‘Where He Will Leave His Shoes?’ is a South African short story observing conscious and unconscious racism and sensuality via the master/servant relationship. It won writer Karen Jayes the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Award and admiration from writers such as JM Coetzee. That inspired her first novel, the Sunday Times Literary Prize winning ‘The Mercy of Water’. So grab some hot coffee and get back into bed so that you fully appreciate this masterpiece.
‘My husband likes the sheets tucked in, so that when he gets into bed, it’s like slipping into an envelope, tight. Like this …’
This is what she tells me, her white chicken arms flapping as she folds the sheet over at the top and pulls it straight, strokes it over and over with her hands – first here, then there, but there is always another crease to smooth. Inside her cotton T-shirt, with an anchor sewn in gold thread, her long, thin breasts swing like empty cow’s tits. I see the nipples brush the cotton like knuckles.
They make me sad, those wasted breasts. I want to tell her: ‘It is a pity this man who leaves you here in this big house for so long, has not given you children to fill it.’ But I cannot say such a thing; I am the houseboy.
I am her houseboy.
She says it to her friends when they come for lunch after golf, smelling like baby powder and fresh air and sweat. In her voice there is pride and she is protective of her decision to take me – which means that she is proud, I am sad to say, of me. It is like she is discussing a very good stove. As in: ‘I decided to get a houseboy, a Malawian – they are the best.’
Except I am not Malawian; I am from further north than that.
It is a popular way of talking here, to divide us by country, according to how easy we are, how useful. Nigerians will steal. Congolese are uppity. Malawians are friendly and passive, and, so, very popular. It is no surprise that everybody has become a Malawian. But it takes more smiling than I am used to.
I make her egg-mayonnaise sandwiches on the days she plays golf. She likes the crusts cut off and the bread cut small so she can put each piece in her mouth at once. She must not bite it, she says, or the egg fills the spaces between her teeth. So I cut them tiny, all the same size. It is best if I slice down quickly on either side of my thumb.
Putting the egg on the bread so it doesn’t spill over the sides is difficult. It is like painting the airplanes my brother and I would build when we were boys, the plastic ones with American flags on their sides. My father would buy them when he went to the city to stock up his shop, when he could still pay.
I must not think of the airplanes when I make the sandwiches; if I do, I will cut my hand. The tears will fill my eyes. These sandwiches I cannot string from the ceiling. Nor do I admire them much. What is to admire when all this hard work will only end up in her stomach? And then after that in the toilets that I must then clean.
‘You see Adam, you must first fold the sheet at the corners like this, so you make a triangle, then pull the point around and tuck it under …’
We have moved together to the end of the bed. She is holding this edge of the sheet in the palm of her hand and with the other she is pulling the corner around the end of the mattress. Her nails are short, the ends of her fingers like the round beaks of the forest birds, red and swollen. Her cheeks are stained pink, her neck, too; the blood in her skin has worked its way up from her chest like a handprint. She is hot from all the folding, the leaning around the bed. I am feeling guilty for this. She turns to look at me and I nod vigorously. I want her to stop.
But she doesn’t stop. She is stubborn. She keeps on at me, in front of this bed, that should be touched by her and her husband alone.
It doesn’t matter. I must do this job. I must not look at her hands, or her cheeks, or wonder what her heartbeat feels like, the one I see pushing from her neck, soft like the moth. I smile at her, and nod again and try to look like I am concentrating on the sheets.
Then she bends down to lift up the corner of the mattress. She is pressing the corner piece under, and I see her backside opening up to me. I imagine the wet pink spread under her cream trousers.
I step back and look away, at the cupboards with the mirrors reflecting us. See myself in my shorts and T-shirt, handed to me through a gate from a boy when I rang his bell. There is the name of a university on it, and three words under a badge that I cannot understand. I asked him what they meant, but he didn’t know, either. I thought it was strange wearing a shirt with words on it that you didn’t know. But look at me now, wearing it, at my legs sticking out from the shorts, which hang too wide. It is good like this; they look like boy’s legs.
I step aside, further away from her towards the window with the white curtains, three sets of them all different thicknesses. I like to rub them between my fingers when I clean the windows, let them fall over each other like layers of a very beautiful dress. When I do that, I can hear them. They whisper.
I can see the garden beyond them, and I imagine myself out there doing man’s work. She already has someone out there, a Zimbabwean, a good man, but very deaf and very old. Perhaps he will die soon and I will be able to move outside to work in the garden. I like the feel of soil under my hands. It must be from my grandfather, this; he had his own small farm. Then the government bought the land and we had to rent it from them. It became too expensive. The rains stopped and the fruit did not come. But I still remember the mangoes, the juice down my chin.
I like the way she listens to the Zimbabwean, the way his voice is when he tells her what he thinks is best for her plants; there is some pride in it. There is none of the gratitude that has crept into mine. Even my father, who worked so that I would become a teacher, would approve of the gardening work. I don’t tell him what I do now, my mother, neither – she never taught me to clean anything; she never thought I would ever need to know. My sisters did that. Imagine, their only son doing women’s work … It is too painful.
