In their transient beauty on the trees, then on the sidewalks, the lifespan of jacaranda flowers was analogous with so many things going on in Lesedi’s life. As she walked up East towards Government Avenue, making her way to the Union Buildings gardens, where she planned to while away the hot December afternoon, Lesedi felt the heaviness of the flowers as they departed from the branches. She thought of how light they were just a month ago, dangling, unfazed by the calm spring breezes, inadvertently seducing the life around them; but now, drying and heavy, they'd fallen and been trampled on and driven over and mulched and washed away. At least, she thought, they’d be back in a year’s time, and they’d relish their allotted time once again. But where would she be in a year’s time? After what transpired over the past few months, there was no inherent optimism for her as there was for the flowers.
The early afternoon light skidded through the thick jacaranda branches, making its way on to Lesedi’s forehead as she reached the top of East Avenue. With each step she took she became more aware of an aimlessness that cropped up a few months prior that she at first tried to explain, then cared less about explaining, and eventually decided that trying to explain or understand it was like making small talk – futile from the very first to the last word. Her aim, if any, was to reach the gardens, find a shady spot, lie on her back and stare into the clear blue sky until sunset, thinking of nothing, and certainly no one, in particular. She felt as if there was a dull, flat line humming as it ran through the centre of her brain. No thoughts. No ideas. Nothing.
“Ja, you can shave it all off.” Lesedi stared into the mirror, her eyes glazed and devoid of expression, sitting on a plastic garden chair inside a shabby barbershop somewhere in Sunnyside. She couldn’t recall exactly the route she took from the apartment she woke up in in Arcadia, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that all these things on her head, these extensions, needed to go. By then she had ditched the skimpy dresses from Mr Price, and the cheap pumps and accessories and make-up and other things that won her favour or gave whatever it was men wanted outside the Hotel 224 on Leyds Street.
Her black Chuck Taylors, laces untied and loose, were worn around the edges of the soles and the white toecaps were the brownish red of the city’s dusty streets. Her faded blue skinny jeans and a plain dark-green tank top were the only things she recalled wearing since whenever. She couldn’t remember the last time she turned a trick, or the first time either. She couldn’t remember the friends she made earlier in the year when registering for her first year at university, nor could she remember the classes she so desperately attended at first, trying to placate the notion of diligence or the guilt of having been the first in her family to go to university.
“Are you sure, my sister? You want to shave your hair…” She couldn’t be bothered trying to place the very obviously foreign sounding barber. Zimbabwe, DRC, Mozambique, Beirut … what the fuck did it matter?
“Take those clippers and run them over my head.” She wasn’t cold or rude or disparaging. Her indifference was clear and she had no means or will to rectify it. The barber seemed confused at first, and shot a glance across to his colleague on the left cleaning up and shaping another customer’s nape using a straight razor. The colleague shrugged, his broad shoulders rolling as his arms flailed around his customer’s tiny head. The barber flashed a nervous smile, revealing a gap between his front teeth, his lips thick and the whites of his eyes yellow and his frown lines pronounced in a waveform across his brow.
The muggy, stale air inside the barbershop was repulsive. Two in the chairs being attended to and five waiting, plus the two bulky barbers, their breath incorporating to create a barrier of exhalation that could only exit through the door but was prevented from doing so by the two unseated customers waiting around it. “Is this the only fucking barbershop in the city?” Lesedi thought to herself as she stared into the mirror ahead, the next-up customers in the background, one playing some shitty music through his cellphone, the other picking his teeth and the other dozing off, snoring lightly with his mouth open.
The tiered gardens of the Union Buildings held some kind of significance for Lesedi, but she couldn’t immediately think of it. Was it perhaps those long walks with Matshidiso towards the end of last summer? Were the gardens her sanctuary from the corner outside the Sheraton Hotel? Just a hop over Stanza Bopape Street into the relative calmness of the outer workings of government, people exercising on the lowermost tier towards dusk and at dawn, the giant bronze statue of Nelson Mandela with its arms spread in absolute acceptance, looking ahead contentedly.
