"Beyond Choice" by Iqraa Daniels
It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice.—Ursula Le Guin
“I make your garden nice nice.”
“…’Sseblief. Have you got nothing for me, Ma’am?”
“I’ll wash your car. Please? Ag, Meneer!”
Although their knock is routine, it is unlikely that you’ve seen Jed or Happiness stagger through the viscous morning air, their quadriceps still stiff from thigh deep floods. Voortrekker Road forms a not-impenetrable moat around 19th century, five-bedroom thatch cottages. This ensures that the avenues remain unsullied by networks of misshapen, Coloured houses. There is a second defence. Twin sandcastles, decorated by lollipop trees and scooped from the pit that is the Black township at the bottom of the village, are difficult to scale from the settlement. The sweep of the main road ensures the crown of the castle is not darkened by the upward struggle of gardeners, domestics and straatkinners.
I can almost truthfully claim a fashionably cosmopolitan childhood. Our road served as a base camp for workers on their trek up the parabola. Tindall was also a thoroughfare for library users, a meeting place for dog-walkers and a pretty stroll for holidaymakers. We even had a blonde neighbour who rode the Queen’s Horses “back home.” Thinking to save me from the evil habits of Ismael’s gang, she gave me riding lessons. Meanwhile, Ismael tolerated my babble of curry-brushes and ergotism because I lived on Tindall. His gang were from the Coloured side of town, you see, and my participation legitimised their screaming glee.
O, god, ag nee, bawa—
Jiissus! Sjoe, Alhamdulillah.
Down we would plunge, grazing the red dirt road, whirring past rows of whitewash and flying over hardened cow dung until we either reached the road’s end, or else toppled into lay-water channels. Whoopee-whoo-hoo! Then, alternating between jostles and high-fives, we’d pull ourselves back up the hill to repeat the thrill.
Peppie never joined us. Instead, she stood in the middle of the road, scuffing one oversized Adidas slop against the other. We were all in awe of her. Two years older than us, she had boobs, a constant supply of Chappies, and a boyfriend. Sometimes, though, when I caught her looking Ismael up and down through Stuyvie Red smoke, I would wonder if she, like me, longed to show friends the place where crystals grow. Did she ever want a friend with whom she could quietly lick a sucker? We both schlepped a loneliness around which, like an almost imperceptible limp, didn’t allow us to join in the total abandon of everyone else.
O, god, ag nee, bawa—
Jiissus! Sjoe, Alhamdulillah.
It was the 20th of that month and we were out of black-eyed beans. Hunger made a mirage of a road. Already dazed by the trolley’s speed, I didn’t register the hard, unripe pomegranate in our way. The left rear wheel spun 360 degrees, flicking my limp body off the rails. For a second, I was buoyed by the dust, balancing at an airy height, sailing parallel to the top of the trolley. Then, I landed. Ismael-and-them didn’t stop for me; screeching, they continued to chase after the metal rattle.
Peppie came down to help me. She moved slowly, as if to the beat of that ethereal music which sometimes drifted from our art teacher’s kitchen. The hand she offered, however, was strong and dry.
“Eina! Is djy orrait?”
“Shampies. Kom met my. I knows a place you can get clean.”
We veered right of the road, bashing our way through the fynbos until we reached a river. While I plucked bits of gravel from my open shins, she pulled up some bulrushes from the opposite bank. Flattened, they made a ground mat. The emptiness of the landscape pressed us together, welding my ribs into her shoulder as her jaw dented my cheek. She stroked my knee. Incredibly, she had not cut her palm on the sharp middle of the reeds. Cross-legged and breathing heavily, we waited for dusk, two small children in a town full of pensioners. We left as sisters.
I nearly tripped over Ismael on the way back.
“Yeeaay!” he mumbled, eyes glazed with hours of glue. One of the boys bared his dark gums to Peppie, his shiny mouth encrusted with orange granules of cheese puffs. Shuddering, we averted our eyes until we reached den. Once safely back on Tindall, we stood tall, watching the boys disperse into alleys, clouds of miggies absorbed by the night.
“Gee vi’ my.” Peppie had stopped playing with me to see more of Ricardo. Her loneliness had dissipated, taking with it the foundation of our friendship.
“Naai. It’s special, mos.” My voice cracked on mos, exposing uncertainty, my stirvy tongue.
