She woke to a loud gunshot while ash from the previous night’s fire had travelled like a slow train to the bottom of her heels. The wind was blowing through an opening below the rusty door that was starting to curl upwards. She moved her feet to the cold bucket of water as she readied for work.
Her children and grandchildren were asleep, in one room, the only room they had. She put a pot of beans on the burner then tied her shoes to her feet. The red dirt from the neighborhood had faded the black cotton into a dark orange and her laces had lost any conscience of a single thread.
The journey from the squatter camp to the city was a kaleidoscope of color, as she encountered the evidence of a first world nation riddled by third world poverty; modern day South Africa. She was the only passenger who looked out the windows to the fields and orchards, to the streams and rivers that ran towards the ocean. There was escape in these: an escape from what she knew as the fall. Since before she could walk her father began preaching to her about it:
“We used to be rulers in this land, Doris. Then the white man came and with him, the fall of black South Africa.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by men playing cards in the front section of the bursting bus; young women nursing their babies, and rowdy school children singing songs in a language not their own. Doris reached for a tissue to blow her nose from the purse her madam gave to her for Christmas. In it was a photo of her late husband, Sydney, covered with the words:
“Make a life of it, Doris. Take every chance you can get. Rise above the fall.”
Sydney refused to let them stay with him while he was dying in their rural home of Mazeppa Bay. Doris and the children migrated to the city in hopes of living a better life. She’d hardly found it. The pay was higher, but work had been harder and longer. And John Cook, her master, was an angry man. Twenty years had passed since the day Doris and her family left her husband in Mazeppa Bay. He died shortly after, but she had never re-married.
As the taxi pulled to her stop, her mind was fixed on the new year. She trusted it was her last with the Cook family.
When the Cook’s first hired her, it was the third year of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. One of his primary objectives was to mandate pensions for domestic workers. The law passed, but it had hardly been administered. It was near impossible to regulate such a justice, with so many laborers seeding the very bottom of the working force.
“If you live with us, make the meals, clean the house, and do the laundry until our kids are adults we’ll give you your retirement, Doris.”
Mr Cook’s offer seemed like her only way out back then. She thought of Sydney that day, the day she was hired. He would have been proud. Mr. Cook’s words stayed with her like a lighthouse in the dark for fifteen years. And now Malcolm, the youngest child, was in his last year of high school with plans of moving away for university.
Despite the years of hard work and toil, she had grown to love the youngest Cook child. Likewise, Malcolm had developed a deep love and respect for Doris. But it wasn’t always like that. When she first arrived, he was a three year old brat imitating the only examples he knew. She hardly blamed him, but it didn’t soften the scorn she suffered daily. One Saturday Doris was folding laundry on Malcom’s bed, then putting the clothing in his closet. She moved in front of him while he was playing with toys on the floor. What followed from his mouth almost made her quit.
“Doris you stink, get out of here. Go take a bath.”
She had never known a three-year old who spoke so rudely to adults. Her dark, black face went red. She turned towards the door and before she disappeared, little Malcolm saw the tears in her eyes.
He had come along way since then. The unconditional love of Doris, the friendships he had made with black children at his school, and the leadership of Nelson Mandela had caused his walls to tumble. Malcolm knew what this year meant for Doris. She found a confidant in him. Daily, he reassured her of his parents’ promise. And while with his parents, he had become her advocate. He hadn’t a clue about their financial affairs and often heard the grumblings from his dad:
“Business is bad; things are getting pricy.”
But Malcolm was her voice. He constantly watered the seed that had been planted on the day she was employed.
“So Dad what are your plans exactly for Doris’s retirement? Are you going to give her a monthly or yearly amount? And when do you plan on starting this?”
He asked him these types of questions at least once a week. The most lengthy response he ever got from his dad, was a:
“We’ll see boy. We’ll see.”
Mr Cook’s drinking had gotten progressively worse through the years. When the kids were young he’d frequent the pub weekly, but now it had become a daily endeavor. Unfortunately, for everyone, he was an angry drunk. He never acted violently, but his words were venomous snakes and scorpions. When he was only a single drink in, his racism would flare up like a blister on a summer day. It was all he’d known: behavior learned from his father, handed down from his father’s father. Doris made for easy pickings. She learned to hide upon hearing his car climb the steep driveway. Sometimes when she was outside hanging the clothing or in the kitchen cooking the food, unable to hear the car, Malcolm would run and give her full warning.
“Go Doris. He’s here. Get to your room!”
