From then on I stayed over at least two nights a week at Yamkela’s place. His mother always welcomed me and once even said: ‘I am happy you’re here, because I know my son is not alone when I’m on night shift.’ They always had such lovely food and most times kept something for me.

They even had a TV and we were allowed to watch whatever we liked. No age restriction. Funnily enough, we both did not like the crime movies, with all their violence of beatings and shootings and murder. But we did like the so-called ‘adult’ movies… beautiful girls and women making love with men, and all the stories around that. That’s what we liked the most. But we did not tell anyone else what we watched.

When I came home the next morning, after my first night at Yamkela’s, neither my mom nor Siya asked where I had been. It seemed as if they were satisfied when I told them that I had been with a friend. Maybe they’d just enjoyed having a little bit more space in the shack.

This pattern went on for more than a year, until I met my second best friend – Atie. Atie was two years younger than me, but he was a strong guy and looked older than his age. I had heard about him even before I met him in person: Atie – the one with the big mouth!

Atie was what you could call a survivor. He knew how to look after himself. Where I was sad, Atie laughed. Where I was angry and kept quiet, Atie shouted back. Where I would run away, Atie would attack, no matter how strong the opponent was. What I did not know at the time was that once Atie had chosen you as his friend, he would never, never, never let you down. He was just so loyal. And he knew how to enjoy life. ‘Yonwabele – enjoy!’ he would say, when we had spent a whole afternoon collecting metal from rubbish bins, or asking neighbours for permission to dismantle their old fridges or washing machines. We then took it all to a scrapyard, where we received a few coins for two heavy bucket-loads of good metal: R5, sometimes R8 or R10.

‘Enjoy!’ Atie said, and we would buy one Coke, or an ice cream, or one bag of chips, and share it. We shared everything.

Around this time my mom became pregnant again. She lost her job in the factory and stayed home, because she was not feeling well most of the time. I was sitting in the yard one evening with Anam and my mom when Atie came by to pick me up for what we called a ‘walk’. A walk means to go looking for adventure, for fun, for excitement, small as it may be; or just to hang out together, sharing the latest jokes.

On that particular evening one of the neighbours was already quite drunk, though it was still early and Siya wasn’t home yet. Most of the other people in the yard had just come home from work. This drunk guy was talking rudely to my mom, asking her whether she was sure that Siya really was the father of her unborn child. Atie saw how hurt my mom was, and while I kept silent, Atie shouted back: ‘Hey, brush your stinking mouth before you talk to a lady!’

Everybody in the yard burst out laughing. There was this big, drunk, rude man standing there with his mouth hanging open, not knowing what to say to this small, fearless boy. ‘Ready for a walk?’ Atie asked me. Yes, I was ready. I did not know at the time that one day there would be a last walk for Atie.

Tell us what you think: How can your friends really make a difference in your life?