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A Taxi Owner, a Murder, and a Secret
By Thabo Jijana
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2014 Thabo Jijana
All rights reserved.
Anyone who has ever experienced a personal tragedy carries with them a vivid image of that moment just prior to their misfortune when everything seemed just right – that calm, unsuspecting moment before the storm swept in. Perhaps they were cradling a cup of tea at home, engrossed in their favourite soapie when the phone rang; or had gone to wake their child for breakfast only to discover that the bed had not been slept in ...
In my case, it was my winter school break in July 2003, and I had come to spend it with the family of my father's first cousin, my auntie Nolwandle, in the sleepy town of Peddie in the former Ciskei.
Each morning, the road outside auntie's township house swelled with the daily exodus of commuters – men in overalls and shiny boots with a pleased look in their eyes, women hurrying behind with tight doeks on their heads and handbags over their shoulders. Da'bawo Nolwandle, the eldest daughter of my grandfather's only brother, was one of these women.
Each morning I helped auntie's lastborn Monde load her wares onto a rickety taxicab at the doorstep, and waved as the car carried her away to her vendor's stand in town. Back in the house our breakfast would be waiting for us, a plate of amagwinya, a piece of fried fish and a cup of black coffee. This was lavish fare for a boy of fifteen brought up on a frugal breakfast of sugared oatmeal or buttered bread with juice, and I intended to crow to my siblings about waking up to fish every day when I returned home. In the evenings, Monde and I would greet her when her taxi pulled up at the gate and help offload her merchandise: a metal bowl the size of a basin with bags of uncooked fish, bundles of fruit, and occasionally also bags of groceries.
I had last seen my sister and younger brother in late June, at the beginning of the holidays. How happy da'bawo Nolwandle had been to see us when my father drove us to her house from our village, the last of a group of villages to the south, known as eMazizini. As I stood at her gate, a little sad to see my siblings go, they smiled and waved goodbye, their hands poking out of the passenger door of our father's taxi van.
After a couple of weeks I was getting used to "living in town", as I liked to boast to myself then. I had an incurable desire to be helpful, and felt proud that I had already proved useful around auntie's house. I had painted the inside of a brick flat and cut down to waist height the overgrown milkweed hedge that enclosed the courtyard.
Monde suffered from epileptic fits. Too much time in the sun always knocked him flat on the ground, motionless as a defeated boxer. So I spent much of my time doing what would have been his tasks, and then sitting with him in the shade, chatting about this or that. We didn't know each other well – I didn't know myself well – but if da'bawo Nolwandle had reason to be grateful for my presence, it was for the company I provided to Monde, who was a year or two older than me. Before I came along, while everyone else was at work or school, Monde spent most of his days with his elder sister and grandmother Magatyeni, who had to keep a strict eye that he didn't stay out in the sun too long. I had taken this load off their shoulders.
There were other livelier characters in this family that I had come to admire. Uncle Vuyani was a construction worker who lived with his family in eJamani, another of Peddie's townships, but came to visit us now and then, tipsy and full of witty stories in which the joke was often on himself. Mlungisi, the eldest of auntie's five children, was a municipal worker whose entire music collection amounted to a single Lionel Richie cassette. He played it nonstop after work in the late afternoons while reading Soccer Laduma or the Daily Sun. His generosity seemed boundless, as with many bachelor relatives. In the afternoon he would bring home a bag of oranges or a packet of ginger biscuits, earning him great favour among the children. In a way, Mlungisi was the man of the house, as auntie was divorced and took care of her mother, whom I called makhulu Magatyeni. But bhut' Langa, who was less than a decade older than me, was the cousin I had grown fondest of.
Although auntie's family was eleven in all, her RDP house was tiny – a single room partitioned into a kitchen, lounge and two bedrooms by means of a long curtain, a wardrobe and a wall unit, respectively. So Langa slept in the house of a neighbour for whom he was housesitting, and I slept there with him.
I took a real liking to Langa. In his company I began to really look at myself now and pay attention to my own individual identity. This wasn't my first holiday with relatives, but living among auntie's family gave me a clearer sense of myself as a person. I realised now, with something close to pride, that as plain as I was, I enjoyed my solitude and was delighted to be working with my hands. Back in my father's household I lived among many adults who were used to doing things for themselves.
At night I would sit and listen as bhut' Langa talked and smoked cigarettes, sharing war stories about his romantic conquests in the local tavern, all of which fascinated me in the way the doings of adults can impress a teenager.
