Matthew was curious. But it was his sister who erupted out of her shell, catching the attention of the people sitting next to us.
“Yeah, who is Gino? Who is this guy?” she asked.
Teresa didn’t usually get that excited about anything. The only thing I’ve seen her excited about was her violin. She waited for a moment, as if, again, she expected her brother to say something.
Matthew said nothing.
“Dad, start again, please. But this time from the beginning,” Teresa suggested with an eagerness in her voice.
It was the 23rd day of April 1983, and the sky was a strange, dark blue, almost purple colour when Colin and I had stepped into the small backyard. The odd-looking twilight wore the chill of an early autumn breeze, but I didn’t feel a bit of it. I was too busy staring at the woman, walking along the washing line, pulling at items of clothing. The woman who was called Auntie Florrie, short for Florence, acted like nothing was out of the ordinary.
To begin with, if the police had done their job she would not have said, “Gino’s not back from school yet. The idiot rushed out this morning without cleaning his pigsty of a room.”
Outside, things were alive. The streets were buzzing with activity – children swinging in the nearby playground, boys in broken clothes running around pushing old car tyres with wooden planks, a handful of street kids could be seen, going from house to house begging for food. In the distance my eye caught a man in blue overalls returning home from work, walking with his head down and being greeted with kisses from a fat woman with curlers in her hair.
At any rate, there we were watching Gino’s younger sister make her appearance. She smiled at us. I followed her with my eyes as she removed the remaining dry clothes, folding and flattening, placing each item neatly into a white plastic basket. Auntie Florrie sat herself down onto a wooden bench and turned to face us. “Hey, I told you he’s not home yet. Colin, go and find him.”
Colin stood still.
She gave him a look.
Lucky him, because, something in the expression of her eyes told me that Colin, who was standing next to me, and who was now fidgeting with the zipper of his school top, was in for it.
“Hey! Are you deaf? What the hell are you waiting for?” came her voice, snapping savagely at him.
Like most brown women who landed on the Cape Flats, she had a no-nonsense demeanour that belied her stature. But just then something else had caught the woman’s attention. With narrowed eyes she traced the scratches on my arms and legs and asked about it. I opened my mouth to explain, but she didn’t give me a chance.
“Hey, what’s going on here? Where the hell is Gino?” she spat out the words and Colin burst into tears.
“Auntie, Gino … Gino is dead,” he cried, struggling to speak.
Colin was terrified. And in his terrified state, he dropped his eyes on the ground as if it were too unbearable for him to face her or the world in front of him.
Auntie Florrie’s hand covered her mouth in shock. “What do you mean Gino is dead?” she asked with indrawn breath, then went on, “are you two trying to be funny?” There was an abruptness in her voice which caused my heart to hammer against my ribcage.
“No, Auntie Florrie. Gino is dead, he died this morning,” I said hurriedly.
Looking back at her, I noticed how her hands were screwing the shirt that was sitting on her lap into an untidy ball, instinctively, only to let it fall on the ground as she detonated. Under such circumstances it was acceptable, even expected, for the quality of her screaming to be high and intense.
Then – suddenly - Wendy lost control of herself. Taking flight with awkward, flapping wings, she flew around like a lunatic, leaping and rising and falling and somersaulting, crashing into my head with the washing basket. Sparks flew.
Painful minutes passed until sheer exhaustion put an end to it. She landed into a heap next to her mother who was still rocking herself back and forth. There were discarded clothing everywhere, permitted to flower the ground around them. And Wendy looked puzzled, colourless, and she shook her head at me and hissed. “Max, you’re such a liar. I don’t understand how Gino can be dead? You’re just making things up, right?” she cried, accusing me of being mendacious, claiming it all to be a hoax.
My heart sank a little lower.
And when she had finally stopped, I thought, shit, where’s Colin?
That was my first thought, which was followed closely by another: Screw this, I’m outta here as well.
And in my haste to get away, I forced open the gate, neglecting to unlatch it first, snapping it broken, wooden bits flying everywhere.