A New Life - by Grant Griffiths
It was firstly to Aunty Maurida, a formidable midwife, counselor and advice-giver, that the women from the Wynberg Pentecostal Church turned when in trouble of any kind. Her insights were mostly spot-on. Ma sent Jolene to her.
Aunty Maurida stared incredulously at the slim, plain girl in her early twenties seated in her tiny sitting room.
“You think having another baby is going to make your husband happy again?”
Trust Ma, she had said too much as usual. But Jolene had made up her mind. She did not doubt the joy their first baby had brought Cliffie. She remembered it well.
“Ma said you’d help to work out when I can fall pregnant…You know, the days when I’m most likely to. That’s why I’m here.”
“Of course, no problem, I can help you.” Aunty Maurida smiled generously, then leaned forward with a finger pointing at her breasts, her sing-song voice continuing: “But listen, this aunty has seen a few things in her time, ne`, especially when it comes to men. If you want to talk, I’m here. Don’t leave things too late, like all these other girls with their babies round their legs, their men God knows where.” She stared at Jolene with a sudden intensity. Her voice was softer when she next spoke. “My dear, if you have marriage problems, another baby is not going to help.”
Jolene bristled protectively, but she spoke quietly. “I don’t have marriage problems, Aunty Maurida, please.”
Later, the big woman sent her off down the street with a hug and a playful pat on her tummy. “As soon as you think it’s happened phone me, okay, I’m waiting.”
Jolene had always been plain and homely, less attractive and outgoing than some of the louder women in the neighbourhood. But she had learned from her ma how to turn this into a good thing, working hard to keep the little semi-detached house clean, their child neat and fed, and her husband proud.
Tomorrow Cliffie would be going away for three weeks on the trawler up the West Coast. The boxes of food and worn canvas bag of clothes stood on the kitchen table, ready for him. Now, with little Dillon asleep after his supper, she checked once more the dates that Aunty Maurida had worked out for her, brushed her teeth, tied back her straight black hair, then sat waiting with a magazine by the window. He wouldn’t be late tonight because of the early morning start. Shortly after nine, the gate swung suddenly open and a hunched figure walked slowly up to the front door.
“Not in bed yet?” he said, pausing in the open doorway.
She went to him and put her arms around him, tight, pressing her head to his chest. Then she looked earnestly into his clouded eyes.
“Tomorrow you’re gone, baby, I’m going to miss you.” Her tenderness touched him, and he softened, following her willingly into the bedroom without a word.
The next morning she rose at four to prepare his breakfast, steaming oats with sugar and milk, bread and jam, and a mug of coffee. There was little conversation after the night before. He ate quickly, asking once whether she had remembered to pack his CD player. At the door he pecked her on the cheek, a quick goodbye, then he was gone.
Nearly three weeks later, the day before Cliffie’s ship was due back in Cape Town harbour, Jolene stood inside the cubicle of the public toilets on the east side of Wynberg station, her hand over her mouth. “Thank you God, thank you, thank you God, oh thank you,” she mumbled breathlessly. Again she held up the test kit, just purchased. Sure enough, two fat lines appeared side by side in the little window. She grabbed the instructions from off the tiles at her feet and read them again. Yes, if two fat lines appeared in the little window side by side, then…then she was pregnant! Ag, there was a small chance that she was not, but…
She quickly wrapped the test kit in some toilet paper, placing it inside her jacket pocket, before exiting into the shoppers and loiterers mingling outside the cheap shops that led up to the station. None of the pay phones in the rank of vandalized telephones worked and she had to hurry round the corner to the shabby internet café.
Aunty Maurida answered immediately, her loud, friendly voice welcoming after three weeks of anxious waiting. “I’m just making tea, I’ve got some lekka koeksisters left over from church on Sunday. Did you get some? No? Then what are you waiting for, my dear?”
Jolene paused on the steps of the internet café. Raised as she was above the street level, she could look over the heads of the people walking past, the familiar beggars and wannabe skollies, over the broken-down garden of the dirty house on the other side of the street, beyond the hemmed-in confines of the squat, squalid flats to the sprawling range of mountains beyond, majestic and solid, grand and certain, pure and pristine. Sjoe, but it is beautiful, she thought, with a sudden recognition that life is good and wonderful and full of promise.
As she hesitated for those few moments, her thoughts switched unaccountably to the Chinese R5 shop just on the other side of the train line, through the subway, where recently she’d gone to look for some plastic kitchen containers, but instead had spotted the dirt-cheap babygros and blankets piled at the back.
She could go later, no rush, she was anyway closer to Aunty Maurida’s place. But the irresistible lure of those mountains, the bulge of the test kit in her pocket beneath her fingers, the rush of joy in her heart…just three minutes, that’s all it would take!
