Fresh Starts

Siya waited until the last person had made their way towards the front of the bus before standing up, readjusting her jacket around her slim hips and swinging her satchel over one shoulder as she had seen the stylish models do in old copies of Drum magazine.

The hot summer’s day was tapering to an end as Siya’s bus finally pulled to a stop in the middle of the City. It parked clumsily in the centre parking and straddled a number of parking bays, much to the annoyance of commuters who were scrambling across the wide street in the middle of rush hour traffic to make it into the taxis so they could be home before the sun dipped completely behind the horizon. The cacophony of city noises that exploded into the bus as the driver opened the door jolted Siya from her reverie. She quickly felt blindly for her satchel underneath the worn seat, stretched and double checked that her belongings were all in place. She rolled up her earphones and dropped them into the concealed pocket inside the bag. She then felt for the thick envelope that her grandmother had smuggled to her as she was climbing onto the bus four hours ago. She knew it was filled with money that her uncles would have loved to squander at the only pub at the local Growth Point.

Her grandmother was an industrious maize farmer who had unfortunately been blessed with six delinquent children. Four of these children still lived in and around the homestead that Siya had grown up in, and refused to do anything about the many children they sired across the small town. Siya’s mother was the last child of the six and had taken Siya to her grandmother as soon as she had been weaned from her mother’s breast. She could count the number of times her mother had visited and it was always over the Christmas holidays. She phoned every now and then to keep up the pretence of caring and to ask after her. She sometimes sent money for Siya through the headman’s wife. The whole town knew that the headman’s wife was sleeping with Uncle Qhubani but of course, nobody spoke out about it.

Siya waited until the last person had made their way towards the front of the bus before standing up, readjusting the denim jacket she had tied around her slim hips and swinging her satchel over one shoulder as she had seen the stylish models do in old copies of Drum magazine. She needed all the confidence she could muster for this encounter. She patted her pocket and pulled out her hand-me-down cellphone. Uncle Mbonisi had always been sweet on her and made sure she had a phone before she made the move to the City. He had whispered to her as he handed her the sleek, black, button-less phone, “so that those city boys don’t dazzle you with technology”. She didn’t bother asking where he had gotten the phone from and she and Gogo had laughed about his ‘resourcefulness’ as they sat in the kitchen trying to figure out how to turn the darn thing on.  Uncle Mbonisi never spoke to her in their mother tongue. She loved that about him because it meant she would not be laughed at when she started her classes, surrounded by children who spoke English through their noses. Gogo attributed Uncle Mbonisi’s reluctance to khuluma (speak) to his ‘fall from grace’ as a teacher at one of the high schools in the City. He was fired for making a girl pregnant there and no other school would hire him after he made headlines for a week. He was now the maths and science teacher at the local primary school and he tutored older children who had failed their maths exams. He spoke in English to remind everyone that he used to be important in a place nobody really cared about. The neighbourhood girls called him UNcube Ohluphayo (the bothersome Ncube) because he had never stopped his lustful behaviour and stayed out of his way.

Siya hesitated on the bottom metal step of the old bus and scanned the crowd for her mother. She knew what to expect from the photos she sent to Gogo. Her mother was taller than the average woman and Siya shared her boyish figure. Slender, with just enough breast to fill the palm of a grown man. Gogo said that was all men really needed, anything more was a waste. She knew her mother liked to keep her hair short and generally styled in the classic ‘bibo’. As she looked across the teeming street she was fascinated by the variety of people. Taxi drivers harassed the disembarked passengers with exorbitant prices whilst young, desperate men offered to push luggage to the CBD’s perimeter in carts for small fees. She was paralysed for a moment as she thought of what her life would be like now, being afraid to speak to strangers and walking alone in the City. She heard her name called out in a familiar sing-song fashion, “Siyambonga, mntanami!” (Siyambonga, my child!)

