A kaleidoscope of colours fills the paper that Bonga holds in his lap as he scribbles with his crayons. I wonder where he found the paper. He is pressing against the old cardboard he used before. His eyebrows are knitted together as he concentrates. His grey sweater is draped over his shoulders, revealing his burnt arms. I see that he is burnt all the way up to the neck. He wears one of the old dark jeans Fetta came with the other day. The stains and the layers of dirt that cover it have become part of the design.
The crib is quiet. Luntu and Simon have been gone the whole day.
I pull an upturned crate next to Bonga’s. Bonga blows on the paper to remove the excess pieces of crayons that have broken off. He doesn’t move when I sit down next to him, or hide his work. He seems to be lost in the fine edges of his drawing. I notice that he has more colours today than he usually does. They are all broken and barely sharpened but they gather like a rainbow in front of him. He picks one colour at a time and covers each piece of his drawing.
The tree comes alive as he finishes it. One branch is barely hanging onto the tree, dangling loosely, almost touching the ground. Instead of grass, Bonga’s tree is surrounded by an orange blaze. Red flames bite into it, almost swallowing it.
The branches of the tree are dark, broken and bare. They look like the trees we usually see in Smit Street, stripped of their leaves. They stand tall and naked; they don’t blossom like they do in other seasons. It is always winter.
They are no different from us, I think. We are simply branches that have grown tired of holding on.
“Where did you get all these crayons?” I ask him.
“I borrowed them from the shop,” he says. I don’t judge him for stealing. His lips part, ready to give me a well-constructed argument of why he did it. I stop him before he can start.
“You’re alive when you draw,” I smile at him. He looks down at his drawing, shy to meet my eyes and uncomfortable of the attention. He hasn’t gotten used to people seeing his work.
“I’m this burning tree,” he says softly, his thumb tracing the broken branch. “I didn’t survive that fire,” he says thoughtfully, his emotion hidden. His nightmares have got worse recently, I have noticed.
Luntu and Simon walk in, interrupting our conversation. They seem in a better mood than they left in.
“It’s time to go,” Simon tells us, checking his non-existent watch.
“It’s visiting hours at the hospital,” Luntu adds.
Bonga hides his drawing under a pile of dirty clothes behind his crate.
We have been visiting the hospital every day for a week, but they still haven’t let us see Fetta.
The sky is covered in grey cloud. Luntu says that it might rain. She is wearing an old dress, one of two items of clothing she owns. The dress falls a little above her knees and the waist is loose. It looks like it once fitted, when she had more weight on her bones. It is dirty, too, like the rest of our clothes, but I think she looks pretty in it.
“We’re here to see Fetta,” Bonga tells the receptionist excitedly when we arrive at the hospital a little past midday.
“He’s been moved to the critical care ward but you can see him today,” she smiles. She has got used to us coming and I can see she is pleased to give us the good news at last.
We follow Simon, who leads enthusiastically, reaching the ward before we do. Fetta is still hooked up to a drip and some kind of monitor. There are two plastic chairs, one on each side of the bed. Luntu walks around and sits down as Bonga pulls the other out for me to sit. Such a gentleman, I think.
Simon perches himself on the edge of the bed as Bonga hovers behind us. Fetta looks like he is fast asleep. Luntu and I both take his hands. Fetta looks so peaceful although his eyes almost look swollen, probably from sleep. He looks young and vulnerable.
“You think he can hear us?” I ask Simon, who smiles at his friend.
“Yes,” he nods, touching Fetta’s foot over his blanket.
“How do you know?”
Simon takes a deep breath. “I have been here before. With my parents and my little brother. We were in a car crash. They were hooked up to machines … They weren’t conscious.”
“Did you talk to them?” Luntu asks in a small voice, looking up from Fetta to gauge Simon’s eyes. Simon pauses momentarily, and then nods. “Yes, I did.”
Neither of us wants to ask anything more. He is with us on the street – we know what must have happened.
The beeping of the machine sounds so lonely, it makes it even sadder to see Fetta lying here.
“You guys hate hospitals, but my life changed here,” Luntu says softly.
“What happened?” asked Simon. I don’t think Luntu is going to tell us anything more, but she does. This must have been after she left the home, I think. This part of her life she never talks about.
“I was a wounded mess when they brought me in here. I had no one. You don’t understand what it’s like to give yourself to every man who promises you love. To hope that for one moment you could mean so much to someone.” She plays with the hem of Fetta’s blanket. “I thought I could find love, I wanted love …” she sighs heavily, picking at the memory.
I think of Mr Hlomla.
I try to imagine the events as Luntu tells us how it started at The Summit Club. The club looked cool from the outside when Luntu and I passed it that first time. Since then I have passed by so many times and seen the different cars parked outside and the different men who walk out hooking their arms around girls with short skirts and tight dresses. I never once imagined that Luntu would have been one of those girls.
