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|When Cynthia first laid eyes on the seawater at Hobie beach she fell in love with it. She had been following the city and the beachfront through the pane of a window on a bus.
All the restaurants, the people selling crafts, animals carved intricately out of wood on the side of the road, the aquarium that Port Elizabeth was famous for and snake park, teenage couples walking hand-in-hand. A girl with her arms around her boyfriend’s neck as he took his girlfriend for a piggy-back ride on the beach.
She didn’t even know what a swimming pool looked like with its ceramic tiled floor a white mosaic. She had only seen one on the television in Ma Agnes’s house when a group of children had huddled and struggled to fit into her snug living room to watch Rocky Balboa and his inspiring moves. When she first got up that morning she wished it was a school day. When she climbed on the bus she sat by herself. She was surrounded by ringing laughter. She consoled herself that at least she had got a window seat.
‘Cynthia. Cynthia.’ Cynthia tried to ignore the mocking calls from the back of the bus where the more boisterous and confident children sat. ‘Cynthia.’ the voice came again. It sounded like Hilton Jacobus otherwise known as ‘Minaar’. He was forever going on with her, making fun out of her posh, educated voice in that devil may care attitude of his. She tried to ignore him. ‘Oh, Cynthia.’ That was it. The last straw. She turned around. She felt her cheeks burning and clenched and slowly unclenched her fists but all she could see was stern, serious faces glaring back at her with glassy eyes. There wasn’t a faint glimmer of who had called her name. When she turned around to face the rows of heads ahead of her she heard muffled tittering behind her and she blinked back tears and swallowed hard. She willed Hilton’s face inside her mind as she clocked him one, thumping him with all the strength she could assemble and muster. She imagined shaking him until his teeth and bones rattled inside his head. It gave her a small, knowing comfort.
Everyone around her was talking loudly and the church leaders that were going to supervise them on the trip didn’t even shush them. Everyone was excited. They all saw it as an adventure except Cynthia. She could hear her mother’s voice inside her head, ‘Ai, you’re always complaining Cynthia. There’s more to life than meets the eye.’ Her mother had left school in standard four. Her family was destitute. She had to go to work as a domestic to keep the home fires burning and so she could put food on the table.
If it had been a school day, at this time Cynthia would have been in Math’s class not riding a bus that had seen better days. The foam was coming out of the seat she was sitting on and every time the bus went over a bump she would jolt up and down out of her seat. She would have been working out elegant solutions and making sums in her head, drawing her initials at the top of her page when she got distracted in class but she almost always aced her tests. It made her mother proud. ‘This one could go far if she works hard enough.’ she overheard her mother say to her father one night when she finishing her homework by the paraffin lamp.
Everyone undressed around her shameless, revealing the new suits they had got especially for the beach but more importantly for this trip.
While everyone around her was swimming in proper bathing costumes she swam in a t-shirt and pink shorts but for the first time in her life she didn’t mind. She came with some of her school friends on a bus with the words ‘Putco’ emblazoned on the side with the church Sunday school.
The seawater, the intense smell of it, the colours of the day, the salty tang on her tongue as a breeze washed gently over her small frame made her forget about the rains that came washing away the dirt and rubbish in the streets of the location where she lived with her parents and her siblings. It made her forget that she was poor and that she didn’t have much prospects in her future. The white froth of the seawater bubbled like fizz between her toes.
She tried to watch the boats on the horizon to stop from keeping hungry and acknowledging the ache in her belly that was like a knot. There were women in bikinis. She couldn’t believe that they dared to show so much skin.
At first she splashed herself in the waves not daring to go in deeper because she didn’t know how to swim properly. She only knew the doggy paddle. One of the youth leaders had taught a group of them the basic moves.
She watched older girls and boys bravely maneuvering their way over huge breakers that slapped against the rocks. She wished she had their brazen confidence.
They were going to eat hot dogs with relish, mustard and tomato sauce and real hamburgers that came with lettuce, onion rings and tomato just like it came from KFC and Mcdonald’s. Words that just rolled effortlessly off Cynthia’s tongue as if she had spent her whole life going through drive-thru’s with her parents and tucking into hot chips, fried chicken with hot sauce from Chicken Licken and burgers. The church had got donations from kind, well-meaning folk – meaning Irish missionaries.
‘Haw! Look at Cynthia swimming in her clothes. Isn’t your mother going to shout you?’ The other girls stood around Cynthia, eyeing her and then moving away from her when she refused to take the bait. Children could be cruel sometimes.
