Selected for the 2013 Short Story Day Africa anthology, Feast, Famine & Potluck.
Marmalade rubbed herself against Ncumisa’s leg as she fumbled to unlock the door. Clare was out, probably at the gym. Once more the thought occurred to Ncumisa, even more so now that the house was unoccupied: This place is so empty. It was immaculately clean as usual, the wooden floors gleaming, the scarlet scatter cushions perfectly arranged on the solemn black leather couches. Soulless. It looked more like a doctor’s waiting room than a lounge.
Ncumisa switched the kettle on and rummaged through the fridge. On the first day she had worked there, Clare had nonchalantly swept her arm towards the kitchen. “Help yourself to anything you want,” she had said. But there was nothing to eat, certainly nothing that was appetising. There was rye bread, which tasted off; tofu, which had no flavour at all; some milk for making tea at least; that was it. Ncumisa resolved there and then to bring her own food from home or to buy a vetkoek from the taxi rank, otherwise she felt sure she would starve.
She heard a plaintive cry and looked down; it was Marmalade. The poor cat was as hungry as she was. She filled her bowl with kibbles and returned to making her tea. A delicious smell crept through the window, filling her nostrils with the appealing promise of good food. Hearth food, home-cooked and wholesome, vegetables, spices, tomato broth and… what was it? Lamb, yes, lamb. It smelt like her mother’s Transkei cooking, out on an open fireplace in a potjie.
Her reverie was shattered by the sound of keys jangling in the front door. Clare was home, dressed in her sports clothes. She had the most impossibly tiny bottom, Ncumisa marvelled. How white women could have such a small posterior was a mystery to her, she who had had an hour-glass figure from the age of 13. Clare’s husband Nick had commented that she “had a body to die for”, but Ncumisa wasn’t so sure. It seemed to her that something was missing from her svelte frame, something soft and warm and feminine.
“There is the most beautiful smell coming from next door,” said Ncumisa as Clare sipped a glass of water.
“Really?” replied Clare, betraying a hint of curiosity. “That’s funny, I thought the house was empty.”
In the semi-detached house alongside theirs lived a retired German couple that were swallows. They chased the summer sun like migrating birds, spending spring and summer in Cape Town, then returning to enjoy the same sequence of warm seasons in Berlin. They had been gone a month now, although Greta had said that an estate agent had been appointed to lease the house in their absence.
“Maybe you should go around and say hello?” suggested Ncumisa.
Clare smiled. Yes, she thought. Perhaps I will.
Juanita had the most enormous mane of hair that Clare had ever seen. It stuck up all around her round face, fuzzy and utterly untamable. Perched on her nose, which featured a gold ring, was a pair of black-rimmed glasses, which tempered the wild appearance of her hair. She clattered through the house with her high heels, bracelets and ankle chains all jingling in unison. “Yes,” she said. “We moved in two nights ago. We’ve just sold our flat in Woodstock and are staying here for a few months while we do renovations to our new house.”
The first reason that prompted the move walked into the hallway. Noah looked about three, mucus stains streaked across his cheeks. A green slug peeked out his left nostril. He had the same Afro as his mother, only his was darker. He glared at Clare, kicked off his boots and darted back into his room.
“He was getting too big to live in a flat anymore,” sighed Juanita. “There was no garden. Otherwise we could quite happily have stayed there.”
The second reason was her ailing mother, whom Juanita referred to as Ma. Ma was the alchemist responsible for the intoxicating smells emanating from the kitchen. She was a tiny woman, hunched over the stove top, rendered almost invisible by the jets of steam coming from the collection of pots. She at least, Clare was pleased to note, did not have a huge head of hair. She had almost none, just a few strands scraped back into a bun.
“What are you making?” inquired Clare politely.
Ma cocked her head. Clare repeated her question.
“It’s a bredie,” she said. “You know what a bredie is?”
Clare shook her head.
“It’s a stew. You fry the onion and the lamb and wait till it’s braised. Then you add the stock and water with the carrots, the beans, the potatoes and the diced tomatoes. You see? It’s easy. Then you gooi in the coriander right at the end. Fantasties!”
