“While there may not be a book in every one of us, there is so often a damned good short story” Jeffry Archer .
It is not as bad as everyone says it is really. I rehearsed that phrase for at least ten times. That was what I was going to say to my family this afternoon when they came to visit me. I lit my fourth cigarette. It is so weird that when certain things are taken away from you and all you have is smoking, you do it a lot. And I mean a lot. Smoking is the only thing that keeps the time moving, a welcome distraction. It also helps with the nerves of being in this place. I do not know when was the last time that I was calm enough to breathe properly. With smoking, it slows you down a bit and you breathe normally for a while. That’s my reason anyway and I guess I am sticking to it.
I am not alone in the courtyard. No one is ever alone here. There is a girl in the corner and she seems to be reading something. I have never introduced myself to her so I do not know her name. She is so thin I can see her ribs sticking out from the heavy coat that she is wearing. Well she is always wearing that thing. She must be cold all the time. She is the worst to watch when we eat. I sat down opposite her once and I could not help watching how she ate. She sliced the egg into such a tiny piece I thought it was a mistake. But she put it in her mouth anyways. But the way she put it in her mouth was strange. She seemed to lay it on her tongue and tried not to have it touch her lips. She then closed her eyes and began to chew. Her eyelids were moving as if she was really trying to concentrate. She could have been counting. I tried to eat but she kept doing the same thing. By the time I was done, she had managed to eat a mouthful for a normal person. She had then left the table. I have never sat down next to her again, it is frustrating. I am sure she has her reasons but I do not need to watch her do that.
“Hey, can I have a skafe?”
“Hey man. Who calls it a skafe anymore.”
I turned to look at skip. Skip has been here longer than I have. He is tall and always wears the same sweatshirt. I always wonder if it ever goes in the wash. He was just wearing it this morning when we were doing exercises. I do not know why they call him skip. I have never asked and he has never volunteered to tell me. Skip is one of the few people here that I can have a smoke with, without losing my mind. Most of the time when they put him on new medication, he seems to bounce off the walls. But It usually only lasts for a few days. And then he is back to his normal state of stooping and skulking when he walks. This has happened a few times that I have been here. His mood swings. I heard some girls gossiping about him in the Television room. Apparently he is a special case, he does not respond to medication for too long. It works for a while and then the shrinks are back on the drawing board. I would not have believed the gossip, but I have seen him change, it is very sad to watch sometimes.
Skip is a good guy though and he has an amazing ability to pick up on people’s moods. When I do not feel like talking, he does not talk either. When I am chatty, he responds.
“Ah well you know me.”
“yeah. Born too late.”
I handed him a cigarette. And I had one question to ask him.
“skip. How long have you been here?”
“what? Are you serious?”
I looked at him for a moment and he looked back at me and just shrugged.
“That is a long time skip. Don’t you want to go home?”
“Sure I do. But I have to stay here until they can sort me out.”
“Like a suicide watch?”
“Something like that.”
“That’s heavy man. I had no idea.”
He looked down at his shoes as he smoked. I was leaving in a few months and that was hard enough, but two years was a long time. He must have been through a few groups of nut cases in this place. He must have seen it all.
The cigarette I was smoking suddenly made me feel weak and nauseous. I had to go and get ready for my families visit.
“Have to go skip. See you later? I might be getting more smokes later.”
I walked away laughing.
To get to our rooms from the smoker’s yard, one must go through the dining area. I walked past the table for tea and grabbed an apple. That’s the other thing. When I am not smoking, I am eating a lot. I am sure I have gained shit loads. Anyways that’s the least of my worries. I walked through the dining area and started climbing the stairs to get to the third floor. There was a lift but I am very sceptical of them. I always imagine being trapped in there. Suffocating! Stairs where ok, the exercise was good. I rounded up to the second floor when I met Mildred. Mildred lives on the second floor. The second floor is reserved for manics. Mildred is not just manic, she is all sorts of things in my opinion. I have seen her walking the hall ways naked. She talks a lot too. All night long sometimes you can hear her muttering and pacing the walls, until one of the nurses gets fed up probably and gives her a shot. She always screams and then you hear silence. The walls are very thin in this place.
“I saw him today.” She grabbed my hand. She had a tight grip.
“Finally, you saw him. Good for you Mildred. I am sure he was happy to see you”
“Yes very. Look you must come tonight. He will be back.” She looked around.
Sarcasm was completely lost on this girl. I yanked my hand away and she grabbed it again.
“They don’t want me to see him you know.”
“Mildred!” One of the nurses was coming down the flight of stairs. Mildred looked up at her and ran away.
“Are you ok dear?”
“I am fine she didn’t hurt me. Excuse me.”
I walked around her and bounded up the last flight of stairs. I walked past the television room and headed for the nurse’s station. I was hoping they could give me something to calm my nerves. My family was coming and I was getting nervous.
“Hi sis Doreen. It is almost my medication time and you know my family is coming right? Can I have it early today?”
Once you have been here for a while, you start appreciating medication time. They dose us up pretty good in here. The afternoon medication is the best. You can just sit in the television room and be a bit mindless for a few.
“Sweetie, it is your lucky day. Since this is your first family visit. I will help you out my lovey.”
“ooooh thank you.”
She went to the back room to get my medication. This visit was not going to be so bad after all. I took the pills and swallowed gratefully. I went to my room and put the shower on. As it steamed up. I undressed. As I lifted my shirt I was shocked to find I had no hair. I looked in the mirror. Yep I was bold, freshly shaved this morning. The medication works quickly. I smiled and thought yeah! It is not that bad here.
It is the school holidays. I have just written my entrance exams to go to grade eight. It takes months for the papers to be marked and allocations made for a new secondary school. The exam had not been that hard and I knew I was going to do well. But knowing that you had done well was not the same thing as getting the marks you wanted. so, I was as nervous as every other kid waiting for these results.
