They say I am not “normal.” Some bluntly claim that I’m crazy. Mostly behind my back. My sisters complain about this. “You are embarrassing the family” both of them say, regularly.
My response is always: I do not give a fig leaf about all the criticisms, the snide comments, and the vilifications. I am not a criminal. I have not killed anybody, nor robbed anybody.
But the phalanx of negative comments about me continues. What have I done wrong? It all seems so trivial to me. As my older sister reiterated the other day: “People say you look wild, you dress in a horrific way. Nor would it hurt if you washed sometimes!”
But what can I do? I live in the same house as my sisters do, and I must admit, with some embarrassment that I depend on the family for survival. Note that I said: the family. Not really my sisters. They do little for me, or for my daughter. The family largely depends on the largesse of our elderly father. His pension. I pray he lives long.
Sad memories. The moment my mother departed this world, my sufferings really began. We were quite close. I still remember her saying to me, her fragile, depleted, debilitated body on her bed: “John, it worries me a lot what would happen to you after I’ve …gone. I just hope your sisters, and your brother, will take care of you.”
Poor woman. She and I knew very well that my sisters would do absolutely nothing for me. Apart from nag and criticise. Even till date, it is something of an ordeal for me to appropriate any food from the kitchen for myself, or for my daughter. Yet, Papa buys the food for the whole house!
Nor do I believe my sisters have any love for my child. Many times, people have told me what they say about her. “John is just causing trouble for us all. His daughter is a burden. Shows how foolish John is. How did he get involved with a slut who brought a child into this world and dumps her with the father?”
This is the charitable version. Other times I hear the variation: “Our John is a fool. Who told him that girl is his (daughter)? The mother is so promiscuous.” But though I detest the irresponsible nature of Cindy’s mother, I know she is my daughter. And we have a great bond.
“As if he (myself) is the only man to be disappointed by a women? Anyway, what decent girl will want anything to do with him the way he behaves and does not take care of himself?”
Women can be very ambivalent, eh? The same sisters of mine who say I am repulsive to women, also claim many women find me attractive! Yes, I must confess I am not really into woman chasing. Never have been. Hence my naivety as regards the mother of my child …
And it seems virtually all I say is distorted and misquoted. One example here: I told a joke one day, and now in the townships people claim I am making fun of the proliferating number of people dying of AIDS. The other day, in the darkness I heard someone saying: “… that John guy … the one who looks like a crook, across the road. I asked him why he did not try to add some fun into his life and he replied: “I get enough fun from going regularly to the funerals of those who thought they were having fun by seducing many women,” ” That bastard was indirectly laughing at my brother who recently died of AIDS!”
The strange thing was, this so-called conversation had never happened between this guy and me. And only a fool would make fun of people with HIV/AIDS, as nobody can claim to be immune from it. This is something you can get by exchanging fluids, not only from sex! But everybody seems to be jumping on the bandwagon of running me down. If my own sisters can do it (regularly) why shouldn’t others?
Being more or less illiterate, it irritates my sisters so much to see me reading regularly and trying to broaden my mind. “He should be out and earning his keep.” they say disingenuously. Actually I know that’s their main grouse against me, the fact that I am painfully poor, not able to give them money.
No wonder they fawn over my other brother, who has a good job. He is treated like royalty. Ah, I must try not to laugh here! I remember when my brother brought home his latest “woman”, my sisters were out-doing themselves to make her welcome. In a jiffy, one of them was in the kitchen, preparing bread and eggs for her (Minutes earlier I’d been told not to enter the kitchen as “there is no food there”).
And later on, when this new lady complained to my brother, sisters, that I was so “cold” to her, I got into trouble again. “Why can’t you be nice to her?” they said.
I grimaced. “I’m not in the habit of kowtowing to a woman who has seen better days, and is taking my brother for the usual ride.”
My sisters winced. “Now we can see you are really crazy. What do you mean she’s seen better days.”
“She’s been around,” I said matter of factly. But of course I was “outvoted” and shouted down.
“If your brother ever hears what you’ve said! You know how much he adores her!”
