The Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Ekow Duker’s powerful, poignant novel The God Who Made Mistakes
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Settle in with some popcorn and this extended excerpt from The God Who Made Mistakes by Ekow Duker.
About the book
Behind the closed doors of their suburban Johannesburg home, Themba and Ayanda Hlatshwayo, both legal professionals, are beset by deep tensions that claw with relentless intensity at the polished facade of their lives. Ayanda seeks solace in dance classes, while Themba is increasingly drawn to the male companionship he finds at a book club.
With wit and sympathy, The God Who Made Mistakes explores the origins of Themba’s unease and confused sense of identity. It takes us back to a river bank in Alex, the township where he grew up, and to a boy he once knew who met a violent death there.
As the story peels back the painful layers of recollection, Themba’s domineering mother, Differentia, has a major decision to make. When developers set their sights on buying the family home and building a supermarket in its place, tendrils of envy and greed begin to curl out of unexpected quarters, as the unscrupulous seek to grab a share of the spoils. Backyard tenant, Tinyiko, with her short skirts and questionable morality, and Themba’s disgraced, unemployed elder brother, Bongani, begin to plot and scheme, while across town Themba’s fragile marriage faces its biggest challenge. When his past walks unexpectedly into his present, it threatens to blow apart his carefully constructed world.
The God Who Made Mistakes is a powerful, poignant story of unexpressed longings which, when finally uttered, can no longer be contained.
Read the excerpt:
Many years ago, there was a good king who ruled over his people with wisdom and justice. He was a great warrior who fought more fiercely than a lion and it was no wonder that his reputation spread to distant lands and even across the sea.
The king had many wives and they bore him several children. Each of the women lived in her own compound and was guarded, on pain of death, by a warrior hand-picked by the king himself. Now the king’s youngest wife was more beautiful than all the others. Lithe, fragrant and delightful, she was as graceful as a wisp of smoke. The king loved her so much, she only had to point at a garland of stars and he would send armies to pluck it from the night sky so he could place it tenderly around her neck.
The queen and her guard fell in love for they were both young and of similar spirit and soon they could not have retraced their steps, even if they had wanted to. On the nights when the king visited the queen and the young warrior kept watch outside, the lovers’ hearts would grow mad with anguish for it was the king she held in her arms and not him. And when the king left and all was quiet, the queen would open the door of her hut to let her lover in, whispering softly to him to quell the rage that burned in his eyes.
In time the queen fell pregnant and grew heavy with child. The king was overjoyed and in anticipation of the birth, ordered that there be celebrations throughout the land. The queen’s lover was also glad but his happiness was tempered with doubt and a cold, nagging dread. He yearned for the unborn child to be his, yet he feared the punishment the king would inflict on him should his treachery be known. His death would be gruesome, painful and protracted.
When the day came for the queen to give birth, the praise singers sang until their throats became parched and dry. The sun went down, rose and went down again, and still she had not delivered.
The prolonged hours of labour left the queen terribly weak. Messengers took word to the king that the woman he loved more than life was close to death. On hearing this, the king was filled with deep sorrow and his proud, handsome face creased over with concern. His courtiers trembled and whispered nervously among themselves for they had never seen their king so desolate before. Then with a great rolling of his shoulders, the king roused himself and stood up to speak. As one, the courtiers fell silent and turned to hear what the king had to say.
It began raining the day the dogs found Sipho Sibanda. A soft, gentle patter that fell like a benediction from the hands of a loving and indulgent god. Two dogs, both of indeterminate colour and breed, approached the man lying in the bushes. With exaggerated care, they placed one muddy paw gingerly in front of the other, then stopped abruptly, taut limbed and stiff tailed, their bodies poised for flight.
The reeds sighed and parted as the dogs drew closer, sprinkling their backs with drops of water. The dogs sniffed at the man’s bare feet and nudged his cracked heels before edging their way up his legs. One of them, the male and the larger of the two, lingered over the remnants of dried blood and excrement that caked his buttocks, its nose twitching in a frenzied dialogue that only dogs understand. Then, with an almost human reverence, it began to lick at the patch of dry white residue splattered across the back of the man’s thighs. There would be no abuse or rocks hurled at them. Sipho Sibanda was dead.
