The caretaker of our block of flats, Darrington Ö his wifes name is Chastity. I sublet my flat to a friend once and went away on holiday for a few months because I still couldnt find a job in Cape Town, and when I came back, Chastity was sweeping the leaves off the stairs. I was surprised, because that was usually Darringtons job.
Are you Darringtons replacement? I asked her. I wondered if Darrington had gone and had himself fired like the last caretaker, Solly. Our landlord liked to say that Solly had succumbed to Bacchus and Aphrodite simultaneously and had in so doing proven himself to be a most untrustworthy type of caretaker.
No, I am Darringtons wife, Chastity, said the new lady sweeping the stairs. She was also from Malawi, like Darrington. She always wore a brightly-coloured kikoi, or a turban, or I think it may be called a kanga, or a tablecloth, or whatever they call them in Malawi, around her head and she was young, about eighteen years old I guessed, and she was very slim and pretty.
I was happy for Darrington to have his wife join him. I felt sorry for him being an immigrant labourer in this country and having to leave his wife and two children back home. I sometimes asked him about his family and said how sad it was that he had to leave them behind to find work. Yes, it is so, he would say, and he would look sad. He looked sad most of the time before Chastity came to stay with him. When I saw him after that, he looked happy, for a time.
Darrington and Chastitys room on the side of our block of flats was very tiny. It contained a single bed and a small table, two plastic chairs and a TV and a two-plate electric cooker and not much else.
After Chastity arrived, I didnt see that much of Darrington any more. He let his wife sweep the leaves off the stairs and, like me, he didnt wake up in the mornings any more.
One afternoon, in passing on the stairs, I stopped to chat with Darrington. I said, its a nice day, isnt it?
Yes, it is, Darrington said, and then I said, Darrington, does the landlord know your wife is here living with you?
Yes, he said. No. But I am to tell him this Saturday. Darrington spoke to the landlord every Saturday on the telephone. The landlord lived in Johannesburg where he was semi-retired and did very important things with business to make very, very large amounts of money.
That would be a good idea, I said. I think he should know.
Life settled back into its usual rhythms then. I would sit at my desk and pretend to write my novel, and on Wednesdays I would walk down to Hennies Supermarket and buy the Argus with the Job Shop and stop for a coffee at Habaneros.
With winter approaching, it was the time of the year when the mountains across the bay are very clear at twilight. The sun setting away on the Atlantic lends some light across the oceans and it graces the mountains for a moment with a beauty so intense it can make you ache, especially when you are in love with the waitress at Habaneros. You cant bring yourself to go home alone again, but you also cant bring yourself to tell the waitress that you are in love with her. You just want the light on the mountains to last forever, or at least to have someone you love share it with you. You begin to wonder if a life lived alone is really a life lived at all. The moment of the light on the mountains seems to escape because it is not shared. It has no frame of reference to fix it in time and place, except perhaps memory, which is a most unreliable chronicler of life. Its like that old saying about the tree in the forest that falls over and if no-one is there to see it fall, did it really fall, and did it make any sound? Or something like that. Its enough to make you want to ask the waitress for a double tequila, and perhaps another, as many as it takes to fall over and forget about the sunlight on the mountains and going to bed alone again.
Darrington and Chastity kept to themselves pretty much. I would see one or the other, usually Chastity, sweeping the leaves from one corner of the driveway to another and say, hello how are you? But we didnt say much more than that, until one morning when I woke up early by accident. I was making a pot of coffee and wondering what to do with my life, when Chastity appeared at my door. She looked abashed and I could tell that she wanted to talk about something, but wasnt sure how to go about it. So I invited her in, and I invited her to sit on my sleeper-couch because she wasnt sure what to do once she was inside.
I sat down in my rocking chair, next to Chastity. Is something wrong? I asked her.
It is not happy in our household, she said.
Whats wrong? I asked.
It is a problem with Darrington. He is saying that he does not love me any more.
No. He says he will take another girlfriend. And I do not know what to do.
Do you want to stay with him?
Chastity shrugged and I didnt know what to say next, being unaccustomed to consulting on marital crises.
Do you want me to speak to him? I eventually asked.
No, I do not think that is a good idea, Chastity answered.
Well, maybe you should speak to him. He has a responsibility towards you. Do you have any family in South Africa you might be able to go to if things go bad?
