But I suddenly remembered how it was when I first came here. I knew the town from the times I had come with my father on his truck, to get farm supplies at the wholesaler, and general supplies at Kriegler’s. We used to come every week. I would see the girls going to the bioscope – I’d never been to the bioscope.
When I moved here I got a room in the Venters’ house. They were an old couple, he was retired from his job at the post office, and their children had moved away, to the city I suppose. I got a job at Kriegler’s shop, working the cash. It paid enough for me to cover my rent, and to go to the bioscope with Connie on Saturdays. I could afford to have my hair set at the hairdresser’s too, and I sew, so when I wanted something fresh I would go into Mrs. Hannepoort’s for a few yards of fabric, and make something on my mother’s sewing machine, which stood in a corner of my room, under the window.
The job at Kriegler’s was alright. I used to hope that one day a handsome man would come into the shop, and sweep me off my feet, as Connie used to say, and marry me, and maybe we’d go and live in a real city – not Jo’burg, I couldn’t imagine that, but maybe a town with pretty houses and white fences, and more shops than we have here. Connie always hoped that would happen to her too, and we did a lot of planning, me and Connie. Connie’s gone now, she got married – although to a farmer – and she lives not far from here. She invites me for lunch on Sundays, her husband picks me up in his truck, and I visit and bring a little something for her kids.
I, well, I’m not married yet. I don’t live at the Venters any more, and I work nowadays for Mrs. Hannepoort. Mrs. Hannepoort always tells me how lucky she is to have me, because I have an eye for colour and style, that’s what she tells me. I do alterations on the dresses, and we are busy most of the time. Connie herself comes in from her farm and has dresses made, and some of her neighbours do too. Mrs. Hannepoort makes hats as well, which the older ladies like to wear for church.
But I’ll tell you what happened when I worked at Kriegler’s, because I think about it. I think about it far more than I’d like. I’m not really sure why I think about it, because it had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t even about old Mr. Kriegler, who retired soon after then anyway.
It began one hot afternoon. I was alone at the cash, at the front of the shop. It was a dark and dusty shop, Mr. Kriegler really should’ve cleaned it up. There were no customers and I was reading my magazine. That’s how it was in the afternoons. Lunch-hour it was busier, then the natives came in, bought some stuff that they needed: soap, tobacco, some blankets we had.
I looked up – that day - to see a man standing in the light of the doorway. He was thin; I could see his silhouette. He walked into the shop. He was one of the natives, except I noticed right away he had city clothes on. He wore long pants and a shirt: worn, shabby, but from the city. He was carrying a bundle. D’you have a job ma’am, he said. And the thing was, that morning Mr. Kriegler had said to me Anneline I need a boy in packing, if someone’s looking for a job. So I told him to come back at five o’clock to see Mr. Kriegler. And out he went, into the hot sun. I could see his silhouette again, thin, dark against the bright light of the doorway.
I carried on reading my magazine. It was so hot, even inside the shop. I had to get the fly swatter also because I don’t know what it is, the flies always come in the afternoon heat.
At five o’clock he came back. He was punctual. Mr. Kriegler was busy at the back, and I was busier now too. My magazine was folded in my bag. I was ringing up the cash. Mrs. Botha was in getting some soap and her other weeklies and she was going on about the church and the new dominee that we had. I was nodding and agreeing, to be polite. She goes on and on: I wasn’t listening at all, and I told the boy – he said his name was Philemon - wait I’ll call Mr. Kriegler.
He waited at the door. I had to call Mr. Kriegler three times – he doesn’t care if he keeps people waiting. Certainly not a native, in any case. I think Philemon eventually went outside, because I saw that dark thin silhouette again in the bright, square doorway. And there’s something funny: every once in a while I dream, even these days, of that silhouette. I don’t have many dreams. I dream of my mother, of her kneading and kneading bread in the kitchen on the farm. I dream of the thumping sound of the dough on the counter, as she kneaded, then lifted and pounded it down again. I dream of the thorn tree – brown – in the drought, that was the only tree for miles and miles, on our farm. I have another dream now too, but I’m getting to that.
Mr. Kriegler came to the front of the shop at last. He took one look at Philemon. He makes fast decisions, that’s how Mr. Kriegler is. Let’s see your pass, boy, he said. He said it in Afrikaans, which is what we speak here, and I could see right away that Afrikaans was not the boy’s language. I mean, I think English was his language. Not his own language – of course not. But he answered quick I saw again, in Afrikaans. Ja, alles goed met die paas. Even Mr. Kriegler could see then he was an English one, because Mr. Kriegler switched to English after that.
