By Lerato Mensah-Aborampah, Lesotho
I am helping Palesa Tefo with Chemistry today this afternoon. It is Monday and a week or so since she asked me to help her with Chemistry. We were not able to make time the whole of last week because of the football practices I had every day, because we had a friendly match with Bokamoso High School this weekend. We won them, as expected and naturally, I tripped a lot on the field. The whole of last week was quite different. We had short conversations in the few minutes before we had our Literature classes. Those are actually the only times we spoke last week so that I was beginning to know little things about her in ten minute snippets. She is very funny and always has these witty remarks. She does not speak when she does not have anything to say and does not seem to be bothered by the awkward silences that surfaced, sometimes, in the conversations we had at the Literature classroom door. I have also learnt that she loves reading. A lot.
I am waiting for her outside the door of our small school library.
“Tankiso!” I shout, seeing him walk by with his hands in his pockets. He must be from the staffroom. He does not hear me. I run up to him, laughing. “TK!”
“Bruh, what’s up?” clasping my hand with his and giving him a fist bump. “Dude, you look like you have just seen a ghost!”
“I did, mfethu– my dead future.”
I laugh a little but he doesn’t and I realise he is not in his regular comedian and making jokes self. He is actually very sad.
“Raps, eish mfethu!” he says, kicking angrily through the soil with his shoe, “I am fed up with this school thing! Now, after a long conversation with Pillowz about that Math test, I must go home to face my old man!”
“Eish, how bad was it?”
Tankiso just shrugs helplessly.
“Bad,” he says dropping his shoulders and looking away from me to the school gate, “Let me go mfethu. I will see you.
“Sure TK,” I reply quietly. Tankiso is one of those characters that you are often convinced are immune to sadness and being down. Hlompho and I, classmates, his rugby team and even the students in the bus feel it when Tankiso is not himself.
I watch him walk away. His hands in his grey flannel trousers and his shoulders carrying the weight of the world on him.
I turn back to the library door, just in time to see Palesa Tefo heading towards the library door too, from the classroom block.
“I am sorry I am late, my accounting class always takes longer than it should,” she smiles.
“It’s alright. Are you ready?”
“Not really, I despise Stoichiometry!” she laughs, as we make our way to the library, “so you might have a bit of a problem making me care about Avogadro and his constants before making me understand them but I have to understand them, so,”
“Trust me, you will think Chemistry is the best thing that’s ever happened to you when I explain it,” I laugh.
We walk silently towards the school gate to wait for the last bus of the afternoon. Palesa Tefo looks straight ahead and I catch the strange look on her face, like she is another world of her own. Maybe she loses herself in her own thoughts when she has nothing to say. I clear my throat, intentionally loudly and she does not seem to take note of it.
“You don’t speak much,” I finally say without looking at her.
“Why do you say so?” she says, obviously pretending to find what I said far-fetched, “didn’t you hear how much questions I flooded you with for the last one hour!” she chuckles.
“I could barely explain anything, you know” I reply, “you are not easy teach,”
“I just like understanding,”
I j laugh and say nothing.
The bus has not yet arrived. We sit on one of the benches on the lawn near the school gate.
“But I enjoyed our session though. I will go through those practice calculation exercises tonight like you said I should.”
“Good.” I reply, with a voice of satisfaction, “good student!”
She smiles warmly and keeps quiet after that. We sit in silence and keep our eyes on the school gate.
“You don’t speak much, do you?” I say again, laughing lightly.
“Neither do you, “she replies, laughing quietly too.
“I do talk, a lot, with my two friends, mostly,”
“You just proved my point,”
It is true. Some people think I am shy but I am not. My friends know me. They think I talk too much. My young sister thinks I just can’t shut up. I annoy her a lot. My mother and grandmother sometimes plainly ignore me because they say I will give them stress from all my talking and questions. But at school, I do not speak like I really do, like I really can.
“Fine, fine” I say to her, “but uena, you don’t talk to anyone. Hobane’ng? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She looks down to her hands and runs her thumb lightly across the six tally marks inscribed with a blue pen onto her palm.
She gives a light shrug and I can tell that something just changed in her mood. I am not sure what to make of it because she still wears a smile-like face.
“I get this impression, right,” I say, “like you have so much, but you give so little-”
Palesa Tefo shifts on the bench and keeps her eyes on her palm. I wonder why she always has tally marks in her palm.
She clears her throat.
“I try to be as inconspicuous as possible,” she begins, her voice, suddenly carrying a serious tone, “I don’t want to say much. I don’t want to be much to people. I don’t want to emanate multiple perceptions of myself. I just want to-” she stops speaking as if she has just realised she is saying more than she wants.
“Why? You would think that-” I ask quietly.
She jumps in, cutting in before I finish speaking. Her voice bearing what sounds like panic and anger.
“Because being the popular girl did not work out well for me dude!” her voice is raised and is shaky, “it just didn’t Rapelang! It got really bad, shit, I don’t talk about this-” I see her jaws tighten and she looks down to her hands.
“You mean at your old school?” I ask softly, shaken by the emotion in her voice. I shift uneasily on the bench too.
“Is that why you…”
She nods slowly again.
“Yes, that is why I moved. Okay, I really do not talk about this,”
She pauses momentarily. Then she sighs, so heavily that even though I do not know the details of this past life, I am immediately aware of their enormity. It scares me for a while.
“Bona,” she continues with an unmistakable finality in her voice, evidently closing this part of her life for discussion, “maintaining one dominant perception of me is what I need right now… it’s more easy to be the new girl who arrived in Form 4 who does not talk much… and that alone. “
We remain silent. I suddenly realise I am trying so hard to know her. Too hard. She prefers I don’t. I need to know my place. You are stupid man! I say to myself inside my head.
She looks away to the school gate.
“Look, the bus,” I say, sounding stupid because she sees it too. I just wanted something to say to try ease the now heavy silence.
We walk quickly towards the gate.
“Thanks for today, for helping me out” she says as we join the disorderly queue of students entering the bus.
“It was my pleasure.”
I sit beside her on the two-seater section of the bus. With her bag on her legs, she leans against the grimy bus window and stares blankly outside.
The bus coughs and starts moving, and today, it feels slower than any other day.
“Hey Palesa,” I say, clearing my throat, looking at her as she turns her head to look at me, “I’m sorry, by the way, about the conversation we had. I did not mean to pry, so-“
“Sorry? Don’t apologise. It’s okay Rapelang,” she tries to curve her lips into a smile but I think she can tell that I can see through it, “it’s just me, the stitching process is taking longer than I thought. It’s okay.”
It is obviously not okay. She cannot even bring herself to a smile. She leans her head against the window again.
“I still got a number of loose threads,” she murmurs audibly, fingering the tally marks on her palm.
Palesa Tefo, I think to myself as I stare at the worn-out chair in front of me, what happened at your old school?