A Satisfactory Settlement
A Story by NADINE GORDIMER
A SAGGING hulk of an American car, its bodywork like colored tinfoil that has been screwed into a ball and smoothed out, was beached on the axle of a missing wheel in a gutter of the neighborhood. Overnight, empty beer cartons appeared against well-oiled wooden gates; out-of-works loped the streets and held converse on corners with nannies in their pink uniforms and houseboys in aprons. In dilapidated outbuildings dating from the time when they housed horses and traps, servants kept all sorts of hangers-on. The estate agent had pointed out that it was one of the quiet old suburbs of Johannesburg where civil servants and university lecturers were the sort of neighbors one had — but of course no one said anything about the natives.
The child was allowed to ride his bicycle on the pavement, and he liked to go and look at the car. He and his mother knew none of their neighbors yet, and in the street he simply thought aloud; he said to a barefoot old man in an army greatcoat, “There’s a dead rat by the tree at the corner. I found it yesterday.” And the old man clapped his hands slowly, with the gum grin of ancients and infants: “S’bona, my baasie, may the Lord bless you, you are big man.” Under one of the silky oaks of the pavement the child said to a man who had been lying all morning in the shade with a straw hat with a paisley band over his eyes, and a brand-new transistor radio playing beside his head, “Did you steal it?”
The man said without moving, “My friend, I got it in town.” The furze of beard and mustache was drawn back suddenly in a lazy yawn that closed with a snap.
“I saw a dead rat there by the corner.”
“The crock’s been pushed to Tanner Road.”
“There’s a native boy’s got a ten transistor.”
His mother was not interested in any of this intelligence. Her face was fixed in vague politeness; she heard without listening to what was said, just as he did when she talked on the telephone: “. . . no question of signing anything whatever until provision’s made . . . my dear Marguerite, I’ve been fooled long enough, you can put your mind at rest . . . only in the presence of the lawyers . . . the door in his face, that’s . . . cut out the parties he takes to the races every Saturday, and the flush dinners, then, if he can’t afford to make proper provision . . . and, I said, I want a special clause in the maintenance agreement . . . medical expenses up till the age of twenty-one . . .”
When his mother was not talking to Marguerite on the telephone it was very quiet in the new house. It was as if she were still talking to Marguerite in her mind. She had taken the white bedside radio from her room in the old house — Daddy’s house — to a swap shop, and she had brought home a gray portable typewriter. It stood on the dining table, and she slowly picked out letters, with her eyes on the typing manual beside her. The tapping became his mother’s voice, stopping and starting, hesitantly and dryly, out of her silence. She was going to get a job and work in an office; he was going to a new school. Later on when everything was settled, she said, he would sometimes spend a weekend with Daddy. In the meantime it was the summer holidays and he could do what he liked.
He did not think about the friends he had played with in the old house. The move was only across the town, but for the boy seas and continents might have been between and the suburb a new country from where Rolf and Sheila were a flash of sun on bicycles on a receding horizon. He could not miss them as he had done when they had been in the house next door and prevented, by some punishment or other, from coming over to play. He wandered in the street; the rat was taken away, but the old man came back again — he was packing and unpacking his paper carrier on the pavement: knotted rags, a half loaf of brown bread, snuff, a pair of boots whose soles grinned away from the uppers, and a metal funnel. The boy suddenly wanted the funnel, and paid the old man fifteen cents for it. Then he hid it in the weeds in the garden so that his mother wouldn’t ask where he’d got it.
The man with the radio sometimes called out, “My friend, where you going?” “My friend, watch out for the police!”
The boy lingered a few feet off while the man went on talking and laughing, in their own language, with the group that collected outside the house with the white Alsatian.
“Why d’you say that about the policeman?”
The man noticed him again, and laughed. “My friend, my friend!”
Perhaps the old man had told about the funnel; a funnel like that might cost fifty cents. In a shop. The boy didn’t really believe about the policeman, but when the man laughed, he felt he wanted to run away, and laugh back, at the same time. He was drawn to the house with the white Alsatian and would have liked to ride past without hands on the handlebars if only he hadn’t been afraid of the Alsatian rushing out to bite the tires. The Alsatian sat, head on paws, on the pavement among the night watchman and his friends, but when it was alone behind the low garden wall of the house, it screamed, snarled, and leapt at the women who went by in slippers and cotton uniforms gaping between the buttons and yelled “Voetsak!” and “Suka!” at it. There were also two women who dressed as if they were white, in tight trousers, and had straightened hair and lipstick. One afternoon they had a fight, tearing at each other, sobbing, and swearing in English. The Alsatian went hysterical, but the night watchman had him by the collar.
