“If it had been precisely a year ago, I probably would’ve missed her striking presence. In fact, I think I would’ve childishly whizzed past her, labeled her boring and thought of someone else insignificant and then moved my roving eye elsewhere. Someplace light in complexion.”
He, a dear friend of mine, honestly spit those words while we patiently waited for a train. Stretford – Orange Farm‘s train station, about which it could be said that in some ways, imitates Johannesburg’s Park Station with the number of passengers who pass through its gates every single day. It was teeming with students en route to a multitude of universities and colleges; and high schools.
I also spotted some of the high school boys shuffling about the platform, looking thug-ish – their attitude, style, or ‘swagg, dude’, as it could be argued by them, mirrored an image that was way older than their actual ages. And much older people, whose looks make you believe they have been to places and situations you dare not set foot and know zero about; babuya kude labantu. Their bosses must’ve been bawling for them, waiting expectantly to begin the business day.
She was one of those students. Eager to get an education and make something impressive of herself. Charmaine. Lives in Extension 1, Orange Farm. My friend had spoken to her a number of times and ‘it was promising’ – he vaguely told me. He lives in a section that’s a forty-five minute walk apart from her, in Extension 8B. Me, in Extension 6A. What was promising, I was not sure and I didn’t dare quiz about it, so as not to frustrate his loved-up happiness.
I made a mental note of something trivial. There is a certain incongruity insofar as her looks (exceptional looks, I can attest), intelligence, eloquence, a vast vocabulary and knowledge are concerned, versus the sort of home in which she grew up. And in which she still lives. That, to me and my friend, makes her a fascinating individual.
Of average height, confident, relaxed and a bit tattered in the way of the clothes she sported on her back, she is the quintessential definition of determination, curiosity and emotional balance.
To many of her admirers, she looks perfectly fine, in every sense of the word. But, alas, she is fighting off demons a twenty-four-year-old has no business fighting. Amongst others, helping, painstakingly, to raise her siblings and also find time for herself and her studies.
As Jamie painted the picture about her to me, it came out grotesque. Her life is somewhat chaotic; but that was not visible at all when I saw her, she is not wrinkled by the hardships – perhaps if I were walking in her worn out shoes, I’d have died. Wrinkled.
She could actually be tossed into a world class beauty pageant and contend strongly for top honours.
How did you meet her? I ventured.
What do you mean, here? Where we are standing?
“No, silly! I first lay my eyes on her on this platform, on our way to Johannesburg. Her, to school and me, to some early meeting that didn’t bear any fruit in Braamfontein.”
Okay, I see.
“By the way, we are not officially a couple yet.”
No? Why is that? You seem to get along very well.
“We do … we do …” His voice trailed off a tad. “She’s piecing together her heart after it was shattered a few months ago. So, I’ve seen fit that I should give her some emotional space and be there as a friend,” he concluded with a pained expression.
She asked you that much, didn’t she, Jamie?
“How did you figure that?”
I’ve noticed the furtive glances you’ve been tossing at each other; more so you, actually. Even a slow-witted person can easily intercept them.
“Is it that obvious?”
I can assure you, though, it’s never a bad thing!
Look. If you really love this girl . . . Charmaine, she is, yes? Which I can bet with my unborn twins that you do, you need to be as patient as she needs to recover. She is worth the wait my friend. And, before you tell me about there being many other fish in the seas, I’ll tell you this: the way you’ve generously described her tells me that she is a centred human being and due to her struggle at home, she pays no mind to the frivolities that her peers fuss over.
“I suppose you’re right.”
Of course I am. I mean – and in order to wrench him to focus and sober up, I said – if you do leave her because you feel she is wasting your time and you could be with other girls who find you attractive and have plainly shown their intentions to you, I am going to snatch her away!
“Fuck! No! Themba, come on dude! You are kidding, yes?”
You two are not officially dating yet – I said simply.
Seven-forty-three-AM. The bloody train was nowhere to be seen from Vereeniging to Johannesburg. People started cursing under their breaths at Metrorail and all its employees (even the cleaners, although they clearly had nothing to do with the delay), and their spouses. Everyone. And some, a few of them, leapt up to their feet and made their way to the Extension 2 taxi rank, which is a stone’s throw away. They just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Imagine! Even izolo I was late by an hour because of these stupid trains. Not today!” With a lot of fervour, said one sharply dressed gentleman, as he scuttled off, up the stairs and out of sight.
