Voicemail: A short story

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We were sitting silently on our bed watching her favourite soapie and having rice, tinned baked beans and chicken for dinner when he called. I had not spoken to him in almost a year; his number was no longer saved on my phone but I still knew it by heart. I couldn’t answer the phone while she was there next to me, so I ignored it. I could feel her eyes on me, I could feel that she wanted to know why I didn’t want to answer the phone but she kept silent nonetheless. We haven’t really been talking for a while, each day it’s the same routine: she comes home after four from her job, prepares dinner and we spend the remainder of the evening in bed silently watching the television. When I lost my job I tried helping out with the chores but she wouldn’t have none of it, and yet I can’t help but feel that she’s a little resentful that she has to cook for me each day, while her belly grows bigger and bigger. I don’t know why she puts up with me really. I don’t know why I am still with her either but she’s carrying my child and I feel too guilty for making her lose her last pregnancy to ever think about leaving.

After dinner I fell asleep while she was still watching the television.

When she woke up the next morning I pretended that I was still asleep. I heard her go out to brush her teeth and freshen her face; I heard her come back to the room to prepare my breakfast; I heard her change into her work clothes and I heard her when she left for work. The first thing I did when she left was to get out of bed to grab my phone at the charger near the television. Once I was back in bed I listened to the voice message Kagiso left me the previous night and my spirit left my body for a second or two, I had to stare at the roaches crawling on our walls to recompose myself. I got out of the bed again, left a note on the bed for her to read when she came back. I didn’t even eat the breakfast she made for me; I just packed a few items in my backpack and ran out of our place.

Kagiso’s brother, Thabiso, stayed on the other side of town across the main road. The side with bigger houses made from bricks and not polyurethane. It’s a thirty-minute walk from our place but I got there in ten, dripping sweat and out of breath. Thabiso’s house stood out from the other houses on his street. He seemed not to care about its upkeep. The lawn was overgrown; the white walls had not been painted in years and were starting to look yellow; the paint on his fencing was peeling and the exposed metal had rusted. He never locked his gate, so I just went inside and knocked on his door as loud as I could. There was no answer, so I stood there for a while until I remembered that I still have his number.

“Thabiso! It’s me man, I’m outside your door, please come out.”

“The door is not locked, man, come in and wait for me in the living. I’ll be out in a minute.”

As though he was trying to compensate for the lack of effort he put on caring for the exterior of his house, Thabiso’s house was very modern looking and beautiful on the inside. He had a big kitchen with charcoal tilling and cream coloured walls. Thought was put in the colour of every electrical appliance, the dishwasher, the front loader, the microwave, the fridge, the toaster were all black. His cupboards with granite tops were all black too. On the double door fridge was a picture on him, his ex-wife, and his son during rosier days before that morning when she and her son went to the store and never came back and Thabiso started to smoke weed all day. The charcoal tiling extended to his luxurious living room. There were four large brown wooden speakers on each corner. He had no television but used the white wall on the left of his window as a projector screen instead. The wall opposite the window had an A2-sized photo portrait of the family that left him; the wall on the right had an A5 sized photo of Kagiso and an abstract painting Kagiso did when he first came to Kriel. He had a leather reclining couch facing the wall that was used as a projector and two three-seater couches on either side. A glass coffee table centred the whole room.

I sat on one of the couches and waited for him. He came out from one of the bedroom still in his polka dot boxers. He had lost a lot of weight since I last saw him three months ago. His lips had darkened and his high cheek bones were extra pronounced. He had a new scar that started from his lower lip and extended to his chin. Although his frame had lessened, he still had broad shoulders and a wide chest. His eyelids were droopy and his eyes were red, I was not sure if this was because he had just woken up or that he was inebriated. He walked to his recliner couch, stooped down and pulled out a small joint from underneath. After sitting down his raspy voice made a command.
“Can you throw me the match there by the speaker?”

I tossed him the match, he lit up the joint and started smoking.

“I haven’t seen you in months, and you just decide to pop up so early, what’s up man?”

Even before he started smoking so much, Thabiso always had a calm demeanour. He never got incensed even when the situation allowed. Whenever his brother had his erratic spells, the mere presence of him would calm him down. I knew he would handle what I was about to tell him well, but still, my lips felt heavy and I struggled to get the words out.

“I got a voice message from Kagiso this morning. He told me where he was. I think he might have hurt himself.”

Thabiso discarded his roach in the ashtray by the glass coffee table and stayed silent for a minute. He knew his brother’s temperament; he understood what it was that I was telling him.

“He’s in Durban… and I was thinking that maybe we could drive down together, just to confirm.”

