“All Mixed Up with the Taste of the Sun”
All Mixed Up with the Taste of the Sun
Eckta was stuck in the mango tree.
It was such a nice afternoon when she got back from school that Eckta wandered into the dusty yard and climbed into the lower branches of the enormous tree, where her brother, Mani, had hammered in a plank of wood to act as a bench. He’d done it when he got his first girlfriend and they used to sit out there during hot nights. Eckta would spy on them, curious. It took one easy step up a knot in the tree to sit quite comfortably. Eckta’s legs couldn’t reach the ground yet, so she would let them swing while she read her books or practised singing. That was Eckta’s dream, to sing like the beautiful women did in all the movies. She had memorised her favourite songs and sang to her own private auditorium in the concave of the tree. The dappled light would dance on the floor beneath her and the leaves would provide the rustling rhythm to her tune. Everyone said she was very good and would go very far.
As Eckta climbed onto her bench this afternoon, she heard a loud screech from above. She looked up to see Sam, her cat. He was a ginger cat and she loved him more than anything. He was in the high branches, next to Grandma’s window on the second floor of the house. Dad had built that room with his own two hands. It was over Eckta’s room. She called to Sam and tried to get him to come down. He just looked at her, as cats do. Then he meowed. She hopped off her bench and ran into the house to fetch his biscuits. Not even putting a whole handful on the bench would make Sam come down. He seemed to look longingly at the biscuits, and tried to turn around, but nearly fell off the branch. He clung on, however, and meowed again. Eckta saw that he was stuck.
Slowly and carefully, putting one hand above the next and her toes curling over the rough bark, Eckta pulled herself up into the branches of the mango tree. She climbed higher than she had ever climbed before. The branches grew thinner and more tangled and suddenly she felt like Sam: looking down longingly at her bench. Her pile of books sat there, waiting to be opened. She found herself amongst the ripening fruit that caught the sun. She had to strain her eyes against the afternoon glare to see Sam. He was meowing continuously now, but she was nearly there. Eckta called to him gently, trying to soothe him.
Finally reaching a branch where she sat across from him, she stretched out her hand, but he didn’t move. She decided to sit on the same branch as Sam, and edge across to him. She managed to manoeuvre across, holding onto a higher branch. It was almost possible to see into Grandma’s window now. Eckta didn’t dare look down, for fear of how high it might be. A small panic rose in her when she realised that she had to get down again. But she wouldn’t think about that yet. If she could get Sam and lower him slowly onto a branch below, then she would think about herself. Suddenly Sam sat up and stretched. He turned around on the branch and strolled up to her. He started to rub his head against her leg.
‘Sam! What are you doing!?’ she said to him, with genuine anger. She had thought she was saving his life.
Sam purred in response and then walked away from her. With a simple, quick leap, he jumped onto the roof of the house, above Grandma’s window, and disappeared from view. Eckta was on her own. She started to edge her way back towards the trunk of the tree, but found her dress was caught on a jut of bark. In trying to undo herself, she looked down. This changed everything. All of a sudden, the ground was miles below her. The brown dirt seemed to stretch away into the distance every time she looked. Eckta tried to breathe slowly. She knew that no-one was at home, so screaming wouldn’t help. Both of her parents and her brother were at work. Grandma was visiting one of her friends down the road. She wondered if she could reach Grandma’s window – but then realised that the branch became too thin and it would break under her weight by the time she got to it. She had to wait, and felt hot, frustrated tears fall down her cheeks. The branch cut into her legs and she tried to move across, but her dress was stuck. She didn’t want to let go.
And so, Eckta was stuck in the mango tree.
The compound in which she lived was next door to a school. It wasn’t her school. It was a fancy school. She could tell by the shiny billboard sign outside the gate, which was colourful and showed pictures of children having fun. Once she had even stopped to watch people walking through the glass doors, and, as they entered, she saw their hair blow in an indoor breeze: air conditioning. The ultimate fanciness. Grandma’s room overlooked the school – every night Grandma would complain about the noise during the day – and Eckta was currently sitting above the fence separating the two properties. On one side was the dusty compound and on the other a concrete car park. So old and large was the mango tree that it stretched outside of the yard.
‘Excuse me? Hello?’ said a very serious voice from below her.
Eckta glanced down. On the other side of the fence, standing inside the school and looking directly at her, was a young girl. She was about Eckta’s age.
‘Can you hear me?’ the girl said, frowning.