“But, you said we—you said we’d share? You said we were like, like so.” I held my index and middle fingers together. Nowadays, her baleful eyes no longer met mine. They roamed from my rhino bracelet to my Slaamse hair, resting, finally, on my jacket.
“Sê maar so. Friends share.” She imitated me, then, with a smirk, dropped her first finger so that her middle finger, absurdly slender, shattered the soft, eucalyptus-filtered light.
Before the horses next door had been groomed the next morning, she knocked on our door.
And that was that. Peppie got my only jacket.
I hate you.
I wanted to smash a carefully dusted plate against my Mother’s balding scalp. Our last twenty had gone to Jessica down the road. The month’s shampoo had been dropped off at a donkey sanctuary. Now I didn’t even have a jacket. Neither love nor religion stood between a screamed “fuck you” and her papery skin. Since having moved, I’d stopped believing in Allah, and the intimacy of our single bed was hardly conducive to love. No, I could not lash out because, though our sufferings manifested separately, we experienced the same alienation. To swear at her would be to take a blade to my own scabbed knees after I’d fallen. Socially awkward, withdrawn from family, and unable to hold a job, my mother was often overcome with spasms of guilty generosity. All she had to validate her existence was what she could give away.
Sighing, I straightened the hem of my Mother’s polo neck.
“What’s there to eat?”
It took a surprisingly long time to get over the jacket. Encased in its multi-coloured lining, I had been an Iranian princess, an Adult, a mighty dragon slayer and Joseph the Dreamer. It had been my flying carpet, transporting me back to Friday afternoons in Cape Town, where I was always full of warm rhubarb pie.
I thought Peppie would be content with seizing that from me.
But, before we’d received our first assignment, she tried to displace me. Mornings, she squatted on our bed of sour fig leaves. When not mining her nostrils for globules to be methodically stuck to our panes, her bulging eyes peered at my pre-school routine through broken wires in our gate. Depositing a glob of tobacco-y phlegm at our door, she would stand up a few seconds before I left. Her buttocks, smeared green and just visible below my jacket, led the way to school.
Maybe she was a poltergeist. Hoping to dispel her, I brewed up some wilted marigolds and a dead frog I’d found in a lay water channel. She remained, but the heat of my small fire cracked our teapot. Perhaps Allah had sent her to punish my atheism. Repentant, I said my Allahu Akbars till I grew hoarse. My chanting did no more than unsettle my riding instructor, putting a stop to her spate of philanthropy in Africa.
Peppie’s evil extended beyond our street. It snaked over the low walls enclosing our school, through the grimy plastic windows of our pre-fabs and into the navels of our friends. Ismael was the first to be possessed. One afternoon, he leaned over Aviwe to announce he was vrying my nemesis. Consequently, we could no longer be friends. He pressed a single blue Smartie into my palm.
“Bah-bye.” Then, licking the blue colouring from his fingers, he packed away our paintbrushes and downed our paint water. That was the last day he attended school for more than three hours.
Besieged, unable to lead my cavalry, and deserted by mortal and Divine allies alike, I turned to literature. I read late into the night, using my Nokia’s orange backlight as a torch. I learned that most nightmarish books ended with, And then she woke up... Hah. I would beat her with the one weapon left in my armoury. My alarm clock. The eeee-aaaiiiii at 4am conditioned me into an elusive and powerful assassin. Wrapped in home-knitted scarves, I would creep out, bike held above my head like a trophy. By ascending and descending steep slopes of the sandcastles, I had finally triumphed over her, that dirty rascal. Wêla, wêla-kapêla!
Thoko, like me, was escaping. Katrien’s fourth foster child, he hurled himself downhill with a ferocity that surpassed my own. Stocky, with a feral look in his eyes and closely shaven head, he spent his days on the move. We respected each other’s space, until—
“I live on Bree. Where do you stay?”
And just like that, we were friends.
“We have the same bike.”
“But mine’s lighter.”
“Low-five... Missed it!”
As the only Black, English-speaking kids living on the foot of the sandcastle, we were indomitable.
