Ndia opened the envelope with a trembling hand. Even today she wonders why she opened it at all. It helped that the steamy Venda heat had partly unglued the flap – but really it was the recent noisy silence between her parents that had fed her curiosity. And it was a hunger that had been growing for a while now. Not one for self deprivation, Ndia erred on the side of giving in to, rather than suppressing, her appetites. As a consequence her round face swallowed up her glasses, and her puppy fat, not yet dissolved by adolescence, wobbled when she walked.
Hints of parental discord had come her way in stages, a murmured aside from her mother one night, a slammed door followed by angry walking, that argument last autumn between her mom and dad she’d eavesdropped on. What did her dad mean when he said he wasn’t made of stone? Her mother’s retort stung even from her hiding place, pah, stone? You’re so weak you have the backbone of a jellyfish.
Ndia pondered on that a bit – her biology was a bit sketchy but she was sure a jellyfish didn’t have any bones – and then the loud slap shook her out of her mental run through of her Grade 8 biology text book. Her mom was a southpaw and packed a mean punch. She’d experienced it herself so she knew her dad was going to be sore the next day.
So when that letter in an A4 envelope came, addressed to Mrs Ndhivuwo Tshivula, Ndia just knew it was holding something explosive. Once she’d opened the flap it wasn’t long before the formal words on the single page were etching themselves into her brain. This confirms that Emily Montana (there was landline number given as the contact for this Emily) is the biological daughter of Ernest Tshivula and the late Tebogo Makoe. Briefly, noting the letterhead, Ndia wondered how her mom had been able to find, never mind afford, the private detective, but the company’s tagline must have caught her eye: no secret is safe with us.
Ndia’s imagination went into overdrive: was Emily the product of a first, secret, marriage between her dad and this Tebogo person, but he had divorced her when he met her mom? Mom was someone you did not mess with and when she set her sights on something, and indeed someone, well that was that. Maybe mom had killed Tebogo, leaving Ernest – he was well named and seemed to take things at face value – believing that she had simply walked out on him.
Or, and here Ndia’s tendency towards drama reached its zenith, maybe this Tebogo was the business emergency – she could see her mother’s fingers making their air quotes – that used to take her dad away from home a lot.
She herself had wondered about these business emergencies – they were regular and often coincided with school holidays, leaving her sad that her dad wasn’t around. She loved it when they wandered into the mango forest – well it felt like a forest to her – and he would pick the juiciest for her. She always managed to hide her disappointment when these lovely, ripe orbs inevitably served up a feast of worms, and learnt to swap them with one she’d picked and hidden earlier.
Ndia loved magic shows and had taught herself how to palm everything from a tiny coin to a small avocado. Switching a mango was trickier, but what Ndia lacked in finesse she made up for in stealth, well her version of it anyhow. Once, she was sure her dad had noticed the difference between the mango he’d plucked from a low branch and the one she’d replaced it with, but with a wink he wished her happy eating, telling her a long Venda parable which seemed to have an uncanny similarity to the miracle of the loaves and fishes from the New Testament. Ndia thought it was marvellous that Jesus probably spoke Tshivenda, well she prayed to him in that language and he always answered her prayers, so she guessed that was proof enough.
She felt a bit sorry for her dad. He was not an insubstantial man, and he wore his paunch with a certain resigned dignity, seemingly indifferent to the straining buttons of his Edgars shirts. But it wasn’t his middle that moved Ndia to compassion, it was that his bulk did not protect him from her mom. Ndhivuwo did not produce her southpaw very often – after all her boxer training dad had taught her to only use it sparingly – it was her tongue that did the most damage. And Ernest somehow always got on the wrong side of that tongue. He must have been feeling very brave, or very desperate, when he’d made that comment about not being made of stone.
Funny, her dad loved his stone – he was particularly fond of his collection of soapstone sculptures from Zimbabwe, and often spent hours polishing them. They all seemed to have large pear-shaped buttocks, and it was these that seemed to get a really good going over. Mom was tall but wiry and her buttocks were more like small purple plums, sitting high on her legs thanks partially to genetics, but also because of her strict exercise routine. Once, Ndia had seen a book on Picasso in the local library and some of his women had bums like her mom. She was secretly glad, though, that her mom didn’t have those strange long Picasso faces. Her mom was actually nice looking she thought, especially on those rare occasions when her stern face broke into a smile.
Ndia knew there was a thread that joined her mom’s pugilist attitude, her dad’s feelings, and these two women, Emily and Tebogo, who had intruded their way into the simple narrative of the Tshivula family she had told herself, but right now she could not find it. It was time for some detective work of her own.
The envelope and its contents, now spilled and impossible to ignore, demanded some action. Ndia felt up to this, and trying to quieten the butterflies in her stomach, got going. She was a one-woman commission of enquiry and no stone would remain unturned – she recalled this phrase from the minister for housing in Limpopo – in finding out the truth released from that brown envelope with its Steve Biko stamp.
A few days later, when her dad was off to Mokopane for work and her mom had asked her granny to babysit – Ndia hated the word and images of babies squirming from underneath their caretakers filled her mind – she started looking for evidence. Her granny was getting on and Ndia found that spiking her fruit juice with a little of the vodka her dad enjoyed gave an extra depth to her granny’s afternoon nap. That afternoon was no exception and soon loud snores came from the lounge where Days of Their Lives blared out. Part of granny’s decrepitude was her failing hearing so Ndia knew she could rummage in safety.
Systematically, and mentally photographing the content and layout of each drawer (she loved the crime channel and she knew well enough to leave no evidence), Ndia went through her dad’s papers. There were some things that merited a later visit, but for now Ndia was single minded, and she focused on her main task, and she was soon rewarded. Slightly disappointed that her search was over so soon, because she had really begun to see herself in one of the CSI roles, Ndia found a folder in the bottom drawer, underneath a bible and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, with some photographs in it.