So Mr. Kriegler took Philemon into packing and that was that. We had three boys in packing. They had to unload the trucks at the back when they came with supplies, and stock the shelves. I used to see the three of them sitting on boxes outside at lunchtime. Philemon was with them, I saw after that first day. He was quieter than the others, because he was new I suppose, but maybe because he spoke a different language, I don’t know. A couple of times I saw him smoking a cigarette, standing in the yard at the back, in the shade of the roof.
He did his work, that’s all I cared about. He carried the crates, he packed properly, he wasn’t cheeky either. You know. After a few weeks Mr. Kriegler told me he was putting Philemon in charge of the other two packers, and Philemon had to fill in the forms now, checking off the deliveries. Mr. Kriegler could see he was clever, I suppose. So at the end of each day Philemon had to come and give me the forms that he’d filled in, and I had to file them away in the drawer under my counter.
One day I said to Philemon, d’you come from Jo’burg or what. I think he didn’t like that question - maybe he was shy – because he frowned and shook his head. No ma’am, Vereeniging, he said, and he carried on filling in the form, checking off the list with his pen. But I liked him, he did his job, he kept to himself, so I said in a joke, hey you look like you come from Jo’burg, and you speak proper English – I heard you. That’s what I said to him. No ma’am, Vereeniging, just Vereeniging I told you. He put the form on my counter and went to the back again. And then I wondered why he would have come here from Vereeniging, which is a bigger town than ours. We only get people from the farms here. We’re off the main Free State road, but nobody comes here for work unless they’re born here, or they come from a farm, like I do.
I would see the boys from the shop walking home from work, as I walked home to the Venters. Bye ma’am bye ma’am they’d say. They had a long walk, to the Location. I had seen the road they had to take. Just a long, straight road in the hot sun. I was sure it would take an hour, that’s what I thought. I saw the corrugated iron roofs of the Location once when I went with Mr. Kriegler in his truck. The roofs caught the rays of the sun. I had to shade my eyes.
When I came home from work, Mrs. Venter was sometimes in her garden. She had a hedge that she cut with a big clipper. Other times I’d see her hanging up her sheets on the line. She was getting old. I could see she was having trouble stretching up and hanging the sheets straight. I’d help her if I was there, and she was very pleased about that. Oh Anneline, thank you, thank you, what would I do without you, that’s what she’d say. Mr. Venter was usually sitting on a chair on the stoep, smoking his pipe.
And then the Friday business started. Every Friday afternoon I went to the hairdresser and had my hair done. I used to try and keep the fashions – I followed them in my magazine. I used to cut out sewing patterns as well, and read the recipes, although I’ve never cooked much. Connie was always on at me about keeping up, and in those days it was the beehive hairdo, so Connie and I both had one of those. Mr. Kriegler used to joke with me about looking beautiful and finding a husband, and he told me to go to the hairdresser - he’d cover for me at the cash. He said it was good for business in any case for him to see what went on at the front. He’d wave me off, as he settled himself at the till.
One Friday Mr. Kriegler told me Philemon was going to work at the cash and fill in for me while I was gone. Mr. Kriegler was going to show him the till, and then Philemon would do it. I didn’t think that was a good idea at all. What would someone like Mrs. Botha say if she came in for her shopping, or even just to say hello to Mr. Kriegler, and there was a native working at the cash? I told Mr. Kriegler this. Ah, he said, that’s ridiculous, I’m not worried about Mrs. Botha. But usually he was very worried about Mrs. Botha, very polite to her, Mrs. Botha this, Mrs. Botha that, telling me about good service to the customers and all that. It’s only an hour you’re gone, he said, and Philemon can do the job. He’s good with numbers. That’s what Mr. Kriegler said. If you ask me, Mr. Kriegler just he thought it was easier for him if he didn’t have to sit at the cash, and Philemon would sit there and maybe Mrs. Botha wouldn’t even come in then and notice. That’s what I think was in Mr. Kriegler’s mind. Because mostly Mr. Kriegler just wanted everything running smoothly in his shop, that’s how he was.
But it’s true about Philemon being good with numbers, because when I came back from the hairdresser I checked the cash and the receipts and all, and everything was perfect, just as if I had done it. After a few weeks of that I stopped checking altogether, and would just read my magazine when I came back.
