“What are you smiling about?” I ask Bonga, who has a huge grin plastered onto his face. His grin is infectious as he holds out a newspaper page to me.
“What am I looking at?” I plop down beside him, skimming over the page.
“This,” he points to an article about an art competition. Anyone can enter. There is a cash prize. He smiles hopefully.
“Do you think I could … win this?” He hesitates.
I nod my head quickly, excitedly. “Of course. You’re brilliant. You’re very talented,” I assure him.
Bonga smiles. He reads the rest of the article out loud to me. I am excited for him and tell him I will go with him.
Bonga leads the way through Kotze Street and into Edith Cavell. The NSA is in Hoofd Street, Bonga tells me. It is where he should submit his application. I have seen the place before; it’s close to the park.
“I’m scared,” he admits as we head east into Pieterson Street. The sky is a bright blue today. There’s no hint of rain.
“Have you ever entered an art competition before?” I ask him, draping my sweater over my shoulders. I feel out of breath. I get tired easily these days. Dr Ndlovu said it is normal to feel this way, but he also advised that I should exercise a lot to keep the baby healthy. These long walks will help. We are always on the road.
“Back home where I’m from I used to enter a lot of competitions,” he looks at me. “I always won,” he adds proudly.
“Where are you from?” I ask again the question he has been avoiding for so long.
Bonga doesn’t say anything. For a while I think he won’t. I don’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. I seem to do that a lot.
“Zimbabwe,” he tells me when we make another turn.
“What’s it like there in Zim?”
“I moved a lot, growing up. My dad travelled a lot because of the work he did so after every five years we would move to a new town,” he tells me. “I stayed in a small town called Gokwe then.” He smiles at the memory that seems untainted.
“What did your dad do?” I ask.
“He was a school principal so we stayed in the staff quarters on campus.”
“Did you have friends?”
“No,” he shakes his head. “I’ve never really had good friends. It was mostly other teachers at the quarters and people who worked at the school. I never had anyone my age I could relate to. There was never really anyone to play with. So I read a lot instead.”
I wait for him to go on.
“My dad moved to a bigger school when I was in Grade 3 up until Grade 7. It was a boarding school. He was the first black headmaster there,” he smiles proudly.
“Where did you move to after that?”
“We moved to Chegutu. It was where my parents actually built a home. Even though we still moved a lot after that, Chegutu always felt like home. After that we moved here.” The memory sounds bitter. The air changes around us.
“What was it like in Chegutu?” I choose to distract him from his pain, not letting him wallow in a memory that is making his heart ache. He seems to relax when he thinks about Chegutu.
“I had a sister who was two years younger than me.” This part of the memory is also painful. I see it in the way his muscles tense. I can almost feel his chest constrict behind his grey sweater.
“It wasn’t as lonely as it had been back in the staff accommodation. Chegutu was a rural area. We stayed on campus at first, but my sister kept me company. There were also other teachers’ kids there so it was better.” He smiles at the distant memory and chuckles as though remembering something else. “This one time I caught a bird and thought it was dead but it turned out it wasn’t actually dead. It was playing dead. My sister came and took it from me. It flew off. I was really mad. Another time …” This one is also a happy memory; his face relaxes and morphs into another beautiful smile. “I caught a bird and it was actually dead. We gathered with the other children and made a funeral for it.”
I laugh. “Nerds.” I roll my eyes at Bonga, who nudges my arm playfully.
We walk into Hoofd Street. The street is quieter than the other streets we’ve been walking through. Like most of the streets in Hillbrow, Hoofd is covered in trees that surround the big buildings. NSA is built and finished in facebrick stones. There are parking bays outside and a big gate that, luckily, is open. Bonga is nervous and I am nervous for him. We walk through the gates and look at the tall buildings, not knowing where to go.
“Sorry,” I ask one kid who passes us by.
“I don’t have money,” she stares at us disapprovingly, shaking her head. “All you Nyaope kids do is ask us for two rands.” She clicks her tongue and is about to walk off when I swallow my pride.
