Today marks the start of an exciting partnership with our favourite South African literary magazine. By way of introduction, here’s a note from Prufrock editor Helen Sullivan:
Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. We’ll be publishing pieces from our past issues on 10and5 weekly. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read our submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za.
The below short story by Nozizwe Herero was originally published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of Prufrock.
“To the north, there’s England, an incomprehensible country, and the Scandinavian states, incomprehensible countries. To the south there’s the Vatican. The dome of St. Peter’s is the candle-snuffer of Western thought: like this dome here” (he pointed to the Sacré-Cœur nearby on their left) “only on a larger scale. Around the Vatican there is Italy, and Italy means the aeroplanes that protected Franco’s reinforcements when the game was almost up.”
He stopped, and seized his companion by the arm. The other stopped too.
– Henry de Montherlant, Chaos and Night
Their mothers linked them up: two boys from the same district – now both overseas – had to, just had to, meet each other. “Ngoba you never know when you might need each other,” Soso’s mother had said during one of their phone calls and Mandla’s mother had reiterated the same point to her son, though their calls were decidedly less frequent. Their homes, where their mothers still lived, were in neighbouring villages of the same district. Their mothers had met at an annual regional convention of churches, and after boasting ever so subtlety to each other about their children in the way that church folk are allowed they discovered that they each had a son overseas – “Phi?” – “eYurophu! Owakho?” – “Naye!” – and their friendship cemented right there and then.
By the time Soso called him, after weeks of reluctance and forgetfulness despite regular reminders from his mother, Mandla had long been expecting his call. “Our mothers want us meet.”
“I know,” Mandla said, “I was also supposed to call you bra but things just got – ”
“I know – my mother has been on my case ever since she met yours and figured out you’re also here. Where exactly are you, anyway?”
Soso was in Madrid, “…where I spend 10 hours of my day, five days a week, sometimes six, gosh, it’s ridiculous, in a library dungeon goin’ through the papers of a virtually unknown South African poet who moved here years ago. I’m trying to write a thesis on him. And you?” Mandla spent just as much time perfecting his interpretations of Stravinsky under the tutelage of a renowned Chinese pianist in Stockholm.
They were hardly as near each other as their mothers had made it seem, but to the parents the fact that they were both in Europe did not sound like too much of an inconvenience. “How big can iYurophu be?” Mandla’s mother had asked, unimpressed that her son’s arranged relationship was not moving as fast as her own with the proposed friend’s mother, “It doesn’t sound very big to me,” she answered herself. Soso found this really funny as it was more or less what his own mother had said.
Talking through the expenses, the loss of time, and the other difficulties each of them would bear in travelling to meet the other, they decided that they should just tell their mothers that they had met and that it was great and that they were delighted to have been introduced. The inconveniences of actually arranging such a meeting were not only inconceivable but also inconsequential for their parents to whom all that mattered was that two young men from the same humble district were in Europe and had to, had to, meet, and know each other, you know, in case something were to happen to either and they needed each other. They were still trying to make themselves comfortable with this new scheme when Mandla admitted, “I always find it so difficult to lie to my mother, especially –,” at which point Soso confessed that he felt exactly the same and so they decided to follow up this conversation with another over which they would make more concrete plans about which time of the year would be most suitable to meet.
It was Mandla who called suggesting they meet halfway for a holiday, in London, “Or maybe Berlin. I’ve been meaning to see London and Berlin.” They decided on April, the only time Mandla could escape while his teacher would be on a concert tour in South America. The three months build-up to April was dramatic, busy and surprisingly quick. In the first month they spoke to each other once or twice a week, but by February were speaking almost every day and morning and evening by March; adding and subtracting activities from their week-long itinerary, growing even more excited than their parents at the prospect of such a holiday, which was turning out to be in keeping with both their personalities and routines.
