Luntu stretches out her hand to Simon who is squeezing and blowing into a small juice box full of glue. He holds it tightly; the bottle makes a crackling sound as he blows in and out of it. Luntu waits expectantly, her hand still lingering between them. I watch them curiously. I have been with them for two weeks now and I am slowly beginning to understand how things work around here.
Fetta is out again. He always says he has business to deal with in the mornings and I never really know what. For the most part he brings in more money than any of us could. Even though it is never enough, sometimes we can afford bread or even a cold drink. On his luckiest days we get both.
Simon has never hinted at what he does, even though I’ve asked him countless times. He isn’t a loose mouth when it comes to Fetta.
Bonga sits isolated in the corner with a broken crayon. He is sketching something on a big piece of cardboard. His afro is a matted mess on his forehead as his bushy eyebrows crease in concentration. His two-toned lips part slightly as he draws.
“What you doing?” I ask him. He flips the cardboard over quickly so I can’t see as I move next to him.
“None of your business,” he says defensively.
Simon passes the glue to Luntu who pulls on the bottle. Simon stares lazily into space, his eyes barely open as he smiles widely at something neither of us can see.
“Where you going?” Bonga looks up at me from his drawing as I try to fix my hair. I run a shaky hand through my knotted afro. His eyes study me intently as I wipe my face with the back of my hand, hoping it will be enough to get me to look at least half presentable.
“I’m going to look for a job,” I tell him, wiping my shoes with the corner of the rug. Luntu offers the glue to Bonga, but he shakes his head. She offers it to me and I shake my head too. I don’t think it’s good for me, considering my situation.
“Sissy,” Luntu mocks Bonga as she brings the bottle back to her lips, zoning out into her world again.
“A job?” Simon laughs.
“I saw it in the paper yesterday before you made the fire with it.”
“You’re going to be cold out there dressed like that,” says Bonga. He reaches into a crate and pulls out a large grey jersey.
“Here,” he throws it to me.
“Thank you,” I smile at him. He smiles back shyly and then continues with his sketching.
The weather is fresh and cold on the street compared to our smoky crib. Bonga’s oversized sweater keeps me warm even though it’s cold.
A taxi hoots at me as I cautiously cross the road, walking between street vendors lined up selling their goods in front of shops. I see pink leaflets scattered on the pavement and pick one up – they are advertising miracles by a doctor who can cure everything. I wonder if he can cure what I have.
The trees are in a whirring of their own as the cold wind blasts my face.
“Downtown, Sisi!” The taxi conductor cocks his head as he calls out to people who stand at the side of the road. He doesn’t even look at me, as though he can already tell that I can’t afford to take a taxi. The door slides open as three women get in.
I walk on through the chatter of the streets and the music from speakers.
“Sorry Sisi,” I lower my head into one of the small tents the street vendors protect themselves under. The woman eyes me suspiciously at first, her eyes judging every part of my appearance, but she doesn’t dismiss me as she nods for me to carry on.
“Where could I find Gandhi Square?” I ask her.
She gives me directions and by some miracle I find myself outside the Platinum Plus building I am looking for. This street is different from the streets I have made my home. It’s smarter here. The buildings are complete with orange and brown balconies, unlike the buildings in Hillbrow, which have mostly been hijacked by illegal occupants. It almost looks like I am in a new city. Big orange umbrellas queue in front of King Pie and the streets are clean.
I smile, seemingly having stepped into the right side of my dreams. This is what I’ve always dreamed Jozi would look like. This is what Mandla was talking about when he portrayed it to be this beautiful, this lively.
Metro buses are parked at the circle. I look up at a billboard that reads: “Jozi, you have come a long way, now let’s go even further.”
The glass doors slide open and I find myself in a cool reception area. The lady at reception greets me.
“I’m looking for Ellen Drury’s office – how may I find it?” I glance around the foyer with its black leather sofas and glass table covered with glossy magazines.
“Name?” her manicured fingers hold a bunch of papers, which she staples together.
“Yenzokuhle. Yenzokuhle Sokhulu.”
