Welcome back to our literary tour through the pages of my novels. Today we’re returning to South Africa where we’re just about to enter a place called Lwandle. It’s not a usual stop on the tourist trail, although it boasts an important little museum – we’ll take a little contextual detour to it in a moment – but as far as our literary tour is concerned, it is here (or in an invented place very like it) that my character, Albertina first steps into the pages of ‘Song of the Sea Goddess‘.
Lwandle is an informal settlement (also known as a ‘location’) about 15 minutes drive from where I stay in Somerset West. It was originally established in the late 1950s to house workers who were brought in from rural areas to work in the farming and fruit canning businesses which had been established in the area. Let’s find out a little more about what conditions were like back then by visiting the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum which is just around the corner on our left.
With the onset of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the ANC-led government turned the hostels of Lwandle into family-type accommodation. At the same time, with the relaxation of the restriction of movement throughout the country, more people arrived from the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. As a result, the area became increasingly overcrowded.
Even now, although some residents live in brick and block-built buildings, many still live in shacks, awaiting government-approved housing projects to be put in place. Those who are working mainly have jobs in the surrounding towns of Somerset West, Strand and Gordon’s Bay, and the roundabout in the picture above, is the place where I pick up Rayno, my gardener/handyman and Primrose, my housekeeper. Primrose came from the Eastern Cape about 20 years ago, but Rayno was born here, his grandparents and great-grandparents having worked on one of the fruit farms years ago. Although their family homes are modest, they have proper sanitation and the security of an enclosed yard. Other residents live in very humble circumstances, much as I imagined Albertina’s shack – no more than a small timber shed, like you might have at the bottom of your garden. But Albertina, with her proud and positive attitude, decides to up-sticks and seek a new place to stay.
Back in February, I wrote a guest post for da-AL’s ‘Happiness Between Tails‘, in which I talked about why I wanted to ‘uplift’ my characters, some of whom, like Albertina, are based on an amalgam of people I’ve met since I moved to South Africa. I explained how the characters that I’d created deserved something more and better, and that’s why Albertina starts her journey standing by the exit to a service station with a twenty rand note in her hand.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I discovered from da-AL that she’d converted and added that post, ‘Imagining a New Place’ to her growing list of podcasts. Note to self: this really is something I should try. You can listen to Imagining a New Place here, the actual post starts three minutes in.
Now, let’s join Albertina as, fed up with the noise and the dust, and the general mayhem in the ‘location’, she packs up her belongings and makes for the N2 highway to hitch a ride in search that new and better place.
Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess
Albertina throws the remains of her coffee onto the dust outside the door and stuffs her little tin mug into the top of the bulging holdall which stands by a similarly stuffed canvas bag next to the open door. As she finishes chewing the crust of bread she’d saved for her breakfast, she adjusts her second best wig and looks around the shack which has been her home for the best part of a year: Time to move on.
Albertina snatches up the two heavy bags containing all her worldly goods and strides out into the early morning. She holds her head up and sticks her nose in the air as she walks past the people busy with their cooking fires and washing bowls. She will not miss them and she will not miss the location, with its noise and dust, and people fighting and drinking long into the night. Her son is settled in a farm school and he has a roof over his head. He’s with people who’ll take better care of him that she can, far away from the temptations of drugs and alcohol, underage sex and communicable diseases which seem to be all that life has to offer for young people here.
Fifteen minutes of steady walking bring Albertina to the edge of the freeway. She is aware of the weight of the bags that she’s carrying, but she’s used to it. Used to carrying all her belongings with her; you can’t leave anything in your shack. The traffic is heavy, and the hot dirty wind from the road tugs at her long skirt. Albertina trudges on as far as the service station where she stops near the exit to the parking area. Here she will get her first lift. She takes out a tightly folded twenty rand note from where is has been tucked inside her clothing, unfolds it and carefully smooths out the creases. She holds it up to each vehicle that passes.
It’s not long before a large blue truck pulls up beside her, its airbrakes hissing loudly. The driver leans over and extends a thick brown arm to open the passenger door for her. Albertina looks up at him. For a moment they scrutinise each other. He looks okay, she thinks, but she’s still wary. She tries to read his face. The driver breaks into a gap-toothed grin and asks her where she’s going.
Albertina shrugs. ‘Just onwards,’ she smiles cautiously.
