by Pravasan Pillay



Pinky Pillay balances on the narrow sill outside her second-storey bedroom, and smokes a cigarette. She's twelve and has been out on the sill, smoking, for three consecutive nights. It's ten-fifty and everyone else in the house is asleep.

In two hours, Pinky will jump from her window and break both her legs. She will explain to her parents, when they discover her crouched underneath the washing-stone the next morning, that she had thought that their semi-detached council house had caught fire. Mr. Pillay will not believe her story, though, at the time, he will say nothing to her on the matter. A week later, Mr. Pillay will install iron burglar guards on Pinky's windows. He will cite rising crime as his reason for doing so.


She inhaled until the flame melted into the filter, and looked out onto their rectangular backyard, identical in size to all the others in the neighbourhood. It was unevenly cemented and featureless, save for a washing-stone planted at the furthest end and sagging clothing lines running through the middle; a red dishtowel hung crookedly on one of them.

The yard used to be sandy before her father hired a workman to cement it over. That had been two years ago. Before the man came she would play there often with her little brother, wetting the soft dirt and moulding it into mud-cakes.

She held onto the window frame and tossed the crumpled filter up to the roof. In just over an hour she had smoked seven cigarettes, one after the other. The previous night it had been four in roughly the same time; and the night before that, three.

Now she felt thirsty.

She stepped back inside her room and drank from a glass of water resting on her dressing table. It tasted stale. It had been sitting there since yesterday.

She held the water in her mouth, picked up a small mirror from the table, and stared at her bloated cheeks. She looked like a fish, she thought, a black fish, with a hooked nose, saucer eyes, and short curly hair.

A tobey.

She kept the water in her mouth for a while longer, until her cheeks began to ache, then gargled, walked over to the window, and spat it out. In the quiet night the splash below sounded as loud as a toilet flushing.

She stood still, a sliver of spit trailing down the side of her mouth, half-expecting someone to wake. The house remained silent, save for the hum of the geyser. She unhooked a towel from the back of her bedroom door, wiped her lips on it, then rolled the towel up, and placed it at the foot of the door; then she took out a damp tissue from her pyjama pocket, tore off a piece, and stuck it expertly into the keyhole, to block off the light.

She switched on her bedside lamp and lay down on the bed, her elbows propping her up. In front of her was a dog-eared exercise book labelled 'Composition'. The book's cover was littered with hand-drawn shapes, mostly circles, each meticulously coloured in, some so thickly that the covering had begun to fray. She opened it and read what she had written a few hours earlier:

It was the Boer War and evil aeroplanes were bombing Montford.

She bit hard into the top of her pen and stared at the lone sentence, her feet swaying above her; then wrote the following in a tiny irregular hand:

When the aeroplanes finished blowing holes in all the houses the evil leader sent his killer army to kill everyone. Everyone fought very nice but they all died in the end. Blood was everywhere. It was a sight. It was a very sad sight and many people cried. War is indeed evil!

She counted the lines, mouthing the numbers, and then snapped the book shut and tossed it aside. Then she sat at the side of her bed, sweeping her foot lazily along the floor. Her bedroom shared a wall with the neighbours; a man's snoring started-up.

It was regular around this hour.

She stuck her forefinger into the air and began to mimic the rising and falling of the man's breathing, her finger moving, conductor-like. At a louder snore she would raise her finger high above her head and stretch her arm until it could reach no further.

After the third or fourth such snore, she dropped her arm to her side, and clicked her tongue at the unpainted wall. She looked over her shoulder at the exercise book, sniffed, got up decisively from the bed, opened her door, and stepped outside.

She walked noiselessly downstairs to the kitchen where she removed two slices of bread from the bread-tin and poured herself a glass of water. In the lounge, she disconnected the telephone, and tucked it under her arm.

Only when she was back in her room and had laid everything out on her bed did she realise that she had forgotten to bring a knife. She sighed, then returned to the kitchen, fished one out, and started up the stairs a second time.

A small dark figure blocked her way at the top of the stairwell.

It was her six-year-old brother.

