Budgeting for daily bread

2009-03-16 00:00

I was the only woman in the queue. I was possibly the only woman that that queue had ever seen. But that was not why men were stepping aside to let me pass. I carried in my hands one big piece of metal. They carried in their packs tens, maybe hundreds, of little pieces. We were all lining up to have our metal weighed and valued, so that we could be paid out. The men looked covetously at the big, copper geyser inner that I was carrying. It was worth hundreds of rands. They, on the other hand, had little scraps: nails pulled from planks, plaques peeled off old walls, broken pot lids, used wire and battered door handles. Each of these scraps must be sorted into metal type — aluminium, steel or bronze — and then weighed separately. This takes time, which is why they were courteously making way for me.

There was one man in front of me who would not step aside. He was dressed like a retired school principal: moccasins and smart pants. His cardigan was mottled brown and red, with big round buttons, like my grandfather used to wear, like all grandfathers wear.

His black hair had a light covering of grey and his hands were thin. But his face was not gentle and he was not stepping aside. He was arguing with the staff, back and forth. They had weighed his black sports bag of metal and he was unhappy. The woman who weighed the metal explained, the man who packed the metal explained and the driver of the forklift explained, but still he was unhappy. The only words I understood were: “five rand ... five rand ... five rand”. He picked up his bag, threatened them all and then went to the payout window to get his R5.

I placed my geyser inner on the scale. Two faded articles, tacked to the scale, warned me of metal theft — houses have been ransacked for metal, causing thousands of rands’ damage for a few rands pay out. Everyone smiled at me: eight kilograms of copper. The man at the window said, “That will be a nice bit of money,” stamped and copied my ID in case I turned out to be a metal thief and then handed me R172.

So that was what the argument was about. The last time our family cashed in a geyser inner (I promise it wasn’t yours), we were paid out close to R500. But since then Wall Street has crashed, the rand-dollar exchange rate has plummeted and the price paid for scrap metal seems to have halved.

But still, R172 is not to be sneered at. Especially because it was money that we weren’t relying upon. Money that we did not need. Money that was unaccounted for — a rare novelty in our home. When we get our salary each month we make our payments and then divide up the leftovers into budget envelopes

There is an envelope for family entertainment, an envelope for dates, an envelope for treats, an envelope for beer and an envelope for bunny chows. No cent is left unallocated. Each envelope is neatly marked and when it’s finished, it’s finished. We wait until next month. When our family first started this system, my husband’s treat budget would always run out mid-month. And so around the 14th the children and I would find him in the kitchen, shaking the envelope box, hoping that some coins had dropped out of the “extracurricular activities” envelope, into no man’s land — the bottom of the box. He would then swoop upon the duty free coins and claim them for his own. We all learnt our lesson and now no one leaves any money lying around. If it’s not in its envelope, then it’s in danger of being seconded into a treat budget. Every cent belongs somewhere.

This money, however, this payout for scrap metal, was unaccounted for. It had no envelope to call its home and no one knew about it. I left the scrap metal yard, wondering whether I should declare the R170? Or whether I should just add it to my envelope of choice, the holiday budget?

But, the man in front of me, the one with my grandfather’s jersey on, the one who was paid out R5, had no such luxury. He had no such choice. He probably hadn’t heard of Wall Street and he definitely didn’t care. He had one budget envelope marked “Daily bread”. And R5 wouldn’t fill it.

• Sarah Groves is unemployed, but has many interests, including her family, her flute, classical education, writing and courteous arguments around good meals.

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