by Yandisa Krobani
Captain Mthethwa gazed at Mr Bhengu, seated on the opposite side of the table, where he could see both of the man’s arms. He looked blanky at the captain. The walls of the interrogation room were cream and dingy. Its claustrophobic atmosphere could be attributed to the fact that it had only one tiny window with burglar bars.
The captain was mystified. He cogitated consistently but failed to figure out why Mr Bhengu, a respectable resident of the Lawley township, committed such an atrocious act. What further perplexed him was the fact that the man displayed not the slightest emotion that could be interpreted as remorse. He seemed carefree and unaffected.
“Mmhh . . . mmhh . . .” the captain cleared his throat to gain the man’s attention. “I just want to know the reason, Mr Bhengu.” He placed the tape recorder on top of the table between them. Mr Bhengu moved his arms off the table, sat up straight, and looked at the captain with a smile.
“You have the nerve to smile after what you did?” demanded the captain with vexation.
“Come on, captain,” said Mr Bhengu, widening his smile, “this is one of the most fulfilling smiles I’ve had. It came out of nowhere. It’s genuine. I know it’s insensitive under these circumstances, but I couldn’t control it.”
The captain shook his head with disapproval. He glanced at a notepad in front of him and then at his wristwatch.
“Mr Bhengu, I asked you a question.”
Sweat was dripping down Mr Bhengu’s long face. A man of tall stature, he was neither handsome nor bad looking. His long, sharp chin was a source of amusement for the ill-mannered Lawley children. However, whatever shortfalls and imperfections this man possessed, he redeemed them through his exquisite style of dressing and success. Of all the men in Lawley he was the easiest to distinguish. His face brick, ten-roomed house with a garage and a veranda looked exactly like him. Further gaining him respect was the fact that he was a well-settled, down-to-earth man, with two lovely children and a beautiful wife.
“Captain, may I ask you a question?” said Mr Bhengu.
“You just did,” the captain replied. And before Mr Bhengu could speak, Mthethwa jumped ahead of him. “Mr Bhengu answer mine first.” The words uttered whilst scribbling on his notepad. He wasn’t looking at this lawbreaker, who seemed determined to coax his nerves.
“No . . . you answer mine first Captain.”
The captain dropped his pen on the notepad and fixed his gaze on the lawbreaker. The vexation on his face was obvious. He fretted the fact of spending hours in the interrogation room because of a rambling lawbreaker. Clearly Mr Bhengu hadn’t played enough as a child, judging by the way he responded to questions.
“And why should I answer you, Mr Bhengu?”
“Because my answer to the question you asked me, depends on how you answer mine.”
Lazily, the captain massaged his neck with his left hand. He then swayed it sideways whilst blankly glancing at the top of the table. This redundant interrogation with Mr Bhengu was draining all of his strength.
“Alright. You can ask your question Mr Bhengu.”
Mr Bhengu, the lawbreaker, smiled again. His beardless and long sharp chin becoming animated. “Thank you, captain. The question is, captain, did you like being told stories as a child?”
Captain Mthethwa thought it futile to fight him. Instead, for the sake of his time and sanity, he decided to partake in whatever game the lawbreaker was forcing him to play.
“Yes, I did.”
“Of course,” said Mr Bhengu. “We all liked stories when we were kids. Why was I even asking you that question?”
Captain Mthethwa was perplexed. He was confused as to why the lawbreaker had demanded his attention as if he was going to ask a revolutionary question. It made no sense. He gave the lawbreaker a you-must-be-kidding-me look, which Mr Bhengu noticed with amusement.
“Relax, Captain. That wasn’t the main question. The main question is if you would approve of me telling you a story? Do you like stories at your age?”
The trick was to play along. “If it’s relevant to the case, then yes, I would like to hear it. My kind of profession is packed with plenty of stories, from which I’ve had to filter out facts and puzzles, to decipher cases. I’ve grown to despise stories.”
“Alright. Fair enough, captain. But the story is not about me.”
The captain knew he was becoming irate. But when remembering the trick, was to play along, he suppressed his ire. “How will it help in resolving the case if it’s not about you?”
