They Call Me Nothing by Jenny Young

Winner of the August Short Story Competition: A defining moment.

They Call me Nothing

By Jenny Young

 

It was probably a mistake to come. Now that I am actually here it seems like my decision of last night was all a dream. Will they call the Police? The sign outside the church reads “The Lifegrow Care 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 scent of jasmine encourages me. Spring. New beginnings.

Discreet arrows lead to the counselling room. I knock gently on the door although it is partially open. A white gogo looks up and smiles. She flicks her grey streaked hair away from her face. I slide in noiselessly. She looks at me. 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 and a bowl of roses. At the far end there are shelves of books behind glass doors. My eyes linger on them. I love books. On the desk where the lady is sitting is a framed photo of a young man in a graduation gown and another of a girl in a long evening dress. There 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 ever so slightly and raises her eyebrows expectantly.

The pause hovers between us like a piece of burned paper caught in the updraft of a fire. She is obviously 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 a memory that I can’t forget.

 

I strutted into my father’s repair yard with my report quivering in my pocket. I breathed in the oily, dusty smell with pleasure. 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 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 streaked with grease. 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. His eyes glowed and he put his shoulders back. A smile reached almost to his ears.

“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 ripped off a piece from the paper roll and put it between us, then gathered me to him.

“Is that better?” He laughed. I wriggled with joy. He smelled of oil and sweat.”

Baba raised his voice for all to hear. “Wozani nonke! This is my son. He is the smallest in his class but he can read better than them all. I will buy him a special book.”

 

I hope the sadness won’t escape from my eyes. Boys don’t cry.

The lady is still waiting. I look at her. She gives a half-smile and a little sigh.

“I help out at the counselling centre three times a week. My children have left home so I have time to help other people.”

“Are those your children?” I point to the photos. My voice sounds rusty but at least some words get past my throat in a coarse whisper. She nods then takes a tissue and dabs under her nose.

“Steven and Sarah. They have gone to Cape Town to study. I miss them.” She hesitates.

“Do your parents know you are here?”

I feel like my heart has dropped suddenly into my stomach. Is it a problem? I force myself to breathe slowly and evenly but I can’t do anything about my heartbeat.

“My parents are dead.” The words sound flat to my ears but each one is like a dagger in my heart.

“I am so sorry. That must have made you very sad. Do you want to talk about it?” She grabs another tissue and blows her nose. It’s OK to blow your nose inside? I take a tissue too. My voice is soft, like air escaping from a punctured tyre. She leans forward.

“My father owned a car repair shop in Soweto. Two drug dealers wanted a place to store their stuff. They pushed an old beat-up Pontiac into the repair yard. Baba told them it couldn’t be fixed – it needed a new engine. They smiled their oily smiles and said no problem they would get one from a scrap yard. So the car just stayed there. One day Baba opened the boot and found bags of nyope stashed away. He called the police. They set a trap. They caught one of the Skabengas and took him to jail. The next day my father was shot in the yard next to all the cars. In his own yard. They shot him like a dog!” I feel the bitterness in me burning like sulphuric acid. What will this nice church lady think?

“That’s awful. You must hate them very much. It is only natural to be angry. You probably wish you could kill them.” She looks me in the eyes.

She does understand. “Yes, I wished I could kill them but I was only eight. I have always been small for my age. I had to look after Mama. She tried to do her best for me. She used to read to me every night from the book Baba had given me. It was called Stories of Heroes and Courage for Boys. Life was never the same. Her light had gone out like a torch when the batteries get flat and it just gets dimmer and dimmer. She got sick. The doctors say she died of pneumonia but I know she died of a broken heart. I used to wish I had died too. Maybe I did.”

“Why do you say that?”

“They call me Lutho. It means Nothing”

‘Who calls you that?” She is speaking gently, kindly.

“Everybody. My cousins, Sipho and Lucky.”

 

How can I explain to her? It is still such a painful memory. Sipho was four years older than me and big and strong. “Don’t think you are part of our family now. You are not. You are nothing! Lutho! Do you hear me?” His big ears seemed to quiver with indignation. His twelve-year-old voice cracked. That made him even madder.

“Lutho, You can’t sleep in our bed. You can sleep under it.”

His younger brother joined in. ”Hey look, Lutho is leaking! He’s making the pillow wet. Out! Out!” He pushed me off the bed. That was when Edwin died and Lutho took my place.

In the end I crept under my aunt’s bed. I felt safer with my mother’s sister. It was a link to my mother. All I wanted was her love. Any love she had to give was reserved for the parade of boy friends that came around.

I never told my aunt when her sons bullied me, when they stamped on my fingers, when they tore up my homework. I figured it was enough that she had to look after her sister’s child. Now that I come to think of it, I didn’t talk at all. I tried to be as little trouble as possible and to keep out of the way. That was until I ran away.

 

The lady is still looking at me, one hand cradled under her chin, listening to my silence.

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” I turn my head. My eyes stray to the bookcase. “What a lot of books!”

“I think you like books.” Did she notice I was looking at them? I had better not look at the cell phone. Or the chocolates.

“I sometimes go to the library. I read there and then I will take a book home. When I am finished reading it, I bring it back.” I don’t tell her that I don’t have a card and just leave with the books when nobody is watching. I do usually take them back though – I don’t have space to keep them. I can be invisible when I want.

“This is the church library. Would you like to borrow a book?” I nod, gazing at the book case.

She gets up and takes a bunch of keys out of the drawer and walks to the bookcase. I could so easily steal the phone. She shouldn’t leave it lying around like that. But it’s not my style. I only take things that won’t be noticed.

She holds out a small book lovingly. I read the title, I am David. My eyes start prickling. David was my father’s name. David Mabaso.

“It was my son’s favourite when he was your age. You can bring it back next time you come.”

