As we leave the hospital I look up into the sky. The blazing sun is covered by storm clouds pregnant with rain. We walk towards Esselen Street. Luntu walks a little faster than me and I have to jog to catch up with her. It isn’t the same route I walked when I came here.
“I want to show you something,” she explains. Luntu’s cold hand grasps mine as we cross a busy road.
“At least tell me how far it is.”
She sighs, stopping to catch a breath. “It’s close.”
“At least tell me where we’re going,” I urge her as we turn right into Quartz Street.
“We’re almost there.”
The pavements are filled with discarded mattresses and papers spilling onto the busy road. You can hardly make out the line of shops behind the overflowing garbage bins.
“Luntu!” some boys who are sleeping on makeshift beds behind big cardboard boxes call out to us as we pass. Luntu glances quickly at them, waving her hand.
When we enter Van Der Merwe Street, Luntu stops in front of a door painted red. She doesn’t say anything, but I can see this place has memories for her.
“I grew up thinking this was home,” she tells me as she pushes the door open and we walk through a passage into a courtyard inside.
The children in the home are playing on the swings. Some chase each other around the yard. Luntu looks longingly at them.
The frown on her face eases as she makes out familiar faces, waving at the few who smile back at her. I have never seen her look this relaxed. She leads me down a passage to a room where two ladies in dark blue uniforms are chatting while they sweep the floor.
“Luntu!” they shout.
“Aunty Rita,” Luntu cries as Aunt Rita hugs her then holds her at arm’s length, her shiny eyes roaming Luntu’s tiny frame.
“You’re so grown!” the other lady takes her turn to hug her, showing as much affection as Aunty Rita. They must love her, I think to myself as Luntu introduces me.
“This is my friend, Yenzokuhle.”
Luntu is happier than I’ve ever seen her before as the women take turns to bombard her with questions and remind her of stories about her growing up.
“We would be give you food,” Aunty Rita whispers.
“But we’re under surveillance,” the other woman, Aunty Dora, adds.
“Boss Sister is still like that?” Luntu jokes. They all laugh knowingly.
“The least I can do is offer you a hot shower,” Aunt Rita’s eyes are full of kindness and pity. She takes Luntu’s arm and inspects her again, and with saddened eyes, she shakes her head.
“You have to be quick,” she warns us as she leads us upstairs to the girls’ dormitory and hands us towels before she goes back down to carry on sweeping before she is caught.
Luntu sits down on one of the bunk beds.
“This used to be mine,” she says and I see the tears pricking her eyes.
“Luntu, is that you?” Luntu gets up and smiles as she goes and hugs a tall girl who has come to greet her. I stand there awkwardly, waiting to be introduced. I wish Luntu could be like this with me too, laughing and full of smiles.
“Silu,” Luntu holds her friend at arm’s length and nods approvingly – probably at how much she has grown, or perhaps changed. I can’t tell.
“You’re still alive,” Silu jokes.
Silu takes us to the showers and says she will stand guard outside in case Boss Sister comes.
It feels like an eternity since I had a hot shower. I want to stay under the water for days but we don’t have long. We dry ourselves and dress again quickly, then Silu runs downstairs with us to say goodbye to Aunty Rita and Aunty Dora.
It is almost dark when we head back to our makeshift home. As we go past Hill Café in Kotze Street I smell the hypnotising aroma of coffee. It reminds me of the times I would wake up to my mother making a cup for both of us. I don’t remember my father being there on those mornings; he must have left for work before I got up.
Black trash bags are piled up on the corner of Liquor King in Esselen Street. It’s more like a tavern than a bottle store and reminds me of the places my father used to frequent – places that cheated us out of his love.
“Vulindlela wemamghobhozi!” an old, dirty-looking man sings as he staggers and falls down in front of us. A group of drunken men leaning against the wall outside the bottle store burst into cheerful singing as they swing their bottles of beer in the air. My father could easily be one of them.
When we pass Pizza Perfect and KFC I feel my stomach grumbling. I am weak with hunger. Luntu stops before crossing the road, glancing quickly at me. I lean down with my hands on my thighs.
“I can’t,” I admit to her as the smell of fried chicken fills the air.
Luntu doesn’t say anything. She walks to the dustbin and fishes through it.
“Our lucky day!” She pulls out a big paper bag from KFC. Luntu rips the bag open, giving me the remaining half-eaten meat as she takes her share. It’s hardly a full piece that we share but my stomach is grateful after two days without food. “It’s getting dark – we need to get back,” Luntu says as she tosses the empty bag back in the bin.
As we pass a smart-looking building with ‘The Summit Club’ in electric lights over the door, a woman in a red glittery dress comes out and calls out to Luntu who ignores her and speeds up so that she is almost running.
“Who was that?” I ask her a couple of blocks down. “What was that place?”
“You know it wasn’t always smart like that,” she says, ignoring my question about the woman. “Now I hear there’s an indoor pool in there.”
“How do you know? Have you been there?”
Luntu’s eyes flicker with an emotion I can’t decipher. It is clear from the way her lips press tightly together that she won’t say anything more. I don’t ask her anything else about The Summit Club.
“Where’ve you been?” Fetta meets us at the bottom of the stairs. The others stare. It is already dark outside and Fetta is pacing up and down. His eyes are red with fury.
“At the Home,” Luntu answers eventually, choosing to omit the most important part of the day. I am grateful to her for covering up for me.
“What took you the whole day?” Simon jumps in. Bonga regards us indifferently with his brandy-brown eyes. He continues playing with his incomplete set of cards.
“We lost track of time,” I say. Fetta scolds us before he discards the matter with a warning.
We all gather around the warm fire – all except for Bonga, who stays in the corner. I’ve never seen him close to the fire and the group seems to not mind. Even on the rainy days he wraps himself in a green blanket and falls asleep even before we do. I’ve always wondered why, but I never ask.
“How did you get here? To Jozi?” Simon asks me after telling one of his funny stories.
“I got a lift,” I say simply. I try not to think about the day I decided to run away from home, from Mr Hlomla and the terrible situation I was in, but I can’t stop the thoughts from flooding my mind.
* * * * *
Tell us: What do you think Yenzokuhle will decide to do with her baby?