Two Stories by Hlengiwe Mnguni

by Hlengiwe Mnguni

 

He doesn’t know whether to accept or refuse the R20 note she holds out to him. He tries to brush off the suggestion of payment: “forget it, it’s cool. I was…” He hasn’t finished the sentence before she balances the note on his knee. For the rest of the way back to campus, they sit in her silence.

By the time she reaches Lwazi’s bachelor flat, Unathi is fuming. It doesn’t help that she hasn’t had anything to eat all day. It’s the second last day of the month, she’s broke. Between mouthfuls of spicy chicken and rice from the Indian restaurant downstairs she tells “the boys” where her last twenty rand went.

Lwazi, stands hovering over a small sink washing a pile of dishes while Mdu reclines on a sofa with a leg over the armrest.

“So why are you mad at him, exactly?” asks Lwazi, half turning.

“Why is she mad?” asks Mdu in amazement as he leans forward to get a better view of Lwazi.

“Yes, why?”

“Oh Lwazi, Lwazi, Lwazi.” It is Mdu in an exaggerated nasal accent. “Why must you always be so blind?”

Mdu readjusts himself on the sofa. He puts both feet on the ground and, for some reason, grabs a book from  the table.

The way he clutches at it and reminds Unathi of Sundays at the Methodist.

The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing.

Here we go again thinks Unathi, though still more concerned about her next spoonful.

“Think about it for a minute”, continues Mdu.

“Our good friend here,” he points at Unathi’s general direction with the book, “is broke.”

“This is through no fault of her own you see, being one of the large group of the formally economically disadvantaged in SA.”

Lwazi smiles, a slow toothless smile. He is amused by what Mdu is saying, he’s always amused by the things Mdu says.

“When whatsisname… Mark?” Unathi nods quietly to Mdu’s question.

“When Mark gives Unathi a lift from campus all the way to Diepkloof and back again, it’s only logical that she should offer him some kind of payment, a thank-you or … whatever right? But he refuses her money instead. And this, my man, could mean a lot of things.”

Despite the book in his hand, he starts counting off on his fingers.

One.

“Her money’s not good enough for him,”

Two.

“. . . or it might be that R20 won’t make a difference in his life of privilege;

Three

“. . . or that she should keep it because obviously she needs it more than him. Am I right so far?” he stops to look at Unathi who stops chewing only to nod, faintly but rapidly.

Lwazi laughs, but only a little. He has seen Mdu in action on campus at SRC meetings, at his best during presidential elections.

“I don’t expect you to understand Lwazi.”

Lwazi walks slowly towards Mdu while drying his hands on a dish towel that he flings onto his shoulder.

He isn’t laughing anymore. Unathi pauses with the spoon halfway to her open mouth and places it gently on the plate, in the silence the soft ‘clink’ sounds much louder than it is.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks Lwazi, seriously.

“In a nutshell? That you pretend not to know shit about the black experience. That you think it’s all good now, we can all be friends, we can forget and live happily ever after”, says Mdu without pausing for a breath, as if this is the one thing he has always wanted to say to Lwazi.

In a moment the mood has changed.

Lwazi towers over Mdu.

“Don’t you dare tell me what I think,” Lwazi says too quietly. “I’ll tell you what I think. In fact I know what this is all about: pride. Your pride, her pride. Stupid, stupid black pride.”

Silence.

“You didn’t just say ‘black pride’ did you?.”

Mdu pushes the sofa back and crosses his legs.

“‘Stupid black pride’ he says. What do you know about black pride? Do you discuss black pride with Nicole just before you fall asleep in her lily white arms? I don’t think so.”

“Mdu” says Lwazi with a slight smile, “you are a fucking racist.”

“Guys”, says Unathi pleadingly.