"What you doing?" he asked, through a protracted yawn. "What time it is?" His hair was long, and his fine-boned features were identical to hers. He was dressed in pyjama bottoms and a creased white t-shirt, torn underneath the collar. His dark shiny skin showed through it.

"Nothing. I'm doing nothing…come you must go back to sleep," she answered, in a hushed voice, holding a finger to her lips. "It's still night-time."

He looked at the knife clasped in her hand. Instinctively, she tucked it into the seat of her pants.

"You having a house picnic, isn't it? I know it," he retorted, his eyes now wider and his voice dropping noticeably. "I can come too?"

She knew that he was excited because she had woken him many times in the past to eat treats in her room. She glanced nervously at her parents' door, then led him back to his room, and sat him down on his bed.

Her brother's room was smaller than hers and sparsely furnished. Only half of it could properly be said to be his. His half contained a children-sized single bed, a kitchen chair that served as a night table, and a pine-finish wardrobe - atop of which lay a large cardboard suitcase. The other half of the room was used by their mother for ironing. An ironing board was propped up against the front-wall. Pushed against it was a square plastic basket, filled with clothing.

"Sorry for getting you up…" she started, sitting down beside him, and drawing her arm loosely around his shoulders.

He shrugged, then repeated: "I can come…"

"I'm not having a picnic I promise you…" she replied, her arm gripping his shoulder, as if to confirm that she was speaking the truth.

He looked unconvinced.

"Why you got a knife then?"

She bit her lower lip, thought for a moment, then drew him closer.

"I'm making a tunnel in my room to outside…" she said finally, her mouth now centimetres from his doll-like ear. "Like in that videotape we saw…remember that videotape we saw in Uncle Vijay's house, about that prisoner?"

She knew he would remember. The two of them had watched the video - the only one their uncle owned - obsessively over the two-weeks that they had spent there during the school vacations. In the end, their uncle had to hide it away from them.

"Ja, but they caught him isn't it…they caught him when he came out the other side. Isn't his friend was on the crooks side?" he said, his words coming so quickly that they seemed to merge into one another. "That's why they caught him. His friend was a crook."

Then suddenly, as if he had forgotten she was in the room with him, he picked up a tin of Vicks' that had been sitting on the chair beside his bed and began tossing it up into the air.

She watched his, mostly futile, attempts at catching it for a minute or so before interrupting.

"Ja, he wasn't a good friend," she said, grabbing the tin in midair and throwing it back onto the chair; it spun around a few times before coming to rest, the wrong side up. He tried immediately to reach for it. She stopped him.

"Right, you must sleep now…you must go school tomorrow," she continued.

"You too must go school…not only me," he replied, though disinterestedly. His eyes were still on the tin.

"Ja, but I had my sleep in Geography class today…" she said, taking his face in her hands and narrowing her eyes.

He stared at her without comprehension for a moment, then smiling, pushed her shoulder lightly. She fell exaggeratedly onto the bed with a muffled cry. He giggled and followed her so that they lay on their backs, alongside each other. She felt the knife dig into her back.

"Since when you got so strong…looks like bluffing everyone you got asthma," she said, staring up at the ceiling, and twisting a lock of thick hair around her finger. The ceiling was flecked with mildew at its corners and around the bare light bulb. It had been worse, but her father had painted it over. Then a few months later the mildew began to return. "The roof must be got a hole," she had overheard her father say to her mother.

"Pinky…" he whispered, breaking the momentary silence.

She grunted, still staring at the ceiling.

"I can see the tunnel you making."

She considered the ceiling for a few more seconds before replying.

"I can't show you now boy…only when I'm finished I can show you. It's secret okay…you can't go tell Ma or Pa or anyone" she said, sitting up on the bed, before continuing "You know if you tell them they'll go cover it or something."

He looked at her seriously, and nodded his head in agreement. She got up to leave but felt his hand on her wrist.

"Why you digging a tunnel? You going away from here?"

"I'm not going nowhere. I'm just digging it for an emergency…just in case I must get out from my room quickly" she replied.

"For an emergency?"

"Ja, for an emergency"

"You'll show me when you finish isn't?" he asked.

"As soon as I'm finished you the first person I'll show."