They were going to stay at a hotel in London that had a grand piano on which Mandla could practise each afternoon in preparation for his recital in late June, while Soso would visit the British library to see some of his subject’s papers that he had been planning to view at some point anyway. In between, in the mornings and in the evenings, they would use part of their scholarship money and stipends from their jobs to go to the theatre district, eat at that vegetarian restaurant in Covent Gardens, see Kew Gardens, Hyde Park, visit Monk’s House, pray at St Paul’s, listen to rock bands in Camden Town, walk Zadie’s neighbourhood in Willesden Green, see Soho at night and perhaps walk along the river Thames or find “some other less revolting touristy thing to do,” Sosa said, having by default become the logistics manager of the trip.
Their mothers had long been cut out of the planning details, having both, separately, voiced disapproval at what they now sensed was becoming a money-guzzling spree, and had simply been told the barest minimum of the meeting details. Still, their boys. In Europe. The pride with which it filled them to talk about it. They spoke about it all the time, about how all that struggle of raising children as single parents had now paid off with having one of them phesheya kwezilwandle. Now best friends, having realised how much they had in common over the other village folk, they followed the budding friendship between their sons almost as if their own depended on it – which in a way it did.
“It’s so lovely, yazi, to have children that still listen to you even from afar,” MaXaba would say.
“It’s a blessing, mngani,” MaZondi would concur, and never one to miss an opportunity to point out her role in the shape of things would add, “We have clearly raised them well. Not all parents can say the same thing ngabantwana babo, especially boys.”
Of course neither of them could say what exactly it was their son was engaged in that necessitated the sojourn to Europe in the first place, but they were content knowing that whatever it was it was obviously a big and important something in the eyes of those in the know about these things. When asked by other people, their reverends for instance, what their sons did, MaXaba would say hers was a musician, never a pianist, and MaZondi was even more at loss but after many failed attempts she found that saying “uSosobala uyiProfessor” seemed sufficiently impressive and satisfactory to most enquirers.
“They have not abandoned the way of home, even from afar, and that is really good.”
“Yes, we have taught them well, my friend. They still understand the importance of knowing abantu bendawo and that is a sign of being still attached to the ways of home, and that is good my friend.”
The first time he saw Mandla in the overcrowded Heathrow airport Soso knew it was him before even confirming the fact. Perhaps it was the clothes he was wearing; dressed in brown shoes, light grey trousers, blue shirt, black leather jacket and a burgundy scarf just as he had said he would. But later Soso was sure that wasn’t it, was sure he had only registered the clothes after the fact, as a way of securing a certainty he had already accepted that this man standing over there, with a pair of sunglasses barely concealed by his scarf, a black suitcase upright by his side, cell phone in one hand, a ring on his left, and an earphone in one ear was the man he had been looking for. Soso stood for a moment, seconds rolling by, trying to remain concealed while he observed him, took him in, and to collect himself, for suddenly he became aware of how flustered he was, sweaty and less suave in comparison, having just rushed through terminals, propelled by the acute awareness of how late he was in getting to the airport spot where they had agreed they’ll wait for each other. Like prey sensing he was being watched, Mandla began looking around and eventually looked in his direction and Soso had to act like he had not yet seen him and had instead paused to orientate himself to the surroundings and ascertain whether he had entered the vicinity of their meeting spot. Mandla waved to him and Soso moved towards him, smiling, with eyes wide open, still rattled that in those moments of silent contemplation he had not thought of a good opening line to express surprise that sounded genuine at (finally) seeing him.
“Goodness, it’s a maze in here!” he said and awkwardly lunged almost as if to hug, but was pulled back by his sports bag dangling on his shoulder and offered a handshake instead. “So good to see you, finally! Our mothers would be so happy! Please call them immediately and let’s please go home,” and Mandla laughed as he turned the handshake into a very manly hug and said, “Dude! Those ladies would know we pulled a quick one so please don’t even!”
The trip to the hotel in the underground seemed much shorter than it actually was, time filtered through lively conversation mostly about home and about their itinerary due to begin the moment they dropped their bags. Over a late breakfast, which turned into an early lunch, they spoke at length, yet again, about their respective fields of study-cum-work and were clearly in admiration of each other’s commitments to their chosen paths.
