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SYNOPSIS

Senzo Mabizela is a man of many talents. He can fit in with any crowd, hustle his way out of a tight spot, and bring back lost lovers – or at least pretend to do so long enough to trick lovesick customers out of their money. When his childhood nemesis seeks help to win over Ayanda, the girl they’ve both wanted since their school days, Senzo sees a chance to kill two birds with one con. If he plays his cards right, he can get revenge on his former bully, make a small fortune and win the heart of the woman he loves. But the game of love isn’t quite that simple…

  

CHAPTER 1

If you want to get the measure of a man, especially a fine, upstanding citizen like myself, you have to understand where he came from. You need to dig deep, all the way to his roots, and find out what made him into who he is. 

Don’t be fooled by my humility and down-to-earth charm. I grew up in the lap of luxury. I had the perfect childhood, surrounded by loving relatives and all the material things a child could want. There were times when I felt guilty for my good fortune, but hey, that’s the luck of the draw. 

By 1996 I was a strapping lad of fourteen, attending a prestigious school in Johannesburg. I was smart, popular, and good at almost everything. My teachers told me I was a prodigy…

…Or they would have, if they hadn’t been so busy trying to discipline me. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury. Maybe it was a hard-knock life in the township, but it had its moments. Perspective, I’ve realised, is everything. There were glory days, even for an orphaned kasi kid. And on one particular day, my whole world changed.

I remember every magical detail. Rubbish heaps towered high near the school yard and the wind blew scraps of litter around us. The more athletic kids played soccer on our second-class pitch, kicking up clouds of dust on the bare ground as they chased their makeshift ball. The loiterers lingered in the dim corridor, breathing in the priceless scent of rubbish and sweat.

The smart kids (like me) had more important pursuits to focus on. I made my way down the corridor, weaving between the loiterers. I was a man on a mission. Under one arm I carried an old leather-bound book. I found my best friend Vusi sitting close to the soccer pitch, watching the game with wide eyes like it was the World Cup. He was kind of chubby, in that cute way that made people want to pinch his cheeks. He wore glasses, too. Not a great look when you’re fourteen and dying for a little street cred. 

I dropped the book on the floor next to him to get his attention. He jumped, startled, then turned around and picked up the book.

“What’s this, Senzo?” he asked, in the calm, no-nonsense tone I had come to know so well. It was the tone he used when he sensed that I was about to reveal one of my brilliant ideas.

You see, even in my youth I prided myself on honesty, hard work and integrity. I figured a kid as bright as me had a responsibility to use that intelligence to serve the greater good and establish myself as a role model in the community.

I grinned, winked and sat on the floor beside him. “This, Vusi, is our latest scam.” 

“An… An-tho-lo-gy of Twen-ti-eth Cen-tury Po-e-try?” 

I shook my head, disappointed. “We must work on our reading, Vus. We must practice until we sound like TV presenters.”

He glanced at me. “Where did you get this book?”

“The library.” 

“How?”

“Borrowed it.”

 “Didn’t they ban you after you started selling their books?”

I shrugged. It was just like Vusi to dwell on the details and miss the bigger picture. I really needed to find a way to stop him from nit-picking. 

“Check this out,” I said, taking the book back. “Next week we start English poetry. I got the list of poems we’ll be doing and –”

“How?”

“Never mind. I…”

“Did you steal it?”

There it was again. Nit-picking. 

“Ag, stop judging me and listen!”

Vusi snorted, but didn’t say another word.

“Most of the poems are in this book,” I explained. “And they have essays and study guides. All we have to do is offer to do people’s essays for them. How much do you think we should charge? I’m thinking ten rand a pop.”

He glared at me.

“Fifteen rand?”

He sighed. “Senzo, we’ll get busted.”

“Me, I say if you believe, you will achieve.”

He snatched the book. “We always get busted.”

“Always? What always? We have a seventy percent success rate!” I snatched the book back. “And when it’s time to write our own poems, we just copy them from the list at the back. How much do you want to bet Mrs Mahlangu won’t even check?”

Vusi didn’t reply. His expression told me he was one hundred per cent opposed to my master plan, but I wasn’t about to let him rain on my parade. I was on a roll, already mentally spending our hard-earned cash. 

“For originals I’m thinking twenty rand each, hey? What do you say?”

