Authors: Lauri Kubbuitsile
“Okay . . . okay . . . You're right. I wanted to see you and you've been dodging me. I was looking for an excuse.”
“I've been avoiding you for a reason and that reason has just been confirmed. I don't like the way you do things. Jakes told me more about the band and his problems with you and you're right, he's not keen on me seeing you. Also, quite frankly, I don't like the kind of games you play. I told you this morning that I'm preparing for the graduate fashion show. This whole meeting could have happened after that. But no, Thabang must have what Thabang wants! I don't like the way you do things, Mr Modise. If you're not honest about something as straightforward as a business meeting, how can I expect you to be honest about anything else?”
Mpho was furious by the time she finished. Thabang was selfish and controlling. He'd manipulated Jakes and Bongani, maybe he even manipulated Mr Habib â and now he was trying to do the same with her.
“No, Mpho, you've got it all wrong,” Thabang started to explain. “Yes, maybe it was manipulative, because I did want to see you. Like I told you in the morning, you're all I think about. I couldn't come up with any other excuse to meet with you, so then I remembered Chloe's gig. I just needed something, anything to get you here. It's as simple as that. I was desperate to spend time with you.”
“That's just it! I told you I am in over my head with work and yet you think I should just drop everything for you. I told you I can't be with you now. What part of that didn't you get?” Mpho picked up her bags and started heading towards the door.
Thabang grabbed her shoulders to stop her. And even though Mpho knew she shouldn't, even though she was furious at him for all that he'd done, she let him pull her to him. Her body betrayed her with its excitement as his lips touched hers. The currents that raced through her were lies, she told herself. The weakness washing over her was just an illusion. But as he kissed her, time stopped and her brain ceased to fight.
Her heart was victorious for seconds that felt like hours. For those moments only the two of them mattered. Jakes was gone. Dresses for jazz divas faded to nothing. Manipulative recording producers and takeaway workers with fashion design dreams were all unimportant bits and pieces in scenes far away. Instead it was just two bodies, two hearts. Feelings and yearnings were all that filled the room, and for those precious seconds everything felt in its rightful place.
But once Mpho pushed away from him the scene shifted. Now all the problems and obstacles between them, fortified with the anger which took up the place it thought it deserved, lined up at the front of Mpho's mind. She stood back and took a deep breath.
“No,” she whispered to the emotions and they slipped away, chastised for their disobedience. And louder, so that Thabang could hear her clearly, she said, “No. I can't do this. Not now, not ever. You have no respect for my work, and that means you have no respect for me. You are sneaky and manipulative and will go to any lengths to get what you want. I could never care about someone like that. Never.” She headed for the door.
Thabang watched her, his face showing the pain her words were causing him. “I know you also felt what I did just now. That was no lie. I might have lied to get you here, but there is no way what we are feeling could be a lie. I care about you and I do respect you, despite what you think. You don't know me at all if that's what you think of me.”
Mpho turned around, her face hard and her words even harder, ignoring the damage she was causing. “I know enough about you to know I never want to see you again.” Her whole body was shaking but she managed to get down the passage and into the lift before the tears came.
Two days passed since the meeting at Mmino Productions. Though Mpho left the office confused about her feelings, as time passed she became more resolved in her decision. This time Thabang would not get what he wanted. She would teach him a lesson. It was not okay to manipulate people and steal from them.
She was still furious and that fury sparked energy in her. Within two days she finished two pieces: the outfit with trousers and the short shweshwe cocktail dress. She was happy with them, though they still needed a few final touches. The evening gown made from Annabella's fabric was another story.
Everything that could go wrong did. The piece of leather she wanted to use for the bodice was too short. She'd been searching for something else, traipsing from one second-hand clothing shop to another but she couldn't find anything. The drape on the skirt was not working. Because the fabric was so soft and supple, the Chinese collar was not staying up. Mpho had been fighting with it for days.
