Sizwe’s voice is hoarse as he asks me that question about my name, but he doesn’t smell of cigarettes like a lot of the boys do, so it can’t be from smoking.
“You ask what’s the big deal with my name? Its special,” I tell him. “A good name, same as Sizwe is a good name.”
“She’s knows my name.” He acts like he’s making an announcement to the street, so I’m glad there are only two little kids around to hear.
He’s walking along beside me now.
“You should know mine,” I say.
“By now,” he agrees. “You’ve told us enough times. So what’s so great about it? Really?”
“For a start, it’s mine.”
“That works. What else?” He must see I’m starting to regret answering his questions, because he adds, “No, seriously. I want to know.”
I look at him, and I think maybe he really does. His head is turned so he can see me, and his eyes are bright, looking at me so inquisitively. He’s not as tall as Leleka, and definitely not as handsome. His face has a lived-in look. There’s a gap in one of his eyebrows, like he was once slashed there and the hair never grew back.
I look at his head. It’s shaved so close his hair only shows as tiny black spikes. The word that jumps into my head is brutal. His clothes don’t look new. There’s something dangerous about him. Adult. Some girls like that. I’ve seen how Bonang looks at him. Not me. I don’t do dangerous. Give me safe.
So I don’t know why I want to answer him, make him understand about my name.
“Just, it’s important to me. Your name is part of you, it lets you know who you are.”
Sizwe doesn’t say anything. My cheeks heat up. I’ve probably made a fool of myself. I know I shouldn’t care, but I still feel embarrassed.
Then Sizwe says, “So who gave you this important name?”
I don’t really understand his question.
“My parents chose it for me, of course.”
“Of course.” Suddenly there’s anger, Sizwe’s voice cracking with it. “Just another spoilt rich girl with parents to give her a name to make her feel good about herself, along with everything else they give her.”
The change in his mood shocks me, but his anger also makes me angry.
“And why not, since you and your crew are on a mission to make me feel bad about myself?” I walk faster. “So who gave you your name?”
“Not my parents, that’s for sure. I don’t think they gave me one single thing except my useless life. I don’t even know who my father is.” He stops speaking for a few seconds, then says, “I guess the old lady named me. My grandmother.”
So now I feel bad for him. I don’t know what to say. I have a feeling he’d hate it if I went all sympathetic.
“Well, it’s a good name like I said. A strong name.” It’s all I can think of to say. “And BTW, we’re not rich.”
“You live in this part of Soweto, don’t you?” There’s mockery in his voice now, so I’m surprised he’s still walking along beside me. “And your family can afford for you to finish school, not spend all your time looking for work – and not finding it – so maybe they can eat.”
“You see, my father got this promotion.”
It sounds like I’m offering an excuse, and that makes me disgusted with myself. I’m proud of Dad.
Sizwe doesn’t say anything more, just walks along with me. I hitch up my book bag, thinking I should probably shut up too.
I don’t. I say, “If rich is such a crime, how come you hang with Leleka?”
I turn my head in time to see him shrugging. “Common interests.”
I think of things I’ve heard – overheard – words whispered in the street or at school. Fear flutters behind my ribs.
“Like what?” I have to ask.
It doesn’t really answer me. He could be talking about the train-surfing I’ve heard he’s into. Staff-riding, they call it, I don’t know why. Maybe he wants me to ask about it. Boys like boasting about taking risks.
Or he could mean other things, even more illegal than train-surfing.
One of us must have taken a step that brings us too close together. We don’t exactly bump into each other. It’s more like the sides of our arms touch. Just for a moment, I get this warm, weak feeling.
Then Sizwe moves away from walking so close. I like that he knows to stay out of my space – but what if I invited him in? I’m crazy! I don’t like him in that sort of way. He’s not Leleka. Leleka, who didn’t wait to be invited.
Now it’s as if Sizwe is waiting for me to say something. When I don’t, he goes, “My name. You call it a good name. You haven’t got a clue. The truth is, I’ve got a very bad name, Moya.”
“And you’re proud of it?”
“It’s all I’ve got,” he says quietly.
“And I’m the one living dangerously, talking to you.”
“You answer back a lot.”
I’m not sure why I’m disappointed when he says that. I suppose I was starting to think he was different from Leleka and the rest.
“Answer back?” I let him hear how disgusted I am. “Like you’re my superior and I should respect you?”
I catch him looking at me. I think it could be that I’ve made him curious.
“I don’t fully get what respect is all about.” He shakes his head like the subject defeats him. “I only know respect is something you have to earn.”
“How? By living dangerously?”
“By proving myself as a man.”
The fluttering fear returns. Those whispered words chase each other round my brain again. Spiked drinks. Jack rolling. Does he do those things, this boy? So he can ‘feel like a man’?
I should walk away right now.
I can’t. If it’s fear I’m feeling, it’s all mixed up with something else – anger I think.
“So how do I earn respect?” I demand. “Proving myself as a man being a bit outside my abilities. Yoyoyoyoyo! Am I answering back again?”
“I thought you rural girls were supposed to be, like, keep your eyes down and don’t say anything, sort of thing? Respectful?”
“In the presence of our betters?” I challenge him. “Meaning men.”
“It’s the traditional way, isn’t it?”
That word. ‘Traditional’. Hasn’t it done enough to me already today? I can still hear the laughter. I lose it.
“What do you know about it? Hey, Sizwe? Tell me what you know about ‘traditional’?”
“Hey, what did I say?”
I can tell he’s truly puzzled, so I do my best to push my rage back down.
“It’s that word,” I try to explain. “Traditional.”
“What about it?”
“Ask your friends,” I tell him. “Leleka and Puleng and those others from my class. And for the last time, I am not from a rural village.”
“Got it. The big city of Barberton, I heard.” Now his rough voice has a dark edge to it, but I think he could be making a joke.
Next moment I’m seeing home in my head, like I’m a bird flying over Umjindi. The Queen’s River, the Makhonjwa Mountains surrounding town. Suddenly I’m so homesick, there’s a rush of tears behind my eyes and a huge ache in my throat.
I swallow hard and somehow stop the tears falling, but Sizwe must sense something, because he says, “What’s wrong?”
I shake my head. I can’t answer. If I try, my voice will go wobbling all over the place. It doesn’t matter. We’ve reached the road where I turn left and two people come walking round the corner, holding on to each other like they’re glued together. Puleng and Dudu. Dudu is part of Bonang and Tumiso’s crowd.
Sizwe and Puleng bump knuckles. I look at Dudu. She can’t pull her eyes away from the boys. She’s not even blinking, staring at them like they’re gods, and I’d say she finds Sizwe slightly more godlike than Puleng, staring so worshipfully and not saying a word.
I wonder if that’s ‘respectful’ and ‘traditional’ enough for Sizwe.
Tell us what you think: Can Moya and Sizwe overcome the differences in their backgrounds and attitudes?