Her mother was the only person who called her by her full name. Sometimes she even used Diana – Gogo’s re-gifted name. Siya found it endearing. Well, anything to give her the semblance of a bond with the mother she never really knew. Lillian – Siya’s mother- was coming from work and was dressed to the nines. She was wearing a burgundy two-piece suit with a floral blouse that wrapped around her long neck in an elaborate bow. Pinned to her left pocket was a name tag which read ‘Lilly’. Her chunky golden earrings accentuated her pretty round face and the ‘bibo’ looked freshly cut and doused in ‘s-curl’ to give it that 90s RnB boy-band look. Her thick lips were red and as she smiled up at her daughter, Siya felt like she was looking into a mirror. She had the same lanky frame and a perfect smile, although she often thought she had too many teeth in her mouth. Their eyes were the same large, expressive black-brown, with lashes that were almost too long. The only difference was Siya’s hair, which she had not cut since she was a little girl. Gogo was obsessed with making her look as feminine as possible because of all the teasing Siya had endured from the other children. Her hair was currently tied in a high ponytail and laid sleekly after her visit to the Growth Point for what would likely be her last relaxing session with NaSalome. NaSalome had a monopoly on hair styling in their town and she was, of course, the worst gossip. Come to think of it, everyone likely knew about Uncle Qhubani and the headman’s wife because NaSalome couldn’t keep a secret. But what she lacked in confidant qualities, she more than made up for with her mean hot comb technique.

Siya hopped to the ground and straight into her mother’s outstretched arms. She smelled like Exclamation – the black and white bottle shaped like an exclamation mark that she had on her dressing table back home reminded her of her mother. They stood like that for a long moment and when Siya pulled back, her mother blinked away the beginning of tears and pressed a red kiss to her daughter’s forehead. They quickly gathered Siya’s battered suitcase before one of the loiterers pinched it. As they wheeled it to Lillian’s grey Nissan Sunny, Siya marvelled at the speed with which Lillian moved despite her high heeled sandals. After bundling the bag into the car, Siya lowered herself into the the passenger’s seat and fumbled with the seatbelt for a second. She mentally kicked herself because she didn’t want to appear backward to her sophisticated mother. Other than the headman and the Police chief, Uncle Mbonisi was the only one in the homestead surrounds with a car. He had forced her to get her driver’s licence as soon as she turned sixteen. She had not been aware at the time that he had selfish reasons for the free lessons. She had promptly become his designated driver on his debaucherous sprees (every weekend).

She had witnessed her first sexual tryst whilst sitting in his Mazda twin-cab and parked outside Bruce’s Shebeen (the owner’s name was in fact Thokozani). Liberty was the most popular guy in the area. He always had on Converse All stars and never went anywhere without a velvet blazer on. Siya and her friends each had fantasies about becoming his wife one day whilst joking about how awful he must smell underneath his blazers. He would come to the Growth Point every Friday from Jozi with gifts for all his girlfriends and parcels for those with family in Jozi. She had watched him stumble out of Bruce’s, half empty Black Label in one hand and Soneni’s light-skinned hand in the other. Siya had been falling asleep when she had caught the movement in her peripheral vision. She’d sat still for fear of being noticed. She had watched as Liberty and Sox, as she was known, turned the corner and her eyes had grown as big as saucers when she saw what a man’s penis looked like when aroused. She swore she would never have sex after she heard Sox’s cries from what definitely looked like pleasure but sounded like a slaughter house. Or at least,what she imagined a slaughter house sounded like. She remembered how Liberty had walked back into the bar alone while Sox fumbled in her bag for tissues and cleaned herself up before following him.

Siya was jerked back to the present when her mother turned up Brenda Fassie and reversed at full speed into the crowd behind her, all the while muttering under her breath about the silly people who did not fear cars on the road. She hummed along to Nomakanjani, and Siya took the time to squint out at the tall buildings and bustling vehicles. She took in each traffic light and every pothole. Finally, they left the busy city and drove into the suburbs, now lit up with over eager street lights which competed with dusk’s light. Her mother slowed down as they took a bend and turned the music down.

