When Phumlani walks into the cramped kitchen area of his mother’s almost claustrophobic shack, he finds her mumbling to herself and shaking her head disapprovingly, while packing away the dishes. She seems troubled. Phumlani, Doris’s first born son, doesn’t like to see his mother distressed in any way, and in many respects, has become his mother’s confidant. His dream is to one day become a soccer player and make big money fast, so that he can build his mother a house and give his siblings the kind of life they have always dreamt of.
“Mama, did I tell you I got an A for maths this week?” the eldest ventures. No response.
“Miss Mothupi said I was top of the grade!” he announces excitedly. More mumbling, and a few more shakes of the head. “Mama!” the boy protests.
“Yini wena!” his mother snaps. Just then she catches her teenage son’s bewildered expression and immediately regrets the way she has spoken to him.
“Askies, boy,” she says apologetically as she moves to peer out of the window into the growing darkness.
“Mama, what’s wrong? Did Aunty Nicole not pay you again?” Phumlani enquires.
“No, it’s not that, ‘mfana wam’. It’s just that …” her voice trails off as her eyes search the darkness beyond the small shack window once more.
“Then what’s wrong, Mama?” the boy persists.
“You know Sis’ Buhle probably hasn’t even got off the bus yet, and uCharles has already started his nonsense!” she says with a spike of irritation in her voice.
Just then her last born, Lindokuhle, walks in from his mother’s bedroom completely naked. “Ma, what did Uncle Charles do?” says the eight-year-old boy curiously. The fact that his mother still insists on giving him a good scrub every now and then means he has not yet reached an age where he is too embarrassed to walk around in his birthday suit in front of his mother. “Shorty”, as he is known in the informal settlement outside his home, is loved by everyone and is often invited by Charles and his friends to come and share a meal with them or play some cards. Lindo, as his mother and siblings affectionately call him, is very fond of Uncle Charles.
“Namanje Lindo!” exclaims his mother with one hand on her hip and a large dishcloth draped over her left shoulder. “Namanje!” she repeats.
“I told him to get dressed Ma,” their sister’s voice comes from the tiny, dimly lit bedroom, “but he told me to mind my own bee’s wax.” Noluntu, named after her maternal grandmother, is only a year older than her little brother, Lindo, and that means, in her mind, that she can still boss him around from time to time.
“Hai! Buzz off wena!” Lindo shouts back in the direction of his mother’s bedroom. One look at each other and Phumlani and his mother burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Lindo asks.
“You little midget!” teases a wide-eyed Noluntu, wrapped in her mother’s warm dressing gown.
“Mama!” protests Lindo, “Noluntu is calling me a…” His mother interrupts him mid-sentence by raising her hand.
“You two stop it! I have enough to worry about tonight without playing referee. Right now it’s almost eight o’clock and umalume wenu uCharles is not back. Sis’ Buhle asked me to keep an eye on him while she’s away, but he’s still not back and it’s not safe out there, especially during month-end.” One more glance through the lamp illuminated curtains can’t hurt. No sign of Charles.
Phumlani considers telling his mother that they saw Uncle Charles a couple of hours ago and sharing his concern, but he is still not quite sure what it was that bothered him about umalume earlier, and so he decides to keep it to himself for now. Besides, he doesn’t want to get his favourite uncle into any unnecessary trouble.
“Phumlani, please, just run up to Freedom Square and tell uCharles that it’s getting late,” Mum Doris pleads. Deep down she knows that there’s nowhere else Charles would go in his wife’s absence than that smoke-filled establishment.
“Ha Mama!” exclaims Lindo, with his big dark handsome eyes almost popping out of his head. “Do you want umalume to shout at my brother for hanging around the shebeen?”
Phumlani gives his little brother a look that pleads with him to be quiet and not deny him this rare opportunity to get a glimpse of Freedom Square’s infamous nightlife.
Lindo is about to press on with his argument when Phumlani quickly interjects with “Okay Mama!” as he tries hard not to sound too enthusiastic. When he realises that their mother is actually weighing up Lindo’s concern, he quickly slips out of the front door, ignoring his mother’s calls after him.
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