They get there at 06:43, she and her father. That’s what the plastic pink watch on her wrist is flashing, 06.43 exactly; 06.43, and the queue is already an agitated snake stretching the length of the pavement, writhing from the alley into the street. He hesitates, her father, as he takes in the sight of some people stalking the entrance, ready to jump the queue. Then he shuffles to the end of the line, his woollen hat held meekly in his hands, because this is a bank. Yes, this is a bank, and they won’t tolerate any nonsense, a crazy crowd stampeding through their doors. The way people always rush the trucks arriving at the supermarkets with fresh stocks of sugar or mealie meal or cooking oil.
So there they stand, in uncomfortable silence. She is half a step behind him so that her firm belly, bulging through the loose-fitting shirt – her mama’s shirt – is in step with him. But, after a while – she considers this a bad idea, having her belly right by his side like that – she stumbles forward and bumps into the shuffling old khulu in front of them and attempts an apology. His kind old smile and the white hairs that twitch with his grin as he says it’s “all light” make her want to cry. Kind old eyes that flit over the barrel of shame in front of her.
No, she does not want her father to think that she is insinuating anything by placing her belly right next to him like that. He isn’t looking at her anyway, has his head angled towards the mesh of litter swirling in the water being vomited by a burst pipe. And so she also looks away, with great deliberateness, interests herself in some random moment in the foggy frenzy of the weekday morning. Her eyes follow the schoolchildren walking by, neat little satchels slung across their shoulders, grey socks hugging Vaseline-smeared ankles. She hunches forward against the knifing June cold, blows warm breath onto her cupped hands. Thinks how, after a while, the sewer stink becomes bearable.
“Look at the queues.”
“And so early in the morning, yo! You know, I woke up at 4 am thinking I’d be one of the first, but . . .”
“I slept right here, in my car.”
Then silence, before another temporary acquaintanceship is struck up somewhere along the queue.
“I’ve been coming here since Monday. Still can’t get any money.”
“Me, since Friday.”
“Hi, my name is James. What’s a pretty little thing like you doing in a queue like this? My brother is the manager. Can I have your number?”
The clanging of the bank doors. Frenzied feet pumping up the steps. A stern look from the guard. Decorum descends momentarily. Her father’s squat legs shuffle across the parquet floor.
His squat legs shuffling. That stench of soda water he used as aftershave, clashing with his hot beer-breath. Did she scream? Kick? Bite into the arm pressing her down?
It all happened so fast, the seconds stumbling over themselves as though time too dreaded the experience and wanted to get it over and done with.
And sometime later – days, a week? – as she lay among the grass stalks burning golden-brown in the sun, she waited for Spiro to ask what was wrong. She waited so that she could tell him, bury her head in his armpit, hear him say it was going to be all right.
But he didn’t ask.
Instead, he quickly entered her, half struggling, while her nails dug into the soil until they were bleeding, and then she lay completely still, choking from the stink of his marijuana-sweat.
Afterwards, belting torn pants to his slim waist, he said he had to go. Gums working furiously on bubblegum, eyes darting furtively for any onlookers, he had to go.
He squeezed her nipple. See you later. Pop pop.
She flinched. See you later.
The person behind her seems to think that if he shoves himself up against her, the queue will somehow move faster. She longs for the vicious cold outside, fights the nausea of unrecycled air hanging heavily in the spacious room that’s quickly become too tiny for the bodies crammed inside.
She’s standing too close to him, her father, does not want to be so close to him. Her belly is rubbing up against him, but there’s no space to move this way or that. The smell of soda water is irritating her, making mucus dribble to her lips. She sniffs it back up into her nose, continuously.
A man in a tan suit swaggers through the “Staff Only” doors, taps the desk with his pen, demands silence. His Jesus sandals make squeaky sounds on the polished floor.
“Our computers are down,” he announces solemnly. “Try the other branches.”
“But they don’t have money, we were told to come here!” somebody shouts, his statement quickly validated by several murmurs.
The man with the Jesus sandals shrugs. “Our computers are down,” he repeats. “Come and check later.”
He disappears to a hubbub of protests. Nobody moves. Then, one by one, people begin to find an empty spot on the floor. She’s glad for the opportunity to move away from her father, to find a space by the corner and make herself as small as possible amidst the packed bodies.
The man in the suit returns a few minutes later. His yellow face reminds her of a used teabag, soaked over and over again to make a weak, insipid infusion.
“Come back later,” he says, with a pinched expression.
Nobody moves. He stands uncertainly for a while, his hands suspended as though they are not sure where to go.
