On the Road (Short Story)
By Jennifer S Ayebazibwe
It is safe to say that Neo lived in her head. She owned a library in a small town in Limpopo and spent most of her days with her nose in a book. She loved political non-fiction and enjoyed star gazing. She’d inherited an old telescope from her grandmother, with whom she had spent countless hours on warm summer evenings examining the southern skies on the farm where she spent most of her school holidays. She could name just about every constellation off the top of her head. When she wasn’t lost in a book or in the stars, she enjoyed refurbishing old furniture. You could find such gems in small town second-hand furniture shops, especially when you knew where to do the finding, and Neo very much did.
Every second month Neo made the great trek from Thabazimbi to Johannesburg to catch up with her friends, experience the next big thing, and buy books and souvenirs her customers might find interesting. Lately she had started catering to the tourists passing through on their way to and from Marakele National Park. She enjoyed playing a guessing game with Katleho, her assistant; they would ty to guess – based on appearance and accent – where the tourists were from.
On this warm Friday morning in late May, Neo stood on Warmbag Weg across the road from Thaba Mall hoping for a ride. Her ancient VW Beatle had yet again not come through, but she preferred to hike anyway; taxis took too long to fill, and you met such interesting people when hiking. On this morning, the iron rich Ysterberg Mountains, for which the town was named, stood proudly, embraced by soft layers of fog.
A grey range rover stopped. Inside was a woman and two small children; the girl was about four, from Neo’s very limited knowledge of miniature humans, and the boy looked about one. He slept peacefully in his car seat in spite of the sister, who kept playing with his face that way that kids do, heedless of her mother’s stern warnings. She kept sticking her index finger in his nose and giggling to herself when he sneezed. It was very sweet to watch.
Yes, you and her whole family are wondering the same thing. No, she has no plans to bring any small humans into this world just yet. Yes, she does realise she is 29 years old and her childbearing years are quickly fading away, but No, she is still not going to find a nice young man and settle down like her siblings have done.
“Le kae Sisi, I can take you only up to Northam, going on a much needed time out at my sister’s” the stranger shared. “You know how the husbands can get” she continued conspiratorially.
Neo made an understanding face and adequate sounds to indicate to the stranger that she shared the pain of the heterosexual sisterhood. “Re teng, that would be great, it’s easy to get rides from there,” Neo replied gratefully.
The little girl eyed her curiously, saying nothing.
“Where are you off to then, Rustenburg?” the woman asked, probably grateful for a grown-up companion
“No, Johannesburg” Neo replied, making herself comfortable in the front seat.
The woman shook with disgust, “I can’t stand it there, so busy.”
“I can believe that. It does get too quiet here sometimes though. I enjoy the lights and human contact every once so often” she continued
“Is it not dangerous hiking these days though? So much craziness, you know…” the woman queries, concern evident in her voice.
“Not really actually. I do it a lot but have never experienced any unpleasantness, thank god.” Neo knew exactly where the woman’s concern came from. The world was an unsafe place for a woman travelling alone.
The rest of the drive was passed in friendly chit chat and periods of silence. The child in the back seat counted cars, tired of messing with her brother.
“Thank you once again, enjoy your time out,” Neo said as she dismounted at Northam and handed the woman R20 for the fare. “Thank you too and enjoy Johannesburg.” She waved, and they left.
She got two more short lifts along the R510: a lone male businessman, with whom she had a fascinating conversation about the state of the nation and after that, a woman and her two daughters. They offered her some biltong, which she politely declined, talked about the rising prices of food and oil and got pleasantly miserable together.
Finally just outside Rustenburg, she climbed into a large delivery truck.
“Dumela” she said once they had pulled off.
“Dumela” the driver replied, and for the first time Neo looked up – and had to look again several times.
All the truck drivers she had met along this route had been men, and she had met quite a few.
“I do this a lot but you are the first female trucker I have met so far,” she said, unable to conceal her excitement.
“I get that a lot” the woman said in a warm husky voice.
Neo suddenly felt self-conscious.
“Have you been doing it for long?” She was completely fascinated.
“Five years. I started out with a small truck doing local trips.” She took out a slim cigarette case and removed one, “Do you mind? Terrible habit, but it keeps me awake.”
“Go ahead, I quit a few months back. I’ll knock myself out on your second-hand smoke.”
“I don’t mind at all,” her companion said playfully, and Neo felt hot.
“I am Boitumelo, by the way.”
“Where are you headed, Neo?”
“Johannesburg, I get my stock there. I have a little bookshop in Thabazimbi.”
“Oh yea? What is it called?”
“Seriously?! I have been there once before, but I don’t remember seeing you.”
“Maybe I had stepped out. You must have met my assistant, Katleho.”
“Pity…” Boitumelo said, almost inaudibly.
Neo made a noise in her throat that was meant to sound neutral. Thank God she was the colour of night on a moonless sky in the Okavango, or she might have turned all kinds of embarrassing shades, she thought happily.
“So what are you carring in this rig?” Neo asked curiously.
“Well, if I told you, I’d have to kill you” Boitumelo countered playfully. They laughed.
They passed sunflower fields. Puffy clouds dotted the sky’s perfectly blue autumn infinity. Now and then, some monkeys appeared along the road.
