Sewage Works

by Melissa Webster

During the mid-90s, right before the first democratic, post-Apartheid election in South Africa, I was in my early 20s, and dating a guy that would have been classified “coloured” under Apartheid. I would have been “white.” The laws making our relationship illegal had just recently fallen away. But Calvin and I didn’t think much about racial categories and other boring old-world concerns. Society’s nasty strictures and bourgeois hypocrisies didn’t apply to us. We were young and free… and art students. I saw myself as independent and tough. Calvin was charming and good looking. We felt pretty invincible.

But, being art students, we were forever hovering between the constraints of pennilessness on the one hand and the allure of adventure on the other. And one boring day, on a whim, we decided to hitch-hike from Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) to Cape Town, to visit Calvin’s brother.

A series of bakkies carried us well away from the Windy City and somewhere outside Jeffreys bay, late in the afternoon, we got a lift in a long-haul truck going all the way to Cape Town.

Two men, speaking an African language neither of us knew, tag-teamed the driving. They were drinking a little, and I suspected they were not saying the most respectful things about us and our relationship, but we didn’t care much. A long-haul truck ride was gonna be a supercool notch in our hitch-hiking belts.

The truck had been making its slow, stubborn way along the N2, through sunset and dusk, with Calvin and I lounging in the spacious area behind the seats, when, well into the deep part of the night, it stopped at a deserted fuel station, somewhere on the outskirts of a town. I had fallen asleep and wasn’t sure, as we disembarked, where we were. Meanwhile, the drivers were telling us, in very broken English, that they were stopping for a few hours rest. Then, they both disappeared into the dark.

Calvin and I stood beside locked diesel pumps on an oil-stained tarmac, holding our bags, looking into the impenetrable night all around us, and wondering what to do. We guessed at the direction back to the N2 and discussed whether to walk back there to try to hail another ride in the dark, or to stay and wait for the truckers.

Just as we were about to sit down and settle in for the wait, a stranger appeared out of the night. He approached us and started speaking quickly and quietly; first addressing Calvin and then, seeing his skepticism, turning to me. He told us that he had overheard and somehow understood a private conversation in the public toilets nearby.

“There’s two men in there,” he said to Calvin in a low voice, glancing at me, and pointing towards the hidden innards of the adjacent building. “They are planning to kill you and rape your girl. You can’t stay here.”

Calvin and I looked at each other and looked back at him. He was ‘coloured’ too. He was not much older than us. Average height; average build; average looks. Dressed in overalls, as though for some night-shift, blue-collar job.

“You must come with me now,” he said urgently.

He had a serious, earnest face. He seemed impatient and eager to leave. It seemed like he’d rather be anywhere else than there with us. We had absolutely no way of knowing whether he was telling the truth. I remember thinking that if there was going to be trouble, I’d rather take my chances with him than the two, much bigger truck drivers.

“We better go with him,” I said to Calvin.

The mystery guy immediately set off at a furious pace into a densely dark night, which folded in around us as we moved away from the security lights of the station. Soon, it was so dark I could barely see Calvin walking next to me. We had rucksacks slung over our shoulders, and the stranger was much faster than us. We hustled to keep up, unsure of our footing on the unpaved road, and aware that every step took us further away from the highway, and our only way out of there. Occasionally, he’d stop just long enough for us to almost catch up, and then he’d hurry on. A couple of times, I had the impression that he’d broken away and left us behind in the dark. Or was tempted to. But then we’d pick up the pace a little and there he’d be — footfalls and smudged outlines fading in and out of sight just ahead.

We had walked for what seemed like an hour when the air started to smell really bad. And then it got worse. And worse. Sewage. The town sewage works. Under the overwhelming pall of that gagging odour, we came to a row of small cottages. He stopped in front of a tiny box house, dimly lit from inside. The tin front-door opened noisily, and a young woman with a baby on her hip stood in the rectangle of light cut out of the darkness. It was only when I saw her confused expression, peering into the dark at us, that I started to let myself believe that we’d made the right choice back at the petrol station.

“Hulle moet vanaand hier slaap (They have to sleep here tonight),” he said to her.

He gestured for us to enter his home, and Calvin and I stepped, very hesitantly, through the front door. The barren interior was lit by a bare, overhead bulb. There was no furniture in the sitting room where we all now stood. To the right was a small bedroom. Straight ahead was a matchbox kitchen. There were no decorations on the walls beside what looked like something cut from a magazine or picture book and hand-flattened onto the wall with Prestik — a picture of Jesus. I was far from being a Christian at that time, but that picture was oddly comforting and my eyes kept wandering back to it. And though I don’t remember now how Jesus was depicted in it — whether stretched out on the cross or holding a lamb or smiling benevolently — I clearly remember the sensation of the realisation sinking into me, as I looked at it, that Calvin and I had been saved from something awful.

Our two hosts went into their bedroom and spoke quickly in hushed tones, while Calvin and I stood in awkward silence in their empty lounge. Very soon they came out again, dragging a bare-foam, single-bed mattress which was laid on the floor under the picture of Jesus. Then they said goodnight and disappeared again into their bedroom, with the big-eyed baby still perched on its mother’s hip.

Very early in the morning, the woman woke us, and gave us bread and sweet tea, and then the young man told us he would walk us back to the highway, on his way back to work. On the way, we passed a salmon-coloured house. He said his uncle lived there, and wanted to meet us. His uncle, we were told, was the local pastor.

The pastor sat us down, side by side, on an old-fashioned, plastic-covered, mahogany settee, in a dark, densely furnished lounge, and asked us to hear him out.

Now, over two decades later, I can’t remember all that the pastor said to us, as our rescuer waited outside. But I do remember that the grey-haired uncle told us to make better choices than we were clearly making, to live more honourable lives, and that, as young people, and especially as members of different race groups, we really should not carry on as though we were married.

In any other situation, Calvin and I, full of our privilege and youthful condescension, might have paid little attention to the advice of a conservative, working class man, living on the edge of a sewage works in the middle of nowhere, speaking with archaic authoritarianism about outdated beliefs. But there we sat that morning, ram-rod straight, listening obediently, nodding solemnly and smiling at the appropriate times.

Then, we walked back to the N2 without much conversation. Our rescuer said goodbye, shook hands with Calvin, and left us there. And we hitched the rest of the way to Cape Town.

Calvin and I went our separate ways soon after that. So, I don’t know what kind of impression the experience left on him in the long run. But the older I get, the more I think about that strange little stop-over. And the incredible, unlikely wonder of goodness appearing out of the darkness like it did that night, breaking through into my undeserving life, and saving me. Time and again.


Melissa Webster was born on a small farm north of Johannesburg. She went to school in Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth,) studied in Cape Town, earned a BA, and went abroad. She lived in the UK, USA, India, and Zimbabwe before returning to South Africa in 2015. Along the way, she earned an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins Krieger School. Now, she lives under the mountain in Cape Town, with her husband, three children, and beloved dog, Misty.

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