“Of course my mother doesn’t understand a thing about what I do. When people ask her uthi ngingu-professor and I’ve now just started to endorse that even though isende kakhulu indlela before I reach that level.”
“My mother’s the same, she says –”
“I know –”
“I’m a musician –”
“A singer, I know – that’s what my mother told me!”
“And I’m just like, ‘Dude!’ You just, just can’t –”
“You just have to accept it –”
“There is no point –”
“There’s no point fighting it, no.”
“But I suppose,” Mandla said, “the fact that I started off majoring in opera before dropping that really confused her and I just could not explain the shift to piano. Not that opera ever made sense to her, but still, there was singing.”
They both knew all this already; they were rehashing the same narrative but now face-to-face, or rather authenticating it with their whole presences, as opposed to disembodied conversations on the phone or via Skype or through text messages. And having revisited all past conversation points, as they wondered around from their meal spot through the streets of Earls Court hoping to catch sight of a landmark that would lead them back to their hotel (now no longer sure whether to get on the bus or to continue walking, and not even exactly sure where they were anymore), Soso thought it might be time for a new conversation topic to distract them from the bubbling but not yet full-blown frustration at being lost.
“That’s a nice ring you have there. Who gave it to you?”
“Who says it was given to me?
“It is lovely, isn’t it? I like it.”
“I would too. Especially if it was given to me,” Soso was adamant.
“Do you want it? I can give it to you.”
“I’d rather you gave me something else.”
“I’m not a very good flirt, you know?”
“What? Oh. Ooooh. Who said I was flirting?” Soso laughed, “I meant I’d be more comfortable with something more…”
“Meaty,” Mandla laughed at his own joke.
“I’d have gone for more ‘personal’, but anyway –” Soso said.
“I know something personal and meaty,” Mandla said.
“You’re disgusting and you’re a terrible flirt, you’re right” Soso said and laughed but felt awkward.
And so that’s how the door was opened. Later that night, returning to their hotel room after an afternoon spent at the Royal Academy of Arts and an evening listening to a comic whose sources of laughter were his unbelievable lack of artistry coupled with intense self-seriousness, they closed the door behind them and without a word started kissing. All day they had both been separately worried that perhaps booking a single room with a double bed (agreed upon as a way to save money) – “Us blacks have been sharing sleeping surfaces since time forever,” Mandla had said over the phone – might not have been such a bright idea. They both sensed the warming sexual chemistry between them as the day’s hours ticked by. Yet at some point in the night, perhaps over the late supper at the basement vegetarian joint at Covent Gardens, while they nervously guzzled wine and laughed themselves senseless going over Mack the Mike’s comedy set, their feet touched often and eventually their legs knocked and then rested against each other for moments then minutes at a time and the eye contact grew more direct and intense and there were more and more silent pauses that could not be filled for the only words appropriate for those gaps in conversation seemed inappropriately early, crass, and certainly not the reason why their mothers wanted these two boys from the same district now in Europe to meet.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Soso broke one such silent moment, “as to who gave you that ring.”
“Nobody,” Mandla said.
“Of course you’d say that at this point. South African men are clearly the same no matter where you find them. Nilahlele, yoh,” and they both laughed.
“You speak as if you’re not one of us.”
“Biggest mystery of this century – how I got born there. South African masculinity makes no sense to me whatsoever. I just don’t get you guys. But you seem to have it all worked out, starting with the lying about your marital status.”
“Seriously dude, I’m not married. I just like this ring ’cause it’s symbolic of something.”
“What? Your marriage?” They both laughed again, clearly tipsy but Soso’s hand already in the air with his empty glass signalling to the waiter for a refill.
“In a way, yes…”
“Ndazile! My gosh.”
“My marriage to Piano – capital ‘P’ – to my career,” and here Mandla paused. “In a way, you could say my marriage to myself. Or Art. Or self with a capital ‘S’. Higher Self, you know?”
Soso gave a good throaty laugh and seemed unable to stop himself even as the waiter patiently hovered over him.
“Just nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” the waiter said, “Would you like more of the same? Yes. Ok,” and he laughed too though he had no idea what had been the joke. “And you Sir? Same?”
