Miss Julie Says Goodbye (Chapter 6)

March 25, 2011

The woman had a new maid. Despite having been born at the opposite end of the social spectrum, being servant, not mistress, Miss Sarie Julie had some things in common with her namesake, Mr. August Strindberg’s tragic heroine. She did not have the vote; her social status was dictated by birth, she had little or no responsibility for her fate, and her boyfriend was crude, worthless and controlling. While he did not send her to her suicide, he did cause her to go (occasionally) to the VD clinic for painful injections. He also required her to extract her entire row of upper teeth, which marred her generous smile, but enhanced the fulfillment of his less than generous sexual demands. With the insertion of a few words, Mr. Strindberg’s preface to his play could well describe this Miss Julie. Viz;”She is the victim of false belief-namely that a (Colored)woman-this stunted form of human being compared to (White) man, the lord of creation, the creator of civilization-is equal to man or might become so.”

Also, in a letter to the poet Verner von Heidenstam; Mr. Strindberg elaborates; “PS. (Colored) Woman, being small and foolish and therefore evil, should be suppressed like barbarians and thieves. She is useful only as an ovary and a womb….” In this case while Miss (Sarie)Julie did, on occasion thieve a minor trinket here and there—she always returned it ruefully when her employer, the woman, asked for it back-she was historically deemed useful only as a cleaner of White Madams’ toilets and caretaker of their children.

Miss Julie seemed to accept her fate with unquenchable cheer. She was seldom gloomy and with the exception of her view of men, unfailingly positive. She made no bones about the fact that she considered her employer’s husband as big a jerk as her unemployed boyfriend. She did not consider lecturing at a university employment, and deemed her master’s professorial notes to his wife (silently placed in the corner of the kitchen next to the phone), labeled; “a, b, c”— shortcomings, and “d, e f”, solutions, equally poisonous as her boyfriend’s infidelities and occasional transmissions of disease. She would pick up the squares of paper with soapy hands, carelessly smudging the ink while she openly perused them, and then snort in disgust. Eyes rolling, she would scrunch the missives into little balls, often before the woman had a chance to read them and feel that little arrow of pain, and throw them in with the rubbish.

That she considered her mistress immature and naïve was subtly indicated by her declining to address her as “Madam” in favor of “Miss”. Nonetheless, when the woman invited her to call her by her first name, she shook her head at this inappropriate breach of boundaries. “Nee, Miss. No thanks, tha’s yus blerry rude.”

Similarly when the woman, hearing her cries, fetched her from her outdoor “maid’s room” late one oppressive night when her boyfriend, reeling from a combination of sticky summer heat and cheap wine, lost his usual stoned cool and struck her, she shrank back appalled when the woman offered her half of her bed. (The professor was away on one of his innumerable “trips”). Trembling, her own bedclothes tightly clutched around her, she slowly eased her bruised body down onto the floor and turned away, and hugging what little dignity she could to the sore heart beneath her huge breasts, hid her tears behind a scornful sniff.

The woman cooked all the meals, unlike most Madams. Both her parents were enthusiastic cooks. “Don’t you ever become a lazy South African,” her mother would warn in her enduring Edinburgh burr. But Miss Julie was a rich source of Cape Malay culinary secrets, like putting a spoonful of apricot jam and a dash of vinegar into the lamb stew as the meat browned, or adding dark brown sugar and plump raisins to the turmeric for the yellow rice. Her bread pudding was delicious, rich and creamy and the children loved it. She would make it for their supper, without being asked, whenever she deemed it appropriate. When it came to the children she pretty much decided on the appropriateness of all aspects of their lives from breakfast to bed time and did not always trust their safety to their mother’s care.

Like most maids in the neighborhood, the period after lunch until four o’clock teatime was her “rest time” to do as she wished; take a sponge bath, wind her hair onto flamingo pink rollers or strips of cloth, or just gossip with the other maids. On summer afternoons the woman would take the two little girls down to Saunder’s Rocks a few yards down the road. The curving wall leading down from the street provided shade for the baby, and for her sister there was a rectangular pool formed by low concrete slabs built around the natural bay between the rocks. Except at times of high tide the pool was protected from waves and safe enough for the smaller children to paddle and splash, brown and naked or trailing diapers, sodden and heavy with sand.