Me and James thought we should wait a little longer, perhaps until eight-thirty-AM. My appointment at WITS University with a lecturer who had agreed to see me regarding my wanting to access the school to deliver my presentations about the impact of digital media on education was scheduled for eleven-thirty-AM. We know the hassles with the trains, so we sought to be early by at least three hours, for we didn’t have money for a cab. A mere R 32, 00 each for a return trip – times were indescribably tough. The train tickets we had? We had borrowed them from people who were off from work that day. If anything, I was glad for my friend’s moral support going into this momentous meeting.
Hitherto, I hadn’t really wondered about the content of James and Charmaine’s passionate / emotional and tear-jerking conversations.
What is her life like? What, if you don’t mind telling, do you talk about?
“Well, a lot of stuff. For the past few weeks we’ve been talking a great deal about her situation at home. She has it rough! I sometimes yearn to help her, but I am broke myself – I can’t even have a haircut. So, all I can give her for now is my time, empathetic ears and at times, advice and encouragement.”
Are her parents both alive, and, how many siblings? I had to be sensitive, for I realised James had now shared her pain and felt it deeply, too.
“She is left with her mother. Her dad passed on three years ago after a long illness; she tells me burying him was a painful process as they had little help from their extended family. Her mom recently found a job as a domestic worker in Lenasia and the money she earns does little to help. Somehow, they’ve survived all these years. She has two siblings. Twins, boy and girl both in primary school, Grade 7. Be he often has to play mother to them in a number of ways.”
How is she taking herself through school?
“She received a sponsorship from Investec. She’s doing her fourth year of her Chartered Accountancy qualification at WITS.”
To ligthen the mood, I said: I did get a sense that she is a live-wire. Smart girl!
“Oh, is she just!” – he beamed childishly as he said that, revealing dimples and his perfect teeth – “She challenges me a lot mentally. The other day, I went to see her at her home and my heart sank when I walked into the address she’d directed me to. It is a shanty where she lives man! I nearly broke down and cried. The contrast stood out violently, because she smiled and laughed happily when she saw me. Anyway, what was my point again? Oh, yes! As soon as I walked into her house, I saw rows upon rows of books neatly lined up in a homemade bookshelf. She told me her father made it for her a few months before he was bedridden, as a gift for her having won a provincial debating competition in her first year at varsity.”
Oh, you are in love with a bookworm. That’s lovely. And I’ll tell you why I say this: a lot of the girls I meet and then half-heartedly pursue don’t have the same appetite for books. Let alone anything that’s intellectually stimulating. And here you are, on the verge of nourishing and of being an emotional crutch to what seems to be a phenomenal woman!
James laughed heartily. “I am indeed lucky. Although as a friend for the moment.”
I am jealous – I replied, pretending to shrug.
At this point, he bellowed with raucous laughter. He’d forgotten that Charmaine and her schoolmates-cum-friends were about twenty feet away from us, talking about this, that and the next girly thing. They whirled around to see what was going on. He didn’t even notice that, his eyes were Asian, as it were, in their size due to laughter – he was swimming indulgently in the I-am-so-in-love pool.
“Themba Jay. My guess is, for what it’s worth, that you will find someone who loves the intellectual stuff you indulge in – just keep on searching mate!” He offered, with a generous smile.
True. I know that. But, I detest the idea of searching for a companion. It just sounds, how can I put it … uhm …
Precisely! Wretched even.
“I suppose.” He held his chin lightly, in a thoughtful fashion.
Anyway, we aren’t switching characters that easily. We are talking squarely about you and Charmaine here. Never me. So please, don’t even think of threading yourself out of this one.
A few minutes after I uttered those words, train number 9015 came along – an express train, even better. It’ll make up for all the lost time. So Charmaine and company won’t be late. The driver hurtled it headlong into platform number two.
“Nazo! Sekunjalo! Jozi, Jozi, Jozi / express train / platform two / uyasala wena!” The announcer happily told us, his deep voice coming through overhead speakers; I could sense a grain of relief in his voice, hence the verbal dilly-dally, I suspect.
“Tjo, bathong! Izwani les’lima sithini! Yoh! Kunini? We’ve been waiting for this train mzala – I nearly left for a taxi. At least I will save some money. Kodwa i’Metrorail amasimba yona shem!” A high pitched voice could be heard thundering over the heads of relieved passengers, onto our ears. And as is tradition, it didn’t take long for a ferocious rugby match to ensue, with many mischievous voices shouting, “Ngena naye!”
I always pity those who disembark at Stretford station when the platform is chock-a-block.