“Yes, please. This dude is crazy,” and Mandla laughed with them.
When the waiter had gone Soso managed to capture enough breath to declare that that was the biggest load of bullshit he had done ever heard, adding that if classical piano ever turned out to be a dead road for him at least Mandla could take over Mack the Mike’s spot at the joint around the corner. “You’d be a hit! My gosh!”
Mandla was not exactly laughing, more like giggling and smiling a very wide smile, and when Soso seemed to have sufficiently calmed down and had wiped his tears of laughter, Mandla took both his hands in his, looked him in the eye and said, “Soso Zondi, ntsizwa yaseNtab’ay’lali, I swear on my Self and on my Art and on my Piano that I am not married to any human being nor am I promised or pledged or tied to anyone. So will you marry me?” and the waiter who’d come back in time to hear that last bit became visibly excited and started jumping up and down with his tray, going “Oh my God! Oh my God!” and everyone stared and both Soso and Mandla looked around as confused as everyone else before realising they were the cause of the hullabaloo. They quickly retracted their hands, legs and feet off each other and folded them over their laps and under their seats. The waiter first looked confused then grew embarrassed, blushed, and everyone else in the restaurant shifted their eyes curiously, suspiciously or with irritation from the now dumbfounded waiter to the two seated men who looked positively tame and particularly uncomfortable. The waiter apologised to both of them and scurried to the back. He returned to pick up the glasses broken in the commotion and wipe the floor while Soso and Mandla assured the manager that the spill had been a mistake and, No, it didn’t bother them that the waiter had spilt wine of them and No, the waiter was not at all at fault although they remained vague on the details of what exactly had happened. When the manager left, the waiter rose up from his knees and murmured thank you and I’m really sorry and disappeared seemingly forever to the kitchen while Soso and Mandla quickly and more quietly made their way through the complimentary glasses of wine the manager had brought them and left soon afterwards. They caught the underground back to the hotel, now again laughing at the spectacle they’d left behind and in their minds finally certain of one thing: their barely sublimated sexual desire for each other.
The next three days of their stay in London were bliss, with minor glitches here and there necessitated by the coming together of two personalities new to each other. There is no greater blessing to two lovers than a holiday to a faraway exotic place at the early stage of their love affair, with the senses awoken, sharp and alive to everything, to every sensation even if not to every sight. He wants to go left, the other wants to go right and of course whatever they choose in the end will not have the same consequences such a decision would come to bear if the connection was not in its twilight stage. One feigns protest, the other plays up domineering tactics but no grudge is bourn for the focus is not really on whatever it is they are going to anyway but on each other experiencing the space. They are in love and truly happy, even if their fundamentally grouchy personalities won’t believe it.
“It’s the weather, you silly.”
“No it’s you,” Mandla said and broke into Amarilli mia bella as he jumped in front of Soso bleating out the Italian romance as they walked past the booksellers along the river Thames. Soso put on his sunglasses and smiled and every now and then caught sight of the equally bemused bystanders and passers-by. When Mandla finally finished, a crowd of nearby spectators clapped and Mandla melodramatically bowed to them and they all continued walking.
“I hope I do not have to deal with that every time I decide to go for a walk with you otherwise I’ll have to leave you behind,” Soso appraised the drama.
“Oh come on, you know you liked it.”
“No, I didn’t!”
“Yes, you did!”
“I mean, you’re no Mardew Czgowchwz or anything; good thing you chose piano.”
“Well, no offence to gorgeous whatever, but I was good, boy. Everyone else thought so!”
“No they didn’t – what else were they supposed to do but clap? It was embarrassing!”
“I know you liked it.”
“No, I didn’t.”
And on it went.
The first real test came when Soso asked Mandla to trust him as they embarked on a not very well-coordinated tour of North West London in search of some library –
“Kensel Rise,” Soso said.
“Oh, I think it might have shut down already,” the librarian at the Kilburn Library Centre told them, “Was it that one with a high profile reporting case?” she asked.
“Yes! That’s the one,” Soso confirmed.
