“A poor man once said that he would much rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable. He died a miserable, bitter man!” Pastor Ray Stephens stood tall in the counsel of the self-obsessed and self-righteous. He held the keys to every door and every safe on the church premises, a great man indeed. His teachings though were very different from what the other teachers at Sunday school were teaching, but as well, Pastor Ray was caught once with a Marijuana joint he claimed he had confiscated from one the older boys. He refused to disclose the name of the young lad “lest it tries his faith and stops him from coming to Sunday school, Jesus Christ would not let one of his own go astray, amen?”
The hall was full to capacity. Very few were actually concentrating on the teaching for the day. One thinks to himself, “I have not done my homework” the other thinks about his victory in a game of chess in a tournament that was played at school on Friday, “dirty dishes back at home, and my poodle that still needs a bath“.
The sunlight penetrates through the window in the upper casing and reflects on a chandelier. A page cut out of playboy magazine showing a naked woman passes from one hand to another and earns a few giggles from the boys. ”Elijah would you like to share your joke with the class?” Elijah on a fear inspired impulse stands up as one who has been awoken suddenly from a dream
“No Sir,” Elijah says holding back his laughter.
“I will not tolerate such behavior in my class” says Pastor Ray as he pulls up his jeans to hide his striped underwear, which had been exposed now for the past 8 minutes. The class is interrupted by a sneeze at the door, enter a slim, smart looking, young girl who runs to Pastor Ray and squeezes him suddenly, it is immediately obvious to the young spectators that this young lady must be Cordelia, Pastor Ray’s daughter who had gone to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal for a degree in music, “Apparently she plays the cello.”
“Class dismissed and Elijah we still need to talk about that picture in your pocket,” says Pastor Ray while clearing his desk. One of the older boys, the one who actually brought the picture to church stares at Elijah as a threat and within the hour, on the church yard was silence again.
Cordelia volunteers to drive her and her father home in his light green Mini, which has been in the family since forever, white roofed, and since the recent modifications, now fit with a white leather interior, they drove through the streets of Mayfair to Langlagte, and upon entry into their humble home that bore refuge to them since ’98 they were greeted by the smell of an all-time family favorite, Cordelia’s mother’s chicken Biryani. That was a night for sharing great memories for the Stephens and Cordelia promises to take them to the beach one day.
The next morning Cordelia sits in the living room staring at the ceiling. The empty cup in her hand is still warm and sticky with sugar. If she is to refill the cup, it would be a fourth, but she knows better. The sounds of Lotus FM see her dozing off, only to be woken by her mother’s entry, as she returns from Lameez’s Hallal Butchery. Cordelia seems to remember something she had forgotten and quickly stands to go and brush her teeth, wash her face and parts of her body she deems necessary.
“Do you think father would mind if I borrowed his car?” Cordelia asks without paying much attention to her mother’s requests that they cook together later that day, “No problem,” her mother’s response sounds like a question. As Cordelia paces out her mother notices that she has forgotten her phone and is quickly behind her, “Your phone my baby.” “Thank you mother.”
The afternoons see the streets of Langlagte buzzing with heavy traffic as Johannesburg CBD is no more than 2KM away. Mr. Stephens returns home with a broad smile and is greeted by the pleasant smell of his wife’s cooking, which has seen her winning his heart over immediately after their marriage. A big cake sits in the middle of the table for Cordelia, after waiting a few hours after his meal, Cordelias father is allowed finally to have a slice of cake.
It was almost sunrise when Cordelia returned home the next morning, staring into the eyes of her mother. She doubts the old lady has slept a second since her departure, her eyes tearing from helplessness, as for his father’s eyes, they were red with fury.
“I guess I can go to work now, hey Cordelia?” her father in desperation for a sign of remorse. “Sorry about the car father,” is all she says “You think this is about the car? I did just fine without it yesterday when I didn’t have to worry about my daughter disappearing, didn’t I?!”
Cordelia looks into her mother’s eyes, what-for? she is not certain. Her mother looks away in disapproval. Back into her father’s eyes which are now glistening with tears as he thinks to himself about his one and only child’s miraculous birth after his wife’s two miscarriages.
“Cordelia…” her mother’s first word since she returned, almost collapsing she is caught by her husband, who carries her to the nearest couch.
Cordelia is dumbstruck, her father resolves that he will not be going to work today, not when he is this late anyway. A haunting silence fills the house that whole morning through. Cordelia washes the dishes, her laundry, the windows, cleans the carpet anything to avoid her parents’ presence, and also to appease them.
“Hmm, somebody is up today,” her mother says attemptipting to lighten the mood. “I just hope you will not use this later on to make demands,” her forced giggle is followed by her abrupt embrace, her face is still wet with tears.
A knock on the door, an attempt at breaking the door, a gunshot…
“Cordelia!!!” the young man turns his back and runs off before Cordelias father makes it to the still breathing corpse of her daughter…
Her mother crippled by shock, a white Isuzu truck screeches off way before anyone could know what was going on.
