[Extract from Notes for a Funeral, a work in progress]
Castor is holding court in what used to be the hair salon, with the fading placards of exotic West African hairdos still stuck on its windowfront. He sits on a cracked white plastic chair on the scrubbed linoleum floor, a girl on each arm. “You’ve been downtown,” he says to the plump one sitting on the steps leading to the wired-closed back room, she with the fake gold baubles holding high her piled braids; she smiles in the manner of simple girls, understanding his compliment on her new coiffure. Castor flashes his even white teeth about with ease. His face is open, his hands hang loosely in between his legs and he’s easy to like; not me, the one with the squinty eyes and the too-blonde stubble that refuses to become a beard; in my washed-out blue-and-white trackpants, I am all tendons and nerves; the lanky youths at the door don’t look me in the eye; but rather focus on their broken takkies or get sucked into Castor’s glow. They call him Captain in recognition of his easy leadership skills; they call me Whitey as a straight-faced descriptive, nothing more, Castor’s pale shadow.
His Sparrows flutter about the run-down winter playground outside; he calls them his Sparrows because the young boys have this strange way of running, their heads thrust forward, their skinny shoulder-blades squeezed together and their arms trailing out of sight behind them. Swooping through the township like this, darting here and there, they indeed look like the little birds, but they are really just emulating the older boys who developed this mannerism deliberately, a method of moving swiftly, unpredictably, running with their arms behind their backs so that no-one could see if there was a pistol or kwatcha or not; but the threat was often real enough and the older folk stayed indoors when they saw the flocks gathering like birds on a wire.
I wasn’t always sure myself, sometimes catching a flicker of a sneer in the glint of a Sparrow’s eye out of the corner of my eyes; I was wary of their sharpened bicycle spokes and years-worn paint-etched screwdrivers that would likewise flash in and out of view. Not that they would harm the lieutenant who was never called by that title, but sometimes things got confused in a fight, or the stream of our oaths was troubled by undercurrents of petty jealousies or vicious rumours; one can never be too careful.
The next thing you know, and Castor has shucked off the fawning girls, and the boys flit around him, storming near, then looping far; more like bats, I think, the left side of my mouth twisting. Castor gives me a quick penetrating look, and then he is off and running with that lupine gait. I am taken by surprise; he hasn’t consulted me, but this morning he was talking incessantly about the newspaper report of the suddenness of that attack on a quiet street in Denmark; unpredictability is his skill; so without warning, he is heading down the district road, his Swallows in tow, clearly bent on an ersatz mission. I shake off my clumsiness and lope after them, a few stragglers swirling around me; we take a right turn at the dirt farm road where a fire is burning itself out under the straggly stands of bluegums, and my little group suddenly realises he is not taking the curve of the district road, down towards the river, but heading straight towards the highway. So we break across the smoking veld, to intercept them, the hot ashes scorching my feet, soot smearing my pant-cuffs. Along the way, we run into a cross-path that is tumbled full of rocks from a forgotten rain. There we merge with a group of primary school girls in their black pinafores; their faces shining they chant “Sticks and stones can break my bones…” There is going to be a war today.