Gordon Rivers had a rather awkward problem. He was stuck on the toilet. He blamed his children, as most parents should. It was they who insisted he replace it. They didn’t like the way his old one flushed. Claimed it was wasting water. So environmentally conscious these days. He wondered if they’d ever considered the environmental impact of tossing out a perfectly adequate toilet?
He gazed down at the smooth, bright white seat, whose fancy rectangular shape had his cheeks firmly grasped. This never would have occurred with the original. Yes, the old wide bowl had been a bit stained and chipped. But he hadn’t given two figs. Wasn’t like he’d spent quality time gazing at it.
“Dad, this seat is going to kill somebody if you don’t replace it,” one of his children had said on an infrequent visit from overseas. He never understood why it mattered to either of them. But they had gotten the idea into Rebecca’s head, and she sorted it out on their behalf. His housekeeper had forgotten she was supposed to side with him.
In the meantime, he was bored and full of cramp and ache. He hadn’t meant to come down onto the seat crooked. He’d slipped a bit.
It was the stroke. Everybody told him how “remarkable” it was that he had gained back so much movement on his right side. “A miracle at your age,” his doctor claimed. His children, who flew over during the whole affair, kept giving him these condescending Cheshire-cat grins. “Isn’t it great? You’re doing so well!”
Gordon did not agree. It was blatantly obvious to anybody that wasn’t under the spell of Polly-bloody-Anna that he had been a much fitter and happier person pre-stroke. Pre-stroke, he never would have gotten stuck on the toilet, even on this misshapen model. Pre-stroke, he had walked like any other human. Now he shuffled and had to wear underwear that was an ill-disguised nappy. Undignified. If both his arms worked like they should have, he could have freed himself, but the right one was near useless. His wife had always insisted his handwriting was illegible. Well, she should see it now that he wrote with his left.
He glanced down at his naked wrist and, not for the first time today, wished he’d put on his watch. But it was so much trouble these days to get it on and, well, that was that. Now he was left listening for Pumla’s daughter, Thobeka, who came home at 2:30pm. Child was so precise you could set your clock to the sound of her key sliding into the lock.
Pumla and Thobeka were the result of his children’s interference. Fortunately, they were working out better than the toilet. After his stroke, his children began ringing up nursing homes. Well, he’d put a stop to that. Rebecca had offered to quit her other jobs and come to work for him full-time, a plan he’d thought was more than satisfactory. His children had disagreed. “But what about nights?”
“Maybe offer one of those Constantia Hospital nurses free room and board with a bit of wage? Most can’t afford to live anywhere near here,” Rebecca said.
His children loved the idea. He was less enthusiastic, but it was better than a nursing home. So an ad was placed. The reply to the query was overwhelming.
Gordon had imagined a mature, matronly sort of woman. The type of woman who was settled, children grown, content to spend her free time quietly. The sort of person who liked to read, and maybe knit. A person who wouldn’t be a bother, or interfere. After about twenty interviews, he met such a person. She was a fifty-something white woman, widowed, hair streaked with grey, both her children now living in England. Didn’t seem the most cheerful of persons, but she would do.
“May as well hire her,” Gordon said.
But Rebecca was insistent that they meet the final applicant, “Don’t want to insult anybody. Besides, you never know.”
The final applicant was Pumla, a strong, tall, black woman, not yet in her thirties, with high cheekbones and a daughter – a daughter whose arms and legs tangled together like a newborn colt. Pumla’s face was filled with defiance as she strode across the room. She sat herself down directly across from Gordon and took a breath. “I’m not married. But I am a good nurse and have solid references. I am raising my daughter on my own. She needs to go to a better school. That is why we are here.”
Rebecca cleared her throat. “I believe Mr Rivers was looking for more…”
“Do you read?” he asked the child, whose wide eyes had been fixed on him since she walked in.
The child nodded.
“At home? Every day?”
The child nodded, causing the little blue bows dotted through her hair to shake. For some reason they reminded him of bells. The line from that old Jimmy Stewart movie drifted through his head.
“What kind of books do you read?”
The mother opened her big tote bag and handed Gordon a book. He accepted the dog-eared paperback, which had a piece of blue ribbon poking out two-thirds of the way. The Hobbit. Gordon approved.
