Suburban South Africa is glowing. The sun is up, the trees are in bloom, the lawns are magnificent, and if you ask nicely, you might even get a windowless room. Tanya Pamplone writes about the blessed and the damned, a home she likes and would also like to leave, and painfully assesses the situation of the not-very-but-quite-fortunate.
Victor is forty-three and lives in the backyard in a small room, maybe eight feet by eight feet. I would guess it is the size of a prison cell. It has no windows. There is no paint on the walls, just raw, grey concrete that is cool to the touch. The floor is the same, covered with a few scraps of blue carpet that we pulled out of the old house where we live on the front part of the property. We pulled the scraps up because they were so dirty that even after the rug cleaners came I couldn’t breathe properly; my eyes were puffy and watery and my nose ran so much I couldn’t sleep. We took them out and left them on the back stoep until we could figure out what to do with them. Victor took them to his room.
Victor is HIV+ and probably has AIDS, as he told me he is on anti-retrovirals and they don’t give those out until you are very sick. He told my husband that his wife, back in Zimbabwe, also has HIV and is very sick. She has never visited, I have never seen her, but I am sure she will die first. At least he has access to some fruit and vegetables here in South Africa. She does not. Zimbabweans now have to send home bags of mealie meal via the malaishas, along with sugar and other basic foodstuffs. They put the food in the taxi and give the driver some money, along with the address of their family, and the driver will cart the food to Zim in an old weathered minibus. It is not good for sick people to eat just mealies and drink tea, especially not people with HIV, so I am sure she will die soon. Surely she does not have access to anti-retrovirals like he does. Victor is lucky. In his cramped room with the cement floor and no windows, he is lucky.
Victor’s landlord – like ours – is Douglas. Douglas lets Victor stay in the room, one of two “domestic quarters”, although they are not quarters, they are rooms, dingy cramped rooms, because he was the gardener for Douglas’s parents for many years. The front house, where we live, is no paradise, unless of course you compare it with Victor’s home and then our place is a palace. There is also the one-bedroom cottage, which, since we have been here, has housed a Pakistani family and a single man who worked in television. The other room, the one next to Victor’s, is occupied by Douglas’s parents’ old domestic worker, Renee.
The front house has three bedrooms and two bathrooms and has not been painted, inside or out, for more than twenty-five years. When we pulled up the carpet we found newspapers underneath it that dated back to the seventies; we did not stop to read the papers, did not search them for evidence of apartheid, only glanced at the dates and threw them in the bin. We thought of painting the inside of the house when we first moved in but didn’t think we would stay longer than six months. It will be two years in April and it’s still not painted.
When we arrived, the curtains hung thick and stiff with dust. Brown dirt sat a half-inch thick on the top of the cupboards. We thought Douglas would clean up, touch up, paint, something, anything – we didn’t expect a makeover, not for the rent we’re paying, but thought the thing to do is to clean up a bit. He did not. It took two weeks of cleaning every day to make the place livable.
When our new backyard neighbour moved into the one-bedroom cottage not long ago, he sprinkled ant poison on the window sills and Douglas came in and had an allergic reaction, freaked out, and told the man to move out immediately. He called the neighbour later to apologize. The neighbour will not forgive him. He will move out soon.
Douglas is a thin, pale, reed of a man. He is a strange man, a ghost of a man, beaten down by years of people telling him he was not strong enough or good enough. He is a weakling, a man with little backbone, a miser. He would like to sell this place, his parents’ home, the home he grew up in. He would like to get the most he can, every penny, and believes he can get a lot, but he will not because the housing market has plummeted – it falls more and more with each month that passes. But no matter, his sister wants the place. This place with the crumbling pressed ceilings and the plumbing that backs up every other week, running sewage onto the stoep in the backyard. His sister, with the sour, wrinkled face and stringy brown hair which always looks like it needs a good wash, says she has an emotional attachment to the house but in fact, she does not – she shows no interest, does not come around and lets it fall into the sad disrepair in which it now sits. I am sure it was no better when their mother was alive. When we moved in, less than a year after she died, it was not just dirty but it stank of urine and old food. It took three months for the smell to finally dissipate.
The emotional attachment that Douglas’s sister has is related to the real estate value of this old house. While the front house may be a knock down, the cottage a major rebuild, and the two rooms where Victor and Renee stay surely in violation of some health code, the property, this big stand in this leafy, upmarket neighborhood in Parkview – the only neighborhood in the city, maybe the country, where they celebrate Halloween, and which has the best public school around – is worth a lot. Not as much as Douglas and his sister would like to believe but a lot anyway.
I am sure his sister was one of the people who taunted Douglas as a child, maybe even as a man, a man unable to protect himself from the weight of the world. He has another brother who lives in the Cape. This sibling does not want to get involved. After all, the estate has been finalized. The sister would like to buy this house, but Douglas does not want to sell it to her because he wants to get the most he can and he does not want to give his sister any breaks. She has to sell her house in a neighboring suburb, but the real estate market is bad and she is struggling. So we wait. We all wait. We wait to see if she will sell her house, if they will put this house on the market, if we will have a chance to buy it ourselves; we wait to find out when we will have to move out and find a new house, a nicer house that will surely cost more than this one.