Once he turned his focus onto me. I was a shy person and a reluctant talker, and being the focus of attention always made me nervous, even when something I said drew a smile from the girl I had a crush on. So I squirmed when Langa asked me if I had a girlfriend. No, I lied, even though my friend Jomo and I were seeing two girls from the same home.
Did I know the neighbour's girl? Wasn't she about my age?
It was left unsaid that I was expected to prove myself soon.
My father worked at the taxi rank in town, and auntie would tell me each evening about her conversations with him, and pass on any messages for me. Each morning I would give her my replies, telling him I was well, and sending greetings to my mother, brother and sister. Then she would leave in her saloon taxi, the preferred size of car for township taxis because they took only five commuters, whereas my father's van took twelve to fifteen and wouldn't leave until it was full, which annoyed short-distance commuters.
One Thursday after auntie had left for work, I decided I would go and see my father.
Auntie's township, Peddie Extension, was a tightly packed cluster of multi-coloured bungalows on the side of a low hill west of the town. I set off down the same gently sloping road that the workers followed each morning, passing the field where learner drivers were taught, then the police station, to reach Main Street. It was midday when I reached the taxi rank, and with the taxi business being rather slow on a Thursday, I found my father easily.
It was an unseasonably hot winter, hence our need to stay in the shade, and I wanted to ask my father for money to buy myself some sandals. I found him – a quiet, peaceful man of forty-six – standing with two colleagues beside one of the taxi vans in his usual "uniform", a golf-shirt and faded blue jeans, without a jersey or jacket.
I was a reticent child, even with my own father. Later in life, when I had shed some of this trait, I realised that although I could be open with other people – old people, lovers, relative's children – the male children of my age were generally as formal with their own fathers as I was with mine. This is how it must have been for our fathers with their own fathers. Xhosa society in their generation was rigidly segmented into age groups, and all were required to keep to their designated places. Particularly in the cattle kraal, the arena of Xhosa manhood, the gospel according to age dictated who ate and drank what and who did what – newcomers did the brunt of the work while the old men directed operations. In this environment, being even slightly emotionally available to one's son opened a father to charges of mollycoddling, to be frowned on by his peers as doing the boy no good.
My father was in any case not given to conversation, and so that noonday in July we kept the exchange short and the greeting and goodbye brisk.
How was the family doing back home in the village? I enquired. Good, he said, everyone was well. How was I getting along at auntie's house? I was enjoying myself, I answered truthfully.
I asked him for the money and he enquired what it was for. When I told him, he handed me a R20 note.
My last words to my father that day as I left were, "I'll be going now."
Did neither of us have any more to say, or did I fear the little Asian-run shops would close, perhaps for their Muslim owners to say their midday prayers? Or did I want to get back to auntie's to finish a task? I don't recall. I don't even remember going to see auntie at her fried fish and fruit stall in front of the local Spar supermarket in the town centre.
"Okay," he said.
The next day was Friday, and the weather was pleasant when I woke up. As usual, I had a wash, ate breakfast and did some jobs around the house. In the early afternoon, when the younger children of my cousins returned from playing in a nearby field, I hung around with them outside in the shade, reading old copies of the Daily Sun while the radio played in the house.
In the early evening I sat with Monde on the front stoep, admiring the glimmering streetlights of Peddie and the beams of the cars tracing the line of the N2 highway that sliced the town in half. To the east lay the civic centre, to the west the business district – the Nozukile Spar, Pep, Jumbo, Just On, FNB, the Post Office, two funeral parlours and a trendy night club called Satisfaction. All the traffic was travelling either from King William's Town in the north towards Grahamstown in the south, or vice versa.
At about six that night, auntie arrived home. I remember the scene clearly.
The children spotted auntie's taxi as it finally showed up, but instead of driving up to our doorstep as usual, the taxi stopped abruptly a short distance away. Auntie staggered out of the back door with her hands on her chest as if out of breath. There was a little commotion as the other passengers all got out after her, four strangers looking as surprised as we were.
Monde, the children and I all stood up, craning this way and that to see better. Our voices must have alerted those inside the house, because they too came out to look.
Now all the doors of the taxi were wide open, and my auntie was being escorted by people on either side of her, her arms wrapped around their necks as she walked, like an injured rugby player being led off the field by medics. They advanced so slowly that I thought of going to help, but then decided I should keep to my place, which I did.
I was at the gate as auntie reached the house, and I followed behind as she and her helpers entered the house.
Monde and I busied ourselves carrying auntie's wares into the house. Then I went to sit in the "lounge" area, trying to listen while she quietly sobbed in her bedroom compartment, with relatives crowding around her trying to comfort her.
