I am a mistress of the machines; the needles go up and down at the command of my foot, yet I am as replaceable as an oil can. Because of me, rich women can feel beautiful in perfect waistlines and impeccable hems.
“This place is nothing without us”, we like to say, but we don’t believe our own words. It’s hard to get into this place and it’s even harder to stay.
Last week Vinolia went home to bury her father, this week she listens to the drone of our machines from the queue outside the factory that we all fear and know too well.
So when I hear the muffled pop in my abdomen, my first reaction is not of panic but of resolution.
“I will sit right here and panic after five” I think to myself, “cramps be damned.” I think about the sun, which is a stranger I only see through lint-speckled windows. I think of my nephew clinging to my body when I tried to introduce his small toes to beach sand.
When I’m lying on the floor and Vinolia’s replacement is fanning my face with a silk cloth, I’m thinking about how we pay with our lives for these small mercies.
The next moment my eyes open is at Groote Schuur ‘s Women’s Ward. Jody is doing something on his phone, probably dying for a cigarette. Ronnie’s head is thrown back by deep sleep, his feet resting on the bed. I take a moment for myself, to figure out my disposition and ready myself for questions and concerns. I really should be at work.
“Mummy. Howzit?” I didn’t realise how much my boy has grown up.
“Ag, fine Jo.”
“Daddy called just when I was leaving for my late shift. Don’t worry, I got Sbu to cover for me.”
“Okay. You can mos go and take your shift now. I’m fine as you can see."
A slight frown forms on Jody’s face. I take note and move on. Ronnie chokes on his spit.
“Jussus, Bonita”, he looks at me. I can’t read if he’s angry, annoyed or disappointed. “Jussus Bonita, man! Howzit wit’ you?”
“You tell me. What did the doctors say?”
“Ag, something about complications. They took out your appendix.”
“Okay. So why is Jo looking like old fish?”
“He’s tired! We’ve been long here. Waiting for you to wake up.”
“Did you talk to the people at my job. I better not lose that job Ronnie.”
“Relax about the job now. We’re leaving you here tonight. Tomorrow we’ll come pick you up.”
Jody laughs now.
“Ma. You in hospital. Can you relax. You in hospital.”
“Waste of my time, this thing.”
I can hear Ronald and Jody’s voices from the kitchen, I would listen harder if I wasn’t so dazed.
“Daddy. You know that lady wants to go to work tomorrow. Back to those machines that are killing her. And she will do it. But you must at least tell her that she needs to rest.”
“The machines didn’t make her appendix burst.”
“Ja I know. But tomorrow it’s her lungs. You know how much she coughs at night.”
“Well, she loves the work but she hates the job.”
“More like she needs the money.”
“We need the money, Jody.”
Jody takes a glass from the dish rack and fills with it water. Ronnie watches as his son drinks.
“Bring a glass over for your ma when you finish.” Ronnie walks out the kitchen door.
“Bonnie. I spoke to Mr Van Steyl. He says he will give you until the end of next week.”
“What’s it now? I thought you would be glad. You get more days than you expected. You know, he actually sounded like he likes you.”
“Did he ask how I am?”
“No.” He frowns as my point dawns on him.
Ronnie leaves the room with my glass and saucer. He walks back in with the glass filled up and puts it beside me. I exasperate him often, but he can take it. When we met I think he somehow found a thrill in me saying things he did not expect. Now I’m afraid I’m about to tire him out, exhaust him.
“Ronnie, I don’t want to go back there. I’m not going back.”
He laughs from his belly and sits at my feet.
“I’m serious Ronald. I can’t go back there. I’ve been thinking.”
“Thinking about what Bonita? If it was up to you, you would have been at work right now, making up your lost hours. What do you mean now when you say you are not going back?”
“I mean I’m not going back. I’m not going to work for anyone, anymore. I used to be proud of working at De Mardt, it’s the best factory. But not anymore. Look at Jody, he sees me working at a factory for twenty five years and he thinks he must work at the security company for twenty five years.”
“And me? Must I also quit my job?"
“No Ronnie. The difference between you and us is that you like your job.”
“When you change your mind. Just know that De Mardt might not even be there anymore. These factories are disappearing. You will lose the good packages.”
“Ag, they can close them all but they will never close De Mardt.”
“Jussus Bonita. You stressing me now.”
My balding husband covers my glass with the saucer and gets into our bed.
In my dream I’m sitting at my machine. I’m at work but the roof is off and it looks like we’re all on a giant veranda. But I don’t remember seeing anyone else, not even Vinolia or her replacement. I can hear the usual drone, the jokes and laughter, but I don’t recognise the voices. My hands are calloused and dry, but they work faster than I have ever seen, it’s like I’m making the machine move with just my thoughts.
