Our families have always been close. So close that we didn’t see the need for a barrier between our two houses. All we had was a small line of bricks we called a wall that even a toddler could jump. So we knew all that was going on with them and they knew all that was going on with us. Until they left, heading for the greener side of the suburbs, leaving their son behind, who refused to leave because he saw his staying behind as his chance at independence. And also, he had a childishly romantic relationship with the Township, much worse than those people who leave for the suburbs only to be seen hanging out with old friends every weekend. While the rest of us want to leave, they are there trying to convince us that the township is the best place to be. Much like rich people lying to us and themselves that money does not buy happiness. As if they do not want other people to compete for the happiness which they clearly enjoy. I know for a fact that I have ever only been truly happy when I have money in my pockets. And when I don’t have it I only pretend to be happy, I put on a false face, I use words to make myself feel better; like saying that I am content. Which in itself is a lie. What is contentment anyway? Simply another word to deceive. In a world where chasing material things in order to achieve an emotional state is looked down upon, and yet everyone does it. Is it hypocrisy or insanity. Hypocrisy is a lie told by someone who doesn’t believe it. Insanity is a lie told by someone who believes it completely.
Fundile’s family did not visit every weekend though. They left for the suburbs and were never to be seen again, except on the day after they came to fetch Fundile’s belongings.
We grew up together, Fundani and I. I was the girl next door who was forever salivating over his half naked body when he did his daily morning exercises outside the house, he has always been very disciplined you see. I felt guilty about it because we grew up been told that we were like brother and sister. So it felt like a kind of incest of the imagination. I could not help thinking about all the things we could do together in the dark. At least I never acted on this urge. If it never happened, well, it never happened. Sometimes it feels like that’s all we ever did as the Molapo family, watching the Molefe family do things, things that we couldn’t do, or unwilling to do, or too lazy to do. We practically lived in the same yard. Ate the same food, at least when they invited us to their house, we never had enough to invite anyone. When they came to our house, they spent the time drinking the beer that Mr Molefe had bought with him, and talked politics, a topic which Mr Molefe was very fond of. He spoke with the confident baritone voice of one who was comfortable with his place in the world, while my father listened and watched, perhaps imaging himself as the man sitting next to him, with his broad shoulders and the bulging stomach of the well fed, commanding respect in all places, at all times, admired by men and desired by woman. When Mr Molefe was not around, my father would say that political talk was a sport for the privileged, for those who had time in their hands to think of such things. Those who were poor and still found time to talk about politics, only did so to escape the poor conditions they found themselves in. Much like men who are obsessed about a sport they are physically incapable to participate in. They do it without really thinking about it, because that is something to do, it would break their hearts otherwise.
“You and your ideas, I wonder why you never talk about them when Molefe is around.” My mother would say.
“Its makes no sense to talk about ideas to someone who is incapable of receiving them.” said my father
“Nonsense, you know he will just point out that you are talking nonsense. And you will cower behind his words like a frightened puppy.”
I hated Mr Molefe. I hated the way my father looked besides him. Like a weak frightened man of low intelligence, looking up to Mr Molefe the same way a hungry dog would look towards its master. My father has always been a man of low self esteem, but I suspect that his friendship with the Molefe family plunged it even further. I am sure that mother saw it too. But there is something that happens to people when they have spent too much time together, they stop looking at the other person. Until one day they wake up and find a stranger in their bed. And if they settled for them in the first place, they then settle for this new stranger.
Sometimes I suspected that my mother was in love with Mr Molefe. When she went to check on Mrs Molefe it was her husband she wanted to see. She was the one who was always suggesting that the Molefe’s come over to our house, or that we go to theirs.
“I think we could eat together every Sunday. Like a real family, we are a real family after all.” my mother would say.
Mrs Molefe did not mind. She was always happy to have the company. I think she was lonely, neglected by her husband. And she was attempting to use the company of others to fill that gap, but she couldn’t, because only one person could fill that gap; her husband. It did not stop her from trying though, but it was no use, she was one of those rare people who remained lonely even in the company of others. Even when my mother was talking to her she would just stare into space, not in an absent minded way because she never missed anything that was said to her, but in a sad what the hell am I doing here kind of way. But she and my mother were great friends, or at least they pretended to be.