Which did not stop him from giving her a severe, brutal beating one evening. And it was I who saved her in the end, from my irate brother – physically coming between them.
“How dare you interfere!” he screamed,” you crazy boy. I’ll kill her! If you interfere again, I’ll throw you out of the house.”
I smiled. “Not while father is still alive … I’m as entitled to stay in the family house, as you. I can’t stand by while you beat up a woman!”
“What do you know about women, you fool!” he said, really angry (he was actually drunk). “No wonder you are stuck with a child while the alleged mother treats you like the fool you are!”
By now, other members of the family had arrived on the scene, and managed to cool my brother off while my sisters stated that my brother should please stop beating his lady, they naturally blamed me for coming to her rescue!
But I’m used to it by now. More or less everything I do is wrong. Including what I thought was my innocuous habit of walking around the township on Sundays. “Only a mad person will be walking around for hours on end!” they say. But for me it allows me to clear my mind. I can also reflect on many things. But is this really madness?
Come on dear reader, see for yourself. Let’s embark on the journey together, today, and early on this Sunday morning, which as you’ll learn later, is a unique day in my life. Maybe we might even learn one or two things in the process …
I step in front of our house, hands in my pocket. As I move towards the main road, a lady calls: “John! Tloho.” I go to her side. It is a very polite woman who always displays old-world respect and amiability, “It’s good to see you,” she says, as if she really meant it.” And how are your sisters?”
I stare at her. Almost middle-aged, used to be a “domestic” before she lost her job. Now washing clothes, (especially) for those who needed her services. I used to like her a lot, (the way you like a nice aunt) till the day when someone told me what she’d said about me behind my back: “That John is nice in his own way, but his ‘head is not correct’ eh? Does he expect his sisters still to be washing him?”
This, from a grimy, cowering illiterate!
But I am not the type to bear a real grudge against anybody. I said the right things – I hope! – then moved to the main road.
“Hallo!” the old lady on my left greets me, in her usual fashion. I suppose in a way we are both stigmatised. As I was growing up I used to hear pathetic things about her.
“Please avoid that woman, the one who limps near the main road, John. She is a witch.”
As I grew older, I heard more details: “Imagine a woman of her age burying all three of her daughters. They all died young, from around ( ages) 18 – 28 while the old woman is still as strong as an ox! She killed her own children, mark my words.”
It was only when I was around 18 that I realised the cruelty of these remarks, by then I’d got to know the old lady better and I certainly knew she was not a witch. Just very unlucky. What mother would want to lose three children? Instead of the people to sympathise with her, give her support, they did the opposite.
I remember the first time she frankly talked about her loss – I was about 18 then, when she said: “You are a good boy. You are like a child to me. But I shouldn’t say that, in case I tempt fate? Did you hear about my daughters?”
I shook my head dishonestly, but I couldn’t stop myself looking guilty. She smiled and said: “Of course you have. The tragedy of my life. All my three girls that I’d suffered so much for since their infancy, all gone. The first one had a kidney problem, and died. Two years later the other died in a car accident. Not long after the last died during childbirth. A bizarre sequence, but our people had to blame someone: me!”
To be fair (though it was little consolation to the old lady) by the late 90’s people seemed to have realised that she was no ogre. My own position has always been that she’s a nice woman – yes, sometimes very garrulous, but no more than her critics! (Ha, ha, ha!).
I greet her now, and she asks about my family. She insists I should eat something “small”, and I do not need much convincing! As usual my sisters had not provided anything for breakfast for me, but I knew my child always ate – and played – with their children. Blood is still thicker than water, and we all have our crosses to bear.
My meal over, I thank the old lady and start my “journey” in earnest. Of course since I’m still in my area I have to talk to many people. Young men like me, most of them well-dressed and who tend to look down on me. Breaks my heart.
Mr. Vuyo shouts at me from in front of his house. Correction: his wife’s house, as she makes the whole world know when she is in her frequent vituperative moods. But Mr. Vuyo serves her purpose, an amiable partner taking care of her.
Both of them drink a lot. This bordered on shamelessness sometimes, but perhaps this only further illustrates that they were meant for each other, eh?
