Masixole sat in the house until darkness came. He had heard the car pull up outside. He had heard the banging on the door and he knew who it was, but he didn’t answer. And eventually the car had driven off.
He had ignored the countless calls on his phone. And he knew he would pay for it. But he just sat with the curtains drawn, hunched up on the couch.
All he could think about was Pholisa out in the dark, alone. Pholisa, who must hate him now. He hated himself. Where was she? Was she safe?
He tried not to think about Lelethu, but her face was there, right in front of his, even with his eyes open. Her pleading eyes, on her broken face. Her cries for him to stop.
When it was getting dark he eventually checked his phone. There was a message from Matchsticks.
If u no wats gud 4 u n ur family u wil gt ur ova here now.
“And your family …”
Masi thought of Pholisa out there wandering the streets. And he thought of Matchsticks’s car cruising the neighbourhood. He grabbed his jacket and was out the door in a flash.
“Why don’t you answer your phone when I call you?” Matchsticks asked, lying back on his comfortable leather sofa in his comfortable double-storey house in a better neighbourhood than any of Masi’s friends or family lived in.
His house was all marble tiles and chrome and leather. And it was kept spotless. He was touchy about dirt in his house, expecially on his carpets. “These are Persian carpets, ntwana – they cost more than your life,” he would say when people walked in with their shoes on.
“My battery died, Bra Sticks,” Masi lied, looking at the shiny marble tiles under his feet.
Matchsticks looked at him and said nothing. He had been in this business all his life. He knew when people were lying to him. He knew when people were avoiding eye contact. He knew when people were uncomfortable in his presence. He knew fear.
“Grab a beer, I have a job for you,” he said, tossing his chewed-up matchstick in the ashtray on the table and nodding towards the kitchen.
“Max, still high from last night?” Terror, Matchsticks’s right-hand man, joked with Masi in the kitchen.
Terror was making a snack. He had a passion for food and he was always making one fancy dish or the other. The boys said he had gone to chef school but hadn’t had the money to continue. How he ended up in a gang is something they never talked about. The general idea was that Matchsticks was their saving grace; he had rescued them from their doom. They owed him their lives and, in return, he owned them. Now Masixole was on that list.
“Ja, Ta-T,” Masi said opening the fridge. He didn’t understand the whole Terror business, because Terror was the softest of all of them. But apparently he could be brutal when provoked. Masixole hadn’t experienced that side of him – yet.
He took the beer out and walked to the living room.
“Sit down,” Matchsticks ordered. “We have a big job coming up and I need you to play with Terror on this one,” he said coolly.
“What kind of job, Bra Sticks?” Masi asked, all the time thinking of Pholisa, and how he was meant to protect her.
“Some laaities owe me big money – I need you to collect.”
Masixole didn’t understand. Why now? Matchsticks had never let him near an operation before.
“Who are these laaities?” he asked.
“Some boys from Harmony High. Terror knows the details,” Matchsticks said, as if the boys were not important to him. They probably weren’t, thought Masi, because if they were then he wouldn’t be asking Masi. But Matchsticks didn’t ‘deal’ with anything personally any more. He had people to do the dealing for him.
“Sure, Bra Sticks,” Masi said, not sure of what to say. “How much?” he asked, taking a slug of his beer.
“A grand,” Matchsticks answered. Masi knew that was peanuts for Matchsticks – this was obviously a test for him.
“But … it’s only one grand, Bra Sticks,” Masi protested.
“I’m setting an example. These bastards are taking advantage,” he said, his voice raised. Masi wasn’t sure if it was because the issue was important to him or if it was because he was questioning him. Either way, Matchsticks didn’t like it one bit.
“Look, mfana, do this for me as a personal favour.” But his eyes were angry.
Pholisa had said they were going to the cops. But this, what Matchsticks was asking of him, was going to seal his fate.
“I … But those kids will make trouble for us,” Masi said, mostly to himself than to Matchsticks.
When Masi realised that he had spoken aloud, it was too late. “The girl … yesterday,” he couldn’t say he knew her, or that she was his sister’s best friend, “they’re going to the gatas,” he said, trying to look up at Matchsticks.
“Amagata can’t touch us. Who d’you think pays their bonuses?”
“I think I should lie low for a bit,” Masi said.
“You were on fire last night,” Terror said, coming to sit down. He put a tray of sandwiches in front of Matchsticks and he sat opposite them on a single sofa.
Lelethu’s face flashed in Masi’s mind. He had been drunk and high.
“What we did last night was wrong. I don’t want to be part of any of it any more,” he said, looking Matchsticks straight in the eye.
Matchsticks clapped his hands three times, and congratulated Masixole on having balls. Even Terror laughed at what Masi had said.
But then Matchsticks’s face got serious. “Too bad, boet. Because you are part of it,” he said.
“But they are going to the police and we are going to jail.”
Matchsticks laughed again – this Masi was really a comedian today.
“I own the police, mfana. So, if you are here, you are protected. They’ll never touch us,” he said. “No one will dare give evidence. We’ll make sure of that.”
Masi shook his head and got up to get his shoes.
“Hey, ntwana,” Matchsticks called to Masi, the laughter suddenly gone from his voice. Masi didn’t look up from tying his shoes. “D’you think that little bitch you live with could survive what we did to her friend?”
So there it was – out between them – a threat like no other. Masi finished tying his laces and stood up slowly. His body was still, but his mind was racing. He couldn’t challenge Matchsticks, not here, with his skollies with their guns.
Matchsticks stared at him with cold eyes, eyes that masked all expression.
“We’ll pick you up when it’s time for the gig. Keep your phone on.”
It was an order.
Tell us: Why do you think boys join gangs and obey people like Matchsticks?