Category Archives: Musings

Just a bit of the world from my perspective

School Punishment

The class was making noise. A crazy many dimensional noise. Every desk had its own shouts and bangs. Maybe a dozen stations of crazy all around the room. But the strangest thing was the teacher was there in the middle of it all. I don’t think she tolerated such noise really. Not most of the time anyway. She must have started some exercise for each table to do. Of course we were allowed to talk and make suggestions and that sort of thing. The teacher was going around from table to table to see how it was going. We started talking quietly at first. But then you felt free to speak a little louder when you heard other people talking and then just like that the room was a stagnant riot. But then I saw one boy stand up with a sling shot and take aim at a girl across the table from him. It seemed no one noticed but me. I didn’t know the boy or the girl but I screamed. And would you believe, over that noise everyone heard me? Everyone including the teacher. An immediate silence came over the class and the teacher was very cross. She wanted to know who had screamed and I was too scared to admit to it. She then started a methodic investigation to find the culprit. We were only a couple dozen of us so it was not too much trouble for her to question every pupil one by one while the rest of the class looked on. “Did you scream, was it you?” she was asked every little boy and girl. When she got to the table before mine I couldn’t take the pressure. I broke out into tears and they had me.

I was not yet nine when that happened and I told nobody about it. I was too ashamed. I was not coping. This had happened on a three week visit to my Grandmother in Northampton with my father and sister from Zambia. Dad wanted my sister and I to attend school to get us out of the way. I was afraid and said no. But my little sister, three years younger than me, had no qualms and she was a week in the nursery class before I gave into the pressure. Compared to me my little sister was intrepid. She took to the the deep end of swimming pools and, a little later in life, dancing in public places, when I dithered on the sidelines.

I did, mind you, when I finally went, find the experience of going to School in England thrilling. The classroom I was in was like a free standing tree house. It was made of wood and stood off the ground on stilts. You could crawl under if you wanted too. It had carpets inside and it was brightly lit with crayon Picasso master pieces on the walls. But what was most exciting of all was that the class had its own toys. Can you believe that, toys? At my normal school in Zambia toys were simply not allowed. If you were caught with a toy at school the teacher would confiscate it and you would never see it again. Good luck telling your parents about it too. All they would wanted to know was what were you doing taking a toy to school in the first place? Just another sign that you didn’t look after things. And of course, taking a toy to school would be such a sensation among my class mates. It wouldn’t be long before I would be pressed to lend the toy to a friend or more likely a series of friends on a much contested schedule lest I be accused of under appreciating their friendship. Either that or the damned thing would be altogether stolen. Either way, a trip to school was typically one of the last few episodes in your relationship with a toy.

Anyway yes, the teacher handed out toys for you to play with in the class. There were books too. I found nothing thrilling in the books though. Instead it was just plain shame. I could not read. Well, I could hardly read. I was still at the stage where a book that didn’t have huge pictures on every page was a disappointment. And there they were, all those English children with their own little library in the classroom which was a small pantry at the back neatly stacked with near picture-less books. One of the boys who was asked by the sweat and caring teacher to mind over me showed me the ledger where you filled in your name and the book you took out. I can’t remember the boys name but he was very earnest. He explained it all with such careful deliberation. I didn’t have the courage to admit to him that I could not read a book from front to back if it had no pictures. I think he had me take a book out all the same.

There was one aspect of that school however, that made me feel abject pity for those English children. It was their playground. This was a section of the school grounds designated as a school play area and all the children were there at the school break time. Would you believe, this area, not much bigger than a netball court, was every bit hard tarmac? It was nothing more than a rectangular slice of the M1 (though of course I had to envy the fact that both the M1 and this playground had not potholes). There was no sand and no grass. If you slipped and fell running (how else could you be playing if you were not running?) then you left some of your knee or face on the ground. Most children simply stood around in little groups and talked to each other. I recall clumps of children with the steam rising slowly from their talk on a cold November morning.

At my own school, back in Lusaka, we had a whole football field. Granted it only had grass during the rain season, and even then only over some parts of it, but goodness did we have space to run around. There were tall trees on the perimeter of the football pitch littered with loose stones. If you were not playing football (probably because you were, like me, not very good at it) then you could throw stones at each other, which we often did. And when some poor owl or bat settled in one of those trees then dozens, maybe hundreds, of pupils took to stoning the creature until it was quite dead. Owls and bats, you see, were evil and sent by the devil. And then there were the games to play. Cops and Robbers could be an expansive game with maybe a dozen cops and a dozen robbers running after or from each other over the whole school. You could hide in the empty disused swimming pool or sneak into class rooms through the broken windows. We played these extensive games after regular classes had finished and before we had extra lessons. This was when our teacher taught us some more in the afternoon with a little extra pay from our parents.

When the patient and endearing English teacher found out it was me who had howled in fear she wanted to know why I did. I tried to explain but I couldn’t stop crying. She asked me to point out who it was that had had the gun thing. You see, though I spoke nothing but english I had trouble explaining to her what I saw because I didn’t know the english name for a sling shot. I knew it then as a ‘malegen’ but they wouldn’t under stand that. In Zambia, all sling shots are home made from a small stick with a fork in it and a long length of rubber which is wrapped around the stick many times leaving a loop with a pocket in it for your stone to sit in before it is launched. A Length of rubber is called a ‘legen’ in Zambia (or it was then anyway) and so ‘malegen’ is like ‘The rubber’ which fires small rocks. I have a suspicion that ‘legen’ is derived from the name of a woman’s stockings (‘leggings’) which are of course stretchy like rubber. But any way, I digress. The teacher was interrogating me and the whole class was watching and listening. I must have been such a curious spectacle for them. I looked and talked different of course. But now I was proving to be a hopeless cry baby to boot. I was unfamiliar with this form of discipline. The teacher wanted to know what happened and why I had reacted that way. She wanted information from me and I couldn’t give it to her. She, the teacher who was so nice to us, gave us toys and played little games with us in the tree house of a classroom was disappointed with me.

At my own school, a teacher’s disappointment was not something you feared very much. What you really feared was being whipped. You feared the thickness of the whip, the grade of the whip (house pipe, wood staff or iron bar?) and the number of whips. And by extension you feared class monitors. These were your own class mates and friends anointed with authority by the teacher to compile a list of all those who had given in to temptation and conversed with their friends in the teachers absence while he or she had extended conversations in the tea room with other teacher. It was impossible to keep your peace and be quiet. Everyone talked to someone in the class including the class monitors. Only there was no one to write their names down.