One time I came back and saw Philemon had left a newspaper folded on the counter. I like my counter clean and clear, he was supposed to leave nothing there. And which newspaper was he reading, do you think? Because when I unfolded it I saw it was the English newspaper. And I’ve hardly ever seen that English newspaper in our town. I’ve seen some English people carrying it around, and I suppose Mr. Kriegler reads it in his house where he lives with his wife, because he speaks English, but that’s all.
Another time I saw Philemon reading that paper in the yard at the back. I said to him, trying to joke with him again, what’s going on in Jo’burg Philemon? What’s news in Jo’burg? He didn’t like that question because he said, oh nothing, the usual. Then he folded up the newspaper and walked away.
Was Philemon married? How should I know? He walked home to the Location at six o’clock, and that’s all I know about that. Next morning at eight o’clock sharp he was there at the shop with the other boys.
But I’ll tell you what happened. One afternoon it was. The same kind of afternoon as when Philemon first arrived. Hot. I was fanning myself with my magazine. I was drinking from a bottle of Coke, that’s how hot it was. Because usually I don’t drink Coke. I said to Mr. Kriegler can I buy a Coke at the front from the fridge. Just take it, he said, write a note in the till. The bottle had beads of cold water on it.
The boys at the back were quiet, they were probably sitting on the crates having a break. Mr. Kriegler was in his office. He was usually on the phone in the afternoons, talking to his suppliers. He waved me away once, when I went to him with a question. He had to get his orders in.
I was up on my stool. Suddenly the bright square of the doorway was filled. I saw right away it was a policeman: his large shape and his police cap were silhouetted against the light. He walked in slowly and looked around. He saw me, and nodded. All polite. Goeie middag, Mevrou. Good afternoon, Madam. Middag meneer, I said. Afternoon, sir. He looked around again, and shifted his feet. Where’re your packing boys? That’s what he said. Packing boys. The packing boys? I was thinking this had never happened before. I’ve seen the policemen on the streets – many times – stopping the boys, for their passes I suppose. But why must he come in here to check their passes? That’s what I was thinking.
He said, very polite again, Madam please come with me out of the shop. He came around the counter and put his hand under my arm – still polite as anything, a real gentleman, and he started walking me out of the shop. He was tall and handsome too, in that uniform of his. I just walked. But then I said, Meneer, Mr. Kriegler – the boss – he’s back there in his office. Yes, ma’am, thank you ma’am, he said. He learned his manners from his mother, alright, that’s what I was thinking.
Next thing I found myself outside in the bright sun, and there was a police van parked there, and six or seven policemen standing, watching us come out. And another man, not in uniform, was standing there, same as the policemen, watching us come out of the door. I was a bit embarrassed in truth because it looked like I was being arrested, though I’d done nothing.
Then all six of the uniformed policemen went into the shop, one after the other, and now I saw they had their guns. But these weren’t ordinary guns. Look, I know nothing about guns, but these were big guns – machine guns. And then I heard lots of shouting inside the shop – men shouting. And less than two minutes later all the policemen came out again, guns pointing, and in the middle, with his hands in the air, and saying nothing, was Philemon.
Mr. Kriegler came running out. What’s the problem, man, what’s the problem. That’s what Mr. Kriegler was saying. I’ve never seen him so angry. Look here, man, you can’t just come into private property and take someone. Where’s your boss, man? And the policemen ignored Mr. Kriegler as though he was just a nuisance fly or something, and then the one who was not in uniform said to Mr. Kriegler, here’s my card, boss-man, give me a call if you want to talk about it. Mr. Kriegler said again, Come on, man, come on, what’s your problem. Mr. Kriegler and his grey hair looked so small next to the tall policemen in their uniforms, but he looked as if he wanted to hit one of them anyway.
Then I saw one of the policemen lift his baton, and hit Philemon hard on his back. With all his weight and strength, because I saw it. And he hit him again. Philemon was just standing there with his hands in the air saying nothing. Philemon – Philemon’s a thin man, not even a tall man - he just fell in a heap onto the dusty ground. Mr. Kriegler was red in the face and sweating and shouting at the policemen, Come on, man, come on, what’s the matter with you. I was sweating too, I could feel my slip stuck to the back of my legs, and the sun was shining hot in my eyes, and Philemon was just in a heap in the dust.
