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Sixpence

translated into English by Jethro Soutar

Boy with Baby
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The boy nodded in his sleep, rocking to the machimbombo’s1 jolting. He was pushed right up against the window, the stranger beside him being a large countrywoman with a baby at the breast, who took up two-thirds of the seat. He’d never been in a vehicle for so long before and the stuffy air and constant bumping had made him queasy. Trees and bush rushed by outside, moving in the opposite direction, and from time to time they came upon a settlement. The machimbombo would then stop for a few minutes and squeeze more passengers on, more bundles and baskets of fruit, more vegetables and chickens, bound for the city’s markets.

It was the first time he’d been away from his family and he was worried about the life that awaited him in the big city. But he also felt new horizons opening up, far broader than those of the village. He already missed his mother and his brothers and sisters, but he wasn’t sorry to leave behind the oxen he’d had to take care of since childhood, his father’s drinking and, most importantly, the hunger.

His father had summoned him one day and said: ‘A friend of Mister Saraiva from the spirit grocer’s2 needs a mufana3 for his house in Xilongoíne4. You’ll learn housekeeping, they’ll give you food, clothing and a place to sleep, plus a bar of soap every month. After a year, you’ll be paid a wage. Get your things together, you’ll get the first Oliveiras5 machimbombo in the morning.’

The city was still called Lourenço Marques back then and it was a lot smaller and more orderly than Maputo is today. But the boy still became filled with panic the moment he got off the machimbombo and plunged into the crowd. He’d never seen so many white people before, nor so many cars. Armed with a piece of paper with an address scribbled on by Mr Saraiva, he approached several passers-by to ask for directions. He always chose blacks and spoke in Changana6, not daring to address a white with his rudimentary Portuguese.

It took him several hours to reach his destination – on Rua Heróis de Marracuene, called Rua da Resistência nowadays7 – because it was a long way away and because he lingered at every corner, spellbound by what he saw. He nearly got run over crossing a road with his head in the clouds, trying to count the number of floors in a tower block. The white at the wheel stuck his head out of the window and shouted, ‘Get out of the way, mamparra!’8 and everyone around, whites and blacks, laughed.

Saraiva’s friend was a man called Martins who lived on a square in Malhangela9. The household comprised Mister Martins and Dona Cacilda, plus their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, Belinha, who was still a baby. That was it in terms of whites, for there were also two servants. An old man named Josué was the cook-cum-laundryman and a lad from Inhambane named Paulino was the gardener-cum-houseboy. It was Paulino who opened the back door and went to call the missus, while Josué sized him up out of the corner of his eye, as the boy stood there clutching his plastic bag, silhouetted before the sun.

Dona Cacilda appeared, flabby and pale, wrapped in an old dressing gown and dragging her slippered-feet across the kitchen floor. ‘Do you speak Portuguese?’ she said, looking the boy up and down. ‘Your job is to take care of the baby while her mother is at work, play with her, feed her… And to help Josué and Paulino when required.’

Annoyed, the missus turned to the houseboy:

‘Paulino, you’ll have to explain everything to him, and show him where he’ll sleep. I’ll give him his shirt and shorts tomorrow, but he needs to wash first. Show him the shower. Go on, take…’

Then she paused, put her hand to her forehead and asked him:

‘What’s your name?’

‘I’m Agostinho, Missus,’ he stammered.

‘Agostinho? No. You’ll be called Sixpence10 here.’

‘Sixpence?’ he repeated, hesitantly.

‘You all have such strange names – Zefanias, Fabião and who knows what… If I had to learn a new name every time I got new help, I’d go mad. So here you’ll be Sixpence, all mufanas are called Sixpence.’

She turned again to Paulino.

‘Come on, off you go. I can feel a migraine coming, I need to lie down.’

The former Agostinho, now Sixpence, followed Paulino across the yard, through the shade of a big mango tree and to the outhouses at the back wall.

‘So who’s this Dona Mycrane who’s coming?’ he asked Pauline, in Changana.

Paulino burst out laughing.

‘There is no Dona Mycrane, you idiot. The missus has a migraine, that’s all, it’s one of her ailments. There are many.’

‘But why does she need to lie down before she’s sick?’

