David watches the garden boy from his bedroom window. He peers through the bougainvillea, branches pruned to near nakedness, his breath forming asymmetrical shapes on the glass. The boy bends his body towards the earth, churns dark soils with the blunt edge of his spade. Clumps appear in the ground surrounding the rose bushes. Ripples of sun smoulder on his black skin, down narrow shoulders tapering to bony arms. He takes a moment to brush away the frenzy of bluebottles, his overalls streaked with dirt and tied around his waist in imitation of the others. David is grateful for the cool of his room, the patter of the ceiling fan above the bed. He is still in his school uniform. Grey trousers, white shirt, the green striped tie and blazer with its dancing springbok on the pocket and Catholic monogram of the Ave Maria. When the boy looks up, David steps back, unsure if the glare on the glass is enough to hide him.
There are five of them, excluding Mr. Mannie, a white Afrikaner who waits in his bakkie. Mr. Mannie waves at David but does not get out. He remains hunched over a copy of Scope magazine, a topless blonde with black stars on her breasts balanced across the steering wheel. David has spoken to him only once. They chatted about school and rugby and then he offered him the June edition from a stack of Scopes on the front seat, flicking a grubby thumb over a brunette in a pink thong under the headline ‘Miss Wonder Boobs Bounces Back’. Mumbling an apology, David backed away.
On Thursday afternoons he opens the front gate to let them in: four teenagers and an old man who calls him ‘Kleinbaas’. The man shouts instructions over the drone of the lawnmower or gazes at the pool under the shade of the Mulberry tree, grinding pellets of snuff tobacco in a mouth full of missing teeth. During the long summer, storm clouds build at the edge of the valley. David’s family live in a newly constructed suburb built into the surrounding hills south of Johannesburg, away from the mine dumps and their slopes of glowing yellow dust. He would normally have rugby practice, though hasn’t played in weeks. He made the under 14D team because he was bigger than the others, a perfect candidate for the scrum, but has begged off with sick notes ever since the First XV held an initiation ceremony on the way back from their debut game, forcing them to hop up and down the bus with their shorts round their ankles. ’Kalamazumba’ they made them shout, a nonsensical warcry, while the older boys took aim at their shrinking genitals.
Later, he descends into the garden, defying his parents’ wishes. When Mr. Mannie and his garden boys are here, David has been told to stay inside. He keeps their border collie locked away. Aslan barks and hurls himself at the living room sliding doors, neurotic when friends and family visit, positively possessed at the slightest whiff of an intruder.
Vuyo, the boy says when David asks him his name.
Are you new?
The boy nods. Up close his skin is even shinier, with a wide, friendly forehead and a smile that is more gum than teeth.
Why are you attacking the rose garden like that?
The whine of a nearby weedeater forces David to raise his voice. He points in the direction of an empty plot, under a sickly pine where nothing grows.
You can wreak havoc there, he says, quoting his mother.
David’s mother built the rockery and the rose garden and planted the trees that have kept pace with his growth, all from a strip of red veld. He used to relish those Sundays when they drove to the local nursery together and flooded the car with plants and flowers, driving home with banana leaves in his face and agapanthus in his lap. Now when she surveys the garden she is distraught, unable to forestall its systematic destruction by a gang of unskilled men armed with sharp and noisy tools.
My mother says you know nothing about gardening, David says. She says the only reason Mr. Mannie’s business exists is because South African men are lazy or too busy with their mistresses to attend to their own backyards.
Vuyo continues to dig and David is not sure if he has been heard.
David’s parents work long hours and are hardly ever home. Then there is Thelma, their maid from the Transkei. She has too many opinions and since Mandela’s release, expresses them boldly. He caught her once holding a tea party with his mother’s good china and scoffing Marie biscuits with the other maids in their street. When he confronted her, she shrugged and said she was showing them the house Winnie had promised her once the ANC take control of the country. FW De Klerk might be closing the door on Apartheid, but David can’t imagine his parents giving up their home without a fight.
You see that bush over there?
David points to the bougainvillea below his bedroom window.
Last week someone with a machete almost hacked it to death.
Vuyo’s smile fades. He looks down at his spade.
