“Hey, pretty girl.”
“Hey, ndithetha nawe. Ulahlekile?” (I’m talking to you. Are you lost?)
“Yes, you. Ulahlekile Mabhebeza?” (Are you lost, pretty girl?)
Aimée can’t understand what the guys leaning against the spaza wall are saying. They speak so fast, and mix it up. They are school drop-outs: hanging round, smoking, killing time watching the passers-by and waiting for something to happen. And now it has. This pretty teenage girl with dark, burnished skin has walked past, and clearly she is lost.
“Hey, ulahlekile?” one repeats, flicking the butt of his cigarette to the sand and crushing it with the heel of his fake Carvela shoe. He sidles towards her like he’s practised the moves in a mirror.
The way he looks at her, like he’s undressing her, makes her nervous. She searches the road, looking for a taxi. The one she should have got on has already left. She ran up just as it pulled away from the curb, full of school kids squashed together, singing along with Umlilo wa Big Nuz blaring through the speakers. She is left alone and lost on the pavement.
This is her first day at a new high school, in a new township, in a new country – and she is going to be late.
“Uleqa esigela?” (You late for school?)
The guy stares at her, waiting for an answer. But she’s learned: it’s safer not to answer if you can’t understand the question. ‘Yes’ could be wrong. ‘No’ could be right. ‘No’ could be wrong, ‘yes’ could be right.
So she doesn’t say anything, but starts to walk away from them, slowly. She isn’t sure which direction her new school is in. But the guys aren’t going to let her go so easily. They start to follow her. She can hear their shoes on the pavement, she can feel them getting closer, but staying just a few paces behind. They are enjoying this – playing cat and mouse. She keeps walking.
“Hey, look at us. We’re talking to you.”
She stops and turns around.
“Hey, uphethe’nto?” One of the guys points at her clenched fist. She is holding something in it that she will never let them take from her.
“No,” she says softly.
“You have ‘no’ in your hand?” They laugh again. “Veza le ‘no’ uy’phetheyo. Vula maan.” (Show me this ‘no’. Open your hand.)
“Yes,” she says under her breath, keeping her fist clenched tightly around the coin in her palm.
“Yes, or, no? Which is it?”
Her heart is thumping in her chest. Now they make a circle around her. She is trapped.
“Hey? You don’t understand us?” they laugh.
“WHERE… ARE… YOU… FROM?” one guy asks, saying the words out slowly, loudly, right in her face, as if she can’t understand English. She looks straight into his bloodshot eyes.
She tries to push past, but they all block her way.
“Not so fast.”
“Can you speak English? Or just kwerekwere?”
And then a girl, wearing the same uniform as Aimée, bursts through their circle. She stands with her hands on her hips, defiant, staring the guys down.
“Of course she can speak English. Dick-heads!” she shouts at them.
“Hey maan Noki!” The guys know this girl.
She spits on the ground in front of them. “Amagents. Amalosers. Uyacinga uCLEVA, so CLEVA! Pick on someone your own size.”
Aimée wants to hug the girl. She has come out of nowhere, like an angry blessing.
“Hey, we were only having some fun,” the guy says, raising his hand, like he’s surrendering.
“You think it’s fun, not to understand?” She is right in his face now. “You should know better. You never understood anything in class. Isn’t that right, Dube? That’s why you’re out here. You were kicked out of school. And now you are doing nothing. Going nowhere. Sorry for you!”
Aimée follows Noki, who has marched away from the guys and down the street, in the direction of school. Aimée looks back nervously, checking: how the boys have responded to the cheek of this girl? But they are all now teasing Dube, and they seem to have forgotten about Aimée. For now, anyway.
She runs after Noki. “I’m Aimée, by the way”.
“I’m Noki, but I guess you heard my name back there. Hey, are you also going to Nkwenkwezi High?”
“Yes, it’s my first day and I’m going to be late.”
“Come on, we’ll run,” says Noki. She and Aimée run through the early morning township streets, weaving between the vegetable hawkers’ stalls and the coal braziers, where women stand braaing meat. They dodge the taxis as they run across the main road.
“Those boys think they are so smart, but they’re idiots,” Noki laughs. “They are friends of my brother. They aren’t as bad as they sound.” Her braids whip her cheeks as she runs. “Where are you from anyway?” Noki asks, breathless.
“What are you holding on to so tightly?” Noki points to Aimée’s clenched fist.
But before Aimée can answer they are in through the gates of Nkwenkwezi High and Aimée is crushed in a swirl of learners, all running for their classes.
They stop, out of breath.
“You’ll be OK?”
“Yes. And thanks.”
“Any time. What grade you in?”
“Eleven A. You?”
“Eleven B. I’ll look for you at break. I’ll introduce you to a couple of my friends. I know what it feels like to be new at a school.”
Then she’s gone and Aimée is alone again in the centre of a whirlwind of bags and bodies. Boys and girls are shouting to each other in isiXhosa. They speak so fast. Now and then she catches a word. But the words are alone, floating. She can’t string them together to make a sentence.
The school siren sounds and as Aimée turns a girl shoves against her. She falls, in the dirt. Her hand splays open. The coin she has been holding spins across the ground in front of her.
“Hey, sorry,” the girl who bumped into her says, but she doesn’t look sorry. Her friends group around her and stare at Aimée as she gets up, brushing the dirt off her skirt.
The coin lies in the dirt between her and them. Her lucky coin.
Her grandmother gave it to her on the last night Aimée ever saw her, before she had to flee her country with her family. Her grandmother was too weak to go with them.
Her family hadn’t known then what they know now: that they will never be able to go home. At first they thought it would be just a few months before they could return to their town. But the civil war has never ended; months have become years and the years have become forever…
“Take it Aimée, it belongs in our family. My mother was given it by her father. Take it to remember me by.” Her granny had pressed the coin into her palm, that dark night. Then they had fled into the terror of the forest, the unknown darkness filled with screaming people running away from the soldiers.
Aimée had taken the coin and held it in her palm as they crossed borders. She had turned it over and over, wearing it smoother bit by bit, as she sat in the heat day after day in the refugee camps, doing nothing. Just sitting, eating when there was food, and waiting. Waiting and praying for her life to change. Waiting for something good to happen: a book to read, a school where she could learn, a hot shower, a tasty meal, a comfortable bed. Days slid together into months, into years.
The coin is her treasure.
“Keep it safe. Remember me. Remember who you are.” It was the last thing her granny had told her. She had died two months later. Word reached Aimée’s family in the refugee camp.
And now she is going to lose her coin in a school yard. Suddenly the girl, who has been staring at her, spins around, all smiles, as a boy comes towards them. A very handsome, tall, well-built boy.
“Hey, Mandla,” the girl says, trying to get his attention.
“Not now, Princess,” he says, brushing past her. He is looking at Aimée, frowning. Then down at the coin.
He bends down.
“Sies, don’t touch it. It’s been in dirt and who knows where,” says Princess.
He picks it up, turns it in his fingers. He is seriously handsome, with a smile that is cheeky and challenging.
He looks at Aimée like she’s a puzzle he’s trying to work out. He looks her up and down and she blushes as he takes her in: every part of her, from her shoes to her deep dark eyes.
He holds out his hand with the coin in his palm. She reaches for it. He grins and closes his palm on the coin and pulls his hand away.
“Finders keepers,” he says. And then he’s gone.
* * *
Tell us what you think: What do you think it feels like when you can’t understand what people are saying around you? How can it get you into trouble?