“Racist? Because I’m black and proud? Let me be kind to you, Lwazi my friend, and bring you some clarity on this point. Black pride my friend, is a virtue every self-respecting black person should possess. And people of all races should come to the realisation that black pride does not equal racism, you should come to that realisation. Because when a white person fails to understand black pride and calls it racism, that white person, deep down inside,” he stabs his chest with an index finger presumably there is where the deepest point of his heart is, “still wants me to call him or her “Baas” or “Madam” and call me “boy”. But the biggest shame, Lwazi my man, is when a black person decides black pride is racism, when that happens, my friend, that black person has lost all his self-pride, because self, my brother, is BLACK”.

The book hits Lwazi on the chest and Mdu storms out.

After Unathi has apologized for the fourth time, the last for breathing, she runs down the flight of stairs after Mdu.

****

‘I’ve never been to Soweto before” says Mark as he slowly pulls out of the campus parking lot. “Neither have I.” says Unathi coldly. He gets it. After a little while he asks, “So, where are you from?”

“P.E.” she says staring back at a woman in the car alongside theirs at a red robot. For the rest of the way they drive in silence.

****

Sometimes you find yourself in a place where the person with whom you have the most in common is the person that you have all along thought might as well have come from another planet.

As she sat a little distance away from the low stage this is what Unathi thought. She felt more at ease because he was there and making things easier, filling up the spaces that she would have let become uncomfortable silences. She was sure the “proprietress”, who insisted on being called “Sis Thandi”, even though she looked as if she was on the other side of sixty underneath the make-up, was only excited because here was a cute white boy in her shebeen playing saxophone with the band. She can’t help but feel the constant annoyance she feels every time a black person gets excited over a friendly white person.

It always reminds her a day long ago when she went shopping with her grandfather.

While walking down one of the aisles pushing their trolley, a man comes up behind her grandfather and taps him on the shoulder. “You dropped your wallet back there” he says in Afrikaans. “Oh, dankie my baas” said her own grandfather. The man looked puzzled first, then his face relaxed into a smile, a benign smile. “Dis alright”. He said, slapping the old man’s back. Then, shaking his head with the smile still on it, disappeared into the next aisle.

Who would have guessed that Mark played saxophone, beautifully.

It had become quite clear early on that she should be the one setting up the lights and mikes and operating the camera while he would conduct the interviews. He was the one who was more interested in “The role of shebeen culture in apartheid South Africa”.

Mark asks all the right questions (who, what, when, where, how, why) and Bra Ben (who is the oldest and seems to be band leader) answers with perfect anecdotes. The rest of the band, younger, listens to the stories they’ve heard before and don’t say much after the initial introductions.

So where did you learn to play my laaitie?’ asks “Bra Ben”. Mark tells him kaans. Afrikaans}he learned from his father. They move off the “stage” and sit down at the table from where Unathi has been sitting, watching and listening, nursing a coke.

When they left campus this morning Mark was an unfortunate consequence of her having skipped class. She was stuck with him. She was prepared for the long boring drive into Soweto, the friendly but annoying attempts at conversation, the over-eager white-boy-in-the-township-for-the-first-time act. She had gotten the first two. But now sitting there listening to Mark talk about his father’s jazz band and “Bra Ben” remembering seeing them play once in a small jazz band in the city, she’s grateful for Mark.

“Those ou’s were bloody good man, where did they go?”

“My dad teaches music at the University, the rest of his band is scattered all over the world.” he says.

“I bet he could teach these laaities a thing or two,” says Bra Ben meaning the young men.

“Ahh Bra Ben,” they all say in mock protest and laugh good-naturedly.

“Another round on the house!” shouts Sis Thandi as she bursts in through the door. She places the tray on the table and walks away. Before she gets to the door she remembers that there’s a phone call for Bra Ben, who excuses himself and disappears behind the blue door. His exit leaves a heavy silence among the young people.

They all drink in silence, while in the background Abdulla Ibrahim, inevitably, weaves melodies in and out of music.

“So Mark, how does a ngamla like you end up with a beautiful girl like this one you’ve got here?” asks Oupa jokingly, giving Unathi a look that confirms and justifies her dislike of him. For some reason everyone at the table laughs, except Unathi and Mark who smiles cautiously. When Mark, hoping to diffuse the unexpected and rising tension, tells him how it was a coincidence that they ended up being paired together, he fails. Because instead of laughing along with him Oupa asks “So does a guy from ekasi like me stand a chance with you Unathi?”

