For two days Nompilo refused to move from under the bridge. She refused to eat anything; just drank a little water. For two days they lived in silence. In the cold, Mfundo’s conscience and pride refused to let him wear his jacket and so it became an ugly heap on the ground between them.

So he too, ate and drank only enough to allow him to barely survive till the next morning. Every morning he left Nompilo there and when he came back she would be in exactly the same spot.

One evening, Mfundo placed a half loaf of bread, a litre of cola and a thin block of cheese on the ground next to Nompilo. He spoke as he took out his blade and sliced a thick piece of bread and a chunk of cheese.

“Look at what I got today. I managed to get a job downtown, selling newspapers. Just imagine, I made R25 today. I would have bought coffee but eish, cola will do.”

He looked at Nompilo; she did not seem to be stirred by this supposed stroke of luck. She was still bundled on the ground, in her floral dress, with her fist as a pillow.

Mfundo took a deep breath. He knelt on one knee and spoke. “Enough of this silence now, Nompilo. At least eat something. Look what I brought you.” He whispered again, closer to her ear now. “I’m really bad at saying sorry. I just want things back as they were. The past is dead now. We have to go forward.” He felt hopeless.

Then he took a deep breath and spoke from his heart.

“I’m sorry Nompilo. I have no excuse. I’m sorry for the things I said.” He knelt with the bread still held in both his palms. “Please forgive me. I’ll try and do better. You are all the family I have. I don’t want to lose you. We are Nompilo and Mfundo forever.”

He smiled at her. Still nothing.

“Nompilo, you probably already know, but I, uh, I …” He hit the butt of the blade hard on his thigh. “I, I care for you. A lot. You are the only family I have. I would do anything for you. I mean it.”

After a long silence, Nompilo turned slowly and took the bread from his hands, without a hint of a smile. Mfundo exhaled deeply as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He quickly assembled the cardboard – before she changed her mind – and laid his oversized leather jacket on top of them.

Mfundo watched Nompilo as she ate the dry bread with the cheese.

“Please teach me, Mpilo,” he suddenly said with a shaky voice. Nompilo lifted her head and smiled at him with her eyes. Then she gulped the bread down with cola and burped loudly. They shared a laugh.

“I’ll teach you.”

“Thank you,” he said humbly, and stared at the ground.

“I saw our friend again. The one who came here the other night. He came past here again. And squatted there, staring at me for hours.”

“When?” asked Mfundo.

“I don’t know. A couple of days. I’m not sure. He keeps coming here.”

“It’s not safe here anymore. We’ll have to keep moving now. We’ll look for another place tomorrow.”

“We are leaving the bridge?” Nompilo asked in a strained voice.

“Yes. Why didn’t you tell me earlier about him?”

Nompilo curled her lip at him.

“Okay, okay … it doesn’t matter.” He kept quiet and stole a look at Nompilo. “I have something to cheer you up.”

Mfundo pulled out a calendar and gave it to Nompilo. He pointed his finger at a random number.

“See? Tomorrow is your birthday.”

She burst into laughter: “What day is my birthday Mfundo?”

“I don’t know, do you? I say it’s tomorrow!”

“Tomorrow?” Nompilo cried out. “Okay, how old am I then?”

“Let’s see. I’m probably 12.” Then he looked at her. “Possibly 13 … maybe 14 even …”

She burst out with more laughter, “You’re 11, I bet.”

“Eleven, so that makes you 10? Am I right?”

She nodded.

They lay on their cardboard bed and Mfundo lay still, relieved that he had offloaded the heaviness in his chest. Nompilo was silent. He looked at her in a contemplative silence. A birthday for the apple of his eye deserved a cherry on top.

“I love you, Nompilo,” he finally said and faded off to sleep. With one-eye opened and his blade ever ready between his fingers, he tugged himself closer to her.

***

Tell us what you think: What are some of the personal consequences of illiteracy in today’s world?