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|Smiley missed his mother’s touch and her kisses which felt like the smooth, ruffling of feathers. She worked as a domestic worker what people where he lived in the location called a kitchen girl in the house of a wealthy white family in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. When his mother was still around they used to go and get fish and chips at a Coloured fish and chip shop called Sea Flight. There was a picture of a hake next to the words of the name of the shop. His mother told him what the name of the fish was. He liked to look at that picture of the fish. He often walked past that shop now.
He no longer had enough money with him to go inside and buy the meal that he used to with his mother.
Captain who was known as the leader of the gang Smiley joined. He called it ‘a king’s meal’. All they got when they knocked at doors in the well do to suburb of Gelvan Park in Port Elizabeth was peanut butter or jam sometimes on stale bread but they ate it because it took the hunger pangs in their bellies away. Some people gave them sour, bruised apples that looked like it gone through a few rounds with Mike Tyson in the ring.
He lived near the sea but all he could do was splash in the waves at the shallow end with his mother watching him pensively from nearby. He watched the surfers enviously as they went out on their boards. He wanted to surf the waves too but he knew he was too little.
When he was seven years old he got dumped unceremoniously at his grandmother’s house. His mother said they were going for a visit. He had not seen his grandmother for a long time. His mother told him she had come to the hospital when he was born.
“Bastard. Bastard.” The other children of the neighbourhood stood around him calling him names. Dancing and singing at the top of their voices Smiley stood in the middle of all that noise bravely blinking back tears and a knot caught at the back of his throat.
When he went home he told his mother about what had happened. She didn’t say anything for a long time. They were in the small makeshift kitchen with the pot cooking pap on the black ash and embers of coals. Flames were licking on the ground. She stared into space gravely before she answered. “You are different from other children. You will always be different from other children here in our community. You are special. Always remember that and I love you. You’re my guy.”
Smiley never knew his father. He never knew what he looked like or what his name was. He didn’t even have a photograph so he could have a picture of his father in his mind to see whether or not they looked like each other.
Smiley was afraid. For the first time in his life he was without his mother’s protection and love to shield him from the brokenness and heartache in the poverty stricken area where they lived. These guys were different from the ones who lived near his shack in Blikkiesdorp’s shantytown. For one they didn’t call him names.
He was tired of listening to his grandmother’s warnings of the gangs in the area who were recruiting young, vulnerable children to do their bidding. There were gang lords wandering the streets night and day. They had tattoos inked on their arms and coins jingling in their pockets. Paper money brushed against their fingertips as they counted it out to buy cooldrinks and fast food for their friends.
They gambled with dice at the side of the drive thru at Nando’s bothering the people who drove up who ordered expensive meals, burgers and chips, flame grilled children doused liberally with hot sauce. The sweet, delicious smells that came out of that place made all of the boys’ mouths water and drool.
“Hey, you. Come here.” He seemed bigger than the rest of them. He looked as if he was the leader. The others even looked smaller than him.
Smiley walked forward slowly.
“Did you make anything today?”
“No. Not really.” Smiley answered truthfully. “I didn’t make anything.”
“What’s your name?”
“Smiley.” Smiley said.
“My name’s Bennie. We’ll do the introductions with the other guys later on.”
“This guy is wise. Check this china. He isn’t a ‘moegoe’. Join us. We’ll protect you.”
Smiley wiped his tears and snot away with his arm. His jersey had holes in. There was a huge gaping hole where his elbow was. When it rained he got wet and cold. There was chill that ran through his whole body.
He was used to wearing his shorts now and walking barefoot on the streets of Port Elizabeth. His new hang out with his new friends was the Kwik Spar in Beetlestone Road.
He saw the people’s stares. It was hard to walk with his chin up. He could see how different he was from other children his age.
“Here. It’s gold. Have you ever tried it?”
Smiley shook his head. Some of the other boys were game for anything but Smiley liked to take his time and think through things; new ideas that were presented to him.
“It’s glue, man. It’s magic. It can make you fly. Are you a man or a mouse?” Bennie made a fist like Rocky Balboa. Smiley remembered watching that movie one Friday night with his grandmother in her house. He remembered her kindness and how she had spoilt him with a toffee apple after church one day.
“What does Smiley mean? Is that really your name?” Michael one of the younger ones asked him.
“That’s my name. My mother used to call me that before she left.”