“We just want to ask you—”
“What do you want?” she sighs impatiently, glancing at the gold watch on her wrist.
“Where is the entrance? We’ve come to ask for application forms for the art competition.”
She chuckles disbelievingly, “Really?”
Bonga’s jaw tightens. His hands mould into fists beside me. I hold his hand to calm him down.
“Please,” I beg the girl. She is beautifully dressed in blue jeans and a crop top that shows off her figure. I had the same All Star Converse shoes she wears. They remind me of the collection of shoes I had back at home. I love shoes.
“That way.” Annoyed, she finally points us in the right direction. Bonga grabs my hand before I can thank her. He leads me round the side of the building.
The room we enter is big and cold. It looks like a hall. Black plastic chairs are ordered in rows of three. Three ladies and one man sit on the other side of a desk in the middle of the hall.
“Hi,” Bonga and I greet the ladies. “How can we apply for the competition?”
The women look us up and down like we are troublemakers. I can see they are about to call security when the man at the table behind beckons us forward.
“What do you have?” the man asks. He sounds a lot nicer than the three ladies.
I stand small next to Bonga. I feel like the whole room is ready to swallow me whole. I wonder how Bonga must be feeling.
“This,” Bonga says taking his picture out of his old, battered bag. His hands are shaking as he hands it over.
The man takes it and smooths it out on the table in front of him. He stares at it for a few seconds as we wait; it feels like I am holding my breath. I see amazement in the man’s eyes. He nods his head slowly, approvingly. I cross my fingers.
“You drew this?” he asks Bonga, who smiles shyly besides me.
“I didn’t have enough crayons,” Bonga explains. “I picked those up but I …” he stutters, struggling to catch his breath.
“He drew it,” I speak for him.
The man looks up at Bonga. “This is the kind of talent I am looking for,” he smiles widely and I squeeze Bonga’s hand. “I’m Thabo.” He holds out his hand and shakes Bonga’s.
“Yenzokuhle,” I smile shyly, shaking his hand firmly.
“Fill in this form and bring it back to me.” He hands Bonga three sheets of paper. “This is just the application phase,” Thabo explains to Bonga. “The winners will only be announced after six months.”
Bonga fills in the forms and gives them back to Thabo. “I will keep your drawing safe, don’t worry. I will make sure it is entered into the competition. If you move,” he says – and I think he must know that we have no fixed address – “watch out for the announcement in the newspaper in two months. It will give details of the awards ceremony and the shortlist of winners. It will have a number, but you can call me.” He hands us his card before we leave. I can see Bonga is reluctant to leave his drawing, but I take his hand and lead him out of the hall.
“Have you ever had a girlfriend?” I ask Bonga on our way home. We have decided to pass by the hospital to visit Fetta on our way home.
Bonga pushes his hands into the pockets of his grey trousers. “I did.” He smiles. “I was fourteen at the time.”
“Did you love her?” I ask.
“I think I did,” he looks at me. “I remember once thinking that I was going to marry her. I couldn’t imagine my life without her.”
I begin to envy the girl I don’t even know. “How old are you now?” I ask curiously.
I gape at him. He laughs. “How old is Simon?” I’ve been wanting to ask that too.
“Only seventeen,” Bonga smiles. I nod.
“Tell me more about this girl.”
We are close to our street now. Bonga begins to relax again when he thinks about her. “She was exciting, in a childish way. She had the most beautiful laugh. I haven’t seen her in over four years now but I can sometimes picture the lines on the side of her lips when she laughed. She was beautiful.” He smiles at the memory. “We lived on different farms. The countryside is beautiful there.”
“What was her name?”
“Her name was Hope. We attended the same church, but our farms were so far apart that we only saw each other when we went to church on Sundays.”
“How did you visit her then, if she was so far away?”
“I had a bicycle. So I would ride my bike to visit her. But for the most part, I would walk her halfway to her place after school before going home myself.”