The bigger boys would run shrieking and whooping around the pool’s circumference, pummeling and wrestling, trying to push each other off into the deeper end. The conquerors would reach the far end unscathed and scramble like little simians onto the huge bleached outcroppings that loomed like the backs of grey mastodons over the sea. The surface of the water swirled and frothed over enormous slippery marine plants swaying to and fro, bumping heads below the surface like a gathering of silent conspirators. Fearless and fierce, intoxicated with boy-power, noses running, sputtering and shivering, the youngsters would dive into the freezing iodine-scented swells, aiming for the deep pools between the clusters of algae. There is no sea perfumed like that of the Southern Cape. When her older boy visited, he would laugh out loud and shout “The sea smells so good, I want to eat it!”

On more than one occasion, Miss Julie was to be seen leaning over the wall above the beach, squeezed between teenage boys keeping hormonal watch on the semi-nude girls below. Her vigilance was reserved for “her children” and she would stand there all afternoon if necessary, censorial sentinel, ready to bark out at any given moment,

“Miss!” then with a quick sliding sideways glance, mindful of her gaffe, “Ag, — I mean Merrem!” Whatever familiarities Miss Julie permitted herself within the four walls of the kitchen, all the social niceties were preserved in the presence of strangers—”Watch that child, she’s too near the water!”Or, “Stop those skellems (bad boys); they are going to hurt the babies with their nonsense.”

The woman preserved the same unspoken rules. Only when they were alone did she confront the recidivist pilferer. “Sarie, please return my silver bracelet. That was my mothers’.–If you want to borrow something; just ask.” With another of her oblique, sliding downwards glances and a put-upon sigh, as if she were the victim, Miss Julie would turn her back to the stove. But the object would mysteriously find its way back to the woman’s dresser by the next day.

It did not occur to her that publicly supervising and even admonishing her “Merrem” in a bellow that could be heard by all the beach was in any way untoward. The children were her priority, and having none of her own, she claimed “her” two little girls with a proprietary and fierce love.

When the baby was about eight months old, Miss Julie decided that these children needed to be taken to church. Explaining that the family was Jewish fell on deaf ears. With narrowed eyes and a jerk of her head, Miss Julie’s scornful sniff implied that this was all the more reason for a Sunday outing to a “real church”. The woman did not dare contemplate the awful suspicion that Miss Julie meant to have them baptized. She just thanked whatever deity orchestrating this outing that her husband was thousands of miles and an ocean away. She could not forget her husband’s reaction to what he deemed “Christian interference” (his words) when the older girl was born.

The woman had arrived at the nursing home just in time. Her doctor was stuck in traffic and sent a message ordering the staff to tell her to “hold on”. Neither she nor the baby had any intention of obeying such ridiculous advice. As luck had it, the matron was a no-nonsense woman who came striding in and shooed the nervous nurses, helpless husband and his dithering mother out of the room. She calmly and efficiently helped to deliver a girl who was so eager to experience life outside that she practically shot out of her mother like a greased cannon ball.

Congratulations where not forthcoming when father and new grandmother sidled back into the room thirty minutes later.

“Pity it’s a girl.” from the older woman. Then; “Well, as long as it’s healthy,” and the final blow –“you still look fat.”

The husband was even less flattering. “Well, you certainly made a hell of a noise breathing so loud. We could hear you all the way down the hall.”

The only words of praise came from the matron, (“Well done, my girl!”) who invited her and the baby into her office ten days later as they prepared to return home. She sat behind her desk, starched and decent and solid. Her spectacles reflected the light from a window that looked out onto Table Mountain. Her uniform echoed the pristine white of the cloud tablecloth, and her blue eyes shone clear behind the plain frames of her glasses. She gestured to the chair opposite. When the woman sat, baby in her lap, Matron folded her hands and bowed her head.

