If ever there was a Pan African writer, surely it must be Zukiswa Wanner. She was born to a Zimbabwean mother and South African father in Zambia; she was raised in Zimbabwe before she relocated to South Africa more than a decade ago; she is now based in Nairobi, Kenya.
It is not a surprise, then, that such a peripatetic person should write a novel with the title London-Cape Town-Joburg. This book, her fifth, joins the ever enlarging compound that houses her other works which include The Madams (2006); Men of the South (2010) shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2011; Behind Every Successful Man (2008); Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2013) and a children’s title, Refilwe (2014). She was included in Hay Festival Africa 39, a list of talented writers from sub Saharan Africa under the age of 40 .
This is an excerpt from her latest novel
Zuko Spencer-O’Malley is dead. Dead via suicide. At the tender age of thirteen.
My son is dead.
And I failed to notice he was troubled. For three days I was too self-absorbed, so intent on changing the world that I couldn’t see the pain my child was going through. What’s more, he left the most hurtful message to me in his suicide note. Which was nothing. He said nothing to me. A testament perhaps to how insignificant I had become in his life? The letter, left on his bedside table was addressed to Dear Papa. Papa. I hadn’t heard him call Martin that since he was four. Martin. His dad. My husband.
Dear Papa, it starts. By the time you read this letter . . .
No reference to me in the address and yet I loved him. No Dear
Mummy and Daddy. Nothing.
I know they had a special bond but it was me who carried him
for nine months. It was me who woke up to check his cot and see
whether he was still breathing when he had a cold. It was me who
woke up and got him ready for school every morning while Martin
slept. Granted, Martin’s schedule did not permit him to and I was
willing and more flexible but still. It was me. All me. And when he
hurt himself, it was me he used to come crying to when his father
and stupid uncle told him that boys don’t cry.
And remembering this tosh well, even in Martin’s absence, when
he would fall and hurt himself or get in a fight with a playmate
he would walk “bravely” into the house. Crunched face, lower
lip between his teeth, he would pull my hand to take me to his
bedroom and only when we were safe there, let out the tears. After
he had calmed down I would ask him what was wrong. “It’s Mike/
Tyrone/Sally/Ibraheim. He hurt my feelings?” Always stated like a
Me (trying hard not to laugh at this child who took himself so
seriously): “And how did he/she hurt your feelings, darling?”
He: “He/she called me a baby.”
Me: “But are you a baby?”
He: “No, I’m not a baby. Sally/Mike/Tyrone/Ibraheim is younger
than me. She/he is a baby.”
Then I would tickle him and he would start laughing and he
would say,“Sally/Mike/Tyrone/Ibraheim is just jealous of me, neh,
Mummy? Because my nana is on television, neh, Mummy?”
I would nod. We would both smile, and then laugh. And it
would be all right with the world.
So where did I go wrong? Where did I lose my son? Was it not me who asked Gladness to teach me how to braid so I could cornrow his hair when he went through that hair-braiding phase? So why his bloody goddamn, Dear Papa? Why not me? Why did he not talk to me before he did this dastardly, pathetic, yet oh-so-brave act? And yes, I said brave. I’ve always believed it takes a brave person to end it all. To decide there are no more options in life except to finish oneself.
Why did he not say something to me? It’s through his bloody Comrade Daddy that this has happened. Oh, maybe I should not apportion blame, because I know Martin hurts as much as I do, but dammit!
I never understood it before, when people said love leaves one feeling vulnerable. I understand it now.
If only Zuko had talked to me, I would have gone to the ends of the earth to help him but no, he chose this route. He chose this route and did not even bother to say goodbye to me, his mummy. I look at the first line again and I feel so angry, so unloved, so powerless.
