By the time you read this letter, I will be dead.
I’m not sure how you will feel about my death since you have been killing me mentally bit by bit ever since that day, many weeks ago, when Terry jumped out of our bedroom window in his underwear.
Maybe you will finally forgive me.
Maybe society will never absolve me of this final act of wanting to be free, or indeed the infidelity that led to this suicide, but I felt I owed it to you to explain. Thus, this note.
On that fateful day when my perfect world came crashing down, I could not believe my eyes. The man who’d thought me an angel had in an instant lost all faith in me, while the man who pleased and amused me in other ways was gone, never to return again.
When you came in and I whispered to Terry, “That’s him. My husband,” I know he could not believe it either.
What I don’t understand is how Terry could ever have believed that a beautiful woman like me could be single. But even more than that, did he think I had my own place, in this age and era? In the 1950’s, in apartheid-era South Africa where the black man is oppressed, but the black woman even more so because she cannot own or rent property? After all, I spent most mornings with him (except during the weekends) and he never saw me taking in any washing, so just where did he think I got my money from? He certainly didn’t see me running a shebeen or reporting for a ‘night shift’ at the corner of Victoria Road.
Ahhh, to be a simple man. Maybe he was drunk the entire three months I was with him. But then again, Terry and I never did talk much.
I never wanted you to find out the way you did.
If truth be told, I never wanted you to find out, full stop. I have my suspicions about how you found out. My mind tells me, even now, as I draw my final breaths, that it probably came from that old woman, MaMaphikela. She and those old women friends of hers from church never could seem to mind their own business. It might have been even worse for me, because I had everything that they wanted, but could not get.
You have always been a kind, reliable husband – while their husbands drank all their money away at the shebeens. And then too, I am young and beautiful, and men are attracted to me, Phil. Something they lost when they married, but I never did. Their husbands seem to want them to create more suffering black children, while you have always been about us waiting until we have money.
“When our children come, Tilly,” you like to say, “they will be as beautiful as you and as intelligent as me. But we need to wait until we have enough money, so that they won’t suffer. Or wait until I am a lawyer.”
And it shows sense, Phil. That you would still insist we have children when things are better, in spite of pressure from your mother and her sisters. It’s one of the most endearing qualities about you – your refusal to sacrifice your principles under pressure.
Anyway, I was explaining about that miserable day.
You have no idea how terrible that day was for me – how was I to know the following days would be worse?
On that day, I made sure that when you returned, the house was spick and span. You know I’m not much of a cleaner, but it was the nervous energy that got me doing all the cleaning. I was wearing the dress that prompted you to talk to me the very first time we met. I even made your favourite meal of rice, chicken, beetroot and potato salads with pumpkin on the side, even though it was not a Sunday. I hoped that this would help you to forgive me, maybe even forget a little and remember the good old days when it was just you and me.
But, no. It was not to be.
I watched you closely as you walked in that night from the shebeen, where you had gone in an attempt to drown out the images of what you’d seen in our bedroom earlier that day. Dear Phil, you were never much of a drinker, and normally, a few glasses can topple you, but on this day, even the alcohol failed you. I could see your messenger-boy-who-dreams-to-be-a-lawyer brain asking itself, “What makes a woman like this experiment with adultery?”
I will tell you what made me do it. And because by the time you read this I will be dead, I feel I can be painfully honest.
You are an intelligent man, even now, attending night school so that you can be a lawyer, learning what you can from your baas lawyer. You do not frequent Sophiatown’s drinking holes every day like the likes of that Can Themba journalist, or even Terry.
You would bring your full salary home every month-end, and we would sit down and budget together to save for our future and the children we hoped to have. You would discuss with me deep stuff about the unfortunate role of the black man in today’s apartheid South Africa. Half of the stuff I honestly did not understand. You would insist that we take our washing to the dry-cleaners because you did not want my soft hands to be destroyed by cheap soaps. You even made it a point to bring me breakfast in bed every morning before you went to work. So what made a woman like me toy with adultery? From the looks of things, you seemed like the perfect man. In fact, many women would argue that you were.
To start with, you were the only man I had ever been with.
When we married, you well know I was a virgin. Unfortunately, Phil, I spent my days at home alone most of the time while you were at work, and when you sit in the house with very little to do, you start wondering what else may be out there. You wonder whether there’s anything more to sex than the missionary position your husband always insists on. You wonder why many women spend ages at the communal tap talking about sex and how men are rocking their world when you have never felt anything like that. You wonder too, whether all there is to conversation is stuff about the Mandela’s and Sobukwe’s, meetings and marches on whether the authorities will care for our Sophiatown opinion when we say “we won’t go.”
You wonder whether there is more to life than the politics of “us” and “them.”