The quality was poor, she could see that. Holding it up to the light, you could easily see how transparent it was. It would wear through in a couple of washes.
“My goodness!” a voice intruded loudly into her thoughts. “Jolene…is that you?” A hand clutched her arm and then Mollie Arendse’s painted face thrust itself into view. “My jenna, to think our husbands work on the same boat and we never see each other, except bumping into each other like this!” She spotted the babygro in Jolene’s hands and drew in her breath sharply, her red mouth round like a small port hole, her painted eyebrows floating high like two curved sails.
“NO…a baby? You? Don’t tell me! When?”
Jolene was acutely aware of people nearby turning to stare in their direction. “I’m not really sure,” she said, and immediately regretted it. “I must go, I have an appointment…It’s so nice seeing you again.”
But Mollie’s long fingers seized her arm tightly, and she leaned forward confidingly. “And Cliffie, what does he think about it? Happy to be a daddy again, hey, the busy boy?”
Jolene dropped the babygro back into its rack and said, a little too defensively, “The boat’s only back tomorrow, you know that.” Then she smiled, preparing to leave. But the abrupt change in Mollie’s expression stopped her short. The woman’s eyes were suddenly vague, her brows knitted in puzzlement. As she stared in growing wonder at Jolene, eyes widening, she slowly raised her fingers to her mouth to stifle a low moan.
Jolene stared fearfully at her. “What’s wrong?”
Mollie spoke softly through her fingers. “But the boat mos came back early, yesterday morning already, like it sometimes does. Everybody went home, I picked up Johnny myself from the harbour…”
Aunty Maurida put the plate of koeksisters on the small, low table between them, but she could tell that the young woman would not be eating any. She nibbled one herself for a while, then put it down carefully, took Jolene by the hand and led her through to a tiny room off the sitting room. Originally the room must have been the dining room, but now it was white and clean with posters and charts on the wall, a bed by the window and two chairs beside a small metal cabinet, the kind you see next to hospital beds. Aunty Maurida picked up something from a little jar and put it in the palm of Jolene’s hand. It was a grain of rice.
Aunty Maurida smiled beautifully. “That’s your baby, my dear. Just that size, that’s all. But look here, see this.” She pointed at a chart on the wall above the cabinet. When she spoke, her voice was reverent and full of wonder. “The embryo’s just a flat disc, like a small piece of paper, but right now it’s folded over to make a tube, like this.” She held up her right hand, fingers curved, and blew through them. “And the little brain, heart and the whole nervous system is being slowly lowered into the tube, just like this.” She inserted the index finger of her left hand into the curved tube of the right. Her eyes sparkled. “Now don’t anyone tell me there is no God!”
Then she touched her curved hand lightly in different spots as she spoke. “Little dots on the tube show where the eyes, nose and mouth will be, and over here, tiny bumps which will be the arms and legs. Already the heart is beating. Everything is in place, my dear, a new life growing inside you. It’s a miracle!”
They sat down in the two chairs. “Jolene,” she said gently, “You must talk to me, my dear, it isn’t good to keep things in like this, especially with the baby.”
Jolene sighed, suddenly grateful for the kindness offered her. For too long she had been too scared to acknowledge the problem, but now she could no longer carry it alone.
“It’s Cliffie,” she said weakly, “Something’s wrong with him.”
With great difficulty she tried to put into words the things she had come to silently dread. His growing anger, the accusations of control, the drinking and the late nights, the lack of love-making. She poured it out as best she could in painful stops and starts. The older woman rose and put her warm, heavy arms around her.
“My dear, men are complex creatures and they don’t even understand themselves. Your man is needing to grow up, but he doesn’t know how. He is just a big boy thinking that you, like his mother before, is blocking his way.” She held her curved hand to an eye, winking through the hollow. “God will help us to put things into place, exactly where they should go.”
The little semi-detached cottage on Gosport Road was not especially tidy the next morning. Breakfast plates stood in the sink, a used pot waited on the stove top. Some of Dillon’s toys lay on the rug in the sitting room where he had left them when Ma fetched him earlier.
Jolene put two koeksisters on a plate in the middle of the kitchen table and covered them with a doilie to keep the flies off. Beside it, Cliffie’s favourite mug waited with coffee, sugar and milk powder already mixed, just needing hot water.
In the bedroom Jolene put the test kit, together with the instruction paper, on top of Cliffie’s pillow and, underneath, a large Cadbury’s Top Deck. Then she locked the front door, dropped the keys in the letterbox, and pulled the suitcase behind her through the gate.