Fresh Starts

The hot summer’s day was tapering to an end as Siya’s bus finally pulled to a stop in the middle of the City. It parked clumsily in the centre parking and straddled a number of parking bays, much to the annoyance of commuters who were scrambling across the wide street in the middle of rush hour traffic to make it into the taxis so they could be home before the sun dipped completely behind the horizon. The cacophony of city noises that exploded into the bus as the driver opened the door jolted Siya from her reverie. She quickly felt blindly for her satchel underneath the worn seat, stretched and double checked that her belongings were all in place. She rolled up her earphones and dropped them into the concealed pocket inside the bag. She then felt for the thick envelope that her grandmother had smuggled to her as she was climbing onto the bus four hours ago. She knew it was filled with money that her uncles would have loved to squander at the only pub at the local Growth Point.

Her grandmother was an industrious maize farmer who had unfortunately been blessed with six delinquent children. Four of these children still lived in and around the homestead that Siya had grown up in, and refused to do anything about the many children they sired across the small town. Siya’s mother was the last child of the six and had taken Siya to her grandmother as soon as she had been weaned from her mother’s breast. She could count the number of times her mother had visited and it was always over the Christmas holidays. She phoned every now and then to keep up the pretence of caring and to ask after her. She sometimes sent money for Siya through the headman’s wife. The whole town knew that the headman’s wife was sleeping with Uncle Qhubani but of course, nobody spoke out about it.

Siya waited until the last person had made their way towards the front of the bus before standing up, readjusting the denim jacket she had tied around her slim hips and swinging her satchel over one shoulder as she had seen the stylish models do in old copies of Drum magazine. She needed all the confidence she could muster for this encounter. She patted her pocket and pulled out her hand-me-down cellphone. Uncle Mbonisi had always been sweet on her and made sure she had a phone before she made the move to the City. He had whispered to her as he handed her the sleek, black, button-less phone, “so that those city boys don’t dazzle you with technology”. She didn’t bother asking where he had gotten the phone from and she and Gogo had laughed about his ‘resourcefulness’ as they sat in the kitchen trying to figure out how to turn the darn thing on.  Uncle Mbonisi never spoke to her in their mother tongue. She loved that about him because it meant she would not be laughed at when she started her classes, surrounded by children who spoke English through their noses. Gogo attributed Uncle Mbonisi’s reluctance to khuluma (speak) to his ‘fall from grace’ as a teacher at one of the high schools in the City. He was fired for making a girl pregnant there and no other school would hire him after he made headlines for a week. He was now the maths and science teacher at the local primary school and he tutored older children who had failed their maths exams. He spoke in English to remind everyone that he used to be important in a place nobody really cared about. The neighbourhood girls called him UNcube Ohluphayo (the bothersome Ncube) because he had never stopped his lustful behaviour and stayed out of his way.

Siya hesitated on the bottom metal step of the old bus and scanned the crowd for her mother. She knew what to expect from the photos she sent to Gogo. Her mother was taller than the average woman and Siya shared her boyish figure. Slender, with just enough breast to fill the palm of a grown man. Gogo said that was all men really needed, anything more was a waste. She knew her mother liked to keep her hair short and generally styled in the classic ‘bibo’. As she looked across the teeming street she was fascinated by the variety of people. Taxi drivers harassed the disembarked passengers with exorbitant prices whilst young, desperate men offered to push luggage to the CBD’s perimeter in carts for small fees. She was paralysed for a moment as she thought of what her life would be like now, being afraid to speak to strangers and walking alone in the City. She heard her name called out in a familiar sing-song fashion, “Siyambonga, mntanami!” (Siyambonga, my child!)

Her mother was the only person who called her by her full name. Sometimes she even used Diana – Gogo’s re-gifted name. Siya found it endearing. Well, anything to give her the semblance of a bond with the mother she never really knew. Lillian – Siya’s mother- was coming from work and was dressed to the nines. She was wearing a burgundy two-piece suit with a floral blouse that wrapped around her long neck in an elaborate bow. Pinned to her left pocket was a name tag which read ‘Lilly’. Her chunky golden earrings accentuated her pretty round face and the ‘bibo’ looked freshly cut and doused in ‘s-curl’ to give it that 90s RnB boy-band look. Her thick lips were red and as she smiled up at her daughter, Siya felt like she was looking into a mirror. She had the same lanky frame and a perfect smile, although she often thought she had too many teeth in her mouth. Their eyes were the same large, expressive black-brown, with lashes that were almost too long. The only difference was Siya’s hair, which she had not cut since she was a little girl. Gogo was obsessed with making her look as feminine as possible because of all the teasing Siya had endured from the other children. Her hair was currently tied in a high ponytail and laid sleekly after her visit to the Growth Point for what would likely be her last relaxing session with NaSalome. NaSalome had a monopoly on hair styling in their town and she was, of course, the worst gossip. Come to think of it, everyone likely knew about Uncle Qhubani and the headman’s wife because NaSalome couldn’t keep a secret. But what she lacked in confidant qualities, she more than made up for with her mean hot comb technique.

