by Mpumi Cilibe
There were moments when I felt that Sissy was far stricter and harsher with me than with the rest of my siblings. But 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 happier and laughing. And so I found or created moments of shelling her being to release all the tenderness I knew lay within her. One way of doing this was to tell her stories about the streets outside and the nearby veld that were my playgrounds.
Now it always amazed me when she laughed at these tales about the neighbourhood but I learnt to be observant and sponge up details I expected her to find amusing. And there was no short supply of odd neighbours – or those who behaved strangely. Another factor was that I knew she would probably have heard very little or nothing about them because housework kept her indoors or around the house almost all the time.
We were a big family and still growing, and I could see it was taking a toll on her so I did my bit by helping 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 the chores I couldn’t handle. These included scrubbing the pinewood kitchen floor, and polishing and brushing the dining-room floor and our ancient Van Riebeeck age furniture that was way out of style in the kasi.
And when I had a new story to tell I would rush 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 at night to try and catch them in the act, but to my frustration I never had any luck. And so, while the baby was sleeping 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), she would be humming a hymn or some nonsense tune, I would start on my story:
“You know, Sissy, I was playing with Bassie and other boys in the street when his father came out to call him by whistling at their gate. Bassie stopped playing and ran to his father who gave him a few coins to go buy him something. Bassie ran up the street and came back a few minutes later with a small brown packet. When he saw the packet, one of the other boys laughed and said 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. In this case she burst out laughing when I asked, “Is this why Bassie’s eyes are so big and bloodshot?” Of course, in my stupidity I failed to see she was laughing at my confusing Bassie’s dad’s dagga smoking with the condition of his son’s eyes.
Or I might tell her a story about Bhuti Bunyans who’d bought himself a bottle of Ship Sherry and hidden it under his belt in his underpants when a police van suddenly appeared. The police van was moving very slowly, just as slowly as Bunyans was moving towards it like a man walking on coals. We kids stopped playing, and drawn like iron shavings towards a magnet, decided to watch what was going to happen. As we got closer, we 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 some of the girls’ eyes, saddened by his impending if relatively minor disaster, began to resemble those of Bunyans while most of the boys were grinning and betting on where in the street Bunyans and the cop van were likely to intersect and result in his arrest for illegal possession of liquor and probable failure to produce a dompas.
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. I had a lot to thank him for because up until then I had not even known that such a thing was possible. Suddenly the girls, getting more and more upset, shouted, “Baleka (Run) Bunyans!”
At this point the suspense would be too much for Sissy. She would want me to fast forward to where Bunyans gets bundled up by the apartheid cops and is viciously thrown into the back of the van. And then my youngest kid brother, Paste, rushed into the house and rudely interrupted: “Ndilambile!” – I’m hungry!
Sissy shushed him by placing a finger on her mouth and pointing towards her bedroom where the baby was sleeping. And then, careful not to make a racket that would wake it, she fetched two enamel plates from the sideboard in the dining-room.
“Quiet! You ugly flat-nosedthing with a mouth like a fish!” Sissy snapped at the impatient rascal. “Go get Nkosinathi! You can’t eat without him.”
And Paste ran outside to call his older sibling. We always ate in twos with me sharing eating time with Mncedisi. There were many of us and too few plates to go around.
“Did they arrest him?” she asked.
“U Bunyans! Did the police arrest him?” she insisted impatiently.
“Oh.” With all that food coming up I’d almost forgotten about Bunyans and the cops.
“No, he was lucky. They managed to catch up with him but then drove their van slowly alongside him as he shuffled like a tortoise towards his house. And all that time the girls were screaming to him to run and we boys were laughing as he kept his red, watery eyes glued to the grinning driver.”