Madala found Sipho Sibanda the next day and by then the river was in flood. Thin veins of white foam criss-crossed the dark muscular torrent as the river swept past, moaning like a madman to break free of its banks. It was like a giant pinned down on an operating table, its skin flayed back without anaesthetic. The carcass of a large animal flashed by, its legs stiff and pointing crookedly to heaven. A withered tree branch, a jagged piece of styrofoam, a woman’s shoe, alone and without its partner. Sodden spoils of life, soon to be deposited at the feet of a capricious and vengeful god.
Despite his limp, Madala was surprisingly nimble. He slid down the river bank with his knees bent and his arms outstretched like a surfer. He was wearing black gumboots, the only thing of value he had left from the mines. He’d sewn his olive-green tarpaulin himself and it flared outwards from his shoulders like a cape. He came to this spot on the river at the same time every year. Five thirty in the evening on the eleventh of February and it was the eleventh of February today.
Last year he’d lost his footing and been dragged a hundred metres downstream by the current. He’d never had a chance to place the flowers properly or even say a prayer. The year before that, his flowers had clung stubbornly to the far bank of the river, infuriatingly out of reach and wedged among the driftwood and plastic shopping bags, like another piece of rubbish. Each year the river conspired to mock him and each year he wondered why he came at all.
With a loud sigh, Madala rummaged inside the folds of his tarpaulin and took out a bunch of small white flowers. Seventy five rand from the BP filling station, an extravagance for most people in Alex and especially so for him. He held the flowers to his nose, squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. In the past, all it took was one smell of the flowers to conjure up a richly textured image of her face. Now his memory had faded so far into the distance, her face had become no more than an indistinct blur of shapes and sounds he barely recognised as belonging to a woman. His woman. Madala inhaled again, more sharply this time and with greater urgency. But it was no use. He shook his head in annoyance and scowled at the flowers. He might as well have bought plastic.
Suddenly, a putrid smell wafted around him and Madala’s nostrils crinkled in distaste. He raised his head and sniffed the moist air, seeking out the source of the odour. Madala had smelled death too often not to recognise the sickly foulness that accompanied it. He stepped forward, brushing the reeds aside like they were curtains. The smell was more pungent now and yet he almost stumbled over the body. It was a man’s body. He was tall, lean and slightly muscled. He was lying face down as if there was something particularly interesting hidden there in the mud. His trousers were bunched around his ankles and his shirt was nowhere to be seen. He had bite marks on his thighs, stray dogs no doubt, and one buttock was already half eaten away. Madala swore out loud and crossed himself repeatedly, his profanity growing more pronounced with each circuit.
‘Fock! Fock! Fock!’
Madala clambered back up to the road and pondered what to do. It couldn’t be him, he’d been very careful. His instincts told him to leave the body there to rot. It was safer that way. But he knew his conscience would nag him and he didn’t have the energy for any more turmoil inside his head.
He trudged all the way to the Alexandra police station and stood hesitantly in the entrance. Except for the two framed photographs of the president and the minister of police above the counter, there was no one in sight. Water dripped off his clothes and formed a puddle around his feet.
Madala looked around him, wondering who had spoken and if indeed they were swearing at him.
‘Voetsek!’ the voice cried again.
He hadn’t seen the policeman. Like a dark, brooding cloud, he rose up from behind the counter and wagged a finger at Madala.
‘Don’t I know you?’ the policeman asked. He wasn’t expecting an answer and Madala knew better than to provide one. ‘You’re Madala, the crazy man who talks to the river.’
Madala stepped forward as if the policeman’s description of him was an acceptable substitute for his name.
‘I found somebody,’ he said softly. The words were lumpy and misshapen in his throat and he swallowed several times to ease their passage.
