They’re changing guards at Buckingham Palace.
OK, I know it was originally Christopher Robin, but I’m singing to my two-year-old, Christopher, and his nanny, Alice. And although Christopher looks quite a bit like the illustrations in the A.A. Milne book, Alice doesn’t look a thing like the original Alice! For one thing, A.A. Milne’s Alice wheels Christopher Robin in a tall perambulator through leafy parks in London, while our Alice carries Christopher in a brightly checked blanket on her back while she vacuums and polishes our floors in a dusty suburb of Johannesburg.
Our Alice is about 50 years old, 5 foot 10, and weighs 200 lbs. Her skin is the color of melting milk chocolate. She is voluptuous, she is loud, she is unkempt, and she rules our lives. She lives in the maid’s quarters behind the house with Johannes (pronounce it yohunnis), her long-suffering boyfriend. Johannes is quiet and skinny and he has no papers, which means, according to the Apartheid Government, he is not allowed to live here.
Our neighbors are newly arrived from Britain with two dear little girls, Lisa and Belinda. After Lisa hears me talking to Johannes, she asks with wide eyes, “Is that man a prince?”
“No, what makes you think that?”
“Because you always call him Your Highness!”
Alice and Johannes share a big sagging bed, raised up to a dizzying height by three bricks under each leg so that they can be sure no tokoloshe, or evil spirit, is lurking underneath. Every evening after dinner they wind up their old record player and play both sides of their only 78. The irresistible beat of African jazz: bass drums, a tinny guitar and a brassy trumpet, flow from the room, the melody hiccupping on the scratched vinyl.
It is illegal to sell alcohol to Africans, so of course there is a roaring trade in home-brewed witblitz in the African urban subculture. And our Alice is the local shebeen queen. At night a steady stream of dark shadowy visitors knock quietly on Alice’s door, and leave with bottles in brown paper sacks. Like the three monkeys, we see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. After all, it is in our best interests. Our house is the only one in the neighborhood that has never been burgled. Alice has seen to that!
When we have dinner parties, Alice dresses up in her starched pink uniform with a matching doek wrapped around her head, and serves each course. It’s nothing like Downton Abbey. She bangs into the dining room, her flip flops flapping on the wooden floor. Happily she greets the guests with a running commentary.
“Oh Madam Colleen, you feeding Baas Ken too much food! Look how fat he is! I think there’s not enough salt in this soup. I have a good story about meatballs. My sister was working for these rich people and she cooked meatballs for the party. This visiting madam asked her, how do you get those meatballs so smooth and round? that’s easy, my sister says, I just roll them in my armpit.”
My guests shriek. Thank God they’re good friends! “Thank you, Alice.”
And then next day, there is a surprise police raid in the area. The police trucks roar down the road and screech to a halt outside. Dozens of armed, khaki-clad policemen tumble from the trucks and spread out among the houses to bang on doors, checking passes. Johannes has been alert, and has time to sneak in the back door, tiptoe down the passage and dive under our double bed.
We open the front door, tight-lipped, and suffer the perfunctory search of the premises. They never look under the bed. Perhaps they can’t believe that white people would allow a black person under their bed!
But several weeks later, Johannes is caught walking home without a pass. He is bundled into the Black Mariah and whisked off the jail. When Alice discovers what has happened, she is furious. We have to drive across town to the formidable grey prison building and stand in a cold echoing hall, filling out pages of paperwork. Before we can bail Johannes out, we have to convince the humorless clerk behind the desk that Simon will be on a train to his Bantustan homeland that very night. Only then does he grudgingly stamp each page and take our payment.
But of course, that night Johannes is back in the tall, tokoloshe-proof bed with Alice.