On his way home, with a mouthful of sweets, Phumlani dances in the moonlit dusty streets of Phomolong, as he sings Mama Africa’s most famous hit. He suddenly bursts out laughing as he remembers how that lady had put the flirtatious drunk back in his place. Doris’s eldest loves drunk people because they often make fools of themselves and are very entertaining. But Umalume’s grimace lingers on in the back of his mind.

“What are you eating?” Lindokuhle demands to know, as he smells chocolate-flavoured toffees on his brother’s breath.

“Kahle wena!” his mother reprimands. “En den?” his mother says, with her hands on her hips. She doesn’t have to complete the sentence for Phumlani to understand that she wants to know about Uncle Charles’s whereabouts, and willingness to return home.

“Mama, I’ll go again. Maybe he is ready to come home now.”

By the time the boy heads out for the second time, it’s almost nine thirty. He is taking advantage of his mother’s indecision (while it lasts) to enjoy a rare taste of Phomolong nightlife. But in the pit of his stomach, he is also deeply unsettled by an unexplained concern, a strange feeling he just can’t shake.

Doris, waiting at home, is deeply conflicted. On the one hand, she made a promise to her best friend, Buhle, to keep an eye on Charles, especially given his recent illness. Buhle is like a sister to her and they share everything. Doris’s late husband died a few years ago because his liver could no longer endure the strain caused by repeated excessive drinking. It was the most difficult time of her life. She remembers thinking, how am I going to raise these children on my own? She does not want to see Buhle go through the same hardship.

But on the other hand, she feels guilty for sending her eldest son out to go and look for a grown man. Yes, Sis’ Buhle is her best friend. Yes, she is trying to show ubuntu, but her late husband would never have allowed any of his children to be running the streets at all hours of the night, reminding a grown man of his responsibilities.

“That’s it!” Doris announces to no one in particular, slamming the dishcloth on the kitchen table as Phumlani walks in.

“Mama, umalume said …”

With her hand held up high, as if she is about to testify, she interrupts her eldest son mid-sentence.

“I don’t care! My boy, you’ve done more than enough and I’m sorry to have put you through all this.”

The thought of suggesting another trip suddenly seems foolish as Phumlani notices his mother’s raised eyebrow, a sure sign that there will be no further discussion on the matter.

“It’s okay, Mama,” he says as he hugs his mother and prepares to go to bed, still feeling uneasy.


Tell us: Do you think it was fair for Doris to send her son to find Charles?