I sit on an upturned plastic milk crate and wait, just as I did every evening before today. Now I have nothing to wait for, so I count the chickens in Mrs Xingashe’s backyard. Seven. The skinny one with the nearly-bald head seems to have disappeared. Maybe it died or maybe she ate it.
I look at the watch. It is five minutes to six. If this was two weeks ago, I would have seen my father walking down the dusty road towards me. But not today. Not ever again. I try not to cry when I think about it, but I am so angry and so sad, all mixed together, that it’s hard not to. But I have to stay strong for my mother and my little sister.
I see Mr Rhadebe coming towards me, so I sniff hard and sit up straighter.
“Molo,” says Mr Rhadebe.
“Molo Tata,” I say.
“How is your ma, my boy?” I am counting the feathers in his hat and he has to repeat the question.
“She is okay, thank you, Tata.”
“Nice watch,” he says.
I smile. “Thank you, my father gave it to me a few days before… before he left us.”
I rub the glass with my thumb and he pats my shoulder and walks on.
“Hamba kakuhle,” he says.
I look at my watch again. I like knowing what the time is. It makes me feel in control of my life. Lately, it feels like things have been falling apart and moving faster than I can keep up with, and this watch makes me feel better. It tells me that no matter what happens, time will remain the same. Well, not that it won’t change, but it will keep on ticking along at exactly the same pace every day.
“Whatya doing?” My sister, Babalwa, bounces up to me and kicks the crate.
“Hey,” I say. “Just looking at my watch.”
“Let me see,” she says, stretching out her hand.
“Just be careful,” I say, undoing the strap and handing it to her.
“I will, silly.” She holds it in her hand then turns it over.
“What’s this say?” she asks.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the writing engraved on the back before. I knew my father had bought it second-hand. He could not have afforded a new watch for me. But now it somehow seems more important, so I read it out to her.
“It says the gift of time”.
“What does that mean?” she asks. She crinkles up her nose and tilts her head on one side, waiting for my answer.
“I suppose it means that someone gave the watch to someone else as a present.”
My father died twelve days ago. He worked in the kitchen at a fish and chips restaurant in the nearby shopping mall. I was seven years old when he started that job, so he must have been working there for about five years. Everyone who ate there liked him, or that is what the story in the local newspaper said anyway. I never met any of them.
He sometimes used to bring home a piece of fish for us. Once, he told us, he had even tried a prawn. I am not sure if I would have been that brave. Prawns are strange creatures, like pink sea insects, and I have heard that they eat the rubbish off the ocean floor.
“I grew up eating red meat,” my father used to say, embarrassed that he was bringing us fish. Red meat is expensive, so to make him feel better I told him that our teacher had said that too much red meat could be bad for your heart. But he wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s good for you, my boy,” he always said. I loved my father.
Twelve nights ago, it was a Saturday night. He was working night shift at the restaurant instead of during the day as he usually did. My mother had allowed my sister and me to stay up and wait for him because it wasn’t a school night, but he never arrived home when he was meant to.
At about 11:35 – I knew this because I checked my watch – we heard shouting in the street and my mother peeped out of the door of our shack to see what was happening. It isn’t safe to just step outside in the middle of the night, especially if there is a commotion. I heard her cry out and I ran out behind her. I saw my father covered in blood and being helped along by a neighbour. His head was hanging, just lolling around as if he had no control over his neck. His blue and white check shirt was torn and soaked in blood and some of it had even spattered onto his beige pants. He loved those pants and took such great care of them. All I could think about was that he was going to be upset when he saw that they had been stained by the blood, his blood.
I can’t remember much about what happened next because my mother was crying so much, and I was trying to stay strong and comfort her and Babs. That’s what I call my sister. The neighbour called an ambulance on his cell phone and we waited and waited. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my father because my mother said he needed his energy to stay alive. So I just sat there, with my arm around Babs, and prayed my father would live and that we would be able to get the blood stains out of his pants.
The ambulance took a long time to arrive so I counted the second hand on my watch while we waited. It could have been an hour, but it may have been more. They put my father on a stretcher and took him away and that was the last time I ever saw him. They didn’t put the sirens on and I remember wondering if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It seemed to suggest that they weren’t in a hurry.
