yesterday I drowned a rat, or rather
failed to rescue it from the rain barrel,
when that is the singular thing it needed.
had it been a mouse, say, or a shrew, a vole,
or a seriously misdirected mole, any rodent
cousin with anxious paws like a little
brown widow who’d lost her handbag, fine,
then I’d not have hesitated to offer it a twig;
but not a damned big rat, there I draw the line.
In school Biology we’d opened one with a
scalpel and I’d looked among the damp
glistening coils for some part of it to blame
for the Great Plagues, for the pestering of flesh
from corpses in Wars, the scaly tail looking
like the pickpocket implement of someone
who rigs races, sells stolen cars, takes good
watches off drunks in bars; then puzzled
all night about which part of me harbored
such callousness. Had places been reversed,
my thin-toed feet scrambling useless on a
course of sinking leaves, would any rat have
cared to look in me, for an organ of remorse?
On winter mornings
it is still dark
when you get up.
I lie a little longer
watching light creep
into the room,
across the bed,
up the white wall
until it touches
You bring my tea
your black coffee.
We read a while,
news of our
woeful world –
of fires of floods
of births and deaths
I come back
into this room
I am sitting –
Nineteen eighty seven was a special year. We would be going to high school for standard eight up to matric. It was also the year that I came to know The Voice.
Like most of my classmates, I was excited about going to high school. But I was more anxious than excited. You see, our school hosted a farewell function in our honour, and among the speakers there was to be a student representing the class of 1987. The speech had to be delivered in English, to a hall full of school inspectors, teachers, parents and fellow students. Our English teacher, Mrs Mgebe, chose me to be the class representative. I was mortified, but I had no choice. I had three weeks to write and practice this speech. Although Mrs Mgebe helped me, it was the longest three weeks of my life.
As if this farewell speech was not enough, I also had personal problems. Cala, my hometown, boasts a number of good high schools. I could go to any high school I wanted. My exam marks would open doors for me. I was an A student. The problem was, I did not want to go to any of the high schools in Cala. Outside of Cala, there were some options in Mthatha, like St John’s College, St. Patricks’ High and Nozuko High, and Mount Arthur Girls’ High in Lady Frere. They were boarding schools, out of walking distance from my home. Going to them meant extra money from my father who was the only working person in the family. Extra money for boarding fees, transport, nice clothes, extra money for this, extra money for that, extra money my family did not have.
On a hot summer afternoon I was outside my home, sitting below the small four pane wooden window between the sitting room door and the kitchen door and thinking about these problems. Right under this window was my grandmother’s maize crushing pot. A round, heavy stone pot. My grandmother did not use it to crush maize anymore. These days she bought crushed maize, called samp, from the store. The pot had now ended up as an additional stool when people were sitting outside. I loved sitting on that pot. It was always warm from being in the sun the whole day. Whenever I sat on it, I felt happy. Its warmth travelled up my body and down my legs at the same time.
On this particular day in 1987 I was sitting on my grandmother’s crushing pot in full-blown anxiety about the farewell speech and the issue of which high school I would end up going to. I was so deep in worry that I did not even feel the warmth of the pot that I enjoyed so much. The first verse from the Psalm we recited at school was running in my mind on and on − Psalm 121, verse one: “I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from?” I don’t know whether I was in prayer or whether the verse was triggered by the fact that, in facing north, my home faced the Drakensberg mountains in the distance, and even closer was our town’s small mountain called Koppietjie. During droughts elders and children who could climb Koppietjie would go up to pray for rain. Maybe I too was praying to Koppietjie for help.
As I was sitting on the crushing pot, The Voice arrived. It sat beside me. I say it sat because I do not know how else to describe this. It did not hover over me like grown-ups do, standing next to you when you are sitting down. The Voice was like a presence, an invisible shadow. We sat in silence for a while. Then it spoke. Well, it did not really speak, like saying words out loud. It spoke inside me. I sensed its words. It said, “I will always look after you. You will be fine.” It was such a beautiful voice. Beautiful because, even though it had no accent, it sounded familiar, like a voice I had heard before and which I had been longing to hear again. Inside me I said, “Thank you.” We sat in silence again. The verse from Psalm 121 stopped going round and round in my head. I felt calm. Moments later, The Voice left.