‘I told you to fuck off,’ the policeman said again. He really wasn’t interested in what Madala had to say. He stood up from his stool, all six feet of him, and pointed at Madala again. ‘You’d better get out before I charge you.’ He glanced pointedly at the handcuffs on his khaki-clad thigh and then at Madala’s muddy footprints leading from the entrance.
‘Charge me with what?’
The policeman’s eyes flew open at Madala’s apparent truculence.
‘What did you say?’ he asked. He leaned over the counter to make sure he didn’t miss a word.
‘I said I found somebody.’
Madala could tell that for all his bluster, the policeman was afraid of him. They called him Madala because ever since the accident at the mine, he dragged one foot behind him like an old man. No one even remembered his name was Jacob. It was as if the name Jacob Zwane had been erased from the public conscience the moment he’d been discharged from hospital and Madala written in its place. That made him sad.
He shouldn’t have come. He should have gone home and sat behind the small wooden table from which he sold cigarettes by the stick and sweets that cut your tongue and made it bleed. Suddenly, he longed for the wooden stool with twin indentations that cupped his arse as snugly as his woman used to do. He’d promised to look after her brother, promised that he’d take him in if anything happened to her. Well, he had, in a manner of speaking. She’d have been pleased about that – or would she? Madala wasn’t sure.
Next year he’d be back by the river, his memory more wayward than ever and with another bunch of flowers clutched in his hands. One day he’d forget the exact date the river took her. He wondered which would go first, the time of day it had happened or the date. It wouldn’t help to write it down. He was already having trouble calculating the right change for his customers. Nowadays, numbers refused to stand still and be counted. They hid behind each other and ran around in his mind like chickens. Worse still, he might forget the way to the river and have to depend on her brother to take him there. It was all very tiring. All Madala wanted to do was go home.
He was almost at the exit when a small, energetic woman barged through the aluminium doors. She swept past Madala as if he wasn’t there and hoisted herself up on her toes for she was rather short.
‘My son is missing,’ she declared in a voice made for a much larger woman. She had an air of authority about her, like a mother in a well-run household where the children were in school and the bills were paid on time.
‘Sergeant Ncube,’ the policeman said introducing himself. ‘What is your son’s name?’ He asked this with a grin as if he might know the woman’s son. Then he pushed his notepad to one side and filled the space with his gut. He looked more inclined to converse with the woman than to write anything down.
‘Sipho. Sipho Sibanda,’ the woman said.
Sergeant Ncube frowned and the woman’s lips turned down in concert with his.
‘Sipho Sibanda,’ Sergeant Ncube repeated with a puzzled look. He was about to say something when he noticed Madala standing by the door.
‘What are you still doing here?’ he shouted. He had an audience now and his voice was much louder than necessary.
‘Her son. He is by the river,’ Madala said. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did.
‘Don’t pay any attention to that fool,’ Sergeant Ncube insisted. He took a pen out of his pocket and tapped it impatiently on his notebook. ‘Now, when did Sipho go missing?’
But Mrs Sibanda wasn’t listening to him. She’d turned to Madala with both hands clasped to her chest as if to stop her heart from tumbling out onto the floor.
‘Do you know my son?’ she asked. She tried to control the quiver in her voice by speaking through tightly puckered lips.
‘He is by the river,’ Madala said again. ‘I saw him.’
He felt surprisingly clear headed, more lucid than he had in a long time. He could see his woman now. She was right there in front of him, gazing at him with the same lopsided smile she’d had on her face before the river stretched out its hand and took her.
Sergeant Ncube threw his hands in the air in a gesture of disgust. ‘For God’s sake, look at him! Can’t you see he’s mad?’
‘He knows where my son is,’ Mrs Sibanda retorted. The assurance had returned to her voice and Sergeant Ncube wilted under her glare.
‘The patrol cars are all busy,’ he muttered, implying that the station had several patrol cars when in fact there was only one. His notebook suddenly became of great interest to him and he began to turn the pages briskly. Flap. Flap. Flap. They sounded like the wings of a large bird as it streaks away into the sky.
