Authors: Lauri Kubbuitsile
But now they were all back together in No 78. The neighbourhood was still pretty rough but they managed. Mpho dreamed of the day when she would have enough money to buy her mother a house in the suburbs so that she would not have to sit for hours in the exhaust fumes of hundreds of buses, eking out a living on the tiny profits from sweets and airtime. At least now, with Jakes working as a mechanic and Mpho and Annabella working too, things were marginally better.
They arrived at No 78 just as Annabella turned around the corner coming from the dry-cleaners in the opposite direction. Johnny asked to be put down and he ran to her. Annabella grabbed him up in her arms. “Hi, guys,” she said and held up a plastic bag. “I've got meat. Mrs Smith apparently bought too much.”
The ancient lady who owned Smith's Dry-Cleaners had taken Annabella on as her own personal charity case. She felt sorry for the girl who lived in Hillbrow with her tiny “illegitimate” son, squeezed into a flat with so many people. Compared to her luxurious life in Sandton, Annabella was definitely not doing too well â not that it bothered Annabella. Still, she wasn't going to turn down some rump steak or any of the other accidental presents Mrs Smith rained down on her. “And she gave me this as well. I thought you might like it, Mpho.”
Her cousin pulled a folded length of fabric from her big handbag. It was a deep, rich ochre with strands of red and orange. Mpho reached for it. The fabric was smooth, a very fine silk, almost organza. She held it to her face, sliding it over her skin and feeling the rich smoothness of it. She would never have been able to afford such fabric.
“Are you sure, Annie?” Mpho couldn't believe her luck.
“Yes, what would I do with it? I thought you could make something nice for the show.”
Mpho smiled. There was no way Mrs Smith would have just bought this for Annabella. She must have been prompted. Annabella was always looking out for Mpho. She rushed forward and gave her cousin a big kiss. “This is so perfect! It's more than perfect. I'm going to make the most beautiful dress from this, and after the show I'm going to give it to you!”
Annabella smiled, but said nothing. Mpho hugged the fabric to her. “Listen, save some dinner for me. I must go to school. I can't wait to start working with this fabric.”
Annabella set Johnny down and took the folded table from Mpho.
“Okay, ngwanak'a, you be careful now,” Mpho's mother said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “I want to go and check on Aunty Koki to make sure she's feeling better.”
Mpho watched them climb the stairs to their flat on the third floor, then she turned to head towards school just as an expensive-looking car pulled up at the kerb a few metres from the building. The car was far too posh for this part of town. It looked like a Lexus, all silver and sleek. When Mpho got near it, she hesitated when the man inside called her by her name. She stared at him, but he didn't look like anyone she knew. He had long, tidy dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail at the back. He wore a diamond stud in his ear. Something about his smile drew her to him. He was definitely handsome, and fashionable to boot.
The man got out of the car and she still wondered how he knew her name. Maybe he was a customer at Monate but she doubted that. She would have remembered someone who looked like him. He was tall with wide shoulders that tapered to a thin, tidy waist. Mpho could tell he had muscular “footballer legs”, as Annabella liked to call them. He wore a cream-coloured linen suit which likely cost about what Mpho earned in a year.
And then he smiled again and Mpho felt her lungs freeze. She took a breath to keep her head from spinning. There was something about that smile. Something that made her weak, but it was a remembered weakness. It was a smile from her past, a weakness from long ago. She knew that smile and smelt danger in the air around it.
“Mpho? Is this little Mpho Kgosiemang?”
She looked at him a bit closer and suddenly it dawned on her. This handsome, obviously successful man was Thabang Modise! Just the thought of the name made her stomach quiver. For how long had she dreamed of seeing him again? Years of her adolescence had been spent dreaming up romantic scenes with Thabang Modise playing the lead role. She couldn't believe she hadn't recognised him straight away. She was sure there were whole sections of her brain exclusively built with memory bricks of this man. And here he was again in flesh and blood â and some quite stunning skin and muscle too.
