by Palesa Mazamisa
The phone rang. Mpumi watched the numbers flash on the screen, urging her to pick up. She didn’t recognise the number, so she continued watching how with each ring the vibration inched the shuddering phone along the tiles. She let it flash until it switched over to voicemail then leaned forward on the toilet seat, resting her elbows on her knees and balancing her chin on her palms, and stared at the words written on the note taped to the door.
Flushing has yet to be proven to be harmful to general hygiene. Please leave the toilet as clean as you would like to find it.
We’re available 24-hours every day of the week for toilet flushing demonstrations. Thank you and you’re welcome.
A door opened and closed. A pair of heels clicked through the lavatory then stopped in front of her cubicle. Mpumi knew it was Zama, her friend and business partner. She pictured Zama leaning against the door, waiting for a sound from her. Then the hesitant knock.
‘Mpumi, it’s been forty-five minutes. Our clients will be here in about fifteen.’
‘Be there now,’Mpumi responded, suspecting that the clients were more likely due to arrive in thirty minutes.
She was in no rush to get back to her office. It had been a stressful week. Consumed by anxiety, she had retreated to the confines of this small enclosure, each stay stretching longer – from minutes to quarter hours, to half hours. The phone rang again, sliding across the floor. Picking it up, breathing in deeply before answering, she immediately recognised the voice on the other end. And, instinctively, she knew the reason for the call.
‘Nompumelelo. It’s Uncle Vuyo.’
‘How are you? It’s been too long. It looks like you’ve abandoned us.’ His chuckle was forced, as if to lighten the conversation. She ignored his attempt at small talk.
‘No, work’s been hectic Uncle Vuyo.’
She coughed, hating the sound of her voice reverberating against the tiles.
‘Nompumelelo, your father passed away. He was found early this morning around 5.30. He was shot. I’m sorry my child.’
The phone slid out of her hand. She caught it before it dropped to the floor.
‘… in the village by himself. Mpumi? Hello?’
‘Yes, malume, I’m still here.’
‘He liked to go to the village to write and think. The solitude gave him peace of mind. We always left him alone. He didn’t want to be disturbed while he was there. That’s why weren’t alarmed when we didn’t hear from him.’
‘He wrote you many letters. I need to get them to you. He made us promise that should anything happen to him we would get them to you before his burial.’
‘I can’t speak long. There are people here at your grandmother’s house. I know you’re alone there. Is your mother still working in the UK?’
‘Yes she is malume.’
‘It will be better if she also hears the news from me. Will you send me her contact details? I’m not sure if the numbers I have are still correct.’
‘I will, malume.’
‘We hope to have more information later today. I’ll call you again, my child.’ Uncle Vuyo cleared his throat. ‘Will you make it to the funeral?’
He pre-empted what he knew would be her negative response by apologising for all things and nothing in particular and once more promising to be in touch soon.
Mpumi had anticipated the call all week. It was on Thursday, four days prior, at exactly 23:42, when she had woken up in a sweat, screaming into her pillow to muffle the wail lodged at the back of her throat. She knew then that her father was dead. She had spent the next few hours looking for his picture – desperate for any image of him. She trawled her cousins’ Facebook pages and Instagram accounts but found nothing to affirm that he had ever existed. She had not seen her father since he had left in the dead of winter some thirty-four years back. There had been no warning, no hint, not even a fabricated trip to the shops for a packet of cigarettes or a litre of milk. He had simply vanished along with the mob of protesters marching passed their house, and of whom they later learnt were met by a posse of police officers ready to shower them with teargas and hails of bullets. The image of his gangly frame walking away remained with her. He stood out – his unhurried gait out of pace with the marchers toyi-toying towards their demise. Behind the low wall protecting their four-roomed matchbox home from the perils of the street, she followed him manoeuvring into the trotting crowd until he vanished.
‘Sisi, sisi … they are here.’
Mpumi didn’t notice her secretary entering the lavatory. She rolled her eyes and swore underneath her breath. It irritated her that, despite Mpumi’s protestations, she insisted on calling her ‘sisi’. They were only months apart. Mpumi knew she used the honorific as a mark of derision. The emphasis was just so that the disrespect was too subtle to be called out without it making Mpumi appear petty and immature.
