2015 SA Writers' College Short Story Competition Third Place


'The Exchange' - by Natanja Greeff


This was it. As if to prove it to him, she had frantically bundled all the cutlery she could find into a tog bag and tossed it on the back seat.
She was not blind to the silliness of it all. Nevertheless, her pride dictated that she continue driving madly, blindly into the night; a kind of real-life Cruella de Ville, red curls springing haphazardly from her bandanna. Her little Daihatsu Cuore, driven more like a Landrover, hopped and skipped over the dirt road.
“Your shocks, darling …” she had heard him say so many times.
Screw the shocks!
She didn’t care. Not about shocks. Not about the dangers of being a woman alone on an Eastern Cape dirt road. Not about the longsuffering man she had left behind yet again, for the how-many-eth time in the last year. This time, over a set of silver spoons.
She didn’t care about the fact that, in her rage, she had also left behind her cell phone. Nor that the needle of her fuel gage was dancing scarily close to that taunting little red line. Most of all, she didn’t care that she was still childless.
Well, that was a lie.
It had been a whole year, to the day, since she had given birth to a quiet, lifeless little body. Every month since, she had hoped and prayed that her period wouldn’t come. But it always did.
And then it hadn’t. For two months now. Yet the pregnancy test came back negative. Her doctor said it was probably just stress.
But maybe they had waited too long and now she had reached her sell-by-date – ovaries dried up, like prunes. She was too scared to take the tests – those tests that might spell this out once and for all.
Suddenly, two eyes blazed and froze in front of her. She tried to remember the technique they had recommended for such situations on Canada’s Worst Driver. Nothing. And so, applying breaks – and the uncontrollable skidding that resulted – remained her only option.
By the time the car came to a halt, the Duikertjie was long gone. At least she had been able to spare one life.
Her head, having connected with the steering wheel, was pounding. She rested it against the offending steering device, to which her hands still clung. For the first time in a year, she felt tears forming at the corners of her eyes. There, in the dark, in a ditch, on a deserted dirt road. She knew she should feel afraid, but all other sensibilities seemed to have taken a back seat. Through her tears, Hannah managed to clock her moonlit surroundings. Lots and lots of nothingness. Dirt road, long grass, bossies and the occasional ant hill.
Suddenly: a light tap on the passenger window.
All her senses sprang into action. She half expected to see a man with an axe, or at least a knife or a gun. (This was South Africa, after all. And it was 11 pm on a Sunday night. And she was a woman alone in a ditch).
Instead, earnest, dark eyes stared at her, or rather, just passed her. Tentatively, she rolled down the window. This could be a trick. Somewhere in the bushes an assailant could be lurking, just waiting for her to let down her window, and more so, her guard.
“Lift, please?” The voice was timid with, perhaps, a hint of desperation.
“Is something wrong?”              
“Baby.”  One hand patted a protruding belly; another obscured chapped lips.
“Okay …” Her mind seemed to freeze over, like a computer, hanging, the mouse cursor icon circling endlessly.
“Lift … to hospital … please.” Suddenly it seemed as though the young woman was breathing through a loudspeaker.
As the significance of the polite request hit home, panic rose inside of her.
“Oh! Uhm, you mean … like … you’re having a baby … uhm … right now?”
The nearest hospital was twenty minutes away! She was not equipped to deliver a baby – not in skills, not in tools and, most definitely, not emotionally.
“Get in,” she said.
The car sputtered once, twice, and then, despite this little promise of life, refused any further commitment. She popped the bonnet, knowing full well that she hadn’t a clue what was going on beneath the lid. There was nothing to be done.
She broke the news to the young woman resting in her passenger seat. The woman hoisted herself up, looking worried, but resigned.
 “Thank you, Ma’am.” 
Slowly, the pregnant woman turned and started down the road, one foot in front of another.
“Wait …” she called, tossing the bag of cutlery on the driver’s seat, just as the woman was about to disappear from view.
Just then, the young woman crouched down.
On the backseat of her little Cuero, she laid out the red shawl she had carefully selected for their only date night in so many months. And there, in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt road in the Eastern Cape, she prepared to become midwife to a young woman with holes in her shoes and braids in her hair.
“What is your name?” she asked, handing the woman some aspirin she had found at the bottom of her handbag, desperately hoping that this would somehow be enough.
“Pleased to meet you, Ntombi. I’m Hannah.”
Hannah spread a beach towel, retrieved from her wardrobe of a boot, over the mother-to-be. She tried to remember all she had read in preparation for her own failed attempt at giving life, exactly one year ago.
“Just relax,” they had told her, “your body will do the work.”
She tried to remember all she had learned in the basic first-aid course she had done at high school. But that was more than twenty years ago now. Most of all, she prayed, as she dabbed some waterless sanitiser – usually reserved for preparing to eat take-out on the run – on her hands.
It was quiet as death all around them, except for the sound of two lost crickets calling out to one another. Hannah became aware of the sound of water rushing somewhere. As she knelt in front of Ntombi, she looked around and noticed, for the first time, a rock formation to their right.
