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Open Features: Petronella Has Her Suspicions

Petronella's detective work has disasterous consequences.

Marianne Hall brings us another choice tale.

The washing powder “Surf” was disappearing at an alarming rate and Petronella wondered what she should do about it. This had to be sorted out, once and for all.

She opened the screen door and yelled: “Sophia!”

It took a full minute before Sophia emerged from the kiaia. She was busy tying a doek around her head and had no apron on which was a sure sign that Philemon was in residence.

“Yebo, missus,” she replied sulkily, slowly sauntering towards the kitchen door.

“The Surf, Sophia, are you taking the Surf?” Petronella decided to tackle the subject head on.

Sophia’s eyes shifted uneasily, then gave her madam a very blank look.

The Surf, missus? Eikona, missus, not me, missus.”

“Well,” said Peronella crossly, “Philemon will soon be a white man.”

“Ao!” Sophia’s eyes widened.

“Yes,” continued Petronella, relentlessly, “the Surf has bleach in it.”

The following weekend Sophia and Philemon left for Pietersburg to attend the Easter Moria service at the Z.C.C. church. Petronella decided to do a little investigating. She always kept a spare key for the kiaia, after all, one never knew when the original would get lost.

She let herself into the room. It smelt strongly of candles, burnt mealie pap and paraffin.On an upturned box, covered with newspaper, stood a lamp, it’s glass black with soot, a primus stove, well seasoned with grease, a chipped enamel plate and a cracked earless cup and a spoon. There was also a piece of green Sunlight Soap in a saucer, a jar of Vaseline, a tin of snuff and an alarm clock.

Various items of clothing were draped on nails affixed to the wall. An outdated calendar hung lopsidedly behind the door. The bed, each leg of which was perched on bricks, was covered with a yellow tattered candlewick bedspread.

“ Ah, ha, so that’s where my bricks have got to.” She was on the right track, thought :Petronella with satisfaction.

Under the bed stood various boxes and suitcases, piles of newspapers and magazines and on the grass straw mat lay pair of black torn slippers.

Petronella bent down and gingerly picked up the slippers between finger and thumb and cast them aside. She knelt down on the carpet and crawled in under the bed. The catch of the suitcase snapped open, then something shot out of the case and hit her on the cheek.

In sudden shock she recoiled and, in doing so, hit her head on the steel frame of the bed, so, that for a moment, she was completely stunned.

On opening her eyes she was relieved to see that it was only a very big black feather attached to a red felt hat. Dizzily she stood up and decided it would be wiser to empty out the contents of the suitcases on the bed. She packed out jerseys, dresses, scarves and old stockings in neat little piles next to each suitcase. There was a letter postmarked ‘Encobo’ from the Transkei addressed to Philemon, but she could not decipher it.

Probably a lot of skinder about me, thought Petronella. Little did she know that it was from Maria, Philemon’s wife, complaining about lack of maintenance.

Then she started on the boxes and whilst she was busy emptying their contents, her son Willem arrived.

“Ma, what on earth are you doing?” He entered the room, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “What a stink!”

“Nothing, nothing, Just looking for something.” Petronella felt rattled as she had not expected Willem that morning.

“Looking for WHAT!” Willem persisted, clearly fed up.

“You know,” Petronella answered vaguely.

“No, I don’t. You have no business looking through the girl’s stuff. Here, let me put it all back.”

Willem grabbed the articles lying on the bed and proceeded to throw them back into the cases and boxes.

“Willem…,” objected Petronella weakly. The bump on her head was throbbing and she was beginning to feel very dizzy. What was the use of telling him that he was putting everything back into the wrong cases.She looked at him with affection, he was such good son, her Willem, always ready to help.

“Now ma, let’s get out of here.” With that, Willem swung around, and in doing so, his elbow caught the paraffin lamp on the wooden box. It crashed on the floor, glass splintering in all directions.

“Look what you’ve done,” wailed Petronella.

“Damn,” swore Willem. Now he would have to replace the glass. He took what remained of the lamp, wrapped it into a newspaper and got into his car in a temper.

Petronella brushed up the pieces of glass and in doing so cut her thumb which bled profusely on to the grass mat. When she finished she looked around with satisfaction.

Sophie would never know that she had been in the room.

Willem had great difficulty in replacing the glass.The lamp was old and dated back to the imperial days. Then, when he was bluntly told that he should clean it up, he got really mad, and decided to buy a new lamp.

Petronella was in the bath soaking off the dirt when he arrived back.

“Where did you hang the kiaia key?” he bellowed at the bathroom door.

“On the hook, Willem. On the hook.”

Which hook, damnit, thought Willem. His mother could be so irritating sometimes.

Anyway, Sophia had a new lamp, so she could not complain.

Sophia and Philemon returned late Sunday evening. Petronella heard the key in the gate.

Ten minutes later there was a loud banging on the kitchen door.

“Missus! Missus! Tokoloshi! Tokoloshi!”

Petronella dragged herself out of bed. Sophia stood at the door, clutching her foot, her bloodshot eyes bulging, her massive body shaking with fear. Philemon stood behind her, nodding his head in agreement.

“The Tokoloshi, he was in my kiaia!” screamed Sophia waving her hands. She lifted her foot, where, under the ball, a small piece of glass was wedged.

“Blood everywhere! The Tokoloshi took my lamp and he has all my things!” she wailed.

Petronella sat her down in a chair with great protest because Sophia wanted to squat on the floor. She dislodged the glass, cleaned the wound and put on a piece of plaster.

Philemon had, in the meantime, gone back to the kiaia and then re-appeared with two suitcases.

She heard the word ”hamba” mentioned quite a few times, Sophia nodding in agreement.

“I’m going, missus, to my sister. I’ll come back tomorrow for my money,” she announced.

With that, they were gone.

What a day it had been, thought Petronella, getting back into bed. Her quest had been unsuccessful as she had not found anything belonging to her in the kiaia.

It was with a little tinge of regret that she fell asleep. After all, she had actually been quite fond of Sophia.


© Marianne Hall

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