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Hugo kaCanham: The Darling of Durban Heights

I close the toilet door against the sound of water rushing to fill the cistern. For a moment I hold onto the door handle and breathe deeply. Unsteady, I steal myself to the bedroom. The air smells of socks. I reach out to push the window open. At this height the outside air is still. I look out momentarily. The palm trees which line the esplanade stir lightly and look tiny at this distance. Bright lights cut into the night, chasing the darkness away. It has been many years since this stretch of the city knew total darkness. The traffic light glows green and then it is red. A huge truck shoots through anyway. The trees dance a little and then they are still. I draw the curtain and open the closet. My reflection stares back at me from the full-length mirror. I kick off my pumps. Next, I peel off my jeans. My panty follows. My skin breathes. I gather my sweat shirt, lift it over my head and throw it onto the floor. My breasts feel constricted and full in my bra. I unclasp it while making a mental note to shave. I look at myself closely. My aureoles are a blacker shade compared to the rest of my skin. There is no change from when I had spread lotion over my body this morning. I pull the skin on my stomach. The elastic feels taut.

I think about work. I can see Nomzamo’s smirk. She will want to take over all my clients and worm her way into their good books. Being dependent on Zane for months on end does not appeal to me. I clench my fists. My body will change too. Maria and Phindi are stark reminders of what happens when working girls have babies. Fat and unwanted except by really old white pensioners, they have had to look after children and give up a large part of themselves. The whir of the elevator reminds me that Zane may come home at any moment now. The thought of the alcohol on his breath as he insists on kissing me on the lips nauseates me. I grab a knee length brown skirt from the closet, squeeze into it and throw on a white short sleeved sweater. Even though I do not bother to put on a panty and bra, I am careful not to get mistaken for the hookers that line the esplanade. I am off duty tonight. I need to get out of the oppressive apartment. In place of the bright lipstick that I use to call attention to my black full lips, I apply a simple transparent lip gloss. I sweep my locks into a ponytail using one of them to tie the unruly strands into place. I leave the ears unadorned. I press the button to call up the elevator all the while praying that Zane will not emerge. I prepare a simple line anyway. “I am going for a walk.” It is the truth.

Downstairs, the doorman is arguing with a visibly drunken man who insists that he has an appointment with one of the tenants somewhere in the maze of Durban Heights. I look straight ahead and step out into the balmy night. There is a group of girls in short skirts down the road. I do not want to talk to them. I pause and turn away walking up a poorly lit Mona Road. I wish I had brought my cigarettes. “Maybe I should quit,” I say to myself. The time is right. Someone is vomiting outside the deserted bar. A rat scurries across the road no doubt planning its return to consume the vomit. I wind back down towards the esplanade and soon I am on the promenade. Durban Heights towers over the other buildings in the distance. I resist the instinct to step onto two giant cockroaches skuttling across the pavement. They pause as though daring me to crush them. The beachfront is abuzz with tourists, walkers, beggars, buskers and young lovers looking for places to fuck. I spot a young gay couple bursting with the need to hold each other but their furtive eyes reflect their fear of being seen. I feel like shouting at them to go ahead. But I have my own problems. The sound of the breaking waves calls me. I kick off my pumps and step onto the sand. The Indian Ocean water snares at my ankles. The orange moon frames a dark embryo in its centre. A crab scurries by and disappears into a hole in the sand. I look back over my shoulder and see my oppressive building, Durban Heights following me with its all-seeing gaze. Suddenly, I am struck by a thought.

“What if I am wrong?”

I start running back to Durban Heights, ready to do the third test, my shoes flapping in my hands.

I am squatting over the toilet seat, the test strip cupped in my hand under my vagina. All I need are a few drops but the urine comes in a gush and washes all over my waiting hand. I hear the door opening. Zane is whistling the tune to Weekend Special. The waft of cigarette smoke confirms it is him. Courtleigh. I would recognise it in my dreams. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I am afraid of this man. I freeze and almost drop the test stick into the toilet bowl when I hear Zane call out my name.


Zane is a barrel of a man with a full body that hovers on the brink of spilling over. Broad but toned. The top half of his body is longer than the bottom part. His skin is the perfect mix between that of a Zulu mother and a white Portuguese father. It brings to mind a fine cake mix of vanilla and chocolate. The long hair covered by a Castle Lager cap is also suspended between these two worlds. Not quite straight but also not kinky. He spent his initial years in Umlazi but later moved to Wentworth across the highway when his looks became too different for apartheid’s expectations for black uniformity. In search of his father’s heritage, he spent his twenties in the then war-torn Mozambique. Rumour has it that he was on the losing side. RENAMO. Having moved back to Durban, Maputu served as a viable conduit for trafficking Mozambican girls to Durban where they worked for him. I am one of the few Zulu women that work for him. And now, Zane’s impatient voice ricochets off the bathroom walls.

