A True Story

The children play on the highway. It’s actually safer than their streets. They don’t have parks and the vacant land city-owned land will be occupied by a hundred tin houses next week. The highway has patches of grass between the turn offs, and the kids have taken to playing soccer there because the gangsters don’t bother them and there are lights. There are no street lights in the newer occupations, the older informal settlements still use temporary toilets and something called high-mass lights. They are 40 meters tall, the type you usually see at stadiums, except the lights shine in all directions from it’s head. They look more like aliens in the war of the worlds film. They aren’t technically at war though. They have the kind of peace that the rest of the world still regards as a miracle. In the shadows of the high mass lights, women get raped walking to the toilets at night. But this doesn’t happen as regularly any more. Women know not to go to the toilet at night, and women and men alike from the community will blame her for the rape if she did. The police don’t enter the areas. Most of the houses have small, unpaved and muddy foot paths between them and the police aren’t trained to patrol by foot. They wouldn’t anyway. They know not to risk their lives for something as stupid as a patrol. The majority of police are stationed in cleaner, less dense and well lit suburbs. They are stationed where crime doesn’t happen in a city where violent crimes are normal. We never go out at night. The women are strong and resilient. They find ways to support each other, keep their children fed and make make time to pray that their children are not murdered or end up in a gang. They don’t have jobs. Most people that live here don’t have jobs. They were intentionally given an inferior education to prevent them from succeeding. The younger rainbow nation are suppose to have it all, but that is just for billboards or talks on Oprah. Mothers form walking school buses to protect the primary school children on the way to school. The idea is that their bodies will provide shielding from stray bullets. A lot of children have died this way. The women are scared, the men are fucked up. Their ancestors were paid in alcohol. The legacy, like all the other legacies persist. Nothing has changed. Rates of domestic violence and fetal alcohol syndrome are among the highest in the world. The people are angry and they protest regularly. It is legal to protest. They go to the doors of parliament and hand over a memorandum then return home with empty bellies. The homes, or the occupations as the experts prefer to call it, get taken down by police while they are not there. The police remove the homes because the local government doesn’t approve. The occupations have made these homes illegally and so they get destroyed. There is nowhere else for them to live. The army are currently patrolling the streets, they are also torturing people. We haven’t released that information yet. The police are corrupt and the victims might be put in further danger. But when I drive past the children, who look happy while they are playing soccer on the highway, I don’t know how to feel about the place they found to play.

Beverly Hills. It was flanked on its northern side by gang territory. The name however, gave the residents a feeling of progress, a sense that they were in some way different to the residents of Covent Gardens, Quarry Road and Tumbler Lane. And they were. They were the people who had either gotten clerical positions in government offices or, through menial labour, had managed to earn honestly and saved enough to build a modest life. Jobs were difficult to come by when city folk read the address ‘Soldado’ on employment forms. Everyone knew where that was. Crime was big business there. But ‘Beverly Hills, Soldado’ inspired some measure of confidence. The residents of the little neighbourhood that numbered only thirty-five households, had created a space for themselves.

The women of Soldado, many of them single mothers, had taken up the job of gatekeepers. They were strong women, aggressive in built, in personalities, and sometimes both. Their aggression fueled their children’s motivation to excel. These were not women who envisioned grand jobs for their children. They simply wanted them to stay out of the gangs’ way, to not find themselves in recruitment activities that would bind them for life and eventually death, to gang life. They simply wanted that their children have a chance at life.

Alex, looked at his neighbourhood not with the child’s eye that had seen his world as big. At three feet, spaces could seem larger than they were but now, at fourteen years old and moving up to five feet, three inches, he felt the space shrinking. School had opened up his world for he was now attending high school. It had placed him among students from various backgrounds including those from wealth. The affluence he had known was the one his mother had created.

A single mother, she had refused, like some of the other women in Soldado, to welcome another man into her life. As far as she was concerned

‘At least your father had the decency to disappear and not show his face here again.’

Miss Mary as she was known, earned a living by washing and ironing people’s laundry. All her clients came from the affluent part of the city that lay only two kilometers away from Soldado. She didn’t think cleaning homes was an option because she declared that ‘that was a recipe for unemployment.’
Having access to the inside of people’s homes made it easy for them to brand you a thief if something went missing. Even if you came from Beverly Hills, the truth was that it was still a part of Soldado. She had decided that collecting the laundry to wash and iron at her own home was a better idea.

A meticulous woman, she had devised her own system ‘to ensure transparency’, a big term she was fond of quoting. She had bought herself a reporter’s notebook and some carbon paper. She made a checklist of the items collected and provided her clients with a copy of the list made possible by this carbon paper technology. When she returned the clothes, she requested the receiver’s signature. This safeguarded both parties’ interests.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t afford her reputation to be ruined, but that she was privately proud of her honesty because it was so rare in these parts.

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The TV signal was slightly scrambled, which meant it was very scrambled. The middle of the image pulled to the left, the sound was not in sync, the colours distorted and the edges never really remained still. Those on the couch often scrunched their eyes to make sense of what was going on.

The lopsided president, who looked noble to those who could see him better was making an address and announcing a country-wide lock down. Miss Mary’s heart sank, she had invested all her money into Alex’s school, which was now closed, and couldn’t really afford to feed the two of them for the next 21 days.

