Authors: Lauri Kubbuitsile
Everybody raised their glasses to Mr Habib and when Mpho looked in her boss's direction she could see tears pouring down his cheeks even though he was smiling broadly. The music started again and people began to dance.
“Thabang is lovely,” Marika said.
“Please don't say that. I can't bear for him to be lovely today.” Mpho quickly finished the last of her punch.
“Let me go and get us some more.” Marika reached forward, taking their empty plates and glasses.
“Bring me the spiked punch this time,” Mpho said.
“So, has it come to that, then?” Marika asked jokingly.
Mpho smiled. “I guess it has.”
She sat watching the crowd of people dancing to Brenda Fassie's
. Mpho smiled, thinking about all the times Jakes and Thabang's band had played that song. No matter what crowd, everyone loved that song. She was lost in her memories and smelled the warning of his aftershave only seconds before he sat down next to her on the bench. “So, are you enjoying yourself?”
Mpho looked around. Where was Marika with that punch? The conditions had changed. It had now become an emergency â she needed the bolstering of a bit of alcohol and the distraction of another person. “Yes, I am,” she just barely managed.
“I didn't know you'd be here. I saw Marika inside. She told me where to find you. Here you go.” He handed her a glass of punch.
Traitor, Mpho thought. She would sort the meddling Marika out later! She downed half the glass and closed her eyes, trying to breathe in the cool night air and calm her jittery nerves. Please, please, please behave, she told her body which was getting out of control being so close to Thabang.
Before she could settle her body or thoughts, Thabang took her hand in his. “Mpho, I'm so glad I ran into you . . . I so wanted to see you.”
No, no, no, Mpho repeated in her head. She didn't want this. She did not want Thabang Modise in her life. No, no, no. But why was her stomach jumping? Why did she feel a surge of happiness just having him near? Why did she wish he'd hold her hand forever? But still she tried to line up the forces against him. She tried to list all of the evidence that said he was wrong for her, that he was a bad guy:
1. He was a liar.
2. He was a thief.
3. He was manipulative.
4. He couldn't be trusted.
5. He wanted to ruin her career and turn her into a helpless housewife.
6. He . . . He . . .
Mpho struggled with her list. He was still holding her hand. He was still smelling so lovely. She was still shaking. No, no, no.
“What'd you say?” Thabang asked, breaking into her inner turmoil.
“Say? Did I say something?” Had she spoken her list out loud? Mpho was seriously wondering if she was beginning to lose her mind. Was he pushing her to the edge of sanity? Was she going to turn into one of those women who pushed their belongings around in a shopping trolley and spent the day talking to an invisible friend?
Mpho shook herself, downed the rest of her drink and ordered herself to get a grip.
“Can I get you some more punch?” Thabang asked.
“Yes!” Mpho said a bit too desperately.
When he was gone, Marika came rushing up. “So, how's it going?” She was all smiles and excitement until she saw Mpho's face.
“What do you think you're doing? Whose side are you on?” Mpho asked.
“Yours. The problem is I don't think
are on your side.”
“What does that mean?”
Marika looked to see if Thabang was coming back yet but he was queuing at the punch bowl. “It means that I think Thabang is great. I think you need to chill out. So he made a few mistakes. We aren't all perfect like you. Humans make mistakes. Please give him a chance.”
Mpho listened but refused to let any of it sink in. She didn't want this. She certainly didn't need this. And besides, she should know which side was her side and Marika should follow her lead â not the other way around. Mpho knew what was best for herself.
Marika looked over her shoulder. Thabang was heading back in their direction. “Listen, I'm going home.”
“Wait! I thought we came together?”
“I'm getting a lift with Bibi.” Bibi worked with them at Monate Takeaways.
“Then I'm coming too.” Mpho made to get up, but Marika pushed her back down on the bench.
“No, Bibi only has room for me.” Just then Thabang came up to them and handed Mpho her punch. “Maybe Thabang can give you a lift home,” Marika said, smiling hopefully in his direction.
“Sure, no problem,” he said.
Mpho gave Marika a furious look. Marika ignored the glare and kissed her friend on the cheek. “Bye-bye,” she said and off she went.
