Albertina throws the remains of her black coffee onto the dusty ground outside the door and stuffs her little tin mug into the top of a bulging holdall which stands by a similarly stuffed canvas bag next to the open door. As she finishes chewing the crust of bread she’s saved for her breakfast, she adjusts her second best wig and looks around the sparse shack which has been her home for the past few months: Time to move on.
Albertina snatches up the two heavy bags, which contain all her worldly goods, and strides out into the early morning. She holds her head up and sticking her nose in the air, walks past the people busy with their cooking fires and washing bowls. She will not miss them and she will not miss the location, with its noise and dust and people fighting and drinking long into the night. Her son is settled in a farm school and he has a roof over his head. He’s with people who’ll take better care of him that she can, far away from the temptations of drugs and alcohol, underage sex and communicable diseases which are all that life has to offer young people in the location.
Fifteen minutes of steady walking bring Albertina to the edge of the freeway. She is aware of the weight of the bags that she’s carrying, but she’s used to it, used to carrying all her belongings with her; you can’t risk leaving anything unattended for long in a shack. The traffic is heavy and the hot dirty wind from the road tugs at her long skirts. Albertina trudges on as far as the service station where she stops near the exit to the parking area. Here she will get her first lift. She takes out a tightly folded twenty rand note from where is has been tucked inside her clothing and flattens it out, smoothing over the creases. She holds it out ready to each passing vehicle.
It’s not long before a large blue truck pulls up beside her. Its air-brakes hiss loudly. The driver leans over and extends a thick brown arm to open the passenger door for her. Albertina looks up at him. For a moment they scrutinize each other. He looks okay, she thinks, but she’s still wary. She tries to read his face. The driver breaks into a gap-toothed grin and asks her where she’s going.
Albertina shrugs. ‘Just onwards,’ she smiles cautiously.
‘I’m going up the coast,’ he replies.
Albertina nods. One direction is as good as another. The coast sounds nice: fresh. Why not? Something will turn up. She hefts her bags into the foot-well and, gathering up her skirts, climbs nimbly into the cab. The driver indicates the seat belt and reaches over to help her. His hand brushes briefly against her left breast. She looks at him sharply but his attention is already focused on the road as he pulls away.
He eases the heavy vehicle out onto the busy highway, turning the radio up loudly. Albertina is grateful for the music; she doesn’t like to chat. She looks out of the window watching the sprawl of scruffy shacks give way to a patch of open land, then more buildings: huge, bland industrial buildings. She briefly wonders what goes on inside. The truck driver taps on the steering wheel along with the music, apart from when he’s jabbing at the horn or muttering an obscenity at some other road user. She winces inwardly at the words.
The truck turns off the freeway and onto the west coast highway. The traffic is calmer and there is only bush and scrub beyond the edge of the tarmac. Albertina gazes out across the open country; the ocean is faintly discernible, a clear azure strip below the wide African sky. She winds down her window a little. The driver turns to her – they haven’t so much as exchanged names – and suggests they stop for a break. He needs to stretch his legs. Albertina nods and leans forward to reach inside the pocket of her holdall.
There is a rest stop a kilometre ahead: three sets of concrete tables with concrete stools surrounding them, set back from the road under a stand of shady trees. They have the place to themselves. The driver parks up and jumps out of the cab. He strides round the front and opens the passenger door for Albertina. He offers her a hand to help her down, which she takes. Albertina’s bright pink pumps hit the ground lightly; the driver keeps hold of her hand and pulls her gently sideways, away from the door. Their eyes meet as he takes a step towards her. She takes a step back. He smiles pleasantly. ‘Come now,’ he says, ‘a little something for my trouble.’ He closes in and Albertina is caught between him and the side of the truck.
Quick as a flash she whips out her little steel knife and holds the point against the side of his neck. The man’s eyes widen. He steps back, holding up his hands out in surprise. It is now Albertina’s turn to advance. She sets her face in a steely glare and, although inside her heart is fluttering with fear, she takes a step forward and stops within striking distance, knife raised. The man remains still. A long minute passes. A couple of cars go by; a bird shrieks in the tree above them. Then all is quiet.
Loud music breaks the silence heralding the arrival of a bright red sports car. It draws up sharply behind the truck raising a cloud of dust. The man looks around but Albertina’s gaze remains fixed on him. Car doors open and the music blares out even more loudly. High female voices call out to each other. Paying no attention to the truck or the two people beside it they unload a cooler box from the car and dump it on the nearest table.
The driver holds out his hands, palms upward. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he says quickly. Albertina glances towards the noisy group of girls. She lowers the knife.
‘I’m getting your bags,’ the man says firmly. Albertina nods. Moments later he bags are on the ground and the truck is starting up. Albertina watches calmly as he drives away. She picks them up and goes to sit at the table behind her. She looks across at the four long-limbed blonde-headed girls who are sipping from cans of cool drink.
‘Hey!’ One of the girls gets up and walks over to Albertina. ‘Ag, no! Did that guy just leave you here?’ She looks round at her friends and back at Albertina. ‘Shame, man!’ Another girl approaches and asks where she’s going. Albertina gestures vaguely up the road.
Albertina now becomes the centre of attention. The skimpily-clad young women gather round and one of them fetches a cool drink for her; they all mutter darkly about the skelm driver. Albertina is a little overwhelmed, but happily accepts the offer of a lift. They can’t take her to where they’re staying, of course, but the nearest town will surely be fine. Albertina nods. It will surely be fine.
And so, after a whirlwind of a drive in the noisy little sports car, with its loud music and louder girls, and the howling wind which forced her to remove her second best wig, so as not to lose it out of the open window, Albertina finds herself back on foot, carrying her two bulging bags into a busy little coastal town. By late afternoon, she’s found her way down to the harbour. She sets her bags down and stares out across the ocean. She breathes in the sharp, salty air and looks around; she has a good feeling about the place. Something will turn up, she thinks.
©2019 Chris Hall