Sunlight wakes Albertina early and for a moment she can’t think where she is. Shaking off a bad dream, she smells salt and ozone on the air, and hears gulls keening. She sighs with relief; she’s not in the Location.
Albertina is staying in a little bolt-hole behind the old fish factory. The factory is clearly disused, but there’s a little shed with an unlocked door and an outside tap on the corner of one of the main buildings which still works.
After just two days in the little town by the sea Albertina’s running out of money; she needs to find a job. A proper place to stay would be nice, but the job’s more important just now.
Albertina washes at the tap; she doesn’t mind the cold water. In fact, she prefers it. She puts on a long purple skirt, a frilly white blouse and a little fringed jacket that someone gave her a few months ago. She takes out her little handbag mirror and rummages in her bag for make-up. She applies turquoise eye shadow and a thick smear of bright red lipstick, before donning her second best wig. She’s nowhere to admire the overall effect, but she’ll take a look in the first shop window she passes.
Next she takes out her big blue handbag with the shiny gold buckle and thrusts her most important possessions into its capacious depths. She stows the two holdalls which contain the remainder of her worldly goods under a pile of old pallets.
Ready for action, Albertina trots towards the main road where there are several shops, a hotel and the place where she’d really like to work; a hair salon. She’s worked in one before; she’d only been sweeping up, folding towels and tiding, but she loved the buzz of conversation, the music, bright lights and shiny mirrors. But after a few months they’d let her go, they never explained why. Albertina shrugs off that part of the memory and quickens her step.
She sees a group of shabby-looking people lounging against walls and staring empty-eyed at nothing much. Like everywhere in the country, unemployment is high, and hope is hard to come by. But Albertina is dressed in her best and can hold her head high. Confidence is her greatest asset today.
Albertina crosses the road to the salon, straightening her back and adjusting the handbag on her shoulder. She reaches for the door handle, then notices the sign. ‘Hair Affair’ doesn’t open for another half hour. She frowns and peers inside; there’s no sign of life. She turns on her heel and wanders along the row of shops. They’re all open, but she wants to start with the salon; it wouldn’t do to find another job before she’s even asked in there.
Her bright pink pumps take her down to the harbour. She’s still fascinated by the prettily painted boats and the way the sun sparkles on the blue water of the ocean beyond. An older man, sitting on a white plastic chair stroking the head of a scruffy little dog, looks up and nods a greeting to her. She smiles shyly and hurries on. It’s not the kind of attention she wants.
She skirts the harbour edge and after a few minutes finds herself by ‘Useful Things’, the shop where she bought her new oil lamp only the day before. A commotion at the front of the little house opposite catches her attention. The two little old aunties are marching up and down their stoep, noisily pulling the chairs from under the table, bending over and searching the floor. They both straighten up, as far as they can, one holds up her in the air, the other plants her hands on her hips and shakes her head.
She walks over and stands looking at them, her head on one side and a smile on her bright red lips.
‘Come,’ Auntie Rose beckons her onto the stoep. ‘She can help us look, can’t she, Auntie Grace?’
Auntie Grace nods and hurries over to open the little gate for Albertina. She takes hold of Albertina’s sleeve. ‘Come,’ she tugs at the sleeve, propelling Albertina towards the table. ‘Put your bag down here and help us look.’
‘She doesn’t know what we’re looking for,’ says Auntie Rose.
‘I was coming to that.’
Auntie Rose rolls her eyes and squints up at Albertina. ‘She’s lost her glasses,’ she points to her sister, ‘and I’ve lost my teeth,’ she explains gurning at Albertina. ‘My false teeth,’ she adds, in case Albertina misunderstands.
Albertina places her bag on the table and looks from one little auntie to the other. Immediately she notices the pair of glasses perched on Grace’s head. She points to her own head. Auntie Grace reaches up with one hand, pulls her glasses off her tightly cropped grey hair and holds them out to her sister, her eyebrows raised.
It’s Auntie Rose’s turn to put her hands on her hips. ‘I wasn’t looking there,’ she said indignantly. ‘You said they must have fallen on the floor, and anyway,’ she continued, ‘that’s where I was looking for my teeth.’
Albertina bends down to look under the table. As she does so, she notices a crescent-shaped bulge halfway down Auntie Rose’s rather tightly stretched pants’ leg. She stands up and points at the bulge. Auntie Rose looks down. Her hand goes to her thigh feeling the trapped object. She starts to giggle. She sits on the nearest chair and eases the object down past her knee. Still giggling she scoops the object up as it drops out of her pants leg and brandishes a set of teeth aloft. Both aunties burst into peals of laughter; such is their merriment that Albertina joins in too, her eyes darting about the stoep.
As the laughter dies down, Albertina seizes the brush which is leaning by the wall and starts to sweep the stoep. Albertina is a demon sweeper. The aunties watch as she whisks up the dust and crumbs and bits of fabric and thread which have accumulated under the table. She makes a neat pile and looks around. She grabs the little shovel that stands in the corner and deftly sweeps the pile onto it. She spies the dirt bin the other side of the wall and swiftly deposits the rubbish inside, before replacing the brush and shovel. She goes to pick up her bag, but Auntie Grace puts her hand on hers and points towards a chair. ‘Sit a moment.’
The sisters look at each other and something unspoken passes between them.
‘We could do with some help,’ says Auntie Grace. ‘We can’t pay a lot mind. There’s not so much to do but, you know, some of the heavier work…’
Albertina smiles, she could help the two funny little aunties and still try for a job in the salon, she thinks.
‘Where do you stay?’ asks Auntie Rose.
Albertina gestures vaguely at the road behind them.
The two aunties nod at each other and stand up. ‘Come and see,’ Auntie Grace says to Albertina as she heads into the house. Albertina picks up her handbag and follows her through the little kitchen to the back yard. Auntie Rose follows, her left leg swings awkwardly as she walks.
Out in the yard is a little Wendy house. Auntie Grace pulls the door open. ‘It needs a good clean but would you like to…’
Albertina throws her arms around Auntie Grace, who totters, slightly off balance. Auntie Grace laughs, disentangling herself.
‘There’s a little bathroom too,’ says Auntie Rose, pointing to a small lean-to next to the kitchen. ‘It only has cold water though…’
‘Albertina only washes in cold water,’ she says proudly.
©2019 Chris Hall