The following excerpt from The Peculiars is being reprinted with permission from Penguin South Africa.
Chapter 5: Nazma
Metathesiophobia: Fear of changes
Nazma was in denial about several things, one of which was that working at the kiosk was going to become her full-time job. It was supposed to be a temporary job until she found a real one, but she had worked there almost every day for the past three months. She wanted to be a pastry chef, and spending her days in the kiosk with its stale food was like being an artist and having to do colouring by numbers. But she had scared herself out of possibly ever being able to get a proper job. In this city – in any city in South Africa – you had to be able to drive. Transport fascism had doomed her to a life of working for her parents.
To keep herself busy Nazma conducted daily kiosk experiments. This morning it was an exercise in measurement. She was balanced on tiptoe, on her left foot, with the smell of curry spices and cigarettes drifting into her nostrils, tickling the hairs and reminding her brain where she was – in a tiny train-station kiosk waiting for her world to change.
Her left hand was outstretched, its painted nails pressed up against the wall in front of her. Beneath this hand were jars of brightly coloured sweets. Their labels described multiple ingredients in Chinese, and their logos announced names like ‘Healthy Love Vitamins’ and ‘True Fruit Colours’. Next to them was the stack of cigarette cartons from which loose cigarettes were handed through the bars to those in the throes of nicotine addiction.
In the right corner, beneath her outstretched right arm and directly beneath her right hand, was the old-fashioned cash register. Its numbers had long since worn away from vigorous pressing in countless sales. Nobody needed receipts from here, and when they did they didn’t get them.
Above her right arm and hand was the shelf where the newspapers stood. The shelf itself was not much to look at. It was painted white but the paint was peeling, and every now and then she would have to dust curls of paint off the pies and other baked goods before she heated them. It was so poorly lit inside the room that nobody noticed any of this, so she and her parents hadn’t bothered to repaint the shelf. The peeling paint was perhaps a chemical aversion to the news in the papers. Die Son, Daily Voice, and other sources of shock journalism screamed headlines such as ‘Baby eats poisoned cat and survives’, ‘Father says mother drove him to the brothel’, and ‘Strange sex a growing market’.
She found the size of the newspapers appealing. They weren’t too big to unfold comfortably, and she thought that this simple design was perhaps why they sold so well. They were easy to hold on public transport or in a crowded space. A while back she’d picked one up to read. The headline that day had been about a soccer star who had hired a tokoloshe to help him defeat his opponents. Nazma had wondered if the tokoloshe was like voodoo, where you have to believe in it for it to work, or if he could work on you whether or not you believed in him. Thinking about this had made her feel quite nervous, and she’d had to sit with the door open and her feet up on the stool for the rest of the afternoon. She didn’t read the papers any more; she didn’t need the extra stress.
Another source of dismay inside the kiosk was the food. Abigail, Nazma’s mother, told those outside the bars that the baked goods, normally pies or samoosas or sausage rolls, were made fresh every day. Abigail’s earnest voice, bovine eyes and the low prices of the pies allowed customers to convince themselves that she was telling the truth. Technically, on Mondays and Thursdays, she was. On the other five days of the week they were freshly reheated, paint curls dusted away. Nazma always worried that someone would complain about the paint or get food poisoning or something from the pies. She made sure to dust them extra well each time before putting them in the microwave.
The microwave was near-prehistoric. It had weathered the move from Tongaat and was now underneath Nazma’s right foot. The distance from corner to corner in the kiosk was only a little more than a metre: she probably could have taken the chance and put her left foot up to become fully suspended above the floor, but didn’t want to descend into complete lunacy. After all, the microwave’s clock told her it was only ten in the morning.
So there she was, part spreadeagled, in the four corners of her tiny train-station kiosk. The yellowish glow from the uncovered bulb cast a strange light on all the items in the store. This was lucky for Nazma because if it hadn’t made everything look so unappealing she suspected she might have become obese from eating all of the pies herself, one at a time, day in and day out. Obesity from comfort eating was one of her more realistic fears.