She noticed the curtain billow. The window was slightly ajar; she walked over and shut it. "You know you not supposed to leave it open."

He placed his fingers over his eyes. It was a common gesture, pulled out whenever he had done something wrong.

"Sorry…" he said, before sliding his hand from his eyes to his mouth, muffling his words. "Pinky, you'll buy me a Coke tomorrow for first lunch break? Everyone in class said they buying tomorrow. Ma them don't want to give me any money…Coke is so cheap…"

"Why you want to do what all the other children do?"

"They my friends, how. Anyways, its only twenty cents…fifteen cents if you got your own bottle and Kese said he'll lend me his bottle when he finish drinking."

"I'll buy it for you if you go to sleep okay?" she said, trying to hide her smile. "Come and see me in first lunch break by the change rooms."

"Night Pinky," he replied almost immediately, pulling the blanket up to his shoulders.

"Night Apple's Brother," she replied, under her breath, using the name everyone in the neighbourhood called him by. She herself had been called Apple when she was around his age, though no one called her that anymore. She had got the name after throwing an unripe apple against their front window, shattering it, and breaking several of her mother's vases. As punishment her father had made her stand outside, staring at the broken glass, and eating the same apple that she had thrown.

Back inside her room, she plugged the telephone into the wall socket, placed the receiver to her ear, and waited for a connection. She then let the telephone at the other end ring five times before cutting the call.

She glanced at her wristwatch, then reached under her bed and took out a squat object wrapped in foil. It was a can of condensed milk that she had opened about a week and a half ago. From experience she knew that she had a day or two more before it went bad. She peeled off the foil and upturned the can over the bread.

As usual the thick liquid fell slowly enough for her to shape a rudimentary house. It was a trick of hers that had always pleased her brother though recently he had grown tired of houses.

"At least put a chimney," he had told her the last time.

She admired her work for a few seconds, then pulled apart the slices, and spread the liquid evenly. She licked the knife clean, folded the bread, and took a generous bite. Still chewing, she picked up the receiver and dialled again. It rang twice before it was answered.

"I thought you said it was going to be three rings from now…" said a girl, sounding out of breath.

"Sorry Faye…" she answered, swallowing the bread, and placing her head on her pillow. "I forgot. I…"

"It's late now…" Faye interjected.

"You was sleeping?" she asked. Her head lay opposite the telephone set. It smelt strongly of furniture polish.

"No, but I was falling off to sleep. I'm so tired. I had long jump practice today," Faye replied. "Mr Samuels made us run everywhere carrying medicine balls."

"He must be trying to kill you or something…murderer."

"He said all the top long-jumpers do the same thing…" Faye retorted, then seemed to hesitate. "Pinky, you think I can talk to you tomorrow morning? I can't keep my eyes open this side."

"Talk for five more minutes please. I'm so bored over here…I think I'm going to die or something. I think I got a fever or something…" she said speaking flatly, taking a quick sip of water. "You finished Mrs Naidoo's composition?"

"Ja, I finished it when I came from school," Faye said, then tacking on as an afterthought, "You?"

"I still got thirty-one lines to do…I don't know what to write about…did you write the whole thirty-five lines?"

"Ja, you have to otherwise she won't take it."

"That's not right…I can't write thirty-five lines…why she don't let people who can't write thirty-five lines write ten lines? Ten lines is not nothing." she said. "I think she hates people who can't write thirty-five lines or something."

"She don't hate you…" Faye said, voice wavering as though she were searching for the right words. "You just don't do her homework."

She responded quickly: "I don't care. I'm only going to write ten lines…I don't care what she do me...she don't know I like standing with my nose on the board."

Faye laughed: "Must see if you carry on like this you going to fail this year. Then you mustn't come cry by me."

She snorted. "You said I'll fail last year and I'm still over here."

"Ja, but you came out last from everyone, Pinky," Faye said.

"Someone must come out last. If I didn't come out last then Rajen should have come out last and you know he'll start crying or something," she said, switching the receiver from one ear to the other. "Anyways you don't need school if you want to be a dressmaker" she continued. "How my auntie she only went Standard One and she makes dresses for everyone."

Faye paused. "Since when you want to be a dressmaker?"

