The walk from the Western Medical Fund office to Leke’s home was thirty minutes but it took him fifty on a Friday because he made a stop.
Leke watched the pavement as he walked, and his long legs swung a slow easy gait. He felt like whistling but he’d never picked it up as a child, and now was too embarrassed to try. When he was around others whistling he studied them, hoping to catch on to the secret but when he was alone again and tried it, little but a flush of air released from his lips.
As he’d entered manhood Leke made fewer trips to the barber shop Marcus used in Claremont. Marcus realised he couldn’t force him and didn’t want a fight. Fights with Leke were wordless, just his steely defiance and head set to the side looking down.
So the curly afro was left to grow, twisting bronze coloured strands standing out from his head like crooked wires. His hair was the colour of his eyes and his skin and the effect evident and striking enough that, for a short period when he first arrived in high school, he was awarded the nickname Brownie.
At the technikon Leke’s silence and the manner with which he moved his tall slender body across the student piazza, greeting no one, were mistaken for arrogance.
By the time Leke’d graduated from tech he knew all about programming, he’d learnt the quiet language of computers and was satisfied to do that for a living. He had also, by then, learnt to speak loud enough to be heard, he’d transformed like an amphibian into an uncomfortable adulthood, maturity thrust on him the need to disguise his dreams and dreaming world and “make it”. Nights still swallowed him whole into far off voyages, his sleep populated with intense friendships, kissing and other intimacies his daylight life was barren of.
Over the past decade the suburbs adjacent to trendy Observatory, Salt River and Woodstock, had gone through a process of re-development. Families that had lived there for generations were bought out by large developers and the wealthy. Main Road, running from Mowbray into the city centre, was now a long commercial strip with low-rise apartment blocks, offices, fashion stores, galleries and restaurants. Organic food markets in old warehouses and light industrial buildings spread out from the main road towards Queen Victoria Street and the railway line. This creep of gaiety ended abruptly at a set of traffic lights beyond which began a sliver settlement – an off-cut, somehow missed by the gentrification project. Single-storey houses arranged amidst a series of cul-de-sacs and one-way streets – Wandenleigh was Leke’s neighbourhood.
Lekestopped at Elias’s shop sitting on the corner of Nelson and Oxford. It was an eighteen-metre-square store called The Corner Shop. The rumour was that the shop was as old as Elias, that he’d been born there and any day now the old man would die there leaving on the shelves, amongst the odd wares he sold, a half-empty stippled bottle of calamine lotion, an ornate bird cage with the wire door missing and a multi-coloured selection of unpackaged toothbrushes. At the entrance of the store was a basket full of un-matched socks. Keen customers who had been drawn in by the “five rand a sock” poster complained, but Elias said socks didn’t need to match if you were going to wear them with boots.
In the corner of the shop was a thin mattress where, during the day, Elias arranged his goods of scarves, shoes and old collectable tins. At night he slept on the mattress with Whitie, the four-legged woman in his life. The Great Dane was eighty-four centimetres tall at the withers and just under one-ninety on her hind legs. Her shiny jet black coat ironically explained the choice of her name.
People wondered how Elias survived but, while most of his stock never seemed to move, he sold a great number of heavy duty black bags to a loyal group of customers; to those who cared to garden he sold flower seeds.
‘Elias!’ Leke stuck his head through the entrance of the store.
‘Come, come,’ Elias replied from somewhere at the back of the room.
‘I’m in a hurry today,’ Leke said into the shadows, shifting his weight from one leg to the other and peering in.
‘Come in, Leke.’
‘No. Can’t stay, Elias,’ he shifted his weight again.
‘Whitie’s in the back, Leke. You can come in.’
Leke stayed where he was. Elias came out from the store-room and fiddled with the back door knob. Leke understood this gesture was for his benefit. The week before the back door had been unlocked and the Great Dane had pushed through and frightened Leke. Today the door was locked – Leke stepped into the shop. The cement screed floor was covered with a weary zebra rug that looked as if it had crawled into the middle of the space and died there. The ceiling was blackened from an old fire and a blue portable stove stood near the mattress. Everyone knew Elias used it to cook, but he insisted it was for sale. An orange sign with white lettering in the shop window had once claimed that everything inside had a price – including the shop owner. One day a woman from another neighbourhood who came into his shop insisted she wanted to buy Whitie. After that Elias took the sign down.