THE old car actually got going — even when the wheel was on, there was still the flat battery, and he put down his bike and helped push. He was offered a ride but stood shaking his head, his chest heaving. A young man in a spotless white golf cap and a torn and filthy sweater wanted to buy his watch, They had been pushing side by side, and they sat in the gutter, smiling like panting dogs. ”I pay you five pounds!" The slim, sticky black hand fingered his wrist, on which the big watch sat a bit off-center.
“But where have you got five pounds?”
“How I can say I buy from you if I can’t have five pounds? I will pay five pounds!”
The impossible size of the sum, quoted in old currency, as one might talk wildly of ducats or doubloons, hung in credible bluff between them. He said of his watch, ”1 got it for Christmas.” But what was Christmas to the other?
A nanny pushing a white child in a cart called out something in their language. The hand dropped the skinny wrist, and a derisive tongue click made the boy feel himself dismissed as a baby.
He did not play in the garden. His toys all had been brought along, but there was no place for them yet; they stood about in his room with the furniture that had been set here or there by the movers. His mother dragged his bed under the window and asked, Is that where you want it? And he had said, “I don’t know where it’s supposed to be.”
The bicycle was the only thing he took out with him into the street. It was a few days before the car turned up again. Then he found it, two blocks away. This time it had two flat tires, and no one did anything about them. But a house down there was one of those with grass planted on the pavement outside, and the garden boy let him go back and forth once or twice with the power mower. He went again next day and helped him. The garden boy wanted to know if his father smoked and asked him to bring cigarettes. He said, “My father’s not here, but when we’re settled I’ll ask for some for you.” He hardly ever went out now without meeting the old man somewhere; the old man seemed to expect him. He brought things out of his paper carrier and showed them to the boy, unwrapped them from rags and the advertising handouts that drift to city gutters. There was a tin finger, from a cigar, a torch without switch or glass, and a broken plastic duck — nothing like the funnel. But the old man, who had the lint of white hairs caught among the whorls on his head, spread the objects on the pavement with the confidence of giving pleasure and satisfaction. He took the boy’s hand and put in it the base of some fancy box; his hand on the boy’s was strong, shaky, and cold, with thick nails the color of the tortoise’s shell in the old house. The box base had held a perfume bottle and was covered with stained satin; to the boy it was a little throne, but he didn’t want it, it was a girl’s thing. He said with an exaggerated shrug, “No money.” “Yes, my baasie, only shilling, shilling. The Lord bless you, Nkosana. Only shilling.”
The old man began to wrap it all up again; the base, the duck, the torch, and the tin finger. Afterward, the boy thought that next time he might take the tin finger for, say, two and a half cents, or three. He’d have to buy something. As he rode back to the new house, there was the angle of a straw hat with a band in a little group chatting, accusing, and laughing, and he called out, “Hullo, my friend!”
“Yes, my friend!” the greeting came back, though the man didn’t look around at him.
Then he thought he saw, without the white cap, the one who wanted to buy his watch, and with a hasty wobble of pleasurable panic he rode off fast down the hill, lifting his hands from the bars a moment in case somebody was looking, and taking a chance on the white Alsatian.
WHEN she was not at the typewriter she was on her knees for hours at a time, sorting out boxes and suitcases of things to be got rid of. She had gone through the stuff once when she packed up and left, setting aside hers from his and being brought up short when she came upon some of the few things that seemed indisputably theirs and therefore neither to be disposed of nor rightfully claimed by either. Now she went through all that was hers, and this time, on a different principle of selection, set aside what was useful, relevant, and necessary from what was not. All the old nest papers went into the dustbin: letters, magazines, membership cards, even photographs. Her knees hurt when she rose, but she sometimes went on again after she and the child had eaten dinner and he was in bed.
During the day she did not go out except for consultations with the lawyers, and if Marguerite phoned at night to hear the latest, she sat down at the telephone with a gin and bitter lemon —the first opportunity she’d had to think about herself even long enough to pour a drink. She had spoken to no one round about, and awareness of her surroundings was limited to annoyance latent in the repetition of one worn close-harmony record, mutedly blaring again and again from nearby — a gramophone in some native’s kiya. But she was too busy getting straight to take much notice of anything; the boy was getting a bit too much freedom — still, he couldn’t come to any harm, she supposed he wouldn’t go far away, while out of the way. She hadn’t seen any of the good friends since she’d left, and that was fine. There’d been altogether too much talk and everyone ready to tell her what she ought to do one day, and then running off to discuss the “other side of the story” the next. Naturally, it all got back to her.
Marguerite was quite right. She was simply going ahead to provide a reasonable, decent life for herself and her child. She had no vision of this life beyond the statement itself, constantly in her mind like a line of doggerel, and proclaimed aloud in the telephone conversations with Marguerite, but she was seized by the preoccupations of sorting out and throwing away, as if someone had said, dig here.
