Leather drinks himself to oblivion. Every God-blessed day he is drunk, and the whole of Khayelisha village knows of his heavy drinking. Once drunk – in a mixture of brandy, sorghum beer (that he drinks at people’s kraals, during this or that ceremony) and Castle Lager – he hobbles homeward, yelling absurdities and insults at those on his path. He calls people by their mothers’ genitals and more crude things that reach his drunken head. His rowdy manners, encouraged by perpetual drunkenness, have seen him lose his two front teeth and resulted to abysmal scars that traverse on his face.
One scar runs from the upper field of his cheek to the top lip of his bubbly mouth. It was carved by a boy of eighteen or thereabout, Kwa-Sthe – two years ago. He started a commotion by vulgarly insulting the boy from Kwa-Luvisi (a small township, less than a kilometre from Nquthu central), who mistakenly stepped on his shoe. And when he left the tavern – in his drunken stupor, round midnight – the boy was waiting for him outside the door. Leather continued with the tirades. And the boy’s already boiling fury was accrued by this show off. He charged forward with a penknife.
Leather was too slow – to raise a hand and parry the knife.
Other scars are a result of such altercations he prompts, either with men of his village or nearby villages, or wherever he is visiting. His drunken outbursts know no boundaries of time and place. And one scar – a slippery concave at his hairline, results from Ehlanzeni – a men’s hostel in Tembisa, fifteen years ago, when he worked at a manufacturing firm in Midrand.
He has been sinking in the calabash of cold spirits since he was barely eighteen. He started on his seventeenth year’s Christmas celebration, to be specific. Since then – now in his mid-forties – he still drowns in the spirits. Worse than ever before. And alcohol has cost him a kind-hearted, alluring girlfriend (of two decades ago) and, several viable and fiscally steady jobs. He affords his spirits by shedding a sweat now and again: gardening here and fitting barbed wire fence there – or spading the yard today and fixing a leaky roof tomorrow.
“Leather, my friend,” says one tall man, covered with beard on his upper cheeks. He has just arrived here Kwa-Mdu. The tuckshop-stroke-shebeen shakes with clamouring voices of men seated on beer and Coca-Cola crates, and others on their feet – leaning against the wall. Now and again enters a customer to buy bread, or amasi, or fish, and so forth. The drinkers in the house share jokes and laughter, and argue with another, and easily agree in no more than two minutes of conflict.
They are generally in good spirits. Yesterday they received their share of old-age grant, or sickness fund, or otherwise here to grovel and touch the coat’s hem of those with inflated wallets, nationally known as Bareki – the buyers. Or still, others have moola for the spirits, thanks to the generosity of their wives or girlfriends who shared a twenty rand or thirty from the child support grant.
Leather, they have dubbed him. He has a dark-bluish complexion. The crisscrossing scars on his face in match of his foremost African skin tone, makes him look like a black leather coat – so says Mdu. The nickname has grown on him and become popular with all, within a short period. Perhaps, it is because he firmly refuted the name, three months ago when Mdu first coined it. He now, however, cares but too little. He seems to grasp that there is simply nothing he can ever do to contest it successfully. He only contends the nickname when he is dead drunk.
“My dear friend, Leather,” says the tall man. He sits on a crate besides Leather.
“Huh? What?” Leather yells. He detests disturbance when drinking.
“Can I have a sip, dear friend – my bro?” Mthuli rubs hands together.
“Drink from me? You, Mthuli? Over my dead body.” He fixes a glance at the tall, bearded hunk of a man. “You, rubbish, tells all and sundry, that I nothing but a drunkard. I not worth a fucking dime, huh – says you of me? Yet now, here you are – crawling to me, asking for a drink?”
“My friend – who told you those lies?”
“Lies, my foot,” Leather retorts.
“Need I a drink,” says Mthuli, using Leather’s pattern of speech when drunk or tipsy (just for the fun of it, or perhaps, to amuse those around). “And ask I you, Leather – my bro. Can I have a drink, to quench so great a thirst?”
“A drink from nobody?”
“Have I no cash today, my friend.”
“You are no friend of mine.”
Mthuli stares at Leather for a moment, and retrieves his inflated wallet from his brown Chino pants, shaking with laughter. Other drinkers around them join the mirth, entertained. They know Leather refuses to share his alcohol – only with close buddies, which, because of his uncouth behaviour, are but a few. Likewise, they know that Mthuli earns quite a supple salary as an electrical engineer. He is never short of cash. He simply is messing with Leather.