‘I’m going up the coast,’ he replies.
Albertina nods. One direction is as good as another. The coast sounds nice; fresh. Why not? Something will turn up. She hefts her bags into the foot-well and, gathering up her skirt, climbs nimbly into the cab. The driver indicates the seat belt and reaches over to help her. His hand brushes briefly against her left breast. She looks at him sharply but his attention is already focused on the road as he pulls away.
He eases the heavy vehicle out onto the busy highway, turning the radio up loudly. Albertina is grateful for the music; she doesn’t like to chat to strangers. She looks out of the window watching the sprawl of scruffy buildings give way to a patch of open land, then more buildings, this time huge, bland industrial buildings. She briefly wonders what goes on inside them. The truck driver taps on the steering wheel along with the music, apart from when he jabs at the horn or mutters an obscenity at some other road user. She winces inwardly at the words.
The truck turns off the freeway and onto the West Coast highway. The traffic is calmer and there is only bush and scrub beyond the edge of the tarmac. Albertina gazes out across the open country; the ocean is faintly discernible, a clear azure strip below the wide African sky. She winds down her window a little. The driver turns to her – they haven’t so much as exchanged names – and suggests they stop for a break. He needs to stretch his legs. Albertina nods and leans forward to reach inside the pocket of her holdall.
There is a rest stop a kilometre ahead: three sets of concrete tables with concrete stools surrounding them, set back from the road under a stand of shady trees. There is nobody else there. The driver parks up and jumps out of the cab. He strides round the front of the truck and opens the passenger door for Albertina. Although she is perfectly capable of dismounting by herself, he offers her a hand to help her down. Albertina’s bright pink pumps hit the ground lightly; the driver keeps hold of her hand and pulls her gently sideways, away from the door. Their eyes meet as he takes a step towards her. She takes a step back. He smiles pleasantly. ‘Come now,’ he says, ‘a little something for my trouble.’ He closes in and Albertina is caught between him and the side of the truck.
Quick as a flash, she whips out her little steel knife and holds the point against the side of his neck. The man’s eyes widen. He steps back, holding up his hands up in surprise. It is now Albertina’s turn to advance. She sets her face in a steely glare and, although inside her heart is fluttering with fear, she takes a step forward, knife raised. A long minute passes. A couple of cars go by; a bird shrieks in the tree above them. Then all is quiet.
Loud music breaks the silence heralding the arrival of a bright red sports car. It draws up sharply behind the truck, raising a cloud of dust. The driver looks around. Albertina’s gaze remains fixed on him. Car doors open and the music blares out more loudly. High female voices call out to each other. Paying no attention to the truck or the two people beside it they unload a cooler box from the car and dump it on the nearest table.
The driver holds out his hands, palms upward. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he says quickly. Albertina glances towards the noisy group of girls. She lowers the knife.
‘I’m getting your bags,’ the man says firmly. Albertina nods. Moments later her bags are on the ground and the truck is starting up. Albertina watches calmly as he drives away. She picks up her bags and goes to sit at the nearest table, looking across at the four long-limbed blonde-headed girls who are sipping from cans of cool drink.
‘Hey!’ One of the girls gets up and walks over to Albertina. ‘Ag, no! Did that guy just leave you here?’ She looks round at her friends and back at Albertina. ‘Shame, man!’ Another girl approaches and asks where she’s going. Albertina gestures vaguely up the road.
‘Lesley,’ the first girl calls out. ‘We can fit another one in the back, hey?’
Albertina now becomes the centre of attention. The skimpily-clad young women gather round, and one of them fetches a cool drink for her; they all mutter darkly about the ‘skelm’ driver. Albertina is a little overwhelmed, but happily accepts the offer of a lift. They can’t take her to where they’re staying, of course, but the nearest town will surely be fine. Albertina nods. It will surely be fine.
And so, after a whirlwind of a drive in the noisy little sports car, with its loud music and louder girls, and the howling wind which forced her to remove her second-best wig, so as not to lose it out of the open window, Albertina finds herself back on foot, carrying her two bulging bags into a busy little coastal town. By late afternoon, she’s found her way down to the harbour. She sets her bags down and stares out across the ocean. She breathes in the sharp, salty air and looks around. She has a good feeling about this place. Something will turn up, she thinks.