I have a relative in Johannesburg.
Do you have some money, maybe you could go to your relative?
I am pregnant, said Chastity. I have no money.
How many months pregnant?
Do you want to go back to Malawi, maybe?
I do not know. I would have to get the money. It is too much. Darrington does not have it.
It was a Sunday morning in April, one of those rare, perfect days in Cape Town when you cant see the mountains across the bay in such detail because of the bromide brown smog hanging over the ocean like caramel sauce on ice-cream. Darrington was at church. He went religiously every Sunday, but Chastity did not.
I dont know what you should do, Chastity. Maybe you should just wait a while and see if this passes?
We sat for a long time with nothing to say to each other until Chastity stood to leave.
Thank you, she said.
Well, I dont know if Ive helped you, Chastity. If you want me to do anything, just let me know. I dont mind talking to Darrington for you, whatever. Im just not sure that I can give you any money, though.
I saw Chastity off at my door and she went around the corner to her room to boil a Sunday chicken for Darrington, while I carried on with the pot of coffee and wondered what to do with my day. I decided to do the same thing I had done yesterday: worry about tomorrow.
I didnt see much of Chastity and Darrington for months after that. Darrington, especially, kept to himself and we exchanged pleasantries when we passed each other on the stairs sometimes. When Id see Chastity sweeping the leaves, Id ask her if everything was OK, and she would say, yes. I didnt notice any new girlfriends on the premises, the ebb and flow of marital bliss seemed to resume in the tiny room of Darrington and Chastity and their unborn child made its presence felt in the shape of Chastitys swollen belly.
It was a Saturday late morning in spring when Darrington came to tell me that something was wrong with Chastity. I was making a pot of coffee and my door was open, as it usually is so I can see the weather, and Darrington walked in and he looked worried. He said, Chastity is sick, she needs to go to the hospital.
OK, I said. Whats wrong?
It is the baby.
I put on a shirt and followed Darrington to his room. Chastity was standing in the doorway, breathing heavily. Her face was ashen and she was sweating profusely. It did look like she needed to go to hospital.
Whats wrong? I asked her, as if it wasnt obvious.
She did not answer. Darrington was standing to one side, unsure of what to do with himself. It occurred to me that this was probably not going to be a very good day.
I helped Chastity up the stairs and into the front seat of my car. She was quiet, but obviously in a great deal of pain. Darrington got into the back, but then climbed out again and went to his room. He returned with a printed card of some sort. It is her card for the outpatients, he said. I tried to think of something reassuring to say to Chastity on the way to the hospital, but I couldnt. Darrington was silent. I asked, how many months is it now?
Eight, Darrington replied.
It took ten minutes to reach the hospital. Darrington directed me towards the outpatients building where Chastity had had her check-ups, but the doors to the outpatients wing were closed. I took out my cellphone and called Rescue 911 while I drove with one hand towards another section of the hospital grounds. An operator answered my call and I asked for the telephone number of the hospital we were at. The operator said, the number follows, have a nice day. I didnt remember the number because people dont know how to remember telephone numbers anymore. Thats why they invented cellular phones.
I found the emergency room and parked and helped Chastity out of the car. She struggled to walk into the reception area. Darrington followed. There were a few people seated on wooden benches on the sides of the reception area and you always wonder, like when you go to visit the doctor and you look at the people waiting, whats wrong with these people, they look OK to me? You would have to think that there was much more wrong with these people waiting in the hospital than the ones you see in the doctors waiting room, things as wrong as whatever was wrong with Chastity.
We were not in a position, it seemed to me, to wait, so I led us to the window of a cubicle like the ones at toll booths and said to the lady behind the glass, whats the procedure? Ive brought this woman, shes pregnant and shes an outpatient here, but the outpatients is closed and theres something wrong.
How many months pregnant? said the woman in the cubicle that had a hole in the glass so low you had to bend down to speak through it.
I told her, eight.
Take her through to the emergency room, through there, said the toll booth lady and she pointed down a corridor adjacent to the waiting room, the sister will see her. Do you have her outpatients card? I handed it over from Darrington and then Chastity followed me down the corridor.
It was not immediately obvious to whom I should address our concerns about Chastitys health. I found a doorway and looked through and a matronly-looking woman with epaulettes on her shoulders was inside and she looked like the kind of person equipped to deal with pregnancy crises, so I said, excuse me, I have a patient here who needs urgent attention? That seemed like the right thing to say.