"I was just thinking last night…I couldn't sleep nice. Anyways you don't have to worry then…you'll get free miniskirts for the rest of your life…and real ones too…not like now how we have to staple the hem" she said.

"But you can't sew and plus the other week you was saying you want to become a singer."

"I can't sing anymore…I'm smoking too much" she said, making her voice hoarse, and coughing a few times.

Faye stopped her. "Carry on joking. If your father catch you, then you finished."

"I'm already finished."

"What you did?" Faye asked, for the first time her voice showing genuine interest.

"Nothing. I just…" she managed to get out, before Faye interrupted her again: "Wait…I think someone woke up. Just hold on."

"Okay..." she said, listening to the receiver being set down. She went over to her dressing table and felt underneath for the pack of cigarettes taped there. She pulled it out and removed a cigarette, then straightened the tape and refastened it. She carried the telephone to the end of her bed, nearer to the window, and lit the cigarette. She took a few drags before placing the receiver to her ear. She could hear voices on the other end. A minute later the phone was picked up.

"My mother woke up to drink some water." Faye began, by way of explanation. Her voice was raspy.

"She never say nothing?" she asked, drawing on the cigarette, and tapping the ash outside.

"No, she just asked me what I was doing. I said I was coming from the toilet."

"You lucky…if they catch me awake here they act like I'm making a bomb or something," she replied.

"Anyways you didn't tell me what happened. What you did?"

"I didn't do nothing…I'm just bored…there's nothing to do over here. Everything is the same…like if you have a bath or play snakes and ladders or eat or anything. It's all like one thing."

Faye waited. It was clear she was expecting more.

"I don't know what you saying…are you in trouble at home?"

"No, I'm not in trouble. I'm just talking nonsense…don't worry about it. I think I just want to sleep…you can't even sleep in this place. Listen over here…" she said, leaving the cigarette on the sill, and walking to the wall she shared with the neighbour. She placed the receiver against the wall. "You can hear?"

"Every night it's like this," she continued, picking up the cigarette, and drawing. The tobacco crackled as it burnt.

"If you bored like that why you don't come and join the long-jump team? How many times I told you you must come. You don't take part in nothing, that's why you bored," Faye said.

"Ja, maybe…" she said, her voice trailing.

"Then we can take part in interschool together…that's not boring Pinky...I promise you. They let you go in a bus to another school and plus you get a half-day off."

"Ja, maybe I'll come and watch you. But I'm not carrying medicine balls…if Samuels wants to kill me he must have me a fair fight," she replied.

"Come tomorrow, you'll like it," Faye insisted.

"I'll come if you can guess what I'm eating," she teased, taking a large bite from her sandwich, and chewing loudly into the mouthpiece.

"You always eating the same thing when you phone me. And must see if you carry on you going to rot all your teeth."

"Never mind my teeth get rotten…at least then I don't have to smile at Mrs Naidoo," she said. "Come on. Guess."

"Gold Cross," Faye replied, with a hint of resignation.

"That's why you my best friend," she said, dusting cigarette ash off the sill. "You know my can is nearly finished…maybe tomorrow we can go after school to buy another one."

"But tomorrow is long jump practice…you coming right?"

"Ja, no I'm coming. Forget it. We'll go another day."

Faye yawned: "Anyways, I must go sleep now. Must see tomorrow night after practice you'll be tired like me, then you won't have any problem sleeping"

"Okay…I'll see you…," she said quickly, then stopped herself. "Faye, why you don't call me Apple no more?"

"Why you want know that?" Faye asked.

"No I was just thinking."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I was just wondering."

"I don't know Pinky…" Faye replied. "We not small anymore…and plus you don't do mad things like that no more."

"Thanks. I was just thinking," she said.

"You okay isn't?"

"Ja, no I'm okay. I'll see you then."

"See you," Faye ended, cutting the call.

She placed the receiver down and disconnected the telephone. She drank a bit of water, opened her exercise book and scratched out all that she had written. Then she walked back to the sill, stubbed the cigarette out, and tossed it to the roof.

(First appeared in The Obituary Tango: A selection of writing from the Caine Prize for African Writing, Jacana Media, 2006)

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