“A chance for what?” asks Unathi not hiding her annoyance.

She knows this guy, has met him before, many times. The type of guy who asks just for the sake of asking, but takes offence loaded with festering emptiness at being turned down.

“Ah, I know her type.” says Sphola, strumming lightly on his guitar.

“Ah, sister, just because I don’t speak proper English, or have a degree, or a car, or money… it doesn’t mean you can’t be my woman. There is more to a man.” He glances deliberately at Mark. “There’s more to a black man” the band laughs.

Mark twirls his glass consciously, aware that although the last comment was aimed at him, the implications of this “conversation” were being felt more deeply by Unathi. That although Unathi and he are worlds apart, this moment proves that their worlds are still closer to each other than they are to Oupa’s. That the best thing he could do or say now would be a word in Unathi’s defense. Yet how can he presume to defend her from Oupa, whom he doesn’t know and is honestly scared of. How can he presume to be the protector of Unathi, from P.E. who won’t be his friend because….He is out of his depth. This is not his territory.

The brief silence slips away and the moment is discarded, unfulfilled.

So when Unathi moves to pick up the tripod, he reaches for the rest of the equipment and they head, cloaked in Unathi’s silent determination, for the door. They reach the exit in time to hear Bra Ben ask, “En nou?”

      ****

Driving back to campus they stop at a garage. And it is when Mark jumps back in the car, left hand on gear right on steering wheel, that Unathi places the twenty on his knee, a gesture to erase all that she has thought of him in the past few hours, to absolve herself of Oupa’s unsaid accusation. And when Mark tries to refuse it, she can’t help but see and hear a face from the past saying, “Dis alright, man”.

 ****

There has never been a time like this, a place like this. A new South Africa, with ancient insecurities making sure, in mock freedom that everyone chooses a corner, preassigned, or remains without identity.

When Nicole arrives from school he’s tidied up and put a pot of macaroni to boil. “What’s this? You’ve actually cleaned up and you are cooking something. To what do I owe this unusual take-away-free treatment”, says Nichole as she gives him a hug and a peck on the check. “I love you Nichole”, says Lwazi seriously without a hint of joy. She takes a step back and laughing softly says, “Are you dying baby?”

“No, not at a faster rate than usual anyway”.

“What is it then, did you get one of those calls from your father?” asks Nichole rummaging in the fridge for frozen stir-fry.

“No”.

“Who is it then?”

He’s that transparent.

He considers telling her “no one, forget about it”. Instead he says, “Mdu”.

Mdu has a way with words. He is intelligent and witty. This is why in such a short time they have become friends. They are almost the same person. Almost. Their initial meeting had always been building up to today. He’d known it all along, yet still he hadn’t been prepared. How do you defend love?

In the short time that Mdu has been part of their lives he’s managed to make both Lwazi and Nichole feel her whiteness as a thing other than part of being human, and his blackness as an unending obligation to a sad history and which he, in love, is perpetually betraying. He manages to turn everything into a political statement of weakness or twisted benevolence.

“It’s as if my father sent him. Every time he speaks I hear my father.”

  

 

Illusions

I stood waiting impatiently for the bus. I was looking up at the bare jacaranda trees, hearing the sounds of Esselen Street from far away, muffled by my even farther thoughts. I suddenly noticed a figure hovering between the branches of two jacarandas. He was standing on a balcony of a flat across the street. He wore white linen pants and a linen shirt, and held a visibly steaming black cup between his hands. He was a deep brown. It was the brownness of skin and black hair that made me stare at him as his gaze remained fixed somewhere above the buildings which hid the morning sun. From that morning on I would always look up expectantly, most times he wasn’t there. I only saw him on that balcony three more times. Once we stood still for such a long time, him seemingly waiting for the sun to rise up from behind the buildings and me imagining a life for him.

This is what I tell Seithati.