In all the commotion, a few brave passengers held their positions and hung themselves right on the face of the train, illegally facing the driver squarely through the windows and others, nestled in between the coaches, managing to block the clear way of train vendors who hop from one coach to the next selling their wares, all just to avoid the stampede that inevitably occurs inside the train.
I then looked over to my right, searchingly – with newfound respect, and slightly out of concern, too – toward a person with whom I haven’t been in conversation yet. Charmaine. I was ecstatic that my dear friend had someone like her in his life. A smart, strong and sensible young woman with whom he can share his thoughts and love. And of course, a young woman whose life he can alter, add value to and elevate in a radical way. If only he can find it in himself to be patient enough to allow her to walk her spiky journey; help her strengthen her self-esteem; push her intently toward her dreams and her dreams and widen her perspective.
She deserves that sort of love and care. She is a rare breed. I hope he sees that; over the past two hours awaiting this train we are about to board, I may have philosophised expansively, but, that was all I could have done. His willingness to want to see Charmaine flourish, his love for her and the patience to wait for her to mend herself emotinally, are the only devices that’ll allow him to see and appreciate what he has in front of him.
Okay. They are safely tucked inside this brilliantly engineered mechanical snake – I said to myself quietly. Relieved. Phela these ‘Ngena naye! Phuma naye!’ tugging wars leave people injured and at times, leave others without some of their belongings as deft fingers run through pockets and handbags in that hailstorm of bodies meshed and violently thrust upon each other.
. . . a pile up of people who left their homes to fend for their loved ones and others, a little younger, off to school to pave their way to a brighter tomorrow that involves not arriving at work all wrinkled because they were fighting for space in a suffocatingly crowded train.
After we ourselves boarded, I felt an urge to sneak in a question that had been darting round and round in my mind . . .
Jamie. What did you mean an hour and twenty-five minutes earlier, when you uttered somewhat absentmindedly into the air the words, quote: “If it had been a year ago, I probably would’ve missed her striking presence. I think I would’ve childishly whizzed past her, labeled her boring and thought of someone else insignificant and then moved my roving eye elsewhere. Someplace light in complexion,” unquote?
Also, and pardon this being a mouthful: with striking presence, are you referring to her beauty? Her voluptuousness? And why would you have cast your eyes someplace light in complexion?
The train had started hobbling, coughing violently as it trudged ahead with the immense load aboard and was beginning to snake forward steadily after a few light screams from women who staggered about clumsily, and had to hold onto window panes and steel rods (erected to support standing passengers) and people next to them.
James smiled quizzically at my question, thought for a short while, and then said, with wisdom beyond his years. “Sir. Themba Jay, you’re cleverly pushing me to make an admission that’ll make you feel good. I’ll gladly concede . . . So, being exposed to the way you think since we became friends a year-and-a-half ago and having drawn lessons from your emotional awareness and intelligence, I was now able to spot Charmaine’s striking presence, emotionally speaking; her aura – above and beyond her beautiful looks and gorgeous body.”
I like Jamie for his astuteness, he easily pinpointed my ploy. Bloody agent!
He continued. “And, as for the complexion bit of it . . . I feel that, again, because I now think, see the world and myself differently, I no longer confine and chain and whittle my definition of what constitutes beauty down only to skin tone. I am glad I have unlearned that. There are noticeable mental improvements since we started hanging out.”
I was floored. In response, I simply held out my hand, lifted it toward him and then formed it into a knot and we did a fist bump and a sincere look of complete understanding passed between us.
Nothing else had to be said further. By the way, Jamie is one of those friends with whom I can sit in silence for a long time and no awkwardness would descend upon us. I am eternally grateful for that.
And in sweeping and super instinctive motion, because we’ve traveled together numerous times, we searched our bags and both took out books to read on the long journey.
I thought briefly about the joy of friendship and love, looked around at the fellow passengers jostling about and talking animatedly about how trains are a headache, their mischievous children, the lack of jobs, politics, sport and all the rest of it, and immediately I thought to myself – they possibly couldn’t understand what I am feeling right now. What James is feeling; what Charmaine is feeling.
As the train prepared to move at breakneck speed, I glanced outside the window, down at the cemented, lacklustre platform churning away beneath us like a rapid conveyor belt.
He was already paging through the book “Drug Muled: Sixteen Years in a Thai Prison – The Vanessa Goosen Story” by Joanne Joseph. And me, I held a pocket sized read, with an artwork-y portrait of a suit-and-tie-wearing, spectacle-sporting, intellectual-looking man on the front cover. The title: “The World of Can Themba, edited by Essop Patel”.