b“MaLulu! MaLulu!” The man called out in irritation, scratching his back with a muscled arm and half- rising off the stool on which he was sitting. The warm evening’s summer wind whipped up swirls of loose dust in the next yard. A chicken, followed by her new brood of chicks, strutted confidently across his path, unaware of his growing impatience.
“MaLulu! Out here! Another beer! Toe!” Jabu made up his mind and stood up, knocking the stool over. He muttered under his breath as he entered the dark, modestly furnished front room of MaLulu’s house, brushing against a small wooden settee and coffee table as he went.
“Hey, MaLulu! Sengati awusa dingi amacustomer, kunini ndiku biza? I need another beer.” Jabu was shouting as he drew open the curtain between the front room and the kitchen where MaLulu was peeling potatoes. With her was her eldest daughter, Luleka, or Lulu as she was known. Lulu sat cutting up onions from a large bag that lay open on the small table in front of her. MaLulu looked straight up at Jabu, potato in hand, and waited for him to finish. She was a tall, graceful woman on whom 40 years on earth seemed to have had no lasting effect. The simple, sleeveless cotton dress she was wearing revealed strong, supple arms and legs.
“Hey kaloku, Jabu. No need to shout, nê? Just ask. But I’m glad to see you here. You owe me lots of money. It’s month-end remember?”
Jabu stopped. He was already reaching into the small chest freezer, which he had opened. His fingers closed over an ice-cold beer. He pulled out his head and looked round. “Money? Eh – I mean, how much, MaLulu? I mean, can we not discuss this?”
“Discuss, baba? What is there to discuss, Jabu? You know I also have a business to run and I depend on my customers to pay.”
Jabu stiffened. He saw the familiar steely glint in MaLulu’s eyes. Trouble! Excuse time!
“And no excuses, Jabu. I know you guys. No one pays when they should. Everyone just makes promises.”
“But …” Jabu’s face fell. He had wanted one for the road. Then he wanted to visit Stella before he saw his friend, bra Zakes. Now this! But through his wandering thoughts, he slowly became aware of the scene in the room around him.
MaLulu had stopped talking and was dabbing her eyes with the corner of a faded dishcloth. Jabu was sure it was the onions Lulu had been chopping up. The air was thick with them. He felt a bit tearful himself. But wait! MaLulu was really crying. Her sobs filled the small blue and white kitchen.
Now Lulu spoke. Normally a shy girl, she still sometimes had a way of looking at you as if you were no more than a bush pig, and not even as clever. She had a nice smile, but a very sharp, straight way of talking at times.
“Buti Jabu. Help us. Mama here is too upset to talk.”
“Upset? But I’ll pay up in full tomorrow, really, Lulu…”
“No! Not about the money.” Lulu shot him a ‘bush pig’ look. “Yesterday afternoon Uncle John was hijacked on the road between here and the secondary school. They let him go, but his son, Chipa, and my brother, Zuki were in the car. No one knows what happened to the kids. The police don’t really have any clues. It’s terrible. buti, can you help us? You know what a close family we are.”
“Can I help?” Jabu felt lost. His mind went blank. “I can help?”
“You know people in the police. You wanted to join the Scorpions, didn’t you?” asked Lulu.
Jabu winced. She’d touched a raw nerve there. After hearing recently that there’d been seven thousand applications for one hundred jobs, he had given up hope that his long spell of unemployment might be coming to an end. He opened the freezer again and reached back in for the bottle of beer. Then he stopped and picked up a cool drink instead. He closed the freezer and turned to face Lulu and her mother. They watched him silently, their eyes pleading.
“Look, Ma,” he began, but changed his mind. He put the bottle on the table, pulled out a R50 note and gave it to Lulu. “That’s for last month and this month – keep the change.” He picked up the bottle and went towards the back door. “Hey, I can’t promise, but I’ll be back later. Maybe bra Zakes and I can do something.”
Jabu’s reward was a look of relief in two pairs of eyes. Lulu remembered her onions, and MaLulu returned to peeling the potatoes, tucking the R50 note into her apron pocket.