This short story by Pravasan Pillay was originally published in Volume 2, Issue 4 of South African literary magazine, Prufrock.
“Ready?” Vimla asked. She toyed with the small packet on the coffee table. Arti looked at her with a nervous smile and nodded.
Vimla picked the packet off the table and removed a clear, plastic bottle. The bottle was a 200ml, the smallest and cheapest quantity sold at Chatsworth Take and Pay.
It had a bright green cap, which was how Vimla had recognised it on the shelf. It was the same brand that her older sister used to bleach her facial hair; Vimla watched her do it religiously every three weeks.
The girls sat on a sofa in the lounge of Arti’s house. The room was sparsely decorated; the only pieces of furniture were the sofa, an old armchair whose cracked arms were held together by insulation tape, and a coffee table, covered with a large doily. A television set rested on a metal stand in one corner of the room, and a cassette deck stood underneath it. The walls were bare except for a large frame of Sai Baba, which had a garland of limp marigolds hanging from it.
Vimla rotated the bottle until she got to the label, and read aloud the only piece of text on it: “Do-not ingest or apply directly on skin.”
“That’s all it says? It don’t give no instructions?” Arti asked. Like Vimla she was still dressed in her school uniform; they had gone directly after school to the store.
Vimla shook her head. “I saw Niru do it a hundred times at home. It’s easy.”
“Just as long as it works,” Arti replied, tucking her legs underneath her and hugging a cushion to her chest. “I have to do it today.”
Vimla shook the bottle a little, and held it against the sunlight coming through the lounge window. Tiny bubbles formed on the surface of the liquid before rapidly popping. She wrapped her fingers around the cap and carefully broke the seal. She brought it to her nose, and sniffed. It didn’t have that much of an odour: a mix of vinegar and the water at the municipal swimming pool.
“It smells?” Arti asked.
“It’s not so bad,” Vimla answered. She passed the bottle to Arti.
Arti stared at it, bent her head sideways and read the warning, her lips moving silently. She lifted the bottle to her nose; her face didn’t didn’t register any reaction.
“How much you think we must use?” asked Arti. She untucked her legs and put them back on the linoleum floor.
Vimla scooted up the sofa, and guided Arti’s head back. “First, I need to see your face properly,” she said. “Don’t move.”
Arti bent her head further back, her long plait cushioning it against her shoulders. Vimla held Arti’s cheek lightly and ran her fingers over the soft black hair above her friend’s upper lip.
Arti down-turned her mouth, and the hair pushed out. They looked like blackjacks sticking to clothing. There was also a fine down of hair on the sides of her face that Arti had said she also wanted to bleach. Apart from the hair Arti’s skin was smooth, without a trace of any acne. She had one of the best complexions of all the girls in Standard Six.
“It looks okay to me,” Vimla said, running her fingers over the hair again. “You can’t see nothing.”
Arti brought her own hand to her lip. “Don’t lie. It’s a moustache.”
“It’s not a moustache, boys got moustaches. It’s just a little bit of hair.”
“Same thing,” Arti said, sticking out her tongue. “The boys in class must be jealous of mine.”
“It’s not funny,” Arti said, moving her head forward, and shaking off Vimla’s hand. “It’s my father’s fault. He’s so hairy. What if I end up like him?”
Vimla didn’t answer her. “I don’t think we going to need that much of the medicine. I’ll do the hair on your lip first, and we’ll see how that thing comes out, then we can do the sides.”
“Thanks,” Arti replied.
“You wait here. I’ll go get everything,” Vimla said.
She walked to the kitchen. Like the lounge it contained only the bare essentials: a two-coil counter-top stove, a small fridge, an enamel cabinet, and a Masonite table with benches on either side. A ginger cat lay on one of the benches, cleaning itself. Vimla bent down and began to stroke its back. The cat rubbed its head against Vimla’s hand, purring softly.
“Good cat,” Vimla said, before getting back up and walking to the cabinet.
She slid out one of the drawers and selected a tablespoon, then she grabbed a dish towel, drying on a rack next to the sink, and slung it over her shoulder. She stopped at the fridge on her way out. “I can see if there’s something to eat?” she called out to Arti.
“Take what you like,” Arti replied immediately.
