Victor Stainton, the mine engineer, had already been up and working at his dining room table for two hours when Margaret, the African maid, set the table for breakfast.
Two hours ago, he had been feeling fresh after a cold shower, but now he felt the unbearable effects of the heat. The perspiration was quickly making him uncomfortable in his white shirt and sombre dark-blue tie, and his tightly-cropped brown hair was fighting a losing battle against the damp. As he passed through the hall, he noticed a cluster of grey hairs in the mirror. I’m already going grey and I’m not even 30, he thought to himself.
“It’s going to be another stinking-hot day,” he said as he was joined by his wife, Jeanette. Even first thing in the morning, she had an attractive air about her. He looked at her with a stirring in his loins.
The sun was already burning into the dining room as it had risen above the blue gum trees, where the last of the noisy Christmas beetles competed with the doves.
He stirred the jug of milk to mix in the disturbed layer of the little cream that remained after his wife Jeanette had poured it over her cereal.
He was mildly irritated that she never mixed in the cream before pouring. The rich milk from the local farms, with their fat cattle and lush pastures, always raised a good few centimetres of cream to the top of the jug overnight. Often, Victor could see that the milk was not as rich because she, across the table, had taken all of the cream.
Victor poured the milk over his porridge and thought how lucky he was that he didn’t carry extra weight, like some of the mine office workers at Scallyclare. Okay, so he was usually still working when many of them were at the mine’s club bar, on their second Lion Ale. And although he wasn’t a very active sportsman, he did squeeze in 18 holes of golf every Sunday. Perhaps he was just lucky: at 1.82m tall and lean all his life, those poor, fat buggers really did sweat it during these summer months, he thought.
It was the Stainton’s first February at Scallyclare, and the extreme heat of Africa was still daunting. Recruited from the collieries near Newcastle in England, Victor had been offered the tempting position of Engineer. Jeanette Stainton’s ambition to elevate her husband’s status, along with her sense of adventure, had made it easy for him to accept.
They had not looked back. At 28, Victor had only just lost his boyish good looks. His grey hairs were proof of his obsession with his work. But, if anything, they made him even more attractive to women, who found his quiet, sensitive nature disarming, and instilled a sense of trust in him. Victor had the added advantage of not carrying an extra ounce of weight. He knew it was these qualities, and the feeling that he was destined for some degree of greatness that had attracted Jeanette to him. She had seen him as her opportunity to escape from what she called the middle class, in which they had both been brought up.
Jeannette had refined her speech to a degree, to the point where she felt she could pass herself off as upper class. She had never really lost that Jordy twang. Every now and then she would let fly with a vulgar obscenity that revealed her true background - especially after a few gin and tonics, the drink she had taken on, supposedly to refine her image.
A year younger than Victor, Jeanette turned heads at the many social functions held at the mine hall. Only a couple of centimetres shorter than him, her slim body, firm breasts and perfect legs, had a sensual quality that made her a conversation piece among the men and women on the mine - but for different reasons.
At Victor’s insistence, the couple had started trying to have children, but rumour had it that she was doing something to prevent falling pregnant in order to maintain her slim body. She often implied that Victor didn’t have it in him to make her pregnant.
Victor looked across the dining room table at her and thought about their lovemaking the previous night. Yes, it had been passionate, but where the hell had she really been? Certainly not in his arms.
The phone rang, interrupting Victor’s thoughts. The telephone system on the mine comprised a number of shared party lines and used a system of Morse code rings. These were manually generated by the exchange operator in order to identify who should answer the call. As many as seven phones shared a common line and they all rang simultaneously.
He counted the long rings, and as the fourth and final burst rang shrilly through the house, he got up and wiped the porridge from the corner of his mouth. He turned down the medium wave bush radio and picked up the Bakelite telephone.
“Stainton, good morning.”
“Victor, it’s Russel Kruger here. There’s been a hell of an accident at the new incline shaft. The skip...” Kruger’s voice choked.
Victor felt a cold chill creep up his spine. There had not been a major accident at the mine for a long time, and an accident at the incline could only mean mechanical failure.
“God, it was terrible. They’re still pulling out bodies, but it looks like 23 men are dead. Only two survived.”
“But that makes 25, and there’s only 24 on a skip. How?”
“Jock McGuire, too. The cable mount sheared and smashed through.”
“Oh, my God.”
“Jan van Wyk was on the skip. He’s gone. The rest were Swazis. The black medical team are here already.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
Victor spoke: “Jan’s wife will be expecting him home from his shift now. I’m the senior official on duty, so I’ll have to go and tell her.”
