It was still dark out when Midha came into the room of her 6-year-old daughter. The little girl was curled up in a ball under the light sheets, her tiny body barely a bulge in the old worn mattress. She had pushed her pillow out from under her head and replaced it with her hand. Hand to cheek she slept silently and Midha watched her for a moment before gently shaking her awake. Hands on the child’s skinny shoulders.
“You have to wake up” said Midha.
“If we don’t leave now we will miss the train, and it’s a long walk to town”.
Midha held the hand of the little girl. The train station was busy. This was the worst time to travel because it was rush hour. At the break of dawn the people in the Townships took the train into the city. A trip that was 2 hours long and would be followed by long walks to their respective places of employment scattered about the city. The train station raised anxiety in the hearts of women. More so in those with little children. Kids were known to disappear or be snatched or lost or fall onto the tracks. Midha had seen it happen. She clutched the girls hand a little tighter.
“Stay close” she said.
“Yes mama” replied the little girl.
Yvonne had never been on a train before. This was the first time her mother had brought her along and she was scared and excited. The train station was an exciting place, lots of noise and movement. There were men in uniforms and some with backpacks and plastic bags with food and women with babies strapped to their backs with colorful cloth. Nobody noticed Yvonne as they pushed and shoved. The girl was barely visible in the motion. A lady wearing clicking high heels came towards them. She was beautiful with a black skirt on top of peach stockings. She wore a blue blazer and a hat and her hair was pin straight and black. Her lips were painted red and her dark skin glistened with sweat. She had probably just gotten off work, was maybe heading into town for her day job. Her eyes were glazed and tired and as she passed she stepped on Yvonne’s foot. Yvonne let out a tiny squeal and inched closer to her mother. The women kept walking. She hadn’t noticed.
“Utlwella. Hold on tight now” said Midha.
“Yes mama” replied the little girl.
The train was hot and the day would only get hotter. The people emanated heat. Skin to skin they stood swaying as one mass with the movement of the train. Some sat, suffocating under the weight of compressed bodies. But they were the lucky ones, they got to sit. Yvonne stood with her face against people’s legs and tummy’s and breasts clutching onto her mother’s hand. Midha permitted her to let go for just a second so that Yvonne might rotate in place and lean her forehead against the window. She was only just tall enough to see out. The window was misty with the dense air and heat of human breath. It smelt like bodies and sweat and wax. She watched the passing townships and dirty roads. Her twiggy dark braids stuck to the back of her neck and her forehead and moisture made beads on her upper lip. Pressed against her mother who was pressed against the crowd she was held by pressure. Her legs grew tired.
The first thing Yvonne noticed about the city upon arrival were the signs. She had heard the older kids at school talk about the city, how it was not a good place for anyone who’s skin wasn’t white or piggy pink. They put those signs up everywhere to scare us, to remind us that the city isn’t meant for us. As if we need reminding. Midha had warned the girl about the rules of the city. That spaces were assigned and not meant to be shared and that not following the rules could land you in big trouble. The police could lock you up, or worse. The signs were on benches, toilets, churches, schools and even clinics and hospitals. A black person would sooner die outside the hospital than be treated in a whites only clinic. Those were the rules; everyone was very careful not to disobey.
Midha kept hold of Yvonne’s hand as they walked from the train. She knew that their journey had only just begun and that the shops were a long way from the station. She also knew that the little girl besides her was already tired from the heat, and that the shoes on her feet –shiny and black school shoes, which were the only ones Midha could find that didn’t already have holes in them- were not meant for walking. Soon enough the girl started to whine about her toes pinching and complaining about her fatigued legs. Midhas clothes were sticking to her now, dampness forming in the palms of their conjoined hands. The pair passed park benches and bus stops with seats. Every time the girl asked to sit down.
“Shh. No child, those are not meant for us”.
“I’ll sit on the floor then, on the pavement. Please mama”.
Midha grimaced and her head felt like it was swelling. She hoped the child would not make a fuss by bursting into tears, that would be another problem.
Buses went up and down the streets. Yvonne asked why they could not get on them and sit. They were whites only buses so they weren’t an option. They were whites only and empty. Most white people had cars. Midhas stomach twisted. She took out a cloth handkerchief and wiped the girls shiny face and then her own. They kept walking.
When they finally arrived at the shops the excitement of new clothes made Yvonne forget her fatigue and she beamed with delight. Midha let out a sigh of relief. Yvonne got new shoes and school clothes and a pretty pink dress with little designs of elephants all over it. The girl was so happy she didn’t even care that they had to enter the stores through the back entrances, or stand in different cues. She put on her new sneakers and Midha smiled. After the shopping they drank from a water bottle Midha had brought. They found a naked bench that belonged to them and sat and ate the bread and beans premade for the trip. Yvonne’s legs swinging beneath her as they sat and ate in silence.
On the way back to the train station Yvonne needed to pee. Midha scolded the girl for drinking too much water and they quickened their pace. The little girl squirmed and her bottom lip quivered. Knots tightened in her stomach and she felt a flush of embarrassment.
“I need you to hold it Yvonne. Hold it and keep your eyes open, we are looking for a bathroom. Hold it a little longer please”.
Midha pulled the girl behind her, but every toilet they passed had signs. WHITES ONLY. Midha considered finding a bush to let the little girl relieve herself in, but fear prevented her from following through. Even that was risky. The girl begged and pleaded and all Midha could do was repeat the words not for us. The girl stopped walking and began to cry. Midha crouched down to look her in the face. It was only as she was wiping the tears from the little girls cheeks that she noticed the trickling of wetness coming down her leg. The journey home would be long but Midha held comfort in the thought that this part of the trip Yvonne would not likely remember. The brain has a funny way of erasing pain and discomfort in women and children.
This short story by Kagiso Pupp is the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition’s first place winner.