The office of class monitor lasted about a school term. In the new term, another monitor would be selected by the teacher. But for most of primary, this guy Brian was the class monitor. There was something about him that always got the teachers liking. He came first in class most of the time. He sat near the front and he usually had a hand up with an answer the teacher was looking for. But when Brian did not come top of the class Kasenshi did. Ditto with hands up and the right answer. And then this one term, in the fourth grade, Kasenshi was the class monitor and the teacher was out for maybe an hour and we are quite naturally all talking, shouting, laughing, crying and maybe even some were fighting at the back of the class. Then of course the teacher walked in and apoplectic with anger. What happened then horrified us but it did not surprise us. The teacher asked for the noise makers list and Kanseshi handed it over. A couple of dozen of us were whipped right there in front of the class against the larger wooden teachers desk and in front of the blackboard. My fear of whips and pain had disciplined me to not talk loud enough that morning to be noticed by Kanseshi in the preceding hour. But Brian was not so lucky and he was one of the first to get the cain when the teacher’s arm was still strong. He was unused to the combination of pain and humiliation and tears escaped his eyes when he sat down on his sore bum. When the teacher returned to the staff room that morning, exhausted from his disciplining, he issued his threat to Kansenshi. “I will see you at home time”.

Threats of reprisals at home time were not unusual. More so against class monitors who lost their indemnity when classed concluded and we were all reduced to the status of children from pupils. It was unusual however for a fight to be scheduled between a girl and a boy. School fights were a great attraction  that always brought a large audience that came running to the scene from all directions. There would be the chant “ooou-one, ooou one!” that would rally spectators from the far corners of the field. It was all this for girl versus boy fights as well only more so. In my time at that primary school I had seen at least a couple of girls get the best of their boy adversary. I must add though, that those girls had come from rather rough neighborhoods. They walked quite a few kilometers from some place dreadful where they had had practice in the sport of fighting. That was not true of Kasenshi however, who was a princess from a home good enough to pick her up from school in a car every afternoon. The Brian – Kasenshi fight took place somewhere between the girl’s and the boy’s toilets and Kasenshi alighted her father’s car that day in tears and bruises. Brian was remembered from then on as the guy who beat Kansenshi over the noise makers list.

I do not recall telling my English classmates, however briefly I was there, what school was like for me in Lusaka. Neither do I recall regaling my friends with stories of an English primary school once I got back, though I must have said what a pity it was that they had no playground. I wouldn’t have know where to begin with those English kids. As for the latter, no doubt my tearful incident with the sweet and caring English teacher had something to do with it. Like Brian, I had shamed myself in front of the whole class. Lucky for me though, no one, except strangers I never saw again ever knew of it.

Derelict

With both arms I pushed open the sliding doors and brushed a woman’s breast with my hand. The touch was gentle and fleeting across her cotton dress. I had been trying to flee the hot and crowded train but what was done was done and there I was right next to her with nowhere to go.

“The trains were like this yesterday” she said.

My frequent and quickly hashed out fantasies about women on the train (she beckons me to disembark, we go to her small terraced house,  she turns out the children, she lets me in through the lace curtains into the dim interior and closes the door) came to nothing and I had little to say.

“Yes I know” I replied.

Close fitting shirts, padded brassieres and angry cleavage tend to give me the impression that a women’s chest is firm and plastic, like mannequin’s pair in a window. With the few chances I have had in my life to correct this deception  I always found it fascinating to disprove it anew. A daily open palmed grope into a woman’s shirt might go some way to alley this perception, and yet never I suspect with outright success. But anyway, this was quite by accident and I had found myself in a very humdrum conversation on a train that was making a dreadful labour of its journey down the tracks.

“It took me hours to get home yesterday” she continued.

Standing by the open door as the train struggled alongside a road at the pace of a leisurely walk, the afternoon light revealed her soft wrinkles about her eyes and illuminated every strand of her untidy hair.  It may have been neat and wavy when she had brushed it in the morning but it had, by this hour, on a warm muggy day, become quite frazzled, as if her whole head might soon return to its curly self. Her pleated dress fit loosely on her bony frame and had three bands of subdued water colours blended into each other as if she had once left it once left it on the line for many rainy days. Her eyes were a diluted aqueous blue.

“I’m just lucky I don’t have young children anymore” she said. “Then they would have to wait for me at the Day Care after school. Do you know that they now charge per hour now to look after the children these days?”

“No I didn’t.” I said.

Before I had parted the doors, I stood behind a girl with long black hair in a flower print dress. She wore flat shoes and her hair dropped to the rump of her backside. As the locomotive alternately jerked into motion and shuddered to a stop, she shifted her weight from one foot to another. I told myself that she was probably quite unattractive, even though I had caught a glimpse of an ample lump of flesh pushing against her bra strap. I dismissed her as probably old and ruined by public transport and other disappointments in life. But then,  after I had rushed to the doors, in a fit of frustration, to escape the oven of a carriage, to walk home along the tracks, only to be thwarted by the disarmingly precipitous drop to the ground and the touch of a woman’s breast, I was surprised to find that Pocahontas, now facing me,  was indeed pretty and quite young. Just old enough to be an adult. Wayward hairs stuck to the corner of her mouth on her perspiring face. It made her look vulnerable in a breathless kind of way.

“I wish they would tell us what the delay is” said the woman with the soft wrinkles in frustration. “I got home at seven yesterday and yet I was at the station at five.”

I was trapped with the garrulous the water woman and I felt like a fool. It is one thing to make empty chat with a lonely person who has untidy hair but it is quite different to do it in the presence of another for whom you would reserve your most charming and erudite discourse. A bit like being caught reading HELLO magazine by a beautiful girl doing a major in English literature. Or maybe more like being the son of the maid lining up to be a suitor for the bas’ daughter only to be found out to have a girlfriend in the township pregnant with your child. That is how it felt anyway. But then the anxious girl with the brown skin, blinked rapidly with her long eye lashes and spoke.

“I’m claustrophobic” she said with an imploring look.

“I’m sure the train will empty quite a bit at the next station” I said with a saccharine smile.

Before Tobre had returned to Johannesburg after Christmas, we did things like we used to before. We woke up to the radio news and had boiled eggs and toast for breakfast. We rendezvoused on the train after work. We would arrange to meet in the third carriage and made like we were strangers to each other. She read her book and I stood next to her with my headphones on. On the platform we embraced like it was love at first sight.

The moment Pocahontas spoke, I went from feeling a fool to a state of anxiety, for how was I going to talk to both these women at the same time? But also, the moment she spoke was when two new speakers entered the conversation. When a fair woman calls in distress, men are bound to come calling (unless of course you are sat next to your wife, as so many were). Before they had said a thing, I could feel their presence crowding in, even though they had been next to us all the time. They suddenly came to life. After my initial vacuous reply, the first of them weighed in.

“We’ll be at Wynberg station soon. The train will half empty then” he said.

