The Edge of the Pot by Liesl Jobson
The thin woman whose baby is tied on her back with a checked blanket is the chicken seller who usually sits outside the Lucky Dip Spaza. She jiggles against the charge office counter, calming her baby, who lets out a shuddering sigh as if it has sobbed for a long time. She has the slanted eyes and light complexion of the Tswana people. Inspector Msomi ignores her, probably because she did not greet him in Zulu.
If she'd noticed the scarification on his face that implies his tribal ancestry, or if she'd looked at his nameplate, she'd have known to say "Sawubona" instead of "Dumelang". Msomi is a Zulu name. Even I know that. Maybe she can't read. She'd have done better to call him Captain. He likes that; calls it an 'honest mistake'.
Inspector Msomi says, "Uphi uDubazana, ntombi?" Where is Dubazana, girl? He is trying to get a rise out of me by calling me 'ntombi'. He wants me to ask him to call me 'Constable' or 'Constable Niemandt'. When I don't respond, he scowls at the empty space beside Sergeant Lebo Dubazana's name in the register. On the previous page Lebo's signature is a vacillating zigzag, as if he were contemplating where and whether he belongs. All the other members of our shift have signed in. My friend is an hour late.
"Angazi, Inspector," I say, through a drawing pin I'm holding between my lips. I don't know. The poem on the notice board swings at an odd angle. Only one drawing pin remains. The others now tack up a wanted poster, a grainy pixilated image of an escaped prisoner, a suspect for the rape and murder of a ten-year-old girl. I straighten and re-pin the poem, which was a gift that Inspector Phiri gave me before he was found hanging in the veld.
"Awusazi?" he asks, You don't know? My palms sweat. I feel like I'm sucking on a sock. Ever since Phiri's funeral, I look at my colleagues' faces and wonder which of them will be next. I look from the clock again, and back to the baby, hoping it isn't another raped infant. Msomi grunts at the woman and waves her to sit down on the cracked plastic chair. It is a dismissive gesture, like flicking away an insect. She perches on the edge of the chair, but it wobbles and the baby is restless, so she stands again, swaying to settle it. Msomi's irritation is a hornet that hasn't quite decided what to sting.
He squints over his spectacles and licks his lip. He wants to believe that I know where Lebo is. I don't. Nobody at the station does. The woman sings to her child, a haunting song with alienated vowels that twist and yearn, consonants dark with resentment."uDubazana uyagula?" asks Msomi in Zulu. Is Dubazana sick? I shrug. "Phone the sick office," he says. While waiting to get through, the pitch of the baby's whimpering rises like a mewling kitten. The only other female officer on duty just left to buy Msomi his cigarettes. If the woman is here to report a baby rape, Msomi will insist that I inspect the baby before accompanying it to the District Surgeon. A tiny yellow and black Pirates soccer team cap peeks out of the blanket. It might be a boy. That will be a lucky baby. Male infants don't get raped.
A tinny voice on the phone confirms that Dubazana is not sick. I move to assist the chicken seller. Msomi blocks me, scrutinising me. He spins the vehicle logbook across my desk, jerking his thumb at it. "Reconcile the odo readings, Constable." I shoot him a look saying, this is more important than the woman and her baby? He scratches his head slowly. I open the logbook."Perhaps your friend is babalaas on this fine Monday morning, eh Constable?" His tone is sneering. He thinks I'm screwing my beat partner. That thought has crossed my mind, but Lebo is married. What if he sleeps around? What if he's got Aids? Yet for all the good reasons for keeping one's distance, I still get a strange sensation in my belly after a rough call, and I find myself wanting him to hold me, to let me cry on his shoulder. When I feel that primitive urge beyond intelligence or education, I try to think Christian thoughts, but it's the pulse of a much older religion that beats under my skin.
The first time it happened was after I found the small girl amongst the reeds growing below the highway. A missing child had been reported. She was last seen in Diepkloof Zone 3, near the Shell garage on Koma Road. She'd bought her mother's snuff at the Jealous Down spaza. The owner said the child paid with a new five-rand coin. He remembered her excitement as she showed him the unusual colouring of the new coin. "See, Malumi, silver and gold together," she had said. Then she left. It was a ten-minute walk back; she should have passed the garage to cross the busy road. None of the garage attendants saw her return. They also knew her and would have remembered her passing. Sometimes they gave her a Wacky Wicks. She'd blow perfect pink bubbles from her baby-doll lips, to make them laugh. Or so they said.
Per Contra Fiction - Fall 2006