I am sorry for your bush, he says. Now I know why you are sad.
I’m not sad, David says.
He spots a piece of bright yellow Lego in the grass, reaches down to pocket it.
You should be sad, David says. We might fire you. My mother wants to fire all of you. She wants to tell Mr. Mannie we’d be better off buying a goat.
The old man sitting under the Mulberry tree shouts something and Vuyo straightens his back, resumes his digging. A breeze rustles the leaves of nearby shrubbery, filtering the air with delicate odours. The Cape chestnut has begun to bloom, its lemony scent masked by the crisp honey fragrance of Wild Camphor.
What will you do if Mr. Mannie fires you? David asks.
What we’ve always done, Vuyo says.
He plunges the spade deeper.
Mhla kwahamba lapho abelungu befika, Vuyo says in Zulu.
His tone is playful, David’s momentary loss of advantage a source of mirth.
He switches back to English.
When white men arrived, they gave us two things, he says. Two things we had no use for. Alcohol and buttons with no holes.
What do you mean? David asks. Buttons with no holes?
We had everything from the land we lived on, Vuyo says. Why did we need your buttons with no holes?
David ponders this, kicking the soil with the wedge of his shoe. The men with lawnmowers arrive and he needs to go inside to find another plug for the extension cord.
Please don’t mutilate that bush, David says.
He points to the bouganvillea framing his parents’ bedroom window. Thelma is spraying the glass with Full Crystal. She is watching him, the intensity of her stare growing with the circular movements of the old newspaper in her hand.
Vuyo has already moved on, raking the ground under the pine tree where nothing grows.
Thelma slides the iron across each item of clothing with a pulse of steam. She is humming to herself, flattening socks and stretching out his father’s boxers along the curve of the board. David is waiting for her to ask him why he left those things in the bathroom. Pages torn from magazines, carefully cut out and painstakingly curated, their undersides stuck with Blu Prestik. He had used and then forgotten them, remembering only when they reappeared in a neat pile on his desk.
Every so often she looks up and David can see her reflection in the oven opposite, can feel her staring at the back of his head. Ever since that thunderstorm, the green numbers of the oven clock are stuck at 15:15. No one has bothered to fix it, especially not his father who never fixes anything. David remembers when the sky turned black and the houses on the far hill trembled in great flashes of white. A resounding boom caused the electricity to trip and the windows to shudder in their metal frames. He sat huddled on the carpet with Aslan because there was a strip of rubber underneath and, according to his mother, was the safest place to be in a house that had not been earthed. The storms that reverberate across the valley move onto the next and suddenly it’s all over, the house filled with the rich petrichor from the open plot next door, the pool green with rain water. There is no storm brewing this afternoon though the air feels thick with the threat of it. Thelma normally clocks off a half hour before she’s supposed to. Today she’s purposefully stalling.
He wants to be the one to start the conversation, to explain what he was doing with those magazine cut outs of near naked male bodies, Dolce & Gabbana underwear models advertising white briefs. Or the leaflet with the blonde bodybuilder, plugging a local gym with impossible biceps and pecs (five of them had been left under a stone on the driveway and David had managed to salvage three).
She carries the basket of laundry back into the kitchen, folds away the ironing board. She has a very distinctive smell, a blend of Omo washing powder and the Maltabella porridge she eats for lunch. With her wide backside and round, featureless face, David is now as tall as she. Thelma stares at him while unbuttoning her smock. There is a smile on her lips. She stuffs tissues and bus fare into her bra and her huge breasts tremble as she removes her doek, straightening her salt and pepper peppercorns with a four-pronged comb she keeps on the side of her hair.
See you on Thursday, she says.
She balances a parcel on her head and David walks her to the front door. He used to think she was showing off but realises it is just another way of carrying her many bags. Perhaps she is teasing him or wants to lull him into feeling safe? Perhaps she won’t say anything after all? He hasn’t told his mother about her tea parties and she certainly never mentioned those times when he kept soiling the sheets. Before Marco Valente was caught wanking in the toilets by a prefect at school and a classmate had to explain to David how masturbation worked. Before he began to seek out the accompanying visuals, even if the bodies he jerks off to are not the bodies he truly desires. He double bolts the door behind her, the song she was humming captive in his head.
