The office was located in a popular street in the City Center of Cape Town. The house was squeezed in between two other buildings. It looked like that it had never been renovated. The carpets inside the building were run down and the air conditioning mounted against the wall spilled more dust than fresh air. There were five offices. My office offered a view over the narrow passage towards the backyard where many homeless people used to hang out. Just a look out of the window offered many dramas or unbelievable stories.
The passage on our floor had a rectangular shape. The kitchen and the two toilets were on the left-hand side. On the other side were the entrances to our offices. At the back, a stairway was leading to the dark basement. There was another dusty office. An English guy was working there while the others, mainly white Europeans used to work upstairs on the first floor. Our driver was of Indonesian descent with an Afrikaans accent. His name was Mervyn. He had just come up from the basement uttering a few incomprehensible words.
“What did you say, Mervyn?”
“I have seen her again.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The tea lady, Connie.”
I was shaking my head. “Er, we don’t have a tea lady, Mervyn.”
“You know, this building keeps a secret!“
„You are not serious, are you?“
“She was standing on the staircase dressed in a white gown. As if she wanted to say hello! Then she vanished,” he said.
A shiver ran down my spine when I heard him telling about a ghost in the building. At least it was a friendly ghost he was talking about. Should I believe him or was he making up stories? I looked at him raising my eyebrows but Mervyn was dead serious.
“There was a huge fire in the building decades ago and a woman was devoured by the flames. Sometimes I am able to see her and by the way, she is still serving tea in the office. Ask our other colleague Ingeborg,” he continued. “It really never gets boring in that office,” I replied and walked back to my workplace.
There I looked out of the window right into the passageway at the backyard. The view from my window offered me the possibility of taking part in the homeless people’s sad lives. One early evening I watched on how a group of those homeless had gathered around a big sports bag. They opened it carefully. From the window above I could see right into it. There was a mutilated animal in there. It looked like a dog. A man took out the paw of the creature and one by one stroked it muttering something I couldn’t catch.
“To stroke the paw of an animal means luck”, said my colleague Jackie out of the blue. She was also watching the action without me realizing it. Jackie was a happy, likeable person, and we got along very well. I was shaking my head, “I have to think about it very hard.”
When I had another look outside, it suddenly got busy again. Two men were running out of the house behind the office. They had two laptops in their hands and handed them over to the two homeless women sitting on the sidewalk prior to running off. The women quickly put the notebooks into the rubbish bin. They covered it with some black bags, closed the lid and walked slowly back to the sidewalk as if nothing had happened. They had no idea that I was watching them. I was just an invisible bystander, and I knew that they had missed the train already. Their lives weren’t anything but lucky. They carried on drinking and I carried on working. Then Mervyn walked past me again and I remembered the secret tea lady. I wanted to know more about this soul. I approached my other colleague Ingeborg who was the total opposite of Jackie. She often behaved like a real bitch.
“May I ask you something?” She looked at me apprehensively, “What is it?” she roared.
“Do you know anything about a deceased tea lady in the building?” “Yes, I do. She is offering me a cup of tea once in a while, but see for yourself!”
„This office is just so unbelievable,“ I mumbled and wondered how a deceased person could practically offer anyone a cup of tea? I was skeptical.
One day I was working overtime. Everybody else had left the office already. I worked at a vintage computer that had been placed in the passageway. It was so quiet one could have heard a pin drop. Suddenly, I got goosebumps. The toilet door was creaking, and the door opened slowly. I had the eerie feeling of being watched. As it was a very windy day, I calmed myself down, got up and closed the toilet door. I carried on working, but then I heard the creaking noise again. I was staring at the toilet door and watched on how the door handle was pushed down by somebody invisible. The door opened again. I don’t know why I walked into the kitchen, but there she was. The tea lady was fiddling around in the kitchen. She smiled at me and asked, “May I get you a cup of tea?” I politely said, “No, thank you.”
My thoughts were racing, as it turned out that the ghost story was true! I felt flabbergasted. Adrenaline was pumping into my bloodstream. Then I turned around, grabbed my bag and ran down the stairs. It was obvious that this house kept a mystery. The lost soul had yet to find her peace. I wondered on how the friendly tea lady could be released from her earthly spell?
Things had to change for me, the tea lady and hopefully for the homeless hanging out in the backyard. I was thinking, “What an absolute scary place. Have I waited too long to change my current situation? No, I will pull myself out of this vacuum and take my life into my own hands again.”
The moment I took that decision I felt liberated. I changed my career and moved to the South of the City. I forgot about the building for a short while. One day however, I drove past the house with all its stories in and around it but where was the building? I was stunned and pulled the car over. The house had been demolished and made place for a hotel. I was gazing at the new place. „Nice building,“ I thought, but there were still unanswered questions.
“Do paws of dead creatures really bring anyone luck? Have the homeless lives changed for the better after having stroked the poor creature’s paw or was it just superstition? Has the restless tea lady eventually found her peace? Is everybody’s destiny changeable?”
I started the engine and put my foot on the accelerator, leaving the past and the area behind…
Painting © C. Enczmann