I had imagined that I would spend the next few months at home. Playing rounders, learning to ride that bike from next door and going for excursions in the National Resources Development College, which we called the NRDC. The NRDC, had a huge field and it bordered our back yard. On weekends, we spend a lot of time exploring the vast bush, sometimes if you are lucky you can find a nice cool stream that has not dried up yet. That’s how I planned on spending my holidays. Playing and exploring.
However, my father told me last night that he must go away for business and that means I must go away too. He is sending me to go and live with Brenda. Brenda is dad’s new girlfriend, she has visited us several times, but I have never been to her house. I wondered why I could not go and stay with my mother instead. But my father insists on Brenda. Well I do not mind so much; a change of scenery would not be so bad. She seems nice Brenda.
I packed my bags last night and I am now waiting for my father to take me to Brenda’s. She lives in a block of flats in the outskirts of town. In the car, we do not speak much. But he does remind me to mind Brenda and do what she tells me. When we arrive at the complex, Brenda is waiting for us at her door. She is all smiles and gives me a welcome hug.
Brenda is a beautiful woman. She is light skinned and has long black braids. She is slender and petite. we are the same height. She is wearing a yellow dress and has bright red lipstick on today. She looks very beautiful. She is very glamourous and I cannot wait to check out her wardrobe and maybe she would lend me some clothes we are the same size I would imagine.
My father talks to her in the living room. She has three single seaters and they have blue chair clothes. The curtains are also blue. The living room is much smaller than ours but it is adorned better. Brenda shows me the room I will be sleeping in. it’s a small room and there are two mattresses on the floor. There is a single cupboard in the corner and the walls are bare. I wondered whom I would be spending my nights with. I wish there was a bed, but I suppose I could not ask for that.
I put my bag down on the floor and sit on the mattress. I look around the room and I suddenly feel very home sick. I wish I could go and stay with my mother at least. I try to hold back tears and not cry. I sit there for what seems like an hour until my father calls me in the living room to say goodbye.
“Mind Brenda. You will stay here for a month and I will call you some time to see how you are getting on.”
He does not hug me or anything. We do not hug. He just taps me on the shoulder and gives it a squeeze. He smiles at me and Brenda and then leaves. I stand there waiting and all I want to do is run to him and say, “come back, I do not want to stay here.” I say nothing and hold back tears.
“Come on princess. You are not going to cry, are you?” she laughs loudly and I can see some rotten teeth at the back of her mouth.
“We are going to have a great time Ka? You can help me with the restaurant and getting ready. Speaking of getting ready, we must start preparing the dishes for tonight’s meal. Ifimbombo.”
“Yes Ba Brenda. What do you want me to do?”
“I am glad you asked. Now every morning I need you to wash the dishes and clean the house. I also need you to bring me plates you have washed to the restaurant. Marjorie will show you what to do. It is not far just a few minutes from here, oh! and you have to pick up my daughter from school. I will show you the way this afternoon and then you can do it on your own.” As she said all this, she led me into the kitchen and I was shocked.
There were plates to wash all right. But it was not just a few supper dishes. It was piles and piles of dirty dishes all over the kitchen floor and huge pots with congealed fat and oil in them.
“Yes, I know it looks like a lot but you are a strong girl and you will have the whole morning to do this. Take your time. My sister Marjorie cannot help you because she is needed at the restaurant. But she will come with you to bring all these dishes through to me in the late afternoon.”
I had no idea Brenda had a sister or a daughter for that matter. I had never met any of them. But that was not the worry on my mind, it was this pile of dishes. I could not believe that I would be spending my mornings scrubbing and washing. I thought about all my friends at home and how much fun they would be having. This time tears really started falling.
“Hey! look you cannot start crying on me. Your father said you will be a great help and I need an extra pair of hands. I am a busy woman and I do not have time to babysit you. Do you understand me? Look at me and wipe those tears. For heaven’s sake, you would think that this was prison or something. Get to work, I do not have all day.”
I wiped my tears and felt a huge lump in my throat.
“let me go and change so I can get to work.”
I went into the dingy bedroom and changed into a chitenge and loose t-shirt. I was upset and sad but I realised that there was nothing I could do. There was a knock on the door, I came out of the bedroom and went to answer the door. Brenda was rushing to open up.
“Where are you going? Look at you? I do not want my visitors seeing you like that. Go to the kitchen and start.”
I walked in the kitchen and I could not imagine where I was going to start. The pile seemed bigger every time I looked at it. I started on pots first.
Later that evening, Brenda’s daughter Kembo, had gone to the restaurant and I was waiting for her sister Marjorie to arrive so that we could transport the dishes. She arrived all bubbly and welcoming.
“Hi” I said.
“Hi. Welcome. You must be the one Brenda calls princess. Good to have you here, I mean that. Are you done? We need to get going. Brenda is in a bad mood and we need to get these plates there in time.”
“Yes I am done.”
“Ok grab whatever you can, we have a car waiting outside.”
We loaded all the dishes in the Toyota corolla which was being driven by a man who had blood shot eyes and smelled of beer.
“Did it take you long to wash everything? It always takes me long.”
“Yes all morning, do you have to do this every day?”
“Yes we do. You should see the dishes on Sunday morning. You can cry. But with your dad and Brenda, maybe she will give it up when they are married”
“Why does she not have servants to do this for her at the restaurant.”
“She does not have money to waste she says.” She laughed “and dear it is not a restaurant, it is a shebeen. We just sell ifimbobo to the drinking customers.”
The car arrived at a house. It had a big yard front yard filled with tables. There were men sitting down drinking. Some tables had women, and they all looked like Brenda, dressed to the nines and wearing bright lipstick. There was a lot of talking and laughing going on. Loud music came from somewhere inside the house. Margorie touched my shoulder and said loudly in my ear, “you will get used to this. You have never been to a shabeen have you princess?”
