New short fiction: ‘Beginnings.’ by Wamuwi Mbao

The JRB presents new short fiction by Editorial Advisory Panel member and regular contributor Wamuwi Mbao.

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Nazeem leaves his Woodstock cottage, whose owners are waiting for zoning changes so they can tear it down and erect a vibrant high-diversity micro-apartment block. The bare-bulb sun is still high as he drives for two unhurried hours away from troubles he had no words for. It is late afternoon when he reaches the seclusion of the small west-coast town. He checks into the yellow hotel whose interior is a cloying gloom of old wood and portraits of people it is unfashionable to recognise.

He has been here before. The old lady behind the counter flickers recognition like a TV channel pushing through the static. He was, that time, one of a cohort of writers on a retreat. Money and a room of one’s own. It is an old building, with solid doors that don’t shut squarely. He runs each tap in turn, tests the safe, opens and shuts the cupboards. He sits on a bed whose lace throws smells like his grandmother. Her papery wrinkles, and the warmth behind them after Sunday lunch. He extends his hands to the edges of the bed, stretches his toes over the white throw until they reach to the far ends. 

When he was here last, he had struck up a conversation with Anita, one of the other writers on the retreat. Their rooms were next to each other, and the walls were, if not paper thin, then certainly porous enough to reveal the next occupant’s less discreet activities. He presses his ear to the wall, remembering their conversation over a smuggled half-jack. She had come here as a child, she said.

He spends many hours trying and failing to capture the right combination of words to express how the retreat and his encounter with Anita had made him feel. He thinks that the words will come to him more easily now. The room is the same. The feelings are the same. Can he summon the words?

They were teamed together for a writing exercise. He had snatched glances that she had returned openly, without any shade of commitment. Did it matter then, that when he confessed all his feelings in scribbles of red ink, she ignored them and told him he need not be hung up on Oxford commas?

He wakes from a dream, sour-mouthed, with the TV flickering in the room. He goes out into the warm night towards the crashing sea. He walks along the road that leads luminously through the town and down to the water. His feet fall with no sense of urgency. There is little to see here in the day, and less still at night. The town’s one bar is neon-lit, and Nazeem catches sight of himself in its gloomy window. A year and a half of colouring inside the lines has made him fat. He imagines Elvis, Brando, in their last years. Disappointed. Apathetic. 

The night’s breeze stirs restlessly around corners. His belly rumbles a lonely song. The night swells, and he does not seem to be getting closer to the water, but he enjoys the walk. There is something, he thinks, about the isolation of an out-of-season coastal town. The houses he passes are mostly dark, their owners abroad, and yet the neighbourhood is filled with noise. Here and there amber light falls on well-fed bookshelves that spark his curiosity. Above him, sitting perilously on a window-ledge, a man with a terrible beard strums to his unseen guests on a guitar. Nazeem stops, drinks in the darkness and the music. The man is butchering the chords of ‘Mannenberg’, and Nazeem feels like calling up to him.

Instead, he walks on. Soon, the houses become brush, and the roar is in his ears more than it has ever been. He tastes the spray on the wind, faintly, here, here, it beckons. He removes his shoes, as his grandfather taught him all those years ago. The skeleton of habit will not slouch easily. The photo sits quietly on his wall, the smiling-eyed giant and the little boy with their fishing rods. Naughty fishing, his mother said. Fishing behind the colour line, his grandfather called it.

His feet drag through the sand, first dry and carrying the day’s heat, then cool and compacted by the retreating tide. The sea is a darkling cloth at the shoreline, and Nazeem tries to pick out where sand becomes surf. Where I end, and others begin, he thinks, is the same inscrutable line. The infinite lives stretch out like the water, beyond sight. He throws down his sleeping bag and waits for the redemption of the morning. 


Nandipha wakes at 3 a.m., when the night is still feeling strong. Splash, steam, Vaseline. She must be there before the Working People go to work, before the children go to school. Her knees and her back complain bitterly as she climbs into the taxi, elbowing room for herself between those who linger between the sleeping and waking worlds.

The children traipse mud all over the house. Wednesday is riding lessons; riding lessons and mud all over the hall and the kitchen. She makes each of them a sandwich. She sets to work cleaning the kitchen floor until it gleams. Then there is still laundry to do. Shirts, jeans, colours not to be mixed. ‘Clothing Apartheid’, Mister jokes whenever he drops them into the basket.