“My mother also took the high road. She was good for nothing. I was always hungry. There was always nothing to eat in our house. It wasn’t even a house. It was just a tin roof with four walls. The bricks and plastic black bags that the rich use for garbage, rubbish kept out the rain. We slept under the kitchen table. We had to sleep like a school of fish in a tin of Lucky Star pilchards. When I woke up in the morning I was always stiff and sore.” Bennie said quietly.
“All we ever ate was Lucky Star pilchards if we were lucky.” one of the younger boys piped up
“What was your mother like, Smiley? My mother died when I was very young. They put me in a home.” Michael was full of questions. He never left Smiley alone these days. He was always hanging around.
“Not a home bru. It was the local children’s orphanage.”
“Well, are you or aren’t you?” Bennie leaned over and grasped Smiley’s hand.
“Take a hit. It’s heaven. It’s paradise. You won’t feel angry, lost, hungry or alone. Your little belly will feel as if it’s feasted on KFC or Chicken Licken. Take my word for it.”
Bennie’s voice was thick and slow. He swallowed the smoke, beads of sweat on his forehead. His hair was long and dark, limp and damp at his neck.
“Come on junior, give here, I’ll light it for you and show you how to inhale and don’t forget to hold the smoke in your mouth or else you won’t feel the high head on.”
Bennie laughed out loud, “Hold on tight. This is mos your first time. ‘Ouens’ we’ve got a first timer here. Die ou’s a glue virgin here. Hold thumbs for him. When I wink just let go and all the pain that you feel here will go on top here.” Bennie pointed to his heart then his head. “Like magic it will disappear. It’s more beautiful than a daydream.”
“If you’re lucky maybe you’ll see you mother and you can ask her why she left you.”
Captain was in a bad mood. Somebody nearly ran him over with his car when he was pulling out of a parking space at the Kwik Spar.
Bennie left home because his father was an alcoholic and he decided just to take off because he didn’t like the ‘vibe’ at home anymore. His mother was always crying in front of him. He had a younger sister and an older brother who was never at home.
Michael had met up with someone that belonged to Captain’s gang at his school. Moegamat and Muneeb were brothers who both had ran away from home. Sometimes they went back and reunited with their family but they always returned to the streets. There were seven hungry mouths to feed back home; seven hungry mites.
Captain’s past was a bit dodgy. He never spoke about his parents. If he did it was with a sneer.
Smiley took another hit. He felt as if reality was slowly slipping away from him. When the buzz came it settled his jangled nerves. The edges of his pain was becoming denser, less intense, turning into a haze of black then red connect-me dots. He began to feel crazy beautiful. He was floating high above the clouds above the ‘lost boys’ who made their home on a patch of grassy field at the side of the off-ramp where cars were coming off the freeway but he couldn’t see them anymore.
He wasn’t blinded by the cars streaming headlights. The lights had a haunting glow at night. He was tired of begging for small change. He couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread with that money. He was tired of the irate, irritated, annoyed faces leaning back into the leather-comfort of the expensive, posh cars that drove by that ignored him when he begged from window to window. Often when they saw him coming they would quickly turn up their windows shutting him out; that hurt. The rejection felt like he was dealing with his mother’s moods all over again.
He felt the curve of the knife’s handle in his pocket. It was given to him by Bennie for protection. “You don’t have to use it. But knowing it’s there gives you an advantage over any ou that tries to cross you or harass you.” Smiley had decided to make up his mind about Bennie and give him the benefit of the doubt.
Bennie had his faults. He smoked, he swore, he pushed around the other ouens and said he was the boss, second in command when Captain wasn’t around. He did give orders sometime when Captain went off but he was okay. Smiley knew the others wouldn’t mess with him with Bennie around. He always got food. He had a nice place to sleep. It was warm and dry. He had a fleece blanket that they had got at the Catholic Church; St. Martin de Porres. They sometimes stood barefoot, their clothes threadbare in line to get a cup of soup and sandwiches on a Tuesday morning. Lots of different kinds of people would come. The ‘lost boys’ would hang around on the steps outside of the church.
“Maybe it’s time you move on to something else. A smoke?” Bennie said with a half-smile. “I’m taking you under my wing. You can be my protégé. That’s a pretty word, hey. I think you’re ready.”
But Smiley couldn’t hold the smoke in his mouth. Bennie just laughed.