She walked around the house at night before she went to bed and checked windows and doors. Of course she was used to that, but when, as had so often happened, she was left alone in the other house, there were familiar servants who could be trusted. There was no one to depend on here; she had taken the first girl who came to the back door with a reference. It was December, and the nights were beautiful, beautiful: she would notice, suddenly, while pulling in a window. Out there in the color of moonstone nothing moved but the vibration of cicadas and the lights in the valley. Both seemed to make shimmering swells through the warm and palpable radiance. Out there you would feel it on bare arms while you danced or talked, you could lie on your back on hard terrace stone and feel the strange vertigo of facing the stars.
It was a postcard of somewhere she had been, and had no power over her in the present. She went to bed and fell asleep at once, as if in a night’s lodging come upon in the dark.
But after the first few days something began to happen in the middle of the night. It happened every night, or almost every night (she was not sure; sometimes she might have dreamt it, or in the morning, run the experience of two nights into one). Anyway, it happened often enough to make a pattern of the nights and establish, through unease, a sense of place that did not exist in the light of day.
It was natives, of course; simply one of the nuisances of this quiet neighborhood. A woman came home in the early hours of the morning from some shebeen. Or she had no home and was wandering the streets. First she was on the edge of a dream, among those jumbled cries and voices where the lines of conscious and subconscious cross. Then she drew closer and clearer as she approached the street, the house, the bed — to which the woman lying there was herself returning, from sleep to wakefulness. There was the point at which the woman in the bed knew herself to be there, lying awake with her body a statue still in the attitude of sleep, and the shadowy room standing back all around her. She lay and listened to the shouts, singing, laughter, and sudden cries. It was a monologue; there was no answer, no response. No one joined in the singing, and the yells died away in the empty streets. It was impossible not to listen because, apart from the singing, the monologue was in English —always when natives were drunk or abusive they seemed to turn to English or Afrikaans; if it had been in their language she could have shut it out with a pillow over her ears, like the noise of cats. The voice lurched and rambled. Just when it seemed to be retreating, fading around a corner or down the hill, there would be a short, fearful, questioning scream, followed by a waiting silence; then there it was, coming back, very near now, so near that slithering footsteps and the loose slap of heels could be heard between the rise and fall of accusations, protests, and wheedling obscenities. “ . . . telling LIARS. I . . . you . . . don’t say me I’m . . . and telling liars . . . L-I-A-R-S . . . you know? you know? . . . I’m love for that . . . LI-ARS . . . the man he want . . . LI-A-A-RS . . . my darling I’m love . . . AHH-hahahahhahahOOOooee . . . YOU RUBBISH! YOU HEAR? YOU RUBBISH . . .”
And then slowly it was all gathered together again, it staggered away, the whole muddled, drunken burden of it, dragged off somewhere, nowhere, anywhere it could not be heard anymore. She lay awake until the streets had stifled and hidden it, and then she slept.
Until the next night.
The summons was out of the dark, as if the voice came out of her own sleep like those words spoken aloud with which one wakes oneself with a start. YOU RUBBISH . . . don’t say me ... he want . . . L-I-A-R-S . . . don’t say me.
Or the horrible jabber when a tape recorder is run backward. Is that my voice? Shrill, ugly; merely back to front? L-I-A-R-S. The voice that had slipped the hold of control, good sense, selfrespect, proper provision, the future to think of. My darling I’m love for that. AhhhhhhhahahhaOOoooeee. Laughing and sniveling; no answer: nobody there. No one. In the middle of the night, night after night, she forgot it was a native, a drunken black prostitute, one of those creatures with purple lips and a great backside in trousers who hung about after the men. She lay so that both ears were free to listen, and she did not move or open her eyes on the outer dark.
Then one night the voice was right under her window. The dog next door was giving deep regular barks of the kind that a dog gives at a safe distance from uncertain prey, and between bouts of fisting on some shaky wooden door the voice was so near that she could hear breath drawn for each fresh assault. “YOU HEAR? I tell you I’m come find . . .YOU HEAR-R-R . . . I’m come give you nice . . . YOU-OOO-HE-AAR.” The banging must be on the door of the servant’s room of the next-door house; the dividing wall between the two properties was only ten feet from her bedroom. No one opened the door, and the voice groveled and yelled and obscenely cajoled.
This time she got up and switched on the light and put on her dressing gown, as one does when there is a situation to be dealt with. She went to the window and leaned out; half the skv was ribbed with cloud, like a beach in the moonlight, and the garden trees were thickly black — she could not see properly into the neighbor’s over the creepercovered wall, but she called ringingly, “Stop that! D’you hear? Stop it at once!”
