Busi stared at the girls on the stage. They were her friends. Why wasn’t she up there with them? The answer was simple – because she hadn’t entered Hamony High’s talent competition. She couldn’t sing like Ntombi, dance like Lettie, or tell a joke like Asanda. No, the only talent she had was being late for school! A loud cheer went up around her: “Usebenzile!” In front of her Unathi leapt from his seat and punched the air. “Yes!” he shouted. “I knew they could do it!” He turned and grinned at Busi triumphantly. “Aren’t they great?” Busi looked away from Unathi’s stupid, grinning face. She turned her back to the platform where Lettie, Asanda and Ntombi stood smiling, waving and blowing kisses at their adoring fans.
“Let’s give a round of applause for our dream team. We are proud to have three such talented students at Harmony High. They are going to go on to do great things!” Busi had never seen Principal Khumalo so excited. “Ntombi paved the way for Harmony High with the Teen Voice Competition. Now her two friends are proving that they are just as talented.” His words made Busi sick. She was Ntombi’s friend too – her third forgotten friend.
There were more announcements – about the soccer game that weekend and the extra lessons that were being offered after school. One of the teachers found a pair of underpants in the girls’ toilets. “Could the person responsible please come forward,” the teacher said. The girls in front of her giggled. They were so childish, thought Busi. She couldn’t wait for assembly to end.
Once the teachers left the hall everyone crowded around Ntombi, Lettie and Asanda, wanting to be their new “best friend”. When Lettie turned and smiled and waved at Busi, she couldn’t smile back. She picked up her bag and pushed her way to the back of the hall, where she told a prefect that she needed the bathroom. “Now,” she said. The prefect nodded.
In the girls’ toilets she stared at herself in the mirror. “Why?” she asked her reflection. “Why are you so useless? Why are you so ugly? Why aren’t you talented like your friends?” Tears welled up in her eyes.
The clapping in assembly finally stopped. She dried her tears and washed her face. But she wasn’t ready to go back into the hall. What she needed was a way out. And there it was. One of the windows in the bathroom had been taken out to be fixed. She could see the blue sky through it.
Her bag went first. She threw it out, climbed onto the toilet and squashed herself through the narrow window frame. Good! She landed in the sand and brushed herself off. Then she picked up her bag and ran for the fence. She lay against it, her heart thumping in her chest. No one had noticed. She stood up again and pushed her way through a hole and out onto the road. Freedom!
Then she heard music – the thump, thump, thump of a bass beat as a taxi slowed down and crawled along the pavement next to her. She stopped. Should she turn and run? But where? Back to school? She had no plan. And now the taxi was stopping and the driver was leaning over and opening the passenger door. He beckoned her to get inside.
Busi looked back down the street. There was Mr Soci, the Life Sciences teacher, staggering in through the gates of Harmony High – late again, and drunk. He turned around and stared at the taxi. Before he’d had a chance to work out who she was, Busi jumped in.
“Running away from school?” the driver asked, jokingly. His shirt was undone to show off a smooth, muscled chest and the gold chain around his neck glittered in the sun. He gave her a lazy, sexy smile. She knew the drivers who stopped at the school on their taxi route and she didn’t recognise him. Why had she never seen him before? She was surprised by how handsome he was.
He turned the music down. “Hey, not everyone likes Loyiso. It’s not every girl’s choice,” he laughed.
“What’s that?” she said, distractedly. She hadn’t heard him properly, she was worried Mr Soci had recognised her. Was he walking to Mr Khumalo’s office right now to report her? But then Mr Khumalo would smell the alcohol on his breath.
“I said, Loyiso isn’t every girl’s fantasy. Is he yours?”
“He’s okay,” she shrugged.
The street ahead of them was empty. Where was he going, and why was she the only passenger?
“Did you get bored with school?” He revved the engine and put the taxi into first. She still had time to open the door and jump out. “I don’t blame you,” he said softly. “You can have much more fun out here. How old are you? You can’t be more than fourteen?”
“Fifteen. I’m fifteen,” Busi said quickly, suddenly wishing that she was older and that she wasn’t dressed in her school uniform.
They were driving further and further away from Harmony High. He was taking a right, then a left, weaving between the narrow streets in the township. She would never remember the route.
“Am I so ugly that you can’t look at me?” he teased. She smiled – she couldn’t help it. Driving around in his taxi felt so much better than some stupid English class. He had stopped to pick her up and he let her sit up front. She was somebody in his taxi, not the untalented nobody she was at school.
“So, which lesson are you missing?” He reached over and stroked her cheek lightly with his finger.
“English,” she said. “Romeo and Juliet, actually.”
“Those star-crossed lovers – like us, baby girl …,” he said softly, his voice silky smooth. She stared at him. “How come a taxi driver knows Shakespeare? Is that what you’re thinking?” he laughed, and Busi felt herself blushing. “Well, I’m not just any old taxi driver. I own a fleet of taxis. And that’s not all …”
So he was rich, good-looking and clever. But she shouldn’t be letting him drive her around like this. And she didn’t have taxi fare. “Never talk to strangers, Busi.” That’s what her granny always told her. “And if you are in trouble, call me. Day or night. Uyandiva?”
“Ewe, Makhulu. Ndiyakuva,” she always replied. And here she was talking to a stranger and letting him drive her who-knows-where. She didn’t even know his name.
“Parks,” he said, as if he had read her thoughts. “My name’s Thando, but my friends call me Parks.” He reached over to shake her hand. His hand was warm … and he held hers a little too long. “What’s your name, pretty girl?”
“Busi,” she said.
Then she heard a rasping cough from the back of the taxi. She had thought they were alone. Swinging around, she saw a man lying across the back seat. Dirty jeans and a filthy old T-shirt covered his thin body. He coughed again and his whole body shook. Then he spat phlegm out onto his hand and wiped it over his pants. It was disgusting. “Don’t worry about him,” Parks said. “He’s got a problem. I’ll have to get a new gaadjie soon.”
She wouldn’t look back again, not even if the gaadjie spoke, she thought. “So, what are you going to tell your teachers when they ask where you were?” asked Parks, as he pulled into a garage to get petrol.
“I’ll tell them I’m not well,” Busi said. Right now that was true. She was feeling car sick from the petrol fumes and the thought of the gaadjie on the back seat.
When the tank was full Parks asked her, “So, where do you want to go?” And then, “Don’t look so frightened. I’m not going to kidnap you.”
“Home,” she said quickly, suddenly fearful of what she had done. “Can you take me home?”
“Of course.” He stared at her for a minute. “I mean, if that’s what you want?” She couldn’t look at him; she just nodded.
“Here,” she said when they got to her street. She pointed to a house a block away from their shack. The last thing she wanted was for her granny to see her arriving in a strange taxi with a man old enough to be her father. She didn’t stop to think why Parks hadn’t asked her for directions, how he knew where she lived.
“Bye, sweetie.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be watching out for you. How does a free ride sound sometime?”
“Good,” she said, uncertainly.