* * *
The storm was quickly building up. From a clear, bright blue January sky, it turned quickly into a dark, angry cloud hovering over Mnxe. Within no time it had taken a few strides to hang over town. Like an angry giant, without notice, it poured buckets and buckets of water over the houses. The hailstones in the water made a rackety-rickety sound as they hit the old zinc roofs. As if bent on scaring everyone, the angry giant coughed up big chunks of light that hung in the middle of the sky like trees with no roots. Then the giant laughed at all of us who were scared. Big, booming sounds came from his invisible mouth.
I sat quietly on the sofa in the sitting room. I did not move or look around. Ou Giddy, my grandmother, taught us that people must be still when a thunderstorm is going on. She said we must especially not show our teeth because the lightening gets attracted to light colours and could strike you. That is why we always covered all the mirrors in the house when we saw a storm brewing. I sat still, praying that the storm would pass quickly. I hated it when the giant in the sky played these games on us.
Looking out to the street I saw some people hurrying to their homes. They dared not run, lightening would strike them if they did. They also could not go into the houses on their way home, the people would not let them in, in case they brought the lightening in with them. You see, everybody, even grown-ups, was afraid of the lightening. It burnt down homes and killed cattle out in the veld. Everybody was afraid of the giant in the sky.
As if unaware of the rules of what to do during a thunderstorm, someone burst through the front gate. It must have taken him one stride instead of the normal three to get into the house. He was so quick, I didn’t even have time to figure out who it was. Breathless, he stood in the middle of the sitting room and said, “Yho, molweni”, as if he too was surprised to find himself in the middle of the room. He was as wet as a rag. Ou Giddy, with flashing light in her eyes, boomed, “Sit down!”. He said, “Sorry.” and crashed into the space next to me.
It was Lunga, my cousin. I wondered what he was doing in town this late in the afternoon. My mother’s family lived in Lower Seplan, a village about twenty kilometres out of Cala town. Maybe he got delayed doing shopping and missed the kombis that transported people to the villages. He did not have any bags with him. That was odd, I thought.
As if unaware of the rules about thunderstorms, as soon as he had caught his breath, Lunga burst out, “My father said I must fetch Nobesuthu. She is going to Mount Arthur.” Silence. Dead silence. I mean, a new silence descended on the room to join the existing silence of the thunderstorm rules. Ou Giddy flashed her eyes in the direction of my father. He glared in the direction of Lunga and me. Lunga looked down. I turned my head and looked outside. My heart was beating so crazy, I thought my chest would burst and lightening would strike me dead. I did not want to die, not today. Not when, maybe, just maybe, my dreams were about to come true.
“Nobesuthu, what do you say?” After what seemed like eternity, my father broke the silence.
“About what, Tata?” My voice squeaked out.
“Do you want to go to Mount Arthur?” He glared at me.
When my father asked a question glaring at you, you knew the right answer was, “No, Tata. I do not want to go.” After all, I was the one responsible for the day to day running of our home. Even though Ou Giddy was the eldest female, she let me make the decisions about what happened in our house. I handled the money my father brought home, dividing it into money for groceries, school fees, clothes when we needed them. I did the same with Ou Giddy’s monthly old age pension. Despite all this running through my mind, I just could not say, “No, Tata. I do not want to go.” There was too much at stake. I had been praying to God to make a plan for me to go to Mount Arthur and The Voice had also promised me that it would always look after me. This surely was the answer to my prayer and a fulfilment of The Voice’s promise. Surely I could not go back on my prayer to God nor would I let The Voice down.
With eyes cast down, I said, “Yes, Tata, I want to go.”
He glared at me one more time and said, “Ok.” And looked away.