The newspaper said he was a hero and so did my teacher. They said that he had tried to protect a young girl who was being attacked by a bad man with a knife, that my father had come between them and been stabbed by the man. They said he had saved the girl. I felt proud of him, but also cross with him because he had risked his life for a girl we didn’t even know. And now what about us, his own family. This is wrong of me, I know, but I can’t help feeling like that. I miss my father.
The newspaper people asked my mother and me if we would like to meet the girl so that they could take a photograph, but I said no. All I would see in her eyes would be my father’s face. My mother was much more understanding. She agreed to meet the girl, who wanted to thank her, but she refused to have a photograph taken. My mother is superstitious about photographs and believes that they steal away a little bit of your soul.
People in our community talk and some of them know lots of things. By now, we all know who killed my father. But he probably won’t be arrested. And even if he is, I am not sure if he will be properly punished. People are scared to be witnesses and so he would more than likely just spend a night in jail and then be let out again to attack another young girl and steal someone else’s father from them. I pray that it will not be my sister that is attacked.
He’s called Ithoba, the man who killed my father. That means nine. He’s mean-looking and doesn’t talk much, they say. I don’t know if he was given that name because he has nine lives like a cat or if he has taken nine lives, like a murderer. Maybe it’s both.
I kick the gravel with the toe of my shoe. I now own two pairs – this pair is a black leather lace-up that I use for school, and a pair of rubber flip-flops. My flip-flops are blue. I would rather have had red ones but a lady who felt sorry for me gave them to me after she heard my father was killed, so I couldn’t choose the colour.
We were also given food and some blankets by a charity when my father died. They usually give people blankets when there is a flood or a fire and you lose all your things. I guess maybe they had some blankets left over or didn’t know what else to give us. My mother is always grateful for anything though, and now that winter is coming the blankets will be useful. There was a pink and purple checked one, which my sister liked. She asked if she could have it and now she takes it everywhere with her, even to school. My mother is worried about that but I said that I think she just needs comfort after losing my father.
“Hey,” says Babs, “who did the watch belong to before you got it?”
I had forgotten she was standing there. Her hair is tied in three neat bunches, one on each side and one in the middle, and she is holding her blanket, which doesn’t look as bright as it did ten days ago.
“Dunno,” I say. The busy sounds of a weekday evening fill the smoky air around us. Dogs bark, taxis rev their engines and people talk and shout to one another as they come home after a day at work or school. Many people crowd around open fires trying to warm their chilled hands. It feels like I am on the outside looking in on their world.
I struggle to sleep that night. For some reason, my sister’s question keeps running around in my mind, going round and round in circles. I begin to feel that maybe I need to find out who the watch belonged to before me. It will also be a way to find out what my father was doing those last few days before he died. I know he sometimes bought presents for us from the animal shelter’s second-hand shop quite close to my school.
So, after school the next day, I decide to go there and ask.
The old lady in the shop looks at me suspiciously when I ask if a handsome black man bought a watch there about two weeks ago.
“Why do you want to know, sonny?” she asks.
“Because it’s important to me,” I say.
“I can’t go about telling you other people’s business, now can I?” she says. She walks off with a feather duster in her hand to dust the bookshelves, but I follow her.
“Excuse me,” I say, “this is the watch.” I hold out my wrist to her. “Can you at least tell me if you sold it?”
She turns around slowly and peers at me. It looks as if she can’t see that well, so I hold it up closer to her face. As she’s about to answer, a young woman runs in through the door.
“Sorry I’m late,” she calls. “Still struggling to get up in the mornings.” She looks sad and her hair is messy. She comes over to us and says: “So what do we have here?”
“He’s asking about the watch,” says the old lady.
“Let me see,” says the young one with messy hair.
“What?” I say. “Do you recognise it?”
“Uhu,” she says.
I look from one to the other, hoping for more information.
“Why don’t you come through to the back with me,” the young one says, “and we’ll have a nice cup of tea? You don’t mind, do you Mrs Maytham?” She doesn’t wait for an answer and takes my hand.
I sit on an old wooden chair while she makes a cup of tea for each of us.
“Two sugars?” she asks, but before I can answer she pops them in and hands me a mug. She wraps her long skirt around her knees and sits cross-legged on the floor in front of me.
“Yes, that watch,” she says.
“Would you like to sit on the chair?” I ask. There is only one.
I can see her ankle peeping out from under her skirt. There are three flying swallows tattooed on it.
