When I hear the police sirens, I feel like I have jumped off a high building and am waiting to crash. My body takes over from my mind. Before I know it, I am out of the door and slinking quickly away from the front entrance. The book is still in my hand and the taste of chocolate is in my mouth. The passage turns. I pass a small kitchen then thankfully there is a back door. Is it locked? I try it and it opens quite easily.
I am in a courtyard. I begin to get my bearings. I have been in this place before. To the right they usually set up the soup kitchen and further along to the left is the wash house. Many times I have been grateful for that building where I could get clean and wash my clothes. Beyond it is a gate opening to the street so that when they run the soup kitchen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, people don’t walk their dirty shoes through the office part of the building.
The gate is locked. I am trapped. My breath comes in quick gasps. I must hide. I sprint back to the wash house. I crawl under the furthest triangular sink and fold into a ball in the corner. It occurs to me that my school clothes will be getting very dirty.
I listen intently. If the police come looking for somebody, they usually make a lot of noise. I hear nothing, only the sound of a Go-Away bird in a tree nearby. I feel the hard roughness of the wall behind my back. The cement floor under my legs is cold and unfriendly. Gradually my breathing slows to normal. I wait.
I notice the book tucked between my legs and my chest. I mustn’t let it get dirty. I take off my shirt and tie and roll them up with the book.
Without being invited, more memories come to me. It is like they are snakes that I’ve caught and kept in a sack. In the counselling room I opened the bag and now they are all escaping and I can’t get them back in the sack again.
Baba kept his promise and bought me a special book. It was called Stories of Courage for Boys.
“I know you can’t read much of it yet,” said Baba. He ruffled my hair as I sat on his lap. “But you will learn. Every day you will get better and better.” We were paging through the book together. There were lots of bright pictures, some from other countries.
“What’s that one?” I asked, pointing to a picture of a girl in a red coat sitting next to a younger girl and boy in white sand dunes. Baba read through some of the story slowly to himself.
“It’s about a girl called Hazel Miner who saved her brother and sister from freezing to death in the snow by spreading her coat over them and lying on it. She died but they were saved.” He rubbed the side of his face. “I thought this book was about boy heroes, not girls.”
“There are lots of pictures of boys too. Look, that’s a Zulu boy.” I pointed to another picture in the book.
At that moment the bell that Baba had set up in the workshop jangled.
“Who’s coming to see you on a Saturday afternoon?” Mama came in from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. “Tell them you’re closed and they can come back on Monday. Lunch is in five minutes.”
I knew and I think Mama knew that Baba would never turn away a customer. Baba went out. Mama peeped through the window. “It’s those Pontiac people again. I don’t like them.”
Mama and I started on the beef stew and pap. Baba wasn’t long. “It’s Rassan and Zulu again,” he said to Mama. He looked puzzled. “They said they still haven’t found an engine for the Pontiac but they miss the radio and they want to listen to it for a little while. I don’t understand it. First they push the car all the way here because it doesn’t work. Then I tell them I can’t fix it and it needs a new engine. Then they say they can easily get one, Zulu’s uncle has a scrap yard. Then they come back every week just to tell me they haven’t got one yet but they are still looking. Now today they miss the radio? Why don’t they just push the car back to where they live and they can listen to the radio all they like. Something’s not right.” He rubbed the side of his face.
Thousands of questions were jumping around in my seven year old mind but I knew better than to ask them. My parents were talking about grown up things. If I joined the conversation, they would remember I was there and send me to...