There were no raised voices from the adults or the children; there was no Lionel Richie, no radio playing, only quiet voices and muted sobs.
It was as if something had happened that was too tragic to speak about.
When nine o'clock came, I went to bed.
I was still a child in the deepest sense of the word, and I had yet to experience pain.CHAPTER 2
Uncle Vuyani arrived early in the morning. It was Saturday, and although auntie only took Sundays off, she did not go to work as usual. I thought it was to be expected that uncle Vuyani came to enquire about his eldest sister's wellbeing. Auntie had a history of heart problems, and I had concluded during the night that this must have caused the incident the previous evening. Uncle spent some time in the house before meeting me in our cramped kitchen, his voice unusually low, unlike most weekends when a few glasses of beer made him jolly.
"You have to go home to Prudhoe," he told me in a casual tone.
"What's happening?" I asked, barely curious.
"A traditional ceremony is taking place there today."
Having been raised in the Christian church, I felt no interest in my Xhosa culture. But it didn't occur to me to question why I had to be present at the ceremony, even though the holidays weren't even over. I merely asked why I hadn't heard about it earlier, and whether he would also be coming. This may sound sufficiently inquisitive, but because of my shyness, my enquiry was voiced with great respect.
My uncle told me he would attend, but neither he nor anyone else was to go today, except for my grandmother Magatyeni. I must accompany her, he said, as she was old and might get lost. And she was already waiting for me.
Reluctantly I agreed, seeing this as only a momentary but necessary favour. Grandmother was the one leaving, not me. I would take her to the village and then return as soon as it was permissible, to finish my vacation.
The last thing I did was go outside to hang a pair of jeans on the clothesline. I didn't even return to say a goodbye to those in the house, who were all very quiet and unlike themselves. Only later did I understand that they were too shocked to pretend otherwise.
Grandmother and I set out for town on foot. Only once on our way did she ask me to stop so she could rest on the side of the road.
"We should buy tea and sugar in town," she said. When I agreed, and suggested the closest Pakistani general dealer I knew, she repeated, "We cannot go home without tea. You can never go home without tea when there is a ceremony."
When we got walking again – it wasn't a long road, but makhulu Magatyeni was already in her seventies – her sluggish stroll dictated our pace. But this was fine with me; I was in no hurry to get home. I was wholly uninterested in the journey, and had none of the sparkle of glee at returning home after a holiday. When we finally reached the taxi rank I felt our pace had been too brisk.
We were just about to take our seats in the taxi van – grandmother already had her hands on the canopy door and one leg poised on the upturned beer crate – when uncle Vuyani materialised. He motioned us to a corner of the rank with gestures that I now recognise as edgy, and spoke to grandmother in a low voice, as if embarrassed.
Suddenly I noticed my father's taxi – the old Mazda Drifter van that had seen better days – parked in front of a hawker's caravan in a corner of the rank.
Strangely, there was no one inside. It looked abandoned.
"Where's my father?" I asked uncle Vuyani.
"At home," he answered.
"Then how come his taxi's here?"
It had an engine problem, he told me. A mechanic would take a look at it.
Now other relatives appeared at the taxi rank. My cousin Thulane from Prudhoe had driven them all to town in the Toyota Corolla of a distant relative, who was with him now, along with my auntie Bulelwa, cousin Sakhele and bawomkhulu Mncedi, who was technically my uncle, but so much older that we referred to him as "eldest father", the equivalent of grandfather.
With no desire to leave Peddie, I was delighted to see these relatives. Now grandmother Magatyeni couldn't get lost, I reasoned, so I could return to auntie's house and avoid the ceremony.
No, no, said uncle Vuyani firmly. We will all go together.
To this day it still surprises me how swiftly and easily I acquiesced. How normal everything seemed to me then. It is all the more impressive when I consider in full the trip that followed, all of us going home to a traditional ceremony as if there was nothing amiss. How good uncle Vuyani was, thinking on his feet and improvising answers to counter my growing suspicions.
Years later I tried to recall whether there were any signals that I missed that could have indicated to me that this was a ruse. Some word out of place, some change in the mood, some look in the eye or a rueful grin as a result of trying too hard not to show vulnerability or sadness at the taxi rank that morning among all those relatives who already knew the truth. Surely there was something – anything! – that said: Ndoda, something's up.
Excerpted from Nobody's Business by Thabo Jijana. Copyright © 2014 Thabo Jijana. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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