“Come, I’ll show you something,” she says already putting on her sneakers. Before we leave I make sure all the lights are switched off and the windows properly shut. She laughs softly and rolls her eyes. It is past six and the sun has begun to set. The streets are abuzz with girls in tight jeans and their ever-lusting companions. We make our way past the Engen garage across the street, past the pimps, prostitutes and dealers, past Jubilee Park, across Kotze and turn into Esselen. At this time of the day, on a Friday, a person can’t move without skill and concerntration and not bump into a body. We turn left into a flower shop and end up in an empty, brightly-lit corridor. At the other end, behind a high wooden desk, sits a guard who reminds me of a courtroom scene. There’s a big book on the desk.

“Hello Oupa”, sings Seithati sashaying past him with me in tow, headed straight for the lift. “Mara Seithati,ke eng osanyake go saina?” (But why won’t you sign Seithati?)he shouts as the doors of the lift slide open. “Oa nketse mos, Oupa?” (You know me don’t you, Oupa?)It’s a question that she flings laughingly back at him, with a knowing look. Seithati knows everyone.

“Where are we going?”, I ask as the lift comes to a silent stop on the 7th floor. “To see a friend of mine”, she says and knocks rhythmically on the door directly opposite the lift. One, two, three, one-two-three in quick succession. When there’s no answer she tries the door handle and pushes gently on the door. It sticks a little but opens a crack. Her eyes open wide in childish wonder and in she tiptoes, silently directing me to follow her quietly with one hand, gesticulating like a traffic officer with a finger to her lips.

We are in a big long room with nothing but a long sofa, a soft green carpet with ill-matched cushions scattered about and white curtains bellowing madly on the opposite end. I shut the door quietly behind me. The curtains quite suddenly stand still. I wait while Seithati goes down a passage leading from the room to the rest of the flat. I hear the sound of opening doors while I look around. There is nothing on the beige walls except a huge gilded iron frame with nothing on display. While I watch the frame I see, in the corner of my eye, the curtain move again, and it says: “Nothing I have seen has moved me enough.”

He wore white linen pants and a linen shirt. He was brown and barefoot. He looked like a south Indian prince at leisure.

“There you are. Why the fuck didn’t you answer the door?” She has put an arm around his waist and punches him softly on the arm before he has even had time to respond.

“Lesego”, she says as if we’ve all been waiting for this moment, “this is Miles.” And that is the only thought in my mind for a while: this is Miles this is Miles this is Miles.

“You look familiar. I have seen your face somewhere before” says Miles looking at my face, concentrating.

Seithati bursts out laughing.

“It’s not a line” he smiles, briefly glancing at Seithati, wordlessly telling her to shut up. Which she does. But only for a second before she says, quickly “Do you still have some of that coffee?” and disappears down the passage without waiting for an answer.

And I am left with Miles.

“I don’t think so. Not really.” I say, not sure whether to tell him that sometimes I see you and often I think about you.

“Not really?”

“Well I see you…. sometimes…. in the morning…. when I wait for the bus.”

“No, that’s not where I know you from. But I have seen you somewhere before, but always from afar.” He stops for a second, seemingly to remember something. “There’s something I’d like you to see.”

As I follow him in silence down a long passage past doors that Seithati has left open, the urge to touch him and tell him that I think I might love him gets stronger, so that by the time we reach the blue door at the end of the passage my mouth opens but I hear the voice of Seithati from the kitchen saying loudly “Miles paints!” as if she has just remembered.

“Only sometimes” he says with a quiet smile.

The room we step into is filled with light before he has even switched on the light. It must be the moon somewhere out there. In this room, also as big as the first one there is nothing but an outline of a high stool and what I guess to be an easel. In the electric light the room seems bigger, feels warmer.

“Before I show you, there is something I would like to say. I believe there is a God, and I believe in him.”

It is a sketch, in charcoal. The charcoal that only now I notice is smudging the tips of his fingers. It is difficult for me to make out what it is that I see. It could be fog or mist or what sleep would look like on paper, but from far away as if in a dream, I look back at myself.

