You were sitting at the bus stop, waiting for your bus, as I walked past. The summer skies hung heavy with the sulphurous smell of garden sprinklers, vibrating with the hum of hundreds of cicadas. The late afternoon sun was a fraction less intense, but the suburban gardens set back from the service road behind the bus stop showed no signs of returning to action, beyond the movement of occasional sparrows flitting through the sprinklers. Your scowl melted slowly into a smile, and I stopped.
Your tie was still neatly in place, though your shirt clung damply to your body in protest. Your socks hung around your ankles, but your knees betrayed no scrapes or scuffs or other evidence of play. Even your shoes still showed traces of the mornings polish. So you must have been staying late at school, then. I dropped my bag with a dismissive thump, and sat down next to you.
My outgrown T-shirt was drenched with sweat and grime, my hair plastered to my skull underneath my riding hat, and rivulets of sweat ran down the inside of my jeans, into my once-white ankle socks and my abused shoes. My hands and face were covered in sand and dust, mixed to a fertile mud with my profuse perspiration. I stank of horse. Pretty obvious where Id been, too.
You were new to the class, from Joburg or somewhere distant, and lived some miles from the school in a block of flats we drove past whenever we went to visit my grandmother who lived beyond the Boerewors Curtain. You sat on the other side of the classroom, next to Mark, but you didnt play with Mark at break time. You walked around by yourself, shy and new, with your hands in your pockets. At break times I played elastic with Chemine, or if the squabbling and cheating got too much, Id sit with Caroline and the Std 2s. Caroline was repeating Std 1, and sat next to me in class, but still sat with her friends from last year at break. They sat and talked, rather than playing. It was more mature.
Our class teacher and I shared a birthday, and I was the teachers pet. Before break she always made me stand in front of the class and had me read aloud from Winnie the Pooh. I didnt mind, because she also did my knitting for me out of pity for me or for the wool which greyed beyond recognition in my hands, knotted into a tangle of holes and deformity. While I read, the class dozed or caught up homework or wrote notes to each other.
You had to take two buses to get home one to Wynberg, and a second to Kenilworth. The bus was a long time in coming and youd probably miss your bus through to Kenilworth. You didnt seem terribly concerned about it. I lived just over a mile away, and walked to and from school. My time was my own, and I loved Tuesday afternoons after horse riding once the minibus had dropped us back and school and the others were collected by their airbrushed mothers in their air-conditioned cars, I would start to wander slowly back along the road home.
Overgrown fields of lupins, whose seeds Id collect and sew into bangles, and dandelions, waiting to be blown, or bunny tails which tickled behind the knees, would keep me busy for ages. Further along, the open grassy patches begged you to pull your shoes off, absorbing the rich green energy through your tired feet. Of course there were also pine cones to collect in the forest, in search of some pine nuts the squirrels may have missed, and closer to home, dogs to pat and the occasional garden sprinkler spilling onto the cracked cement block pavement providing welcome puddles. Best of all, walking home allowed me to think up stories, creating fantasies and alternative realities far more exciting, engaging and enjoyable than my own. The last few steps home always took the longest.
But I put all that aside as I shifted onto the hard wooden seat beside you. The bus stop provided some shade against the sun, but the metal was too hot to lean back against, forcing us to sit upright. Our eight year old legs swung freely, feet high above the ground, kicking at the hazy air. I pulled off my shoe, and emptied grey Philippi sand onto the concrete below. I peeled the sock back to expose a swollen, filthy foot. The air felt cooler, so I stuffed the sock into the shoe and pulled the other one off too. I crammed the shoes into the too-full schoolbag already jammed with my uniform and put my feet up onto the wooden seat. Hugging my legs closer, I peered over my knees at you. Your dark brown eyes were peeping out from under your dark brown fringe, and a shy smile interrupted the landscape of freckles. I smiled back, shyly.
I took off my riding hat and put it on top of my schoolbag. The breeze tried half-heartedly to ruffle my sticky hair, but retreated defeated. I rubbed my arm across my eyes but succeeded only in getting more sand into them. I felt something poking in my pocket, and remembered the stop earlier at Abdullahs café in Wynberg. I pulled out the roll of Lifesavers, and offered you. You got a red one, I got purple. They were a little crunchy from the sand, but the flavour was still there. You asked what flavour mine was, and I guessed grape. You guessed yours as strawberry. You told me that in Joburg you could get Lifesavers with watermelon and coconut flavours. I didnt really believe you, but didnt say so.