“You know that I’m married now Siya. My husband’s name is Vusa and he works at Delta. So you can have all the Coke you want”, she chuckled nervously. “We also live with Vusa’s young brother, Alex. Please, I don’t want trouble okay, sisi? He is twenty-seven and he has a girlfriend but you know boys. Just be polite and ask me if anything makes you uncomfortable.” Siya scrunched up her face as her mother spoke. She spoke about Alex the same way Gogo spoke about Uncle Mbonisi – with a forced lightness to gloss over uncomfortable truths. They turned into a gate that shielded prying eyes from a Victorian looking house with wide windows, two chimneys and a black roof. The outside walls used to be white and there were little weeds growing out of the cracks that were closer to the ground. The lawn was immaculate, as was the stone paved driveway. Lillian parked just in front of the grill that made the gate to the garage and called for Alex to come and help with the suitcase.

Alex sauntered out of a door close to the garage, topless and eating a mango. He was a handsome enough man with a line shaved into his head, as was the style. He sucked on the seed as he eyed Siya from over the top of the car. She waved shyly at him and he jerked his head at her in what she assumed was a greeting. As he walked towards the car, Siya felt something shift inside her. An air of danger wafted from Alex, and not the kind that gives you butterflies, the kind that warns you of nothing but pain and tears. She made a mental note to trust her mother about Alex. He carelessly yanked the bag from the boot and dragged it into the house. Lillian pressed her worn clicker and the gate slowly slid into place. She clicked on another remote and the car made a hooting sound. Lillian made her way towards the side door and Siya followed, somewhat hesitantly. She entered the kitchen and was pleasantly surprised by what met her. The inside of the house was a departure from the faded outside walls. A new looking double door fridge stood to one side and next to it, a similarly silver washing machine. At the stove stood a helper, opening and shutting pots. It smelt like Siya’s favourite- oxtail and isitshwala. She smiled at her mother in gratitude for the small kindness of trying to make her feel welcome. She greeted the girl who was cooking and learnt that her name was Pretty. Turned out,Pretty was the same age as Siya, just unable to enrol in school because, well, poverty. The rest of the kitchen was green and white, with white mesh curtains hanging from the only window in the room. The clock on the wall told her it had just gone past six.

Lillian took Siya’s hand and led her into a spacious lounge with a plush brown carpet. The four leather sofas were arranged to face an entertainment centre decked out with a big screen which was currently showing a football match of some sort. She smiled when she recognised the one team as Chelsea – Liberty’s favourite. The French-windows were open and she saw that someone in the house was green fingered because the flower garden showed off its blooms in the distance. A man stood from one of the sofas and she looked up at him, awed by his height. She supposed one would have to be tall to marry her mother. Vusa hugged her in an overly familiar hug and welcomed her into their home with a warm smile. He reminded her of Uncle Mbonisi – the avuncular appeal calmed her.

She mumbled a thank you and executed a curtsey as she had been raised to do before older men. After Vusa pecked her mother on the lips in greeting, Siya was all but dragged to a room at the end of the narrow passage, whilst her mother chattered about the changes she had made. Lillian clasped her hands together dramatically before pushing the door open with her hip. Siya had always had a room to herself, being the only child at Gogo’s house, but it had never been this big. In the middle, against one of the pink walls, was a double bed, dressed in pink floral bedding and two matching pillows. The wooden floor gleamed and Siya could almost make out her teeth in her reflection. She made a note to help Pretty with the floors as often as she could because Gogo also had wooden tiles. She had spent many a Saturday morning shining them until her arms hurt and she would use her feet, praying that Gogo would never catch her and lecture her about the virtues of a woman who wasn’t lazy. The built in wardrobes already had a few toiletries strategically placed, including a bottle of Exclamation. That made her smile. She leaned into her mother and thanked her with her totem. Her mother’s face lit up and she exclaimed Siya’s name in that sing-song way she had.