I take the book. I feel like I have entered into a contract.

“I suppose you live nearby?”

Eish! She asks such difficult questions. I am not sure where I live. I ran away from Soweto when one of my aunt’s boyfriends got Sipho hooked on Nyope. He got my cousin to run errands for him, do deliveries. That was when I first stole. I put a loaf of bread and R10 from my aunt into my school bag and took a bus to Alexandra. I was so naïve then. I have a picture in my mind of ten-year-old Lutho, starving and shivering on the steps of this same church building. It is on the border between Alexandra and the white area.That was before they added the security fence and the fancy gate. It turned out to be the meeting place for my partners, a successful gang of burglars.

“Hey Bafana, want some food? Maybe you can help us. I have locked my keys in my house and these friends of mine have come to visit. Do you think you can get through the burglar bars and let me in?”

That first time I wasn’t scared. I thought I was helping. Afterwards it didn’t matter. Life was not worth living. If I got shot, I got shot. If I went to jail, I was as good as dead anyway. Later they paid me R50 per job. We still meet at the church at midnight when there’s a job on. But I don’t live with them.

Nor do I live in the yard with Gogo in 20th Street although I am certainly there a lot – especially for Sunday lunch when Gogo makes chicken for everybody. About eight families live there and there are lots of children. Everybody thinks I belong to somebody else, if they notice me at all. Only Stella, Gogo’s granddaughter, sometimes smiles at me when she is washing clothes at the same time as me. We don’t speak but we are comfortable together. She is different. She goes to school and works hard and does her homework and doesn’t dress up and try to attract boys. Most of the boys my age are in gangs anyway but nobody ever invites me to join. They think I am 12.

Gogo knows me I think. I try to make sure she doesn’t know about the stealing. She is tough but kind. She lets me sleep in her kitchen when it rains .

I suppose I live on the Church Property at the end of 20th street behind the spaza shop. The land was going to be a big Nigerian church. Some of the church members even started digging the foundations but they didn’t finish. Maybe the money ran out. Somebody drove a car over the north side foundation trench, perhaps to see if they could fix it like Baba used to. They probably couldn’t because now there is only an empty, rusty shell – no wheels, no seats, no doors and not much left of the engine. However, under it is my pit, surrounded by dumped appliances, old wood pieces, broken furniture. I have lined it with an old blanket and some plastic and that is where I sleep. Nobody knows I am there. I keep my treasure there – the book that Baba gave me, Mama’s brooch that I managed to keep from my cousins and a CD player that I stole. It has earphones and a remote. It only has one CD. It’s called “Bang Bang” and the title track starts with the sound of gunshots.

On the southern leg of the rectangular foundation trench, about 50 metres from my pit, is more junk, including an old mattress. Last week they found a teenage girl’s body there. She had been gang raped and strangled. That is the place they always take the girls. Usually the girls know what is going on and don’t fight, but this was the first time it had been a gang rape, and the girl had been murdered.

The white gogo clears her throat. I have forgotten the question. “Sorry, my mind was away. What did you ask?”

“I said, I suppose you live nearby.”

“Yes, in Alex. Just across the main road.” I was about to add 20th Street when I caught myself in time. Nobody can know where I live. They might tell the Police.

“So, why are you here?” This was the question I had been expecting. This was what had kept me awake all last night.

“I want to change. She called me a hero.”

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Well, you see, I love chocolate. I always buy chocolate when –“I must be careful here, “when I get paid. I take it up into the tree behind the spaza shop where I do my homework.” I don’t tell her that I never hand my homework in. I am not registered at the school but when there are more than 40 in a class, if you keep very quiet and don’t cause trouble, you just blend in.

“Anyway, yesterday I was up in my tree, eating chocolate. I noticed the walk first. It was the walk of a man who is about to…”.I am not sure how to put this politely.

“Have sex with a girl?” she shocks me a bit. How does she know? I nod.

“Yes, he was walking the tiger walk. Then I saw the ears and I recognised Sipho, my cousin. He is not supposed to be in Alex. He was wearing a leather jacket and gold chains around his neck. He looked rich. How dare he come to pollute Alex!” Heat runs through my face and I can’t breathe properly.

“Then what?”

“I looked around and then I saw the other two. One on the right and one on the left side of the road but a bit behind him. And then, the worst thing, I saw Stella. She is the granddaughter of a lady I visit some times. She’s the one they were watching.”

The gogo holds out the opened box of chocolates. I take one gratefully. My mouth is getting dry. It feels like I have a tissue in my mouth.

“Go on.”

“I couldn’t let it happen. I knew what they were going to do to her. She’s only ten. I had to stop them. I am not brave. I am not strong. I can’t fight.”

“So what did you do?”

“I have a CD player, see, and I have a CD with the sounds of gun shots on. I distracted them.’’

I could feel the scrape of the stony ground rubbing against me as I crawled on my belly along the foundation trench. I tried to control my breathing but I was panting and each breath was a nose full of dust. I heard the sickening noises, the scuffle, the scream that was muffled, the whispered threats.

“Ngangesaba! Sorry. I was so scared. I knew they would kill me if they saw me. Then I used the remote so the CD started. They got a fright and ran and I got Stella and we hid under a car. We lay there shaking. She was crying but trying not to make a noise. I thought they would hear our breathing if they turned around and came back. I nearly forgot to switch off the CD. I was so scared. She said I was a hero, but I was sooo scaaared!”

There is silence. I have risked everything. My invisibility. My way of life. What now?

“Lutho, courage is not the absence of fear. It is being scared but doing the right thing anyway. It is fear gripping the hand of God. It took courage to come here today. You are a hero.”

I feel the smile starting in my heart. “My name is Edwin. Edwin Mobaso. I am a hero.”

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