by Carole Glasser Langille
“Go with him,” the woman says in a heavy French accent as the train slows. The old man motions for Mkhokeli to follow, then gently pushes the young man ahead of him as the train doors open. Mkhokeli is very dark and this frail man is ashen white, his wispy hair combed over the crown of his head. Mkhokeli is surprised how fast the old man goes, even with his cane, as they walk down the station platform together.
Earlier, he had shown the man his plane ticket, there was not much else to do on the train, and though Mkhokeli did not speak French, and the old man certainly did not speak Xhosa, (white people always amazed by a word that begins with click click), Mkhokeli had mentioned that he was going to Paris to catch a bus to the airport. The man had looked at the ticket carefully, shaken his head and started talking very fast in French.
It was the woman one seat behind who touched Mkhokeli’s shoulder. “He say you change trains on the next stop. You take taxi to the airport. No bus. Or you will not get your plane. Is it ‘make your plane?’” she asked. Then “Do you understand?” She translated the old man’s question, “Do you have a place to stay if you do not get your plane?”
He had to get on this plane. He was being met at the airport.
They are practically running now, up a flight of stairs and down another, and they rush into a train on the last track just as the doors are closing. When they sit down, the old man nods and smiles. Mkhokeli understands this train will take him to Paris. When they arrive in the city, the old man takes Mkhokeli’s arm again.
On the street, the man flags down a taxi. He tells the driver Aéroport—Charles de Gaulle and hands him bills. He points to the back seat then nods as Mkhokeli gets in with two small pieces of luggage made of red plastic. Then the old man closes the door.
“Rapide,” he says to the cab driver. He waves and smiles as the taxi drives off.
The cabby lets Mkhokeli off at the airport, miraculously at the right terminal. Mkhokeli waits in line and when it is finally his turn he is told to run to catch his plane and he is able to board. Just in time. Which makes him want to tell Ayabonga he was right: the world can be generous.
But he will not think of Ayabonga now. He looks at the movie screen in front of him, and the movies offered. He is going to a university in New Jersey. Princeton University! He is leaving that world where he and Ayabonga were never safe. Who would have thought he would get a ticket out.
By the time the plane lands the following morning, he has slept a few hours but is still groggy as he leaves customs and walks toward the baggage line. That’s when he sees the cardboard sign with his name printed in large black letters. A white-haired woman holds up the sign. So, this is the woman. She is older than he thought, frail shoulders, lined face, but her eyes are bright. He goes up to her shyly, looks into her eyes and smiles.
“Oh, Mkhokeli,” she cries and gives him a hug. “Is that how you say your name?” She asks him to repeat it after he says it quietly, and he does.
He is in this country because of her. “An angel found you,” Ayabonga said when they were kids and Esther Beckworth first came into his life. And now he is meeting her.
So many people everywhere, so many big cars, he thinks, as they get Esther Beckworth’s car from the parking lot.
As she drives to her house in New Jersey, Mrs. Beckworth does most of the talking. She tells Mkhokeli what highway they are on—the New Jersey Turnpike going south—and later, when they pass the university which he will be attending, she points out the buildings.
When they arrive at her home she says he must be jet-lagged and perhaps would like to lie down. But he is too excited to sleep. He is surprised by this house. It has a pretty garden with many flowers, but it is not a large house and the paint is cracking. They passed fancy houses as they drove here and hers is not one of them. There are no servants. He always imagined Mrs. Beckworth rich, rich.
They go to her kitchen and she asks if Mkhokeli wants tea, if he is hungry. She has made a stew of beef and cabbage and potatoes and carrots. And steamed cornbread—mm-bah-KAHNG-guh. She knows, from the letters they have exchanged for almost a decade, that this is what he likes.
A big black dog comes into the room barking, excited to see Esther who pets him as he rises to meet her hand. Still barking, the dog jumps up on Mkhokeli as well, who laughs. He asks what the dog’s name is.
“Ephrussi,” Esther tells him and explains that she named the dog after the Ephrussi family. “You’ll probably be reading Proust in University. His character Swan was based on Charles Ephrussi.”
