Tobre’s sister had an attack of frost bite. The moment of terror visited us in the small hours of the morning and caused quite a commotion. When I could no longer ignore the talking and the raised voices and no longer pretend to be asleep, and the bright lights of the modest Johannesburg flat were ignited, I rose from the sofa where I was decked and saw Venieva, Tobre’s sister, wearing a pink head sock with a long puffy tassel hanging down to her shoulders and a sloppy set of pyjamas – the sort that have a matching top and bottom and are dotted with the smiling face of a chummy and chubby bear – duck into the shower room and promptly fire up the taps.
Tobre and Angelo, a man of women who was the boy from across the road – with whom Tobre and Venieva had played and fought and swore never to play with again, and played with again, week after week – were in the only room in the flat, whispering loudly and suffering from both fear and mirth. Already, as always, Angelo was relating the drama of the event, and Tobre was trying to swallow – unsuccessfully – a derisive laugh, the sort I have seldom seen her exercise, then or since, in my company alone.
“I am like Nieva what is wrong? Because you keep moving your feet and turning. And she says her feet hurt and she thinks she’s got frost bite. And I am like now what is this now?” Angelo says, with his dark eyes and a wide smile, though I cannot see because I am in the next room listening from the sofa where I lay.
“And she says she has deep veins . . . ” but Tobre is unable to follow through with her recollection because she is gripped doubly by the need to laugh and to not let Venieva hear them make fun of her, though of course she could hear them quite well, save maybe for a word or two, small as that flat was.
“And I said to Nieva what is it, why do your feet hurt? And she says that they hurt she and she is using these technical terms I don’t understand” Angelo says.
“It is not funny. You people don’t even want to take me to the hospital even when I’m dying.” Venieva said when she returned from the shower in a towel while drying her hair with a second, and was presumably warm enough to escape an amputation of the toes, or escape it long enough until the time of our early departure – then hardly two hours hence – for she was soon jumping back into her teddy bear spotted pyjamas.
Once Venieva had dressed into many layers of clothing, including the pink tasselled head sock, and was back into the bed she was sharing with Angelo, Tobre closed the door to the room and killed the lights. She hurried into the narrow space on the sofa I had kept for her under numerous layers of blankets. The following morning the radio DJs were abuzz with the talk about the frost on the road, confirming that it had been one of Johannesburg’s signature winter nights, and I was glad to have had Tobre and her heavy thighs up against me.
More than half of the drama of the frost bite had passed while I was groping around in confusion between the dreams of my sleep and the voices floating in from the next room. When I had taken to sleep on the couch finally, late as it was, after it was clear to me that the three children of Port Elizabeth, from the neighbourhood of dwellings that are scattered about Stanford road, would not exchange stories with me or fill me in on the characters of their broktjie, or the nature of the subjects involved, or even to speak in a tongue that was less than half Afrikaans, I had understood the nature of the holiday that was to follow. When I woke to the commotion and the voices, and Tobre was not alongside me, I had no recollection of her brief visit, where she must have slept before Venieva’s feet were gripped in the tight vice that is Johannesburg winter cold and before Angelo and Tobre conspired to find it ridiculous and laugh. I was on the outside from this cabal of memories, anecdotes and manners of speech, that was unravelling before me and being refuelled with events anew and others which I was yet to witness them encounter. How could I, dull as I was then (as I continue to be), lost inside my thoughts, impress upon Tobre the depth and enchantment of my own character when a person as colourful and vain as Venieva, and as playful and faithless as Angelo, were back in Tobre’s life for a three week holiday across four of South Africa’s cities, and the roads in between, with adventures before us, then not too abundant but instead, too exciting to enumerate?