They settled on the bed and Lillian started speaking, somewhat awkwardly. “I know that I was not there when you went through the big changes in your life but I know uMama was taking care of you. She told me you still like pink, so I’m glad you like the room. Vusa and Alex painted it last week.” She paused, took a breath and continued, “I’m glad you are here with me now. Vusa doesn’t want any more children – he has two young girls who live with their mother. You will meet them sometime.” And as if it were perfectly normal to move from family to periods in one conversation, Lillian asked, “do you use tampons?” Siya shook her head in shock at the question, but also to get her bearings. Her mother was speeding through the conversation and it wasn’t quite how Siya had imagined their first bonding experience. “You must learn, pads are so messy and hard to hide. I’ll show you. There’s a lock on your door – keep it locked when you sleep and when you are changing okay?” There was that Uncle Mbonisi voice again. Siya nodded and fidgeted with her satchel.

“Oh!”, exclaimed Lillian, ” I bought you some jeans, I hope they fit.” She got up and opened one of the wardrobe doors. Siya could have fainted. There were at least twelve pairs of different coloured denims folded neatly next to what she assumed were t-shirts. “Oh, this is nothing, I have a 30% employee discount at work. So just come to the Edgars on Jason Moyo if you  want something new okay?” Siya nodded again, feeling a little overwhelmed. Her mother’s face grew serious, “Siyambonga, you must always wear jeans when you go to school or when you party with your friends, okay? It’s safer for you.” Siya’s brain stalled in confusion, and revved back up again when she remembered Liberty and Sox. She quickly nodded her head in embarrassment. Gogo always spoke in such heavy layers that it always took thorough analysis with her girlfriends to figure out what it was that Gogo was saying.

Her feelings of discomfort did not ease when her mother opened the top drawer of the worn chest of drawers and beckoned her to come have a look. The drawer was filled with underwear, and not the cotton ones that came in packs of 6 that Lillian usually sent home. Lacy panties and what looked like the g-strings she and the girls would giggle over in the magazines NaSalome had in her salon. Gogo would never allow such doti (filth) in her house. Lillian smiled a knowing smile and said, “you’re a woman now Siyambonga. You’re going to college and you will meet a friend there. A woman must always be prepared. We can talk some more later but this is your room.” She shut the drawer and walked towards the entrance, still in her heels. She paused and turned slightly, “I love you, mntanami. We’re going to have a lovely time”.

Final Whispers

You deserve to be loved unconditionally, for exactly who you are. I, unfortunately, have conditions…

They stand facing each other in the middle of the spacious living area of his sprawling house in Selbourne Park. The late afternoon winter sun streams in and dapples the room with spots where the leaves of the giant marula tree whose branches grow past the windows, obstruct the sun. She looks up at his dark chocolate face and bites her quivering bottom lip as she waits for him to respond over the faint lilt of notes from Il Divo’s Caruso.

Her mind wanders to the first time he showed her his collection of vinyls. He called himself a ‘modern purist’ because none of the records were older than 24 years. She had laughed at his description and over the months that followed, devoted her time to finding him many vinyls by his favourite artists on her travels. To be honest, she secretly enjoyed loading the Audio-Technica that had a lid, just like her grandmother’s ancient record player had in her renovated home in Glencara, Nkulumane. As a child, she was never allowed to touch it and this was a revenge of sorts. He would watch her unwrap the records she had bought as gifts for him and feel the excitement on her face. He didn’t mind that  she did that, even though he enjoyed unwrapping presents as much as she did, and they would dance to whatever she played as she regaled him with stories of her adventures.

Her thoughts are broken by his usually deep and clear baritone speaking with an odd huskiness.

“I can do better. I will do better”, he says.