“Leather, you disappoint me sometimes,” says Mthuli, a smile radiating in his dark-brown, small eyes. “Thought I you were my only friend here. Are you going to watch me die of thirst, dear friend – my bro? Hhawu! Ndoda yamadoda, how can you do such cruel a thing?”
“You no friend of mine,” mutters Leather.
His head bobs in drunkenness. His eyes are fixed on the bottle of beer in front of him. He is oblivious of the two-hundred rand note in Mthuli’s grip. “Here is Magwaza,” says Leather, his eyes darting around the tuckshop after hearing Magwaza’s voice.
“What you say of me?” asks Magwaza.
“It’s you – Mthuli’s good frien – huh?” Leather’s mouth stands agape when he sees the note sandwiched between Mthuli’s fingers. So much money! – He seems to exclaim, his gaze fixed on Mthuli. Witnesses of his rapid reaction giggle. Mthuli laughs lightly, and stands to join a man clothed in blue overalls, boots, and a helmet – standing behind the counter. Magwaza. They chitchat and laugh – addressing each other as bros. Magwaza works under Mthuli, on a project of installing electricity in the village.
Mthuli buys four Black Labels. He places the beers in front of his crate, right next to Leather’s Castle Lager beers. Then he counts change, and puts it back to his wallet. He looks at Leather and grins.
“Mthuli – my friend,” whispers Leather, to an uproar of laughter all round by the regaled spectators. He takes hold of a Castle Lager bottle, and hands it over to Mthuli, intoning: “Say, my friend so dearly – why don’t you take a sip? It is good when dear friends share a share drink, ha?”
Another peal of laughter from the spectators.
“Oh, he thinks himself clever,” one spectator remarks. And another says: “Ja, I know him very well.”
“I’m smarter than all you, sons of devils,” says Leather, scowling at the whispering spectators. “None of you, not one – know a thing, you bastards. This is business transaction.” More drinkers join in the mirth around Mthuli and Leather. They forget about their conversations and arguments, eyes on the two men. “You know nothing about business, boys. You respect business!”
Mthuli claps hands, laughing. Then he takes a bottle from Leather.
“Drink, my friend so dearly – drink,” says Leather.
Mthuli sips, just a drop. He does not usually drink Castle. He does sip, though, as a mere gesture, or perhaps, a test for Leather’s response. He is quite affectionate of the village’s drunkard. Mthuli. He admires him greatly, because of his enduring drive – not relying on anyone but toiling for every cent he drinks. While other men, way younger than Leather, are lazy to work their asses off, and thus, depend on friends and colleagues. He calls them izimbungulu, for they live off other’s blood – literally other’s perspiration.
“Be not afraid – drink freely.”
“I am drinking,” says Mthuli. He takes another – mouthful – sip. “Not bad. Not bad at all, this Castle…” Mthuli wipes off the wet on his lips. “I will drink from your bottle, Leather – my bro. But you, you won’t get a drink from me. Not a sip.” He hides his Black Label behind his crate, away from Leather’s reach.
“Singadlala wena,” says Mthuli, giggling.
“See now, Mthuli? Unfair is what you do.”
“You drink my beer, I drink yours,” says Leather, a scowl of displeasure visible in his temple, and eyes darkening. “It’s business. You must know, bastard of a man. That is how business works around here. Friends drink with friends. And thought me of you, Mthuli, as a friend so dearly. Are you, dammit?”
“Say, Leather – my bro, which is which?”
“What you talk of?”
“Bastard am I or friend to you?”
“What are the terms?” Mthuli laughs.
“Do you buy me Castle? You are my friend so dearly, if you do. And if you refuse to buy me Castle, you are a bastard of a man – one who drinks from me, but does not respect business. You drink from my mine, and I drink from yours. Business, Mthuli, business! A friend always do remember a friend.”
“Oh?” says Mthuli, “I hear you, Leather – my bro.”
“He loves alcohol,” one amused spectator remarks. And the other agrees: “Sure, can’t live without a drop.” It is true. The first thing Leather remembers when he gets paid for his piece jobs is alcohol. Nothing precedes the spirits in his mind. Not even his family – mother, wife, and two children. They have long lost hope for his recovery – for his change of attitude, for his quitting the spirits.