I must look like I’ve seen an apparition because Seithati, who is now leaning against the door post, stirring a cup of steaming coffee and characteristically shattering the peace, says “What have you done to this poor girl Miles?”

“Nothing” he says and turns over a blank sheet, covering the image.” I don’t suppose you’ve made us any coffee” he continues after a short pause and leads me by the elbow towards the door and Seithati.

“You suppose right. But in my defense I’ll say that Lesego doesn’t drink coffee and you…well you.”

He closes the door behind all three of us and I automatically follow him into the kitchen where Seithati plants herself on the door post once more.

“How many sugars do you take with your tea?” he asks as he opens and closes the doors of cupboards.

“Two.” I say and pause to think, then “I would have never guessed you to be a Miles.”

“What? I look more like a Mahendra? It was my father’s idea. He called it ‘Unbranding’,” he says without further explanation and laughs quietly while measuring out even teaspoons of sugar.

Seithati watches on, quietly. When we have sat down I can’t help but notice how quiet Seithati has been. She laughs occasionally but stays quiet. Miles does most of the talking which is not a lot, because every now and then we keep quiet and listen to the soft music with a deep bass coming from somewhere down the passage. During these open spaces in time I try to deal with the shock that I should end up in this place that I have only imagined, with a Miles who until today has been nameless and seven stories above me.

When Seithati is ready to leave, we do. But before we do, Miles takes my hand in a delicate handshake, looks me in the eye and says how lovely it has been meeting me. I am convinced however that had Seithati not been holding the lift for me, Miles would have said more. Much more.

On our way down, it is Seithati who speaks first. “So that was our Miles.” I hardly know what to say, because foremost in my mind is the question: “How is this possible?” But I guess that Seithati being who Seithati is will tell me when and if she wants to. All I can manage is “He’s a nice guy” and add shakily “he showed me a sketch”

“I’m glad you had a nice time, sweetie. We’ll talk tomorrow, now I have to meet someone.” She gives me a quick hug and trots down the corridor and into the night street leaving me in the too brightly lit corridor with Oupa asleep behind the desk.

That night I slip from one dream into another. And Miles is everywhere. And all he seems to be able to say is “There’s a God”. By the time I awake, my love for him is sealed.

wards the door and Seithati. I am aware that this is the first time

It is almost midday but I do not dare look up as I walk to the bus stop. I’ve hardly reached the bus stop when I hear my name being called from up above and Miles shouting, “Wait there!”

“I’ve been waiting for you. I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. Hi.”

“Hi”

“Can I ask you something important?”

I blush and try to laugh nonchalantly.

“It depends,” I say with less conviction than intended.

“Listen. I know it’s a lot to ask but,” he leans his head to one side, pleadingly, “would you please spend the rest of the day with me?”

It is a lot to ask. But against all my common sense I find myself seated on that long sofa.

He makes slightly burnt but impressive chicken and vegetable pasta, which I have with my first glass of red wine. I need it, because since he called my name and I went with him, I have known what would happen.

I am still in a dream when he kisses me goodbye at the entrance of Villa la Rosa. I head straight for Seithati’s door and knock for a while beneath the gold seventeen, before she opens the door, yawning. She’s just woken up; she’s still in her pajamas. Seithati sleeps during the day and lives in the night. She flops down on a big comfortable chair and picks up a magazine lying on the table, ready to resume reading.

“What’s up” she asks with the back of her hand on her yawning mouth.

“Can I tell you something? Promise you won’t say anything?” I ask.

“What am I here for? Spill.” She says, closing the magazine and looking up. I consider the best way to put it. And every way sounds wrong and bad to me. She’ll laugh I think. So I just say : “I slept with Miles.”

Something changes, shifts.

“So you slept with Miles.” She says but doesn’t say, “I expected as much” as her tone and body language suggest. “I’ve slept with Miles too, you know.” She pauses and carries on unaffectedly. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know.”

“I didn’t.”

“How could you not? What did you think?” She rolls her eyes like only she knows how. “Well anyway, now you know.”