But on the days Malcolm wasn’t there and her ears were full of sounds, Mr. Cook would corner and berate her for the list of imaginary tasks he’d asked her to do which she hadn’t accomplished. On one particular day, Mr. Cook had drank well above his limit. He was lucky to have made it home alive. He stumbled up the steps into the house reaching for every sort of support he could find. Doris heard the front door slam against the pearl white wall. Dinner was on the stove. She knew she was trapped.
“Doris! Where are you? Come here at once!”
“Yes, boss. I am here. I am in the kitchen cooking the food.”
Mr. Cook pulled the shoe from under his foot and raised it above his head. Malcom was home, playing guitar in his room with the door closed and had not heard his father’s entrance.
The shrieking sound of her pleading penetrated Malcom’s door.
“Please Master, don’t hit me Master!”
His guitar fell to the ground as he whipped through the house like a violent wind with only a care for Doris. He tackled his father, moments before a certain tragedy. They fell to the ground, son overpowering father. John Cook let out a moan, then passed out on the floor in his drunken stupor. Doris and Malcolm carried him to his bed then exchanged a conversation before she headed down to her room for the night.
“Your father had too much to drink tonight, my boy. Never-mind this, okay?”
“I’m so sorry Doris. I’m so sorry for this. You don’t deserve this treatment.”
“It’s not your fault my boy.”
“When I leave for university, you are going to get what you deserve. You are going to get your pension Doris. And then you’ll be free of this.”
“Never-mind Malcolm. I am blessed. I have a wage, food, and a roof over my head. No matter what, I am blessed.
Malcolm rose early the next morning with thoughts of confronting his father. Mr. Cook was nursing a strong headache in the comfort of his dark, locked bedroom.
“Dad, wake up. I need to talk to you. Wake up right now!”
Malcolm continued this rant, accompanied with loud pounding on his fathers’ door for at least a minute and then he heard the shuffling of feet and an irritated, wounded groan.
“What is it boy? I’m sleeping!”
The door opened, Malcolm flipped the light switch, pulled his mother’s chair to the edge of the bed, then instructed his father to have a seat.
“Sit down Dad. We need to talk about Doris. We need to talk about what happened yesterday.”
“I know, Malcolm, I had too much to drink. I’m sorry.”
“Do you remember what happened? You almost hit her?”
“Who? What? I don’t remember anything.”
“I tackled you because you were about to hit Doris!”
“Well I must have had a reason. She must have done something to deserve it.”
“No, dad. She didn’t. You were drunk. And when you get drunk you get angry. And when you get angry you take it out on Doris. You need to apologize to her this morning and then you need to talk to her about her pension.
Mr. Cook’s eyes squinted as the light came through the crack in the curtains. He put his face in his hands then rose from the chair.
“There is no pension, boy. We are out of money. All I have left is your university fund. I’m not apologizing to her for anything.”
What Malcolm had feared was now made known. The course of their conversation was a dead end. Holding all his anger inside his chest, he continued with the plan he’d been pondering.
“Dad, when I turn eighteen do I get my university fund?”
Mr. Cook now on his way to the shower, turned with a bit of relief that the subject of Doris had passed.
“Yes. That’s how it works. You become the legal recipient.”
“And do I have to use it for university?”
“Well, what else would you use it for? It can technically be used for anything, but you’re going to university Malcolm whether you like it or not.”
“Ok. We’ll see dad. I may have other plans for it.”
“No, not “we’ll see Dad”. That’s the only plan. You’re going to university.”
With a huge smile on his face, Malcolm turned towards the kitchen, then rushed down to Doris’ bedroom. She was still asleep.
“Doris, wake up! I have great news!”
Doris rose with a jolt, still recovering from the previous night’s abuse. She was relieved it was Malcolm.
“What is it Malcom. What is it?”
“You’re getting your pension! As soon as I turn eighteen, you’re getting your pension! Finally you’ll be free from all of this. You’ll be able to spend the last of your days in peace with your family.”
Doris turned her pillow over to find the photo of Sydney. A tear fell from her eyes and smudged the phrase “rise above the fall”. Her bags were packed. She had decided the previous night to leave the Cook’s. There was a truth in Malcom’s voice that revived her, for just a little bit. Her mind wandered back to the red dirt in her squatter camp, then the fields and orchids, and the rivers that bled into the sea. Her dad would have been so proud.
She rose to greet Malcolm. He was standing on his toes, jumping as though he was full of electricity.
She opened the door and put her hands on his face:
“Oh Malcolm, my boy. I am so happy. I am so blessed.”