A colleague recently told me she reads my blog because it’s “entertaining” and “cheaper” than a well-known South African magazine.
Needless to say, I took it as a compliment. Also, I now feel fairly obliged to keep providing the reading material – which is not a problem. I love writing.
Herewith a story I wrote in 2014.
Six pack on a Saturday
As I walked into the liquor store the cashier seemed to recognise me. She was a pretty coloured woman with good cheekbones, striking eyes and beautiful hair and she locked her eyes in mine with rather more intent than necessary. I’d been there only twice before and that within the last year with having periodic travels in the vicinity only of late.
Generally, I notice an erratic array of things and by chance, I vaguely remembered her, but I have learnt long ago that I don’t have the type of face people remember easily so I felt a tad surprised at her expression of recognition. The store was nestled within a seemingly larger building on a very busy road but with its own convenient little parking lot and if you approached it from the right and exited to the left it was a quick and easy in and out place. Inside it seemed well-stocked which belied the size of the space as cosy; on closer inspection one noticed that it was warehouse-sized.
Perhaps the cashier didn’t recognise me but was simply being polite in greeting a customer. I so rarely came across that. It could be that I reminded her of someone else. Afterwards, I remembered she had looked at me intently on the previous occasions as well – and I remembered wondering about it then too.
On my way in I noticed crude black and white mug shots pasted to the inside glass of the double door entrance, all of black men. One was an A4 size and the man’s face stirred a memory, or a cross-reference, an inference or something indecipherable within the subconscious corners of my mind. To the best of my recollection, there was no sign to say who these people were, which made their display seem pointless. The pictures could have been from closed circuit surveillance, but something about them made me unsure of this. If they were shoplifters it might have been more useful to display the pictures where the staff could see them or maybe they were meant as a warning to offenders: we know who you are and we have cameras in this store.
Either way, I’m dubious as to the displaying of mug shots both in crime prevention and as some displaced idea of justice or law enforcement – although I hesitate to judge the general South African frustration with crime which sometimes seems the only thing that binds together all of us within these borders, even the criminals.
I did not stop to look at the photographs.
Walking towards the cold room at the back another employee nodded to me. He was not in an overall or uniform, but casually dressed and might have been a manager or part owner. He subsequently disappeared. Like the female cashier, he could have been roughly my age or younger.
There was hardly a handful of other people in the store, yet no one offered me assistance. This is not unusual. Apparently, my facial expression and deportment tell most people I know what I want and where to get it – or maybe I just don’t look like a big spender – either way, many a retail facility in my general vicinity clearly survive without the benefit of staff being overly helpful.
True to form I found my six pack of Castle Lights in no time – admittedly after using the privacy of the cold room to talk to myself audibly about the size and quantity I preferred – I didn’t like big bottles or eight packs – and made my way to the familiar cashier closest to the door.
As I put my beer on the counter a small van, what is known as a bakkie in South Africa, stopped outside the entrance. It reversed into what one would assume to be a no parking area directly in front of the double doors as if it was there to make a huge delivery. The storage canopy of the van blocked the view of everything outside and the vehicle was certainly positioned for the quickest possible exit from the small parking lot and into the main road of the surrounding suburb.
A thin man walked around the back of bakkie and spoke English to another man not visible to me. He was partly bald with grey hair around the temples. Although I could not hear his words he sounded like a mother tongue English speaker. His clothing was casual, but certainly as civilised as his voice. As it was a Saturday afternoon it initially struck me as an odd time for a delivery, and from where I stood the white bakkie seemed empty and unmarked.
Throughout the process of the car parking, I only felt what could be equated with the mental lifting of an eyebrow. I quickly decided this was just a guy dead-set on loading his purchases directly into his boot, possibly he had made prior arrangements with the staff to park there, for all I knew he could have owned the place.
But then I saw an unmistakable flash of fear in the pretty eyes of the cashier. She clearly did not know this man, did not expect that vehicle to be parked there and had become distracted from helping me with outright staring at the door, the man and the van.
Had it not been a middle aged white man moving around the car, I might have been less at ease myself. The sight of a greying white male had made me instantly assume arrogance instead of evil, perhaps revealing just how instinctive my own prejudice certainly is.
Although I was in no hurry on that particular day I live by the general dictum of time being of the essence and waiting for no-one. Therefore my first feeling was briefly a slight hint of irritation at the cashier whose movements had, by then, become entirely and clearly lethargic with fear.
Usually, I’m not talkative to strangers, but I felt confident that nothing was amiss. Her attention was misdirected. I had to fix it. And somehow I found myself daring the question to which, I suppose, I already knew the answer.
“Why do you look so worried?” I asked taking care to keep my tone as matter of fact as possible.
I knew exactly what she was thinking, but I didn’t want to reinforce by admission. Honestly, I expected her to say that nothing at all was the matter, but that wasn’t what I got.
The cashier slowly redirected her shoulders to face me instead of the door, but her head moved back and forth between the two points of attention. Then she dropped her chin to look up at me from under her lifted eyebrows with eyes stretched wide open.
“You don’t know!”
She neither rose her voice, nor whispered. She was speaking to me alone. Our public interaction had just become a private conversation between two women. And she was right: I didn’t know, or at least, I only knew as one who really does not.
When she spoke again the fear had spread from her eyes to her voice.
“We have to be! I have two children at home.”