He was dressed smart with a white shirt tucked into a black pair of trousers. He had a briefcase and a receding hair line. The folds of his shirt over his abdomen seemed to betray his flat stomach. The expression on his face suggested that he had a bottomless reservoir of patience to endure the slow progress of the train. Until he spoke, he had been pensive, as if he could see well ordered ledger books in the far distance, and was making some progress mentally putting them to right. His face melted, when he said those words however, into the sort of grin a man uses to endear himself to a woman through her illegitimate children.

“You’ll be fine” a large voice boomed from the second man. “We’ve been letting trains go past us towards town because we’re sharing the one set of tracks. Well should be moving freely again just now.”

This man was so large, he was next to the other four of us all at once. He stood so tall that he didn’t need to raise his hand over his head to hold the rail that ran along the ceiling. Empathy from a being so large for a creature so petite, somehow amplified the sentiment.

And then we slowly pulled into a station but hardly anyone disembarked. Instead, we had pulled alongside a decommissioned train, and its marooned passengers ploughed into ours, like soldiers boarding an enemy ship at sea. Somehow there was space enough and maybe a dozen people slipped into our carriage while others attached themselves to the men hanging out the doors down in third class. All of us a little closer now, Pocahontas sucked her teeth. I felt a fresh rivulet of sweat streak down my back and creep into the crack of my bum.

“You don’t know how us women suffer” said the woman in the water colour dress. “With our faces at your arm pits, it’s terrible.”

“Yes” said the girl, somehow finding strength in the depth of her phobia. “But it is much worse like now, in the afternoon, when everyone is hot.”

All but one of us looked up then, into the giant’s cavernous armpit, to see a large, dark and slowly growing patch of moisture, and we chuckled. The giant too was amused, the way he would if he found children playing housey-house in one of his shoes.

And just like that I felt as if I was part of something, like I belonged among these people. We began to talk quite easily about everything and nothing at all. It didn’t matter now that train continued to stop and start, or that my legs were aching, and the time passed easily and I felt neither foolish nor anxious.

On the morning before my birthday, Tobre took advantage of my good mood and walked me, by the hand, to the main road to visit the second hand furniture shops. Each cupboard,  desk or lamp was a possible acquisition, something ornamental, something that with a little thought and imagination could be both functional and sentimental. But after a while I got a funk, and spent the rest of the expedition wondering in Tobre’s tow with a mysterious sense of foreboding. It may have been that these furniture pieces had been discarded for things more chic, or that they were the remnants of broken homes that had disintegrated for a lack of love and money, or it may simply have even been the way the shop owners looked, holding steadfast to a dream of being a sophisticated trader of antiques after all the life they had lived. Either way, the expedition seemed to presage an extended period of misfortune. It felt like I was choosing a pair of shoes among a field of exhumed graves while I pitied the grave diggers for their debased occupation.

When the train did finally pull into Wynberg, a large surge of people poured out of our carriage, and I went with them. Just before I was carried away though, the water woman begged me to stay and ride with them for just one more stop, however slow the journey. Pocahontas and the tax man gave me a beseeching look and even the giant, a fixed object in a torrent of exiting bodies, looked disappointed. I thought about staying. I would walk home from the next station by a new route past her street, that she would show me, and we would fuck clumsily in her tidy house, with all its old furniture, after the maid had knocked off and before the kids got back from school (stop, stop – whose that at the gate? Its ok, its nothing. Now where were we?) Then I let go and lost myself on the streets of Wynberg where children play on the road and housewives gossip over the fence.

You Are Safe in the Northern Suburbs

We had a girl over for dinner and she has her problems. She is pregnant, hates her job at a call centre (she is on the complaints division!) and her boyfriend is abusive – emotionally and perhaps physically as well. For this reason I shall call her Mary.

I met Mary recently on a weekend visit to Johannesburg when I accompanied her and Xolani (Mary’s housemate and a friend of mine) to a Pick’n Pay to help shop for Xolani and her boyfriend’s road trip to Mozambique. Xolani and the boy drove to a beach and he proposed to her at sunset with no poor people in sight. Of course she said yes. Anyway, the point is that while shopping at Pick’n Pay (I was strafing through the vegetable section as Xolani did the toiletries) Mary was most surprised to discover that a man, me, could find his way around a supermarket.

“Where did you learn to shop?” she said to me.

Never, in all her life, had she witnessed such a thing before. I felt for the moment that I was after all an exemplary gentleman, contrary to all that my mother, and many women after her, has ever said about me. But Mary’s perplex was better explained by her youth than by my gentlemanness, for she was only 18 at the time and the fact that she grew up in Bloemfontein. It is this youth and naivety that compelled my girlfriend (Tobre) and I, hosting Mary for dinner, to hand down some worldly advice, though she was by then 19.

“Let him cook his own dinner,” I said, “You need to be independent from him,” Tobre said, “Just let your mum raise the child,” I said, “Just leave him,” Tobre said, “You need your own group of friends,” I said and finally “Don’t go to Cape Town to look for a job, everyone comes here to Johannesburg for that instead” Tobre said.

And indeed that last point is most sound. The thing to do in South Africa, after you graduate, is to apply for a job in Johannesburg and relocate (unless you live here already). And for those who do have a job outside Johannesburg, if you want to have at least a half chance at a raise or a promotion then you must transfer to the Johannesburg office or find a new job over there. Indeed for some, in a time of downsizing and cutting costs, the choice is made for them when their branch is closed down and they’re forced to move to the city of a thousand taxi ranks and faulty traffic lights. And so was the case with Tobre, who left me in the Cape Town southern suburbia to attend to the maid, the garden, the garbage men and the hawkers all on my own.

And the move suits Tobre just fine. All her friends are already here after all; both the ones from uni and the ones from her school days in Port Elizabeth. And better than that, they all live quite close together, which is quite remarkable if you stop to think about how large Johannesburg is. But then if you consider that all your logo companies have their head office in or around Sandton (north of the city centre) and that there is a relative new forest of flats and town houses north of there in or not far from Morningside, Rivonia, Fourways and other areas currently under construction; you need only turn off the N1 (part of the ring road around the city) and go north to find the city growing, complex by complex. It is nice in a way. A kind of heaven for the over educated youth of South Africa today. After the various trials and phases of your life, primary and high school, university, work overseas, when you have made friends, regrets and careers, you finally settle in a world where you are all (close) together again.

I find the friend-space situation a little unreal. Take for instance the coincidences it brings up; when Xolani moved north after her PhD to live with her boyfriend, it turned out that Tobre and the boy lived in flat complexes (yes I know it sounds like a term out of Computer Science, but what else do you call a collection of blocks of apartments corralled around a swimming pool and enclosed by an 11 foot barbed wire fence with a single guarded entry and exit point?) right across the road from each other; a high school friend of Tobre’s from Port Elizabeth and a friend I met in Switzerland, who at the time did not plan on moving to Johannesburg, live a few blocks away from each other on the same street; just the other day, picking up the aforementioned German and her boyfriend for a game of tennis, Rashin, one of my closest friends from university, who I haven’t seen in years and somehow lost touch with (facebook doesn’t count), pulls up and parks right next to me – he lives in the same complex (for him too, the Cape Town office closed). This is like six degrees of spatial separation by flat complex.