‘I have a car outside,’ Mrs Sibanda countered.
‘I’m the only one on duty,’ Sergeant Ncube said. ‘It is forbidden to leave my post.’
Mrs Sibanda raised an eyebrow at the absurdity of what the policeman had just said. She was one of those women who spoke as much with her body as with her lips.
‘You don’t even know if it is your son,’ Sergeant Ncube said. He had written ‘SIPHO SIBANDA’ across the page and he tapped at the letters again as if imploring them to speak.
‘I know it is him,’ Madala said quietly. He had joined Mrs Sibanda at the wooden counter.
‘All right,’ Sergeant Ncube said at last. ‘Let’s go. But if it’s not Sipho Sibanda, if it’s not your son …’ He lifted the flap in the counter and strode through, letting it drop behind him with a loud bang.
Sergeant Ncube whirled on Madala for it was he who had spoken.
‘What is it now?’
‘You will need an ambulance,’ Madala said and on hearing this Mrs Sibanda lost all strength in her limbs and fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.
Mrs Sibanda insisted that Madala attend the funeral.
‘Sipho was my son,’ she said, ‘and you found him. You!’
She pounded his chest with her fists as if to remind him and Madala wondered if she knew about his failing memory. He thought hard over what he should wear. He didn’t have much in his wardrobe, just one black and white striped shirt and a jumble of faded T-shirts in various states of disrepair. It really wasn’t a difficult choice. He settled on the shirt and tucked it into the same pants he’d been wearing the day he found Sipho. Despite his dishevelled appearance, Madala had a great love of protocol and ceremony. He flicked a clod of earth off his gumboots for he’d decided to wear them as well. Then he walked out of his house with his head bent. He looked as if he was studying the tyre patterns in the sand.
It wasn’t far to Mrs Sibanda’s house. When Madala arrived there, he found a short queue of mourners filing around Sipho’s coffin. Clearly the funeral was to be a modest affair. If Sipho’s mother hadn’t been so active in her church, the line of mourners might have been shorter still. Their house was small and nondescript, no different at first glance from his own. Except that the windows of Mrs Sibanda’s house were boarded up and the front door was pitted and bruised. A pile of broken glass heaped against a wall caught the sunlight and launched it arrow-like at Madala’s face. He winced and squinted, momentarily troubled that Mrs Sibanda’s house was in a much worse state than his.
Sipho Sibanda’s coffin lay under a canopy on the grassy verge across the road from the house. There was no one sitting in the plastic chairs in front of the coffin, not even members of Sipho’s family. It was as if no one wanted to look at Sipho for a moment longer than necessary. Mrs Sibanda was nowhere to be seen but he thought he heard her voice, shrill and combative as ever, from somewhere inside the house.
Immediately ahead of Madala, a large woman prodded a boy in the back. Her son perhaps. It was like following a car in slow traffic for the boy was clearly reluctant. He shuffled along slowly, each step drawing him further into the sour smell that sat above the open coffin and seeped across to Madala a few steps behind the pair. It was obvious the boy couldn’t bear to look at Sipho’s face. He kept his head turned away from the coffin and his eyes fixed on the canvas canopy stretched tightly above him and the rusted metal truss supporting it. Like a crab, he tried to manoeuvre past the body in this manner, using his peripheral vision to navigate his way to safety. He had almost rounded Sipho’s body when his mother seized him roughly by the hand and held him rooted to the spot.
‘Look!’ she hissed in the boy’s ear. ‘iStabane!’
The word startled Madala so much that he stumbled and almost fell against the woman’s back. It was not a word one used in polite company and certainly not at a funeral.
Trapped now, the boy cast a furtive look at Sipho. He was trying hard to brace himself but his lower lip shook uncontrollably. Then, with a small anguished cry, he shook himself free of his mother’s grip and ran panting towards the house. Stony faced, the woman stomped after him. She carried a large leather bag under one armpit and as she walked, the grey felt cap on her head bobbed and swayed in time to the heavy roll of her hips.