Julius, the station guard, was standing on the platform trying to see her movements through the security bars. He had seen her attempt to put her foot over her head before, as well as various other acrobatic feats, but this was new. She seemed to have truly lost it this time. He radioed his colleague at Newlands to tell him she was at it again, and then continued to watch with interest. He wondered how long before she flung the door open in a panic this time.
Her experiment to touch four shop corners while standing in the middle of it had proved less time-consuming than she had hoped. Thinking she was unobserved, Nazma took down her hands and foot after one last consideration of moving her left foot to join them, wondering if she could balance up there like Spiderman. She brushed down her hair, sat back down on the stool, and waited. It was too much. She opened the door and stepped out, despondently breathing in the fresh air. Julius felt sad too, as his show was over sooner than expected. He got up and walked towards the subway.
As she stood in the doorway, Nazma began to daydream about baking. Her favourite recipes were for simple things. Apple crumble, vegetable soup, butter chicken curry, muffins, crunchies, vetkoek and biscuits. She missed spending days in the kitchen preparing food for her family, as she had done to practise while she was studying. Now, because she wasn’t bringing in any income, she was relegated to working here, serving warmed-up food and stale chocolates. She contemplated suffocating herself with a pie, but instead returned inside and slumped a little deeper into her stool. She noted a possible next experiment: slouching as far as she could without falling off. The thought of living with her parents and working in the kiosk forever made her feel light-headed, and she put her head between her knees.
Breathing deeply, she had to admit to herself that, on an ordinary day, there were some highlights in the kiosk. At seven-fifteen, give or take a few minutes depending on Metrorail’s daily delays, a train would pass through her station. Before its screeching brakes, the gentle tinkle of a tambourine and the steady throbbing of a drum would fill the air. The drumming came from the people in that particular carriage all stomping their feet in tune to the singing of the crowd. She had never left the shop to see what was happening in the carriage, nervous that the illusion she had of the magical musical train would be shattered by the revelation that it was just a group of ordinary people, singing an ordinary, comprehensible song. Or worse, that it was religious.
Nevertheless, she strained her ears each morning, waiting for the train to arrive. When she heard the music she would close her eyes and the light behind her lids would pulse red, warm yellow and soft orange. It was a daily dose of Zen before breakfast. While the warmth lingered she used it to psych herself up for the day ahead. When the train left the station she always felt lighter.
Now, she thought about the night before, and how strange it had all been. She remembered the long queue, the old man with his gilded stick and that strange woman who had watched them with the binoculars, the smell of the smoker’s shirt against her face. Not being able to go out alone at night meant she hadn’t really spent much time around men since she’d finished studying six months before. Public transport really limited a woman’s ability to get some.
Still daydreaming, she heard a scatter of pigeons and immediately straightened up into a posture of business prowess. The pigeons were her warning bells and were entirely dependable, if a bit mangy. She plastered her most inviting expression onto her face and leant forward, ready and waiting. Moments later her father, Zubair, appeared, gazing in at her through the bars. Julius, seeing him approach, turned back down the stairs to walk to the other side. He had learnt to avoid Zubair, not because he was bad-tempered, but because he was so very lonely. You could greet him with a simple hello and spend the rest of the morning trying to get away from his conversation and his desperate attempts to connect with another human being.
‘How have the morning sales been?’
‘Fine, Dad. Mostly Styvie blue and a few copies of Die Son.’
‘And what about the pies, eh? Good to have a good start to the day with some nutrition. Why are there no signs outside advertising today’s options? It’s Tuesday after all.’
‘Because we didn’t sell the entire Monday special, Dad. Despite the signs.’
The ineffectiveness of his signs was an intense disappointment to Zubair. He’d made the last batch himself after losing faith in the professional printed kind. He’d laboured with pen and ink, attempting various forms of handwriting on all different sizes and styles of paper. The only thing he didn’t change was the fact that they were frequently selling reheated pies.
