by Mpumi Cilibe
There were moments when I felt that she was far stricter and harsher with me than with the rest of my siblings. But I must admit that there were also times when I felt her tenderness seeping through the tough shell that encased the molten toffee that oozed out of her teary eyes when she was happy and laughing. And so I found, or created, moments to entice her to release all that tenderness and pointedly told Sissy stories about the streets outside and the nearby veld that were my playgrounds. It always seemed strange to me when she laughed at my tales about the neighbourhood. I learned to be observant and sponge up details I expected her to find amusing. There was no short supply of odd neighbours, or those who behaved strangely. I knew that she would probably have heard too little or nothing about them because housework kept her indoors or outside around the house, but seldom away.
We were a big family and still growing, and I could see it was taking a toll on her. I sure did my bit by helping around the house with the dusting, window washing and brass polishing of the meagre possessions the family laid claim to. My two elder brothers, Thobile and Mncedisi, tackled those chores I couldn’t handle – such as scrubbing the pinewood kitchen floor and polishing and brushing the dining-room floor and ancient Van Riebeeck age furniture that was way out of style in the kasi.
Say that I rushed into the house while her baby was still asleep; there was always a baby in the house – hers – all those years of my youth. She and Dad were very busy even though there wasn’t much of a house; only two bedrooms, the kitchen and the dining-room. I never could tell when they ever found the time to make those babies. I’d tried so many times to sneak into that bedroom stealthily at night to try and catch them in the act, but without luck. Alright, say the baby was asleep and Sissy was stirring a pot of umfino (stiff porridge mixed with some spinach, beetroot leaves and safe garden weeds – leaves such as stinging nettles), and she was humming a hymn or some nonsense tune, and I would go:
“You know, Sissy, I was playing with Bassie and other boys in the street when his father came out to call him by whistling from their gate. So Bassie stopped playing and ran to his father who gave him some money to go and buy him something. Bassie ran up the street and a few minutes later came back with a small brown package. One of the other boys said that it was dagga.”
And Sissy would stop stirring and look at me for a while, her eyes ever widening until I finished telling. And then she’d appear to be turning the matter over in her mind.
“Is it the reason why Bassie’s eyes are large and bloodshot?” she asked.
It would be at such a time that I’d break out laughing at her failing to see the connection.
Or I might tell her a story about Bhuti Bunyans who had bought himself a bottle of Ship Sherry and hid it in his underpants when suddenly the police appeared, moving very slowly, just as slowly as Bunyan was moving towards it like a man walking on coals.
And the kids stopped playing, deciding to rather watch what was about to happen, and shouted sympathetically, “Khawuleza (hurry up) Bunyans!”
And Bunyans snailed his way along Zokufa Street, red eyes glazing with fright as the police van inched its way towards him. And the eyes of the kids, especially those of the girls, saddened by his impending arrest for illegal possession of liquor, grew red with sympathetic tears and began to resemble those of Bunyans –but the boys were grinning and betting at which point of the street he and the cops were likely to meet.
Dopla Fesi, the cleverest boy among us, muttered something about ‘velocity’ and ‘quantum physics’. He was the one who taught me how to look up difficult words in a dictionary.
“Baleka Bunyans!” (Run!) The girls were really getting worried.
Now by this stage, the suspense would be too much for Sissy. She would want me to get to the part where Bunyans gets bundled up by the cruel apartheid cops and viciously thrown into the back of the van.
And then my youngest kid brother, Paste, would rush into the house and rudely interrupt:
“Ndilambile!” – I’m hungry!
Sissy would shush him by placing a finger on her mouth and pointing towards her bedroom where the baby would be sleeping: “Shh!” And then she would fetch the enamel plates from the sideboard in the dining-room, careful not to make a racket that could awaken the baby.
“You ugly plaatneus thing with a mouth like a fish!” Sissy snapped and insulted the impatient rascal.
‘Paste’ was more like a surname he had earned on account of the ‘fish’ part of Sissy’s favourite insult for him. “Go get Nkosinathi! You can’t eat without him here.”
And Paste ran outside to call his older sibling. We ate in twos. I ate with Mncedisi. There were many of us and fewer plates to go around.
“Did they arrest him?” she asked.
“uBunyans! Did the police arrest him?” she insisted.
“Oh . . .” I’d almost forgotten about Bunyans and the cops.
“No, he was lucky. He was so slow that the cops managed to catch up with him. But they stopped their van next to him and just watched him shuffle like a tortoise towards his house nearby – his eyes glued on the cops over his shoulder.”