Vagrant Woman's Life Changes While Her Boyfriend Is In Jail
The first day we saw Anna, she waggled behind her husband with short fast steps to his long strides. She sat on the bus bench of the Môregloed Bus and did not stir from there for about 4 hours. Then she shyly peeped into the women’s rest rooms and went to the back where the toilets were.
The woman’s rest room consisted of 3 sections. The first part was a waiting room lined with a wooden bench for 3 quarters of the room. Inside this room was a smaller room where Rachel, the caretaker sat and dispensed 2c pieces which were the “keys” to opening the toilet doors. Another door opened into the row of toilets and basins further down.
This is where Anna headed, but she had to return for a 2c piece. She had no money with her, so Aunt Rachel put a 2c piece in the appropriate slot. The smell coming from Anna was awful and people in the waiting room exchanged frowned looks.
Later, when it was quiet, Aunt Rachel came outside.
“You have been sitting here all day, my dear, are you not hungry or thirsty?
A shy smile was the answer.
Rachel poured some tea in a polystyrene cup and gave to Anna. She accepted a sandwich and slurped the tea down quickly.
From about 4 in the afternoon she became visibly more nervous and when her husband appeared, she fell in line behind him, not looking left or right, no smile, no goodbyes. She had the brown leathery face of the vagrant, her black hair long and extremely oily, and that smell lingering around her.
That was the routine for a few days.
She slowly got drawn into the lively social hub that was Aunt Rachel’s “office”. The woman bus drivers came there for a cup of coffee in between trips. Regular passengers shared clichés with Rachel and with each other and often one of Aunt Rachel’s many friends sat inside the office, kicking off shoes from hurting feet and chattering the time away until it was time for their various buses to leave.
The story Anna told about her life was a short one.
She was born in Lydenburg, where she was handed from one family member to the other until she was about 17. Then, set to marry a man 3 times her age, she decided to run away. How she met Morris was not clear. For a long time they lived under a tree next to a tributary of the Apies River, close to the Technikon. Now Morris had work at the state press and they had a room about 15 blocks away from Church Square, which they walked every morning and afternoon. He was scared that she would sleep with other men, so she was not allowed to move from the bench. She was not allowed to wash and she had to come with him every day. While walking with him, she greeted nobody and looked away when other people greeted her.
Morris is arrested for selling cannabis
Rachel made a plan about the stench – a dress and underwear were kept for Anna in the cupboard. Each morning when she came she would wash quickly at one of the basins (not really allowed) and wear this different dress. Long before the time came for her husband to arrive, she would switch back nervously in the other smelly dress and wait for him. She did not go as far as washing her hair.
Still, she found a place in many hearts. The moment Morris was out of sight, she changed completely. She was a bit like an abused puppy that dodged imaginary blows while moving still closer, eager to play. Her favourite prank was to hide one of the woman bus driver’s ticket punches, without which they were not allowed to drive. She giggled so much about it, that nobody got angry – the punch was always retrieved quickly.
One Monday Anna appeared a little later than usual. “He was arrested for having dagga (cannabis)”, she said. “He had a lot with him and will be in Pretoria Central Prison for 6 months”.
She had R1000 with her, which was the pension money owed to Morris. She was not sure what to do with it, since she had no bank account. With her lifestyle, R1000 in the 1980’s was enough for her to live on for 6 months or longer.
Aunt Rachel suggested that she keep for her the 6 X R60 needed for the rent of the room. A good thing, since Anna went on a bit of a shopping spree: Dresses and underwear from Woolworths, a haircut, presents for everybody. She had her eyes tested and got spectacles, started going to church on Sundays and looked like a normal middle-aged woman although with a bit of a hard life behind her. She still came to Church Square every morning, voluntarily, for the conversation. She ran errands for Rachel, who was not supposed to leave the waiting room unattended: playing the horses at the Tote, going to the bank, buying a bit of groceries. Once a week she took the Voortrekkerhoogte or Valhalla bus to the Pretoria Central Prison in Potgieter Street to visit Morris.
I was her favourite bus driver, and her biggest treat was when I paid for a ticket for her to ride the whole route with me, sight-seeing her city to the West, North, East and South.
She still played her mischievous pranks. Everybody thought she was happy.
She tries to commit suicide - and Morris is back
Then we heard that she tried to commit suicide by drinking a handful of sleeping pills. She was found in time to save her life. Nobody really knew why and she never came up with an explanation.
A week after Morris came out of prison we saw her degenerating for a while into the meek puppy running anxiously behind his fast, long strides: the oily hair – short now – was back, the smell was back, the fear was back.
I am glad to say that something did change in those few months. Suddenly she stopped coming to Church Square and the news was that she had a job and was proudly walking every morning with a pristine white uniform and cap to work in the state hospital kitchen. Morris accompanied her, then walked back to their room, where apparently he kept house now for the two of them.