“Yooooh! Charles! Charles ungilahleleni? O! ’Myeni wami!” screams a familiar voice the following evening. Mum Doris’s heart sinks for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. With a doek on her head and a shawl over her shoulders, she emerges from her own shack. She turns to the source of the loud sobs and gathers strength as she watches Buhle on her knees, tears and snot running down a face etched with anguish, her right arm over her chest as if to keep the pain from bursting out of her broken heart, her left hand outstretched towards the ashes, as if hoping against all odds that Charles might miraculously appear. Her two young children stand nearby, not sure how to react. But their tears communicate that somewhere from within their little bodies they realise that things will never be the same again for their family.

Doris walks into the yard, followed closely by Ntombi holding a cup of warm sugar water to help Buhle with the shock. The two women sink to their knees beside their bereaved friend, arms wrapped around her in a warm embrace, and break into a dirge.

Jehovah thel’ umoya
Jehovah thel’ umoya
Jehovah thel’umoya
Oyingcwele     

At the funeral service Reverend Dube welcomes the many residents of Phomolong who have come in their numbers to support Buhle and pay their respects to a man who was much loved for his good sense of humour and jolly nature. Buhle, flanked by Doris and Ntombi once more, dressed in black as a sign of her mourning and respect for her now departed husband, sits in the front row with her children, slumped to the side with grief and exhaustion. The fact that she cried most of the night and barely slept doesn’t help matters either.

Just as the reverend is reading an appropriate scripture, there is a noise towards the entrance of the white windowless tent and a couple of loud hiccups. It’s Charles’s drinking buddies, led by Velaphi wearing blue overalls, signalling that his attendance was accompanied by meaningful action. The five men stand at the back, two of them with their caps in hand, heads bowed.

When the podium is offered to a friend to speak to all those in attendance about the man they have gathered to bid farewell, Velaphi clears his throat and nudges the swaying friend next to him. For some people, remaining sober is a rare luxury. Just as the tipsy friend is about to protest loudly, Velaphi whispers a few harsh words in his ear. Another friend takes him by the elbow and guides the unkempt man towards the coffin. Four friends surround the coffin, while Velaphi takes to the podium.

“While some of you have already judged Charles behind closed doors as nothing more than a drunk,” Velaphi begins, “I will have you know that this drunk was our friend, but more than that, he was a father and a husband. He wasn’t perfect … none of us are. But under these deplorable conditions, living in squalor, in a city that will chew you up and spit you out if you dare forget why you are here, he sacrificed much for his family.” A few murmurs of agreement rise from somewhere in the now packed tent.

“While we drink like it’s nobody’s business … Hey, siya buthela shem!” Velaphi shakes his head with a smile. Some can’t contain their laughter. “We,” he produces a small white envelope from his inside pocket, “are not completely useless!” More laughter.

Velaphi turns to face Charles’s now fatherless children and their red-eyed mother sitting nearby. “Almost ten years ago uCharles said to us, ‘Gents! Let our children succeed where we have failed. Let them get an education so that they can one day earn enough to own property and have investments.’”

As the seated shift in the building heat, some mopping sweat from their foreheads, more murmurs of agreement can be heard.

“A week later,” Velaphi continues, “we went and took out an education policy for our children, thanks to this man lying before us today.” He gestures to the coffin with the pregnant-looking white envelope in hand.

“Sis’ Buhle,” he says to the now single parent. “In this envelope are the policy details for an education policy worth R30 000 …” there is a collective gasp and murmurs of excitement, “that your husband, our friend, opened on behalf of your children. And a little something from each of us.” The tears roll down Buhle’s cheeks as she tries, unsuccessfully, to fight back the tears. All those fights they had had about money over the years, and the sacrifices they had made … It was not all in vain.

The crowd starts to clap almost spontaneously. After handing the little envelope over to Buhle, Velaphi joins his friends around the coffin.

“Oh, and by the way!” he shouts over the cheering residents. “We will be joining a rehabilitation progamme to help us kick our nasty drinking habit after this last act.”

They all reach into their pockets and produce a nip, raise the tiny little bottles in the air to salute their fallen friend, and take a swig. Community members laugh as if they expect nothing less, while they continue to clap.

“Death be not proud!” they shout in unison, quoting John Donne.

As the coffin is slowly lowered into the ground and the church choir sings one last hymn, Phumlani stands a few feet from the open grave, with a gaping hole in his own heart. The man being lowered into his final resting place is not just their neighbour and a family friend, but a father figure. He is the man who filled the void left by the passing of Phumlani’s own dad almost six years ago. In his open hand Phumlani stares at one of the toffees that Malum’ Charles had given him. The boy simply cannot believe that when he waved at Uncle Charles that dreadful night, it would be the last time that he would see him alive. Earnest shovelling begins. With the back of the same hand holding the sweet, Doris’s eldest tries to wipe away the now relentless tears as he takes a deep, trembling breath.

“Hamba kahle Malume,” he quietly whispers.

***

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