Ill be with you in a minute, said the matronly-looking lady assertively.
The way Chastity was moaning, albeit quietly, and standing with her legs apart like that with her hand on her belly, it didnt seem to me that we had a minute, and I said as much to the lady. So she came out, impatiently, and she said, what seems to be the problem? I pointed to Chastity and said, Chastity is eight months pregnant and something is wrong. The sister put her hand on Chastitys stomach and then she looked at me and said, find a wheelchair and take her up to the Maternity Ward.
I said OK, and wandered off and Chastity followed. I had my instructions, but they seemed a little vague under the circumstances and I must not have displayed the requisite level of urgency because I heard the sister shout down the corridor after me, quickly now! This, at least, confirmed that we did indeed have a medical emergency on our hands, so I picked up my pace and, on re-entering the reception area, I accosted a man in a blue apron and demanded a wheelchair. He seemed to comprehend the urgency of the situation, so he covered the twelve paces over to where the wheelchairs were parked and brought one over as quickly as he could. I asked him where the Maternity Ward was and he said, first floor, as he punched the button for the lift which was another six paces from where the wheelchairs were parked. I was about to claim that I needed a little more to go on, when the lift door opened and a small lady with a pink apron and a bucket and a mop greeted us and I said, do you know how to get to the Maternity Ward?
Ja, she said.
I said, good, take us there.
She pushed the button for the first floor and with one glance took in this unlikely trio sharing her lift. She put her hand on Chastitys shoulder and she said, is it your first one, sissy?
Chastity said, mmm, between groans and clenched teeth, and I looked at Darrington as I tried to add up certain things that didnt add up all of a sudden. Darringtons face was completely blank and he did not look at me.
The lift door pinged open and the cleaning lady pushed the button to hold it open, she leaned out into the new corridor as I pushed Chastity in the wheelchair, and she pointed down the longest passage I have ever seen in my whole life and said, down to the end, then right, good luck, sissy!
I pushed the wheelchair with Chastity in it down the deserted corridor as fast as it seemed dignified to do without breaking into a run. The linoleum flooring was missing in patches and the wheels of the wheelchair went kachunk, ssssh, kachunk, ssssh, over the rough patches like that child riding his tricycle down the hallway in The Shining and I felt as if I were in a movie too. The wheels squeaked unspeakably and our footsteps echoed and I still could not think of anything consoling to say to Chastity to try and mask the emptiness we all knew we were feeling.
The Maternity Ward was where the cleaning lady said it would be. Finding a person of necessary standing to deal with our crisis was a little more problematic. The reception desk was abandoned and the procedure for admitting an eight-month pregnant woman with complications was not apparent.
I said, hello? to the ward in general, which had no effect.
I said, hello! again, and a nurse in a maroon uniform clutching a handful of bloody medical waste towards which I chose not to pay too much attention, appeared from one of the rooms.
I explained our situation again, and the nurse did the hand on the belly trick and then told Chastity to stand up out of the wheelchair. She did, with much difficulty and my help, while the nurse went into another room and returned with an opaque jug.
Well need to take a urine sample, she said, and it became suddenly clear to me that this situation had now entered exclusively into the female domain. Darrington and I had become redundant, our purpose served, alienated and estranged by the unknowably feminine air that pervaded the Maternity Ward, the brusqueness of the nurse and something else, some other deeply-felt sense I couldnt quite put my finger on.
Chastity hobbled towards the bathroom to which the nurse had directed her, and Darrington and I floundered, unsure where to look. The nurse moved towards another room. Well need to prepare a bed for her, she said.
You stay here with her, I said to Darrington. I had noticed an open door to the outside world at the other end of the Maternity Ward. As I made my way towards the light coming through that door, I had a moment to think about something that had occurred to me when wed entered the hospital; I couldnt find a trace of that hospital smell. The last time Id been in hospital proper was when I six years old for a hernia operation and if I remember nothing about that experience, it would be that hospital smell. It must have taken all these years of R & D to eliminate.
