“I like all your different shweshwe masks.”
As usual, Fumani has arrived at training the same time as me.
“My grandmother makes them.” I look at his mask as we start walking side-by-side. “But your SANParks masks are cool.”
“Only not exactly colourful.” He laughs. “I hope you’ve noticed how good I’m being about wearing mine these days?”
“I have.” Should I tell him I miss his smile? “Why?”
“I remember how you used to go on about people wearing their masks when we were first allowed back to training. And I know wearing a mask is more for other people’s protection than our own, so I thought … Have you got an underlying condition, Ritlatla?”
“Something like that.” I’m uncomfortable about where this is going, so I laugh and add, “Well, nothing too terrible. I’m just not a big risk-taker, not adventurous, you know? That’s why I’ve never tried field events like the high jump. A bad landing can do a lot of damage.”
“Track is more fun anyway,” he says, taking my hand and swinging it, like he’s in a happy mood.
So, handholding. My anxiety rises. If we get any closer, I’ll have to tell him – but I don’t want to. After Mahlatse, I’m too scared.
So we can’t get any closer. We must not.
When we reach the sports field, we have to break apart to go to the separate socially distanced places Oom Leon makes us use for our warm-ups.
“Slut,” a girl hisses at me across the metres of space between us.
I look at her. Slut? Just because I was holding hands with Fumani? Or because she thinks I’ve moved on from Mahlatse too fast?
I shrug. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t matter. I’ve seen her hanging around with Xongisa, but I don’t know her name.
As always, physical exercise gives me a high. Who needs drugs? When we get to the actual running part of training, I feel even better. My times are better than ever. Oom Leon hardly ever smiles, but I see him nod to himself, like I’ve confirmed something for him.
Dzanga’s times are close to mine. Maybe it gives her an extra push, hearing Mahlatse, Xongisa, and the girl who called me slut, all cheering her on.
Mahlatse. That doesn’t hurt. It’s what he did that still makes me burn: sharing my health issues with Dzanga.
“I have an announcement,” Oom Leon says at the end of training, and then starts shouting, “No, don’t all crowd round me. Keep your distance. Haven’t I got a big voice? Loud enough for you all to hear? Right, people. The team for Polokwane this weekend.”
He starts with the shorter distances, and I’m happy for Fumani when he reads the names of the four fastest guys. He’ll definitely get his relay. Too bad Mahlatse is one of the four.
Xongisa is in for the women’s 100 and 200 metres.
He gets to the women’s 800. He says my name – and Dzanga’s. I hear Fumani’s whistle of approval as I give a little jump and hug myself with satisfaction.
“No, Oom.” Dzanga’s voice rises loud and clear. “Ritlatla can’t go. It’s not safe for the rest of us. She has Aids.”
Tell us what you think: What should Ritlatla do? And how will Fumani react?