A woman comes up to me.
“Yho yho yho, Bonita”, she says looking impressed. I admire her exquisite dress.
In the dream I’m happy to be at the machine. The sound it makes is sweet to me. The woman caresses her dress, admiring herself in it.
“Jussus Bonita! I’m late!” Ronald jumps out of bed.
I would have loved to hear what else the woman had to say. Something tells me I made that beautiful dress.
Ronnie hasn’t ironed my clothes since I was pregnant with the second child. After the doctor put me on bed-rest, he did everything so that I wouldn’t lift a finger. Even after all the magazine reading in bed, the visits from the dominee and more than enough foot rubs, we learned that Jo is going to be our only child. Now after all these years Ronnie’s ironing my apron. Either he thinks I’m joking or that I’m going to change my mind.
The night before our wedding my Ouma told me, ‘don’t be afraid to put your foot down’. I’ve used that advice over the years, but it’s not like Ronnie has been a difficult husband. Unlike Chappie and Stella from next door, our neighbours have never heard us fight; and even though he loves his brandy and laughing with his friends, he’s always back by eleven. I don’t want to believe it, but maybe thirty years down the line, we’re about to have our biggest disagreement.
“Not a single crease, my darling.” He has even put it on a hanger.
“Thank you my dear. You can put it in the wardrobe.”
“You don’t want me to leave it out for tomorrow?”
“No Ronnie. I told you, I’m not going back to De Mardt.”
“Do you know what that means, Bonita?”
“Tell me what it means because believe me I’ve thought about it all.”
“Have you now? Have you thought about the money?”
“I’ve been working twenty five years for peanuts. I might as well do what I will enjoy for peanuts. So yes, I have thought about the money.”
“I’m going to wake you up in the morning. You’re going to put on that apron that I ironed and you’re going back to De Mardt!”
“We will see.”
A wind is blowing on the giant veranda factory. Different fabrics are flying all over the place and it seems no one is bothered but me. Although I’m trying to save as many as I can, I’m still choosing. Royal blue velvets, indigo dyed linens, grey cottons, geometric prints in so many wonderful colours. I let the organzas and anything in cerise fly by, they’re so out of fashion. Just before the alarm goes off, I snatch a white and yellow floral print that would make a stunning skirt.
Once I wake up I take a moment to think about his dream. I feel a tinge of excitement and get up to make the bed.
“No, no darling. I’ll do it. Go have some oats in the kitchen. I made it with honey.”
I comply, for now.
Jody tries not to look surprised when I enter the kitchen. Being familiar with my firm smacks on his bum, he has come to know that my no means no. He also knows not to interfere in this thing between me and his father.
“Hello my baby Jo.”
“One day you’re going to turn into fish paste, I tell you.”
“But it’s quick ma. Also it smells when I open the lunch box, so I know no one at work will ask me for some.” We laugh.
“Ah-ah, Jo, don’t be stingy!”
“So back to De Mardt?”
“Back to work.”
“Oh, okay. Enjoy work.” He hands me a fifty rand note and kisses me goodbye.
Minutes later Ronnie kisses me goodbye on my other cheek while I eat the overly sweet oats. It’s going to be a good day.
What I see on the streets of Elsies that morning is astounding. The direction towards the busses and trains looks like something that could be seen in a factory. People are just moving, like goods on a conveyor belt. It’s a wonder anyone has time to talk because they move like there is not a second to spare. I wonder if I also moved this way? I probably did because I would be tired even before I got to work.
The trains seem to be noisier, the busses seem to be blowing more smoke, and everyone looks more stressed!
But unlike them, I take my time. I have my own places to go and my own things to do. My own work. I read a quote somewhere before, or I heard it, “If you do what you love you will never work a single day in your life”. I guess that is true and it is not true. I love sewing and dressmaking, I’ve been doing it ever since I can remember, but I can’t say it was not work, I cannot say it was not hard labour.
I wait for the eight o’clock train while reading the MetroRail newspaper. If I was going to work I would have been rushing like all those people to make the seven o’clock one and I would have had to stand until my stop at Salt River Station.
Fabric for about three dresses is alright for now, I must rush off for my next task. Actually, no need to rush.
“Bonnie’s Fashions or House of Bonita? Which one do you like?”
“I don’t know Aunty, anyone you like.”
“No man Salim, just pick. Which one don’t you like?”
“House of Bonita, I think of a construction company when I hear that.” We laugh. Salim does odd jobs for everyone in the neighbourhood, today he is my sign maker.
“So Bonnie’s Fashions?”
“Ja I think so Aunty.”