So one morning you pass by Thirty Nine Steps shebeen to get a Coke, and you feel a weird attraction to this man sitting there drinking a half-jack. You smile at him, and with guts you never knew you had, you invite him to finish his drink at your place. One thing leads to another and soon, apart from making dinner for you in the evening, Phil, he is the one thing that I look forward to every morning when I wake up. Between the two of you, I was waking up late in the mornings, worn out.
May be a woman is not supposed to love only one man, but needs two to get all the qualities she needs in her perfect man. Because I loved you. I still do, even as I pen these dying words. But in some odd way, I loved and still love Terry, too.
Right from the get-go, I noticed that you and Terry were different, Phil.
He is tall and fit in spite of the copious amounts of alcohol he consumes, while you are short and thin. He is dark, where you are fair, so fair that some might even mistake you for a Coloured.
You are serious and ambitious. Terry is funny and just happy to have a job and enough money to pay off his debts at Thirty Nine Steps.
You tell me that when you look at me, I remind you of what the Greek goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, must have looked like. Terry tells me I look better than Dolly Rathebe in those pin-ups in Drum. Now I am sure Aphrodite must have been something, but the only Greek woman I know is that fat woman whose husband runs the butchery and eish, Phil, sometimes a woman just wants to be Dolly.
You are complicated, you speak these deep English words, but you probably could not survive Sophiatown on your own after ten. I have never heard Terry say anything deep, yet I know he’s streetwise.
You get stressed out if I do not pay the rent the day you give me the money for it. Terry probably smooth-talks his way out of paying rent every other month, after he has drunk it all away, if his wife does not come to pick up the pay-cheque on payday.
I felt secure with both of you in different ways.
With you, I knew we would have a wonderful life together in old age, and with Terry, I knew when walking beside him, I was safe.
Terry was always the present, Phil.
The here and now.
I never once considered running away with him.
You, on the other hand, were my future.
Yes, Terry is a drunk. Yes, he’s probably a bad husband and as a teacher, a miserable role model for the children of Sophiatown, but Phil sweetie, Terry is exciting.
I never had to think too much about what I wanted to say before I opened my mouth when I was with him. With you, I am always trying to prove that yes, I read the paper. Yes, I learnt a new English word today. Yes, I listened to the news on the radio. No, I am different from all these women of Sophiatown who never have both beauty and brains.
Sometimes, it gets tiring.
But you caught me. And it was torture.
I could not believe that you would make me set a place at the table for The Suit, as a way of punishing me and ensuring that Terry would not come back to retrieve it.. It was hard at first, but soon I got used to it, particularly when you allowed me to join the social club at the church. For the first time, I had other young housewives for friends. I could share secrets and giggle with them. Some of them told me the type of bedroom stories that made me become wistful for Terry. Although we continued with the routine of feeding The Suit – and one Sunday you even made me take a walk with it – I was seriously beginning to believe that you were ready to realize that I had repented, and that you would soon forgive me.
Imagine my shock then, when in spite of the extra money you gave me to entertain my friends today, you still insisted I take The Suit out, put it at the table, and feed it, like I have to do when it’s just the two of us. With all those people looking at me, as if they all knew my embarrassing secret.
Sure, you did not try to tell the truth when I lied about our little game, by way of explaining what I was doing dishing for a suit, but still…
You humiliated me, Philemon. Yes, I admit. You got your revenge.
I cannot live with the shame. Soon the whole of Sophiatown will know about the woman who fed The Suit (Terry’s wife among them.)
I have nothing more to live for. You have successfully killed my spirit, so what, then, is the body? Your joke went too far – are you still laughing?
Oh, by the way, another reason I killed myself was that I just realized after you left to go and get your ‘genuine stuff’ of alcohol, I have been waiting and praying and worrying but I cannot fool myself any longer, Phil.
I am pregnant, Phil.
And I am not sure whether it’s yours or Terry’s. So I leave you both.
I wish you luck with your next wife.
Zukiswa Wanner is the 2015 winner of South African Literary Award’s K.Sello Duiker Award for her fourth novel, London Cape Town Joburg. Her other novels have been shortlisted for Commonwealth Best Book (Africa region) and the Herman Charles Bosman Awards. She has judged the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Fiction and is the Africa Judge for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017. A founding member of the ReadSA initiative, until recently Wanner sat on the board of the pan-African literary initiative Writivism and is on the Advisory Board of the Ake Literary Festival. She has facilitated writing workshops in Ghana , Tanzania, Kenya ,Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Germany. Wanner is a columnist for the continental publication New African, and Saturday Nation in Kenya and has been a guest-host for the monthly BBC Africa Book Club with Audrey Brown. She is the 2016 Danish International Visiting Artist (DIVA).
Photo Credit: Fungai Machirori