“Yes, it's me! But gosh, I can't believe this is you. Heck, girl, you've grown into one stunning woman! I can't believe you were the knobbly-kneed little girl with maphondo who used to tag along after us.”
He came forward and Mpho stuck out her hand, thinking he would shake it, but instead he pulled her up into his strong arms. She nearly melted at the smell of him. What kind of aftershave was he wearing? She wondered if it were one of these new ones with pheromones that tricked women into being attracted to men. If it was, it was definitely working on her. She wished he'd never let go of her, and nearly drifted away on an aftershave-soaked cloud, but then quickly regained her senses and escaped from his arms, if a bit awkwardly.
This was Thabang Modise, the boy she'd had a crush on for most of her teenage years. She couldn't be trusted in those arms, not back then and if her thumping heart was anything to go by, she suspected not now either. Anything might happen. The scent of recklessness hovered around her.
Thabang, her brother Jakes and their friend Bongani had a band together when they were kids. It was a kwaito band called TJB, basically a rip-off of the very popular TKZ. Mpho used to think Thabang even looked a bit like Kabelo, the leader of TKZ. When Mpho visited during school holidays she spent most of her time following the band wherever they went. She'd hang around at their rehearsals and even sneak into a few of their gigs. Though Thabang was seven years older than her and paid her no attention at all, she used to dream that he'd one day be her boyfriend.
The last time she saw him was the Christmas holiday when she turned sixteen. After that the band fell apart. Mpho never knew exactly what had happened because Jakes wouldn't talk about it. She often wondered where Thabang had gone off to. His mother, Aunty Koki, still lived in No 78, but Mpho never saw him around again. Now that she thought about it, it was a bit odd that no one ever talked about him, especially since Aunty Koki was her mother's biggest friend. That was strange, Mpho thought.
“So where have you been, Thabang?”
“I went to Cape Town for a while. But now I'm here in Joburg. I've started my own recording label.”
“Wow, I'm impressed. What's it called?”
“Do you have any artists I might know?”
Thabang hesitated, as if he were almost embarrassed to mention it. “Have you heard of Lerumo?”
Mpho couldn't believe it. Thabang Modise was the owner of Mmino Productions which was producing Lerumo! You heard his latest song called
everywhere; on radio, on TV, in the minibus taxi â people even had it as a ringtone on their cellphones. Everybody was listening to that song. “Now I understand how you can afford a car like this.”
He smiled, slightly embarrassed. “Yeah . . . well. And you? What're you doing?” Thabang asked, appearing to be genuinely interested.
“I'm in school, actually; my last year. And I work part- time at Park Station, at a takeaway called Monate Takeaways.”
“Are you kidding me? I used to work there too! How's Mr Habib?”
“Really?” Mpho couldn't believe that anyone as cool as Thabang Modise could have worked at Monate Takeaways. Maybe it really was a passing-through place on the way to success, just as she wished it would be for her. “Mr Habib is fine.”
Suddenly Mpho realised the time. “Listen, I need to get going. I have a class.”
“Okay . . . yeah, fine. I actually came to check on my mother. She's sick.”
“Yeah, I know. MmaJakes was just going up to check on her.” Mpho started heading down the street toward the taxi stop.
“Listen, maybe I can pass by Monate tomorrow. I could see Mr Habib and . . . maybe we could go for a drink or something.” He acted uncertain, as if she might say no.
Mpho could hardly believe her ears. Was Thabang Modise asking her out on a date? Was her teenage dream going to come true after all these years? He was looking at her, waiting for an answer. “Yeah . . . okay . . . great. I knock off at two tomorrow.”
“Okay, great, see you then,” Thabang said as she rushed off to catch a minibus taxi to school.
Mpho couldn't believe how things were coming together. She had the most beautiful piece of fabric in her bag that would make the most magnificent dress the graduate show had ever seen â and she had a date with Thabang Modise!
As she ran for the taxi before it pulled away from the kerb, she told herself that tomorrow she needed to ask Jakes what happened to the band and his friendship with Thabang. There was something odd about the silence around the whole thing. It was as if they'd wiped Thabang Modise off the map. Mpho wanted to find out what had happened.