By this time a crowd had gathered across the road. The butcher, the fat Mr. Viljoen, was standing outside his shop with his white apron on, and some other natives were just standing there, looking.
The policeman who had hit Philemon said Opstaan jou moer, and I was thinking now he’s swearing something terrible, and he’s forgotten his manners after all, because you’re not supposed to swear like that in front of a lady, and then all the policemen in their shiny shoes started moving in the dust towards the van. The policeman pulled Philemon up and pushed him into the back of the van, as if he was throwing a bag of potatoes in there, in the dark van. The man without a uniform said to Mr. Kriegler, who looked now something terrible, his grey hair standing up mostly, Middag meneer. Afternoon, sir. Then he turned to me. Mevrou, he said. Madam. He inclined his head. Then he got into the van and it roared off, blowing dust up behind it, into my eyes.
We all stood there. Mr. Viljoen, the butcher, turned around, shaking his head, and went back into his shop. He was probably just annoyed by all the racket. The natives stood there, talking in low voices. Mr. Kriegler turned around and walked very fast into the shop. I was worried about him, I thought he could have a heart attack or something. I’d never seen him so angry. Red in the face. When I came in, he was locking up the till. I’m closing early, he said. Anneline, you can go home. The other boys at the back, he released them for the afternoon too. I saw them picking up their things, their bundles, at the back door, shaking their heads, talking quietly among themselves. Mr. Kriegler said go, go Anneline, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. He said he would lock up.
I went home, walking down the street to the Venters in the hot sun. Mr. Venter was smoking his pipe on the stoep, and he waved, but I didn’t feel like talking. I went straight to my room, which was like an oven from being closed up all day.
We never saw Philemon again. Mr. Kriegler told me later it was the Special Branch from Jo’burg that took him. They had information about him, and Philemon wasn’t even his real name, Mr. Kriegler said. He said Philemon was a political, and now he was probably a political prisoner, maybe even one of the famous ones, because there are famous ones, that’s what Mr. Kriegler told me. Famous where, I said to Mr. Kriegler, but he just shook his head.
I don’t know about famous prisoners, I don’t know about prison and prisoners at all, because I follow the law – of course. I asked Mr. Kriegler what exactly is a political, is it a Communist. He shook his head. Ah, Anneline, Anneline, he said. Never mind. Never mind. That’s what he said. But I figured it out for myself. I could see Philemon came from Jo’burg. I know about those kind of blacks – they get some education, they want to make plans to change things. I hear people talking about that, more and more now, because they’re worried.
The Special Branch told Mr. Kriegler careful who you employ here, boss-man. We’re watching you. That’s what they told him. And perhaps they’re watching me too.
Mr. Kriegler retired and sold his business soon after that. It had been planned for a while because he was over seventy years old, he had grandchildren and all. I think he retired and sits on his stoep with his pipe, with Mrs. Kriegler, just like Mr. and Mrs. Venter, that’s what I think. The new owner, Mr. Strydom, kept me on at the cash, because Mr. Kriegler gave me a good reference, and I was there for a while longer before I started at Mrs. Hannepoort’s. But I still have that dream of the bright square doorway, with a dark silhouette, of him, of the one who came to work at Kriegler’s that day.
There’s something else. I think a lot about it. I see now there are things that nobody – nobody - told me. Not my mother, not my father, not my schoolteachers in the district school, not the dominee in our church, not my magazine which comes out every week, and not even the films I see on Saturdays, that are made in America, far away. Even the newspaper – our newspaper - that I look at once in a while, never told me this. If the Special Branch has to arrest politicals, that’s one thing. But Philemon was standing in the hot sun with his arms – his thin arms - up in the air. Why, oh why, did the policeman in his uniform, and his shoes so shiny, hit Philemon with all his strength? And why – because I remembered it now – why did he kick him, as he lay in a heap in the dust? And – I remember this too – the thud of Philemon’s body when they threw him in the van. And – this I dream about at night – what happened after that? Because there’s a place – I do know about it, after all. It’s the headquarters of the Special Branch, and it’s in Jo’burg, and it’s a famous place, it’s in a big building, and they do whatever the hell they like in that building. It’s a secret. But it’s not a secret. How can that be?
It’s a secret. A large – a massive – secret. It’s everywhere. How can that be?
It’s a secret I saw once. As the sun struck my eyes, like a blow.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa. She has lived in Toronto since 1987, where she works in magazine journalism. she is completing a collection of short stories.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book