“I said come back later. Our computers are down.” His voice is shrill.
After a few moments, he shrugs and disappears again.
How long before Mama had known?
She no longer waited for their shadows, Mama’s and Father’s, thrown by moonlight gushing through a square hole in the wall, visible through the flimsy sheet that partitioned the single room into their bedroom and the rest of the house. No longer cared to pick up new tricks to revive Spiro’s waning interest in her. She burrowed deep into her “Rambai Makashinga – We Will Survive” T-shirt, scooped up at a rally during the last elections, now brown and sagging. Pulled the sheet high over her head, and spanked her little brother whenever he tried to watch them. Harder than she’d spanked Vuyo the morning he announced to Father that she had wee’d blood onto the sheets, holding up the evidence and wrinkling his little nose as he turned away in disgust.
How long before Mama had known? Before they began communicating the little things with their mouths and the big things with their eyes? Had it been when she began dragging her mat and Vuyo outside whenever the mattress began to groan? She could not ask her why, Mama – the embarrassment muted her questions. So she began searching for answers elsewhere. Like in the way Father began to avoid her, in the way she was no longer able to look him in the eye. In the way she was careful to make sure their hands did not touch whenever she brought him his meals. Mama had been watching, and her eyes had begun to ask questions.
“Mama, I . . . Mama –” she began one day.
But Mama had cut her off, cut in swiftly to remind her that it was getting dark and ZESA would go any minute, they needed firewood.
“Mama . . .” she had tried again.
She had straightened up from her pots then, Mama, she had drawn herself up to her full height, loomed over her. She had read it in her eyes, the big things.
“I . . .” eyes dropping to the cracked cement floor. “Mama . . .”
“Yes?” her breathing laboured now, Mama’s chest heaving up and down, up and down. “Yes?”
She began to cry.
Mama repeated calmly that it was getting dark – the firewood – and folded herself over her pots again.
The woman with the carefully combed perm has the slanting eyes of a vixen, their shape outlined by pink and blue eyeliner. She has removed her stilettos; her feet are spread so far apart that her mini is sure to burst at the seams. People are tired of staring, except for the fat man in a stained suit who is busy ogling her. She keeps making calls on an expensive little flip-up, shouting in a hoarse voice to “JB” about these “stupid Western Union people”, how she’s lost out on a deal, exclaiming “Zvinhu zvemuZimbabwe zvinonetsa, heyi mhani!”, until the guard orders her to make her call outside. Yes, Zimbabwean issues really are a problem.
There is a guy with an unkempt Afro slouching in the corner. He reminds her of an American movie she’d once seen, where there were these dagga-smoking fellas who called themselves “Radicals of the Free Movement”. Didn’t comb their hair. Let it twist and knot and gather blanket hair and anything else that was eager to leech onto it. Didn’t seem to have jobs to go to. Homes to go to. Spitting poetry on the street corner the whole day, or in alleys where the police couldn’t see them. Smoke swirling seductively from their noses, through their brains, giving them intellectual power. Puff puff puff, throughout the entire movie.
There’s a particular scene she remembers well, where the fellas were running away from the police. Laughing hysterically, real crazy-like. One of them got hit by a car and they were still laughing. Blood spilling over broken glass, and they were laughing.
Impulsively, she rubs her belly, thinks how she feels like laughing. Throwing herself in front of a moving truck and laughing.
She spoke to Pinky, and after that Mama knew for certain. Pinky was everybody’s friend, loud, brash, didn’t know how to keep secrets. She spoke to her anyway, would later conclude that she hadn’t been thinking straight when she’d done so. But by then it would not matter.
“Whose is it?”
She stared into the far-off distance and knotted her fingers and pretended not to have heard anything.
“Mm, Surf. It will get rid of the . . . it.”
She found a little packet in Mama’s drawers, labelled “Wega Washing Powder – Super-clean it’s supa!” She took a spoonful, only a spoonful, because she’d forgotten to ask Pinky how much to take and she was certain any more than that was likely to do more harm to her than to . . . it.
A week of diarrhoea, vomiting, but no blood. No period.
A woman has spread her baby’s towel on the ground and is busy shovelling oily chips into the little mouth.
Her own tummy grumbles.
She turns her face towards the soft fluorescence spilling from the fancy bulbs with grooves on them. Stares at the round clock with the words “Inspired. Motivated. Involved” running across
the bottom in gold lettering. Listens to the lazy seconds tick
Tears are glistening in her eyes. She shuts them.
She’s thinking of Spiro.