“Lord Jesus, bless this child and keep her from harm. Watch over her and protect her all the days of her life. Amen.”

As they drove through afternoon traffic on the way to Bantry Bay, the woman told her husband about the matron’s blessing.

“You should have forbidden her to do that.” He snapped crossly. “What’s wrong with you?”

#

Miss Julie had always wanted to broadcast the baby’s charms. The shining, perennially laughing infant with her glossy curls and bracelets of baby-fat was her pride and joy. She was convinced that all the other Merrems would have entered her in a baby show long ago. When her suggestions met with stubborn resistance and proved to be a dead end, Miss Julie determined to advertise the beauty of her charge in her own community. If a Beautiful Baby trophy was not in the offing, envious glances at Sunday service would have to suffice. She had one firm request; both girls were to be dressed in blue.

The quiet of Sunday morning, a traditional “off day” for Miss Julie was shattered by disturbance in the vicinity of the kitchen; clattering pans, a whistling kettle and an enthusiastic warbling of “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jeeeeesus. You soldiers of the cross!”

Miss Julie was a cerulean poem; a rhapsody in blue taffeta. Her huge breasts a soft azure cloud upon which the Virgin herself, in her cloak of sky would be happy to float. Her handbag was blue patent leather, as were her pumps with their Cuban heels, out of which her sturdy calves swelled in taupe “nylons”.

Upon her severely pomaded and ordered curls, recently released from an all-night winding in those pink sponge rollers, perched a straw boater, around whose brim marched a line of cornflowers in orderly succession. Miss Julie was “made up” with Tangee powder in Dark Tan and on her mouth, giddily indifferent to missing teeth, a shiny coral pink lipstick called “Honey” which not only looked but smelled like a South Sea sunset. The perfumes of her oiled curls and her OK Bazaar cosmetics swirled and intermingled with clouds of Evening in Paris in happy Sabbath harmony. If the Lord could not sniff her out from the congregation, He was too focused on falling sparrows.

Once the little girls were assembled in the kitchen in their blue dresses, the matching trio was church-ready; all shining eyes and excited smiles. Of the three only the eldest girl showed a full mouth of teeth, but neither the baby nor Miss Julie imposed the least self- conscious crimping on their wide delight. By insisting on color-coordinated outfits, Miss Julie had established her family. Baby on one arm, bottles of juice and milk, diapers and cookies in her copious blue handbag, Miss Julie clasped the hand of the four-year-old in her free hand and set off for Elsies River to show her babies to her family and her congregation.

When the threesome returned in the late afternoon, the baby was asleep and the other two badly in need of a nap. Enquiries as to how the outing went resulted in scant information other than “It was nice.” And “Everybody sang” from the little girl, and “Everyone loved my babies. Bet they blerry jealous.” from Miss Julie.

#

By the time the woman’s husband returned to Cape Town two weeks later, the outing was happily no longer a subject of discussion, and was never mentioned again. The new subject was serious enough to take precedence over just about everything. A post at the University of London was in the offing and the entire family was to move there for an indefinite period. The woman was not consulted, nor did she expect to be. The husband would leave for England some weeks in advance, ostensibly to find lodging for the family, and more practically to leave the onerous task of packing up the household and transporting the children to the woman. She met his plans with her usual silent acquiescence.

Not so, Miss Julie. She wore her outrage in a permanent pout and was not to be cajoled or reasoned with. As for the woman, any possible resentment or disquiet was relegated to a faint subliminal simmer that would take some years to build to a final cataclysmic rebellion. She tried to persuade Miss Julie to her way of helpless obedience; tried to explain that she had no say in the matter and that the move was inevitable. She was met with a cold stare, a furious exhalation from pinched nostrils and a back turned to the stove. Miss Julie stubbornly refused to understand, and because she was more familiar with her mistress, directed all her grief and rage at the other woman. Whenever the husband came into the kitchen, she ignored him completely, her deliberate insolence reaching a level that would have garnered her instant dismissal in any other household. Only with the little girls did she allow her face to relax its permanent frown, her voice to soften, and only when the husband left for England did she resume any kind of communication with the woman, who seeing her despair, finally suggested that she come to London with them.