He turned his attention back to Pumla, returning the book. She said, “Well, is that good enough? Or are you just humouring me? Waiting until we leave so you can phone that old white sister you met just before us?”
Gordon’s mouth had opened and then closed right back up. It had nothing to do with them being black. Nothing. She was young, had a daughter. The other candidate was the right age, and alone. Those were the facts. She should be able to see that. And shouldn’t she be worried about having a daughter living with an old man like him? Not that he was a dirty old man, of course not. He was… oh heavens, why was he even having this mental debate?
“We’ll be in touch,” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “I know how it is.”
How what is? But before he could inquire, Rebecca was escorting the pair out. Door shut, his housekeeper said, “Well, it’s clear who you need to hire.”
He nodded. “Then again, the last woman has more energy than any of the others.”
“You know hiring her means feeding the daughter too? It would cost you more.”
He thought of the skinny little thing and then of the big hefty white sister, and shook his head. Frankly, out of all the applicants, the child had seemed the quietest. The child’s mother, however, was a bit… intimidating. I know how it is. But her daughter liked to read. Might be nice to have some company, quiet company, on the days Rebecca was off and the nurse was at work. Maybe.
I know how it is.
Well, it wasn’t.
“Sounds fine,” Pumla had said when he phoned with the job offer. Never once did she say thank you. Never once did she act surprised. Never once did she say, “Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe I don’t know how it is.”
Gordon looked at the ceiling of his bathroom and sighed. An eternity later, he heard the sound of the key sliding into the lock. “Thobeka? Thobeka, I need you to phone your mother.”
The child hardly spoke. Her first report from the new school glowed with good marks. But there was one complaint: “Not speaking in class. Lack of participation could hold this learner back in the future.”
A few minutes later there was a knock.
The door cracked open. He waited. Silence.
“Thobeka, I’m stuck on the toilet. Please let your mama know. Thank you, dear.”
The door clicked shut. He heard footsteps walk away.
Then the footsteps returned. The door cracked open. In a whisper, “Mama wants to know if you’re in pain, or if you could wait another thirty minutes until her shift is over?”
Gordon took a breath. He ached. But he didn’t want to be a bother. Pumla’s full-time job was what made her affordable in the first place. “Tell her I’ll wait.”
The door shut. The footsteps pattered away.
As soon as she left, pain shot up his side. He wished he had something to distract himself, a newspaper or something. But would it be right to ask the child to try to toss something in? Would he even be able to catch it? He was so stiff. So cold.
“Would you like me to read to you?”
He glanced back at the door. It was still shut. He hadn’t even heard the child’s footsteps. “Yes, that’s a lovely idea. Yes, thank you.”
“I’m still reading The Two Towers.”
He heard the child settle herself against the wall outside the bathroom. Soon her small voice filtered into the room. He had never heard her speak so loud, yet his ears still strained. She had been reading to him for half an hour a day since the first report card. He had approached Pumla with his plan already rehearsed. “My eyes are getting tired, and I miss the stories,” he had said. “If Thobeka is agreeable, I’ll give her R20 a week as pocket money.”
She had nodded. “It would be good for the child to learn the importance of work and money.”
It had bothered him that he could not come right out and address the real issue. But Rebecca had taken Pumla’s side when he had lamented the mother’s defensiveness where her child was concerned. “I know you mean well, but it gets old having white people think they know best for everybody else.”
“Do you feel I’ve done that to you?”
Rebecca had tilted her head back and laughed. She laughed and laughed, picking up her mop and taking it and her laughter out of the room without answering.
First week, Thobeka’s reading was so quiet he couldn’t hear distinct words. By the second week, he realised that while the child could read, she read the English words exactly as they were spelt. Easy, he warned himself each time he corrected her. Easy. He didn’t want to scare her. Child was so shy. Nor did he want to put out the light that shone in those eyes when she read. And every time he put that R20 in her hand, the light from those eyes spread across her face; it made his heart warm.
Pumla let the child keep half to spend. The other half went into a piggybank. “Mama says I’ll need it to go to varsity someday.”
Gordon felt his heart lurch. Such innocence. Such hope. Perhaps that was why he found himself buying the child a book. Alice in Wonderland. On the inside cover he had written, “Thobeka, happy un-birthday,” and the day’s date. The child had been so delighted that it became a habit. Every month a new book, the inscription the same.