‘Before, during, after. She gets bad headaches and lies down in the dark, and woe betide you if you make a sound!’

The outhouses consisted of a tiny bedroom and a privy annexed to a veranda with a washing tub. The bedroom was bleak, the walls yellowed and the net on the cubbyhole window torn. This is where I’m going to live, thought the boy, and it made him want to cry.

‘Put your things in here, Sixpence, and…’ said Paulino, but he got no reaction. ‘Sixpence!’

‘Sorry. I haven’t got used to the name yet.’

‘It’s normal. The same thing happened to me with Paulino, you’ll get used to it eventually.’

‘You’re not Paulino either?’ the boy said, shocked.

‘No. I was christened Ezquiel, but I’ve been Paulino for two years now, since I started working here.’

Sixpence was amazed.

‘What about the old guy, the cook?’

‘Oh, he’s always been Josué. That was his name when he started working here and it still is because he was the first cook they hired when they got here from Portugal. All the cooks they have after him will be called Josué. Get it now?’

Sixpence didn’t get it, but he didn’t say so.

‘I’m going to have a shower, I need to serve dinner,’ said Paulino.

Sixpence remained where he was and sat down. He listened to the running water of the shower and his new colleague singing a song he recognised, by Xidiminguana11. Paulino came back into the room, undid his capulana12 and put on his outfit to serve at table. He dressed all in white: shirt, trousers and shoes.

‘Now you go and wash,’ Paulino said.

Sixpence stepped nervously into the square metre of filth that was the privy. The shower head hung directly over the latrine, which served as the shower’s drainage. Placing one foot either side of the latrine, he steadied himself and turned on the tap. The sprinkle fell over him and he was as delighted as a child in a downpour.

‘Hurry up. The missus will give you what for if you take too long,’ said Paulino, appearing at the door. ‘Get ready and then come and find me in the kitchen.’

Alarmed, Sixpence turned the tap off immediately without even soaping himself. He rubbed himself down with his capulana and put on the clean shirt he’d brought in his plastic bag. Then he crossed the yard as slowly as possible, flicking fallen mangoes out of his path with his toe.

Josué was bent over the stove in the stifling heat of the kitchen. From time to time he rushed the back of his hand across his forehead, wiping away drops of sweat that threatened to fall on the frying fish. Paulino was busy setting the table, coming and going between the kitchen, the pantry and the dining room.

‘Do you need any help, Mister Josué?’ Sixpence asked, timidly, in Changana.

‘Speak Portuguese, boy,’ ordered the old man. ‘The misses won’t have landim13 spoken in this house.’

That night it was only the masters’ daughter and son-in-law for dinner. The missus was in bed with her migraine and the baby was asleep. The mister, meanwhile, was in Sofala doing field work, according to Paulino.

The daughter was a young, skinny woman who was so pale she was almost blue, though she tried to hide this with too much rouge. Her name was Dona Lúcia and she was a secretary at a South African bank, Paulino would later explain.

Sixpence was told to stand by the door and learn table service. They started with vegetable soup and then Paulino served the fried fish.

‘Not fried fish again!’ said the son-in-law, crossly.

‘Honestly, Quim…’ muttered his wife, looking at Sixpence out of the corner of her eye.

His wife called him Quim, but they were to address him as Mister Engineer, though Paulino knew he was a draftsman at the Public Works office, and thus obliged to live with the in-laws. He had a very trim moustache, he dyed his hair and he cracked rude jokes when he’d had too much whiskey, which was almost every night, according to Paulino.

Sixpence was amazed by how much Paulino knew about the whites. When he told him this, a few days later, Paulino laughed: ‘I know everything. The help knows everything. When the missus is on her period, when the mister gets so drunk he’s sick, when they argue, when they fuck, everything! We’re right here, on the inside, and we see and hear everything. We know everything about them, and they know nothing about us.’

After dinner, Dona Lúcia went to give the baby her bottle and Mister Engineer went into the visitors room, where he switched the radio on and settled down to read Mecânica Popular14. With the masters retired for the night, it was the help’s turn to eat. While the xima15 cooked, Josué finished off doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. Then they took their dinner to the outhouses, for the missus didn’t like the smell of their food.

