Fiction

The Fork in the Road: Fiction by Olufemi Agunbiade

cleaner

Image: Robert Freiberger via Flickr

‘Morning, Pinky.’

‘Good morning, Miss Jenny.’

‘Hope you are fine?’

‘Oh, I am,’ I gushed, fawning. Then a ‘Thanks’ with a wide smile.

I watched her slender figure – so trim and so fine for her age – as she strode on smartly over the wet floor I’d just mopped. Those emotions, as strong as hurricane Katrina, roiled over me again and again and again.

Even long after she disappeared from view.

 

***

 

Anytime I see Miss Jenny’s slim body flouncing past in her high heels and slimmer ankles, I get mixed up with choky emotions. It’s something I always try to avoid. But they came all the same. Those feelings. Uninvited, like a strange guest at a tea-party. Surreptitiously, I’ll stare at her sashaying back. Even, long after she’d turned the corner by the staircases. Then the profound memories would hit home hard. All manners of thoughts would run riot in my head. Those emotions and memories would start clanging about like loose pebbles in an empty tin can. They don’t stay forever, though, those thoughts. Once she’s out of view, they soon disappear. Like puffs of smoke from a lazy wood fire.

After, I’ll be asking myself for the hundredth time: Am I being a jealous fool? Don’t I need to admire and celebrate her achievements? Or, I should resign and go back to my old job at the Spar?

Just leave for the sake of my feelings and sanity?

Find peace far away from these daily mental flagellations.

I always answer my own unspoken questions. In the negative.

No, Pinky, you need not resign and leave. Don’t be naughty, girl. Just be strong and carry on and damn Miss Jenny and any overwhelming emotions. No one stopped you from aspiring as she aspired. So, stop being a sentimental fool and continue mopping the floor she walked on. See, it could have been you on her seat on the 4th floor office with its fancy views of the city and ocean, you know. If only you had not missed your way at the fork in the road. Be serious for now, be focused. Try to be realistic, Pinky. Not only for your own selfish sake. But for the kids’ and for their future.

And for makhulu’s sake, too.

So, bend down, girl. Bend down and mop the wooden floor and make it shine like glass.

 

***

 

Many times in the past one year, I’d made up my mind to resign and leave my workplace. Jobs are scarce, I know. But the frequent sight of svelte Jenny is tilting the scales daily. Many on my street would gladly trade places with me. Sad thoughts or not. Just to work and bring in bread for their kids.

Well, do they know what goes on in my head?

I cannot even call her Jennifer again! As I used to do back at Ncedo High School. It’s now Miss Jenny. From the 4th floor down to the basement.

‘Miss Jenny, good morning’

‘Thank you, Miss Jenny.’

Sycophantic. Fawning.

The mutual past notwithstanding.

But, I always wake up to a new day with a resolve to weather another bout of work. And sad thoughts. No matter what. No sitting down. No huddling further under the duvet. Must get up and work. Many mouths to feed. Two little ones of my own and two orphaned nieces. And an ailing makhulu who had taken to her bed at home in Motherwell. Without the regular pay check, feeding would become hell. So, I need to stay on working. Damn the welter of clanging emotions, Pinky! Get up and work!

Resolved, I’ll get up and bathe. Then, bathe the little ones as well in the small bathroom while they ran around trying to drive me mad with exasperation. After will come the habitual cereal breakfast for the four waiting mouths and also pack their token sandwich lunch. Makhulu would still be sleeping (she sleeps late into the day). Her food and water and tray of medicine is always near to hand by her bedside.  Then, I’ll quickly dress up for work and noisily walk my brood to school. Just a kilometre away. Puffing all the way up the slope.

Then to the taxi rank I’ll go.

To a work I detest with passion.

Not that I hate the job in itself. No, I don’t. I had worked before as a General Worker at the local Spa by Hani road. Doing the floors and cleaning the windows and wiping the furniture are normal. It is what I signed on for, after all. Back then, friendly local faces always swirl around with greetings and back pats and snatches of rumours and humours. The familiarity and camaraderie were worthwhile ingredients on the job for me. The pay wasn’t much, truth be told. But together with makhulu’s grant from SASSA, life was liveable and good.

