A bit later Phumlani hears familiar voices and the sound of Uncle Charles’s gate being opened. It’s the wee hours of the morning when Charles waves to his buddies, clinging onto the slanted washing-line pole near his gate.

“Okay gents …” hiccup. “Watch out for …” hiccup-hiccup, “… MaZondo. Rumour has it she could …” hiccup, “…be preparing for take-off around about now,” Charles slurs. His friends chuckle, walking down the road in a rough zigzag that makes it difficult to predict when they might actually take a corner.

“Sharp, Charlie!” one of them yells back.

“Phola, my bra,” Velaphi shouts.

Phumlani is peering out of their tiny little bedroom window, waving with a deep sense of relief at uMalume. The glare on the window caused by the large streetlamp that illuminates almost their entire section must be making it hard for uMalume to see him across the yard. Opening the window and shouting “Good night Malume!” is not an option at this hour. Satisfied that uBab’ Velaphi has kept his promise and brought Uncle Charles home, Phumlani slides back into bed, and with a warm duvet over his head, he says a quiet prayer of thanks and passes out from exhaustion.

Charles turns to head for his front door, but staying upright appears to be a problem. Almost without warning gravity brings him down to earth, literally. He lands face first in Buhle’s garden, almost disappearing amongst the sprawling pumpkin leaves. He lies there for a moment, trying to catch his breath and appreciating the cooling effect of the soil. After using the fence as a crutch to help him get back to his feet, and apologising to the now crushed vegetable leaves, he finally makes it inside.

“Eish … Buhle won’t forgive me for …” hiccup, “the damage to her garden,” he mumbles.

“Ah well,” he shrugs. “Such is life!” he chuckles.

With unsteady hands, Charles manages to light the paraffin lamp and pauses as he doubles over with a sudden sharp chest pain. He steadies himself once more, clutching his chest with one hand while fumbling in a drawer for his medication with the other. He scoops a jug of water from the enamel bucket and takes his pills.

“No more!” hiccup. “I’m done with …” hiccup, “alcohol.”

Suddenly “Lyoooo…” he grimaces as he bumps the burning lamp over, struggling towards the bedroom. Behind him greedy flames quickly lick and consume an off-white kitchen curtain.

The father of two falls, rolling onto his back. The horror that now confronts him, as he battles to breathe, is dancing flames that rapidly grow stronger as they devour, distort and destroy everything in sight. Charles desperately tries to shout for help, but the pain has denied him a voice.


Tell us: Do you think Charles will survive the fire?