Recipe Recollections

Its funny how life turns on itself. I was about to find out just how much , as I sat oblivious to the future, sipping a coffee and waiting for the woman to arrive.
She had seen my interview on the morning show and wanted to chat with me about my new book. It sat proudly in front of me on the table and I slowly paged through it again as I had done a thousand times before. I had written a recipe book with a twist, “A brave glimpse into the collective sin of a nation” as one critic had put it. The book was written through the eyes of a child growing up during apartheid, on the white side of the fence. I was that child. And I am this woman, because of someone named Mavis, a maid to my mother, a mother to me.
My finger traced the dedication I had written for her on the front page and I wondered where she was or if she ever thought of me. My mind picked over memories of her, most of them wonderful, and skittered over those that weren’t.
I sat back, sipping my coffee, remembering the times her and I had spent in the kitchen together. Boy could that lady cook! I could almost smell the vetkoek, the koeksisters and the butternut soup with a twist, as she would chirp with a wink. Mavis had taught me an art, wrapped in flour and love. She had created magic in that awful eighties kitchen, with its chipped formica tops, linolium tiles lifting in places and heavily barred windows.
My childhood home was a Benoni special, right on the railway, two blocks down from the veld I wasn’t allowed to walk through. The house was typical government issue and sat on a small plot. It was surrounded by cement walls topped with the jagged edges of broken bottles. Cosmos grew in clumps in the garden and that was about the only attempt my mother made at making the place look pretty. It somehow just ended up looking sad though. Just like my mother. Sad and crumpled. She would try to pretty up when my father came home, spraying her hair into stiff peaks, slashing on her pink lipstick, and generally fluttering around like a bird with a broken wing. When my father was due home she would make sure that Mavis got down and scrubbed floors and cleaned windows and all that stuff. I always asked if I could help but my mother said that it wasn’t a good idea, that if I gave a finger, Mavis would want an arm. I never understood what she meant by that, but was too afraid to ask because it sounded rather painful. My mother was a vague figure in our house when my father wasn’t home, tucking into her gin and ciggies on the stoep most of the time. It was great because Mavis and I could cook and sing songs and generally have a good time without feeling guilty. But, then my father would arrive and the house would become dark. Mavis would become quietly efficient, almost invisible and my mother would suddenly become a bossy missus to her, would smother me with wet gin kisses and jump up and down like a jack in the box if my father so much as cleared his throat.
He was a huge man, with massive hands and quite a boep on him. He smelled of cigarettes and Brut aftershave and booze most of the time.
My father came home every couple of weeks. He worked as a policeman, in the townships, doing “township tours”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded like he enjoyed it. I overheard him telling my mother once that he had ridden over a ‘munt’ in his ‘Caspir’ in Alexandra township just for fun… that it was the eighties and that if we didn’t keep the ‘munts’ in their place, they would murder us all in our sleep!
I wondered who these ‘munts’ were that my father had to keep under control with his ‘Caspir’. All I did know was that if they were half as afraid of him as I was, they would know better than to behave badly or my father would give them such a klap, like he would to me and my mom when he was angry with us.
He needed to drink to get things that he had seen in the townships out of his head. That’s what he said to my mother after he had flat handed her across the face one day and then came back with some cosmos out of the garden to say sorry. I tried to stay out of my father’s way and with the help of Mavis I succeeded most of the time.
Then one day everything changed.
That day, I lay hidden beneath Mavis’ bed and counted her tokolosh bricks over and over. Mavis said that those bricks holding her bed high off the ground, were what kept her safe at night from the tokolosh.
My father was the tokolosh in my life. So I figured the best place to stay hidden when he came home, was under Mavis’ bed, in her warm little room at the end of the garden.
Her room was dark and smelled of paraffin and pap. My mother would delicately wrinkle her nose and clutch at her throat ever so slightly when she had to come anywhere near Mavis’ room. She made sure it wasn’t often. Most times she would just stick her head out of the kitchen door and yell “Maviiisss!”,and boy, if Mavis wasn’t at the kitchen door in a shot, you would see my mother clucking her tongue and muttering something like, “Bleddy ousies.”
My mother always had lots to say about the ‘Bleddy ousies’to her friends. Then they would also shake their heads and cluck back. I could never understand what this was about, so one day I asked Mavis what ‘Bleddy ousies’was . Oh how she laughed, tears running down her shiny black cheeks, bosom jiggling like no one’s business.