She gently but firmly responds, “I believe that you believe that. But there’s a disconnect between what you say and what you don’t do. I can’t continue to live this way. To have to have a full blown fight in order for you to realise that what you’re doing isn’t enough or wrong or selfish? It’s exhausting. I’m tired.  Actually, I learnt a new term the other day on Twitter. ‘Emotional Labour’. That’s what this is. I’m exhausted from being the one to do all the emotional labour”. Her accent changes as she speaks, the forced Ndebeleness she puts on to convince her peers that she was not corrupted by the British, giving way to a pronounced English accent, the result of the forced migration of many Zimbabweans.

She lifts one hand up to silence him as he prepares to interrupt. He immediately closes his mouth and stuffs his large man hands into the front pockets of his worn but still visibly expensive jeans. He starts rocking slightly, as his body translates his anxiety subconsciously. She stares at him from the middle of the room and as always, is hit by how his presence commands attention. Overwhelmingly so. His height is what initially attracted her to him the first time she saw him. At the European Winter Finance Summit in Austria, four years ago. The odds of two children of Mthwakazi meeting there made it that much more special. His laugh sealed the deal. He always laughs like he has just heard the funniest joke on earth, even when he laughs at her lame knock knock jokes or her weak limerick attempts. That, and his luscious afro.

But she must continue. She takes a steadying breath and does just that.

“I’ve worked too long and too hard to get to a place where my sanity is protected. I’ve dug myself out of ditches of self loathing and never ending heartbreak, for the sake of self-love. Between rehab, this bloody job and my mother, I cannot go back to a place where I no longer recognise myself. Not for anyone”.

Her princess cut, 4 carat emerald engagement ring catches the light as she waves her perfectly manicured hands around as she speaks, sometimes clapping silently, gaining momentum and forgetting her world-class public speaking training. ‘Do not gesticulate so much, it distracts your audience’. Mrs Mangoye’s annoying voice never ceased to grate her ears, but the woman did know her craft.

She continues, “least of all for the person I’d pegged as my ‘forever after’. This should be the last place I find fear and confusion. The last place I find uncertainty. So, I believe that you want do do better, but perhaps not for me. I shouldn’t have to beg for it, and it shouldn’t have to cause you so much agony.” She waves at his face and says “I can see how tortured you get at the thought of spilling all your secrets. So, you don’t want to be better for me, or try for me, and that’s okay”.

She paces across his dark brown Persian rug in her favourite travelling boots, oblivious to his annoyance at her breaking one of his many rules – ‘no shoes on the carpet’, which is usually followed by ‘uMaMpofu will kill me’. He lives in fear of his housekeeper. Everyone does.

She turns the volume down, so she can concentrate on her thoughts.

Another deep breath. “I just hope you can find it in yourself to do better for the right one. Because you deserve to be happy. Deliriously so. You’re an incredible soul, and you deserve to be loved unconditionally, for exactly who you are. I, unfortunately, have conditions and for a hot minute, I thought I could put them aside in the name of compromise”.

At this point, the tears are gushing from her eyes and the forearms of her blue and yellow sweater, emblazoned with her almer mater’s name, are damp from all the wiping. He takes a step forward and makes to hold her and she steps back quickly and shakes her head, her long, black box-braids move as she does.

“I’m not done”, her gravelly voice says. “Being in love with you has been the most challenging experience of my life. I’ve learnt things about myself I didn’t know. Things about the world. About cars and plants. About Thabani’s secret drug store and bottle top art.  About Asian history and about the financial markets and Bitcoin – which I will never use ever again”.

She chuckles and sniffs twice in the most unladylike manner. He offers an awkward smile and rubs his chest, as if to ease a sudden tightness.

“But most importantly, I learnt that I cannot be an open book for someone who keeps their secrets under lock and key. It’s okay that you don’t want to talk about things. It’s just not okay for me. Begging for scraps. It’s been two and a half years and you know me better than anyone in the world yet I don’t know what it is that hurt you or why we can never talk about it. It’s easy when I’m off on assignment, to forget that there is more to us than missing each other or the sex or the comfort of feeling safe somewhere. I want to understand you and you won’t let me”.

