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The Newcomers
Joan Baker (1934-2000)

Choekoe watched the newcomer through half-closed eyelids. He knew that the two of them would start conversing soon. The newcomers were always asking questions about Harfield and the people who used to live in the houses they now occupied. He waited. Always leave the icebreaking up to them.

At first they passed with furtive, sometimes guiltily downcast eyes. Choekoe looked so at home, sitting on the pavement with his back against the corrugated iron fence, opposite the newly renovated grocery shop.

On their first walk to the shop, the newcomers often looked back to make sure that the man propped against fence was not a threat to them. After passing him regularly, they got used to him and the friends who joined him in the late afternoon. They would all leave together at the same time every evening.

Familiarity set in slowly. First the newcomers' eyes would meet his without discomfort or hostility. Then there would be a formal nod, and later a smile to match the cheery, 'Good morning.'

There was always another batch of newcomers to break in. The process amused Choekoe. They never stayed in the cottages for long, the way the old residents did. There was talk that the whole place was haunted.

Some of the elderly newcomers brought Choekoe leftover food in margarine tubs or wrapped up in foil. He always refused it with a look that left them in no doubt that they had insulted him.

Once they learnt that Choekoe and his friends were former residents of Harfield, the newcomers accepted their presence and tolerated the loud conversation and raucous bantering that sometimes led to very unnerving mock fights.

Choekoe liked the look of the man who had just passed, his casual friendliness. He could see the man now through the front window of the shop. Choekoe knew that he was an artist, and he knew the house that he had moved into exactly two months ago. He did not know whether he had a wife and children.

On the spur of the moment, Choekoe decided to overturn the normal icebreaking procedure. To his way of thinking, this was a special case.

'Good morning to you Sir.' He raised his hand in greeting as the man came out of the shop.

'Hi, good morning,' came the naturally warm response. 'How are you?' The man's pleasure at being hailed in such a chummy way indicated that he too wished to progress beyond the everyday greetings.

'So how are you?' he repeated. It looked as if he felt foolish for having to repeat himself, as if it made him feel inferior to this pavement fixture he passed every morning.

'Nay, I'm lekker. Are you a artis'?'

'Yes, I'm an artist. How do you know?'

'Nay, I check you artis' around here, ek sI. You ouens always wear cawderroys wit' paint vlekke on it.'

'Very observant of you. I suppose you know a lot about this place?'

'Ja, the pas' and the presen'.'

'Where do you live? I didn't know there were still coloured people living here.'

'I still live here, because my heart is still here. I jis take my body to Hanover Park every night, because my bed is there. But otherwise I is still a Harfield boytjie.'

This answer made the man squirm uncomfortably. Then he sat down on the pavement next to Choekoe—and rose a bit in the latter's books. Their shoulders touched as the artist rested his back against the warm fence.

'By the way, I'm Dudley.' His handclasp was firm.

'I'm Choekoe.'

'Choekoe? Is that your real name?'

'Nay, they call me Choekoe because I had three wives already, but I couldn't give them laaities.'

'I don't know that I'd feel comfortable calling you that. It's rather insensitive.'

'Then you can call me "Sir".'

Their laughter drew the attention of the shopkeeper, and he scowled at the mismatched pair through the window. Then he came to stand in the doorway. The glare he directed at Choekoe was meant to put the stamp of disapproval upon him.

'Why is Mr. Mamacos so angry with you?'

'Ag, fok him. I was here first. He can do me nothing. If he want to vriet his soul up over old grudges, then it's not my worries.'

'What old grudges?'

'Nay, is Pang Goldmines what started the shit. He pitch up here one day by me and my chommies. He's a big brag-gat that bought him a house in Grassy Park when ´he was chucked out here. He come to brag about his property by us sometimes.

'Now he use to live in that house that the Potjie live in.

'The Potjie bought the house and the shop, and he knock through the wall. Now it's what you call "interleading", ek sI. But the Potjie don't know Pang Goldmines because he don't come a lot and he don't hang long.'

'Pang Goldmines is a ou like that…he is now a big brag-gat and all, but he's full of sports. One day he bet us ten rands that he will go and drink tea in his old house. Ten rands is a lot of money, but we think he will never get it right, you check, so we take him on.'

'He waarlik go to the front door. He turn the handle, but the door is locked. So he knock hard on the door. When the Potjie's wife open the door, Pang Goldmines jis walk in. We run round the side down the lane so we can check out the moves through the little window there.

'This is Pang Goldmines: "Mama! Mama! Ek is hier sweetheart. Waar is julle mense?"

