“Are you nervous for your first day of high school?” Mommy asks, looking at me through the car’s rear-view mirror. I try to shake my head enthusiastically in spite of my hands shaking underneath the cuff of my woolly jersey and reply: “Why would I be nervous?”
The high school Mommy wanted me to go to in Claremont said that we “live out of the area”. That didn’t stop Mommy from enrolling me into this school that is also out of the area. Cape Town’s geography is weird; out of the area means different things in different areas. Mommy unclips her seatbelt so that she can stretch to the backseat to kiss me on the forehead.
“Everything will be fine, Zaid.”
I get out of the car to board the bus. The journey to my new school is a long one across many highways. An hour later, I hear the brakes of the bus screech to a halt at the terminus in Cape Town. The tyres seem to scratch the road like nails against a blackboard.
This school is not like the one I came from. We are made to line up outside the gates instead of lining up outside the hall for assembly. A man stands as straight as a door, blocking the way to the entrance.
“I need to search you,” he says, holding his hands up gleefully.
“For what?” I hear myself ask.
“Drugs,” he answers back and begins to feel his way over my new school uniform. Once inside, I see that here the passages contain a series of broken window panes in the shape of cricket balls. I don’t know where any of my classes are.
A boy called Keagan helps me find my way. His head is shaved close to his scalp while the seams of his grey pants seem to strain under the weight of his hefty frame. Keagan says that he knows a few people in the older grades here and that’s how he knows where everything is.
There is only one boys’ bathroom in the entire school. I don’t hesitate when Keagan later asks for some of my peanut butter bread during interval. I pass the lunchbox to him and offer him my juice bottle as well.
Ever since the third term started, Keagan always has data. We watch music videos on his phone without worrying about it having to buffer. He stopped asking me to have some of my lunch. Instead, he divides R50 between buying chips and cool drink from the tuck-shop at every interval. Where is he getting all this money from?
Mrs Booysen is our English teacher. She is also one of the few teachers that knows my name. She prances up and down in the rows in the class, reciting from our set works in different voices, like someone flipping through the channel of the TV.
“OK class, take out your books. Today we are going to read Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’.”
Very few people actually take out their book. Their Karrimor backpacks are deflated sacks with little more than lunch and a cell phone inside.
She increases the speed of her prancing. “Book, thank you!” She taps on each empty desk. The smooth shine of her wedding ring contrasts with the uneven grooves of graffiti that is indented into the wood.
Murad, the Bangladeshi boy in our class, puts up his hand to ask what a merchant is. Before Mrs Booysen can answer, someone shouts out: “Someone who sells drugs.” Some people giggle in response, while others look to Mrs Booysen to elaborate. She ignores the comment and tells Murad that Shakespeare was speaking about a businessman.
Patience giggles and calls out: “The Merchant of Valhalla Park” in Keagan’s direction.
I swear I hear Keagan whisper: “Selling drugs is a business.”
During the fourth term I try to catch Keagan’s eye to show him something funny in the textbook. He always seems to look beyond me. His bloodshot eyes flit back and forth along the four walls of the classroom like a cursor controlled by a faulty mouse. He seems so different these days, it’s like the drugs have installed a new software onto the desktop of his brain.
“Zaid! Zaid!” I hear Keagan loudly whisper my name. He walks up to my desk while the teacher, Mrs Booysen is writing on the board and passes me a packet. “Keep this for me. Just until second interval.”
The packet’s contents look like the icing sugar that my Mom uses to decorate cakes with. But there’s nothing sweet about this powder. I close my palm tightly around the package and say, “Only until interval.”
I’m about to push the packet into my Karrimor underneath my desk when I spot the shiny surface of Mrs Booysen’s shoes. I feel her eyes bearing into me. Her silent look is interrupted by the shrill of the bell indicating first interval.
“Zaid, stay behind.” She says flatly, while everyone except Keagan scurries out of class. He stares at me from the doorway and mouths: “I want my pound of flesh.”
I enter a new corner of the school, the staffroom. I drag my feet behind Mrs Booysen and take a seat at the table in the middle of the space. The air smells like strong coffee.
“Zaid, since when do you do drugs?” Mrs Booysen asks me. There is no changing of accents now. Mrs Booysen is no longer a TV set, she is the grade head and she is sitting in front of me, with an Incident Report.
“I don’t do drugs, Miss.” I reply. Every Life Orientation module since grade three has lectured us about doing drugs and HIV.
“Then why were you putting this in your bag?” Mrs Booysen says, holding the see-through packet up so that it hangs suspended in the air between us.
“I don’t do drugs, Miss.” I say again, staring intently at the fraying cotton of the table cloth.
“Were you carrying it for someone? Say, someone like Keagan? Weren’t you two close at the beginning of the year?”
If close means that Keagan was my only friend, then yes, we were close. I don’t say this of course, but Mrs Booysen knows.
“Do you know what an accomplice is, Zaid?” Mrs Booysen asks, speaking to my forehead because I am unable to take my eyes off the tablecloth. “An accomplice is someone who helps someone else commit a crime. And, at this school, selling and distributing drugs is a crime.”
“I don’t do drugs, Miss.” I whimper.
“I have called your mother. You will accompany her to a governing body hearing on Tuesday. You may leave.”
I walk out of the staffroom and peer through the cricket ball-shaped hole overlooking the tuck shop. I spot Keagan there. The seams of his pockets are straining against the hefty weight of chips and cool drinks.
Tell us: Would you ever take the fall for a friend? Under what circumstances would you do it?