‘Yes. Hello.’ Eckta tried to brush away tears using her arm holding onto the branch.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I was climbing the mango tree and now I am stuck,’ Eckta responded. Didn’t it seem obvious?
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, don’t cry – do something!’
‘I want to, but my dress is caught.’
‘Oh. Well, I could call someone from the school – but I don’t know if they would help you. They might shout at me for talking to strangers. Where is your family?’
‘I’m sure my mother or my father will be home soon,’ Eckta sniffed. She knew that her mother was still hours away: she worked in a hospital on the other side of the city. Her father had just lost his job, and she knew he was looking for one today. She didn’t know when he would be back. She hoped Mani might come in from the stall outside the compound, where he sold fruit.
Eckta looked down and saw the little girl staring at her. She had a ribbon in her hair and she was wearing a beautiful blue tracksuit. It was so bright and it had red lines in some parts of it. On her back was a black Nike backpack unlike anything Eckta had seen before. It even had a side pocket in which the girl kept a bottle of Coke.
‘Do you live here?’ the girl called up.
‘In this shack?’
Eckta looked across at her house. She had never thought of it as a shack. Then she remembered seeing other houses from the bus going into the city, when her parents took her to the beach. They looked like palaces. Made of bricks, with red roofs and green gardens. She could see over the walls from the bus. Those houses didn’t seem real. No-one really lived in them. They were like pictures she would look at through the window. Suddenly Eckta looked down at the girl in her perfect tracksuit, with her ribbon and her Nike backpack. She must live in one of those houses. Then she looked at her house again, made of corrugated iron and pieces of wood. The room that her father had constructed was rickety and made of different types of wood. She remembered how her Grandma complained of the stairs that were falling apart, which her father kept having to fix. Suddenly, her house was a shack. She looked away, embarrassed.
‘Do you go to this school?’ Eckta muttered.
‘Sorry? What was that?’
‘Is this your school?’
‘Yes , , , it’s okay. It’s very strict, but my parents have big plans for me, they say.’
‘Is it nice inside?’
‘It’s okay. My parents have complained that the classes are too big. There’s twenty-four students in my maths class! No wonder I’m failing! Also, the pool isn’t very big. We call it the pond. With this, the girl swished her hair to one side, as if she was in an advertisement, and laughed at the joke. Eckta didn’t get it.
Eckta thought about her own school. She didn’t know how many were in each class, but she knew that some of the students sat on the windowsill because there weren’t enough desks. That’s why she was always early. She tried to remember how many students were in her maths class, but she lost count in the forty-somethings. If the teacher didn’t arrive, she would take out her textbook, which was her brother’s old one, and try to study in the noise. While thinking, she hadn’t realised that the girl had continued to talk.
‘And Dad says that if they don’t do something about it, he’s going to pull me out of this school. And they seriously don’t know what a scandal that would be. You see . . .’ she looked up at Eckta slyly, and then looked around, as if about to say something she shouldn’t. ‘Can you keep a secret?’
Eckta didn’t know what the girl was talking about. She twisted in her uncomfortable, barky seat and nodded.
‘Well, you see, my Dad is quite big. And by big, I mean that he is really famous. He’s a film director. I won’t say who because you might tell someone.’
With this, Eckta’s ears perked up. A film director! Images of women singing their songs flashed through her mind. She suddenly felt a wave of lightness as she looked down at the girl again.
‘I’m going to be a famous actress one day,’ she said, trying to imitate the girl’s superior tone.
‘Really? Can you act and sing?’
‘Yes. Everyone says that I’m going to go very far.’
‘Oh. Well, let me hear you sing. You see, my Dad is always asking me to look out for talent – he says I have an eye for it.’ Another swoosh of the hair.
‘You want me to sing?’
‘Yes. Loudly, so I can hear you properly.’
Eckta remembered her favourite song of all time. Once, when she was singing it while she helped Mum cut vegetables, Grandma came into the kitchen with tears in her eyes and told her what a beautiful voice she had. Grandma had kissed her on the head and she felt like she was famous already.
‘Ok. I’ll sing.’ She looked down at the girl who had her arms crossed and her foot to one side.
Although she was uncomfortable, Eckta settled herself into place and closed her eyes. She remembered that day with Grandma, the kiss warm on her head. She thought of Dad’s tears last night when he told them he lost his job. And she started singing. She sang from the depths of her young, little, innocent heart – from a place of love and hope – from the high branches of the mango tree. She imagined the city had stopped for a moment to listen to her voice weaving itself with the wind winding its way through the branches around her. She repeated the chorus, then opened her eyes and looked down.