‘No. She’s not like that.’ Cynthia said defiantly wishing her eyes could burn holes into the heads of the group of girls who were standing around her and watching her like hawks.
‘Pink shortie!’ A boy shouted and wolf whistled.
Cynthia saw red but there wasn’t anything she could do about it and pretended she didn’t hear anything. She just shifted the sand between her feet and cradled it in the flushed spaces between her toes. The sand was warm. At first the sensation was strange. It felt as if it was small explosions under her feet as she walked. She picked up shells as she walked along admiring their shapes.
Girls ran to the gentle breaking of the waves in groups of two’s and three’s holding hands shrieking and crying out with pleasure as the seawater grazed their knees, wet their stomachs leaving damp patches that were dry minutes before. For the grown ups milling on the beach they were a joy to watch. Others sat on the sand building what they imagined sand-castles to be, using their hands to secure a moat, tall, secure walls, patting and padding the wet sand with care. Other smaller children on the beach had colourful buckets and spades.
Their parents sat with wicker picnic baskets on towels and blankets. A breeze came up. Cynthia stood alone. She had always been a loner, always waiting to be called upon before she joined up with any group. She didn’t have a favourite clique that she belonged to. The popular girls, the girls who were in the choir, the girls who wore spectacles and were a bit of a smart alec, clever and ‘much too big for their boots’ the teachers liked to say, the girls who were in-betweeners, those were the girls who weren’t bullied and who didn’t really stand out academically or do sports or stand out in anything else really.
Then there were the class clowns, the children who were a bit slow, one or two who were hyper and had been kept back a here in school who stood a head taller than the other children.
‘Cynthia, don’t just stand there looking like that. Come join us.’
Cynthia smiled back, hesitating for just a second and then she ran down to the water.
She pretended to be scared like the other children and ran away from the waves and then she got the nerve up.
Cynthia wasn’t used to the heat. Were she came from there had been no sprinkler in a secured garden to jump through to resist the summer rays.
She wished she was clever enough like Princess to say something back quickly; a tart retort.
She looked around her at the people on the beach who were tanning themselves –
they looked like slices of toast, burnt at the edges and rubbed with something greasy like butter. After intermittent intervals they would turn over rubbing creamy sunscreen on their skin unafraid of being sunburnt. She caught others sunbathing; mothers watching over their children in the shallow rock pools with their fishing poles.
She saw a teenager boy carrying a girl on his back piggyback style, other teenage couples calling each other ‘Babe’ or ‘Babes’ who stood in a large circle and were throwing a Frisbee around to each other. There was also a couple who could have been husband and wife or girlfriend and boyfriend sleeping on their backs on the steps that led down to the beach. The man wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had put it under his head and was holding onto his wife/girlfriend. Her face was hidden by hair cut into a fashionable bob. Cynthia felt curiously envious of them. They were dead to the world around them.
There were people whose faces looked like raisins walking their dogs. Their faces were filled with wrinkles. Cynthia was scared of dogs so she kept close to the youth pastor and his pretty, young wife. When his wife laughed there was a flash of gold in her mouth.
There was a man with a bald head and a hairy chest of white and grey hair who was nibbling on the ear of a woman who was sunburnt and whose bikini top was untied. She lay with her face towards this man who looked a few years older than her. Cynthia couldn’t resist looking. She was wearing a piece of cloth that she had draped like a skirt around her waist. The material looked so feminine. It was a splash of red in a portal, a rainbow sea on the sand of limp bodies covered by flailing tents, beach umbrellas, deck chairs and shrieking children calling out to their parents to watch them swim.
It made Cynthia feel lonely. She wished she had someone to share the secrets of her heart with. On the way to the beach that morning she had had misgivings. She tried to think up of reasons not to go but her mother wasn’t hearing any of it. Her mother had spoken to her firmly that morning. ‘You must try to fit in, Cynthia, otherwise how else will you ever fit in when you go to high school one day? How will you make friends?’ So she had given in. She wasn’t built like the other children yet. She was only eleven. The other girls spoke about words like ‘monthlies’, ‘period’, ‘sanitary pads’, ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’.
When she asked her mother about it all she said was, ‘Not now. I’m busy. Besides you’re too young to know about things like that. When the time is right I’ll sit down with you and talk about the birds and the bees.’ But Cynthia hadn’t the faintest idea of what birds and bees had to do with the Periodic table her older brother was studying at the high school. She was also smart, she reasoned. She could also put two and two together. Period. Periodic.