Today is different, however. The family is going to the seaside for the week, and Nandipha must come with them. ‘What would we do without you, Nandi?’ the Misses asks, elongating the last syllable as though she is talking to a child. Nandi smiles sweetly and thinks, ‘You would wash your own clothes and do your own dishes.’

4.30 a.m., and Paarl is waking. She straps the children into the Microbus before finishing an enamel mug of tea and yesterday’s bread, while in upstairs rooms adult voices check windows and turn out lights. Nandipha stows her own small bag in the Kombi. She becomes invisible.

The children sleep until the wind from the coast’s soul comes through the windows. Nandipha watches the sun awaken while in the seats ahead the parents are no longer the Working People, but something different. Mister relaxes. He holds his wife’s hand, and she smiles. In the half-light, the world stretches out beneath them as they climb the steep pass. Nandipha looks out, wondering. ‘My mother, she never left Mdantsane. What would she think of this place?’ She imagines that being in a plane must be like this, and the Kombi hiccups turbulently as Mister downshifts.

She drifts into herself, watching the winelands fall behind them. She hears her mother laughing, listening in amazement to her brothers when they came back from Johannesburg with stories and gifts and promises to stay longer next time. That giddy excitement stayed in the house for days after the boys had left. Her mother, firmly pulling Nandipha’s braids together before the cloudy mirror that was losing its backing, tells her that she must work hard to marry a man as industrious as her brothers.

The Kombi is swallowing the ribbon of tarmac, the billowing clouds and the industrious sun already competing to bleach or shade the conquering black wattle. The children are awake with questions and Nandipha patiently ignores their chatter, responding only when needed. They will be there soon, and when they are, it will be her responsibility to ensure that these children are fed, that they do not drown, and that they are sufficiently entertained without disrupting Mister and Misses. They stop at the side of the road where the wild flowers are showing off. The little girl is delighted to see their heads nodding in the gentle breeze that tickles Nandipha’s ankles. The boy and Mister cross the road to pee against a fence. Misses calls the little girl over to look at a butterfly which swoops nervously about them, and Nandipha snatches a moment to herself. 

‘The child likes to be alone too much,’ her mother used to fret. I simply prefer my own company, Nandipha thinks. Her best moments are the still ones. ‘The child talks oceans of nonsense,’ her mother’s voice orbits her head. They board the Kombi once more and snake down the winding road, excited children, relaxed parents and Nandipha contemplating the stillness of the shoreline.

Her eye is drawn to a figure walking along the beach. The woman is alone, determinedly alone. The sight thrills Nandipha, and in that moment she would love to be the free woman on the shore. She twitches her toes in her shoes, and watches until the woman is out of sight.

They have hired a house on the beachfront. The house is large and newly built. The houses around it are empty. Nandipha is given a room of her own, a room which looks out on the beach. She stands at her window, waiting, but the woman does not appear.

The next morning, Nandipha is awake before everyone, as is her habit. She slips out of her room, her bare feet tickled by the novelty of the hardwood floors. She goes downstairs, across the road and into the morning. The beach is empty, the air cool. Her mind is free, before the day begins and she is required to put on the face she wears for other people. The sea calms her. She thinks of her brother bringing back bottles of sea water for her mother. Nandipha will not be doing that. This moment is hers alone.


They are driving through the forest. It is 2 a.m. and the radio is whispering something with an exuberant trumpet. She is draping herself over the armrest and saying something into his ear. They have left the party without telling anyone. Nobody cared to watch them go. The house was wreathed in smoke and the fumes of too much wine. It’s a night where nobody watches anybody else too closely. 

He is enjoying her being this close to him. He is not unduly worried when the tar disappears and becomes a crunching gravel under the wheels. He has driven the road countless times before. He has always driven it during the day, and he has never had Lydia beside him. The Citroën absorbs the transition between the formal and the provisional, and there is nothing strange about the way any of this feels.

There is a bridge. All you have to do is aim for it. It curves towards a side and when you’re on it the expansion points make creaking noises and the entire structure seems to sway ever so slightly. All of her is pressed close to you and she’s checking the time on her watch in the dim orange glow of the car’s instruments. 