He withdrew from the bars, extending his pelvis forward, gazing at the little roof outside the stall, and sighing loudly. Zubair was sporting Thai fishing pants which Abigail and Nazma tried to convince him were from the ladies’ section. His open sandals revealed his toes, polished like chess pieces. His walk was a hips-flung-forward purposeful stride. He always carried a bag of crumbs in his right hand, and placed his left hand on his hip, elbow out. Sciatica, he claimed, made him thrust his hips forward, and his ‘paining hip’ apparently made him rest his hand there and exaggerate his side-to-side wiggle. ‘Can’t be helped,’ Abigail would say with weary eyes. ‘His poor hip,’ she would proclaim on stronger days.
‘Nevertheless,’ said Zubair, ‘a new sign may entice people. Take down this old one and redo it. You know how people love to see a brightly coloured sign. Do it with those juicy Kokis.’
He walked away, leaving her to herself again. She fell back into daydreams for a while, the platform quiet between train stops. But soon she jumped as the electric tingling and singing – tsssssssssik tssssssik tsik tsiiiisssk – and the final ear-splitting screeching of the brakes announced the arrival of a train. She sighed and looked at her cell phone. Still no contact from the Centre. She reached for the Kokis and began to write a new sign. As she picked up the colourful pens, her phone peeped and, although her stomach was tense with worry, she forced herself to look.
Thank you for applying for the study. We’d like to inform you that your application was successful. Please reply ‘yes’ to confirm your place or ‘no’ to decline.
She was so relieved that she began to cry. Working in the kiosk, and the sense of failure that came with it, was like carrying a heavy shopping bag and putting it down, only to realise the circulation has been cut off from your fingers. In an instant the colouring-in of yet another sign advertising pies didn’t feel so awful, and the light in the room seemed comforting rather than oppressive. She had a chance to escape. Quickly, she replied ‘yes’ in capital letters.
That afternoon, closing up the shop felt like freedom – she didn’t even slam the door like she usually did at the end of the day. Walking home, she planned her life as a new and improved person who could drive. She pictured the car she would drive, and the cds she would have inside it. She pictured the shoes that would be left behind in the back seat and the gravel that would almost surely pile up inside the door. She couldn’t wait for her windscreen to mist up in the rain, and to know what to do to clear it. She was ready. This study was going to get her over her fear of driving.
Their double-storey house smelled like the steam from an iron, and as she walked in she saw Abigail, stooped over the board as she usually was at this time of day. Abigail was watching The Bold and the Beautiful on tv. Nazma wished her sister Nafeesa was there so she could tell her about the study.
‘I got in, Mum.’
Her mother muted the tv. She could look at Nazma in a way that made her embarrassed for the feelings she hadn’t realised she was experiencing. At that moment, Abigail looked like she was going to hug her, or at least like she was thinking about it.
‘That’s so good, my girl. I’m so happy for you.’
‘We start next week. Will you speak to dad about time off?’
‘I’ll speak with him. But you know how he’ll want to speak to you too about where you’re going. Just tell him you’re going to a cooking class or something like that. He won’t ask too many questions. He’ll probably know where you are, but you know he likes to pretend he doesn’t know, and you must pretend that you don’t know he knows.’
Nazma put out her hand for the high five she’d taught her mum to give in the absence of hugs and kisses. Moving through to their kitchen, she made herself a toasted cheese, onion and chilli sandwich, and went up to her room to read and to imagine her life on the open roads. Downstairs, Abigail unmuted the television and watched the familiar characters do familiar things, but, this time, felt something different.
Jen Thorpe is a writer and researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has a Masters in Politics with Distinction from Rhodes University, and Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. Jen published her first novel, The Peculiars, with Penguin South Africa in 2016. It was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Fiction. Jen has published poetry, flash fiction, and short stories on a number of online publishing platforms including Itch, Brittle Paper, Aerodrome, Saraba Magazine, BooksLive, and Poetry Potion. These pieces can be found on her website. By day she works as a researcher on women and gender, focusing on LGBTI rights and violence against women. She writes regular features on these topics for publications such as Women and Girls Hub, W24.com, and others.