Authors: Lauri Kubbuitsile
So lucky you chose me
Streams of people passed through Park Station every day and a large portion of them made a stop at Monate Takeaways before getting on their next bus, train or taxi and back on their way to wherever they were off to. Mpho often thought how appropriate it was that she spent her days in a place where everybody was on their way because she knew she was on her way too. She was on her way to great things. She was only making a temporary stop at Monate, just like the customers she served every day. Her stop here was all part of a bigger plan.
Mpho flopped down on the stool next to the till. She'd been standing since her shift started at ten and her feet were killing her.
“Gosh, it's been crazy,” her colleague and friend Marika said, handing her half a glass of orange juice.
“Thanks.” Mpho took the glass as if it were her first drink after a long trek through the Kgalagadi.
Monate Takeaways was the preferred place to eat for most of the workers at Park Station since it sold vetkoek and tea by the cup. Its menu of traditional foods like pap and spinach and dibete was a big hit with people from the villages arriving in the city. Kentucky Fried Chicken and ice cream from Milky Lane weren't going to fill their empty stomachs for the money they had in their pockets.
It was just after the tea break rush and shortly before the lunch craziness. It was the only chance Marika and Mpho had during their shift to take a break. Mpho quickly made them each their favourite sandwich: two slices of beef, a slice of cheese and plenty of mayonnaise.
Just when she was about to finish, Mpho saw her brother Jakes walk through the front door. Annoyed, she turned to Marika. “What does he want now?”
“Be happy you have a brother who cares about you so much.”
Mpho rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
“So, you going for a break?” Jakes asked when he got to the counter. He worked at one of the garages for the bus companies around the corner from Park Station. He was always dropping in. Mpho knew he was spying on her, though he always tried to make an excuse. “Give me some makwinya.”
Mpho silently put five vetkoeks in a paper bag and handed it to her brother, holding her hand out for the money.
“So what's up with you today?” Jakes asked, dropping coins in her hand.
“Do you have to come in here
day? Can't I live my life without my big brother always hovering in the background? I'm twenty-four years old; when are you going to accept that I am an adult now?”
“Sure you're an adult, but you're a woman and this is Joburg. You've never really lived in this city; you don't know how dangerous it can be. You need a man to keep an eye on you . . .”
Mpho was sick to death of Jakes. She just wished he and his girlfriend would sort themselves out and finally get married. Maybe when he moved out of the flat she could get a life independent of him. That's what she was hoping for anyway. “You know, Jakes, women can actually take care of themselves. Look at Marika; she lives alone and she's fine.”
“Marika has Ishmael. He keeps an eye on her. Until you get a husband, I need to look out for you.”
Mpho could feel her anger rising, but knew it was no use fighting with Jakes; she'd learned that long ago. He was the most stubborn person she knew. “Well, I hope Kagiso knows what a good deal she's getting in you,” Mpho said.
The sarcasm was lost on her brother. “I'm sure she does. See you when you knock off.” He made to go.
“Jakes, there's no need for you to walk me home. I'm helping Mama take her things home.” MmaJakes, their mother, was a hawker who sold cellphone units and sweets outside Park Station. She normally moved her table and stock with the help of her friend Aunty Koki, who also sold with her, but that day was home sick.
“Okay, fine. Then see you at home.” Jakes headed out the door and Mpho moaned in frustration.
“God, I can't wait to be free of him. I'm an adult! Am I not?”
Marika smiled. “Yes, you are an adult, Mpho.”
“You see. This is the reason I don't want a boyfriend. All Joburg men are the same â they want to be your âbig protector'. I'm just not interested in that.”
Mpho grabbed their plates and headed for the back door. Marika shouted into the office, “Off to break!” Their boss, Mr Habib, was pounding on an ancient adding machine while rolls and rolls of thin white paper poured out onto the floor at the front of his desk. He hadn't quite made the jump into the computer age. Mpho wondered if he ever would.
