He’d heard somewhere that the Atlantic Ocean around Cape Town was 2 degrees warmer in winter than in the summer because of the Antarctic current. He wondered if that was true. Laying there in the darkness – half drowned, eyes closed against the freezing salt water he thought back to the warm Wild Coast waters of his childhood. The way it would bubble up on the scorched sand in the afternoon when the tide and the fishermen returned from the depths. He would wait by the shore for the first glimpse of his father’s boat, painted bright red with white stripes in honour of their favourite football team.
A jagged piece of shell scratched against his face and woke him from his reverie, his momentary happiness snatched away from him by the harsh awakening. He half-heartedly dragged his tall body out of the puddle that had formed around him and stood for a moment taking in the wet clothes hanging off him, feeling the chill of the wind through his damp hair and looking at the dim path ahead. His limbs had gone numb, but his feet reluctantly found their footing on the slippery rocks as he walked back towards the promenade where late-night joggers and couples were still milling about.
Leaving death behind him felt like a different kind of surrender, he was trapped with no way out and he wasn’t sure if what he was feeling was peace or emptiness – time would tell. Wet and weary he contemplated again the benevolence of the gods while walking to the station – maybe he’d get lucky and catch something. Still, it was unlikely, he had gotten the flu twice in the past 3 years and despite the stress and exhaustion of working, he was the picture of health. It felt like a cruel joke – a young, vibrant body held hostage by a spirit unwilling or rather unable to live.
There was buzzing and clanging in his head. He spent the night tucked into his duvet – sweating, tossing and turning in fits of anxious dreams and sleep paralysis. The previous night left him feeling battered and bruised but all he could remember was the faint smell of the ocean – maybe in a parallel lifetime he had swam out against the waves and died. He found the thought oddly comforting, that this possibly existent other version of him had found a way out of the maze – so maybe there was hope for him still.
He woke to the sound of his cell phone ringing, and it was his mother calling. “How have you been? Your cousin says he saw you in Langa last week.”
“I’ve been well, ma. Yes, I saw Simphiwe at a braai spot – we greeted each other but didn’t say much else. You know we don’t get along.”
“And why is that? You are family and you need each other in that big city. It can be a dangerous and lonely place,” she said. He bit back the lump forming in his throat, so she did know that he was lonely and scared.
“It’s less dangerous if I don’t hang out with him and his friends. Not all family is good company.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, what is he doing that’s dangerous?” He regretted saying it the moment it left his lips – their parents were from the generation of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. They accepted money and didn’t ask questions about where it came from and what one needed to do to get it. His cousin had gotten involved with a gang and depending on the week, he was either rolling in money or running for his life as violence regularly broke out over territory and pricing disputes.
“Nothing, forget I said anything. I need to go soon.” He didn’t but the longer he talked on the phone with his mother, the more he missed home.
At least once a week he would wake up determined to pack his bags and return to Coffee Bay – he would explain that Cape Town was too far and that it was too hard working long hours with difficult and racist people for little pay. He would tell them working with his hands would be the antidote he needs to the poisoning of constantly having to bow and smile for hotel guests and drunken customers at the bar. He missed moulding a piece of steel to his will, making something functional out of scraps and junk – he missed the way he could mend what was broken. But at least once a week he would pull open his drawers and stare at the sparse clothing inside – the threadbare undershirts, the socks with holes in them, the creased leather belt his mother gifted him on his graduation – and feel a sting to his pride. He couldn’t go back home on his knees when he had left on his feet. He would have to work harder and hope that something works out eventually.
“Eh before you go… there was an issue with the fridge last week – I had to spend all the money I had to fix it. Now there’s a funeral this weekend and as a member of the guild, I must attend but I don’t have the money to. I hate to ask but Sis Buli did so much for our family, all those prayers and the application forms she helped you send out – it would be rude not to attend. Even R300 would be helpful, I can get transport from a neighbour, but I need money to contribute to umasingcwabane and buy new pantihose.” Siphiwo sighed. This is how it always went with his mother, she always tried not to and hated to ask but never got around to not asking. He knew she wasn’t necessarily wasteful, but she always had new needs and old needs and needs he couldn’t understand that required more money than he had sent.
“I don’t know if I can,” he said despondently.
“Please my child, I don’t want to be embarrassed – you know these church people like to gossip. Please Radebe,” she pleaded.
“Okay, I’ll see. Bye.”