Juanita looked at her mother admiringly. “Ma is the only person I know who starts cooking supper at 11 o’clock in the morning,” she said.
“Of course, of course,” chuckled Ma. “Otherwise it just wouldn’t taste right.”
“Why don’t you join us for supper tonight?” asked Juanita as she picked up Noah’s boots.
“Oh, I…” Clare struggled for an excuse that wouldn’t offend. “We don’t want to impose.”
“Nonsense! What time do you normally eat – 8 o’clock? Noah should be asleep by then. Bring a bottle of wine. We’ll provide everything else.”
“Well, I suppose…” Clare pushed back a few stray blonde hairs off her face. “We don’t have anything else on. Thanks.”
Two candles stood like sentries, guarding either end of the table, which had been draped with a Congolese cloth which glittered with bright geometric patterns. The food had already been placed in serving dishes, the smell of saffron rice rising delicately above the heady smell of red meat. “Wow,” gasped Nick. “This looks like a feast.”
He had been delighted when Clare told him about the invitation. Although theirs was a happy union, he often despaired of his wife’s complete lack of cooking skills. Rather than upset her by complaining, he had opted for the path of least resistance: having a full-course meal at the office canteen and then eating soup and egg on toast in the evening. It was healthier to have a light meal at dinner time, he had reassured himself. And Clare seemed happy eating her steamed fish and anemic vegetables, so they had reached an uneasy culinary compromise.
Ma, flushed with her efforts, collapsed down in a chair. Colin, Juanita’s thick-set husband, sat at the head of the table and said grace. Nick couldn’t make out what he said because it was it was in Afrikaans. He did catch one word – dankbaar. And that was how he felt – thankful.
They tucked into the meal and as the food slid down into their bellies, mixing with the full-bodied Merlot, they slowly attained that wonderful feeling of satiety, where your body feels heavy but your heart feels light. The conversation continued around them. Nick was explaining why his profession, architecture, was so subject to the whims of the economy and Colin, a building contractor whose paint-stained hands attested to his work, agreed. “But there will always be work for us,” he said, “because people like fixing up their houses. It’s become a kind of national pastime. And rather spend a few thousand renovating your house than buy a new one, don’t you think?”
Juanita smiled broadly at her husband. She has the most perfect set of teeth, mused Clare, who was always self-conscious of her own slightly skew ones. Juanita was a librarian, although since Noah had been born she had decided to stop working.
“And what do you do?” she asked, flashing her brilliant smile at Clare.
“I’m studying. Psychology. Part-time.” The words shot out of her mouth at irregular intervals like bullets.
“Clare’s a fitness instructor,” said Nick. “That’s why she has such an amazing body.”
Clare fiddled with her wedding ring while her husband patted her shoulder affectionately – or condescendingly – Clare couldn’t make out which.
“Oh,” said Juanita, whose voluptuous figure was barely restrained in the floral dress she wore. “That’s probably just what I need. I’d love to shed my baby weight.”
“Well, Clare could use some cooking lessons, so maybe you can help each other out. What do you say, babe?”
Clare smiled thinly. She couldn’t shake Nick’s patronising tone. “Sure,” she said. “Good idea.”
“I’m absolutely famished!” Juanita clutched her belly for mock effect. “Surely after all that working out we can reward ourselves with a little snack?”
“Sure,” said Clare, not wanting to sound like a spoilsport. “What did you have in mind?”
Juanita popped her head into the fridge. “Oh,” she said flatly. “Not much here. Why don’t you come over to my place?”
A sticky-sweet smell embraced them as they walked into Ma’s kitchen. “Koeksisters,” she said by way of greeting.
“Koeksisters? That’s not very healthy,” lamented Clare.
“But oh-so-utterly divine,” countered Juanita, “especially my mother’s.”
Ma explained to Clare how they were made and the difference between the Afrikaans koeksisters – plaited and twisted – and the Malay ones, which were oblong in shape, laced with spices like ginger, cinnamon, aniseed and cardimom and then finely dusted in coconut.
“I could eat a dozen of them in one go,” sighed Juanita.
“But you mustn’t,” chided Clare. “Remember your hard workout this morning. You don’t want to undo it all.”
Juanita’s expression was sheepish. “We’ll just have one or two.”