“Yeah–no, I think it closed” –
But Soso insisted they go see for themselves, walking the streets of Willesden Green all the way from Kilburn High Road propelled by some poorly conveyed but nevertheless strongly-felt need to experience in person the setting of novels he had particularly enjoyed.
“This is a wild goose chase,” Mandla surmised after an hour of walking through a seemingly uneventful neighbourhood with nothing to recommend it but unremarkable brick buildings impossible to distinguish from each other, and no sight of the fabled library.
“And so if it’s a wild goose chase that means it will inevitably end in the finding of what we’re looking for,” Soso retorted.
“I don’t understand.”
“Then stop using phrases you don’t understand,” and Soso went back to studying his map – insisted they walk further. Past the train station, past the Islamic centre, past yet another bus stop, into yet another suburban territory, and still no sign of the library or the cemetery to which, according to the librarian, it was apparently close.
“What’s at this library anyway?”
“Nothing. Books. I don’t know. It’s closed down now, apparently.”
“I know that. The lady said so. So why do you want to see an empty library?”
“It might not be empty. And anyway it’s important. Mark Twain built it. And it’s important to this community, but the government is shutting it down. Sorry – shut it down. It’s a solidarity thing.”
“Solidarity with what? A closed library? Are you serious right now?” And he had laughed that laugh that was strictly reserved for the likes of Mack the Mike.
“If it’s such a bother for you Mandla I think you should just go home, back to the hotel! I can’t stand the negativity, the whining. Either you’re going to be of help or you can just leave ’cause right now you’re being a total nuisance and I really can’t stand your nagging right now. My gosh! Geez.”
Yet, after a while of walking in silence Soso eventually accepted defeat, suddenly stopped at a bus stop and ordered they get onto the first bus that came by headed back in the direction of Kensal station to catch the train back to central London.
After banging away at the piano for almost two hours, playing a particularly dissonant interpretation of the Petrushka chord, Mandla left the hotel with Soso in tense silence, but their adventures that evening in Soho healed all of the afternoon’s wounds. And so did the love making afterwards, which was still a twice-daily preoccupation, a well of consolation with no sign of drying up. Soso loved the way Mandla took him on, roughly but with care, almost always with a sustained gripping force as if he feared he might change his mind, jump out the hotel window onto the next train to Heathrow and leave him behind. Yet that domineering hold contained all the protective energy Soso had ever felt from everyone he’d known before combined and was still overflowing. Mandla would make love to him as if on the verge of tears, and would pull himself into him in strokes that suggested he was drinking him up, taking in more and more of him even as he was pushing himself into him, perhaps experiencing a joy so fearful he mistrusted its longevity and wanted to hold on to it, tighter and tighter and to never let it go. The stereotype about black men’s members unfortunately not discredited (“Yoh, you’re letting the race down there, geez.”), the initial pain of such force was only eased for Soso by the tenderness in Mandla’s kisses on his lips and his ears and on his neck and chest and back or shoulders (depending) and his caresses and his sweet utterings and moans that came from truly enjoying himself as he feasted on him. Soso felt himself a valued object of unprecedented pleasure, and for this he tolerated the pain which anyway subsided and was overtaken by the pleasure for him that comes from knowing that your needs are also being catered for. And he’d begin to participate in the momentum of the rhythm, to encourage the sways and the thrusts, opening himself up to the length of it all, gradually putting aside all inhibitions as he sank himself more and more fully into the chaos of this rising pleasure. At this point Mandla would seem to come into his own, encouraged by the unguarded display of such animalistic appetite which he was determined to satisfy. Mandla would drive him to more and more humiliating desires, encouraging him into unseemly positions and would only satisfy a need he knew he’d awoken in Soso only if Soso explicitly called for its satisfaction even though Mandla already knew what it was Soso most desired to be done with his body at any given point. Though Soso sensed that Mandla liked seeing him beg, so loose, so desperate and vulnerable, uncontrolled, there was no sign in Mandla’s enjoyment of this of any strong desire to humiliate rather the eagerness to please and perhaps be praised.