He couldn’t have looked less impressed if he tried. “This is the dumbest plan you’ve come up with so far.”

“It’s fool proof,” I assured him.

“Please. No one’s going to fall for –”

“Hey, poet!”

We both turned towards the sound of the belligerent voice. One of the football players was running towards us. Jasper Ndlovu, aka Idiot Extraordinaire. He was in our class, one year older than us and a whole lot bigger. But you know what they say. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

He stopped in front of us, scowling at me. “Where’s that poem you promised me? My girl is ready –”

“No deposit, no poem,” I interrupted.

“Eh?” He wasn’t used to small fry like me talking back, but I liked living dangerously.

“I told you, as soon as you pay the deposit, you’ll get the poem. Don’t you understand English? De-po-sit.”

Jasper took one step towards me, cracking his knuckles. “That’s it. I’m going to do this for your own good since you don’t have parents to teach you manners.”

I smiled. “Ja, maybe your mother can –”

Before I could finish my sentence, Jasper lunged. Vusi leapt between us, always the peacemaker, and then pointed toward the gate. 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Guys, look!”

A mini-van taxi had just pulled into the school yard. The doors opened and out stepped the most unlikely passenger – a middle-aged white lady. I don’t mean those ones who like to hang out in the townships with their black friends, either. I’m talking smart shoes, expensive clothes, hair in a tight bun and a determined smile combined with wide, panicked eyes. She looked around her. Her smile faded a little, then she plastered it back on like a pro and turned towards the other passengers in the taxi.

That was when I noticed that the taxi was full of people who definitely didn’t belong here, and I remembered the TRC initiative our school was participating in. Truth and reconciliation, my foot. Those people didn’t look reconciled, they look terrified. The woman stood aside as the kids spilled out of the taxi, one white face after another. They were about our age and dressed in the neat uniform of some snooty school in the suburbs. Me, Jasper and Vusi stared. Another white face. Another white face. And then…

The last person to emerge from the taxi was a girl. A black girl. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen. 

The teacher’s voice carried over to us as she directed her class across the yard, but I couldn’t hear anything except the pounding of my own heart. The kids formed a line and marched obediently towards the classrooms. 

“Oh my God, look how scared they are!” Vusi clicked his tongue in annoyance. “It’s like they’re visiting a zoo!”

Jasper and I stared at the goddess with the shy smile. I strained to catch a glimpse of her name tag as she and her classmates walked past us. Wait…yes! There it was. Ayanda Zwane. I mouthed the name silently as she swept past, committing it to memory. The name of my future wife. There was no doubt. It was love at first sight. 

“Viva truth and reconciliation,” I whispered, still gazing after Ayanda.

Jasper turned to snarl at me. “You’d better give me that love poem when we’re in class, or I’ll kill you.”

Ja, ja, ja. I didn’t even notice him strutting away. I was floating in a love bubble, and not even Jasper’s obnoxious ways could ruin my mood.

*

By the time we were ready for our Truth and Reconciliation session, I was head over heels. I was vaguely aware of two people standing in front of the class – matronly Mrs Mahlangu and her slender pale-skinned counterpart, who was introduced as Ms McKenzie – but I struggled to focus on them. I didn’t care that the small classroom had grown hot and stifling with the addition of nine white teenagers and their beautiful black queen. I couldn’t pay attention to Vusi’s jabbering (“Hey, check out that one looking at our desks like she’s scared she’s going to catch a disease!”). All I cared about was Ayanda.

I wasn’t the only one. I soon noticed that Jasper was ogling her. The piece of scum didn’t even have the decency to treat her like the gem she was; he gaped at her, practically salivating, like she was a steaming bunny chow he wanted to devour. I felt a powerful urge to leap from my seat to defend her honour, but I had the feeling that might not go down so well. After all, I didn’t want her only memory of me to include a black eye.

With a sigh, I tore my gaze from her angelic face and tried to tune in to what was going on around me. Unburdened by the prejudices of our parents, we found it easy to mix amongst ourselves. We black kids mixed with our own on the far side of the room close to the window, while the white kids mixed with their own on the other side close to the door. We had, by some sort of telepathy, agreed to leave a nice even space between us. There. Integrated.

“Truth and reconciliation is about forgiveness,” Mrs Mahlangu was saying.