“No” was all I could say. I closed my mouth and we made our way inside. It was dingy and dark and it took me a while to adjust to the light. There were more men inside drinking and smoking. A cloud of smoke seemed to hoover just above the ceiling. It was louder inside and I just wanted to get out of there. In a corner, was a radio playing rumba. A few people were dancing. I spotted Brenda in the far corner. She was seated on a man’s lap and was laughing. She bent down and whispered something to the man’s ears as she looked up at me. She gave me a strange smile, got up and walked towards us.
“Good you are here. What took you so long? People are starving and we need to set up. Margorie how did you let this girl come here looking like this? People will talk. Get the plates in, find my daughter and go home.”
I was relieved that I did not have to stay. The smoke made my eyes water as we walked to and from the kitchen. When I had got everything in Marjorie said, “You are lucky that you do not have to stay here all night believe me. You are too young and things can get rowdy in here.” She gave me a smile. I believed her.
“You did good. Now find kembo and take her home. You know how to get back don’t you? Otherwise kembo will show you. Go and get some rest. You will need it.”
I walked out into the yard and looked for kembo. Brenda was gliding around outside speaking to her customers. I found kembo playing with a doll close to the fence in the yard.
“kembo let us go. Your aunt says you need to go home.”
“Oh, but it is so lively here. Please let’s stay for a little while”
“Kembo. Go home. Now!” Brenda shouted from behind her.
We set off home and Kembo had to show me the way. I was tired and wanted to just pass out. This was going to be a long month for me. I wondered if my father had known how I would be spending my holiday. But I instinctively knew that to survive here, I would have to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told. At least Marjorie was nice.
Isaac looked at his brother. He did not believe that they should be doing this. If it came down to it, Isaac did not want to fight, the shop was not worth it. He did not think so. He thought about how they had come to this point and he wondered why things had gone so wrong. He closed his eyes for a moment and he thought about home.
Their village stood in the north, it was green and fertile. There was stream close by were people fetched their water sometimes, when the village water pump was not working. They had swam there and spent weekends talking to the girls and catching fish. Their grandmother had raised them. She had been a strict woman and had taught them the value of hard work. Isaac had enjoyed his life in the village. He had the job of looking after the goats after school. School was important to their grandmother. She had been so happy and proud when they were accepted to go to secondary school. Isaac had enjoyed looking after the goats and doing his homework in the fields.
It was just the three of them, his brother David and their young sister Precious. Precious was still in primary school and she seemed content with the life that they had. She helped her grandmother in the kitchen after school and sometimes in the late afternoons she would join Isaac in the fields and they would talk about their day. Isaac had been happy and content with the village life.
David, was a restless person. He was not content with their life and he was always dreaming about leaving the village and going to start a business in town if they could. He wanted money and he wanted to be successful. One day after school, David had come up to Isaac to discuss his new plan.
“Man, we can go to South Africa and start a business. Do you remember that man who came by the village last week?”
“Yes, I remember. What about him David?” He wondered where this was going.
“Well he lives in South Africa and he said he has a shop there and he does very well. He has a house now and he even owns two cars. Can you believe it man. We could go over there and start something. Think about it, we could get really wealthy and bring Precious over.”
“We cannot leave grandma and go to a whole different country David. You are talking crazy.”
“It is not crazy talk. I had a real conversation with him and he told me all about it. South Africa has opportunities we want. We cannot live in this village forever man. There is nothing to do here Isaac. He told me how we can do it. We can start working on getting there. We could even go to university there once we have made enough money. It’s a good plan.”
“We don’t know anyone in South Africa David.”
“Yes we do. remember cousin Francis, from mother’s side? She lives in Mpondwe. Grandmother told me about her. I am going into town tomorrow and I am going to call her and find out what we can do to get there. Man I am telling you this is our ticket out of this place.”
“I like this place. I like the village David. You know that. And I do not want to leave grandma here all alone. She has been taking care of us for years.”
“You want to stay here? There is a whole world out there. Things to see and money to be made. Come on Isaac what can we do here? What do you want to do? farm?” he laughed. “Man, you need to start thinking ahead.”
Isaac had been quiet after that. He had looked over the fields and hills and he could not imagine leaving this life behind to go to some big city. It might not be much here, but it was where he wanted to be.
Two years later, David, who had been working odd jobs in town, finally made enough for them to leave and go to Mpondwe. It had been hard for Isaac to say goodbye to the village. Their grandmother, always thinking about what David wanted, had finally consented for them to go. She believed David had great ideas and she thought he was smart and could make a fortune for them. Even though Isaac had protested, David had finally convinced him to join him in Mpondwe. Their cousin Francis had agreed to let them stay with her until they could find their feet. As they had left the village, Isaac had tried not to cry at the sight of his sister and grandmother waving at them from the bus station.
Mpondwe had been different. It was a much bigger place than the village. There was television and radio and you could buy any type of food that you wanted at any time.
They had settled in and David had immediately set them up to do odd jobs and they started saving up money. Isaac followed him wherever he went and tried to be as excited as he was about their new life. All Isaac wanted to do was sit in the fields with his goats and read. But he had to trust David and he knew that this was the right thing to do. Secretly he dreamed of making enough money to go back and start a farm of his own. He would have livestock and farm vegetables. He would build a house, a brick one and have television and electricity.
Eventually they could buy a store and start selling groceries. The store was everything they had and most of their savings were tied up in the store. Talk of university had evaporated, they could not afford it and Isaac was not sorry. He still dreamed of his village life. They made money and were able to start sending some back home for their sister’s education. She was now in secondary school and she was doing well. David wanted to save enough for her to come and join them, with their grandmother. But their grandmother had told them that she was born in that village and she would die there. She had no intention of moving.
