The JRB presents a new short story by Jarred Thompson.
after Caroline Peters
These days Oupa Ice-cream’s bell rings all year round. Even now in winter, as I rub my hands above the oil heater, I spot him on the edge of the veld—the one separating my block from the other three—selling ice-cream. Standing by the window, watching Daniel swap coins for a chocolate log, I scan my way to Carol’s window in Block D. Her curtains are closed.
I think today may be a good day to sell koeksisters.
Carol hasn’t changed those dusty black curtains since Easter; she said Greg likes how they kept the sun out for his naps. Some nights he likes sleeping in the lounge away from her, she said, and sometimes he locks her out of the bedroom and she has to find a way to be comfortable on that patchy maroon couch of theirs. I always think of that couch when I stare at Carol’s lounge window. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her to throw the damn thing out. The girls will chip in for a new one, I told her last December. But she’s a proud one, that Carol.
A gust of wind hits me from behind: it’s Daniel. ‘Jirre boy close the door,’ I say.
‘Sorry ouma. It’s poes cold nuh?’
He steps into the sanitising vent. This one is government-issue, a ‘gift from the Swedish’, the news people said. It was installed in the flats since the second wave. While Daniel disinfects in the fog I look over to Carol’s window again.
Still closed. I must make koeksisters today.
It takes about three minutes to get germ-free from the fog. Daniel hates it because it aggravates his asthma but I always tell him better safe than sorry. When he’s done I give him his nebuliser to calm his chest. It takes a while but he stops coughing eventually.
‘You’re mal for eating ice-cream in this cold,’ I tell him.
‘It’s lekker feeling cold on the inside and warm on the outside.’
‘Lekker? What’s so lekker about it?’
‘I can follow the cold from my mouth to my stomach. Especially when my body is warm. Then I can really feel the cold.’
Ever since his mom passed away during the first wave he’s been interested in how his body works, testing his thresholds for pain and such. One night I even found him sleeping on the floor—an ‘experiment in discomfort’, he told me.
‘Come, it’s almost ten. I’m sure Ms Jane has work posted for you.’
‘At least today’s biology.’ Daniel picks up my old laptop off the lounge table and goes to his room. After the first wave his biology grades skyrocketed, all this talk of virus this and virus that really sunk in. I got an email last week from Ms Jane commending him on his improved biology grades.
Thank Google, YouTube, and my internet connection, I wrote back.
The koeksisters I rolled a few days ago are nicely defrosted—all they need are a good syruping. I turn the stove plate on high and wait for the syrup in the saucepot to get piping hot, stirring it until it becomes slightly sticky. As I wait, I go into my WhatsApp and send a message to our group: Good morning everyone. I’m selling koeksisters on this icy morning. R30 for half a dozen and R60 for a dozen. It doesn’t take long for orders to come rolling in.
The trick with making good koeksisters is to keep them from getting soggy: they need to be soft enough to melt in your mouth and firm enough to hold the syrup and desiccated coconut. No one likes mushy koeksisters. But it’s all in the syruping to be honest—at least that’s how my mother taught me. One thing you can do to test your syrup is to break off a piece of koeksister and drop it into your saucepot. If that piece doesn’t start bubbling immediately, well, your syrup isn’t hot enough. Also, don’t be shy: double up on those cinnamon sticks, especially during winter. Cinnamon just has this way of hugging your insides. Now, remember to be quick—it doesn’t take long for the koeksisters to get done. Then take them out and give them a good sprinkling of coconut.
When I’m selling koeksisters it never takes long for them to be all bought up. Everyone knows, Daphne’s koeksisters sell out faster than Auntie Ruby’s, in block A across the veld. You know, I’ve tasted hers before (of course, I arranged for someone else to buy them for me) and, in my opinion, hers are just glorified doughnuts. But I’ll never tell her that.
Five orders come in by the time the syrup is hot. I spoon the koeksisters in twos—slipping each couple gently into the pot to avoid splashing and burning my skin. Once they’re all in I give them a few turns before going to the window again. Carol’s curtains are still closed, and it’s almost eleven.
You know, even in the first wave Carol was busy, checking in on the elderly and doing their grocery shopping. I decide to send her a WhatsApp directly: Hey Carol. I’m selling koesisters. You interested? I hope she remembers our conversation from last week.
It isn’t long before I see her lounge curtain flicker, as if someone wants to peek through but changes their mind. She may not have read my message, but she definitely saw it.
‘Ouma, did you know a virus uses the body against itself?’ shouts Daniel from his bedroom.
‘Ja, they trick cells in your body into making copies of themselves. How smart is that?’