He interrupts successfully on his second attempt. “What do you mean?? I’m going to marry you! Why would we get married if we didn’t know each other? You always do this. You get upset over into encane and blow it out of proportion, and come back usupholile. Let’s just skip to that part now”.

She surprises them both when her next words come out at normal volume.

“Why can’t I meet your sister? Who is Mthobi? How come Thabani gets to talk about your secrets with you and I don’t? What were you and your mother whispering about the day I found you two crying? Why don’t you want children? There’s a plethora of things I don’t know and I don’t understand why I can’t know them. You and your friends and family have this secret society and I’m like the stray dog you picked up on Masiyephambili and brought home. I can sit in the dining room but not on a chair. Ang’sakwanisi mina.”

He’s gone deathly quiet. Like he realises that she’s serious this time. These are questions she has never asked because he thought she understood never to ask them. But this time. She’s serious. She’s walked out on him exactly four times since they began their volcanic love affair – the volcano being her. Each time he has waited patiently for her to return from whatever far flung country she jets off to and crawl into his bed at an ugodly hour. Each time he hears her struggle with the locks on his door, curse until she gets it right, place a new vinyl for his (her) collection, on his antique oak side table, offload her luggage behind his bedroom door, strip and promptly fall asleep beside him. It was after the fourth time that he proposed. Mostly out of fear that she would leave forever. A ring would keep her around and so far it had worked.

Each time she wakes in his bed after a hiatus, they carry on as though she did not invoke her ancestors and all the plagues of Moses as she stormed out. And always over his reluctance to give her information she does not need. But this time, there is no yelling or violent packing of hair products and dangerous looking stilettos. There is only calm and steady speech. She is serious this time.

He clears his throat and the words come rushing out like a fountain that was stopped has suddenly been unstopped. He says, “I never want to talk about any of it because it’s about a dark time in my childhood and telling you will not change anything, but if it means so much to you I can… “

She shakes her head again, steps forward quietly and slowly covers his soft mouth with her left hand. Her other hands reaches around and buries itself in his mass of curls. She scrunches them for what is most likely the last time, the way he likes. His eyes close at the familiar tug and his stiff body relaxes. His lips pucker beneath her palm as he presses gentle kisses on it and they stand like that for what feels like an eternity. Her tears subside as his arms engulf her in her favourite hug. He always makes her feel small and fragile although she is anything but. Perhaps he is wrong and she will stay. She likes to tug at his afro before undressing him and taking what she wants. His softening is a Pavlovian response to their regular rhythm. She finally wriggles out of his hug and with one last deep breath, she commits his scent to memory. Sunshine, fresh air and 21 year old Glen Moray.

“It’s too late.”

It’s said so softly he’s almost unsure she’s even spoken. But as she pulls out her battered cellphone and swipes her fingers across its cracked surface a few times, taps it and slips it back into her pocket, it begins to sink in. The suitcase she never stowed in its spot behind his bedroom door. The way she kept her sweater on inside the heated house. The way she kept glancing at her wristwatch as she spoke. The way she hovered near the front door. She never intended to stay. She came all the way from the old flat she refused to sell in Famona, to say goodbye.

“Let me do this. Let me tell you. I can tell you” he says, panicked.

She answers in her new calm tone, “my taxi’s here. I’ve got to go. I’m catching the 8pm flight to Addis. Khonzani got me a press pass and a bunch of one on one interviews with some of the Summit delegates. It’s huge. And I get to bring my own crew along.” Her voice is barely audible as she mumbles the last sentence.

