That day I waited for my mother to leave for her night shift at the hospital before I silently bid my room goodbye.
Nozi had helped me decorate it when we still hung out. The walls were full of pictures of Nozi and I laughing on the swings in Formosa Park. It reminded me that I’d been happy before. I looked at the last motivational quote that remained on my wall – I had pulled most of them down. It was written in my snail-like handwriting and decorated by Nozi, who was better in that department.
I had fought so hard for Nozi not to choose pink décor for my room. She had planned it all and had coloured boxes and drawers for different clothing from jeans to T-shirts. I’m not as fond of pink as she is and I am not a neat freak like her either. The best I can manage is for my wardrobe to close properly without clothes spilling out when you open it.
I packed my favourite Nancy Drew in my bag. I felt like I couldn’t breathe as I sat on my bed ad wrote my mother a letter. I still hadn’t made sense of what I was about to do. One moment I was certain that I wanted to go as far away from this place as possible, and the next I was willing to change my mind and take Mr Hlomla’s advice.
“Get rid of it,” he had told me. It had sounded like a threat.
The pen felt heavy as I decorated the letter to my mother with hearts, then folded it and left it on my dressing table. I wondered how long it would take her to realise I had gone and to find it.
I had only one bag me when I left the house. I planned to take the bus to town, but it was already late so I began to walk.
The streets were familiarly quiet as I walked past the facebrick houses in Weide. It would take me about 20 minutes to get to York Street, I calculated.
It was getting dark when I stopped at Formosa Park. The pair of swings that Nozi and I had swung on stood empty. When had we stopped doing that? In the good days we would come here every Friday after school and talk about our weekend plans and our dreams for the future.
If there’s anything I would miss about Weide it would be that little park. That’s where I’d run to when I could barely hear myself think over the loud arguments at home. I’d hide out there, sliding into one of the cold swings made from tyres, and trying to imagine a different life.
I must have spent longer than I thought in the park because it was dark by the time I reached the small shopping centre with Kwikspar and Scooters Pizza. There were only a few cars in the parking lot and I couldn’t help noticing the red Audi parked outside the Standard Bank ATM. It had a Gauteng number plate and looked brand new.
I watched as a tall man in ripped blue jeans and a black leather jacket climbed out. He removed the sunglasses from his head and threw them inside the car before he pressed his key, making the car beep twice as he locked it. He walked up to Andy’s DVDs. I walked towards him and he turned and smiled.
“It’s closed,” I told him what he could already see as he stared disappointedly at the sign. His eyes scanned the shop and then he turned to me again, his hands sliding into the pockets of his jacket.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Yenzokuhle.” My bag felt heavy on my shoulders as I held tightly onto it.
“Where are you going at this time of night?” His eyes roamed and settled on my black Nike sports bag.
“Where are you going?” I asked back.
He chuckled softly, his hand running through his short hair. He tilted his head to the sky, as though contemplating his response.
“You want a lift? Or are you waiting for someone?”
The cold air blew a shiver through my body. My shoulders felt lighter as he took my bag, and put it in the boot of the Audi.
“You can hop in. I’m Mandla,” he said as he put the key in the ignition. It smelled of cigarette smoke and leather inside. He sounded pleased, as though he had been hoping for someone to be waiting, stranded in that parking lot.
It didn’t exactly make sense why he would be getting DVDs at night if he were heading for Joburg but I told myself I was just being paranoid. I needed this lift. I needed to get out of town before someone came looking for me. I had been lucky.
“Yenzokuhle,” I told him my name as the engine roared to life.
We pulled out of the parking lot and Mandla turned on the radio. Whitney Houston’s ‘I will always love you’ filled the car. It was a song I used to dance to with my mother. It was one of her favourites and it would always put her in a good mood. She would put it on when Father was out searching for work. That was our time, when the house was peaceful and lighter with him gone. We would never know what mood he would come home in.
The song smoothed into the chorus and I found myself humming.
“You like the song?” Mandla stole a glance at me.
“It reminds me of someone special.”
He smiled, revealing the gold in his tooth. I noticed the barely visible scar above his left eyebrow.