Others in the village, on one hand, have apportioned his abuse of alcohol to the work of witchcraft. The churchgoers, on the other hand, have a strong conviction that the drunkard is possessed by demons. How can a man care about nothing else but the spirits? “Leather is bewitched!” they say of him. “He is reckless, that’s all,” others differ in opinion, continuing to say, “And so is his family reckless. They should have consulted isangoma, a long time ago.” Others respond. “Yes, he is bewitched. The man or woman who did this to him – by God and the faithful ancestors – will sure miss heaven!”
Village dogs seem to relish barking, playfully, at God’s poor drunkard. Their thing, the dogs and Leather, has become some sort of a ritual. Three or four dogs gather in front of the school gate, and wait on him. Every day. They know him by his strong stench of yeast and husky roaring – a terrible attempt at singing, and start barking and leaping at him.
He swears effusively:
“Voetsek, Voetsek! Get lost, you fucking dirty bitches! Get lost now!” he charges forward as they attack. And as one bitch in front scurries away, another puffs at his heels, and others attack from the sides. He staggers and turns, back and forth he moves, staggering again towards the attacking dog.
It is a dance really – between dogs and the drunkard.
If he ever trips and tumbles, the dogs hover around him. He raises his hands, parrying them, eyes half-closed, but they simply stretch out their tongues and lick his hands and face. That is all they do. After licking his face, the dogs chase one another, and leave him to hobble homeward peacefully. His thudding fall means defeat. Seemingly, that is what satisfy the dogs – for always, they leave him seated on his buttocks, on the grass, or in the mud.
Oddly, it is only female dogs who terrorize Leather.
“Rubbish,” mutters Leather.
Mthuli is now telling a story of a spook which torments people around the village. Many have lost their way home, during a misty night, and woke up far away from home. “They say there is a force which attracts them towards a particular direction opposite home,” says Mthuli, looking around the tuckshop at the attentive listeners – all eyes glued on him. “They only become conscious of where they are when the force leaves them alone, just before daybreak. Dawn really is the only foe of this ghostly force.”
“You say?” asks one listener.
“It’s serious,” Mthuli says.
“Nxm,” mutters Leather.
“What? Even you, Leather – my bro,” laughs Mthuli, turning a glance to Leather. “As clever as you think you are, might wake up e-Sandlwana one day. Did you know? This thing is friends with drunkards. All people who have reported such mysterious stories, were drunk or tipsy.”
“Kunzima la ngaphandle!”
“Nxm,” Leather says again. “Where is my beer, Mthuli?”
“I wonder,” says Mthuli. “How come you have not been lost in the fog, Leather – my bro? You are always drunk, day in and day out. They should have started with you, those evil spirits. You would think again about drowning in alcohol, every Goddamn day – would you not, my dear friend?”
“Nonsense!” Leather retorts.
“Nonsense, you say?”
“Where is my fucking drink, Mthuli?”
“Ha-ha – You will get it,” says Mthuli. “Finish that one first.”
Leather gulps, then goes out to prepare his tobacco pipe. He lets out a croaky cough, after he puffs from the pipe. A cloud of nose-clogging smoke surges before him, and a ball of phlegm dances in his throat.
He cracks and swallows the phlegm.
While outside, the owner of the shop arrives in his white four-by-four Bakkie. He makes as if to run over Leather, and stops the car right before Leather’s feet – who stumbles in reverse, shouting: “Hhay, maan, Mdu. Are you crazy, dammit?”
Mdu gets out the car, laughing. “You say dammit to me – you drunkard?”
“You a drunkard, dammit – not me,” says Leather.
“Voetsek, get out my way! Look at you, stumbling – do you even know who you are? What is your name?”
“You, drunkard – who are you?”
“You know my name, dammit.”
They walk into the shop, one after another. Leather falters and falls, missing his sitting crate. And the customers crack with laughter. He curses them, and mutters reproach, confronting himself even: “Why did you fall, dammit? Now these drunkards are amused!” Mdu laughs too, shaking his head. Then he goes over the counter and whispers to the shop attendant first, before he greets everyone in his shop. His customers greet him back with parallel enthusiasm.
“My good customers,” says Mdu, “Were are about to close. Just finish up drinks. Gulp as fast you can,” – and after a brief silence, he adds –“Tomorrow is still another day, people of the Most High.”
“Yes, will just finish up.”
“Do not worry, mlungu.”
“I need another Castle before I go.”
“No! No more,” says Mdu sternly, “We are closing. Two minutes!”
“You heard the boss,” says Mthuli to Leather. “I was going to buy you a Castle. What you say – next time, my bro?”