It was my mother who told me that money was the only thing that made a man attractive. Without it he may as well not exist. The majority of women were married to invisible men, who appeared in the night to give them children, then disappear again back into the invisible nothingness in which they belong. Only money would make them visible. Sometimes a woman would meet an invisible man and see the potential of his visibility some time in the future. But most times the woman finds that such a potentiality was nothing but an illusion. This was the case with her and my father. She never considered that perhaps, it was Mr Molefe who stole my fathers visibility. But this theory of hers about visible and invisible men, although not entirely without merit, was just as ridiculous as the theories for which she always criticized my father.
For the most part, when the two families were not together, my mother sat next to the window facing their yard, and watched all that was going on with our neighbours. My father pretend not to like the fact that my mother was always sitting on that window, with the curtain slightly moved aside for a better view, but he was always asking for news from the other side.
“Why don’t you bring your own chair if you’re so interested?” My mother would say.
“I don’t have time to sit on a chair and spy on our neighbours.”
“So you don’t want to know?”
“Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.” he would say
In time I too would join my mother on that window, watching the lives of our neighbours. So much so that it seemed like that is all we ever did. We watched our neighbours when they extended their house while we still lived in the same four rooms that the apartheid government had build for us. We watched them when they drove in with their new car. We watched when Mrs Molefe hung their clothes on the washing line, or Mr Molefe did the garden on a Saturday, and when Fundile did it when he was old enough, taking off his shirt in the hot sun. He would spent the whole day cutting the grass with the grass scissors, even though they had a machine to do it. Taking care to trim it around the edges like he was making a work of art.
“Planting grass and taking care of it like that is a luxury of those with too much time on their hands.” my father said.
“And I suppose you cant do it because you have such a busy schedule.” said my mother.
We watched finally when trucks parked next to their house, taking their furniture to their new residence, leaving Fundile with an empty house. My father went to help them, but my mother and I stayed by the window. I looked at her and could see tears in her eyes. She was not mourning for them. She was mourning for a life that could have been hers. For as long as the Molefe’s were our neighbours, she had kept that dream alive, even after all these years. But now they were leaving. The only visible man she had know had failed to notice her. In his eyes she was the invisible one. And she would forever remain invisible. After the Molefe family left, my parents retreated from the window, and discovered television. Only I was left, sitting on my lone chair with the curtain slightly to the side for a better view, because Fundile was still there. He was the one I had been watching all along anyway.
One day I saw Fundile drive in with his car, which is something he did everyday of course, on his way from work. He had done well for himself, proving to his parents that he was not just a spoilt child, he was their child, his fathers child, with the same drive and intelligence which brought about the success of his parents. And I too was the child of my parents, I still watched the world from the comfort of my window, watching the world move forward while I stood still. Fundile’s world had expanded way beyond my imagination. This window was my world, all the world I knew, all the world I ever wanted. While my father grew tired of my mother, and found the strength to leave, and she sat on that sofa and slowly deteriorated into forgetfulness, I sat on that window, and was comforted.
He did not get out of his car, as he usually did, whistling softly to himself a tune of his own creation, which made him happy, and already swiping on his phone, searching for his evening date, who would later be brought to him with an Uber, which he of course paid for. It was a different girl everyday, well almost. Some girls did come back, sometimes several times, for weeks at a time, only to disappear suddenly and never be seen again. Those are the ones I felt sorry for. On this particular night he did not get out of the car, he did not take out his phone. Instead he sat looking straight ahead of him, an empty expression in his eyes. By the look of him I thought maybe his parents had finally passed away. I don’t know why I say that, finally, as if its something I had been waiting for all my life. I suppose I still held them accountable for reducing my father into a lesser men than he used to be, than he had the potential to be. And my mother for hammering in the nail that sunk his self confidence. I wondered how he was doing now that he was free of all of them, free of me too. Perhaps he had bred himself into a new man.