Vimla opened the fridge. The bulb inside was gone, and she had to strain to scan the contents. A few pots of curry, a loaf of bread, eggs, polony, a jar of pickled carrots and chillies, and a block of cheese.
“I’m going to take some carrot pickle okay?” she shouted.
“Be careful,” Arti replied. “It’s karro.”
Vimla unscrewed the old Black Cat peanut butter jar, her mouth salivating a little as the pungent aroma filled her nostrils. Pickled carrot was a favourite of hers.
She used a fork and fished out a small piece of carrot and bit into it. Arti was right. It was very hot; but it tasted good. She scooped out five long slices of carrot onto a plate and carried it back into the lounge, along with the tablespoon, an empty saucer, the dish towel and a wad of paper napkins.
Arti was still sitting on the sofa where Vimla had left her, but her face was now buried behind a sheet of paper. It was a page torn from one of the exercise books that everyone at school used. It still bore the lines from where it had been folded.
“Read it to me again,” Vimla said, setting down the plate on the coffee table and choosing the biggest slice of carrot. She bit off half of it, the heat immediately making her eyes water.
Arti lowered the page, and looked at her face and then the carrots on the table. “You’ll kill yourself with that much. Even my father only eats two at a time.”
“I can handle it,” Vimla replied, wiping the tears away with the back of her hand. “Read it to me.”
Arti began reading slowly, carefully enunciating each word:
I admire you alot. We know each other from primary school days. I like you from that time. In high school my feelings for you are even more. I think you are the prettiest girl in our school. I spoke to the girls in my class and they told me you haven’t got a boyfriend. I want you must be my girlfriend.
Tomorrow after school I will be training for volleyball in the front courts. If you like me, please come and watch. I will walk with you home after training. Kajal told me your favourite music is Mariah Carrey. This is from her song Emotions.
In the morning when I rise
You are the first thing on my mind
And in the middle of the night
I feel your heartbeat
Next to mine
I really love you. I hope you come by the front courts.
Arti placed the letter on her lap and sighed. “You think Kajal also told him that’s my favourite song? How else he will know that?”
Vimla picked up the page and glanced through the lyrics.
“Watch out, you getting pickle on it,” Arti said, her voice sounding a little panicked. She pulled the letter away from Vimla and, using the hem of her dress, dabbed away at several damp fingerprints on the paper.
“Sorry, Art,” Vimla replied. “I’m so stupid.” She wiped her hands on the dish towel on her shoulder. Arti passed the page back to her.
Vimla read through it again. “It’s a good letter. The one I got from Prans never have song words or nothing. And plus he never say ‘love’. He just said I must come to the end of term matinee with him.”
“I know, I never think he was a boy who will write me something like this. He don’t even say hello to me in school nowadays.”
“You saw where he Tippexed something,” Vimla said, pointing to a long strip of white correction fluid, roughly pasted towards the bottom of the page.
“Ja, I saw that,” Arti replied. “I think he was too close to the end to rewrite the whole letter. If it was me I should have done it again, but you know how boys are lazy to write.”
Vimla held aloft the exercise page and tried to make out the words underneath the hardened Tippex. She could see a few shapes but like the writing on the rest of the page, it was cramped and a little difficult to read.
“You got a Minora blade?” she asked Arti.
“For what you want?”
“I want to see what’s under the Tippex.”
“Leave it, man,” Arti replied. “It must be just a small mistake.”
Vimla ignored her and knelt down beside the coffee table. She used the nail of her index finger to pick at the correction fluid. Small flecks were dislodged but not enough to reveal any of the erased words. She scratched at it for a while more, and then blew away the white dust that had accumulated.
“I think I can see a word, it’s still covered but you can see something definitely. Right?” Vimla said. She showed the page to Arti.
Arti gave it a cursory glance. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“If we wet it a little bit, the Tippex will come out,” Vimla said.
“No, leave it,” Arti repeated, then hesitated. “It’s my first love letter, I want to keep it nice. We can try it with the next letter – if I ever get another one in my life.”
The girls both laughed.
Arti looked at her watch. “We better start. I want to finish before my mother comes back.”