“Don't you think you're maybe a bit young to get married?” Marika and Mpho were changing into their uniforms in the women's toilet. Mpho had decided it was better she mentioned her doubts to Marika before it was too late. She'd thought about it and decided she had a responsibility as a friend.
“Yeah, maybe. It's just . . . I love Ishmael and I think my parents will accept him better when he's my husband. They won't have any choice then.” Marika took off her blouse and replaced it with the dull brown polyester uniform top. There are few people who look better in uniforms than in their street clothes, but Mpho thought Marika was likely one of them. She had horrible fashion sense and she knew it.
Sometimes Marika would ask Mpho to go clothes shopping with her to help her pick out something nice, but still she managed to put the oddest things together. She'd just taken off a bright pink blouse with a ruffle down the front and a pair of red plaid Capri pants. Marika noticed Mpho looking at her clothes on the floor. “They're bad, heh? It was all I had clean. Even I knew that they were bad when I got dressed this morning. But I think I'm improving if I can recognise ugly, don't you agree?” They both laughed.
Then Marika sat down next to Mpho, her face suddenly very serious. “I don't really want to get married just yet. I'm just so scared my parents will find out. You know how they are. I couldn't handle them not loving Ishmael. I just couldn't take it.”
She began to cry and Mpho took her in her arms. “You know what, Marika? You need to follow your heart. It's your life, not your parents', and you're an adult. You have a right to be happy.”
“Yeah, sure.” Marika gained confidence as she went along. “I'm a Joburg woman now, not some country bumpkin Boere girly. Yes, that's it â follow my heart.” She was smiling with a new resolve. Mpho was glad she'd decided to bring up the prickly issue.
They walked through the handful of early-morning commuters to Monate. Mr Habib was just unlocking the outer gate. “Good morning, ladies. Don't you both look lovely!” Mr Habib said that every morning. He liked to be happy and make others happy too. He and his wife never had kids of their own and he treated his employees as his children. “Busy day ahead, I suspect.”
Mr Habib's prediction was right. It was mid-month, Monate's busiest time. At the end of the month people had money and splurged at the fast-food chains â they bought McDonald's and KFC and Chicken Licken. But mid-month the money was getting tight and they all poured into Monate Takeaways. From the time they'd turned the open sign over, they'd been busy constantly. Mpho didn't know what time it was and had forgotten all about Thabang saying he would pass by.
She was dishing out porridge and fried meat for one of their regular customers, the manager of the bookstore opposite Monate. “Do you want some soup with that, Mr Pistorius?”
Before the elderly man could answer Marika whispered in her ear as she passed by to the nearby fryers, “Babe at two o'clock.”
Mpho looked up and there was Thabang. He was dressed casually in an open-necked shirt and jeans. She could see she'd been right about his shoulders, and the jeans didn't hide the curve of his thigh muscles. Annabella would definitely approve of those legs. He smiled and Mpho's muscles became weak, her mind cloudy. She smiled back and then proceeded to pour a spoonful of lukewarm soup all over her hand.
“He's looking at you,” Marika whispered in her other ear on the way back to the till.
Mpho handed Mr Pistorius the polystyrene pack with his lunch inside.
“Hey, nice threads. You certainly do know fashion,” Thabang joked about her uniform. He'd made his way through the crowd and was standing at the counter, close enough for her to get a slight whiff of him.
Mpho laughed. She wondered what she looked like in her food-splattered uniform and bright red cap with the word Monate Takeaways embroidered on it in black. She was thankful she kept her head nearly shaved and didn't have to wear a hairnet like Marika. She certainly didn't want Thabang to see her in a hairnet. “Actually, I'm just about to finish a degree in fashion design . . . so I
an expert, if you want to know,” she joked back.
“Oops . . .” He looked embarrassed. “I was joking . . . I didn't know . . . Really.”
“Jakes didn't tell you?”
“Jakes? Your brother?” Thabang looked confused. “I haven't spoken to him in years.”
