It was Hopewell himself who came up with the idea. Days were long and late into November. Festive talk had blown up, never to be laid down until our next school scare. Father had disappeared. Aunt Joy had then come up from across the village, to ease things. That afternoon, she was fixing what I believe was supper. Outside we were bored, and we were sitting both on Father’s flaking blue bench and on a plan for a mango swoop kwa Vundla.
It was Hopewell, I remember, who told us about the other, better route. This was after he had also said Bab’ Vundla’s shotgun was no more useful than his father’s stick – because that is what he had heard his mother shout to his father, that his stick was useless. He stood up from the edge of the bench, upsetting the balance and almost tipping us to dirt on the other end. He gave his yellow grin, and he proudly laid it all out to us.
Khehla confirmed it. And because Khehla, often a tidy liar, confirmed it, Sabelo had a hard time believing it. So did Mzo. But even so it was well agreed on, in the end, after I had managed to shush them both.
Hopewell’s idea was simple. We would ignore the path taken by all the other uncreative kids who, we heard stories, often got themselves in Bab’ Vundla’s crosshairs. The one taken by everyone else including the Vundla household was clear-cut out of question. This then only meant we would have to make our own.
We would walk to the far end of the village. We would file down and beside the crop fields where Khehla’s grandfather was in good faith for a good harvest. We would not go as far as the Gcide River behind the fields, it would be unnecessary. The water is glory in hot weather, so it also held the potential of setting us up for distraction – the last thing we would want to have as we would have to take care not to tangle up our priorities. Instead, we would cut just behind the fields. We would circle up again from the other side, sneaking up on the Vundla home from below, as if we were there for the biggest crimes. By the time we arrived, we would be feeling like all the mangoes in the world. And the ones we would be after would have long passed budding phase during our long walk. They would be big and bold and inviting us to climb up the tall trees.
I could not have gone against it. Neither could Sabelo and Mzo, even though they griped like infants. We simply had no better idea. But apart from this, on its own the idea sure sounded like a good one. It was work, but it could work. It would work.
But it is difficult now to begin a blame game and point a finger at anyone. And even though Sabelo is shamefully tempted so, it is not fair to pin it all on Hopewell, now that we have run out of luck and he has had this thing.
In the beginning there was no sign of Bab’ Vundla. There was no sign of his mysterious shotgun some say he owns especially for kids like us. There was no sign of Philani, his giant of a son who shoots slings and traps birds instead of school. And of course there was no way of seeing Ma Vundla, who we heard was in the thick of an illness that threatened to make Bab’ Vundla not just a curious man but also a widower. One afternoon I had overheard Aunt Joy suggest to Ma Dladla, our neighbour, that they set out for their next Thursday service of bell-ringing and humming and animated mother talk to kwa Vundla – because Aunt Joy is well aware of these things that can make one a bad or indifferent or, even worse, a guilty neighbour in Nazareth.
If we would not see Ma Vundla, and if the news of her affliction were not just pastime village talk, we would need not to worry about her at all. Philani would be big and fearsome, but we would be schooled and too fast for him, in case he came alive. There was also the case of the dogs, but even they in their ever hunting-spirit showed not a glimpse of being around. And besides, we would have Sobho and Rocky, even though the only aggression they have ever known is with bonemeal.
After Hopewell’s revelation it was Khehla, I remember, who then could not help himself and suggested we head out there and then. He said he could already taste the mango. And he said the fact that we were sitting under our own non-fruiting mango tree only brought him further frustration and therefore a bigger craving.
Aunt Joy came out of the house to dispose of leftovers from a pot. She was in the middle of washing dishes and clearing the kitchen – inconvenience Sabelo and I are well familiar with because it is normally ours to stand with Father around. She overheard Khehla saying we should go. She always knows when we are getting up to something. The way she does, it is as if she was once ten and a boy herself at some life-changing point in her life. And with Hopewell and Khehla around that day, it was easy deduction for her that we were plotting. Her doek loose and askew on her head, she dangled her foamed and dripping hands by her hips. She gave us a stern look that got everyone nervous and frozen. She had cooked uphuthu and mixed-veg for a week, straight. The last bits of the foul mixture came tumbling down from the pot, and so our yard became all kinds of colour.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked, as if she were an enthusiastic but slow member of our group and was all along part of the plan. It is a usual sarcastic trick of hers to speak this way; One she brings out just for us, as if we are her little things to toy with.
‘Nowhere,’ Khehla quickly replied.
He can really amaze you and think on his feet on a good day, Khehla. But that day he was flat out of form, and Aunt Joy was not impressed.