‘Coming,’ Mpumi responded, flushing the toilet partially out of habit, but more to disguise her embarrassment at having been sitting there for so long. She waited until she heard the door close before exiting the cubicle and walking to the washbasin to examine her face in the mirror. She patted under her eyes, reminding herself to buy a concealer to cover the dark circles, then thought of her father again, wondering how much she looked like him. She washed her hands and rushed out before getting too distracted by staring at herself in her desperate search for the man whose face she had refused to know.
Zama glared at her when she walked into the meeting room. Mpumi introduced herself to the clients and sat at the head of the table. She tried to focus on the presentation. But listening to the presenter, all she heard was Uncle Vuyo’s voice saying he had been shot, had been found early this morning around 5:30. She was conflicted, not sure whether to be sad or relieved for this man to whom she owed her existence. He had been absent from her life; was the man who made no effort to reach out to her as she matured from a personable girl into a distrustful teenager and eventually into a dispirited woman. Growing up, it was his youngest brother, Vuyo, who regularly checked on her, sent her spending money just because, and bought her gifts on her birthday and for Christmas. It was also Uncle Vuyo who came to her graduation, both her undergraduate and Masters, travelling from the Eastern Cape, ever stoic in bracing the hostility he met from her mother’s side of the family. Yet she had rejected him in her adult life, ignored his calls and other attempts at maintaining a relationship. She was always too busy when he was in town, requesting to see her if only for 15 minutes. And she was curt and openly rude when they did eventually meet in person; even then, when she saw the hurt in his eyes, she did not stop. But Mpumi punished herself for the betrayal of the love he continued to show her. It was an impulse she couldn’t control for it was her way to reject the lineage that had disowned her. Only after many therapy sessions did she finally understand what made her behave like that. It broke her each time he called her by their clan name, his pride so palpable.It didn’t occur to him that she couldn’t be part of it, that he couldn’t make up for the missing link whatever his intentions.
‘Would you agree, Mpumi?’
The eyes around the table focused on her. She froze. She had only caught snippets of the discussion. The most recent point she could remember was about urbanisation.
‘Well, rapid urbanisation is today a global phenomenon. This is why governments and cities, in particular, need to rethink the traditional theories on reversing the rural-urban movements. Evidence has shown that it’s no longer feasible to try to stem the tide of rural dwellers from coming to the cities.’
Mpumi looked around the table, wondering if her audience was in any way convinced by her contribution. Zama scowled when their eyes met. She picked up on her point and concluded the meeting.
‘You lucked out on that one,’ Zama said after they saw off the clients.
‘Sorry, I was distracted,’ Mpumi answered.
‘Uh, you reckon … but you’ve been that way the past week. Are you ok?’
Zama searched her face. Mpumi turned away, grabbing her coat off the hanger in the office they shared.
‘Where are you going?’ Zama asked.
‘I need to go home. My father’s died.’
Mpumi walked out, ignoring Zama’s questions.
At 42, Mpumi could no longer remember the time when her father’s presence had not been with her. Every day she woke with the burden of living with it, an invisible companion shadowing her movements and penetrating her thoughts – a voice that refused to leave her. It was only in her late teens that she accepted it as an impediment to attaining any kind of normality in her life. But that acceptance did not prevent the deepening of her anxiety which muddled her mind and made her appear slightly off-balance and perpetually disoriented. Those around her came to know her as morose and were put off by her heaviness. She sought counselling, developing a dependency on the weekly sessions to help her get through her days but without actually committing to improve herself. Her therapist said that the presence she felt was her memory of him, the unresolved anguish and anxiety that his absence created in her life. It would serve her best to deal with her residual anger and hurt. It would help her to move on.
Mpumi’s grandmother believed otherwise. She held traditional views. The therapist didn’t understand. It was more than anger and hurt. She argued, ‘White people still don’t understand our ways.You shouldn’t only get help from them. We have our own counsellors,’ and constantly complained about Mpumi’s visits to the therapist. Why would she go there when it was clear that Mpumi was bestowed with special powers by her ancestors? She believed that Mpumi’s problem would be resolved only once she accepted that she was to train in the practice of traditional healing. Running away from that was the worst she could do. Psychologists or any other kind of ‘-ologists’ were of no use to her. Her grandmother was certain of this. She had seen her own daughter, Mpumi’s mother, refuse her powers, and suffer the consequences.
