By Lerato Mensah-Aborampah, Lesotho
“Hey, how you doing?” I ask her as soon as I settle in the seat beside her.
The engine of our old and weary school bus is beginning to run, emitting a loud and annoying noise that always, for some reason, makes me think of an old man sitting on the verandah, with this persistent and vehement cough. I look at her for a while, out of sheer courtesy, so that when she replies, my eye contact is not diverted to something else. She does not look at me nor does she reply. Her head is leaning against the slightly grimy bus window, which, like all the other windows of our bus, aches desperately for water and soap, or at the very least, just water. She shifts on her seat, but not to regard me in any way for she is staring out, her head still against the window. I catch, for the first time, her scent as she shifts and it reaches my nose. It is awfully familiar, I hate to admit. I think at some point Ts’episo, my two-years-younger-than-I-sister, used a similar fragrance. I teased her often about it, saying that it smelled like some Air-Freshener for bathrooms because I really think it does. I reckon this is the same fragrance.
Having not foreseen being utterly ignored, I quickly look forward, a bit taken aback by her decision to not reply. We have never spoken before but surely a simple ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ is not exclusive to the people with whom you are acquainted. Or perhaps she did not hear me, in which case I have wrongly interpreted her silence. It is very possible that my voice, even though it is ridiculously deep, was buried under the sound of the old man on the verandah’s cough and the loud voices of my school mates, who are pouring into the bus. Whatever the reason, I am not going to say hi again. I prefer to not look, even a single bit, idiotic. This is not exactly how envisaged my first conversation with her, (though this was not even a conversation), a conversation that I have always nagged myself to initiate since the first few days after she arrived at our school. She arrived at our school about thirteen months ago.
The bus has a distinct smell of the normal afternoon sweat of boys and girls who have come from afternoon sport practices. I hate sports. My mother threatened to cut off the little pocket money she gave me if I did not join the soccer team. She claimed I was being a lazy-bone and that more than anything, in her precise words; “Uena Rapelang, do you want to have a pathetic looking application for university?” So, though I am not particularly fond of expending my joules of energy chasing and kicking a ball, I play soccer every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. I prefer not having my dear mother shout at me every night and morning about sports and laziness and university, plus the prospect of being pocket-moneyless is not exactly enticing.
Fortunately for us, the school decided to finally insert some of those automatic aromatic sprays in the bus so these days, amidst the obviously inevitable smell of our sweaty bodies, we have a decent scent of lavender or strawberries or something along those lines. It is weird combination for smell, but it is still better than that of raw, unrefined sweat. I smile as Katleho and Tankiso, my two closest friends, walk into the bus, their sports gear, streaked with the green from the field grass and smudged with the blackish-brownish from the soil. They, unlike me, have not been threatened into sport by their parents. They are passionate rugby players. Almost immediately they grin strangely when they see me and settle on the seats right across the narrow bus aisle from me. Tankiso leans over to me from his seat with a mischievous look on his face. I can guess why he has put on this face. The bus begins to move as soon as all people have boarded.
“Yo, u lutse pela mang na mfethu?” He laughs quietly, making a deliberate effort to point, with his eyes, the girl I am sitting next to. “Do not mess it up!” He grins slyly and leans back and whispers something to Katleho. They look at me and both burst into roars of laughter. I shake my head.
“Shut up, Boss!” I laugh, punching Tankiso’s arm very hard.
I have managed to get these two people for friends. We have been friends since Form 1; then, when we were chubby and childish and ever so excited to be part of Seeiso International School and now we are finally in Form 5. Tankiso is the only one of the three of us who managed to stay chubby and a bit short, in fact he gained more weight when we were in Form 4. As for Katleho and I, the unseen forces of adolescence have stretched us taut and stripped a great portion of our fat. Katleho is more muscular than I am and they always tease me because nobody ever expects an alarmingly deep voice to emerge from a lean body like mine.
Though it is only the beginning of the first term right now, I feel the imminence of the end of my Form 5 so strongly. It is an exciting and daunting prospect. ‘So close to the real world’ is what people- adults to be precise, say to us Form 5s when we meet them in the neighbourhoods and in super markets.