“Remember if your mother or father gets angry when they see your face then you don’t tell my name,” Vimla said. “You dunno me…”
Arti rolled her eyes, then sat up on the sofa, folded the letter and put it into her pocket.
Vimla removed the dish towel off of her shoulder and draped it over the front of Arti’s dress, like a bib, then lifted her hair out the way and tied a knot at the base of her neck using the ends of the towel.
“It’s fine,” Arti replied.
Vimla reopened the cap of the bottle and slowly filled a tablespoon with the clear liquid; then she poured the contents of the spoon onto the centre of the empty saucer.
“You look like a scientist,” Arti said. Her voice was cracked and sounded nervous.
Vilma didn’t reply; she shook the spoon over the saucer, until every drop was gone. Finally, she returned the cap to the bottle and placed it back inside the packet.
“You want I must test it on your arm hair first?” asked Vimla. “Just to be sure it works?” She grabbed another slice of pickled carrot and popped it into her mouth whole. It crunched loudly as she chewed it. She was ready for the heat this time.
“Ja, that makes sense,” Arti replied. “You’ll come and wait by me tomorrow at the front courts? I don’t want to stand there waiting for him alone. I’ll look like a fool.”
“If you like,” Vimla said, still chewing. “What you want me to bring and come to school?”
Arti paused, giving the question consideration. “Nail polish. Ask your sister to pick a colour for me. Also, the same deodorant you wearing now. It smells nice.”
“I can bring some earrings for you to pick.”
“Good idea,” Arti replied. “And bring the nail polish remover too. I must take out the polish before I come back home.”
“Imagine if you forgot to take it out…”
Arti drew a finger across her neck, tilted her head to one side, and stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth.
Vimla snorted, before twisting one of the paper napkins that she had brought from the kitchen into a rough cone, tapered to a sharp point. “Put your arm on my lap,” she instructed Arti.
Arti did as she was told. Vimla dipped the pointed end of the napkin into the saucer and watched as the blue paper absorbed the liquid, turning wet and dark. She examined Arti’s forearm and selected a section of hair close to her elbow, then carefully applied the medicine to it, liberally coating each strand of hair. Arti watched her intently.
“See,” Vimla said. “Not one drop on your skin.”
Arti lifted her arm and examined the moistened hair. “How long you think before it changes?”
“Maybe about five-ten minutes. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer. When you happy with the colour, then we can go and wash it off by the sink.”
“So easy it is to do,” Arti replied. “Why you don’t go play some music while we waiting?”
Vimla tossed another carrot into her mouth, and went over to the tape deck. She bent down and flipped through the collection of old-looking cassette tapes. Every cover was either a religious lecture or devotional music.
“Which one it’s in?” she asked.
“The one with the auntie playing tabla. ‘Service Songs’ it’s called.”
Vimla searched until she found the case; she removed the unlabelled TDK cassette inside.
She pressed eject on the deck and slotted in the tape, then hit play. The tinny speakers blasted out Black Box’s “Strike it up.”
“Forward it a little bit,” Arti said. Vimla did so, and the voice on the speakers speed up to a falsetto. As soon as the music stopped she hit play again.
“Bullseye,” Vimla said. She slipped the pickled carrot in front of her teeth and smiled a big orange grin. Arti burst out laughing.
The speakers crackled, and then the opening notes of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” filled the room. Vimla turned the volume up and began dancing exaggeratedly. Arti watched, moving her body along even though she was sitting.
“I think it’s changing,” Arti shouted, over the music, halfway through the song. She pointed at her arm. “The colour is changing.”
Vimla stopped and motioned her friend over. Arti walked to her and showed her her arm. The hair that Vimla had applied the medicine to had definitely gone a shade lighter.
Vimla didn’t say anything, instead she held out her hand in the air; Arti slapped it.
Then the girls danced.
Pravasan Pillay has published two chapbooks of poetry, Glumlazi (2009) and 30 Poems (2015), as well as a collection of co-written comedic short stories, Shaggy (2013). Pillay’s short story collection, Crooks, is due out in 2017. He is the editor of the micro press Tearoom Books.
These artworks form part of a series of collages by Sitaara Stodel, titled Home is Where the House is where the artist explored her memories of home.
Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every Wednesday.