He has already read Proust, though he doesn’t mention this. He liked the character Charles Swan very much. So much music in Remembrance of Things Past. He thinks of the song “Mbaqanga,” the Mahlathini Nkabinde song he and Ayabonga would dance to when they were alone in Ayabonga’s house. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon. So much time has passed since then, and yet that moment has never left him. Time, how it leaves and how it remains.
She asks Mkhokeli to tell her what Cape Town is like. “It’s a pretty place,” he says. “It’s where the sea changes directions, wild, cold, and a mountain above the sea, and Cape Town is built into the side of the mountain.”
High up on the mountain is an old shack with the remains of a garden, he thinks. He and Ayabonga used to go there when they were sure no one would follow. Ayabonga was so skinny then. One day Cebisa, Ayabonga’s cousin, came with them and put Mkhokeli’s hair in dreads. It took hours, combing the hair, kneading in wax. Afterwards they had a feast of umngqusho and they danced till they were too tired to move. They did not have money but they had style.
He has been living at Esther Beckworth’s house more than a week before he sits down in his room to write Ayabonga a letter. He begins, Ayabonga, I have read your letter twenty seven times today. It is the first letter you sent me, do you remember? It is very short. I keep it with me, folded in my pocket. When I saw you, after I first got that letter, you put your hand on my shoulder. Do you remember? I still feel your hand. Ayabonga. My kereltjie.
He puts away the letter he is writing.
He has taken to walking Ephrussi in the early evenings, with Esther. Here, dogs are treated like people. There are no isicathamiyas, no sneak attacks from brutal, unidentified men. Dogs are not used to hunt people.
He and Esther are usually quiet on their walks. Even though he is shy, he finally asks her what he wants to know. How was it that she found him in South Africa? How was it her money ended up sending him to secondary school so that he was the one to get a scholarship to university in her country? There were many families, as poor as his, who could not afford to send their sons to school.
She tells him about Abuto, a man who teaches African Studies at Rutgers. He had been a good friend of her father’s, she says. It was Abuto who told her what was happening to people in South Africa, to people who didn’t hide who they were. Mkhokeli lets out a nervous laugh.
She tells him a story Abuto told her, a horrible, gruesome story. “But you know how dangerous it was, where you lived,” she says.
Now Mkhokeli lets out a sad laugh, a laugh that sounds like a sob. Ayabonga, she knows, he wants to tell his friend.
She says Abuto works with an organization that tries to protect students who are in danger, paying for these students to go to private schools where they are safer. She says that when Abuto told her what was happening, years ago, she knew she had to help. “Because, you see, in my own family . . . ” Her voice trails off. And then she tells Mkhokeli about her father and he is surprised to hear this story. He thinks, I must tell Ayabonga. He thinks, she is beautiful. If it weren’t for her, I would not be in this country. I would probably not be alive.
He realizes that he was chosen for this scholarship precisely because of what he was trying to conceal, that he was a mary, a skeef, moffee. He knew even when he was little that he was different. By the time he was eleven or twelve, he had already fallen in love with a boy in his village, even before he met Ayabonga. But who told the men and woman who ran the charity that he was who he was? Did they all see so clearly what he had made such an effort to disguise?
Ayabonga told him years ago, “You know, I don’t ever want to leave here. But you will leave. You will be one of the scatterlings of Africa. And you will tell your story.” Ayabonga was the only one who knew Mkhokeli’s other secret, that he wanted to write. And Ayabonga knew the story Mkhokeli wanted to tell.
Mkhokeli’s father hated Ayabonga, forbade him from seeing his friend. Umtathi uyawuzala umlotha, he would say—the umtathi tree is a good tree but it turns to ash when you burn it. Which meant, of course, that a good man can have a bad son.
“He doesn’t hate you. He’s scared for you,” Ayabonga said. When Mkhokeli’s father would discipline Mkhokeli, tell him to stand up straight, to walk like a man, Ayabonga said, “He wants you to blend in.”
But Mkhokeli would not stop seeing Ayabonga. Even after he was sent away to school, he would seek out his friend when he came home on holiday.
