Afrida Madinda initially scanned her salary slip with dismay then her face cleared with the realisation that this would be the last time R200 would be deducted from her salary. The R800 she had borrowed hadn’t gone very far, but it had at least helped to tide them over a rough patch.
“It’s pay day today! Why are you looking so glum Afri?” Thembisa Tanyana stretched her arms above her head, shaking her body in a mock dancing movement. “I just love pay days. On Saturday morning I’m going to buy that lovely white dress with the black collar. You know, it’s the one I told you about last week. When Jake sees me wearing that … our weekend will be made!” She twirled around in a whirlwind of happiness and pretended to cuff her colleague on the shoulder.
“I feel I’m working for nothing, Thembisa.” Afrida sighed heavily, spreading out a sheaf of e-mails she had printed out as she did at the end of every month. “All I ever seem to do on a Saturday after pay day is walk around town paying bills.”
“It’s that husband of yours, sister. You should make him pay for some of those things.”
“He can’t help it, Tembi. He’s a man after all and so he needs some pocket money to use for cigarettes and to buy drinks for his friends. He says he would be the laughing stock of everyone he knows if he couldn’t do that.”
“When last did you get something for yourself, my friend? Some nail varnish or a new bracelet? I don’t think I’ll ever get married if my husband won’t even allow me to buy a new pair of earrings just because he chooses to bet on the horses or something!”
“Wilfred would never do something like that.” Afrida was still scanning the printed sheets when her eyes widened with indignation and she let out a small shriek. “Oh no!”
“What is wrong?” Thembisa dropped her modelling pose.
“These aren’t just the usual accounts. This one is also a letter of demand!” Afrida was barely whispering. “I can’t bear these threats anymore. I’ll have to see Mrs Odell about another advance on my salary.” She folded the printed sheets and shoved them into her bag, trying hard to hold back her tears.
“Look on the bright side,” Thembisa was trying to sound cheerful. “At least this way you’re not paying heavy interest like you did when you borrowed from the moneylender in ‘B’ Street.” She hugged her friend. “I must go now; I don’t want to wait too long for a taxi tonight!” She went out humming a happy tune.
When Afrida knocked on Mrs Odell’s door, the manageress of the transport depot was talking on the telephone and hardly seemed to notice Afrida, even though she motioned for her to be seated. This was disconcerting as Afrida had dressed with considerable care in a pink blouse which complemented her darker mauve skirt set off with a wide leather belt which boasted a fancy brass buckle. The cream calf-length coat was her most recent acquisition and exactly matched her soft leather shoes. She had wanted to look her best.
“I’m very sorry, Afrida.” Mrs Odell’s voice sounded much kinder than she looked. “Your records show that you have only just finished paying off your previous personal loan. If we advance you money now, you’ll simply be in debt again.” Her eyes were kind.
“Please Mrs Odell. I couldn’t bear the humiliation of being served a summons in front of our neighbours. We recently bought a house in Sagar Extension Three and I do so want everything to be perfect. If you can arrange for me to have an advance this time it will prevent that from happening. I will sort the accounts out regularly from now on, you’ll see.”
“You and your husband should sit down and work out a budget together,” Mrs Odell continued firmly. “You cannot go on like this. Your computer skills are improving and once you have learned to handle the reception while Mrs Philips is away, I’ll see what we can do about an increase for you. In the meantime, you simply have to curb your spending!”
‘Pay Saturdays’ were an agonising round of paying accounts. Usually Afrida tried to avoid letting anyone who knew her to see her at the accounts desks because one could never tell whether or not the clerk would say something embarrassing about the amount still owing. This time, however, Wilfred was with her and he was in a good mood.
“We need to buy a decent dining room table and chairs,” he told her gaily. “That ‘kitchen set’ just doesn’t look good with the new lounge furniture we have. Our friends will think we’re trying to live on the cheap!” He guided her into the furniture store, where she felt engulfed by the array of tables – and quaked inwardly at the prices. The shop wouldn’t extend credit, the salesman told them curtly, as they were already behind with their payments. He lost interest in them and turned his attention to other potential customers. Wilfred looked angry.