He’s dumbstruck as she reaches out her hand places her engagement ring on the cowhide ottoman near the door. She picks up her handbag and pushes her spectacles further up her nose as she fidgets, waiting for him to respond to the information she’s just dropped and the simple act of removing the only thing left tying her to him. His legs won’t move and his throat is dry. She fiddles with her hair as she waits for something. Anything. After a long moment, she turns and pulls the heavy door open.

She wheels out her suitcase and clumsily piles her belongings into the boot of her taxi. The scruffy driver peers curiously at her through the rear-view mirror as he chews on what is possibly a toothpick from last night’s supper. It takes everything to not turn around and see if he has followed her. To check if he is watching. The dull ache that started as she began her speech has matured and is now a splitting pain spreading rapidly from her heart to her head. She shakes her head and steels herself and all but collapses into the back seat of the car. The driver steals a glance at her, confirms her name and destination. She makes a jerking movement he assumes is a nod, turns the music up and drives away from the rest of her life.

He stares at the front door which stands ajar. She never closes it properly. He begins his wait for her return. He can’t wait to wake up to her warm body and cold feet in the middle of the night. He can’t wait to see what vinyl she finds for him in the music shops of Addis Ababa. He can’t wait for uMaMpofu to complain about umngane wakhe who doesn’t do the dishes. He wakes us every morning feeling the emptiness on his left.

She never returns.

Anniversaries are for Sad things too

Grief will remind you how fleeting life is. Won’t you live?

Grieve, so you can be free to feel something else.

Nayyirah Waheed

Nejma

The above quote has become my mantra. I lost my best friend two years ago, today.

I never fully unpack a suitcase until I have used all its contents, or my mother demands it. She has since given up and lets me trip over it for whatever period I spend at home. I would be dishonest if I did not mention the fact that my suitcase moonlights as a bar “fridge”. You see, my favourite thing to to en route to Africa (read Zimbabwe), is to stroll through the Duty Free shop and buy a few (like 2 or 3, calm down) one litre bottles of vodka. For some reason, the Duty Free store stocks variations that you don’t see at your local liquor shop and this makes for interesting holiday buzzing. Anyway, I’ll purchase those and hide them in my suitcase. This will explain why, during my Africa stints, you will likely find me at home babysitting the same tumbler of Mazoe with tons of ice. All day. I think my family has chalked it up to extreme homesickness and finds it endearing that I love our national drink this much, which works for me. To be honest, I’m surprised inyongo hasn’t killed me yet.

Anyway,  on this particular Thursday morning in January, at the height of summer in Africa, I packed the last of my belongings back into the suitcase I had been living out of for the past four and half weeks. Except for the now empty vodka bottles. Those I stashed into my ginormous “purse” so that I could dispose of them in a bin that didn’t belong to my mother. Yes, I’m 27. No, I will never drink openly in front of my parents. Please stop asking me why. As I packed, I cross referenced with my list. I pack with a list because I’m an adult that needs order. (I can feel the judgment).  Fine, I pack with a list because I’m afraid of forgetting things. As I zipped the bag up, in my mind I scheduled the day’s appointments and calculated the time I would have to say goodbye to my friends before dashing to the airport.

Father had loaned me his car – mostly because Mother doesn’t let anyone drive her car and, honestly, with the calibre of drivers in our household, I do not blame her. I lined up my luggage in the foyer for quick transfer later, and gently carried my handbag and its contraband contents to the car before my mother heard the telltale sound of clanging bottles and ordered me to lie on the ground with my hands visible so she could conduct a thorough investigation. (cue sirens).

This is funny because that is almost exactly how this would have gone.

I had breakfast, (okay, chocolate cake) at Mary’s Corner with a childhood friend who is now married with three children. (Two at the time). The most beautiful boys and a girl. We spoke about how different our lives were and she showed me pictures of her sons in uniform and I had to all but bat my ovaries down. And here I was jetting off to singlehood and general debauchery in the Cape with blessed little to be responsible for. I remember feeling a bit awkward because all my stories began with atrocious giggling due to the the sheer ridiculousness of the tales, whilst hers were homey, familiar and most definitely involved an assortment of baked goods and consistent cuddles. (Sheds thug tear).

