He ran for home – running away as much as running to go tell his mother about what was happening. The wind roared around his ears but this time he didn’t feel any exhilaration. He was desperate, trying to claw his way out of the nightmare he had happened upon.
The friends ran with him all the way home. Unlike earlier, this wasn’t a race. As he ran, Abongile flashed memories of his cousin in that tyre.
Then he remembered the previous December when they had all gone back to the Eastern Cape for Christmas. How they had sat in the back of the bus together, Phumlani telling stories and jokes, to try and keep him entertained throughout the long journey.
He thought about all the times he had seen him randomly as he walked from school; how sometimes he would slip him a coin if he had. He thought about how one time his cousin had given a short sermon as one of the youth leaders at church; how he banged his hand on the pulpit, mimicking their pastor and sending the whole congregation into amused and impressed murmurs.
Abongile had always thought he wanted to be like Phumlani. What was going on didn’t make sense.
When they turned back into Sakrili Street, running past the gate where he had seen his sister angrily slump her body, strangely enough this, his street, was quiet, twilight. The dark had already started creeping in.
It was like any other day; he could already smell different dinners wafting from the different houses. He wished his father would have one of those days when he came back home early. Given the circumstances he wasn’t sure what his mother would be able to do to save Phumlani. He thought his father might be better able to – they were more likely to listen to him.
As he arrived at home he tried pushing into the lounge but the door was locked. From inside he heard his mother angrily ask, “Who’s that?”
His mother didn’t hear him when he first said, out of breath, “Me.”
It was Siphenathi who was able to say, “It’s us, Abongile and Siphenathi.”
“You are going to break my door. Why are you running?”
He heard his mother rise angrily from the sofa inside. When she opened the door she saw Abongile looking at her, sobbing, unable to speak.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice immediately soft and concerned.
She led Abongile into the house; the other boys followed. In front of the TV, on the floor, the twins looked at their older sibling, their eyes wide.
“Abongile, stop crying and tell me what’s wrong, so I can help,” his mother said.
“He saw his cousin, Phumlani, the one who comes here sometimes on Sundays? He was one of the guys who was caught and now he is getting beat up,” Avela said.
“Caught where? What are you talking about?’’
Avela hesitated, sensing the rush of tumultuous emotion brewing inside his friend’s mother. He looked at Lutho and Siphenathi for help.
“He was with the guys who were caught. They stabbed an Uber driver there near Thembani. Some people saw them and they were chased and only two got caught,” Lutho said.
“What do you mean? How is Phumlani involved in that?”
“He was with the gang.”
Abongile’s mother took a moment. Tenderly she rubbed a hand across Abongile’s back as he sobbed almost inconsolably.
“Mama, what happened with bhut’ Phumlani? Why is Abongile crying?” one of the twins, Thando, asked timidly. No-one really heard her.
“Are they being beaten now?”
“Yes they are.”
“Sisipho, give me my phone. Where is this happening?”
“By Qoqobe Street, near My Friend’s Shop.”
“Stay here, all of you!” Abongile’s mother said, taking her phone from Sisipho. She walked out the door. Abongile started to follow her.
“I said stay behind,” she ordered.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go look at what’s happening. Stay with the children,” she said, bringing the phone up to her ear.
“Hello Sisi. I just wanted to ask if Phumlani is not there with you?”
A few unbearably tense moments passed as Abongile considered the idea that his eyes had possibly deceived him. There’d been so much happening he began to realise that he could have made a mistake. How much time did he really have to look at the person who was being beaten up? It didn’t make sense that it was Phumlani he saw.
“There’s an issue here Sisi. I just hope you are at home. Yes, well, Abongile just came into the house and … I’m not sure how to say this … but try to understand that I haven’t gone to check for myself … but Abongile just came in talking about how he had seen Phumlani getting beaten up by the people from around here. Because apparently he … they think he was involved with a gang that stabbed a man–”
“Look!” Avela said, pointing.
A brief moment seemed to stretch into an eternity. Towards the direction where they had left the mob, thick black smoke rose into the indigo sky.
Tell us: Do you think Phumlani is guilty of the crime he is accused of?