It took a whole 3 weeks before Cordelias father could walk into her room. On the dresser, lies a note. Speaks of a lover she had who paid her fees when NSFAS stopped paying, a certain Mr. Gulam, rich and powerful, whose wife had always been jealous of all the young mistresses that the powerful Muslim shop owner had had.
Innocent faces, a small disagreement, a young girl requesting that the young boys hush. Mr. Stephens is silent, Elijah advances to his desk as a small puppy to its master, he changes his mind half way there and goes to the bin to throw away a piece of paper instead. Mr. Stephens asks him to come to his desk, before getting there he apologizes about his behavior last Sunday.
“I know you are sorry my boy, and I know you would not do it again,” the boy has never seen Mr. Stephens like this. He has never imagined him being human. He runs back to his desk when the long pause in his speech feels like a gesture that is meant to dismiss him, and help him escape the awkwardness of his worst rival bonding with him, that would ruin his cred as class clown.
Something about Monday morning, pushed Mr. Stephens out of bed as early as 6am. The funeral was meant to be on the morrow, he wears his best suit and hat and makes his way to the police station to find out about the progress on the investigations of his daughter’s death.
“There is a lead, nothing solid yet but there is a lead,” the officer sounding like this is just another case of murder that he is investigating. Nothing about it hints to him that these people are as dedicated to finding out about his daughter as they claim. He leaves John Foster with a heavy heart and a plan in mind, it would not be his first time in KZN, but where would he start?
By Thursday morning he is fed-up and decides to go to Park Station to find out about the bus fare, he buys the ticket for a bus leaving on Sunday morning and before he knew it he was on a beach in Durban on a Monday morning buying ice cream from a street vendor and it does not taste as good as ice cream is supposed to.
Not when he knew what this place had done to his daughter, but he can’t help thinking to himself, why has he never brought his wife to this place or anywhere for that matter. A phone call, his wife misses him and breaks down in tears after telling him. She has not been herself since Cordelia’s tragic death, she cleans everything over 3 time before finding something wrong with it and she is protective, even over him.
Leaving her behind was not the best idea, but he needed to do this, he needed to find closure, for both of them. He left her in the care of the neighbors son. Before hanging up she tells him that the church leaders have decided to make him a deacon. His mind is preoccupied.
Mr. Stephens goes to Cordelia’s res, the girl directly opposite to where Cordelia was living gives him a lead. Mr. Gulams place and the address to one of his concubines. This man owns a warehouse that supplies most Somalian shops in the surrounding townships and from what he is hearing, the man is moneyed.
He finds his way around Durban like he always did in every other place he has been to (not too many places). He finds the warehouse, Mr. Gulam and Charmaine who is busy with the stocktaking, his welcoming tone is patronizing, almost insulting, obviously because he does not know the man.
“Salaam Alaikum. Can I help you?” Mr. Stephens is finally standing before the man, he looks harmless.
“Morning,” he greets back trying to be as civil as possible about the whole affair, his tears fail him, he can’t allow himself to cry, his feeble stature is doing enough damage before this giant of a man.
“Is there something wrong my friend?” this man sounds even more harmless when he offers him a seat and brings him a glass of water. Mr. Stephens is an emotional wreck, he wants the man to know how much he has deprived him of. Hatred heaves his heart and is weighing him down, he looks round for a sharp object, nothing.
Mr. Stephens is seated in his enemy’s office, he never imagined he could hate someone this much. “Are you sure you don’t want anything? Let me get you a glass of water,” he leaves the room. Mr. Stephens is left alone, he manages to pull himself together, Mr. Gulam comes back with a glass of water in his hand, “Just tell me why you did it,” Mr Stephens blurts.
Mr. Gulam is confused. “My name is Ray, Ray Stephens”
“My name is Rameez Gulam.”
“Two weeks back my daughter, Cordelia was shot in our yard in Langlaagte.”
Mr. Gulam chases him out before he could finish what he wanted to say, a gesture he finds very suspicious. Later that afternoon he comes back to Mr. Gulam’s warehouse with the police, when he finds out that it is a crime scene now that Mr. Gulam has been murdered, upon arrival they find Mrs Gulam who is not in tears surprisingly.
“Are you Mr. Stephens? Please bear with me, I am not the enemy here.”
She explains to him that her husband was becoming greedy and got into dodgy drug dealings with some guy from Sierra Leon who has a supplier in Nigeria or someplace else. She shows him fake passports with his daughters picture and explains that this was not a new thing and it seems his daughter was involved in this thing for a while. Why? Nobody knows but she suspects that Cordelia must have worked at the warehouse and was threatened by Mr. Gulam that she was forced to do the job or she would lose her job which was feeding her. Pastor Ray leaves the crime scene with more insight. She also offers him some money, he brands it “Blood Money” and refuses to associate with it, he refuses to take it.
On his way home he realizes he had found closure and thinks to himself that he had lied to his students about how much money matters, a few minutes later he receives a phone call from Mrs Gulam demanding his account details, and a few seconds after that 2 messages come through on his phone one from FNB saying he had 800 000 in his account and one from Mrs Gulam commanding him to take his wife to Durban.
She could finally leave the scene of her daughters death even if it was just for a fort night.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo