Authors: Caryl Ferey
“It's his mother I knew,” she admitted at last. “Nora Mceli. A friend of Mary's.”
Mary was the cousin who had taken them in when they had fled to Khayelitsha from the Bantustan of KwaZulu. As for her friend Nora Mceli, she was a
, a healer, who had treated him once for a terrible sore throat. Neuman remembered a woman with eyes like an angry ox who, with the aid of a great many concoctions, had finally managed to tear out the ball of fire burning his throat.
“We lost touch after Mary died, but Nora had a son,” Josephina went on. “He was with her at the funeral. Simon. Don't you remember?”
“No. Is that who attacked youâSimon?”
Josephine nodded, almost shamefacedly.
“Does his mother still practice?”
“I don't know,” she said. “Nora and Simon left the township a few months ago, from what I heard. The last time I saw them was at Mary's funeral. Simon must have been nine at the time. A sweet kid, but not in good health. I treated him once at the dispensary. The poor boy had a heart murmur, and suffered from asthma attacks. Not even Nora could do anything. Maybe that's why they left the township. Ali”âhere she squeezed his big male handâ“Nora helped us when we needed help. I can't report her son. You do understand that? And besides, to attack an old woman like me, you really must be in a bad way, don't you think?”
“Or a complete coward,” he said, through clenched teeth.
Josephina always had excuses for everyone. She'd been listening to too many sermons.
“I'm sure Simon doesn't remember me,” she said gallantly.
“That would surprise me.”
With her rustling white dresses, her size, and her walking stick, Josephina was about as inconspicuous as the northern lights. He saw her cheap trinkets on the night table, her photos of himâshe was all he had in this charnel house of a world.
“Was Simon alone when he attacked you?”
“Does he belong to a gang?”
“So I heard.”
“What did you hear exactly?”
“Just that he was hanging out with other street kids.”
“I don't know. But if he's wandering the streets like they say, something must have happened to his mother.”
He nodded gently. Josephina yawned despite herself, revealing the few good teeth she still had left. The sedatives were taking effect.
“O.K., I'll see what I can do.” He kissed her on her forehead. “Now sleep. I'll be back this evening, to see how you're doing.”
The old woman chuckled, at once sorry and delighted to be the center of attention.
Nicolas adjusted the curtains, to make the room completely dark.
“By the way,” she whispered behind him. “What do you think of Miriam?”
The young nurse was waiting outside the house, her slender figure standing out against the painted sky.
“A real tub of lard,” he said.
scar and Josephina had their second child the day after the historic fight in Kinshasa in November 1973. That night, amid scenes of indescribable chaos, Muhammad Ali, the boxer who'd converted to Islam, had confronted George Foreman, who everyone thought was unbeatable. It wasn't so much the world heavyweight championship that had been at stake in the fight as the assertion of black identity, and the proof, through fists, that the struggle for black rights was not in vain. That night, Muhammad Ali, who hadn't boxed much since his trouble with the draft board, had defeated the brute strength of Foreman, the champion of white America, demonstrating that power could be overturned, as long as you fought with intelligence and determination.
The message, coming as it did during the worst days of apartheid, had galvanized Oscar. The child would have the same name as the championâAli. Josephina thought it was a nice name, Oscar saw it as a premonition.
Oscar was an educated man, and didn't have much truck with old wives' tales, but the
, the venerable ancestors, had surely leaned over their new son's cradle. Like the boxer who had defended the black cause, their son would be a championâin everything he did.
And in fact, Ali Neuman had risen to be head of the Crime Unit of the Cape Town police not through positive discrimination but simply because he'd been better than anyone else. More gifted. Quicker on his feet. Even the old redneck cops, the ones who'd followed orders, the lechers, the permanent drunks, thought he was pretty smartâfor a
The others, those who knew him only by reputation, saw him as a tough customer, the descendant of some Zulu chief, not someone you'd want to provoke over anything racial. The blacks had suffered most from a third-rate education
and remained a minority among the intellectual elite. Neuman had shown them that he was descended not from the monkey but from the tree, just like themâwhich didn't mean he was a pussycat.
Walter Sanogo, the captain in charge of the Harare police station, knew who Ali Neuman was. The white man's pet. You just had to see the cut of his suitâno one here could afford clothes like that. It wasn't that Sanogo felt jealous, they simply lived in different worlds.
Designed to accommodate two hundred thousand people, Khayelitsha now had a million, maybe twoâor three. After the squatters, the homeless from the other overcrowded townships, and the migrant workers, Khayelitsha was now absorbing refugees from all over Africa.