Right now Mr. Vuyo is still sober and is most amiable. He hugs me, adding: “To me, you are a brother. Or a son (he had no children). I like you very much, notwithstanding what many people say about you. It’s all because of the moral decay, and people are not used to people like you … let me show you an article in a magazine, I’ve been reading.”
He does so, and it is clear he cannot see I’m eager to move on. “You see John, people worship money now. Every small girl wants a man, no, men, who will buy her many things – cell phones and the like, people no longer take education seriously. The young hardly read, and can’t move forward. You know what happened to that small girl, Joyce, just in front of my house?” he has lowered his voice.
Yes, in the neighborhood everybody now knows about Joyce, all of 16 years old. Incidentally, as I prepare to leave now, I see Joyce in front of her father’s house. She is about 4 1/2 months pregnant now.
Joyce grew up, as if destined to do the right things, make the right choices. She was very taciturn for a girl, or woman! She was devoted to her mother. Around the age of 14 – 15 Joyce seemed to change a lot, although she still did not talk much. Clearly unhappy and dissatisfied with the poverty in the house, she began to mix with certain girls in the area. Soon, a particular one – Rose – became her best friend. This was the beginning of disaster.
Rose, from at least the age of 14 had been drinking a lot of alcohol, and had many boyfriends. But at least she could handle herself with men, and knew how to take “precautions.”
For Joyce, it was different. At 15 she looked tall and confident, but she was still a girl, Captivated with the life Rose led – free drinks, food everyday – she succumbed; her mother raved and ranted, but there was little she could do. Joyce, many times refused to sleep at home; in fact she welcomed her mother’s anger, for it gave her the perfect opportunity to run away.
And spend the night with a man!
For Joyce, alas, the carefree life was short and moribund. She became pregnant soon, and everybody wondered; “Who is the father of the baby?” It was doubtful whether she knew herself. Her mother did her best – shouting, pleading, cajoling, entreating – to learn about the father, but to no avail.
We still do not know.
I feel a little wave of anger course through me as I move forward and see the notorious Rose, still the young femme fatale, flirting, manipulating (men); her repertoire of skills in this wise. She glares at me. I stare coldly back at her. We both dislike each other.
By now she knows only too well that her feminine wiles and shameless, seductive practices bounced off me easily. I’m sure she still remembers the night she spent in my room only too well. About two years ago. It was around 11:30 in the night; my family residence is well known, a rather sprawling, albeit, old-fashioned structure. That night, I noticed a dark figure lolling around, at the ungodly hour. Always on the qui vive, I moved to the figure.
“Oh, John, it’s me,” I heard the figure say. It was Rose, obviously drunk. “I have a problem,” she continued. “The gate of my house is locked. I have nowhere to stay. And if I go to …” she mentioned no specific name “… you know how the mind of these men is like, and I’m in no mood for that. Can I stay in your room?”
Without saying anything, I took the attractive “piece of trash” to my room. She slept on my bed, whilst I slept on another mattress on the ground. The next morning she woke up quite late. Oh – I forget, during the middle of the night she had vomited copiously and inelegantly into one of my small buckets. I had woken up and stared at her; on her own part she had smiled as if she were doing me a favour by vomiting into my bucket! The lovely Rose!
Once she struggled awake next morning, she said: “Ah, John, I feel a bit bad. You’ll make some tea, won’t you? By the way your room is so untidy …”
She must have noticed the unfriendly expression on my face. Obviously trying to soften me, she said: “You are a good guy, John. Come and give a girl a small kiss.”
I stared at her, and said: “The morning has dawned. You should be going to your place now.” Her face hardened. “Who do you think you are? Men are begging to kiss me, and …”
“Please go to your place,” I said, almost at the end of my tether. This (at the time) 16-year-old shameless hussy was irritating me. At the time she was supposed to be facing her studies, she was enjoying being a sex siren.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” she went on, exposing one of her breasts. “I thought you were a gentleman …”
I could not conceal the disgust I felt. “You make me sick,” I said, “Voetsek.”
