For Phumlani, going to Freedom Square is like staying up late to watch those naughty movies that showed late on Friday nights on their little black and white TV. It took a certain level of skill to jump up, turn off the TV or simply change the channel, and then pretend to be sound asleep at the slightest sound of your mother coming out of her bedroom.
The stories that came out of the local watering-hole were the stuff of legends. Such as the time Mantwa, a woman known for her quick temper and brute strength, apparently stormed into the shebeen, wearing nothing but a bra and petticoat, to confront a woman half her age for repeatedly flirting with her philandering husband. Or the time that Petros, a hopeless drunk, was so thirsty that he managed to break into Freedom Square through the ceiling, only to get stuck there while trying to make his great escape.
“Malum’ Charles!” the boy hissed from a nearby fence, waving his hands like someone desperate for a lift on the side of a lonely, dark, dirt road. But there is just no way Phumlani can compete with MaBrrr’s Memeza accompanied by a choir of hoarse, abused vocal cords. Buhle’s husband keeps disappearing behind staggering bodies. The music is so loud that covering his ears makes no difference. Just then he spots Malum’ Charles trying to hold a note, head tilted back, right arm draped over his head, cigarette wedged between his long bony fingers.
Phumlani gets closer and peeps in through the door. One drunk seems to be searching for an unidentified flying object somewhere in the dirty ceiling, tears rolling down a face etched with wrinkles and an unknown pain.
“Noma nginga memeza ma!” the drunkard bellows as he tries to keep tune with Sis’ Brenda, almost losing his balance. Suddenly he starts fiddling with his pants’ zip, almost involuntarily. Then, as if dangling from puppet strings, he turns to face the door. He walks as if on a ship arrested by stormy seas, swaying this way and that. Seeing the door frame brings on a relieved facial expression as he grabs it for stability.
A curvaceous woman breezes past him as he fiddles with his zip yet again.
“Ah sweetdats!” he yells after her as he slaps her ample bum.
“Hai wena! Umdala kangaka?” she snaps back.
“The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” smiles Freedom Square’s staggering Casanova.
“You’re not even worth a beating,” she hisses, “because if you die you probably don’t even have enough saved up to buy yourself a cheap coffin.” The patrons hanging around just outside the door, enjoying the cool night breeze, laugh heartily.
It is this drunk that Phumlani politely asks, once the man has relieved his bladder, to call umalume. Moments later Charles stumbles out, looking bewildered. His head lurches from side to side, blurry eyes scanning the darkness, trying to locate the voice repeatedly calling his name. When he finally gets close enough to identify the boy he is first overcome by confusion, then concern.
“Eh! Madoda! Boy, what are you doing here at this hour?” his puzzled face gives away his confusion as he clings to the fence with one hand for balance.
“uMama sent me to …”
Charles interrupts the boy more harshly this time. “You children know that I don’t want to see you anywhere near this place, so ufunani?”
Phumlani explains his mother’s concern and that she has asked him to come and check on him and plead with him to come home.
Charles tries to stand still, his index finger on his lips as if contemplating what to do.
“uSisi ngumuntu o’right yazi,” he mumbles to himself. “Okay boy-boy, tell your mother I’m just finishing this last bottle of poison and then …” He pauses to try and control a rude belch. It makes no difference.
“I’m coming,” he says as he reaches deep into his into his pocket and produces a handful of sweets, shoving them at the smiling boy. “Don’t be greedy boy!” he wags his bony finger at Phumlani. “Share with your siblings.”
With that final instruction he waves the boy off and turns back towards the sounds of Mama Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata.
Phumlani stays put until the song ends, watching women dance provocatively as they touch their shoulders and curvaceous hips, and gyrate near men too drunk not to stare.
Charles suddenly stops near the door and bends over, one hand leaning on the wall, another on his chest. When he does manage to straighten he leans his back against the cool wall, appearing to grimace. He tilts his head back towards the night’s sky, takes a deep breath, hand still on his chest, and stumbles back inside.
Tell us: What should Phumlani do?