Their food was basically xima and cabbage, with a bit of frozen fish thrown in sometimes, in a tomato sauce that Josué made extra spicy to hide the general inadequacy. It was warm and so they ate outside, under the veranda, with the old man installed in the only chair, Paulino on the step and Sixpence squatted beside him. Josué served himself first, taking most of the fish, and Paulino went next. By the time it was Sixpence’s turn, there wasn’t much left in the pan.

‘Where’s your village, boy?’ the cook said, in Portuguese. As Sixpence would come to learn, the cook always spoke in Portuguese and pretended not to hear if addressed in Changana.

Sixpence told them his story.

‘If you learn housekeeping properly, you’ll start to be paid in a year’s time,’ the old man said, moralising.

‘You’ll be rich,’ said Paulino, sarcastically.

‘It’s better than nothing,’ countered the cook. ‘Where he’s from he went hungry. At least he’ll eat here.’

‘Wow!’

‘You should have seen what it was like when I first came to the city. You needed authorisation from the masters just to be out in the street after nine pm. If you didn’t have a note, the police took you down to the station and had the sepoys lash you with the chambo16.’

The others made no reply, so the old man continued his monologue.

‘If the missu got cross with you, she gave you a note to take to the Administration saying you’d acted up and required a beating.’

‘And you…?’ started Sixpence.

‘We took it, what else were we going to do? We handed over the missues’ note, got thrashed with the palmatória17 and went back to work with swollen hands.’

When they’d finished eating, Josué muttered a sort of farewell and left. He had his own house, somewhere near Avenida de Angola, and he slept there.

‘Go and wash the pots,’ said Paulino.

The help’s dirty dishes weren’t washed in the masters’ kitchen, but in the washing tub in the yard, scrubbed with sand and then blue and white soap. It was a task that had formerly fallen to Paulino, but as soon as Sixpence joined the house it became his job, the first of many such transfers. The same thing happened with the baby’s nappies, which Josué had previously washed, reluctantly, in his role as cook-cum-laundryman. So too watering the garden of an evening, which had been under Paulino’s remit as gardener-cum-houseboy. In other words, the two of them dumped as many jobs as they could on the new boy.

After doing the pots, Sixpence sat with Paulino in the yard, delaying the moment when they’d have to go into the furnace of the bedroom. Paulino took out a berimbau18, wiped his lips and settled down to play. It was a very simple tune, a vibrant lament with a recurring melody that floated up into the night, filled the yard and reached the highest branches of the mango tree. Sixpence decided that when he got his first wage in a year’s time, he’d buy himself a berimbau.

Footnotes:

1  ‘Bus’, in Shangaan, the dominant language in Southern Mozambique.

2  A ‘cantina’ in Portuguese: a rural shop-cum-bar selling everything from wine to textiles, owned by Portuguese or Asian traders.

3  ‘Boy’ in Shangaan.

4  Literally ‘Land of the whites’ in Shangaan. It was used to refer to Lourenço Marques under colonial rule, which has been called Maputo since independence, in 1975.

5  Os Oliveiras was the largest intercity bus company in Southern Mozambique before independence.

6  Shangaan, the dominant language in Southern Mozambique.

7  ‘Heroes of Marracuene Street’ commemorated a decisive battle in which Portuguese troops defeated local Gaza forces; it was renamed ‘Resistance Street’ after independence.

8  Idiot in Shangaan.

9  A neighbourhood of lower to middle-class whites, in colonial times.

10  Sixpence was once used as a male name in Southern Mozambique, introduced by Mozambican miner returned from South Africa, now fallen out of use.

11  A Shangaan singer and composer, popular in Southern Mozambique since the 1960s.

12  A type of sarong, known as a kanga in Kenya and Tanzania.

13  ‘Landim’ was a generic term used by Portuguese settlers to refer to any African language.

14  The Brazilian version of the US magazine Popular Mechanic.

15  A porridge-style dish made from corn flour.

16  A leather whip originally made from rhino hide, a relative of the South African ‘sjambok’

17  A wooden paddle struck repeatedly against the palm of the hand, a common form of punishment used by the colonial authorities against ‘unruly’ Africans.

18 Jew’s harp

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