The visit home
Despite the suffocating heat, Esther was resisting the temptation to leave her place by the glassless window. It was the only one in the small shack she called home but it was ideally located to keep an eye on everything that was going on in the narrow alley. The alley was the neighbourhood’s lifeline and not much escaped her attention. She had acquired a well-deserved reputation for being the best source of gossip in the area, which also was why Mama was standing outside.
“What a brawl last night!” Esther grinned her toothless smile. “It sounded like all hell had broken lose.”
Mama nodded. “I’d say! The whole neighbourhood heard. There was one who was screaming like a stuck pig, but I couldn’t tell who it was.”
“Well, let me tell you,” Esther said as she leaned a bit further out her window.
Both women were so engrossed in their conversation that neither noticed Pangita who quietly joined them. Mama didn’t like her listening in on their conversations. It was not for young girls to hear. Most times Pangita would not understand all what they were talking about but whenever they lowered their voices, she would pay more attention.
“It was that good for nothing Castro and Samy who were at it again,” Esther laughed. “He just can’t forget that Samy slept with his wife. I tell you, if he had to fight with everyone she slept with-.” She suddenly fell silent and watched a woman walking past them. “That’s one of them,” she said loud enough for the woman to hear. “One of them who sits at Rosa’s all night.” There were only few women who ever visited Rosa’s bar and the wives all hated them. “Speaking of that kind of women,” Esther continued. “You have heard that Alice is coming home for a visit, right? Flora is having a party to celebrate her daughter is here, and that she is bringing her twins.” Esther leaned forward. “Her husband is coming too!”
“Really?” Mama asked. “So now we finally get to see this great catch that Flora always brags that her daughter landed.”
“Landed? I am sure Flora had her hand in it somehow. But perhaps we will hear how they met? I mean, we all know what kind of work she was doing back then,” Esther said with a mischievous smile. She was just about to continue when she noticed Pangita. With a slight nod she signalled to Mama that they were not alone.
“Pangita! Go in and see what your brother is up to,” Mama yelled, annoyed with the interruption.
Pangita reluctantly went off, wise
enough not to challenge Mama. It was a shame, as it was just getting
interesting. It was big news that Alice’s husband was coming. He had always
been a bit of a mystery and a frequent topic at Esther’s window. Flora had been
strangely subdued when it had first been known that her daughter was marrying a
foreigner. Normally, it would be a reason to celebrate and brag. He was not
American, that everyone knew, because Flora would for sure have said so if he
was. Some said he was German, but aside from that it was not quite clear just
how good a catch he was; if he was old or if he drank. Regardless, when the
news first broke it had been a cause of much envy. More than one mother had
slapped their daughters around for it not being them who had found a foreign
“Are you coming, Mama?” Pangita was dressed up in her Sunday best and impatient to leave for the party, not wanting to miss out on anything.
“No!” Mama said, pretending she was busy with something.
Pangita already knew. Though Mama was a curious as any of them to see Alice’s husband, there was no way she was going. She and Flora did not talk. They didn’t even greet when they passed each other in the alley though it was so narrow it was impossible to pretend not to see each other. They had a falling out some years ago and had never reconciled.
“Don’t forget to take your brother with you!” Mama instructed.
There was no need. Noel had been ready for hours. A party meant sweets. The prospects of sweets also meant that he was eagerly leading the way and for once didn’t insist on being carried.
Flora’s place was close to where the alley met the outside world; where the shacks of plastic and scrap wood were replaced by real buildings made of bricks and concrete. Though she had known Flora for years, Pangita had never been to her home before. Flora did not normally socialize with families like hers.
Flora just nodded when she saw them as they entered her small apartment. There were more important people to attend to. Noel didn’t waste any time but headed straight for the sweets. The place was packed and one hardly noticed the naked concrete walls; a picture of the holy family being the only decoration. The guests were all women, all busy gossiping and eying the gifts that Alice had brought home for her family. They were laid out on the table for everyone to admire. Pangita quietly joined Esther and Sarah who were standing together in a corner talking and looking at Alice’s husband. He was easy to spot, being the only man and the only foreigner in the room. He didn’t look old; he looked ancient! Pangita couldn’t help staring at him.