She grabbed her small bag, and said viciously: “Maybe some people might think you are impotent, but the majority are right: you are crazy!” She left .
From then on, we were sworn enemies. She found it easy and gratifying to add fuel to the negative gossip about me. And now, on this morning we both look at each other with hostility.
A few yards on, I get near one of the countless stores in the townships. A short guy comes running to me. I know him well.
“Ah, you are out of jail!” I say, in my usual direct, but tactless (as everybody complains) manner.
“Ja, men,” he grins. “It was not easy, my brother. Being confined in a big room with over 70 fellows. No women! To smoke was a big problem, man. No recreation. No TV. Boredom throughout. No goddamn cigarettes! We were given two plates of food daily; and not of a terribly high quality, at that. Just to smoke, I had to sacrifice one of my plates of food daily.”
I say: “You mean, you sacrificed a plate of food just for a packet of cigarettes?”
“Not a packet. Just one cigarette, man.”
“Yeah. You might not be able to believe it. But it’s true. Thank God my rich Uncle bailed me out in the end. The case still goes on, though.
I pat him. I know he stabbed someone with a knife. Perilously. I am about to move on, when another guy arrives, smelling strongly of dagga as usual. Paul. Wiry and generally unreliable. “Hey, my friend!” says he. I’ve not seen you for quite some time. Just hear stories that people see you all over the place. Are you avoiding me or something?”
I manage a wry smile. “Yes.” Oh, he knows, alright. That terrible night. To him, small beer, but for me a very unpalatable episode. I had foolishly allowed him to persuade me to follow him one night to purchase his “stuff” (dagga/Marijuana). Apparently it was a matter of life and death. So I escorted him to the railway lines on the outskirts of Bloemfontein City, while we traversed these dangerous “crevices” while wrapped in cimmerian darkness. We walked on and on, passing many skelms on the way. Shadowy, seemingly maleficent figures. I regretted following him.
“Hang on mate,” he said. “We’ll soon be at the house. No sweat …” Yet another shadowy figure smoking dagga.
“Relax,” he said, a hint of impatience in his voice. “It’s just a woman. I know her.”
“You mean, a woman has the nerve to stand in this god-forsaken place in the night?” I exclaim.
“Of course. She’s a tough ‘un. Smokes dagga more than any other man. Nerveless. Comes here to buy the stuff and hangs around. Sells herself to any man brave enough to handle her, too. Handy with a knife. Strong as an ox, yet fragile looking.” There was admiration in his voice. “She doesn’t like me, though.”
I felt sick. It was an ordeal, but in the end he got to the house he intended, bought his “stuff”, and we went back home. The only thing on my mind as we went back to the townships was: “Never again.” Never.
Paul seems to have forgotten about that night; it was nothing special to him. He follows me along the main road a little, chattering and giving me the latest snippets of local information, which hardly interest me.
“I’ll go back, when we reach the robot,” he says. And I nod. Cars driving to and fro, the vendors waiting stoically for people to buy their wares. Then Paul points: “See the way that woman is looking at you, John! If only looks could kill! Is it my imagination, or does that fine lady hate your guts?”
I stare at the young woman. I am afraid I cannot describe her as anything like a “lady” – Yes, she is looking at me with some distaste. Like Rose she does not belong to my “Fan club”. And why should she? Incidentally we met for the first time at a certain club in the township. Interesting, really.
I was relaxing with a beer, seated quietly, when I noticed her sizing me up. I concentrated on my drink. From the comer of my eye I saw her whispering with a female friend (partner in crime?) Then she came straight to me and said: “My friend, can you help me out with 50 cents please?”
Since I had an extra 50 cents, I gave it to her. She smiled, obviously thinking: “This is gonna be an easy prey.” A few minutes later, she came back, and tapped my shoulder smiling coquettishly: “My friend, do you mind if we drink with you? I like you, you are a fine man … should my friend and myself come and sit, drink with you?”
My face bland, I said: “That’s okay by me, sister. You and your friend can bring your drinks here and drink with me.”