Noah bounded down the passage, a bright look on his face. “Koeksisters! Yummy to tummy!”
Ma bent down and handed him one.
“Ma, Ma – put it on a plate, please.” It was evident that Juanita was at pains to impress her visitor. “Sit down, Clare – we’ll have tea in the lounge.”
The lounge was an odd assortment of different-sized couches, all covered with the same Congolese fabric to conceal a multitude of sins – stains, tears and scuffs. Clare had the same feeling one gets when sitting on a bus seat, the sickening thought of how many other people’s bottoms had rested there before her and the varying degree to which they were hygienic or not. She doubted whether Juanita had ever bothered to clean her couches. The throws were just an attempt to disguise the real state of them. Gingerly, she eased herself onto the edge of the nicest-looking sofa.
Suddenly an oblique shaft of light illuminated her, bursting through the steely-grey clouds. Clare noticed the intense colours of the cloth and the intricate pattern of the design. All at once, the ritual of drinking tea overcame her, the poise of holding a cup on a saucer, the steam tickling her nose. She watched Juanita and her mother, deep at work dunking her koeksister in her cup, and decided to do the same. Sucking the tea through the gooey flesh of the doughnut was an oddly satisfying sensation. The coconut prickled her lips.
“We have a potluck club,” Juanita interrupted her abstraction.
“What’s a potluck club?” Clare dusted the crumbs off her mouth.
“Well, it’s a bit like a stokvel. You know what that is, right?”
“Everyone pools their money together and then they each take turns at helping themselves to the cash.”
“Basically, yes,” said Juanita, slurping her tea and smacking her lips. “It’s a club. We get together once a month. Everyone brings something that they’ve made. We eat and that’s it.”
“Sounds like fun.” Or not so fun, thought Clare, especially if it involves cooking or baking.
“Would you like to join ours?” Juanita’s pearly whites were catching the sunlight and dazzling her.
“Or you could just come one night and give it a try?”
“Maybe,” said Clare. “Okay.”
The table was heaving with food, crowding out any attempt at decoration. Babotie, sosaties, saffron rice with sultanas, rotis stuffed to overflowing with chicken curry and a vast array of side dishes, some of which Clare battled to identify. But it did look good, very good, and of course Nick hadn’t hesitated when she’d asked him to accompany her.
“This is fit for a king,” he declared.
Juanita bustled about the table, directing her guests where to sit. There was barely any elbow room; they all squashed together side by side and made small talk while the ocean of fragrances arising from the food washed over them.
“The babotie I made,” boasted a skinny woman with the word “Beloved” tattooed on the inside of her forearm. “My mother taught me how to make it. The bay leaves give it its special flavour, but the egg custard on top is the bit that I like the best.”
Clare nodded. She had no idea how to even attempt to make something as complicated as that. The only domestic instruction her mother had ever given her was how to put a clean duvet cover on without getting it all tangled up inside. All the cooking had been done by their cherished domestic worker Zandile or convenience meals.
She watched Nick tuck into the food. He was chatting animatedly to Colin and gulping down mouthfuls between sips of red wine. She was reminded how handsome he was, his distinguished jaw offsetting his slightly balding dark hair. And suddenly it struck her – a sharp stab in her chest. I’ve been depriving him of home-cooked food, she thought. All these years. What do they say about the way to a man’s heart?
After supper as the guests milled around in the hallway, Clare resolved to tell Juanita. “I’ll do it,” she said.
“Do what?” Juanita’s cheeks looked rosy and plump. Clare thought again how inviting her features were, even though they were slightly exaggerated. It was as if her face and body were bursting with life, like a ripe fruit hanging heavily from a tree.
“I’ll join your potluck club. If you’ll have me, that is. I’m no chef.”
“Of course!” Juanita drew her closer, planting a kiss on her cheek. “You are most welcome. We’ll make a good housewife out of you yet!”
The cake turned out flatter than Clare had hoped. The recipe didn’t call for icing, but scrutinising it now, she wished she had bought that cream cheese after all. Ncumisa eyed her creation suspiciously.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a plum cake. A torte, actually.”
Ncumisa looked baffled. “Aren’t you meant to ice a cake?”