Thabang and Mpho sat on the bench watching the dancers and not saying anything for a while. The night was warm with a slight breeze. Mpho looked up at the sky. Despite the Joburg lights, stars could be seen flickering down on the party.
“Lovely evening,” Thabang said, breaking the silence.
“I don't know how things became such a mess between us. I wish we could go back to those days when we hung out in the back room of the community hall, drinking Coke and playing music. We were kids and everything seemed so straightforward then. It wasn't complicated.”
But for Mpho nothing that involved him was ever straightforward. Even as a teenager being in his presence was problematic. Easy never played a role in her interactions with Thabang Modise. The band played a cover of the Norah Jones song
Come Away With Me
. Couples cleared the dance floor. This crowd only danced the fast ones. Slow songs signalled time to fill empty glasses and wipe the sweat from glistening foreheads.
Thabang took her hand in both of his. “Will you dance with me, Mpho?”
His eyes begged her to say yes. They looked so genuine and honest. Still she hesitated; she knew it would make everything worse. Getting physically closer to Thabang was not a good idea. “I don't know. Maybe we should go . . . I have to get up early tomorrow . . .”
While she protested, he led her carefully to the dance floor. He took her in his strong arms and her words disappeared into the night.
He moved gently against her. The aftershave worked its stealthy magic and suddenly she was nowhere. Mpho was not dancing in Mr Habib's backyard. She floated in a glorious space with cushioned floors and the music formed a safe blanket around them, keeping the problematic world at bay.
Thabang whispered in her ear, “Do you feel this? Do you feel how perfect this is? This was meant to be. Can't you see?”
Mpho said nothing. She knew a word, just one single word, would break the spell. She didn't want to be pulled back to reality. She wanted to live forever with Thabang's hard, strong body pressed against hers. She wanted to feel the way he longed for her, the way she ached for him too. The music circled and swirled around them. Notes slipped between their lips, moved among the curves and edges of their bodies. The notes held them together. As long as the music played, they were safe in their unreality. Inside the music, they were what both longed to be, just two people in love â easily and simply in love.
Thabang's able hands moved up and down her back, leaving trails of tingling behind them. His strong thighs guided her around the dance floor. His lips lightly brushed against her neck and cheeks. She leaned into him, her breasts pressing against his chest with only thin fabric keeping their skins apart.
With a shock the music stopped and the notes fled, abruptly denying the magic they held only seconds before. The glue that held them together and the blanket of music that had kept them safe from the world around them fell away. They were vulnerable again. They were two people again, not one, as the music had deceived them into believing. Their problems barged back in and they stood apart looking at each other, confused about where they were to go now.
“I need to get home,” Mpho said, struggling to speak.
“Okay, I'll take you,” Thabang answered, robotlike.
* * *
They drove in silence through the lit streets of Joburg. Mpho watched the passing scenery without seeing a thing. She wanted to speak but what could she say? That she loved Thabang but could never be with him? That she could feel the attraction between them but that they would never be able to act on it? That maybe he was right thinking they were destined to be together but it could never work? What was the use of speaking the truth when the words were so tortuous?
Thabang pulled his car up in front of No 78. He shut off the engine and turned to Mpho. She made no move to get out. She didn't want to leave, though she knew she couldn't stay.
“I don't know what I've done wrong. I wish I did. I can't help it, Mpho, no matter how much you push me away, I know I love you. It's a fact. I can't pretend it's not true.” He sat staring at his hands on the steering wheel.
“I need to go,” Mpho said but didn't leave. She stayed fixed in the moment. They were frozen.
Then Thabang turned to her and pulled her to him. He kissed her with a wildness that caught her off guard. He was desperate and reckless.
She pushed away from him. “No! I need to go.” Mpho opened the door but before she got out she turned to him, her eyes brimming with tears that would later pour throughout the night and soak her pillow with sadness. “We can't do this to each other anymore. It's too much. It's just too much. We need to accept that we can never be together. It can't work. We can't do this anymore.”
Thabang looked at her with resignation. She had finally succeeded in what she'd been trying to do for so many days. She finally got him to understand that they would not be together, ever. “Okay, if that's what you want. I don't understand any of this . . . But the fighting is killing me. I agree we can't do this anymore.
Mpho got out of the car and closed the door behind her. She walked up to No 78. Once inside the front door, she heard Thabang drive away. She collapsed against the wall, all her strength gone. He is gone, she told herself, gone for good. She stumbled up the stairs and unlocked the flat.
Jakes stood like a ghost in the empty sitting room. His voice from the darkness startled her. “I thought I told you to stop seeing him!”
Mpho looked at her brother but did not reply. His words hung in the air, waiting to pounce on her. Maybe in the morning she could endure them but not right then, not after the night she'd had. She went to her room and locked the door, ignoring her brother's knocks and falling face down on her bed. Finally she let the pent-up tears flow freely.
The weak city sun shone through the window. Mpho lay in bed, listening to the sounds of her family getting ready for church. Annabella snuck into the room they shared and sat on the bed next to her. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Mpho lied.
“I heard you come in last night. I heard you crying and I heard Jakes. It was him, wasn't it â Thabang?” she whispered, not wanting the others to hear.
Mpho nodded her head and tears filled her eyes again. Would they ever dry up? she wondered.
“You need to stop seeing him. Otherwise you'll never get over the guy.”
“I know. I'm trying but then suddenly he's there. It's just too much. I love him, Annie. I can't deny that. I'm not going to act on it; I know it's wrong. But my heart loves him anyway.” Mpho started crying bitterly and Annabella took her in her arms.
“Oh, it's all such a mess. I'm sorry you have to go through this,” her cousin said. “But in the end I agree with Jakes. A man who does something like that is no good. If he stole from Jakes, imagine what he could do to you? You need to cut him from your life completely. It will be better for you if you end it now. Later it will be even more painful.”
Mpho knew Annabella was right. She just needed some time alone to think. “Can you tell them I'm sick? I can't face anyone this morning.”
“Sure, sweetie, I'll sort them out.” Annabella picked her shawl up from a nearby chair. “I'm off, then. See you later.”
Mpho listened as the flat's door closed and they all tramped down the stairs on their way to church. The sudden silence was a great relief. She knew she would have to face Jakes at some point but she was not up to it this morning.
Her cellphone bleeped and she reached for it on her bedside table. It was an SMS from Thabang: I can't stop thinking of you. You're the best thing that ever happened to me!
Mpho looked at the message. He was making everything so much harder. He needed to forget about her just as she was going to forget about him. She didn't want a greedy thief for a boyfriend. She didn't want a man who couldn't respect her and treat her like an adult. She was done with him, she told herself. What she needed was to get up and get busy.
She jumped out of bed and grabbed her bathrobe. In the shower she scrubbed at her body, trying to remove all traces of her problems. She wanted to be free and clear. She wanted her mind to be back under her control. She needed to get her priorities in order again. Right at the top was the graduate fashion show. She had six days to get ready and she intended to blow their minds. She didn't care what Ms Bennet thought. Her designs rocked and she knew it; now she just had to convince everyone else of that.
After a cup of tea, she was ready to face the world. She headed for the lab; she needed to get her life back on track.
* * *
Even though it was a Sunday morning a handful of students were already busy in the lab. Mpho greeted them and then settled in at her station. On the way there she suddenly got a brilliant idea for the problematic bodice she'd been fighting with. The leather was short and she'd been searching everywhere for more that matched. Now she realised she didn't need it. She decided to have lacing at both the front and the back to make up for the shortage of leather. Then she remembered the leftover black lace she had from her third-year project.
Mpho dug through her bag of materials and found it. She added a border of black lace at the top and the bottom of the leather bodice, giving it a corset look. She smiled and put it on the evening gown hung on her dress dummy. She'd finally got the drape of the skirt right and now the bodice fitted beautifully. It added such a sexy, racy edge to the dress. I'm going to knock them out cold, Mpho thought to herself.
Her cellphone rang. It was Marika. Mpho thought she'd be getting ready for the big lunch with her parents but then she looked up at the clock and saw that it was already 3pm. She couldn't believe how time had flown!
“Okay, are you mad at me?” her friend asked cautiously.
“I should be but I know you thought you were doing the right thing last night. Though, for future reference â you weren't,” Mpho said. “So how was the lunch?”
“You're not going to believe it.”
“Believe what? Did your parents go ballistic?” Mpho was getting worried.
