I always fell asleep in Ma’s bed, cuddled up to her soft, upper arms as she told bedtime stories. One night after the story she said, ‘You’re a big girl, aren’t you? Can you keep a secret?’
My grandmother’s eyes, behind her tortoise shell glasses were fixed on mine. Unused to direct eye contact with her, I blinked a few times and then concentrated on the twin suns in her lenses that were reflections from the naked bulb above our bed.
Ma guided my hand onto my heart, my finger on my lips and made me nod my head to an oath that I would never tell anyone, ever, what I was about to see. She lifted her hair. Right off her head. I kept my forefinger pressed tightly against my gaping mouth.
‘It’s a wig,’ she mouthed.
‘Oh,’ I said through my barred lips.
I watched as she combed her fingers through her own hair. Thick, coarse, grey fibrous hair twisted into braids. Fascinated by the long, crinkly, strands growing past her ears onto her shoulders, I stretched out my hand out to touch the tendrils that dangled against her wrinkled neck.
‘Uh huh, don’t.’ She slapped down the back of my hand.
I sucked my stinging skin and watched as she took up a wide tooth comb and forked through her hair. The yellow light above us shone on her mass of grey hair that she plaited into long tap roots then wrapped it all under a white headscarf and patted me on my head before turning out the light. That night, I started my lifelong apprenticeship of wig duty. My responsibility was to keep a vigil, to warn her of any hairs showing. ‘The vagrants,’ she called them. To alert her, I would have to swivel my eyes from left to right and finger the side of my head to let her know which side her natural hairs were beginning to stick out. Ma would try to tuck them back into the wig, gripping the wig with her middle finger and shoving the vagrants back inside with her forefinger.
One Saturday morning, we went to Claremont to shop. A long boring wait for me in the haberdashers where Ma bought buttons, zips and sequins for the ballroom dresses she sewed most nights. Laden with Ackermans and OK Bazaars shopping bags, we joined the long queues at the bus terminus.
The Lansdowne queue snaked past the pissy smelling sub way steps to Claremont railway station. I could hear the train conductors shouting out destination stops; ‘Rondebosch, Mowbray, Kaapstad,’ followed by their squawking whistles and the squeal of the train wheels as it thundered off in the direction of the city centre. Around us, hawkers balanced boxes of fruit and vegetables on their heads or outstretched forearms. Deftly they rustled fuzzy peaches into brown paper bags and juggled change in their baggy pockets.
Ma and I shifted forward slowly, heaving the shopping bags a few steps at a time. Suddenly we were pushed forward into a huddle colliding with the women in front of us. My head was caught between a bum and a large rump covered in nylon flowers. When I extracted myself out from under the tutting women, I looked up to see four or five skollies standing close to Ma.
The tallest one spoke first, “Ok mummies, stan’ now still.’
Then the second tallest said, ‘You’ve all lekker done your shopping. We also poor mummies.’
The smallest one, who had the word, TEARS, tattooed in the space that joined his eyebrows. In a low voice he said, ‘Don’t shout, and you’se won’t get hurt.’
Ma’s hand pulled my face so close to her wide hips that my view was obscured by her green crimplene dress. I craned my neck around her thigh to get a better look. Sunlight caught the gold slit between the tallest skollie’s full lips as he smiled broadly at Ma. Above my head, she held out her purse to him. He stared back at her, right into my grandmother’s eyes. I twisted my neck to look up. From behind her tortoise shell rimmed spectacles, she stared back at the skollie. Not at the purse in her trembling palm. He placed a large brown hand over hers like the priest did when he shook Ma’s hand after mass on Sunday. In the skollie’s opened mouth, I could see the pink tip of his tongue slithering around the gold slit between his two front teeth.
‘Hey, auntie,’ he said softly and shook his head from side to side. He leaned right over my head and whispered in Ma’s ear, ‘I knows where auntie is keeping auntie’s real money.’
He held her gaze, then lifted his eye to the top her head, and nodded delicately. The skollie crossed his arms over the multi-coloured cloth of his printed shirt and tucked his hands into his armpits. With a dancer’s balance, he spun on his heels and turned his back on Ma. His long fingers appeared and he drummed at the side of his lean ribs. The sinews on his neck stretched first left, then right, as he looked up and down the queue, while Ma’s hand reached under her wig and gingerly tweezed out the two banknotes with her thumb and forefinger. I had leaned forward like the skollie. Ma yanked me back to behind her hip and hissed, ‘Look for hairs.’
I worked furiously and furtively, my eyes darting around her hairline, my fingers surreptitiously pointing to the unfortunates. Only once I’d nodded my head to signal all was in place, did she tap the skollie on the shoulder and hand over the notes.
On the bus home, I stood next to the seat where Ma sat, my gaze in line with her wig. I concentrated on the line of her nape, the edge of the wig around her temples. I placed my hand on her shoulder and she looked at me. I gave her our signal, a lift of the eyebrows, meant not a single vagrant could be seen.
Ma put her hand over mine and squeezed my fingers then took out her handkerchief and blew her nose loudly.
Tanya Chan-Sam was born in South Africa. She started her working life as a switchboard operator, moving to a brake and clutch factory, the night shift on radio control for ambulances, teaching in schools and colleges in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Sheffield UK and now works as a language teacher, writer and facilitator.
She has performed and read at international literature festivals, amongst others, Spitlit (London); Off the Shelf (Sheffield);Sunday Salon (New York);George Washington University, Washington USA; Wan Tru Puwema, Suriname as well as in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam.
In 2009, she was editor-in-chief for Matter, a creative writing journal at Sheffield Hallam University where she obtained a First for MA (Creative Writing).
On a late in life gap year in 2011, she participated in a public arts festival called Infecting the City in Cape Town, South Africa where she told wild tales to public audiences in the streets and squares of Cape Town.
Tanya was a reader for Pen South Africa and read submissions for the 2011 prize for which JM Coetzee was on the final judge. In November 2011 she attended a writers’ residential in Uganda on African literature.
She is currently involved with Sunday Surgery, a writing-for-theatre development project based in London and writing scripts for Tell Theatre.
Tanya has participated in theatre making workshops at The Actor’s Space in Catalunya, Spain, collaborating with actors, writers and directors.