the cleaning lady arrived. Linda. of the Mfengu. descended from Matatiele.
I was asked to let her in because Jared had a meeting to go to. she saw me through the study window as I stood up to open the gate. ‘am I at the right place? is this a mistake?’ she thought. the house had not changed since last week. neither had its residents. there was just a brown man in the white man’s study when she got there. and it completely threw her off.
‘this is so heartwarming, encouraging, wonderful—all those excellent words in the dictionary,’ she told me when we got talking. the fact that I was there. in the house as a guest. not as a labourer. it made her happy. every fortnight or so she bumped into one visitor or another. but they were all white. I was the first brown to show up on her watch.
when she started cleaning houses in 2006, Linda was required by her employer to work during the festive season. that year, on Christmas day she was shocked to find a place had been set for her at the lunch table. could she not eat somewhere else, outside mayhaps? out of sight? alone, at peace? nope. her employer insisted she eat with her family and guests. ‘and be original,’ she was told.
what a translation. once you were only allowed to come in through the blacks-only door at the back, now you must attend the high meal of the year with the madame and her friends. and not so long ago you had special, servants-only tin plates and cups for your meals, now you cannot escape the china and silverware set out for Christmas lunch.
‘I felt like they were all watching me because I was chewing the wrong way.’
the meal had been excruciating. not because the food or the company were terrible. but because it was all so alien. the whole experience. had Linda eaten too much? was she eating the right way? doing the right things? what did it mean to be original?!
the sun woke up again. it was Wednesday, 25 March 2015. Linda arrived for work. she was encouraged to find South Africa changing. slowly. in small ways. one visitor at a time. a brown man in the study. a Xhosa at the Christmas table.