Well, until my ne’er-do-well sister, Sinekazi, whom I’d not seen in a blessed decade, turned up from Jo’zi with her two kids that I’ve never seen. She was sick and dying from some liver ailments. Two months after, she was dead and buried in the local cemetery. Of course, I cannot throw the little ones into the reluctant arms of the Social Workers at Umlanga. So, I took them in. What else could I do? Family is family. Even if one is no good and dead and the other is barely hanging on with her own troubles. Try and stick it out, Pinky. For the sake of our sainted parents.

But feeding quickly became a problem.

I must get a new job.

***

The day the Recruitment Agency posted me to Etheyu, Jakob and Nkwensi (Attorneys at Law) firm, I felt so happy. The pay looked better. The job description also slightly more than Spa’s. True, the transport fare ate a little into the pay check but, well, there is enough now to shop at Shoprite and PEP and Ackerman.

The name Nkwesi did not ring any old bell.

All looked rosy through life’s coloured lenses.

Rosy, that is, until I met her days later in the lobby. She had not changed much. Still slim and beautiful with those large eyes and full lips and delicate cheekbones. I couldn’t stop looking at her as she exclaimed:

‘Pinky!’

‘Jennifer! Wow.’

‘Oh my, oh my, what a surprise!’ Her eyes behind the glasses roamed over my blue uniform. ‘You work here?’

‘Yes. Started last week.’ I couldn’t help comparing my dumpy, overweight body to hers!

‘Oh, that’s good. I am a Partner upstairs.’ She gave a small smile as her eyes travelled over me again. ‘We need to do some catching up, Pinky. Talk of the old days.’

‘Of course, we need to.’

But we never did.

How can we? We are a world apart now, Pole to Pole, though we earn a living in the same building. Things are now sorely different. Far from those old, Motherwell days.

The nosy old secretary soon spread our disparate tale round the firm. She even embellished it colourfully to her taste. People now stare at me. They quit talking whenever I drifted near. They smiled knowingly and condescendingly with sly eyes. Uviwe, friend and colleague, drove in the barb further.

‘I heard you attended same Grade school with her.’ She jerked her head up, indicating my old friend upstairs. ‘What happened? If she can, why can’t you, Pinky?’

Why can’t I?

I cannot because I missed my way, Uviwe. I messed up. I am now left to seethe with regret and faded dreams and lost hopes.

It was the old memories and conflicts and evaluation that eventually birthed the tortured thoughts. It swamped all over me. And made a ‘catching up’ party thing rather impossible to do.

 

***

 

The last time I saw Jennifer Nkwezi was 11 years ago when I dropped out of Ncedo Secondary in Motherwell. I was in Grade 9, then. We were in the same class. We moved with the same circle of friends, all bonded by the same goals and dreams of making it big. We vowed to conquer the wider world out there. A world beyond our humble beginnings and, even, past Jo’zi and Pretoria. All the way to Dubai and Paris. Girls, we can do it. Come on!

But then, Fates intervened.

Someone once opined that we tilt the scales of Fates ourselves with our actions and inactions. That if only we had done a little more and gone the extra length and truly burned the midnight candles while the moths danced around, maybe fate would have been more lenient. But then, are we not helpless in the hands of Fate? To be jerked hither and thither on strings on the stages of the theatre of life? Mere living pawns in the chess of life.

Then, I was a lonely orphan and under the care of my makhulu. Sinekazi, my older sister, had since run away with a man at the tender age of 19. Life became boring and tedious. I pined for care and attention and my dreams came nightly.

The Fates played their cruel game on me when they sent smooth-talking Sizwe across my path simply to blight my innocent, dreamy world. He was handsome and cute with his tinted sunglasses and funny dance steps and thrilling tales of Jo’zi. I saw in him someone I could roll with and learn from. He was a caring chap, too. Quite charming, world-wise with wise words and anecdotes. Back then, what does my 16 years old self in Motherwell really know? Weighed beside a veteran of twice my age from Johannesburg, I was a mere plaything. I knew nothing except admirations and fun times of games and drinks and films at the malls. I was on top of the world with Sizwe, my gentle, loving lamb.

I saw the wolf in him only when I got pregnant. The scoundrel ran back to brighter Jo’zi and, probably, more innocent ladies by the time I put to bed!