“When they told me at the orphanage that I couldn’t stay any more, I was desperate …”
Aunty Rita had given her a few notes to last her for a few days. She had tried to help but nothing could help Luntu at that point. I remember the school counsellor having tried to help me too when my grades went down at school. What she didn’t understand was that it was my soul that needed fixing.
“They said they’d be my friends,” she says. She tells about the broken dreams those girls who worked at The Summit Club sold her, promising her life beyond the streets. Having known no one out of the orphanage, the girls were all Luntu had.
They introduced her to a guy who said he’d take care of her. He promised to be Luntu’s dream come true, giving her everything she needed.
“Did you live with him?” Simon asks. The machine beeps steadily. Fetta doesn’t open his eyes.
Luntu didn’t live with this man, him but he paid for her to live at the Chelsea Hotel down in Claim Street.
“I called that place home too,” she tells us.
“Where were the girls, then?” Bonga’s deep voice resounds behind me.
“We were like a family,” Luntu explains. “They had men who they said loved them. Men who paid for them to stay at the hotel too,” she sighs. “I didn’t know what was going on in the beginning …”
For months Luntu thought she had been rescued. To her, living at the hotel was beyond anything she had expected life outside the orphanage to be. The life she lived was greater than the one in her dreams. She tells us about parties, shopping and being free. At the orphanage they never had that. There was always curfew, and rules were meant to be strictly followed by everyone.
Life outside the orphanage had turned out to be more glamorous. The girls were becoming like sisters to her. Each day they promised her that better things were yet to come.
“I couldn’t imagine things getting any better than that … And then I fell in love with him,” she says, almost too softly for us to hear.
I wonder who this man is Luntu was able to fall in love with. I can’t imagine her caring so much for someone, even herself. Love for her was the flowers, the gifts and the money, none of which she was used to. To me love was about guarding our secret and making sure it never left those closed classroom doors. We trusted the glass windows to hide us behind the blinds. Those desks would never be allowed to breathe a word. The chairs in Mr Hlomla’s class might have wanted to warn me, only if they could.
Nobody warned Luntu. The girls had encouraged her. They told her that was what it meant to be loved: to be pampered and showered with gifts. And someday, because of love, she’d be expected to return the favour.
“So, basically, you owed him?” Bonga sums it up.
Luntu nods, ashamed. She was naive. Just as I had been. He was her first love. She wouldn’t have known what was acceptable and what wasn’t. She did everything he asked. We were both the same, Luntu and I, wanting to please, to be praised, to feel special to someone. It turns out that most of us want that; and Luntu wanted that too.
“Until he didn’t want me to do things for just him any more …” Luntu’s voice is shaky.
“What more did he want?”
There was a certain way he expected her to dress, the outfits skimpier, more revealing. He introduced her to all the pubs that were said to be a hit. He introduced her to other things too. He introduced her to other people. She owed him. She was forced to satisfy his ‘friends’, after which she would be rewarded. She slept in different beds with different men. Her mind and her body were no longer related.
“I grew numb. I’ve been numb since.” She wipes tears away. Even though she didn’t feel any more, she didn’t stop dying. All those men left with a part of her.
“It was a huge price to pay,” Bonga says.
“And where were your friends?” I ask, moving closer to Fetta’s bed so I can lean in.
“They showed me they were never friends.”
The girls had all been part of the plan. They knew the kind of life they were getting Luntu into. They knew she’d have to pay with her soul in the end. They didn’t mind. They did it too. Pleasing different men who came at different hours became part of Luntu’s job description. These men introduced her to a fistful of trouble as they stole away the little innocence still left in her.
“I had big dreams, you know,” she tries for a smile that fails dismally. I pass her the water. Her hands shake as she holds the glass.
Luntu tells us that she wanted to be a singer. She’d sing at the orphanage when they had events. She sang in her room too. This man had promised her every last dream, but he smoked her ambitions and got high on her hopes.
“How did you get away?” Simon finally asks as Luntu falls silent for a while. I also want to know how she ended up with them. How she ended up with us.
“Fetta,” she says, her eyes resting on Fetta who doesn’t move beside us. “He took me out of that life. He took me in. I was beaten to a pulp. He carried me here.
“I can’t believe that Fetta is the one who is lying here, helpless, struggling to breathe. He’s helped most of us, even Simon. Maybe Bonga too. We can’t afford to lose him. Because of him, I have you guys. And I’m learning how to feel again.” She smiles at us, her eyes shiny with tears. “You’re my family now.”
I stretch my hand out to her again and she holds it in the middle of the bed.
“Who was the man, the one you were in love with?” Bonga asks. I also want to know.
She hesitates for a while and then shakes her head. “I can’t say his name,” she says.
And I feel why. To say his name will bring him into this room.