The following day Mandla skipped practice and they spent the day indoors and had room service and watched TV and slept and drank in bed and only took a shower in the evening when they went to the opera which they would have missed were it not for the fact that Mandla’s friend and colleague performed in it and had especially put aside very pricy complimentary tickets for them. They hung out with him and some of the company members afterwards at a late-night pub around Piccadilly Circus singing arias and everyone drinking way too much but no one getting drunk but everyone speaking loads of nonsense.
“But the thing is –”
“He was basically pleasing himself to the sound of her voice –”
“And being very normal about it, like – ”
“Like it was normal – ”
“And there was nothing at all wrong with it!”
“Just whip it out, and there, just start going for it –”
“Like what the hell?”
Tenors, basses, baritones, altos, sopranos and mezzo-sopranos speaking drivel about drivel.
They got to the hotel, drunk, and made love and slept and woke up and made love twice and in exhaustion left the hotel to visit Kew Gardens and visit Woolf’s house in Richmond which now shared its garden with the offices of Montblanc. Over late lunch at a pub in Richmond overlooking the Thames and over the last pieces of very sour apple pie Mandla took a picture of the two of them and sent it to his mother and then raised the topic of their encroaching departure in the next two days.
“We still haven’t spoken about when we’ll see each other again after this.”
“I don’t know, Mandla. Maybe you should come see me in Madrid. Seeing that I won’t be there long. And then later I can come see you in Sweden.”
“That sounds like a plan. Because you know now I can’t live without you.”
“Oh please. You know you can. You’ve lived this long.”
“This long, but having never met you. That’s the difference – now I have. And I’m telling you I can’t live without you.”
“It’s the sunset shining on the river and reflected on these windows as you eat that revolting apple pie that’s making you talk like that, darling. Gosh, the English really can’t cook; remind me never to eat at a pub again. You’ll forget me the minute you land in Stockholm and your recitals begin and all those people clapping for you night after night and wanting your company and attention. All this,” and he waved his hand to encompass the entirety of the interior of the pub and the view outside, “you will forget the minute you sink back into your rituals, your routines, and resume the daily business of your life.”
“Is this your way of telling me you don’t love me?”
“You never said you love me either.”
“I am telling you ‘I can’t live without you’ and in that you don’t see I love you?”
“Mandla, I’m never one to infer from things not explicitly stated.”
“You must be lousy researcher then.”
“Explicitly stated in life. With texts it’s different.”
“I don’t see how come.”
“It just is. If you spent some time reading you’d know.”
“Thanks. Anyway, that’s beside the point. You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Nor you mine,” Soso said.
“What is the question? Whether I love you or not? Listen Soso, I love you. Do you love me?”
Soso sighed. Looking at him intensely, Soso studied his features and noticed for the first time how slightly chubby his cheeks were, how round his face, how big his eyes, and how small his lips in proportion to the rest of his features. Mandla wasn’t the most attractive man he had seen, no; and how come he was a tenor when in fact his body seemed like that of a bass; and how could he play the piano with fingers that thick, anyway? And wherefrom came all that gentleness, that playfulness, the smart dressing, in one who could easily pass off as being conventionally masculine, stern and positively dour and unimaginative when he was none of these foolish things?
“Wow. I mean, dude, wow, bra. I’m so stunned right now I don’t even know what to say,” Mandla said at last but Soso kept up the silence and released yet another sigh. “No words, hey? I’m just like, wow. Biggest anti-climax of the day. No, of the week! Hell, the whole year! Fuck. You’re very cruel right now, you know that?” and he was wounded.
“No, don’t. Just don’t patronise me, boy.”
“No, you don’t understand. You’re misreading my silence.”