“Jislaaik, you’re still a baby.”
The ‘lost boys’ of Stanford Road, Port Elizabeth didn’t go to school. They didn’t know what ‘special needs education’ was, ‘unconditional love’ or a mother’s touch; a father’s discipline.
The only lessons they learnt were hard ones; abandonment, rejection, hunger for love and attention, neglect, lessons of struggle where they were misrepresented and misunderstood.
He felt like a baby sucking his thumb. It was as if he had unknowingly pressed a button marked ‘let’s ride this pleasure rollercoaster’. It shot like whiplash through his veins and he shivered. He didn’t shiver from the cold but from this good, fuzzy feeling of warmth that was beginning to emanate from somewhere inside of him.
At last he had found the secret to the pursuit of happiness and all the loveliness in the world. It was in this bottle of glue. He drew circles in the dirt with his thumbnail. There was a guy in the parking lot that was waiting for someone to come out of the shop who gave him a vetkoek with mince and he hadn’t shared.
He was so hungry he just ate it up on the spot. Afterwards his hands were oily from the grease from the vetkoek. He wiped his hands off on the back of his already dirty and tattered shorts. Threads were coming out of the pocket on the left hand side. He hardly put anything in there anymore. If he did forget and put something in there it usually got lost.
He used to wear a bandana on his head on cold nights on the street before he joined up with Captain. His grandmother had given it to him and Smiley had treasured it but when Bennie had first seen him in it he had jokingly said, “Na, man that hood’s for sissies. You’re not a sissy boy are you? You’re not a mama’s boy?”
Smiley didn’t know what a sissy boy was. He didn’t dare and ask even. He knew the other boys would probably laugh at him. The name didn’t sound very nice.
“Man that was so bad. We all wanted a piece of that vetkoek.” Bennie said later. “Captain was watching you. The thing is we all watch out for each other. But don’t worry about it, just don’t do it again.”’
Smiley thought he was being warned about something, he didn’t take it that seriously though but that was how life was like on the streets. You didn’t just look out for yourself anymore. The ‘lost boys’ had become his family now. They had become his home away from home and they had done a lot for him.
They had accepted him. They hadn’t thrown him away, rejected him and made fun of him. He never felt alone now. There was always someone around to shoot the breeze with, play with, gamble with, talk to when he felt sad, hungry or on the point of tears. There was always someone around who knew where to find something nice to eat. It was amazing sometimes what the rich and well to do would through away and what they regarded as old food, stale or what they wasted.
Sometimes the boys would go to the dump or the drive thru. When it rained they all stuck together under a thick tarpaulin. They huddled together to keep warm, they cupped their hands to their mouths, breathed out warm mists of sour air. It soon felt stuffy under there but it kept away the fierce, howling wind that drove chills and shivers up and down their spines.
Living on the streets was a raw experience. It was not for the faint-hearted. You had to be brave and loyal to your gang. Lo and behold they would seek revenge out on you if you betrayed them. You had to have your wits about you. You had to be born with street smarts. Smiley thought he was born with street smarts.
His eyes were red-rimmed and the pupils of his eyes were wet, dark, dilated; they stared at a blue nothing in the distance. At first he felt as if he was choking but that feeling soon passed and gave way to a heady rush of warmth that bubbled to the surface like the fierce orange lava of a volcano. He sucked again, this time deeper, inhaled until it felt his lungs would burst and shivered like a fish. He closed his eyes. Colours flashed brilliantly in front of his eyes. Reds, yellows, pale blues. They all came to him like the colours of a kaleidoscope or all the magnificent colours of a rainbow after the downpour of spitting rain.
He felt free and liberated. He didn’t have to explain himself to a grandmother that refused to tell him who his father was and where he came from. He usually pressed the issue further but his grandmother just rocked back and forth on her pink settee with a man’s handkerchief in her hand, dabbing at her dry eyes. She point blank ignored him. He asked her over and over, did he have his father’s name; did he carry any of his father’s genes but her response was always the same. A grandmother that pretended his mother might come and visit him on his birthday or Christmas.
He could see the dump that was the ‘lost boys’ playground. Bennie’s face as he blew rings of smoke out of his mouth. He could see his mother’s loveliness. Her face hadn’t aged. There were no lines or wrinkles around her eyes and her mouth.
