20 February 2011

Happiness is a Four-Letter Word by Cynthia Jele (Book Excerpt)

When Tumi arrived home later that afternoon following the outing with the girls, she was surprised to find Tshepo’s car in the driveway. Hadn’t he said he was working late? Tumi wondered. Was his presence cause for alarm? She parked her car in the garage but hesitated to enter the house. After a few minutes in the car she put on her best face and entered.

“You’re home early.” Tumi eyed her husband with suspicion. Her mind automatically switched into an alert mode, ready to pick up clues and detect unusual behaviour. She felt like a character in a television detective drama.

Tshepo was in good spirits and suggested they go out for dinner. “It’s a beautiful afternoon. I thought to myself: why spend a lovely day hunched over my desk when I could be in the company of my beautiful wife?” he said, approaching her with a flirty grin. He cupped her small face in his hands and planted a wet kiss on her lips. “I’m glad you came home early. Perhaps we can play before we go. I’m crazy for you, you know that?”

Tumi closed her eyes briefly to conceal the turmoil seething inside her. She let out a small wheezing sound.

Tshepo, mistaking her gesture, her gasp, for willingness, slipped his hands under her dress and fumbled for her bra.

She shoved him away. “Not now.”

Tshepo wrinkled his nose and looked hurt by the rejection.

Tumi became aware of the brusqueness of her tone; she forced a smile and quickly grabbed her husband’s tie and pulled him closer to her. “What I meant is save the goodies for later,” she whispered teasingly, then made for the bathroom.

“Babe, you can’t do this to me. Can I at least come take a shower with you?”

“We won’t make it to the restaurant if you do.” She heard him grunt behind her. Tumi locked the door. Her eyes instantly flooded with tears. She ran a bath and tried not to think of Nomkhosi. She was battling. The image of Nomkhosi on her doorstep, her voice – “Sisi, the baby I’m carrying is Tshepo’s” – occupied every inch of her mind.

Tumi thought back over the previous few months, trying to identify a time when things became different, a period of discontent, perhaps, on either her side or Tshepo’s, shifts in behaviour, such as being absent from home more, with time unaccounted for, or an unusual fixation on clothes and appearance, anything to suggest he was conducting himself in a way that was inappropriate for a married man – the kind of stuff she read in magazines, Ten Signs Your Husband Is Cheating! She scratched her head but couldn’t come up with anything significant. Her third miscarriage had happened over a year ago. She couldn’t cite it as the culprit. If anything, it had brought them closer together than ever. Tshepo had refused to leave her side, and unlike with the first two, Tumi had recovered from the loss fairly quickly and without suffering a major depression.

Half an hour later she still hadn’t emerged from the bath.

“Honey, are you all right?” Tshepo was knocking at the door. “You’ve been in there for a long time. Having fun without me?”

“Sorry, I nodded off for a minute,” Tumi answered, faking the voice of someone woken from sleep. “Be out in a second.”

Tshepo drove them to a newly opened, swanky African-themed restaurant in Sandton.

“So, what’s the occasion?” Tumi asked, nibbling on her roasted pumpkin seeds and biltong. They were on the appetisers; she wondered how she would survive the entire meal ahead of her.

Tshepo smiled. Under the table his hand caressed her thigh. “I’m celebrating my luck. Sometimes we take things for granted and forget to count the blessings life has to offer. Take me, for instance; I’m married to the most amazing, beautiful, intelligent and caring woman, whom I love with all my heart, body and soul.” He looked her straight in the eye. “Often I get absorbed in my world and neglect to show her how much I appreciate her for being in my life. So tonight, since karma brought us both home early, I thought I should seize the moment and tell her she’s my life. Tumi, I love you so much. I love you as much today as I did the first time I laid my eyes on you.” He leaned over the table and kissed her. “I can’t imagine life without you. I can’t wait for us to begin a new chapter as a complete family. I know when the time is right God will bless us.”

Tumi sat still, staring blankly at Tshepo, the lack of expression on her face masking a storm of emotions underneath. On an ordinary evening, under ordinary circumstances, she would have glowed with tenderness for her husband. Her stomach would have fluttered with butterflies, and her body swollen with warmth. She would have giggled and blushed like a school girl kissed for the first time. But this was no ordinary night. There were no butterflies in her stomach, no serenity. Instead her eyes overflowed with blinding tears. Tshepo’s words were like a sword tearing through her skin.

“I was also thinking,” Tshepo continued, “maybe it’s time you give work a break and concentrate on having our children. I can take care of us.”

“Tshepo, we’ve discussed this before. I love teaching. Children are part of my life.”

“I know you do, baby,” he said. “All I’m asking is for you to consider the idea of a sabbatical, a year or two off, nothing permanent. I think it would be great for you to be able to relax and not worry about unwritten reports and unruly little tykes. Perhaps the constant stresses of your work are affecting our ability to have children. Please, just think about it.”

“Fine. Let’s order,” Tumi said, hiding behind the menu.

Dinner, a taxing exercise for her, came and went. Tumi couldn’t bring herself to raise the issue of Nomkhosi. When Tshepo casually mentioned that she seemed preoccupied, Tumi lied and attributed it to his suggestion that she quit work.