“Yes, it’s quite a sight isn’t it?” Sarah said when she noted Pangita staring. Esther covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed and winked to Sarah.
Alice’s husband had placed himself on the only couch in the room and took up the entire space. He was sweating and looked irritated. Though there was no glass in the windows the room was still sweltering. Flora had a couple of electric fans pointed towards him but they brought little relief from the stifling heat.
“Would you like some more soda, Sarah?” Flora asked as she came over with a tray with biscuits and soft drinks.
Sarah took a soft drink. “Thank you, my dear. So, this is your son in law, Flora?” she asked. “I haven’t been introduced to him before.”
“Yes, this is Gerhard,” Flora smiled and continued around the small room with her tray. It was a sore point. They all knew that he had refused to have the wedding celebration there or even invite anyone from the alley except for the closest family. Flora had deeply resented the lost opportunity to show off. This time he would not escape. She had invited everyone and would make sure he paid for it all.
“Alice! Another!” Gerhard yelled.
Alice quickly brought him another beer. He took it without looking at her.
“I can’t believe I have to spend my holiday in this hot stinking dump,” he muttered.
“It is so lovely that you are here, Papa,” Flora said, pretending not to notice his foul mood. Sarah and Esther exchanged looks.
“What a great catch,” Esther noted with a smile.
Sarah nodded. “Oh yes, isn’t he?”
Flora heard their bitching but she did not care. Just the fact that Alice had married a foreigner was enough for everyone to be envious, regardless of how old or grumpy he was.
“It’s stinking hot in here,” Gerhard complained.
“Yes, it’s terrible,” Flora agreed. “We don’t have any air conditioners so we really suffer, Papa.”
“Isn’t it worse than it ever was before?” Alice asked and waved her hand in front of her face. “The smell, it’s just awful.” Though she had only been away for a year, she acted as if she had already forgotten about life in the alley. “I just don’t know how you can stand it here. Honestly, the smell and the noise. You can hear everything that goes on. In our house in Germany it’s all so quiet.”
“Alice!” Gerhard yelled.
“She calls it a house, but I heard Flora said it is only an apartment,” Esther bitched as Alice went to get Gerhard another beer. “I have also heard that she calls home and cries on the phone because he doesn’t treat her right, but Flora would never allow her to leave him.”
“No, never!” Sarah shook her head. “She wouldn’t let her ruin it. Not now; no matter what he does. Anyway, from the look of him, he can’t hit that hard.”
Alice brought in the twins who had woken up from their nap. Suddenly, all the bitching about Gerhard and envy over the gifts was forgotten and all the women turned their attention to the two baby boys. They took turns to hold them and admire their chubby cheeks, fat legs and complete lack of hair.
“They don’t have any hair. That’s how you can tell they are European,” Sarah told the others and laughed as she held one of them. “White babies are always bald.”
“Yes, they are real little Germans,” Flora said proudly and squeezed one of the babies’ cheeks.
“Are you all staying here?” Esther asked Alice as she cuddled one of the babies.
Gerhard heard her question. “Staying here? There is no way I would stay in this dump. I can’t believe you actually used to live here,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear. No one should forget who it was that had given her a ticket to a better life. The women ignored him. After each of them had held both babies and admired their white skin the twins were put down on a blanket where they lay, still unable to crawl.
“Tell me, have you seen snow?” Maria asked.
“Lots of it. You get so tired of it” Alice said.
“I have never seen snow,” someone said. The others shook their heads.
“So what’s it like?” Maria asked. “Tell us!”
“It’s really special. The flakes melt on your tongue!”
The women listened with wonder as Alice told them about snow and walking on frozen lakes.