“Do you travel to Joburg often?” Boitumelo queried.
“Every second month. I have some friends there.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes actually, more like I need it… you know?”
“I know what you mean, the silence can get very loud after a while in a small town.”
“So how many trips do you make a week?”
“Actually, I don’t make so many anymore. My drivers were all on trips and the one meant to drive this load fell ill, so I had to step in. It can be a very stressful business…but I love it”
“Is it safe?” It was Neo’s turn to express concern over a lone female traveller.
“When I started out, I wasn’t doing long drives, but I was worried, especially because I am not particularly, well, masculine.” Here she laughed lightly, a sound that Neo found very pleasing.
“…So I started doing Karate and some Judo training. I’m now a black belt in both, so don’t let my size fool you!” There was laughter in her voice, but there was also seriousness. “And I never give lifts to men!”
They were now approaching Magaliesburg town. The road meandered, and the truck wove through the scenery like a giant snake. The two women were silent, Boitumelo focusing on the road and Neo gazing out the window, but aware of Boitumelo as much as of the trees swiftly going past.
They talked about the people they knew in Thabazimbi. Boitumelo lived in a town only 10 km away. They found out they had some friends in common, both in Limpopo and Johannesburg.
“Strange that we haven’t run into each other before, isn’t it?” Neo mused
“I know, it’s like the universe has connived to keep us apart,” Boitumelo agreed, with a hint of melodrama. Neo giggled.
They stopped at a petrol station close to Roodepoort, mostly because they couldn’t quite face the idea of parting ways, unspoken between them but oh so clear.
Sitting under a tree, Boitumelo smoked while Neo sipped on a bottle of water. It felt so surreal. That they had only met two and a half hours ago was impossible to believe.
Eventually Boitumelo dropped Neo off at her friend’s place in Melville. She wouldn’t hear of dropping her at some random point in Joburg or accepting payment even when Neo tried very hard to convince her otherwise. They exchanged numbers and went their separate ways.
Neo shopped, went to a gallery opening in Braamfontein on sex and the female body, attended a book launch in Melville, drank too much wine at a friend’s birthday braai and, all along, couldn’t stop thinking about Boitumelo.
“You seem preoccupied, friend,” Mpho pried during breakfast at Bread and Roses on 7th Monday morning.
“I thought I was hiding it well,” Neo laughed.
“Okay, who is she? You know you can’t hide anything from me.” Mpho set her cup down and crossed her arms.
“See that’s the thing, there’s no one per se…”
“I’m listening!” Mpho wasn’t giving an inch.
“Okay, okay! She gave me a lift here. We met for like 2 minutes, and yet I can’t for the life of me stop thinking about her,” Neo blurted out, glad to finally talk about it.
Now she’d been back for a week but hadn’t heard a thing from Boitumelo. She had almost called her several times but always stopped herself. She didn’t want to look desperate.
She was at the back arranging some books when Katleho called for her.
“I’m busy!” she said irritably. Katleho could be so annoying sometimes.
“I thought you’d be, seeing as you haven’t called me.” Boitumelo stood against a shelf, flipping through a book.
“You gave me a fright!” Neo cried, dropping the last book.
“I am sorry.”
“Don’t be! I’m … glad to see you.” She walked towards Boitumelo, unable to stop smiling. “How have you been?” she said, stopping awkwardly a pace away.
“Busy… tired… Do you want to have coffee?” Boitumelo now stood a few inches away from Neo and reached out “You have a little dust on your chin.”
Neo closed her eyes involuntarily when Boitumelo’s thumb grazed her skin. She stopped just short of moaning. A little too loudly she said, “Sure, let me just get my things.”
“I’ll have black coffee, please,” Neo said to the friendly waitress at The Boar and Hog. Thandiswa Mazwai oozed rhythm and grace in the background.
“I’ll have the same.” Boitumelo added
They sat in silence for a moment.
“I like your shirt.” Botumelo declared.
“This old thing?” Neo blurted self-consciously. “I’ve had it forever.” She wanted to take the attention away from herself by making light of the compliment. In fact, the shirt happened to be one of her favourites, and she knew the white colour went well with her dark complexion.
“It’s nice…” Boitumelo was undeterred.
Neo looked up and smiled “Thank you.” In her head, she proclaimed, “I like you!”
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.” Boitumelo’s brow was furrowed, her look serious and intent.
Before Neo could reply, the waitress arrived with their coffee. The saucers had little biscuits shaped like flowers on them. She set everything on the table, asked if they needed anything else, to which they both declined and, as if sensing that she had interrupted an important moment, she withdrew quickly.
They busied themselves with the ceremony of adding sugar – Boitumelo half a sachet and Neo, remembering that she liked hers black, set the sachet down and fiddled with her spoon instead.
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you either,” Neo said softly at last, looking up into Boitumelo’s penetrating brown eyes. She ran her fingers through her short afro impatiently.
“I haven’t quite experienced anything like this before,” she continued.
“I am so glad to hear that. I thought I was losing my mind.” The relief in Boitumelo’s voice was apparent.
“Would you like to go on a date with me?” Neo asked after the long silence. “This evening maybe…”
“I’d like that very much” Boitumelo said, giving Neo a smile she thought would melt her insides.