My gaze strayed back to Ayanda. How was it possible for any teenager to have such flawless skin? I could imagine how it would feel to caress her cheek…

“Ja,” said Ms McKenzie in a shrill voice, snapping me back to reality. “Ubuntu. Batho Pele! Amandla!”

I winced. Vusi snorted. Our classmates exchanged confused glances, and Mrs Mahlangu looked at the other woman out of the corner of her eye.

Ms McKenzie cleared her throat. “Why don’t we all hold hands and say re-con-ci-li-at-tion together?”

“Good idea,” said Mrs Mahlangu. “Everyone, holds hands with the person closest to you.”

Good idea? Good idea? I couldn’t think of anything more embarrassing. Then again… I looked at Ayanda. All I had to do was move one seat forward and I could take her hand. But someone else had the same idea, and he was faster. Jasper dived for Ayanda’s hand. I shifted my seat, but it was too late. He was closer. The next few seconds seemed to happen in slow motion, like a scene in a movie. Jasper’s hand stretched out and grasped. Ayanda hesitated, then held out her hand. I watched as Jasper’s big, clumsy, unworthy fingers closed over Ayanda’s lovely, delicate ones, and I wanted to howl.

Everyone started chanting “Re-con-ci-li-a-tion”. I chanted along absentmindedly. While they were all going on and on about reconciliation, I was reconciling myself with my crush on Ayanda. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jasper staring at me. He let go of one of the hands he was holding – the one that wasn’t Ayanda’s, obviously – and drew his finger across his throat. What was he going on about? Oh, the poem!

I released Vusi’s hand. He looked at me, but seemed a little relieved. I reached for my notebook, scribbled on one of the pages then ripped out the page, folded it and passed it on to Jasper. Just as I expected, he didn’t bother opening it. My heart pounded as I watched him write “4 Ayanda frm Jasper” on it, then hand it to her. Obviously the girl he had initially intended the poem for had slipped his mind as soon as he clapped eyes on Ayanda. What a gentleman.

Ayanda’s eyes widened as she took the note. I watched, holding my breath. She opened the note and read it. A few moments later she frowned, crumpled it up and tossed it right back in Jasper’s face. I leaned back, satisfied. Mission accomplished.

Jasper had no idea what was going on. He picked up the paper, smoothed it out and read its contents. The expression on his face was priceless. I started to laugh, starting with a kind of snort and then a sound like hiccups. Soon I was wheezing so loud everyone turned around to stare. 

“What in the world is going on over there?” Mrs Mahlangu demanded. 

Jasper was too angry to respond, and I was too busy laughing.

“Jasper! Senzo! Stand up, both of you!”

I rose to my feet. The laughter had faded now that the class was quiet and all eyes were on me. I glanced at Jasper.

“You want to tell everyone what’s so funny?” asked Mrs Mahlangu.

Jasper replied in Zulu. “Senzo is busy insulting – ”

“English please,” she interjected.

“Sorry, Ma’am.” Jasper held up the note. “Senzo is busy writing insulting poems to people.”

Mrs Mahlangu sighed. “You know the rules, Senzo. Come up here and share the poem with the class.”

“But Ma’am –”

“Now, Senzo.” She arched her eyebrows. “Or else.”

I gulped. I knew exactly what that meant. Corporal punishment was alive and well in our school. I made my way to the front, picking up my notebook and snatching the crumpled paper from Jasper as I went. I shoved the page into my notebook, and once I reached the front of the class, I opened the book to the first page, cleared my throat and started to read. I still struggled with reading English, especially out loud. The words got stuck in my throat and I stumbled.

“There is so much I want to…share with you, but…but my words are lost with… within me –”

“That’s not what he wrote!” cried Jasper.

“Quiet, Jasper!” said Mrs Mahlangu, with an embarrassed glance at Ms McKenzie. “Senzo, proceed.”

I took the opportunity to start over. “There is so much I want to share with you, but my words are lost within me. I have so many em…emotions. How do I make you see?” I risked a glance at Ayanda. She, like everyone else, was watching me intently. I cleared my throat again. “Life is not that simple. Hear this from my heart. Our love will con…conquer all, as we stand here at…at… As we stand here at the start.”