 “A perfect hiding spot,” she thought, and pulled the can of pepper spray, attached to her keys, closer.
Ntombi howled. Hannah could see the top of the baby’s head, but there was nothing she could do, other than wait … and whisper words she hoped were encouraging and soothing.
Each time the mother strained, it seemed like this could be the moment. Each time, it seemed like all the straining had been in vain. This was impossible! How had the human race survived all this time? Ntombi’s cries came in waves, ever faster, each one adding to the panic which Hannah was fighting valiantly to hide.
 “Nothing of that size was ever meant to come through a hole that small,” Hannah thought. She stood up and stretched her legs, resisting the urge to kick a nearby rock.  Just then, as Hannah was about to walk away in frustration, Ntombi cried out again. And, just like that: progress. Hannah did her best to support the tiny head. Of its own accord it turned to the side; after that it was all over fairly quickly.
Hannah picked up the strange, slippery, little creature, instinctively supporting its back and neck and tilting it to allow fluids to drain. For some totally inappropriate reason, all she could think of was draining the fluids from a tin of tuna!
Gently, using an old crumpled, be-lipsticked tissue from her handbag, she wiped away some of the muck from the baby’s face. Then she wrapped the miniature human being in her jersey.
“It’s a boy,” she said, unable to conjure anything more poignant to mark the occasion. 
She began, carefully, to pass the newborn to its mother.
To Hannah’s shock and surprise, Ntombi, shaking her head, turned away. 
Again, the little mouse cursor in Hannah’s brain began swirling. She tried hard not to let her shocked surprise show. What now?
“Don’t you just want to look at him, at least?”
Ntombi shook her head again, a spooked look in her eyes.
“Just hold him … just once …” Hannah tried again, panic rising in her once more.
“For Pete’s sake, this is your child!”
“NO … please.” Vehement head shaking.
Hannah stood there, clutching the baby of another woman, still attached at the navel to its mother. The silence, broken only by soft mewling sounds from the newborn, dragged on for a long time. She looked around at the deserted landscape, searching desperately for answers.
“Why not?” Hannah asked as gently as she could muster, when her brain was functioning again.
No response.
Then, simply, “No money.”  Ntombi ran her hand over her sweat-drenched face.
The umbilical cord had stopped throbbing now. Hannah tied a double-knot around it with a shoelace from her Nikes, carefully balancing the baby in her lap. Then, another one, a few inches from that one.  Between these two points, Hannah positioned a hand-sanitised steak knife from the hastily retrieved cutlery collection on her front seat.
“What about your parents?”
“Mom … dead. Dad … very sick.” Ntombi wilted.
Hannah nodded.
“And I must finish school,” Ntombi declared. Suddenly she seemed to revive a little.
 “Yes, you must.”
Hannah paused. She looked at the doe-like child on her back seat, then down at the unwanted bundle wrapped in her best jersey. Her heart did a strange little two-step. Speeding up, then slowing down, then speeding up again, as she thought about this infant’s life, just beginning.
“How old are you?” Hannah asked, still trying to comprehend.
Hannah let that sink in.
“And what about the baby’s daddy?”
With that, Ntombi’s whole body started shaking: “ …  No good… No good.”
And, just like that, Hannah understood. Holding the baby in one arm, Hannah placed her free hand over the young girl’s.
“I know about men like that. Bad men.”
For the first time, Ntombi looked directly at Hannah.
“Many years ago. When I was about your age, someone … hurt me like that too.”
For a long moment the two women looked at each other, their stories overlapping silently.
Hannah reminded herself that there aren’t any nerve endings in the umbilical cord.
And then she separated the newborn from its mother.  It was not easy. The cord was slippery and rubbery and tough. But she did it.
Right then a set of far-off headlights became visible.  Hannah thought she recognised the hum of the diesel engine as that belonging to Shane. Of course. With all that had happened between the two of them, he had never given up on her. He had always found her, amidst all her hang-ups.
Once more, she looked down at the baby in her arms. She would try once more to talk to Ntombi. She turned. The back seat was empty.
Hannah stared down the road for a long time, but found no answers.
She wondered what kind of a life lay ahead for this helpless little bundle. What kind of future. She wondered about his HIV-status. And, then, right there, she decided that she didn’t care. If necessary, she would handle such matters.
A few metres from her Cuero, the bakkie’s engine cut out. Hannah walked over to it: tired, bloody and dirty, but peaceful for the first time in a year … perhaps twenty ...
She leaned through the open window.
“You’re right. I don’t need those spoons.” She smiled sheepishly.
Shane smiled back, pulled on one of her escaped curls teasingly and watched as it bounced back.
Slowly Hannah unfolded the jersey.  Tiny, pinched features peeked out.
“Meet Moses.”
The two lost crickets seemed to have been joined by a full chorus now.
“Right. Perhaps it’s time we started talking,” he said, eyes wide.
They burst into laughter and embraced, the baby cocooned between them.
From behind a nearby rock formation, a young girl smiled. Smiled … and turned away.



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