Gloria is a Xhosa woman who comes to our house on Wednesdays to do some extra cleaning and ironing. She’s painfully shy, intensely god-fearing and scarily hard-working. Which means she doesn’t say much, she is sometimes fasting when she comes to work, and by the time she leaves everything is very neat and very shiny. Every now and then she needs to borrow some money for a church trip or a Transkei funeral.
A few months after starting work for us, she disappears. She doesn’t return calls, she simply doesn”t turn up for a couple of months. Pam is agitated because Gloria borrowed some money from her. We are all worried that something has happened to her, but it’s also annoying to be in the dark. Meanwhile the washing and ironing piles up, and I’m simultaneously frustrated by the gap in domestic work and concerned that replacing Gloria will cause more drama for her than whatever she is going through at an evidently already-difficult time. This is not helped by my inevitable guilty suspicion that if I were just a bit more energetic and multi-faceted and competent, I’d do all my own washing and ironing, and wouldn’t have to face the heavy disparity between my own privileged concerns and those of the near-destitute Gloria.
Eventually Gloria reappears, with a difficult-to-understand story about going away and losing a cellphone. Later this turns into a story about a hospital and an operation. In a successive telling, it morphs yet again into an awful story about a pregnancy she hadn’t known about, and an abortion. Each story is told in the same unemotional broken English, making it impossible to decode any nuance as to which bits are the real story and which aren’t, or how she feels about any of it, or why there has really been no communication for three months.
Now I feel simultaneously irritated about being lied to and heartsore for a woman who has been through a version of hell. And cynically mistrustful. Is each successive story just a tweaking of a fiction designed to elicit the fewest repercussions for Gloria? After all, the more awful the story, the less one is likely to hold her accountable for her disappearance, her non-communication, her absenteeism. The more likely one is to regard her as a helpless victim of misfortune.
I try to tone down the cynicism, I attempt something of a discussion around the importance of communication and honesty, and with some ambivalence, reinstate Gloria in her weekly cleaning routine.
For several months, Wednesdays are an icy affair in our house, as Gloria and Pam ignore each other in the wake of this debacle. Pam is clearly less persuaded by the story than I am. Eventually, they get over themselves and we settle back into Gloria’s weekly appearances.
Today, Gloria has another awful story.
–My son, she says, broke a house. And he stole that home theatre. So now the community says they will sell my house for one thousand five hundred. If I want to keep my house, I must give that one thousand five hundred by Friday.
–What do you mean? Why are they wanting your house? I ask.
–For my son, she says. For stealing that thing.
–But this is not your son’s house. Taking your house is stealing your thing. What about the police? I ask.
–I go to police, she says. Police says if the community is dealing with this matter, then as long as they are not killing, is not for the police.
–What about your son? I ask.
–He take that thing to sell, she says. To shipping, not to sell here. So that man, he gives five hundred for that home theatre. They must go back Friday for the other one thousand. But when they go back he isn’t there.
–OK, I say. So your community is punishing you? What about your son?
–He didn’t sleep by me two nights, she says. I don’t know. I only have to defend my house.
–And your son? What happened to the money from this thing?
She looks confused. I explain again: he stole something, he sold it – what did he do with the money?
–They use the money. They are using the drugs. They buy the drugs.
–What are these drugs, I ask. Tik?
–It’s that white powder, she says. In a small packet.
–So what will happen to your son? What if he just does this again?
–I don’t know, but they want to take my house.
The conversation goes round in circles for a bit. I find myself angry to be asked to take any part in this fucked-up situation. I find myself angry that these fuck-ups end up feeling like a phishing scam.
I reckon: either the story is true or it’s not true. Either way, she has a need for an amount of money, irrespective of the story behind it. Eventually we come to an arrangement where she will do more work in order to earn more money.
At one level, I really don’t want to know the story. Whether the money is for a bus ticket or a funeral or compensation for a theft that her son committed. Or for a new pair of shoes. In fact, I’m hoping the story is a fabrication. Which is almost easy to believe, given the precedent of fabrications. I’m hoping she’s working the extra days for a new lounge suite or lots of winter clothes for her younger, non-drug-dependent children.
Because if the story is true, there are too many what if’s and what about’s. What about the next time the drug addict son decides to do this? What about the theft which has a value far past anything she’s able to pay back on his behalf? What if the vigilante community has bloodier plans for him anyway? What if she spends the next couple of weeks working off a loan that is buying her absolutely nothing, only for the next terrible true story to come up and catch her in its clutches?