“Do you have an appointment?” She still wears her professional smile even though her eyes run up and down me, judging my dirty clothes.
“No. I came for the job advertised in Daily Sun. I didn’t think to make an appointment first,” I admit honestly.
She nods apprehensively as she steps out from behind the desk. She is dressed smartly in a black pencil skirt and white shirt with red stilettos. She leads me down a passage to another small waiting room in the middle of a few offices.
“You may wait here. Would you like coffee or juice?”
“Thank you, coffee would be great.”
I make myself comfortable on the sofa that smells of old leather. There is a water dispenser that looks inviting, with the cleanest water I’ve seen since I got to Joburg.
A small TV hangs on the wall, its volume barely audible as the Days Omnibus airs. Days used to be one of my favourite soapies. I’d stay in the lounge and watch it whenever I got home from school. I watched a lot of television then, because it was a good distraction from my mother and home life. The characters still look the same, although I can’t possibly follow what is happening.
The woman returns with a tray, placing it in front of me, and I thank her. I haven’t had coffee since I left home and I quickly take a gulp. It burns my tongue and my throat. The Choice Assorted biscuits on the plate make me feel like I have stepped into an early Christmas. I am feeling good about this job, although I have never had a job interview before.
I always thought that after school I would apply for an internship at the hospital where my mother works and then get a bursary to study nursing. I thought it would be easy with her help. But she isn’t here now.
This job can’t be difficult, I try to tell myself. It is a vacancy for a cleaner. That can’t be difficult. I always had chores at home so this shouldn’t be any different, I think to myself.
“Mrs Drury is expecting you – you may go upstairs,” the receptionist announces eventually.
I find Mrs Drury’s office at the end of the corridor on the first floor and knock on the door.
“Come in,” Mrs Drury smiles, waving to the chair adjacent to hers. I rub my sweaty palms against Bonga’s sweater as I sit down awkwardly.
“How may I help you, Yenzokuhle?” She pronounces my name with an ‘s’ as she glances at the sheet of paper in her hands. She looks friendly as she settles her glasses on her nose, tucking away a stray lock of her thick blonde hair. I smile nervously.
“I came for the job advertised in yesterday’s paper. The cleaner …”
“Have you ever worked before?”
I can already tell that this won’t end well. I shake my head, trying to think of the holiday jobs I turned down each time Nozi invited me to work with her at Bayleaf Café in George during summer vacations. I’d always pass it up and drown myself in endless television and binge read all my favourite Nancy Drew mystery stories.
“No,” I cross my fingers under the desk.
“Why do you want this job?” she asks and I think it will be one of the easiest questions. I need this job.
“I don’t have a place to live and I am trying to build a future. I want to rent an apartment and live on my own.” My voice is a shaky mess and my hands instinctively cover the small bump that I feel under my sweater. Ellen’s eyes follow my hands and I think she understands.
“How old are you?”
I contemplate lying to her, but I am aware that sooner or later she will find out and I don’t want to lose this job. I need it.
Her eyebrows shoot up in shock.
“I’m sorry,” she tells me, stretching her hands out in the air to show that there is nothing she can do.
“You’re a minor. We can’t hire you. It would be illegal if we did. I was willing to overlook your inexperience but … my hands are tied.”
She almost sounds sorry as I let out a sigh. Tears sting the back of my eyelids as I stand up and walk to the door.
“Yenzokuhle …” she calls after me. I turn around. She removes her glasses, massaging the bridge of her nose. “I’m sorry I can’t help you. But there are places that can. I wish you all the best.”
I nod and then turn to stop her seeing the tears that are flowing now.
I rush to the nearest bathroom I can find and collapse into a puddle on the cold tiled floor. I feel the familiar gush of nausea wash over me. I crawl to the toilet, and empty the contents of my stomach. I have to take care of it, I think to myself as the room begins to spin. I have been running away from it for too long. I have to get rid of it, I think as my insides rise to my throat once again.
* * * * *
Tell us: What do you think Yenzokuhle should do now?