Sipho Sibanda’s face was ashen and smooth from too much makeup and the dark suit they’d dressed him in was tight around the middle. The collar of his white shirt was frayed and gripped his neck in a knot of tangled threads. He looked like he was thinking about something important for his eyes were shut and his lips were turned down in a frown. Thankfully the dogs had only chewed away half a buttock and not his face.
It wasn’t long before the viewing of the body was over and Madala found himself shunted into Sipho’s uncle’s car for the ride to the Alexandra cemetery. The Opel station-wagon sagged at the back even when it wasn’t packed full of Sipho’s relatives. The boy and his mother were in there as well. The boy had been crying and twin lines of snot snaked out of each nostril.
‘Stop that!’ his mother snapped at him. She turned and stared resolutely out of the car window.
Madala felt for the boy. She couldn’t have been more dismissive if she’d caught him masturbating.
They parked on a dirt track and proceeded to walk in silence to the grave site. There were several funerals happening at the same time, each with a much used canopy positioned in front of an irregular pile of freshly dug earth. Madala stood a little distance away from the rest despite Mrs Sibanda’s impassioned invitation.
‘Sipho was my son and you found him. You!’
Heaps of earth obscured Madala’s view of the graves but he could imagine the crude, rectangular-shaped holes behind them, their mouths gaping and waiting to be filled. The canopies were emblazoned with the names of local funeral parlours – Peaceful Sleep, Rest Assured, Blessed Bounty. It was all rather like the Rand Easter Show, hurriedly arranged and yet with an illogical order all of its own. It wasn’t entirely clear which people belonged to which gathering because everyone seemed to bleed in and out of adjacent funerals at will. Old women drenched in eau de toilette and wearing felt hats looked on dispassionately at the proceedings, wondering no doubt when the printed programmes would have their names and grainy photos on the front. Madala couldn’t help thinking that his woman had never had a funeral, not a proper one anyway. She couldn’t have. They’d never found her body.
He sought out Mrs Sibanda and saw her sitting on a liveried plastic chair, her feet resting on a synthetic green mat made to look like grass. Every now and then, a distraught female relative would be frog-marched away or wrestled to the ground. Madala nodded his approval. Funerals were supposed to be dignified affairs. No rolling about on the ground like you were demon possessed.
But Mrs Sibanda looked regal with a heavy leopard print blanket draped over her shoulders. As Madala watched, two men in coats approached her, each with a spade held outstretched in front of them. One spade carried a mound of dark soil on it while the other was bare. Mrs Sibanda stared fixedly ahead until one of the men crouched and spoke to her. She roused herself and took a small handful of soil from one spade and placed it gently on the other. Satisfied, the men nodded grimly and moved on. Madala almost expected them to pat Mrs Sibanda on the head and say, ‘Well done.’
The priest was tall and well built and boasted a thick square cut beard. His voice, however, was surprisingly thin and reedy. It was doubly hard for Madala to hear what he was saying because the funeral party next to Sipho’s had come equipped with a battery operated public address system. It was so loud it drowned out almost everything else.
Vague snippets of the sermon for Sipho drifted their way across to where Madala was standing.
‘… and find it in His heart to open the gates of heaven for our brother.’
So it wasn’t guaranteed. Sipho Sibanda might make it to heaven or he might not. It all depended on the whim of a mysterious and vengeful god. Right now, the young man could be standing outside the gates of heaven, waiting in vain for them to open. Then Madala thought of the boy, the one who’d been crying, and what his mother had said to him.
Sipho Sibanda would be knocking until his knuckles were raw and bloody.
It was all over rather quickly after that. A swirling mist of red dust rose up as two young men stepped forward and began shovelling earth into Sipho’s grave. As if on cue, the other funeral gatherings began doing the same. Choral melodies soared into the morning sky as relatives and friends clapped and sang for their loved ones. Everything was packed so tightly together, it was as if they were singing for Sipho.