All he could see was a tunnel vision of white light ahead of him and he reached out for it until it swept him away like a dream and folded him like the tender loving care of a mother’s love in its arms. He became one with the light. All fear left him. All the secrets that he kept hidden from view, sealed tight like the contents of a jam tin scattered away. He was invincible. The light bedazzled his senses before it made him fall unconscious to the ground.
Bennie cradled Smiley’s head in his hands, tears streaming down his face. “Captain, we can’t just leave him here. We must do something. He’s not waking up.”
Captain tilted his head with a defiant smug air. “You know no one will stop even if we tell them what happened.”
Just then a beat down bakkie drove past them. A man with kind eyes looked out of his window. “What’s up chaps? What’s going on here? Need some help with your friend, Sonny?”
Captain turned his back and began to walk back to the ragged patch of field where the ‘lost boys’ made their home.
Bennie swallowed hard and tried to hold back his sobs. The man parked his bakkie on the side of the road, got out and came over to where Bennie and Smiley were.
“What happened? Is it drugs? Did something get out of control here? If you need my help I’ll take him to the hospital.”
“Will they help him there?” Bennie asked still sniffling.
“If not, they’ll have me to deal with.”
Bennie sat in silence next to the man with the kind eyes as he drove through the now deserted streets of Port Elizabeth to Livingston Hospital in Korsten. Night was falling. Smiley was still unconscious. Any minute now, Bennie thought to himself, Smiley would wake up and go back to being his old self. He hadn’t though completely recovered from seeing Smiley slumped over like that his back leaning into a dry bush; drool at the corners of his mouth.
The man with the kind eyes carried Smiley’s almost comatose body into the hospital. Bennie followed closely behind. The night nurse on duty grimaced when she saw Bennie but the man with the kind eyes spoke to her firmly and quietly. Bennie couldn’t hear what he was saying. He just stayed close. The nurse drew them to a bed but told Bennie to stay put. He sniffed. She ignored him.
She closed the curtain around the bed. It swooshed on the ground. Bennie was left staring at the ground at his feet. He knew his clothes were filthy. He didn’t like the bright white lights here. It reminded him of getting high. Here there were adults around who frown on that behaviour. He longed for a soft, clean towel, a hot bath, a toothbrush, scented soap. Bennie shifted his feet from side to side. He could feel the gaze of the woman who took the incoming calls on him. He knew she was watching every move he made.
Smiley could feel his mother’s touch. He could feel her hand gently stroking his forehead, putting a pressure on it that was soft, comforting and familiar. He heard her call his name. He could sense her presence. Smiley closed his eyes. Where was the noise of cars rushing by? Homeless people, school children shouting to each other, laughing, men in blue overalls, people going to work or coming off a shift, the other ‘lost boys’ weak from hunger walking by his favourite spot where he liked to sit in the morning catching some sun, watching Bennie running through the empty spaces between the passing cars.
All he could hear now was silence. Was this what Bennie was talking about? Was this heaven? He could see things and hear things from memories from his childhood days walking with his mother in the location, watching her bend over, hand on her hip cooking pap and vegetables for them. Sometimes they had white Tastic rice but that was a luxury they could ill afford.
Images of his previous life when he still lived with his mother came to him like an offering in the collection plate on a Sunday morning in church. It seemed to him as if he was going on a long journey into his past. The pressure he had felt on his forehead soon moved to his heart. Smiley felt as if he was wearing a suit of armour; heavy and thick, the visor blinding him as well as shielding him from a life in translation, shielding him from a mother’s love in translation.
The tunnel vision of white light was blinding him now like the midday sun. He trembled, shivered, like the shake like a fish caught in the air by a fisherman before the life is snuffed out of him. His legs were skinny. Would his own mother recognise him now if she saw him in heaven or would she recognise him by his smile, his jolly, cheerful, belly laughter or the almond-shape of his golden-flecked, shining brown eyes?
There was no turning back now. It was done. Smiley heard his name again. He felt a manic panic rise up in his chest. He recognised that voice. It was one he had longed for a long time to hear again. He had hoped, wished and prayed for it. He turned around and ran into his mother’s waiting arms.
He could see that the end of the tunnel was in sight and the white light slowly faded away leaving him within a shell of darkness like a shroud, an invisible magician’s cloak that swallowed him whole. The drumming of his heart became a faint whisper.
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