Then she said: “What I meant was you’ll buy the drinks, as I said I like you, and so does my friend. We’ll drink and feel happy eh; because I like you I want to sit beside you and drink.”
“How honoured I am, “I said tersely. I knew her type well, they frequented pubs/night clubs, shebeens and pretended to like men whom they thought looked lonely, and hopefully had a lot of money. They would happily enjoy the beer you bought for them; but the moment your money ran out they would blissfully move over to another man (or men) who wanted to waste his (their) money. Smooth.
She was still looking at me, no doubt thinking I was about to agree. She said: “Can me and my friend come now?”
My face hardened. “Why only your friend? Why not all your female relatives, and friends … for good measure, you might even add mummy dearest to make me feel grand!”
Was she angry! I’m telling you, dear reader, that she could have ripped my eyes out right then. And I had not even started.
“How dare you talk to me like that!” she said with fury.” Is it because of your useless 50 cents.”
“Sister,” said I, warming up. “You and your ilk are a menace to the society, you drag the culture of we blacks into the gutter, where you belong. Instead of being good role models for the children as our mothers were in the past, you go around the townships here – Phahameng, Spot, Rocklands, Phelindaba, Bochabela, etc, to all the shebeens, drinking and drinking with others’ money. Worst of all you sleep around brazenly just because of your alcohol and ‘smoke’, in the process spreading V.D. around and destroying us all!”
She lost it completely. She hit out at me with a terrific blow, that if it had landed would have worsened my already funny-looking mug. I fended off her punches, and the “bouncer”, who knows me well, came running to the scene, as the lady seemed bent on tearing off my dreadlocks.
“What’s going on, lady?” the bouncer asked.
She said: “This man was insulting me – attacking me.”
“You attacked him,” that worthy said. “This guy always minds his business and is the quiet type. I saw you (he mentioned her name) approaching him at least twice. Now, leave him alone, or I’ll be forced to be tough, eh?”
The woman went, her face a mask of hatred. The guy now said to me: “My friend, I can imagine what happened. She wanted to take you for a sucker, eh? But what can we do? Cheap women like her attract men to this place, so we must be charitable to all!”
I now traverse a small stream, with some minuscule hills to my right. Actually I am making a detour past the house of Alice, the mother of my child. I am not particularly anxious to go near that house right now – although over the last one year I hardly saw Alice anyway.
I remember now the first time I met her, some 31/2 years ago. We did not live in the same area, but I used to buy paraffin – lots of it for commercial purposes – near the house. She seemed to be quiet, she was about 18 years old then.
It soon became clear that she liked me, and asked me whether I minded if she visited me. It was almost a novelty for me, as I was not used to women. She did visit me, and sussed out that I had a room for myself. Just an average room, but it was mine.
She visited me three more times and the only jarring note was that my mother did not like her, and she said so. This upset me, because my sainted mum would do anything for me. What was wrong with Alice?
In my naivety I thought she was quiet and good in her own way, but my mother saw through her easily. My sisters? It seemed they were just relieved to see me with a woman for once. They thought I was intimate with Alice, but I was not – at least not during her first four visits.
One night, Alice came, and made it clear in a feminine way that she meant to stay the night. She seemed to be in a bad mood. When I could no longer bear it, I said: “What have I done wrong?”
“I know you don’t like me,” she said.
“How can you say that? You know you are the only woman in my life, “I replied seriously, shocked at her accusation.
What she said next should perhaps have given me an insight into her (character), but in the subsequent excitement I did not care: “John, you are either a pretender or not a man. I’ve never met a man like you before. You don’t even hotly kiss or play with me, not to talk of sex! Am I so ugly?” she knew she was quite attractive, of course.
She saw how stunned I was, and then took over. It was great, earth moving, to use the usual clichés. She introduced me to a world of physical pleasures that one could only have dreamed about. How could a girl of 18 be so proficient in this wise?
As one can imagine, she now had me hooked. I was scared of my mother, but still kept on seeing Alice, got to know her family – her drunkard of a mother. Another pointer – Alice discouraged me from coming to her place. “I’ll come to you.”
To be continued in the next issue of herri.