Back and forth, polluted water spews from drains overflowing into the dingy streets of Hillbrow. I am desperate and shivering as I duck into an old, dilapidated building. I can just make out the grimy walls in the dim light as the pungent smell hits. The dark room reeks of all things abandoned, but it is safer than the street. I am scared half to death that if I stay outside a minute longer Mandla might catch up with me and there is no telling what he will do if he does.
“Hello?” I call out. I am standing close to the entrance, my muscles tense; I am ready to run for it. My own voice echoes back, bouncing off the bare walls. Convinced that no one is inside, I cautiously navigate my way through the room. There’s a wooden staircase leading down into a basement. I hesitate, then make my way down the creaking stairs towards the dark below. My heart hammers furiously against my ribcage.
As my eyes adjust to the dim light I see a bunch of teens who cannot be much older than me. A tall boy strides across the room, right up into my face. His body is huge and the ragged clothes he wears make him seem even scarier. The eyes that meet mine are wary and I freeze in my tracks.
“I’m Yenzokuhle,” I say softly with a tremor in my voice. “My name is Yenzokuhle,” I say again, slightly bolder. I don’t think I can do any more running. I feel my skin twitch as thoughts of Mandla flash through my mind. He could be up on the street above us right now.
“What are you doing here?” The smell of cigarettes is strong in the air when he speaks.
“I just … I need a place to stay the night,” I stutter. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Tears brim in my eyes but he doesn’t seem to be the least bit moved by my story. He seems like he would have as much compunction about throwing me out into the night as he would about squashing a fly.
“Does this look like a ‘go-to’ place?” he snaps. His husky voice is deep. His eyes pierce through my body, making me feel uncomfortable.
“No,” I reply.
The group remains silent, none of them coming to my rescue. I look from him to the girl who is curled up in the corner of the room. Her arms envelop her legs and her chin is rested firmly on top of her knees. “Please,” I beg him, “Please let me stay.”
“One night!” the girl says. “Just one night, Fetta.”
“Fine,” Fetta says gruffly as he walks back to where the other boys are sitting and they continue chatting and laughing among themselves, ignoring me.
The light in the room is from the fire in the middle on the concrete floor. The girl is now engrossed in her own world again, staring fixedly at the dirty wall in front her. Her body rocks back and forth as though she is comforting herself. I go across to her and sink to the floor next to her.
“Thanks,” I say, giving her a heartfelt smile, which she returns with a blank stare.
“We are not friends,” she says, dismissing my attempt to make conversation. I sigh, bringing my own knees up against my chin, mirroring how she sits. She does not seem to mind because she does not say anything more. I stare at the dark words written with a permanent marker on the chipped paint of the wall: Fetta, Simon, Bonga, Luntu.
The room is bare apart from a couple of crates that serve as chairs. Papers are scattered in every corner, some piling up beneath the staircase. The cream paint on the walls is chipped and spraypainted words deface the walls. My eyes dart to the corner where the three boys are huddled. They are all ignoring me. I have only my beating heart and thoughts about how I came to be here in Johannesburg, so far away from home.
Things began to fall apart when my father left. As the days stretched into weeks, and weeks into months, my mother’s strength simply wore out. At first she carried me through the pain, but she, being human, reached her breaking point and gave up on being strong. Often, in those last days at home, before I ran away, I would find her lost in the distance, her eyes staring longingly at the gate as though she was waiting for Father to return. I remember the desperation in her words, “We’re okay,” as we fell apart.
The silence between us ruled our lives and built walls higher and thicker than those of our big house. I ran away from it all, from home, from school, from Mother. I ran away from my teacher, Mr Hlomla, and the pain he caused me.
I pull my thin sweater over my knees to keep myself warmer; the fire is burning low. I have never felt so cold. At home there was always the comfort of fluffy blankets.
The room briefly lights up when the last piece of wood catches fire; but as time passes the fire slowly dies down again and the boys lie down to sleep on the hard floor. I shift slightly as the girl next to me lets her head fall softly onto my shoulder, her hair tickling the crook of my neck. I close my eyes.
