Mihlali hardly heard a word of what was said in assembly. There was singing and some people walking up and down. She noticed a seagull sitting on a window ledge outside one of the top windows. It was peering in and then it flew off effortlessly with one step off the ledge, and one powerful beat of its wings. She watched it fly away.
Mihlali avoided looking up at the stage. She sat with her head bowed and only glanced up sideways at the windows occasionally. She stood up to sing the anthems together with the other students next to her.
Mihlali felt that the man on the stage was staring straight at her, singling her out from amongst the hundreds of happy faces around her.
Her heart had sunk in her chest when she saw him on the stage. The last time she had seen him was just a few days before, on the farm. He had been driving his large blue BMW slowly along the farm road that wound through the farm workers’ cottages where she lived. His one arm was resting out of the open window of his car, his other arm loosely holding the steering wheel. His car rose and fell over the uneven surface of the road like a big blue ship, while ash from the cigarette that he held drooping between his large hairy fingers, blew away on the wind.
When Mihlali saw him she had ducked down behind the large cabbages and bean plants already going to seed in Gogo’s garden. She had been doing the weeding, trying to save what she could from the garden that was becoming overgrown and uncared for, because Gogo was not well any more.
Senazo had been with her, and they had watched the man in silence as he drove, with Abram sitting beside him, his mouth wide and laughing. The glasses the men were drinking from had flashed for a moment in the sun, when they tilted the amber liquid back down their throats.
The man was often at the farm on the weekends. He was very friendly with Abram. He had smiled at Mihlali many times, although she had never smiled back. Once, Senazo told her, he had squeezed her plump round bottom between his large hairy fingers, when she had passed him leaning against their neighbour’s front door.
He liked to walk with Abram around the houses on the farm, as Abram shouted orders. They laughed loudly together. Mihlali had felt his eyes on her many times over the years, watching her from beneath his heavy eyelids, while his smooth, bald head grew shiny with sweat under the midday sun.
Mihlali only realised that assembly was over when all the students around her started standing up and moving, jostling together towards the hall doors. She moved out of the hall with the throng of teenagers, her head down and her shoulders slumped. Her hands were trembling and her palms had become sweaty.
Somehow, with her heart pounding in her chest, she managed to find her classroom. The room was already full and busy with all the children moving and running about. She found an unoccupied desk, not taken yet by any of her boisterous classmates, and sat down.
All the happiness and hope she had felt when she left the hostel that morning had evaporated, and been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of nausea and dread. That awful feeling sat in her throat and was threatening to choke her. Mihlali swallowed hard, in an attempt to push away the fear that was growing inside her.
She sat, surrounded by noise, when the teacher walked in.
Mihlali looked up to see the man, the teacher, whom she knew as Mr Xola Casa, stride over to the boys in the front row and strike them over the head hard, to shut them up.
One boy protested, and the whole class watched, now totally silenced, as Mr Casa hauled the boy out of his desk, and dragged him to the front of the class. Holding him firmly by the throat with one huge hand, Mr Casa pulled a short length of hose pipe out from behind his desk with the other hand. Then he struck the boy, three swift blows across the back of his shirt. He released the boy, who went back to his desk, his eyes smarting with tears.
It had all happened so fast that the entire class, including the beaten boy, did not make a single sound.
Only Mr Casa spoke.
“Don’t ever backchat me. Not ever. Never. I talk. You listen. Understand?”
Around her Mihlali heard every child begin to pull books out from their bags, and she heard the sound of nervous feet shuffling together under desks. No-one spoke.
Mihlali sank low into her seat, and dropped her head down onto her hands, trying to avoid Mr Casa’s eyes.
Tell us what you think: What kind of man is Mr Casa? What is going to happen to Mihlali in his class?