“You will be facing the real world soon, Rapelang my boy,” I remember my mother’s friend, ‘M’e Theko saying to me one afternoon when she came to my mother’s house for tea, and for spreading a dose or two of village gossip. My mother seems to think it is absolutely necessary to tell everyone we meet that I am doing my Form 5. I remember smiling and laughing with that obedient and child-like laughter that I am certain all teenagers have used, when faced with the inevitable encounters and usually awkward conversations with adults. Nothing annoys me more than when I hear people say that proceeding to tertiary level of your education and moving out of your parents’ house is the beginning of the ‘real world’. I mean, I get what they mean but I also I do not. I am not sure what that phrase actually means, and I imagine I will soon find out but I do feel that it has buried in it, some form and level of indifference to the ‘real world’ we are already facing every day in secondary and high school.
Tankiso and Katleho are still talking in mischievous undertones and eyeing me. I laugh. Palesa Tefo, the girl I am sitting next to, joined our school in Form 4. She lived in South-Africa for the most part of her life. Her parents moved back to Lesotho because of job-related reasons, (the news that were very vague about of the nature of these job-related reasons) and then she came to school at Seeiso International. Some people say that her parents were very rich but then they went bankrupt and had to come back to their old home. Other people have said that Palesa and her parents were deported, something about invalid work permits. I have never been sure why there are so many stories about her. All I know is that there is a lot of mystery that hangs around Palesa Tefo but students make up all sorts of stories for all sorts of reasons.
I think that Palesa Tefo’s apparent mystical aura is only because of her aloof persona. New students generally behave quite ‘new’ for the first two weeks or three, I suppose, but eventually, they become comfortable, make friends and eventually lose the title of ‘the new girl’ or ‘the new boy’. Palesa, however, has had the title stuck to her even today, though she has been here since Form 4. You still cannot look at her and not think of her newness at the school. She is not a people person, it seems. For the first four months or so in Form 4, she usually spent her lunch time alone in her class and occasionally hung out with Tiisetso and Ts’eli, two girls who befriended her. I have heard that they say that even when she is with them, she does not talk that much, she laughs along with them and speaks when she deems necessary. She still spends most of her time alone, though. I know that every Tuesday at break time, she goes to the library alone. I know that on Thursday afternoons she does not take the bus, she walks home alone and on other days, when other girls go for sports and clubs after school, she is usually sitting on the benches in our little park, waiting for the bus. This Thursday, strangely, she took the bus and I am sitting next to her. In Literature class, which is one of the two classes I share with her, she usually sits aside Tiisetso, two desks ahead of my desk in the column of chairs opposite mine, so that looking at her is not just a conscious action, in my case, but is simply inevitable, for anybody who would sit where I sit in Literature. Right now this is the closest I have been near her. Her school blazer is against my arm. At the beginning of this year, some alterations were made on our time-table and I found that I shared Chemistry class with her. I see her more often now.
Palesa Tefo intrigues me. I thought so from the time she joined Seeiso International last year. My two friends are aware of this and do not tire to tease me about it. Katleho thinks my taking interest in her is particularly humorous because I have told them that the last time I had a tiny crush on a girl was in Class 7, back in primary school and that girl was very older than me, she was in Form C, I think. The few days after Palesa Tefo arrived at our school, I would constantly find myself looking at her. I still do. It is not only because of her beauty which I have tried hard, though in vain, to detach from my main reasons for liking her, but it is, amongst other things I suppose, this curious and fascinating absentmindedness that is usually etched onto her face. It is not absentmindedness in the conventional sense, however, because you look at her and get the impression that she is fully aware of the surroundings around her but is also in another domain, a reality that she alone is part of. Sometimes in Literature class, when Miss Delaine is reading Nervous Conditions to us, I notice how her small, beautiful eyes, (Palesa’s, I mean, though Miss Delaine also has beautiful eyes), even from the rear view from which I see them, are drawn into the book with a rather strange raptness that I really cannot explain. I like her eyes. They look different from everyone else’s when we read. More animated. More fascinated. But more caged and secretive. I have noticed how she lingers over every chapter, just before flipping to the next as we read along with Miss Delaine, as if we are too quick to read on and she wants to stay on every chapter for as long as she pleases. Palesa Tefo intrigues me.
Now here she is, staring silently out the grimy bus window and I am sitting right next to her. . .
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