Parks’s friend’s house was in Mandalay. It was a double-storey – so grand. It had windows and balconies all over the show. And it was set in a big property with trees and a huge, enclosed yard. It reminded Busi of the house in Romeo and Juliet – the way Mr Ntlanti had described it, with Juliet calling Romeo from the balcony. Their English teacher had a way of making you see things in your mind. Yes, it was just like this.
Parks’s friends seemed nice enough, but she was the youngest there by far. They ignored her mostly, and so did he. She sat and watched as they played pool and drank beer. She watched Parks as he laughed with them, burped with them, cheered for Swallows. There was an enormous flat-screen TV in the lounge. From time to time he came over to her in the old armchair where she sat, trying to look relaxed. “Are you all right?” he asked her, and when she nodded he went back to the pool game, laughing and joking nechommies. She realised that she didn’t know a great deal about Parks at all.
The women were braaing sheeps’ heads outside on an open fire. She knew they were talking about her, but what did she expect? She felt alone and out of place and wished her friends were there with her. They could chat and laugh about the older women who thought they were so smart. And the men, with their beer bellies. But her friends were far away. All she had was Parks. He was her lifeline, and he was ignoring her.
By ten o’clock Parks was already way over the limit. Busi was worried because she knew the cops were cracking down on drunken driving. Parks had told her that one of his friends once spent the night locked up and he’d had only four beers. “Sleep here – it’s not a problem,” said his friend’s wife, putting her arm around him. “The girl can sleep here too.” She flashed Busi a fake smile.
“Yes, you can’t drive, Parks!” The woman’s husband staggered over.
“Enkosi,” slurred Parks, crashing into the table as he went for another beer.
Busi sneaked out and around the side of the house to phone her granny. “I’m sleeping over at Asanda’s, Gogo,” she lied.
“I’ve just seen Asanda. She came here looking for you. Busi, where are you?” Oh no, thought Busi. She had been caught out.
“Gogo, you didn’t hear me right. I said I’m sleeping over at Lettie’s. I’m tired. It’s been a long day.” She knew that her granny didn’t believe her. She could tell by the silence on the other end of the line. But all her grandmother said was, “Be careful … Will there be an adult there?” And suddenly Busi wanted to laugh. There were only adults where she was.
“Take care, my child,” her granny said.
They slept under a thin blanket on a foam mattress on the floor of the garage. It was cold and she was thankful for Parks’s body pressed up against her, although he stank of liquor and sheep fat from the braai. She turned her head away, but he pulled her closer. “Mmm … you’re so warm. Come here.” He was fondling her under the blanket, fumbling drunkenly. “Now you have me all to yourself. Are you satisfied?” But he didn’t wait for a reply. He started kissing her. This time she told herself he would wear a condom. She had brought one, and he would use it. “Wait,” she said pulling away. She started scrabbling through her bag. But by the time she had found it Parks was fast asleep, snoring drunkenly. It seemed so unfair.
Busi couldn’t sleep, not in this strange place with these people who didn’t care about her. She thought of her grandmother alone at home, worrying about her. How long could she go on lying to her? She thought of what Unathi had said. And the doubt crept in again. What was she doing?
But she was like a thin branch blowing in the wind. All Parks had to do was sweet talk her and the doubt blew away. Then all she wanted was to be held by him and treated like a princess. She was his sugar baby. And so when he wrapped his arms around her in the morning and said, “Good morning, beautiful,” she smiled. No one else made her feel as special as he did. He leaned up on one elbow. “Hey, I’m glad it’s just the two of us,” he said. “Did you call your grandmother? She must be so worried.”
“When will you meet her, Parks? When can we tell her about us?”
“You’re joking, of course.” He looked at her like she was having him on.
“I hate lying to her,” Busi told him.
When he realised she was serious, he jumped up from the mattress and pulled on his jeans. “I need a smoke,” he said. He was angry now. But she was so sick of keeping him a secret. She wanted to be able to walk in public with him. If her granny met him and saw that he was serious about her, she would come around. She was sure of it. “Wait here,” Parks said, feeling in his jeans pockets. “I must have left my cigarettes in the house.”
Busi got up too, folded the blanket that had been covering them, and waited for him to come back. She listened to the stirrings around her, the morning sounds. There were voices coming from the big house, a dog barking. Why was he taking so long? Maybe he had gone to the shop nearby. He could have told her, invited her along. She waited some more, but now she needed to use the bathroom badly. Finally she could not keep it in and went over to the big house.
The women stopped talking as she entered. They looked at one another, smiling smugly amongst themselves. “Where’s … where’s … Parks?” she asked them.
“He’s gone,” the younger of the two said.
“Didn’t he tell you?” the other wanted to know.
She didn’t believe them, but they went on talking to each other and ignored her standing there in the doorway. When she had been to the bathroom she went outside to see if his car was still parked in the road. She froze when she realised it was gone. She called him on his cell phone, but it went onto voicemail. So she went to sit on an old car seat in the yard and started to play with a scrawny dog and her mangy litter. The dog looked like an overgrown rat: grey and matted with her brood hanging from her worn, dried-out nipples. “You poor thing,” she said to the dog. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed to keep animals.”
Slowly the rest of the people living in outbuildings on the property started to wake and come out into the yard. But they all ignored her, except for one who asked for a cigarette. The little children with their runny noses stared at her and giggled. “Do you perhaps know where Parks is?” she asked them, but they just stared at her and ran away.
She was feeling hungry and thirsty, so she decided to walk to the shop herself and get something to eat – a packet of crisps and maybe a juice. Maybe she would find him along the way.
Where was he? As she started walking along the strange streets she felt anger rising up inside her. How dare he treat her this way? And soon she was in tears. She wouldn’t go back to the house. She couldn’t. So she kept walking.
Eventually she found a petrol station and a little café next to it. When she emerged from the messy staff bathroom behind the building, a taxi was filling up at the petrol pump. She walked over to the driver and asked him if he was going in the direction of Khayelitsha.
“On a Sunday morning I can make a plan for you, sisi, if you have twenty rand? I’m just coming off my shift, so you must talk quickly, sisi.” She thrust the twenty rand into his hands and climbed in next to him. It was the last of the cash Parks had given her.
As they swung out onto the tarred road, she asked him, “Do you know a taxi driver called Parks? His real name is Thando, but I’ve forgotten his surname.”
The driver smiled at her. “Everyone knows Parks, my sister,” he said. “Why do you want to know?”