We needed that toughness. The day before we tried to run away, the wind blew fiercely. Our bodies, coated in red dust, transformed us into cousins of Pompeii—resurrected, in motion, Miss Nthabiseng had given up competing with the wind. She deloused Ashleigh instead, who ululated whenever the wind died down. Zach sat in a corner, watching them while sawing at his pinky with a pair of blunt green scissors. Some of the younger boys were running around, throwing some unlucky girl’s massive pom-pom to each other in a grotesque mimicry of piggy-in-the-middle. Thoko stood to the right of the chaos, his face expressionless. A boy in Ismael’s gang—Neefie, we called him—pricked Thoko’s ear with a compass. Seven other boys circled them, pencils and protractors raised, waiting for Thoko to flinch. Trembling, I stood up.
“What do you guys think you’re doing?”
“What do guys think you’re doing?” Neefie mimicked me with a cackle. ‘Haaahh... She keeps herself so big, but she doesn’t have nuh-ting in her lunchbox. Haa!’
“Stop it. It’s not true. Sto—”
“Stop it. Stop it. Whatcha gonna do, tell teacher?”
“Titcha titcha titcha,” chanted the other boys.
“Leave her alone!” Thoko thrust an elbow into Neefie’s throat. “Come.” He tugged at my sleeve. “Come on.”
“Come on... It’ll be fine.”
“What’ll be fine? I hate this place.”
“We—we can run away, you know.”
“We don’t have our bikes.”
“We’ll have to run away tomorrow, then.”
Katrien leaned against the fridge, checking that I wiped my feet and didn’t dislodge the stuffed eagle. Thoko took his time before emerging from his room, six packets of Nik-Naks clutched to his chest.
“Well, be back in time for Mary’s party.” I was cast an imperious look, then: “You may come too, of course.”
We nodded meekly. Mmphh. Today, we were running away.
We were heading for Cape Town. We’d ride around McGregor first, though, just to get our legs used to the road and spend the first night on top of the sandcastle. The next morning, we’d cut across the farm, crawl through the vineyards till we reached the N2 which would take to us to the tunnel and beyond. Once in the city, we could be detectives, maybe actors, or even—here we giggled uncontrollably—strippers. Within a few years, we’d buy a Ferrari—no, a pink Ferrari.
It was a hot day, and the sun dried up most of our conversation before eleven.
Half an hour before midday my eyes were red from dust and sunscreen while strange white lines formed a cross-section of the empty road. I shook my head. Hopefully, Thoko wouldn’t notice that I was swaying in my seat. We dismounted into some bulrushes at the NG Kerk’s single gong. Flinging my head back, I emptied the chip packet straight into my mouth. A few minutes after lunch, the white lines evanesced.
Halfway up, we stopped again, each simultaneously reaching for the other’s blistered palm. I think we both felt claustrophobic; the way left was patrolled by Ismael’s gang, the way right, our mothers. Perhaps it was not resolve but fear of the pit that thrust us onwards towards the hill’s crown. We made it—kings of the sandcastle. Side by side, we stood at the dam’s edge, each lost in a private anguish. Then, Thoko wriggled out of his t-shirt, lurched over the wet stones and splashed my tummy.
“Me three,” I said, hoping that the call and response of classroom jokes would dispel our fear, our aloneness.
“Mary has my jacket.”
“Oh. My Mom gave mine away.”
“Yeah. I know. Do you think the water will be warmer?”
“Should we go back?”
“Do you want to?”
“Only if you do.”
“Maybe we should.”
“What about running away?”
“We have school on Monday.”
“We can’t be detectives without school.”
“When do you want to leave?”
“Whenever you do.”
With neither streetlights nor bicycle lamps to guide us, our wheel’s vibration against the tar became our GPS. The cold air stung our lips.
“Home.” Each with a leg still slung over a seat, our hug counterbalanced our trembling calves. I watched Thoko duck under Mary’s fairy lights before swinging around and down. Just before reaching our house, I saw, illuminated by a cigarette lighter, her face.
“Goodnight,” I whispered.
Peppie shut the cattle gate behind me. Her eyes, half obscured by the hood of my jacket, were as cold and blank as the breath of stars.
Iqraa Daniels is a Matric student, street photographer and writer. Attending seven schools in small, racist towns across the Western Cape has informed her writing’s themes of alienation, family and race in a decolonised South Africa. Besides writing, she enjoys rock-climbing with friends, fashion designing and eating.