The second time David sees the garden boy, Vuyo has been charged with cleaning out the maid’s room and adjacent toilet, filled with overgrown creepers and building materials from an extension over the braai patio that was never begun.
Thelma once found a stiletto snake inside the toilet, David says.
Vuyo grimaces, wrestling with the stubborn end of a thorny weed. Several of them are growing between cracks in the concrete and he already has a half dozen cuts on his hands.
Thelma didn’t want to live here like some of the other maids, David says. I wouldn’t want to live here either. It’s so dingy.
I’d be happy living here, Vuyo says. But your dog would chase me back to Soweto.
Aslan would grow to like you, David says.
He knows this is an outright lie. Aslan is too smart to be a pet. Vuyo removes a strip of chipboard which dislodges a nest of baby rain spiders. David shrinks back towards the door.
Don’t be afraid of them, Vuyo says.
David wonders if the mother is lurking somewhere, if she will drop down from a dark corner and cling tenaciously to his skin.
It’s normal to be scared of spiders and snakes, David says.
Men should not be afraid, Vuyo says.
He reaches towards the nest with a small, curved shovel, crushing the spiders one by one, making a strange popping sound. Some of them are quicker than he is, scurrying over the shovel and up his arm. He brushes them off, laughing and dancing, while David shrieks. When the last spider is disposed of, Vuyo turns to face him.
Amakwaitosi, Vugo says, grinning.
What did you say? David asks.
You are a real gangster, Vuyo translates, laughing.
Kalamazumba, David says.
Vuyo looks at him blankly.
It’s a rugby chant we use at school, David says. To intimidate the other team. Is it Zulu?
It isn’t anything, Vuyo says, stepping towards him.
In the corner of the room his complexion is almost blue black, the reek of his sweat magnified. David is drawn to its syrupy sweetness, the acrid aftertaste at the back of his nostrils. Vuyo’s smell in the confined space is like the veld on fire, so different to the neutral vacancy of his own flesh.
Does nothing scare you? David asks.
The Tokoloshe, Vuyo says and for the first time his face grows serious. It comes at night and steals your breath while you sleep, biting off all your toes. That’s why my bed is raised with bricks. It’s the only way to be safe.
David wants to tell him that this is nonsense. That superstition is ignorance.
Sounds like muti water, David says.
Thelma begs them to bring back bottles of seawater whenever his family vacation along the North Coast, which she insists is great for upset stomachs, headaches and hangovers. David believes this to be absurd, though hopes she will remember these small gestures of goodwill and remain forgetful of his secret.
While waiting for the garden boys to arrive the following Thursday, David spends the afternoon foraging through his parents’ bedroom, spying the contents inside cupboards and drawers. It’s a favourite game of his, cataloguing and memorising each object, discovering things he is not supposed to find. There is a pill box with his baby teeth, his mother’s sewing kit. There is a notebook, its blank pages bursting with pressed leaves and flowers. Behind a jar of Vaseline he finds an envelope with strips of negatives, his uncles mooning for the camera, a bakkie filled with half-skinned springbok carcasses, men showering under a bucket tied to a tree. His mother wants David to join his father on these annual hunting trips, feels it will help make him a man. From the driveway he can hear Mr Mannie’s hooting, and the shouts of the boys as they offload their equipment.
Later he corners Vuyo on his hands and knees, weeding the crabgrass with a rusty screwdriver.
I have a black friend at school, David says. A couple of black friends actually.
He lists their names on each finger.
Tshepo, Bugulesi, Mailaka and Bandzile, David says. Bandzile is the sixteenth son of the King of Swaziland. Apparently he has thirty-four brothers and sisters.
Vuyo whistles between a gap in his teeth.
He must have many wives, he says.
David cocks his head towards Vuyo with an authoritative nod.
Fifteen, he says. Bandzile told me his mother was chosen at a special ceremony to honour virgin maidens.
Eish! Even one wife is too expensive, Vuyo says.
His movements are rapid, feet and hands darting over the ground. David picks up a strip of crabgrass.