Things had been going well until recently. Conflict between foreigners and locals had become heated. A young girl was found dead in a foreigner’s store and it was believed that she had been murdered by the shop owner. He had protested but it had sparked tension that were already there. Foreign owned shops were looted and set alight. The townships became a dangerous place for foreigners. Locals believed that foreigners were taking over their job enterprises and that they were all drug dealers. Tensions escalated. For a week, all that the news had on was the violence spreading to other townships. People were leaving their homes and abandoning their businesses. People were displaced and some had to seek refuge in churches and charity organisations. It was a dangerous and stressful week.
David and Isaac followed the news and prayed that the violence would not reach their town. One evening they were at home watching the news in their flat, when David got a call. It was their aunt and she was calling to inform them that shops were being looted in Mpondwe. The unrest had reached their town.
“Come on Isaac we are going to the shop.” Isaac was afraid.
“What, now? do you not understand how dangerous it is out there? The shop is the last place we should go David.”
“Man, you cannot be serious. We have everything tied up in that shop. We cannot just let a group of vagrants steal everything we have worked hard for. We have not done anything wrong Isaac.”
“I know that. But it is dangerous. You saw how they set that man on fire. On live television. We should just stay here and pray and hope for the best.”
“Man you’re crazy if you think I am going to do that. Come on Isaac. We have to fight.”
Isaac was not so sure. Their store was loved. They gave discounts and offered some products on credit. Everyone in the community knew them and respected them. But with this wave of violence and what he had seen on the news so far, Isaac was not convinced that their neighbours would spare them and their shop.
Isaac became despondent, he did not want to do this, it just did not seem worth it to die for money. They could go back home and start again there. They had some money in the bank.
“David, we should go back home. We cannot stay in this country anymore. You see how they treat us sometimes and how unsafe it is at the moment.”
“No. listen to me. We must go. Come on.”
In the end, Isaac always did what David wanted. He did not want to go, but what choice did he have. His brother was likely to go alone if it came to that. He might as well join him and try and protect him. They had a nob-kerry and pangas at the shop.
When they got into town, they could hear crowds moving through shops, people were looting everything. People were crying and some grown men stood at their shops weeping. It was a horrible sight. Isaac just wanted to go home.
They reached their shop and thankfully it was still standing. David opened the door and they entered. They looked behind them. They took their weapons and stood ready to defend. David was restless and he paced up and down the shop. From inside the shop, they could hear a crowd coming towards them.
“Get ready Isaac.”
They crouched on the floor and waited. There was banning on the door and they could hear people shouting. A rock flew through one of the windows.
“David, brother, let us go out of the back door. We cannot take on everyone. They sound really angry.”
The banging got louder. Isaac looked over at David. For the first time that night, he noticed the look of fear in his brother’s eyes. He was stubborn and he would stay and fight. It dawned on Isaac that it would have to be him who got them out of there. There was sweat pouring down David’s face and he had a wild look about him. He must be as scared as I am, thought Isaac.
“David. Come on. We cannot die for this. Think about our sister. Who will take care of her.”
David looked at Isaac, he just stayed there crouching on the floor. Isaac got up. The door banged louder, more windows were broken, someone threw a petrol bomb. That’s it thought Isaac. He grabbed David’s arm and pushed him up. David looked at the fire. Tears were streaming down his face now. Isaac pushed him forward. And they went out the back door. Luckily no one knew about it. As they ran, Isaac looked back at the store. All he could see was smoke and people rushing out of the shop with groceries in their hands. David did not look back, but Isaac could feel his shoulders hunched and he sobbed as they left. They would have to go back home now, Isaac thought, there was no way that they could live here any longer. They were not wanted. Isaac put his hand over David’s shoulder and led him away.
My cousin Piet’s farm was set on a windy dirt road that later turns to the main road that heads into town. I visited my cousin Piet on his farm a lot and I would stay with them over the summer holidays in December, before we went down to the coast for Christmas with my parents and other cousins. Of all my cousins, I loved to be around Piet and my uncle. We used to have the best fun there. Their farm had a ravine and bush that went on for miles. When we were younger we would go and explore the farm taking with us pillow cases tied to a stick full of food which we need on our explorations. We would explore for hours and only come back to the house in the early evenings. We never tired of this game. Sometimes Piet’s father let us sleep outside on the stoep on hot days.
When we got older, I learned to drive with my uncles bakkie up and down that dirt road for hours. On weekends, my uncle would allow us to have a few mates over for a party. Bonfires were always a must on Saturday evenings just outside the confines of the grassy patch that surrounded the house. The grass surrounding the house was beautiful lush green and Piet’s mother’s bushes and flowers around the house just made it look like an oasis. Huge blue gum trees dotted the front and back yard giving us shelter on hot days. There we would lounge on some afternoons in the hammocks in the back yard sipping cold lemonade.
Piet lives with us now. We live in the town and close to school and since I had been closest to Piet, my parents had taken him in. My aunt and uncle had been driving back home one evening from town. Their bakkie had slid of the road and overturned into a steep bush below. They had died on impact. Piet, before the accident, used to be fun and lively boy. Now it was hard just to get a few words out of him. I see him sometimes wondering around the house looking very lost and sad. He does not talk about his parents, even though my mother thinks it is a good idea for him to talk about it. I guess it just hurts too much for him. He was very close to his father.
His father had been a good man, he had taught me and Piet everything we know about hunting and fishing. He was good tempered and he loved to play with us and he laughed a lot. He was however a prankster. He loved playing tricks on people and animals for that matter. Once when we had been about twelve, Piet’s father had bought home a fox terrier. He trained the dog to be a leg-hound. I do not know how, but this dog would just hump on your leg whenever Piet father was not around. Sometimes it was funny other times I would get irritated with it. I am sure you can imagine the amount of trouble that the dog got my uncle into. Once when I was at their farm after school on a Friday, a dominie came to visit Piet’s mother. He came around and parked his car in the front by the stoep and when he got out, the terrier was in wait to hump his leg. It was a sight and me and Piet where hiding behind some bushes to view this spectacle. His mother had come outside ready to welcome the dominie. The dog started humping his leg and at first, he tried to push it very gently away.