“What else could it possibly mean besides that you don’t feel the way I do about you? I mean, I get it. You’re this clever, bright thing, who reads everything, big texts. Thinking up great things about great poets and writing long books and all that, and I… I’m just a pianist. A musician as my mother would say,” and he laughed, “With nothing else but talent and that is clearly not enough for you. You’re wondering how that could sustain your interest for long and – ”
“I’m wondering how we can continue like this. If we can continue like this. Mandla, these past days, here with you… Such happiness is terrifying. More so because it just can’t last. I mean, one can’t realistically expect it to go on and on, you know. And soon we’re leaving and I don’t want you to go but we have to go and I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what good telling you ‘I love you’ would do when there are all these circumstances and we can’t continue like this and everything and I just don’t trust, gosh, I don’t trust any resolves we make in such a state and I know I’m spoiling it by saying all this, I know that, but I also know that I would not be truthful if I didn’t say what I am saying even though more than anything else I really want to say I love you, and I do, but I just don’t understand why you can believe me and why you’d accept that as real seeing how quickly all this went and how impossible things will be the moment this holiday is over… You know?”
“So… Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’? I just want clarity on that, please.”
Soso sighed again and said, “It’s ‘maybe’ I suppose. Yes, I love you but maybe we can make this work somehow but I’m not sure how.”
“Well, that’s good. Longwinded but good. You’re overanalysing this. We can just talk about it now, as I was trying to do, and see what our options are.”
Their mothers contacted them that night, Mandla’s mother having forwarded the photo he took to Soso’s mother, and both being surprised that they were still in each other’s company, days later. What were they still doing in London? But wasn’t that a waste of money? Oh, cheap hotel it was, how cheap exactly? Sharing a room are they? One bed? All this time? Very interesting… But two more days still? Why had they stayed so long? There was a decisive shift in key from their earlier tones of encouragement and in their place had ascended voices of caution, pleading urges that they re-focus on work and go back to their respective preoccupations before they jeopardise all that they had worked so hard for with their bosses. Two more days may as well be a month with white people – “You know abelungi banjani. They could fire you and then what would you do?” “He’s not white, ma, he’s Chinese” “Hay’ke, that’s even worse; you will definitely get fired” – and begged them to go back to work and save money instead of wasting it on some stranger who was probably earning less than him and already relying on his money in some way anyway.
The last two days felt both long and short, punctuated by a largely contemplative long train ride on a trip to the countryside, Charleston, East Sussex, and by ignored phone calls from the mothers at home, from the opera troupe and from some of their other friends wanting to link up having become aware of their respective presences in London through tweets and Facebook photos. The two also had to break away from each other for the longest time since meeting because Soso had to finally visit the British Library to look through those papers he had planned to peruse for his research long before the London trip had been set. He was away for four hours and for Mandla, who meanwhile was supposed to be practicing for his Petrushka recital, it felt like an eternity and he would not stop texting asking how much longer he would be. Aren’t you supposed to be practicing… Call your mum, Soso texted back, brushing him off, and to his own surprise Mandla followed the advice and called MaXaba.
When he called, the mothers were actually together and he told them they would be finally going back to their respective cities the following day. They both spoke to him and when that call ended they immediately called Soso who spoke to them in whispers before calling them back a few minutes later after he’d popped out of the library. Each mother knew their son fairly well and could hear the unexpected but unexpressed pain that carried in their voices across the oceans and back into their childhood grounds during those brief conversations. They were at MaZondi’s kitchen, sipping on piping hot tea and dipping biscuits into the small teacups MaZondi had especially taken out from her display cabinet to serve MaXaba. After the phone calls they were silent for a while, the only sound breath blowing from their lips over the teacups to cool their Five Roses tea.
“They sound like they had fun.”
“Yes, mngani, they do.”
“Perhaps a bit too much fun. I’m worried about Mandla’s boss. Apparently he’s not white, which is already bad, but Chinese, and those people are really cruel and if he gets back to Europe late, hay, I don’t know what that man will do to him.”
“I’m also worried about Soso. He sounded tired. How is he going to finish his book if he’s busy going away eyobhiyoza for a whole week?”
Their concerns rolled on and piled up; there were just too many. So they both decided that Europe, after all, was a very big place and their sons no longer needed to take care of each other. This they resolved they would convey to them as soon as they parted once their tea was over.