You need to get out more of the roots, he says. If you don’t get all the root out, it’s just going to grow back stronger.
Vuyo stops, looks up. His smile is gone.
Show me, he says.
He flips the screwdriver in his hand, grips the muddy tip, holds out the handle for David to take.
Go on, he says. Show me how it’s done.
David stares down at him, his face flush, the familiar prickle under his skin. He refuses to take the screwdriver, reaches into his pocket instead.
I brought you a gift, David says. I found a button with no holes.
Vuyo’s expression darkens. David produces a shank button from his mother’s sewing kit, a button with a hollow protrusion on the back through which the thread is attached. He drops the button into Vuyo’s free hand. Glancing at it slyly, Vuyo discards the screwdriver and springs to his feet. He examines it in the sun, a gold-plated button with a nautical compass inscribed in the centre, a spare from his father’s blazer, the one he wore for David’s First Holy Communion. Vuyo bites it between his teeth and starts to laugh.
Can I keep it? he asks.
David nods. He is secretly pleased.
Thelma steps out into the garden. David can feel her glaring at him, her body stiff with disapproval. He is sure she knows why he speaks to Vuyo and not the others, can see through him now like those machines they use to scan baggage at airports, wise with the knowledge of what she found. Calling to the men in Xhosa, she has placed five enamel mugs filled with sweet instant coffee on the stairs leading to the stoep, away from the empty table and chairs where his family sometimes eat if it is Afrikaans night on TV. There is also a plate with white bread as thick as door stops, laden with Koo’s tinned apricot jam.
Feed them sugar, his father is fond of saying, and they’ll work harder.
Vuyo isn’t there the week after, or the week after that. David has begun to wonder if he was foolish enough to show the other boys his button and they have in turn told Mr. Mannie. He tries to speak to the old man who calls him ‘Kleinbaas’, but his English is poor and David’s Afrikaans almost non-existent. By the fourth week he is sure something terrible has happened. When Vuyo returns the fifth week, he appears to have lost a lot of weight. David is relieved and excited to see him. Vuyo is on lawnmowing duty and the machine is loud and cumbersome, quickly filling with grass which he deposits in the compost bin behind the vegetable patch. This is where David waits for him. They can be private here.
Do you want a sip? David asks.
He is holding out a can of Sparletta Cream Soda, feeling particularly brave.
Vuyo drops the grass catcher and sits down next to him. He takes the can and drinks deep. Lines of sweat stream from his forehead, muscles twitching in his throat.
Finish it, David says, suddenly less brave. Where were you? Were you sick?
I am a man now, Vuyo says. It’s hard to be a man.
He points to his crotch, makes a ‘snip snip’ gesture with his index and middle finger.
In the bush, Vuyo says. They took the skin on my penis and sliced it off with a knife.
David’s astonishment renders him speechless.
Ndiyindoda! I am a man! Vuyo says.
He looks relieved, grateful. David’s penis is uncircumcised, a snug slug with its own fleshy turtleneck.
Did it hurt? he asks.
Every day I wished for a gun to end my hell, Vuyo says.
David wonders if it will be all bloody and swollen. At school before swimming practice, he studies the penises of the other boys as they change into their togs, though he has never seen the penises of Tshepo, Bugulesi, Mailaka and Bandzile. He has never seen a black penis, or the penis of someone older than himself, or a wounded penis, a broken penis, even an erect penis that wasn’t his own.
Can I see it?
The words tumble from his lips before he can stop himself. He starts to feel brave again.
Vuyo’s face is expressionless.
In exchange for the button I gave you, he says.
Vuyo crushes the cream soda can and stands up to go.
That’s all right, David says.
He can feel his cheeks reddening. Vuyo turns to face him. He hikes his overalls down and hooks his thumbs below the worn elasticated waistband of his boxers, as if about to take a piss. He smells of cut grass and engine grease and some other scent that David cannot place, a musky solidity like the odours that stream from the compost heap.
The smell of manhood, David thinks, now that Vuyo is a man.
David is praying, lying prostrate on his bed, his school uniform thick on his skin.
Make me a man, God. Make me a man.