“Nelisiwe, where are you?”

“Where is my dinner?”

My urine trickles to a stop and I have the presence of mind to reach out and place the test kit on the hand basin.

“I’m in the toilet,” I shout.

I flush the toilet to confirm my presence. The water changes from light yellow to dull clear.

“Crap, I need three minutes for the result to appear,” I mutter to myself.

My heart in my mouth, I force myself to wash my hands leisurely. A minute passes before Zane shouts, “I want my food Nellie”.

“Give me a minute to wash my face and I will give you your food, Zane”.

I am not sure where the idea came from but it is a good one. I begin to noisily wash my face while keeping one eye on the test as though it was a bomb whose explosion I dreaded but had to witness. The waiting reminds me of the dozens of HIV tests I have taken in the past few years. Terror. I rinse off the thick foam on the face wash and briskly dry my face. I am applying moisturizer when it happens. One moment, there is nothing and the next moment, a steady line confirms what the previous tests have told me. I dunk the test kit in the toilet bowl together with the cotton wool used to apply toner to my face and watch them spiral in the small tide before they are swallowed in the vortex to join the rest of the shit of Durban Heights. Like the shit, I too want out. It strikes me anew just how desperately I want out. From Zane. This test result. This life. The inescapable past. A future that I can’t see.

When I walk out of the bathroom, Zane is waiting for me in the corridor. The stinging slap to the left side of my face brings a welcome trickle of tears to my eyes. With my face on fire and a dull buzz in my left ear, I walk past him and into the kitchenette. A string of cooked sausage and a dumbe potato is in a plate in the microwave. I press the one-minute button and open the fridge, grab the bowl of beans and a pack of salad greens. When the hum of the microwave ends with a sharp beep, I take out the warm plate. The smell of sausage spreads quickly around the room. Without looking up to see where Zane might be, I deftly dispense two spoonfuls of beans into the plate together with a handful of lettuce leaves. I add a dash of salad dressing, a blob of mayonnaise, a single green chili and finish off with a spoonful of oily mango atcher. When I look up, Zane is brooding in front of the silent television at his usual spot. I place the food in front of him and walk off to the bedroom. When the door is closed, I lean against it and a tremulous sigh escapes my lips.

Much later, I feel Zane sidle up against me in the dark humid room. Zane is my pimp and lover. I exist to have sex with other men so that he can get money. Nomzamo, Phindi, Sureshnee, Maria and three other girls all work for him. However, unlike the other girls, I live with him. I sell my body for him, I service his body, and make sure he is fed and has a clean house. I don’t miss the long hours and cold cement floors of the ten years that I worked in the factories though. My reverie is broken when his knee presses in against me. I wish I had been facing away from him. Now the knee is between my thighs. My breathing is shallow and he knows that I am awake. I remain stock still while drawing on all my mental strength to stop my body from pulling away from the probing knee. I muster my energy to do that thing that I do with some of my clients. My mind leaves my body and I summon a mist to separate the two.

When the light snore confirms that he is asleep, I turn over in the bed and face away. I know I should urinate after sex but I stay in bed. Thoughts of my grandmother cram my head and it is impossible to shut them out. I feel her hand around my taut stomach. We are both sitting flat on the cool dung-smeared floor of the village bedroom. I am a young girl and puberty is still a year or two away. My body does not know violence. The locusts buzz loudly competing with the birds in the large gum tree behind the room. Outside the sun is blistering hot. My grandmother is telling me about women and womanhood.

“Your head is the final frontier. Men will take your body, expect that. I’m not even sure if it is worth fighting,” she says.

She pauses and her eyes stare into her past. Her hands move from my stomach and her right hand rests on my plaited head.

“But your head. This is yours.”

My childhood brain only half grasps the meaning of this statement but I look up into her milky eyes and say, “yebo gogo”.

I am simultaneously atop the monstrous building of Durban Heights high above the city scape and flat on the dung-smeared ground in my grandmothers’ hut. The images crowd my head and the monotony of the old woman’s voice finally carries me off to a deep sleep.


A Durban cockroach marches up the wall, its antenna probing the rough path strewn with various wire cables, cords and stems. The Hindi song stops abruptly and the DJ announces that we are listening to Lotus FM. The aroma of incense is overpowering and appears to fill every nook and cranny of the cramped apartment. I observe that of the bright colours in the room, red is most prominent. Various religious figures sit cross legged about the room. One of these has a surprisingly African-looking afro on his head although the red dot on his forehead is clearly Indian. Hindu. The woman that is bustling around with towels and hot water is middle aged with streaks of grey running from her forehead into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. A gold Punjabi hangs straight off the woman’s back ending at her calves. Under this, she wears black trousers that tease at her heels and partially cover the mauve bedroom shoes. The buzz of the kettle builds up strongly and momentarily drowns out the upbeat duet on Lotus FM before it boils and quietly settles.