This was not a part of the job that Victor had anticipated. His stomach sank as he realised the task now facing him because the mine manager was on leave. In a way, Victor was grateful that Jock McGuire’s wife had died two months earlier.
“All right, Russell, I’ll organise to tell Popsy. Then I’ll come down there.”
“Thanks, Victor. Jan’s wife is pregnant. She may need help.” Russell took a deep breath. “They were good men.”
Victor put down the phone and turned the handle twice, indicating to the exchange that they had completed their conversation. He thought for a moment.
“Jeanette, I need you to come with me. There’s been an awful accident. Jock McGuire and Jan van Wyk and 23 blacks are dead... I have to go and tell his wife, Popsy.”
“She lives in those old houses. I’m not going there. Besides, she’s a drunk, disgusting Afrikaner.”
Victor stared at his wife. This new predicament had suddenly tested unexplored territory in their relationship.
“I haven’t got time now; we’ll discuss this later.”
He turned back to the telephone and twisted the handle to raise the exchange. The Indian operator answered.
“Manny, get me Dr St Giles immediately.”
The Morse code short-short-long crackled down the line.
“Roger St Giles. Good morning, how may I help you?”
Ever the personable family doctor, thought Victor.
“Roger, it’s Vic Stainton here, and I’m afraid it’s not a good morning.” Victor told the doctor briefly what had happened. “I need you to come with me to Jan’s wife, Popsy.”
“The poor soul. Yes, of course.”
“I’ll pick you up. Wait outside.”
Ignoring his wife, Victor took his hat from the stand and pushed aside the screen door that kept the flies and small miggies at bay in summer.
Despite the hat, Victor still had to squint his eyes against the glare that bounced off the concrete pathway leading to the garage.
The ’47 Pontiac fired first time with the choke full out, and Victor eased the car out on to the dust road.
At any moment the mine bus that would usually deliver Jan van Wyk to his home would be on its way, so Victor pressed the throttle to the floor.
Thankfully, Roger St Giles’s house was not out of the way, and he reached it within minutes.
The springs on the Pontiac squeaked slightly as Roger deposited his portly girth on to the passenger seat. Even on this grim occasion, the doctor seemed to radiate good cheer. Many thought that his rosy cheeks, curly locks of blonde hair, combined with his broad shoulders and large belly, would not be out of place behind a bar counter. Certainly all agreed that Roger St Giles was a man on to whom one could unload all of life’s problems.
Little was said as Victor steered the car around the potholes in the narrow road that led to the older, poorer part of the mine. It was only as they passed the African school that Roger broke the silence.
“Look at those poor devils,” he said, pointing to the young African children chasing an old tennis ball across the dusty school yard. Other children sat watching on the step outside the only classroom. They were holding the single piece of slate upon which they had done their homework. The young children’s bare feet were calloused from walking on the scorched summer earth and through crisp winter frost.
Victor was about to comment that they were better off than some of the kids he’d known back in England when he saw the bus up ahead.
“We should just make it,” he said. “I hope she wasn’t hitting the bottle last night.”
They passed the bus as it made its first stop at the entrance to the old village. Although the good summer rains had cleaned down the blue gum trees, the row of semi-detached brick houses were stained from 50 years of wind-swept ash and sulphur. Nearby, a towering waste dump of coal-dust mixed with worthless stone smouldered gently. The build-up of heat had spontaneously begun to combust.
Thankfully, on this morning, a gentle breeze blew the unpleasant odour away from the late Jan van Wyk’s home.
“There it is, number 54,” Roger pointed. “With the wire gate.”
They climbed out of the Pontiac as the bus accelerated past, continuing its route. As Victor led the way through the gate, he ran through in his mind how he would handle Jan’s widow, and then chastise Jeanette for abandoning him. Having a woman here would have helped things now.
“Someone’s breakfast smells good,” said Roger as he closed the gate behind him.
The aroma grew stronger as they approached the open front door.
They were about to knock when they saw the fully-laid dining room table and the spread on it.
“Oh, shit! His wife’s done a full roast dinner for his breakfast. It must be a special occasion.” Roger choked as Popsy van Wyk appeared, dressed and made up with another bowl of food in her hands, humming softly to herself.
Roger knew that she was pregnant and saw that she momentarily touched her belly in a gesture to get close to the child in her womb. Upon hearing the sound at the door, she didn’t turn around, but said: “Hello my love.”
When they didn’t answer, she rotated. Seeing the two men whom she knew well, she smiled for a brief instant. But then, as Popsy van Wyk interpreted the looks on the two men’s faces, her smile turned to a cry of terror. The bowl of food slipped from her paralysed hands, and she collapsed unconscious on the floor.