A Ghost Story by Yolisa Qunta
Phumla stared, horrified by the apparition in front of her. What was meant to be mille feuille oozed out as a soggy mess on the baking tray. Instead of crisp, delicate layers of pastry separated by decadent custard cream, there was an unattractive soupy mess. She was certain it was not the complexity of the recipe that had defeated her, being an expert baker with many years of experience in kitchens around the world that confirmed her patisserie credentials. Picking the oven as the culprit she decided to put this theory to the test with a simple souffle.
Moving confidently around her home kitchen she set out the different elements on the counter. Then, went through the well-known rituals of warming the oven, separating the eggs and measuring the ingredients. The familiarity of the process soothed her jangled nerves. While she whipped the egg whites into stiff peaks, she mentally went over the four-hour process of making the mille feuille, trying to pinpoint what went wrong. The ping from the timer brought her out of her reverie and she gently folded the ingredients together and put them in the oven.
Pouring a glass of wine, Phumla looked over the twinkling lights of Johannesburg while gently swaying to the music of Thandiswa Mazwai floating through the surround speakers. Later, a chime reminded her that the moment had arrived, and she slowly removed the souffles from the oven. Confronted with sunken disasters, she decided to throw in the towel, metaphorically and literally. There was a possibility that she had whipped the mixture too much, as she was overthinking if she had pressed the sheets enough during baking, but that was not something she wanted to pay attention to right now.
Heading upstairs while making a mental note to call a technician to examine the oven, she stripped off her chef whites and walked into the shower to wash the dismal day off. Phumla eased into a very specific relaxation provided by the perfect positioning of the shower head. Moments later, the temperature rose to scalding and as she groped for the mixer, the steam seemed to transform into wraiths reaching out for her. Desperately trying to get to the tap she was faced by what looked like screaming heads from the vapour. Determined to stop this, she tried to get hold of the shower handle. The water went freezing cold, but the unnerving, shadowy presences remained.
Taking a deep breath, she shut her eyes and turned the water off while waiting for her racing heart to settle. After what seemed like an eternity, she opened her eyes. Seeing no more ghostly presence she made her way to bed. She slept fitfully, conscious of a menacing presence in her troubled dreams.
The next day was long but sustained by many strong cups of coffee. Phumla was working onsite for a client whose oven was performing as expected so there was no drama on that side. After a successful shift, she headed back to her flat with a certain trepidation. Dismissing the events of yesterday as mild hysteria on her part, she carried on as normal.
Finally, she stood in the kitchen gazing at the oven. She stared at it while trying to remember if she had called a repair service. After observing it for a long time she thought she saw a spark. Moving closer, it looked like a small fireball. (Which was clearly not possible as the oven was off.) As she processed this thought, a large fire engulfed the inside of the oven. She felt rooted to the ground as her entire kitchen caught fire. Unable to move, she watched the hungry flames approaching to devour her. The greedy fire almost grazed her skin before she woke up in a panic.
Still sweating Phumla reached for her phone to root herself to reality. A glimmering light under the door made her think the dream may have been a premonition. Bounding downstairs, barefoot, she reached the ground floor to find all the lights flickering and every cupboard door opening and closing. Her first instinct was to press the light switches but that did not help. Finally, she went to the circuit board and plunged the entire apartment into darkness. It did not stop the rhythmic clattering of the doors, but she was more focussed on getting three hours of sleep before the next day’s early call time. Snuggling under the duvet to try to ignore the persistent rattling from downstairs she tried to focus on breathing deeply. In her dreams she kept seeing an elderly woman who seemed in distress. But when she approached to help, the lady dissolved into water.
The next day flowed straight into work from shattered sleep. Phumla wondered if it would not be easier to inject the caffeine straight into her veins. The job was fairly straightforward, assisting a corporate group to bake simple recipes as part of a team-building exercise. Spending a day assisting accountants and auditors determine the correct ratio of chocolate chips to cookies and gauge the right number of fresh blueberries for perfect muffins was a great distraction from her haunted home life.
Deciding to put returning to the apartment off as long as possible, she packed the rest of the most edible-looking leftovers into a bag and left. Drove to her favourite sculpture park determined to enjoy the remainder of daylight. Resting under a tree overlooking a piece of puzzling modern art, Phumla avoided thinking about the events of the past few days. All she wanted was the comfort of carbs, sugar and sunshine. After a few blissful hours, she headed home.