There were ten students preparing for the graduate fashion show. The sewing lab was open twenty-four hours a day now, since all of them were under pressure to get their pieces done in time. Though Mpho was struggling, some were worse off than her. At the work station across from hers, Piet January's designs were in a mess. From the day they'd started the programme, he hadn't deviated from his obsession with the American West. He had been working on a two-piece with a vest and chaps for more than a month. Now he was frantically trying to come up with his other two designs.
“I am in serious shit, Mpho,” Piet said, looking up at her from behind the sewing machine. “Nothing is working here.”
“Maybe you need to get some fresh air. Think about something else. Did you sleep here last night?”
“Yeah . . . Can you believe it?” The door opened and Piet turned. “Eish! It's the witch. Watch out.”
Mpho looked across the room and saw their lecturer and the organiser of the graduate show, Clara Bennet, coming their way. Ms Bennet liked sleek and sharp designs; Coco Chanel was her idol. She never liked anything Mpho did, and with Piet it was even worse.
“Are you the only two in here?” the lecturer asked. Her nose levelled a fraction higher as if their designs gave off a stench she could only barely tolerate.
“Yes,” Mpho answered since Piet had gone back to his drawings as if his life depended on it.
Ms Bennet stood with her hands on her hips, staring at Mpho's two-piece and the short cocktail dress. “So this is what you have?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes,” Mpho answered in a small voice.
“Well, you seem determined to stick to your style, I'll give you that. The question remains, will anyone ever be interested in them?” She fingered the cloth of Mpho's evening gown that laid spread out on her cutting table. Mpho had taken the skirt apart yet again in an effort to get the drape exactly as she wanted it. “A shame what you've done to this beautiful fabric.”
Ms Bennet looked in Piet's direction, rolled her eyes and left without saying another word.
“God, what a bitch!” Piet said. “I love your designs.”
Mpho knew Piet had a good heart and a love for fashion but she wondered if compliments from a man stuck in the Old American West was really what she needed. Maybe Ms Bennet was right. Mpho wanted her clothes to be essentially South African, but would there be any buyers? Women in South Africa liked to follow American and European trends instead of looking close to home. Maybe she should compromise a bit. She suddenly felt so uncertain about everything. She wasn't sure she was able to trust her instincts anymore. She'd been so off base with Thabang; maybe she was wrong about everything else too â even her designs?
“Eish! I can't take this anymore!” Mpho said, pushing the evening gown away from her. “Anyway, I need to get out of here. I start work at two.”
Piet looked up from his design that had a piece of fabric with cowboys on horses stuck to it. “Forget about her, girl; you have talent.”
* * *
Mpho bumped into Marika on the way to work. “Guess what?” her friend asked excitedly.
“I don't know â what?” Mpho was not in the mood for guessing.
“My parents are coming on Sunday. We're going out to lunch with Ishmael.”
“Do they know he's Indian?”
“Of course, with a name like Ishmael!”
“But did you tell them he's your boyfriend?”
“Okay . . . yeah . . .
I haven't told them yet. I'll tell them when they're here. I didn't think it was something to say over the phone.”
“Yes, you're probably right.”
They walked toward Monate; their shift was just about to start.
Suddenly Mpho felt odd. She was sad and excited at the same time; what was happening to her? She looked behind them and there was Ishmael. “What is that smell?” she asked him accusingly.
“And hello to you too, Mpho,” Ishmael said. He grabbed Marika in his long arms and gave her a kiss. “How's it, babe?”
“I'm just getting in to work. What's up?”
“I came by to let you know I won't see you tonight. I'm off to Cape Town for work. The flight leaves in two hours.”
Marika looked stricken. “What about lunch and my parents? It's Sunday, did you forget?”
Ishmael smiled. “Of course not. I'll be back tomorrow morning at nine. No problem.” He kissed her again. “I've got to run.”