“Wake up!” a belligerent voice jolts me out of my sleep. I wake up disorientated and then, with a shock, remember where I am and how I came to be here. Thin shafts of light filter down into the basement. The girl who has lain silently next to me all night is sitting up, regarding me impassively, her hazel eyes indifferent.
“This is not your fancy home,” Fetta reminds me as I rub my eyes with the back of my hand to clear my sleep. “Get up!”
I jump up and my wobbly legs give way. I land back down on the concrete with a thud and my heart thrums as the others laugh.
“What are we doing today?” one of the boys asks after they stop laughing.
“Same,” Fetta says, turning to the boy.
“You have to go now,” Fetta tells me.
“Please,” I beg. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” He does not seem to care; I see it in his eyes.
“We gave you one night,” he says sternly, and I look at the girl who stood up for me, silently begging for her to do it again, but she says nothing; instead her eyes focus on her creased hands.
“Please,” I beg again for Fetta’s mercy but he shakes his head.
“No, go home!”
“Tell him to stop,” I challenge the girl when I stand up. “Please!” I beg her, knowing I am pushing my luck. She levels her gaze at mine, and for a brief moment l decipher a glimmer of empathy, but it disappears, and instead an emotion I cannot read flickers across her eyes.
“I don’t care,” she says a heartbeat later, and all the air leaves my body.
When I leave the dilapidated building and step out onto the busy street a cold wind hits me. I start to walk quickly, aware that this is one of the roughest parts of town, and that Mandla is out here somewhere. I am searching for a pawn shop – it’s the only way I can get any money right now.
Loving you is like breathing to me … the familiar song bursts from the stereo inside Paul’s Pawn Brokers. It reminds me of Mr Hlomla and the songs I played for him on his small CD player when I used to visit him in his classroom after school. He’d listen intently as I explained these songs – my favourites back then.
“Can I help you?” The man behind the counter has a rough, smoky voice.
“Is this the pawn shop?”
“Isn’t it written so outside?” He is impatient, and I am aware that there is a queue forming behind me.
“Right,” I say, trying to sound more confident than I feel. “How much can I get for this?” I fumble with my watch strap – the watch Mr Hlomla gave me. The man slams his palms on the counter. I am taking too long.
“Sorry,” I apologise as I manage to undo the strap. He takes it and studies it, then opens the till and hands me some notes. I grab the notes and run.
“I have something,” I shout as I descend the stairs to the basement. Fetta stands up and meets me halfway across the room. I am not fazed by the scowl he wears on his face. “I have something you might want,” I say again, the confidence I came in with starting to leave me. Everyone is looking at me, except for the girl.
“What?” says the tall skinny boy. “You killed yourself and came back to tell us it’s better on the other side?” he mocks and the others laugh.
I roll my eyes at his weak attempt of a joke. “Childish much?” I challenge him. I see in his eyes that he is taken aback by my abrasive remark. The other boy, the one with an afro, smiles at me. I almost smile back but Fetta snaps his fingers at me.
“Speak up, or get out,” he threatens as he steps closer to me; I smell cigarettes and something less pleasant on his breath.
“I sold my watch,” I say proudly but they all stare back at me blankly.
“Congratulations?” the boy in the corner chimes in. Great. Now he is irritated with me too.
“I mean, I sold my watch and I brought the money to you guys.”
Fetta’s features soften. “So, now you are buying your way in?” The boy, who is now standing next to Fetta, asks again after a long pause. He catches me off guard but I shrug my shoulders honestly.
“I guess,” I say. I give the money to Fetta, and after counting it twice he tries not to smile, but can’t help breaking into a grin. He actually looks nice when he smiles, l think to myself.
“I’m Simon,” the skinny boy says as he shares a knowing look with Fetta. “That is Bonga,” he points to the boy with the afro, in the corner.
“Luntu,” the girl introduces herself.
“I’m the one you don’t want to cross,” Fetta threatens, and then half a smile tugs his face. “You’re in – you can stay,” he says casually as they all take turns to cheer for me. I have never been so grateful to call somewhere home.