'He go to all the rooms. "Mama! Mama!" he call all the time.

'The Potjie go to get her husband. And here the Potjie come out wit' his gun, I tell you. "Who are you?" we hear him ask. "What do you want?"

'Now you must know, hey, the Potjie can't talk Afrikaans and Pang Goldmines can't hardly talk English.

"'Never min' who are you ... who is you?" Pang Goldmines ask the Potjie. "Where is my mudder and my farder and my sisters and my brudders? Where is my fambly? I jis come from de sea and now what is going on?"

'The Potjie let sak his gun, because he start to feel sorry for Pang Goldmines now. Pang Goldmines is crying snot en trane. "Mama! Mama!" The Potjie put his hand on Pang Goldmine's shoulder. He is only shaking now wi't upsetness, hey. The Potjie tell him, "We don't know where your family is, my boy. You'll have to go to the Community Development. Maybe they can help you."

'You know, Pang Goldmines got the vuil pluck to sit down on the couch. He put his head in his hands. "Mama! Mama!" the ou is still crying in his hankiechiff.

'The Potjie talk to his wife in their language. She go out the room. Then she back wit a glass of water.

'"'No t'anks," Pang Goldmines say for the water. But he tell the Potjie and his wife that whenever he use to come from the sea, his Mama always give him a nice cup of tea, because he don't drink the dishwater what the ship's cook make.

'The Potjie talk again to his wife. She go make Pang Goldmines a cup of tea. Pang
Goldmines offer to drink it in the shop, so that business can go on, and we run back down the lane and sit right here on this corner. And there is Pang Goldmines, posing in front of the window, drinking his tea nogal posh, wit' his pinkie sticking up in the air.

'When he come to collec' his ten rands, the Potjie see us laughing and patting Pang Goldmines on his back. The Potjie knew we made gaai of him, you check. I tell you, the ou come running out wit' his gun. "I'II kill you! I'II kill you, you skollie bastards!" His wife had to drag him inside.

'Next thing, the cup and saucer Pang Goldmines did drink out, come flying out the door!'

The artist laughed for a long time.

When he had recovered he said, 'God! It makes me wish I was a writer.'

Choekoe decided not to tell the Oxbury Street story right away. He was enjoying the company. Besides there was lots of time before his friends arrived to fetch the Hanover Park taxi.

'If you think that's funny,' Cheokoe said, breaking a short, thoughtful silence, 'then you must still hear what happen to the man from the Group one morning.'

'Please tell me.'

'Isn't your wife waiting for the groceries?'

'I don't have a wife, I live alone. You must come round for a drink some time.'

The thought of one person having that big house to himself eliminated the qualms Choekoe was beginning to feel. 'Sure, I'll come for a drink,' he said. 'You never know, your place may be one of those houses where I had many drinks wit'out an invitation. Maybe I walk out that door many times wit' a thick slice of bread and jam when I was laaitie.'

Choekoe turned the subject away from houses. He had learnt that conversation had a way of tricking one into revealing secrets. He protected himself by plunging straight into the story about the Community Development official. The man from 'the Group', as he was known by all in Warfield.

'You know, every now and then, always in the morning when the men were gone to their graf', the men from the Group come to check up on their tenants.

'They use to check to see if any coloured people was moving into houses what other coloured people moved out of. Because if they did ... ag, never min' the fac's, you know it already.

'Anyway, one morning a short ou ballie wit' a lot of papers knock on a door in that street over there where the blue car is turning now. Those boertjies wit' their SAP gedagtes, they mos like to knock hard on a man's door. From knocking so hard, the door open wide, ek sI. The vark mos got the pluck to jis walk in. That was his mistake, ou pel.'

'Because why? Because the sixteen-year-old girl that lived in the house was standing in the bedroom wit' only a panty and a bra on. When she see the mon, she shout, "Mama, daar's 'n man in die huis!"

'Her mama come running out like a buffalo bull wit' a petticoat on.

'The two of them charge him down the passage ... out by the gate … and into the street. They shouting, "Rape! Rape! Rape!"

'I tell you, Mr. Artis', quicker than you can swaai a pill, gates go flying open and in nighties and petticoats and whatnots come borrelling out. They donnered that ou balie up, hey! They got him down to the groun'. You just see boure and tits. One woman was wearing her husband's construction boots. One tramp on the ou's gold-rimmed specs—Gwa—and they unreckonizable. I promise you. I was there.'

'The ou ran to his car, two streets away, wit'out his shirt, wit'out his pant and wit'out his important papers.'