‘Hey, Leke. Why the rush?’
‘Ah. Okay. I won’t keep you. What today?’
‘Four O’Clocks. Five packs please.’
‘Four O’Clocks. Four O’clocks. Always the same thing, how come? Look I’ve got Snapdragons, Sweet Pea, some Daisies,’ Elias pointed to pictures of various flowers pasted onto kebab sticks he’d planted in small flower pots and arranged on the counter.
‘No, just the Four O’Clocks.’
Elias shrugged and took five packs of the perennial seed out of the drawer behind the counter.
‘Well, I guess some people like Roses, you’re a Four O’clockskinda guy,’ he chuckled at his own joke.
Leke took out a brown envelope from his backpack, in it was the exact amount of money for the seeds. He placed the envelope on the counter and stared at it while he waited. The old man gave him the five packs and tucked one pack of Snapdragons into Leke’s top pocket. He began to protest.
‘I insist. No charge. Just want you to spread out a bit,’ Elias was enjoying the young man’s nervousness. He rubbed his thickened fingers over grey speckled jowls, wheezing from a lifetime of smoking. His hoarse laughter exposed yellowed teeth and a purple tongue.
‘You’re welcome. Let me know when they come out, hey?’ Elias shouted as Leke left his shop and walked up Oxford bridge.
When he got to his front gate he paused to catch his breath. Walking up the driveway he pulled out another brown envelope, identical to the one he’d given to Elias. It too had an exact amount of money in it. He walked up to the front door and knocked.
‘Who is it?’
It was a Victorian-style house. The grey roof shingles reminded Leke of the scales of a fish, he imagined the tiles writhing. The pipes carrying the rain water from the roof down to the gutters were made of copper. At the back of the house a room had been added and to the side was the garage where Leke lived. He’d never been inside the house but he believed Widow Marais lived in the doorway. He imagined that on the other side of the door he knocked on every month to hand in the rent, she had her whole life set up. He made up a story that her husband had died of a violent disease and had, in his last minutes of life, run crazy through most of the house. The only part he never ran through was the doorway, so she moved her life into this threshold and was now waiting for her own death.
He’d named her the Rhododendron because, although she looked frail on all encounters with her, she’d talked hard.
Leke had first seen the Rhododendron plant at a flower show Jane had taken him to at the National Botanical gardens.
Jane had studied Botany. Leke didn’t know what happened but he realised she never worked as a Botanist, he grew up knowing his mom was a part-time Science teacher at a boys school in Rondebosch.
Her love for plants never changed though and Leke spent most of his childhood in her large garden, first rocking in a crib as she worked the soil and then planting with her. The flower show was a special occasion and Jane wore a hat and her favourite dress which was purple and pink chiffon. Leke liked putting his cheek to the fabric whenever she hugged him.
They’d walked between the flower beds, holding hands and Jane had explained each display, the name of the flower, the family it came from and under what conditions it thrived.
‘This is the RhododendrumponticumLeke,’ she’d pointed at a collection of flowers and Leke forgot the ice-cream she’d bought him and listened. The flower reminded him of Jane’s dress, purple and wavy in the light wind.
‘It has poison though, don’t be fooled by its appearance,’ and she’d clasped the back of his neck with her thumb and forefinger, sucking her tongue as Leke giggled from her touch.
‘Rent,’ Leke shouted at the one-hundred-year-old hardwood door.
‘Put it through,’ the Rhododendron screeched.
She was going blind and never left her house. Once a week her niece, Esmeralda, came by, not on a visit of care, Leke thought, but rather to see if her aunt had made it through another week. He heard the widow slap her cane against the flap in the door where the postman shoved the mail. He pushed the envelope through, but didn’t hear it hit the floor.
‘Bye,’ Leke said.
Widow Marais growled.
There was a thick hedge along the side of the house that divided the Marais compound into two unequal halves. Widow Marais’s half was wild with overgrown bush. Leke crossed into his half, cutting through the hedge, careful not to scratch his ankles on the plant’s thorns. If he hadn’t needed to pay rent he’d just have used his own private entrance. That was one of the things that had attracted him to the place. The advert had said:
Small converted garage room. Separate entrance. R800 per month. Toilet. Shower. Sink. Available now. Phone Jeanine Marais 021 448 8811.
Leke had called.
‘Uhm… I’m calling about-’
‘The garage room?’
