A Piki Tup garbage van rattles past Kero as she winces at the four-inch face of her phone. The familiar odour of rotting trash wafts into her nostrils. She frowns, looks up, curbs an urge to spit, then down again. She quickly finds her place in the text message she is re-reading. It confounds her even more. She wishes the bus would come already. With the exception of the one time she had missed it, the five o’clock bus to Highlands North had never been on time.
Kero tries to think who the sender could be, and what on earth they could be talking about. The heading on the message reads, “Message from: (contact not found)” Suffixed by what looks like a South African cell phone number. She is sure she imported all her contacts from her old phone. Something she learnt from George, back when she naively thought they were just friends. Perhaps this number is one that somehow got lost in the process. But still, that does not explain the strange contents of the message.
A grey-and-blue Metrobus turns the corner, “Highlands N” displayed in a pixelated, green font atop its glass face. Feet shuffle and a crowd forms. Those already queued close ranks as the bus stops. Kero secrets her phone into her purple faux leather handbag. The jostling crowd, vying for a seat on the bus, reminds her that she is still in Joburg, a city that punishes the unwary. It was just such a scenario that saw her lose her previous phone, only five weeks ago. She rebukes herself for forgetting the lesson she had so lately been taught.
Kero, finds a seat next to a man wearing a blue work suit. The other seats fill up. The first passengers to stand look around for empty seats before conceding defeat. Crestfallen, they find the next best thing, a pole to lean on.
“Roses r red violets r blu. m interestd, wr r u? Cn cm anywer. Mobile, clean, excitin, carin. Cn b nythng u wnt. Wil make ur fantasy cum tru. Cmon bbe, say yes 2 me nd u will c. No regret, only plesur. Say yes?” – Kero reads the message again as the bus takes off. A grey cloud of exhaust smoke trails the bus in the golden twilight sun.
“hi is ur offer fo real or wt?” – Another message from the same number.
Kero’s nostrils flare, she types a response, “sorry, who is this? I dnt know wt u r talking abt.”
She slides her phone into its purple flannel pouch, clutches her handbag and sighs. Her phone vibrates- another message, “the ad.”
She is starts to type a reply. Her phone vibrates; a call this time. Another unknown number, perhaps the same one, she is not sure.
“Hello, Kero speaking.
“I’m sorry what?
“Listen, I have no idea what you are talking about. Are you the one who just sent me a message?
“You didn’t? Anyway I’m no—
“I think you have the wro —
“I beg your pardon?
“I did not place any advert on any website!
“Please, don’t call this number again…nxi.” Kero clutches the phone to her chest. Fear and disgust swell in her. Her other hand clenches into a fist, the purple pouch crumpled in her reddening palm. A dull pain jabs at her side. She looks down. Her arm tight against the side of her breast, the handbag between them. She relaxes, slowly. Her hands tremble. A fear grips her that she last felt that perilous night with George. She remembers the counsellor’s words. She refuses to let herself believe he is behind this. She will not give him that power. This is obviously just an honest mistake. One wrong digit in the contact details, that’s all it takes for someone to make an honest mistake. She will find the website and clear this up.
A podgy face leans in towards hers and asks, “Are you ok?”
“Yes, I’m fine thank you, Ma.”
“Isn’t this your stop, Mtanam?”
“Yes, I am getting off here.”
“Woza, Mtanam. Let’s go.”
Kero follows the round figure out of the muggy bus. The fresh air calms and invigorates her. She feels a warm hand touching hers. The elder lady beams a smile at her as she says, “Come over here, my daughter. Let’s stand away from the road.”
“Thank you, Ma. I am fine, really.”
“No, child, you are not fine. What is your name?”
“Kero, my name is Kero Dingane.”
“You can call me Mam’ Sindi. What got you so scared, my child? I could see from where I was sitting that something was bothering you.”
“It’s nothing really, just a mistake someone made.”
“It can’t be silly if it frightens you like this. I took one look at you and thought ‘Dear God in heaven, what has got this child so distressed?’
Tell me, what’s wrong?”
“It’s just these messages I received on my phone,” Kero yields, half expecting Mam’ Sindi to not understand.
“Who is sending them to you? Did you receive some bad news?”
“No, Ma, it is not exactly bad news. The messages are strange and I do not know who is sending them. A strange man also called asking weird questions about me too.”
“Have you asked them to stop? Perhaps they have mistaken you for someone else,” Mam’ Sindi says, frowning, head slightly tilted.
“I did tell them. They will stop once they realise they have the wrong number, I’m sure.”
Three more messages announce their arrival. Kero retrieves the vibrating phone from her handbag. She is swiping the screen open when Mam’ Sindi covers it with her balloon-like hand.“Don’t read it,” she says firmly, “it will do nothing but drive you insane. I never even look at mine except to answer when my son calls. These cellular what-what’s will take over your life if you let them. Sometimes I just switch the thing off. You should do the same until these people leave you alone.”
“But what if you miss an important call, Ma?”
“What could be so important that it cannot wait another day?”
“Ma! It could be an emergency,” Kero exclaims, “what if someone is in trouble and they urgently need your help?”
“Daughter, have you looked at me properly, or do you also need glasses to see? It has been a long time since I have run to anyone’s aid.”
Kero tries and fails to stifle a laugh, “That’s not what I meant, Ma. Besides you look fitter and healthier than most.”
“Now you flatter me with lies, daughter of Dingane. I’m fat, I know. Come, walk me home and tell me more about your dreadful messages.”