“No!” Mpho heard her voice, panicked and too loud, and knew why Marika and Ishmael were looking at her so strangely. “Sorry . . . I just . . . What aftershave is that, Ishmael?”
She knew it was Thabang's. She would never forget it. Just the whiff she got from this distance was enough to pull her back into a whirlwind of Thabang emotions.
“Aftershave?” Marika asked. “Are you okay, Mpho?”
“You like it? I splurged when I got my promotion. It's some French stuff called Givenchy Pi Neo. Seriously expensive.”
Mpho was floating, lost in her memories. She hadn't seen Thabang for days and thought that maybe she was over him and would be okay now. But with one whiff she knew she wasn't and maybe never would be.
* * *
Saturday afternoons at Monate Takeaways were boring. They had few customers. Everybody had gone home already. Mpho and Marika quietly washed down counters and cleaned out fridges. Both were busy with their thoughts. Mpho worried that her fashion career was headed for disaster. Marika wondered how red her father's face would get when she told him she planned to marry Ishmael. Anyone listening to their intermittent conversation would think they were crazy.
“I won't go home, even if he wants me to.”
“I can't change my designs now; it's too late.”
“They'll love him; they have to.”
“If I fail, I fail â but I'm sticking to my ideas.”
Mr Habib came from the back office. “Shall I give you girls a lift when we knock off?”
“A lift? Why?” Mpho asked, pulled from her thoughts.
“To my house. You remember tonight is Mrs Habib's party. I invited you weeks ago. I hope you didn't make other plans. Mrs Habib will be so disappointed.”
Marika quickly chipped in, “No, of course we didn't forget. Yes, we'd appreciate a lift from you.”
Mr Habib smiled, relieved. “Today I am sixty years old, which is a long time to have lived. One must celebrate such an achievement.”
Mpho smiled at her boss. “It certainly is a milestone, Mr Habib.”
Mpho and Marika rushed to the women's rest rooms to get ready. “God, I can't believe we forgot all about Mr Habib's party!” Marika said while trying to wash herself in the basin.
“There's just been too much going on. I've had school and Thabang, and you've been thinking about your parents and Ishmael. To be honest, though, I could use the distraction. I'm going nuts with uncertainty about the show.”
Marika pulled on the trousers she'd bought when Mpho took her shopping. “And your doubts about Thabang.”
“I have no uncertainty about him,” Mpho said, annoyed. “I am through with that man. Full stop. End of discussion.”
Marika was leaning forward over the basin to get a better look at where the mascara she was applying was actually ending up. She looked in the mirror at her friend behind her. “Well, that's what you say but honestly, I don't buy it.”
Mpho quickly put on lipstick and then picked up her bag to go. “Doesn't matter what you buy or not; I know the truth. My fling with Thabang Modise has come to an end.”
* * *
The party had already started when they arrived. Mpho was glad Marika had worn her new clothes that afternoon when she came to work. The transformation was incredible. Mpho really did know something about fashion, no matter what Ms Bennet said.
The two friends were surprised when they saw all the guests who came to wish Mr Habib a happy birthday. In South Africa where the different races were still learning to come together, Mr Habib's tidy little house on the edge of Soweto reflected a true rainbow nation. He had friends from all racial groups and ages and they filled the entire house, pouring out into the back patio and the colourful garden.
Marika and Mpho got drinks and moved outside. There was a small stage set up and a band was playing popular South African tunes. Just then the lead singer, a stringy white man, was singing a Freshlyground song. A few people were dancing. If this was one of Mrs Habib's “small get-togethers”, Mpho wondered what her parties were like.
Mrs Habib saw the girls standing around, looking a little lost, rushed over and pulled them to her bosom smelling of baby powder. “Oh, I'm so pleased you could come. We must have everyone in the family here for Mr Habib's celebration. Please come with me. Let's get you some food.”