For the first time in my fifteen years of age, I saw my grandmother break the thunderstorm rules. She stood up and said to me, “Come, let’s pack your suitcase.” Not that I had a suitcase of my own. My suitcase was to be one of the suitcases under our beds that had less stuff in it. The stuff was transferred to another, less full suitcase under the bed. I ended up with a green square suitcase, still less full because I had all of only three dresses, two pairs of shoes, two skirts and tops and a couple of mismatching bras and panties.
As if on cue with my packing, as soon as Ou Giddy closed the suitcase, the rain stopped. The last drops went peter-patter on the roof and died down. With hardly any time to absorb what was happening to my life at that moment, Lunga and I left my home. We walked up the road, dodging puddles and jumping over rivulets on the gravel road towards the edge of town. Lunga carried my suitcase, bouncing it on the side of his leg as he jumped around trying to avoid getting his shoes wet. There was still a chill in the air from the thunderstorm. We were fortunate that we got a lift soon after we got to the hitchhiking spot. We reached Aesketon, a village between Cala and Lower Seplan, just as darkness fell. My uncle was waiting for us in his beat-up bakkie. He drove us to his home where I was going to spend the night before he took me to Mount Arthur on the following day.
The night was uneventful. We all went to bed early enough. I struggled to fall asleep. I always do at an unfamiliar place. When sleep eventually came, I slept soundly until I was woken up by the light of dawn seeping through the old, worn-out curtains. The cocks were just starting to crow. It must have been about four o’clock. I tried to fall back to sleep but no sleep came. Instead, I started imagining what it would be like in Mount Arthur. Was the school principal as strict as she was famous to be? Would the girls there like me? Would I like them? Would I fit in? I was particularly worried about fitting in. The girls I knew in Cala who went to Mount Arthur all came from the families with big surnames. Big surnames in Cala were the rich families where the mother and father were professionals. Even their grandmothers and grandfathers had been professionals. They had homes with verandas and big windows with lace curtains. They drove big, shiny cars. Their daughters went to Mount Arthur and their sons went to Freemantle Boys’ high school. My family had none of that. My family did not have a big surname. My father was a truck driver and my mother had run away. What would I do if I could not fit in at Mount Arthur?
I started crying. What seemed like a dream come true started feeling like the beginning of a nightmare. What started as only tears running from my half-closed eyes turned into sobs. I cried and cried and cried, choking on my sobs as I tried to keep them in. I did not want my cousins in the next room to hear me.
I was so absorbed in my crying that I did not feel The Voice arrive. I only realised it was there when it said, “Wherever you go, there will always be people sent ahead to receive you.” I felt comforted and looked forward to the first day of my new life.
* * *
For the most part, my life at Mount Arthur was uneventful. There were as many girls from big surnames as there were us who came from not big surnames. I fitted in with the group that did not fit in. The group who found entertainment between the pages of books. From the James Hadley Chase detective stories to Mills and Boon romance novels. We read everything we could lay our hands on and spent many Saturday afternoons sitting under the trees behind the dormitories, talking about the characters in these books as if they were people we knew personally.
My going to Mount Arthur also made me not fit in with the kids I had gone to secondary school with back in Cala. No, that’s not right. I did not fit in with their parents. Parents who had never known my name in all the six years I was at secondary school with their kids. Make it nine years for those whose kids had been with me in the three years of primary school.
When I came home for the June holidays, a number of parents stopped me, asking, “Are you the girl from that house, who is now at Mount Arthur?”
I was used to people referring to my home as ‘that house”. Nobody completed the sentence. We all knew what ‘that house’ meant. It meant “That house where there is always drinking, swearing and fighting.”
So I replied, “Yes, I am, ma’m.”.
“How did you get in? Did you get a bursary?”
“So, who’s paying your fees?”
“Oh.” Pondering silence.
“Remind me, is your father that man called Topose?”
“Ok.” Another pondering silence.
I walked on just as the look I came to call their maths face came on. I called it the maths face because, as soon as I confirmed my home and my father, I saw them trying to work out how a truck driver’s salary could pay Mount Arthur fees. Even though Mount Arthur was a public school, it was run like a private school. As a result, without even checking the facts, people assumed it was expensive. In reality, Mount Arthur fees were the same as other boarding schools in the former Transkei.