“Who said Black Label will kill me?”
“Oh? You can take then.”
He places Black Label in front of Leather.
“Mdu, I leave with the bottle?” says Leather. “You will get tomorrow.”
“Hha! You are a pain in the butt, sometimes,” replies Mdu. “As long as I get it tomorrow, still intact. But I will take five rand. Will give it back to you, when you return my bottle. Okay? Are you fine with that, you drunkard?”
“I have a name, dammit.”
“Leather, you are. I named you, remember?”
“My mother called me Bhekisisa Mavundla. Now that is my name – you hear?”
Mdu comes over and stands before Leather. “Five rand!” He takes the bottle standing before Leather’s feet, saying: “Give me five rand – you get your alcohol back.”
“Fuck you, dammit.” He hands over the money to Mdu.
“Voetsek! Bastard of a man!”
Customers file out the shop, one after another. Leather stumbles behind, yelling: “Home, all you pussies! Go sleep! It’s my time now. Home, everyone! Go cook, you fucking bachelors. Me, I have a wife me. I do not cook for myself, like most of you here. Go cook, you bastards! Go now, before I hurt you!”
“Wife, but you sleep by yourself? What a shame! What do you do alone in bed? Masturbate all night?” they laugh at him. Others threaten: “You will get a beating if you are not careful,” says one guy, wagging his finger at him. Others simply laugh and walk along. They have got used to his insults. Only those who encounter him for the first time do take offence, and usually, retort with threats.
Reaching the gate, Leather slips on a grass tussock and falls. Luckily, he clasps his Black Label bottle. His alcohol is safe. He laughs at himself, and struggles to get up for a brief moment, then simply lies on his back. He grumbles and winces at the pain. He closes his eyes, unwittingly, and falls asleep.
When he wakes up, round midnight, he shakes with cold. The grass is dewy, but the coldness of the night does not stop him from opening the bottle with his teeth – struggling for two minutes – and, once successful, gulps half of the beer.
Then he hobbles homeward.
At the school gate, anticipating dog’s barking – but dogs are in no appearance, nor can he hear the growling. Instead, there is an unmoving, inscrutable figure, where dogs usually wait for him. He shouts at the figure:
No answer from the figure.
He staggers towards the figure. He clucks his tongue and mutters inscrutable words. And when he gets closer, the figure moves forward – to meet him halfway.
“Demands I, Bhekisisa Mavundla, who are you?” says Leather.
Seemingly, it is a lady. She has a broad figure, and he can see two pear-shaped breasts jutting out her chest. She walks even closer, measuring her every step in her heels, and touches him with a cold hand, saying:
“Huh? Sweetie me? Who are you?”
“It’s me, Nomusa.”
“Yes, Darlie,” says Nomusa.
What a sweet, sexy voice!
She proceeds to say, “I’m freezing. So are you!”
“I know a warm place. Would you come with me?”
“Come with me, Darlie. If we lie together in my bed – close to one another – our bodily heats will be transferred, from me to you, and vice versa. We will be warm throughout the night. What do you say – come with me, Sweetie?”
Leather stands still, baffled.
She stretches her hand to him. “Come with me, Sweetie.”
“No! What intend you to do with me?”
“Tell me,” says Nomusa, “When was the last time you had dick stuck in a good vagina? Honestly, when was the last time?”
“Speak to me, Darlie.”
“It was – why ask you, dammit? Who are you?”
“Nomusa – the Caretaker,” says her gently. “I take care of men with needs, your kind of needs. You need me, my sweet poor man. And I have availed my goods to you. I’m at your service, Sweetie – use me.”
Leather remains quiet.
“Let me take care of you.”
“Uhm – huh?”
“Worry not, Sweetie. I will treat you well.”
After long hesitation, Leather follows the measured steps of the Caretaker. She leads him on a long journey, backwards – far away from home. They pass Kwa-Mdu, and go even further west. Then approaching the graveyard, a misty smoke falls on Leather’s eyes. He remembers not what happens next, until he sees himself inside the girl’s house.
The small room – too small than any other room he has ever seen in the village – has a single bed, a wardrobe, and a few other household things. On the corner was a CD player. She put on a love song, a slow jam. And jerked her hips from side to side, watching him with her sexy eyes as he sat on the bed. She comes closer, and laces her hand around his arms. A smile radiates a glow in her eyes.
“Come join me,” she says.
“I can’t – dance.”