“Nee, nee, kom. Foetsek.”
The dog was very determined to hump the hell out of his leg. And it just kept humping. Piet’s mother watched in shock and horror at this spectacle and she started coming down the stars to assist. At this point the dominies face was turning a bright red and he was now shouting and waving his foot around. The dog held on and waved about in the air. Piet mother tried in vain to remove the terrier, but she could not. We were just killing ourselves laughing. We heard Piet father come up from behind us. We looked back and he was laughing so hard tears were coming out of his eyes. He did not like the church very much and this must have been his pay back. After a while he walked over to the commotion and called the dog to him. Piet’s mother and the dominie were very frazzled and seemed hot and bothered. Piet’s mother straightened out her skirt and top, she gave Piet’s father a severe look and took the dominies arm and led him into the house. When they had gone we laughed so hard I almost peed myself. That had been one of his best pranks yet. He had obviously known the dominie was coming and had left the dog out front. Piet’s mother had been very angry at us once the dominie left, but even in her anger she could see the funny side of it. So, we got away with that one.
I had loved Piet’s farm and it was a pity they had had to sell it when my uncle and aunt died. Along with everything that was sold, was Piet’s pet baboon. Piet had loved that baboon. He called it cousin. Cousin came with us wherever we went. When we took the car to town, we would put cousin in the back seat and put glasses on him. He would sit back in the seat and have an elbow sticking out of the window. He was the real thing, cousin, and he loved going into to town with us. My parents did not care for cousin and they could not understand why anyone would have a wild animal as a pet. They believed that cousin would come to a sticky end. Cousin did not, he was very tame and relaxed animal.
Cousin had been a gentle baboon and we knew he could not even hurt a fly. We treated him like a friend. But the one thing we really laughed about was the fact that cousin was petrified of snakes. And I mean the poor thing just ran whenever he felt a snake was around. Cousin used to run with his hands and feet, he was quick and it looked like he was busy pulling grass from under him when he run. But most of the times he walked on his hind legs.
Now as I told you Piet father loved his pranks. One afternoon Piet and his father concocted a plan to play a trick on poor cousin. And you can guess it. It involved a snake. My uncles friend Herman, had come from town that morning and he had bought a very live looking toy snake. It was colourful and it was soft and rubbery. If you did not know it was a toy, you would surely think it was real. So, they decided to scare cousin with it.
Cousin was mad about grapes. He would steal them if he had to. Piet and his father tied the rubber snake to the grapes with a string. They had called cousin and I suppose he had seen the grapes from afar and he came bounding towards us in that strange manner of his, grass flying everywhere. He had seemed so excited. We could see it on his face. At first I felt sorry for him but Piet had told me about cousin’s reaction to snakes, so I was also interested to see what he would do. Cousin got up on his hind legs and walked towards the grapes. As he listed the grapes up, it pulled the string and the snake popped up. Cousin saw this and for a second I thought he would run away. Instead he went completely limp, standing up and he just fell like a log to the ground. It was very funny to watch, an animal faint. Now when cousin fell, the toy snake had landed on his arm. Piet’s father told us not to move and keep watching. So we crouched a bit further away and watched. A few seconds later, cousin came to. He looked at his arm and there the snake was. Slowly very slowly as he lay there, cousin started to move his hand from under the snake. And once he was free, that baboon took to his feet and got the hell out of there very fast, grass flying everywhere. I felt sorry for cousin, but it had been a good prank. We had laughed about it at school with our friends at school a few days later.
It was sad to know that we could never be that carefree again. At my house, everything is proper and my parents like children to be quiet and obedient, we’re not a very lively bunch. My father reads his books and my mother sews and has tea parties. I wonder were cousin is now, and I am sure Piet, as he wanders around, wonders too.
It was an unusually hot day for June even though It was supposed to be the cold season. As the bus pulled into the last station where she had to get off, she could feel sweat running down the small of her back. The bus was crowded as usual with school children and some where standing. She could not wait to get some air and quiet away from the loud chatter. She was sitting at the back row which meant that would have to wait for most of the children to embark before she could. Every afternoon she got off at the water tower in Chelston. It was far from her school and she needed to take two separate buses to get home. She was tired. It had been a long day. She had been on rotate duty at school today to cut the grass. The grass was long and your hands ached from holding the sickle. The blade was usually blunt and you really had to hack away at the grass. She had been happy to get on the bus and go home.
The water tower was so large that it gave much needed shelter from the sun to the vendors who sold their products to people come to and from the buses. Finally when she got out it was slightly cooler outside. She walked to a vendor who was selling iceblocks and got an orange flavoured one. She put it to her forehead and sighed in pleasure. It had been hot and stuffy in that bus.
The walk home would take her twenty minutes. Usually she walked down through the streets and rounded into Acacia Avenue where she lived. She loved that walk. Acacia avenue got its name from all the acacia trees that lined the street on either side. It was wonderful to see when the trees where in bloom. On her walk home, she usually passed Able’s house. She had a serious crush on Abel. He was much older than her and went to university. He was usually seated outside with his brothers most afternoons and they watched people walk past. They usually saw her walk past and would greet her. Her heart skipped every time Abel smiled at her. She wondered if they would be there this afternoon.
Because she was so tired today, so she decided to take the short cut. Most people in the neighbourhood did not know that there was a short cut leading from the main road. It was she thought not particularly safe for a girl to walk on that path alone, and her parents did not really want her to use it. But she sometimes did and she got home quicker. The path had high grass. It passed through many people’s back yards and ended up at Ba Angela’s place. It was not ideal because to get to Acacia Avenue from the path, you had to go through Ba Angela’s place. Ba Angela did not really mind people walking through her yard from the path to get to Acacia Avenue. If you were unlucky though, she would be sitting in her yard and she would want to have a conversation with you.