Soso went back to his table at the library, picked up ‘Home’ and re-read it. Already while still in Madrid he had grown uncomfortably aware of the similarities in sentiments between him and his subject about a variety of things. For instance, asked by a journalist what he found most charming in life Mdunyelwa had, apparently “without hesitation”, answered, “Me encanta los hombre guapo y bondadoso porque es poco común,” which in a way, although after much thought, Soso had concluded was also what he found charming in men. A handsome man who still managed to be kind was a sight to behold indeed, the rarity already noted by the poet over half a century ago: “Pero ¿donde encuentras esos hombres guapos, amables?” he’d asked the interviewer, then added, “Quizas, uno tenga mas suerte buscando un unicornio.” The interviewer noted that despite all the struggles this exile has been through, now already becoming a controversial figure even in Spain, he nonetheless, “like all black people, maintained a good sense of humour”.
During that afternoon spent with his archive at the British Library Soso had found an unpublished rough attempt at a musical composition scribbled and scored in one of the three journals kept archived there. It must have been written in Madrid a few months after he’d met the right-wing army General but at a time when he was still writing in English and still learning Spanish but already having abandoned Zulu. The composition moved him so much he decided he would read it to Mandla and then force him to play it after dinner that night, their last night in London together. It had a simple score, silly actually, but devastating perhaps for the obvious self-pitying loneliness its writer must have felt at that stage in his life; alone, in white Europe, a black man in exile, feeling unloved and unlovable, perhaps suffering from undiagnosed depression and was now faced with only a complicated and compromising chance at love and safety.
And I will find a home
away from home
And in that home
You’ll find a bed
And in that bed
You’ll find a man…
He’ll be my man
strong, good and true
And he’ll love me like I will he
And with him there
by my right side
We’ll make my home our home
With babies, brandy and cake
Garden and books
– and if he wants a pool
we’ll add that too.
They spent the night walking around Soho, moving from one closing restaurant to another still-open pub and eventually clubs even though they did not want to, just so long as they did not sleep these last few hours they had with each other. For the first time since they met they were not even drinking, staying sober so as to mitigate the contribution alcohol might add to the drowsiness that seemed mentally unlikely though bodies grew tired. At 2 AM they strolled into a Thai massage parlour they stumbled upon at some street corner and were there for another hour, staring into each other’s eyes, silent, fighting sleep, as they experienced similar sensations from the male masseuses working side by side on their backs. Afterwards they felt ravenous, ate something off the hotel’s vending machine, and then made love and cried all the way through it. It was tender, all of it, and had none of the lustfulness of their earlier canaptuals. Mandla seemed defeated as he lay on his back and Soso sat on top of him, controlling the rhythm of everything. They kissed more passionately, held each other tighter, cupping each other’s faces and wiping each other’s tears and prolonging their jointedness and delaying their orgasms. They were making love to remember each other by, still not having resolved what was to become of them after they departed from Heathrow back to Madrid and back to Stockholm in a few hours’ time. They were giving each other love, for that is what each needed and the other knew that now, for in this week in London what they had learned about more than anything was the active role of love in transforming everything.
Walking the streets of Willesden Green, looking for and not finding the beauty expected from the experience of reading those books, Soso had realised that it was love, the love of persons, not the bricks and mortar, that made Willesden Green what it was on those pages that had brought him there. Love had done that, transformed that place. And love had taken a slightly flabby man with a round face and a funny voice, thin lips, and thick fingers and a big penis and turned him into a charming and handsome and funny man whose departure wringed a heart and brought tears to the eyes. Love was like that. Changing things. And when they finally came, lovemaking too had transformed them. They spoke until the sun came up, fell asleep for two hours and then awoke to pack, get dressed, check out and take the train to the airport. The train ride this time felt even shorter than when they arrived even though for most of it they said nothing to each other, with their heads pressed against the train’s windows, pensive, and for the first time during their holiday in this city, wondering what they thought of London compared to, say, Madrid and Barcelona or Stockholm and Helsinki, etcetera, etcetera.
Nozizwe Herero is a writer of short fiction, a children’s book, some poetry and a few tweets. Contact is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrations by Rosie Mudge.