“If your mother doesn't report her attacker,” he said, “I don't see how I can bring anyone in for questioning. I understand how angry you are after what happened to her, but gangs of street kids are as common as crickets these days.”
The fan was humming in the captain's office. Sanogo was about fifty, with a nasty scar at the side of his nose, his shoulders sagging wearily beneath his uniform. Half of the wanted notices above his head were a year or two old.
“Simon Mceli's mother was a
,” Neuman said. “She seems to have left the township, but not her son. If Simon is part of a street gang now, we should be able to track him down.”
The captain sighed regretfully. It wasn't that he didn't want to help, but there was nothing he could do. Every day, more or less, in groups or alone, people in flight from somewhere else arrived in the township, people who had seen their fields burned, their houses pillaged, their friends killed, their wives raped in front of their families, people who had been driven from their homes by petroleum, epidemics, droughts, violent coups, and genocides, people with misfortune snapping at their heels, terrified people who, out of some instinct for survival, converged on the peaceful Cape province. Khayelitsha had become a buffer between Cape Town, “the most beautiful city in the world,” and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. A hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? Walter Sanogo didn't know how many arrived each day, but Khayelitsha was going to explode with all these refugees.
“I've got two hundred men here,” he said. “And hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Frankly, if your mother doesn't have any medical complications, let it go. I'll tell my men to give some of these kids a talking-to, and they'll get the word out.”
“A gang of kids that's attacking old ladies isn't going to be scared off by that,” Neuman said. “And if they're hanging out in the area, someone must have seen them.”
“Don't count on it,” Sanogo retorted. “People demand greater security, they demonstrate against crime and drugs, but the last time we blitzed the township, they threw stones at us. Mothers protect their sons, what can we do? People tell themselves that poverty and unemployment are the cause of all their ills, and crime a way of surviving like any other. The Casspirs
have left an indelible mark on everyone's mind,” he said fatalistically. “And most people are afraid of reprisals. Even when there have been murders in broad daylight, no one has ever seen anything.”
“Couldn't you at least have a look on your computer?” Neuman asked, pointing to the cube on top of the desk.
The captain didn't move an inch. “Are you asking me to start an investigation into an attack that, legally at least, didn't even happen?”
“No, I'm asking you to tell me if Simon Mceli is associated with any known delinquents, or if he's part of a gang,” Neuman replied.
“At the age of ten?”
“All these gangs have their little minions to help them. Don't tell me you didn't know that.”
The tone of the conversation, friendly until then, had suddenly cooled. Sanogo shook his head as if warming his spinal cord. “It won't get you anywhere,” he said.
Neuman looked at him with his snakelike eyes. “Do it for me.”
Sanogo gave a pained grin, and swiveled around to face his computer with all the speed of a barge. “You're not actually going to investigate this? Khayelitsha isn't within your jurisdiction.”
“I'd just like to set my mother's mind at rest.”
Sanogo nodded, heavy-lidded. After a while, lists of names began appearing on the screen. Simon Mceli wasn't on any of them.
“We don't have any records on your boy,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “We close about twenty per cent of our cases. With statistics like that, if he's part of a gang, you've probably got a better chance of finding him in a mass grave.”
“I'm interested in him alive. Are there any new gangs in the township?”
“Well . . . The younger brothers often take the place of the older ones. There's no shortage of black sheep.”
“Talking of which,” Neuman said, “I had a word this morning with two guys on the gymnasium site.
, not much more than twenty, speaking Dashiki.”
“The Nigerian Mafia, maybe,” the captain suggested. “They control the main drug networks.”
“One of them had a Beretta similar to a police gun.”
“No shortage of weapons, either.” Walter clicked on an icon to shut down his computer, and stood up. “Listen, I can't start an investigation into a street robbery when I have twelve rapes, one homicide, and dozens of assaults reported last night alone. But tell your mother not to worry. Usually, anyone who attacks an old lady doesn't have long to live.”
The annex of the Red Cross Hospital had been created as part of a large-scale program intended to slow down the endemic spread of AIDS. Miriam had been working in the dispensary for a year. It was her first job, but she felt as though she had spent her whole life relieving other people's distress.
Her mother had contracted the virus in the most common way possibleâher lover at the time beat her and accused her of cheating on him whenever she asked him to wear a condom. Her sisters, terrified by the disease, had run away, but Miriam had taken care of her mother to the end. She hadn't wanted to die in the hospitalâthey beat women with AIDS in the hospital, she said, they accused them of sleeping around, of asking for it. Her mother had died like a plague victim, in her arms, seventy-five pounds of little more than tears. After that, Miriam could have treated the whole world. The whole world was sick. Especially Africa.
