The Best Friend
The school bell sealed my fate that winter morning.
I had always admired the way the sun shone on her flowing chestnut hair. Walking across the school playground at first break by her side, I felt taller. I was the Queen’s most precious and favoured adornment; the one she confided in as she whispered the name of her special boyfriend; the one the other girls wanted to be. The best friend.
We walked side by side followed by her entourage. I knew they had no time for me. Like a pack of ravenous hyenas they circled me, waiting for the moment of my downfall when I would be discarded like an old ragged doll, to fight it out among themselves and become sacred – the Queen Bee’s new chosen friend.
We hung out behind the bicycle shed by the milkwood trees where the older boys stood around, smoking clandestinely and passing bubble gum to cover the sticky smell of smoke. Our giggly presence was tolerated by this clan of lanky pockmarked shaggy-haired boys. We all knew that we owed this privilege to their infatuation for the beauty among us, the Queen Bee, who fluttered her midnight-blue eyes in modesty as she swayed her waist-length thick hair across her slender back.
I had arrived late for school. I had ransacked my room and my sisters’ closets to look for my new pink sweater, bought solely to impress the Queen Bee at the next civvie school day. After a protracted fight with my mum and dad, I’d spent the whole of my monthly allowance on it. But no luck, the new pink number had vanished. Sensing my frustration and my despair, my mother brought out an old pink Batik top of hers, a baggy silk tunic with purple and pink stripes across the front and back. I tried hard to make her understand but she shrugged off my hesitations and packed up my sorry self and the sweater in the freezing car.
I walked late into class, head bowed, mortified. With her keen eye for the vulgar and uncomely the Queen Bee looked me over for a fleeting moment and promptly turned away. Distracted, I vaguely remember the teacher summoning me to her at break time to explain my tardiness.
The break bell rang, and after a few scarce words to my teacher, I ran to catch up with the busy swarm already surrounding the Queen Bee on her daily promenade to the bicycle shed. I had elbowed my way into the heart of the retinue, a few steps away from the place of honour at her side, when I tripped and fell to my knees. In a pair of impeccably-cut jeans and tight fitting pink cotton long sleeved T-shirt, the Queen Bee halted and craned her graceful neck at the sorry sight at her feet. I fought back the tears as I felt the blood seeping through the tear in my old corduroys.
In a poised theatrical manner, she turned to the girl next to her and wasting no precious break-time said: ‘Michaela, would you like to come behind the shed with me today?’
I walk down Smit’s Street in Central Johannesburg on my way to Wits University. The early morning air, cool and damp, clings to my skin. My mind races, excited at the new world that beckons me. My step is light, despite the heavy brown leather bag filled to the rim with storybooks, literature, the great playwrights, a world of magical words and faraway tales.
With each new step, I recite the halting words of Lady Macbeth, from my favourite Shakespeare play, as I would to the class of new students later on that morning for the first time. My steps hurry as I draw close to Lady Macbeth’s convincing plea to Macbeth to commit the irremediable and unthinkable crime.
“That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’ “
A growl from my stomach reminds me that in my excitement I had forgotten to eat breakfast and I swerve into the small bakery just near the main entrance to the university. And there I see her. She wears a ridiculous blue and white pinafore and a small white paper hat over her short greasy peroxide blond hair. The blue eyes once disdainful are now listless. She turns to me and asks in a toneless voice: ‘Yes, ma’am, what can I help you with?’ Looking straight at her, I smile and ask for a croissant in my best French.