‘Don’t think I’m stupid,’ Aunt Joy retorted.
I could not have allowed us to get into unnecessary trouble. I certainly could not have allowed us to be held back from those mangoes kwa Vundla. I then saw it fit that I took Khehla’s usual ropes.
‘We are going to Mzo’s, Aunty; he says they have a new TV.’ I said.
I must admit it was also poor from my side. Aunt Joy would find a way and ask Gog’ uNdlela, Mzo’s grandmother, for proof. She would look forward to seeing the kind of TV pension money could buy. And to think Gog’ uNdlela has had no love of any China Plaza and Pakistani items ever since the Pakistani’s sold her shady chinaware for half her pension. It then had to be a real deal, or something close to it, in the list of Aunt Joy’s expectations. Fresh from Game.
But it was also my best shot. And it was enough for the moment. It was enough to escape Aunt Joy’s nosiness, then. There were other more important things to do that afternoon, and a well thought-out lie was just delay. I remember how she stood there, weighing in her mind the truth in my response. She gave us one more tough look that was to tell us she was on to us in case we were bluffing. It was successful enough to have our armpits and ears tickle. But we did not care. And Sabelo and I did not care to tell her we were now off after she had gotten inside the house. We simply left, as if there were bills we pay in the house.
We passed by the General Dealer. Pac-man and Street Fighter were on their volume best inside. We all knew it was most likely Kellogs and his crew. They are there every afternoon, tapping and banging and breaking the controls. But I remember we walked on as if arcade games were a thing of the past to us, as if we had miraculously outgrown them overnight. Our priorities would not dare be tangled up. They had to be kept straight, straight like the broom Aunt Joy often says we will resemble once she has taught us discipline.
We were walking down to the crop fields when we came across Majozi. He was headed for Gazu’s Shisanyama, we had no doubt of it. It was, however, difficult to tell whether the man was drunk or not. That is how much he drinks. Even when he is sober, in those lucky, extremely uncommon moments, he looks drunk. The confusion lies in his clumsy side-to-side walk, which sets up the mystery of how he gets himself to move forward.
His dogs were in the mood for trouble, as always. They brawled with Sobho and Rocky who had been following us timidly since we left our house. We knew then that Majozi was sober because he called his pack to back off from it. He was all that it took, considering we had already run for our young lives and watching from a distance. It was also after then that Rocky started being unwell, although his limping had not yet been obvious.
‘You must hold your dogs, you dog shits,’ he shouted, without looking back at us. Later, I figured if he did look back at us he might have mixed up his steps and tripped on himself.
He was lucky we had a bulk of our energy saved up for Bab’ Vundla’s mangoes. Sabelo was about to shout back to him, but I held him back. Majozi was, after all, well befriended to Father. They often enjoyed casefuls of stout at Gazu’s. And so Father would have given us a decent whipping if he ever found out we had cussed not just an elder, but Majozi.
We reached the crop fields, and we squeezed between the fence and the bushes. Khehla’s grandfather’s crop was on the far end opposite us. Corn, bean, tomato, carrot, spinach, yam, potato, sweet potato and pumpkin. It was all there. The old man had taken us there a few times some years back, before we had found out about the many other better, more rewarding and fun things that kids our age could get up to – stealing Bab’ Vundla’s mangoes, for example.
Apart from being his own workhorse, Khehla’s grandfather is one funny character. He had told us stories many of which have been burnt deep and bright in my memory. One had been about an old farming associate of his, who had all the other men in the fields refuse to eat from his lunch because they suspected his wife was giving him korobela. Except for Khehla’s uncle, for whom the story might have been intended mostly, the rest of us kids did not know what korobela was at the time, so it was not as interesting. Another one had been about a clever bird he had once tried to snare in his yesteryears as a youth. He told us that the bird, foraging near the trap, got suspicious and saw things as being too good to be true, after he had placed too much corn as bait.I remember how we chuckled at the thought of a thinking and talking bird.
But the man is now well old, and Khehla’s uncle does much of the work in the fields. Farming is also an ancient art in Nazareth, now. The government and our Ward 6 municipality plan to use the land for something else. RDP houses, I once heard Father speculate to Aunt Joy, who in response said they would be wasting and should instead build a prison for abominations like him. Father was sober that day, and he was not impressed. A few sections of the fields have been abandoned, and therefore bear no crop. Where there would be any, there are bushes so dense and grown there is almost no telling if it is still within the fields or its now just plain bush from the fringes.
