Zikhona irons her maid’s uniform then stirs the porridge that is bubbling wildly on the stove. It’s 6.30 a.m. Thando is snoring on a mattress on the lounge floor.

“Wake up, Thando!” she shouts. “Time for school!”

Thando hears Zikhona’s voice in his dream. He feels a hand shaking him and opens one eye. Zikhona is standing over him.

“OK, I’m up,” he groans, but soon dozes off again when Zikhona goes to the bedroom to wake up their little sister, Nandi. Zikhona is back in the kitchen in seconds, ironing both her siblings’ school uniforms.

“I’ll be late for work because of you and Nandi,” Zikhona complains and hangs the ironing over a chair. “Make it snappy or you’ll be late for school. Your uniforms are done.” She points to the pot with boiling water on the stove. “Nandi, the hot water for your bath is ready.”

Nandi pouts, picks up the pot of hot water and trudges to the bathroom.

“Thando, you’ll have to finish cooking the porridge.”

“You know I can’t cook,” says Thando.

“How many times have I taught you to cook porridge?” Zikhona scolds him. “How can a straight-A-student fail to grasp such a simple thing? Don’t play games with me.”

“I really can’t, Zikhona. Besides, I’m a guy. Why can’t Nandi cook? She’s the girl.”

“Come on, Thando. You are fifteen now. I can’t keep doing everything for you two.”

Thando scowls and says, “Me cook for Nandi? As rude as she is? No ways.”

“Well, if you let it burn both of you will go to school hungry.”

Zikhona stands in front of the mirror in the dining room. She can see her brother looking at her in the reflection. There is an unfamiliar sadness in his big, innocent eyes.

“Do you know you look exactly like her? Do you ever miss her?” asks Thando.

Zikhona squints, confused. “Miss who?”

“Mom, Zikhona. Do you ever miss Mom? Ever since she passed away I’ve never heard you once speak about her. Not in three years.”

“That’s the first time you ever told me I look like Ma.” Zikhona stops patting her uniform. She turns to her brother. “I do miss her, Thando. More than words can describe. But we can’t wallow in sorrow. Life must go on. We have to be strong.” Zikhona puts on her coat and is out of the door, rushing to catch the train.

Thando gets dressed in the bathroom while Nandi eats breakfast. Nandi scoops the last spoonful of sugar – meant for Thando – and blends it into her porridge, eating quickly.

There is a knock on the door and the chatter of girls. It’s Nandi’s crew from the neighbourhood. Thando despises them. Two of them are just fourteen years old but on weekends they stay out all night at Phumza’s Tavern. They all have much older boyfriends. He suspects Nandi also has a boyfriend.

Nandi and her friends admire themselves in front of the mirror. They take turns putting on Zikhona’s lipstick.

“What did Zikhona say about using her stuff?!” Thando shouts at Nandi.

Nandi rolls her eyes, “Just stay out of my business.”

“I’ll tell Zikhona. And you guys look trashy. School uniforms and lipstick don’t mix.”

“Thando, the Snitch,” Nandi whispers loudly to her crew as they giggle out of the door.

Thando checks the time. He rushes to the kitchen and dishes the porridge. When he goes to scoop out the sugar there is none left.

“That damn brat, Nandi!” he curses, eating sugarless porridge.

He slings his backpack over his shoulder and locks the door. There is a chilly breeze as he walks down Paradise Road.

***

Tell us what you think: Is it normal for siblings to squabble like this?