But I must not worry. The money is so scarce now they don’t ask me where it comes from, only when there will be more. So I must press on. I must make this bed.
‘Could you help me lift this mattress, please, Adam? It is very heavy …’
Yes, she is kind to me in her voice. I spring forward and kneel down on the floor next to her. I can see something in her eyes; it is heavy and suddenly unsure. I am feeling like she can see my thoughts. I press my fingers next to hers into the little gap under the mattress. I can hear her now. She is making soft, shallow grunts.
The mattress is very heavy; it squeezes my fingers. It is a special kind, thicker than I have seen, with springs and shiny covering, and little bumps – I can feel them now, cool like mounds of sand. She is smoothing over the top of the sheet, brushing the top of it with her hands so a little breeze from her strokes my face. There is a smell of strong perfume. It sits in my nose too long; after it, something sour, and slightly milky. It is the tea she has just drunk from me, settled on her tongue.
She pays me, at least. Every month, enough for food and a bit of rent, though it is less than half of what she would pay a South African. But there are other people who have had it much worse. People like Gloria, my neighbour from the Congo, who looked after three children, one who was very sick, crippled … she was not paid for six months. Then, when she asked her madam to help her get her papers, the woman fired her. No warning. I could not believe this when Gloria told me. What must you think of your children to treat the person that loves them each day, like this? It is very strange.
I paid a man in a pink baseball cap and a striped suit almost everything I had to come here, more than R15 000. I believed him that I would make the money back quickly, that the streets in South Africa run with gold. I was naïve then; I trusted people’s words. But nothing here is trustworthy. It is like a child finding out how a magic trick works. Your faith shatters bit by bit, like the mirror, and when you try to put it back together, there is always that mark, that dark line in the glass.
I left my family and travelled across three countries, in the back of trucks where the excrement gathers at the corners and the babies wail all night; where the drivers stop and you can hear them taking to the women outside. When you hear their low cries afterwards, the hollowness of it reaches in and takes something from you. You begin to think: where is this journey really taking me? But by then you cannot turn back. You are too far gone.
But it is powerful, this hope in me that stays. I feel it when I lie down to sleep in the shack I share with my friend Alain, the one we made of corrugated iron and plastic that is the size of my bathroom at home. This hope, it is like a second heart. It pulls me along. But it can play tricks on me; it tells me that the world is better than the people in it. I should be more like Alain, who says never to expect anything – that way you can’t be disappointed. But that is not human, is it, to give up hope? And besides, there have been moments in this city where hope has saved my life.
She is walking around behind me now, to the other side of the bed. We are almost ready to throw the big quilt over, but she is standing back to admire her work. I see in her eyes, the way they roam over the bed and through the room: she is very proud, this woman, of her things.
‘Right, Adam, could you fold this corner, please? I want to check that you can do it right.’
I think she likes to have a man to take her orders. There is something in her that enjoys telling me what to do, more than it would just a houseboy. This is the angry part of her, the part of her that treats me like a man, the man that is paying for her husband. When he is here, on Saturdays, he ignores her or he complains too much. She tries too hard to do everything right, but I have seen that look in a man’s eyes: he is bored. There are others. So he plays with her heart like a cat does with an insect.
I bend down and pull the corner of the sheet out towards me. Carefully, I let the sheet fall into a triangle. It is just the way she showed me. Behind me, to the side of me, I can see her watching my hands, her hands on her hips.
I don’t know when South Africa created servants out of us. We come cheap and it makes the rich people very happy. They can go back to having ten people working around the house and pay them nothing. It is just like their grandparents did – except we come with certain benefits: we are not angry about apartheid; we work harder; we are more educated; some of us can speak French to their children to prepare them for their European careers. But there are lazy ones among us. Some of us are angry, very angry. And hurt, beyond healing. The Rwandan who parks cars at the supermarket down the road watched his baby being crushed with a mielie crusher.
But most of them do not care to hear these stories. They have grown tired of our crying. The people here only care that we be nice and helpful, that we are safe; we know our place. This is how we make them richer, without conscience. It is most important that we offer them this – more so than where we have come from, what we know or have seen, or any other thing, even that we are human like them. They are just like this woman, here behind me, breathing her golden air.
But we cannot complain. Where else can we go from here? After this, it is the end of the earth.
I stand up to smooth the sheet over the corner. I pull it like she does.
‘Very good, Adam,’ she says.
I should be turning around and smiling at her, but I only stand and look at the bed. Right now, in those three words from her mouth, I am buried.
‘Would you fetch the quilt from the chair, please? It is too heavy for me to carry by myself.’
I am wondering how she got it there in the first place. Maybe it flew there. Nothing is impossible in this house.
Is it impossible, the one thing that begs me to think it, over this bed, on her skin?
