A warm summer breeze blew along Mthatha’s main road, carrying dust from the bone-dry verges in a whirl of hot air. The afternoon sun beat down on the commuters, shop workers and vagrants moving about the pavements – some stopping for a chat with road-side pallet stall vendors; some just waiting patiently to hail the next minibus taxi passing by.
Nelson, a proud Xhosa man well into his sixties, shuffled along with the crowd (though at a much slower pace than everyone else). He’d needed a walking aid since his late fourties. He was on his seventh walking stick, polished ebony with a lion’s head as a handle.
He had been a garden worker up until the age of 48, then decided to open a tavern with his son. Less manual labour (he got his boy to do the heavy lifting) with more reward at the end of the day (in the form of a Black Label quart).
His back gave him hell, thanks to all the mowing and clipping and weeding and planting. It gave him the most grief during the colder months, and on occasion he was known to roll himself a cannabis cigarette and puff the pain away.
Nelson eventually arrived at the bank where he’d first opened his savings account twenty years ago. Every Friday morning, come shine or snow, he would catch a taxi into town from his smallholding and do his business.
He grabbed the door handle and slowly pulled it open.
On the last Friday of every month, Nelson came with an extra item on his to-do list. He was helping put his eldest of nine grandchildren through university, and deposited money into the university’s account once a month. Always cash; always on the last Friday of the month.
Though that day’s trip was no ordinary visit to the bank, for Nelson was making the final payment. The account was R1107.00 away from being settled, and he’d taken the money from that month’s pension payment (it was most of it) to settle the balance.
She was graduating on Monday, and Nelson had already bought his bus ticket to be in attendance. It was a long drive to Port Elizabeth, but he’d just find someone to talk to on the bus and pass the time that way.
A sweet smell of floor polish and freshly-brewed coffee greeted him as he walked in. He sniffed deeply, thinking about how blessed he was – at 68 years old – to still be up and about like an independent person, doing independent person things.
The bank was tiled, save for a central strip of carpet that ran from the front door to the waiting area. The walls were lined with happy people in various stages of adult life; posters advertising home loans, study loans, and any other loan you can think of. Nelson thought debt was the hamster wheel of society people spoke about. Unlike regular hamster wheels, the debt version came with shackles. He was, and always had been, a free-range hamster.
He walked up to the ticket dispenser, where a young black lady greeted him with a smile.
‘Good morning, tata mkulu. What business do you have at the bank today?’
Nelson was taken back at how beautiful she was, and lost his train of thought momentarily.
‘My dear, I am so sorry. An old man’s mind, you know?’ He chuckled in elderly embarrassment.
‘I am here to deposit money into a university account.’ He continued. ‘Was it you who helped me last time?’
She looked at him with confusion: ‘Don’t think so, tata. I started a week ago. You know that it’s very easy to do this type of transfer on the internet, right?’
Nelson didn’t have patience for technology, and believed that the old fashioned way was the best way. Besides, one only needed to look at the pace he walked to know that technology moved faster than he was comfortable with.
‘The internet will steal your money,’ he said conspiratorially. ‘I prefer cash to digits on a computer screen.’
The bank’s welcoming agent giggled at the grey-haired grandpa, gave him a numbered ticket, and asked him to take a seat in the waiting area. He enjoyed making young ladies smile; he’d do it wherever he went.
Nelson sat down, and was just about to pull out his newspaper for a look at the headlines when a young man’s voice called out his number. He took a few seconds to get to a standing position, then shuffled over to cubical number four.
The teller was a freckled young man; no older than twenty-four. He had bright orange hair, like a veld-fire in the midday sun. The contrast to the man’s pale white face shocked Nelson’s eyes.
‘Good morning, son!’ Nelson said as he plonked himself down into the chair. ‘Forgive me if I stare, but we don’t see many white people in Mthatha these days…’
The teller had received similar reactions from other account holders, having a well-rehearsed response ready for deployment:
‘I know, sir. I think I might be the only white person in Mthatha!’ The young man said, smiling with anxious anticipation.
It was a poor attempt at a joke, but not very far from the truth.
Nelson exploded with laughter, almost falling off of his chair. ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘I am here to tell you that you are welcome in Mthatha. Let us just say that you are a nice change of scenery!’
They both laughed.
‘Judging by that plastic money bag you’re holding,’ the young man went on, ‘I’m guessing you want to make a deposit, sir?’ The teller pointed to the bag of folded fifty, twenty and ten Rand notes in Nelson’s hand.
‘Not only are you funny,’ Nelson said, ‘but you are very perceptive too.’ He opened the bag of cash and emptied the notes onto the counter.
While Nelson filled out a deposit slip, the new friends spoke about life in the Eastern Cape; life in South Africa; what they were planning for the imminent weekend. Nelson needed to help his son restock their tavern, and he hoped to watch the Chiefs play Celtic while putting away a few beers. Saturdays were made for beers and good football.
As he handed the cash and paper slip over, Nelson heard what he thought was a man screaming from outside. He turned, and noticed through the glass doors people shuffling faster than usual along the roadside.
Could be a vagrant dispute turning violent, he thought. He knew that Umtata’s many hobos and vagabonds were always getting into punch-ups on Main street.
‘Excellent, Mr. Bavuma. Here is your receipt of deposit, and I hope you have an excellent weekend further!’ The teller handed a receipt to Nelson, and watched him stand up slowly.
‘Not sure when I’ll be coming back after today.’ Nelson said, looking at the door with growing concern. ‘That account is now paid in full.’
The commotion outside was getting louder.
‘Even so, don’t be a stranger, now!’ The teller waved jovially at Nelson as the old man shuffled back to the door.
He was too inquisitive to answer the young man. He pushed the glass door and walked out into the afternoon sunshine.
The street was almost deserted, and he could hear people shouting in the distance. Three loud bangs went off somewhere close by, making him flinch. He knew what was happening. It was the start of a taxi war; rival taxi associations fighting for turf. This happened every few years or so: Tempers flared to boiling point, then a few people died.
He descended the few stairs as fast as he could, and turned towards the east of town, towards his home. He kept his eyes on his walking stick’s handle, and tried to walk with purpose.
‘Down!’ someone called from in front of him. Nelson didn’t have time to look up, let alone get down to the ground, before the bullet exploded from the revolver and entered his chest, blowing a hole in his spine.
His walking stick was the first to fall, followed by its owner. Feeling no pain at all, as the pool of blood bloomed out around his midsection, he left the world as he had entered it – under an African sun.
Nelson’s funeral was well-attended, with the ginger-haired bank teller making an appearance. No cellphones or tablets were allowed, and he was buried with his seventh walking stick.
© De Wet Ferreira
Meet the Author
De Wet Ferreira was born in Port Elizabeth, along the south-eastern coast of South Africa. Throughout Ferreira’s travels, he has worked as a waiter, quasi-manager of a coffee shop, a used car salesman, and a pizza delivery boy. He is a gigging musician who plays intimate shows on wine farms in the Cape Town area, digital freelance marketer, teacher at an international school in Jiangsu, China, and so much more!
His stories revolve around South Africa serving as vignette’s into the lives of those who live there regardless of their station and ambitions.
Use the contact form below or navigate to his website if you have questions regarding Ferreira’s stories and are interested in collaborating with him.