I sit for a while listening to the sound of each page she turns. Then as if she hasn’t just shattered me and left me in silence she continues, “He showed you a sketch, right? Of you? How do I put this?” she says looking up thoughtfully at the ceiling, “well it wasn’t. It was your face and every woman’s, including mine. But don’t worry about it too much. He’s vague, everything of his is. And romantic. It’s because he truly believes he’s in love with every woman that he can put them all in one face like that. Miles is mad. He lives for one moment only. Only one moment keeps him alive. That moment of recognition on a woman’s face. I don’t know how he does it, if it’s even true. But one thing I know is that I have seen myself in that dream of Miles’ too.”

I keep quiet and sit still with Seithati.

“Why didn’t you tell me before? Why did you take me there in the first place, if you knew?”

“You wanted to meet him didn’t you?”

She doesn’t wait for an answer. It doesn’t matter.

“I wanted you to meet him.” She looks up from the magazine and for the first time since I’ve met her, I look into her eyes.

“I’ve always wanted to end that fantasy you’re endlessly drifting in. So when I realized you latest fantasy was Miles, I couldn’t believe it. I knew I had to show you reality.”

I do not find it difficult to believe what I’m hearing. It is not easy to miss now. The fact that sometimes Seithati will roll her eyes at some of the things I say or crack a joke about some of the things I do, is unmissable. Still, haven’t we been friends from the first day I moved in a floor above her? Did I miss something? I’ve always thought of her as a friend.

did you think? she

As I sat there, before those eyes, in the aftermath of a paralyzing realization, I could only wonder with fear at how the glaringly obvious can sometimes evade the human consciousness. How one can live for months, even years, in a world where ridicule and pain are acceptable, even justifiable, and appreciation and acceptance come at few and short intervals but are treasured by one to obsessive proportions because of the promise of more to come in an uncertain future. What I realize is this: Seithati doesn’t like me. She despises who I am.

As I walk out of her door and out into the street, looking for some lost thing of mine, I say an earnest prayer to God. I pray that I never see either of them.

This prayer is still on my mind when Miles, out of breath, touches me on the shoulder.

“I’ve been…trying… to…get hold of you. Why won’t you answer…your phone?” he says between breaths and adds, “Hi” and smiles as he did on that day in that other world.

“Please don’t.” I hear myself saying calmly, although a scream would make better sense to my soul.

He steps in front of me, to stop me walking away.

“What’s the matter?” he asks looking genuinely puzzled.

I should keep my composure. I should walk past him. I should ignore him if I ever see him again. I should wipe him out of my minds memory. It’s possible.

“Seithati told me about the sketch. She told me that it’s just a trick, an illusion. That you do this all the time. And that I fell for it! That you did it to her. That …” It is impossible not to cry, even with the passing stares all around us.

“Listen,” he commands, holding both my hands and pulling me out of the moving traffic of bodies. It is not because I want to listen to him that I let him move me, but because I need a moment apart from the crowd. I need to breathe and calm my heartbeat.

“Listen,” he says again still holding on to my hands, now fists. “The part about the painting is true. It is an optical illusion. But I meant it with you. Didn’t I swear? You believed me then, didn’t you? Seithati is mad. Fuck!” He holds his head with both hands, pulling back his hair and looks beautiful. “She’s jealous. Seithati is a bad woman, I should know, I’ve known her longer than you have.”

I hear every word and try to forget it instantly. He looks around searching for something among the passing bodies. At a loss for words Miles says with resignation,”Seithati. Do you know what that means?”

I hear a question in the tone, not the words. He does not know that I have decided not to hear him, that I am still only because I am catching my breath, not listening.

“What?” I ask from far away.

“Her name, Seithati.”

“Go to hell!” I say for the first time and feel like saying it over and over again. But I don’t, can’t – something in inside stops me. It is the thing that Seithati would have rolled her eyes at, I think to myself.

I turn and walk away.

And in my mind I hear louder than the boom of my heart, “Seithati, Seithati. The one who loves herself.”

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