Jenny Hobbs (1937 - ) was born in Durban and attended Durban Girls College, St. Annes Diocesan College and the then-University of Natal. She worked initially as a freelance journalist. Her short stories have been published in Contrast, New South African Writing, various anthologies of South African writing, and broadcast by the SABC and the BBC. She is the author of eight successful novels, including Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary (1989)which has been described as a “love story and a lament…to the South Africans of all races who are trying to build bridges rather than blow them up,” and four non-fiction books.
She reviewed books for many years and has written for, presented and interviewed authors on SA TV book programmes. Jenny is one of the founders and a former Director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Selected Text: Thoughts in a makeshift mortuary (1989)
Her name is Rose. She lies on her back on a woven grass mat, head to one side, mouth open, teeth jutting under lips that seem to have drawn back into themselves like touched sea anemones.Her skin has the grey drained look of meat that has been standing in water. Under swollen lids her dead blue eyes stare at the mud wall of the makeshift mortuary, a thatched hut with a single glass window through which an extension cord dangles. At the end of the cord is an electric fan which turns its whirring head from side to side, languidly redistributing the stifling air.
The blood that has been seeping from her mouth and nose and matting her long blonde hair has congealed and darkened in the heat. There is blood on her T-shirt too, caked in thick craters round the mess of flesh and shattered bone and beige locknit where the bullets hit, their harsh death-spits silencing the room that a minute before had been noisy with reggae and laughter. The T-shirt was wrenched from her jeans during her death agony on the floor, in the dust and the blood, her choking cries unheard by the husband who know lies next to her with most of his belly shot away. The already fraying cotton thread that held the metal button of her jeans snapped with the violent jerking of her dying muscles; thread ends stir now every time the fan swivels in her direction.
The stained sheet loosely thrown over her legs and his yawning wound is not wide enough to cover her feet. They are dirty underneath, with the fissured heels of one who often went barefoot on concrete floors. Her mother, Sarah, who sits on a wooden chair by the door keeping vigil, remembers when those feet were small and pink and kicked happily in the sunlight under a pram net that kept the flies and the cat off.
Sarah grieves and remembers while Rose’s father rages through the government office building down the track, demanding the privacy of a coffin – ‘Two coffins, for God’s sake! You can’t just leave them there. It’s nearly midday, man!’
‘We have telephoned twice for the undertaker, sir. Please understand, there are certain procedures to follow, arrangements to be -’
‘What arrangements? They’re dead! They’ve been dead for nine bloody hours already!’ Gordon is stocky and red-faced, his checked cotton shirt stained under the arms and down the back with patches of sweat. He wears baggy khaki shorts and long khaki socks, and carries a green felt hat with a guinea fowl feather stuck in the band, to keep the sun off the already dangerously freckled dome of his head. Because of the specialist’s warnings about skin cancer, he never goes into the sun now without his hat, and he snatches it off in a reflex action every time he enters one of the offices.
‘We know they are dead sir.’ The dark brown face behind the desk is also sweating. ‘We have telephoned for the undertaker.’
‘We is he then?’
‘There are certain arrangements to be made sir.’ The official hand-off, bland expression, clerical fist clutched round office-issue ballpoint pen poised over a form that is being filled out in block capitals.
‘Don’t you have any ice, then? Ice, man! Ice! That room is like a bloody inferno!’
‘Here, sir?’ The face moves to look out the window at a landscape worn to the bone: bare rock, bare hard-baked earth, cattle paths, erosion gullies, thatched mud and stone huts that huddle close together into the ravaged soil like hibernating tortoises, with every orifice tightly shut.
‘Anywhere!’ Gordon shouts, banging his fist on the desk.
The man turning back from the window says through pink-lined lips that part sullenly, ‘There is no ice. And we have already telephoned through to Maseru more than once.’ His black eyes say, Don’t try and throw your weight around with me, white man. This is my country.
Gordon rages out and goes back to the death hut where his daughter lies next to her husband with bluebottle flies already buzzing at the window. Where his wife grieves and remembers, rocking her heavy body in the terrible anguish of having an only child die by gross violence. ‘Why her, Gordon? Why her? She was such a good person.’
Down the dusty road in another stifling hot room, a fretful baby turns her head away from the hard plastic teat she is being offered, with its different-tasting, too-cold milk. Her mother’s milk has run dry now, and her father will never hold her again in his tender, calloused hands, his stubble-rough cheek scratching her small soft one, his deep voice in her ear: ‘Meisietjie, Meisietjie.’
In the heat, the last drops of her mother’s milk have crystallized on the dead brown nipples. Gordon paces and curses.Sarah grieves and remembers.
True Blue Superglue, a novel (Umuzi, 2015)
A Quotionary: The Ultimate Collection of Quotations About Writing and Writers, an ebook (2015)