Masixole walked into Thabiso’s tavern with a heavy look on his face. He was exhausted from the casual work he had got in the week – work that didn’t pay well – and from the worries of living hand to mouth daily. He was frustrated that in all his 25 years he had never got a girl pregnant, but here he was, suddenly a ‘parent’, looking after Pholisa.

At least she had that cute friend, and he was relieved that Pholisa was going to spend the weekend with her. Having her eat at Lelethu’s the whole weekend meant they had food in the house for three extra days. Having a family wasn’t easy. Maybe that was why his mother had given him up – she hadn’t been able to deal with the stress.

Thabiso’s was packed. It was month-end and people were there to reward themselves for working so hard. That was why Masixole was there. Standing at the bar, he surveyed the place. He picked the only empty table, in the corner of the tavern where he could not be noticed or bothered. He bought two beers and paid with a fresh R50 note.

He sat and watched the room as it buzzed with animated conversation. There was a group of girls dancing near a table full of drinks: beers and a bottle of brandy. One of the girls caught his attention. She was good and danced really sexily, a bit like Pholisa’s friend.

He imagined that the girl dancing was Lelethu. She was grown up for her age and danced provocatively. Any man watching her would want to be close to her while she danced. Masi had wanted to that day he watched Lelethu dance in his yard. She didn’t look like a girl then, no. She looked like a woman.

His view was suddenly blocked by a big man who had gone over to grind himself against the young dancer. She welcomed him with a smile and held his hands against her waist as he danced behind her. Sies, loose girls, Masi thought. He must be the one buying all the drinks for them. He must be the man.

Masi looked at his own table and frowned. He took a sip of his beer, the cold liquid cooling his thoughts. He was the man right now; he didn’t owe anybody anything. He had Pholisa to care for, yes, but tonight was all about him. Ndity’ukubila kwebunzi lam, he consoled himself and smiled.

After the second beer he was feeling even more confident. He decided to go and dance with a girl from another group, a group not already surrounded by men. He got up and started dancing to the house beat that was pumping, encouraging him. Moving closer to the girl, he did what the fat man had done. He walked up behind her and held her waist from behind.

The girl turned around and saw him. Perhaps she and her friends had noticed him already. He was easy on the eye, but he didn’t look like he had any money to spend.

Hayi rha, sund’bamba – don’t touch me,” the girl yelled, pushing Masixole off her. “Mxm, chancer,” she said and turned to dance with her friends.

Masixole felt the urge to klap her. He was annoyed. Who the hell was she to be so rude to him? He stormed out of the tavern in rage, pushing aside others who were standing in the way as he left.

“S’febe,” he mumbled as he walked out into the cold, fresh air.

He needed the toilet, he needed to cool down. He turned the corner and went behind a small shack where Thabiso kept cases of beer. No light shone there and it was dark. He didn’t see the three young men standing, smoking, and watching him.

“Eksê, bra,” one said when Masi had finished. “Khand’gay’inkawza – d’you have a smoke?”

Anditshayi namakhwenkwe kwedini – I don’t smoke with little boys,” Masi answered, pushing past him.

Suddenly the other two loomed up. In a flash, one punched him and he lost his footing and stumbled into a wooden fence. He landed hard, breaking off a piece that was already loose.

Saph’iwallet yakho, give me your wallet,” the one who had pushed him demanded, already advancing on him.

But they had touched the wrong man …

Acting in reflex, Masi punched the guy hard as he tried to reach for Masi’s left pocket. Then he turned and kicked off the broken piece of the fence. He picked it up, swinging it with his left hand, and hit the other guy in the face. The man cried out in agony and stumbled back. The piece of wood had a nail in it. Masi hadn’t seen it, but it had ripped a red gash in the guy’s right cheek.

The third one came fast – with a knife. He said something that Masixole couldn’t hear, but his injured friend was shouting, “Mbhodise, bra. Hlinza lenja! Kill him – slice this dog.”

Masixole had been in a lot of fights in his lifetime and had seldom lost. He started waving his plank in the air, like he did when they fought with sticks. He waved it left, right, then left again. And before the guy knew it, the stick had landed on his right thigh and the nail had dug into his flesh. He went down screaming, dropping the knife as he fell. Masixole snatched it up and tossed it skilfully from one hand to the next.

Yizan’ makwedini, nzanelusa namhlanje – come, boys, I’ll circumcise you tonight,” he invited them.

The boys fled, shouting curses.

Once they had gone, Masi sank onto the ground. He couldn’t believe his life had been threatened – and almost lost – in a blink of an eye. The first thought that came to mind was Pholisa. What would she do if he died? Then he thought of the promise he had made Gogo, to always protect and provide for Pholisa. Life was just too much pressure. He felt for his wallet, but it was still safely in his back pocket. He needed a cold beer to take the edge off.

He made his way back inside, feeling more of a man than before, the earlier encounter with the girls forgotten. He bought two more beers and went to his table. He hadn’t noticed the bloodstains on his T-shirt.

A man walked up to his table. Masixole didn’t want any more trouble. But he was ready and fired up if the man started with him. But the man just stood there and looked at the blood on Masixole’s T-shirt. Masi felt uneasy.

“Ayilo lam, it’s not mine,” he said.

“Ek weet, I know,” the man said.

Masi stared back at him. He wore a blue floral shirt, like the ones Madiba used to wear, and had a chain around his neck. He had on a leather jacket, not like the fong-kong Masixole wore on rainy days; this looked heavy, the real makoya. Masixole didn’t want to look at the man’s feet. But he guessed he had an expensive pair of shoes. He would look at them when the man left him alone.

“Bra Sticks would like a word with you,” the man said in a polite tone, but one that made it clear that this was a demand, not a request.

Masixole looked where the man was pointing. At the far end of the room, sitting at the centre of the biggest table in the tavern, was a man with a matchstick in his mouth, looking straight at him. Masixole had seen thugs chewing on matchsticks in the movies; this was real life. He wanted to say no, that he had to finish his beer, but something told him that this man, Matchsticks – or Bra Sticks, as he was known by his friends – was not the kind you said no to.

Masi took a large gulp of his beer, thankful that it was cold, and stood up. He walked to Matchsticks’ table. Matchsticks nodded his head and one of the guys at the table got up and told Masi to sit.

“Get the man his drink,” Matchsticks ordered, and another guy jumped up to obey.

Masi watched as Matchsticks sat and studied him, switching the long matchstick from one side of his mouth to the other. Out of the corner of his eye Masi could see the guy fetching his beers from the table, and another of the group buying more drinks. Suddenly he felt intimidated.

Matchsticks was a big fish … What did he want with a village boy like him?


Tell us: What do you think of Masi’s attitude to girls and women? Why?