Mr Bhengu laughed calmly. He’d stopped sweating and felt that he was finally adapting to this claustrophobic interrogation room. It was third his day being locked up in it.
Captain Mthethwa could already see some progress in terms of the lawbreaker’s bravery. During the first day of being locked up, the lawbreaker had whined and pleaded with the captain to rather let him be sodomised by other criminals like him inside, instead of leaving him to die inside ‘the trunk’. The captain had merely laughed in return and said that there will come a time when he would miss the very luxury of being locked in a ‘trunk’.
“Trust me, Captain. It will simplify things for you. It will answer your question of why I did what I did.”
The lawbreaker then quietened. His face suddenly turned sour in reminisce of the misfortune. His Adam’s apple moved up and down as he swallowed saliva; swallowing a grudge begotten by a visit to the past. Captain Mthethwa witnessed his sudden change of mood and was patient with his silence.
“Do you know him?” asked Mr Bhengu.
“Know who?” asked the captain.
“Mmhh . . . no. But I can’t say for sure.”
“Aright. But do you remember Jukebox Ndabeni?”
The captain’s interest was instantaneously aroused. He withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping his face to gain sobriety. The chair he adjusted in a manner that would allow him sit up straight and focus. Even if he had amnesia, he would never forget Jukebox Ndabeni. He was a notorious lawbreaker whose arrest by the captain had transitioned him from a rookie to a professional of note. Jukebox Ndabeni was a big fish Captain Mthethwa had used as a steppingstone in his career.
“I do remember Jukebox Ndabeni,” said the captain, writing on his notepad and feigning nonchalance. “And now that you mention him, wasn’t this Gumede guy one of his victims?”
Mr Bhengu was shocked. “The fact that you remember a loose cannon like Jukebox,” he said, “and have no recollection of a man who used to be so good, and noble, like Gumede, is the reason you must hear this story. It’s not special or unique but, nonetheless, it is a story. And all stories must be told.”
The captain was fidgeting with impatience and curiosity. All his life as a law-enforcer there was nothing he despised more than when someone with significant information was beating around the bush. In his line of work, precision was crucial, for it saved many lives. “Are you going to tell the damn story or not, Mr Bhengu?”
Mr Bhengu let out a huge sigh, put his arms back on top of the table, and looked the captain in the eye. He began his story:
“On a rainy summer’s day, of twelve July 1978, a baby came into the universe for the first time. Its parents were elated and, together, decided to name the baby boy Nhlakanipho, meaning wisdom. They gave it this name for they hoped it would possess wisdom like the Biblical King Solomon. And since childhood, Nhlakanipho and I were close friends. From childhood, Nhlakanipho was wired differently from the rest of us. He never dirtied his clothes unnecessarily. He never returned home late from playing with us. I’d be lying if I say I ever saw his parents use a cane to discipline him. But then, they did not have to because Nhlakanipho Gumede was such an obedient, respectful child. Unlike the rest of us during childhood, he never partook in the stealing of peaches from the gardens of stingy neighbours, never stole maize from the farms to eat in the forest, and never uttered a single cuss word in his mouth. Each Sunday he went to church.”
Mr Bhengu kept silent awhile. His face was now a grimace and he looked tense. The nostalgia of memories made with his friend engulfed him. Nonetheless, the captain waited patiently until he resumed his tale.
“Even during our teenage years, Nhlakanipho was still a respectful young man. He dated only one girl at a time, with the intention of marrying her, and never cheated on her once. Some of those relationships failed, but he was not to blame, and the girls were always the ones ditching him. He finished school, got a job, got a wife, and looked after their children. He ensured they lived luxuriously. Never once did he lay his hands on either his wife or his children. He adored his family. He was an honourable man and a good citizen, always ready to help.”
He paused his story again. Although the captain didn’t understand his reason for crying, he gave him a tissue to wipe his tears. There was nothing in his story that the captain could perceive as so gross and hurtful, that it would make a grown man cry.