As he drove he made conversation, asking me questions from how old I was to what I was doing travelling alone at night. I lied. I told him a story about an aunt who lived in Joburg.
Mandla kept the conversation going between us, although I would have preferred to be left alone to think and plan what I was going to do when I got to Joburg.
Just outside Oudtshoorn he pulled into a Caltex garage.
“Full tank,” he cocked his head out of his window as he spoke to the petrol attendant.
Mandla drummed his finger on the steering wheel, impatient as the attendant filled the tank. He had another scar on his hand. “You want anything?” he looked at me, as he handed his card over to the petrol guy.
“No,” I said trying to not think about how hungry I was.
“I’ll be right back,” he said after he paid for the petrol. I watched him go inside the shop. I wondered if I had enough money to pay him for the lift. I didn’t know how much it cost to go to Joburg. I had never been that far from George. I knew the few notes in my bag were not enough and I would need to find a job as soon as I got there. I had no plan. What I was doing was crazy but there was no going back now.
“At least have some snacks,” he tossed a packet of Lays onto my lap and handed me an ice-cold Coke.
Eating and drinking gave me an excuse not to have to talk as we headed further away from home.
“There you go.” Mandla lowered my seat for me as my head nodded against the window. I was too tired to stay awake.
Bloemfontein was beautiful when I woke up. The luminous moon hung over the city. I yawned, adjusting my seat as I sat up and looked at the clock on the dashboard. It was past midnight. I’d been sleeping for almost five hours.
Mandla stopped at an Engen outside the city and came back with food again, this time a pie. As we hit the road again Mandla switched on the radio. “How do you know if someone truly loves you?” the radio chat-show host asked listeners. Mandla kept asking if I agreed with the listeners who were calling in. I didn’t answer. The only love I knew was Mr Hlomla’s and I knew that wasn’t what love should be.
“Only a few minutes till we arrive,” Mandla woke me up again. I had fallen asleep to the sound of the radio.
Suddenly it was a reality and I had no plan. I’d start by looking for a job, but it was still dark.
I’d ask Mandla if I could stay at his place until it got light, then I’d get a job and ask my boss to pay me in advance so that I could find somewhere to rent.
I’ll be okay, I told myself. We’ll be okay, I told my baby. Maybe if I told Mandla the truth he would help?
The streetlights of Joburg looked like Christmas lights in a Christmas movie as Mandla drove me through the middle of town and out into the suburbs. He slowed down before turning in to a driveway that led up to an apartment block.
“It’s too early for you to go anywhere now. You can wait in my apartment til it gets light,” he said, parking and taking my bag out of the boot.
I followed him inside his apartment on the third floor. I tried to remember how to get out if I needed to. The apartment was small but modern, with a big TV screen and black-and-white décor.
“I’ll make you coffee,” Mandla offered as I slid onto a bar stool in the kitchen. I nodded, rubbing my eyes in exhaustion. He poured a spoon of white powder from a tin into the cup.
“I only have milk powder,” he apologised as he added a spoon of coffee and filled the cup with boiling water. He added sugar then handed the mug to me.
I took the coffee and sipped it slowly as Mandla told me about his job. He said he worked as an accountant in town. He would show me one day, he said.
I was halfway through the coffee when the room started spinning and I battled to keep my eyes open.
“You want to sleep?” I could barely hear Mandla who seemed to be speaking in slow echoes, his face splitting into a thousand images that blurred my vision.
My eyes opened to the sun blazing in through the window. I drifted in and out of a heavy sleep. Mandla came in and said something about coming back in a few hours. I tried to get up but couldn’t move because my vision was still blurred. I knew something was wrong. I fought to wake when I heard him speaking to someone in the kitchen, and then the sound of footsteps in the passage.
I saw the blur of Mandla’s face and the face of another guy as they peered through the door at me. “I gave her something,” Mandla’s voice echoed through my throbbing headache. “She should be ready in an hour.”
I heard them laughing as they walked away, then the sound of a door closing.
I managed to drag myself to the bathroom and drank and drank from the tap. I splashed my face. My vision began to clear slightly. I found my bag and wove my way, still woozy, to the door. My luck was in. They had forgotten to lock it and I stumbled out into the night.