“No! They loved him! Ishmael charmed their pants off. I couldn't believe it!”
“Why?” Mpho joked. “From what you've told me he's charmed your pants off more than once already.”
“Mpho!” Marika said, shocked. Despite her move to the big city her attitude to sex was rooted in her traditional childhood. “I am so relieved. I never ever thought things would turn out so wonderfully.”
“I told you, you're a Joburg woman who'll sort out your conservative parents by using the charms of a handsome Indian man! Don't underestimate your superhuman powers, Marika. I wouldn't be surprised if Joburg Woman didn't sort out a few more issues before the weekend finishes.”
They both laughed.
“You're in a good mood. So things went well with Thabang last night?” Marika asked.
“No, they went badly, but at least I think it's finally done. It's over and I don't want to talk about Thabang Modise ever again. What I do want to talk about is how fabulous my evening gown looks!”
“I'm sorry . . .” Marika started.
“Sorry for what? I told you, no more Thabang Modise talk. That's old news. History.”
“Okay . . . but . . .”
“Promise,” Marika agreed reluctantly. “Glad your gown has come right. I can't wait to see it.”
“I'm going to dazzle them all,” Mpho said, not sounding quite as convincing as she would have before Thabang was mentioned. “Just wait and see.”
* * *
When Mpho got to the top of the stairs in No 78 she could hear her brother's voice behind the door. She knew it was time to finish the late-night conversation he'd started. She opened the door and found everyone getting ready to sit down to Sunday dinner.
“Just in time, my baby,” MmaJakes said. “Go and put your things away. We'll wait for you.”
Mpho smiled but said nothing. Jakes glared at her but stayed silent too, though Mpho could tell it wouldn't last. She put her bags in her room, washed her hands, came back to the table and sat down. The silence pressed on everyone.
Annabella tried to ease the tense mood. “So, how are your dresses coming along?”
“Great, I got a lot done today.” Mpho took a bite of her chicken. She couldn't stand the tension and decided to get the problem out into the open. She turned to Jakes. “About last night . . .”
“Yes,” he blurted. “What about it? I thought you understood that Thabang Modise was a thief . . . a danger to this family.” He stood up. It was obvious that her brother had been holding in what he wanted to say all day. It spilled out of him like water breaking the floodwall. “Do you know what stealing my song has cost me? Kagiso and I could have been married long ago. I would have had more than enough to pay lobola.”
“I don't see what that has to do with Thabang . . .” Mpho tried.
“Do you want to defend that man?” Jakes was getting increasingly angry. He stood up and paced back and forth. Everyone stopped eating and watched him. “I've never told anyone this but I've even wondered if he went to a traditional doctor to make sure all I ever got was bad luck, so I could never make him pay for taking my song. When I found out he was making money with
I thought of getting lawyers but I knew I'd never be able to afford them. Maybe he made sure I never could. Every time I've just about raised lobola, something crops up. How many times has that happened? At this rate Kagiso and I may never get married. All because of Thabang Modise, someone I regarded as a friend, even a brother. You see, Mpho . . . that's how he operates . . . He gets close and then he takes what he wants and leaves.”
MmaJakes stood up and went to her son. “Please, Jakes, don't say such things. Aunty Koki might hear. Please, it's all over and done with now . . . Thabang would never go to traditional doctors. That's crazy talk; you're just angry. His mother is a good Christian woman. He would never do that.”
“Mama, many people in your church go to traditional doctors. I thought he was gone out of my life and I was trying hard to get over it all but now Mpho keeps bringing him back. She was with him last night!”
MmaJakes's head swung around to her daughter. “Is that true, Mpho?”
“Yes, Mama. He was at Mr Habib's birthday party and he gave me a lift home. That's all.”
Jakes's eyes flashed at her. “That's all? You're lying! I saw him kissing you!”
Now it was Mpho's turn to be annoyed. “So you were spying on me? When will you get it into your thick head that you're not my father? I'm a grown woman! I can take care of myself!”
“Apparently not,” Jakes said, slightly calmer. “I told you, Thabang Modise is dangerous. He's a manipulative thief who doesn't care for his family or friends but whenever I turn my back, there you are with him again.”