Mrs Habib led them inside to a table laden with all types of Indian food: a variety of curries and different types of rice. Samoosas and rolled chapatis. Nan bread and all types of veggies. Mrs Habib was not happy until their plates were heaped with food. They went back into the garden and sat on a cement bench to the side of the stage.
Mpho looked up from her food and sniffed the air. Then she looked around.
“What is it?” Marika asked.
“I thought Ishmael was going to Cape Town.”
“Yes, he is there. I just got an SMS saying his meeting is finished and he's at the hotel.” Marika looked at Mpho, confused. “What's up? You're sniffing the air like a bloodhound.”
“Are you sure he didn't come back early?”
“Yes . . . What is wrong with you today?” Marika shook her head.
Mpho went back to her food, trying to ignore her nose. “I don't know. Maybe I worked too late last night. My head is a mess.” But she was sure she smelled that aftershave again: the Givenchy Ishmael was wearing. Maybe she was going crazy. Or maybe one of the guests wore the same aftershave.
“They look so happy,” Marika said, watching Mr and Mrs Habib across the crowded lawn. “I hope I'll have that one day â a happy marriage.”
“Me too,” Mpho said as Mr and Mrs Habib entered the dance floor to the loud applause of their friends. “You know, they couldn't have children. But it doesn't matter, because they love each other. That's all that was important.”
“I can't stop thinking about tomorrow. I hope my parents will behave.” Marika looked upset.
“Just remember . . . You are a Joburg woman, not a Rustenburg girl! They can't push you around anymore.”
“You make me sound like some kind of superhero.”
“Maybe you are,” Mpho said.
Marika smiled at her friend and gave her a hug with her free arm.
The bandleader came to the microphone and announced that some friends wanted to say a few words. People sat down in the chairs scattered around the garden. One by one, people went on the stage and told stories about Mr Habib. They spoke about how he had helped them or they told entertaining anecdotes about silly things he had done. A short, round white man said that he was Mr Habib's accountant. He told a funny story about Mr Habib's fear of computers and how that meant the accountant was forever doomed to go through metres and metres of long, thin white paper from his adding machine. The man got off the stage and Mpho's heart jumped into her throat. She felt her stomach flip.
“Look, it's Thabang,” Marika said. Mpho heard her far away in the distance, even though she was sitting next to her.
Mpho looked at him. He wore sleek black trousers and an open-necked, white silk shirt. Both the trousers and the shirt hugged his body. She could see his wide, muscular shoulders and his strong thighs. His dreadlocks were pulled back in a ponytail. Mpho felt a physical pull to him, as if she couldn't stop herself. She ached to rub her hand down the side of his arm to feel the ripples under the smooth cloth. She shook her head to clear it, but it didn't help.
When Thabang stood at the microphone, everyone became silent. People knew about his success with Mmino Productions, but it was more than that. There was a commanding presence about him up there. He was in control: a silent, gentle authority immediately respected by everyone.
Mpho shifted back a bit so that she was hidden slightly by the hibiscus bush next to her. She didn't think Thabang had seen her, at least she hoped not. She didn't need this today. After Ms Bennet's attack on her designs she was feeling vulnerable. She was tired and stressed, not at all sure she could handle another interaction with Thabang. Why couldn't he just move away to Cape Town or overseas? She needed serious distance from him to get over everything. This constant contact was not working. Every time she saw the man, all her efforts to get over him melted away.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Thabang Modise.” A few people laughed. Everyone knew who he was. “I used to work for Mr Habib at Monate Takeaways. Thanks to him, I now own a successful business. It's not common for someone to help another person in these times. Everyone is looking out for themselves only. When I met Mr Habib, I was just a skinny teenager from a poor family, struggling with my mother to get food to eat and keep a roof over our heads. But Mr Habib saw something else. He listened to my dream and he saw me there. And then he showed me how I could also see myself there. And as if that wasn't enough, he gave me money to make that dream come true. I consider Morena Habib a friend, a mentor and, probably more importantly, a father. Happy birthday, Tate! Happy birthday!”