Mr Habib looked up at them. “Okay, I'll cover the till, girls.” He took his bifocals off, grabbed a nearby apron and headed for the front of the shop.
Mpho had spent the greater part of her childhood on the open planes of Lephalale in the north of the country where she'd lived with her grandmother. She'd always loved the hot sun. The hazy Joburg sun, though it didn't feel like the sun in Lephalale, was rejuvenating nevertheless. Mpho lay back and let it fall on her face. She smiled as the warmth spread through her body and the tension that Jakes caused disappeared.
Marika got busy on her sandwich. “So how's the show going?” she asked through a mouthful of bread and meat.
Marika and Mpho went to night school together. Marika, pushed by her traditional Afrikaner parents, was studying accounting. They expected her to become an accountant one day. Her parents were struggling farmers and they wanted something better for their daughter, so they pushed her to study a practical subject that would ensure a reliable income.
Mpho thought her friend wasn't likely to ever realise her parents' dream. Marika hated accounting. She'd failed maths in matric and had to rewrite it twice just to get accepted in the accounting programme. She attended her lessons only because it allowed her to stay in Joburg and be part of the college choir.
What Marika loved was singing and what she loved about Joburg was her Indian boyfriend Ishmael, Mr Habib's nephew. So Marika attended her lessons and studied her books and on the rare occasion even passed an accounting exam just so she could be with the man she loved and sing to her heart's content. Her parents knew nothing about her two loves. If they did, they'd have her on the next bus back to their dilapidated farm in Rustenburg and marry her off to a good Afrikaner boy before the month was out.
Mpho knew Jakes was a pain in the neck, but at least her family didn't keep her away from what she loved. She felt sorry for Marika and knew secrets could only be kept for so long before all would be revealed, and then either Marika would have to stand up to her parents or she would end up with a life she didn't choose. For Mpho that was worse than no life at all.
Mpho was in the final term of a fashion design course which was her great passion. In a month she needed to have three outfits ready for the final-year graduate fashion show. Even though she'd been studying for four years, the only thing that mattered was that show; if she did well, she passed; if she didn't, she failed. The pressure was enormous.
All Mpho's dreams revolved around passing and getting that degree. She needed credentials to start her career in fashion, because one day she wanted all the top women in South Africa to wear Mpho Kgosiemang's designs. Her brand would be a household name. But for that to happen she needed to get through the graduate fashion show, and that was proving to be more difficult than she had thought it would be.
“I don't know,” Mpho answered Marika's question at last, reaching for her sandwich. “My designs look so good on paper. Though, right now I just can't seem to find the fabric I need. I find things that are just about right, but not perfect. You know what I mean?”
“I think you're too picky.”
“I have to be, Marika. Our lecturer told us sometimes the big fashion houses pitch up for these things. They've hired students immediately after the show. So I need to be perfect. Imagine one of the big houses actually came! I could be a fashion designer in just a few weeks. No more chips. No more makwinya and soup. And most importantly â no more Jakes breathing down my neck night and day. If this show goes well, it could make my dream come true!”
Marika shook her head and some of her long blonde hair fell out from under the hairnet she'd stuffed it into. “Still. No one's perfect, Mpho; you'll make yourself sick trying to be. Find the best fabric you can and get started. Time is ticking away.”
Mpho knew Marika was right. Some of her classmates were already cutting their dresses and some had even started sewing. Making three designs from paper into finished products was no joke; she realised she had to get going.
She'd been trawling fabric stores and second-hand clothes shops looking for bits and pieces that she liked. So far she had a large piece of tan impala leather she intended to use as a bodice on her evening gown. At a second-hand clothes store in Hillbrow she'd found a broad piece of Ndebele beadwork with turquoise, red, black and white glass beads and flicks of yellow. The trousers of her two-piece suit would have the beadwork in the waistband.
Mpho liked incorporating the vast rainbow of cultures that existed within the borders of her country. She always tried to make designs that resonated with the feeling of being a South African. She had to admit though, Marika was right. She was a perfectionist in everything. She didn't see any reason to be anything else. Why get something that wasn't exactly what you wanted? She didn't understand compromise when it came to the things she loved.
