He started at the bottom pushing barrows of bricks and advanced to acquire the brute skill of controlling the power drill deafeningly through concrete. His shoulders shuddered with it in reflex, in bed at night.
Later he had passed on to him from older building workers the civilised skill of guiding the crane to gather its load of earth to rise swaying up into the sky above the site, and lowering it exactly where it was needed. Like a prehistoric giraffe stopping to feed and raising a monumental neck to ingest. By the time he had been a building worker for 20 years, following the instructions of master builders and site managers, aware of their logic as well as their miscalculations when it came to doing the job oneself, contriving to be in listening distance when the architects come to see how their plans are realized in steel, cement, and glass, he had, while sweating like his mates on either side, put himself through a course in construction. Intelligence (he knew he had it) will find its way out of apparently predetermined circumstances. And even those had changed. Under the acronyms that, scrambled together, promised intentions to Empower (that's the political term), one was the means of loans to those who would leave the working class, with modest capital, themselves to become the employer. The Boss. Join--humbly only at first--those who by the special selective criteria of the past (no need to go into all that) had held it so long.
Pigment kept you out, then; black is a qualification under the relevant acronym now. Perhaps shades of black as well, retribution legislation's not specific on that. A matter of injustice become justice. He had applied for a government loan to launch his own construction company, and at first glance it's not clear by what exact degree of pigment qualification he was seen as eligible. But the loan was granted. On the evidence of what he had picked up from keeping his ears open around the master builders and site managers, while the stutter of a drill tried to block the messages, it might be he also could have come to know the clandestine power of slipping hard-earned money into the soft hand of the right functionary. Perhaps by the same sensible means of access, he had been granted contracts under another acronym for justly favoured opportunity, the government's project to build housing for people whose habitat had been the squatter camps. These were contracts for basic structures on a tight budget; they did not rival the vast projects for airports, sports stadia that are awarded to firms of the international construction industry. He set himself up with an outfit of three or four men who had been mates alongside when he was a building worker. His name on aboard up at a government housing project brought enquiries from people who, like him, were newly empowered in some financial opportunities; they wanted to have built a home for themselves, at last, on land they were now entitled to own, in places that formerly excluded them from the right. He took the initiative--had the nerve--to introduce himself to architects known to him from their site inspections where he'd been a worker, although they didn't know him. He hired an office, a secretary, created a website. In two short years he was doing not badly on the first-floor level of empowerment.
Why not build a home for himself?
For her. His second, young wife. They shared a house with relatives who had bought it when old houses in the suburbs where they were barred from before, were on sale, the owners emigrating to Australia, Canada, or moving to gated complexes where they would likely be, still, among only their own kind. He had repaired the neglect they left, but the improvements had to be shared with an extended family with set habits, another generation to which he only half belonged and she distantly, at the remove of grandmothers and grandfathers: relics.
Among the people in one of the South African ghettos called "townships" where he grew up, you had hardly received that status before, leaving school in adolescence to go to work, you also got yourself married, and the first commitment produced the required couple of children and then ended. This second was a matter of free choice made likely and achievable by his new situation in life; she was 15 years younger than him, thereby returning him to a new start, canceling a sexual initiation that had been a pathetic disaster. She was beautiful, in a well-presented view of herself, an international style, capable, advancing in her job opportunities without specific qualifications.
Who are they, this couple?
That isn't a tiresome question of inner soul-searching. Not here, a place in the world where intimate identity used to be decreed by law, where redress--logically--in some important aspects is decreed outside any personal decision.
Their name. Ambiguous. Doesn't necessarily connote any inescapable identity clapped on you. Abrahams?
So they must be Jews, you'd think.
In the genealogies of their country they could be Afrikaners of devout Christian fundamentalist ancestry, the upholders of blood-purity superiority theories long before the Nazis.
They could be, according to the shade of their faces, the backs of their hands (palms and soles seem to favour translucent pink), the texture of their hair, the profiles of their noses, their nostrils, the contour of their lips, a human design progeniture, way back, of a lonely emigrant Jew--yes--from Czarist Lithuania and a Muvenda girl who came to buy soap and mealie-meal in his country store.
Or an Afrikaner in one of the old Boer Republics who tainted the pure blood already reluctantly distilled with that of French Huguenots and even a dribble of the enemy British Blue, by impregnating a Motswana woman who washed the sheets of his marriage bed but could never lie in it.
The Abrahams couple, either of them, could be the result of many successive pasts, a synthesis of nights enjoyed by sailors on shore leave, Scots, Irish, English, with Khoi-Khoi or San maidens seduced by trinkets; along with the Jewish storekeeper's issue; the Boer farmer's command of the housemaid's duties; even the English maiden aunt out in the Colony who tenderly, shamefully, in love with her civil servant brother's gardener, gave birth to a child of the Mpondo gardener's seed who was brought up, with a once-and-for-all down payment provision from the civil servant, by the gardener's rural family in another province.
It doesn't much matter anymore. Except when it comes to redress for the past. He must have been decided by the government loan distributing authority to be shaded close enough to the criteria for Empowerment to approve the kickstart loan. He made it.
The idea of a house was like another meaning of marriage, further than the vows recited in church and blessed by confetti. He was the professional, possessed the know-how, of course, but both were the client. As their contracted builder, he decided they could not afford an architect and did not need one. He put before them the standard plan for the better type of house he built on government housing schemes. They had conceived no children and probably would not--there were the sons from his previous marriage and it was her sensible suggestion, without a sign of deprivation or resentment, that something else they couldn't afford was more responsibility, not if they wanted the better way of life that was open. The house would have a second bedroom for when his children would come to visit; there it differed from the standard box of government provision. He had his living to be earned, his work contracted for to be supervised, his workers instructed, but he went before first light, weekdays, to work on her house and his, himself, wearing like a disguise the overalls and encrusted old boots of his time as one of them, before the scratch team he had assigned to it arrived. He came back to the shared family house to shower and...