“So, who owned this watch?” I ask.
“Me,” she says. “Well, not really me. I gave it to my husband.”
“Why did he sell it, then?” I am starting to worry that maybe someone stole it and now she might want it back. I rub the glass with my thumb.
“He didn’t,” she says. “I did.”
“Oh,” I say, “why?” I hope he didn’t divorce her and now she’s going to be sad and cry and I won’t know what to say.
“He died,” she says. Now I definitely don’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting that. She is so young.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I won’t cry.”
She must have read my mind.
“Someone shot him,” she says. “He was a policeman and he died in a shoot-out. I had given him the watch a few days before as an anniversary present. I had those words engraved on it because I thought we had so much time ahead of us, that we were still so young. We’d only been married for a year.”
Then I see a tear run down her cheek.
“I’m so sorry,” is all I can think of to say.
“Get rid of it,” she says, “it’s cursed. If you don’t get rid of it something bad will happen to you or your family.”
“It already has,” I say. “My father was killed twelve days ago. He gave me the watch.”
“Oh my goodness!” she says. “It is true.”
Mrs Maytham is now peering around the floral curtain which separates the back room from the front of the shop.
“I need a break,” she says to the young woman, whose name I still don’t know.
She gulps down the last mouthfuls of her tea and jumps up.
“Get rid of it,” she says once more, before patting me on the shoulder and disappearing through the curtain and into the shop.
“You can go out the back door,” says Mrs Maytham to me.
I think about it all the way home. I love this watch. It’s the last thing my father gave me. It’s one of my only links to him. But what if it is cursed? What if something bad happens to my mother or sister? Crime is so bad in South Africa though. People get shot all the time, so maybe it’s just a co-incidence. He was a policeman. But what about my father? He just tried to save someone. I love my watch. I loved my father. I love my father.
Just before I go to sleep that night, I say aloud: “What should I do, father? Please help me.” I am not sure if he can hear me, but I hope he will put an idea into my mind. When I wake up the next morning, the radio is on. It’s playing a song which goes ‘there are nine million bicycles in Beijing’.
“Nine,” my sister shouts, “nine million? Is that true? Where is Beijing?”
As my mother puts down my porridge on the table in front of me, I know what I must do. My father has spoken to me through the radio. I cannot concentrate at school. I am nervous, but excited at the same time.
At midnight when I am sure most people are asleep, I throw off my blankets and sneak out of our shack. The door hinges squeak but neither my mother nor my sister move. I stand still for a few seconds just to make sure. Then I start to run, down our road, then left past six shacks, then right, then right again, down the next road, past the Spaza shop and the shebeen, then here I am. I planned this all in the afternoon during daylight so I would know exactly where to go. It looks different at night, but I have a good memory.
I stand in front of a shack. It looks like all the others, but this one has the number ‘9’ painted in black on the door. But this isn’t just any old nine. The round part of the nine is a skull. I am breathing fast and I can feel my heart in my chest. I place my right hand over my watch. Then I undo the buckle. I hold it in my left hand so that my right hand is free to open the door. I am sweating. They told me the door would be open because he is afraid of nothing. I am frightened. I walk towards the door, being careful to step quietly. I can hear someone snoring inside. At least he is asleep. I reach out to the handle and turn it slowly, then push the door a little way. It doesn’t creak and he is still snoring. I push it further then just stand there and look at him. I want to scream or hit him, sleeping so peacefully while my father is dead. But I know that would get me nowhere. It would probably get me killed too. I have another weapon. I tiptoe over to the small round table next to his bed and place the watch on it next to the empty quart of Black Label. I smile, no longer afraid.
“May you be cursed with the gift of time,” I whisper, and creep out into the dark night.
Michelle Preen (@mpreen) lives on the southern tip of Africa in the coastal village of Kommetjie, in Cape Town. She is a graduate from the University of Kwazulu-Natal and currently works in the field of environmental communications and media. She has had short stories shortlisted and published in various anthologies and magazines, including Black Letter Media’s anthology entitled The Short Story is Dead. Long Live the Short Story!, the Short Story Day Africa 2013 anthology and the Writivism 2014 anthology. She attended the Cape Town Writivism workshop, and was mentored by Monica Cheru. You can follow Michelle on Twitter @mpreen or http://www.michellepreen.com.Follow @JaladaAfrica