Phindile had suggested Mrs Perumel when I expressed reticence about Marie Stopes. Having been there twice before, I was repelled by the idea of returning. Being back at Marie Stopes would confront me with a foolishness I did not want to own. I judge myself before the nurse’s silence judges me. I will not carry Zane’s offspring. I cannot coo over something ugly.  Contraceptive tablets make me fat so I use condoms when I am at work. Zane takes what he wants. It seemed Mrs Perumel had quite the reputation with the street girls. She ran a neat and apparently safe operation in the bowels of Durban Heights. I did not even have to leave the building to have the procedure done. It strikes me how I had fallen pregnant in the same building where I was now terminating the pregnancy.

Mrs Perumel’s reputation does not stop my heart from flipping about my chest when she summons me to take off my clothes and get ready to lie back on the stretcher bed. I twist my long locks into a high knot and pull my blouse over my head without bothering with the dainty butterfly buttons. Keeping my eyes locked with those of the African-looking Indian divinity, I unzip my long denim skirt. It falls to the floor. Mrs Perumel turns around from her makeshift operating table.

“Your panties too darling,” she says looking over the wire-framed spectacles that cling to the lower end of her thin nose.

“The pain tablets should be taking effect now,” she intones with reference to the handful of Miprodol she had asked me to take when I arrived nearly an hour ago.

Keeping my eyes on the deity, I peel off the least sexy pair of panties that I possess.

“You can throw your stuff over the chair there,” she says nodding to the straight-backed chair all the while fiddling with her tools.

“Lie back when you are ready darling.”

“Darling,” I whisper to myself thinking about the many times I’d heard that word used.

I sit on the stretcher bed and swing my legs onto the bed. I realize that my bra is still snugly pulled across my chest and decide that it should not come off. I find that I am not breathing and force myself to take in a lungful of air and then I exhale. My body is wound up into a tight coil. I am afraid. But I reassure myself that this cannot be more painful than raising Zane’s progeny. Mrs Perumel expertly erects a contraption across my stomach and throws a green sheet over it which cuts out the view of my lower body and with it, the deity that had so transfixed my gaze. I lie back with a shiver and search the ceiling for something else to hold my attention. My eyes clamp onto the fan that turns lazily against the spotted ceiling. And then there it is; that cold probing instrument at the end of a gloved hand.

“You have to open wider darling.” Her disembodied voice comes from behind the screen.

I force myself to relax but my thighs appear to have a life of their own. I bite on my lower lip and force my grandmother into my head until she crowds every part of my mind. When her milky eyes smile, I partially relax but my hands remain rigid against the bed iron.

Mrs Perumel sighs and dives in between my thighs.


Mercifully, the walk back to my apartment is short. Most of the journey is by elevator. The sanitary pad between my legs feels like a brick and it is drenched by the time I painfully bring myself to squat over the toilet seat in the apartment. A burning cigarette sits in the soap dish waiting for my parched lips to suck on it. A shaky map of blood has taken residence in my panties now riding around my knees. I gently peel off the heavy sanitary pad and sit down on the toilet but the throbbing heart of my cervix will not stop. I hold onto the hand basin and pull myself onto my feet. I walk to the shower while peeling my clothes off for the second time this afternoon. The light at the window suggests that the sun is setting. I am aware of something else setting deep inside of me. I am not sure how long I stay in the shower but I finally stir when the water abruptly becomes cold. A weak trickle of blood crawls down my leg when I turn the shower off. I dry myself, put on a more comfortable sanitary pad, panties and pull-on pyjamas.

The violent throb deep inside my vagina will not pause. I am perched on the bed absently paging through Bona magazine. The poses that I normally find hilarious look plain and stupid now. Sis Dolly the agony aunt column is filled with the usual stories of teenage angst about masturbation, cheating lovers, unwanted pregnancies and mothers-in-law. The gecko or albino lizard, as I like to think of him, pokes his head over the closet and dashes back into the clutter of handbags when he hears me turn the page of the magazine. I look up at the clock as it strikes eleven pm and then as though propelled by an unfamiliar force, I swing my legs off the bed ignoring the pain that sears my body. I peel off the pyjamas; pull on a pair of jeans, a brown sweat shirt with the black star of Ghana emblazoned across the front. My grandmother’s old church cardigan stares at me from the closet and I reluctantly pull it over the sweatshirt. I am closing the closet door when the front door swings open.

“Nelisiwe,” he shouts.

“Zane,” I respond with surprising strength in my voice.