Lesedi recalled sitting under a tree behind the statue once with Matshidiso, shooting the breeze in a stoned cheerfulness, the mild late-summer sun mellowing their thoughts as they chatted and giggled and noticed each other’s every movement, every expression, the way the tip of Matshidiso’s tiny nose curled up each time she was about to smile, the way her dark skin shimmered in the sunlight, the way her lips quivered as she spoke in her deep, quiet tone, sometimes mispronouncing words, sometimes switching from English to seTswana, their home language and something they bonded over the day they registered for their bachelors degrees at the University of Pretoria. “God, all these forms, some poor arsehole is going to have to process them,” was the first thing Lesedi said to Matshidiso, turning back to her in the queue after sharing a smile moments earlier. “Not as poor maybe as our parents are going to be,” Matshidiso replied, a soft giggle punctuating the last few words.
It seemed like a lifetime ago, almost as if that time was meant to be forgotten and vaguely recalled when place was the only consistent signifier against a backdrop of indifference and genuine intermittent consciousness. Noisily syncopated. Those many off beats, used without consideration to contribute, at random speeds and intervals, to rendering the entire measure senseless, unstable and generally meaningless. The skin of the drum, previously pulled so tightly and pristinely over the shell, now pierced and torn by avoidable abuse and boundless regrets.
“Ja baby, can you come talk to me for a second?” Lesedi took a few steps from the kerb towards the car, the chilly winter evening air cutting across her exposed calves, her cheap red lipstick cracking. They always had the same grin, these desperate men, as if their teeth were those palisade fences around apartment buildings and some houses in and around the area she had become so familiar with. The insecurities of the properties, or indeed these men, filtered by the vertical meshing of those fences, those teeth; all one saw from the outside was something vulnerable propped up by a grin, sometimes afraid, other times emboldened by liquor or simply the power of what lay within in their pockets. Never by what lay between their legs, because that, she thought, was their main, if not only, source of shame.
“What you like, huh, baby … you like smoking this shit?” He dangled what looked like a tiny bag, that grin intact. By then, she was shaking, almost dying for another hit. Most of the local men who came by knew what the women on these streets wanted as payment. It was rare Lesedi came off a trick with money. Instead, she was mostly dropped off where she was found, sometimes beat up and bloodied, with a fading fix in her blood and an itch to continue into the night. There was no place else to go but pace the sidewalk, hoping another would come along with his shit-eating grin and, if she was lucky, a bag of those crystals or a few decaying tiny rocks in wasted tinfoil, palmed a million times by the john as he trawled the city’s taverns, fucking his way out of the city proper and into Arcadia then Sunnyside, one rock at a time.
She rolled up the window as she got into the car, a late-80s Toyota like her uncle drove back home. She watched the blocks go by, some streetlights working, most out, drunk people stumbling over themselves on the pavements, battling with time, trying to escape the next morning. The music inside the car was muffled and sounded awful, the shitty speakers had probably blown a while ago. But she came to quickly, realising she was not in the car to hang out or be impressed by the sound, or this guy’s taste in music for that matter. He was shortish and small, and had a kind of sadness in his eyes from her side-on view. He twitched every now and then, and sniffed, and seemed nervous.
“Where are we going?” She asked in a hushed, reluctant tone, not knowing what to expect, a straightforward answer or a backhand slap across her face. “Err, I’m just finding a quiet place to park, you bitch.” She guessed his response was supposed to establish some kind of skewed power dynamic in his favour, a bravado she had grown accustomed to over the past few months. He stopped the car on the side of a quiet, unlit road not too far from where she was picked up. He took out what looked like a light bulb with the fuse and contact screw removed. “OK, bitch.” He began heating the bowl cautiously as she crawled towards his crotch, unzipping his soiled jeans to reveal his flaccid, black cock. It would take a while to get him hard enough to fuck, she thought, but it was worth the wait.