The girl was still in the same pose. ‘Was that it?’
Eckta was quiet. She looked away.
‘Did you hear me?’ the girl said. ‘Was that it? I think you need to work on it.’
‘You didn’t like it?’ Eckta said.
‘It’s not about liking it – it’s about selling it. I know the movie that song’s from and it’s forgettable. Your version was . . . how do I say? Well, let’s just say that my Dad always says that you need to have something special to be in a movie. You need to have magic inside you. I’m not sure you have that magic. Sorry.’
The girl looked to one side with a sudden movement. ‘My driver’s here. I’ve got to go. Like my mum always says, “It’s a shame what people are born into sometimes.” Good luck with the acting career. Keep practising.’ And with that, she skipped off, as if nothing had happened.
Eckta sat quietly in the tree for a long time. She felt the branches sway and she saw the golden fruit glinting in the heat of the sun.
It was Mani. He was in the yard.
‘I’m stuck in the tree!’ she called down to him. She was so relieved to feel a familiar presence again, to see his cheeky face appear along the fence below her.
‘What are you doing up there?’ he laughed.
‘I was trying to save Sam!’
‘I’ll get the ladder, but before you come down, grab some mangoes! Those look ready to sell!’
Mani ran around the side of the house and returned with a ladder. Eckta plucked as much fruit as she could from around her – brave enough to let go of the branch now that she wasn’t alone – and dropped it down to him. He ran around in glee, catching the precious fruit that might help to earn some money. Eventually, Mani propped the ladder up against Grandma’s room and helped Eckta climb down from her perch.
Eckta was free from the mango tree.
She looked up into its branches and remembered the little girl. She quietly made her way to her room and lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Usually she would have sung to herself, but she didn’t feel like it now. The ceiling looked crooked and she noticed every blemish on the paint, and the cracks in the walls. The screws were falling out of her drawers and the clothes cupboard had belonged to her other grandmother in a previous life. Nothing looked right. Nothing looked like a blue tracksuit, a ribbon and a Nike backpack.
She heard each member of her family come home. She heard Mum, after her long, stooped day cleaning at the hospital, start to chop the vegetables for dinner. Finally, she heard Dad return. She could tell by his voice that there wasn’t any good news. Mani knocked on her door.
‘Whatsup, grumpy bum?’
‘Are you coming to help Mum?’
‘I will now.’
‘Also, I’m going to make juice out of those mangoes. We’ll have it with dinner. They are delicious! Much more tasty than the mangoes on the lower branches! You should get stuck more often!’
Eckta threw her shoe at him, but laughed.
She made her way into the movement of the house. She helped cook while Mum shouted at Mani for putting his fingers in the pots to taste. Dad sat quietly at the kitchen table and Eckta kept looking at him out of the corner of her eyes.
‘Are you okay, Daddy?’ she asked quietly.
‘I will be, little one,’ he said.
They all sat down to dinner in the usual way. They held hands and said prayers, led by Grandma. Mani proudly presented the mango juice, placing the plastic jug on the table. They each had a glass. Eckta felt like it was the best thing she had ever tasted. Sweet and tangy, all mixed up with the taste of the sun. She looked around at the people she loved most in the world. She thought about the girl. Imagined her in her palace now, taking the ribbon out of her hair. Eckta didn’t even know how to picture the little girl’s room, but she conjured up an image from the movies. Of princesses, towers and pink, fluffy cushions. She stared into space and stopped eating.
‘Do you think we have any magic left inside us?’ she said, suddenly. Everyone looked at her for a long moment. She knew they understood, somehow. Dad eventually placed his hand over hers on the table.
‘You know what is magic, my little love?’
She shook her head.
‘These mangoes are magic,’ he chuckled. ‘Just look at that tree. It will be here when I go, and it will see your children play in its branches. It gives us the most wonderful fruit. Just because it’s planted in our dusty compound doesn’t mean its mangoes are not as good as any other. Maybe even better.’ He smiled and took a sip. Eckta looked around at her family, laughing and smiling, eating their food with all their hearts.
Michael Boyd grew up in Southern Africa before attending the University of Kent in the UK. He has always loved literature, being an avid reader and film enthusiast, and worked at a number of film festivals. He decided on a career in teaching, which would fulfil his longing to return to Africa. He now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing, during which he wrote his first novel, The Weight of Shade, released by Karavan Press in May 2023.