Victor works for Douglas on weekends. The deal is, Victor works one day a week in the garden so he can live in his small room with no windows. One recent weekend, Douglas had him at his place to paint. He painted Saturday and Sunday, all day long, from morning to night. Douglas did not pay him extra. Douglas has Victor over a barrel. After all, who else would let this forty-three-year-old alcoholic gardener with HIV, probably AIDS, live in their nice suburban backyard?
Oh yes. Victor is an alcoholic. Wouldn’t you be? The alcohol must make it all easier to digest. Besides, Victor is a nice drunk. He doesn’t get aggressive or anything; he’s friendly all the time. Polite, too. When I asked him if he was tired from painting all day at Douglas’, he just shrugged and said, “That is life.” He says that a lot.
When we first moved in, Victor scared me a bit. We have a young daughter and you hear of rape, all those rape statistics here in South Africa, the highest in the world from what I understand, and often, too often, the rape of very young children. So I told my daughter she was not allowed to go into the back part of the property without me or her father accompanying her. It was also an issue of privacy. Renee and Victor were living there along with the other people that lived in the cottage then, the young Pakistani family, the father studying engineering at Wits, the young mother in her traditional clothes, not much English, many smiles, and the baby, two years old by the time they left two months ago, when he took a job on a mine in Welkom, a desolate Afrikaans town in the middle of exactly nowhere.
But Victor would not harm my daughter. I cannot say the same for his friends, the men that come and go on odd nights, who he shares his small room with, shares his drink, perhaps his body. I do not know. I do not ask who the men are; he never brings a woman. The men have different faces and the same. They do not make noise, he does not invite more than one or two, sometimes two, but mostly one, and I do not usually even hear them, only see them walk out with Victor in the early morning, quietly departing just as the sun emerges bright and bold in the clear sky.
Victor is Kalanga, a mash-up of Sotho, Shona and Ndebele people. A colleague from Zim told me the Kalanga, from the southwest of the country, often try and pass off as Ndebele. Joshua Nkomo, the founding father of Zimbabwean nationalism, was also Kalanga but he’s been assimilated into Ndebele as well. The Kalanga people are, I am told, a conquered people, embarrassed about their heritage, and they readily attach themselves to the Ndebele – as if to be part of a major tribe would somehow make them relevant.
I have come to like Victor. He asks us for money sometimes, and we always give it, and he usually doesn’t pay it back, even though he says he will. I don’t mind. What is R50 to us when he has nothing? It is the very least we can do for our neighbour. And surely we should do more. But we don’t. We are cordial. We exchange greetings. My husband has given him wine as well on occasion, and we share our food on holidays. It is not right to give wine to an alcoholic but my husband says, why not? What else does he have?
When we first moved in, I was on my back foot with Victor. He was clearly an alcoholic and I did not want to make friends. But since then I have come to like him. He works hard, keeps to himself, talks to my daughter when he’s in the garden, opens the gate for me if he’s outside and I’m pulling in with the car, always greets us, always in his blue overalls. Victor has nothing. He reminds me of how much I have. He reminds me of the palace in which I live.
I must tell you something. I must be honest. I have not been in Victor’s room. My husband has. He says I shouldn’t go there because it would make me cry. And I am a sissy, am easily brought to tears, so I know he is right. I would cry, we would all cry, to see it, the cramped space, the smells of eighteen years of life in a small room, a room where you live and eat and cook and sleep, a room with no windows and bits of dirty old blue carpet.
I know Renee’s room is much the same. This I know. I have not been in their rooms but I have walked by, peered in sideways, greeted them as I go into the backyard to pick up the clothes from the line or to take the trash to the bins. I have gone back to call for Victor when his friends ring the bell, which is connected to the front house. I have talked to Renee outside her room about the electricity which trips every few days in this old house, and for which the main power switch is inside.
If this were our home, if we owned this home, I would not sleep at night knowing that another person had to live in that cramped room with no windows. I don’t know if Douglas and his sister sleep soundly or if their parents before them slept soundly or if they did not, if the state of the maid and gardener’s housing was the reason for how they slept or did not sleep. I think it would not have mattered. I think it does not matter still.
If it were my responsibility to provide their housing, if it were my agreement, I would not sleep. Surely, I would not sleep. I could not allow for rest. If we bought this place, I would have to knock the edifice to the ground and destroy it. Demolish it, disappear it, so it could never stand again, so that it never even existed. And then what? Would I then send Victor packing, back to Zimbabwe with his blue carpet and his blue overalls and a bottle of red wine to drown my sorrows? Because after the room was demolished, his home for eighteen years would be erased and I would not be able to pay to build a proper home for him. After all, I can barely pay for my own home in suburbia. How would I pay for his? How could I destroy his place? How can I ever sleep again?