“I wonder how come Nelani isn’t at school,” Loyiso said to Vusi, between their maths class and business studies.

“Monday morning absentee,” Vusi suggested.

Just the week before, the principal had given the whole school a lecture on Monday absenteeism. It was true it was becoming a problem, and not just among the pupils. Loyiso had noticed that certain teachers were nearly always off sick on Mondays.

“Not Nelani’s style.” He couldn’t imagine her with a hangover. “In fact, I don’t think she’s ever been absent before.”

“You should know, the way you can’t take your eyes off her.”

Loyiso ignored that. “I hope she’s not sick.”

That should have been it, a simple wish that someone he liked was okay. But he couldn’t get Nelani out of his mind. Something about her absence was worrying him, because of how different she came across the last two times he had spoken to her.

When she still wasn’t at school on Tuesday, his concern grew. He knew he had to do something, if only to set his own mind at rest.

He knew where Nelani lived, so in the early evening he walked round to her place, a few blocks from his house. The sun was sinking towards the horizon, its bright, red-orange glow reflected in house windows. There was smoke in the air, coming from the sugarcane plantations.

“How is Nelani?” he asked the woman who answered his call through the open door of the house, which had a small, neat front yard, half lawn, half paved.

He was hoping she would say something about Nelani being down with some bug, something ordinary. Then, he might feel a fool, but at least he could stop worrying.

“Nelani?” The woman frowned. “She’s not here.”

“Oh.” That was all he could say for a moment, because her words had knocked the breath out of him. “Eh, Mrs Sibitane? I’m Loyiso Mabila. From school. I mean, I’m at school with Nelani. I was wondering … if you can tell me where she is?”

“She’s with friends.” Nelani’s mother was impatient, fingers tapping at the bars of the security gate separating her and Loyiso. “That’s what her message said … when was it? Sunday night, I think.”

“What friends?” Once again, Loyiso tried to think who he’d seen Nelani with at school.

God, why hadn’t it hit him before? He ought to have noticed that she didn’t seem to have any real friends – although he wanted to be one, a close friend, or even more.

“How should I know?” The woman didn’t seem troubled by not knowing who her daughter was staying with. “She didn’t say.”

“And you haven’t heard from her again?” Loyiso was disturbed by her attitude.

“No. She’s probably out of data. Or … she said something about a farm, so it could be there’s no wifi there, and no signal anyway.”

“I’m worried about her,” Loyiso admitted, starting to wonder if he was the only person who was concerned. “Missing school like this.”

“She’s not at school?” Mrs Sibitane showed surprise.

“It’s not like her. She’s so committed. And Ms Khoza – she’s one of our teachers – she believes Nelani is going to go far in the world, she’s so clever and hardworking.”

For a moment, Mrs Sibitane looked startled, but then she shrugged and gave a dismissive little laugh.

“No, Nelani’s brother is the academic star in this family. He’s the one with a bright future.”

“Why not both of them?” Loyiso murmured, preparing to leave, guessing he’d get no useful info here.

As he turned away, he saw Mrs Sibitane’s expression. It was shocked, as if he’d hit her with a new idea. But again her shock only lasted a moment.

He didn’t waste much thought on her, except to feel sorry for Nelani, having a mother who was so indifferent.

His thoughts were all with Nelani. Where was she?


Tell us: Why do you think Mrs Sibitane values her son so much more highly than her daughter? Is this attitude seen a lot among parents?