“You could work for us there,Julie. Think about it. You have never been to another country. It could be really interesting.”

“Ag no, Miss. I won’t know anybody; there’s no colored people. It’s cold and it rains and my boyfriend won’t like it.”

Preparations for the move were carried out in funereal silence. Miss Julie packed and wrapped household goods with grim indifference to slips and breakages. But when it came to the children’s clothes and toys, she enfolded each item in gusty sighs and salted them with tears before she pressed them against her body and then into meticulous piles. These she patted down with infinite tenderness. Water seeped from the corners of her eyes and coursed in little rivulets down the grooves alongside her nose before they dripped off her chin. Some of them seeped into the threads of her babies’ garments to be shipped off with them across the ocean where Miss Julie’s grief would mingle with the air on Richmond Green. Other droplets bounced off the rims of boxes and sparkled in the shafts of sunlight that pierced the windowpanes and slipped across the floorboards before sliding up the sides of adjacent boxes. Thus Miss Julie packed the warmth of Africa with the water of her lament into the children’s underwear and shoes, teddy bears and building bricks.

The day before the departure, Miss Julie broke her silence and announced that she and her boyfriend would be coming to the docks to “see them off”.

The big day began with disastrous omens. The air around Miss Julie was leaden with sorrow, and the baby was sickly. She seemed to have somatized the melancholy atmosphere by developing a fever and diarrhea. Her little body rejected nourishment with the fervor of Miss Julie’s rejection of the status quo. The older girl was silent and shrank into corners with worried eyes and down-turned mouth as the two women sat the baby on the kitchen counter and tried to get her to accept a bottle of glucose water. A frantic call to the woman’s father, the doctor, solicited advice; Refrain from feeding the child anything but glucose water and boiled shredded carrots until her stomach settles down.

The woman had sent the crates of household goods and the main bulk of the luggage off to the docks the previous day. But with the needs of two children there remained several suitcases and packages to be transported with the family. The woman’s mother, together with her son, was to meet them at the ship, as was her mother-in-law. Her father, disapproving of her husband, her marriage and the move, stayed home. Although everyone was keen to appear shipside and wave goodbye, it did not occur to anyone other than Miss Julie to come to the house and help her load the two children and the piles of luggage into the waiting taxi. There was no room for another adult in the crowded interior, but Miss Julie assured everyone that she would be traveling under her own steam and would “see them there”. The children sensed that some serious separation was imminent, and added their wails to Miss Julie’s snivels. By the time they reached the wharf, a short twenty minute drive, the woman was drained.

With the aid of a porter the woman managed to unload the luggage and the children and no more obstacles were met until just before embarking. Entering a cavernous warfside space, they stood in a long line of fellow travelers waiting to present their passports to a huge Afrikaner in the official uniform of police and immigration.

The woman held her newly issued British passport in a sweaty hand. No amount of rational inner assurance that the passport was completely legal could calm her animal apprehension. It was less than three months since she had received an admonishing letter from the Minister of Interior accusing her of a singular “lack of loyalty to ‘your country'” and informing her that she would have to forgo her South African citizenship and rely on a passport issued by the country of her birth. Despite the fact that she had never participated in any illegal or subversive act, she had friends who had been incarcerated for indefinite periods without benefit of trial. But her inherent fear of the police, largely composed of Afrikaner thugs with little education, or anyone in uniform for that matter, was part of her make-up, exacerbated by the terror of Nazi uniforms instilled in her parents, and of Cossacks on horseback in generations before them.

