Seven hours from the pick up point after crossing the Limpopo River, the border jumpers arrived in Johannesburg.
Qinisela was the first one to be dropped off. He felt the van stop, and, after a moment, the door of the back opened and Disaster’s face appeared in the square of weak light spilling in from the street lights behind him.
‘Qinisela Dube!’ Disaster called into the interior, after consulting a small note book in his hand.
Qinisela’s heart started. He scrambled through the press of bodies to the square of light, and jumped out of the van.
His right foot felt numb. He stamped it on the ground, sending a million stinging needles haywire in it.
Disaster pointed at an imposing grey building that stretched the whole block. ‘This is it,’ he said, his voice gruff. ‘Your destination.’
At the tone of the voice, Qinisela looked sharply at Disaster’s face. It was no longer the smiling, kind, and confidence inspiring face he knew from Bulawayo when he had gone to pay his eight hundred thousand dollars for the border jumping trip that had warmly, and confidently, assured him it would safely deliver him anywhere he wanted to go to in the city of Johannesburg.
‘That’s your door over there.’ Disaster pointed at a dark doorway up a short flight of concrete steps. Then, abruptly, he turned around, went around the van and, a moment later, it was pulling out of the parking lot - then it drove away down the street.
Qinisela stood on the pavement and watched the van, his last link with home, and his old life, turn around a corner and disappear.
He should at least have waited until I was safely inside, he was thinking as he looked up and down the street, a little disturbed by its emptiness.
He glanced at his wrist watch. 3.00 a.m.
He mounted the steps to the dark doorway. Prince must be doing quite well to be living in such a big building, he was thinking as he raised his hand and gave the imposing solid wood door that reminded him of knights and castles four hard triumphant raps. He was now right inside Johannesburg itself, and soon, he would be starting a new and exciting life!
A car swished past on the street behind him, its headlights momentarily lighting up the dark doorway.
Qinisela waited, impatiently cracking his knuckles, his eyes x-raying through the door for movement, and his ears finely attuned for any sound that might come from within.
No sound came from within, and nobody came to answer the door.
He knocked again, this time a little harder, although it made no difference on the stout door.
His heart skipped a beat, and he whirled around. A street kid, dressed in filthy rags, was standing at the bottom of the steps, looking up at him. The beginnings of a tired mischievous grin were quickly spreading over his grubby face.
The kid said something in a language that Qinisela did not understand, and the grin broke into a reedy laugh.
Qinisela, fists clenched, advanced towards the boy. The boy took off down the pavement, laughing shrilly, and stumbling with the effort. He disappeared around a corner.
Qinisela turned back to the door, expecting to find it now open and Prince’s face smiling at him in welcome. The door was still closed.
He knocked again. Three times. Louder than before, and waited.
After sometime, when the door still remained closed, he began to have doubts. Maybe Prince had slept out? Or moved to another place? At the latter thought, a twinge of anxiety plucked at his heart. But there should be other people living here, for hadn’t Prince said he lived in a block of flats? And as far as he knew, flats house multitudes – somebody had to hear his knock, even a security guard. Where the hell was the security guard?
And then the street kid was back again, and this time with what seemed to be a whole colony of other bedraggled fellows of his kind behind him, nasty looking fellows who seemed as if they had just tumbled out of a sewer pipe. And not even a single one of them could have been more than fifteen years of age – they all looked so painfully young to Qinisela, if looks not deceiving. Most of them were inhaling from small plastic sachets, or bottles, with tired or dizzy looks on their faces.
When they saw Qinisela knocking on the door, they all broke into derisive laughter, some holding their sides, and some sitting on the pavement.
A speechless Qinisela stood at the top of the stairs, gaping down at this spectacle that was unraveling before his eyes. Must be something other than plain glue that they are sniffing, he was thinking, for the street kids all looked insane to him. And they were so many of them. His mouth turning dry, he turned back to the door. It was still closed.
He knocked on it again, this time with a little desperation.
‘Prince!’ he called as he knocked. ‘Are you there Prince? Wake up and open the door! It’s me Qinisela!’ He was using the English language, so as not to give away his origins to the street kids, or any other listening ear.
At that, a fresh outburst of frenzied laughter erupted from the bottom of the steps, and its echoes filled up the doorway.
‘Jah man!’ One of the street kids called out, waving his plastic sachet over his head.
‘Jah!’ The other street kids took up the cry, also waving their plastic sachets in the air. ‘Jah Rasta!’ Some slapped their friends’ hands.
‘George Marley!’ Another one called out.
‘Shabba!’ Another one.
Qinisela stamped his foot on the ground. ‘Shut up!’ he shouted at them in English, anger in his voice.
The crackle of a sachet inflating, and deflating. A deep cough from a chest that sounded as if the lungs were hanging on by a bloody thread.
