I’m fifteen, I’m skinny, I have a flat bottom and sharp knees. I’ve never been popular and quite frankly I hate my knees. Mamake says I will grow into them once age starts slowing down my metabolism – whatever that means.

I’m quite ecstatic that Precious, the most popular and prettiest girl in school, who never has anything nice to say about anyone, has asked me to hang out with her and her crew. My brother Lunga – what a bore – doesn’t like my friends. He says they’re all bad news, even Precious, our cousin. Clearly not very loyal, my brother.

“What can you possibly learn from girls who mannerisms are like those of children raised at taxi ranks? Come on sis, you can do better,” the deputy parent advises. I know what he’s saying is true, but I’m not ready to hear it. My cousin’s friends speak like they house sewage works in their mouths. They hang out with gangsters in the street corners of our neighbourhood, Albert Park. The suburb, infested with game shops and shebeens, is already not a good area for a growing mind, but here we are, because it is all we can afford. “Stay away from these people, one day they will get you into trouble,” was all Lunga ever said whenever he saw me in one of the corners.

Everyone in the Albert Park knows Precious and her crew because they’re under the care of Barambah. A hot gangster with one leg and a tattoo of a dead pope with maggots coming out of his mouth. He has two sisters and five brothers. My cousin is under his protection and by association I am too. Even though we are under age, he buys us beer and snacky things. Occasionally he makes out with Mbali even though he is at least fifteen years her senior. No one really cares because her round bottom and big boobs make her look like she’s eighteen.

I on the other hand, I’m smitten with his younger brother S’bu. He looks like the gods took an entire day to mould his tiny waist and broad shoulders. Then, as if to show off, plastered bee stung lips on him. He is a vision I tell you. But he has a girlfriend, Thula. She’s everything he’s not, pimply stalky, and, quite frankly, dumb and loud.

Unlike his brothers, S’bu decided to stay in school. Now he is finally in matric and he sometimes takes the same bus as me. On the rare days, when he gives me crumbs of his attention, we talk about our hopes and dreams. He wants to be a doctor. Me, I just want to be a writer.

One day on the bus home, I notice how Precious and crew never pay the bus conductor when he comes to collect the bus fare. The guy would simply run his grimy hands on their thighs and move on to the next person. I find this a little unsettling. “Awu, mngani, you must let him touch you a little so you don’t have to pay,” Mbali advised.

“I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Eish, Precious, ingane yakini akuve izenza ngcono (Eish, Precious you cousin thinks she’s better). It’s not like we are sleeping with him – not yet anyway.” They all laugh like she just cracked the greatest joke in the history of jokes.

“Leave her alone guys, there’s still a lot of farm girl tendencies that we need to scrub off her.” They cackle again. Thula of course laughs the loudest and longest because she heard that S’bu fancies me. Her laugh is meant to hurt.

But I don’t care, because S’bu is worth it. Despite the numerous warnings from Thula to steer clear of her man, I still talk to him. I tell her: “I don’t invite him to come talk to me. But you also can’t control who I talk to. You are not my mother.”

“I promise if I ever see you with him, I will polish the floor with your face,” she replies.

I believe her. Just by looking at her, you can tell she’s one of those girls that would knockout the Incredible Hulk with a KO.

I’m sitting at the back of the bus next to S’bu. I know I have to move when the bus reaches Thula’s school. Even though there’s nothing happening between me and S’bu I don’t want to give Thula something to make her hate me more. But S’bu insists I sit. “She won’t do anything to you while I’m here. I don’t even want her anymore, but she won’t let me go, she’s obsessed.” So, I sit.

I was leaning against the bus window, day dreaming, when I felt a sharp pain on the side of my face, the sound making me instantly deaf. With my good ear, I could hear the uncultured rug rats in the bus screaming, “Pero! Pero! Fight! Fight!” A bunch of swines all of them.

“I told you to stay away from him, heifer! Next time I will stab you in the eye with a pencil.” I looked at my cousin expecting her to intervene. She didn’t. I looked at S’bu expecting him to intervene. Nothing. It dawned on me that I was on my own. I apologised for sins I had not yet committed; the bus rascals shrilled with laughter. “Move stupid!” Like a dog with a tail between its legs I moved to another section of the bus. There is nothing that makes love disappear quicker than betrayal. That day I wrote both S’bu and my cousin off.

Later that day my cousin came to apologise. I can’t remember the explanation she gave me for her gross betrayal. All I remember was telling her to leave. I wanted nothing to do with Precious and crew. I left the school-bunking-good-for-nothing-rats to be caressed by slimy old men. I found solace in romance novels.

It was only a week after I had stopped hanging out with Precious and crew. She saw me standing with S’bu at the bus stop. He was doing all the talking, begging for me to forgive him for what happened in the past week. I was mum. I had no desire to make nice. Even his cologne has started smelling like manure. Precious walked past us like we were invisible. But she did laugh out loudly before she disappeared into the tuckshop next to our bus stop.

Later that day, I was watching TV with my roommates Ghana and Zoe when Precious’ best friend Hlela came to knock on our door. “Hey, come downstairs, there’s something I want to show you.”

“I’m not interested in anything you have to show me.”

“Ugh! I will just come out with it. Precious and Thula want to apologise for the way they have treated you. They really feel bad about it.”

I put on a pair of more decent pants than the ones I was wearing. I followed her to the ground floor. As soon as I walked out of the building my eyes locked with Thula’s. She had her arm hung over my cousin’s shoulder. There were five other girls standing there with them. I knew they were the girlfriends of the other brothers.

“Ja, so I heard you were with S’bu today.”

“Rubbish,” I said, as it slowly dawned on me that this was not the TRC.

I also knew there could only be one person who had passed on this morsel of gossip. She also happened to be the first person to throw the first punch. I stumbled and fell to the ground. Before I knew it, the other girls who were standing there listlessly joined in, kicking and calling me names.
“This will be the last time you ever steal someone’s man,” said one of the girls as she kicked my left eye shut.

As was tradition in Albert Park, a crowd gathered quickly to watch. Some people were looking out the windows of the fifteen-storey building. There was the occasional shout coming one of the windows – “Mshaye! – beat her up!” Like the Sodom and Gomora Albert Park is, no one came to my rescue. So, the kicking and punching and screaming continued, until I became numb. I blacked out, not before I saw the horror on my cousin’s face as she realised what she’d done.

I’m not sure if someone had run to the game shop to let my brother know that I was being trashed to a pulp just a few meters from where he was gaming, or if he came out upon hearing the commotion to see what was happening. All I know is that when I regained consciousness I was hanging limply over his shoulder. The hood-rats following him, cursing and threatening to beat him up too. One hit him with a beer bottle, he stumbled and fell on top of me. The hood-rats descended on him like a pack of rabid dogs. I blacked out again.

It was the hooting and screeching and the sound of the siren of the ambulance that jolted me awake. I was inside an ambulance, with Lunga. I noticed he was now spotting a burst lip and a bandage around his head. My heart sank. “I’m sorry.” I croaked.