Writings / Fiction

The Letter

Dawn Promislow

It was in the days when I worked at the hotel. I had a partner. Rose was my partner. Our shift started at 8, and I had to leave the house at 6. In the winter months, it was still dark. I liked it because it was quiet still, in the morning. The children were sleeping. There were a lot of us in the house those days. My husband was in Diepkloof, at the mine hostel. I had the four children, my mother, my sister-in-law, her three children. All in the two rooms. That’s how it was.

But it was a good job I had in the hotel. It was regular, the pay was better than before, how it was in Athol. And no boss lady to fight with. You know. So I used to get up, drink my tea, and go. I could smell the coalfires from the night before, and I still needed my cardigan, even in summer, because of the early morning cold. I would hurry along the path to my first bus. There’d be a line already, a long line. In those days the buses were very bad. Sometimes the bus didn’t come at all, and then I would walk, to the station for Orlando West. The second bus was even more crowded. I was happy when I got to Rissik Street, and the sun was coming up now, and I could see the hotel – stretching up to the sky in front of me. It’s a skyscraper: you know it. Johannesburg’s first five star hotel. That’s what they said.

I think Rose had the same journey to get to work as I did because she also lived in Soweto. But I never saw her, not on the first bus, not at the bus station, and not on the second bus. Not even on the walk along Rissik Street. I used to look for her. There were many commuters, I suppose that’s why I didn’t see her. Walking, everyone walking, going into Jo’burg to work.

Rose had only her boy at home. We used to joke about that, because I was always complaining about my sister-in-law and her children in our house. My sister-in-law’s husband was working those days in Pietersburg. What a racket there was in the house, and my sister-in-law cheeky and getting on my nerves. Oh, she got on my nerves, alright. Lucky she moved out a few years after that, when she found that other man. In the meantime I had to manage with her. You know how it was. But Rose at her house, there was just her and her boy. He was twelve years old the time I met Rose. That was in 1972, I remember, because that was the year I got the job in the hotel.

Rose told me her husband had long gone, and good riddance. That’s what she said: good riddance. She said he was no good. She said he was lazy, no job ever, and drinking a lot. She told me he threw a bottle one time inside the house, and shouting, shouting. After all the broken glass, and then the boy crying, he went out, slamming the door something terrible. The whole house shook, she told me. And cursing and cursing something terrible. And he never came back again.

So she had a hard job on her own, raising the boy. Bringing him up on her own. But the boy was completely different from his father. Thanks to God about that, Rose said. Thanks to God. He looks like his father, she said, same dark colour. And same tall and thin. But other than that, it’s night and day. So Rose said. Night and day. Her boy was a good boy. A serious boy. And good in school! That was the best part. Rose was so proud of that. When the report card came home, oh, Rose used to tell me all the marks. A+ in arithmetic, A+ in English, even A+ in Afrikaans, that nobody wants to learn. My children - my children didn’t get many report cards. You remember how it was. Even with my mother in the house, and my sister-in-law, the children didn’t go so much to school. My sister-in-law, she pays no attention to children and school. She’s busy, busy talking, talking. Always talking. And worrying about some man that she saw at the Indian’s shop on the corner. No-good ones also. You know how they hang around there. Just hanging around doing nothing. And she’s always got trouble with jobs. Doesn’t like this job, doesn’t like that job. So her children mostly running, running in the path back there, no shoes, nothing. My children mostly the same, with no-one properly to watch. It pains me to say it, but it’s true. That’s how it was.

But Rose’s boy. Rose’s boy was different. Rose always worried about him. She worried that he should have shoes for school. A boy must have shoes for school, she said. To show he’s serious. That’s what she said. And him growing so fast, Rose was always buying him shoes. She found a shop on Rissik Street. I think the man gave her a good bargain on the black school shoes, because he saw her coming every six months, worried and worried about the shoes.

And another thing, the boy went to church with Rose on Sundays. My children, you can’t make them darken that door of church on Sundays – never. But Rose’s boy came. He would sit with her in the benches, listening to the priest. All what the priest said, he listened. Rose also listened I think to everything that priest said. Me – I don’t listen so much to what the white priest says. Because what does he know. You know? What does he know? And telling us always to be good, to be godly, then good will come. I stopped believing him long time ago. But Rose – I think Rose believed him. That’s why Rose always cleaning, sweeping her house also. She told me when she comes home from work she starts sweeping up, cleaning up. And ironing the boy’s school shirts. I would be thinking of her doing that, you know. When I was at home with the racket and my sister-in-law arguing with everyone, I would think of Rose in her house, sweeping up everything for her boy, setting out his bread for the morning, when she would be long gone to the hotel. She heard that priest say cleanliness is next to godliness – because I heard him say that once. But I don’t believe that. I don’t see much godliness, so I don’t believe him any more, that priest. But that was me, and Rose was Rose.

So Rose was always telling me the boy’s going to finish his schooling. He’s going to be a schoolteacher one day. That’s what she told me. I was happy for her. I was happy because we need more schoolteachers in Soweto. Of course. So I was happy about that, and I was happy to hear about the boy.

In the meantime, me and Rose started work at 8 each day. We’d change into our uniforms in the basement laundry of the hotel. The uniform was dark blue, and it said “Carlton Hotel” in white letters on the shoulder. We looked smart. We’d take the uniforms from the folded stack (there was another whole shift of cleaners, the launderers, who had to keep the tunics stacked in clean piles every day). It was quite a hotel. You’ve seen it, up in the sky there: it’s got thirty floors. A five star hotel. Oh, they were always telling us that, at the hotel. Five star this, five star that. Service this, service that. You could get tired of hearing that, you know.

About The Author


Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was a schoolgirl in the city’s segregated white suburbs in 1976, when the events of this story take place. She has lived in Toronto since 1987, where she works in magazine journalism and where she has been completing the writing of a collection of short stories. The Letter is the first of these stories to be published.

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