I looked up to gauge the reactions. Ms McKenzie gave me a dreamy look. I couldn’t blame her; I was adorable and charming. Mrs Mahlangu didn’t seem to know what to think. Vusi stared at me with his mouth open, flabbergasted by my hidden talent. Jasper looked unimpressed. Good. And Ayanda… Ayanda was smiling, and that was enough to give me wings. I carried on, fearless. 

“Not speaking to you is killing me, you there and me here. But one day soon that will change, and I will finally have you near.” Emboldened by her expression, I looked her right in the eye as I delivered the last line. “But now I stand here and wonder, if I will ever have you – Aya –” I broke off, suddenly too nervous to follow through. 

A chorus of “Oooooohhh” went up around me, and for a second I wished everyone but Ayanda would disappear. I looked at her, waiting for her to give me a sign that she understood, and maybe felt the same way. She gave me a sign, but not the one I was hoping for. She looked away and buried her face in her hands. I felt all my bravado seep away and I got a funny ache in my chest, like someone had scooped out my heart.

“That was beautiful,” gasped Ms McKenzie. “Such talent in the townships!”

Mrs Mahlangu wasn’t so easily impressed. “Ayanda, you think your future husband can afford your lobola?” she teased.

My peers burst into laughter. The only person who might have been on my side, Vusi, had buried his head under a book. Jasper was having the time of his life, laughing his stupid head off. I ripped the page out of my notebook, flung it into the bin and ran out of there.

“Hey!” yelled Mrs Mahlangu. “Come back here!”

I ignored her. Stupid move. Later on, when Ayanda and her classmates had left, Mrs Mahlangu and her cane taught me a lesson. I walked towards the door afterwards, trying not to wince. The first person I saw when I stepped out into the sunlight was Jasper, cracking his knuckles.

“My turn,” he said. 

There was no time to prepare myself. What followed was sharp, searing pain, and then lights out.

*

The St. Martins Orphanage was the biggest building on the street. It had to be big – it housed over a hundred kids and was attached to a chapel and a small clinic. I grew up surrounded by other kids, many of whom were just as adventurous and, uh, accomplished as I was. We were raised by (mostly) pretty women who worked hard to teach us good values, we got three decent meals a day, had clothes on our backs and a roof over our heads, and when we were bad the worst we could expect was a bunch of prayers and an hour or two of cleaning. By kasi standards, we had it made.

Sure, there were days I wished I had a Nintendo Gameboy like that clown Jasper, or a TV, or trousers that fit instead of donations and hand-me-downs, or, you know, real proper parents, but for the most part I rolled with the punches. I was a survivor. Adapt or perish was my motto. And when things got really tough, I had my boy Vusi. 

Vusi, who was nowhere to be found while I was getting up close and personal with Mrs Mahlangu’s cane. The same Vusi who went off to play soccer while Jasper gave me a bloody nose to go with my sore bum. I didn’t blame him. Vusi liked to stay out of trouble. I was the one who liked to go chasing trouble down the road, waving a red flag.

When I walked in through the gates of St. Martins that day, Sister Lucy was there, watering the flower pots. 

“Hello Senzo,” she said cheerfully. “How was school?”

I mumbled a vague reply and trudged past her. 

Sister Lucy grabbed my arm and spun me around to face her. “Hey, wena. Manners first.” She peered at me, taking in my war wounds, and when she spoke again her voice was softer. “Oh, Senzo! Did you get into trouble again?”

“No,” I murmured.

“Tell me what happened. Was it that boy Jasper again?”

I pulled my arm out of her grip. “You’re not my mother! Don’t pretend you care.” I started to storm away, but she grabbed me again.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you, Senzo.”

I deliberately looked the other way, just to annoy her.

She sighed. “Me and all the other sisters may not be your family, but we love you and this is your home.”

Home. Right. I gave her a questioning look. “What happens when I leave?”

She smiled. “You’ll find someone else out there who will love you, even more than we do. You have to believe that, Senzo. Do you believe that?”

I considered for a second. My experience with love was rather limited. No parents, no relatives. I knew Sister Lucy cared, but love? That was something that happened to other people. I thought of the way Ayanda hid her face after I read my poem, and I felt a wave of humiliation come over me again. She didn’t love me. No one loved me. Why would anyone love a no-good kasi orphan?

I walked away without a word, leaving Sister Lucy alone with her flowers.

END OF CHAPTER

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