Finally, he gathered himself together and proceeded with his story. “As I was saying, captain, Nhlakanipho was an honourable man. He continued to be until one day, whilst opening his gate for his car to enter, a gangster by the name of Jukebox Ndabeni emerged out of nowhere, set his body ablaze with bullets and drove off with his car. That is the end of the story.”
Silence again prevailed in the interrogation room. The captain pondered over the story but could find no clues that reflected Mr Bhengu’s own motive for committing a crime. And in an attempt to find out more, he resumed his interrogation of the lawbreaker.
“What happened then, Mr Bhengu?” he asked him.
“What do you mean nothing?”
“I mean, nothing. That is the end of the story.”
The captain clicked his tongue in annoyance. And then he addressed Mr Bhengu without concealing his rage. “I keep revisiting your story in my head, Mr Bhengu, but still can’t get any clue as to why you’d kill a beggar! Why! . . . goodness me!! Why did you physically attack a ragged man who was politely asking for food, whilst standing in your front gate, until he died? Why didn’t you stop hitting him when he was begging for mercy? You’re a good man, Mr Bhengu, I just don’t understand why you did this?”
“Those bastards don’t want to work like other men. They just want to take.”
The captain was in awe, “Surely that’s not the reason you took the life of the man?! Because he was begging?”
Without any regard, Mr Bhengu said, “He should have sought work like any other man.”
The captain was taken aback. “For peace’s sake Mr Bhengu, begging is the last resort for a man. Nothing crushes a man’s soul and manhood, like having to beg for the bare minimum. You want to kill a man, kill his pride. A man stripped of his pride is like a dead man.”
The words of the captain touched Mr Bhengu. To him they were relatable. Any witness to his present accumulation wouldn’t believe he started from the bottom. When he arrived in Joburg, things were hard for him. He’d run out of rental money for a shack and was forced to sleep with hobos. The menial jobs he got were underpaying and hard to come by. His pride was further demolished when he frequented soup kitchens for something to eat, as a man! A whole man. The thing he feared most was bumping into someone who knew him from when he was still living that kind of life.
He realised he might as well tell the truth.
“Actually, it wasn’t for his begging that I killed the beggar,” he said.
Mr Bhengu grimaced. It was time to tell the truth.
“I killed him to avoid suffering the same fate of vanity.”
“The fate of Nhlakanipho Gumede.”
The captain wrote on his notepad again. His interest was reignited.
“Is someone gunning for your life?”
“No. I just fear dying in vain like Nhlakanipho.”
“Nhlakanipho didn’t die in vain. He did so much for the community. And he was a good man.”
Mr Bhengu laughed boisterously. From concern, the captain stopped amidst his writing to look at him.
“What’s so funny, Mr Bhengu?”
In between gasps of soft laughter, Mr Bhengu said, “You say he was a good man, but people have forgotten about him.”
“Nonsense . . . most people in this township remember Nhlakanipho.”
“Stop lying, captain. You’re a man of the law. You couldn’t remember him yourself, until I mentioned his killer, Jukebox.”
“But, come on, Mr Bhengu,” said the captain, “Nhlakanipho gave a lot to this community. And I am sure most residents still remember him.”
“Okay, okay, okay. But if Jukebox were to die today, who do you think between the two would still be remembered decades after?”
Reluctantly, the captain murmured, “Jukebox, of course”.
“You see, captain. Good people are only remembered mostly whilst they are still alive, but bad people almost to eternity.”
Mr Bhengu quietened awhile before asking the captain another question. Slowly, the man was unpacking his riddles.
“And who, between the two men again, do you think was the most popular and likely to have more lovers?”
“Nhlakanipho was committed to his wife,” said the captain. “He did not care about lovers.”
“I know that, but assuming he cared about them: who do you think would have more lovers between the two men?”
The captain gave out a huge sigh, “Jukebox, of course”.
“You see,” said Mr Bhengu, smiling. “The world rewards villains and punishes heroes. I chose to be a villain, so the world won’t forget me. Honestly, I had nothing against the poor beggar. I feared dying with a reputation of being a good man. I feared dying like Nhlakanipho.”