***
He said he was too hungover and he asked me to drive. His car’s glove compartment always had a bottle of rum or gin. He opened it, took out a half-full 200ml Gordons and emptied it in one gulp. He put on his sunglasses, reclined the seat all the way back and closed his eyes. We left at around seven a.m. and for the first half of the journey we drove in silence. No music. Only the sound of rolling tyres on tarmac and his faint breathing kept me company.
The silence prompted my mind to wander and my thoughts ended up at the last face to face conversation I had with Kagiso, two weeks before he left and lied to his brother about where he was going. I thought about how deceptively calm he was when I told him that we can’t continue seeing each other; Nokwanda was pregnant and she was moving in with me. And how he left my place warm and cordial but stopped taking my calls or answering my text soon after that. I thought about the random call I got from him six months later telling me he’s now in Durban. We spoke daily after that call and a month later under the guise of attending my cousin’s funeral I spent the weekend with him. I stayed at my uncle’s in ‘mlazi the Friday night before the funeral, lied to my relatives about having to work the next day and spent the Saturday and Sunday at the flat in Addington that his rich married politician boyfriend paid for. It was located two streets from the beach and had the view of the ocean and the children’s hospital that was then still under construction. In the morning we would be at the balcony drinking the bitter brew of coffee that he liked while watching the sun’s ascent. In the evenings we would be at the beach watching the ocean dance. During the day we would remind ourselves of what we missed about each other’s bodies. A week later, while checking my WhatsApp, Nokwanda found naked pictures of him and I in bed together that he sent. She went into early labour and came back from the hospital without my son, Nkanyezi Mwelase. She forgave me and I couldn’t speak to Kagiso after that with a clear conscience.

I was still lost in thought when Thabiso said something. I didn’t even realise that he had woken up.

“I’m still hurt that he never spoke to me after he left. You know, I was the only member of our family that still spoke to him, that still had a relationship with him.”

Kagiso never liked to talk about the circumstances that led to his estrangement with the rest of his family. I knew that he was kicked out of his church and this caused friction between him, his parents and his two younger brothers. I also knew that Thabiso was the only member of his family that wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness and that was how Kagiso could move in with him but I never understood why the whole family decided to stop speaking to him after that.
I also never told Thabiso that I kept in contact with his brother after he left. I couldn’t, I made a promise to Kagiso not to.

“Maybe he was too ashamed to make that first call.”
I lied to make him feel better.
***
I had anticipated us spending a lot of time navigating the bureaucracy at the Durban Central SAPS but to my surprise, everything went smoothly; the investigating officer confirmed that yes, a body was found at Durban North beach that morning, he gave us a case number and sent us to Gale street mortuary, eleven minutes away.

We parked on the street, opposite the main gate entrance. He did not want me to walk in with him and so I waited in the car for what felt like an eternity, all the while hoping that maybe this was a sick joke Kagiso was playing on us to get attention. Eventually, Thabiso walked out of the gate with a bunch of papers. His face looking as if he hadn’t slept in day. I stepped out of the car and he hugged me. I could feel the wetness in my shoulder and with a muffled voice, he whispered to me “I’m sorry.”

At my uncle’s place Thabiso asked to go to bed and my uncle let us use my late cousin’s room. My uncle had to go work his late shift and asked me to accompany him to his stop a few blocks away. He seemed baffled by Kagiso’s action.
“So that boy drowned himself, just like that, what kind of man does that?”
After sunset while I was sitting alone in the stoep drinking gin and the Sprite uncle left for us to have dinner with, Thabiso came out of the house and joined me.

“You know, when Kagiso was younger, he was very soft. Very sensitive – effeminate…”

He went silent for a while, as if he’s trying to find the right words, before continuing.

“…so when he was caught having sex with one of the boys from church, I wasn’t that much surprised. He was kicked out of the church, and everyone shunned him. All his friends, everybody he knew all his life stopped talking to him, it was as if he no longer existed, it became too much. Of course I agreed when he asked if he can come stay with me, I knew how ruthless those people can be. Everything was going well until around two weeks before he left. He started drinking a lot, going out and coming back in the early hours of the morning. One morning my wife caught him coming out of his bedroom with a strange old man and she was livid. Me and my son will never share a house with is’tabani, I remember her saying. I had to choose between peace in the house and my brother, so I asked if he could maybe move back to Jo’burg with my parents for a while, I felt bad asking him that. I still do. Our dad had already agreed to take him back in. The next day when I came back from work he had packed his things and left. He never went back to my parents’ and I never heard from him again. I tried calling him numerous times to apologise and to ask him to come back but I never seemed to get through.”

He took out a joint from his pocket, lit it and started smoking.
“I know he loved you and I think you loved him too, that’s okay, I want you to know that I’m okay with that. I must stay here for a few more days; an autopsy still has to be performed and I still have to sort out the logistics of taking his body back home. You don’t have to stay here with me though, I’ll be fine. It’s best if you use my car to drive back, Nokwanda must be worried about you.”

He stood up and as he was about to go inside I stopped him.
“Thabiso, wait. I still have Kagiso’s voicemail saved. I think you should listen to it.”

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