‘What do you think you are doing there Rasta?’ One of the street kids shouted up the steps in Zulu, blinking his eyes rapidly at Qinisela.
The Zulu language and Qinisela’s Ndebele are children of the same cradle, with the Ndebele people having run away from the rule of the blood thirsty Tshaka to carve out, with their tall shields and assegai’s, their own Kingdom in the now Matabeleland of Southern Zimbabwe: if you can speak Ndebele you can speak Zulu, although accents differing.
‘What do you think I am doing?’ Qinisela replied in Ndebele.
‘I think you smoke too much weed Rasta,’ the speaker, who was almost as tall as Qinisela, but almost thin to the bone, raised his sachet to his lips and it inflated and deflated, his gangling body swaying to and fro, bloodshot eyes on hawkish face fixed on Qinisela all the time.
The boy pointed a finger at his matted short hair, his head arrogantly tilted to the side. ‘I think you fucked up here Rasta. Too much weed mixed with pill.’
A fresh outburst of howling laughter from the other street kids, giving Qinisela a feeling of being in a bizarre live comedy show, with him as the main character, a confused main character not acting to a rehearsed script, but with things unfolding naturally before him.
‘Will you please say that again?’ There was a rising anger in Qinisela’s voice. He hitched up the sleeves of his sweater to his elbows, and, jaw and fists clenched, his chin thrust forward, he stamped down the steps towards the speaker.
And came to an abrupt standstill on the second step from the bottom as a Rambo knife sprang into the gangling youth’s right hand. Its blade flashed silver into Qinisela’s eyes.
The street kid quickly ran up the steps, twisted the collar of a helpless Qinisela’s sweater into his fist, the point of the jungle knife a blink away from the tip of Qinisela’s nose.
‘If you move I stick you,’ the street kid said. His eyes blinked rapidly. ‘And if you think you can run away, you won’t have far to run because of my friend behind me.’ He blinked rapidly again, and gestured over his shoulder with the blade of the knife, stepping to the side to give Qinisela a clear view of what was behind him.
Another one of the street kids was pointing a pistol at Qinisela, finger on the trigger. He gave Qinisela a gap toothed grin over the gun sight.
A shocked Qinisela quickly raised his hands up into the air.
The knife wielding street kid deftly, as if he did it everyday, kicked Qinisela’s feet from under him. He fell and rolled down the steps to the pavement, bouncing his head painfully.
In a flash, the other street kids were all over him, kicking, stomping. One very hard and powerful kick landed on his exposed stomach, another on his back, half paralyzing him with white hot pain. He folded up his body into a fetal position, knees drawn up to protect his face, his mind on the pistol he had seen, half expecting to hear it exploding.
A last kick thudded on his body, and the street kids retreated.
Qinisela carefully sat up, groaning in pain. The eyes of his assailants were all on him.
‘That door you are knocking on -,’ the street kid who had been wielding the Rambo knife, which was now out of sight, said, one hand on his waist, and the other scratching inside his torn trousers at his crotch. He blinked in staccato again. ‘- is the door of the Johannesburg Post Office, and from your accent, I can tell you have just landed from Zimbagwe, with a Post Office box number.’ He paused to join his friend in laughter, and then continued. ‘And you are not the first one to land this way here from Zimbagwe. We have seen many like you knocking on that door before. There is no one inside there, only letter boxes and letters inside them – unless if the person you are looking for is a letter.’
He laughed with the others again.
‘Wake up Mkwerekwere, this is Joza.’ He turned to his friends. ‘Let’s go ma-gents’
They walked away, some swaggering, some casting triumphant grins back at Qinisela, some laughing, and some sneering importantly...
Many Rivers was written by Christopher Mlalazi, and is an extract from his book Many Rivers due to be published in May 2009 by The Lion Press.
Copyright Christopher Mlalazi 2009.
Christopher Mlalazi writes prose, poetry, drama (TV and stage), and also children's fiction.
In 2004 he received the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED citation in the Sable Lit Mag/Arvon (UK) Short Story Contest. In 2007 he was shortlisted for the HSBC PEN SOUTH AFRICA SHORT STORY CONTEST, and in 2008 he was awarded the OXFAM NOVIB/PEN FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AWARD.
He has published short stories in Zimbabwe, Europe, as well as on the web, and was also published in the 2005 Cain Prize Anthology (Orbituray Tango),the 2006 Edinburgh Review, and the 2007 AFRICA PENS. In winter of 2009 he is publishing his debut short story in The Literary Review (USA).
Currently he is working on a novel he hopes to finish by mid 2009, if not earlier, and has a stage play under rehearsal.
On the 14th of Feb 2009, Christopher was awarded the NAMA in the Outstanding First Creative Published Work category for his debut book, a collection of short stories called Dancing with Life.