Now, how does a 17-year-old orphaned mother, a drop-out with only Grade 9 Certificate, cope? Friends like Jennifer disappeared. I became a bad example to others in our neighbourhood. Don’t be like Pinky, said many a mother. Face your studies and don’t hang out with her again, hear? She’s trash. Okay?

To worsen issues, Makhulu started falling sick. Doctors at Dora Nginza Hospital out in Port Elizabeth said she inhaled too much fumes for too long over the years at the plant and her liver (or was it lungs or kidneys or whatever) is now bad and she cannot work again! Life became a triangle of home to church to hospital. I had my baby and makhulu to care for. Hourly, daily. It was a miracle I did not become an invalid myself!

I wailed and prayed to a kindly God nightly. I beseeched my ancestors for help, too. They are up there, looking down at us, I was told by makhulu. I sent entreaties for my helper to come. Someone to save me from present miseries.

Then I met Unathi at a nearby spaza shop. I had gone there to buy sugar for tea. He came to buy a pack of energy drinks. We got talking.

You know, oftentimes, we tend to make the same mistakes. Maybe, gladly, willingly. Out of desperation or greed or naivety or whatever reasons we adduce at a later stock taking time. I should have learnt from my past Sizwe’s misadventure, I know. But, I didn’t. For Unathi did not even look like him, to start with. Quieter, serious looking and already working at Scribante Constructions as a cashier. He was just a couple of years older, too. In my heart, I saw in him the one whom I have been waiting and praying for. The one to wipe my tears away. The one to give me his good heart and part of his good salary.

He gladly did. I willingly gave my all, too – soul and body.

Well, as I said, I should have learnt my lessons with Sizwe. But I did not. He also gifted me a baby boy. And a speared, bleeding heart when he ran away. Not far this time. Only to Queenstown, two hundred and some kilometres away. He took up home with a fat Tsonga girl and shunned me and his seed. I have not seen him for a whole eight years now.

Life can be so unfair.

 

***

 

I always wondered when I missed the fork in the road. Of course, Jennifer and the girls too had boyfriends in those days. We all did back then. Just as many young innocents are doing today. Necking and cuddling and fighting over paramours after school hours. It was all so much fun. Back then. Maybe, even, now.

I cannot say I hate her. Really, what do I gain in doing that? Nothing, of course. She deserves her success and pride of place. She had walked the long, narrow path from Imbasa Public Primary School to being a Nelson Mandela University shining graduate (still a spinster and no kids, as I gleaned from office rumours) and a seat upstairs with other Partners.

My broad path led to two kids from runaway fathers and a Grade 9 certificate that is only good for mopping floors and cleaning windows.

The seat is enough diadem for her.

She earned it.

She worked for it.

 

***

 

16:15.

Close of work.

The sun had gone down a little, taking the noon day heat with it. The wind was blustery a little, with a hint of the ocean in the air. I huddled further into my old coat and plodded on. The wind tugged at my sleeves and upturned collar.

It is a simple stroll to the bus-stop. This I undertake daily with Uviwe. Unless she is off duty with her famous sick notes and lame excuses. She is also unmarried and has two kids of her own. And a ton of personal problems that often takes my mind off mine.

We got to the stop and stood there with others. Waiting for the taxi to Motherwell. Cars and taxis roared past, calling for fares. Passers-by hurried past, intent on getting home quickly.

I wished for a seat to rest on, for my weight was killing me from the simple trek. Uviwe started complaining about the price of mealie maize that recently went up.

‘It’s cheaper at Makro store.’

‘Then, go there, neh.

‘I’ll do that over the weekend. I’ll need some custards too…’

Then Miss Phindy drove by in her gleaming, white Lexus. She gave a hoot on her horn and drove on with the flowing traffic.

‘Stupid saucy bitch,’ gritted Uviwe. ‘Ndiya mthiya.

‘Oh, stop that, please,’ I cautioned.

She shot me a venomous look and then looked away. She even shifted a pace from my side.

Oh, Uviwe, you need not hate her. Hate is a cancer that kills. You only need to understand why you are where you are and why she is where she is. Envy should not birth hate. Stop that. Stop it! Identify where you lost your own way, too. As for me, I have identified where I missed it at the fork in the road that led to the broad and narrow paths of life.

My kids must surely walk the narrow, stony path to knowledge and success.

Even, if I didn’t.

————————

Image: Robert Freiberger via Flickr

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