“Hopeless romantic,” I roll my eyes at him and he laughs as we approach the hospital.
Luntu and Simon are already there. They are waiting on the benches against the wall in the corridor. Simon smiles when he sees us. Luntu moves and makes space for me.
“Where were you? We’ve been looking for you everywhere,” Luntu interrogates.
“We were at the N—”
“Park,” Bonga interjects. Luntu and Simon nod. Maybe Bonga doesn’t want to jinx his luck, I think to myself as his eyes hide from mine. He should be excited about this, not worrying about whether he will be good enough. I think the group would be proud of him too.
“Is it visiting hours yet?” I ask Luntu as a nurse passes us in the corridor.
Luntu shakes her head. “No, it’s lunch. We have to wait a few more minutes.”
We sit watching the clock until it strikes five and then we rush down the corridor, each racing to get to the ward first. Fetta has been moved from ICU into the general wards and is recovering fast.
He is awake, but he is not alone and my heart skips a beat. Steve and his boys are standing on either side of his bed and I wonder how they got in when it wasn’t visiting hours. Perhaps they pretended they were family. But Fetta doesn’t look threatened, or scared. He smiles when he sees us.
“What are you doing here?” Bonga challenges Steve. His minions are already at his side, dragging Bonga away from him.
“Leave him,” Fetta orders. His voice is stronger than I’ve heard it since he was stabbed.
I can see Simon is scared and I am too.
“He’s not worth it, Bonga,” Fetta says, staring Steve in the eyes before Steve turns to leave.
“We’ll be back,” Steve promises, crunching his knuckles at Fetta. “This is not over, Malibongwe.” His people follow after him as he leaves and we can all breathe again.
“Fetta!” I throw my arms awkwardly around him.
“Whoa,” he pries me away. “Careful, Popi you’ll move the needle,” he says, sitting up from the bed. He still has a needle connecting him to a drip. He presses a button on the remote that causes the bed to go up. He stops when he is comfortable. Luntu retrieves more pillows from the cupboard and stuffs them behind Fetta’s back.
“Popi?” I question him.
“It does sound better than your actual name,” Simon teases and he is back to his old self. We all are now that Fetta is.
Fetta looks strong. It’s like he was never stabbed so bad that almost didn’t make it. He acts like he’d just been asleep this whole time.
“We missed you,” Luntu admits as she curls herself on the edge of Fetta’s bed. Bonga brings two chairs for him and me.
“Thanks,” I say to Bonga who sits next to me. Fetta looks suspiciously at us.
“What?” I ask him. He shakes his head.
“It better be nothing,” he jokes.
I smile. I’m happy that he made it. Simon and Bonga have been fighting a lot since Fetta has been gone and isn’t there to keep them in order. It’s not even about their stupid game of cards any more. They are just being childish for no reason.
“We thought you wouldn’t make it,” I tell Fetta, remembering that awful day when Steve almost took him away from us.
Fetta smiles and dismisses the thought. He tells us that he feels much better than he did last night when he first woke up. He has no idea how long he’d been out for. Simon tells him.
He remembers everything that happened that day and that Steve is the one who stabbed him. He doesn’t want revenge. I don’t think it’s because he’s scared. But it isn’t like Fetta to not want to fight back. I suspect they have an argument that roots deeper than what we see.
Fetta doesn’t tell us anything. I know he is hiding something. He tells us that he doesn’t like the food here in hospital. He lets us eat the unappetising soup covered in a silver bowl on his bedside table. It tastes like medicine.
“Why was Steve here?” Bonga finally asks. Fetta looks away, his eyes wandering off to the wall. I also wonder why he would let Steve come here if they hate each other so much.
“And why did he call you Malibongwe?” Luntu asks. Simon looks away. He also seems to know something we don’t. He shares a knowing look with Fetta. They are hiding something for us.
* * * * *
Tell us: What do you think Fetta is hiding?