“Ao! You were such good friends.” Mpho had got home too late the night before to interrogate Jakes and left too early that morning. She thought she might just as well get the information from Thabang. He had to know what happened. She was curious about what had made such good friends part.
Just then a loud shout came from behind her. “Thabang, my boy!”
Mpho turned and saw Mr Habib rushing around the counter with his arms stretched out. He grabbed the young man's one hand in both of his. “Oh, Thabang, you look wonderful. I can see you are a success and that makes me very happy, very happy indeed. Mpho, do you know this chap?”
“Yes . . . Actually we knew each other . . . when we were kids.”
“This is a very good man. This is a fine man indeed. Do you know, Mpho, he used to do exactly what you are doing now? Now look at him! Big producer in the recording business. I'm so proud â as if he's my own son! . . . Mrs Habib will be so happy to hear that I saw you today, Thabang.”
“It's great to see you too, Mr Habib. How's your wife?”
“She is very good. Very good.”
“And did you get the cheque from my lawyer?”
Suddenly Mr Habib's manner changed. “Yes . . . yes . . . Very gracious of you. There was no need. I just wanted to help.” Mr Habib suddenly appeared embarrassed.
Thabang shook his head. “A loan should be paid back with interest.”
“Let's not talk about that. Can you come into my office for a few minutes? For a cup of tea?”
Thabang looked at Mpho to see if there was time.
“Yeah, go ahead. The next shift is here. I'll go and change, and then fetch you.”
Thabang and Mr Habib went into the office and Marika rushed up and grabbed Mpho under the arm, walking her quickly out of the door and away from the shop toward the women's toilets. “So . . . What's up with Mr I'm-So-Hot-and-Sexy?” Marika asked. “How come you didn't tell me you know someone who looks like
Mpho laughed. “To be honest, I didn't know I knew somebody who looked like
. I knew him when I was just a kid. He and Jakes had a band together. I had a huge crush on him but I was just a kid. He didn't give me a second look.”
“He's certainly giving you a second and a third look now.”
“Yeah, I think he is.” Mpho couldn't keep herself from smiling. How often do childhood dreams come true?
Marika quickly put her bright, clashing street clothes back on. “Listen, I have to rush. I have a business studies exam I need to go and fail. Then choir practice. See you tonight, heh? Don't be late. You know I'm a bit scared of your cousin when she gets going.”
“Annabella? She just likes to have a good time, that's all.”
“Good time or not, out in the farmlands of Rustenburg we're not used to table-top dancing.”
Mpho rolled her eyes. “Eish! That was a one-time thing, she usually stays firmly on the dance floor, but don't worry, I won't be late. Thabang and I are just going to lunch.”
“Okay, girlie! Have fun. Gosh, I'm jealous. He's such a hunk!” Marika rushed out the door in a scary blur of pink and red.
Mpho changed into the clothes she'd brought: a tight black T-shirt with Che Guevara on it and a long, flowing, multicoloured cotton Indian skirt. She wrapped her head in a massive burgundy scarf and put on a chunky necklace with matching wooden hoop earrings. She sprayed perfume all over herself and headed for Mr Habib's office, hoping she didn't still smell like a packet of chips.
“Don't you look lovely!” her boss said when she entered the office. “Is this a date you're going on?” He looked at Mpho with one eyebrow raised.
“Mr Habib!” she said, embarrassed.
“Okay, sorry . . . Apologies. I know you young people; you like to keep secrets from us old people. But you should know that one day long ago I was a young people too.” Mr Habib winked at Mpho.
Thabang looked at her and they laughed. He stood up and shook Mr Habib's hand. “Thanks for the tea. One of these days I must pass by your house to see Mrs Habib.”
“She would be so grateful for a visit. Now, you children, be off. Have fun.” The old man shooed them out of his office.
* * *
Thabang drove them to Melville, to one of the little Greek restaurants there. The walls were painted with murals of white villages against blue skies and a turquoise sea. The paint was chipped, as if the place was as old as the Greek myths written on the back of the menu and on wooden planks around the restaurant. Most of these eateries were lucky if they lasted for ten years. The air sizzled with the scent of olive oil and spicy meat and Mpho's stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten breakfast because she'd been too nervous about her date with Thabang.