I walk to the chair and pick up the quilt. It crunches in my arms. It is heavy, she is right. It smells of washing soap and of that warm, musky smell of a woman, of the wild fig tree. I do not smell him; when he sleeps he is not really here.
I am trying not to stumble. She is waiting for me on the other side of the bed. When I put the quilt down, I see she is watching me. She is curious. She is looking at my hands. Then she smiles, a big, open smile, and I see, for a moment, a little girl laughing at a joke that is naughty.
I look down. The blood is boiling in my head. Something has changed. I am very hot and confused. She has seen right into the middle of me, and it is like I am naked in front of her. She leans over the bed. Her breasts swing again. She grabs a corner of the quilt.
I am thinking: what would it be like to enter her? Would it feel soft within this hard shell? What would it be like to bring her to a final, wonderful release? She will taste like they say a white woman tastes: creamier perhaps, but sour like pollen.
Right here, standing over the mattress, I want to try. So much I must bend over and pick up some of the quilt to hide myself.
Then suddenly we lift it up. It makes a parachute over our heads. I smile at her under the ceiling. It is suddenly light between us, like we are children playing a game. The quilt is covered in squares, of a scratchy, silky fabric with many different colours. It is old; she has kept it because it is important to her. There are not a lot of old things in this house; everything is replaced when it looks a little worn. But this thing, it is meaningful to her, and I can see by the stitches pulling between the squares, it has been made by careful hands. Right now, it reminds me of my mother. I would like to give a quilt like this to her.
It falls with a heavy sigh on to the bed, like an animal when it is going to sleep.
She has trapped me with that look a moment ago. So I follow her; I, too, pull the cover up over the pillows. I smooth the top of it, and pat the corner. But I am searching for her eyes. It is like we are dancing, but she is pulling me across the floor. She steps back and walks to the cupboard. I see her watch me in the mirror. What is that look she gives me? I cannot say. I am not bad with women, but with this one, I am very bad.
‘There are some old shoes here, Adam, that you can take if you want … You can use them where you like.’
She has made me a beggar with this, reminded me that I am allowed to pick up her scraps, and her scraps are his shoes. It is like she has taken away a piece of my body. She is a thief, this woman. I want to shout this at her. But I am standing here in my shorts, sweating on my forehead for reasons that have nothing to do with making a bed. What should I say? Or should I say nothing, only take her firmly at the neck and throw her on to her covers? I would like to soil those sheets of hers she washes every day with her underwear that I must hang out, the little yellow stains like orange juice drying in the sun.
I am a game for her. She is like the jackal, a sly and cunning bully. She is still standing in front of the open cupboard, with the eyes I cannot read.
I look at the shoes. There are two pairs I can see from here that I must take, with gratitude. Too much gratitude, so much I don’t know where I will find it.
I would like the running shoes for when I go jogging in the mornings, in the red dust heat – they are good shoes, and still new. I nod and push my broad smile even broader; this makes her think I am very happy. She is pleased, and I see the little pink blotches climb up her face. She is warm now; her charity has achieved its desired reward.
I step forward and point to the running shoes. She tells me I may have them and I thank her, many times, profusely. Some of it is true. Some of it is cursing under my breath.
It is not that I am not humble. It is that I cannot stand being a beggar – so much it burns my throat. Isn’t a beggar even lower than a houseboy? Now, it is hard to say.
The other shoes I like are the slippers. They look soft and royal. I have always thought that slippers are the mark of a made man, a man who has enough money to buy special shoes to walk to his bed in at night. Even though he will probably have rugs and has no need to cover his soles – except perhaps to hide from them, and mask their propensity for coolness. Slippers are aloof. They are intimate. They are statements.
I choose them. She smiles approvingly and tells me they will keep me warm at night. It is like this is suddenly very important to her: that I keep warm at night. I feel the heat rise in me again. I step forward. She moves back and tells me to put them somewhere safe, where I won’t forget them. She is talking again like I am a child who cannot look after things like she can, the woman who replaces and renews and throws so much away.
It is like she has hit me. But I ignore it. I only nod and thank her, again and again. I am playing it well now, her game.
Then the phone rings, and she puts her eyes down, away from mine. She leaves the room.
When she is gone, I kneel down in front of the shoes, and run my hands over them. She has sorted aside four pairs for me: the two I have chosen, and two sandals. I do not like sandals; they let the stones in under my feet, sharp like tiny blades. I can see his foot marks in them, too, hollow like empty lakes.
The slippers are hardly worn. I lift them up to my face and sniff them. I can still smell the fabric, like a new carpet, and that plastic smell of a very clean, expensive shop. I put my hand inside them and curl my fist. At the bottom, where my fingers brush the tips, I find my hope.
I pick them up and put them, like she told me, in the place where I want to wear them, in the safest place I can find: under the frayed end of the shiny quilt, in a bar of sunlight that has just crept under our bed.
– Copyright Karen Jayes.