Having given his wife enough money to go and see the kids and her family down in the Eastern Cape for a few days, Charles is determined to drown his sorrows tonight. He won’t have to listen to his wife’s constant bickering, nor will he have to clean up after grown adults – at least until Monday. The tenants of Bokamoso, a block of flats where he is caretaker, are rude at the best of times and make rats seem hygienic. Some of the kids who stay in the block of flats make juvenile monkeys seem civilised. But now he is free of them all.
“My love, please … I’m begging you, stay away from the shebeen,” his wife, Buhle, had pleaded before leaving in the wee hours of the morning.
“Remember what the doctor said about your liver,” she nagged.
“Please Daddy, no more drinking. I can’t raise these kids without you. They need … no, we need you,” she said in earnest.
“Okay, okay, my dove! Now you’d better get going otherwise you’ll miss the bus,” Charles diverted the conversation.
Recently Buhle had even taken his latest test results and stuck them onto their wardrobe as a sobering reminder of his declining health.
He still remembers the doctor’s grim warning from almost two months ago: “Mr. Mkhize, if you continue to drink at such a high rate you may have a stroke – or worse.”
Although the last couple of weeks of sobriety had been a little easier, the first few weeks were hell. At first his hands were shaking terribly, so much so that at one point he was walking around with his hands in his pockets in order to avoid unwanted attention. It was a nightmare, and several heated arguments between him and Buhle had erupted. Her trump card was always the children.
“It’s fine if you don’t love me enough to change your ways, but what about your children?” she would counter, jabbing a finger in his direction.
Every morning for almost four weeks his wife almost literally dragged him out of bed and insisted on going for a brisk walk. She would say crazy things like “Listen! Even the birds are happy to see you taking a walk, my love.”
He would grunt in response. Then she would talk – the whole way – about the children, news from back home and what was happening at the factory where she worked. He missed most of what she was saying because more than half the route was done in sleepwalking mode.
Buhle, as a reward, would then make him a cup of strong coffee (just the way he liked it) when they got back and his favourite breakfast – two russians, eggs, and toast. She would stand back for a moment and smile at him, filled with pride, while he wolfed down his treat.
“I’m so proud of you!” she would say as he smiled back at her between greasy mouthfuls.
But now she’s far away, in the Eastern Cape.
He stands deep in thought, when a familiar but unwelcome voice shouts from across the road. “Charles?! Charles, is that you?” It’s Reverend Dube, a man who, according to Charles, took his calling a little too seriously. Reverend Dube is known to stand near the main intersection at the entrance to Phomolong informal settlement, to ‘guide his flock home’ as he puts it. On Fridays, particularly towards month-end, the reverend is like a predator on the prowl. Armed with nothing but the good book and a nagging voice, he still gets most of the men running in the opposite direction.
Charles ignores the advancing Dube, pretending to look for something important in the black plastic bag that carries nothing but an empty ice-cream container that serves as his lunchbox.
The reverend himself used to be a heavy drinker back in the day. When prayer and rehab saved his life, he decided to repent and serve the community by luring men from the bar to the pews. It was a tall order in a community where drinking was the favourite pastime for most, women and children included.
Another voice snorts through the increasing darkness: “Drop the chekas and run Charles! Run while you still can!”
The raucous laughter that follows distracts the man of the cloth just long enough for the Bokamoso employee to make a quick getaway. As he hurries down a dimly lit narrow gravel road, littered with potholes, he can hear the good reverend turn his attention to the voices in the darkness.
“You lot are beyond redemption!” he yells.
Tell us: Where do you think Charles is going?