Smart. Smart? That’s bloody scary. I really don’t like it when he comes with these facts about viruses. But that’s all he talks about. Last week he told me how viruses hide in a person’s body. All week I kept wondering about what things are floating around inside me. That’s why I take vitamin C every day.
‘Hello Auntie Daphne, it’s Waseem.’ It is midday and Carol’s curtains are still closed.
‘Come in. Come in. The door’s open.’
Waseem comes in from the cold and gets into the sanitising vent. ‘You know it’s been proven these things don’t work right?’ He says, getting out the vent and putting his Tupperware next to the pot of bubbling koeksisters.
‘I heard so ja. But you know our government, same like e-tolls, thinking whatever Europe does works here too.’
Waseem’s the pharmacist who lives a floor down from us. Well, he’s not really a pharmacist, but he’s been helping Uncle Faizel for so long he could basically be a pharmacist. Plus Faizel is old and when he dies Waseem will take over the business, I’m sure. Waseem has worked under Faizel since he was in high school, and he’s got a knack for knowing what you need when you’re sick. That’s intuition if you ask me. And he has a healthy dose of generosity, giving medicine to those skollies who never have the money to pay for it.
‘Ja the pharmacy decided to open later on Sundays,’ Waseem says, answering my question about why he isn’t there now. ‘It just makes more sense because people are now starting to go to church and all. Pandemic or not.’
‘But say now we go back to level five with this new wave. Then churches must close, right?’
‘Ja you right. How do you manage to make these taste so good Auntie? I swear you put drugs in these koeksisters.’
I laugh. ‘Of course not, but if there were drugs in it you’d know.’ His charm reminds me of Terry (rest his soul), though I’d never tell him that.
I finish dishing Waseem’s order into his Tupperware when Daniel comes into the kitchen, excited to get into some virus talk. While they speak I go to the window again: curtains still closed. Something must be up. I send a message to the Women’s WhatsApp group.
Daphne: Anyone know if Carol needs koesisters?
Lydia: I heard something last night. She may need hand sanitiser too.
Mavis: I called her yesterday. She was worried about bottle stores opening up.
Tessa: Must I go check if she needs hand sanitiser or face masks?
Daphne: Tessa I’ll meet you there by the veggie patch and we can walk over together.
Tessa: Sure okay.
Lydia: Let us know how it goes.
I put my phone back in my pocket. Daniel and Wassem are still talking about viruses. ‘My boy I’m just going to give koeksisters to Auntie Carol. People are supposed to come pick up their orders. I need you to stay here for them.’
‘Aah, but Waseem was telling me that Jason’s cutting hair today.’
‘Is he supposed to be doing that under this level?’
‘Not really. But he’s being safe about it. He only allows two people in at a time and the windows are covered with curtains. It’s safe, Auntie,’ Waseem says.
‘Okay fine. But you can go only after people get their orders. And be on the lookout please: I saw on Facebook they’re doing patrols today. You remember what happened last time. Poor Samuel …’ My thoughts trail off—the image of Samuel’s wife kneeling over his body too vivid for me to ignore.
‘I’ll walk him over there, don’t worry,’ Waseem says.
‘You’re a godsend, you know that?’ I put my hand on Waseem’s cheek (it is so soft). Then I go to my bedroom, put my winter coat on and slip my special hand sanitiser into my coat pocket. As I leave the flat I make sure to pack the extra batch of koeksisters I’ve made for Carol.
Tessa sells the most eye-catching face masks this side of the railway line: ones with beautiful Basotho patterns and ones with the Nike logo or the red devil of Manchester United roaring across the mouth. She meets me outside the community veggie patch wearing all black except for that red devil face mask. ‘It’s supposed to be intimidating,’ she says as I hug her. I know I shouldn’t get so close but Lord it feels good.
We both notice Ludwig and Bronwyn, his granddaughter, busy in the soil, preparing it for our winter crops: garlic, spinach and onions. It was Waseem’s idea to get all four blocks to buy into the veggie patch. He said it’d be good for us to get our hands dirty, that all this kak of sanitising would have a negative effect in the long run. We all agreed, plus we managed to work out a schedule of planting and harvesting that distributes the spoils evenly.
‘You guys okay in this cold?’ Tessa shouts to Ludwig and Bronwyn.
‘All good, yes. We won’t be in here long,’ Ludwig says.
‘Good. I’d hate for you to catch a cold,’ Tessa says.
‘Don’t worry. We got our flu shots last week.’
‘They finally came in? I thought they were sold out this wave?’ I say.
‘Ask Waseem. He’ll organise,’ Ludwig says, and we wave them goodbye and head across the veld to Carol’s flat.