I found out later on that it was not the death of his parents which made him appear so utterly glum. It was the loss of his job. There was an illness out there, which killed, and forced people into being introverts. Locked up, not unlike myself, inside their houses for fear of infection. Not only that, but people also lost their jobs because of it.
The next morning, I went and stood next to our sixteen inch wall, while he was walking about the yard like a lost child, and I pretended to be surprised at seeing him at home during the day.
“Yeah Sageng, its been a long time hasn’t it.” he said “I have been wanting to visit, see how your mother is doing, is she well? That’s good yah, we’ve grown part neh? I was not sure you were even here you know, sometimes I forget that you still live here. Your house looks so, you know…”
Abandoned, almost, like no one lives here anymore. I try sometimes to clean the yard, removing the never ending weeds, move the soil with a broom from one point to another. But that is too much work, and like I said, never ending, so I have got into the habit of leaving it be, sometimes for weeks at a time, until the weeds look like monsters ready to devour the house.
“So what happened?” I asked him.
“Ah! You know, these things happen. But I won’t take it lying down that’s for sure. We have laws in this country, you can’t just, you know, do as you please. Can you do that, huh? I don’t think so.”
He no longer had the tight and muscled body which made me drool over him. He was full of soft edges now, leisure and pleasure had left their mark on his body, the slowing metabolism of age may have also contributed a bit I suppose. It was clear that he was not going to tell me what happened at his job that led to his dismissal. I mean, I didn’t even know what job he did. I didn’t really care did I? it was enough that a man was employed and earning a good salary. He may have a been a government assassin for all I care, a trafficker of children, a politician, and all that, money has no morality does it?
“So what are you going to do?” I said, to keep him talking still, to keep his attention, for although he was no longer the young men I fell in love with, he was still the man I loved, and being in his presence, as tired looking as he was now, was still intoxicating.
“Phew, I don’t know. I’m racking my head, I don’t know. I won’t run out of money of course, I can ask my parents if things get really bad, although I don’t think things will get to that. No no, what I’m worried about is this, this nothingness. What am I going to do the whole day? How do you guys do it? Its not been a whole day and already I feel like I cant survive this.”
There was no need for him to worry about that. Men like him always find something to do. It was the reality of finding himself living a day he had not planned that made him panic. It was something he was not used to. He was not a watcher, like myself, he preferred to do. It was that very preference which would be his doom.
As the weeks passed, Fundile began to notice things he had not noticed before. Like the overflowing sewage pipe at the corner of the street. The fact that our rate of load shedding did not correspond with the load shedding schedule, electricity just went off at random at any hour of the day, without explanation and seemingly without cause. He noticed that the children did not have any place to play, the park was full of gamblers and drug addicts, and the recreational centre had not been maintained for years, it was now totally decrepit and was a place where the homeless and hopeless hung out. Of course these things had been part of our reality for years. But it was only now that Fundile noticed these things, and being the kind of man that he was he wanted to find solutions to the problems that the community faced. And that solution was himself. He was going to run for council. He was to be a servant of the people, he said, not a politician. Politicians only care about their own pockets, servants of the people care about improving the lives of others. I wondered why he never cared about improving the lives of people before. I had been his neighbour all these years yet he never cared about improving my life. The whole thing sounded like the notions of a man going through a personal crisis, and I expected that soon enough he would get over it.
But before that was to happen he was to be a very busy man. He was rarely at home. I imagine he was too busy attending council meetings, and noticing other things that were wrong with the community and telling people about them, about how he was going to fix all of it. When he was at home he was always with some strange men, and strange women of course, but not always at night. They carried wordy pamphlets and wore t-shirts that they had made themselves. I knew he was taking the whole thing seriously, but I also thought that he was taking it a bit too far. And I was not the only one who was thinking these thoughts, perhaps.