Mary, who lives in the flat complex across the road, drove over for dinner. When I said to that that was ridiculous, she said she didn’t want to walk home at night. Either way, for all the serendipitous proximity of friends, visiting one another is not an easy thing to do. For one thing, these single entry-exit gates, some of which rival medieval fortifications for vulgarity and size, are designed exclusively for motor vehicles. There is no pedestrian gate, or even a separate path, should you be on foot (should a car come along you must step aside) and doing so can raise deep suspicion from the guards, who are sometimes sat behind tinted windows and are want to give you a full interview before they give your own best friend’s flat a buzz to say there is a visitor at the gate. And even then they go ahead and interview your best friend to see if all the details you supplied are correct. So much for just walking across the road to visit a friend. Not that you are exempt from suspicion if you drive up to the gate mind you, it just gets you one step closer. And should you give the wrong flat number, then you really raise the ire of the guard and could render your visiting rights revoked (I have had my share of shouting matches with the tinted window). To put it simply, visiting is discouraged.

When Mary came in she found Tobre and I behind the kitchen counter chopping, stirring, mixing and drinking wine with music, as we like to do. Mary sat on the other side and watched. She said it was nice to see that we cooked together. When I offered her some wine she said;

“No thanks. I can’t drink I’m afraid, I ‘m pregnant. Didn’t Xolani tell you?”

“Yes we heard all about that,” I said “but surely you can have just a glass.”

“No I can’t. My boyfriend will kill me. He’ll smell it. I can’t have alcohol, smoke or anything with caffeine. He’s worried about the baby,” she said.

“But surely just a glass. You don’t have to let him know, you could suck on some mints after.”

“Well, it is good for the baby anyway. I would like some water or juice though.”

And so there you go; you may have to take orders from your boyfriend or live behind a high security fence, but ultimately life will be safe in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

The Living

Between life and death, I choose life. A straight forward choice, you might think, if you are talking about your own life. But there may be times, say when talking about someone else’s life, when you would choose death instead. Perhaps when a spouse has changed over the years from a hero to a tormentor or when the person in front of you is driving slow in the fast lane. What of a loyal dog that has seen you mature but has over the same time aged to the point of constant and crippling pain? And then, coming back to your sweet self, there might very well be times when you want to die a little, now, so that you may live better, later.

“You know, the problem with her is she chooses death.” I said to Laurence once to describe a friend of ours who took work seriously and thought highly of herself.

He didn’t seem to me all that impressed with the idea and he was always quick to brush off my comment on the choices between life and death as just another inappropriate remark. I wouldn’t be surprised if, the first time he heard me classify someone this way, his assessment of me, for he had known me long enough then to judge, was that I had always scored much better at the living than at the dying. Furthermore, since Laurence has a great capacity for insight, he could also see that I thought that he was scoring far too well on the dying and was so scant on the living as to be pronounced dead (Years later a doctor would beg him to take a break from work to allow the ulcer in his oesophagus to heal).

When we were undergraduates Laurence seemed to me like someone who showed potential to be a great friend if he wasn’t so often sick or busy or, more often than not, both. He was a scarce creature on the campus who had a surfeit of courses on his plate, from Economics to Greek Philosophy, and, when you did cross paths with him, could pull out a display of funny and clever despite the sniffling, from allergies and hypochondria, and the fact that he had two exams on that very afternoon. Later, over a summer in Switzerland, after the friendship potential had come to fruition, he would walk to the flat from the tram swinging his briefcase in the late European dusk after spending many hours toiling away towards a venerable distant goal it would take him hours more still to help me understand. In London Laurence spent so much time at the office over the week and the weekend I had began to think of it as deliberate abrogation of the friendship. But then Timira, who had moved into the house with us, had a greater claim to insult since it was with him she shared a bed, but only in the sense that she was asleep in it when he came home and when he left in the morning.

But I never said to his face that he had chosen death. It would have been an unfair thing to say since in many ways Laurence embraced life, and perhaps too readily so. On a night when he pulled himself away from the office earlier than he would have liked, risking, in his mind, his job with the firm, he would throw himself at the clubs of the West End with admirable debauchery. Every attractive woman had their fair share of his opening line until he met someone who would respond to his daredevil disregard for his own shame and, to my utter astonishment, come good once in a while with a girl he had never met before. Though to be honest, black educated girls got more than their fair share of his attention to the extent that in one club, crowded with what must have been every black South African girl in a ten kilometre radius of Stratford, on one of the few times I had the temerity to respond to a pair of eye balls being tossed in my direction, I found that she was already acquainted with Laurence. No indeed Laurence lived alright, he lived in an urgent hurry as if to try and make up for the great stretches of death he covered from one week to the next.

In the end, the contrast between my living and Laurence’s dying became more than I could bare. I had become envious of his death and quite ashamed of my living. Besides, Timira had finally landed on her feet and no longer spent the evening sitting around with me waiting for Laurence to come home. I returned to South Africa and found, after a few months of mixing and matching, myself with a woman who wanted nothing more than for me to live with me even though, out her own need to do some well spent dying, she lives on the other side of the country and only sees me once a month.

And then Mike arrived. I had just hopped off the bus onto the university campus, on my daily route to the office, with my carefully chosen playlist in my ears, when I found Mike casually talking to a young physicist who was so dedicated to his discipline he hardly noticed me when I washed up on the fringes of their conversation. Mike had come to do a two month visit to the Physics department, as he has done for a number of years now, working on, well, something to do with static states and energy. The career physicist aside, it was a bit of an awkward reunion. Mike and I, although we have known each other for years, always had an interlocutor between us; a little dark hairy girl who, to escape the myopia of her family and the surrounding ghetto, had travelled to various parts of western Eurasia and settled on a Scottish lilt to add to her Durban-Indian model C school accent. An opinionated girl, who could not stand to hear other people state their opinions, she had always found safety in Mike’s unassuming ways and marijuana chilled past times more often that she had been entertained by my endless string of gaffes in the crowds of clever people I deliberately collected around me as if I was determined to prove that I was completely immune to public embarrassment, although really she knew me well enough to know that I was naive enough to not fully grasp the depth of my worldly ignorance. After developing a natural revulsion for her supervisor and work colleagues the girl with cabbage patch toes left for the land of free opinions, to live with her long time partner and long time classmate who she had avoided showing public affection since the beginning of their relationship. Without the usual buffer between us, Mike and I were exposed to each other’s company to an unprecedented degree, and had to learn each other anew as I included Mike in the weekly activities of midweek drinks, Friday drinks and weekend braai’s.