They had been taken about twelve years ago and there, staring out at her from the pictures, was her dad, with a woman and a young girl, aged about 11. Her dad had his arm around the woman and the girl nestled up against him. Ndia noticed that her dad’s paunch was smaller then, and he had more hair. The woman was not Ndhivuwo, and the girl was not Ndia.
Shocked, yet not, because this was the confirmation of her suspicions that all was not well with her mom and dad, Ndia drank in the photo. The girl (was she Emily?) and the woman, presumably Tebogo, were unremarkable looking. No one was smiling in the picture, but there was no mistaking the intimacy that radiated out. These people knew and loved each other.
Her hands trembled a bit now, and her legs felt a bit wobbly too, but Ndia was determined to see this through – a good detective never fainted. She paged through other items in the folder: a copy of a birth certificate, some school reports – Emily talks a lot in class but she is a clever girl and she will go far – and then a letter.
My darling Ernie, it started, I am writing to say to you that I just wish we could be together more. Do you remember the last time you came, how we went ten-pin bowling and you let Emily beat you? And then afterwards, when she was sleeping, we danced on the verandah to Nat King Cole.
Ndia’s head started to spin. Her dad was a kind man, so the idea of him losing a game to this Emily was no surprise. But dancing? This was a shock to her. Mom was very strict about dancing, citing those terrible music videos as evidence of where it would inevitably lead. Gospel music filled their house, and Ndia had to secretly listen to Destiny’s Child, wobbling agitatedly to Put a Ring on It.
Adjusting her glasses, Ndia read on. Ernie – the familiarity of the abbreviation felt very awkward to Ndia – I know that you cannot leave that woman (Ndia felt a sting of resentment at her mother being described so, but her inner sense of fairness agreed that her mother’s no nonsense attitude to the world was rather intimidating) and you love your other daughter very much but this daughter here with me misses you terribly. She’s always asking when she’s going to see her papa again.
Ndia drifted, her mind trying to take all this in. Her dad, a womaniser? And here was evidence that this womanising had led to a child, someone who loved him very much. And the photo said he loved her too. Emily’s eyes prickled with sadness, confusion and jealousy, and a tear rolled down a fat cheek and plopped onto the letter.
Alarmed at how the letters started to dissolve around the edges – the word papa now less defined, Ndia jerked her head up and sniffed heartily, pushing her glasses into her neat afro, perching them on top as an accessory. Pulling herself together, she scanned the rest of the letter. It was a bit faded now but its contents were crystal clear: this woman and her father had been having a relationship which overlapped with that of her dad and her mom’s. And they had really loved each other, and there was this Emily person, surely grown up now, who came from that love.
Ndia scrupulously packed up this rather sad little collection of memories, putting everything back into its place, order restored. Her mind, though, was less satisfactorily reassembled. But Ndia, like all good crime investigators, was determined to see this through. Carefully noting the telephone number for Emily, Ndia re-sealed the brown envelope with its clues of other lives and went for a very long walk in the balmy evening. Granny’s vodka laced juice usually kept her dozing until the news and Ndia needed time to prepare for plan B.
Ndhivuwo’s demeanour didn't change much over the next few days, but the chilli content of her food was considerably elevated for a while, aggravating Ernest’s irritable bowel syndrome, leaving him sweating and miserable, complaining of his blood pressure. Ndia was miserable too, but it wasn’t the chilli that gave her restless nights. It was the plotting and planning that kept her awake – she’d resolved to call Emily – but what would she say? And what were the fights between mum and dad about? Had her mom just found out about family number two, leading to her engagement of the private detective? Was Emily beginning to make demands on Ernest, threatening to unsettle the quiet world – the odd roundhouse punch from Ndhivuwo notwithstanding – of their Venda life? No, a call had to be made to sort this all out.
It was a Tuesday, Ndia remembers, that she finally got it together to put Operation Emily into gear. Feigning a stomach ache, and rejecting her mother’s plan to call granny – mum I’m fine – Ndia was at home alone. There was no one to overhear her call to Emily. Trembling, Ndia pressed the keypad on their fancy Telkom landline instrument, her plump fingers not as precise as she would like, the first call ending up at God Bless Undertakers. No Emily works here, said the grumpy person on the other side, ending with a curt God bless.
The second try worked better and Ndia made a mental note to always use a pencil to punch out the numbers. It was that or go on a diet – but Ndia’s love for her mom’s food stood firmly in the way of this possibility. Hello, said a surprisingly deep, and warm, voice on the other side. This is Emily speaking, how can I help you? Ndia was silent. The voice on the other side was softer now, hello it’s ok if you can’t speak, I’m here to help you. You’re through to the Mokopane Woman’s Shelter – we hear many stories about battered wives who are afraid to speak up, and I want you to know I know how you feel. My mom was beaten by my father, and she eventually killed herself. Caller, do you hear me, I know how you feel, please speak to me, you can trust me. Hello, caller, hello..….
Ndia felt sick as she replaced the receiver. Thoughts whirled through her head – her dad a woman beater? This soft, kind man who had never laid a hand on her? The same man who was cowed by Ndhivuwo, intimidated by her sparring skills, was it possible he had left all that anger behind when he found her mum, subjecting himself to humiliation and indignity?
Ndia never really got answers to these questions – Ernest had a stroke a short while later and he lingered, speechless, for a few months, dying just before Easter. But that summer, when Ndia grew up very quickly, was a summer when she learnt about hurt and healing, guilt and atonement, punishment and forgiveness. No amount of magic could put the rabbit back into the hat, and her prayers in Tshivenda remained unanswered. For Ndia, it was a long summer.