It felt like it belonged completely to another world; a world in which Cynthia was invisible. It, the makeshift skirt that Princess – the head of a gang of girls who weren’t scared of anything especially authority figures – called a ‘sarong’ looked like a tent. The woman whose ear the fat man with a pot belly was nibbling on had fat, brown arms. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world. He put his hand on her back and made circles with his fingers, running them up and down. Cynthia stared at them for awhile and then she looked away embarrassed.
She rinsed the seawater out of her hair and the sand off her feet under the open air shower that stood near the steps. The water sent a chill down her spine. It came out with a spurt, then in a rain shower. She washed her face and combed her hair through with her fingers hoping it wouldn’t stand up. She wished she had gone to the salon or had it braided before she had come on this trip.
The sorrow, sadness that sometimes seemed to paralyse her and seep into every pore of her skin from the tin roof of the shack she called home that covered her head whether it was raining or a to the tip of her toes that skimmed the ground through the hole in her school shoes and the surfaces she walked on as she walked to and fro from school, running errands for her mother or playing with her friends. They made up games from their imagination.
There was no money for reading books that smelt new with smooth, clean pages, beautiful illustrations and drawings not marked with greasy fingers, creases or dog ears. There was no money for dolls, pizza, toys, puzzles and cards to play snap or rummy with. Christmas was the one time when her family got a hot, home-cooked meal in their bellies. When they feasted on cake her mother’s employee’s daughters had made especially for them. It was a bit lopsided but the icing couldn’t be beat. It made their eyes water just looking at it.
She had asked her mother so many times in the past few weeks for new shoes but there was no money.
‘The hotdogs are ready. Come and get it!’
Everyone stood in a line and once they had got their hands on their food they stood around with their friends, laughing, smiling, talking and trying not to get sand on their wet bathing suits. Some were rubbing themselves dry with their towels. They bit into the bun smeared generously with margarine by the ladies of the church, some who were mothers to the children who had come on this trip. There was enough for seconds if you were lucky to have scoffed your first hotdog quickly. They drank warm Oros, spilling the orange liquid onto the sand when they found breadcrumbs swimming, swirling at the bottom of the white plastic cup.
A group of girls and boys that were in a standard below Cynthia’s sat mesmerised by the swarming life in the rock pools. Some had even taken off their shoes and their socks and dangling their feet in the shallow water. Others were investigating the weed and the shells stuck to the rocks with the white, purple and green outsides. Cynthia was drawn to their solemn features as they appraised what they picked up in the seawater, stubbed their toes against the sharp edges and sliced pulsing red slits in their skin.
One girl whose name was Beauty held up a piece of seaweed between her thumb and her forefinger. She held it to her nose and said, ‘Ooh, it smells.’ They passed it to one another. ‘It comes from the sea so how can it smell bad. It smells of the sea. Can’t you tell?’ Innocent said. He sang in the Sunday school’ choir in church and he often had solo’s on special days like Mother’s day or Father’s day. He rubbed his fingers against it and then lifted his palm to his face and sniffed. This group of boys and girls had not noticed Cynthia yet or were pretending not to notice her or they were waiting for her to go away and saw her as someone who would put a stop to what they were doing and tell them to go swimming with the older kids or put their shoes and socks on again or they were simply ignoring her.
The day was almost through. The wind had picked up. The sun was setting. It was a radiant blur in the midst of the afternoon. The youth pastor’s wife had yawned once or twice; her filling glinting gold. Soon the children and their youth leaders would be packing up all their belongings and making their way to the Putco bus with sand in their shoes, their hair wet, the warm sun on their clothes, their backs and as they went to sleep that night that day’s connection to the sea would still be there; it would have formed a tight yet subtle part of Cynthia’s life’s journey.
It had been a great day. Cynthia had been transformed by it and nourished inwardly by it. She had made new friends; Owen, Winston, Paul, Anthony, Mzimkulu, Eunice, Hazel, Monica, Bulelwa, Judith, Beauty and Khethiwe. Girls and boys who also had English names like she had. The youth pastor was handing out sweets. She unwrapped her lolly and popped it into her mouth as she walked up the stairs into the bus. Her shorts were sticking to her legs.
She didn’t have any dry clothes to change into but she was smiling and she was happy; the blackness of her skin forgotten. The world around her rushed inside the rooms of her head that were once empty. Now they were filled with memories of her feeling comfortable and accepted as one of the gang; even Princess had spoken to her.
She closed her eyes briefly, leaned back into the seat fitting the nape of her neck into the shiny, metallic groove of the headrest of the chair. She shifted as the bus groaned and shook.
‘All aboard.’ Pastor Matthew said grinning, counting heads as the bus door swooshed closed.
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