I sat outside the open door which had a huge sign on it: KEEP THIS DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES. This seemed like good advice ,given the bloody feminine traumas underway inside. It was a sunny day and while I sat outside wondering what was going to happen next, I became aware of the sounds of a woman giving birth. I heard the midwife instruct, push ... push, and I heard soft groaning and grunting noises. There was something so ordinary about these sounds that I wondered about their significance, or if I was really hearing them. This was not how its supposed to be. Ive seen women giving birth on TV, theres supposed to be screaming and gnashing of teeth, wailing, that sort of thing. The sounds stopped in two minutes and as I watched through the open door that was supposed to be kept closed at all times, I saw Chastity walk slowly, hunched over, out of the delivery room and off down the corridor and she disappeared into another room. This seemed ill-advised under the circumstances, if what I thought I had just heard had in fact occurred, but, no doubt, Chastity had her instructions.
Darrington emerged from the gloom inside. It is a boy, he told me, as if announcing the time of day.
Wow! Congratulations, Darrington, I said and I just could not summon the requisite excitement which the occasion seemed to call for.
Youre a father now. Again, I added.
Yes, said Darrington.
We stood there unsure of what to say next and I knew what that feeling was that I couldnt put my finger on when we had first wheeled into the Maternity Ward and found the midwife: guilt. To what extent, I wondered, was this bundle of joy, this wonder and trauma perpetrated on the female body attended to by lashings of male guilt? Of course sex must be pleasurable for women, if they make love to men who respect their pleasure, but I would guess that many men dont, and the consequences of a few seconds of male pleasure are this suffering of the nature Chastity had just endured. Somehow, thats what the midwife had made me feel. I felt like a rapist when I wheeled Chastity into the Maternity Ward. Maybe I felt that way all of my own accord, with no help from the midwife. Maybe Darrington felt that way too.
Have you made provisions for the baby? I asked Darrington. Does the boss know that Chastity is ... was pregnant? I added.
Chastity and the baby are to stay with my cousin in Masiphumelele, Darrington answered, not meeting my eye. No, he does not know. I ask you that this can remain a secret between us.
I was quiet for a while. OK, I replied, but I think you should tell Mr S. This is not something you can keep a secret.
Darrington did not answer. After a while he said, will you take me back to the flats? I have to fetch some things for the baby and Chastity.
Is everything OK with them? I asked.
Yes, they are fine. The baby is premature, but it is alright.
We walked around the outside of the hospital buildings towards my car and I thought to ask, what is the childs name?
Hardon, said Darrington.
Hayden? I echoed, trying to make allowance for Darringtons accent.
Yes, Hardon, he said, making allowance for mine.
How do you spell that?
H-a-r-d-o-n, replied Darrington, and I kept quiet, not having the heart to suggest that that was probably not the best name for a boy in South Africa.
As we drove out of the hospital grounds, I asked Darrington what he needed to collect for the baby. He was rather vague. A blanket, he said, clothes. I asked whether he had these things already. He said, no, some things, maybe not everything.
I dont mind getting some things you need, I said.
We drove to the nearest Pep Stores and went in and I suggested to Darrington that we ask a sales assistant for what we might need. I approached a lady in a blue apron who was putting some clothes on rails and said, hello, we are looking for some clothes for a baby?
How old is it? asked the sales assistant.
It is a brand new one, not an old one, said Darrington.
The sales assistant looked at him, and looked at me to check whether I was laughing, so she could. I wasnt, but I had a smile on my face.
About twenty minutes old, I said through my smile.
The saleslady took us over to a rack near the door which had new baby clothes on it. I picked out the smallest baby-gro I could find. It said 0-3 months on the label. We also picked out a tiny beanie, some booties, a packet of Hampers, and a small, woolly blanket. I paid with my credit card and we left and as we were pulling out of the parking lot outside of the Pep Stores, Darrington said, I have forgotten something. I stopped and he went back into the Pep Stores and came out a few minutes later with the biggest bag of sanitary pads I have ever seen in my whole life.
We drove back to the hospital and I waited in the car while Darrington went inside to deliver our purchases to Chastity and the baby. He came back to the car a short while later and he said, we can go home now. I asked whether he didnt need to stay at the hospital and how long Chastity would be in the hospital.
No, I can go now. Chastity will stay for a few days in the hospital, Darrington answered.
We drove back to our block of flats in silence.
Let me know when Chastity is ready to come home, I told Darrington as we got out of my car. Ill take you to fetch her.
OK, said Darrington.
He went back to his room and I went back to my flat and a short while later I heard him sweeping the leaves on the driveway.
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