Cathy stayed with her father in a shack on the edge of the township. He worked (when he wasn’t drunk) in the post office as a sorting clerk, helping to guide packets and larger pieces of post on their way to distant places. On the first Saturday of every month, he’d head for the race track in search of that ever-illusive win. He did make a bit of profit occasionally, but that didn’t make a difference; when he got home, he’d be drunk and broke.
Sersant Dreyer remembers the first time he visited Cathy. The three-roomed tin-and-cardboard shack was clean and tidy, in contrast to the others around them. She served coffee in tin mugs and apologised that there were no rusks to go with it.
He wanted to know. She was obviously an intelligent young woman; why? What happened to them? White people in townships aren’t all that rare…but…how did they end up here?
Cathy looked at the cement floor for a long time before answering.
“It was the cancer, you see? Mamma got it in her ovaries.” Here she glanced up, not sure whether it’s okay to talk about such things in the presence of a man - one she didn’t know so well, either. “Pappa never believed in insurance, see? He said medical aids and life insurers milked the public for money and they make huge profits. So he had a savings plan and put money in it every month. But when Mamma go sick, that didn’t help much – one operation followed the other. Then she had irradiation. Then chemotherapy. Pappa said she deserved the best, and he insisted on that. He started selling things, believing the doctors who always said she’d be okay, if she had this or that treatment.
“Well…she died. Pappa lost everything.” She sighs. “And he started drinking – so he lost his job, as well. I attended university at that stage – trying to become a lawyer. I had to leave that as well. Now I work as a cashier in Woolworth’s. It keeps us going…”
Even back then, Black Economic Empowerment prevented mature white males from gaining meaningful employment. The once-successful businessman had become a labourer at the post office… Dreyer could just imagine what they had been going through.
Her eyes told more – so much more. They remembered sleepless nights, waiting for the hospital to phone. They were dark with the pain of the shame of helping her father back to bed after vomiting in the bucket that served as a toilet. When she talked about earlier times with her mother, they lit up at the beauty of those moments. And they changed forever after watching the coffin being lowered into the grave.
“So, that’s why we’re here. Whiteys living in a Darkies world. Sometimes I think it is funny. Remember that song? My, my my, how the mighty has fallen? Well, that’s us. If I can get Pappa to stop drinking, it might help…”
Sersant Dreyer (still only a constable) talked to his chief, who talked to a social worker, who organised for the old man to be admitted to a rehabilitation centre. Dreyer took him there and made sure he was all right. Cathy’s eyes shone: a new dawn was breaking – maybe, this time, the day will follow.
With her father in the sanatorium, Dreyer felt it was too unsafe to leave Cathy in the shack all by herself. He convinced her to move in with him, and she agreed; on the condition they didn’t share the bedroom. By this time, the young Dreyer looked after himself rather well, and had become passably proficient in the kitchen. With him sleeping on the couch every night, he got up early enough to prepare proper meals for breakfast and dinner every day. Cathy got the vegetables and meat that had reached their sell-by dates from the shop at a huge discount, resulting in both of them eating well and gaining weight.
In Cathy’s case, the change was remarkable. The straight lines became curves. The lines on her face filled up. The ugly duckling changed into a swan. He said so, one night. Her eyes smiled at him, rewarding him for his care and dedication.
“I’ll never be able to thank you,” she said, “for all you’ve done. Pappa’s being discharged tomorrow, then I’ll be moving back and you can have your flat to yourself.”
This, of course, shook Dreyer to the core. Her moving back? To live in the shack? Surely she didn’t consider that? But…what about her father? The flat was too small for two people – three would be impossible.
“You wouldn’t like to stay here, and let him have the shack?” He wanted her to hear he wouldn’t like to see her go.
“Oh no…he needs to be cared for.” Her eyes filled with compassion. “I’m afraid he’ll just slip back to his old ways. No, somebody must take care of him…”
“No buts. I have to do what I have to do. So do you. If you thought this is a nice romantic way to woo me, you’re wrong.” Her eyes told him she’s lying, but she stood firm. “This is not about love, Dreyer, this is about life. Some things are just more important than others, and we have to make room for them. Once he’s settled, we can think again. But now…”
And so it happened that they fetched her father and Dreyer left the two of them waving in the doorway of their shack at the edge of the township. There was no way he could have predicted what would follow.
The days turned into weeks. He visited her frequently, but by now her father was at home all the time. The post office had given up on him and he was unemployed. The old man slipped back into drinking again. It was a mess. Dreyer scolded him and fought with Cathy. Her eyes filled with tears, shouting at him that he didn’t understand. He had no choice – and left.
At the door, he turned. “But I love you,” he said.
Her eyes softened for a brief second. “Love is a myth, Dreyer. A fable. You either need somebody in your life – or not. Simple as that. You don’t need me. Go now…”
Chastined and disappointed, he did exactly that.
It was way past midnight when the call came. Dreyer was on duty at the time, scanning the messages that came in from the patrol vehicles. When he saw the address, he knew…
Deep down, he knew.
That’s the moment he started doubting whether God ever cared about the little people in the world…