With another spring sweeping across the peninsula and the students showing a renewed interest in their courses for the final year exams, Mike, who had minimal teaching duties, and even less research commitments, since he was still in the honeymoon period of post PhD bliss, phoned me up for coffee or lunch every day of the week. It was not that I was busy, for indeed I too had relatively few teaching commitments then, but rather that Mike had even less regard for his responsibilities in the office than I did. Being the youngest person in my office, working part time and being an amorphous outlandish creature that makes no claims on the direction of his career and future, I had been compelled to cultivate an image of myself as someone with boundless enthusiasm and innovation to reform or transform past any obstacle in the hope that I may be viewed by the unit, at some time in the future, as indispensible and eventually absorbed as a genuine member of the team. This did not square so well with a long lunch that Mike insisted on that and stretched from noon until well into the afternoon. Neither did spending money on campus fast food when I ought to be saving for the pending unemployment that will sweep my way when my student status in the country expires and the Home Affairs office continues to bungle my work permit application so that, as a temp employee, the university will be obliged to not renew my contract. But Mike, sensitive and generous as he is, insisted on paying for every cup of coffee and boerewors roll, so that it was only after a brief scuffle that I could put my money ahead of his and pay for the odd meal against his will. But every time the phone rang and I answered to Mike’s German inflected English pronounce comically one well enunciated word, “lunch”, I worried about the degree of my paunch and how much less enthusiastically my patron and lover would grope my naked body on her monthly visits to our house.

On the first warm day of summer, after I had I walked the length of my somnambulist suburb, to the penumbra of its shade and watered lawns, to take a look at the towns most insignificant people walk twenty five kilometres along the north-south axis road of the city, and cheer on my near obese friends who had briefly taken a break from their cars in Johannesburg for a spurt of exercise, Mike phoned me up and asked if I would like to go to the beach. In truth it was a perfect day. Adventure was an unnecessary whim that would only mar its promise of blissful sunny nothingness, with the wind relatively mild and the weeds beautiful with their colourful flowers poking out from the cracks in the pavement. There would have been nothing wrong with saying “Mike, I appreciate your offer to drive me about the town and buy me ice cream, but not today thanks.” But then it seemed to me at that point that all my life’s worth of dying had been a largely forgettable investment that had come to less than naught and would be all the more regrettable if I didn’t take my ever dwindling opportunities at living.

When Mike caught up with me, after the fat city slickers had pulled me along with them up the main road by half a dozen kilometres and deposited me in a portion of the urban landscape that is halfway between roman villas and ugly city flats, conveniently close to a garden supermarket, where I was shopping for the genitalia that connect pipes and hosepipes, he had with him a freckled Spaniard driving a cream middle eighties era large Mercedes Benz, the standard issue for European tourists. On the way to the obscure beach I had never heard of before, we had stopped for petrol and water, neither of which I paid for, though I did contribute to the trip by pulling my foot off the clutch just when the German, Spaniard and the petrol attendant had huffed their best pushing at the rear. The beach was beyond the urban sprawl, round many corners of mountain slope and ocean view, in a hoek so brief you would miss it if you didn’t notice the cars conspicuously parked alongside the bushes. The natural inhabitants of this sandy idyll were all so dreadfully beautiful, judging from the ripples of the muscle down their front and the well portioned fat on their bums, that the two foreigners and the one African knew not to take off their t-shirts until it was absolutely necessary. The waves, speckled with dark spots of paddling and intrepid surfers, were gorgeously large and crashed with an almighty boom that ought to have been the soundtrack to the pending doom if wasn’t for the distraction of God’s most carefully crafted creatures and their determination to act cool in the face of their riotous display of sexual talent.

The water was disarmingly cold once it went over your ankles, a cruel joke when it washed up against your testicles, but from then on a welcome joy. Mike and I, playing like children for once, without the need of a common friend to cross-relate us, took to diving under the big waves, or just being smacked head on by the force of it to our squeals of laughter and surprise at the indomitable force of a large body of water, while the freckled Spaniard held back with a caution that I guess had accumulated with age. After a short break, when we dehydrated over some very plain sandwiches, we returned for what was supposed to be one last, brief splash before we moved on to our afternoon beer at any odd pub by the bay. But once again, the pleasure of a simple game was so seductive and delicious that I could not help but laugh and laugh at the simple fun of it until salt water was in my lungs and my eyes stung. That was until the ground had mysteriously shifted from under me and I was no longer facing the waves from the security of two well planted feet but rather from the uncertain dog paddle that constitutes my act of swimming while the waves continued to crash over me. The panic that followed was as genuine as the danger I had just then perceived and the only thing I wanted at that moment was a hero to take me in one easy move to dry and steady safety. Mike, by proximity was the chosen hero, and one good look at my face was enough to wipe the smile off of his. He reached out to me with his hand, like in a painting by Michelangelo, and I returned the gesture as I continued to be drowned, one wave at a time. “Dive,” Mike said, as he coached me in the proceeding and final act of my first life, in the pause just before yet another wave swallowed us in a maelstrom that made all swimming impossible. The strength in me had been spent in the foolish game and then the panic, and no amount of diving, or flailing against a current that seemed to be pulling us out, was having any discernable effect. Perhaps a sliver of determination to live came into me when Mike, with his own look of death, said “help me,” and I realised that it was not just my own foolishness that was at hand but a more general form of malady threatening us both. We called for help to the other men playing with the waves, standing only at an incredible ten metres away from us, on their own feet, but they could not hear us drowning in the roar of crashing water. It felt like a very foolish way to die.

The thought came to mind then that all the dying I had put into harassing the Home Affairs office into paying attention to my neglected work permit application had been a colossal waste of life. And then the waves miraculously stopped. Mike and I ran onto the beach, hand in hand, paunch and all, in front of the beautiful people, intoxicated with the sweet joy life, breath by breath, and laughed again, but not until we were well out and onto the hot dry sand. The planned for beers were upgraded into a full scale sea food platter and I happily paid my share.

When the standard issue Mercedes dropped me off home that evening, and the first sunset of my second life was all about me in wonderful mixture of warm and cool colours, I went into the backyard to complete my hosepipe genital project from my previous life and was surprised to see a continuous stream of sea water pour out of my face onto the under kept lawn when I bent over. That put paid to any notion that Mike and I had exaggerated the gravity of that brief situation we were both in.