We ducked and shoved our way through the long bushes, and we finally emerged to grassland. I remember how we began to hear the sound of flowing water, because the devil was hard at work. We were very close to the river. Hopewell could not hold himself and suggested we went for a quick swim. We could not afford it, of course. We had come very close, and I never wanted to imagine us being like the Israelites who we always learnt at Aunt Joy’s church took forty years to reach the Promised Land because they allowed distraction to do as it pleased.
We continued up the grass slopes until we arrived at kwa Vundla. I remember how it was quiet around the house just up beyond the trees. The air was dead, but we also had to be quiet, and slick. The big but penetrable bush between the trees and the house would be cover, but we also had to raise our guard and keep our eyes open. So, we had Mzo watching the house and Sabelo catching the mangoes Hopewell, Khehla and I fell from the trees. The plan would all be without fault.
It has all been without fault until now. Mzo says he saw something, a man, a woman passing. Sabelo says he never saw a thing, though he heard something, a shuffle. Where? Somewhere inside the bush, they say. Sabelo says he looked at Mzo, and Mzo looked back at him. They both agreed it was enough to sound the alarm.
Hopewell’s idea was clear. We had had no doubt it was also good. And so was our planning, well most parts of it. We had thought about the possibility of being caught, and we knew that there would be no other thing but to run if it happened. But as we had done going, not a single one of us had said anything about the finer points of aborting and escaping in case Bab’ Vundla or any other of the Vundlas decided to open their eyes and shoot one of their things at us. When it was time to run, it was all just chaos. We scattered like cockroaches in the light after a feast in the dark.
High up the trees, in the thick of the swoop, of course there would be no time to start climbing down again if we were caught. Certainly no time do it with caution, either. The running began from high up in the dark, on the branches. And it was either we did that or we willed ourselves to Bab’ Vundla and his mysterious shotgun.
Adrenaline levels were as high as our fear. Hopewell, Khehla and I fell like the heavy mangoes we had been tossing by the bountiful to Mzo and Sabelo who were already on the move. Aunt Joy had dished out strong words after she noticed we took from her plastic bag collection. We had then resorted to using those from Hopewell’s house, even though they ripped so easily, as if they were used to pack items at China Plaza. I saw them rip again while Sabelo ran along a bush ahead of us. Most of our mangoes rolled out and into the bush below. There was unfortunately not a thing any of us could do in those final wild moments.
Later, provided we made a clean escape, I would fail to make sense of how we managed to jump down from such tall trees. Not to mention without getting injured in a way. But that is in fact where things went wrong. Hopewell let out a big cry. It was a voice I had never heard from him before, one I certainly never thought I would ever hear from him. It was the same voice people use to cry out when they are being beaten up, or when they are being chased by dogs. The voice of someone being held and later to be absorbed by pain and fear.
He could not run. And when we got to him and saw that he had all of a sudden grown two ankles in one place, we could not think of a way we could possibly make him run, either. His foot was the funniest shape we had ever seen. Khehla and I dragged him along as fast as we could. In that haste, we did not think of why a bullet from Bab’ Vundla’s shotgun or a stone from Philani’s sling had not found any one of us. All that was in our minds was that we had to run. Run for our young lives.
When we had run far enough to catch up with Mzo and Sabelo; the two breathless and lamenting over lost mangoes, we rested. Hopewell’s face was streaming with tears. His crying had grown to be a low-pitch hymn with mindless humming and, inevitably, as we have all learned, desperate calls for his mother. It was as if he was slowly dying, slowly drifting to a land with no mangoes whatsoever. Mzo and Sabelo were shaken to see the odd incident of two ankles. We all were. And dumbfounded as we were, amid the results of our misfortune, we could not think of what to do next.
But Khehla now says we must take him to his mother and say it was soccer. To the rest of us, this sounds like the best way – Khehla at his usual best. We will say we were playing laduma. The game is quite capable of making one grow two ankles in one place while one disappears in the other. It could happen as one tries to avoid a shibobo by rapidly closing his legs and, as a result, knocking together his ankles too hard. It is almost laughable and probably even unlikely, but we do not care much for the truth, we never did from the go. We also see it necessary to explain this kind of detail because Hopewell’s mother will ask what kind of soccer is this that made her son look like Mashanyela, the General Dealer paraffin attendant with puffed-up legs.
When we have agreed on this decision, the anxiety lifts a little. We have not seen Sobho and Rocky ever since we got to kwa Vundla. They give us a mild scare when they shuffle out a bush behind us. One would not say we were ever caught. I am almost certain we would have been chased if it were really so. Sabelo, as per my instruction, has gotten rid of what remained of the mangoes. Our story has to be straight to Hopewell’s mother, straight like our priorities before we found ourselves in this mess.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed