They Call Me Nothing
by Jenny Lee Young
Coming to the church was probably a mistake. What if they know? What if they call the police? I listen intently, ready to run. No gunshots, no running feet, only the uneven pounding of my heart. I feel exposed. For seven years I have been invisible, a nothing. Nobody sees me. Nobody knows me. Am I really willing to give up my only protection? It seems to me now, in the light of day, that my decision of last night was only a dream. A foolish, childish dream.
I picture in my mind what might happen…the lady at reception glances up from her fashion magazine when I enter. She looks at me, a question forms on her well made-up face. She consults her computer for confirmation, then, with fear in her eyes, asks me to sit. She tries to look casual and unconcerned as she lifts the phone and murmurs something into it behind her hand. “Somebody will come and help you soon,” she says and leaves the room with a quick, nervous, high heel clatter. Ten minutes later three burly policemen rush in behind their shiny guns. They are disappointed that I am so small and so unresisting. They had been ready for a fight. Will they hit me and push me anyway? Will they put handcuffs on me? Will they throw me into the back of one of those horrible, barred police vans? Or, even worse, my mouth goes dry, will they handcuff me to the back of the vehicle and drag me along? I’ve read about that happening. The man died.
I turn slowly and start walking back. That was close! I get to the corner and check for traffic. Behind a bread delivery truck, a man in blue overalls crosses the road. I wonder if he is a mechanic like Baba was. I haven’t thought about Baba in a very long time. Why now? What would he say if he saw me here?
I think he’d say, “A man must have courage, my Son. If a lion runs away he is no better than a hyena.”
I hesitate then turn around again. The big rock in my tummy that had just begun to stop worrying me comes back with a thud. I’d better get it over with before I change my mind again. I walk quickly, pausing only to read the sign outside the church again.
“The Oasis Counselling Centre, where you can share life’s difficulties confidentially with trained carers…” Does confidentially mean what I think it means or is it cancelled if you are a criminal?
I ring the buzzer under the CCTV camera. Do I look respectable enough or do I look like what I am, a housebreaker? I wipe my clammy palms on the back of my grey school trousers. I thought school uniform was my best bet. I wait. My heart is beating like a tribal drum in my ears.
The gate springs open with a threatening click. I take a deep breath and walk through into the church garden. I am committed now. The rock in my stomach wobbles precariously. A strong scent of flowers encourages me. It is Spring. Time for new beginnings.
Discreet arrows lead to the counselling room. The door is partially open. I quickly shine my shoes on the back of my trouser legs and knock gently. A gogo looks up and smiles. She flicks her grey streaked hair away from her face. I slide in noiselessly. She looks at me. I feel like she actually sees me. I am not used to that. Usually I can come and go without being noticed.
“Hi, please sit down.” She points to two comfortable chairs next to a low coffee table.
My eyes scan the room. I note the tissues on the table. They look like they are embarrassed to be on the same table as the silver bowl of roses, as if they don’t belong. At the far end of the room are shelves of books behind glass doors. My eyes linger on them longingly. I’d love to be alone here with them. On the desk where the lady is sitting is a framed photo of a young girl holding a baby. Next to it is a box of chocolates and a cell phone. I sit down a little breathlessly. She gets up and joins me on the other comfortable chair.
“My name is Kay. I am here to help you.” Her blue eyes are friendly and look really interested in me. She tilts her head and raises her eyebrows expectantly.
The room is hot. The pause hovers between us like a piece of burned paper caught in the smoke of a fire. She is waiting for me to tell her my name. Words freeze in my throat. I do have a name but it is eight years since anybody used it. It’s like a book of fairy tales long abandoned, covered in dust in an old cupboard.
My mind tries to blow the dust off the book and open it. I remember scenes like pictures faded with age on yellowing paper.
I was seven years old. I strutted into my father’s repair yard with my report quivering in my pocket. I breathed the oily, dusty smell with pleasure. This was home, a small two bedroomed house in Jabulani, Soweto where my father had converted the garage and back yard area into a small motor repair shop. The old blue Pontiac was still there, waiting for its owners to find a good engine from the scrap yard. Baba was in the Pit under a red Toyota Corolla. The Pit was nothing but a sloped trench that Baba had dug himself so he could see the undersides of cars. He smiled when he saw me, his sweaty face shining like melted chocolate. I didn’t wait for him to wriggle his powerful body out from under the car. I ran to the Pit almost splitting with excitement.
“Baba, Baba! I came first in Grade One. Look!” I whipped out my report with a flourish. He took so long to open the envelope and take out the important document that I had to stop myself from tearing it out of his hands. Baba read through it slowly then started from the beginning and read it again. His eyes glowed and he put his shoulders back.
“Well done, Edwin. I am so proud of you.” He put out his arms to hug me but I stopped him.
“Don’t get oil on my school shirt. I haven’t changed yet. I came straight to show you.”