Later he takes out the letter he began to Ayabonga and continues to write.
Ayabonga, remember we thought Mrs. Beckworth was rich, rich. So much money, she sent some to South Africa so I could go to school. We thought, a woman with so much, charity meant nothing. But she is not rich. He tells Ayabonga, Mrs. Beckworth’s father knew the great writer E.M. Forster! Ayabonga will not have heard of E.M. Forster but he will know why Mkhokeli is excited by this news. She wanted to help a boy at risk because her father was like us. Itshoni lingenandaba, the sun doesn’t set without news.
At the private school she paid for, it was not so dangerous. The uniform made a difference. He was no longer called rent boy, a lisa, names the boys would call him in his village. But Ayabonga did not have his patron or his luck.
It’s cold in New Jersey. He is not used to this cold. Mrs. Beckworth tells him she hopes he will treat her home as his home, when he is attending Princeton, and visit whenever he feels homesick.
He realizes he will visit Mrs. Beckworth. When he imagined meeting her, he thought he would feel obligated to the woman who helped him. He had always felt grateful. But now he feels more than obligation. This woman knew who he was, even before she met him. He starts to feel a shift, some terrible heaviness lighten. He does not have to keep secrets from her. They share something.
It is like a warm wind that descends from the mountains and rushes to the sea, this realization. Perhaps her father did not fear for his life, as he had. But because of her father, she knows what it is to live a life that others might not understand. Mkhokeli sees, too, that she has had to make sacrifices to help him. Such sacrifices, year after year, was a way to honour her father. A father who kept his secret from his daughter until after he died. Hayi. No. He will not visit because he is homesick. That cannot be cured by coming to see Esther Beckworth. But he will visit.
For a moment he wonders if Ayabonga was right, if his father was so critical of Mkhokeli because he was afraid for him? Was his intolerance and judgement his way of trying to protect his son? He still does not believe this. But in his head he can hear Ayabonga whispering, This is what I have been trying to tell you.
He goes to his room to continue his letter. Remember, Ayabonga, when we danced to the Mahotella Queens. How we laughed about that name. Chula, chula, chula.
Mrs. Beckworth lights the fireplace for Mkhokeli. She thinks he may be cold, even though it is late summer. When she knocks on the door of his room, he tells her to come in. He is writing a letter, he says.
“Is it to Ayabonga?” she asks.
He is surprised she should say this. He wrote to her about Ayabonga. Surely she remembers that letter. Still, she has asked him the question. He nods. Yes, he says. The letter is to Ayabonga. Intaka yakha ngoboya benye, a bird builds its nest with another’s feathers. Ayabonga’s love has been his only real home, no matter where he is.
She tells him she has made tea, asks will he join her.
“Ndiyagula,” he says, “I feel sick.“ But he follows her to the living room. When they sit on the couch he hands her the letter.
“Read it,” he tells her. Then he says Ubuntu. When she asks what that means he says, “I am what I am because you are what you are.”
When she finishes the letter, she sighs. Her face is full of sympathy as she hands it back to Mkhokeli. It is not a distraction, he wants to tell her, this writing to Ayabonga. It is the whole story. Ayabonga was his initiation, his secret, his fortune, his loss.
“In Xhosa,” he says, “the past and the present are not divided. They are part of the same meal.”
His voice is hardly a whisper and his breathing is shallow. He wishes, as he has wished so many times in the last year, that he could wipe his mind clean and forget. A man says it’s a good world and he ends up with his throat slit in a rented apartment in Kuruman, his tongue cut out, genitals hacked off and stuffed in his mouth. He can not get the image of Ayabonga`s mutilated body out of his mind.
But my feeling for Ayabonga can’t be killed, Mkhokeli thinks and starts to cry. “Who made me, here and why? he wants to say. Ayabonga Lebala Ka Nna. I will never forget you, he thinks. He gets up and walks to the fireplace. He tosses the letter in the fire and watches it flare up, tears filling his eyes and spilling onto his face.
Mrs. Beckworth walks over to him. She puts her hand on his shoulder for a moment, then lets it fall to her side. They stand there together without speaking.