Mfundo watched Nompilo in the dark, thinking about the days when he too could play like a child, back before his world crumbled.
In those days he lived with his mother. When his father had ended up in jail, his mother had taken him from the village in the rural valley to a small flat somewhere in town, not too far from the bridge they lived under now.
He remembered she worked hard during the day, scrubbing floors and washing other people’s clothes. Often during night when he woke to go to the toilet, he would pass her huddled over some book, reading.
Before the days when her health deteriorated, he never went a day without love or food; she made sure of it, even though she worked so hard. Then illness befell her, and she could not work anymore. He was still a young boy, so she took him back to the village, to his uncle.
After his mother passed he lived alone with the man, who always reeked of the shebeen and was ill-tempered. When Mfundo had asked to go to school, like the other children, his uncle had refused, telling him, “You are nothing and will never be anything! Real men work. Jy is niks. Fokol!” he would shout before storming out, leaving Mfundo alone.
One night Mfundo left home for the city. Anything was better than living with his uncle, he had decided.
“Ey, vuka, wake up,” Nompilo said and nudged him back to reality.
Mfundo’s eyes opened.
“You’re mumbling to yourself,” she said, stretching out her body on the cardboard.
Mfundo took off his jacket and covered them with it. Although the icy air stung his toes, his feet breathed. With their faces to each other, Mfundo wrapped his arms around Nompilo.
“How long was I asleep?”
“A while. Were you dreaming about her again?” she asked. Mfundo nodded.
“What was your mother like?”
“I don’t remember.”
“I bet she was nice.”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
Mfundo thought back to the day his mother took him to a carnival at the beachfront. He played all sorts of games there: the wheel that spins, the flashing cars, everything. It was good. He had played a game and the prize was a book with beautiful pictures inside. He cherished that book. But one day his uncle had snatched it from him and thrown it against the wall, when he had asked to go to school. The pages fluttered to the ground like an injured bird.
“Was it the best day of your life?” Nompilo asked, sounding sleepy. She had heard the carnival story from Mfundo a hundred times. She loved hearing it.
“I think so.”
“That sounds very nice. Nicer than my parents.”
Mfundo didn’t know what to say. He had heard the story of how her parents had sold her for a bottle of booze. They were junkies who lived on the streets with her. They would send her to go to stand on the street corner. When men stopped they told her to get money first, and then run away when they tried to get her into their cars.
Mfundo found himself mumbling, “I’m sorry.”
“Why couldn’t we be normal like all the other children?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“But at least we still have each other – Mfundo and Nompilo.” She held him tighter, trying to get warm.
Mfundo grinned in the dark, his face pressed into her thick, wiry hair. In his hand he gripped his knife. The warmth of Nompilo’s body against his made the cold breeze brushing his feet more bearable.
Tell us what you think: What makes a child’s life ‘normal’?