Baba laughed. “You are so like your mother! Always neat and tidy.” He ripped off a piece from the paper roll and put it between us, then gathered me to him. “Is that better?” He laughed again, a deep, vibrating bubbling of joy. I wriggled with pleasure. He smelled of oil and sweat.
Baba raised his voice so all his assistants and customers could hear. “Wozani nonke! This is my son, Edwin. He is the smallest in his class but he can read better than them all. I will buy him a special book.”
Baba already knew how much I loved books. Mama had introduced me to the library when I was just over three years old. She used to say, ‘If you can read, you can find out anything.”
Another picture comes to my mind. The Jabulani Library was a place of space. There was space to sit and look at books. There was space for older children to do homework. There was space for too many books to count. The children’s section alone was a large room with little plastic chairs and tables. Wooden display stands boasted about the bright colourful books they held.
“Books are your friends,” Mama told me. “You can take them with you wherever you go. I can’t buy you all the books I’d like to but you can take any three of the library books at a time for three weeks and then you bring them back and take others.”
I couldn’t believe it. “I can take the books away? For free? Mehale?” I was so excited I ran around like an aeroplane circling the nearest wooden stand. Mama had to shush me.
“The library is a quiet place. No running or playing. We talk softly so we don’t disturb the other people.” She smiled at me. She looked like she belonged in a quiet place. In her dark blue dress she looked like a little blue bird and I could picture her flying in the sky away from all the people.
I calmed down but couldn’t resist a little excited bounce now and then. I chose a big book with a green dragon on the front then another one with cars. I loved cars. The cars in the book had big eyes and smiles. Not like the cars in our garden.
“Do you like the animals or the worm?” I asked Mama, holding out two books.
“You choose Edwin, and that worm is actually a caterpillar. Can you say caterpillar?”
“Cet–a-pull,” I tried.
“Cat, not cet,” Mama said smiling. “If you are going speak English you must get the sounds right. CAT a Pilla.”
I didn’t understand it then but now I realise that Mama had this thing about English. Although both she and Baba were Zulu, she wanted me to be able to speak English well. I think it was because she had gone to a private school thanks to the generosity of Mrs Murdoch, a rich lady in Sandton and she knew how important a good education was.
In my mind I turn over another page in the fairytale.
The night before my fifth birthday I went to bed early but I was too excited to sleep. I could hear my parents talking from their bedroom.
“They are family,” Baba said. “It would be disrespectful not to invite them to Edwin’s party.”
Mama’s reply was too soft to hear.
“I know all that. I know you don’t like her lifestyle and I agree her new boyfriend is a skabenga, but you must be brave and put up with it. The boys are Edwin’s cousins. Nabazala! They are family.”
I must have fallen asleep soon after because I don’t remember any more but I think Mama was crying.
By morning I had forgotten the late night words. As soon as I woke up, I ran to my parent’s room and bounced on the bed. “Baba, it’s my birthday. I am five! I am big now.”
Baba wiped his eyes with his big hand and then stretched. “Martha, wake up. There’s a boy in our bed who tells me he is five. Do you know anything about that?”
Mama pretended to look puzzled. “Are you sure, David?”
I was bouncing on the bed. “It’s me. I’m Edwin. It’s my birthday!”
“Birthday is it? What happens at birthdays?”
“Presents! Everybody knows that.”
Baba looked at Mama. “Do you know anything about a present?”
Mama smiled. “No, do you?”
“Well, I wonder what this is under the bed.” Baba reached under the bed and took out a shiny red parcel wrapped with gold ribbon. “Will this do?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” I said, remembering my manners just in time.
At first I didn’t know what it was. In the wrapping was a shiny black box about as thick as Mama’s diary. Underneath was something I recognised. A book! It had a picture of a bull on the outside. Inside the cover was a pocket containing a flat circle. I took it out. In the middle was the same picture of the bull around a hole.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” said Baba. He took the flat circle and put it in a slit in the black box. There was a noise then a voice said “This is the story of Ferdinand, the Bull.”
“It’s a TV without the picture,” I said.
“It’s a CD player to play your Book CD. You look at the pictures and it tells the story and it will tell you when to turn over.”
It was the best present ever. I played the story over and over again.
The picture fades. It is only a fairy tale. Fairy tales aren’t real. Another picture takes its place.
It was my birthday party four days later. It was the first time we’d had a party for my birthday or, for that matter, ever since I could remember. Mama was wearing a new dress. It had black and white stripes going in different directions on the top and on the skirt. She took off the black jacket to cook and prepare the food.
“You look like a pretty Zebra,” I said, stroking the material.
“I hope your hands are clean,” said Mama. She patted my back. “Now I am going to need you to help me. Gogo has hurt her foot and can’t walk very well.”
Gogo was my Mama’s mother. She arrived early, hobbling on a new walking stick. She was wearing a flowing purple skirt and matching jacket that I hadn’t seen before.
“Gogo, it’s my party today. I am five, you know.” I ran to give her a big hug, almost unbalancing her on her walking stick. “What happened to your leg?”