That night I phoned the woman of my house, in her Johannesburg apartment, and admitted that I had been somewhat careless with her investment in me, since like the sea water, some things are better out than in. At work the next day, all my colleagues were obliged to express relief at my escape, and some went on to point out that I was in fact at one of the city’s most notoriously dangerous beaches where friends of their own had perished. Mike and I told the story, that now connects us like an old sordid lover affair, to our Wednesday drinks, Friday drinks and weekend braai company and I even went so far as to inform the opinionated common friend in the USA. And yet, all too frequently, it still feels as if death has become my new imaginary friend, keeping a few paces behind me, just to make sure I’m ok. Maybe what I should do is ring Laurence’s mother for his number in New York and ask him how he is getting on.

The Agency

One morning I walked up to the South African Home Affairs building. As the sun came up and illuminated the city buildings and the vendors set up their stalls, it felt good to be in town early. I thought the day pregnant with potential. At the door, I found a polite young man posted there to announce to that home affairs had moved to the customs office on the foreshore, in another part of the city centre. I had no forewarning of this development and I had at that point, naively, hoped to be picking up my work permit for which I had applied just over a month before. The English man, who arrived just after I did and was kind enough to give me a lift to the new premises, was astonished. His four year battle for a permanent visa had put him through many surprises (including a new criteria for applications two years in) but a surprise change of venue shocked him.

Since then I have come to find the customs building familiar. Out of the central train station, I have now taken many walks down the wide boulevard of Adderly street, crossing at the signal of the green man, past the statues of Jan and Maria Van Riebeck, towards the harbour. I pass the international convention centre with its glass exterior and walk under the elevated N2 highway, just around the corner from its mouth where it descends from its imperious height to disgorge its load of tenacious morning traffic. There, caught between the highway and the harbour stands a tall concrete edifice, the customs building. For the most part, the new premises has not changed with the way the temporary permit section works. You come in, you queue in a series of seats and then you speak to somebody. Like in the old building, the Home Affairs officials stand behind a long counter and wear a smart uniform. When you make a submission, or need to enquire about the progress of your application, they walk behind a screen or into a room (rooms? Warren? I don’t know I can never see what they do back there) for an indeterminate length of time. When they return (all that is certain is that they will return sometime) they shall tell you to come check in 4 weeks, to wait for an sms or a phone call from them, to provide additional documentation or to simply to check again on Monday.

But somehow, the old premises had blinded me to that curious group of people I now find to be common to Home Affairs; agents. At the foreshore premises, with the N2 looming large in the window, my attention was drawn for the first time to the three defined queues. One is for submissions, another for collections, endorsements and information (invariably the longest) and a third for agents. Agents, the sign above the counter informs us, may do submissions, collections or endorsements all in one place. In my recent and numerous visits to home affairs, I have realised that there are not a great variety of these agents. I can now recognise each of them by their face, and also, their laughter. While they wait on the home affairs officials, they make jokes, they eat snacks and they sit about their rows of chairs as if they are at play. Since they are all familiar with each other and are few, they have no need to follow a chronological system among themselves. As a matter of fact, they go out of their way to look out for each other. They have no other concerns it seems, such as a job or studies, except for their home affairs errands. Across in the collections/endorsements queue however, there are instead frequent flare-ups about who is in what position and whether or not someone can jump the three hour queue and visit the front briefly for information (needless to say, the visit is seldom brief). We, the cohort from various countries, where French or Korean is heard as often as the cry of an infant, stew in our indignation at the slow pace of things and make brief friendships out of our common plight, equally, short term enemies over queues and protocol.

Agents, I have been told, are people who can make applications on behalf of foreign nationals not in the country or who cannot speak English or any of the other local languages. However, before I embarked on my work permit campaign, I was introduced to an agent myself. After a referral from a colleague offering me permanent work, I met her in a car park at the university, where she explained to me that if I handed over to her all the correct documentation (she was quite verbose on the details) I would get my permit without any hassle or much delay. It all sounded very enticing until she told me she wanted four thousand rands for her services and that the fee did not include the hefty application fee. I balked and told her, later (by email), that I didn’t have that sort of money. That was, however, not strictly true. Rather what I really meant was that I didn’t see why, given how she told me how straight forward the whole process would be, it would cost me so much. Sure, I can be quite a miser (I have a modest income after all), but I can also be a stickler for principle. Why should I, who only has a part time job, pay someone else to go into town (a journey I enjoy very much) and submit documents on my behalf? I did not, however, say this to her in person. Instead, work promised to come up with three quarters of the fee and I didn’t think it such a bad idea after all. But when I approached her by phone and email about this arrangement she didn’t get back to me. So I was, in the end, compelled to stick to my principles and get the application done myself. Of course, the gentleman from the DRC in the queue next to me one day (with an iPod far superior to mine so I had much respect for him) said that the agents bribe the home affairs officials to get the job done. He also said that the agents were former employees of home affairs and so were on chummy terms with the their former co-workers behind the desk. I was not sure I could believe the first claim, but I the evidence for the second was plain enough to see from the way the bonhomie on the agent camp flowed freely over the counter to the officials on the other side. I also noticed one morning that, in the time it took three officials to visit the agents queue, the foreign nationals had only one. And that one official came to the counter with all her defences up.

“You can’t expect me to know where it is” she said to me. I had finally worked my way to the front of the queue after thwarting numerous attempts to usurp my place in the queue.

“But surely you can find the file somehow? Don’t you file these files somehow?” I said.

“No. I don’t know where Louis put it. He is the only who knows where he put it. There is no way for me to find out where he put it.”

“But can’t you phone him?”

“No, I can’t, he’s on leave. Even if I phoned him, he won’t know where it is.”

The dragon would not take any responsibility and showed little compunction. On two previous visits, I had spoken to two different people who both admitted that they could not find my file and they suspected that Louis knew where it was. They showed a deep sense of humility and even promised to call Louis and find out what he had done with it. Each of them promised to phone me when they located the and took my phone number so they could do so. They had even gone so far as to apologise for the fiasco. Louis himself was eager to help until he went on strike and lost the file. But the dragon lady was different. When I complained that Louis had first gone on strike with the rest of the public sector, and then gone on leave, and then incredibly, seemed to be on another week of leave, she used my story in her defence.

“When I go on strike, I don’t leave things properly, no. I just go like that” she said.

When I complained that the agents get better treatment than the rest of us she launched into a long tirade against the system that overworked the home affairs officials, that all forms – agent or no agent – went to Pretoria in a fair system, that there were only fifteen people employed in the Pretoria head office processing applications (where they are all sent these days), and finally that it was in fact them, the officials, who protected us from the agents. She then pointed to a man at the counter next to me inspecting a large pile of documents and said that he had been misled by an agent and now he was having to do things over again. He gave the two of us a fleeting glance in a way which I could trace neither anger nor submission before he returned to inspecting his documents. My conversation with the Dragon was turning into a row and had began to feel guilty about holding up the extensive queue behind me. But the dragon continued.