“Come on, don’t disappoint, Sweetie.”
Leather gulps from his bottle, and placing it before his feet – he stands and joins the Caretaker on the floor. He half-drunkenly steps, back and forth, but missing the beat. She tells him to stop. “Will show you how it’s done,” says the Caretaker. “Put your hand right about here.” She places it on her hips. “And hold my hand with the other. That’s it. There you go. Now step back – yes.”
After a few trials, Leather finally gets the step. He starts to enjoy the dance. The girl now smiles too often, and showers him with praises, and talks naughty to him. They dance, back and forth – step, back, forward – turn around. Then, suddenly, his black pipe that had been starving for some time now (because his wife now refuses to sleep with him drunk) rises and stands like a pole. The Caretaker stops dancing and, strokes his pipe – placing his hand at the meeting of her thighs. Then they kiss passionately – her tongue playing on his lips, and, in a moment, jump on the bed…
The next thing, Leather feels a sharp cold. The new day has dawned, and the birds sing their melodious song of joy. He feels a throb between his thighs, before he can fully open his eyes. The sight appalls him. He lies chest on a heap of soil decorated with a desiccated wooden cross standing askew at the edge of the mound. His pants are balanced on his knees. And his semi-erect penis is stuck in the heap of soil.
This – the mound – is unmistakably a tomb.
He darts his eyes around. Other tombs surround this one, some with beautifully scribed, shiny tombstones, and some (like this one on which he lays) have grass all around. They have not been tended in ages.
“What? How did I –? What do I here?”
He gently pulls out his manhood from the soil, and winces at the rigorous pain that follows. He lifts his pants and, carefully, zips them. Afterwards, he staggers down the heap, and stands before the tomb. At the foot of the askew cross stands a stone crawling with words written in red paint. He reads:
Birth date: 09 Agust 1982
Death date: 22 May 2011
Rest in peace, deer sister!
A pang of terror strikes. He remembers the Caretaker telling him her name. “Nomusa? Did she say Nomu…? Huh? She did. Yes, she did. Nomusa! And she is dead? Spoke I to a ghost, then? Huh? Is it a dream? Hope it is.” He reverses in fright, and trips on the tomb behind. He lifts himself immediately. “Ouch!” he cries, rubbing a scratched arm throbbing with pain. “Surely, this is not a dream. So what is it? Do I –?”
He moves away from the dreadful sight of tombs.
Fortunately, Mdu stops for him on his way to town.
“Leather,” laughs Mdu, seemingly amused. “What happened to you? Why, you look like a wet chicken. What manner of witchcraft did this to you, Mr-Knows-The-Way-Home-Even-When-Dead-Drunk?”
“Fuck you, bastard! You delight in my plight?”
“Get in the car.”
Leather hops in.
“Now tell me, my friend,” says Mdu, starting the car forward. “What – in God’s name – happened to you? Why are you here so early in the morning?”
“Nomusa happened,” whispers Leather.
After a long confused pause, Mdu bursts out laughing. He closes his eyes as he laughs. The car’s tires graze the edge of grass round the dirt road. “Oh, the Caretaker? She finally got you, huh? Ha-ha. Madoda!”
“Fuck you, dammit!”
“Sorry, but tell me – how she got you, Clever?”
“Nxm,” says Leather, but he proceeds to tell Mdu the story. He spares not a single fact. And in conclusion, he says: “After this, have I made my mind. Never again will you see me step into your shop for the spirits. Only to buy bread or cool drinks. I tell you this, me and alcohol – we are done! Of the past, friends!”
“Oh? Says you, my friend?”
“On my father’s grave – never will I drink again.”
Mdu drops him off at the gate of his homestead.
There is a mud rondavel on the east, which has since become his haven, and a two-roomed brickhouse, in which lays his wife and children and mother. The family is still fast asleep, for the doors are shut, curtains drawn and no rising smoke in the kitchen – as is the case with many households. The eastern sky is bright orange. The sun is about to rise, and the air is slowly becoming warmer.
“See you evening,” Mdu laughs. His four-by-four Bakkie roars and disappears with a trail of dust, leaving Leather to open the wooden gate and amble to his rondavel. “Never!” whispers Leather to himself, hobbling to his house.
“Have my mind made,” he says.
Prince M is a short story writer and final-year BA student in English Literature, at the University of Pretoria (South Africa). His works have been published by FunDza (2015), The Written Whisperz (2016), and the University of Pretoria’s Inclinations (2017).