Her grandmother was adamant that Mpumi inherited this gift from her mother, a vibrant woman whose strength was to remain religiously optimistic regardless of what life hurled at her. Her mother was a pious woman. She didn’t believe in anything that fell outside the teachings of her faith. She embraced life, painfully aware that she may have passed on the curse of the ancestral world to her daughter. Both mother and daughter refused the bag of bones that was passed down from generations of spiritually anointed members in their family. It was for Mpumi’s mother to accept it first and then pass it on to Mpumi when her time came. Her mother was warned that her refusal of this ancestral gift would cause misery and distress in her and Mpumi’s lives. But she physically separated herself from the soil and the culture that sought to divert her from her knowledge of God. She was a nurse. And that’s how she chose to share her gift of healing.
Mpumi, too, was not convinced by her grandmother’s insistence that it was a gift. She found it to be anything but that. And while her mother found refuge in religion to ward off that which couldn’t be justified in Christian terms, Mpumi ruminated, delving deeper into a state of paralysis and paranoia. The more she fought it, determined not to allow it to consume her desire for a normal life, the less she was able to manage it. When the thoughts and voices, cramped inside her head, caused her to feel dizzy or nauseous, she resolved it by inflicting a greater pain on herself. The result was that she spent many days drawing incisions on her arms. Playing with the blade, she cut herself until fine droplets of blood popped out on her skin. Other times the cuts were quick and uncontrolled – releasing anger and frustration. The whole process depended on the level of pressure she felt, and how fast she needed to ease the anxiety and hurt.
However, Mpumi knew that no amount of cutting would remove the burden from her. The cutting had started in her teens after an incident with a glass. Washing dishes she was preoccupied as usual, intent on erasing the competing voices seeking her attention. Uncle Vuyo had visited that day and stayed for lunch. She had overheard his discussion with her mother about her father. Hearing her father’s name had upset her; not being told what was going on hurt even more. In that state of distress, the breaking glass only felt like a prick. Entranced she had watched the blood flow from her hand colouring the water. It was only when she heard her mother scream that she realised she had cut herself badly. Later that evening, while lying in bed, she was restless. Her mind returned to the sensation of the glass piercing her skin: pain and relief. For a moment there was tranquillity. Her thoughts dissipated as she was calmed. It was her mother’s screaming that yanked her out of that state of torment and pleasure. But it was sealed – in that moment she knew she’d cut herself again, this time deliberately, in search of that same liberating sensation.
At home Mpumi took tranquillisers and opened a bottle of wine. She ignored Zama’s calls. She watered her plants, and tried to understand the feeling of joy inside of her. Was she that heartless that she could rejoice in her father’s death? But then she figured it out. Uncle Vuyo’s call absolved her from her unrequited bond. She was no longer part of her father. Feeling lighter, she looked for the blades that had scarred her in so many ways and threw them in the bin.
They sat in silence for what seemed like hours. Mpumi perched on the window sill, her plump frame slumped against the window, one leg touching the floor, the other dangling in space. But her mind was calculating, trying to find a way to get Kaiser to leave her flat without seeming ungrateful or disrespectful. After all, he made quite an effort to get her father’s letters to her at such short notice considering that Uncle Vuyo had refused to post them.
‘Can’t trust the postal services with the strikes all the time,’ he had said. ‘I won’t forgive myself if you don’t receive them. I’m sending your cousin to deliver them.’
He had asked Kaiser to deliver the letters in person, sending him on the12-hour bus trip to Johannesburg from their ancestral home in Mthatha. Mpumi thought it unnecessary. Courier services would have sufficed. She even offered to pay, but Uncle Vuyo declined the offer.
‘My brother’s wish was that we deliver them to you in person. He never asked for much in life. I need to honour this request,’ was his response.
Mpumi took an instant dislike to Kaiser. She decided his affability was put on and guessed that he was older than her, but by not more than two years. He reminded her of her father; the shape of his head, the space between the nose and upper lip, the curve of the eyes, the cheekbones. Kaiser was the male version of her; she, the female version of her father. In front of Kaiser, she couldn’t deny her lineage.
