Where The Air is Clear

The congregants paid no mind to the cacophony of coughs and rattling phlegm that dispersed throughout the church that Sunday morning. These were the day-to-day sounds of life in this part of the world.

Chilly winter air and clouds of steaming breath floated above the pews, mixed with the fine particulate matter from the mine blasting that was taking a place a few hundred metres away. ‘Morning has broken,’ as has the earth.

A year ago, Pauline had told her children – Rose and Jonathan – that they would be moving. Nothing had been arranged yet. Their father still needed to find a job. The main thing was that they were going to a place with better air. For the family, the past year had been a combination of oscillation, asphyxiation, and stagnation.

That Sunday, Rose sat between her father and her mother. Fragile hands in a small lap, encased in the yellow organza of her Sunday dress. Her father held the Sunday missal, and her mother held her black purse with large rhinestones.

They sat close to the front. There was an unspoken rule that the more you donated to the church, the closer you could sit to the alter. This was the closest one could get to God, without dying of course. Rose’s family were in the second row. Rose’s father, Ronald, sat with his back perfectly straight. He was proud of his second pew status. He had worked his way here – starting out at the back of the church, as a boy. Ronald believed in hard work and earning your way to the top. Back then, he had only one pair of ill-fitting shoes to wear every day, and on Sundays. Now, he could choose what shoes he wore on any particular day. That Sunday, he was wearing shined burgundy brogues with his suit.

The priest was talking about Purgatory. Rose wondered if they had clean air there. She swung her legs to keep warm. Her parents said it was not appropriate to wear pants to church, and her thin stockings and dress did little to keep the July Highveld air from reaching her skin. Her mother placed a firm hand on her knee – a signal to her to stop her leg-swinging. Rose was thankful for the warmth that her mother’s hand provided.

Unlike Ronald, who was a dreamer, Pauline, was a pragmatist. She propelled the family forward and kept them buoyed with practical solutions. Neither optimist nor pessimist. She just was.

Rose was bored and envious of her brother, Jonathan, who had been allowed to stay at home and in front of the TV that morning. She imagined him watching replays of Survivor and shoving fistfuls of chocolate cereal into his mouth. Okay, maybe without the cereal, she thought. He was rather sick when they left him thirty minutes ago. It was one of the usual chest colds, that kept him in bed and listless for a few days.

Rose wondered how Jonathan would adjust to their new home (wherever it might be), and whether either of them would make many friends there. It was particularly hard for Jonathan to make friends because he couldn’t play any sport. He had asthma. They both did. But for girls it did not matter as much if you didn’t play sport, Rose thought. Rose had quite a few friends. Many of them had asthma too. Her Mom had often said they were all in the same boat, which Rose thought was funny because there were no boats where they lived. No water either. There would be nothing to keep them afloat.


By Monday, Jonathan had marginally recovered. Enough to go back to school. Jonathan and Roses’ parents felt it was less acceptable to be sick at home in front of the TV if it meant compromising your education. Their father dropped them off at school in his grey Volvo. They always got to school early – too early, they would complain – because their father had to start his shift at the coal plant at 7am. He was part of the team that was responsible for technical care and maintenance, or ‘Keeping South Africa’s lights on,’ as he would say to his family.

In the afternoons, Pauline would collect the children from their school – a few metres away from the high school where she worked. That Monday, as they walked home, feet crunching on the parts of the road where the tar had crumbled away, the air was thick with haze. As they ambled through poisonous clouds, Rose proceeded with her usual interrogations on the family’s plans. When were they leaving? Would she still be able to participate in the school nativity play in November? What would their new house look like? Would there be a garden? Would they live close to Witbank, close enough for them to come back and visit friends? Was there a church where they were going? What about food? Then finally, ‘Do we have to go?’

Pauline stopped and looked at her daughter. Rose recognised the facial expression her mother usually had when she was angry, but there was something else there too; a sadness.

‘Don’t you want a better life?’ her mother responded. ‘Aren’t you tired of being sick all the time?’

‘Well. I’m used to it, and I don’t mind the doctors – they’re kind.’

Pauline felt heavy. She looked for Jonathan’s gaze to see if she could read his thoughts on the matter. He was a quiet child. She could see that her son, at least, was on her side.

They rounded on the house and Pauline’s roses came into view. They were the one indulgence Pauline granted herself when it came to pride. She spent hours each day, lovingly wiping the anthracite particles off of the petals. The neighbours remarked on how astounding it was that her roses thrived in the harsh extremes of the Highveld. Pauline treated this as an endorsement of her ability to keep fragile things alive.

