The soft asynchronous pitter-pat of the mic signals eager faces to point their attention upward. Scattered chatter about the daily happenings of Melville ease to a polite murmur under the breath. The air tastes spicy, the kind of spice that comes in hues of fiery reds and tickles your nostrils as you inhale. The curry special tonight is: buy one get one free. The tingling sensation waltzes from my nose to my ears as the silky yet rusty inflection of Bob Marley’s voice wades through my knotted thoughts.
As if led by the Pied Piper himself, bodies shove themselves through the flaking door frame and into chairs – sitting shoulder to shoulder or, in my daddy and I’s case, shoulder to head. The poor waitstaff scurry to rearrange seating. Plump seat cushions sink, quickly imprinted by sweaty thighs and behinds as we make ourselves comfortable.
The gathering of my skin under a familiar pinch on my forearm reminds me that it will soon begin. My tummy welcomes a frenzy of dragonflies as my cheeks ache from the grin on my oily face. The butterflies arrive when I’m feeling anxious, whereas dragons in whatever form are always exciting.
A voice stumbles into the atmosphere. It is impatient and squeaks from time to time. Although this strays from the confident bellows that bounced across mismatched wallpaper a few damp rotis ago, she speaks an equally captivating truth. The reggae tune has long since faded out and all that’s left is the sobering sound of a festering, tired kind of pain. This pain demands to be felt. A halo of ashy black 4c curls sits atop the prophet’s head. Her shadow towers over the restroom signs, featuring two burgundy old-fashioned silhouettes that add to the odd yet intimate aura. A Mexican wave of finger snaps ripples from chairs to booths to waiters propped up against the polished bar top.
She conducts a choir of strangers who sigh knowingly in E flat minor and let out a melodic “mmhmm” as she becomes a puppeteer of emotion. I want to laugh because her words are connivingly accurate and cry because she is talking not just about herself, but everyone like her. I let my breath follow the same rhythm as her clumsy iambic pentameter. The itchy fabric of my cardigan no longer irritates my forearms. I become enveloped in her voice and I scream. A scream that would have made my throat vibrate and my head fuzzy if a sound had actually come out. I am screaming in an ocean of my thoughts as streaks of colour swim around me. The colours are warm tones of amber and mustard like a Johannesburg sunrise. I feel known.
I hold my glass of bubbling lemonade to my lips. The chilled liquid combats the heat radiating from my body. The air feels sticky as a concoction of spicy and sweaty odours continues to circulate the room. The soft crimson glow that illuminates the audience at their tables makes them appear gentler as if veils of false smiles and bravery have been lifted by what they are hearing.
The woman concludes but I can hear in the unsteadiness of her voice that there is more to be said. I look up into my daddy’s face and notice his leathery skin shows deep creases as his eyebrows fold together. He feels my gaze, puts on an unconvincing smile, one that is usually kept tucked away until faced with moments when I need reassurance. The audience transforms back into their wobbling, weighted selves as the woman leaves the stage: “Welcome to Mo’s”.
This essay is a winner in the Thought Leader/Ukuzibuza Hear Our Voices competition. The monthly competition is an opportunity for young South Africans under the age of 25 to enter pieces in which they can express their ideas, opinions and insights. A collection of all the essays submitted will be published on Ukuzibuza.com and winning pieces will be published on Thought Leader under the Hear Our Voices banner, with a chance to be published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper. See details here. Direct any queries to [email protected]