She had received his call the day before. Barely explaining who he was, he had immediately announced his arrival for the following day. His directness caught her off guard and she had found herself agreeing to have him over without really intending to. The result was that she had felt uncomfortable in his presence from the moment he’d arrived at her flat. Why hadn’t she asked him to meet her at Killarney Mall, a stone’s throw from her block? He was much taller than she’d expected and had a pushy air that she interpreted as a provocation. Their greeting was disjointed. He stuck out his hand, but she responded with a ‘Hello, please come in’. He withdrew his hand, raising his eyebrows and sucking his teeth to register his disapproval. Following her into the flat, she had felt his eyes boring into the back of her head. She turned sideways to let him into the lounge.
‘I’ll only read the letters much later but thank you for bringing them.’
‘Is that it?’ he’d asked, his eyes widening.
Hoping he’d now leave, Mpumi had forced a smile to maintain a genial façade. But instead of doing that, Kaiser had picked up a newspaper from the chair and started perusing it.
‘So, in this big city culture of yours, you don’t even offer your guests a glass of water?’
He dropped the remark nonchalantly, not looking up, still flicking through the paper. Mpumi quickly got off the couch, undecided about whether to be offended or embarrassed. She moved towards the kitchen, annoyed by him invading her space and making demands.
‘Tea, juice, coffee?
‘Tea, and if you have anything to eat, I’ll be grateful. I’m a bit hungry after the trip.’
In the kitchen she warmed up left-overs. She emerged ten minutes later with a tray of food and his tea. The sound of him eating and slurping his tea grated her so she had retreated to the window, hoping the drone of the cars outside would drown out his chomping. There she prayed silently for Kaiser to leave. But she soon realised it was unlikely as he settled back further into the chair and slowly forced off his left shoe with his right foot, and then, with a similar motion, took off the other. Unable to watch him much longer, she stood up and turned to count the cars passing by on Rivera Road, one of the main arteries into the northern suburbs of the city. But the street was quiet; the morning rush hour had subsided. Kaiser coughed a couple of times, as if to warn her of an impending question coming her way but with each cough, she focused harder on the street. Finally, when Kaiser turned back to reading the newspaper, she picked up the letters and studied the writing on the envelopes. The handwriting showed a heavy hand, the ink deeply engraved onto the paper. Her name was written in neat calligraphy, her initials ‘N’ and ‘M’ stood out gracefully, artistically. His penmanship surprised her. It seemed effortless and refined, attributes she had never thought of associating with her father.
Suddenly she heard Kaiser say, ‘Your father was not a monster. He was a good man. You should know that. You see, I was very close to him. My life would have been meaningless without him.’
She managed a smile.
‘I didn’t see much of him this past year. He was becoming more withdrawn, always going to the village to write and think. But he’s always been around during important times in my life. Unlike my own father, a useless excuse for a husband and father.’
Mpumi was surprised at the resentment he held for his own father. It rivalled hers. But it hurt her to hear him say that her father had played such a paternal role in Kaiser’s life.
‘Of course there’s Uncle Vuyo, who’s as close to a perfect man as you can get. It’s funny, he’s the youngest but far more responsible than his older brothers.’ Mpumi nodded. ‘I had a different relationship with your dad though. We connected. I don’t know why – maybe because we both like to read and pursue intellectual things. Or maybe because we walk the same way, stiff backs.’ He chuckled as Mpumi grew more irritated. ‘Your father visited every month while I was in prison, unlike my own father who was too busy running after women, and making babies even at his age, to take an interest in his first born son. He’s a lawyer. Can you believe it? He refused to help me. Said I’d embarrassed the family name. We don’t speak much.’ Mpumi shifted. She recognised his anger. ‘I used to be very angry with him. I’m too old for that now. It’s tiring, anger. But your dad, he brought me books to read. He kept on encouraging me to remain hopeful and positive. We discussed a lot, wrote each other. He was a highly intelligent man.’
‘How long,’ Mpumi asked, deliberately ignoring his remarks about the virtues of her absent father.
‘How long what?’
‘Were you in prison?’
‘Six years. I was falsely accused of robbery: wrong place, wrong friends, wrong time type of thing,’ he explained.
‘Of course,’ Mpumi said, not bothering to hide the malicious intent behind her response.
