Monday, 20 July 2015
YA Short Story set in South Africa
So here's a short story for Young Adults I edited while I was down there instead. I was going to enter it for the Cheshire Prize, but it's too long, and I can't massacre 500 words for the sake of a competition entry.
A kiss for a cake
Lungelo had been standing by the roadside for an hour, the rain seeping through a hole in his left shoe. He would be late. Aunty would be cross, she would shout again.
‘Late again, always late, useless boy!’ Lungelo didn’t want to be useless. He shivered, it was cold. Mme said if you kept your middle warm you would be alright. He had to keep his middle warm, like a hot pie. Lungelo wrapped his arms round his skinny body in its old, checked shirt and closed his eyes. The rain was lighter now and the sky was high, bright and wide. He would dry off soon. Maybe he would start walking. He shifted his weight back to the other foot and peered down the highway. A lady was coming towards him on the other side of the road, her large feet spilling over flip flops and her red skirt swaying. She was wearing a hat. A big, pink hat that had drooped in the rain. One hand held a small pile of books steady on her head.
A group of workers in blue overalls approached the crossroads, jeering, jostling, and pushing each other up the gravel track. One of them had bare feet, mud clumped between his toes. They would be coming for their lift too. Lungelo hadn’t seen them before. He looked back to the woman, she was getting closer, her red skirt swirling round her knees in the breeze. He could see her shirt stretched tight, her hips swaying under the red nylon. His mouth was dry.
The men were on the other corner. Lungelo moved into the long grass behind a large, grey termite mound. They couldn’t see him there. Mme had told him a story when he was hot with fever in their tiny room in Langa, she had soothed his head and told of a boy and his brother alone on the road walking in the cold winter night from Fish Hoek to Cape Town. The little brother had grown tired and his older brother carried him for a while until he saw the shadow of a small hill in the darkness. A termite mound. He hollowed out a hole, tucking his little brother inside where he knew it was warm. Letting his brother sleep, he leaned back and kept guard. The early morning trucks picked out his body in their headlights, cold and rigid. The little brother was alive, asleep inside the termite mound.
Lungelo shivered again. He wouldn’t want to be out here at night. Oh no. As the woman came closer some of the men on the corner whistled. He could hear them calling across the road, calling things that were not very nice. Lungelo could see his Uncle’s truck in the distance, stirring up dust that was his lift. He stepped out from behind the termite mound. The men were still jeering. He wouldn’t like it if someone spoke to his sister like that.
‘Hey, brothers, you use that mouth to speak to your mother like that?’ They glared at him, one of them pointed a fat finger. The truck pulled up between them and Lungelo jumped up onto the front seat. Uncle wiped a damp tissue over his big, bald head,
‘Sorry I’m late boy, lets load up.’ All of the men climbed in the back of the truck. Lungelo pressed his cold legs to the vinyl seat, his heart pounding. Uncle swung out of the driver’s door and leaned close to the woman. She laughed, reached a hand up to touch his face and smiled. Lungelo watched them in the mirror, their heads close like love birds. Uncle must know her, perhaps she was auntie’s friend. Uncle grabbed the woman’s arm and kissed her on the lips. Perhaps she was not auntie’s friend. The men in the back jeered and whistled some more as Uncle climbed into the dirvers seat. He put his finger to his lips and winked at Lungelo. Lungleo slid his hand under his shirt, his belly was hot now and there was sweat on the back of his neck. Maybe the fever was coming back.
He was twelve that winter.
‘Time for you to work.’ Mme said, ‘Uncle will find you some jobs to do.’ But Lungelo missed school. He missed his friends. He hadn’t quite learned to read, and he would like to. There were a few books in his house, a bible, some magazines, but he had seen houses where there were lots of books, lots of them. Uncle had books and when Lungelo had done his chores, swept the floors and fed the chickens, he would look at them, running his hands over the hard spines.
Aunty met them in the yard, her bony arms folded. All the men climbed out of the truck, one of them pointed at Lungelo, shook his finger angrily. Aunty sent Lungelo to the kitchen,
‘Finish painting that wall. The new cook comes today, finish it before she gets here.’
‘New book? Asked Lungelo. Aunty sighed,
‘New cook, useless boy, what would I need with a new book?’ Lungelo went to the kitchen and took up the paintbrush. He would have liked a new book, he would have liked any book, although the letters danced before him and he did not know what the words meant, he could look at the pictures. He took his shoes off and placed them under the table, prised open the paint tin with an old fork and stirred. The paint was thick, gloopy, like the bowl of pap he had had for breakfast many hours ago. He pressed his dry lips together, he was hungry. He liked the sharp, clean smell and the sound as he slapped it on the bare plaster. It was a pale blue, a pretty colour. If there was any left, perhaps Aunty would let him take it back to Langa. Mme would like that. There was a soft shuffling behind him and Lungelo felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He looked down at his paint speckled hands and laid the brush across the pot. He was too scared to turn round. It was like the time he had been followed home by a big dog. He could hear it panting behind, hoped it wasn’t with a pack, hungry and wild, like the dogs that chased the children in Langa, snapping at ankles and hands that were flapping or lagging.