Children were playing a game of
with little stones in the packed lobby of the dispensary. Neuman spotted the young nurse surrounded by patients, her hair carefully braided and her white blouse clinging nicely to her breasts. Miriam waited while he walked toward her. A dream that faded as soon as he spoke.
“I didn't see you go,” he said by way of apology.
“I got tired of waiting for you. I have work.” She pointed to the syringes rolling on the tray.
She was sulking. Or pretending to.
“I wanted to thank you for taking care of my mother,” he said.
“It's my job.” Her coppery eyes sparkled like fireworks.
“I didn't even pay your fare,” he said, holding out a fifty-rand bill.
Miriam pocketed the money without batting an eyelid. It was three times what the ride had cost, but that would teach him to be so unpleasant, handsome as he was.
“You know I would have done it for nothing,” she said all the same. “Your mother helped me a lot when I started at the dispensary.”
“She'd help stones to get on their feet.”
“Are you comparing me to a stone?” she said, sweetly.
“A precious stoneâat least for her,” he hastened to add. “Thanks again.”
She looked him up and down. Zulus sometimes went on and on when trying to be polite, but this strange specimen had an ulterior motive, and his beautiful eyes wouldn't make the slightest difference.
“I'm looking for a boy,” he said. “Simon Mceli. He was treated here some time ago. About ten years old. His mother was a
in the township.”
“I don't know,” she said, a faraway look in her eyes. “But it must be written down somewhere.”
Miriam seemed much more intrigued by the scar on his forehead, which she had only just noticed.
“Can you show me?” he insisted.
She nodded, breathing heavilyâat least he had thanked herâand went into the adjoining office to consult the medical records. Miriam pulled out a metal drawer and looked through the patient files. The room was small, hot and damp, and she could feel his breath on her shoulder. She was slightly uncomfortable, the two of them in here together.
“Yes,” she said after a moment, pulling a file from the sliding drawer. “Simon Mceli. He was here in January 2006.”
“What was wrong with him? Asthma?”
“I can't tell you that,” she replied, impishly. “I'm not even sure I should be doing this at all.”
He thought she was acting strangely. “Can you at least tell me his last known address?”
“124 Biko Street, Block C.”
It was a five-minute drive from there.
“Thanks,” he said.
Miriam felt hot in her white blouse. No ventilation. She tried to find something witty to say to keep him, but it was as if the walls didn't want them here anymore. In a flash, he was gone.
Block C was a poor area filled with corrugated iron houses, often with backyard shacks attached, where neighbors gathered to watch television. The place was like an accident waiting to happen. Since the last tourist bus carrying whites looking to salve their conscience in the post-apartheid period had fallen victim to a gang of robbers, whites had stopped coming here, apart from members of the NGOs that operated in the township. The tour operators had fallen back on minibuses, which were less ostentatious, for carefully targeted visitsâschools, handicraft stalls, charities.
Biko Street. Neuman parked beside the electricity meter, from which a spider's web of wires spread out toward the houses. The number 124 was painted on a tin can stuck to the front of the door. No name, no letter boxâno one in the township ever received mail. He knocked at the plywood door, which almost fell on his feet as it opened.
A woman appeared in the doorway of the shack, wearing a satiny acrylic dress most notable for how little of her body it covered. The lines at the corners of her eyes spoke of constant misfortune and lots of sleepless nights. She had clearly just gotten out of bed.
“Who is it?” a man's voice called from behind her.
“Let it go, King Kong. You wouldn't measure up.” She had a smile that went well with her skimpy dress.
“I'm looking for a woman,” Neuman said. “Nora Mceli.”
“Nope, not me. Pity, isn't it?”
“That depends on what's happened to her. Nora was still living here in 2006 with her son Simon. It seems she left the township a few months ago.”
“Nora Mceli,” he repeated. “A local
The woman, standing there on the earth floor, wiggled her hips.
“Who the hell is that?” the voice behind her called.
“Take no notice,” the woman said, with a confidential air. “He's always in a bad mood when he's been drinking the night before.”
“Stop wiggling your ass and answer me!” the man shouted. “This is my house!”
Neuman walked past the woman, her eyes now like cold embers. She made no attempt to stop him. A black of about thirty, wearing nothing but a pair of shapeless shorts, lay on a straw mattress that took up half the room, drinking a beer. The floor was strewn with cigarette butts, underpants, and beer cans. Part of an engine stood in the kitchen sink. The woman was only passing through.
“I'm looking for Nora Mceli. The
who used to live here.”
“She's not here anymore,” the man replied. “What are you doing in my house? This is private property!”
Neuman flashed his badge at the man's crumpled face. “Tell me what you know, or I might decide to take a look around.”