Everyone knew that Ba Angela was bat shit crazy. She kept chickens, a goat and a dog with one eye. They all stared at you when you went by and sometimes the goat would give a gentle nudge on the backside. Sometimes it was all worth it just to cut ten minutes off the walk.
Ba Angela was a widow and she had children who did not live with her anymore. She was thin, wore worn out kitenge’s and she usually kept to herself. But she was kind and she could make the best tumbuwa’s and buns on the street, which she sold to neighbours.
She walked through the path safely and entered Ba Angela’s yard. She unhooked the scant homemade gate, made from wood and pieces of wire. She supposed it was to keep the animals in. She looked up and saw that Ba Angela was in the yard today. She was throwing crushed maize at her chickens.
“Hello. How are you Ba Angela?”
“Eh hello my child. I am fine. How was school?”
“It was fine. We had to cut grass today. I am very tired.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
She stopped throwing the maize and turned to her, giving her a warm smile.
“I have caught the best piece of meat you can have. Do you want to try some?”
When Ba Angela said she had meat, it was usually a rodent or some feral animal she had caught. She braced herself. This would not be good. She just wanted to get home and did not feel like being experimental today.
“Yes, Ba Angela, I will try some.”
“Come and see, it is a beauty.”
The beauty turned out to be a bat. The woman had caught a bat. Surely, she would not eat that. It had been chargrilled on the mbaula and it looked very black. Her stomach turned.
“Do you want to try some? I have not had a bat for a very long time. It is like nothing you have eaten before.”
The woman had an abundance of animals she could eat. It just did not make sense that she always chose to eat rodents.
“No, thank you. I had peanuts and an ice block. I am fine”
“Oh, come now child. Look it is still fresh and I will just break off a wing for you.”
If anything, the rudest thing was to turn down food someone has offered you. So, gingerly I took the wing and began to chew. Ba Angela looked at her with animated eyes, smiling broadly revealing her missing teeth.
The wing was crunchy and tasted like a piece of burned chicken breast. She swallowed it quickly and smiled, almost convincingly she thought.
“That was great. Very different. I have never had a bat before, thank you.”
“Good. I am glad you like it. We used to eat these as children. We would go out and hunt them at night and there would be thousands flying around where I grew up. delicious” she took a huge chunk from the belly. There was not much meat on it and she just could not understand it. She watched her chew and smile in delight.
“Very good meat. Good for you too.”
“Yes. I must get home now. Thank you.”
“Already? Do you want to feed the chickens with me? I have not had much company today. Not many people buy from me during the week.”
There was no way she was going to eat any more of that bat. She had to get away.
“My mother is waiting I have to help her cook. I am already late.”
“Ok. Say hello to your parents for me. Come and visit me soon.”
She liked the woman, even admired her for making it on her own. But she could not stand to eat anymore of her weird choices of meat.
She hurried to the front of the house and out of the gate. She really needed some water.
She reached the playground and looked for a spot to sit in the warm winter sun. Her daughter ran off to play on the jungle gyms. She laid out her blanket and sat down. She had brought with her the new issue of Time magazine. On the cover were some of the main actors from game of thrones, they had made the cover at last. She loved the show and was eager to find out what it said. She sat crossed legged and quickly putting her head up and scanned the playground to see where her daughter was. Everything was well. She had a few minutes to herself to read. As she started to read, she heard a loud hello! Looking up she saw Anele waving wildly at another woman across the park. She sank lower to the ground and hid her face behind the magazine. Too late, Anele had already seen her.
Anele was a rambunctious woman. She was an au pair and they often saw each other at the park or walking in the neighbourhood. She talked so much that you could not get a word in even if you wanted to. Lately her conversations always turned to men. She was looking for a boyfriend and had put herself on Tinder. She said she hated it but she seemed very animated when she talked about the men she met there.
She looked up over the magazine and saw Anele face just inches away from hers. She jumped and moved back.
“Hello you. Did you not see me waving at you? You always have a book in your face” she laughed and slapped her hard on the shoulder.
“Hi Anele. No I did not see you. How are you?”
“Oooh I am fine. Move up l will sit with you and tell you all about it. But I also have a few questions for you.”
“What is going on?” her heart sank. She was going to have to wait until she got home to have a good read. This looked like it might take a while.
“You know I am looking for a man, right? Well I think I have found the right person. Is that not exciting?”
“Yes, it is. Who is he?” she really should not encourage her.
“He is a white man” Anele’s face lit up and she giggled like a little girl. “just like you, I am going to have beautiful babies. Don’t you think?
She braced herself. This is a conversation that they had had before. Anele had asked her once how she had managed to ‘find’ as she put it, a white man to marry. She had wanted all the information about how they had met and what he was like. She never liked talking about it, her marriage. She had learnt to change the subject. Today though she run the risk of being very rude if she did not engage in conversation.
“Have you met this person yet?”
“Well no. not yet anyway. But he is very interested. He has my number and everything. We are going to make a time to meet.” She laughed.
“That’s great Anele.”
“You have to give me some tips on how I can make myself interesting. Should I say I read a lot? Music? Food? I don’t want to be like some ignorant locion girl”
“Just be yourself. I am sure he will appreciate that.”
She scanned the playground to see where her daughter was. She was chatting with another little girl.
“He seems rich too. I mean can you believe it. These white boys know how to keep their money. You will always have what you want.”
“It is not really like that.”
She ignored the comment and continued, “I think he said he would take me out to a fancy restaurant. And do you know I will not feel like I have to sleep with him. With black boys, you must show the goods first. And I hear white boys do not even mind if you make money. Like with a business or something. Is that true?”
“I would not know.”
“Anyway, I am very excited. Oh, look at your daughter she is so beautiful.”
One of Aneles charges started screaming and running towards her.