“Let me help you with your parcel. How far from here do you live, Ma?” Kero takes the heavy-looking box from Mam‘ Sindi and the two walk along the shoulder of the road.
“It’s not far from here, mine is the next stop after yours, I live on Thirteenth Avenue,” Mam‘ Sindi replies, reassuringly.
“I am so sorry you had to go to the trouble of dropping off so far from home.”
“Don’t be sorry, Mtanam. I did it for my sake too.”
Puzzled, Kero asks, “What do you mean, Ma?”
“Because I need you,” Mam’ Sindi says, tersely.
Kero laughs and says, “I still don’t understand. What do you mean, you need me?”
Mam‘ Sindi smiles at the whetted interest of her young companion and says, “Well, my daughter. I get on this bus every day. And for the past few months I have been watching you.”
“You have? Why, Ma?”
“I watch you on the trip home because, as I told you, my bus stop is the one after yours. I cannot see things that are far away, so I can never tell where we are. As soon as you get off the bus, I know I must be ready to get off as well. You know these skelem bus drivers of today, they don’t care if an old lady misses her stop. It happened to me once, and do you think he even cared when I told him that I had missed my stop?”
“Tjo! Ma, you are so clever,” —Kero, pauses, thinking—”…but then, how did you know I was going to miss my stop today? How did you know where we were?”
“Well, my child, I saw that something was not right with you today. So I took out my spectacles and wore them. When I have them on I can see the faraway things more clearly.”
Kero, laughs, “But why do you not wear them all the time, Ma?”
“Well, because I cannot knit when I have them on. The things in front of me become a blur. What good is it to be able to see the faraway things but not see what’s in my hands?” says Mam’ Sindi.
“Perhaps you need new glasses, Ma.”
“Perhaps I do. Enough about me, tell me more about these messages,” Mam’ Sindi says, her voice lowered, a solemn expression on her face.
Kero stops to rest, places the parcel on the ground and checks the messages on her phone. Twelve messages and three missed calls from more unknown numbers await her attention. The smile fades from her face as she tells Mam‘ Sindi that the details of the messages are too crude to for her to speak about. That she is finding it difficult to read them herself, now that she has sense of their meaning. She tells her that she thinks someone has put her number on an online advertisement soliciting for sex. That her friends would never pull such a prank, because they know what she has been through. That she is sure the whole thing is a silly mistake. That she will contact the website and have the advertisement removed.
The two walk for another five minutes along Thirteenth Avenue, away from the main road. They reach a house with a white, plastered wall. Kero tries to see more of the house behind it, but it is dark now, and the lights on the street and around the house reveal little of it.
“Is this where you live, Ma?” Kero asks, worried that in the darkness, Mam’ Sindi has lost her way.
“Yes, Mtanam, this is my son’s house. I live in the cottage at the back. There is a separate gate leading to it over there. But I will go in through here to eat supper with the family. Please join us, they will not mind. I can ask them to take you home after?”
“No thank you, Ma. I really must be going. It is getting late. And I do not want to impose.”
Kero wonders if her next question will be too intrusive, but decides to ask anyway, “If your son lives in a place like this, why does he let you work, and travel by bus to work every day? Surely you do not nee—”
“Nobody lets me do anything daughter of Dingane. I choose to work and to travel to town every day. I no longer have a husband to care for; my son pays a stranger to care for my grandchildren so there is nothing for me to do here. I told him that if I could not care for my grandchildren, then I would find other work to keep myself busy. So I found a job in a canteen in the city. I am not the kind that can sit idly, my dear. The day I stop working is the day I begin to die. God-willing, I want to see my grandchildren graduate, and I want to be alive when they wed. That is why I do it, Mtanam.”
Kero smiles and wishes she could see Mam’ Sindi’s eyes. An admiration wells up in her that she has not felt in many years. Not since she watched her mother fight her cancer with a stubborn fortitude that insisted on hope in the face of what she knew was her end. She hands Mam‘ Sindi her parcel and says, “Forgive me Ma, I did not mean to upset you.”
“You did not upset me, Mtanam. You asked a question and I gave you an answer.”
“Goodbye, Mam‘ Sindi. I hope to see you on the bus tomorrow, I promise not to let you miss your stop again.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, child. Only God can speak for the future,” Mam’ Sindi chimes as she walks towards the large gate.
“One more thing,” Mam‘ Sindi says, as she turns back to face Kero, “Those messages of yours, what if it’s not a mistake? What if someone is doing this to you on purpose? Who would that someone be?”
Stunned by the truth that Mam‘ Sindi’s words has forced her to confront, Kero tries to say something but only a deflating breath escapes her. Her head spins as thoughts of George haunt her anew. How enraged he was when she turned down his advances. How his face changed when she tried explaining to him that she preferred they just stay friends and neighbours. How he spat at her and called her a whore when she apologised for leading him on. How his fist felt as it landed on her face.
But how could he be behind this? He is in prison. Surely he cannot post that advertisement from behind bars? Did he put someone else up to it? But who would agree to do such a sick thing? Would she ever find a place far enough to escape the memory of him?
Turning again to leave, Mam‘ Sindi says, “Think about it, Mtanam. And take that thing to the police. Switch it off until then. God go with you, my daughter.”
“Thank you, may He go with you also.” Kero calls after her, “Ma!”
“Yes, my daughter,” Mam‘ Sindi stops, one foot inside the gate.
“You were wrong.”
“You rushed to my aid today. And you got to me just in time. Thank you.”