‘‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’’ is written in the first person in everyday, colloquial language. The narrator appears to be telling a story, either directly to the reader or perhaps to an unknown third party. In the story’s opening paragraphs, the narrator, whose name is never mentioned, introduces herself as a bookkeeper of a petrol (gas) station and garage. ‘‘I’m forty-nine,’’ she says, ‘‘but I could be twenty-five except for my face and my legs. I’ve got that very fair skin and my legs have gone mottled, like Roquefort cheese.’’ She assesses her appearance objectively because ‘‘to myself I admit everything.’’
The narrator has worked for years at the gas station, located near a shopping center in a suburban section of Johannesburg. Her only colleagues are the white auto mechanics, whom she labels a ‘‘bunch of ducktails,’’ and the black petrol attendants, to whom she refers as ‘‘boys’’—but not necessarily because they are young. In fact, one of the ‘‘boys,’’ Madala, has worked there for twenty-three years.
The narrator lives in the city in an inexpensive flat along the bus route that takes her to her workplace. She is formerly married, with a daughter and twin grandsons who live in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). She has only seen her grandchildren once. She mentions she is on friendly terms with some of the suburbanites who live near the garage, as well as the local hairdresser and pharmacist. Her other social connections include one female friend (unnamed) who accompanies her to the movies on Friday nights, and a lonely older couple called the Versfelds whom she visits for lunch on Sundays.
She regrets that she has no friends at her workplace. Since she has nothing in common with the mechanics, she says, ‘‘I’d sooner talk to the blacks, that’s the truth, though I know it sounds a strange thing to say.’’ She is not on good terms with old Madala: after he refused to run errands for her, she complained to her manager, who declined to fire such a longstanding employee. She has greater respect for ‘‘the bossboy, Jack,’’ who in her view is more intelligent than some whites. She complains about him as well, disturbed that he was getting too many phone calls from people asking for him by his African name. He charms her by explaining that ‘‘‘Here I’m Jack because Mpanza Makiwane is not a name, and there I’m Mpanza Makiwane because Jack is not a name, but I’m the only one who knows who I am wherever I am.’’’ She mentions that she used to buy brandy for Jack, before blacks could purchase liquor on their own.
The narrator mentions that on occasion, men take a liking to her at the service station, sometimes inviting her out for a drink. This leads her into a description of a recent encounter with a man who tried to buy gas with Rhodesian currency. Jack enters her office to tell her about the man. Sizing him up through the window, she sees he is ‘‘one of those men you recognize at once as the kind who moves about a lot.’’ She asks Jack to stay with her in the office as she talks to the stranger, who is concerned about a possible robbery. The stranger, a young man with sunburned skin and streaky blond hair, says he has just arrived in the country and has not yet changed his money. He takes off his watch and gives it to her, claiming it is gold. She agrees to hold it temporarily, helping him look up directions to Kensington on a wall map. After he leaves, she notices that the watch is not gold, but she decides to give him the benefit of the doubt. He returns promptly with South African money, she returns the watch, and the two have a brief, friendly chat about hotels where he might stay while in Johannesburg for a couple of weeks or so.
Days later, Jack reports that while the narrator was out on lunch hour, the man had come again but did not buy any gas. He looked in the office window and said he would come back later. Jack is suspicious of the drifter—he notices that his tires are worn out, making it unlikely that he had traveled all the way from Rhodesia. He returns at the end of the day and buys some gas. He tells the narrator that he needs to find another place to stay. She mentions a hotel near her home that is run by a nice woman named Mrs. Douglas. He asks her to speak to the proprietress on his behalf, and gives her a lift there. After Mrs. Douglas gives him a room, the drifter invites the narrator to have a drink with him. Instead of taking her to the hotel lounge, he brings a bottle of gin to her flat. He tells her he fought in the Congo on the side of the native chief Tshombe against Irish soldiers.
