The Edge of the Pot by Liesl Jobson
Mrs Tsuen will pay me this evening, but I'm not offering more and I won't touch the money in my 32-day notice account. The other guys in the unit will pop out a small donation for their drinking buddy. The Senior Officers will loan him the rest. I don't have a good feeling about getting my money back. According to the regulations, a Senior Officer is not supposed to request a loan from a junior one. It is not the moment to remind him.
"Inspector Msomi, what's the real deal with Lebo?" I ask as we drive to South Gate, where I will make a withdrawal at the ATM. He jumps the lights, casting his eyes right and left.
He won't tell me directly. I figure this is man's business or black pride. Something big like that is at stake.
"Bhasobha 'mfana, ungaweli esobweni." He who sits at the edge of the pot must take care not to fall in the soup. Msomi answers with a Zulu proverb.
"Be careful, Jessie," he says. He's leaning too close to me again as we wait in the queue outside Standard Bank. A fleck of spittle lands on my cheek. I want to wipe it away but I know that if I do he will apologise and wipe my face himself. I want to tell him that he who sups with the devil should eat with a long spoon, but he wouldn’t appreciate a lesson on English proverbs.
"I'm sorry, Inspector. I don't understand." I take a step backwards to get some distance from him, and accidentally tread on the foot of the woman behind me. She curses under her breath.
"Sorry, Ma'am," I say.
"'Askies Mama, uxolo," Msomi apologises too.
He touches the sleeve of my bunny jacket as we walk back toward the parking lot, dodging shoppers who pick their way over the uneven floor surface. The old tiles have cracked and are being lifted by workmen with hammers and chisels. I can't hear well above their banging, so I lean in to listen as he says, "Now I'm going to give you some friendly advice." I feel the back of my knees prickling with sweat. His friendly advice is usually thinly veiled threats. "You remember Inspector Phiri?"
The inspector used to play pennywhistle jazz with slim fingers, neatly manicured. He was a gentleman that always watered the potted plants. He made me scalding coffee with condensed milk and a tot of brandy on winter nights. He would tap the sides of the coffee mugs with a teaspoon and harmonise a melody against the different pitches of the tinging spoon. He had beautiful handwriting and wrote letters to the editor of The Sun complaining about their shoddy journalists. He always asked me to check his spelling. When I tactfully explained how the verb of a sentence must agree with its subject in number and person, he was delighted.
"You are a teacher, Jessie," he would say, "a real teacher."
Inspector Phiri entered The Sun's annual poetry contest a month before his death. The prize was a weeklong holiday in a game farm, worth more than his monthly salary. He sent in a verse that rhymed 'wife' with 'light of my life' and 'home' with 'no more to roam'. When he didn't win the luxury getaway, he wrote another letter of complaint about their illiterate judges. I didn't have the heart to tell him that his submission lacked subtlety and finesse. I assured him that the panel was too dense to register a literary genius when it squatted in their phutu. He smiled all day after that compliment and gave me the afternoon off.
"Ja, Inspector, I remember Phiri."
I wished I'd seen his last gift to me, now curling and brittle on the notice board, as a warning of his decision, as a kind of farewell clue.
"You know why he hanged himself?"
I don't. The poem gave no clues either. It contained a sweet and sunny sentiment. I climb in the passenger seat of the van and say, "Stress, Sir?"
His eyebrows twitch, as if hinting at the correct answer. I wish I knew where this game is going. He switches on the engine.
"What's this got to do with Lebo?" I ask, bewildered.
"Uwele esobweni." He fell in the soup. There is a note of self-righteousness in Msomi's voice.
"You mean..."I fumble for words, trying to grasp the meaning, unsure how I am expected to respond. Am I supposed to disapprove? Express pity? I don't know what he means. I can't be sure. I'm drowning myself in the dark sea of our different languages.
Per Contra Fiction - Fall 2006