“I am tired of telling lies. From eight o’clock to four o’clock I just tell lies. To the next guy, the next one, all of them. I am just telling lies all day. We don’t process these forms. We are just at the front. We don’t know what is happening.”

The next day I woke up early to go run lest Tobre lose all interest in my body. My left knee had been acting up (something to do with the worn shoes I guess) and I put on a support. I put on plasters to protect my nipples and a lubricant between my thighs to reduce the chaffing. On the way my knee hurt but I kept running. When I got back home I decided to make cookies for my colleagues at work. They could bake while I had a shower, I thought. Tobre had left her mother’s recipe on the door of the fridge. Butter, icing sugar, flour, oil and corn flour. But then I tried to be precise about the measurements and used a scale. In that way, I used up all the butter in the fridge and was short on icing sugar. There was not nearly enough oil either. I walked across the road in my running clothes to the Mwenye for oil. I had a shower and found the biscuits bitter and too crumbly. A tray of them tipped over into the hot oven and disintegrated. I burned a spatula and a pair of oven gloves trying to fetch them out. It had all gone terribly wrong. I was slamming doors and pans as a I tried to clean up. I didn’t know whether to chuck the biscuits or take them to work anyway. Instead I put them into the cookie jar and whereupon they broke into pieces and crumbs. When they were finally all in I grabbed the cookie jar’s lid and slammed it closed. With that, there was a crash and broken glass flew. Shards fell into the jar of destroyed bitter cookies and were also on the counter and about the tiled kitchen floor. Holding what was left of the lid over the jar, I had frozen. What am I doing, I asked myself. Maybe I had some sort of a condition, I thought, and ought to start watching reruns of Oprah to help myself admit it. With fear and disgrace washing over my spirit of anger, I threw out the cookies and the jar and then cleaned up the mess with a new and measured deliberation.

Sums So Sweet

On Saturday there was a girl hiding from me in the passage, too shy to approach, with her maths homework in her hands. She had the multiplication exercises I had given her. To Sihle I must have looked like an officious school master as I sat there in my favourite arm chair under my do-it-yourself bookshelf and all its books. She didn’t realise that I could see her shadow on the floor.

Sihle and her mother visit every Saturday morning. When they come, they announce themselves with a polite knock on the kitchen door. Invariably I find Zanele smartly dressed as all professional maids are in Cape Town; hand bag, red beret, coat, boots and a long skirt. I, by contrast, will be wearing whatever was lying about the room when I rushed to the door.

“Hi” she will say with a pleasant smile. But she will act cool – almost docile – as  if her thoughts are elsewhere. Sihle will be alongside her with a pair of boots to match her mothers. She will hide behind her mother’s waist, and be too shy to return my greeting. On her face there will always be, when I see her for the first time on a Saturday, a wide smile almost too big for her small chubby face.

Seven days is enough time for me to untidy all Zanele’s work from her last visit, despite Khosi’s cleaning after me half the time. Zanele will be busy until well into the afternoon with dishes, counters, floors, clothes and ironing. Sihle meanwhile will prance around the house aimlessly or sleep on the coach. At the same time, I will be prevented from dirtying the house again and find myself cut off from playing on the computer or making countless cups of tea (lest I undo Zanele’s good work). This is how I came to find that I cannot stand to see an idle child.

To entertain Sihle and try to make some use of her, I tried to give her things to do. I took her on walks to the shops with, I made her weed the garden with me, I gave her paper and pencil, I played DVDs for her and I fed her a gentleman’s breakfast (soft boiled eggs with toast, butter and coffee). She took to all these activities quite amicably but not with much zeal. She seemed to go through the motions with each of them out of politeness rather than any real desire of her own. Moreover, none of them quite liberated her from her indolence. It also didn’t help that the little English Sihle knew she was too shy to perform, and the near non-existent Xhosa I knew I could hardly pronounce.

This is how I came to force upon the child the universal language of mathematics. It was on Mandela day when I first decided to investigate her arithmetic. I found that she could count but not subtract. She seemed to be able to do some multiplication but I couldn’t be sure. When she didn’t give me the right answer, it was unclear whether it was because she didn’t understand what I was asking (I still do not know what Xhosa is for ‘multiply’) or if she genuinely didn’t know the answer. I began to give her lists of calculations to do and she got most of them wrong in the most fantastic ways. It was as if she was guessing her way through them. To help her, I devised a system of grouping with a collection of coins to help her figure out how to do multiplication. She continued to get the sums wrong however, and the coins seemed only to add to the confusion.

This project went from one Saturday to the next without improvement. Zanele continued to clean the house every Saturday while I harassed Sihle with my maths exercises. Zanele, though, was very pleased to see me take an interest in Sihle’s school work despite the lack of any progress I could see. If by some chance I wasn’t home on a Saturday morning (rugby most likely), Zanele would phone me to ask me where I was. Townships schools in Cape Town are notorious for achieving exactly nothing and from what the mother had told me, there was little reason to expect much different from Sihle’s. It had become obligatory for me to tutor her daughter weekly even though an hour’s tuition for my services goes for more than I pay her a week. But I felt compelled to do it. Responsible even.

Sihle, in her quiet way and for all her series of wrong answers (I had taken to marking in red pen), always showed great commitment. I later found out, after taking advice from some of the parents at the office, that children respond well to a reward system and I wasn’t using one. I was also advised not to do maths sessions for very long, else the child fatigues. This I thought explained why Sihle, by the end of a two hour marathon, could not differentiate between addition and multiplication. Despite this advice, I was beginning to suspect that the only way to help Sihle was to keep her out of Khayelitsha altogether and teach her to speak English.

On that Saturday morning, when Sihle was hiding in the passage, Zanele and Khosi rebuked Sihle for wavering at the door. They told her not to be shy around me. It turns out that Xhosa and Zulu people understand each other and Zanele is actually quite talkative and the two of them talk for hours. They were, however, fed up of interpreting for us and encouraged Sihle to talk to me directly. Sihle had, up until then, been working dutifully at the coffee table with the coins and the counting system we had been practicing for weeks. She did as she was told and crossed the threshold into the room to show me her working. To my surprise, I found that nearly all her exercises were correct and it was the first time she had scored well at all. When I looked at the coffee table, I found neat rows of coins arranged into groups, just as I had advised. After I had pointed out her single error, the exercise was promptly corrected. As a reward, Sihle got a cube of chocolate, as promised.

After Zanele and Sihle left, I felt a strange pride come over me. It was as if I had discovered a new power. Like I could mould minds. I can give people abilities, I thought. A young adult who can do simple arithmetic without a calculator for instance (a rare breed at the university) or even an appetite for clever books. I felt like the proud father of a precocious child and yet I have not even begun to start on division. Sihle is Zanele’s child after all. I had to remind myself of that. But suppose I did mould her? Suppose I did make her into a young adult that can break free from the township? Would Zanele recognise her after that?