“Apparently not. Not this one.”
“It seems a bit naked and upside down.”
“Yes, I suppose it does.” Oh, what on earth am I doing, she groaned inwardly. I should have just bought one of those boxes which has all the ingredients in it, where you just add two eggs, water and some oil. Then I couldn’t have gone wrong. But instead I have to experiment with something exotic.”
“Put some cream on top,” suggested Ncumisa, picking up the mop again. “I think I saw some in the fridge.”
“What did you say it is?” The skinny tattooed woman pointed at the dense grey mass as the dollop of cream started oozing over the sides.
“It’s a torte,” Clare said confidently, although under the table her left foot flicked up and down with irritation.
“Oh,” the woman replied. She patted her stomach. “I’ll save some space for later.”
You needn’t bother, Clare seethed. But she consoled herself that she had found a harbour of comfort in her friendship with Juanita, who always seemed pleased when she dropped by or invited her to go with her to the gym. She is so uncomplicated, mused Clare, compared to my other friends. With them, everything is carefully arranged and regulated. I’m allowed to see them at certain times, but not at others. With Juanita, I can pop around at any time and she’s never offended or unwelcoming. Her hospitality is astounding, she thought. It was a rare gift indeed. Her guests basked in her glow.
The torte was tentatively received. Everyone had a bite or two, which was more than Clare had expected. She got to take the rest home.
“Not bad, babes,” was Nick’s attempt at encouraging her. “Better luck next time, hey?”
But there was to be no next time. A few days’ later, Clare had rung the neighbour’s buzzer and heard no reply. That’s odd, she thought. She walked the ten paces back to her front gate and noticed something sticking out of the letterbox – an envelope addressed to her. Intuitively, she knew what it contained. She thrust it under arm and sighed, a deep exhalation, depleting her of something she realised was hope. Six months. I should have known, she thought. I should have prepared myself for this.
“They’re gone,” were the first words she said to Nick when he returned home that evening.
“Who? Gone where?”
“Juanita and Colin. Their renovations are finished and they’ve moved into their new home. No more nice cooking. No more potluck club.” The words were tipped in lead, sinking down through her navel and plopping onto the floor.
“Oh.” Nick placed his hand gently on her bare shoulder and bent down to brush his lips on her skin.
“It doesn’t have to be, honey.” His words, light and silky, floated up to the ceiling where they lingered a while before fading. “It doesn’t have to be the end.”
The expression on Clare’s face was fixed, one of dogged optimism, like a Staffordshire bull terrier tugging on a bone. This will be a success, she told herself. The hum of animated conversation buzzed around her as she fiddled with knobs and adjusted the timer. She took a glug of chenin blanc, then announced: “Supper will be served in five minutes.”
Nick ushered the guests to their seats. He had brought home a bunch of yellow roses – her favourite – which went perfectly with the new African batik tablecloth she’d bought at Greenmarket Square. She gazed intently at the oven. Bubbles were pushing up to the surface excitedly. It was as if the casserole dish were begging her to be released.
Clare soaked up the chorus of approval as she placed the steaming dish on the table. The fronds of steam wove around them, infusing them with a tantalising medley of aromas.
“What is it?” her friend Stacey enquired.
“Babotie,” she beamed. “My first attempt. I hope it’s good.”
The jury was unanimous: a resounding success. “A triumph,” Stacey had called it. Clare wafted on a cloud of contentedness as she refilled her guests’ glasses.
“Where’s the cat mince?” called Nick from the kitchen. Marmalade was wrapped around his leg, meowing softly. “I could have sworn I left it on the counter to defrost.”
The conversation turned to politics as Clare resumed her seat. They were talking about whether the ANC would win the next election or rather, by how much. Which provinces they were likely to lose was a hot topic. Clare pushed her food around her plate, following the conversation with half an ear.
As the guests trickled out the door, she felt the comforting crook of Nick’s arm around her waist. Stacey was the last to leave. “I’m super impressed,” she enthused. “The food was amazing. Well done!”
“Beginner’s luck,” Clare smiled. She felt Nick squeezing her arm.
The door clicked shut. His knowing eyes met hers. “Cat got your tongue?” he asked.