Confident that the electrician had done his work while she was gone, she flipped on the switch and was rewarded by a steady stream of light. The cleaning lady had removed all the duct tape from the cupboard doors, and they remained closed. Enthused by this she cautiously approached the oven, which was dark and quiet. Switching it on she decided to treat herself to bobotie as an experiment. To her relief the dish came out perfectly bubbling and smelling of all the best parts of her time in Cape Town.
After eating a full portion, she got ready for bed, pleased that the paranormal was done. In the midst of imagining how to spice the samp and sugar beans to serve as umnqusho at a traditional wedding she was supposed to cater to in Soweto in a few weeks Phumla allowed herself to relax. Snuggling into fresh linen with clean pyjamas she was startled to see the same old lady from last night in her bedroom. Sitting straight up she tried to talk to the phantom. Slowly walking closer, Phumla first tried English then Xhosa. Again, the presence disappeared in water which left her bed soaked. Sighing, she went to the closet and dragged out an extra duvet, then went to sleep on the couch downstairs.
On a consecutive day on the job with no full night’s sleep, even multiple cups of coffee were not helping. Something in her tired features and weary demeanor prompted her assistant to gently check if she was okay. Phumla put on a brave face then gave all her attention to a cake that would be smashed by an infant in a few hours. When the delivery was done, she called it a day and headed home. Reluctant to confront the flood upstairs, she decided to lie on the couch.
Finally at rest, her lethargy caught up to her and she started dozing off. As she drew blissfully closer towards sleep, she heard humming. Eyes closed and willing herself deeper into slumber, Phumla let the melodious buzz lull her to sleep. Reality rudely broke in with the sight and sound of multiple bees inside the lounge. Logic said that was not possible on the twelfth floor, but she no longer trusted herself to recognize reality. Phumla called her best friend, Mbali, who arrived shortly and confirmed that there were a few bees flying around the apartment. Relieved and desperate to unburden, Phumla told her about the unusual occurrences of the past few days.
She admitted that her beloved apartment no longer felt like a sanctuary. Mbali sat next to her on the couch and said there was a simple explanation for all the supernatural occurrences. The bees were definitely a sign that her ancestors were trying to communicate with her. She suggested seeing a sangoma for guidance. With her designer heels clicking on the tiles Mbali went through all the traditional healer consulting options from Skype to FaceTime, and in person. Bewildered with the myriad options, Phumla chose to go the old fashioned route and have this visit in person.
The next day Phumla drove to a Houghton address at the designated appointment time. She was escorted through the yard to a comfortable garden shed. After a very short wait she was facing a sangoma who looked roughly her age. While watching her throw the bones, Phumla was distracted by a slight twinge of envy, the healer had the perfectly manicured nails with almond tips she dreamed of but that were unrealistic in her line of work. Jolting her back to reality, Gogo Zodwa told her that her problems stemmed from an ancestor who was displeased. This woman believed she was not being given enough attention by her descendant and was trying to emphasise that in the most obvious way. Phumla explained to the sangoma that food was not only her passion but source of income, so this situation needed to be resolved soon. The healer assured her that it was possible as long as she followed instructions. Armed with a long list of shopping and very specific ways to use all the products, Phumla headed home with a sense of contentment about her flat she had not felt in a while.
Back in the kitchen she hummed to herself as she considered what to make next. The sangoma had made it clear that the process of appeasing the ancestors would be a long journey and not all the steps would be easy. Phumla was ready to do whatever it took. But in the solitude of her now peaceful kitchen, she had a lot of thoughts. The first one was to obey the sangoma’s instructions. The second was to remove her kitten heels and consider how best to honour her long-deceased relative. In the end, she decided that before any of these happened, she would make a traditional steamed bread with honey to appease the ancestor who clearly never enjoyed enough sweetness in her life.
Yolisa Qunta is an established writer and editor who posts too many food pictures on Instagram. She lives with an adopted Rottweiler that snores on the couch while she works at night. When she is not producing or polishing words, Yolisa is working towards a black belt in Haidong Gumdo (Korean Sword Fighting), reads a lot, enjoys restaurant visits and is determined to provide a good home for many stiletto heels. In 2018 Yolisa was shortlisted for the Iceland Writers Retreat.