“I’m asking you a simple question, Lesedi. where were you last night, or last week when we were supposed to meet? I haven’t seen or heard from you in, what, almost two months.” It was mid-September, early spring. Matshidiso had finally managed to get hold of Lesedi earlier that month. “I don’t know, baby, things just came up. I’m sorry.” It was the kind of conversation she had been dreading all winter. She hoped Matshidiso would forget about her and move on. Besides, she thought, there was not much to remember in the first place.
They spent maybe two months together, and that whole time Lesedi felt smothered, as if Matshidiso thought of her as some kind of possession. The way she’d hold on to her, follow her around when they went out, refer to her in company as “my girl”. It seemed desperate, but Matshidiso told her she had never felt that way about anyone before, that she loved her very deeply and was there to support her.
It was also around the time Lesedi’s interest in her studies waned. There was no point, she thought, in busting her arse over schoolwork only to reach a point of permanent unemployment in the near future. There was no hope either way, studying or not studying. At first she was unsure as to what brought on such hopelessness. Growing up on the outskirts of Rustenburg, she was known by her friends and family and schoolteachers as “the happy one”. Her name, Lesedi, meant “light”, and she certainly wasn’t dull or devoid of light, until she arrived in Pretoria.
Her bright smile beamed through the photographs lined up on the wall in the sitting room of her parents’ small home on Mothuka Street. Always the happy one, comfortable and content in her small frame, her natural hair and a smile so warm it could calm a raging crocodile, as her uncle sometimes said.
She couldn’t trace the moment she lost hope. Was it the freedom of being the furthest away from her family and hometown she had ever been before? Was it that student syndrome so often likened to a caged bird being freed? Was it the temptation, which, in simple terms, she had given into, something Pastor Mokoena back home warned her about the Sunday before she left for Pretoria? “Yes, pastor, I am aware of those temptations,” she recalled saying that day after service, more excited by the prospect of leaving than paying too much attention to being sincere, “but if you know me, and I know you do, you’ll know that I am very determined to get through university and make my parents and family proud.”
If only Pastor Mokoena could see her now, she thought, as she delved into the thought of disclosing to Matshidiso what her immediate plans were. It wasn’t as if she needed Matshidiso’s approval or permission, but felt it was the perfect way of telling her, once and for all, that it was over between them, and that Matshidiso should get on with her life. “I’m going to Joburg. I have a friend there who said she’d put me up until I find my way around there.”
Fumbling her way on Government Avenue towards the eastern entrance to the Union Buildings, the hot afternoon sun beating down on her shaved head, Lesedi watched her inconsistent, shaky footsteps, wondering how those shoes, those feet, were capable of holding her up. The last time she checked, there was a large blister on the side of her left foot, the burning pain after it popped remaining for some time and then dissipating, or perhaps still there, melded with the broader pain of the year that had been.
She thought about Joburg, the plan that was more of an excuse to get away from Matshidiso; about the Jacaranda tree outside the church at the intersection of Mothuka and Moumo streets where the pastor gave her the stern warning, McGregor Preschool just diagonally across, the shabby shanties and smallholdings that made up her hometown; about her parents’ home, the photographs on their wall, her broad smile; about the men, the abuse, those streets not too far down from where she was; about another hit.
Then, nothing, as she approached the lawns in search of the tree she and Matshidiso had spent so many seemingly pleasant afternoons under. But she couldn’t find it. Instead, she stumbled and backtracked to the South African Police Memorial to lie at its base, a hot slab of brutality and the most appropriate final resting place, she thought to herself.
She looked up towards the blue sky, the verdant terraces shimmering and the indigenous haze of the plants all around her, creeping towards her, calling out for her to become them, their roots ancient and everlasting, their colours bold and their language unheard yet in the very breath of everything around them. She curled up on the concrete, holding her knees, trying to shake the shivers and the sweat and the now excruciating hum of that flat line running through her brain.