Every time he got off the phone with his mother he’d feel a tightening in his chest and stomach. Whenever he dared to lose sight of his burdensome situation, she clawed him back to it and he was reminded that he had dependants to support. Yes, things were hard in the city, but he knew they were harder in the village – which is why he left. Leaving behind the only place he had ever called home felt strange, the world seemed bigger all of a sudden – like he just realised there were people and places beyond the cornfields in his front yard.
His mother worked hard to be a saint, absolution and salvation took up all her time and there was little left for anything else. It wasn’t always like that, but everything had changed after his father died. She was an upstanding member of the community and had just become a leader in her church when the news broke of her husband being gunned down at a warehouse on the outskirts of East London. That day Siphiwo came home from school to find his family compound crawling with policemen holding menacing dogs and AK47s.
His father’s funeral and the aftermath were a blur but at the end of those long mournful months, his paternal family distanced themselves after accusing his mother of having her husband murdered for money. It turned out he didn’t even have much money as whatever he had saved was eaten up by secret debts that denied Siphiwo and his mother even a meagre inheritance. Conspiracies spread of him being involved in poaching and smuggling but Siphiwo couldn’t imagine it. His father was a meek and amiable man who never stood out, not his physique or his clothes or anything about him, and he had preferred it that way. He once told Siphiwo that a man’s greatest strength was to be unknowable – that he should laugh and cry with others but never trust them because that is when people let you down.
After sleeping half the day away his head was still heavy, but he had weekend errands to run.
“You keep getting smaller and smaller, pretty soon you’ll disappear,” his tailor remarked when he took Siphiwo’s measurements to have the waistline of his trousers adjusted. “Are you on drugs? I better not see you running the streets with those rubbish boys!” he scolded, shaking his head in contempt.
“No, sir. I’m not on drugs, just working for the white man,” Siphiwo responded, and they chuckled, exchanging a knowing glance.
He rode his bicycle through a busy intersection, taking care to swerve around the fresh chicken sellers throwing used hot water onto the side of the road and the giggling children playing dangerously in between the parked cars on the pavement. The breeze was refreshing on his back, unsticking the Brazil football vest that had clung to his sweaty body – its sunny yellow looked striking against the dark brown tone of his skin and the exposed rippling muscles underneath it. He stopped at a spaza shop to buy Med Lemon to fight away the chills, and he too was confounded and amused – a suicidal man looking after his health because discomfort was less bearable than despair.
“Oh so you’re not even going to greet me!” a sharp voice stated from behind him. He turned around to see the fling he had entertained during his winter desperation. She was petite with colourful braids down to her lower back – he recalled her warm vanilla scent and the feel of her clammy, delicate hands all over his body.
“Oh hi, I didn’t see you. How are you?”
She looked him up and down with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance. “I’m alright, just lonely these days since you stopped replying to my messages,” she quipped. Siphiwo didn’t know what to say. He remembered her fondly but past the sex and rainy-day cuddling, he wasn’t interested in keeping in contact but he was smart enough not to say that.
“Eish, you know how it goes… things get busy,” he replied, fiddling with the handlebars of his bicycle. She invited him to her friend’s birthday party later that night, but he turned her down, showing her the medicine he’d just bought as proof that he really was sick. She saw through his ambivalence and let him go, watching wistfully as he rode away.
Siphiwo was lying in his bed listening to a discussion on the radio – something about youth unemployment and the ways the government was trying to help. He scoffed at the presenters’ optimism and empty platitudes – “Reach for your dreams,” ‘“Stay in school,” and “Put your best foot forward.” All the things people who hadn’t looked for a job in 15 years liked to say. It seemed there was a divide in the perception of the world. There was the way parents and older people thought it was, and there was the reality he and young people were living every day in the face of being told things were good and getting better.
A peach-coloured filter had fallen over Khayelitsha. It was 20:23 and the sun was setting behind the mountains leaving long shadows and trails of fire-trimmed, cotton candy clouds across the sky. Siphiwo was getting up to boil the water for his medicine when he caught his reflection in the mirror – his freshly cut hair highlighting his big ears, his sleepy almond eyes searching for themselves in the shape of the strange man staring back at him. A beam of half dying light and half streetlight shone through the window and onto his melancholic face – he was reminded of a photo of himself when he was a child, hiding between his father’s legs from the glare of the midday sun. On weekends he would join the fishing crew on the first boat out before dawn. He would bundle up in a thick jacket, leaning close against the cockpit where the piercing ocean wind was weakest and wait for first light to break over the water and the village behind them.
Sitting on the bed, bathed in that obscure twilight, Siphiwo closed his eyes and imagined the warmth of that morning sun washing over him. That’s the thing about the light, it can find you anywhere.