“My dinner darling,” he leers at me when I walk into the living room.

I slowly walk up to him. He anticipates a kiss in the way that he has trained me to kiss him when he returns from his nocturnal pimping. Unbidden, my hand rises up to his face and from a great distance, I watch my nails rip into his skin. I feel the soft gore of his eye as my hand swipes downward. The nails draw a deep red ravine down his face running down to his mouth. He doubles over cursing me.

“Bitch, sfebe, whore! The cunt wants to kill me.”

And then, “Fuck, my eye can’t see. Fuck Nellie. I can’t see! Eu não consigo…”

His voice is simultaneously pleading and accusing. Portuguese is a sign of extreme agitation. He is fumbling for something at his ankle. The gun. I see the .38 special and back away towards the door. The click of the safety lock seems louder than the ensuing shot. I am shuffling out the door when I feel a dull sting glance my buttock with a force that pushes me against the adjoining wall near the elevator. The elevator button glows redly at me and then the elevator doors open mechanically in front of me. The lone passenger is an older man who shrinks away as the door shuts behind me. My eyes stare ahead fixed on the rapidly descending numbers on the elevator panel. With my lower body on fire, I walk out the elevator when it comes to a halt on the ground floor. I tilt my head forward so that the curtain of my locks covers my face as I walk past the doorman of Durban Heights.


Limping, I pass a long row of stalls where traditional Zulu beaded clothing and items are sold during the day. It does not surprise me to see that the women who sell at the stalls during the day also sleep in them at night. And now I see that there is a woman in each stall. Two have young children with them. The women are oblivious to passers-by and have become immune to the sounds of cars on the promenade. One of the older women is awake. Insomnia maybe. Kept in a state of wakefulness by things she cannot forget perhaps. She is busy with her beading in the faint streetlight. The thick-framed glasses perched on her nose suggest that the nocturnal beadwork has taken its toll on her eyes. I avoid eye contact. My pace is measured but it betrays a pronounced limp.  The fire burning in my bum has merged with that of my cervix so that the lower part of my body begins to grow numb. I move off the paved pathway and begin to walk on the sand. The beach is deserted. In the distance, I make out the blue light of the beachfront police station. My sneakers make imprints on the sand. I move closer to the water’s edge. The weary end of the breaking waves quickly fills the imprints made by my sneakers. I pick up my pace and drop the shutters of my mind. My eyes see the low hanging moon bouncing over the water further back where it is calm. The stars which sear the sky over my rural village are nearly absent here in the city. The waves hum and emit an exhausted white foam from the long tussle before they break. The wind steps up and tugs at my black star sweatshirt which dances over my jeans. Now I walk past the pier and shut out the beginning of a memory of another walk on that pier. I do not feel the water seeping into my shoes and only check my course when I pass the blue light of the police station. The blue light bounces forlornly on the water. It is as useless as the entire police service. The bottoms of my jeans are wet too.  I step over a tangle of seaweed entwined in another strange plant from the ocean floor. The seaweed bleeds green on the sand. I bleed red. Even the ebb and flow of the surf cannot wash the blood away. I turn away from the bleeding seaweed and break into an uncomfortable slow run. The exertion releases my own blood which slowly soaks the place where the legs of my jeans meet.

It is dark now. I have left the streetlights behind. The shoreline has thinned out. The city of Durban winks indistinctly in the distance. Durban Heights has finally lost sight of me. I am doubled over and forced to slow down to a painful walk. The slight wind dries my forehead. An outcrop of black rocks blocks the path forcing me to tip-toe over them. Shadows lurk and the unsteady moon casts an indistinct glow. My fall over the last rock in the outcrop is broken by a steady arm strengthened by ten years of factory labour and more years of pushing men off me. I do not push my locks back over my shoulders. They hang like a beaded curtain over the midnight black skin of my face. Beads of water from the spray sit in my hair like little translucent eggs. The reduced motion gives me pause to think and for a moment it seems the banks holding back a flood of tears will break. I bite my trembling lip and attempt to run again. My leg drags behind me.

I step into the water’s edge and the cold surf clings to my bone. Now the water laps at my knees. I walk against the current and for a moment the salt water burns the raw parts in my jeans. I do not see the thin film of blood surface around my body. My nipples constrict with cold and then my hair spreads about me like a spider’s web bobbing on the water’s surface. I see the wave approaching. My feet have lifted from the ocean floor and my sneaker dances about me. I turn my head to look over my shoulder and make out the faint glow of the blue light. The wave submerges my head and I dance like seaweed in the dark roar of the Indian Ocean. Momentarily I am engulfed in the light of the low hanging moon before a bigger wave brings a deep darkness. The thoughts vanish with my body. I have escaped.


Image: Cdd20 from Pixabay (modified)

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