His mantra is a whisper on the edge of his pillow. The ceiling fan spins and spins. Mr Mannie hoots his horn. They are late and Thelma is upset because she needs to catch her bus. The eastern sky is dark with an approaching storm. He hurries to let the men in, returns Mannie’s wave and watches Thelma waddle up the street, stocky legs supporting an unstable weight. Aslan is inside the house. He darts from room to room, in a frenzy of high-pitched whines. He watches David feed the extension cord through the window, lunges at the black hand of the man reaching for it, who scampers back, terrified. Lightning in the distance. He counts the seconds before the roll of thunder. The storm is over the mine dumps, turning the city into rivers of gold.
Make me a man, God. Make me a man like Vuyo.
Back in his room, David undresses. He removes the white shirt and grey trousers, the green striped tie like a noose around his neck. He slips off his socks and underwear, stands naked in front of the mirror. He is a little overweight, a little chubby. There are pimples on his chest, on his shoulders, constellations of pimples on his buttocks. His pubic hair looks darker, the hair on his legs longer. He hides his genitals with the broad tip of his tie, then loops it between his legs, tying the tail around his waist. With further adjustment he is able to pull it between his buttocks, wear it as a thong. It excites him to see his body like this in the mirror, his pale skin uncovered, his privates almost on display. David grabs a towel from the bathroom and steps outside onto the veranda. He sees Vuyo battling with the weed eater, the fuel tank flooded, yanking the cord over and over. The old man is raking the ground, moving in circles. One boy is shovelling dog shit and flinging it into the flower beds. Another hugs the bars of a lawnmower to his chest and charges across the grass like an angry bull. It will start raining soon. Mr. Mannie will hoot his horn and the men will flee with their tools and machines and hide under the tarpaulin at the back of his bakkie.
David drops the towel on a chair by the pool. They haven’t seen him yet. A boy about to begin his own initiation into manhood, a ritual of his own devising, baring himself, exposing his body to these strange men. He steps into the pool, the green water warm and slightly dirty. The algae that runs along the blue tiles feels furry under his toes.
Vuyo lifts the safety visor from his face. He sees David and narrows his gaze, registering first confusion then alarm. The lawnmower at the top end of the garden ticks and stills. The old man who has been gesturing frantically swallows his shouts. Another boy is swinging a pick axe. He holds his arc, the muscles in his thin arms trembling, before lodging it deep into the ground. The men stare at the pool and then just as quickly avert their gaze to the Mulberry tree adjacent to it.
Giddy with his own omnipotence, David slides into the water. He is certain these men have seen him, even if they do not know where to look. Kalamazumba, he wants to whisper, though he now knows a much better word. He swims, his body tingling. Cold water grips his erection. Tears of gratitude well in his eyes. The whole world has been pushed open and the air reeks of ozone. Gusts of wind bring with them the smell of jasmine and pine. When he surfaces from the water, all his senses are throbbing. He can see a naked man showering under a bucket tied to a tree. He can smell a crowded bus filled with boys with grassy knees and not enough deodorant. He can taste the golden button between Vuyo’s teeth.
David looks back towards the house and sees Thelma watching him through the sliding doors that open out onto the veranda. She must have forgotten something, letting herself back in through the front gate. She is banging on the glass and shouting but David cannot hear her.
He wants to cry, wants Vuyo to cry out with him, before his visor falls and the lawnmower starts back up again with a roar. Before the storm arches towards the earth and the sky falls down upon their heads.
Peter-Adrian Altini is a South African writer/screenwriter based in Paris, and winner of the Ernst Van Heerden Creative Writing Award. His short story ‘Three Bodies’ was selected for the Fish Anthology 2019 and his non-fiction essay ‘The Chocolate Room’ will be published next month in Iron Horse Literary Review. He has co-written a TV series ‘It could have been us’ about the Paris Attacks in 2015, now in development with Mainstreet Pictures, and is currently seeking representation for his novel ‘Salt Water Pool Boy’.
Fish Anthology 2019 – https://www.fishpublishing.com/book/fish-anthology-2019/
Iron Horse Literary Review (upcoming 02/21) – https://www.ironhorsereview.com/
Facebook: Peter-Adrian Altini
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