“Hey love love. What’s wrong now?”
“Jeffrey hit me.”
“It ok I will talk to him. Come. Jeffrey!” she turned to face her, “Look, don’t leave I will be right back.”
Anele bounded off to go and have a word with Jeffrey. She scanned the playground again. she sank back into the ground.
“Mam. Hello. Sorry to disturb you”
She sat up shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. y she had seen this young man walking around in their neighbourhood. He was always begging at people’s houses. Up close, he looked tired, his eyes were sunken and his hair was dirty.
“I need some help. Do you have any change for me. Me and my wife are living off the streets and we do not have any money. I lost my job last month. She is pregnant. We just need some money for bread and milk.”
She had not noticed that Anele was back and she was giving the young man a hard stare.
“Hey look. We have no money for a white boy ok”
“No really I don’t understand how these white boys can come to us and ask us for money.”
She looked back at the young man. He looked like he was about to cry. He started walking away.
“I do not have any money for you. I am sorry.”
She started packing her things. She was not going to sit any longer and listen to this conversation. It was getting too weird for her now.
“Are you leaving already?”
“Uh yes. Sorry I must go now. We have someone coming over to visit.”
“That is fine. We live so close together I can come by with the boys for tea? We can talk some more.”
“I am not sure right now. I have a lot to do. I will let you know.”
She packed quickly. She walked towards the jungle gyms to find her daughter. The further she got away from Anele, the better. Behind her she could hear her had already talking with some other poor person.
A friend of mine works with rural children. We talked over a weekend and that conversation inspired this story.
As they left she put up her hand to shake. Linda smiled her best smile, wanting them to see how content and happy she was. They smiled back at her and said that they would see her soon. She sat in the gloomy room. The room was lit by a naked bulb hanging at an angle by the wall. There was a window but it was so small it did not provide enough natural light. It was a relief that the women had left. She did not like having visitors over. Her aunt got very angry when she spoke with people. She lived just a few feet from their one roomed shack and she would be there soon to ask about what the women had wanted. Aunt Ntsepe was nosy and knew everything that happened in their community. She was both afraid and suspicious about strangers visiting their compound. The women had first spoken with her aunt and a few minutes later they had been at her door.
Linda put the radio on, it was lunch time and the news was on. After the news, there was usually a short story reading. She enjoyed the readings. So many stories from books she had never heard of. Linda was too nervous about her aunt coming over that she could not concentrate on the news.
It must have been over half an hour when she heard the heavy footsteps coming towards the shack. A bead of sweat formed on her upper lip. She did not know how this was going to go. Sometimes her aunt became violent.
Aunt Ntsepe opened the heavy iron door. She was a big woman, she stood at the entrance legs apart, hands on hips.
“Linda?” she gave her that dreadful smile.
“What did those women from the government want.”
“Aunty they were not from the government, they were from an NGO.”
“Girl you had better speak up, honestly I can never hear a word you say sometimes. Now what did they want?”
“They wanted to find out if we have any water and how many people lived in the house”
“Did they ask about the grant?”
“What did they say exactly?”
Her voice boomed in the small room. She started walking towards her, swatting clothes that were hanging on lines in the small room. She stooped inches from her and bent down. That smile again.
“You did not tell them anything about ‘that’, did you?”
“No aunty, I explained that my disability grant was collected by my aunt who took care of us”
“Ok girl, good. If they come back again tell them to come and speak to me.”
She stood in front of her and poked her big toe towards her.
“When was the last time you bathed girl. I want you to clean up. You stink. How can you have people in the house looking like that.”
She frowned, stood there thinking for a few seconds and without another word she left. Linda was relieved. She had not hit her today. She needed to go to the pit latrine outside. It was not easy getting there. Linda looked down at her lower body. She had not walked since she was two years old. Her legs had gradually weakened. As she grew older, her legs had become twisted and mangled. When her parents were alive she could move around in a wheelchair and she had attended school with her brothers. Her father would put her wheelchair in his old bakkie. Her parents had died six years ago, they had been well off compared to their neighbours. Their house had been made of brick with a toilet inside. She had had her own room.
Her aunt Ntsepe lived in their house now. Being the only living relative in the area to help take care of them no one had objected to her taking everything they owned except their clothes and the radio. She had sold the wheelchair.
Her story reading would be starting soon. She needed to get a move on. She reached for her gloves in the cardboard box where she kept her belongings. The floor was concrete and smoothed over with red polish, so she could make it easily to the door. Dragging her feet behind her she reached for the iron hook and started prying the door open. It had been slammed shut by her aunt. It opened and she blinked adjusting her eyes to the light. Crawling to the pit latrine was an issue. She would get dirty and her hands often hurt afterwards. Her brothers, when they were home, usually carried her there. But she could not wait. Who knew when they would be home. They stayed out for long periods of time after school.
When she got back, the announcer on the radio was introducing the new short story. She had to change first. Her hands were bleeding.
She took off all her clothes and placed them in a pile that was growing in the corner. Aunt Ntsepe had not bought the sunlight for a while. She put on her nightgown from the box and placed herself on the mattress. She closed her eyes and listened to the story.
I was on my way to fetch my children from school. As I came to traffic stop, I turned the corner and caught sight of a woman with short blonde hair. Her eyes just seemed to stare into the distance, a million miles away. So, I decided to write a story about her.
Sarah Pennington stopped at the traffic lights. Her mind had wandered to how she had spent the last two hours. A blasting horn interrupted her thoughts. Oh god, she thought, I had drifted off there for a while. She speedily put her foot on the gas. She heard more horns blaring as she crossed.
She slowly turned to her left. Nothing. Then she turned to her right. Yes, she thought, she had made a grave mistake. It had not been her turn to cross the street and the horn that had just sounded was in fact an ambulance siren. She had failed to hear the first few decibels of the sirens. The ambulance seemed to come at her at such a slow speed. She thought, I am going to miss it, or it is going to miss me. Again, she was wrong. It was just slow because she was dangerously close to the end of her life. This was it. The ambulance hit her directly on the driver’s side, she bounced around like a rag doll.
