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
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
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.