It’s been a week. Every night I go to bed, my Zuko’s bed, I wish I would not wake up. I hold on to the clothes I last saw him wearing, and hope I won’t open my eyes in the morning. I wish it had been me instead of my baby. I would trade my life to see him smile again. I think of his quirky grin and I almost smile. But then I remember he died at my hands. If my doctor had not prescribed those bloody Dormicums, if I had not left them where they could be accessible to a teenager. I mean, I used to be a teenager once. I know how volatile they can be, so how did this slip my mind? I get up, realising that sleep isn’t coming. I walk out and make a phone call to Priya. My oldest friend. The one who preceded everyone else in my current life. The one who has become not just friend and sister but mother and grandmother too in this time of madness. She is the only one I can trust at this moment. Martin, Sindiwe . . . bloody fuckin’ hell, they knew, didn’t they? The twins, Mxolisi of the sad smile. How could they? I read Zuko’s journal. Nothing like that should ever happen to any child. Why didn’t I notice anything? What kind of mother am I, was I?
I call Priya. Always, but always, she is a rock. She talks me through another night. She wasn’t there for the memorial service. She offered to fly down but I told her it was okay. It wasn’t really but I couldn’t tear her from her Vidi and Pashi who are also probably in mourning since they have known Zuko all their lives.
I wish my mummy had made it, though. I know she had her own problems but if there was a time I needed her, now is it.
But I take what I can get and call Priya. Her voice is enough balm for my tortured mind. Having her hold my hand, even figuratively, suffices to make me want to live another day, to make me try to work another day. It is then that I find myself going to bed and having a few hours of peaceful sleep. But then I wake up and when I go into the shower in Zuko’s bathroom, I remember what it was like finding my baby lying in the bathtub next to the shower. I used to love luxuriating in the bath but now I can only shower. The sight of the bathtub makes the memory all fresh again.
Did he not love me? Did I fail him? In telling him that “coloured” was a southern African label that seeks to separate Africans, in adopting the more American label of “black” instead of the British one of “biracial”, did I inadvertently deny him my heritage so that he could not come to me when it mattered most?
I read the letter again, I do not know why. I know each word as if it’s tattooed on my heart. I put it back in my cardigan pocket and mouth the words I know by heart. It is then I decide: today is the day I’ll show Martin. He too needs to hurt like I hurt. He has to doubt himself like I doubt myself. He too needs to know: we failed Zuko.
A part of me has been ripped apart, stepped on, thrown into the rubbish bin. And just when I think I am almost fine, it starts all over again. My son and heir is dead, and it’s all my fault. My wife has become a shadow of herself since our son died. She’s started smoking again. The last time she smoked was for a short period when Zuko was teething and we both did not know what to do. We donated his cadaver to the Wits Medical School. My wife and I long ago agreed as a family that that’s what we would do if any of us should die. Of course, we weren’t banking on our son doing so before us. No parent ever does. We always foolishly assume there’s a chronological sequence in death and dying. So it happened the way it did, and we donated the body to the students at Wits. No point in feeding the underground creatures when we can do something for medical science. And besides, with the number of deaths lately, most graveyards are so crowded; we would probably have buried him on top of another body and someone would have been buried on top of him not long after.
I wish to high heaven that it had been me and not Germaine who found him. But she doesn’t sleep much – sleeps less now – and so, when the alarm went off last Wednesday morning so she could wake him up for school, there was nothing to wake. He was gone. With her characteristic calmness, Germaine must have pulled the plug to let out the bloodied water in his bathtub. Then she went to the medicine cabinet, took some bandages and covered his slashed wrists. It was only then, probably in some state of shock but knowing that she did not want me destroyed, that she came and woke me up. I do not know whether she went to his room and tidied up. Or whether he tidied up himself before he did it. What I recall is that when I finally went there, everything was uncharacteristically neat. Unlike how it usually was when he was told to tidy up his room.
“We need to call an ambulance.”
I thought I had not heard properly. I was still sleepy. “Huh? Is it time?” I got out of bed and put on a T-shirt. The birthday cake sat on our dresser with the candles 1 and 3. Germaine would have left it there before she went to sleep so we could both sing Zuko “Happy Birthday”.
“Martin, we have to call an ambulance, Zuko is gone,” she said.
I paused from searching for one of my bedroom slippers. What was she saying? And she was crying. Good heavens, why was she crying?
I didn’t have to wonder for long. She told me.
“Zuko is dead. Suicide. In the bathroom. Slashed wrists. Come and see.” In the early morning light I could see she was shaking.