Sarah Pennington, stood over her coffin. It was a closed casket. There had been too much damage done to her body to repair. She looked around her in the funeral house, everyone was very upset and a lot of people had showed up.
“The impact was made worse by the fact that she had no seatbelt.”
“It was a fast and dangerous accident. She had died instantly. There was no saving her really.”
“Look at those poor kids. They are so devastated about this. I do not know how they will cope without her. She was their whole life”
It was strange to be at one’s funeral, hearing all the comments people were making. As soon as she had died she had appeared here. Although a few days must have passed since she died. Sarah could not see her children or her husband anywhere. She seemed to be glued to the spot where she sttod by the coffin. Lamenting on her broken body.
Sarah thought back to the morning of the accident. She had been with her lover that morning and on her way to pick up the kids. She had been so distracted. A sadness came over her, dead was dead but her mind was still functioning. She could still remember her last few hours before the accident.
She had woken up early that morning. Just as she woke up she had heard the phone vibrate.
Come after dropping the children off. You know what I want you to wear.
Sarah had looked over to where her husband was sleeping. She had been a bit late waking up that morning and had to rush the kids through breakfast. She had rushed dressing them. When she got back from dropping the kids off she had to rush her husband out of the house. She had to shower and change. He hated it when she was late.
As she got out of the bath her phone rang. Shit, she had thought as she ran to answer. Nothing can spoil this.
“Hi I need you” [a whimper].
“What now? What’s happened?”
“He left me Sarah. He got up this morning and packed up his shit and left me”
“Well look, can this wait a few hours. I have somewhere important I have to be”
“Are you going to the kids’ school? I can come with you. That might cheer me up”
“No. Look you cannot come to this.”
“Is it him? No come on. I really need you. I never ask you for much. He cannot be more important than this. Why do you see him anyway? You are happily married and I would kill to have your life.”
“Look I can’t. I must go. I will call you later I promise”
Sarah had sighed and dropped her phone in her bag. No more distractions. She had not seen him in over a month. This was their thing, and she just could not miss it. She put on her dress that he had bought her. She remembered feeling so happy. He made her feel like no one else mattered in the world. With him she could be herself and fulfil every fantasy, in ways that no one had done before.
All that was gone now. She stood by her coffin and watched on. All she could think about now, was if she could have done things differently that morning.
This story came about while I was having a conversation with Stuart about a group of women in Malawi, who are believed to be possessed by evil spirits. They are taken to a camp where they are ‘cured’ and prayed for.
We lived at number eight President Road in a block of flats; there were eight apartments. All the kids in our block would play together. We did not stray too much from our block and play with other kids in our neighbourhood. We had everything we wanted in our compound. We would climb trees and play rounder’s after school in the red dusty earth.
Our flat was on the ground floor. Above us on the second floor, at number four, lived two old twin sisters. They had come to live in the flat about six years ago. They came from Malawi and only spoke Nyanja, which is very similar to Chichewa. They had greying hair which they kept in a short afro. They had no children or seemed to be married. But they lived well, it was believed. Although they were not identical twins, they usually wore matching chitenges. That was what we saw, on the rare occasion when they left their flat. They often kept to themselves. We were all scared of them and named them ‘ifiwa’, meaning ghosts. The grownups often talked about them as they fetched water from the communal tap, shaded by a big mango tree.
“They come from a healing camp in Malawi you know. I heard that they moved here after that. They used to have children and husbands but they all passed away. And no one knows where they get their money from.”
“Imwe hmm. Did you know, these Malawian women get possessed. I heard that they killed their children and husbands. They were sent to the camp because they were possessed and would carry their children upside down. I do not want my children to associate with people like that. They should just keep to themselves”
“Yes, and I have seen them come out at night to fetch water. Which is better. I do not want to speak to them or touch them. Who knows what kind of muti they have. How can they just live up there all day and not have jobs?”
“The stories must be true, they are witches. Bana Dala that is why they only come out at night”
Although the grownups did not want us to go up to their flat, we did. Dala, my best friend had been in their flat a few times. He always came out of their flat with treats. Once he even shared a donought with me that they had given him. If his mother knew she would really ‘give it to him’. Not only was he going up there and talking with them, he was eating their food as well. He said their house was filled with all sorts of plants and that they had a big television, and even a VCR.They asked him to do strange things when he went up there, but he never said what.
One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the yard watching a procession of ants carrying sugar. It was after church and everyone was inside watching the football. I hated football. I felt a shadow blocking the sun behind me and I looked up. One of the twins was standing behind me.
“Can you come up to my flat and help me with something?”
I was one of the few kids who had not been up to their flat. Even though I was scared by her request, I was curious to find out what their flat really looked like.
I followed her up. When we got there, I paused at the open door. Inside their corridor, that lead to rooms in the flat, was lined with large leafy plants.
I followed her in. She was a big woman so she had to squeeze through the narrow passageway. The flat was cooler inside. She led me to the living area. Here there were more plants. It looked like a green house. Some plants were hanging from the ceiling. Every available space in the room was littered with pot plants. The smell of geraniums was over powering.
Her sister was lying on a mat in the middle of the room on her back.
“Please can you walk on my sisters back.”
Her sisters looked up at me and smiled. I stared at her. She turned on to her stomach. I just stood there.
“You see she has a bad back. I cannot do it because I am too heavy and I could hurt her. You are small enough to do it. Please.”
“Ok sure. But what do I get for doing this?”
I found it strange that no one had mentioned that they simply had to help the sisters with their backs..
“A cold Fanta?” she smiled and pushed me forward.
I walked out of the flat a few moments later with an ice-cold Fanta.