I then sped off to the Tin Cup. It may or may not have been before noon, but I was on holiday and as my body was now 40% vodka anyway, who was I to deny my parched throat? I recall sitting near the window with one half of my favourite cousins (yes, twins) downing ciders and eating the fries from his girlfriend’s plate. Side bar – she and I hit it off that day. So much so, that she once carried an order of Chicken Inn (KFC but better) from Bulawayo to Cape Town for me. Legendary stuff. I had a 2 o’clock meeting with Natalie at the Boma (is it still called the Boma? The one at the dams?). Please note, I rarely drove around my city, and I never did it tipsy. So picture this; It’s I.50pm and I have a 3pm buzz going. I’m recklessly racing towards the back entrance to the dams, I keep missing the turn because, well, buzz, and she is texting me like I’m a slow 13 year old. She was so rude to me. I mean, she had no regard for my adultness and general respectability. I loved that. If a stranger ever read our texts, they’d wonder why we even bothered.

When I finally walked up to her table – it really was hers. Apparently she had a corner that she’d claimed. It was by a bench, in a corner, with all the cushions. her slops were on the floor and her legs dangled from the seat. And she’d ordered me wine. Come to think of it, that may be why we were friends. All the wine. But that wouldn’t explain that horrendous Spice Girls performance from grade 4 after that one breaktime. She was Posh spice (of course), and I was Scary Spice (another of course). It went quite well I think, after I’d stopped crying because Joanne had kicked my shins for some reason or the other.

The wine wouldn’t explain NRZ – the rap trio she, Zola and myself formed. Our  one and only hit was a bunch of slick lines spat over makeshift drumbeats to Busta Rhymes’ “Touch it”. Our tag line was “NRZ, keeping you on track”.

Gosh, we were so cool.

The wine wouldn’t explain the break times we spent harmonising to Destiny’s Childand Ne-yo with Zola (DRAMATIC). Or how we slayed our first live performance of Fever at Isigodlo Samakhosi. Or how after that performance, she caught me canoodling with what I can now confidently describe as a “not my type” boy outside. (In my defence, he played the guitar, so, what choice did I have?) Or the way we spoke about that night for weeks afterwards,  because that was how exceptionally boring our lives were.

The wine wouldn’t explain the heart-to-hearts we had in the prefect’s common room (I had to drop that in. Thank goodness I did not peak in high school because, wow). We’d head up the wooden stairs to what I imagine used to be the attic in the house that was now our school administration headquarters.  And there, during our free periods,  whenever we found ourselves alone, we’d share our deepest secrets. And I don’t mean the standard, predictable teenage angst-filled boy nonsense. I mean, there was plenty of that, but sometimes,  really deep stuff. Existential crises and fears of inadequacy. Even then, she was years wiser than I. She gave the most sound advice and to ease the silence, she’d tease me relentlessly about the length of my school skirt.

I remember settling in next to her on those cushions that summer’s afternoon and reading one of her journals. She wrote all the time. So honestly. Some of it left me speechless. I cried. She cried. We then laughed hysterically about the folly of our youth until the waitress side-eyed us from her station – although there wasn’t anybody else there. I remember leaving my wine for her to finish because I’d been summoned by Mother and was petrified of missing my flight and having to explain that I had been side tracked by grapes. I popped some chewing gum to disguise my activities and left. She remained to write, she said.

She yelled out my childhood nickname as I climbed into the driver’s seat. I rolled my eyes and waved from the window as I drove off at breakneck speed. Probably not the wisest of my decisions. My heart was happy.

That was my last memory of Nat. Happy. And Lord, so beautiful.

2 weeks later, I woke up to the news. And my world hasn’t been the same since. Yeah it hurts a little less every day, but it still hurts.

The Empress.

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