I am getting ahead of myself no doubt. For a start I will need to buy an abacus. And then I will have to figure out how to use it.

My Body Is Fat

Every evening I exchange brief superficial conversations with Khosi. How was your day, she always asks me. But before I am finished telling her she is busy with the fridge or the sink or has left the kitchen altogether. But then I hardly listen either when she talks about herself. When I do take the time to listen I find that she is frequently baffled by trivialities. On weekends, for instance, she is frustrated by the trains that are infrequent with up to an hour between them. I tell her to read the schedule on the internet but she continues to complain all the same. Another example came up this evening when she said the dustbin had been missing since the garbage men had been and asked me what we were going to do about it. I found the thing just ten paces away from the gate in front the dirty neighbours house. I suppose she is still getting used to Plumstead and Cape Town. She studied abroad for a dozen years after all.

We  get along though. It is not an exaggeration when she says ‘we’. We share music. We cook together sometimes even though she is vegetarian which means I cook butternut soup over and over again. We both like to exercise also. But then there are the differences too. She goes to the gym in the evening while I prefer to run in the early morning. She sleeps early and I sleep late. She is a pious Buddhist, chanting twice a day for an hour like a clock and I am a nihilistic heathen.

To get her attention though, there are some things I can say. Like when I say I have to go running otherwise I will get fat. To that she must respond and always does. She seems to have taken it upon herself to save me from myself. She has begun to insist that I don’t eat enough. You don’t eat enough for a man, she will say. I tell her that if I eat I will get fat. No, you hardly eat anything is her usual reply. So maybe she doesn’t listen really. Whenever I am talking about being fat she simply slips into that benevolent denial and contradicts everything I have to say on the matter. Sometimes I go so far as to say that I have to go running otherwise I will get fat and then Tobre won’t like my body anymore and then she will throw both me and her out the house and so I do the running not just for me but for her also. No, Khosi will respond with a smile as if it is a joke. I am sure Tobre is not like that, Khosi will say. She says that Tobre sounds like a nice person on the phone.

Tobre on the other hand has began to not take me so lightly. She has began to ask me why I say such things.

“You don’t like my body because it is fat and so I have go running and starve my body” I said on the phone last week.

“No!” she said in frustration. “I love your body. Don’t do anything to your body. I can’t wait to see your body the next time you come up to Johannesburg” she will say.

“I will get fat and you won’t want me anymore and you will throw me onto the street and I’ll die of starvations.” I continued.

Tobre told me she liked my body. It sounded to me as if she had to force herself to say it. I don’t think that meant she didnt mean it, however. I know her. Words with feelings don’t come to her easily  (hell they don’t come to me at all ) .Well except maybe I love you. That she can roll off her tongue in her sleep and she often manages that too. I love you is almost a mechanical motor neuron response to her. But words with passion don’t come so easy.  For that reason she doesn’t swear so good. To this day her sister has to laugh at her when she tries to swear and it is truly a funny thing to hear. She seems to waver halfway through a four letter word. She has a lapse of confidence before it is out of her mouth. Maybe her sister’s teasing comes to her when she wants to say ‘fuck this stupid life’ after she has stubbed her toe. In any case, I can sense that same unease in her voice when she declares her love for my body the same way I can sense it when she tries to swear.

But then a surprising thing happened. Tobre got fed up with trying to persuade me that I am not fat and that she likes me the way I am.

“Why do you always say that?” she asked.

“Because it is true” I replied, as I always do. But then she went on.

“I never know what to think with you. I don’t know when you are joking or when you’re serious.” She said.

Things were getting worryingly ontological and the sms’s were beginning to take on the tone of a fight.

To parry her searching words I said “That is why you must always make things up.”

There was no sms in reply.

Then I sent an sms that said “To your lovers the duty is to lie. It is your enemies who must suffer the truth.”

I got a reply after a long while. She said she didn’t know what I meant but I sensed that the storm had passed.

Last night I suffered a terrible craving for something sweet. I am eating less and running more but I am fat all the same. Not as fat as I was two months ago but fat. Not like I was in Geneva when I wasn’t fat. I was always hungry though. The hunger pangs I have been having now come and go quickly but in Geneva it was something I carried around with me. I currently go through alternating cravings for meat and sugar. And somehow eating only brings them on quicker. Last night I  ate quite well off a pot of stewed meat that had been in the freezer a whole two months before I cooked it. Then I had a craving for something sweet and for once I knew what it was I wanted. Custard.

I had a fortunate childhood. At a time when few children had anything to eat between meals other than porridge  I had custard at 4 p.m. every afternoon.  Something to break up the time before the cartoons started on the television at 5 p.m. When I was old enough to cook it  I took great care to avoid lumps but I wasn’t always successful. It was years later that I discovered that it is the milk that should be added to custard paste rather than the paste to the milk. With that innovation I had achieved a refined state of existence I though. But then I met Tobre and she knew how to cook custard in a microwave. It was a trick she had magically gleaned from the instructions on the side of the packed. A way to cook custard without worrying about the milk boiling over in the pot. Bizarre. Tobre’s favourite dessert is Mulva pudding. It goes well with custard and we often have the two together except usually I have more custard than I do pudding. But then Tobre went to Johannesburg and she took the microwave with her.

The little village supermarket in the middle of sleepy Plumstead was closed by nine o’clock so I wasn’t going to get custard from there. But then of course there was the Mwenye with the corner shop just on the next block past the dirty neighbours house. Tobre gets her lips in a twist whenever she tries to pronounce Mwenye. In Zambian vernacular it is the name used to refer to Indian’s or people of Indian origin. Strictly speaking it is a derogatory name but I use it all the same. I tell Tobre this every time but it doesn’t help her pronunciation. I don’t think she has ever stepped into that shop but then neither has Khosi. They were open at five to ten last night and I was glad. The shop is suitably filthy and has the feel of a room that has been hastily cleared out for business after a flood. I guess it is fitting that the shop keepers are from Bangladesh. I usually go there for onions, milk or firewood. Not less than one in two of the onions are soggy and you have to be lucky to find a cup of cream. But the shop keeper is always pleasant to me. His son on the other hand looks to me like the broody sought and he works behind the counter alongside his father even though he is a grown man. On any evening they stare over my head most of the time at a bollywood film on a tv hoisted on a shelf with a bad picture. Such was the scene when I found both custard and milk at ten o’clock at night right across the street from me. I had a whole pot of custard to myself with no lumps and no sisters to share it with. I loved every spoon of it. But now my body is fat and Tobre will not like it and she will throw me out onto the street.