Zakes was not amused. A retired furniture maker and a part-time mechanic at the garage, he liked things the way he liked them. One of the things he liked was working from late in the day until about 10 o’clock at night. At weekends, he would relax only once he’d finished work for the day.
Zakes made furniture to order and he had orders all the time. His wife, Noni, was always trying to persuade him to leave and move to a better neighbourhood. Zakes would smile and say he wouldn’t know anyone there, so no one would buy his furniture. Noni would reply that there were such things as advertising, a track record and samples. Zakes replied that exaggerating, dog racing and examples were things he had left behind in his youth! So they stayed in their old house and Zakes made furniture for the many people who lived in his neighbourhood of 40 years.
Zakes really wasn’t amused when at six in the evening Jabu knocked at his workshop door.
“Now?” Zakes asked, looking at his watch. “You know I have to finish making this chest of drawers for MaZondi. She wants it on Monday. Can’t it wait?”
Zakes said, as he stood back from the door to let Jabu in. Pieces of planed wood and mounds of fresh sawdust lay strewn on the floor. Although all the windows were open, the air was thick and stuffy. Zakes had obviously been hard at work.
“I know you’re busy, bra Zakes,” said Jabu, “but it’s important. Have you heard about bra John and his son, Chipa and MaLulu’s son, Zuki? They were hijacked yesterday afternoon and now the boys are missing.”
“Yes, I heard about it from Noni. The police don’t really know where to start. But let’s ask Noni, she knows more. She’s in the house.”
Zakes closed the door of the shed and led the way to the back door of his house. A warm smell of oxtail and freshly cooked pap wafted by Jabu’s nose. He remembered that he had not eaten since the morning, but he tried not to gaze too hard at the stove as Zakes went towards the fridge.
“Tea?” Zakes asked. Jabu nodded. With three sugars he should be able to drown out the singing choir in his stomach. The pots on the stove were not closed and the heavenly aroma from the delicately spiced meat nearly made Jabu faint. He held onto the nearest chair and sat down. Zakes poked his head through to the sitting room and said, “Noni! In here Ma, we’ve got something to ask you!” He came back and put the kettle on to boil. Then without saying a word, he dished up three large pieces of oxtail, a generous spoon of gravy and a mound of pap onto a plate. He put it in front of Jabu and grinned.
“Ta, my bra,” Jabu said quietly, wondering how his friend always knew what he was thinking before he actually said anything.
“Hello Jabs, long time!” Noni came bouncing into the kitchen in a tracksuit and trainers. She was a fitness instructor in town and she wrote columns for magazines on health matters.
People called Zakes and Noni ‘salt and pepper’. Zakes was dark and Noni was light, but Zakes said people who made such comments had too much time on their hands and not enough sense, so Jabu thought about it and stopped calling them that. Anyway, he liked Zakes and Noni. People gossiped about them, just because they didn’t have children. Didn’t Priscilla down the road have six children, from different fathers? No one seemed to mind that.
At least Zakes and Noni had been together for years and they gave each other support. True, Noni was from over the border’, and that was another reason people said they shouldn’t mix, she not being a ‘proper South African’. But what did that matter? Noni was a warm and sincere person. Actually, Jabu also thought that she was quite clever, which probably made others feel a bit small. But that was no reason to dislike her, was it? No. People just didn’t seem to like someone who was different.
Noni sat in front of him now, listening to Zakes explaining what Jabu had come to ask them. “Well, I was doing a story on this policeman who’s a weightlifting champion. While I was in the police station the call came through to Commissioner Maphiri’s office about the hijacked car,” said Noni. “They think the kids have been taken because the hijackers are really after John. They probably want money. Maybe people are jealous of his shop’s success. John must be so worried. You guys should go and talk to him. Let me wash up.”
Noni stood up and began to collect Jabu’s now empty plate and mug. But Jabu was thinking, his fingers still lovingly clutching the mug from which he had been sipping the hot, sweet tea. His mind was racing. “What happens if John doesn’t find enough money to pay these crooks?” he said. “What will happen to the children?”
“Who knows what they’ll do. I’m sure they’ll want a lot of money and maybe they will even force John to give up his shop,” replied Noni. “There are some really nasty people around. Not like in the old days, hey Zakes?”
Jabu finally gave Noni the mug. “You know, bra Zakes, I have an idea,” he said, wiping his hand across his mouth. “We need to go and speak to bra John. Let’s meet at my place when you have finished your work and locked up your workshop.”
“Mmm, the meat and pap have made their mark hey!” Zakes laughed.
It was after eight and already dark when Jabu left. Zakes realized that he wasn’t going to get time to work on MaZondi’s chest of drawers that night. He packed away his tools, cleared the workbench and started sweeping out the sawdust and wood cuttings through the open door of the shed. When he had finished, he walked to the door to switch off the lights. As he turned to lock the door, he heard someone say, “Busy bodies!” Then he felt a sharp pain behind his left ear and everything went black.