Siya hopped to the ground and straight into her mother’s outstretched arms. She smelled like Exclamation – the black and white bottle shaped like an exclamation mark that she had on her dressing table back home reminded her of her mother. They stood like that for a long moment and when Siya pulled back, her mother blinked away the beginning of tears and pressed a red kiss to her daughter’s forehead. They quickly gathered Siya’s battered suitcase before one of the loiterers pinched it. As they wheeled it to Lillian’s grey Nissan Sunny, Siya marvelled at the speed with which Lillian moved despite her high heeled sandals. After bundling the bag into the car, Siya lowered herself into the the passenger’s seat and fumbled with the seatbelt for a second. She mentally kicked herself because she didn’t want to appear backward to her sophisticated mother. Other than the headman and the Police chief, Uncle Mbonisi was the only one in the homestead surrounds with a car. He had forced her to get her driver’s licence as soon as she turned sixteen. She had not been aware at the time that he had selfish reasons for the free lessons. She had promptly become his designated driver on his debaucherous sprees (every weekend).

She had witnessed her first sexual tryst whilst sitting in his Mazda twin-cab and parked outside Bruce’s Shebeen (the owner’s name was in fact Thokozani). Liberty was the most popular guy in the area. He always had on Converse All stars and never went anywhere without a velvet blazer on. Siya and her friends each had fantasies about becoming his wife one day whilst joking about how awful he must smell underneath his blazers. He would come to the Growth Point every Friday from Jozi with gifts for all his girlfriends and parcels for those with family in Jozi. She had watched him stumble out of Bruce’s, half empty Black Label in one hand and Soneni’s light-skinned hand in the other. Siya had been falling asleep when she had caught the movement in her peripheral vision. She’d sat still for fear of being noticed. She had watched as Liberty and Sox, as she was known, turned the corner and her eyes had grown as big as saucers when she saw what a man’s penis looked like when aroused. She swore she would never have sex after she heard Sox’s cries from what definitely looked like pleasure but sounded like a slaughter house. Or at least,what she imagined a slaughter house sounded like. She remembered how Liberty had walked back into the bar alone while Sox fumbled in her bag for tissues and cleaned herself up before following him.

Siya was jerked back to the present when her mother turned up Brenda Fassie and reversed at full speed into the crowd behind her, all the while muttering under her breath about the silly people who did not fear cars on the road. She hummed along to Nomakanjani, and Siya took the time to squint out at the tall buildings and bustling vehicles. She took in each traffic light and every pothole. Finally, they left the busy city and drove into the suburbs, now lit up with over eager street lights which competed with dusk’s light. Her mother slowed down as they took a bend and turned the music down.

“You know that I’m married now Siya. My husband’s name is Vusa and he works at Delta. So you can have all the Coke you want”, she chuckled nervously. “We also live with Vusa’s young brother, Alex. Please, I don’t want trouble okay, sisi? He is twenty-seven and he has a girlfriend but you know boys. Just be polite and ask me if anything makes you uncomfortable.” Siya scrunched up her face as her mother spoke. She spoke about Alex the same way Gogo spoke about Uncle Mbonisi – with a forced lightness to gloss over uncomfortable truths. They turned into a gate that shielded prying eyes from a Victorian looking house with wide windows, two chimneys and a black roof. The outside walls used to be white and there were little weeds growing out of the cracks that were closer to the ground. The lawn was immaculate, as was the stone paved driveway. Lillian parked just in front of the grill that made the gate to the garage and called for Alex to come and help with the suitcase.

Alex sauntered out of a door close to the garage, topless and eating a mango. He was a handsome enough man with a line shaved into his head, as was the style. He sucked on the seed as he eyed Siya from over the top of the car. She waved shyly at him and he jerked his head at her in what she assumed was a greeting. As he walked towards the car, Siya felt something shift inside her. An air of danger wafted from Alex, and not the kind that gives you butterflies, the kind that warns you of nothing but pain and tears. She made a mental note to trust her mother about Alex. He carelessly yanked the bag from the boot and dragged it into the house. Lillian pressed her worn clicker and the gate slowly slid into place. She clicked on another remote and the car made a hooting sound. Lillian made her way towards the side door and Siya followed, somewhat hesitantly. She entered the kitchen and was pleasantly surprised by what met her. The inside of the house was a departure from the faded outside walls. A new looking double door fridge stood to one side and next to it, a similarly silver washing machine. At the stove stood a helper, opening and shutting pots. It smelt like Siya’s favourite- oxtail and isitshwala. She smiled at her mother in gratitude for the small kindness of trying to make her feel welcome. She greeted the girl who was cooking and learnt that her name was Pretty. Turned out,Pretty was the same age as Siya, just unable to enrol in school because, well, poverty. The rest of the kitchen was green and white, with white mesh curtains hanging from the only window in the room. The clock on the wall told her it had just gone past six.