Some hours later, they heard the sound of the garage opening. Ronald was home. He walked in, trailed by his familiar smell – a combination of asphalt and cologne. Ronald seldom laughed or joked, but when he was in a good mood his eyes would give him away. They did the smiling work that the rest of his face had never learned to do. That evening, his eyes were glowing.

‘Guess what. Your father got offered a promotion. Lead of the technical team! Hey, hey! My supervisor said I’m the person they trust most. I’ve proven myself over the years and they would hate to lose me.’

‘Wow Dad!’ exclaimed Rose. ‘So that means we’re staying?’

Pauline went pale.

‘We’ll see,’ he said. ‘Your mother and I need to discuss it first.’

Pauline joined in on saying grace for dinner, but said nothing more after that.

Once they were in bed, it was easy for Jonathan and Rose to listen in on their parents’ conversation.

‘How could you do this after we discussed and agreed that we were going to get out of here? Please tell me you’re going to refuse that offer?’ Pauline pleaded.

‘How can I say no to an offer like that? It’s double what I’m getting paid now! I haven’t had a single reply to my other job applications. It’s not like coal plant technicians are in huge demand, if you haven’t noticed. I have to work in the coal sector, it’s what I do. No one else will employ me. Wherever I get work will have the same problems as here, just different street names.’

‘We’ve been over this Ron. We have to do this for the kids. Dr Swart said the best thing we can do is move away. They’ll only get more sick if we stay.’

‘With this new salary we can get better medication, better treatment, better doctors. You and the kids can take holidays – go and stay with your mom in the mountains for a few weeks during school holidays.’

‘I don’t believe this. We’ve been through all of this a million times! And now you go and change your mind. It’s like you’ve forgotten all about your cancer diagnosis three years ago. Who’s to say it won’t come back? You’re no good to us dead. You’ll get another job.’

‘But this promotion has changed things. Now we have more options – with more money. The kids won’t be better off if we can’t afford to put food on the table Pauline,’ Then he added, barely audibly, but with a steady voice, ‘It’s a dream of mine to finally be recognised for my years of hard work. It’s what I’ve always wanted.’

‘Fine, then I’ll leave on my own. The kids are coming with me. I can’t watch them grow up like this – always sick. Not allowed to run or play outside. It’s not a childhood, it’s a death sentence.’

‘I care about them just as much as you do, my love. We just need to stick together. It wouldn’t be a life here without you and the children.’

‘The thing about life, though, is that you have to live it. You have to live. I can’t do this anymore – the hospital runs, the medicines. Everyone walking around acting like it’s totally normal to be sucking on an inhaler 24/7. And the number of funerals I’ve been to in the last year! I can’t do it anymore.’

‘Look, there’s this new technology that we need to put in at the plant, it will clear the plant’s pollution, make the air quality better. The green NGOs are in a spin about the pollution and government is now saying we need to make these installations. That will make a difference. And it means more work for me. We’ll save up more money this way, you’ll see. Anyway, it can’t hurt to accept the offer while we wait for something better to come up. Trust me. It’ll be fine.’ That was Ronald, always persuasive.

Rose knew her father had won that evening’s battle. She turned over in bed, ready to welcome the night’s dreams. A gentle smile on her face and a faint rattle in her chest.


The family settled back into life in the same subtle way that the coal dust settled onto their windowsills. That is, until September, when Rose was admitted to hospital for a lung infection. With revived impetus, Pauline and Ronald resumed their search for a home where the air was clear.  

Rose was still too weak to go back to school, but was able to start catching up on her school work at home. The teachers were used to this. Catching up on missed schoolwork was part of the deal on the Highveld.

Rose sat propped up in her bed, pale pink duvet cover and pillows, adorned with the smiling faces of Disney Princesses. She was looking in her textbook at pictures of the Mayans of Central America and the ruins in the rainforests. In some cases, whole civilisations had perished, leaving cities empty and abandoned, because they overused their resources, the book said. Did they know about their impending doom and carry on living there anyway? She wondered. Or did it happen slowly, without anyone realising, until there was just one person left? To keep the lights on, as her Dad would say. Maybe the Mayans moved to a place with better air too.

Jonathan stuck his head in the doorway. The rest of his body was in school uniform. A few stains on his white school shirt, carried the day’s events. With all his body weight, he plopped onto Rose’s bed, causing the duvet princesses to sigh. He was frightened by how small and weak she looked.