The man sitting behind a battered wooden desk had small blue eyes encased in rolls of fat, a squashed nose mapped with thin blue veins and a square mouth that revealed tobacco-stained teeth. Beads of sweat pearled the greasy creases around his eyes and along his thinning hairline. The jacket of his uniform strained over a rock-hard paunch, and a beefy hand reached out of a too- short sleeve to gather their papers which he scrutinized with frowning self-importance.

“Uuuh-ha, — OK,” he grunted. Then, frowning, “How much money you taking out the country, Mevrou?”

The woman hesitated at this unexpected question. No one had told her that there was a limit to the funds she could legally export.

The man’s eyes narrowed and grew cold with suspicion.

“Well. Come on, come on. We don’t have all day here.” The woman, feverish baby on one hip, nervous little girl at her side, frantically rooted in her purse and pulled out all the money she had for the journey. The man’s eyes grew harder.

“Oh no. — Nonono. Not possible lady. Nee, missus. You can’t take all this. There’s a limit, you know.” He pulled back in his chair, crossed his arms, and prepared to wait.

The woman stared at him, her heart sinking.

“But how much can I take?” she whispered.

The man said nothing; just stared at a place over her shoulder. The silence grew. People waiting behind a painted line that kept them too far from the desk to hear the exchange, began to shift impatiently. The woman started to sweat. Prickles of apprehension skittered down her spine.

There was no help forthcoming.

At last it occurred to her that the man was waiting for something. Of course! Something to help him turn a blind eye. She grabbed a fistful of notes and pushed them across the table. Slowly his grim demeanor cracked and he shook his head, unbelieving. Sorrow at her ignorance evoked an exasperated sigh and he clicked a long-suffering tongue against his discolored teeth.

“Nee, meisie. Come on now. That’s too much!”

With wetted fat fingers he slowly counted out what he deemed to be an acceptable bribe and pushed the rest of the notes back at her.

Clothing damp and clinging like wet burlap, she mounted the gangplank where a kindly officer called on a female stewardess to help her to her cabin with the children and luggage. There she found her mother-in-law, her mother and the little boy who was in the custody of her parents. They had arrived earlier and having acquired the location of her cabin, settled to wait in uneasy proximity.

The two older women despised each other; each scornful of the sins of manipulation, emotional blackmail and malicious gossip that they recognized in the other, and blissfully ignored in themselves, neither being acquainted with the habit of self-reflection. They sat in stony silence on bunks on each side of the small cabin. The little boy stood between them, glancing nervously from one to the other in the strained atmosphere.

It did not take much to realize that the space was too cramped to hold the gathering and they all traipsed up to the upper deck to join the crowd gathered along the rails, waiting to wave to family and friends on the quay below. The air was festive and noisy, colored paper streamers floated from the passengers’ hands to the well-wishers below.

Despite the deafening noise, two loud voices and a piercing whistle managed to penetrate the general cacophony.

“Good God! Who the hell are those skollies waving to?” grunted her mother-in-law.

Far below, beaming out of a sea of white faces, were two brown ones. Miss Julie, resplendent in her blue Sabbath best, waved a blue hanky. At her side swayed her boyfriend, red-veined eyes glassily and happily stoned, pants precariously hanging so low off his skeletal pelvis as to elicit genuine concern. His uplifted arm raised his shirt high to expose an expanse of concave brown stomach and the hilt of the knife that was protruding from his belt.

“Us. They’re waving to us.” murmured the woman.

The ship sounded a deep warning note that vibrated through the crowd and wrapped bass echoes around the amplified voice that informed of imminent departure, instructing all who were not passengers to disembark immediately. The woman remained at the ship’s side, sleeping baby in portable stroller, flushed face leaning onto her tiny shoulder like a top-heavy flower off of a fragile stem. Her older sister, similarly overwhelmed and ready for her own nap, clutched her mother’s skirt. The woman leaned over the rail until she could see her family join the crowd below. The ship’s engines started a deep vibration that tickled at the soles of her feet then ascended her body through the marrow of her bones. Miss Julie and her boyfriend were still below, their arms waving in ever increasing arcs. As the ship slowly pulled away from the dock, the vibration of the engines and the blur of blue from Miss Julie’s sleeves morphed into a woozy disembodiment that would cloud her days at sea like a badly exposed photograph, and not congeal into focus until she reached dry land.