Before her anxiety could reach it’s height, she went to bed. Miss Mary woke up the next morning with that terrible feeling in her tummy. She looked at her phone and saw that she had about three months’s pay in her account. She lie in bed, stunned. Her phone was also flooded with messages from her clients, promising to keep up their payments. Weirdly, the usually apathetic middle class were trickling down their wealth, feeling an obligation to the poor, in a way they never really expressed before.

Not knowing what else to do, she got up and poured water in the kettle. That is when the first knock on the door came.

“Miss Mary…Alex… Hello.”

The proxy outside the door was a metal rod about six feet high, stood on a little platform with balloon wheels. A small screen at the top of the rod showed a man’s face. Clean shave, both face and skull, with a dark complexion and an easy smile. The little camera on top of the screen whirred and clicked, trying to focus on Mary’s face.

Mary had seen them before and dealt with them before. Some of her clients used proxies while they were away on vacation or working, so she could interact with them anyway. During lock downs they were especially prevalent, since the mobile networks in the country usually shut down the second or third day of lock down, to prevent people from organizing protests. The more pricey proxies used the same network as sat phones to communicate, and were exempt from lock down. Of course, there wasn’t a single proxy in Soldado.

She knew the man on the screen. Joseph Merritt, one of her longtime clients. She did shirts for him and blouses for his wife, Sophia. There was a laundry in their neighborhood, but Joseph had said several times that they preferred Mary’s more old school approach to laundry. No automation for Miss Mary, oh no.

“Mister Merritt,” Mary said. “Hello, please come in.”
“There is no time,” Merritt replied. “You and Alex have to pack a bag and come with me.”

Any person ruled by emotion would have immediately asked why, but Miss Mary was not ruled by emotion. She was ruled by logic, and a steady intake of information from as many sources as she could. She knew Joseph Merritt to be an honest and caring man, and in that moment, there was something in his voice that made her realize that there really was no time.

Decades of scrubbing shirts made Miss Mary a quick worker. It took Miss Mary around ten minutes to treat a shirt for wash properly. You have to first inspect it for visible stains and marks. Mr. Merritt was known to be a mentally meticulous yet physically clumsy man, his shirts would often have small coffee stains across the bottom usually from him sipping when the tonic had just come off the pot. If there were stains, Miss Mary had to first apply powered bleach or detergent and allow the shirt to soak in lukewarm water for a brief period of time. After a few minutes, she would begin to massage it against itself. In bygone days, housewives would use a scrubbing board, but this would often damage the shirt if done too aggressively. Nowadays, we have washing machines so Miss Mary could afford to do only light scrubbing with her hands. Once that was complete, the shirt will be thrown against the air, allowing it to throw off any excess liquid. Miss Mary would then inspect it one more time to make sure the whole shirt has taken in the cleansing powder and any visible stains had at least been awakened. Then into the machine it goes with all her other shirts. Doing several shirts at once, by the time the twenty minute cycle on the machine completed, Miss Mary would have two new batches ready to go.

All this is to say that Miss Mary’s internal clock was as reliable as the small LED screens that dictate how many batches she can do in a day.

Miss Mary closed the door and woke Alex up.

“Hey baby boy” she whispered.

“What is it Mom, it’s so early” replied Alex groggily.

“We gotta head out soon. I’ll explain on the way, just trust Mommy ok? We don’t know how long we gonna be gone, so pack as much as you can”

Alex’s mind gradually returned from its voyage across the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rushmore and planted itself back into Soldado.

“What?”

“No questions, please. Mr. Merritt is waiting. He’s sent his proxy”.

Alex got up without more questions and began to pack.

“That’s my boy. I’m just going to finish off the shirt Mr. Merritt dropped by yesterday and then we’ll head out. There’s only one shirt, so the machine will be on a five minute cycle. Oh, I do hope he hasn’t stained this one!”

Neither Miss Mary nor the physical Mr. Merritt sitting in his Beverley Hills mansion knew it, but the proxy would only be outside her door for ten minutes. Mr. Merritt did stain his shirt. She would have to do her whole cleaning procedure. It would take her fifteen minutes to wash the shirt.

Fifteen minutes is enough for everything to go wrong. It only takes seconds to make an error in judgment. Seconds for the mechanism in a bomb to interact and cause an explosion. Seconds for an avalanche to hit an unprepared hiker. The list goes on and on and on.

When Mr. Merritt had told her to pack her bags, that there was no time, washing a shirt should have been her last consideration. She had not questioned his request. Her decision to listen had been fast enough. But there are times in the life of the human consciousness that logic and emotion create a muddle to produce an unexplainable action.

Miss Mary must have known that Mr. Merritt’s shirt would be stained. It was his tradition and traditions that die, happen over time or in a small quick twist of fate that some call a mistake. A stain-free Mr. Merritt shirt would fall into the latter category.

The proxy left. Mr. Merritt’s contact was cut off.
Alex, sleepy-eyed and confused, sat waiting on his mother wondering where they could possibly be going when there was a nationwide lockdown and there was hardly any moving space.
Miss Mary, scrubbing the stain off the shirt in a fast-tracked attempt to do so, was lost in thoughts and emotion - though she could hardly be described as emotional - about handing over the shirt to Mr. Merritt, feeling a sense of pride that he had sent his proxy to get them to safety and other emotions tumbling around in her body.