‘Hello boy.’ The voice was warm, friendly. Lungelo wriggled to his feet and peeked over his shoulder. A big lady with shiny skin and a sweat stained shirt stretched tight was standing by the table. Lungelo could smell her sweat and spices across the kitchen. She lifted a parcel of books from her head, removed her pink hat and hung it behind the door, then pushed her sleeves up and smiled a wide smile right at Lungelo. It was the lady from the road. The woman uncle had kissed. Lungelo felt hot and sticky again, he backed into the corner like a trapped scorpion. The lady pointed to the floor, ‘Mind your feet now.’ It was too late. He had stood in the paint with his bare feet, left a print on the old newspaper, a blue foot and five toes. He would be in trouble. At least he had taken his only shoes off. Aunty came in the kitchen. She was tiny next to the road-lady, her clothes hung like washing on a line all bones underneath, Mme said her sister did not eat enough. She glanced at Lungelo but did not see the paint footprint near her clean floor,
‘What is the matter with you boy? Why you staring?’ She apologised to the woman for Lungelo’s foolishness, ‘My nephew, he is meant to be working.’ Lungelo thought he saw the woman frown, but she smiled at him again and held out her hand. He took it, her skin was soft. Lungelo could feel the sweat cool on his forehead.
‘Sonto,’ she said, ‘I am the new cook. Who are you?’ Lungelo looked at his feet,
‘Lungelo’ he whispered.
‘Well Lungelo, would you like to help me make dinner?’
‘Hmph!’ said Aunty, her hands still on her hips, ‘He doesn’t know how to cook! Finish the wall Lungelo.’ She waved her hands and marched out of the kitchen. Lungelo watched Sonto. She undid the string from her parcel of books and laid them out on the table. There were five. Each had a colour picture on the front, triple layered cakes smothered in buttercream icing, tables laden with roast chickens and potatoes, split yams and grilled fish. Lungelos stomach tightened, he was still hungry. Sonto pushed one book to him.
‘Open it, find something you like, you read the recipe to me and I will make it for you.’ Her eyes jumped with mischief. Lungelo thought she must know. He stared at the book mutely, pressed his lips together, shook his head and turned back to the paintbrush, the paint had to be stirred again. Sonto stood beside him,
‘Can you read Lungelo?’ he shook his head once, stared at the wall, it turned blue under his brush. Sonto touched his arm, ‘You do that well, like an artist. I could show you some words if you help me make dinner, how’s that for a deal?’ He kept painting.
‘I need to do my work or Aunty will be angry.’ Sonto smiled, her cheeks dimpled,
‘You leave Aunty to me.’ Aunty was Mme’s sister, but she was unkind. The road lady was nice. Still. He glanced back at the book open on the table. Mme had promised to help him to read but she had been too busy. Perhaps?
‘I want to go to school, but I have to work.’ He said. Lungelo stared at his paint speckled feet and gripped his brush, ‘Maybe if you teach me I won’t tell Aunty that Uncle kissed you?’ He almost whispered it but Sonto heard. She stepped back, hands on hips. Here it comes, he thought, and flinched, ready for the blow. But she laughed, a great big laugh that bounced off the kitchen walls,
‘Fair enough, cheeky boy. Come on. First we clean your feet before you get that nice paint on Aunty’s clean floor.’ She made Lungelo sit in a chair and ran an old towel under the tap, rubbed it at his toes. He laughed, it tickled. Sonto cleaned the paint away, brought him a glass of water. Lungelo opened the book to a picture of a fat, red cake.
‘Can we make this for Mme?’ Sonto nodded, helped him sound out the words, tore a page from the back of the book and wrote them on it with a stubby pencil. Lungelo said the words until he had them in his head and they didn’t fly away like the seabirds he had watched from the classroom window, flapping up the dust as they took off over the Jacaranda trees. Where the words had danced, now they were still.
Sonto’s breath was warm on his cheek. The paper fluttered to the floor as the kitchen door banged open. The man with the pointing finger stood there. His overalls were covered in dust, it settled on his skin like icing sugar. Lungelo looked at the open book, spelled out the word – i-c-i-n-g. They were to use it to make the cake.
‘What do you want Mhambi?’ Sonto was cross. ‘You should not be here.’ Mhambi glared at Lungelo, pointed his finger again and leered. He slid up behind the table and drank Lungelo’s water, then he pulled Sonto close, put his arm round her waist. Lungelo had seen women who went with men. Women who had children to feed. He did not think Sonto did that. He hid under the table. Sonto pushed the big man hard with her flat hands. Lungelo stuck his leg out quick and Mhambi fell over his clean, washed toes. He toppled like a tree, cracked his head on the table corner and got up slowly. Lungelo picked up the cook book to throw but Sonto stood in front of him. She shouted,
‘Get out!’ just as Uncle appeared in the doorway, he moved to let Mhambi
limp past. Lungelo peeked out from behind Sonto’s skirts and Uncle frowned at him.
‘Why are you not painting the wall Lungelo?’ Sonto stepped forward, oput a hand on Uncle’s arm, used her soft voice,
‘Don’t be hard on the boy, he helped me, he defended me against that stupid man.’ Uncle looked angry, but not with his nephew. Sonto smiled at Lungelo, ‘so now I will help him, won’t I?’ Lungelo nodded. A kiss for a cake, paint for a wall, words for silence. He understood.