Later, while they were driving home, Tshepo’s face suddenly tensed. “There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.” He clenched his jaw so hard Tumi feared it might crack. “The human species, brilliant and civilised as it may be, suffers from the most disgraceful trait of all – opportunism. People will do anything in their power, no matter what the cost, for an opportunity to bleed another person dry. They have no regard for morals as long as they get what they want.” He glanced at his wife. “You understand what I mean?”

For as long as she could remember, Tumi had never known her husband to launch into philosophical bullshit unless something was bothering him. “What is it?” The lamb chops and creamed spinach churned inside her stomach. She wished she hadn’t forced herself to eat. Perhaps the dinner had been a mistake altogether.

“You and I have been through a lot together, haven’t we? Thick and thin, sickness and health – we’ve honoured our vows. Reverend Masinga would be proud to see us today, going strong as

“Mind the road, please,” Tumi said.

Tshepo cleared his throat. “There’s a girl at my work coming up with preposterous claims.” His grip tightened on the steering wheel. He accelerated. “I don’t even know her. I mean I see her at the office, but I don’t recall ever exchanging a word with her. She’s one of those girls who sit on their asses and do nothing but flash smiles at men all day. For fuck’s sake, I don’t even know her name.”

The car picked up speed. Tumi leaned back in her seat and checked her seat belt. She thought if she were to die at that moment, what would her eulogy say? Who would read it? Would the
world remember her as a loving wife, daughter, sister, friend, colleague and teacher, or as a fool who stood by the only man she ever loved – through thick and thin, sickness and health – until he recklessly plunged them to their death?

“Tshepo, slow down, please. You’re going to get us killed.”

“This girl is going around the office claiming I’ve fathered her child. Like hell I have!” His voice contained traces of panic. “It’s a bad set-up. Somebody’s trying to bring me down.”

“Does the woman have a name?” She had waited for this moment all day, the moment of truth. An unexpected calm descended over her as she watched her husband.

“You’re missing the point,” Tshepo said, irritated. “I don’t know her.”

“What’s her name, Tshepo?” she pressed.

“Why are you asking me her fuckin’ name? I don’t fuckin’ know it, okay?”

They were almost home. Tumi felt brave. “Is it Nomkhosi?”


The car rounded the corner and skidded onto the shoulder, narrowly missing the concrete curb. Tumi gripped her seat, but kept her eyes focused ahead.

“Nomkhosi Buthelezi.” She saw their house, the bright spotlight beaming across their neatly manicured lawn. She saw the kitchen door where a distraught Nomkhosi had stood hours earlier. “She’s the woman who came to the house this morning.”

The car came to a sudden halt, rocking them back and forth.

“You said she was lost.”

Tumi shrugged.

“Why did you lie to me? What did she say to you?” Tshepo demanded.

In the darkness of the car Tumi could sense his rising anger.

“What did she say?”

“What do you think she said, Tshepo?” Tumi unbuckled her seat belt. “She came to say ‘Hello, I’m family too’, and she left this behind.” She opened her handbag, took out the ultrasound and
placed it on the dashboard.

“What the hell is that?” Tshepo asked. He didn’t pick up the scan.

“It’s a baby, your baby,” Tumi said. She opened the car door.

“Close the door, Tumi, we’re talking,” he barked.

“We’re not talking. You’re screaming. I’ve had a long day. I’ll walk the rest of the way home, thank you.” Tumi stepped out and shut the door behind her.

“That bitch !” Tumi heard Tshepo scream. “I’ll fucking kill her!”

When Tumi reached her house she didn’t go inside. Instead she went into the garage, got straight into her car and drove off.

Happiness is a Four-Letter Word was written by Cynthia Jele, and is an excerpt from her book of the same name (Kwela, April 2010).

Copyright © Cynthia Jele 2010.

Cynthia Jele is a thirty-something-year-old South African-born writer. She grew up near a small border town in Mpumalanga. Her claim to fame was winning 1st and 4th prizes in the 2008 BTA/Anglo-Platinum Short Story Competition. She studied in South Africa and the US, and lives a quiet life in the northern suburbs of Joburg.

Happiness is a Four-letter Word is Jele’s debut novel and winner of the the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa region, best first book.


Myne Whitman said...

A great excerpt, it certainly hooked me in.

thandolwethu jele said...

wow i'am so thrilled and happy..my own aunt is a passionate, brilliant, wonderful and special writer..it's a good story i like i like..may God bless you and give even more inspirations and towards literature..the next Bessie head.

StoryTime said...

Congratulations from StoryTime Cynthia! Winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize Africa region for Best First Book!

Cynthia said...

@ Myne - it's a simple but relevant read for our situations today. @ Thando - very impressed, keep reading girl.

thandolwethu jele said...

wow i'am so thrilled and happy..my own aunt is a passionate, brilliant, wonderful and special writer..it's a good story i like i like..may God bless you and give even more inspirations and towards literature..the next Bessie head.

Anonymous said...

I need to get this book! The excerpt got me wanting more. Excellent work sis cynthia.

Noosie Petlele said...

I finally got to read the excerpt and Cynthia, this is chick-lit at its best. I am definitely getting the book. You go girlll!

sakhile dube said...

Wow, im loving it

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