Kaiser looked at her, hurt in his eyes. He looked away, shaking his head, and finished his tea, after which he picked up the paper again and began reading. The silence stifled the room. Mpumi’s face warmed; she was nailed to the window sill. After some time she got up and left the lounge, dragging her her legs along. Looking for quiet to manage the anxiety that resurfaced, she entered the toilet. Hands shaking, her breathing irregular, she locked the door and closed the lid to sit on top of it. In the darkness she concentrated on the calendar pinned to the door, a collection of reprints of the works of Mark Rothko.The month of August displayed No. 5, 1958. She was quickly absorbed in Rothko’s work, the reds hooked her; the colour equally attracting and repulsing. It was mesmerising, the alluring shades of cerise, scarlet or just bold red. Her mind wandered; her conversation with Kaiser died away; his presence fading as the craving to feel the blade piercing her skin subsided. Yes, he had induced the yearning again and for this she disliked him even more than when she had first opened the door to him.
Mpumi yelped at the banging on the door.
‘Mpumi, are you ok? You’ve been in there for over half an hour.’
‘I’m fine. Just go back to the lounge,’ she shouted back.
The footsteps retreated on the parquet floor. After a few minutes she unlocked the door, gathering the courage to face him.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, hiding behind the door and showing only her face.
Kaiser had helped himself to more tea and leftovers. He stared at her, not speaking.
‘So you’re staying over?’ she asked, looking for a diversion.
‘If you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘Where I stayed last night was a bit cramped. Also the bus station is closer from here. I have to go back first thing in the morning to make it for the funeral.’
Mpumi excused herself and went to her bedroom.She entered the bathroom. At the basin she turned on the tap and splashed cold water over her face. In front of the mirror she thought of him again. Did he also pull his eyebrows the way she did when she was deep in thought? Or did his nose crinkle like hers when he laughed, revealing crow’s feet around the eyes that etched deeper into the skin with age? Sadness returned. She hadn’t imagined that Kaiser would bring life to the imagined character that had accompanied her from childhood. It was easier to think of him as a cliché, a deadbeat dad, a statistic, not a man who cared deeply for his nephew and, in so doing, proving that he was able to love a child, just not her. She tried to cry, pinching herself, tried to again shed the tears she had spilt for him over the years. But to mourn him in death would be to betray her mother. No, mourning was not option. Soon a familiar anxiety found its way back to her, and a familiar need. For how else was she to erase the mocking voices swarming in her mind? She found her way to the bottom drawer where she hid a special blade; better to keep that one, just in case. Her heart pounded at the thought of that first puncture into her flesh and the sight of a scarlet eruption decorating her arms. Then she cut and felt a long stream of relief wash over her.
She didn’t know how long Kaiser had stood there; she stiffened involuntarily as she watched him in the batroom mirror. Their eyes intersected briefly. He closed the door gently without speaking. Mpumi sank to the floor.
The sun had set by the time she braved leaving her bedroom. The evening rush hour traffic on Rivera had died down, the streetlights were on. A sliver of light streamed into the passage from the lounge. She heard the 7 o’clock news jingle as she approached the lounge. Clearly Kaiser had found his way around.
‘Your phone rang several times and you’ve got some messages. You’re very popular, I see,’ he said.
She was grateful for his attempt to diffuse the tension. She checked her messages. Zama reminded her not to forget their evening out. She let out a sigh, welcomed the idea of being among a crowd of strangers and the pulse of live music to distract Kaiser from engaging her in an uncomfortable discussion.
The venue was filled to capacity. Zama and her husband had reserved seats near to the band, but not so close as to be overwhelmed by the sound. Exhilaration filled the room. Mpumi smiled at no one in particular. Kaiser soon fell into a discussion with Zama’s husband, Tiyo.
‘What happened, Mpumi?’ Zama asked.
‘I only found out on the day of the presentation.’
‘Why didn’t you take my calls?’ she continued. ‘I was just checking on you.’
Mpumi looked away, scanning the audience. She recognised a few familiar faces but didn’t feel like greeting any of them.
‘Have you ordered drinks?’
Zama shook her head then said, ‘He’s the first relative I’ve met from your dad’s side, apart from Uncle Vuyo.’
‘Mine, too,’ Mpumi replied.
