Five Points, Vol. 21, no.2
Lucy had just left the grounds of Durban Primary School that morning, having spent a couple of hours in her classroom hanging ABC posters and rearranging the toy chests. Being around children reminded her never to lose the wonder. She was a little older than her fellow graduates, having taken a year off to travel—that became two—before returning home to South Africa to apply for a local teaching position. In these uncertain days of transition, she wouldn’t be the first to leave, but one of the few with the intention to return. She hoped to return to sunny California one day, perhaps on an exchange program, and was thinking about this as she made her way to the train station, the sky rumbling above her, casting shadows from dark clouds passing over the sun.
At the entrance, she swiped her weekly rail pass and went through the turnstile. Mynah birds jumped about on the platform preening their feathers. The air was heady with the scent of roses, gardenias, and ripe bananas; scents that came off the waxy flowers of the frangipani trees lining the station fence on both sides that stretched for the length of double tracks. Tracks laid on a raised bed of crushed stones holding the cross ties in place.
The train was late. Lucy sipped the last of her water, and held onto her plastic bottle, lamenting the removal of the trash cans just last month. A commuter had threatened to sue Transnet. It had made the national news: monkeys biting commuters, an increasingly common occurrence. The complainant was white, and happy to be interviewed at her leafy Kloof home. Lucy wondered, a little ruefully, why a white woman of means had taken a train that day? Or any day? She hadn’t said in the interview. Surely that was the more interesting story?
An old man struggled to get through the turnstile on the opposite side. Once through, he shuffled to the platform edge, pushing away a discarded wrapper with the tip of his cane. He nodded at Lucy, and greeted her with a “sawabona” in a deep voice. She returned the greeting. Shortly after they both turned their heads in the direction of the entrance hall to the sound of voices growing louder until a large group of African boys spilled onto her side of the platform and fanned out.
No older than teenagers, they stood barefoot in clothes that either hung or stretched tight on their thin limbs. The smell of unbathed bodies in the confined space made her stomach lurch. She made room for them, finding herself at the end of the platform where the driver, and the first-class carriages, would come to a stop.
She could no longer see the station entrance. The boys nearest to her passed a glue bottle among themselves. She recognized the flash of yellow in some of their hands, the ubiquitous Lion’s Matches with the slogan: Your Box of Friends. In the opposite direction, she could see the transmission tower, her stop, that from the platform looked the size of a pencil.
The boys made room for a tall boy that pushed through. He stood facing her. An ugly scar travelled from the outer corner of his mouth to his chin, under which he held a can of Coke, tipping it as if to drink. Raising his hand to the others, he shouted “Ima!” The boys quieted, but were fidgety. A ball of potential energy. He pointed to the empty bottle in her hand. She looked at him confused. Shook it, to show it was empty. The boy grinned. The scar stretching. He shouted something she did not understand and a collective jeer rose from behind him. Now he was inches from her face. She could smell his sour breath, see the crusts of sleep in the corner of his eyes. She held up her purse. Take it, she thought. Just let me through.
But the boy didn’t take it. He lifted the can in his hand as if to drink, and laughed. It was a sweet laugh. A child’s laugh. The others laughed too. What a lovely sound, she thought, all those children laughing, as the contents of the can poured onto her head.
The oily fuel ran into her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She screamed. Rubbed her eyes. Moaned. News reports flashed before her. Kerosene, the fuel of the people, for cooking, lighting, heating. Burning. A rubber tire placed around the neck of a victim, doused in kerosene. But what she saw on television, she couldn’t smell. The laughter had stopped. Now the huh-huh chants of toyi-toyi-ing. The boys working themselves into a frenzy. Huh-huh. Feet stomping the ground. Huh-huh.
The smell of a lit match.
Lucy jumped back, one heel dipping over the platform edge. She tried to open her eyes. Dark shapes, light in-between. The smell of burning. A match? Or was it her hair? She slapped at her head. Huh-huh.
There was nothing for it. She turned and jumped.
One ankle twisted then righted on the crushed stones. Picturing the tracks, she moved forward. One step. Then another. Surprised she was still standing, expecting to be pulled to the ground. She kept moving. Still no hands on her. Then she realized—they were giving her a head start.
The first stone, the size of a small rock, landed on her back. Keep moving, she told herself. The second stone found her calf and she almost buckled. The next, her shoulder. Instinctively she covered her head, but the jagged stones found her fingers, her elbows. The toyi-toyi-ing louder now. She could just make out the stone ballast crunching beneath her feet, the darker wood of the cross ties. Then a shout from afar. A loud, deep, voice broken with age:
“Intombi, uthango! UTHANGO.”
Hole. She grasped the word. Pictured the fence. Veering to the left, she stumbled down the sloping bed. Fingers clutching the frangipani leaves peeking through the fence. Two hands grabbed her. This was it, she thought. She was going to burn alive. But the hands pulled her forward, and through, the cut wires catching her hair.
“Hamba!” The command vibrated against Lucy’s face, through a pillow-y bosom, through a sweater that reeked of smoke and sweat. The children’s voices faded into the distance.
The woman released her. Lucy felt a wall of heat and recoiled. The woman said something and a man’s voice clicked in disapproval. As her vision returned, she saw a group of black men warming their hands over a burning oil drum.
A shaft of sunlight, white against the leaden sky, hurt her eyes. The curbside on which she stood faced a one-way street running parallel to the tracks. Dilapidated store fronts lined the opposite side, posters peeling from outer walls, front windows smashed, interiors empty. A view usually obscured from passengers on the train by the row of leafy frangipanis. Lucy tried to figure out the direction of her school, but her mind closed. She saw a group of boys—the same ones?— ambling down the street. She bent over and threw up.
The flashing siren was not a warning, but a statement. The boys scattered like ants from gushing water.
“Voetsek!” shouted the policeman, slamming his car door, waving his baton. Then he turned.
“No! Wait!” croaked Lucy.
The woman who had saved Lucy’s life grabbed at things on the ground; plastic bags, a tatty jacket, a furry woolen hat that lay off to the side like a gray curled-up cat. The men had already left, already half-way down the street. But the woman was big and slow. The baton came down on the back of her knees. She cried out, falling forward. The policeman lifted his baton once more.
He must have heard her. In his moment’s hesitation, the woman pushed herself up and lolloped down the street. A horn blasted from a passing train. It began to rain, the drops pelting the gray hat left behind.
“It’s the way things are in this country. You can’t take it personally,” said a Dr. Viljoen as he bandaged Lucy’s ribs in the Emergency Room. Streaks of blood marked her face, her neck, her legs. Her eyelids were swollen, her skin, damp. She stank of kerosene. “Get out while you can,” he said, dabbing her eyes. He tore off a prescription from his pad and put it in her hand. “You were lucky, this time.”
While Lucy waited for a taxi to take her home, she thought about the doctor’s words. White South Africans often talked in terms of luck. X got car-jacked. Unlucky. X got car-jacked, but survived. Lucky. This time. Russian roulette is too a South African game. Lucy supposed she was thankful for her luck. In the days, and years, to come, she would think more about those tracks and the children, and then mercifully less. She had fled from their matches, as they had fled from the baton, she told herself. You could only try and save yourself. But it was the woman in the scratchy jersey, the homeless, black woman who had saved her life that would give her sleepless nights. Now, in the backseat of the taxi, watching the driving rain pelt the window, she could not help but wonder about her, whether she, ever thought about luck.