One evening, when all the strange men had gone, and oddly enough, all the strange women as well. A car parked in front of his yard. A big car with wheels so big they could crush an elephant. A terrific black like a pouncing jaguar. Out of it came out a small man wearing a hoody over his head, even though it was as hot as hell, as if he was making a point not to be seen. He went in, followed by two big men in black suits, men who made no effort to hide their faces. They looked around them as if they were expecting to be attacked, with ugly scowls for faces. They didn’t stay long inside of Fundile’s house. Maybe ten minutes, and when they came out, they moved just as swiftly as they had done going in, and disappeared into the night.
The next morning, Fundile came over for a visit, carrying those very same pamphlets and large posters with his face on them, against a blue background. In the picture he smiled sheepishly as if someone had held a gun to his head, and forced him to show his teeth. But he was still as handsome as ever. I imagined people voting for him based purely on the face on the poster. Or maybe that was just me.
He sat on the sofa across my mother, and he looked her straight in the face, while she kept stealing glances at him, puzzled, before her eyes darted back to the television. He looked troubled, naturally.
“You know they think they can intimidate me old mother.” he said suddenly.
“Is that so?” my mother said, extremely interested now, even though she had no idea what he was talking. I don’t think she even knew that he was into politics now, even though I had told her a million times.
“You have no idea mother. But they do not know me, who’s child am I? They do not know me. Sageng, I want you to come today, I came to invite you personally.”
“Invite me where?”
“Invite me where? You mean you don’t know?”
“But, how can I, You just came to invite me now.”
“Ahh you are right, you are quiet sharp you know that? Very good, very good. Mmm. Still, you should have heard. The biggest rally in town. We are taking over now. Fixing things and such. But let me not spoil it for you. You will hear all about it soon enough. Here, take a t-shirt, it will fit you, I hope.”
The t-shirt did not fit me. Which was a great disappointment. I would have loved to have Fundile’s face across my chest, along with his strange and awkward grin. Perhaps that would have assuaged my anxiety in having to stand among strangers listening to some obscure political talk. But it sounded tolerable coming from the mouth of my…neighbour. And it was not really a rally. More like a gathering of two dozen people who had knowhere else to go. But Fundile was not discouraged by the small crowd. As he stood there among this small crowd of people, he seemed to come alive. Although, everything sounded like a complaint to me. The fact that people could spent so much energy complaining of things they will do nothing about, confused me. But I suppose it is not about doing anything, but rather, making people believe that your intentions are to fix things. But what about the lay politician, the everyday man and woman with no power to change anything at all, who have been brainwashed into believing that a vote could make a difference. Money is the only power there is. Money is the only thing that can make a difference. The politicians we elect become only the visible face of the power behind them. The kind of power that does not need a vote to exercise itself.
I felt bad thinking like this, after all it was my Fundile standing there, trying to convince people that they had a power they did not, in actual fact, have. And I was still trying to censor my thoughts when I saw the black car that had parked in front of the yard the previous night. And the dark tinted windows of the car go down slowly. Something came out of the window which I could not identify. And gun shots rang out. I could not find the courage to move, but I saw clearly, as if in slow motion, bodies collapsing onto the grass. I saw the silent scream that wrecked Fundile’s face as the bullets wrecked his body. I watched him fall onto the grass, like a huge lump of meat. And curiously, I felt nothing. When the car drove away, and the silence re-established itself, I looked at all the bodies lying in the grass, and the panicked faces of the survivors, and felt nothing for them. Simply a need to go home. I looked at Fundile lying motionless in the bloodied ground, and understood that for as long as I live I will never again swim in the poisoned river that is desire.
When I got home I was surprised to find my mother sitting outside on the veranda. After so many years of being cooped up inside the house, she looked like a completely different person, young again, radiant in the setting sun.
“The yard looks terrible.” she said as I walked up to her. “All that grass. Some creepy crawly things can just jump out at you.”
“I know. I will try to get it cleaned.”
“How did it go with your boyfriend.” she said. She sounded lucid, clear, remembering previous events, almost like she was her old self again.
“He’s not my boyfriend…He’s dead. Someone shot him.”
“Who would want to do something like that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe someone thought he was going to win the election.”
“Was he, going to win?”
“No. Never. Not in a million years. He was not very good, as a politician. In fact he was the worst politician I had ever seen.” I said.