‘How is he? You look alike.’ She stifled a giggle.
‘It’s weird, I know … He’s ok, I guess.’
Mpumi was surprised to see Kaiser enjoying the band. Maybe there’s more to this jailbird cousin of mine, she thought. Kaiser was in a fugue state, lost in the melodies and the compelling rhythms. She couldn’t begrudge him this enjoyment just because of her resentment towards her father. Swayed by the music, she felt a kinship with him. Their bloodline was strong; they looked like brother and sister. She decided to ask him more about her father when they were back at her flat. Perhaps knowing more about him would enable her to deal with her pain.
When the band stopped for a break, Kaiser emerged out of his meditative state.
‘I got my degree in prison,’ he said, leaning closer to her to negate the noise around them.
‘Really?’ Mpumi responded.
‘Musicology from Unisa. Honours. I’d like to do my Master’s as well.’
He laughed at Mpumi’s surprise. She tried to imagine him in this new light.
How easily she had dismissed him, so readilywritten him off as another lost male relative who lacked purpose.
‘I’m working as a carpenter right now. I need to raise funds to continue my studies. When I have time I go to the villages to research traditional Xhosa music. I want to do something with my degree, something that will be useful to society and satisfy my spirit. Your father used to remind me of that.’ Mpumi began to warm to Kaiser’s banter. ‘He also taught me not to waste time lamenting what could have been, the ‘what ifs’ and all that. It’s so easy to get stuck. ‘What if I didn’t give my friends a lift? What if I had driven straight home instead of taking them first?’ I was wasting so much time going back to that moment when the police stopped us and arrested me. Over and over again I asked myself these questions, getting angrier and more despondent. It took me a long time to understand that there was no use. And it was your dad who helped me through that.’
Mpumi took a sip of beer. She hoped Kaiser hadn’t noticed her eyes were watering. He held her shoulder.
‘He also used to do that,’ he said, making her look straight into his eyes for the first time.
‘What do you mean?’
Using his hand he made a cutting gesture on his arm.
Mpumi’s face flushed.
‘I’m explaining it wrong. He wasn’t doing that … what I mean is, he used to inflict pain on himself. He did things to hurt himself.’
‘Why?’ Mpumi asked, putting down the beer so he wouldn’t notice her hands shaking.
‘Uncle Vuyo said he started doing that after he was tortured in solitary confinement. He was an activist in those days. In a way, he lost himself in prison and couldn’t find himself again.’
‘Did my mother know?’ Mpumi asked, not sure if she really wanted to know the answer.
‘Yes. But they thought it was better you didn’t. Those were difficult times. It was hard for everyone. Don’t be angry with your mother. Please. She was only trying to protect you. He was checked into institutions many times … when things got too much for him.’
‘So my mother knew.’ Mpumi stopped. ‘And my grandmother?’
‘It’s something we have in our family,’ Kaiser said, his voice softening. ‘Maybe they thought by keeping you from us it would disappear. Maybe they were just ashamed. You know how people are. They think you’re crazy and that’s it. … It’s a blemish on our family.’
The band was about to start again. Mpumi excused herself from the table. She went outside, not venturing too far from the entrance, and buttoned up her coat, wrapped her scarf closer around her neck. There was a lot of activity on the street; cars driving by, groups of young people laughing and talking at the top of their voices. The car guards were busy, fighting amongst each other to assist a car trying to park. Revellers didn’t notice her crying. She held her breath each time people walked passed, sniffed discreetly while she blew her nose. Her crying was different though, it was giving birth to something new and made her feel giddy and sad at the same time. She didn’t understand it, but she knew she would eventually learn to, and welcome it.
Footsteps neared. It was Kaiser.
‘Ah, here you are. You just ran out.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m ok,’ she said, wiping her tears.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t have told you all that. It was too much. Sorry.’
‘No, I needed to know. It clears up a lot of things for me.’
‘Should I stay with you?’ he asked.
‘No. Go inside and enjoy the music,’ she responded, waving him away. ‘I’m ok. Really I am. Just give me a few minutes.’
He was just about to re-enter the venue when she ran after him.
‘Kaiser,’ she said.
They walked in together.
‘Kaiser,’ she said, a smile running across her lips. ‘I think I’ll go with you tomorrow.’