I fished the cash from my wallet and felt a pang of sudden realisation. The thing about fear is … it makes no difference if the threat isn’t really there. A rational adult mind can tell itself to breathe deeply, to wipe sweat from the palms, to focus on something else, but it takes a long time to make yourself believe – just as it takes a long time to stop. She wasn’t a child fearing a monster under the bed. Soothing words are less effective against realities.
The fact was: the media reported armed robberies at establishments exactly like this one every day and some cases weren’t reported anymore unless someone had been shot or the loot had been some exceptional amount. People generally knew that many business owners requested silence from the police so that customers would not be scared off.
Hers was never supposed to be a dangerous job, but she was the first person in the line of sight from the entrance to the store, she was seated to overlook her cubicle and cash register rather than safely behind a counter and her seat faced the inside rather than the door. She was not large, but she didn’t look agile. Anyone would be clumsy getting down to the floor from that cubicle, and clumsiness would be dangerous.
“You just give them whatever they want,” I said.
“I’ll give them this whole place,” she answered. “They can take whatever they want, they must just leave me alone!”
With that, she made an expansive gesture towards the stock.
Of course, I’ve never been robbed myself, I hardly speak to strangers let alone dish out advice, but I felt an unusual urge to utter what was really an attempted verbal denial of my uselessness to this other human being. There was no hint of whining or even self-pity in her voice, nor had she raised her tone. It was the same pitch in which she had a moment earlier asked me if that would be all, but there is something very distinctive about a voice dry with dread. It is as shrill a sound as the scratching of chalk on a blackboard. Once you’ve heard it, you remember it and when you hear it, you taste it as well. It was in my mouth where the innermost fear, the intensity of predicament and the acute injustice of the situation of a complete stranger suddenly became my own.
“Don’t ever look them in the eye,” I added.
She did not touch my hand as she handed me my change, but our eyes met once more.
“Thank you,” she said sincerely as I picked up my beer. She wasn’t referring to the purchase.
I hadn’t done anything worthy of being thanked. She seemed to have already known the scant advice I had offered. Yet her voice made me believe she was touched by my concern. If you could call the worthless words of a stranger concern. Truthfully, several images of fear and violence, of bullets and blood, of lead rupturing soft flesh, the awful lack of hiding space and things that should never be put to words did really flash through my mind as I stood there.
In my chest I felt an inner plea that none of what I had involuntarily visualised should ever, ever be allowed to take place. I felt an intense revolt against harm coming to the human being in front of me, the fragile young mother whose children awaited her arrival at whatever place she might call home. It must have been so far from where we were and so far from what I called home.
But the collection of brain activity which formed my next unspoken thought revealed a truth which discomforted me even longer than my moment of insight into another person’s fear. It really just isn’t possible to be someone else and to forget yourself for more than the most fleeting instances of untimed consciousness. For it came to me that I wanted to be nowhere near that liquor store if it ever got robbed. I wanted no place for myself in any of the perfectly possible scenarios I had seen in her eyes. I wanted not just to be physically unharmed, unthreatened or unnoticed. I wanted more than anything to be as far away as possible from even the idea of witnessing any violence as well as any memory or knowledge of it. I could never do her job, not for great reward neither for the sake of someone else. And with embarrassingly great relief I realised I could take my beer and go and that I verily could choose never to return to that specific liquor store ever again.
My second-hand words of advice had dried in my mouth and I had not the faintest idea what to say.
“Good luck,” I offered as we parted.
As if luck would keep her safe. Again she seemed grateful, as if she saw in me a beer buying saint instead of the coward I had just recognised in myself.
Afterwards, I tried in my mind a version of these events in which she would have told me to keep my asinine advice to myself. A version in which she would have thundered and sworn that I had not had the faintest idea of what it was to tap someone else’s till on a Saturday afternoon to the tune of an hourly wage while constantly knowing the next customer might be the last. That when I twisted the lid off my Castle Light and looked down the bottleneck to a relaxing drink at the braai she might be looking into the barrel of a gun.
Also, I had to wonder if anything had previously happened to her or at that store to have spooked her so. Most people lull themselves into not thinking of all that can go wrong and surely the fear I had seen in her eyes could not have been a constant throughout her working day without routine detachment setting in. Unless the fear was based on an actual memory. But then, what do I know about such things?
On my way out I almost bumped into the grey-haired man who was still moving about and intermittently speaking to someone. He had talked and walked directly into my way without looking, causing me to halt my step, recoil and swerve around him. As soon as he noticed me he offered a hearty apology.
He had a deep masculine voice and wore a plaid shirt with tan trousers and his apology sounded in diction and tone as if we were on the English countryside right in the middle of a Jane Austen novel where any fine gentleman would have sincerely apologised to a lady for a momentary lack of attention causing the slightest of inconvenience to her afternoon stroll.
It was one of those very unfriendly windy afternoons in the friendly city. Waves of hot air gushed about testing the tender new leaves and spring blossoms and tore at the newly built birds’ nests.
I promptly replied, “It’s all right,” trying to make my voice audible in the lukewarm air as I rushed to my car.
I didn’t care for the grey haired man with the refined voice who knew exactly where he wanted to park. The man with the van had become the villain he had been mistaken for and I could summon no logic of ignorance or innocence in his defence as I passed him.
My sympathies I had left at the till, but closing the car door left the noise of the wind and the world outside and I wasted no time in driving away.
7 September 2014