Zulu Brothers story: Mhlaba

The smell of nicotine reaches her first, but it’s blended with perfume she doesn’t recognise. She feels him getting heavier and heavier on her shoulders and she knows he is near but something is amiss. It doesn’t feel like he is looking at her.
She doesn’t turn around. She’s waiting for him to touch her or to say something but he doesn’t. She figures he is having one of his moments, the ones where he just stands there and watches her. They happen mostly when something is wrong, and a lot is wrong lately so she decides to continue with what she is doing until he says or does something.
She left him still sleeping this morning when she walked the kids to Mqoqi’s car and then took her usual morning walk in the garden.
When she put the kids in the car she didn’t say anything to Mqoqi except greet him, although he did look at her like he expected her to ask something. They speak now, not as much as they used to, but at least they can be in the same room and not be awkward around each other.
The walks that Hlomu takes every morning are more about getting time to think, alone, than they are about exercising.
She hasn’t spoken to Mqhele, but she knows he is here because she felt him standing behind her, and when she felt the lightness on her shoulders, she knew he had moved, without speaking or touching her.
He rarely eats breakfast these days and she doesn’t bother making it unless he comes to the kitchen and sits on the high chair with his elbows on the kitchen counter.
So much has happened in the past two years, good and bad. Ntsika and Sbani coming back home, Niya and Mvelo going to big school, the birth of Mathongo and Gugu’s two miscarriages. Life has gone on but none of these things that happened freaked Mqhele out more than what Phakeme did.
She knows there is something he is not telling her, but she won’t push, not this time because something about all of it makes her stomach turn.
One of her twins, surely Langa, left a half-eaten bowl of cereal on top of the stove. He doesn’t drink milk and so he eats his cereal dry, like a packet of chips.
MaMnguni once made him eat it with water mixed with sugar but he threw up all day.
She empties the cereal in the bin, rinses the bowl and places it slowly on the dish rack where the rest of the dishes are drying. She can feel him behind her and she knows he isn’t moving.
“Did you sleep at all?” she asks, without turning around to face him.
He doesn’t answer her. She knows this behavior and she immediately makes peace with that all the plans she had made for today will have to be cancelled.
She wipes her hands and turns around to face him. She blinks twice, rubs her eyes with her hands and looks at him again.
He doesn’t speak, just looks at her straight in the eye.
She turns back to the sink again, trying to figure out if she was dreaming or seeing things. No, she isn’t and she’s certain. Her next feeling after confusion is fear. She presses her hands hard on the sink to stop them from trembling and swallows before she speaks.
“Where’s my husband?”
He shrugs, the same way Mqhele shrugs when he sits on that high chair with his elbows resting on that counter.
“Where is my husband?” she asks again, pressing her hands harder on the enamel sink to try and conceal her fear.
He rubs the palms of his hands together. She screams.
Mqhele appears behind the man. The man immediately disappears into the house.
He stands in front of her with his hands on her shoulders and waits for her to compose herself.
“I can explain.” That’s all he says when she turns her back on him, her hands still pressed on the sink.
“Did he sleep here?” she asks, her voice trembling.
He wants to explain but he isn’t sure where to start because he is still trying to figure out which one it is that is freaking her out so much, the strange man in her house or the realisation that he has another brother she doesn’t know about.
“He did, but I can explain.”
Mhlaba was supposed to stay in the room until Mqhele told Hlomu everything. She and the kids were not supposed to see him at all, not until Mqhele had spoken to his wife. But he was woken by one of the twins, standing over him, in silence. And later, when he looked out the spare bedroom window and saw Hlomu walking in the garden, he assumed Mqhele must be awake and somewhere in the house too. When he heard movements in the kitchen he thought it was Mqhele, and so he came out to find him.
“Let’s go to the bedroom,” Mqhele suggests.
She shakes her head and heads for the door instead. He follows her outside, not sure where she is headed exactly until she presses the mobiliser.
“Where are you going, Hlomu?” He grabs her arm as she opens the car door.
“I need you to calm down and listen to me.”
“No, Mqhele, I need to get out of here. You brought this person I don’t know into our home without telling me?”
Now he knows what she’s freaking out about but he thinks she’s being petty and is overreacting.
“His name is Mhlaba. He is our brother, we think.”
She looks at him, shakes her head and tries to forcefully free her arm from his grip but he grabs her by both shoulders and looks at her.
“I said I will explain everything. This is about our children. I need to do this.”
“Whose children? My children, Mqhele? What did you do this time? What fucked-up criminal shit did you do this time?”
“Can you stop screaming, please?”
He knows she won’t, not when her children are involved and definitely not when she knows she’s being shut out, again.
“I want that man out of my house! Now Mqhele,”
“But he is my…”
“I don’t care who he is, I want him gone,” she says, and leaves.
He finds him back in the kitchen, sitting on the same high stool with his elbows on the counter.
“I’ve obviously been in jail for too long because before I left women were nicer,” Mhlaba says.
“And they actually offered food to guests,” he says and laughs.
But Mqhele is frustrated, he has been since last night and all he wants is to get through this as quickly as possible.
“I don’t have the time Mhlaba. We have to go.”