July introduces Maureen to his wife, Martha, who has a “black-black, closed face.” Martha sits on the floor next to an older woman and bottle feeds a young child. There are other young women and girls in the kitchen as well. Martha makes quiet murmuring sounds. July translates, insisting that his wife is happy to finally meet the Smales, though Maureen notes that the woman hasn’t actually spoken and doesn’t seem all that happy. Maureen thinks the older woman must be July’s mother or July’s wife’s mother. The old woman alternates between “growling” questions at July and looking at Maureen.
Maureen emphasizes Martha’s otherness by describing her face as “black-black.” She sees Martha as her opposite. While readers learned in the previous chapter that the Smales are involved in anti-apartheid organizations, it’s clear that Maureen has a pattern of regarding Black people as “other.” She seems to have some latent, unexamined racism in her thinking. This racism also comes across in Maureen’s perception of the old woman’s speech as dehumanized “growling.”
Maureen watches the baby, July’s youngest, who was conceived during one of his home-leaves and born when he was back at the Smales residence. Maureen would send July home with gifts for his wife and the new baby after each birth. He’d return with a woven basket his wife had made for Maureen. July also had a “town woman” who worked as an office cleaner. She was a respectable woman who would chat with Maureen about using her earnings to put her son through school in Soweto. She spoke “black, city English.”
The kind of relationship July has with the Smales has been unclear thus far—it can’t have been purely transactional if he’s willing to risk his safety to shelter the white family in the midst of a violent civil war. Yet this scene provides more background information to suggest that it’s not as personal as readers might think. The Smales still don’t allow July to return home more than once every two years. The woven baskets his wife sends to Maureen seem less like personal gifts than strategic methods of keeping July’s employers happy to incentivize them to continue giving him work. Finally, Maureen’s remark about July’s “town woman” speaking “black, city English” suggests that Maureen respects the woman’s sophisticated speech, but looks down on the rural dialect that people in July’s village speak. Whether or not she feels it consciously, Maureen has a bias in favor of white culture.
Although it’s morning, the women in the hut seem “dreamy” and exhausted. Maureen wonders whether they’ve been out working in the fields since first light. As Maureen watches the women mill about the hut, she feels disoriented by a life so different than “the order of a day as she had always known it.”
Maureen feels out of place in July’s village, where unfamiliar local customs create an atmosphere that differs radically from “the order of a day as she had always known it.” Culturally displaced, she can no longer intuitively make sense of herself relative to her surroundings.