“No man but that’s so normal. My dresses are not going to be normal. Tell your mother and your sisters that.”
“Okay then Aunty.”
“Do this sign for me now man Salim. Kan’Allah. I want to put it up before people come back from work.”
“Okay Aunty Bonnie.”
“Make it Bonnie’s Designs, Salim. That’s sounds better, let me write it down for you.”
I make my way home with all my new fabrics, threads and buttons. Tonight I’m cooking the best chicken curry to celebrate Bonnie’s Designs.
Ronnie is not talking to me. Although very simple in red and purple paint on a black board, the sign for Bonnie’s Designs is beautiful. I also put my cellphone number there, no email address because I don’t have one yet. He can at least say that the sign looks nice like Jody did. Jody walked into the house, hugged and kissed me, then went back outside to take a picture of the sign with his smartphone.
I had cooked a pot of chicken curry - the best I had made in years – to celebrate Bonnie’s Designs with my husband and son. Ronnie asked Jody to ask me to put in a container for his lunch tomorrow, he didn’t eat it hot and fresh at the dining room table like I wanted.
The wind no longer blows on the giant veranda, but there is smoke. There’s a rail wheeling itself towards me. I feel so excited to see and touch all the dresses that are hanging on it.
Then it comes at me faster and faster, I think it might actually knock me over but I’m able to stop it just in time.
Ronald’s voice is in this dream, “Here my darling,” he hands me a candle.
“No Ronnie what will I do with that?”
I step back, not wanting to take the candle, but Ronald throws it at the beautiful clothes. I can’t stop the tears.
In the morning I don’t talk to him until he is having oats in the kitchen. Now I am angry too.
“How could you do that to me Ronald?”
I can’t help but cry.
“What are you talking about now Bonita?”
“My dresses. How could you burn my dresses?”
“What dresses, Bonnie?” He seems stuck now, the last time I cried like this I don’t even remember.
“In my dream. I made beautiful dresses in a so many styles and colours and you threw a candle at them and they burned. How could you do that?”
“It was just a dream.”
“Well you may as well do it in real life. Go on and burn my sign outside! You don’t want me to be happy.”
“How many chicken curries have I cooked for you to eat, and extra shifts for the debit orders and tailoring your clothes so you are the best dressed in this street and scrubbing your back because your arms are old! Huh?! And other things which I will not even mention! Why are you burning my dresses Ronald?”
“Bonnie. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry for burning your dresses.”
I don’t have much to say either.
“I’ll see you later.” I leave him to take a bath.
I want to feel and see Elsies during the day, so I take a walk to think about the very first garment from Bonnie’s Designs.
On my trip to the Woodstock fabric shops, I found a most striking printed fabric to make a skirt, almost like the yellow and white floral one from my dream. The skirt I am going to make with it is for a woman with small hips, this skirt is going to give her hips. I get so sick and tired of seeing these clothes made to slim this and slim that. In my day, you wanted anything that would accentuate your womanliness. You would strut down the street because you knew that you look like a full-grown woman from any direction. So this skirt is going to do someone a favour, it’s going to make a woman want to strut.
There’s a nice breeze when I set up my machine on the veranda – it makes me chuckle that I‘m already living my dream, but it also makes me nervous because Ronnie has not spoken to me the whole day.
When I hear Ronnie’s car pull up, I pretend to be looking intently at some stitches. Once I hear a girl’s voice I have to look up.
“Hi Bonnie.” He kisses my cheek.
“Hi Aunty Bonnie.”
“Hi Tiffany. How are you my darling?”
“Fine Aunty Bonnie. And you?”
“Ag I’m good as you can see. Just busy with my work.”
“Tiffy here needs a dress for her matric dance. I told her parents you could help her.”
I stare at them.
“Well I guess you ladies can talk.” He walks into the house.
Tiffany turns over an empty crate and sits next to me. She’s beams as she takes out a stack of magazine cut-outs of celebrities in red carpet dresses.
“Okay Tiffy, tell Aunty Bonnie what you want.”
In my head I’m still catching up to this moment. My husband Ronnie is a wonderful man.
I’m trying not to take over Tiffany’s big night but this is really exciting for me. Every time I hear someone compliment Tiffany I also take it as a compliment for myself. Her home is buzzing with relatives taking pictures and admiring.
I made her a figure-hugging gown made of navy Georgette; it has a slit that goes until just above the knee, a sweetheart neckline which she was adamant about, a plunging back which I insisted on, lace detailing at the bust and spaghetti straps to make it extra delicate.
Tiffy’s mother, my friend Angie, let me have the honours of dressing her daughter. And what an honour it was. When she beamed at her reflection in the mirror, turning this way and that, I could not help but think, “mercy”.