I remembered Kim OHagan, who was always boasting about Joburg and how bigger and better and different everything was there. She still wore her Joburg school uniform for a whole term after she came to Cape Town, and they lived in the caravan park. I thought it must be exciting to live in a caravan some of the kids in the class went on holiday in caravans, but we never went on holiday, so Id never been in a caravan. I thought they must be very rich to live in a caravan, but Chemine had said it was because they couldnt afford a house. Chemine lived in a flat, which wasnt a house either, so I didnt believe her. I thought Kim was just trying to impress us, with her stripy uniform and her caravan. But then her father found a job in Durban and they left. I wondered what she was telling the children in Durban about Cape Town. Maybe the Joburg stories were better, so she stuck with those.
You didnt seem to mind that I didnt believe you, so maybe you were telling the truth after all. You asked me why my teeth were orange, and I remembered the bunny lick Id gobbled before the minibus had even left Abdullahs. Shaun once got sick from too many, and his sick was all green from the bunnylicks hed eaten earlier. I stopped buying green, after that.
My lips were also orange, though you probably couldnt see behind all the dirt. You told me my hair was a pretty colour. Strawberry blonde, I commented sadly. It meant wearing ribbons, with my hair combed into locks, and frilly socks and girly dresses when we went out. It also meant freckles, and peeling if you ran around in the sun too much. Strawberry blonde meant behaving like a lady, sitting with your knees together, serving the tea to the guests and washing the dishes. It meant not biting your fingernails, and smacks when you did. It meant never quite being good enough.
I chomped my lifesaver, wondering what colour my teeth would be now, while you sucked slowly and thoughtfully on yours. Finally, you stuck your tongue out to show me the finest hint of a circle, before it cracked and broke. You told me how, when you were younger, you used to try to make rings suck them long enough so that the hole would get bigger. But somehow, as soon as it was big enough for your finger, it was too thin not to break.
I looked at your hands. They were about the same size as mine. I wondered if I could make a ring … I pulled out the Lifesavers, and we took the last. We sucked slowly, without talking, even to ask what colour or flavour the other had. Mine was orange, so I supposed Id have to answer only once.
I took mine out frequently to check the size, while you sat patiently with yours in your mouth. Eventually you stuck your tongue out. I looked and nodded. It might fit. You continued to stick your tongue out, and I reached for the sweet. The warm stickiness grasped between my forefinger and thumb, I reached for your hand, but you told me to try my own hand rather. It fitted just onto the top joint of my pinkie. I took mine out of my mouth and gave it to you. The hole was still too small. You put the sweet in your mouth and smiled.
Suddenly your eyes went wide and you started coughing, choking. The sweet flew from your mouth and landed in the dust, next to my bag. You looked mortified, and I offered you your ring back. Smiling, you took my hand and placed my little finger in your mouth. Slowly, I could feel you sucking at the sweet.
The rough surface of your tongue slid up and down my finger, the tip tracing a tickling path to the tip, to the ring, to the base. I could feel the warm, wet smoothness of your palate as my finger rode in, out, in, out of your mouth, cradled by your gentle sucking movements. My body felt as if it was floating, rising and falling gently on the waves like when my brothers shook the walls of the Portapool, trying to make a storm.
I closed my eyes and felt the red warmth of the world through my eyelids. My T-shirt clung tightly to my wet body, squeezing me like mud between summer toes. My breath came in gasps, trying to squeeze in, or out, or in and out. My jeans clung thickly, wetly, to my legs. Between my parted knees I could smell a dirty smell, sharp and cloying, which meant Id have to wash my panties in my bath tonight before my mother noticed. The crotch of my jeans gripped tight, pinching, hurting, thrilling. I felt like a butterfly pinned on a board, bright and beautiful, unable unwilling to move.
But I must have moved. The bus must have come and carried you off, leaving me with a cool, clean, hypersensitive finger. As I drifted home through the suffocating scent of suburban syringas, the sulphurous stench of stuttering sprinklers and the somnolizing sound of summer cicadas in those hazy, halcyon days of the early 1970s, I dragged my bursting heart in my heavy bag in the bitter wake of the belching bus bearing my hopes inexorably onward toward a future always just out of reach.
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