Carol’s flat is in the bottom left corner and, to our surprise, her curtains are now open.
‘It looks like police are patrolling on the other side of the railway line,’ says Tessa, checking our WhatsApp group.
‘What are people saying?’
‘It seems they’re moving in to disconnect illegal connections of the squatter camp.’
‘Okay, well we have some time then.’
We get to Carol’s door, knock several times and listen for sounds from the other side. It doesn’t take long for Greg to answer—his face flushed and his eyes watery and red. There’s water running in the background too. Is Carol showering?
‘Hello Gregory,’ I begin, ‘we were just wondering if you and Carol wanted some koeksisters?’
‘For free?’ he says.
‘Yes, for free,’ Tessa says, with the Tupperware of koeksisters in her hands.
‘Where’s Carol? We haven’t seen or heard from her in a while,’ I say.
‘She’s showering,’ he says blankly, his torso blocking our view of the lounge. We stand there facing him for a moment that’s longer than it should be before Carol comes out from the bedroom in a yellow beanie and grey sweatpants.
‘Hello ladies. Nice to see you two,’ she says. The water’s still running and it’s the only sound between the four of us. ‘Oh, you brought koeksisters. Too sweet, honestly. Let me go get my purse. I have to give you something for coming here in this cold.’
Tessa and I haven’t taken our eyes off Greg. ‘Babe, don’t you wanna go turn the shower off? We can’t be wasting water like that.’ Carol taps him lightly on the shoulder. He picks something out of his teeth and goes to the bathroom.
‘Carol,’ says Tessa, ‘… how many do you want? Half dozen? Full?’
‘Full dozen,’ she says, not looking at Tessa but straight at me. Her hoodie is drawn up to just below her chin. She’s looking a bit pale, too.
‘Here, I brought hand sanitiser. Are you going to need a face mask any time soon?’ I give her the sanitiser—a plastic bottle fixed with a powerful nozzle. She takes the koeksisters and sanitiser, slipping the bottle into her sweatpants.
‘I’ll let you know if I need face masks,’ she says. Her eyes have this sheen I’ve only ever seen in myself.
‘We can have you and the baby in a face mask by tomorrow,’ I say.
Just as she’s about to answer, Greg comes back and puts his arm around her waist, kissing her temples. He picks out a koeksister from the batch and puts the whole thing in his mouth.
‘You know the old couple a few doors down died from the virus? Sad story hey. I heard their grandchildren are selling some of their stuff to get by. Maybe we should buy something, babe,’ Greg says with his full mouth. Carol doesn’t answer.
‘Well you have the koeksisters and sanitiser …’ Tessa says.
‘I’ll let you know about those fancy face masks of yours tomorrow, okay Tessa?’ Carol says.
‘I’ll even give them to you at a discount,’ Tessa replies.
‘Carol …’ I want to let her know that we’re here for her no matter what, but Greg interrupts me.
‘We’re grateful for this. Really. But we gotta go check on Tamara. She’s been crying all night.’
Tessa and I nod and say our goodbyes. Carol tries to smile as we leave but she can’t seem to lift her lips to do it.
That night I don’t sleep. I decide to smoke my last cigarette—it seems as good a time as any. I don’t see much from Carol’s window except the red, blue and silver light of their TV flashing across the veld. Every now and then I spot a shadow moving across the light and wonder if she’s sleeping in the bedroom or the lounge.
‘I was never like that,’ I imagine Terry saying after one of our ‘episodes’, as he picks me up off the floor and offers to rub my feet.
‘Shut up. Of course you were,’ I mutter, to no one in particular. I think about Carol using the sanitiser on Greg; I so badly want her to get up real close—pretend she’s going to kiss him—and spray seventy per cent alcohol into those eyes.
My phone starts vibrating. It’s Tessa: ‘I see you’re at your window too,’ she says.
‘I can’t sleep, man.’
‘If Carol gives the signal … is there space there by you?’
‘There’s space. But will she come?’
‘She said full dozen. That can only mean one thing.’
‘I’m just glad we got her the sanitiser in time.’
‘It’s a good thing I make the best koeksisters around.’
‘It’s the perfect code.’
‘It is. You know I can’t help but wish she’d use that sanitiser on him tonight.’
‘I was wishing the same thing!’
We share a tired little giggle before silence takes over our.
‘You should try and get some sleep,’ Tessa says.
‘I’ll try. Keep a lookout for that text okay.’
I put the phone down and get into bed. When I close my eyes Terry is standing in the doorway—for the thousandth time—wondering if he can sleep next to me, if he is out of the dog box yet.
I get out of bed, walk across the lino floor and close my bedroom door for the night.