Mpho knew nothing about Greek food, so she let Thabang order. A platter came with an array of finger food: little spinach pies called spanakopita, a type of chickpea dip called hummus, covered in olive oil and eaten with delicious pita bread, black olives and bits of meat on skewers.
Thabang would pick out various pieces and say, “Here, try this.” And Mpho would open her mouth like a small bird being fed. Then Thabang would lovingly place titbits in her mouth. They washed the food down with sweet red wine. Mpho had never been to a place like this, had never been on a date like this either. She was used to movies or going out to their local hang-out, the Chameleon Club. But she liked this and told Thabang that she did.
“So you never finished telling me what happened with you and Jakes,” Mpho said.
“I feel really bad about it. Jakes and I were close, you remember? We were best friends since we were tiny. And suddenly it was gone. It was part of why I went away to Cape Town. I needed a new scene. I lost a really good friend when Jakes decided the band was over. I felt terrible.”
Mpho didn't like the sound of that. “What happened?”
“Well, if you can believe it â TJB was offered a recording deal.”
“A recording deal? How come no one ever told me about that? What happened?”
Thabang took a drink of his wine and looked out the huge window at the passing parade of dropouts, New Age converts and teens with enough metal in their faces to build a small car. When he turned back his face showed he was upset. “You know, maybe I was wrong. Looking back now, it might seem like I did it for my own benefit but I didn't; I swear I didn't.” He looked sincere. He seemed to feel guilty about what he was about to say. Mpho became nervous. She didn't want her dream date to be rocked with unpleasant news.
“Did what? You sound like you're somehow to blame for the break-up?”
“Well, Jakes thinks I am. I wouldn't sign the contract and the company said it had to be all of us or none. I thought the contract was exploiting us. It was too much in favour of the company. Any small hitch and they would drop us and own all of our work. It was unfair. Jakes kept insisting that we could work out a better deal once we had a hit. But I wasn't certain about that and I didn't think we should take a chance. In the end, the group broke up over it. Now Jakes is fixing buses and Bongani, last I heard, did some time in jail for hijacking cars. It all went so wrong for them . . .” Thabang stopped and turned back to the window.
“But not for you . . . So you feel guilty,” Mpho finished his thought.
“Yeah, that's about it.”
“You shouldn't feel too bad. Jakes is doing alright. He's getting married soon. And he likes working at the bus company; he's a supervisor now.”
“Ao! Jakes . . . getting married.” Thabang considered the idea for a moment. “Well, that's better than me. I haven't even managed a relationship that lasts longer than a few months.” He looked away again and then changed the subject. “I'm actually surprised Jakes never spoke about the band's break-up. I'm even more surprised he's letting you go on a date with me. I remember him being very protective of his little sister.”
Mpho saw a flash of the naughty look Thabang had in his eyes as a teenager. “To be honest, he never even mentions you. No one does. It's like there's been a blackout on Thabang Modise information in the Kgosiemang household. So I thought I'd continue the family policy.”
Thabang laughed and then became serious. “You mean he doesn't know you're here?”
“No, he doesn't. Despite what he thinks, Jakes is
my father.” Mpho knew defiance was easy from a distance, but she didn't care. It was time she stood up to her brother; she was a woman now, not a girl.
“The whole botch-up with the recording company deal got me so angry I decided I wanted to understand the business myself, inside and out,” Thabang continued. “That's why I was in Cape Town for two years. To learn about the recording business. To find ways that everybody can make money without the musicians being screwed over. I think we're doing that now with Mmino Productions. We're fair to our artists. It's something that's very important to me. TJB taught me what the other side looks like.”
Time seemed to fly by. They talked about when they were kids and the time between then and the present. Mpho could feel all of her old feelings wrap around her like a familiar worn blanket. The sun sunk lower in the sky as afternoon slipped into early evening. Mpho told Thabang all about her fashion design course and her plans to one day be a top South African designer.