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The Edge of the Pot by Liesl Jobson

            I wonder about the polished brass Buddha on her mantelpiece. Last week we covered the vocabulary of art: sculpture, figure, form, painting. Afterwards, she served me noodles with curled fingers. The dish was fragrant with lemon grass and soy oil. She plucked generous portions from the serving dish with chopsticks and arranged them into delicate porcelain bowls. When we eat, she sips green tea and talks with little fluttery hand gestures. She knows I'm always hungry after work and cooks extra food. I fumble with chopsticks. She fumbles with parts of speech. We laugh together. I admire the cerise-tongued orchids blooming extravagantly now on her front porch, creamy blossoms emerging and unfurling week by week. Tonight I'll teach her the vocabulary of flowers: soil, watering can, stem, leaf, bud.

            "Just be careful, Niemandt. If that private work you do is not strictly legal, you better be holding a long spoon when you stir the pot..."

            I think about her diminutive husband who nods deferentially when he returns from work at 8.00 pm. He sloughs off his plain leather slip-ons and looks tired. His business suit is well worn and old fashioned. I try to imagine him as a key player in the Triads. Last month, the organised crime syndicate sent a death threat to the Premier of the Western Cape. They promised to eliminate the MEC for Safety and Security if he interfered further with the Chinese Mafia's abalone smuggling enterprise.

            But I know Mr Tsuen's muted stoop. He shuffles like my father did after long hours of balancing books and tedious years of failure. They have the same sense of defeat. If Mr Tsuen ever picks up a firearm, he will not point it at a double-dealing gangster. He will aim it, like my father, at the roof of his mouth. This is not an insight I wish to disclose to my Senior Officer.

            "I'll watch my step, Inspector."

            There was an advertisement in The Workplace this morning. They want English teachers in Dubai. I heard that if you teach overseas for a few years, you can earn so well that on your return you can buy a house. Maybe I'll go and teach in a palace, and study for a degree by correspondence while I'm there. I'll become a schoolteacher when I come home.

            "Make sure you do. People are not the same," he says.

            I'm glad to be back at the station. When he stops the van I hand him the money I withdrew at the shopping centre. He folds the notes into his wallet with an air of satisfaction. I feel duped. I want to ask him when Lebo will be back. I want to ask if he has sold the car he bought to fix and sell at a profit. I want to ask what his girlfriend's name is. I want to know if she's also a 'Number 2 - Maseru'.

            Msomi strikes up a Camel before getting out the van. He sucks harder on his cigarette, as if I were no longer there. The cab fills with smoke. He walks into the cinder block offices with a longer stride, looking taller. His scowl is now a smirk. A woman passes the van with a baby on her back. It is the chicken seller from the Lucky Dip Spaza. Her baby is still crying.

            There are also posts for English teachers in Beijing. The Chinese eat duck soup with short-handled spoons that are flat and shallow. I think I would like that.


Per Contra Fiction - Fall 2006