Lillian took Siya’s hand and led her into a spacious lounge with a plush brown carpet. The four leather sofas were arranged to face an entertainment centre decked out with a big screen which was currently showing a football match of some sort. She smiled when she recognised the one team as Chelsea – Liberty’s favourite. The French-windows were open and she saw that someone in the house was green fingered because the flower garden showed off its blooms in the distance. A man stood from one of the sofas and she looked up at him, awed by his height. She supposed one would have to be tall to marry her mother. Vusa hugged her in an overly familiar hug and welcomed her into their home with a warm smile. He reminded her of Uncle Mbonisi – the avuncular appeal calmed her.

She mumbled a thank you and executed a curtsey as she had been raised to do before older men. After Vusa pecked her mother on the lips in greeting, Siya was all but dragged to a room at the end of the narrow passage, whilst her mother chattered about the changes she had made. Lillian clasped her hands together dramatically before pushing the door open with her hip. Siya had always had a room to herself, being the only child at Gogo’s house, but it had never been this big. In the middle, against one of the pink walls, was a double bed, dressed in pink floral bedding and two matching pillows. The wooden floor gleamed and Siya could almost make out her teeth in her reflection. She made a note to help Pretty with the floors as often as she could because Gogo also had wooden tiles. She had spent many a Saturday morning shining them until her arms hurt and she would use her feet, praying that Gogo would never catch her and lecture her about the virtues of a woman who wasn’t lazy. The built in wardrobes already had a few toiletries strategically placed, including a bottle of Exclamation. That made her smile. She leaned into her mother and thanked her with her totem. Her mother’s face lit up and she exclaimed Siya’s name in that sing-song way she had.

They settled on the bed and Lillian started speaking, somewhat awkwardly. “I know that I was not there when you went through the big changes in your life but I know uMama was taking care of you. She told me you still like pink, so I’m glad you like the room. Vusa and Alex painted it last week.” She paused, took a breath and continued, “I’m glad you are here with me now. Vusa doesn’t want any more children – he has two young girls who live with their mother. You will meet them sometime.” And as if it were perfectly normal to move from family to periods in one conversation, Lillian asked, “do you use tampons?” Siya shook her head in shock at the question, but also to get her bearings. Her mother was speeding through the conversation and it wasn’t quite how Siya had imagined their first bonding experience. “You must learn, pads are so messy and hard to hide. I’ll show you. There’s a lock on your door – keep it locked when you sleep and when you are changing okay?” There was that Uncle Mbonisi voice again. Siya nodded and fidgeted with her satchel.

“Oh!”, exclaimed Lillian, ” I bought you some jeans, I hope they fit.” She got up and opened one of the wardrobe doors. Siya could have fainted. There were at least twelve pairs of different coloured denims folded neatly next to what she assumed were t-shirts. “Oh, this is nothing, I have a 30% employee discount at work. So just come to the Edgars on Jason Moyo if you  want something new okay?” Siya nodded again, feeling a little overwhelmed. Her mother’s face grew serious, “Siyambonga, you must always wear jeans when you go to school or when you party with your friends, okay? It’s safer for you.” Siya’s brain stalled in confusion, and revved back up again when she remembered Liberty and Sox. She quickly nodded her head in embarrassment. Gogo always spoke in such heavy layers that it always took thorough analysis with her girlfriends to figure out what it was that Gogo was saying.

Her feelings of discomfort did not ease when her mother opened the top drawer of the worn chest of drawers and beckoned her to come have a look. The drawer was filled with underwear, and not the cotton ones that came in packs of 6 that Lillian usually sent home. Lacy panties and what looked like the g-strings she and the girls would giggle over in the magazines NaSalome had in her salon. Gogo would never allow such doti (filth) in her house. Lillian smiled a knowing smile and said, “you’re a woman now Siyambonga. You’re going to college and you will meet a friend there. A woman must always be prepared. We can talk some more later but this is your room.” She shut the drawer and walked towards the entrance, still in her heels. She paused and turned slightly, “I love you, mntanami. We’re going to have a lovely time”.

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