“Ntombi, I’m going out.”
“Mama, you can’t. It’s the third time this week and I’ve got …” But before Ntombi could finish her sentence her mother was already giving her a list of things to do while she was at Thabiso’s Tavern.
“There’s some money left for you and Zinzi. Make sure Zinzi does her homework – and don’t let her stay up too late! How do I look?” She did a twirl in the middle of the living room. Ntombi looked at the silver top and new jeans her mother was wearing and her heart sank. They were yet another gift from her mother’s new boyfriend, Zakes. Every time he went out with her mother he gave her something – but there was never enough money left over to buy something for her or her sister. He never had anything for them except for his unwanted ‘words of advice’. Words that made Ntombi want to throw something at him. Cruel, mean, words.
“You girls will never get boyfriends looking like that. Why don’t you do something to your hair? You look like village moegoes. No, what you need is to go to the hairdresser, get some braids.”
With what money? thought Ntombi, but she knew if she questioned him out loud, he would get angry and her mother would only take his side. She was forever saying, “Now don’t upset Zakes,” or “He’s only teasing; don’t be so sensitive,” or, even worse: “Maybe you should take his advice. You know he’s a very successful businessman.” And once when she was really mad, she shouted at Ntombi: “He is my boyfriend and you must respect him. His word is law!” Their mother had become a stranger. Ntombi wanted her old mother back.
Even when it was just the three of them it wasn’t the same. Zakes still messed things up between them. “What does he do?” Ntombi asked her mother on one of the few nights that her mother was home these days.
But her mother had looked unsure and started picking at her nail polish. “He’s in business…” she said uncertainly.
“What kind of business?” Ntombi wasn’t going to let her mother off the hook so easily.
“I don’t know. He’s a car dealer, a sales rep.” Her mother sat up on the bed, where they had been lying. “Anyway why all the questions? Are you the police?” Her mood had changed and she was glaring at Ntombi. “All I care about is that he treats me good, and that he’s got a good job. You’ve seen the way he dresses, and the car he drives.”
“Mama, you used to tell me those things didn’t matter. You used to tell me it was what was inside that mattered. You told me you married Dad for love…”
“And look where that got me!” her mother interrupted. “I don’t see him in this room. Do you?” That was the end of the conversation. Her mother had got up and gone through to watch a soapie on TV.
Ntombi didn’t trust Zakes one bit. He was a fake through and through. And what was worse, she didn’t like the way her mother acted when he was around. Like she was their older sister, competing over guys, rather than their mother who should be looking after them, giving them good advice, and protecting them from men like Zakes.
When her dad left a year ago, just after her fourteenth birthday, her mother was very sad, but at least they still felt like a family. They cuddled up on the couch together and watched Bold, and laughed and cried together. And then, one day, Mama came home from the rich private school where she worked cooking lunches, and told them she was going out that evening. The kitchen staff at the school had persuaded her to join them at Thabiso’s Tavern and she thought it might be good for her. Ntombi had helped her choose an outfit: a nice denim skirt, just below the knee, a tight black wraparound top with a white denim jacket. And to top it off, some gold earrings. Mama looked great. She had kissed her mother goodbye and wished her luck. Little did she guess that that night her mother would meet Zakes and their lives would be turned upside down again.
Ntombi knew the first time she saw Zakes, with his gold chains and flash smile that didn’t reach his eyes, that he would bring nothing but trouble. Even his car looked like a fake. It had been resprayed and that could mean one of two things: he had been in an accident, or the car was stolen. Things felt wrong when Zakes was in the house. He seemed too big for their small couch, sitting there with his beer, interrupting their conversations with his loud voice. He loved to say things like, “Girls, you are my daughters now. Go fetch another beer for your father.”
“Do as he says,” their mother would add if they hesitated, as she cuddled closer to her new boyfriend. There was no time for Ntombi or Zinzi when Zakes was around.
“Here.” Her mother handed Ntombi a five rand coin from her new gold bag. She smelled of some strong perfume Zakes had bought her. “Buy yourself some sweets at the shop,” she said as she rushed out, putting on lipstick as she went.
“Mama, I’m meant to be at singing practice. The competition is next week and…” But her mother was already out of the door and in the seat of Zakes’ resprayed BMW with its fluffy dice bouncing from the rearview mirror and couldn’t hear her. All she could do was watch as Zakes reversed with a squeal of tyres, and then they were gone.