The next day, the drifter appears at the narrator’s apartment while she is preparing dinner for herself, and she feels obligated to offer him a meal. He seems to take no notice either of the food or of his surroundings. He tells little about himself and asks nothing about her. The narrator tells Jack about the goings-on with the drifter, even though she normally makes it a point not to speak to natives about her private life or anything to do with other whites.
After an absence of five or six days, the drifter returns to the garage at the end of the day and drives the narrator home. She buys pies and again they eat together. He tells her with annoyance that some ‘‘smart alecks and swindlers’’ owe him money but are refusing to pay. He tells her he is thirty-seven years old, which seems surprisingly old to her. She sees scars on his body, some of which he acquired in his boyhood, others during the fighting in the Congo. He stays the night, and in the morning asks for the key to her flat, revealing that he has left Mrs. Douglas’s hotel without paying. The narrator, feeling a personal obligation to the hotel keeper, pays for his room herself, without telling him. She does, however, continue to confide in Jack.
She comes home from work to find the man in her flat. She shows him a picture of her daughter, asking if he is familiar with the Rhodesian town where she lives, but he shows no interest. When he goes out to buy cigarettes, the narrator is suddenly struck with fear and decides to lock him out, but when he returns, she changes her mind and lets him in, feeling somewhat foolish for being afraid. At this point, the narrator digresses from her story briefly to wonder what might become of her in the future if she ends up alone; she thinks of haunting newspaper stories about women found dead in their homes.
The drifter makes a casual remark about Princess Margaret’s visit to South Africa some years back which causes the narrator to suspect him of lying about his age. She calculates that he could be as young as twenty-five rather than thirty-seven, but she does not believe he could be that young ‘‘You could always get rid of a boy of twenty-five. He wouldn’t have the strength inside to make you afraid to try it.’’ This is the narrator’s first admission that she is afraid of the drifter. She would have felt safer, she recalls, if someone else had known about his presence, but she had nobody to talk to. She continues to mention him to Jack, asking him to estimate the man’s age, but when Jack asks if he is still around, she denies it.
The drifter tells her he is having a mechanic friend work on his car before departing for the city of Durban the following Saturday. She feels relieved, but guilty that she had been considering how to make him leave. They have a pleasant moment together. However, on Saturday, he does not leave. Another week passes, and when she asks about his car, he tells her he no longer has it, that it was sold, and he is waiting for the money. She suspects him of lying about it, but continues to lend him small amounts of money.
She begins to feel more fearful for her own safety; only when she is at work at the garage does she feel safe. She asks Jack, ‘‘What’s a ’59 Chrysler worth?’’ He replies, ‘‘With those tyres, nobody will pay much.’’ Jack then ventures to ask her why she does not move to Rhodesia to be near her daughter. The narrator is impressed by the compassion and intuitiveness this question demonstrates: ‘‘They’ve got more feeling than whites sometimes, that’s the truth,’’ she says. She declines to answer Jack’s question, but instead she does ‘‘something I should’ve done long ago’’: she writes down her address for him and asks him to send someone to check on her if she ever fails to show up for work.
That evening, she finds the drifter has gone without warning. Filled with terror that he will reappear, she asks to stay with her friends the Versfelds for a few days. Even still, she cannot sleep soundly. When she returns to her flat, she buys a chain for the door and a heavy curtain for the window and stays at home, afraid to re-enter the building after dark.
Some days later she learns from Jack that the drifter had been to the garage. She cannot hide the anxiety that fills her face. Jack says, ‘‘I told him you’re gone. You don’t work here any more. You went to Rhodesia to your daughter. I don’t know which place.’’ Jack then returns to the newspaper he’s reading; the narrator comments that ‘‘he fancies himself quite the educated man.’’ She does not thank him.
In the final paragraph of the story, the narrator reports that she has not seen the drifter again, and that she never spoke about him to anybody: ‘‘as I say, that’s the trouble when you work alone in an office like I do, there’s no one you can speak to.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Nadine Gordimer, Published by Gale Group, 2010