“Wilfred, perhaps we should wait a month or two,” Afrida suggested tentatively. She hated his sudden mood changes.
“Nonsense, Afri! I’ve already invited the Ralas and the Mdanas round for a meal on Sunday.” He sounded sulky.
“Oh Wilfred, how could you? What are we going to give them to eat?” She tried to suppress the panic welling up inside her.
“If you feel that way, I’ll simply take the menfolk to the shebeen.” He still sounded angry and was clearly disappointed.
“No, wait. Let us open a new account at that furniture shop in Kerry Street. We’ll manage the repayments somehow.” Afrida desperately wanted to encourage their relationship with the Mdanas as they were a well thought of couple who served on several community-based committees. Mrs Mdana, she hadn’t dared yet to call her Noluthando, had shown some interest in her after church. To be openly connected with her socially would be akin to stepping into a higher level of society …
Afrida felt pleased with the furniture once it was installed in their home and she basked in the admiration from friends. “How do you and Wilfred manage to do it?” they all gasped. She consciously suppressed the nagging concerns about making the repayments; the salesman had made it all sound so easy and the admiration of their friends made it all seem so worthwhile anyway. Wasn’t it?
“You’ve remembered that my parents are coming to stay with us this weekend?” Wilfred sounded anxious, having borrowed his taxi fare from Art Lencau, a moneylender who charged a high interest for even small amounts. “We must have the place looking good for them. Have you got a new duvet cover for their bed?” He laughed happily at the prospect of his parents’ admiration.
Afrida smiled at her husband as he left the taxi at the stop before she got off. Their little house looked perfect. She had seen a picture of a large bowl of fruit on a dining room table and planned to use the closely woven basket her mother-in-law had given her two years before. A variety of fruit could be bought on Friday afternoon. Still thinking about the forthcoming visit, Afrida smiled at Thembisa as she sat down in front of her computer.
It wasn’t easy to type very fast and accurately when the language was unfamiliar and she particularly disliked being given the Afrikaans letters to do because they slowed her down even more. At least the spreadsheets were increasingly easier to manage. Thembisa was happy enough checking the parcels and other cargo against the lists on her clipboard as they were loaded or unloaded. She also enjoyed flirting with the drivers, but one couldn’t do that forever. Afrida had ambitions to go further.
She noted with distaste that Thembisa was wearing more or less the same outfit for the third day in a row. Her own style of dressing meant more laundry to be done over the weekends, but at least she looked different every day. Why, only last week, someone on the taxi had asked if she was a secretary at the legal firm nearby. Glowing at the thought, Afrida halted her typing in mid-sentence: clothes. They would need new clothes for the visit!
She rushed out during her lunch break to look for a suitable outfit at the nearby clothing shop. Wilfred had an account at a men’s clothing shop and could get something later. She placed her carefully chosen items on the counter and withdrew her card from the leather card holder – a gift she had received for opening an account. The sales assistant rang up the purchases, took the card and pressed a key on the computer. She scanned through the seemingly bewildering columns of figures on the screen and returned the card with a slight smirk.
“I’m sorry, you are too far behind with payments for us to allow further credit on your account. If you would like to pay a cash deposit on these …” Afrida didn’t wait to hear the rest. She replaced her card in the holder and walked out of the shop with as much dignity as she could muster, leaving the clothes she had selected in an untidy heap on the counter. Deposit? She only had enough cash for bread, milk and the taxi fare in her purse – and what about the fruit she needed to buy?