They were by their usual spot, in the bush between her house and the Spar. He didn’t make a move to touch her, didn’t make a grab for her tits. She struggled to breathe. The humid air was pressing itself down on her, burdening the atmosphere like bad breath that refuses to go away. The steely sky was blinding her, bringing tears to her eyes.
No bad poetry scribbled in pencil on the back of Spar receipts. No, those hadn’t come in a long time.
She watched the thin film of marijuana haze settling over his eyes, red swollen veins pulsing in his temple. She herself was enjoying a glob of umuhlwa, she loved the earthy taste of it, freshly scraped off a msasa tree. He was busy chewing on a grass stalk. Chomp chomp chomp. Refusing to meet her inquiring gaze.
“I hear you’re pregnant.”
She looked away, closed her eyes.
“It’s not mine.”
“How can you say that –”
“It’s not mine, you hear?”
“I have to go.”
“I have to go. Bye.”
“See you later?” she tried hopefully.
She watched him walk away, his buttocks visible through the hole in his shorts. Continued to watch, even when he was gone. Looked up to check the height of the trees. Wondered how they did it, the people who tied ropes around their necks.
She planted her bum right there, among the grass stalks that seemed to be shivering, shivering with her, and began to cry.
The woman with the carefully combed perm is shouting at the teller.
“How long before the machines start working?”
The teller doesn’t know.
“Well, find out!”
The teller shrugs. “Go to inquiries.”
“Lady, go to inquiries.”
“Such service! Everybody using the state of the economy as an excuse to ill-treat customers!”
Silence. Just the shh-hh of a nail file across the teller’s nails.
“Don’t you know anything about customer service?”
“If you don’t stop harassing me, I will call security.”
“Where is the manager? Such second-rate service, and at a world-class bank too! Why, back mu-England, you don’t even wait one minute, not one second, you –”
“Hey, mama,” the woman interrupts her, “this is not England, if you got deported don’t come here to take out your stresses on me.”
“What! What are you saying? I was not deported!”
“Listen, don’t be silly, these people don’t pay me well anyway, so please, don’t try and get funny with me.” The teller gives her a sideways glance and throws her an annoyed “Nxx”.
“The manager will hear about this! You stupid girl! How dare you speak to me like that! Do you even have O Level? Stupiti!”
And out she totters, the woman with the carefully combed perm, balancing precariously on her stilettos.
The teller snickers.
She didn’t know whose it was, she insisted. Glanced at her father, thought of Spiro.
Her father got up, stumbled out, embraced the blackness of the night.
She wrung her hands and said she didn’t know whose it was. Didn’t know how it could’ve happened.
Mama began to cry.
She didn’t move, stared at the plastic flowers in the broken cup on a small table in the middle of the cement floor, thinking how fresh they looked.
When Mama was done crying, she said, “You are going to ekhaya straight.”
Her head snapped back sharply, as though she had been slapped.
“No more schooling for you. You are going to reap your whoring.”
She stared at Mama. Thought of her father, thought of Spiro.
“What about Father?”
“I said, if I’m going to reap my whoring, then so is Father. I’m going to tell everyone. Let me stay, and let me go to school, or else I’m going to tell everyone.”
The slap was for real this time – pah! It sent her tumbling to the floor.
“You think I don’t know? You think I don’t know about that stupid boy of yours from the shops? You think I don’t know?”
And she was crying again, Mama. And now they were crying together.
The man with the yellow face has returned. His suit is now
crumpled, as forlorn as the faces staring back at him.
“We are closing now. Come back tomorrow.”
“How am I going to get home?” somebody shouts.
“What are my children going to eat tonight?”
“Give us our money, we have money sent from the UK so how can you say you don’t have it? You are lying, the machines are working, you’ve eaten our money!”
The man shrugs. “If you don’t leave now, I will call security and we will not open tomorrow.”
The crowd hesitates. The fat man with the stained suit is the first to leave. Then, slowly, grumbling, mumbling, threatening to sleep inside the bank, others begin to drag themselves away.
She’s tired. She’s hungry.
One more day means one more day for her in the city. No bus to ekhaya tomorrow. Home. She does not know what to feel.
She’s behind her father as they trudge out of the bank, down the steps, like an elderly couple, into the dim early-evening light. The whip of bitter winter air is comforting. They join the rush to the train station, the silence screaming between them, arguing, confrontational.
It is 17:24.
Waiting is a story extracted from Shadows by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, published by Kwela (R175).
Author photograph by CRAIG SWARTBOOI.