“It’s Wednesday!” Simon’s voice jolts me awake, almost as fast as a sudden and unexpected drenching with ice-cold water. My eyes squint in the light. His bright eyes glimmer. Fetta is leaning against the balustrades of the staircase, looking like the main villain in a John Woo movie, making smoking look much cooler than it is, as he blows puffs into the air.
Simon looks on enviously at Fetta as he blows smoke out of his nose, tilting his head up as he releases another ring from his mouth. I feel ashamed of myself, but l can’t help feeling envious too.
“Luntu, Wednesday!” Tugging our blanket, Simon wakes Luntu who is still sound asleep next to me. She stretches for a second and her features soften as she seems to be registering what Simon has said.
Bonga walks in, his afro unkempt from the wind outside. He seems to be much happier too. It’s because it’s Wednesday, I assume. The beads of sweat that glisten on his forehead confirm the weather outside. Luntu discards her jacket that has a zip that looks like it hasn’t worked in decades. Underneath, she wears a long-sleeved T-shirt that could have been white once, before time ran its course. Her tiny frame is completed by her tight ripped jeans. I am still dressed in a vest under my red knitted sweater and a pair of black leggings. These are the only clothes I have. I left my bag at Mandla’s when I escaped, but I have my cellphone – with no charge and no charger.
Mandla, a shiver runs along my spine as I remember. This place can’t be that far from his house in Berea. It didn’t take me longer than 30 minutes to get here, although it had felt like I was running for eternity.
“What happens Wednesday?” I ask, as I follow them up the stairs and onto the street. Wednesday must be a very important day. Simon is in front with Fetta as I fall into step with Luntu and Bonga who are walking at their own pace. None of us is saying anything as we hurry through the busy streets of Hillbrow.
Joburg had looked beautiful from afar when Mandla had pointed out the lights that shone brightly on the city as we drove in. I haven’t seen the beauty those lights promised since I got here. Now, with no safety net, I need to find a job urgently. It’s the only way I will get out of this dump.
Women stand on the side of the road shouting, “Umbona!” as my stomach grumbles. I haven’t eaten proper food since I left home. The women shoo us away as we look a little too long at their bowls filled with maize.
The sun beats down as throngs of people push past us in the street. I’ve never seen so many people in one place. George, the small town where I am from, is quiet in comparison.
The small streets of Groeneweide, where I was born, are nothing like this place that overflows with people. The tall buildings we pass have broken windows and washing lines strung between the balconies high above the street.
Fetta and Simon are laughing up ahead and I think I would have preferred to walk with them, rather than the silent Bonga and Luntu.
“What happens on Wednesday?” I ask Bonga.
“Wednesday is our dime of hope,” he tells me as we cross yet another road. It feels like we have been walking for eternity and my feet are beginning to ache.
“Walk faster!” Fetta scolds as we catch up to them on the corner of Edith Cavell Street. Between Edith Cavell and Twist streets, a tall building stands out with its sandstone face and tall columns. I look up to see a bell tower with a cross. The church is beautiful.
The bell rings as lots of children emerge out of nowhere, rushing through its open gates, pushing against each other as they do. We are no different from them as Bonga pulls my arm, leading me through the crowd that blocks the entrance. We are a sticky mess of sweat as we reach a stern-looking woman standing at the door.
“Order! Order!” the old lady commands the two kids who are already fighting behind us as they push through the line. Her hair is covered in a lime doek. She has a long black skirt and a black pullover.
“When you walk in, you make a queue, okay?”
After all the heads in her audience nod, she struts into the building again. We follow behind her.
“Soup kitchen,” Bonga tells me and my stomach grumbles.
The church is sparsely furnished with rows of wooden chairs. The queue moves forward. Fetta and Simon are still in a long conversation, laughing at some in-jokes.
Fetta and Simon remind me of my best friend back at school, Nozi, who I spent half my time with, laughing at things that didn’t make sense as we sat on our usual spot behind the tuck shop every day.
Nozi and I drifted apart when I became wrapped up with Mr Hlomo, spending every break with him. I think I miss her now that I am surrounded by so many strangers. If only I had listened to her about Mr Hlomla. What is she doing right now? What is my mother doing? I try to bury those thoughts.
“Move,” the lady tells me as a huge gap forms between Bonga and me. I move quickly and close the gap as the line continues, never promising to end.
“Guys,” Fetta whispers, and then signals us to follow him. Moving alongside, we reach the front of the line. He whispers to a boy who nods quickly at whatever he says and, just like that, we are closer to the smell of hot soup and bread.
Luntu tries to take up as little space as possible. Her long knotted hair falls in a sticky mess over her face, revealing little of her tiny round features.
Bonga keeps glancing around nervously. We sit at a table that Fetta secures for just us. I hear Bonga gasp fearfully as a chattering group moves behind him. Fetta eyes him, and as though he has communicated a silent affirmation, Bonga seems to loosen up, regaining his composure as he quietly dips into his food.
“Do you remember last week?” Simon laughs as the others join him, remembering some shared story. Simon retells the story. His hands stretch out animatedly like those of an energetic preacher, as the others argue with him about how he is exaggerating.
“We’re in church, don’t lie,” Bonga admonishes him, laughing. I catch Luntu smile a little.
As I take the second spoonful of soup a wave of nausea gushes over me. I stand up quickly, suddenly the centre of attention.
“Excuse—” I can’t finish my sentence as all my insides seem to be heaving up through my throat. I run to the bathroom and wretch in the toilet. The vomiting seems to never stop as I kneel there, gagging because nothing else comes out.
There’s a soft knock on the door and I struggle to my feet.
“It’s Luntu,” her voice is different, softer. A breath later I open for her, flushing the toilet as she steps in. She has her arms folded protectively against her chest. We stand in awkward silence, neither one of us knowing what to say but I know that she’s come to check if I’m okay. She offers me a bottle of water.
I gulp the water. She nods. I want to tell her how scared I am but I can’t.
* * * * *
Tell us: Do you think Yenzokuhle should go back to the basement with Luntu, Bonga, Simon and Fetta or keep running?