Suppressing the horror of receiving yet more letters of demand, Afrida calmly opened a new account at a slightly cheaper clothing store and added the shiny new plastic card embossed with gold numbers to the others in the leather holder. It was a relief to know that she would be well turned out for the visit after all. She walked home with her purchases despite the heat, saving the taxi fare for later. Mamma Keletso might be persuaded to part with some of her fruit with a promise to pay later …
“Wilfred, you’ve got to do something about this!” Afrida had begun to cry. “What will the neighbours think of us when they see our furniture being collected at the end of the month? They will laugh at us and we will lose all the social connections we have made.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Your birthday bonus could help to clear some of our debts. Perhaps if you stopped drinking with your friends at the weekend and if you took a loan against your salary we could – “
“Nonsense Afrida.” Her husband’s voice was sulky. “I’ve already promised our friends a braai with my bonus. What a fool I would look now if I said my nagging wife wishes me to spend it on accounts instead. Nobody spends their bonus on settling debts, Afrida – nobody! I’m not about to be the first. I’ve worked hard for that money and deserve to have a little for myself.” He closed his wardrobe door with a slam and shrugged into a casual jacket. “I’m going out!”
“What about our beautiful furniture? I would never be able to hold my head up if they took it away.” Weeping, Afrida thrust the demand note at him. “We only have three weeks, Wilfred, please!”
Afrida emerged from the furniture store feeling close to tears and yet triumphant at the temporary stay of execution. Wilfred had grudgingly handed over a portion of his bonus and that, together with the advance she had begged for had ‘bought’ another month. During her discussion with Mrs Odell to secure the advance, she had become overwhelmed with what their lifestyle was costing them. It had been embarrassing to reveal her debts, but Mrs Odell had insisted this was the only way she could guide her through her predicament.
To her surprise Mrs Odell had offered to pay her to sew new curtains for the office reception area. Afrida rented Mrs Molefe’s sewing machine for ten percent of whatever she earned from it. Wilfred, still angry about having to cut down on the food and drink for his ‘bonus braai’, had stopped accompanying her to church and spent most of his weekends drinking and playing cards with friends in the local shebeen. Feeling hurt at being left alone to cope with the housework, Afrida negotiated an extended loan of the sewing machine. As they seldom entertained anymore, she decided to do something to get them out of the quagmire they were in – even if Wilfred tried to pretend that they had no financial difficulties.
Two months later, Afrida had sewn two dresses for her mother, two outfits for herself and four dresses for Mrs Cetu’s granddaughters. Having been praised for these and been paid in cash gave Afrida the confidence to wear her own creations to work. “You look wonderful Afri!” Thembisa greeted her warmly. “With so many debts to pay, how do you manage to dress so beautifully still?” Thembisa sounded wistful.
“I sewed this skirt and blouse myself.” Afrida proudly turned about to show her outfit off to best advantage. “I dyed those beige shoes of mine to match and see,” she placed her foot onto a chair to invite closer inspection, “you can barely see the scuff marks, so it looks like a new pair of shoes!”
“But how do you pay for the material?” Thembisa eyed her curiously.
“I started with the curtain money Mrs Odell paid me and keep some back from what I charge others to sew for them. I have vowed not to buy any more clothes on account until I have cleared them at both clothing stores.”
“He must look after himself.” Afrida turned away quickly before Thembisa could see the tears pricking at her eyes. “I must get to work now.”
“Wait, Afrida. Would you sew me two outfits like that before I go on leave next month? I’d pay you cash for them.” Afrida felt as though she was typing on air. Nomfundo Hlati had ordered two long skirts and Princess Liwani had brought her a pattern and material to sew an evening dress: she could begin to increase her charges!
“That’s the last of your debt paid off, Afrida.” Mrs Odell smiled as she handed over the payment slip. “I hope that this time your advance really helped you get yourself sorted out.”
“Oh yes, Mrs Odell. That, together with the money I’ve made from sewing has cleared my clothing accounts. I’ve also started doing alterations and I am hoping to offer to buy Mrs Molefe’s sewing machine for cash at the end of February.”
“What about your husband?”
Afrida laughed out loud. “He got a real fright when he was thrown out of the shebeen. That was when his ‘friends’ abandoned him. He comes to church with me sometimes and has promised not to buy anything more until we can afford it. In fact, he’s actually enjoying making money on the side from the vegetables he’s started growing in our back yard!”
“Power to you, sister!” Thembisa laughed as they walked to the taxi rank together. “I say, is that a new perfume you’re wearing?”