The first thing I remember is being in Oledi’s arms. She was singing. Her brownish afro shone in the sunlight coming in over her shoulders and her eyes were black and darkened as she stooped to kiss me. It must have been in Cape Town. I must have been between two and three years old. Then there is nothing… then the first move.
I leaned on my elbows on the balcony railing and watched the evening invade the suburb. The smell of the sea filled my nostrils. I was tired. A few cars passed on the street beyond the blooming hedges. The neighbour’s Jaguar went by, then the gate opened, and the Jaguar rolled up the driveway. It stopped, the wife got out, took out grocery bags from the boot and carried them inside the house. The house had been deserted after the last owners moved out. I used to play in it every day with my friends. Oledi would chase us out with a belt till one of the twins showed a bruised arm to their parents. She stopped using the belt, but she never stopped chasing us out, and still day after day we returned. We liked the chase. That had been a long time ago though. The twin drowned at sea and some businessman bought the house and moved in with his wife ― everything changed. I looked around at the dining table and the tablecloth and the wicker settees around the dining table. I’d never again see these banal objects from which I’d never thought of being parted. Then I ran to my room and locked the door and didn’t come out, even for dinner, till morning.
I didn’t know why Oledi left her husband. I didn’t care. She married him shortly after she left Timer and bore him a son. But I gathered from her talk, the dells of boyhood memory, and her old friends, that she was very unhappy. There was adultery, lies, abuse, and a bullet through the arm to the belly. We drifted here and there restlessly wherever the wind blew, never knowing what to cling to when the rain set in, yet if I had to pick a place to call home, it would be Mthatha.
Oledi became thickish in her thirties but carried herself sensuously as some women can. There was a liveliness about her, an effervescence as if her nerves were continually smouldering. When I was old enough to be my brother’s keeper, she began going out more on weekends and sometimes hosted parties at home ― those were the best nights. She once came into my room, a glass in her hand, and sat on the bed. I was lying on the bed, my eyes glued on someone’s phone.
“Are you alright, baby?”
She stroked my head and kissed me on the forehead.
“Alright,” she said. “Do you want a taste?”
Nodding, I sat up, leaning on my elbow. Oledi brought the glass to my lips. The liquor tasted bitter and sweet and sour. I grimaced from the burning in my chest. Oledi left the room, laughing, and went back to her guests.
She wasn’t perfect, no person is, but she did the best she could, and I never asked about Timer. I never needed him. But Oledi was restless. She resigned in her forties from her teaching post, “permanently,” she said and took out all her money to try her hand in business. Two or three years down the line she was taking odd jobs to make ends meet.
When I enrolled in high school, Oledi moved to Johannesburg with my brother to prospect better opportunities. I visited them in the winter of ’13. They lived in an apartment in the city. We haunted the cinema, rented movies on frigid nights, visited friends and family, baked cakes and cookies, went on shopping sprees, toured the city, dined out, played games at the arcade, and climbed to the roof every evening to watch the sunset over the city. There were arguments, silly things that seemed insurmountable at the time. We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?
Oledi called me in class. The teacher was in, and I couldn’t answer the call. I called her back at break time. She told me she hadn’t been feeling well since I left last month.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t know, baby,” she answered. “It’s hard keeping food down.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
She didn’t answer. I asked again.
“I went to the hospital, but I’m still waiting for the results.”
The food court was crowded with students in uniform. I stepped away from the crowd and talked tenderly with Oledi.
“Keep me posted,” I said.
There was a silence.
“Anyway,” Oledi said, “I wanted to let you know. So, don’t be surprised if you hear anything.”
The siren rang, and I said goodbye. I told a friend about it on the way to class, and then I forgot.
She got worse in the spring. I wanted to visit her during recess so I could “take good care” of her, but she told me she stopped working.
“I can’t transport you here and back and still buy you that laptop.”
Then summer camp neared, and I asked Oledi for money to go. She said no.
“All my friends are going,” I protested. “Please ma. I have to go.”
“I don’t have money, Bhanayi,” she said. “How many times must I tell you that?”
It went on like this for a while.
“You’re a monster,” Oledi finally said. “You’re heartless and selfish. You always were. You know that I’m suffering, possibly dying, yet you pester me with this nonsense.”
I listened to those words in silence, and long afterwards ― for several years after ― those words, full of weariness and hate, haunted me with irrevocable regret.
At the funeral, I refused to look at the body. My little brother looked, and all her close friends and family ― everybody but me.