Number 23 Wilton Road had the finest dustbin on the block. It was sturdy, had two stump legs and two wheels that did not turn. The hinges that held the lid to the bin did not squeak. It was exactly the right height for Thembi’s kind of work. It came up to just below his hips and was as wide as an oil barrel.
It was also situated every Wednesday in just the right place – in front of a tangled nest of purple flowers and away from the main gate. Thembi had to be careful. His type of work was delicate and everything he did ran on a precisely timed schedule.
In the morning, when the air conditioner in the Fournace Bakery came on and blasted him on his outside bed with unrelenting wafts of garlic bread, he knew it was time to wake up and get to work. He folded his sheets of cardboard in half and stowed them between two of the bakery’s dumpsters. He twisted his back and clicked his neck, enjoyed the swell of warm pain that rose to just below his hairline.
‘Sawubona Thembi! Ninjani?’
Thembi grinned at the black man that passed the back of the bakery, alternately hopping on and off a Hyperama trolley.
‘Ish, I thought you was dead, Nkosi,’ he said. He returned the toothy grin that Nkosi was giving. Nkosi put one leg down and his trolley stuttered to a stop.
‘Maybe tomorrow boss!’
Thembi nodded and Nkosi flicked his head, kicked off of the pavement and picked up speed on his trolley. When he reached the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Blou Street, he stashed it into a scraggly mess of weeds, Castle Light beer cans and newspaper discards.
Thembi savoured mornings, the sun still sunk below the great walls that surrounded Dunkeld’s closed-off suburbs. He had a bit of time before he should set off, so he watched Nkosi getting ready for the day. Nkosi took a stick of white chalk from his pocket and rubbed it over his face. Out of his trolley came a sheet of cardboard. He remembered giving Nkosi that sheet, part of it from his own blanket.
Thembi listened to the kombi drivers curse each other in Xhosa and Sotho. He could hear a radio blasting from a bakkie that had stopped in front of Hyde Park shopping centre:
‘…early morning wake-up call with Highveld stereo.’
The radio switched off, and an immense white man with a watermelon belly and a carpet moustache dropped the bakkie’s back ramp. Out of it, like ants, came shirtless black men. They were grinning and talking. One of the men saw Nkosi walking to the intersection with his sheet of cardboard.
‘Molo!’ he shouted by way of greeting, and bending down to hold his leg, he danced in a circle. The other men around him laughed. Nkosi grinned and in response, rolled his one pant leg down and began to limp. He let his foot drag a little behind him. The men cheered.
From beneath a brick near his bed, Thembi pulled three plastic bags. He picked up a long tree branch. A quick glance in the dumpster behind him revealed a bowl-sized crust of bread. He climbed half way into the dumpster. With his stick he pulled the bread against the side, raising it until he could lean down and reach for it. It was a bit hard, but nothing his five front teeth couldn’t handle. He was very proud of his teeth. Nkosi only had three because he said it was good for business.
Thembi reached the intersection where Nkosi was working.
‘Mum, ish, Mum, only two rands. I is needing breakfast. One rand mum, you make my day. God bliss.’
A black woman weaved between the cars, a pile of Homeless Talk balanced on her head. Her baby sat on the pavement playing with a couple of rocks.
Thembi crossed the street. He ignored a kombi that swerved around him blasting its hooter. He used to work in the Dunkeld suburbs, but since they put up the temporary concrete barriers, the neighbourhood had become quieter. It was easier to be noticed and Thembi did not want to be noticed.
Traffic was piling up and Thembi could hear nothing but hooting. A ten-minute walk past Hyde Park shopping centre, First Road and Third Road, had Thembi turning into Sandhurst. Most of the houses preceding Wilton Road were so grand he thought they must be government buildings. They were secure too, with black gates and wire frills on the top of their surrounding walls. Some even had electric fencing. He preferred not to work on this road, not if it would mean run-ins with security guards, and fat, rich men.
A dog was barking. He could hear water sprinklers. He arrived on Wilton Road. Number 23’s dustbin was green and shiny as a river. He always started with 23, just in case the rubbish collectors decided to do pickups early.
He surveyed the neighbourhood to make sure no one was watching. The only spectators were a couple of Hardy-dars that bobbed across number 23’s green pavement. Their long beaks occasionally prodded the ground to check for worms. Thembi wasn’t fond of the sudden loud cawing noise they sometimes made. One of the Hardy-dars paused and turned an eye on him. He gave them a wide berth, skirting round to the bin. He flipped the lid and embraced the familiar smell of spirits. This was another one of the reasons that 23 was his favourite dustbin.
To read more of this work – and meet the author – come to the launch of Proof, May 24 at Foyles Charing Cross.