My mother was like a stick insect, all jerky and angles. She gave awkward hugs, you know, when they just don’t feel right. But now, Mavis, boy, could she hug! It was where I loved to be most on earth, folded in amongst Mavis’ huge boobs, smelling moth balls and zambuk and love. It was my safest place, followed closely by my hiding spot here, under her bed, counting bricks while my father tore the house apart. I felt as though I were in a dark bubble where no one could touch me.
I could hear my mother shrieking in the lounge and so I put my hands over my ears and started to sing the song Mavis had been teaching me that morning. We had been in the kitchen and I was writing down recipes for her because she couldn’t read or write. Can you imagine not being able to read or write? So I did my absolute best, dotting my i’s with hearts, poking my tongue this way and that with intense concentration.
Mavis’ cooking was the best and we’d put together quite a collection of recipes already. She said that one day she would give the recipes to her daughter, if she ever had children, but that the ‘missus’ kept her too busy here in Benoni at our house for her to get back to her homeland in Venda.
It was a shock for me to hear that Mavis had another family far away! I always thought she just lived here! Mavis told me that my father kept her passbook, so she was stuck here, but that she would one day make a plan. I just hoped that when she did make a plan, she would take me with her.When I asked her about this, she just shook her head and said white people couldn’t live in Venda. She had tears in her eyes and stroked my head softly. I could tell she was sad, and that made me feel sad too, though I wasn’t sure why. Anyway, I thought, Mavis would be with me forever, just as she had always been.
I carried on singing my song, but as loud as I sang, my mother and father were louder. I pulled my knees up against my chest and drew patterns on the dusty floor under the bed, counting bricks as fast as I could. This was the worst fight my parents had ever had. I squeezed my eyes tight, watching the splotches of colour against my eyelids. I listened to my breathing and felt my heart wanting to fly right out of my chest. Opening my eyes, I wished for Mavis’ feet to magically shuffle into my line of sight, but all I saw were little dust balls floating upward on my breath.
My mother was sobbing now and so I peeped out from under the bed to see what was happening. She was in a heap on the courtyard floor outside the kitchen door. Mavis was holding a lappie to my mother’s face, trying to stop blood from trickling onto her blouse.
My fathers’ large form darkened the kitchen door. Just as my mother tried to flatten herself further into the cement floor, so rose Mavis to her full height and planted herself firmly in front of my father. She crossed her arms over her bosom and said, “No more Baas.”.
His back hand snapped her head back and with one movement he had her on the ground, face down on the concrete. With one hand he pulled up her skirt and yanked his belt out of his pants with the other.
Spit flying from his mouth he shouted, “You don’t fucking tell me what to do with my family. You are a kaffir! A nothing!” All anger turned upon Mavis, my father brought the belt down hard on the back of her body. Then with his knees, he spread her legs apart, tearing at her pantyhose.
When he pulled his pants down, I closed my eyes. My mother always told me that it was very unladylike to see a mans naked parts. So I shut my eyes and sang my song, not noticing the muddy puddle that I had made when I let myself go in fright.
Eventually everything was quiet and eyes screwed tight, I sang myself to sleep under Mavis’ bed.
When my mother eventually found me and brought me into the house, life had changed forever. I could feel that the house was empty. My father was gone, but so was Mavis.
I asked my mother where she was and she told me that Mavis had been a bit ‘voor’ . She had interfered with family business and we just couldn’t have that in our house. A maid must know her place. So Mavis had been fired.
At this piece of information, given to me in ice cold chunks, I collapsed into gulping tears.
“Don’t be silly!” my mother said, “You are 10! Girls your age don’t cry like babies over a maid! There are plenty more looking for work so we will just get another one.”
I looked at my mother and realised that I had just somehow participated in evil. I just wasn’t sure how. Already what I thought I had seen was becoming strangely distorted. Reality seemed to melt into a nightmare.
That was the summer I grew – inwards mostly. From then on I kept the memory of Mavis close to me. My love of cooking grew from those memories because I felt closest to her in the kitchen, perfecting the recipes I had written down for her.
And so here I was, sitting at a restaurant, twenty years on, paging through the recipe book and waiting for my appointment, remembering the woman who had given love to me, when I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. My appointment had arrived.
I turned around to face a young woman, the image of Mavis, with the lovliest honey brown face and eyes as blue as my fathers.



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