Just as there were parents asking me how I got into Mount Arthur, there were almost as many kids who told me, “Hayi, suka, don’t pride yourself on being a Mount Arthur girl. Next year you will be back at Cala High.”
“You are lying. I won’t.” I replied defiantly. Inside I was wondering, did they know something I didn’t? Was I going to be expelled from Mount Arthur? Crazy, crazy thoughts I was thinking. I only got answers when my friend, Nomsa, came to visit me at my home. We were sitting outside, playing cards, using my grandmother’s crushing pot as a table between us. I told Nomsa what the other kids were saying to me.
“I heard the rumours too.” She said.
“But, what do they mean that I will be back next year?”
“Well, the thing is, nobody believes that your father will be able to keep up with Mount Arthur fees.”
In my joy and pride of being a Mount Arthur girl, I had completely forgotten the reality of my family’s financial situation. I had pushed aside the nagging fear that, even though my mother, a teacher, was paying my fees, if for any reason she could not keep up, indeed, my father would not be able to pay them either. What the kids in Cala were saying was a possibility I was not ready for. I lied to Nomsa and said I had a headache. She left.
I continued sitting next to the crushing pot. A big lump of emotion somehow lodged in my throat. I wanted to scream, “Why are you saying these things? Why are you spreading rumours about me?”, yet I knew what they were saying was true. All I could say was, “Why? Why’ Why?”
The Voice arrived at this point.
“Nobesuthu, you must understand this. Not everybody will always be happy for you. Some people don’t like to see others succeed.” It said.
“But I have not done anything to them. Why are they being mean to me?” I lamented.
“Some people judge others unworthy of God’s blessings.”
“Because some believe only they deserve good things while others believe, because they don’t deserve good things, then nobody else deserves them.”
“But these people are from the big surnames, they already have what will take me years to get,” I moaned.
As if to prove my point, a big grey Mercedes Benz drove past. The father of this big surname family, who was a school principal, was driving, with his nurse wife sitting next to him.
“This has nothing to do with what you have and where you are now. It has everything to do with the future.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some people can see you have big dreams for your future. They become jealous and try to discourage you. They say things that are not true about you so that you will get scared and stop chasing your dream.”
I thought of the places I read about in Mills and Boon that I wanted to visit when I am grown-up. Places like Mauritius, London and Paris. I thought of the mountains I wanted to climb, mountains like Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro that I read about in Geography. I thought about all the money I wanted to have so that my family would not be poor anymore. I wanted to build my family a big, beautiful house, like the big surname families. Then nobody would ever refer to my home as ‘that house’.
“Well, I am scared now.”
“Don’t worry, they will not succeed. The dream you have in your heart is stronger than their jealousy.”
“How do you know?”
“The dreams in our hearts are God’s promises for our future. When God places a dream in your heart, He also makes sure nobody can kill that dream. He wants you to have the future He has planned for you.”
* * *
I have come to call it the promise that was made to me by The Voice. Some people call it faith, some a calling and even scary, some call it possession by spirits. Whatever it is, it works for me. It has become a very dear friend to whom I have been closer than any other friend I have had in my life. It’s not even a friendship I sought out. It came to me. It never told me its name. For a long time, I did not know what to call it. The name I use for it came to me recently. I call it The Voice. It speaks to me of wisdom I have not yet attained, places I have not yet seen, dreams I have not yet achieved. It speaks to me of a future I yearn for but do not have the courage to pursue.
The Voice also speaks to me about mundane things. It reminds me to leave early to avoid traffic, it directs me to which side of the mall to go to find a parking spot. It tells me which foods to avoid because they are not good for me. Of course, when it comes to food, I ignore it. It does not eat, it does not know the tastes it wants me to give up.
Even though the most definite moment I can remember is the summer of 1987, when The Voice first spoke to me, I think it had already been a presence in my life for about two years. It just came, uninvited but welcome