#

The woman awakened on the third morning to a silent cabin. The little girl was fast asleep in her bunk, tangled sheets kicked past her feet, her long blonde hair spilling down towards the floor. Accustomed to being alerted by the baby’s imperious demands for her morning bottle, the woman lay for a moment in the silence before a creeping dread had her bolting upright and crossing the cabin to the baby’s cot.

The little body that only yesterday had filled her white jump-suit to bursting with rolls of baby fat, lay limp as a newborn. She seemed to have lost an alarming amount of weight overnight. When the woman bent to pick her up, her eyes remained closed and her arms and legs flopped like the cotton-stuffed limbs of a rag-doll. Cold dread washed over the woman. Until now she had followed instructions, and fed her nothing but glucose water and carrots. She forced herself to be calm and awaken the older girl, while she threw on some clothes. With the baby in her arms and the sister still in pajamas, she rushed down the ship’s corridors in search of the doctor’s office.

As it was still early, a purser went in search of the doctor while the woman sat frozen in the reception area. The pounding of her heart drowned all thought from her head. She leaned her head against the baby’s damp curls and rocked to and fro.

The doctor strode in, pulling on his white coat and exuding professional calm. As he examined the little body he asked her what the child had been eating and advised her to give her a bottle of milk immediately, and feed her normally. The woman stared at him in disbelief. Could it really be that simple? She rushed back to the cabin to ask for boiled water and prepare a bottle, her legs feeling as rubbery as those of the limp infant in her arms.

By the next day the child had already recovered; her gathering strength miraculous. She came back to life like one of those desiccated shapes that came in “lucky packets” and morphed swelling, into little reptiles and fish when put in water. Three days later, she was her plump, chortling, happy self.

Strangely enough, the woman had no thoughts of the baby’s father or grandparents throughout the ordeal, but, “Oh, Miss Julie,” she whispered against the child’s soft neck, “We have your baby back”.

#

Seven years later the woman returned to South Africa on the occasion of her older son’s bar mitzvah. It was only a year since her husband had abducted their three children for the second time. A friend with a private plane had flown them out of the country. She had no idea where they were.

Somehow Miss Julie had heard of her return, perhaps having seen a newspaper article in the Arts section announcing her visit. She called and said she would like to visit on her afternoon off.

The two women sat in the living room of the flat in Sea Point where the doctor, his wife and the woman’s son lived.

Miss Julie, again in Sunday clothes, sat in an armchair that welcomed a colored person’s body for the first time. The woman’s mother remained in her bedroom, behind closed doors. Having tea with the help was not in her indexical lexicon of accepted behavior.

Miss Julie’s entire persona had transformed into that of a respectable, church-going lady. No more shining blue taffeta and frivolous flower-bedecked hat. She was encased in a somber black dress of stultifying modesty, long sleeves and a skirt that covered her calves. Her plain black hat sat squarely on her head. She sat with her knees pressed together and her white-gloved hands folded in her lap. She wore no make-up other than a discrete dusting of face powder and the sensuous cloud of Evening in Paris was replaced by a genteel whiff of 4711 Eau de Cologne.

She declared that she had repented of her sins. Relegated to the past were disreputable boyfriends and acts of petty pilfering. All that had been forgiven and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

She wanted to see her babies.

She listened in silence when the woman tried to explain that the children were gone. Her lips pressed together and she turned her head away and gazed out the window. She slowly got to her feet and gathered her black handbag under her arm. With bowed shoulders and the halting steps of an old woman she walked to the door and let herself out.

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  1. Christiane LedakisApril 7, 2011 @ 8:44 pmReply

    very moving and vivid account of tension and conflict, cruelty and yet hope. As always, Joan does not shy away from depicting truth, however hurtful it may be. Thank you for holding up a mirror to so many aspects of humanity.



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