A Short Story
By Mbe Mbhele
I am sitting at the second computer from the wall in the postgraduate lab of the school of arts at Wits. Multiple tabs are opened on the screen. I am listening to Fela Kuti while reading a bad Niq Mhlongo article on the Johannesburg Review of Books website. The song is transitioning, Fela is ranting and Niq Mhlongo cannot get more ridiculous. In between bopping my head and nodding, someone taps my shoulder. I immediately turn to look at who it is, shocked because around 23h00 and 00h00 no one comes to the labs. It is a familiar face, someone I have seen around the corridors of the school of arts but have never spoken to. I slowly take of my headsets to hear what she might need.
She says nothing for a couple of seconds and just before it becomes awkward I say ‘hey’ but she is also trying to say something. So much for attempting to avoid the awkwardness. She giggles and not knowing what to do I also giggle. ‘How are you?’ she asks and I respond with a curious smile ‘I am ok’. I keep quiet. She also does not say anything but looks down at the computer desk. On the desk is a stapler, phone and a book that is slightly concealed by the mess of printouts.
‘Can I see your book?’ she asks, directly gazing at it. ‘Yes of course you can’. I pick up the book from the table and hand it to her. She flips through the pages. Why doesn’t she just read the blurb if she wants to know what the book is about? I think to myself. I am slightly irritated. I want to go back to what I was doing. I want to be with Fela. I can still hear the thump of the drums through my headphones. But it is not just about Fela or Niq Mhlongo. My deadlines also demand my attention.
As if the situation cannot get any worse, she draws the chair next to me and sits down. I roll my eyes. She still has the book, inspecting it, so she does not notice that my countenance has changed. She asks the question that I have been dreading.
‘What is the book –?’ I respond before she could even finish her sentence ‘I don’t know hey, I haven’t read the book…maybe you should buy it and find out for yourself’. She senses the sarcasm in my tone and for the first time she looks at me and tilts her head. I am a bit embarrassed by my obvious rudeness and no matter how genuine I am about my busyness it will come across as if I am just being a dick. So I resolve to give her a very brief description of the book.
I pick the worn out book up from the table where she returned it. Its wrinkles and frail brown pages are testimony of the many ages it has endured. The cover is royal blue with a melancholic French impressionist painting of a woman on it. The name Jane Eyre is written in bold cursive font and beneath it, in a smaller font, it is written Charlotte Bronte. Anyways, I stutter, unable to find the simplest way to describe the book to her. The book is never one thing. A book is layered, there are multiplicities of meanings and interpretations within a book.
‘The book is about a lot of things depending on where you are as a person when you are reading it.’ I clear my throat before saying the next line, hesitant but I say it anyway. ‘For me, it is about a room that no one enters, a dark thing stays inside that room. It is neither human nor animal, it is something worse. It bites, burns and is even ready to kill. It is madness. It is from the Jamaican Islands but could also very well be from Soweto. The book is erasure and reconfiguration through imagination. It is a twisted depiction of particular beings as menace, as captive and the apocalypse that could be engendered by its escape.’She looks at me, confusion written on her face.
‘The book is about love and how love always manages to find what it seeks. How love is always there suspended mid-air waiting for the one who will claim it. How love continues to wait even when we flee from it because we fear its purity. The novel is about a love that is willing to rebel against how society has defined and named it. It is about how true love remains unaffected by categories, duty and righteousness.’ I look at her again to assess whether or not she can see that I am just bullshitting her. For the first time I notice her green eyes, they cajole me into a long pause. I eventually look down, clear my voice and continue. ‘The book is about uhm discipline, family and uhm uhm karma.’ There is something in those eyes. I want to see it again.
I look up and her blond hair shines as though it is comprised of glitter particles. I blink to make sure my eyes are not deceiving me. It must be the reflection of the light. Her freckles seem as if they were carefully placed by an Indian mehndi practitioner. I do not want to see her face anymore, so I search for something to fiddle with while waiting for her to respond. Instead I find her white hands holding on to the book. They look soft and fragile. I want to touch them and feel whether there is blood inside them, whether they are warm or they are as indifferent as wool. I want to touch this woman but what of Mating Birds that I just finished reading a week ago? I snap and ask her why she was interested in knowing about the book and she responds with a voice that now sounds so delicate and innocent, ‘because my name is also Jane’.