‘Dad’s applied for a job at a fruit processing factory, close to Malelane,’ he said.

‘What, like Liqui-fruit?’

‘I guess.’

‘Cool. Do you think he’ll get free juice from them? Maybe we could even test some of the new ones?’

‘I don’t know how many untested combinations of fruit juice there are left to try in this world, genius. Besides I don’t know if they make juice. He just said fruit processing. Technical stuff.’

‘What’s Malelane like?’ she asked warily.

‘No idea. Has to be better than this dump,’ he answered.

‘Hey, I like it here. I don’t want to leave.’

‘You do want to leave. You just don’t know it yet.’


It was late November and the summer rains had arrived in the Highveld. The roads, or what was left of them, released clouds of steam as the rain hit the hot tar surfaces. Flying ants greeted the evening darkness and left their wings to litter the ground. Pauline shut the windows to keep them out.

A moth was trapped inside the living room, its body thwacked against the window and the lightbulbs. It could not decide whether to escape or meet its end in the light-fitting. The moth hovered in the ceiling corner, where a large crack had appeared from the mine blasting. It then came to land on the sofa head rest. A few centimetres from Ronald’s head.

Ronald did not get the job.

The residual smells of dinner hovered in the living room. Pauline and Ronald could hear their children doing the dishes in the kitchen.

‘I didn’t want to be the donkey. So I was picked to be an angel instead.’ Rose was telling Jonathan about her role in the upcoming school nativity play.

‘So we’ll keep trying. Something will come up,’ Pauline said to Ronald. Her husband was unresponsive and continued watching the TV. She knew he wasn’t actually watching because it was some ridiculous soapie. He started flicking mindlessly through the channels. Pauline could not ascertain whether he was sulking or relieved that he didn’t get that fruit job. She suspected a bit of both.

She tried a new approach. ‘How are things at the plant?’

‘Fine,’ he said.

‘What’s happening with that new equipment? The stuff that’s supposed to make the pollution better?’

‘You mean FGD?’

‘Yes, whatever it’s called.’

‘Fluegas desulpherisation. That’s what the technology is called.’

‘Ron, just get to the point. Is it happening or is it not happening?’

‘It’s not happening. It will take too long to retrofit the plant, and it’s too expensive. We did put in some filter bags for some of the other pollutants – those worked well for a few weeks, but then broke and they’re getting repaired. We’re waiting for the new parts.’

‘I don’t believe this. What happened to the plans to clean up the plant? The air pollution laws? The angry NGOs?’

‘We have to keep the lights on Pauline. This country needs electricity.’

‘But why should our kids have to pay the price for that?!’

‘Anyway, Mr Mason says the plant isn’t really the culprit for all this pollution. Even with FGD and filter bags, there are still the mines. And people burning coal in their homes.’

‘Of course Mr Mason is going to say that, he’s the CEO! We don’t burn coal in our home and our kids are sick.’

Ronald wasn’t really listening. He continued to spit out company policy. ‘Mr Mason says they’d rather put money into giving people gas stoves at home so they can reduce indoor air pollution. That’s the real life-saver. Maybe we can apply for one – you’ve always wanted a gas stove right?’

‘Ron, you said it would all be okay.’

‘It will be okay Pauline. Trust me.’


The following morning Pauline was outside tending to her roses under a swollen grey sky. She didn’t mind a bit of drizzle. Liked it in fact. The air was fresh and she was calmed by the sound of her secateurs on the rose stems. She hummed a soothing rhythm. A church song.

On mornings like this. She did not want to be anywhere else.

She heard the faint sound of church bells and was reminded of the funeral that would be taking place that day. A woman, around her age. Cancer. Normally Pauline would have been at that funeral. There was a time, a year or more ago, that she attended all of them. Now she couldn’t. She needed to save more of herself for her family.

Rose brought her mother some tea. Five Roses with lots of milk and one sugar. In her favourite floral mug.

‘Thank you, my darling,’ Pauline said. She was relieved to see her daughter upright and outside.

‘Can I play outside today Mom?’ she asked.

‘Sure,’ Pauline replied. ‘The air’s good today.’

‘Jonathan said that Daddy didn’t get that job.’

‘No. He didn’t sweetheart.’

‘Does this mean we get to stay?’

Her daughter looked at her expectantly, hoping for the one thing she craved most – some certainty.

‘We’ll see,’ was all that Pauline was able to say. Pauline turned back to her pruning. Her secateurs made a jarring scream as she lopped off a perfect white rose and handed it to her daughter.