‘Still available. How old?’
‘Age. Your age?’
‘Twenty-five,’ he’d lied.
Leke gave her his manager’s phone number. He’d been working there for almost a year and felt he could now afford to rent a place of his own. The next day Leke called Jeanine Marais back as she’d asked him to.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘How soon?’
It had been the reason he’d responded to her advert and if she’d thought it odd, she hadn’t cared enough to argue. The next day Leke moved into Widow Marais’s “garage room”, bringing all his possessions with him: his atlas collection, his small wardrobe of clothing, his mattress, his dark blue backpack, and Red, Leke’s dearest friend – an old rusting Volvo 200 series station wagon.
The entire garden on Leke’s side had been plucked out and as he walked, his half worn brogues left muddied shoe prints on the rose-coloured brick paving. A two-metre high wall with flecks of grey paint peeling off protected the space from the Cape Town winds, the silence created a chilling stillness. Beyond a squat wooden gate, swollen with the winter rains, the end of the cul-de-sac was exposed. Leke entered his studio.
Inside his small home his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He pulled a cord hanging by the door, and a fluorescent light lit up the space.
It was a deep double garage that had been turned into a studio flat.
This was part of Widow Marais’s confusion when Leke asked if he could park his car inside the flat. Not in the driveway but actually inside.
‘I’ve spent a lot of money converting the garage into a room and now you want to turn it back into a garage?’
But she’d agreed.
Red had been Jane’s car. Leke remembered learning the word.
‘Red,’ Jane would say, and point to the car.
‘Red,’ Leke would say back.
The name stuck.
When Jane died, Marcus parked it in a corner of the garage and it stayed there. Leke couldn’t forget Red. The car conjured Jane in his memory, driving out to the flower farms and crowding the boot with pots of Clivias and Orchids. Back home they would transfer the plants into the garden while Marcus complained that Jane was using a luxurious car as if it were a pick-up truck.
At eighteen Leke began the task of reviving Red. Marcus protested initially but stopped when Leke ignored him. It took him a year, mostly due to having to save in order to buy the parts. Each month Marcus noted an added shiny piece, a dead part that now operated, or a strong engine. When Leke moved out Marcus didn’t stop him from taking Red – he couldn’t recognise the car since Leke had started restoring it. Although the restored car resembled exactly what Jane had driven, Marcus had become used to the dejected looking shadow he’d banished to the back of the garage, speckled with dust and dying. It gave a pain to see it when he walked past but he got accustomed to the pain, it was familiar. The restored car pulled nothing in Marcus. It wasn’t the same and so was not worth keeping, one of a series of realisations over the many years that Jane was really gone.
The studio had a second garage door fitted, which opened directly onto the street, this was Red’s entrance. When Leke returned after a Sunday drive with Red, he reversed her in so her nose always faced outwards. To maximise space he pulled her up right against the back wall.
When he left for work in the mornings, on foot, he opened the left-hand-side car doors so that, on arriving home, he felt as if she was reaching out to him with a welcoming hug.
Against the wall on the left, on the side of his studio which faced the street, was a small shower, a toilet and a sink. Immediately to the right of the front door was his mattress and a small fridge. Inside the fridge was a sachet of salt. On top of the fridge were three boxes of rusks, a stash of rooibos teabags, and a kettle. A small heap of his clothing lay on the floor by his bed.
He kicked off his shoes and socks, enjoying the cold grit and crunch of dirt under his soles. The wind squeezed through a gap under the doors bringing in debris that collected in the corners of the room, which he never worried to sweep. The springs in his naked mattress creaked as he settled his bulk on them, lying on his back to watch the heavy wooden beams that crossed the short length of his house and the overlapping corrugated roof sheets above. It started to rain and he could hear the water hitting the roof, tinkling against the metal. Leke closed his eyes. When he opened them the rain had stopped and darkness had arrived outside his window, it was after 9pm. He shoved his feet back into his shoes and walked out onto the quiet street.
YewandeOmotoso was born in Barbados in 1980 and grew up in Nigeria with her Barbadian mother, Nigerian father and two older brothers. The family moved to South Africa in 1992. Her debut novel Bom Boy has been shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Literary Awards.Yewande trained as an architect at the University of Cape Town, to which she returned after working as an architect for several years, to complete a Master’s degree in Creative Writing.