She coughed her hacking cough. “I think it was a spider bite. Do you want to see?” She pulled up her skirt and showed me her leg which was very swollen.
“Sit down, I’ll look after you,” I said. I stayed near her when all the other people started coming.
“Who’s that?” I kept asking.
“That’s your Dad’s youngest brother, Stanley,” she’d say, or “That’s your aunt Letty, your mother’s older sister and your cousins, Sipho and Lucky.” She sniffed.
I stared at this bright and loud lady. She was Mama’s sister? She wore a very low top and very tight red pants. I thought my granny didn’t like her clothes. Aunt Letty was followed by two boys. The taller one with the ears like tea cup handles must be Sipho. Mama had told me he was nine. Lucky seemed to be like his shadow. He was seven. I smiled shyly at them. They were my cousins.
“And who’s that man,” I asked, pointing to a man wearing a tight yellow shirt with no sleeves and tight denim jeans with holes in them. On his head he wore a yellow hat that almost covered his eyes. I thought he looked like a canary. He walked like it was his house not Mama’s and Baba’s.
“That’s your aunt’s new boyfriend.” She looked away and started coughing again. So that’s what a skabenga looked like!
I wasn’t quite sure what I was expected to do. Mama didn’t talk much to the people and was mostly in the kitchen. Looking back, I don’t think she was comfortable around Baba’s big family. Most times Baba would go on his own to visit his family and Mama and I would stay home.
I ran between the kitchen and the outside helping carry plates and dishes. “Sipho, give Edwin his present,” Aunt Lettie said. She wobbled her red bottom as she went to sit on the lap of the canary man. “Come on Baby, lighten up.” She ran her painted fingernail gently down his cheek.
Sipho came to me holding a round parcel. I couldn’t take my eyes off his sticking out ears. I unwrapped a plastic soccer ball and scrunched the wrapping paper into a ball.
“Ngiyabonga,” I said in my best Zulu.
“Let’s play,” said Sipho. He took the ball and started bouncing it with his head.
“I’m just going to throw the paper in the dustbin,” I said. I was very impressed with the way he could control the ball with his head. By the time I came back my cousins were playing a game with the ball. I tried to join them but they ignored me. I felt cheated. It was MY ball.
Baba noticed my unsuccessful attempts to join the game. “Edwin, show your cousins what you got for your birthday,” he suggested.
I went to fetch my CD player and the CD. Sipho and Lucky stopped the game and followed me. “It’s a CD player,” I said. I put the disc in the slot like Baba had showed me.
“Wow,” said Sipho, “That’s really cool.” He grabbed the CD player and started pushing all the buttons. With a click the CD popped out again. “Look Lucky, it’s like a baby Frisbee.” He dropped the CD player and ran outside with the disc.
“Give it back, give it back!” I called running after them. My short legs couldn’t match theirs and soon they were playing Frisbee with my disc. Every time I got close to one of my cousins, he would skim it to his brother.
Gogo finally came to my rescue. “Sipho, give your cousin his CD now.”
“OK. Eish! I’ve dropped it.” Sipho deliberately dropped the CD onto the hard dusty ground then stamped on it firmly with his heel. It cracked in two.
Gogo slashed at him with her walking stick and managed to hit him across his bottom. Sipho wailed and went running to Aunt Lettie. I was also crying. My new best, best birthday present was broken. I ran around the corner to Baba’s pit. There was no car over it now. I jumped in and pulled a big piece of cardboard over me. Tears ran down my face and tasted salty as they ran onto my lips. My breath came in gulps like hiccups. I didn’t like birthday parties.
Baba found me there half an hour later. I had cried myself to sleep. He put his strong hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Son, you must be brave. If a lion runs away, he is no better than a hyena. We will get you another CD. Come now, it’s time to blow out the candles and eat cake.”
“First, I need to wash my face,” I said, “and look at my new shirt! It is all dirty.”
Baba picked me up and swung me around in his arms. “For once, I am cleaner and tidier than you. Look, Mama even made me polish my shoes.” He did look smart in his blue patterned African shirt and smart trousers. I was used to seeing him in greasy blue overalls. He put me down with a hug. “Off you go then, I’ll see you by the birthday cake.” Baba could fix anything.
By concentrating hard, I stop the memories. They are fairy tales, only for young children. I am not a child any more. In my mind I close the book firmly and sit on it.
I am back in the counselling room where the lady is still waiting for my name. How long has it been? I hope the sadness won’t escape from my eyes. Boys don’t cry.
I was right. It was a mistake to come here. I can’t do this. How do I get out of here? I look at the lady. Are those tears in her eyes? Does she know what I’m thinking? She looks so sad. Can she read minds? My breathing is coming faster now and there still doesn’t seem to be enough air. What if she knows all about me? What if she can see what I’ve done? How does counselling actually work? Has she got second sight?
I don’t know what to do.
© Jenny Lee Young. All rights reserved.