My mother wakes up at four. Or at three-thirty when she’s in a particularly foul mood. Today is foul mood day. I, technically, don’t have to be up until she leaves at five-fifteen, and I lock up behind her. I usually crawl back into bed for another hour, or more. Usually more. When I officially wake up, at half past six when it’s a good day, I grab a mug of tea and a smoke. Ease into my day, you know? But I cannot sleep for much longer on this particular morning because as soon as she set the water boiler on the stove, she picked up her lecture where she left it last night. We are again covering how much more of a disappointment than my fresh-out-on-parole big brother I am. At least he took school, church and her rule seriously. He cooked supper faster than me. He put the teapot on the stove at the exact moment he knew Ma was getting off at the bus stop and therefore her tea was always just perfect when she got home.

We always conveniently skip over the part where he impregnated a girl when they were both in grade ten whenever we do the family’s history. Ma is never impressed when I bring it up. Nor the botched attempt to bomb an ATM, of which — to his credit — he was merely a getaway driver. I was in grade five when the girl, who is always nice to me, and her family showed up at our doorstep one morning. I suspect she’s kind to me because I actually like her kid. Unlike everyone in my family who just tolerate the little thing as though he asked for his father and mother to bunk school and have sex. I adore my nephew. I have a nickname for him, gave him my baby blanket when he was born and often beg for him to visit when there’s a long weekend or I’m off from school. Having known him longer and not being too responsible for him, I definitely like my nephew more than I like my little brother.

This morning Ma is still in a rage about my not picking my little brother up from creche on time. She has to pay them fifty rand extra before the end of the week now. I guess my pretend afternoon classes mean nothing to her. I pretend to get extra tutoring after school three times a week and one weekend out of the month. I spend that hour in the back building at the school writing awful poems about sex, death and plants while inhaling the piss and cigarette fragrance that goes with the location. I’ve always had a feeling that she knows all of this. Not the part about the poems, just the fraudulent extra lessons. I can feel it in the way she looks at me whenever I mention the classes. Whenever I say, “I’m only starting supper now because I came home late because I had an afternoon class.” Or, “I asked the neighbour’s 12-year-old to pick my little brother up and keep him for fifteen minutes because I had an extended activity at afternoon class.” She doesn’t say anything. Of course. She’s very sneaky, my mother.

I get it from her.

At this moment, cloaked by the darkness of the early morning, I doubt she would be very understanding of my defence. That I gave half of my lunch money to the 12-year-old next door with the belief that the 12-year-old would keep her promise and fetch my little brother on her way from school instead of getting swept up in 12-year-old people things. Who can you trust? All my mother knows for sure is that she now has another expense that could have been avoided. I try my best to not get any penalties at my brother’s creche but as I’ve learnt, 12-year-old kids are fickle. So I just lie in bed with my face exposed to the room’s morning cold and open my eyes every few minutes so if she walks past, Ma can see that I’m listening to her.

Photo by Jean Gerber on Unsplash

My school does offer legit classes and they tend to be mandatory. But I don’t attend any because they’re in the morning. I can’t be at school at seven. I have a structured schedule of morning tea and a smoke and fapping and a long bath and getting my brother ready and feeding him fruit and dropping him off at his creche. I’m lucky if I make it to the school yard before first bell.

My tight schedule and a side of I couldn’t be bothered is why I don’t do morning classes. Ma would suggest dropping off my brother at six-forty-five, quitting smoking and not talking about masturbation. I think kids need sleep — and I need my morning routine — so I just don’t tell her about the real extra lessons.

That evening, my mother walks into the house minutes after I’ve just finished watching a pixelated video of Johan’s penis erupting in orgasm. His voice hissing my name. It was a messy affair. I asked him to show me how he cums and he did. At first, he kept telling me my name was difficult and I told him I get off on boys saying my name correctly. I sit propped up on her sofa (the most comfortable sofa in the house) pretending to read Shakespeare. School is just a charade.

My older brother managed to come out of his shack/the dungeon today. He sent me a “Please Call ngizomland” and followed through by actually fetching the little brother from creche. I found all the windows of our four-room house open, a pot on the stove and some Tupac playing. He looked me in the face while telling me about the giant colour-in poster he is drawing for his kid. I smiled at him and ate a lot of the five rand-sized carrot pieces he had floating in a bowl of water for his stew. His big eyes on mine didn’t make me feel sad or creeped out for the first time in months.

See, sometimes I worry that my brother is super depressed. Like, I’m depressed too but I have my improbable Nairobi dreams. I have a finish line in sight. I have online boys trying to goad me into giving them blow jobs irl. I have a horizon. I have the set of expensive pots I put on lay-bye for my mother. Thinking about my big brother’s life, on the other hand, makes me sad. Some time between when I was no longer allowed to take my baths in the kitchen and his inability to get the exact learnership he wanted after matric, our relationship changed. He went from being the best person, the person who used to carry me on his shoulders, to just another human with issues. I get it so much.

But today, like so very rarely these days, he seems like the brother who used to lie in a guise of making me understand why he needed to use water, a candle and actual shoe polish when he polished mine, Ma’s and his shoes on Sunday evenings ages ago. Before he got sad. Before something in him cracked or whatever. Shoe time was nicely set up after the big lunches we always make, and before last minute homework. It feels good to have that brother, brief as it is bound to be. I vaguely wish I could ask my brother what’s hurting him. I wish I could do it with the same candour and sincerity with which I used to tell him I wished his father was my father when I was little. I wish he could tell me or someone else what we can do to help him. I wish that he gets better and wants days like the one he decided to make for all of us: Looking me in the eyes and talking about his kid with a smile on his face. Leaving his shack and opening all the windows, to be frequent. I decide to take it as some sort of omen that he’s ready to open up or try to let the breeze into his soul or heart or mind. I really wish.

My brother’s father seemed great when I was younger. He sent money that Ma mostly spent on replacing the school shoes that kept getting stolen from my bag in grade two. (But not before she made me fear for my life each time.) My brother’s father had a Gusheshe that he filled with his kids when he was in a great mood. All five of them. He drove them places and bought them mazimba with a prize inside and my brother would often let me have his click tazos. He ended up in the same grade six class with his father’s only daughter and they became friends for a while. Before her mother had her moved to another class because she hates Ma’s guts; so she hates all of us by extension. My father is shit. I wish Ma had had me when she was nineteen and clueless and in love with the soft gangster of the neighbourhood. I would have come out better and had a great time aged one to thirteen. Instead, she had me when she was twenty-three and lovestruck. My father turned out to be a well-off jackass. Nothing soft or appealing about him. He probably thinks he rejected me when I was the one who rejected him before I was born and decided to look like his dead aunts instead of him. Burn.

It’s a good day. So I switch my phone off. Ma gets out of her shoes and work clothes and shoos me out of her sofa. We turn Pac up a bit and we sit around in the living room. My little brother climbs into Ma’s lap and we rap along to ‘Life Goes on’ while Ma sips her tea all trill. I’m just glad to recognise my big brother when he smiles at his favourite parts of the song. I’m even more glad that my lecture has been indefinitely postponed to be resumed on a future random morning. I decide to wash the dishes after supper to push back this morning’s tongue-lashing, which I know is far from over, for even longer.