Beauty’s Gift by Sindiwe Magona is a riveting, moving tale of how four women lose their best friend. And how they decide to change the fate of their own lives as well as the lives of those closest to them. AIDS activist Zackie Achmat described it as “one of the most important books about HIV/AIDS in our country.” This is an extract from the book.
MORNING, 28 SEPTEMBER
Cemetery, NY 5, Gugulethu
God knew the African woman was going to have a very, very hard life. That is why He gave her skin as tough as Mother Earth herself. He gave her that tough, timeless skin so that her woes would not be written all over her face, so that her face would not be a map to her torn and tattered heart. These were Amanda’s thoughts as her eyes came to rest on MaMkwayi’s face. MaMkwayi, Beauty’s mother, was perched precariously on a white plastic chair, on the family dais, right across from where Amanda stood on legs too numb to feel.
‘Amen!’ the priest boomed authoritatively, causing Amanda’s eyes to stray from the object of her pity.
‘Amen!’ the other mourners responded.
Next, Nosisa, Hamilton’s eldest sister, spoke of Beauty’s illness. She’d helped MaMkwayi – who could not speak at her own daughter’s funeral – nurse Beauty. She was brief.
‘We hardly had time to get used to the fact that she was ill before she was gone,’ she began. ‘She was stolen away from us.’
There was a pause and a barely perceptible shake of her head. Then, her voice dropping, she continued, ‘We didn’t see she was going … till …’
She stumbled over her words, wiping away a tear, before continuing with renewed resolve. ‘When we saw the illness was getting the upper hand, we rushed her to the hospital. But it was too late. The TB had already advanced to such a stage … We brought her home. She wanted to come home …’ Again she stopped, and bowed her head. A hymn rose from the choir. Amanda let her eyes wander back to the woman she so admired, the woman for whom she sorrowed. How serene MaMkwayi looks, she thought, as a great tenderness welled up from deep inside her. How she didn’t die from sheer grief, how she lived through the ordeal of watching her child, her only daughter, die – die such a long, painful death – was a source of wonder to Amanda. It had seemed to drag on for so long, but now that she thought about it Beauty’s illness could not have lasted more than six weeks, if that.
Amanda’s musings came to an abrupt end as Reverend Mananga announced the next item on the programme. Amanda knew what was coming. And this knowledge changed the tenor of her thoughts. The sight of the tall man who stepped forward, looking as though he’d just stepped out of GQ, infuriated Amanda. Look at him, she thought. Just look how he is all dressed up! Amanda watched as Hamilton made his way to the head of the grave. The beige silk suit and brown suede shoes went well with the widower’s towering physique – he stood head and shoulders above the rest of the men in the cortege. A little self-consciously, he flashed the easy smile that so became his broad mocha face. Hamilton bowed and cleared his throat, then he looked up and his deep-set eyes, bright with unshed tears, slowly swept over the crowd. In waves, gradually, a hush fell. Now the crowd waited with him, for him. Even Amanda was affected by the hush. She took in the commanding presence that had brought it about. To think she had loved this man once. Loved him as a friend, loved him like a brother – after all, he had been her best friend’s boyfriend and then her husband. Why, she had been the chief bridesmaid at their wedding. And, in the early days, it was to her Hamilton had turned when at a loss regarding a special gift, or when cooking up a surprise for Beauty. They had had such fun together, just the three of them, but these days she had nothing but loathing for Hamilton. Amanda’s eyes again travelled to Beauty’s mother. Poor MaMkwayi! But her careful scrutiny of MaMkwayi’s face revealed only a calm that seemed as if it were her birthright. The woman is a saint, Amanda thought. Why is it Hamilton who is alive? Why is Beauty dead while her playboy husband lives?
Hamilton began. He read:
Light of my Soul
In shards, my world lies at my feet.
How will I go on? How read the signs,
You no longer by my side?
All joy has fled; my world, shrunk.
Light left my soul. Queen among women.
The chosen. Beloved.
In my heart, you live
Though the long, sunless day
Of your absence would reign.
Though all here proclaim you …
Amanda couldn’t bear to listen to him for another second. Clear as a bell, Hymn 100 poured from her throat, rudely interrupting Hamilton’s recital. In the whole of the Anglican hymnal, Beauty had loved that hymn best of all.
Afa kuwo uMsindisi,
Sendilahla yonk’ indyebo.
Ndilidele ikratshi lam!
She sang the first line all alone, but by the time she began the second line, the other three remaining members of the FFF – the Five Firm Friends – were singing right along with her. And by the middle of that line, the whole congregation had joined in. It is customary to stop a long sermon or tedious talk by starting a hymn. Hamilton dithered. He seemed uncertain whether to continue or wait till the singing stopped. But the singing did not stop.
Ndikuncame ngenxa yakhe.
Then someone tapped him lightly on the elbow, indicating he should return to his seat, as the priest wanted to continue with the service. Hamilton glowered at Amanda as he made his way back to his seat. Amanda stared right back, a silent message of loathing passing between the two of them. The service resumed. Then, just before the casket was lowered, four young men in overalls arrived, carrying bags of cement, buckets and spades – things that looked distinctly out of place at a funeral. Everyone was quite astounded. They set to work even as the service continued. Shlap-shlap, shlap-shlap – the sound of cement being mixed enveloped the mourners. When they were right and ready, the team sloshed bucketfuls of wet cement into the grave. Two stood at the edge, overseeing operations from that vantage point, while two jumped into the hole. The latter, in black gumboots, spread the mixture evenly across the bottom and lower walls of the grave. Once the casket had been lowered onto the wet concrete, the priest threw in a handful of soil. The immediate family was next, starting with Hamilton, holding his son, Sandile, by the hand, followed by Beauty’s parents and then the rest of the family. Benediction followed, and the dismissal soon thereafter. Immediately, the hordes scattered. Most left the graveside with unseemly haste, scuttling to abandon Beauty to the place of sorrow. In the grip of unforgiving pain, Amanda sensed rather than saw the unravelling of the knots of people all around her. Let them leave, she thought. She would never leave. Never! She would never leave Beauty all alone. Leaving would be the final acceptance that she was gone. There she stood, tears gushing down her unguarded cheeks. She swayed this way and that, a lone reed midstream during a gale.
‘Oh, Beauty!’ the cry tore out of her.
The Gugulethu cemetery, like the township whose name it bears, sprawls unattractively. Here and there a well-kept grave catches the eye, one that shows signs of regular visits by the living, but for the most part the cemetery is a jumble of time-wrought decay, neglect and plain thoughtlessness. Saturdays, the day usually reserved for funerals, are feasting days for the goats of Section 4, Gugulethu. As she stood there, Amanda knew the goats would surely come to Beauty’s grave; death would come swiftly to the wreaths piled high on top of the fresh mound. Expensive and beautiful, they would not see the sun rise the next day. Amanda tasted gall. She had failed Beauty. She had failed her miserably. Why had she been so timid? Why had she not confronted Beauty with her suspicions? A hand fell lightly on her right shoulder. That would be Edith, the most caring of the group. As she turned she saw Cordelia, Doris and Edith standing just behind her, forming a solid line of support. Cordelia and Edith, short but ample, stood a little in front of Doris, as slight in build as Amanda, but a little shorter. Attractive women, their good taste revealed by the subdued funeral clothing they wore. Amanda drew in a sharp breath. Her shoulders rose high and then slowly sank back to rest. The tallest of the four, she held on to her composure, her slanted eyes burning like dark coals of despair above the prominent cheekbones that linked her to some forgotten Khoikhoi ancestor. Again, her attention turned to the flowers piled on her friend’s grave, wreaths that the goats would devour before the sun set. Slowly, without knowing that she did so, she shook her head. If Amanda was angry at herself, she felt murderous towards Hamilton. There wasn’t the slightest doubt in her mind that he was the cause of Beauty’s death.
‘That dog!’ she said, her voice hard. Covering her mouth with a trembling hand, she fell onto her knees. Lovingly, she patted the raw mound.
‘Sithandwa, I don’t know how we will go on without you …’ she murmured softly.
Both hands on the fresh ground, she let her head drop until it looked as though she were about to kiss the wet sand. But her shoulders told another story. They heaved and trembled as the sighs that tore out of the depths of her body grew stronger. Gradually, the sobs dried up, and for a long moment there was silence as Amanda continued kneeling at the foot of Beauty’s grave. The others let her be. Silently, they waited. Waited till, finally, she rose.
‘Sleep well, s
ithandwa!’ she whispered. ‘We will be back soon!’ Then, with a bitter little smile, she added, ‘For your birthday …’ But her voice caught in her throat.
Silently, the four women made their way out of the cemetery. Other funerals were still in progress and clusters of mourners in dark attire dotted the place, some arriving while others departed.
‘How can people throw away their loved ones like this?’
Edith suddenly said as they approached the cemetery gate.
‘Throw away?’ asked Doris.
‘Come and bury them here and then never pay attention to the graves!’ Doris looked at the neglected graves they were passing. ‘No respect,’ she said.
They reached the gate. The street beyond was jammed with traffic, filled with people making their way to and from funerals. To reach the other side of the street, where they’d left their car, the foursome had to dodge their way amongst the unruly taxis and other vehicles that thronged the road. Amanda and Doris reached the car first and waited for the other two. It was Cordelia’s car, and she had the keys. The other three had left their cars at Amanda’s Gugulethu home, in NY 74. Amanda sucked her teeth, suddenly overwhelmed by the day’s events. Doris understood how Amanda felt.
‘Beauty didn’t deserve this …’ she began.
‘Mmffxcmm!’ Amanda sucked her teeth again.
‘How … how could we lose her like this?’ Doris asked her friends as Edith and Cordelia made it to the car. ‘How is it that we didn’t see this coming?’
‘And how do we go on without her?’ Cordelia asked.
Amanda covered her face with both hands. She was weeping, the others knew. Since Beauty had died, the others had marvelled at Amanda’s composure. She was, after all, Beauty’s best friend. Now they were afraid that she would unravel.
‘Hush, Amanda, hush!’ Edith said, gently patting her on the back. ‘You’ve been so brave all along, don’t crumble now.’