“You know what? I'm sick of this conversation. You aren't my boss, Jakes! I will do what I want! But for your information, that kiss you saw was a goodbye kiss. Thabang and I are done. Now do you think you can leave me alone to live my own life once and for all?” Mpho was standing, the veins in her neck pulsed and her fists were balled at her sides.
Her brother sat back down as if nothing had happened. He picked up his fork and began to eat again. Then he calmly said, “Fine, that's all I wanted.”
Mpho headed out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going, my baby? You've hardly eaten anything!” MmaJakes called after her.
Without turning Mpho said, “I've lost my appetite.”
* * *
Mpho knew Monday would be a squeeze but if everything went according to schedule she would be fine. But fine was not to be the theme of the day, and she might have realised this as soon as she stepped into work and found Mrs Habib behind the till with a queue of impatient customers waiting to pay. “What's up? Where's Mr Habib?” Mpho asked.
“Oh, this bloody thing! Why can't it just do what I tell it to do?” Mrs Habib shouted at the cash register. She and her husband shared the anti-technology gene and the machines around them seemed to take it personally. “Mr Habib is in bed with the flu.”
“Let me do that.” Mpho took over the till and quickly dealt with the line of customers.
Marika arrived fifteen minutes later. “Sorry . . . I know I'm late . . . But please have mercy on me and don't ask. It has to do with accounts and I'd really rather forget about it,” she said as she rushed to the back to take over the cooking from Mrs Habib who was struggling. Mrs Habib hardly ever came to the takeaway and had only a vague idea of where things were and how they were done. Mpho could smell something burning and then she heard the sound of water giving a loud hiss and Mrs Habib exclaiming, “Oh, my!”
The whole morning Marika and Mpho dashed from one near disaster to the next with Mrs Habib trying to help but just getting in the way. When the second shift showed up, Mpho nearly kissed them with relief. Still, she and Marika had to work overtime to clean up the mess. Normally they managed to do that between customers but there had been no free time during their shift.
When they were finished, Mpho looked up at the clock. “Oh no, 14:30! I'm late. We're choosing models today! Oh crap, crap, crap!” She didn't have time to change out of her uniform and sprinted down the length of the mall to the taxi stop. She was already an hour late. By the time she got there, all of the good models would be taken. Mpho knew that the models could make or break a designer. Especially with her designs, she needed the right look.
* * *
The designers were choosing models in the main hall of the college. The models were all volunteers, mainly other students. Mpho rushed in and could see by the handful of girls standing around bored on the stage and the empty seats where the designers had been that most of the choosing was done. She sat down next to Piet. “God, you're late! And you really dressed for the occasion,” he said.
Mpho looked down at her dirty Monate Takeaways uniform and smiled. Ms Bennet was on the stage. “Okay, do we have any other designers who need models?” Mpho raised her hand. “Ms Kgosiemang, how nice of you to show up. How many do you need?”
“Okay, ladies,” Ms Bennet said to the models. “Can you line up and walk along the stage one by one to let the designer make her choices?”
A few of the girls left. It was late and they probably had classes or thought they didn't stand a chance. There were only five models to choose from. Mpho wanted a certain look and no one on the stage had it. “Damn,” she whispered.
Two of the girls were tall, classically beautiful white women. Somehow Mpho wanted something more remarkable. Her designs were not off-the-peg Woolies stuff. She wanted models with a bit of an edge. That left the other three â a shortish Indian girl with bad skin, a tall, dark black woman she thought would be perfect for the cocktail dress, and a coloured girl who seemed far too enamoured of herself and kept prancing back and forth, flinging her long hair over her shoulder and throwing her legs out in front of her as if they were fighting with her body. But Mpho knew she had no other choice. She'd have to make do. “Okay, number 4, number 17 and number 22,” she said.
She got up and turned to Piet. “So what's up? Did you get your models?”
“Get real. I didn't expect to find any country-and-western stars here!” Mpho laughed. Piet was seriously in his own little world. “I'll get my own models.”
Mpho rushed up to the stage before her models could disappear. “If you all have some time now, maybe we could go to the lab and take a look at the designs.” They agreed, though No 17, the coloured girl who Mpho silently named Miss Hair, was none too pleased about it. She informed Mpho that she had a “hectic schedule” so it couldn't take long.