Mpho could hear the till and knew the lunch crowd was streaming in. She quickly ate her last bit of sandwich and gulped down her juice. “We better get back.”
* * *
At five, Mpho and Marika knocked off, making way for the evening shift. Ishmael showed up exactly on time to pick up Marika, as he did most days.
“How's things, Ish?” Mpho asked.
“Okay. Did Marika tell you I'm buying a new car?”
“No, she didn't. Job must be going well.”
“Excellent. Got a raise. I'm hoping by next year they'll promote me, then Marika and I can get married.”
Mpho's heart jumped at the words. Marriage? Weren't they too young for that? Mpho and Marika were only twenty-four. Who got married in their twenties in this day and age? Mpho knew she never would. She had plans. Before even thinking of marriage, she wanted her career firmly in place. Marriage wouldn't be part of her life until she was well into her thirties.
She looked at Marika who was smiling with Ishmael's long arm around her shoulders and wondered if they understood what they were talking about. Mpho knew Marika's traditional parents wouldn't accept an Indian son-in-law; they barely accepted her, a black friend. They'd only met her once, but Mpho was pretty sure she wouldn't be getting invites to the farm near Rustenburg anytime soon. And she was positive the only way these two would be getting married was if they sneaked away and did it on the sly.
But Mpho wasn't interested in bursting anyone's bubble, so she simply said, “That's great, Ishmael.” She turned to Marika. “I'm going to help my mom get her things home and then I'll see you at school later.”
“Great, sounds like a plan.”
Mpho rushed across the expanse of Park Station to the bus parking lot. She saw her mother had already packed up most of her table. Mpho hurried to help her. “Hi, Mama, how was your day?”
Mpho rubbed Johnny's head. He was her cousin Annabella's five-year-old son. When his mom worked at the dry-cleaners across town, he spent the day with Mpho's mother. “How's things, Johnny?” Mpho asked, picking him up and giving him a hug and a kiss.
Mpho and Annabella had grown up together like sisters and were best friends for as far back as either of them could remember. They had both lived with their grandmother in Lephalale and gone to school there. When they were doing matric, Annabella's mom, who'd been living in Johannesburg, died of AIDS. Since then Mpho's mother had taken over her younger sister's role. She was Annabella's mother and Johnny's grandmother.
“I saw a giant today,” Johnny said to Mpho.
“Did you now? Was he a nice giant?” Mpho asked as she picked up the folding table with her free hand and they started walking home.
“He gave me twenty-five cents.” Johnny opened his small hand, grimy from a day at the bus terminal. In his palm were a collection of coins. “I'm going to give it to my mom.”
“Well, aren't you a sweetie.” Mpho loved Johnny as if he was her own son. When Annabella told her she was pregnant Mpho was disappointed but she would never have wanted her cousin to get an abortion. Johnny's birth meant Annabella's schooling came to an end, though it didn't matter that much because her love of fun had already pretty much ruined her chances to pass matric.
Annabella wasn't like Mpho. She'd never had plans. She liked having fun and being Johnny's mother. That was enough for her. A career wasn't something she thought about much. At least not her own career, but she was always looking out for Mpho's. She liked to cut out photos of interesting styles and fabrics from magazines she read and always gave them to Mpho. They'd often sit up at night going though Mpho's designs. Annabella would advise her on how something might be improved. Mpho often wondered who longed most for her to become a fashion designer â Annabella or herself.
The family lived in a high-rise in Hillbrow. Not the safest spot but the only place they'd been able to afford since Mpho's father died. He was a bus driver and was killed in an accident when Mpho was only seven. With his death things became hard for her mother. That was when she and her brother Jakes were sent to the village to stay with their gran. But when their mother got beaten up by some local thugs, Jakes moved back to Hillbrow to stay with her. That was the start of his role as family protector. Although she was terribly homesick, Mpho had remained in Lephalale where she was safe and able to finish her education.