh, my. Oh, my – sorry – no, really, that’s too narrow. I thought it was wider – I’d have to buy more than six yards – and that will be too expensive.”

Too expensive? Nella mused. Too expensive for Mrs Botha’s welfare check and her out-of-work husband? She, who ordered Golden Pot jam and white sugar?

“Ya, it’s a pity. I thought unbleached muslin came 45 inches wide. I’d hoped to give Mrs Reed a bit of work. She needs all the jobs she can get,” Mrs Botha sighed. “Now with the wedding coming, and the baby, too.”

“Who’s getting married?” asked Nella, confused.

“Oh, you know, the blonde one.”

“The one with the Pretorius girl?” she asked, and with shaking hands she replaced the muslin. The headache now throbbed in her temples.

“Oh, yes, he – did you not see the ambulance? It would have gone right here in front of the shop.”

“The ambulance – when?”

“A couple of weeks ago – yes. It was an emergency. The ambulance had to come all the way from the city – silly business.”

The phone rang: two longs and a short.

“Excuse me.” After talking for a minute, she hung the phone up and turned back to Mrs Botha.

“That was my husband,” said Nella. “Elsa is fine. They are on their way home.” She spoke, not understanding why she was making conversation with Mrs Botha. “Will that be all for you today?” she asked, hoping the order was complete.

Mrs Botha looked around uncertainly. “I – yes, I – think so.”

“You were talking about the ambulance.”

“Yes, they had to rush her to the city hospital. Poor thing cut her wrists because Mrs Reed didn’t want the blondie, Danny, to marry her,” said Mrs Botha.

“Who?”

“Mrs Reed didn’t want Danny to marry Ula. Ula Pretorius, one of the Pretorius girls – poor Mrs Reed had simply said: No, Danny can’t marry Ula. Joining two welfare families was more than she could endure. Then, Ula cut her wrists and almost bled to death.”

“So, was Ula in the ambulance?”

“You mean you didn’t hear about the fuss? And old woman Pretorius with not a penny to her name, and now a pregnant daughter on top of it all. The Reeds have no money, either, besides the free groceries and meat your husband gives them, and the blankets and firewood in the winter.”

“Frank?” asked Nella, straining to shield her perplexity.

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about Ula and your husband giving food to the Pretoriuses and the Reeds. He always helps the needy.”

“Oh, yes. Yes, of course, he told me,” Nella lied. She heard the school bell ring for recess. It was 10:30, time for Nella’s tea.

“What else would you like on your order?”

“That’s all, thanks.” Mrs Botha turned around and wobbled out through the shop door. “Good day,” she said over her shoulder.

Nella didn’t reply. For a moment, she stared transfixed in front of her, then she slammed the order book down and retreated behind the counter. With anticipation, she poured her tea. Her eye caught the wastebasket with the crumpled letter in it, and she kicked it deeper under the counter. Sighing, she sank down onto her stool and picked up her cup. She drank deeply and winced. The tea tasted bitter – too bitter to drink.

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