When he misses the bridge, it seems like a joke. The car slips softly sideways, then backwards, then into the inky black water and she’s still saying it is 2 a.m. when the water covers over the windows and she doesn’t scream. Just an intake of breath and then nothing. He watches transfixed as the car slides towards the muddy bottom. How did this happen? 

He kicks through the open window. He can see nothing at all except the eyes of the Citroën blinking sadly in the dimming gloom. He swims towards the surface. He swims away from the sight, watching the car slowly upend in the reeds. He has always known how to hold his breath well. He swims towards where he imagines the surface must be.

When he breaks the surface, the bridge is comically close by. An accident. An accident he has left behind him. He is drunk and afraid and he crawls up onto the bridge embankment and watches the water slowly cough where the large car has vanished. He slowly wrings the water from himself. He looks out into the gloom.  He thinks he can hear the party in the distance. He thinks he can hear the revellers at the hotel as well. Someone is laughing at this moment, unaware of what is happening on the banks of the river.

He slips back into the water, feeling terribly alone. There is nothing to see. The Citroën is gone. She is gone. There is nothing to be done. He walks back up the road. He has lost a shoe somewhere. The road back to the party seems so much shorter than the going from it. He walks up the steps and back into the house. He has trouble finding anyone. He goes to the bar. There are three people he knows vaguely, slurring at each other as they prop up the counter. He orders a beer from the bartender who does not ask why he is wet.

The men assume that he has gone night swimming. They leave him alone. How horrible, he thinks. What a waste, he thinks. He walks up the stairs. He passes one of her friends, who regards him coldly. She doesn’t know yet. Nobody knows. He carries on, counting the steps to his bed. He kicks off his remaining shoe, the dripping trousers, the clinging shirt.

He falls into the bed. He looks out of the window, staring out at the road from where he has come. There is nothing but the shadow of the trees. He cannot see the water. He falls into a deep sleep, chasing the image of her face in those last moments. When he wakes in the morning, his nose has bled and the blood has covered the pillow where her cheek had been when the day began. There is light streaming through the window. There are voices downstairs and outside. He cannot make out what they are saying. He sits up in the bed. There is nothing in the room but the light streaming in, and the voices that are coming towards the door, louder and more urgently.


The Volkswagen bus is new. The doors gleam. A blanket is added, and then another when the first grows threadbare. It acquires and loses stickers, scrapes, meanings. History juts out, causing leaks, squeaks, a judder when cold. The owners grow into themselves, their jobs, their lives. They find a house, and it has a garage. The bed doesn’t arrive in time. They sleep in the bus—familiar smell in a scary time. Things happen that are significant and not significant. The bus is side-swiped in a street. They fix the house, but the bus suffers. Its wipers stop working. They buy another Volkswagen, newer, all one gleaming colour, extinguishing doubt. Everything happens at least once, and the old bus is consigned to the garage, then to the backyard, a sorry tarpaulin tugged over it as shelter against the time. 

This is how things begin. The time before the bus reappears in their lives. They buy into each other, invest heavily, realise they are over-capitalised. She moves out. She moves away. He grows his hair. He sells the new Volkswagen that is no longer new. They reunite, reaching across their differences, hurrying back together to make up for what they have missed. They go out, come home again. Pink nights, sleep and work. They buy devices that monitor their vital signs—an impossibly large television, a fridge that hums its efficiency in a low voice, an oven they can barely control that can melt lead or boil whatever it touches. The grass grows around the bus at the side of the house.

Against the immensity of the everyday, the old bus quietly waits. They come back to it. The tarpaulin is dusty, green with living things. The striptease is obscene. They fear the nature of neglect, the way loss creeps in horribly, beneath the paint, like grief. They hope for a reprieve. Everything depends on this. 

The bus still looks like itself. It has weathered their lives decidedly well. The door frames stick to their sealing rubbers. They push it back into the world and, some soap and hope later, it gleams if you don’t look too closely. They will go to the beach, they decide. The bus will be restored, scrapes erased, seats resprung. Some craftsman will do an excellent facsimile of its newness, and the excitement will be dazzling. When this has been done, their exile from sadness will be complete.

  • Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.

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