“Soon, I will see it too,” Flora said. “When I go to visit them.”
The women all looked at her in awe while ignoring the disapproving noises coming from the couch. One of the twins rolled over and started to cry. The women standing closest tried to beat each other for the chance to pick up the baby. Sarah won.
Gina discretely pulled Alice aside while everyone’s attention was again focussed on the babies.
“Don’t you need someone to help you look after the children? You remember my daughter Nenita? I thought that maybe she could come and work for you?”
“I don’t think so,” Alice said and quickly glanced at Gerhard to see if he had heard them.
“She is almost 18 and she won’t be any trouble. I promise. You can pay her whatever you like. She is a really quick learner. She will clean and cook, anything you need.”
“I know, but I don’t think it would work out with Gerhard. He is concerned about how much money we spend, but if we need someone you will be the first to know, I promise.”
“Papa, we need some more sodas,” Flora called. Gerhard reluctantly pulled out his wallet and handed her a bank note. “Papa,” she said with a little smile. He grumbled as he gave her a second one. “Maria, do me a favour and run down and get some sodas and also some more beer for Papa. Make sure they are cold. Poor Papa is sweating so much.”
Gerhard was drenched with sweat and he kept looking at his watch, eager to escape from Flora. Regardless of what he thought, his troubles had only begun. Paying for sodas and biscuits was just the start. Now that they were here, Flora was going to make sure that he started to deliver what was expected of him. It was time for him to pay for having a beautiful young wife who did not cause him any problems but just did as he told her to. Alice now had the twins and her position as his wife was firmly secured, even if she still didn’t have a German passport. Flora had already started pestered him for a better place. Gerhard on the other hand was not having any of it and looked increasingly sour.
“Alice, I want to leave before it gets dark,” Gerhard announced, his voice slurred. “Can’t trust anyone after dark in this place; thugs and drug dealers the lot of them.”
“The afternoon passed so quickly,” Alice started sobbing. “I will be back tomorrow, Mama,” she promised as she hugged Flora.
Gerhard struggled to get up from the couch. Esther and Sarah readily helped while exchanging discreet looks. Flora looked satisfied when she waved goodbye to them as they walked down the stairs, Alice carrying the twins. Flora had not yet gotten what she wanted from Gerhard but that was alright. She had 14 more days to work on him. He would pay; he just didn’t know it yet.
The last of the guests left together. Pangita dragged Noel away from the sweets. He had stuffed himself so much that he looked sick. She had to pull him hard by the arm to keep up with the others; eager to hear what they were talking about. As the group walked down the alley every aspect of Alice’s visit was analysed and discussed; nothing more so than how much Flora would be able to milk Gerhard for.
“He will pay; oh, will he pay!” Esther said with a grin. The women all laughed and nodded in agreement.
“That was never the question. It is how much. That’s what I want to know.” Maria said.
“Do you really think he will pay for a better place for them?” Sarah asked. “I can’t believe that!”
“Well, Flora seemed pretty adamant about that,” Esther continued. “If he won’t pay for that, then at least he will have to pay for a couple of air conditioners.”
“Well, if she gets enough we will all hear about it for sure. She will be bragging about it to everyone, and her daughter better not get any ideas about leaving him, no matter what he does to her,” Sarah said.
“I am sure there will be a work visa for Germany for her brother,” Gina grumbled, still smarting over Alice’s refusal to take Nenita back with her.
Esther laughed. “Well, that will have to wait a while. He is still in jail. He won’t be coming out for another three months.”
“Yes, that’s something Flora doesn’t talk about,” Gina said and the women all laughed again.
“Yes, it is a classy family,” Esther sneered. “That drunk of a husband took off; the son is in jail and her daughter a former bargirl.” The group stopped as they reached Sarah’s place.
“I still don’t understand why it should be Flora who wins the lottery like that,” Sarah said. “She already has more than most.”
The other women all nodded in agreement and once again, the envy was difficult to hide.
Thomas Kring July 2020