'And you know what? In two ticks, sharp-sharp, all the evidence is gone.'

'When the boere come for statemins they go first to the mother and daughter. Those two was cool. It was "meneer" here and "meneer" there. "Yes, meneer, we did chase a man away here this morning. We thought he had bad intentions, so we chased him away, but just as far as the gate, meneer. We were not dressed, so we came in and locked our door."

'Then the boere took statemins from the other women. They all said they heard a skandaal in the street, but they weren't dressed yet, so they stay inside.'

''When the boere leave the last house, the lady of that house hear one boer say to the other, "Hulle lieg almal, hulle's gewoont om half kaal te loop."

'The lady shout, "Lieg se moer! Dink julle dis Clifton diE, war julle tiewe kaalgat loep?"

'The one boer wanted to arrest her, but the other one said, "Los hulle. Hulle dae is kort."'

The policeman' s parting shot brought the artist's gurgles of laughter to a sudden halt. 'You really must come around for a drink, Sir,' he said. 'You've convlnced me to swap my easel for a typewriter. I'd like to record some of your stories.'

'I don't think so.'

'But why not? Do you think it would be exploiting your people?'

'I don't know what that word mean. It's jis that we don't know where we'll be tomorrow.'

'Have you intentions of leaving Harfield for good?'

'Maybe I will. Maybe you will. People move.'

Choekoe's strange, philosophical mood created a silent space.

The artist opened the grocery bag. He took out a packet of cream crackers and unsealed the two ends. The crackers dominoed across the wrapper as he laid them out on the pavement. Then he produced a wedge of cheese and broke it in equal halves. Choekoe took his half. It was the first time he had taken something to eat from a newcomer.

Nudging Choekoe with his elbow, the artist spoke through a mouthful of cracker and cheese. 'You know, Sir, I don't want to sound patronizing, but your people have an amazing knack for overcoming their problems with humour. I envy you that.'

'Not aways Mr. Artis', not always. Some of us have very not-so-nice ways of overcoming our problems. And some of us never overcome it.'

'Like the family that use to live in that big house in the street there.' With a toss of his head, Choekoe pointed to the street the artist walked down every morning. 'That is a very big house. A family house. Three families use to live there, for years and years.

'Two weeks before they suppose to move to Hanover Park, the great-granny went to bed. She refuse to eat or to wash or to talk to anybody. She refuse to move to Hanover Park. She wasn't sick or anything, but four days before they got to move, she die.

'Her family couldn't even invite the people back from the cemetery for a cup of tea, because they already pack up all their stuff. That night her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren cursed the house. They didn't know any thing about bad maglc, but they put their guts into those curses. They stamped on the floors and they banged on the walls. And they shouted, "May no bloody whitey have a peaceful night's sleep in this house!" They said it over and over.

'Now people say that the old lady must hove done her bit too. Maybe she cursed the house when she was lying in bed, dying.' Choekoe stole a sly look at the artist.

'Why do you say that?'

'Because every month, or two months, or so, people moves in and out of that house. They say if you lives there too long, you can go mad. Nay, Mr. Artis', I don't want to be the white person that live in Number 9 Oxbury Street.'

'Hey, look, here come Pang Goldmines. Now you can meet Potjie's krank.'

Pang Goldmines approached with a smile that displayed the wealth of the land. But before he could reach them, the artist got quietly to his feet and walked away.

''Wie's daai ou?' Pang Goldmines asked.

'Hy's daai artis' wat ek jou van vertel het, man. Hy bly mos in Nommer 9 Oxbury Straat.'

'Choekoe, jy's daarm 'n vark, wiet jy? Issie 'n wonner die ou is so wit geskrikie. Lossie mense, man, let bygones be bygones. Wat spoek jy nog soe hier innie Haarfiel?'

Choekoe's mood sagged as he watched the artist turn into Oxbury Street. He was sure that his mission had been successful. But for the first fime, he did not feel triumphant.

'Daai ou het sy snek vergiet,' Pang Goldmines pointed out, flashing a nine-smile that failed to raise his friend's spirits.

Choekoe decided to leave for home. He had no desire for the company of the rest of his crew, who were due to arrive soon. Munching the crackers and cheese, the two men passed the shop together and then went their separate ways.

'Skollie bastards.' Mr. Mamacos muttered in his thick accent as he watched their departing backs.

Joan Baker was one of the visionary founder members of WEAVE. Noted as a writer of short stories, her work appeared in many anthologies, among them Culture and Empowerment and The Torn Veil.