There was a moment’s silence, and then it all began again, the dog punctuating the racket in a deep, shocked bay. Now lights went on in the neighbor’s house, and there was the rattle of the kitchen door being unbolted. A man in pajamas was in her line of vision for a moment as he stood on the back steps. “Anything wrong?” The chivalrous, reassuring tone between equals of different sex.
“In your yard,” she called back. “Some drunk woman’s come in from the street.”
“Oh, my God. Her again.”
He must have been barefoot. She did not hear anyone cross the yard, but suddenly his voice bellowed, “Go on, get out, get going ... I don’t care what you’ve come for, just get on your feet and hamba out of my yard, go on, quickly, OUT!” “No master, that boy he—” “Get up!” “Don’t swear me —” There was a confusion of the two voices, with his quick, hoarse, sober one prevailing, and then a grunt with a sharp gasp, as if someone had been kicked. She could see the curve of the drive through the spaced shapes of shrubs, and she saw a native woman go down it, not one of the ladies in trousers but an ordinary servant, fat and middle-aged and drunk, in some garment still recognizably a uniform. “All right over there?” the man called.
“Thanks. Perhaps one can get some sleep now.”
“You didn’t send for the police?”
“No, no I hadn’t done that.”
All was quiet. She heard him lock his door, The dog gave a single bark now and again, like a sob. She got into the cool bed and slept.
THE child never woke during the night unless he was ill, but he was always up long before any adult in the mornings. That morning he remembered immediately that he had left his bicycle out all night and went at once into the garden to fetch it. It was gone. He stared at the sodden long grass and looked wildly around from one spot to another. His mother had warned him not to leave anything outside because the fence at the lower end of the garden, giving on a lane, was broken in many places. He looked in the shed, although he knew he had not put the bicycle there. His pajamas were wet to the knees from the grass. He stuffed them into the laundry basket in the bathroom and put on a shirt and trousers. He went twice to the lavatory, waiting for her to get up. But she was later than usual that morning, and he was able to go into the kitchen and ask the girl for his breakfast and eat it alone. He did not go out; quietly, in his room, he began to unpack and set up the track for his electric racing cars. He put together a balsa-wood glider that somehow had never been assembled, and slipped off to throw it about, with a natural air, down the end of the garden where the bicycle had disappeared. From there he was surprised to hear his mother’s voice, not on the telephone but mingled with other voices in the light, high way of grown-up people exchanging greetings. He was attracted to the driveway, drawn to the figures of his mother and a man and woman dressed for town, pausing and talking, his mother politely making a show of leading them to the house without actually inviting them in. “No, well, I was saying to Ronald, it’s all right if one’s an old inhabitant, you know —” the woman began, with a laugh, several times without being allowed to finish. “— a bit funny, my asking that about the police, but really, I can assure you —” “Oh, no, I appreciated —” “— assure you, they’re as much use as —" “It was, five or six years ago, but it’s simply become a hangout —” “And the women! Those creatures in Allenby Road! I was saying, one feels quite ashamed —” “Well, I don’t think I’ve had an unbroken night’s sleep since I moved in. That woman yelling down the street at two in the morning.” “I make a point of it — don’t hang about my property, I tell them. They’re watching for you to go out at night, that’s the thing.” “Every morning I pick up beer cartons inside our wall, mind you —”
His mother had acknowledged the boy’s presence, to the others, by cupping her hand lightly round the back of his head. “And my bicycle’s been stolen,” he said, up into their talk and their faces.
“Darling . . . where?” His mother looked from him to the neighbors, presenting the sensation of a fresh piece of evidence. “You see?” said the man. “ There you are!”
“Here, in the garden,” he said.
“ There you are. Your own garden.”
“That you must report,” said the woman.
“Oh, really — on top of everything else. Do I have to go myself, or could I phone, d’you think?”
“We’ll be going past the police station on the hill, on our way to town. Ronald could just stop a minute,” the woman said.
“You give me the particulars, and I’ll do it for you.” He was a man with thick-soled, cherry-dark shoes, soaring long legs, an air force mustache, and a funny little tooth that pressed on his lip when he smiled.
“What was the make again, d’you remember?” his mother asked him. And to the neighbors, “But please come inside — won’t you have some coffee, quickly? I was just going to make myself — oh, it was a Raleigh, wasn’t it? Or was that your old little one?” They went into the house, his mother explaining that she wasn’t settled yet.
He told them the make, serial number, wheelbase, and identifying dents of his bicycle. It was the first time he and his mother had had visitors in this house, and there was quite a flurry to find the yellow coffee cups and something better than a plastic spoon. He ran in and out helping and taking part in the conversation. Since they had only just got to know him and his mother, these people did not interrupt him all the time as the friends who came to the other house always had. “And I bet I know who took it, too,” he said. “There’s an old native boy who just talks to anybody in the street. He’s often seen me riding my bike down by the house where the white dog is.”