Marge, a white lady well into her sixties, pulled her Hyundai hatchback into the Home Affairs parking lot and came to a halt in a parking bay close to the entrance. The sun was yet to make an appearance, and the tattered off-yellow building stood bathed in the cold grey haze typical of pre-dawn winter mornings.

She was applying for her unabridged marriage certificate, required by the Australian government when applying for citizenship. Marge grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, as well as the paper application form, and made her way inside. It was warmer indoors, but only marginally. With load shedding in full effect, nobody dared tempt fate by using any high-consumption electrical appliances like heaters – not even the government.

Directly ahead were the service cubicles; only one was occupied by a somewhat disgruntled-looking state employee. Along the right-hand wall stood a line of chairs, at least thirty, all occupied by murmuring people who braved the early morning cold to be first in line. The last chair in the queue was being kept warm by a young black man, who had his face buried in the screen of his iPad.

Standing – more like hunching – next to him was the latest arrival before Marge – a black lady of at least seventy years; a Mama Mkulu. Her short hair was completely grey, and she wore a thick purple jacket over an African-print dress in deep shades of brown and orange.

Outside a distant murmuring of gathering people was rising, just audible from inside the Home Affairs office. The gathering crowd chanted restlessly while an enthusiastic voice tested the limits of a crackling loudspeaker.

Inside, Marge could feel her ears warming as irritation took over her reasoning, and she stormed up to the young man in the chair.

“Excuse me.” she said, waving her hand in front of his face.

The man looked up at her with a vacant expression.

“Can’t you see this lady is old?” Marge gestured towards the Mama Mkulu. “The least you can do is offer her your seat. God gave you a set of legs, and by the looks of it you don’t use them nearly as much as you should.” said Marge.

A few of the people in the queue started laughing, enjoying the early morning entertainment.

The man jumped out of his chair as if it were made of smoldering coals, exclaimed something in Zulu while bowing to the old lady, packed away his tablet, and left the building with an embarrassed expression.

Down the road, the talking and shouting and stomping feet grew louder, accompanied by the odd spell of frantic vehicular hooting.

“You didn’t have to do that.” the old lady said, taking a seat in the now warmed plastic chair.

“I know,” Marge replied, “but it irritates me to see how little respect young people have these days.”

“You should come visit me in Inanda,” the old lady said, “then you will see the true meaning of disrespect.” She extended a hand to Marge who was standing next to the chair.

“My name is Miriam. Miriam Makeba. Like the singer, but I am not she, in case you were about to ask me.” She smiled a wide, near-toothless grin.

Marge shook Miriam’s hand, which was as cold as a bag of frozen peas.

“I’m Margerie Cook, but you can call me Marge. You should see the young people in my neighbourhood! At least that gentleman had the decency to apologise.”

Marge looked down at their interlocked hands.

Your fingers are freezing! Here, let me warm them a bit.” Marge grabbed Miriam’s other hand and rubbed them rapidly between her own.

Miriam, equal parts embarrassed and intrigued, looked around the room at the rest of the early-morning applicants. They were all looking at her receiving the hand warming, mumbling under their breaths in fascination.

A large group of young people passed the glass front doors, shouting in Zulu. One of the young men stopped to look inside, stuck out his tongue at Marge and her fellow queuers, then rushed out of sight.

Marge broke the awkward silence: “Wow, I haven’t had to stand in a line this long since the 1994 elections!” She shook her head, thinking back on that revolutionary day which seemed so long ago.

“My husband and I were living in Johannesburg at the time, and we went into town just early enough to …”

Miriam’s eyes lit up, and she interrupted: “I was also in Johannesburg on voting day!” she said.” You should have been at the Baptist church on Main Street. That voting station had one of the longest lines of them all.”

“As a matter of fact we were,” Marge replied, rotating herself to face Miriam, “and I struck up a conversation with a lady. What was her name, now …” Marge put her fingers to her brow trying to remember.

“I’m sure it was … Mindi? No … Minni? I remember she wore a purple jacket, much like… like… your… jacket.”

Miriam looked carefully at Marge’s face, frowning as she took in her features. Suddenly, a mental spark triggered and a memory came back to her in full vividness.

“I remember you, Marge!” she exclaimed. “You and your husband… Fred was his name, right?” Miriam rubbed at her temples.

“Close! His name is Frank.” Marge shouted in excitement. “Well, he’s my ex-husband now.”

Miriam sucked in air through her teeth. “Eish! I’m sorry to hear that, Marge.”

Marge chuckled, “Don’t be, Miriam! He was a terrible kisser!”

The old acquaintances laughed deeply in unison.

“What a remarkable thing fate is,” Miriam said, “that it would have us meet on that day so long ago, only to bring us together again in this most ordinary of places, years later.”

Marge smiled, shook her head, and pointed toward the ceiling.

Miriam knew what she meant.

“Now what the hell is going on out there?” Marge asked rhetorically, as they both turned to look at a mass of people jostling past the front doors.

Some were holding cardboard signs above their heads; others held bricks and sticks behind their backs. One man, wearing a red beret on his head, was chanting demands through a loudhailer, and Miriam could see the veins bulging on his neck. The crowd eventually passed, leaving behind a trail of plastic cups and paper leaflets.

“Someone should tell them that shouting the loudest doesn’t always get you the biggest slice of cake,” said Marge.

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Miriam, “and now that they’re gone, let’s share this.”

She produced a small plastic container, which held a thin slice of chocolate cake, and two plastic forks.

The ladies spent the next two hours eating cake, discussing politics, and never once had to shout to get their points across.

© De Wet Ferreira

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