“You were so late,” Loyiso said, catching up with Nelani as they walked out of the classroom. “Lucky for you it was Ms Khoza, and she still let you write the test. The other teachers wouldn’t have.”
She looked surprised, the way she always did when he spoke to her. Then she shrugged, and that was something new. Usually, a lovely but hesitant smile would slowly light up her face, like she was happy to have his attention.
“I don’t know why I even bothered pitching. It wasn’t important, the test. School isn’t important.”
“Since when?” Loyiso was shocked, knowing how hard she worked, getting better marks than most of the other Grade 11s.
“Our humanity is what matters,” Nelani went on in a dreamy voice, and that wasn’t her usual way either. “Our souls, our spirits.”
“Wow.” Loyiso didn’t know what to say. “Where’s this coming from? You suddenly got religion or something?”
“No one religion is the answer.” She was still speaking in this new way, as if she was talking in her sleep.
Could she be using drugs? Loyiso took a look at her eyes. No, the pupils were normal size.
“The answer to what?” he asked.
He was starting to feel uncomfortable, but he had always enjoyed talking to her before now, and maybe she would start sounding like herself again in a minute.
“To the secret of our being,” Nelani answered him, so seriously that he was shocked. Shocked because mostly her sense of humour came through in everything she said, even if she did also come across a bit shy, or self-conscious.
“You mean, like why we’re here?” He laughed. “Remember how everyone mocked poor Vusi when he wrote that poem The Meaning of Life?”
He said it hoping to hear her lovely, slightly uncertain laugh, as she had smiled at the poem even though she hadn’t joined in the mockery. It was one of the things he liked best about Nelani: that she was kind.
Man, there was so much else to like as well: her quiet ways, her sweet smiles, her love of learning, her prettiness. He didn’t understand why she had always seemed so shocked, and then almost grateful, when he spoke to her. How could she not know how interesting and attractive he found her?
But now … it was almost like some stranger had moved into her body, pushing out the real Nelani.
“Vusi had it all wrong–” She broke off as the phone in her hand went, and she glanced at the screen then thumbed the WhatsApp icon. “I’ve got to go. They’re waiting for me …”
Now a sort of radiance took over her whole face as she turned and hurried away from Loyiso.
He stared after her, shocked that she hadn’t even said goodbye, when she was usually super-polite about such things.
Who were ‘they’, the ones waiting for her? Loyiso read a lot of sci-fi, and for a moment he imagined a little crowd of beings from another planet, waiting outside their spacecraft somewhere on the land outside Tonga; waiting to escort Nelani on board.
“Hey bhuti.” His friend Vusi came up, giving him an elbow bump. “Was hanging back so as not to interrupt you with Nelani. How’s that going, anyway?”
Loyiso shook his head. “Like … she was strange. Showing her spiritual side, or something. Her soul.”
Soul. Soul Side. Wasn’t that the name of some little shop, here in Tonga?
Tell us: What do you think is going on with Nelani?