Unfortunately, he had neglected to couch this act towards the child as a favour to himself.
“My daughter is not a charity case. She can check out as many books as she wants from the library. I am not raising her to believe she needs to look to whites for hand-outs.”
An image flashed through Gordon’s head of the last time he had tipped a man on the street. “Dankie, baas,” the man had said, hands cupped together, head bowed.
That wasn’t what he had meant at all. He had wanted to say that a library book is not the same as owning your own book. Libraries were glorious things, but to have the ability to revisit your friends whenever you wished – that was magic. But the look in Pumla’s eyes had Gordon swallowing the words and finding others.
“Pumla, I’m an old man with no grandchildren. Seeing your daughter read brings me happiness. Please, let me share the books I love.”
A smile tugged at the edges of her mouth. He smiled too.
“If it makes you happy, I suppose it’s fine.”
He hadn’t lied, exactly. These were the books he had yearned to someday share with a grandchild. He would probably never have the chance. Neither of his children were married nor looked likely to be so. Not that marriage was necessary, of course. But his children were not the sort to simply have babies. As much as it pained him, they were the sort to have such a situation “taken care of.” But they were doing well. Kept in touch. He printed out their emails, filing them in a folder. In the grand scope of things, lack of grandchildren was a rather small and selfish complaint.
The sound of the front door brought Thobeka’s reading to a halt. Soon chatter between mother and daughter drifted towards his ears. While he didn’t understand a word of it, their voices carried a melody that soothed. He waited. A knock. “Mr Rivers, may I enter?”
He glanced around to see if there was a towel within reach to cover himself, but just as there hadn’t been one when he first began to shiver, there wasn’t one now. He’d have to welcome Pumla as he was, trousers around his ankles. “Yes, please do.”
She entered, still wearing her uniform. Somehow that made it a bit better. Not much, but a smidgen. Gordon cleared his throat, “As you can see, I’m afraid I’ve got myself into a bit of jam.”
She eyed him carefully, as if assessing the situation. “Can you move your legs at all?”
He attempted to move his limbs but they felt as dead as his arm. “I think they’ve gone to sleep.”
She nodded. “I’ll be back now-now.”
On the other side of the door, he could hear her say something to her daughter. Then the sound of the small feet scampering away. A door closing. The sound of somebody returning.
A knock. Pumla entered with a dining room chair. She set it near the toilet. She put her strong arms around him, and gently lifted him onto the chair. Keeping a steady hand on him, she asked, “How does that feel?”
“Well, I’m not sure. I’m… ah. I’m glad not to be on that toilet any longer.”
“Are you in any pain?” Her grip on him eased and he struggled to hold himself upright. His legs didn’t seem to be working. “I’m going to look you over to check for injury.”
He stared over her shoulder, shriveling under her gaze, as she examined him. Then he felt a towel being tucked around his exposed body. Relief and gratitude enveloped him.
“We can wait a few minutes and then we’ll see if you are ready to make it back to your bedroom, hey?”
So he sat there, with Pumla standing next to him, keeping a firm hand on his shoulder. The silence was bothersome.
“Want to try standing?”
Her strong arms supported him as he eased out of the chair. She sorted out his clothes. “Lean on me,” she said, and slowly, with her bracing support, the pair began to shuffle. Ssss, step, sss, step, sss, step, sss…
She tucked him into bed. He was amazed at how tired he was from doing nothing but sitting all day. She left the room and came back with a tray bearing a mug of strong Ceylon tea, cheese, biscuits and Marmite. There was a small orange on the side, peeled.
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s a pleasure.”
“No, thank you for coming.”
“As I said, it’s a pleasure,” and then she smiled. “And it’s my job.”
“All the same, thank you.”
Gordon sighed, and let his head fall heavily back into the pillows. He watched the strong, tall woman with the high cheekbones begin to make her way out of the room. She stopped. Her shoulders softened. “Would you like Thobeka to come sit and read to you some more?”
He lifted his head. “That would be lovely.”
She made to leave, then paused, hand hovering over the doorknob. “By the way, I thank you for helping my daughter with her school work.”
Gordon smiled. “The pleasure is all mine.”